Astronomers Find the Oldest Planetary Nebula

Abell 39 is a good example of a planetary nebula, similar to the one discovered in M37. Credit: WIYN/NOAO/NSF

Planetary nebulae are short-lived “leftovers” of sun-like stars. Most of these “star ghosts” only last—at most—about 25,000 years. Usually, their clouds of debris disperse so broadly that they fade out fairly quickly. However, there’s one that has lasted at least 70,000 years. That makes it a “grande dame” of planetary nebulae.

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A Merger Completely Shut Down Star Formation

star formation stopped by galaxy merger
Scientists observing the newly-dormant galaxy SDSS J1448+1010 found that most of its fuel for star formation had been tossed out of the system as it merged with another galaxy. That gas is not forming new stars for the galaxy but remains nearby in new structures known as tidal tails. This artist’s conception shows the stream of gas and stars that were flung away during the merger. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), S.Dagnello (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

What’s the recipe for forming stars? Yep, lots of gas and dust. Galaxies rich in these materials get to make a lot of stars. When the supply runs out, star formation stops. That’s what’s happened in the galaxy SDSS J1448+1010, but there’s a twist. The galaxy didn’t stop making stars because it made so many it ran out of material. No, that happened because it merged with another galaxy. That action flung most of the available gas and dust out of the galaxy entirely. Essentially, the galaxy to went “dormant” and ceased star-forming operations.

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Problem Solved! Voyager 1 is no Longer Sending Home Garbled Data!

Voyager 1
Artist's concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Earlier this year, the teams attached to the Voyager 1 mission noticed that the venerable spacecraft was sending weird readouts about its attitude articulation and control system (called AACS, for short). The data it’s providing didn’t really reflect what was actually happening onboard. That was the bad news. The good news was that it didn’t affect science data-gathering and transmission. And, the best news came this week: team engineers have fixed the issue with the AACS and the data are flowing normally again.

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Science Fiction was an Inspiration for Many Professional Astronomers

Science fiction universe for Star Trek
The Star Trek universe occurs in the Milky Way Galaxy; this show and its memorable characters are cited, along with many other SF works as influences for scientists. Courtesy R.H. Hurt.

What do MINBAR, TARDIS, Cardassian Expansion, BoRG, DS9, Tatooines, and ACBAR all have in common? They’re names of astronomical surveys and software created by astronomers who say that science fiction (SF) influenced their careers. Those names are just one indicator of widespread interest in SF in the science community. It’s not surprising considering how many scientists (and science writers) grew up with the genre.

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Carbon Monoxide is Plentiful in Nebulae, but Then Disappears When Planets Form. Now we Know Where it Goes!

carbon monoxide in protoplanetary disk
ALMA image of the protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star HD 163296 as seen in dust. New studies show there may be carbon monoxide ice there. Courtesy NRAO.

Protoplanetary disks—those nurseries around young stars where planets form—are filled with gas and dust. In particular, many show a lot of carbon monoxide gas. It’s a handy “tracer” to estimate the mass of a cloud, its composition, and even its temperature. It’s also easy to observe. However, astronomers think there should be more of it than they’re observing in many disks. And that prompted a question: where’s the rest of it?

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New Horizons Could Still Have More Adventures Ahead

Currently exploring the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons is just one of five spacecraft to reach beyond 50 astronomical units, on its way out of the solar system and, eventually, into interstellar space. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)

Remember New Horizons? That plucky little spacecraft that gave us our first up-close looks at Pluto and Arrokoth? Of course, we do! Well, it’s still out there, traveling deeper into the Kuiper Belt. Just because it finished its primary mission doesn’t mean we’re done with it yet.

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Samples From Asteroid Ryugu Contain Bits That Came From Outside the Solar System

Asteroid Ryugu, as imaged by the Hayabusa2 spacecraft. The red dot marks the sampling location. Image Credit: JAXA/Hayabusa2
Asteroid Ryugu, as imaged by the Hayabusa2 spacecraft. The red dot marks the sampling location. Image Credit: JAXA/Hayabusa2

Long before our Sun began to form, stars were dying in our part of the galaxy. One of them exploded as a supernova. The catastrophe created minute grains of dust and the force of the explosion blasted through a nearby cloud of gas and dust. That action seeded the cloud with “alien” materials from the dead star. The shock wave from the supernova also caused the cloud to collapse in on itself to create the Sun. The “leftovers” of the cloud became the planets, moons, rings, comets, and asteroids of our solar system.

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Would We Have Continents Without Asteroid Impacts?

continents
An impact between a Mars-sized protoplanet and early Earth is the most widely-accepted origin of the Moon. Did smaller impacts seed the formation of continents? (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Early Earth was a wild and wooly place. In its first billion years, during a period called the Archean, our planet was still hot from its formation. Essentially, the surface was lava for millions of years. Asteroids bombarded the planet, and the place was still recovering from the impact that formed the Moon. Oceans were beginning to form as the surface solidified and water outgassed from the rock. The earliest atmosphere was actually rock vapor, followed quickly by the growth of a largely hot carbon dioxide and water vapor blanket. Earth was just starting land masses that later became continents. For decades, geologists have asked: what started continental formation?

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Satellites are Tracking Rivers of Garbage Flowing Across the Oceans

garbage patches in Earth's oceans
A a computational model of ocean currents called ECCO-2 that shows how garbage can be distributed across Earth's oceans. Courtesy NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

There’s an ocean of human-made garbage floating through Earth’s seas. From plastic straws to beverage bottles and food wrappers, the ocean waters are this planet’s fastest-growing junkyard. Some of the plastic gets ground into little beads called microplastics, and ends up in the food chain, with humans at the top. For that reason, and many others, the European Space Agency is tracking ocean-bound plastics through the auspices of the MARLISAT project. It’s one of 25 efforts created to identify and trace marine litter as it moves through the world’s waterways. The ultimate goal is to help countries reduce ocean litter, particularly plastics.

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In Wildly Different Environments, Stars End Up Roughly the Same

stars
Mock narrowband observation of a simulated star-forming region where massive stars destroy their parent cloud. Credit: STARFORGE

When you look at a region of the sky where stars are born, you see a cloud of gas and dust and a bunch of stars. It’s really a beautiful sight. In most places, the stars all end up being about the same mass. That mass is probably the most important factor you want to know about it. It directs how long the star will live and what its future will be like. But, what determines its mass and the mass of its siblings in a stellar nursery? Is there some governing force that tells them how massive they’ll be? It turns out that the stars do it for themselves.

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