The SOCIETY for POPULAR ASTRONOMY Electronic News Bulletin No. 440 5th March

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    The SOCIETY for POPULAR ASTRONOMY Electronic News Bulletin No. 441 2017 March 5
    Here is the latest round-up of news from the Society for Popular Astronomy. The SPA is arguably Britain's liveliest astronomical society, with members all over the world. We accept subscription payments online at our secure site and can take credit and debit cards. You can join or renew via a secure server or just see how much we have to offer by visiting


    The Dawn mission has found evidence for organic material on Ceres,
    a 'dwarf planet' and the largest body in the main asteroid belt
    between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists using the spacecraft's 'visible
    and infrared mapping spectrometer' (VIR) detected the material in and
    around a northern-hemisphere crater called Ernutet. Organic molecules
    are interesting to scientists because they are necessary, though not
    sufficient, components of life on Earth. The discovery adds to the
    growing list of bodies in the Solar System where organics have been
    found. Organic compounds have been found in certain meteorites as
    well as inferred from telescopic observations of several asteroids.
    Ceres shares many commonalities with meteorites rich in water and
    organics — in particular, a meteorite group called carbonaceous
    chondrites. This discovery further strengthens the connection between
    Ceres, those meteorites and their parent bodies. Data support the
    idea that the organic materials are native to Ceres. The carbonates
    and clays previously identified on Ceres provide evidence for chemical
    activity in the presence of water and heat. That raises the
    possibility that the organics were similarly processed in a warm
    water-rich environment.
    The organics discovery adds to Ceres' attributes associated with
    ingredients and conditions for life in the distant past. Previous
    studies have found hydrated minerals, carbonates, water ice, and
    ammoniated clays that must have been altered by water. Salts and
    sodium carbonate, such as those found in the bright areas of Occator
    Crater, are also thought to have been carried to the surface by
    liquid. The discovery adds to our understanding of the possible
    origins of water and organics on Earth. The VIR instrument was able
    to detect and map the locations of the material because of its
    special signature in near-infrared light. The organic materials on
    Ceres are mainly located in an area covering approximately 1,000
    square kilometres. The signature of organics is very clear on the
    floor of Ernutet Crater, on its southern rim and in an area just
    outside the crater to the southwest. Another large area with
    well-defined signatures is found across the northwest part of the
    crater rim and ejecta. Having completed nearly two years of
    observations in orbit at Ceres, Dawn has now made its way to a new
    altitude of around 20,000 km, about the height of GPS satellites above
    the Earth, and to a different orbital plane. This will put Dawn in a
    position to study Ceres in a new geometry. In late spring, Dawn will
    view Ceres with the Sun directly behind the spacecraft, such that
    Ceres will appear brighter than before, and perhaps reveal more clues
    about its nature.

    Science Daily

    NASA is inviting the public to help search for possible undiscovered
    worlds in the outer reaches of our Solar System and in neighbouring
    interstellar space. A new web site, called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9,
    lets everyone participate in the search by viewing brief movies made
    from images captured by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer
    (WISE) mission. The movies highlight objects that have gradually
    moved across the sky. It is just over four light-years from
    Neptune to Proxima Centauri (the nearest star after the Sun), and much
    of that vast territory is unexplored. Because there is so little
    sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible
    light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects
    we otherwise would have missed. WISE scanned the entire sky between
    2010 and 2011, producing the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared
    wavelengths currently available. With the completion of its primary
    mission, WISE was shut down in 2011. It was then reactivated in 2013
    and given a new mission assisting NASA's efforts to identify
    potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are asteroids
    and comets on orbits that bring them into the vicinity of the Earth's
    orbit. The mission was re-named the Near-Earth Object Wide-field
    Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). The new web site uses the data to
    search for unknown objects in and beyond the Solar System. In 2016,
    astronomers at Caltech, in Pasadena, California, showed that several
    distant Solar-System objects possessed orbital features indicating
    that they were affected by the gravity of an as-yet-undetected planet,
    which the researchers nicknamed 'Planet Nine'. If Planet Nine — also
    known as Planet X — exists and is as bright as some predictions, it
    could show up in WISE data. The search also may discover more-distant
    objects like brown dwarfs, sometimes called failed stars, in nearby
    interstellar space.
    Unlike more distant objects, those in or closer to the Solar System
    appear to move across the sky at different rates. The best way to
    discover them is through a systematic search of moving objects in WISE
    images. While parts of this search can be done by computers, machines
    are often overwhelmed by image artifacts, especially in crowded parts
    of the sky. Those include brightness spikes associated with star
    images and blurry blobs caused by light scattered inside WISE's
    instruments. Planet 9 relies on human eyes because we easily
    recognize the important moving objects while ignoring the artifacts.
    It is a 21st-century version of the technique that astronomer Clyde
    Tombaugh used to find Pluto in 1930. On the web site, people around
    the world can work their way through millions of 'flipbooks', which
    are brief animations showing how small patches of the sky changed over
    several years. Moving objects flagged by participants will be priori-
    tized by the science team for follow-up observations by professional
    astronomers. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in
    any scientific publications that result from the project. Planet 9 is
    potentially a once-in-a-century discovery, and it is exciting to think
    that it could be observed first by a citizen scientist.

    NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

    The Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of
    seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of the planets
    are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent
    star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water. The
    exo-planet system is 40 light-years away in the constellation of
    Aquarius and called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and
    Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In 2016 May,
    researchers using TRAPPIST announced that they had discovered three
    planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes,
    including ESO's Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence
    of two of the planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing
    the number of known planets in the system to seven. Using Spitzer
    data, the team precisely measured the sizes of the seven planets and
    made initial estimates of the masses of six of them, allowing their
    densities to be estimated. On the basis of their densities, all of
    the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations
    will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also
    possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces.
    The mass of the seventh and farthest planet has not yet been estimated
    — scientists believe it could be an icy, 'snowball-like' object —
    but further observations are needed.
    In contrast to the Sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star — classified as an
    ultra-cool dwarf — is so cool that liquid water could survive on
    planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets
    in the Solar System. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are
    closer to their host star than Mercury is to the Sun. The closest one
    orbits the star at a distance of only 0.01 AU, and the most distant
    one at 0.06 AU. The planets are also very close to one another. If a
    person were standing on the surface of one of the planets, he could
    gaze up and potentially see the geological features or clouds of
    neighbouring ones, which would sometimes appear larger than the Moon
    in our sky. The planets are likely to be tidally locked to their
    star, which means that the same side of the planet is always facing
    the star, therefore each side has either perpetual day or night. That
    could mean that they have weather patterns totally unlike those on the
    Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night
    side, and extreme temperature changes.

    Carnegie Institution for Science

    An international team of astronomers has released the largest-ever
    compilation of exo-planet-detecting observations made by the radial-
    velocity method. They demonstrated how the observations can be used
    to hunt for planets by detecting more than 100 potential exo-planets,
    including one orbiting the fourth-closest star to the Solar System,
    which is about 8.1 light-years away. The radial-velocity method is
    one of the most successful techniques for finding and confirming
    planets. It takes advantage of the fact that in addition to a planet
    being influenced by the gravity of the star it orbits, the planet's
    gravity also affects the star. Astronomers are able to use
    sophisticated tools to detect the tiny wobble the planet induces as
    its gravity acts on the star. The virtual mountain of data released
    to the public in the paper was gathered as part of a 20-year radial-
    velocity planet-hunting programme that uses a spectrometer called
    HIRES, mounted on the 10-m Keck-I telescope of the Keck Observatory
    on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The compilation includes almost 61,000
    individual measurements made of more than 1,600 stars. By making the
    data public, the team is offering unprecedented access to one of the
    best exo-planet searches in the world. HIRES was not specifically
    optimized to do that type of work, but has turned out to be a work-
    horse instrument for the field.
    Now as the survey moves into its third decade, the team members have
    decided on a new stategy. With so many data at hand and a limited
    amount of time, they recognized that more exo-planets might be found
    if they shared their catalogue with the astronomical community.
    But the team is not just giving everyone the keys to its exo-planet
    finder; it is also undertaking a sophisticated statistical analysis of
    the large data set to try to identify the periodic signals that are
    most likely to be planets. Even with the most stringent criteria,
    they found over 100 new likely planet candidates. One of them is
    around a star called GJ 411, also known as Lalande 21185. It is the
    fourth-closest star to the Sun and has only about 40% of the mass
    of the Sun. The planet has a very short orbital period of just under
    10 days, so it is by no means an Earth twin. However, the inferred
    planet, GJ 411 b, continues a trend that has been seen in the overall
    population of detected exo-planets: the smallest planets are found
    around the smallest stars.


    Astronomers using the XMM-Newton orbiting telescope have found a
    pulsar that is a thousand times brighter than was previously thought
    possible. The pulsar is also the most distant of its kind ever
    detected, with its light travelling 50 million light-years before
    being detected by XMM-Newton. Pulsars are spinning, magnetized
    neutron stars that sweep regular pulses of radiation across the cosmos
    in two symmetrical beams. If suitably aligned with the Earth such
    beams are like lighthouse beacons appearing to flash on and off as the
    source rotates. Pulsars were once massive stars that exploded as
    powerful supernovae at the ends of their natural lives, before
    becoming small and extraordinarily dense stellar corpses. The newly
    discovered one, an X-ray source, is the most luminous of its type
    detected to date: it is 10 times brighter than the previous record-
    holder. In one second it emits the same amount of energy as is
    released by the Sun in 3.5 years. [A roundabout way of saying that it
    is 100 million times brighter. — ED] XMM-Newton observed the object
    several times in the last 13 years; the discovery was a result of a
    systematic search for pulsars in the data archive — its 1.13-second
    periodic pulses giving it away.
    Previously, it was believed that only black holes at least 10 times
    more massive than the Sun feeding off their stellar companions could
    achieve such extraordinary luminosities, but the rapid and regular
    pulsations of this source are the fingerprints of neutron stars and
    clearly distinguish them from black holes. Archival data from NuStar
    also revealed that the pulsar's spin rate has changed over time, from
    1.43 s per rotation in 2003 to 1.13 s in 2014. The same relative
    acceleration in the Earth's rotation would shorten a day by five hours
    in the same time span. Only a neutron star is compact enough to keep
    itself together while rotating so fast. Although it is not unusual
    for the rotation rate of a neutron star to change, the high rate of
    change in this case is likely to be linked to the object rapidly
    consuming mass from a companion. The scientists think that there must
    be a strong, complex magnetic field close to its surface, such that
    accretion onto the neutron-star surface is still possible while still
    generating the high luminosity.


    An international team of astronomers reports the discovery of a new
    giant radio galaxy (GRG) associated with the galaxy triplet known as
    UGC 9555. The newly discovered galaxy turns out to be one of the
    largest GRGs so far detected. Located some 820 million light-years
    away, UGC 9555 is a part of a larger group of galaxies designated
    MSPM 02158. The team has analyzed the data available in the LOFAR
    Multifrequency Snapshot Sky Survey (MSSS). The images obtained as a
    part of that survey allowed the scientists to distinguish a new giant
    radio galaxy. It has not received any official designation yet, but
    it has a projected linear size of 8.34 million light-years, making it
    one of the largest GRGs known to date.
    Currently, with a projected size of approximately 16 million light-
    years, an object designated J1420-0545 holds the title of the largest
    giant radio galaxy discovered so far. However, the available LOFAR
    MSSS of the new GRG and archival radio data are still insufficient to
    determine its classification. Radio sources are divided into two
    classes: Fanaroff & Riley Class I (FRI) and Class II (FRII). The
    researchers concluded that the luminosity suggests that the new object
    is a borderline case between FRI and FRII, although the large size and
    therefore old age contributes to a decreased luminosity. They hope
    that further data gathered from a deep LOFAR observation will clearly
    classify the properties of this GRG.

    Case Western Reserve University

    Research by a team of astronomers suggests that the distribution of
    normal matter precisely determines gravitational acceleration in all
    common types of galaxies. The team has shown that that radial
    acceleration relationship exists in nearby high-mass elliptical and
    low-mass spheroidal galaxies, adding to last year's discovery of the
    relationship in spiral and irregular galaxies. That provides further
    support for the idea that the relationship is tantamount to a new
    natural law. It may demonstrate that there is a universal law for
    galactic systems. That would be analogous to the Kepler law for
    planetary systems, which does not care about the specific properties
    of the planet: whether the planet is rocky like the Earth or gaseous
    like Jupiter, the law applies. The researchers looked at 153 spiral
    and irregular galaxies, 25 ellipticals and lenticulars, and 62 dwarf
    spheroidals, and found that the observed acceleration tightly
    correlates with the gravitational acceleration expected from visible
    mass, whatever the type of galaxy. In other words, if astronomers
    measure the distribution of normal matter, they know the rotation
    curve, and vice versa. But it is still not clear what that
    relationship means or what is its fundamental origin. Observed
    deviations from the correlation are not related to any specific
    galaxy property but completely random and consistent with measurement
    errors, .
    The tightness of the relationship is difficult to understand in terms
    of dark matter as it is currently understood. It also challenges the
    current understanding of galaxy formation and evolution, in which many
    random processes such as galaxy mergers and interactions, inflows and
    outflows of gas, star formation and supernovae, occur at the same
    time. To make their discovery, researchers combined different tracers
    of the centripetal acceleration found in different types of galaxies,
    from which they made one-to-one comparisons. The kinematical tracers
    were cold gas in spiral and irregular galaxies, stars or hot gas in
    ellipticals and lenticulars, and individual giant stars in dwarf
    spheroidals. The investigation included so-called ultra-faint dwarf
    spheroidal galaxies, but owing to their faintness — which makes
    them hard to study — the researchers can not confidently offer a
    clear interpretation of the radial acceleration relation in those.
    Nevertheless, the growing proof of the relationship, or natural law,
    requires new thinking about dark matter and gravity. Within the
    standard dark-matter paradigm, the law implies that the visible matter
    and the dark matter must be tightly coupled in galaxies at a local
    level and independently of global properties: they must 'know about
    each other'. Within alternative models like modified gravity, the law
    represents a key empirical constraint and may guide theoretical
    physicists to build some appropriate mathematical extension of General
    Relativity. The team's research so far has focused on galaxies in the
    nearby Universe. The team plans to test the relationship in more
    distant galaxies, just a few thousand million years after the Big
    Bang. It is hoping to learn whether the same relationship holds
    throughout the lifetime of the Universe.


    A telescope is normally limited by the size of the mirror or lens it
    uses; its aperture sets a fundamental limit to its performance. Using
    'neural nets', a form of artificial intelligence, a group of Swiss
    researchers has now found a way to push past that limit, offering
    scientists the prospect of the sharpest-ever images in optical
    astronomy. A statistical concept known as the Nyquist sampling
    theorem describes the resolution limit, and hence how much detail can
    be seen. The Swiss authors use the latest in machine-learning
    technology to challenge that limit. They teach a neural network, a
    computational approach that simulates the neurons in a brain, what
    galaxies look like, and then ask it to recover automatically a blurred
    image and turn it into a sharp one. Just like a human being, the
    neural net needs examples — in this case a blurred and a sharp image
    of the same galaxy — to learn the technique. The system uses two
    neural nets competing with one another, an emerging approach called a
    'generative adversarial network', or GAN, popular with the machine-
    learning research community. The whole teaching programme took just a
    few hours on a high-performance computer.

    The trained neural nets were able to recognize and reconstruct
    features that the telescope could not resolve — such as star-forming
    regions, bars and dust lanes in galaxies. The scientists checked it
    against the original high-resolution image to test its performance,
    finding it better able to recover features than anything used to date,
    including the 'deconvolution' approach used to improve the images made
    in the early years of the Hubble space telescope. Researchers can
    start by going back to sky surveys made with telescopes over many
    years, see more detail than ever before, and for example learn more
    about the structure of galaxies. There is no reason why the technique
    cannot then be applied to the deepest images from Hubble, and from the
    coming James Webb space telescope, to learn more about the earliest
    structures in the Universe. The success of the project points to a
    more 'data-driven' future for astrophysics in which information is
    learnt automatically from data, instead of manually crafted physics
    models. `
    Bulletin compiled by Clive Down
    (c) 2017 The Society for Popular Astronomy
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