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Planet distance between Pluto and the Sun.
The Hubble Space Telescope is helping to confirm the potential discovery of an extrasolar planet; the companion of a dim brown dwarf located 225 light-years away. The object was first discovered in April 2004 by Astronomers using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. Astronomers think it might be a 5 Jupiter-mass planet because it's glowing too dimly to be a star. The planet and its parent star are 130% of the distance between Pluto and the Sun, so it takes 2,500 years to make one orbit. If Hubble confirms the object, this could become the first extrasolar planet ever imaged directly.
Astronomers have used the Chandra X-Ray Observatory to find black holes orbiting closely around the supermassive black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. These relatively small, stellar-mass black holes probably migrated towards the middle of the Milky Way over the course of several billion years. Researchers had been predicting that black holes would move inward through a process called "dynamical friction", where they swap positions with lower mass stars, pushing them to the outskirts of the galaxy. The team found several candidates within 3 light-years of the supermassive black hole, and calculate that there could be as many as 20,000.
This week begins on the "dark side" as we welcome New Moon at perigee and do an in-depth study of a portion of the Eridanus/Fornax Galaxy fields with targets viewable by a variety of scope sizes and skill levels. (Veteran Galaxy hunters? You asked for it - you got it! I think you'll appreciate these challenges!) We will continue to track the progress of the Mercury/Venus pairing as they appear about one-third a degree apart by mid-week and head off together into the sunrise by week's end. We will greet the "Old Moon In The New Moon's Arms" and watch as Saturn reaches opposition. The Southern Hemisphere will enjoy Comet LINEAR K4 as it cruises past Lambda Pictor and those in the north will take on an incredibly old galactic cluster - M37. Not enough? Then hold on tight to your optics as the "Magnificent Machholz" not only sweeps by Algol, but does so during a time when the Demon star "does its thing"! The Delta Cancrid meteor shower fills the exciting weekend agenda, so hope for clear skies and get thee outside...
Because here's what's up!
NASA's Spitzer space telescope has found a dusty ring of material orbiting nearby Vega which was probably the result of a series of protoplanets smashing into each other. Vega is the fifth brightest star in the sky, located only 25 light-years away in the constellation of Lyra. This dust is constantly being blown out by Vega's intense radiation, so it's unlikely that the star has had this much dust for its entire lifetime. Instead, this ring must have been formed recently, perhaps when a Pluto-sized object was pulverized within the last million years or so.
The very heart of the Milky Way is obscured by a thick wall of dust that optical Telescopes can't peer through. But Astronomers have used the dust-penetrating Infrared capabilities of the 6.5 metre Magellan telescope in Chile to look past the wall, and map stars never seen before. Astronomers found thousands of stars jammed into an area only 6 light-years across. The purpose of these observations was to uncover stars which could be orbiting and feeding white dwarfs, Neutron stars, or even black holes. These special binary objects are thought to be more common in the crowded centre of the Milky Way.
Astronomers from Harvard and MIT have detected evidence for hot iron gas that seems to be riding a ripple of Spacetime around a black hole. The team used NASA's Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer to watch how the X-rays eminating from a black hole 40,000 light-years away seem to flicker. They matched this to the light being radiated by iron gas, and found that the two kinds of radiation were in synch. One explanation, predicted by Einstein more than 80 years ago, is that the black hole churns up space and time as it rotates many times a second. We're seeing the X-rays and light from the iron gas after they've journeyed through this swirl of spacetime.
Scientists already considered Saturn's Moon Iapetus unusual, because of its strange two-toned appearance; one hemisphere is dark, while the other is bright. But new images from Cassini show an even more unusual mystery: it has a seam. It's 20 km (12 miles) high and runs 1,300 km (808 miles) directly around Iapetus' equator. In some places, this ridge is so high it rivals Olympus Mons, which is unusual for an object which is 1/5th the mass of Mars. Researcher will have to wait until September 2007 for Cassini's next pass, when it will provide pictures 100x better resolution.
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