Exoplanet studies have come a long way in a short time! To date, 5,523 exoplanets have been confirmed in 4,117 systems, with another 9,867 candidates awaiting confirmation. With all these planets available for study, exoplanet researchers have been shifting their focus from detection to characterization – i.e., looking for potential signs of life and biological activity (biosignatures). Some major breakthroughs are expected in the coming years, thanks in part to next-generation observatories like NASA’s James Webb andNancy Grace Roman Space Telescope and the ESA’s PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission.
Pulsars are the lighthouses of the universe. These rotating dead stars shoot twin jets of radiation from their poles, usually with a predictable rhythm. But sometimes pulsars behave strangely, and one pulsar in particular has had astronomers scratching their heads for years. It’s called PSR J1023+0038, and a decade ago, it shut off its jets and began oscillating between two brightness levels in an unpredictable pattern. Now, scientists think they understand why: it is busy eating a neighboring star.
There’s no getting around it: our Solar System’s gas giants all have big, conspicuous spots on their faces. These include Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, Saturn’s Great White Spot, Uranus’ Great Dark Spot, and Neptune’s Great Dark Spot. Far from blemishes or features that tarnish the planets’ natural beauty, these “spots” are caused by massive storms or other processes in the planets’ atmospheres. While they are extremely large by Earth standards, they are difficult to study by anything other than robotic probes that can get close to the planet.
Neptune’s Great Dark Spot was not discovered until NASA’s Voyager 2probe flew past the planet in 1989 on its way to the edge of the Solar System. Decades later, scientists are still unsure how this storm originated or what mechanisms drive it today. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), a team of astronomers was able to observe the Great Dark Spot for the first time using a ground-based telescope. Their results provided the most detailed data on the spot to date and some interesting insights into the nature and origin of this mysterious feature.
It seems like every week, researchers are finding more and more interesting exoplanets. Many of them have analogs in our own solar system – hot Jupiter or Super Earth are commonly used as descriptions. However, there is a feature of a solar system that doesn’t exist in our solar system but might somewhere out in the galaxy – a Trojan planet. Now researchers from the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid and colleagues in the UK, EU, and US have found what they believe to be the first possible evidence of a Trojan planet.
The European Southern Observatory continues to build the largest telescope in the world, the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Construction of the telescope began in 2014 with flattening the top of a mountain named Cerro Armazones in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
ESO just announced that progress on construction has crossed the 50% mark. The remaining work should take another five years. When it finally comes online in 2028, the telescope will have a 39-meter (128 ft) primary mirror of 798 hexagonal segments, making it the largest telescope in the world for visible and infrared light. The new telescope should help to answer some of the outstanding questions about our Universe, such as how the first stars and galaxies formed, and perhaps even be able to take direct images of extrasolar planets.
A stellar nursery sounds like a placid place where baby stars go about their business undisturbed. But, of course, a stellar nursery is nothing like that. (Babies are noisy and cry a lot.) They’re dynamic places where powerful elemental forces rage mightily and bend the surroundings to their will. And this one, even though its name is the drowsy-sounding Smiling Cat Nebula, is no exception.
Most astronomers know the struggle of getting time on the world’s most powerful telescopes. Even though this observing time might literally be the most important thing to their career prospects, there are always more studies than there is time available to perform them. Typically, each telescope system has a panel of experts that determine which proposals will get observational time and which won’t. However, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), based in Germany but with observational telescopes in Chile, decided to try a new proposal review method – peer review.
Throughout recorded history, humans have looked up at the night sky and witnessed the major astronomical events known as a “supernova.” The name, still used by astronomers, referred to the belief that these bursts of light in the “firmament” signaled the birth of a “new star.” With the birth of telescopes and modern astronomy, we have since learned that supernovae are what occur at the end of a star’s lifecycle. At this point, when a star has exhausted its hydrogen and helium fuel, it experiences gravitational collapse at its center.
This leads to a tremendous explosion that can be seen billions of light-years distant, releasing tremendous amounts of energy and blowing the star’s outer layers off. Thanks to an international team of astronomers led by the University of Southhampton, the most powerful cosmic explosion has been confirmed! The stellar explosion, AT2021lwx, took place about 8 billion light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula and was over ten times brighter than any supernova ever observed and 100 times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined!
The field of astronomy is about to be revolutionized, thanks to the introduction of Extremely Large Telescopes that rely on primary mirrors measuring 30 meters (or more) in diameter, adaptive optics (AO), coronographs, and advanced spectrometers. This will include the eponymously-named Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). These telescopes will enable astronomers to study exoplanets using the Direct Imaging (DI) method, which will yield valuable data on the composition of their atmospheres.
According to a new study by a team of researchers from Ohio State University (OSU), these telescopes will also allow astronomers to study “ultracool objects,” like very low-mass stars (VLMs), brown dwarfs, and exoplanets. In addition to being able to visualize magnetic starspots and determine the chemical compositions of these objects, ELTs will be able to reveal details about atmospheric dynamics and cloud systems. These types of studies could reveal a wealth of information about some of the least-studied objects in our Universe and significantly aid in the search for life beyond our Solar System.
To date, astronomers have confirmed 5,272 exoplanets in 3,943 systems using a variety of detection methods. Of these, 1,834 are Neptune-like, 1,636 are gas giants (Jupiter-sized or larger), 1,602 are rocky planets several times the size and mass of Earth (Super-Earths), and 195 have been Earth-like. With so many exoplanets available for study (and next-generation instruments optimized for the task), the process is shifting from discovery to characterization. And discoveries, which are happening regularly, are providing teasers of what astronomers will likely see in the near future.