Life Doesn’t Change Terrain Much

Even through life has flourished on Earth for billions of years, it doesn’t seem to make much of an impact on our planet’s landscapes. A team of scientists from UC Berkeley did an extensive survey of landscapes across the planet, and couldn’t find any place that was obviously modified by lifeforms; from large grazing animals to microscopic bacteria. The only effect seems to be that lifeforms will tend to round off sharp hills. So landscapes once covered with life on Mars might have a higher chance of being smoother and less jagged.

Nearby Disk Contains Life’s Chemicals

A planet forming disk located about 375 light-years from Earth has been found to contain some of the building blocks of life: acetylene and hydrogen cyanide. The chemicals were discovered around “IRS 46” using NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope. When mixed with water in a laboratory, these chemicals create a soup of organic compounds, including amino acids and a DNA base called adenine.

What’s Up This Week – December 12 – December 18, 2005

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s “mid-time of night and the stars in their orbits shone pale through the light of the brighter cold Moon.” But, be sure to take the time to “gaze for awhile on her cold smile”! There will be a brief opportunity this week to hide from that light to catch the Geminid meteor shower, as well as plenty of time to check out bright planets, stars and clusters. So turn your eyes to the skies, because…

Here’s what’s up!

Teeny Tiny Solar System

Astronomers from Penn State University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have found a miniature solar system in the making. A failed star with a hundredth the mass of our own Sun seems to have a planet forming disc of dust and gas surrounding it. With only 8 times the mass of Jupiter, this brown dwarf star is more like a large planet, and yet it’s capable of forming a planetary system of its own.

Upcoming Solutions for Near Earth Objects

Telescopes from around the world are constantly scanning the skies searching for potential Earth-crossing asteroids. The majority if these objects pose little to no threat to us, but the potentially devastating space rocks are out there. The European Space Agency is working on a mission called Don Quixote which would attempt to shift the orbit of an asteroid to understand the mechanics of this kind of operation.

What’s Up This Week – November 7 – November 13, 2005

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! “It is a most beautiful and delightful sight to behold the body of the Moon.” Take Galileo’s words to heart and be sure to let Venus and Mars capture the eye this week. Come, now. Let’s explore and observe some of the finest moments in astronomy history as we ask for the Moon…

But keep reaching for the stars.

10th Planet has a Moon

The newly discovered 10th planet – which the discoverers have dubbed “Xena” – appears to have a moon of its own. Nicknamed “Gabrielle”, this moon is 100 times fainter than Xena, and seems to orbit the planet once every couple of weeks. It’s estimated to be 1/10th the size of Xena, so approximately 250 km (155 miles) across. The powerful Hubble Space Telescope will be turning its gaze on the pair in November/December, and should reveal even more details.

Asteroid Ceres Could Have Large Amounts of Water

New observations from the Hubble Space Telescope indicate that the largest asteroid in the Solar System, Ceres, might have huge reserves of water ice under its surface. Ceres is approximately 580 miles (930 kilometers) across, and resides with many other asteroids in a belt of material between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres’ crust shows evidence of water-bearing minerals. In fact, if Ceres is 25% water, it would have more fresh water than what we have here on Earth.

Saturn’s Rings Have an Atmosphere of their Own

Saturn’s rings are separate from the planet they circle, and then even have an atmosphere of their own. During several flybys, Cassini has been able to detect very small amounts of molecular oxygen floating around the rings. Molecules of water are broken apart by ultraviolet light from the Sun; the hydrogen and some of the oxygen is lost into space, and some of the oxygen is frozen back into the rings. But there’s enough of a cloud of these atoms around the rings that this process must be ongoing and kept in a continual balance.

Largest Core in an Extrasolar Planet

Astronomers have found an extrasolar planet that contains the largest core ever seen in a planet. This planet orbits the Sun-like star HD 149026, is roughly the size of Saturn, and takes only 2.87 days to complete its year. The planet was first discovered by the effect of its gravity around its parent star. Astronomers were then fortunate to detect how much it dims the light from the star as it passes in front. From this information, they were able to measure the planet’s size, and calculate the size of its core. This discovery adds evidence to the “core accretion” theory of planetary formation, where planets start as balls of rock and ice, and collect a gas envelope around themselves.