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Planet found orbiting dangerously close to
red giant

...a new planet found orbiting a red giant star at a distance of just 0.6 AU may shed new light on how aging stars influence nearby planets before they are consumed...

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Synchronised observations catch flares from
Sagittarius A*

...simultaneous observations made with the VLT and APEX telescopes have revealed the nature of four violent flares emanating from the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy...

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Site selection narrows for next Mars lander

...four potential landing sites on Mars have been selected as candidates for the touch-down of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory...

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STS-120 day 2 highlights

Flight Day 2 of Discovery's mission focused on heat shield inspections. This movie shows the day's highlights.


STS-120 day 1 highlights

The highlights from shuttle Discovery's launch day are packaged into this movie.


STS-118: Highlights

The STS-118 crew, including Barbara Morgan, narrates its mission highlights film and answers questions in this post-flight presentation.

 Full presentation
 Mission film

STS-120: Rollout to pad

Space shuttle Discovery rolls out of the Vehicle Assembly Building and travels to launch pad 39A for its STS-120 mission.


Dawn leaves Earth

NASA's Dawn space probe launches aboard a Delta 2-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral to explore two worlds in the asteroid belt.

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Dawn: Launch preview

These briefings preview the launch and science objectives of NASA's Dawn asteroid orbiter.

 Launch | Science

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Hubble resolves mystery of lone starburst galaxy

Posted: 21 November, 2008

Astronomers have solved the mystery as to why a small, nearby, isolated galaxy is pumping out new stars faster than any galaxy in our local neighborhood. It turns out it is actually further away than astronomers first thought.

The discovery happened by accident while Alessandra Aloisi and colleagues from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and the European Space Agency were using Hubble to search galaxy NGC 1569 for red giant stars. Red giants can be used to estimate a galaxy's age since they are reliable ‘standard candles’ for measuring distance because they all shine at the same brightness.

"When we found no obvious trace of them, we suspected that the galaxy was farther away than originally believed," says Aaron Grocholski. "We could only see the brightest red giant stars, but we were able to use these stars to re-calibrate the galaxy's distance."

NGC 1569's core is made up of three giant star clusters, each containing more than a million stars. New analysis place the galaxy at a distance of 11 million light years from Earth. Image: NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA/Hubble Heritage Team/A.Aloisi.

Previous estimates of the galaxy's distance were made with ground-based telescopes and were unreliable because they looked at the galaxy's crowded core and were unable to resolve individual red giant stars. Hubble was able to resolve both the galaxy's cluttered core and its sparsely populated outer fringes, identifying individual red giants, and therefore allowing a precise distance to the galaxy to be determined.

"This was a serendipitous discovery," says Aloisi. "Hubble didn't go deep enough to see the faintest red giant stars we were hunting for because the galaxy is farther away than we thought. However, by capturing the entire population of the brightest red giant stars, we were able to calculate a precise distance to NGC 1569 and resolve the puzzle about the galaxy's extreme starburst activity."

The new observations reveal that it is located around one and a half times farther away than astronomers previously thought, at a distance of nearly 11 million light years. The extra distance places the galaxy in the middle of a group of about 10 galaxies centred on the spiral galaxy IC 342. Gravitational interactions among the group's galaxies may be compressing gas in NGC 1569 and igniting the frenetic bout of star formation, which is over 100 times higher than star formation in the Milky Way.

"Now the starburst activity seen in NGC 1569 makes sense, because the galaxy is probably interacting with other galaxies in the group," says Aloisi. "Those interactions are probably fueling the star birth."

This type of starburst galaxy is thought to drive the evolution of galaxies in the distant and young Universe. "Starburst galaxies can only be studied in detail in the nearby Universe, where they are much rarer,” says Roeland van der Marel. “Hubble observations of our galactic neighborhood, including this study, are helping astronomers put together a complete picture of the galaxies in our local Universe. Put the puzzle pieces in the right place, as for NGC 1569, and the picture makes much more sense."

The results are published in the 20th October issue of the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.