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The Last Month in Astronomy


07-JAN-2010 • Near Earth-sized Exoplanet • The wobble method has been used to find most of the roughly 400 exoplanets found to date. This method measures the red/blue shift of a star caused by a planet jerking around its star. The problem is that this method works well with Jovian class planets but not terrestrial sized planets. That problem is becoming smaller. Geoff Marcy and others at Berkeley have discovered the second smallest exoplanet using the wobble method at the Keck Observatory. The new planet is named HD156668b. It’s located 80 light years away and is located in the constellation Hercules. This planet is about 4 Earth masses. This discovery is part of a project to find low mass exoplanets called Eta-Earth.

06-JAN-2010 • Nearby Supernova Candidate • The recurrent nova known as T Pyxidis is getting bigger. It last erupted in 1967 and it’s overdue. It’s also closer than previous estimates. At a distance of 1000 parsecs, if this star goes supernova it could cause problems for Earth. It would probably only be a serious problem if the gamma rays emissions are focused in our direction.

06-JAN-2010 • Only 15% of stars have Earths • One of the key factors in the Drake Equation is what fraction of stars have at least one Earth like planet. Some have pegged this fraction to be as high as 45%. More recent work done at Ohio State’s Microlensing Follow-Up Network (MicroFUN) put this value at 15%. More accurately, this is the estimated percentage of stars that have a solar system that is like ours: specifically, a system that has large gas planets in deep orbits. As stated by OSU astronomer Scott Gaudi “Solar systems like our own are not rare, but we’re not in the majority, either.”

04-JAN-2010 • ALMA hits milestone • The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile has achieved an important milestone now that 3 of its 12 meter antennae are linked. This now gives the array the ability to minimize errors and to produce high quality images. According to the European Project Scientist for ALMA, Leonardo Testi, “The linking of three antennas is indeed the first actual step towards our goal of achieving precise and sharp images at submillimeter wavelengths.”

04-JAN-2010 • Grunsfeld takes key post • Astronaut John Grunsfeld has been named Deputy Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSci). Grunsfeld is known as the Hubble’s chief repairman having flown to that space telescope 3 times including STS-125 last May. The STSci is the science operations center for the Hubble Space Telescope and it will perform the same function for the Webb telescope when it is launched in 2014.

04-JAN-2010 • Kepler finds 5 • The Kepler space telescope hopes to find Earth-sized planets in Earth-sized orbits. It will take about 3 years to do so but other discoveries will occur sooner. As an example of such a discovery, Kepler found 4 Jupiter-sized and 1 Neptune-sized planets. These discoveries are based on only the first 43 days worth of data.

29-DEC-2009 • 3 NASA finalists • NASA has selected 3 finalists for its next unmanned mission to another part of the solar system. One finalist is a mission to Venus to study its atmosphere and its crust. Another is a lunar lander that would go to the moon’s south pole and return samples. The third finalist is another sample return mission but this time to an asteroid. The winner will be chosen in mid-2011 and it will launch before the end of 2018.

18-DEC-2009 • Telltale Glint on Titan • The Cassini spacecraft has imaged a glint of light near the limb of Titan. This glint of light proves the existence of liquid hydrocarbons in Ontario Lacus, the largest Titan lake in the southern hemisphere. The image was taken in 2008 but the first person to see it was Katrin Stephan in July 10. “I was instantly excited because the glint reminded me of an image of our own planet taken from orbit around Earth, showing a reflection of sunlight on an ocean. But we also had to do more work to make sure the glint we were seeing wasn’t lightning or an erupting volcano.”

14-DEC-2009 • WISE launched • NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer has been launched into a polar orbit 326 miles high. Its mission is to produce a full sky map based on infrared light. Its detectors are kept as cold as 447 degrees below Fahrenheit. Science operations for this mission is done at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech.


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