The James Webb May See the First Stars to Appear in the Universe

An artist's representation of what the first stars to light up the universe might have looked like in the Cosmic Dawn. Image Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

Astronomers continue to hunt for the elusive kind of star known as Population III stars, the first stars to appear in the young universe. New research has revealed that the James Webb Space Telescope may be on the cusp of discovering them.

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This Binary System is Destined to Become a Kilonova

This is an artist’s impression of the first confirmed detection of a star system that will one day form a kilonova — the ultra-powerful, gold-producing explosion created by merging neutron stars. Image Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva/Spaceengine/M. Zamani

Kilonovae are extraordinarily rare. Astronomers think there are only about 10 of them in the Milky Way. But they’re extraordinarily powerful and produce heavy elements like uranium, thorium, and gold.

Usually, astronomers spot them after they’ve merged and emitted powerful gamma-ray bursts (GRBs.) But astronomers using the SMARTS telescope say they’ve spotted a kilonova progenitor for the first time.

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How Can We Know if We’re Looking at Habitable exo-Earths or Hellish exo-Venuses?

How can astronomers tell exo-Earths and exo-Venuses apart? Polarimetry might be the key. Image Credits: NASA

The differences between Earth and Venus are obvious to us. One is radiant with life and adorned with glittering seas, and the other is a scorching, glowering hellhole, its volcanic surface shrouded by thick clouds and visible only with radar. But the difference wasn’t always clear. In fact, we used to call Venus Earth’s sister planet.

Can astronomers tell exo-Earths and exo-Venuses apart from a great distance?

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The Historic Discussion of Ptolemy’s Star Catalog

A page from the star catalog in a 1515 printing of Ptolemy's Almagest.
A page from the star catalog in a 1515 printing of Ptolemy's Almagest.

From the time of its writing in the 2nd century CE, Claudius Ptolemy’s Almagest stood at the forefront of mathematical astronomy for nearly 1,500 years. This work included a catalog of 1,025 stars, listing their coordinates (in ecliptic longitude and latitude) and brightnesses. While astronomers within a few centuries realized that the models for the sun, moon, and planets all had issues (which we today recognize as being a result of them being incorrect, geocentric models relying on circles and epicycles instead of a heliocentric model with elliptical orbits), the catalog of stars was generally believed to be correct.

That was, until the end of the 16th century, when the renowned observation astronomer Tycho Brahe realized that there was a fundamental flaw with the catalog: the ecliptic longitudes were low by an average of 1 degree.

What’s more, Brahe proposed an explanation for why. He suggested that Ptolemy had stolen the data from the astronomer Hipparchus some 250 years earlier, and then incorrectly updated the coordinates.

The question of whether this was a cosmic coincidence or the oldest case of scientific plagiarism is a question that historians of astronomy have argued for over 400 years.

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The First Stars May Have Weighed More Than 100,000 Suns

The first stars
A visualization of what the universe looked like when it was going through its last major transformative era: the epoch of reionization. Credit: Paul Geil & Simon Mutch/The University of Melbourne

The universe was simply different when it was younger. Recently astronomers have discovered that complex physics in the young cosmos may have led to the development of supermassive stars, each one weighing up to 100,000 times the mass of the Sun.

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Soon Every Spacecraft can Navigate the Solar System Autonomously Using Pulsars

If you want to know where you are in space, you’d better bring along a map. But it’s a little more complicated than riding shotgun on a family road trip.

Spacecraft navigation beyond Earth orbit is usually carried out by mission control. A series of radio communication arrays across the planet, known as the Deep Space Network, allows operators to check in with space probes and update their navigational status. The system works, but it could be better. What if a spacecraft could autonomously determine its position, without needing to phone home? That’s been a dream of aerospace engineers for a long time, and it’s getting close to fruition.

Pulsars are the key.

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Astronomers Come Closer to Understanding How Mercury Formed

Artist's concept of the MESSENGER spacecraft on approach to Mercury. Credit: NASA/JPL

Simulations of the formation of the solar system have been largely successful. They are able to replicate the positions of all the major planets along with their orbital parameters. But current simulations have an extreme amount of difficulty getting the masses of the four terrestrial planets right, especially Mercury. A new study suggests that we need to pay more attention to the giant planets in order to understand the evolution of the smaller ones.

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Astronomers Detect a Second Planet Orbiting Two Stars

Artist's impression of Kepler-16b, the first planet known to definitively orbit two stars - what's called a circumbinary planet. The planet, which can be seen in the foreground, was discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Planets orbiting binary stars are in a tough situation. They have to contend with the gravitational pull of two separate stars. Planetary formation around a single star like our Sun is relatively straightforward compared to what circumbinary planets go through. Until recently, astronomers weren’t sure they existed.

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Astronomers are Working on a 3D map of Cosmic Dawn

The HERA radio telescope consists of 350 dishes pointed upward to detect 21-centimeter emissions from the early Universe. Credit: HERA Partnership

The frontiers of astronomy are being pushed regularly these days thanks to next-generation telescopes and scientific collaborations. Even so, astronomers are still waiting to peel back the veil of the cosmic “Dark Ages,” which lasted from roughly 370,000 to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, where the Universe was shrouded with light-obscuring neutral hydrogen. The first stars and galaxies formed during this same period (ca. 100 to 500 million years), slowly dispelling the “darkness.” This period is known as the Epoch of Reionization, or as many astronomers call it: Cosmic Dawn.

By probing this period with advanced radio telescopes, astronomers will gain valuable insights into how the first galaxies formed and evolved. This is the purpose of the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA), a radio telescope dedicated to observing the large-scale structure of the cosmos during and before the Epoch of Reionization located in the Karoo desert in South Africa. In a recent paper, the HERA Collaboration reports how it doubled the array’s sensitivity and how their observations will lead to the first 3D map of Cosmic Dawn.

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Future Space Telescopes Could be 100 Meters Across, Constructed in Space, and Then Bent Into a Precise Shape

Graphic depiction of Bend-Forming of Large Electrostatically Actuated Space Structures. Credit: Zachary Cordero

It is an exciting time for astronomers and cosmologists. Since the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), astronomers have been treated to the most vivid and detailed images of the Universe ever taken. Webb‘s powerful infrared imagers, spectrometers, and coronographs will allow for even more in the near future, including everything from surveys of the early Universe to direct imaging studies of exoplanets. Moreover, several next-generation telescopes will become operational in the coming years with 30-meter (~98.5 feet) primary mirrors, adaptive optics, spectrometers, and coronographs.

Even with these impressive instruments, astronomers and cosmologists look forward to an era when even more sophisticated and powerful telescopes are available. For example, Zachary Cordero 
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently proposed a telescope with a 100-meter (328-foot) primary mirror that would be autonomously constructed in space and bent into shape by electrostatic actuators. His proposal was one of several concepts selected this year by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for Phase I development.

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