Alien Worlds: Extrasolar Planets Imaged for First Time

Two of the three confirmed planets orbiting HR 8799 indicated as
Two of the three confirmed planets orbiting HR 8799 indicated as “b” and “c” on the image above. “b” is the ~7 Jupiter-mass planet orbiting at about 70 AU, “c” is the ~10 Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the star at about 40 AU. Due to the brightness of the central star, it has been blocked and appears blank in this image to increase visibility of the planets (Gemini Observatory)

The day has finally come. We now have direct, infrared and optical observations of planets orbiting other stars. Yesterday, reports from two independent sources surfaced, one from the Gemini and Keck II observatories and the second from the Hubble Space Telescope. Brace yourself for an awe-inspiring display of planets orbiting two stars…

The Gemini/Keck observations were carried out using adaptive optics technology to correct in real-time for atmospheric turbulence. The stunning images of a multiple planetary star system were then constructed from infrared emissions (the image, top, was constructed by Keck II as a follow-up to to the Gemini observations). The system in question is centred around a star called HR 8799, approximately 130 light years from Earth and in the constellation of Pegasus. The entire press release can be found at the Gemini observatory site, where they give the discovery a full run-down.

On the same day, the Hubble Space Telescope team also released images of one extrasolar planet, only this time in optical wavelengths. Although the exoplanet in Hubble’s images is less obvious than the infrared Gemini/Keck II images, incredible detail has been attained, showing a ring of dust around the star Fomalhaut (located in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus). Fomalhaut is 25 light years away and the star’s daughter planet (Fomalhaut b) is only a little under 3 Jupiter masses.

Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter's mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus (NASA/ESA)
Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter’s mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus (NASA/ESA)

For more news on these discoveries, check out the Gemini/Keck II press release and the Hubble announcement. I’ll leave the ground-breaking announcement to the guys who have spent many years working to achieve this monumental goal.

Wow.

Sources: Gemini, ESA

Got It! Aftermath of Asteroid 2008 TC3 Impact Spotted

The long-lasting persistent train of the 2008 TC3 re-entry on October 7th (NASA)
The long-lasting persistent train of the 2008 TC3 re-entry on October 7th (NASA)

At long last, we have visual evidence of the 2008 TC3 impact over the remote Sudanese skies. Admittedly, it’s not a video of the dazzling fireball ploughing though the upper atmosphere, before detonating with the energy of a small nuclear weapon, but it is a great picture of the smoky remnant after the explosion.

A noctilucent cloud after the launch of a Delta rocket (Flickr)
A noctilucent cloud after the launch of a Delta rocket (Flickr)

The meteorite train seen in the image above has been sheared and twisted by high altitude winds, leaving the snake-like pattern suspended in the air. The tenuous debris reflects the dawn sunlight, in a not-so-dissimilar way to the noctilucent cloud produced after a rocket launch (pictured left).

For more on today’s uncovering of the October 7th image (above), check out my Universe Today article. For more information on the first ever predicted asteroid impact, check out my collection of articles on Astroengine.com (tag: “2008 TC3”).

Pinhole Camera Solargraphy

The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, a single 6-month exposure solargraph (© Justin Quinnell)
The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, a single 6-month exposure solargraph (© Justin Quinnell)

Armed with the most basic photography device and plenty of time, Justin Quinnell has captured some of the most unique and entrancing views of the Sun over my hometown of Bristol. When I first saw this image, the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge instantly jumped out at me. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but after getting engrossed in Justin’s website all about pinhole photography, I soon realised this was a six-month exposure, capturing the Sun’s motion from winter solstice (December 21st, 2007) to summer solstice (June 19th, 2008)…
Continue reading “Pinhole Camera Solargraphy”

High Resolution Earth Rise Video by Kaguya (SELENE)

A little bit of beautiful - the Earth rises over the lunar horizon (JAXA)
A little bit of beautiful - the Earth rises over the lunar horizon (JAXA)

Using its High Definition Television (HDTV) camera, the Japanese lunar probe Kaguya captured an astounding video of the Earth slowly rising above the lunar horizon. The video was actually released at the start of this month, but it has only just come to my attention. The video was recorded on September 30th, as the probe orbited 100 km above the Moon. Stunning.

See the tele-view “Full-Earth Rise” »

See the wide-angle Earth-set »

Read more about “Full-Earth Rise” »

Astroengine.com Selected for “Top 10 Space Blogs”

Astroengine in the Top 10!
W00t!

A huge thank you goes to Dave Mosher at the excellent blog Space Disco for adding Astroengine.com to the Blogs.com “Top 10 Space Blogs”! Not only did my site make it into the top 10, by sheer alphabetical luck, Astroengine is also right at the top. Awesome! I’ll wear my badge with pride.

Dave, I owe you a pint some time!

Cheers, Ian

Is the Armadillo Vertical-Lift Spaceship a Viable Tourist Route?

The Armadillo Aerospace Spacebubble concept... mmm, no wings then? (Armadillo Aerospace)
The Armadillo Aerospace Spacebubble concept... mmm, no wings then? (Armadillo Aerospace)

This reminds me of a hilarious Billy Connolly stand-up routine commenting on the perceived safety of passenger aircraft:

Connolly imitates the safety presentation before take-off:
In the highly unlikely event of loss of power in all four engines, then in all probability, we’ll go into the ground like a f***ing dart.

We’d be obliged if you’d wear your life jacket on the way down, this will do you no good at all, but when archiologists find you in 200 years, they’ll think there was a river here!

Billy Connolly on flying (1990) – video not for minors, Billy is known for his “colourful” language!

So with that in mind, let’s consider the Armadillo Aerospace space tourism concept (pictured above). Call me old fashioned, but I’m a little worried about spaceships without wings. Yes, I know we are always sending rockets into space, delivering crew and cargo to the space station. The Soyuz vehicle doesn’t have wings and the cone-like re-entry capsule so many other space vehicles are based on are reliable modes of transport. But there’s something about the “controlled ascent” Armadillo design that makes me a little uneasy (give me a “ballistic ascent” any day!).
Continue reading “Is the Armadillo Vertical-Lift Spaceship a Viable Tourist Route?”

Rare Meteor Fireball Captured by Seven Canadian Cameras (Videos)

The slow-moving fireball lights up Canadian skies (SOMN)
The slow-moving fireball lights up Canadian skies (SOMN)

A stunning series of videos from seven all-sky cameras in the The University of Western’s Southern Ontario Meteor Network (SOMN) captured the same fireball generated by a meteor entering the atmosphere pre-dawn on the morning of September 15th. Whilst meteors aren’t uncommon (if you hang around outside for long enough you might see one or two “shooting stars” yourself), this fireball was very bright and had a surprisingly slow velocity. What’s more, astronomers think that the extraterrestrial object came from a typical Earth-crossing orbit, possibly indicating this was another small near-Earth asteroid. In fact, meteorite hunters believe that it may have slowed significantly when passing through the atmosphere, dropping fragments to the ground. A great catch by the Canadian team, let’s get searching!
Continue reading “Rare Meteor Fireball Captured by Seven Canadian Cameras (Videos)”

GOCE is Suffering Major Delays, But Should be Dominating Space by February

No, it isn't sci-fi. It's the Porche of orbital engineering (GOCE/ESA)
No, it isn't sci-fi. It's the Porche of orbital engineering (GOCE/ESA)

The European Space Agency’s Gravity field and state-steady Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) should be in space by now. In fact it should have been launched back on September 10th, but it wasn’t to be. After the spacecraft (which has a striking resemblance to something a little more sci-fi… like a star destroyer) had been sealed into the payload bay of the Rockot launch vehicle at Plesetsk cosmodrome 800 km from Moscow, I assumed that was it, we wouldn’t be seeing GOCE ever again. But there was a glitch in the guidance and navigation subsystem of the Breeze KM third stage, thus postponing GOCE’s big day. GOCE was cracked open from its rocket powered cocoon to await a Rockot oil change.

Now it seems the delays are mounting up for this amazing experiment and a launch doesn’t seem possible until February at the earliest…
Continue reading “GOCE is Suffering Major Delays, But Should be Dominating Space by February”

Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane: Cool or Crazy?

The Mars Science Laboratory rover is gently lowered to the Martian surface... we hope (NASA)
The Mars Science Laboratory rover is gently lowered to the Martian surface... we hope (NASA)

The next NASA rover mission to the Red Planet will be the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) set for a 2009 launch. This mission will incorporate the biggest rover ever to be sent to the Martian surface, the MSL is the size of a small car and it will carry out a vast number of experiments in the hope of finding evidence for life (again).* This ambitious mission has a big price tag of $1.9 billion, so NASA will want to avoid any chance of “doing a Beagle” and ripping Mars a new impact crater.**

So, with this unprecedented mission comes an unprecedented way of lowering it to the Martian surface. Sure, you have your obligatory drogue parachute, you even have a few rocket bursts to soften the touch-down (along the lines of this year’s Phoenix powered landing), but the MSL will also have a “sky crane” to help it out (in a not-so-dissimilar way to the lowering of the descending Mars Exploration Rovers in 2004, only more awesome).

To be honest, I’m as enthusiastic about this plan as I was when I found out that Phoenix would use a jetpack after freefalling the height of two Empire State Buildings (i.e. “are you mad??“)… but then again, what would I know? It looks like the powered landing worked out pretty well for Phoenix…
Continue reading “Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane: Cool or Crazy?”

Higgs Boson Discovered on Doorstep

You don’t need the Large Hadron Collider to discover the Higgs boson after all…

The moment of discovery. It turns out Higgsy is a little shy.
The moment of discovery. It turns out Higgsy is a little shy.

This evening I went outside to investigate a noise. On opening the door I saw a small box lying awkwardly on its side against a flower pot. A little confused (as there was no knock on the door to say there was a delivery), I picked the small package. The box was heavy. I gave it a shake. Something was rolling around in there. It didn’t make a sound.

On opening the box I couldn’t believe my eyes. There he was, hiding under styrofoam packaging, neatly wrapped in a clear plastic bag, the one particle EVERYONE wants to meet… the Higgs boson!

Far from being smug, the little guy was actually pretty shy and was reluctant to leave the comfort of his box. After a brief chat I assured him that he was safe from particle physicists wanting to see him spontaneously decay…

As you might have guessed, I didn’t discover a real Higgs particle on my doorstep (although we all know that it must be full of them… theoretically anyhow). My Higgs boson plushie has just travelled from the caring hands of its creator, Particle Zookeeper Julie Peasley…
Continue reading “Higgs Boson Discovered on Doorstep”