Astronomers Detect Clouds on an Exoplanet, and Even Measure Their Altitude

The search for planets beyond our Solar System has grown immensely during the past few decades. To date, 4,521 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,353 systems, with an additional 7,761 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many distant worlds available for study (and improved instruments and methods), the process of exoplanet studies has been slowly transitioning away from discovery towards characterization.

For example, a team of international scientists recently showed how combining data from multiple observatories allowed them to reveal the structure and composition of an exoplanet’s upper atmosphere. The exoplanet in question is WASP-127b, a “hot Saturn” that orbits a Sun-like star located about 525 light-years away. These findings preview how astronomers will characterize exoplanet atmospheres and determine if they are conducive to life as we know it.

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A LEGO® Version of the Very Large Telescope. It Even has a Laser Interferometer

Interferometers are some of the most highly advanced sensor instruments that humans have made.  They are used in everything from astronomy to quantum mechanics and have profoundly impacted our understanding of science.  But not all interferometers have to be functional. A Dutch astronomer named Frans Snik has just designed one that, while it isn’t function, is inspiring all the same – and it happens to be made out of Lego.

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The Galactic Beauty of Star Formation

I’d never seen galaxy images like this before. Nobody had! These images highlight star forming regions in nearby(ish) galaxies. There are still a number of unanswered questions surrounding how star formation actually occurs. To answer those questions, we are observing galaxies that are actively forming stars within giant clouds of gas. Until recently, we didn’t have the resolution needed to clearly image the individual gas clouds themselves. But images released by a project called PHANGS (Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS) in a collaboration between the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope and the Atacama Large millimeter/submillmeter Array (ALMA) have provided never before seen detail of star forming clouds in other galaxies.

This image combines observations of the nearby galaxies NGC 1300, NGC 1087, NGC 3627 (top, from left to right), NGC 4254 and NGC 4303 (bottom, from left to right) taken with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). Each individual image is a combination of observations conducted at different wavelengths of light to map stellar populations and warm gas.. Image and Image Description PHANGS/ESO. Original Image
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Rocky Planet Found With Only Half the Mass of Venus

When it comes to finding exoplanets, size matters, but so does weight.  The larger and heavier the planet, the more likely they will be discovered by the current crop of telescopes.  Both the techniques to find exoplanets and the telescopes using those techniques are biased toward larger, heavier planets.  So when even the current crop of telescopes manages to find one that is about half the mass of Venus, it is cause for celebration.  That is precisely the size of the planet a team from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope has found orbiting a star called L98-59.

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Incredible! Astronomers see a Moon-Forming Disk Around a Newly Forming Planet

Planetary formation is a complicated, multilayered process.  Even with the influx of data on exoplanets, there are still only two known planets that are not yet fully formed.  Known as PDS 70b and PDS 70c, the two planets, which were originally found by the Very Large Telescope, are some of the best objects we have to flesh out our planetary formation models. And now, one of them has been confirmed to have a moon-forming disk around it.

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Rare Triple Galaxy Merger With at Least Two Supermassive Black Holes

One of the best things about that universe is that there is so much to it.  If you look hard enough, you can most likely find any combination of astronomical events happening.  Not long ago we reported on research that found 7 separate instances of three galaxies colliding with one another.  Now, a team led by Jonathan Williams of the University of Maryland has found another triple galaxy merging cluster, but this one might potentially have two active supermassive black holes, allowing astronomers to peer into the system dynamics of two of the universe’s most extreme objects running into one another.

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Massive Binary Stars Huddle Up Surprisingly Quickly

Dancing is a favorite pastime of many couples.  Swinging around a dance floor, using the laws of physics to twirl at just the right moment, and hopefully not step on any toes, is an art unto itself.  The same laws of physics that govern couples on a dance floor also govern (to some extent) the much larger dance of stellar objects.  And recently astronomers have started to understand the intricacies of how binary stars dance with each other – turns out it’s not quite as simple as doing the tango.

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Those are Exoplanets. You’re Looking at Actual Exoplanets 63 Light-Years Away!

Located 63.4 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pictor is the young and bright blue star, Beta Pictoris. In 2008, observations conducted from the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile confirmed the presence of an extrasolar planet. This planet was Beta Pictoris b, a Super-Jupiter with an orbital period of up between 6890 and 8890 days (~19 to 24 years) that was confirmed by directly imaging it as it passed behind the star.

In August of 2019, a second planet was detected (another Super-Jupiter) orbiting closer to Beta Pictoris. However, due to its proximity to its parent star, it could only be studied through indirect means (radial velocity measurements). After conducting a reanalysis of data obtained by the VLT, astronomers with the GRAVITY collaboration were able to confirm the existence of Beta Pictoris c through direct imaging.

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Wow! An Actual Picture of Multiple Planets Orbiting a Sunlike Star

We’ve detected thousands of exoplanets, but for the most part, nobody’s ever seen them. They’re really just data, and graphs of light curves. The exoplanet images you see here at Universe Today and other space websites are the creations of very skilled illustrators, equal parts data and creative license. But that’s starting to change.

The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has captured images of two exoplanets orbiting a young, Sun-like star.

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A Giant Galaxy Seen Lighting Up the Universe Shortly After the Big Bang

About 370,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe experienced a period that cosmologists refer to as the “Cosmic Dark Ages.” During this period, the Universe was obscured by pervasive neutral gas that obscured all visible light, making it invisible to astronomers. As the first stars and galaxies formed over the next few hundred millions of years, the radiation they emitted ionized this plasma, making the Universe transparent.

One of the biggest cosmological mysteries right now is when “cosmic reionization” began. To find out, astronomers have been looking deeper into the cosmos (and farther back in time) to spot the first visible galaxies. Thanks to new research by a team of astronomers from University College London (UCL), a luminous galaxy has been observed that was reionizing the intergalactic medium 13 billion years ago.

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