It’s Already Hard Enough to Block a Single Star’s Light to See its Planets. But Binary Stars? Yikes

Binary stars are common and imaging their planets will be a challenge. How can astronomers block all that light so they can see the planets? This artist's illustration shows the eclipsing binary star Kepler 16, as seen from the surface of an exoplanet in the system. Image Credit: NASA

Detecting exoplanets was frontier science not long ago. But now we’ve found over 5,000 of them, and we expect to find them around almost every star. The next step is to characterize these planets more fully in hopes of finding ones that might support life. Directly imaging them will be part of that effort.

But to do that, astronomers need to block out the light from the planets’ stars. That’s challenging in binary star systems.

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Webb NIRISS Instrument has Gone Offline

Artist impression of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA.

The JWST is having a problem. One of its instruments, the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS,) has gone offline. The NIRISS performs spectroscopy on exoplanet atmospheres, among other things.

It’s been offline since Sunday. January 15th due to a communications error.

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Lucy Adds Another Asteroid to its Flyby List

This artist's illustration shows NASA's Lucy spacecraft close to one of its targets. NASA has added another asteroid, the eleventh, to Lucy's mission. Image Credit: NASA/SWRI/GSFC

In October 2021, NASA launched its ambitious Lucy mission. Its targets are asteroids, two in the main belt and eight Jupiter trojans, which orbit the Sun in the same path as Jupiter. The mission is named after early hominin fossils (Australopithecus afarensis,) and the name pays homage to the idea that asteroids are fossils from the Solar System’s early days of planet formation.

Visiting ten asteroids in one mission is the definition of ambitious, and now NASA is adding an eleventh.

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Astronomers Pin Down the Age of the Most Distant Galaxy: Seen 367 Million Years After the Big Bang

The radio telescope array ALMA has pin-pointed the exact cosmic age of a distant JWST-identified galaxy, GHZ2/GLASS-z12, at 367 million years after the Big Bang. Image Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / T. Treu, UCLA / NAOJ / T. Bakx, Nagoya U. Licence type Attribution (CC BY 4.0)

Staring off into the ancient past with a $10 billion space telescope, hoping to find extraordinarily faint signals from the earliest galaxies, might seem like a forlorn task. But it’s only forlorn if we don’t find any. Now that the James Webb Space Telescope has found those signals, the exercise has moved from forlorn to hopeful.

But only if astronomers can confirm the signals.

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According to Simulations, the Milky Way is One in a Million

A lonely Milky Way analogue galaxy, too massive for its wall. The background image shows the distribution of dark matter (green and blue) and galaxies (here seen as tiny yellow dots) in a thin slice of the cubic volume in which we expect to find one of such rare massive galaxies. Credit Images: Miguel A. Aragon-Calvo. Simulation data: Illustris TNG project Licence type Attribution (CC BY 4.0)

Humanity is in a back-and-forth relationship with nature. First, we thought we were at the center of everything, with the Sun and the entire cosmos rotating around our little planet. We eventually realized that wasn’t true. Over the centuries, we’ve found that though Earth and life might be rare, our Sun is pretty normal, our Solar System is relatively non-descript, and even our galaxy is one of the billions of spiral galaxies, a type that makes up 60% of the galaxies in the Universe.

But the Illustris TNG simulation shows that the Milky Way is special.

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A New Survey of the Milky Way Reveals Billions of Objects, Helping to Map Our Surroundings in Three Dimensions

This image, which is brimming with stars and dark dust clouds, is a small extract — a mere pinprick — of the full Dark Energy Camera Plane Survey (DECaPS2) of the Milky Way. The new dataset contains a staggering 3.32 billion celestial objects — arguably the largest such catalog so far. DECaPS2/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA Image processing: M. Zamani & D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

The Dark Energy Camera Plane Survey 2 (DECaPS2) is out. This is the second data release from DECaPS, and the survey contains over 3 billion objects in the Milky Way. As the leading image shows, there are so many stars it appears as if there’s no space between them.

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Binary Dwarf Stars Found Orbiting Each Other Every 20 Hours. They Were Once Almost Touching

Astronomers have spotted a pair of ultra-cool dwarf stars in a tight binary configuration. They rotate around one another in less than one Earth day. Image Credit: NASA/JPL Caltech

A team of astrophysicists has discovered a binary pair of ultra-cool dwarfs so close together that they look like a single star. They’re remarkable because they only take 20.5 hours to orbit each other, meaning their year is less than one Earth Day. They’re also much older than similar systems.

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Light Pollution is Obscuring the Night Sky. RIP Stargazing

A startling analysis from Globe at Night — a citizen science program run by NSF’s NOIRLab — concludes that stars are disappearing from human sight at an astonishing rate. Image Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, P. Marenfeld

A citizen science initiative called Globe at Night has some sobering news for humanity. Our artificial light is drowning out the night sky for more and more people. And it’s happening more rapidly than thought.

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Scientists Build a Teeny Tiny Tractor Beam

Microscopic tractor beams exist. Can they be upscaled? Image Credit: Designed by upklyak / Freepik

Tractor beams make intuitive sense. Matter and energy interact with each other in countless ways throughout the Universe. Magnetism and gravity are both natural forces that can draw objects together, so there’s sort of a precedent.

But engineering an actual tractor beam is something different.

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Exploring the Outer Solar System Takes Power, Here’s a Way to Miniaturize Nuclear Batteries for Deep Space

Color-enhanced image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2015. More thorough exploration of the outer Solar System will require efficient power systems for spacecraft. (Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) / Southwest Research Institute (SwRI))

As science and technology advance, we’re asking our space missions to deliver more and more results. NASA’s MSL Curiosity and Perseverance rovers illustrate this fact. Perseverance is an exceptionally exquisite assemblage of technologies. These cutting-edge rovers need a lot of power to fulfill their tasks, and that means bulky and expensive power sources.

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