By John Mahoney and Katie PeekPosted 09.15.2011 at 2:00 pm 21 Comments
A mournful French horn blows. An angsty Luke Skywalker stomps out of his aunt and uncle's sand hut and peers up at Tatooine's double sunset, his hair blowing in the breeze. It's a memorable scene from Star Wars—but now, a precedent for such a sky with two suns has been found in our universe.
Using data from the Kepler space observatory, scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and SETI have discovered for the first time a planet orbiting a binary star system, passing in front of both its parent stars along its orbit.
Kepler has found the darkest known planet in universe--a Jupiter-sized exoplanet some 750 light-years away that is so black that it reflects just one percent of the light that reaches it. TrES-2b is so black that it’s darker than coal, or any other planet or moon that we’ve yet discovered. It’s less reflective than black acrylic paint. To summarize: it’s really, really black.
Combing through the night sky and looking for possible planetary nebulae is tough, tedious work. NASA actually works with several amateur astronomy groups to examine the findings from its Kepler space observatory, so sometimes, the big discoveries are made by amateurs--including this one, the newest known planetary nebula, named Kronberger 61.
Peering at Pluto in preparations for a satellite visit in 2015, the Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a fourth moon orbiting the dwarf planet. The wee moon doesn't even have a name yet — it's called P4 for now — and its estimated diameter is between 8 and 21 miles.
That's right, Hubble spotted something the size of a city from a distance of more than 3 billion miles away.
It's been a long year for Neptune. A full 165 Earth years ago, German astronomer Johann Galle first spied the icy blue giant giving wide berth to the sun some 2.8 billion miles from the solar system's center. Today, it's right back where we found it again, marking one full Neptune year since the planet's discovery.
Neptune, of course, has a somewhat tumultuous and storied history. It was the most distant planet in our solar system before Pluto was discovered in 1930, pushing Neptune to 8th and second-most-distant. When Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet it was again elevated to superlative status.
Aliens could conceivably live on planets illuminated by the swirling mass of photons orbiting the singularity of a special type of black hole, according to a new theory.
Certain black holes are charged and rotate, and they possess a region past the event horizon — the point of no return — in which the fabric of spacetime appears normal again. This is called the inner Cauchy horizon.
Last night, NASA’s Messenger probe fired its thrusters and became the first man-made satellite ever to orbit Mercury. It’s a major achievement for NASA and planetary researchers who hope to learn more about the formation and evolution of Earth-like rocky worlds, in this solar system and beyond.
Earth won’t always be fit for occupation. We know that in two billion years or so, an expanding sun will boil away our oceans, leaving our home in the universe uninhabitable—unless, that is, we haven’t already been wiped out by the Andromeda galaxy, which is on a multibillion-year collision course with our Milky Way. Moreover, at least a third of the thousand mile-wide asteroids that hurtle across our orbital path will eventually crash into us, at a rate of about one every 300,000 years.
NASA’s intrepid Mercury observer, the Messenger satellite, is about to become the first spacecraft ever to orbit the first planet. The probe, which has already flown past the planet three times, will fire its thrusters March 17 so it can enter orbit and embark on a year-long science mission. Scientists hope the probe will explain several mysteries of Mercury’s past.
When it enters orbit, Messenger will be 96.35 million miles from Earth, according to NASA.
As astronomers continue mining data from the Kepler telescope, the planetary peculiarities keep on coming. We've already seen the smallest rocky world, 54 planets in a Goldilocks comfort zone around their stars, and even the possibility of planets sharing the same orbit.