Space Hubble Telescope News

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A Weakened Black Hole Allows Its Galaxy To Awaken

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Supermassive black holes, weighing millions or even billions of times our Sun's mass, are still only a tiny fraction of the mass of the galaxies they inhabit. But in some cases, the central black hole is the tail wagging the dog. It seems that black holes can run hot or cold when it comes to either enhancing or squelching star birth inside a cluster of galaxies.

Typically, giant black holes, pumping out energy via jets, keep interstellar gas too warm to condense and form stars. Now, astronomers have found a cluster of galaxies, called the Phoenix cluster, where stars are forming at a furious rate because of the black hole's influence. This stellar turboboost is apparently linked to less energetic jets from a central black hole that do not pump up the gas temperature. Instead, the gas loses energy as it glows in X-rays. The gas cools to where it can form large numbers of stars at a breathtaking rate. Where our Milky Way forms one star per year on average, newborn stars are popping out of this cool gas at a rate of about 500 solar masses per year in the Phoenix cluster.

Unraveling this mystery required the combined power of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Very Large Array (VLA) radio observatory near Socorro, New Mexico.

The VLA radio data reveals jets blasting out from the vicinity of the central black hole. These jets inflated bubbles in the hot gas that are detected in X-rays by Chandra. Hubble resolves bright blue filaments of newborn stars in cavities between the hot jet and gas clouds. As the black hole has grown more massive and more powerful, its influence has been increasing.

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Hubble Studies Gamma-Ray Burst with the Highest Energy Ever Seen

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The Star Wars film trilogies are known best for the iconic "Death Star," an alien battle station that shoots out beams of directed energy powerful enough to blow up planets. The real universe makes much more extraordinary beams that can unleash in a few seconds as much energy as our sun will generate over its 10-billion-year lifetime. These beams blast out of imploding stars at over 99% the speed of light. They carry most of their energy in the form of gamma-rays—a lethal form of radiation that can penetrate bone and tear apart living cells. If our planet got caught in a nearby gamma-ray burst (GRB) the atmosphere would be largely stripped away.

The current record for a super-powerful GRB goes to a January 2019 outburst. The eruption came from a galaxy located so far away that the explosion actually happened 5 billion years ago. When the diluted radiation finally arrived at Earth, it was seen by our satellite sentries that monitor the sky for such fireworks: NASA’s Swift and Fermi telescopes, in addition to the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) telescopes on the Canary islands.

Hubble can't detect gamma-rays, but its sharp vision was used to see where the burst came from. The host galaxy of the GRB is actually one of a pair of colliding galaxies. The galaxy interactions may have contributed to the blast.

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Interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov Swings Past the Sun

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When astronomers see something in the universe that at first glance seems like one-of-a-kind, it's bound to stir up a lot of excitement and attention. Enter comet 2I/Borisov. This mysterious visitor from the depths of space is the first identified comet to arrive here from another star. We don't know from where or when the comet started heading toward our Sun, but it won't hang around for long. The Sun's gravity is slightly deflecting its trajectory, but can't capture it because of the shape of its orbit and high velocity of about 100,000 miles per hour.

Telescopes around the world have been watching the fleeting visitor. Hubble has provided the sharpest views as the comet skirts by our Sun. Since October the space telescope has been following the comet like a sports photographer following horses speeding around a racetrack. Hubble revealed that the heart of the comet, a loose agglomeration of ices and dust particles, is likely no more than about 3,200 feet across, about the length of nine football fields. Though comet Borisov is the first of its kind, no doubt there are many other comet vagabonds out there, plying the space between stars. Astronomers will eagerly be on the lookout for the next mysterious visitor from far beyond.

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STScI Astronomers Kathryn Flanagan and Colin Norman Elected AAAS Fellows

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The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Council has elected Kathryn Flanagan of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and Colin Norman of STScI and Johns Hopkins University, and 441 other AAAS members as Fellows of the AAAS.

Dr. Flanagan is cited by the AAAS for her lead role calibrating grating spectrometers for NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory mission; X-ray observations of astrophysical plasmas; and leadership in the James Webb Space Telescope project.

Dr. Norman is cited by the AAAS for distinguished contributions to an array of subjects in theoretical astrophysics, especially in the areas of the interstellar medium, galaxy dynamics, star formation, and galaxy clusters.

For more information about this announcement, visit the AAAS website.

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'Cotton Candy' Planet Mysteries Unravel in New Hubble Observations

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When astronomers look around the solar system, they find that planets can be made out of almost anything. Terrestrial planets like Earth, Mars, and Venus have dense iron cores and rocky mantles. The massive outer planets like Jupiter and Saturn are mostly gaseous and liquid. Astronomers can't peel back their cloud layers to look inside, but their composition is deduced by comparing the planet's mass (as calculated from its orbital motion) to its size. The result is that Jupiter has the density of water, and Saturn has an even lower density (it could float in a huge bathtub). These gas giants are just 1/5th the density of rocky Earth.

Now astronomers have uncovered a completely new class of planet unlike anything found in our solar system. Rather than a "terrestrial" or "gas giant" they might better be called "cotton candy" planets because their density is so low. These planets are so bloated they are nearly the size of Jupiter, but are just 1/100th of its mass. Three of them orbit the Sun-like star Kepler 51, located approximately 2,600 light-years away.

The puffed-up planets might represent a brief transitory phase in planet evolution, which would explain why we don't see anything like them in the solar system. The planets may have formed much farther from their star and migrated inward. Now their low-density hydrogen/helium atmospheres are bleeding off into space. Eventually, much smaller planets might be left behind.

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Simulated Image Demonstrates the Power of NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

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NASA's upcoming Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), scheduled for launch in the mid-2020s, will have the power to survey the sky 1,000 times faster than the Hubble Space Telescope, with Hubble-quality detail, in the near-infrared.

A simulated image of a 34,000-light-year swath across our neighboring galaxy Andromeda showcases WFIRST’s unique detector configuration, expansive field of view and high resolution. The image was generated using data collected by Hubble, and shows the red and infrared light of more than 50 million individual stars in Andromeda, as they would appear with WFIRST.

WFIRST is designed to address key questions across a wide range of topics, including dark energy, exoplanets, and general astrophysics spanning from our solar system to the most distant galaxies in the observable universe. WFIRST is expected to amass more than 4 petabytes of information per year, all of which will be non-proprietary and immediately accessible to the public.

The simulated image, which represents the staggering amount of data that could be captured in a single pointing over just 90 minutes, demonstrates the power of WFIRST for examining large-scale structures that are otherwise too time-consuming to image. Astronomers are currently using simulations like this to plan future observations.

(More at HubbleSite.com)
 

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NASA's Great Observatories Help Astronomers Build a 3D Visualization of Exploded Star

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In the year 1054 AD, Chinese sky watchers witnessed the sudden appearance of a "new star" in the heavens, which they recorded as six times brighter than Venus, making it the brightest observed stellar event in recorded history. This "guest star," as they described it, was so bright that people saw it in the sky during the day for almost a month. Native Americans also recorded its mysterious appearance in petroglyphs.

Observing the nebula with the largest telescope of the time, Lord Rosse in 1844 named the object the "Crab" because of its tentacle-like structure. But it wasn't until the 1900s that astronomers realized the nebula was the surviving relic of the 1054 supernova, the explosion of a massive star.

Now, astronomers and visualization specialists from the NASA's Universe of Learning program have combined the visible, infrared, and X-ray vision of NASA's Great Observatories to create a three-dimensional representation of the dynamic Crab Nebula.

The multiwavelength computer graphics visualization is based on images from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. The approximately four-minute video dissects the intricate nested structure that makes up this stellar corpse, giving viewers a better understanding of the extreme and complex physical processes powering the nebula. The powerhouse "engine" energizing the entire system is a pulsar, a rapidly spinning neutron star, the super-dense crushed core of the exploded star. The tiny dynamo is blasting out blistering pulses of radiation 30 times a second with unbelievable clockwork precision.

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NASA's Hubble Surveys Gigantic Galaxy

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Galaxies are like snowflakes. Though the universe contains innumerable galaxies flung across time and space, no two ever look alike. One of the most photogenic is the huge spiral galaxy UGC 2885, located 232 million light-years away in the northern constellation, Perseus. It's a whopper even by galactic standards. The galaxy is 2.5 times wider than our Milky Way and contains 10 times as many stars, about 1 trillion. This galaxy has lived a quiescent life by not colliding with other large galaxies. It has gradually bulked up on intergalactic hydrogen to make new stars at a slow and steady pace over many billions of years. The galaxy has been nicknamed "Rubin's galaxy," after astronomer Vera Rubin (1928 – 2016). Rubin used the galaxy to look for invisible dark matter. The galaxy is embedded inside a vast halo of dark matter. The amount of dark matter can be estimated by measuring its gravitational influence on the galaxy's rotation rate.

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Hubble Detects Smallest Known Dark Matter Clumps

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When searching for dark matter, astronomers must go on a sort of "ghost hunt." That's because dark matter is an invisible substance that cannot be seen directly. Yet it makes up the bulk of the universe's mass and forms the scaffolding upon which galaxies are built. Dark matter is the gravitational "glue" that holds galaxies as well as galaxy clusters together. Astronomers can detect its presence indirectly by measuring how its gravity affects stars and galaxies.

The mysterious substance is not composed of the same stuff that makes up stars, planets, and people. That material is normal "baryonic" matter, consisting of electrons, protons, and neutrons. However, dark matter might be some sort of unknown subatomic particle that interacts weakly with normal matter.

A popular theory holds that dark matter particles don't move very fast, which makes it easier for them to clump together. According to this idea, the universe contains a broad range of dark matter concentrations, from small to large.

Astronomers have detected dark matter clumps around large- and medium-sized galaxies. Now, using Hubble and a new observing technique, astronomers have found that dark matter forms much smaller clumps than previously known.

The researchers searched for small concentrations of dark matter in the Hubble data by measuring how the light from faraway quasars is affected as it travels through space. Quasars are the bright black-hole-powered cores of very distant galaxies. The Hubble images show that the light from these quasars images is warped and magnified by the gravity of massive foreground galaxies in an effect called gravitational lensing. Astronomers used this lensing effect to detect the small dark matter clumps. The clumps are located along the telescope’s line of sight to the quasars, as well as in and around the foreground lensing galaxies.

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Cosmic Magnifying Glasses Yield Independent Measure of Universe's Expansion

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People use the phrase "Holy Cow" to express excitement. Playing with that phrase, researchers from an international collaboration developed an acronym—H0LiCOW—for their project's name that expresses the excitement over their Hubble Space Telescope measurements of the universe's expansion rate.

Knowing the precise value for how fast the universe expands is important for determining the age, size, and fate of the cosmos. Unraveling this mystery has been one of the greatest challenges in astrophysics in recent years.

Members of the H0LiCOW (H0 Lenses in COSMOGRAIL's Wellspring) team used Hubble and a technique that is completely independent of any previous method to measure the universe's expansion, a value called the Hubble constant.

This latest value represents the most precise measurement yet using the gravitational lensing method, where the gravity of a foreground galaxy acts like a giant magnifying lens, amplifying and distorting light from background objects. This latest study did not rely on the traditional "cosmic distance ladder" technique to measure accurate distances to galaxies by using various types of stars as "milepost markers." Instead, the researchers employed the exotic physics of gravitational lensing to calculate the universe's expansion rate.

The researchers' result further strengthens a troubling discrepancy between the expansion rate calculated from measurements of the local universe and the rate as predicted from background radiation in the early universe, a time before galaxies and stars even existed. The new study adds evidence to the idea that new theories may be needed to explain what scientists are finding.

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Goldilocks Stars Are Best Places to Look for Life

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To date astronomers have discovered over 4,000 planets orbiting other stars. Statistically, there should be over 100 billion planets in our Milky Way galaxy. They come in a wide range of sizes and characteristics, largely unimagined before exoplanets were first discovered in the mid-1990s. The biggest motivation for perusing these worlds is to find "Genesis II," a planet where life has arisen and evolved beyond microbes. The ultimate payoff would be finding intelligent life off the Earth.

A major step in searching for habitable planets is finding suitable stars that could foster the emergence of complex organisms. Because our Sun has nurtured life on Earth for nearly 4 billion years, conventional wisdom would suggest that stars like it would be prime candidates. But stars like our Sun represent only about 10% of the Milky Way population. What's more, they are comparatively short-lived. Our Sun is halfway through its estimated 10 billion-year lifetime.

Complex organisms arose on Earth only 500 million years ago. And, the modern form of humans has been here only for the blink of an eye on cosmological timescales: 200,000 years. The future of humanity is unknown. But what is for certain is that Earth will become uninhabitable for higher forms of life in a little over 1 billion years, as the Sun grows warmer and desiccates our planet.

Therefore, stars slightly cooler than our Sun — called orange dwarfs — are considered better hang-outs for advanced life. They can burn steadily for tens of billions of years. This opens up a vast timescape for biological evolution to pursue an infinity of experiments for yielding robust life forms. And, for every star like our Sun there are three times as many orange dwarfs in the Milky Way.

The only type of star that is more abundant are red dwarfs. But these are feisty little stars. They are so magnetically active they pump out 500 times as much radiation in the form of X-rays and ultraviolet light as our Sun does. Planets around these stars take a beating. They would be no place to call home for organisms like us.

An emerging idea, bolstered by stellar surveys performed by Hubble and other telescopes, is that the orange dwarfs are "Goldilocks stars" — not too hot, not too cool, and above all, not too violent to host life-friendly planets over a vast horizon of cosmic time.

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NASA's Kepler Witnesses Vampire Star System Undergoing Super-Outburst

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Astronomers searching archival data from NASA's Kepler exoplanet hunting mission identified a previously unknown dwarf nova that underwent a super-outburst, brightening by a factor of 1,600 times in less than a day. While the outburst itself has a theoretical explanation, the slow rise in brightness that preceded it remains a mystery. Kepler's rapid cadence of observations were crucial for recording the entire event in detail.

The dwarf nova system consists of a white dwarf star with a brown dwarf companion. The white dwarf is stripping material from the brown dwarf, sucking its essence away like a vampire. The stripped material forms an accretion disk around the white dwarf, which is the source of the super-outburst. Such systems are rare and may go for years or decades between outbursts, making it a challenge to catch one in the act.

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Beyond the Brim, Sombrero Galaxy's Halo Suggests a Turbulent Past

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Like a desperado in the Wild West, the broad "brim" of the Sombrero galaxy's disk may conceal a turbulent past. The Sombrero (M104) has never been a galaxy to fit the mold. It has an intriguing mix of shapes found in disk-shaped spiral galaxies, as well as football-shaped elliptical galaxies. The story of its structure becomes stranger with new evidence from the Hubble Space Telescope indicating the Sombrero is the result of major galaxy mergers, though its smooth disk shows no signs of recent disruption.

The galaxy's faint halo offers forensic clues. It's littered with innumerable stars that are rich in heavier elements (called metals), because they are later-generation stars. Such stars are usually only found in a galaxy's disk. They must have been tossed into the halo through mergers with mature, metal-rich galaxies in the distant past. The iconic galaxy now looks a bit more settled in its later years. It is now so isolated, there is nothing else around to feed on. This finding offers a new twist on how galaxies assemble themselves in our compulsive universe.

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Hubble Team Wins the 2020 Michael Collins Trophy

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Through its 30 years of discoveries and awesome celestial images, the legendary Hubble Space Telescope has redefined the universe for new generations of astronomers and the public alike. This would not have been possible without the perseverance and expertise of a team of Hubble operations experts at the Space Telescope Science Institute, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

In recognition of Hubble's scientific prowess and longevity, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. has awarded their 2020 Collins Trophy for Current Achievement to the Hubble operations team.

"Through the efforts of the Hubble team the observatory has continued to produce research unachievable with any other instrument. System engineers in Hubble's control center and science operations facility have continued to find creative ways to operate the 30-year-old spacecraft to make this revolutionary science possible ensuring its capabilities will continue for years to come," the museum reported.

The Collins Trophy recognizes achievements involving the management or execution of a scientific or technological project, a distinguished career of service in air and space technology, or a significant contribution in chronicling the history of air and space technology.

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Hubble Marks 30 Years in Space with Tapestry of Blazing Starbirth

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A colorful image resembling a cosmic version of an undersea world teeming with stars is being released to commemorate the Hubble Space Telescope's 30 years of viewing the wonders of space.

In the Hubble portrait, the giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbor (NGC 2020) are part of a vast star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, located 163,000 light-years away. The image is nicknamed the "Cosmic Reef," because NGC 2014 resembles part of a coral reef floating in a vast sea of stars.

Some of the stars in NGC 2014 are monsters. The nebula's sparkling centerpiece is a grouping of bright, hefty stars, each 10 to 20 times more massive than our Sun. The seemingly isolated blue nebula at lower left (NGC 2020) has been created by a solitary mammoth star 200,000 times brighter than our Sun. The blue gas was ejected by the star through a series of eruptive events during which it lost part of its outer envelope of material.

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Science Release: Hubble Celebrates its 30th Anniversary with a Tapestry of Blazing Starbirth

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Hubble Space Telescope’s iconic images and scientific breakthroughs have redefined our view of the Universe. To commemorate three decades of scientific discoveries, this image is one of the most photogenic examples of the many turbulent stellar nurseries the telescope has observed during its 30-year lifetime. The portrait features the giant nebula NGC 2014 and its neighbour NGC 2020 which together form part of a vast star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, approximately 163 000 light-years away. The image is nicknamed the “Cosmic Reef” because it resembles an undersea world.

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Hubble Marks 30 Years in Space with Tapestry of Blazing Starbirth

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A colorful image resembling a cosmic version of an undersea world teeming with stars is being released to commemorate the Hubble Space Telescope's 30 years of viewing the wonders of space.

In the Hubble portrait, the giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbor (NGC 2020) are part of a vast star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, located 163,000 light-years away. The image is nicknamed the "Cosmic Reef," because NGC 2014 resembles part of a coral reef floating in a vast sea of stars.

Some of the stars in NGC 2014 are monsters. The nebula's sparkling centerpiece is a grouping of bright, hefty stars, each 10 to 20 times more massive than our Sun. The seemingly isolated blue nebula at lower left (NGC 2020) has been created by a solitary mammoth star 200,000 times brighter than our Sun. The blue gas was ejected by the star through a series of eruptive events during which it lost part of its outer envelope of material.

(More at HubbleSite.com)
 

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Photo Release: Hubble Captures Breakup of Comet ATLAS

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The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has provided astronomers with the sharpest view yet of the breakup of Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS). The telescope resolved roughly 30 fragments of the fragile comet on 20 April and 25 pieces on 23 April.

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Hubble Watches Comet ATLAS Disintegrate Into More Than Two Dozen Pieces

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Comets are one of the most legendary and opulent denizens of deep space. Their long tails are so mysterious looking, their sudden appearance so unpredictable, and their journey across the sky so ephemeral that they were once feared as omens of evil, pestilence, and war.

These latest images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope of the doomed comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS), taken on April 20 and 23, 2020, provide the sharpest views yet that the comet's solid icy nucleus is breaking apart into as many as 30 pieces that are each roughly the size of a house. So, despite the name, ATLAS doesn't look like anything to be afraid of.

The comet was discovered on December 29, 2019 by the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) robotic astronomical survey system based in Hawaii. ATLAS' fragmentation was confirmed by amateur astronomer Jose de Queiroz, who was able to photograph around three pieces of the comet on April 11. Hubble has a front row seat, with its crisp resolution, to go looking for more pieces. And, astronomers weren't disappointed.

Planetary experts know that the solid comet nucleus – the fountainhead of the glamourous tail – is a fragile agglomeration of ices and dust. However, astronomers don't know why some comets break apart like exploding aerial fireworks shells. Could it be due to the warming influence of the Sun as a comet enters the inner solar system, causing it to become unglued? Or could the icy nucleus spin up as it shoots out jets of warming gasses? This could cause it to fly apart.

Though classified as "minor bodies" in our solar system family, comets and Earth's fate go back billions of years. A shower of comets may have irrigated the dry newborn Earth, contributing some of the water in the oceans. They may have seeded Earth with organic compounds, the precursors to life as we know it. A wayward comet may have struck the Earth 65 million years ago, creating such an environmental disaster that the dinosaurs became extinct. This was good news for small mammals, our earliest ancestors, to take over the blue planet.

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No Blue Skies for Super-Hot Planet WASP-79b

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The 1927 song, "Blue Skies,' by celebrated American composer Irving Berlin, was an instant hit, and even featured in the very first Hollywood "talking picture," the Jazz Singer.

But if Berlin lived on the planet WASP-79b, he would only have had yellow skies for inspiration. This has piqued the curiosity of astronomers because it is so peculiar. The gas giant planet was expected to show evidence for Rayleigh scattering, a phenomena where certain colors of light are dispersed by very fine dust particles in the upper atmosphere. Rayleigh scattering is what makes Earth's skies blue by dispersing the shorter (bluer) wavelengths of sunlight.

This is a moot point regarding lyricist Berlin, because WASP-79b is a hellish class of planet that is unlike anything found in our solar system, or frankly, ever imagined by most astronomers. For want of a better word, astronomers simply call these planets "hot Jupiters." They are the size of Jupiter, or larger, but are so close to their star they complete one full orbit in a matter of days – or even hours. (At a distance of about 500 million miles from the Sun, Jupiter, by comparison, takes 12 years to complete an orbit.)

The term "hot" is an understatement. The planet WASP-79b has an atmospheric temperature of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of molten glass. By combing observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and the ground-based Magellan observatory, astronomers found that the seething atmosphere is quirky. It is so hot that its scattered manganese sulfide or silicate clouds might rain molten iron. That is not the big surprise. But rather, the lack of Rayleigh scattering is just "weird," say researchers. It could be indicative of unknown atmospheric processes that aren't currently understood, and may yield clues to the planet's atmospheric evolution.

(More at HubbleSite.com)
 
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