James Webb captures dramatic image of newborn star | Digital Trends

James Webb captures dramatic image of newborn star | Digital Trends

A new image of a Herbig-Haro object captured by the James Webb Space Telescope shows the dramatic outflows from a young star. These luminous flares are created when stellar winds shoot off in opposite directions from newborn stars, as the jets of gas slam into nearby dust and gas at tremendous speed. These objects can be huge, up to several light-years across, and they glow brightly in the infrared wavelengths in which James Webb operates.

This image shows Herbig-Haro object HH 797, which is located close to the IC 348 star cluster, and is also nearby to another Herbig-Haro object that Webb captured recently: HH 211.

The NASA/European Space Agency/Canadian Space Agency’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals intricate details of Herbig Haro object 797 (HH 797). Herbig-Haro objects are luminous regions surrounding newborn stars (known as protostars), and are formed when stellar winds or jets of gas spewing from these newborn stars form shock waves colliding with nearby gas and dust at high speeds. ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, T. Ray (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies)

The image was taken using Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) instrument, which is particularly suited to investigating young stars, Webb scientists explain in a statement, : “Infrared imaging is a powerful way to study newborn stars and their outflows, because the youngest stars are invariably still embedded within the gas and dust from which they are formed. The infrared emission of the star’s outflows penetrates the obscuring gas and dust, making Herbig-Haro objects ideal for observation with Webb’s sensitive infrared instruments.

“Molecules excited by the turbulent conditions, including molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide, emit infrared light that Webb can collect to visualize the structure of the outflows. NIRCam is particularly good at observing the hot (thousands of degree Celsius) molecules that are excited as a result of shocks.”

This particular Herbig-Haro object is unusual in that scientists originally believed that it was created from a single young star, as most such objects are. But these detailed observations reveal that there are actually two sets of outflows, coming from a pair of stars at the center.

In addition to the bright ripples of the Herbig-Haro object in the lower half of the image, there are also thought to be more new stars being born in the upper half of the image. The bright smudge in shades of yellow and green is believed to host two young protostars.

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Mars Odyssey pulls a sideways maneuver to capture horizon | Digital Trends

Mars Odyssey pulls a sideways maneuver to capture horizon | Digital Trends

A new image from a NASA orbiter shows an unusual view of Mars that captures the planet’s horizon complete with clouds. It is similar to the kinds of views of Earth that astronauts get from the International Space Station, showing what Mars would look like if seen from a similar vantage point.

The image was taken by NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since 2001. In its over 20 years of operations, the orbiter made key discoveries, including some of the first detections of subsurface ice on the planet. It has also created a global map of the planet’s surface using its Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument.

This unusual view of the horizon of Mars was captured by NASA’s Odyssey orbiter using its THEMIS camera via an operation that took engineers three months to plan. It’s taken from about 250 miles above the Martian surface – about the same altitude at which the International Space Station orbits Earth. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

“If there were astronauts in orbit over Mars, this is the perspective they would have,” said Jonathon Hill of Arizona State University, operations lead for Odyssey’s THEMIS camera, in a statement. “No Mars spacecraft has ever had this kind of view before.”

The THEMIS instrument is the same one that was used to capture this image from around 250 miles above the planet’s surface. The spacecraft took a series of 10 images that show the planet’s horizon from beneath the cloud layer, which was a difficult feat that took months of planning to achieve. A big challenge for capturing this image was dealing with the THEMIS camera, which is attached to the spacecraft and points straight down toward the surface.

“I think of it as viewing a cross-section, a slice through the atmosphere,” said Jeffrey Plaut, Odyssey’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “There’s a lot of detail you can’t see from above, which is how THEMIS normally makes these measurements.”

To capture a better view of the atmosphere that included layers of clouds and dust, the entire spacecraft needed to roll over onto its side while still keeping its solar panels pointed toward the sun. In order to get into the right position, the spacecraft’s communication antenna had to be pointed away from Earth, so the team was out of communication with the craft throughout the maneuver.

The spacecraft spent an entire orbit rolled onto its side, and during this time it also captured images of one of Mars’ two small moon, Phobos.

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NASA’s skywatching tips for December include a meteor shower | Digital Trends

NASA’s skywatching tips for December include a meteor shower | Digital Trends

What’s Up: December 2023 Skywatching Tips from NASA

NASA has shared its top picks for what to look out for in the night sky in the final month of the year.

Highlights include excellent views of the moon with various planets, a chance to see the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, and a rare opportunity to witness an asteroid passing by Earth.

Moon and planets

Check out the crescent moon appearing to get close with the planet Venus and the bright Spica star between December 7 and 10.

A week later, on December 17, you’ll see the moon hanging just below Saturn for the first few hours following sunset. Peering through binoculars will reveal the moon and the planet in the same field of view. At the same time, NASA also suggests trying to spot Saturn’s giant moon Titan as a faint dot just off to the side of Saturn.

On December 21 and 22, the moon appears close to Jupiter, which is easy to spot as it’s one of the brightest planets in the night sky.

Meteor shower

Pexels/Neale LaSalle

Following November’s Leonid meteor shower, this month it’s the turn of the Geminids. Described by NASA as “the year’s most reliable meteor shower,” with skywatchers potentially able to see as many as one meteor every minute.

The Geminids meteor shower peaks on the night of December 13 and the following morning. Viewers in the Northern Hemisphere can look for meteors as early as 9 or 10 p.m. on December 13, with the greatest number of meteors streaking across the sky between midnight and morning twilight.

Southern Hemisphere skywatchers will also have a view of the Geminids, but they’ll appear in the middle of the night and at about a quarter of the rate viewed in the Northern Hemisphere.


Last but not least, December offers a chance to see an asteroid zipping by Earth. NASA said there’s a chance you’ll be able to spot it with the naked eye, though a pair of binoculars or a telescope will offer a much better chance of tracking it down.

This month, asteroid Vesta is viewable from around 10 p.m. nightly, though the best chance to see it will come at around 1 or 2 in the morning when it’ll appear about halfway up the eastern sky, NASA says.

You’ll be able to spot Vesta in between the raised arm of Orion and the leg of Castor in Gemini. Around December 8, Vesta will appear between Betelgeuese and Propus. Watch NASA’s video at the top of this page for more information on how to track down Vesta.

For further help with understanding what you’re looking at in the night sky, be sure to try one of these astronomy apps for iOS and Android.

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Unique star system with six planets in geometric formation | Digital Trends

Unique star system with six planets in geometric formation | Digital Trends

Astronomers have discovered a rare star system in which six planets orbit around one star in an elaborate geometrical pattern due to a phenomenon called orbital resonance. Using both NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite (CHEOPS), the researchers have built up a picture of the beautiful, but complex HD110067 system, located 100 light-years away.

The six planets of the system orbit in a pattern whereby one planet completes three orbits while another does two, and one completes six orbits while another does one, and another does four orbits while another does three, and so one. The six planets form what is called a “resonant chain” where each is in resonance with the planets next to it.

A rare family of six exoplanets has been unlocked with the help of the European Space Agency’s CHEOPS mission.  ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

It is this chain of resonances that makes the system so unusual. “Amongst the over 5,000 exoplanets discovered orbiting other stars than our sun, resonances are not rare, nor are systems with several planets. What is extremely rare though, is to find systems where the resonances span such a long chain of six planets,” explained one of the researchers, Hugh Osborn of the University of Bern, in a statement.

An astronomical waltz reveals a sextuplet of planets

The planets in this system are all of a type called sub-Neptunes, which are planets smaller than Neptune that are unlike any of the planets in our solar system, but are thought to be some of the most common exoplanets. Planets are thought to often form in resonance, due to the gravitational forces involved, however, this delicate balance is easily thrown out by perturbations such as a passing star or an impact from a large asteroid or comet.

Orbital geometry of HD110067: Tracing a link between two neighbour planets at regular time intervals along their orbits, creates a pattern unique to each couple. The six planets of the HD110067 system together create a mesmerising geometric pattern due to their resonance-chain.
Tracing a link between two neighbor planets at regular time intervals along their orbits, creates a pattern unique to each couple. The six planets of the HD110067 system together create a mesmerizing geometric pattern due to their resonance-chain. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, Thibaut Roger/NCCR PlanetS

Researchers are keen to investigate systems like HD110067 because it can show what a system might look like if it does not experience any of these dramatic events.

“We think only about 1% of all systems stay in resonance,” said researcher Rafael Luque of the University of Chicago. “It shows us the pristine configuration of a planetary system that has survived untouched.”

The research is presented in the journal Nature.

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Rocky planets could form in extreme radiation environment | Digital Trends

Rocky planets could form in extreme radiation environment | Digital Trends

It takes a particular confluence of conditions for rocky planets like Earth to form, as not all stars in the universe are conducive to planet formation. Stars give off ultraviolet light, and the hotter the star burns, the more UV light it gives off. This radiation can be so significant that it prevents planets from forming from nearby dust and gas. However, the James Webb Space Telescope recently investigated a disk around a star thatseems like it could be forming rocky planets, even though nearby massive stars are pumping out huge amounts of radiation.

The disk of material around the star, called a protoplanetary disk, is located in the Lobster Nebula, one of the most extreme environments in our galaxy. This region hosts massive stars that give off so much radiation that they can eat through a disk in as little as a million years, dispersing the material needed for planets to form. But the recently observed disk, named XUE 1, seems to be an exception.

This is an artist’s impression of a young star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk in which planets are forming. ESO

The researchers used James Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to identify water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, and acetylene in the disk. Those are some of the building blocks for rocky planets and show that the disk is similar to other planet-forming disks, despite the high amount of UV radiation.

“We were surprised and excited because this is the first time that these molecules have been detected under these extreme conditions,” said one of the authors, Lars Cuijpers of Radboud University, in a statement.

The problem for this disk is that there are a number of nearby massive stars, so the disk is being bombarded by UV radiation from several sources. The disk does seem to be a bit smaller than expected, but it still appears that it could be capable of forming rocky planets. That means that rocky planets could form even in very extreme environments, if this particular disk is not an outlier.

“XUE 1 shows us that the conditions to form rocky planets are there, so the next step is to check how common that is,” said lead researcher María Claudia Ramírez-Tannus of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. “We will observe other disks in the same region to determine the frequency with which these conditions can be observed.”

The research is published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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James Webb detects methane in the atmosphere of an exoplanet | Digital Trends

James Webb detects methane in the atmosphere of an exoplanet | Digital Trends

One of the amazing abilities of the James Webb Space Telescope is not just detecting the presence of far-off planets, but also being able to peer into their atmospheres to see what they are composed of. With previous telescopes, this was extremely difficult to do because they lacked the powerful instruments needed for this kind of analysis, but scientists using Webb recently announced they had made a rare detection of methane in an exoplanet atmosphere.

Scientists studied the planet WASP-80 b using Webb’s NIRCam instrument, which is best known as a camera but also has a slitless spectroscopy mode which allows it to split incoming light into different wavelengths. By looking at which wavelengths are missing because they have been absorbed by the target, researchers can tell what an object — in this case, a planetary atmosphere — is composed of.

An artist’s rendering of the warm exoplanet WASP-80 b whose color may appear bluish to human eyes due to the lack of high-altitude clouds and the presence of atmospheric methane identified by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, similar to the planets Uranus and Neptune in our own solar system. NASA

Even with Webb’s sensitive instruments, it’s still difficult to detect an exoplanet though. That’s because planets are so much smaller and dimmer than stars, which makes them almost impossible to view directly. Instead, researchers often detect them by observing the stars around which they orbit, using techniques like the transit method which measures the dip in a star’s brightness that occurs when a planet moves in front of it.

“Using the transit method, we observed the system when the planet moved in front of its star from our perspective, causing the starlight we see to dim a bit,” one of the study’s authors, Luis Welbanks of Arizona State University, explained in a statement. “It’s kind of like when someone passes in front of a lamp and the light dims. During this time, a thin ring of the planet’s atmosphere around the planet’s day/night boundary is lit up by the star, and at certain colors of light where the molecules in the planet’s atmosphere absorb light, the atmosphere looks thicker and blocks more starlight, causing a deeper dimming compared (with) other wavelengths where the atmosphere appears transparent. This method helps scientists like us understand what the planet’s atmosphere is made of by seeing which colors of light are being blocked.”

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When the authors used this method on WASP-80b, they found evidence of both water and methane in the planet’s atmosphere. Planets in our solar system like Jupiter and Saturn have methane in their atmospheres too, but this planet is much warmer, with a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Finding methane in a planet of this type, called a warm Jupiter, is exciting because it can help scientists learn about planetary atmospheres and also because despite it being commonly found in planetary atmospheres in our solar system, it is rarely detected in exoplanet atmospheres.

It could also be relevant for the hunt for life beyond our planet. “Not only is methane an important gas in tracing atmospheric composition and chemistry in giant planets, it is also hypothesized to be, in combination with oxygen, a possible signature of biology,” Wellbanks said. “One of the key goals of the Habitable Worlds Observatory, the next NASA flagship mission after JWST and Roman, is to look for gases like oxygen and methane in Earth-like planets around sun-like stars.”

The research is published in the journal Nature.

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Stunning James Webb image shows the heart of our Milky Way | Digital Trends

Stunning James Webb image shows the heart of our Milky Way | Digital Trends

A new image from the James Webb Space Telescope shows the heart of our galaxy, in a region close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*. The image shows a star-forming region where filaments of dust and gas are clumping together to give birth to new baby stars.

The image was captured using Webb’s NIRCam instrument, a camera that looks in the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum with shorter wavelengths shown in blue and cyan and longer wavelengths shown in yellow and red.

The full view of the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument reveals a 50 light-years-wide portion of the Milky Way’s dense center. An estimated 500,000 stars shine in this image of the Sagittarius C (Sgr C) region, along with some as-yet-unidentified features. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, S. Crowe (UVA)

This region is called Sagittarius C, and is located around 300 light-years away from the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*. For reference, Earth is located much further away from the galactic center, at a distance of around 26,000 light years from Sagittarius A*.

There are thought to be as many as 500,000 stars in the Sagittarius C region, including many young protostars, some of which will go on to become main-sequence stars like our sun. As stars form, they give off powerful stellar winds which blow away nearby material and prevent more stars from forming very close to them.

These outflows are illuminated in the infrared wavelength, and the cyan-colored patches in the image are created by ionized gas. The young stars give off a great deal of energy, which ionizes the hydrogen gas around them and makes them glow in the infrared.

However, there are actually even more stars in this area than can be seen in the image. The pockets of darkness scattered throughout the image aren’t blank but are dense clouds that are dark in the infrared, including a large dense area in the heart of the region.

There are still some surprises to be found in the image too, with some features that scientists need to study in more depth. “Researchers say they have only begun to dig into the wealth of unprecedented high-resolution data that Webb has provided on this region, and many features bear detailed study,” Webb scientists write. “This includes the rose-colored clouds on the right side of the image, which have never been seen in such detail.”

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NASA project turns images of space into music you can play | Digital Trends

NASA project turns images of space into music you can play | Digital Trends

For several years, NASA has been producing sonifications in which images of space are turned into soundscapes so that they can be enjoyed both by people who are vision impaired and by a general audience who are interested in experiencing space in a new way. Now, NASA has taken this concept one step further by turning an image of space into an original composition to be performed by a group of musicians.

The image used as the basis for the compositions is of the center of the Milky Way galaxy, a bustling region of gas filaments, X-rays, and a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*. The image combines data from Chandra, Hubble, and Spritzer to bring together data from the X-ray, visible light, and infrared wavelengths.

The Galactic Center sonification, using data from NASA’s Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, has been translated into a new composition with sheet music and score. Working with a composer, this soundscape can be played by musicians. Credit: Composition: NASA/CXC/SAO/Sophie Kastner: Data: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; IR: Spitzer NASA/JPL-Caltech; Sonification: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Arcand, SYSTEM Sounds (M. Russo, A. Santaguida); Video Credit: NASA/CXC/A. Jubett & P. David

The project brought in composer Sophie Kastner to interpret the image into sheet music for instruments including strings, piano, flue, clarinet, and percussion.

“It’s like a writing a fictional story that is largely based on real facts,” said Kastner in a statement. “We are taking the data from space that has been translated into sound and putting a new and human twist on it.”

Kastner said she drew inspiration by focusing on portions of the image and creating soundscapes that reflected the contents of each region. “I like to think of it as creating short vignettes of the data, and approaching it almost as if I was writing a film score for the image,” said Kastner. “I wanted to draw listener’s attention to smaller events in the greater data set.”

Universe of Sound: Data to Music Translation

The Chandra team that has been working on the sonifications described the setting of the image to music as an extension of their work making space images accessible and intriguing to all.

“We’ve been working with these data, taken in X-ray, visible, and infrared light, for years,” said Kimberly Arcand, Chandra visualization and emerging technology scientist. “Translating these data into sound was a big step, and now with Sophie, we are again trying something completely new for us.”

This composition is a pilot, but the team hopes to create more compositions in the future inspired by other space images.

“In some ways, this is just another way for humans to interact with the night sky just as they have throughout recorded history,” says Arcand. “We are using different tools, but the concept of being inspired by the heavens to make art remains the same.”

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Webb investigates super puffy exoplanet where it rains sand | Digital Trends

Webb investigates super puffy exoplanet where it rains sand | Digital Trends

Exoplanets come in many forms, from dense, rocky planets like Earth and Mars to gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. But some planets discovered outside our solar system are even less dense than gas giants and are a type known informally as super-puff or cotton candy planets. One of the least dense exoplanets known, WASP-107b, was recently investigated using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the planet’s weather seems to be as strange as its puffiness.

The planet is more atmosphere than core, with a fluffy atmosphere in which Webb spotted water vapor and sulfur dioxide. Strangest of all, Webb also saw silicate sand clouds, suggesting that it would rain sand between the upper and lower layers of the atmosphere. The planet is almost as big as Jupiter but has a tiny mass similar to that of Neptune.

Artistic concept of the exoplanet WASP-107b and its parent star. Even though the rather cool host star emits a relatively small fraction of high-energy photons, they can reach deep into the planet’s fluffy atmosphere. Illustration: LUCA School of Arts, Belgium/ Klaas Verpoest; Science: Achrène Dyrek (CEA and Université Paris Cité, France), Michiel Min (SRON, the Netherlands), Leen Decin (KU Leuven, Belgium) / European MIRI EXO GTO team / ESA / NAS

“JWST is revolutionizing exoplanet characterization, providing unprecedented insights at remarkable speed,“ says lead author of the study, Leen Decin of KU Leuven, in a statement. “The discovery of clouds of sand, water, and sulfur dioxide on this fluffy exoplanet by JWST’s MIRI instrument is a pivotal milestone. It reshapes our understanding of planetary formation and evolution, shedding new light on our own solar system.”

Understanding the planet’s formation and evolution is important because it seems impossible that it could have formed in its current location. It is thought to have formed further out in the star system and migrated inward over time. That could allow for its extremely low density. Its close orbit to its star means it has a very high temperature, with its outer atmosphere reaching 500 degrees Celsius. But those temperatures are not normally hot enough to form clouds of silicate, which would be expected to form in lower layers where the temperatures are higher.

The researchers theorize that the sand rain is evaporating in the lower, hotter layers and the silicate vapor moves upwards in the atmosphere before recondensing to form clouds and falling as rain, similar to the water cycle on Earth.

“The value of JWST cannot be overstated: wherever we look with this telescope, we always see something new and unexpected,” said fellow researcher Paul Mollière from the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy. “This latest result is no exception.”

The research will be published in the journal Nature.

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hubble-earth-sized-exoplanet | Digital Trends

hubble-earth-sized-exoplanet | Digital Trends

Although astronomers have now discovered more than 5,000 exoplanets, or planets outside of the solar system, the large majority of these planets are considerably larger than Earth. That’s partly because it’s easier to spot larger planets from tremendous distances across space. So it’s exciting when an Earth-sized planet is discovered — and the Hubble Space Telescope has recently confirmed that a nearby planet, which is diminutive by exoplanet standards, is 1.07 times the size of Earth.

The planet LTT 1445Ac was first discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in 2022, but it was hard to determine its exact size due to the plane of its orbit around its star as seen from Earth. “There was a chance that this system has an unlucky geometry and if that’s the case, we wouldn’t measure the right size. But with Hubble’s capabilities we nailed its diameter,” said lead researcher Emily Pass of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in a statement.

This is an artist’s concept of the nearby exoplanet, LTT 1445Ac, which is the size of Earth. The planet orbits a red dwarf star. The star is in a triple system, with two closely orbiting red dwarfs seen at upper right. The black dot in front of the foreground star is planet LTT 1445Ab, transiting the face of the star. Exoplanet LTT 1445Ac has a surface temperature of roughly 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The view is from 22 light-years away, looking back toward our Sun, which is the bright dot at lower right. Some of the background stars are part of the constellation Boötes. NASA, ESA, L. Hustak (STScI)

The new observations show that the planet is 1.07 times the diameter of Earth, so it is a rocky planet like Earth with similar surface gravity. However, it’s not a habitable place as its surface temperature is a scorching 260 degrees Celsius. It is part of a triple star system located just 22 light-years away, making it one of the nearest exoplanets that transit across a star.

“Transiting planets are exciting since we can characterize their atmospheres with spectroscopy, not only with Hubble but also with the James Webb Space Telescope,” Pass said. “Our measurement is important because it tells us that this is likely a very nearby terrestrial planet. We are looking forward to follow-on observations that will allow us to better understand the diversity of planets around other stars.”

One of the most important abilities of the James Webb Space Telescope is its capacity for studying the atmospheres of exoplanets, which is the next step in understanding these planets and looking for Earth-like planets. But this research shows that the venerable Hubble telescope, now more than 30 years old, continues to be important for exoplanet research as well.

“Hubble remains a key player in our characterization of exoplanets,” said Laura Kreidberg of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, who was not involved in this research. “There are precious few terrestrial planets that are close enough for us to learn about their atmospheres — at just 22 light years away, LTT 1445Ac is right next door in galactic terms, so it’s one of the best planets in the sky to follow up and learn about its atmospheric properties.”

The research is published in The Astronomical Journal.

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