Space & Exploration:
In the past few years, there has been no shortages of extra-solar planets discoveries which orbit red dwarf stars. In 2016 and 2017 alone, astronomers announced the discovery of a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b), a seven-planet system orbiting TRAPPIST-1, and super-Earths orbiting the nearby stars of LHS 1140 (LHS 1140b), and GJ 625 (GJ 625b).
In their pursuit of learning how our Universe came to be, scientists have probed very deep into space (and hence, very far back in time). Ultimately, their goal is to determine when the first galaxies in our Universe formed and what effect they had on cosmic evolution. Recent efforts to locate these earliest formations have probed to distances of up to 13 billion light-years from Earth – i.e. about 1 billion years after the Big Bang.
Asteroid Florence, a large near-Earth asteroid, will pass safely by Earth on Sept. 1, 2017, at a distance of about 4.4 million miles, (7.0 million kilometers, or about 18 Earth-Moon distances). Florence is among the largest near-Earth asteroids that are several miles is size; measurements from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and NEOWISE mission indicate it’s about 2.7 miles (4.4 kilometers) in size.
The observable Universe is an extremely big place, measuring an estimated 91 billion light-years in diameter. As a result, astronomers are forced to rely on powerful instruments to see faraway objects. But even these are sometimes limited, and must be paired with a technique known as gravitational lensing. This involves relying on a large distribution of matter (a galaxy or star) to magnify the light coming from a distant object.
Observations of “Jellyfish galaxies” with ESO’s Very Large Telescope have revealed a previously unknown way to fuel supermassive black holes. It seems the mechanism that produces the tentacles of gas and newborn stars that give these galaxies their nickname also makes it possible for the gas to reach the central regions of the galaxies, feeding the black hole that lurks in each of them and causing it to shine brilliantly. The results appeared today in the journal Nature.
From space, Venus looks like a big, opaque ball. Thanks to its extremely dense atmosphere, which is primarily composed of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, it is impossible to view the surface using conventional methods. As a result, little was learned about its surface until the 20th century, thanks to development of radar, spectroscopic and ultraviolet survey techniques.
Dim objects called brown dwarfs, less massive than the Sun but more massive than Jupiter, have powerful winds and clouds -- specifically, hot patchy clouds made of iron droplets and silicate dust. Scientists recently realized these giant clouds can move and thicken or thin surprisingly rapidly, in less than an Earth day, but did not understand why.
Studies of low-mass, ultra-cool and ultra-dim red dwarf stars have turned up a wealth of extra-solar planets lately. These include the discoveries of a rocky planet orbiting the closest star to the Solar System (Proxima b) and a seven-planet system just 40 light years away (TRAPPIST-1). In the past few years, astronomers have also detected candidates orbiting the stars Gliese 581, Innes Star, Kepler 42, Gliese 832, Gliese 667, Gliese 3293, and others.
In its pursuit of missions that will take us back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond, NASA has been exploring a number of next-generation propulsion concepts. Whereas existing concepts have their advantages – chemical rockets have high energy density and ion engines are very fuel-efficient – our hopes for the future hinge on us finding alternatives that combine efficiency and power.
My favourite science news is the stuff that changes the way I think about the world and our place in the universe. Many dinosaurs were covered in feathers; there’s a planet in the habitable zone around the nearest star in the night sky; the universe is expanding faster and faster but no one yet knows why.