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Scientists predict that rocky planets formed from ‘pebbles’

27 October 2015 Astronomy Now

Using a new process in planetary formation modelling, where planets grow from tiny bodies called “pebbles,” Southwest Research Institute scientists can explain why Mars is so much smaller than Earth. This same process also explains the rapid formation of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, as reported earlier this year.

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Halloween asteroid’s close fly-by a treat for radar astronomers

26 October 2015 Astronomy Now

NASA scientists are tracking the upcoming Halloween flyby of asteroid 2015 TB145 with several optical observatories and the radar capabilities of the agency’s Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. Only discovered sixteen days ago, the 400-metre-wide asteroid will fly past Earth at a safe distance slightly farther than the Moon’s orbit on 31 October at 5:05pm GMT.

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Kerberos completes family portrait of Pluto’s moons

25 October 2015 Astronomy Now

Images just sent back to Earth this week of Pluto’s tiny moon tiny Kerberos taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft complete the family portrait of Pluto’s moons. Kerberos has a double-lobed shape suggesting that it could have been formed by the merger of two smaller objects. It also appears to be smaller than scientists expected and has a highly-reflective surface, counter to predictions prior to the Pluto flyby in July.

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Hubble views starburst galaxy Messier 94

24 October 2015 Astronomy Now

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the galaxy Messier 94, which lies in the small northern constellation of Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs), about 16 million light-years away. Within the bright ring or starburst ring around Messier 94, new stars are forming at a high rate and many young, bright stars are present within it.

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Asteroseismology reveals magnetic fields deep within stars

24 October 2015 Astronomy Now

Astronomers have for the first time probed the magnetic fields in the mysterious inner regions of stars, finding they are strongly magnetised. Using a technique called asteroseismology, the scientists were able to calculate the magnetic field strengths in the fusion-powered hearts of dozens of red giants, stars that are evolved versions of our Sun.

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Happy Hour on Comet Lovejoy

24 October 2015 Astronomy Now

Comet Lovejoy lived up to its name by releasing as much ethyl alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second as well as a type of sugar into space during its peak activity, according to new observations by an international team. The finding adds to the evidence that comets could have been a source of the complex organic molecules necessary for the emergence of life.

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See Pluto in 3-D

23 October 2015 Astronomy Now

Global stereo mapping of Pluto’s surface is now possible (requires red/blue glasses for viewing in 3-D), as images taken from multiple directions are downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Stereo images will eventually provide an accurate topographic map of most of the hemisphere of Pluto seen by New Horizons, which will be key to understanding the dwarf planet’s geological history.

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Hubble spies dwarf galaxies in Big Bang frontier fields

23 October 2015 Astronomy Now

Hubble Space Telescope observations have taken advantage of gravitational lensing to reveal the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the universe, formed just 600 million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers have determined, for the first time with some confidence, that these small galaxies were vital to creating the universe that we see today.

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See Venus lap Jupiter, then Mars, in an early morning planetary race

22 October 2015 Ade Ashford

In the remaining days of October and early into November, a fascinating series of planetary peregrinations plays out low in the East before dawn twilight gets too bright. Venus, like a sprinter on the inside lane of a running track, overtakes both Jupiter in Mars in two readily observable conjunctions set against the stellar backdrop of constellations Leo and Virgo.

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Astronomers catch a black hole shredding a star to pieces

22 October 2015 Astronomy Now

When a star comes too close to the intense gravity of black hole, the resulting tidal forces can rip the star apart. In these so-called tidal disruptions, some of the stellar debris is flung outward at high speeds, while the rest falls toward the black hole, causing a distinct X-ray flare that can last for years. A team of astronomers has observed a tidal disruption event in galaxy PGC 043234 that lies about 290 million light-years from Earth.