Categories
Cosmic Space

Hubble uses eclipse to practice hunt for alien life

Astronomers made use of the Hubble Space Telescope — and a total lunar eclipse — to rehearse their routine for seeking signs of life in alien atmospheres.

You’ll be relieved to know that the experiment, conducted on Jan. 20-21, 2019, determined that there are indeed signs of life on Earth.

The evidence came in the form of a strong spectral fingerprint for ozone. To detect that ultraviolet fingerprint, Hubble didn’t look at Earth directly. Instead, it analyzed the dim reddish light that was first refracted by Earth’s atmosphere, and then reflected back by the moon during last year’s lunar eclipse.

“Finding ozone is significant because it is a photochemical byproduct of molecular oxygen, which is itself a byproduct of life,” said Allison Youngblood of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, Colo., lead researcher of Hubble’s observations.

Other ground-based telescopes made spectroscopic observations at other wavelengths during the eclipse. They were looking for the fingerprints of different atmospheric ingredients linked to life’s presence, such as oxygen and methane.

This wasn’t just an academic exercise. Astronomers hope future observatories, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Roman Space Telescope, will be able to detect life’s fingerprints in the atmospheres of faraway exoplanets. But that takes practice.

“One of NASA’s major goals is to identify planets that could support life,” Youngblood said in a Hubble news release. “But how would we know a habitable or an uninhabited planet if we saw one? What would they look like with the techniques that astronomers have at their disposal for characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets? That’s why it’s important to develop models of Earth’s spectrum as a template for categorizing atmospheres on extrasolar planets.”

Check out the news release for further details, or delve into the research paper published today in The Astronomical Journal. And to learn more about how lunar eclipses work, check out this “Inconstant Moon” interactive (after you enable Flash in your browser).

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

Categories
GeekWire

Solving the case of the disappearing planet

More than a decade ago, Fomalhaut b was considered one of the first exoplanets to be directly imaged — but now it’s vanished, and scientists suspect it was actually nothing more than a huge cloud of dust created by a cosmic smashup.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Scientists puzzle over ‘super-puff’ planets

Super-puff planets
An illustration depicts the sunlike star Kepler 51 and three giant planets that have an extraordinarily low density. (NASA / ESA / STScI / Hustak, Olmsted, Player and Summers)

Readings from the Hubble Space Telescope have shed light on a bizarre class of alien planets that have the density of cotton candy.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Hubble spots interstellar comet as it rounds sun

Comet 2I/Borisov
Comet 2I/Borisov appears as a bright dot within a haze of dust, with a distant spiral galaxy in the background of the Hubble Space Telescope image, taken on Nov. 16. The comet was about 203 million miles from Earth when the picture was taken. (NASA / ESA / UCLA / D. Jewitt)

The Hubble Space Telescope has snapped the best images to date showing the interstellar comet known as 2I/Borisov, and one of the pictures shows a faraway spiral galaxy just off to the side.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Hubble features ghostly galaxy for Halloween

AM 2026-424
This Hubble image of the merged galaxy known as AM 2026-424 was taken on June 19 in visible light by the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The system resides 704 million light-years from Earth. (NASA / ESA / UW / Dalcanton, Williams and Durbin)

Now here’s something really scary for Halloween: Imagine two galaxies slamming into each other and creating a monstrous wraith with ghostly glowing eyes.

It’s not that far of a stretch. The Hubble Space Telescope captured just such an image, for a team of astronomers based at the University of Washington.

The visible-light picture, taken in June by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, shows a galactic smash-up that took place about 700 million light-years away in the constellation Microscopium. The cosmic collision is known as Arp-Madore 2026-424 or AM 2026-424, because it’s noted that way in the Arp-Madore Catalogue of Southern Peculiar Galaxies and Associations.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Hubble gets snapshot of interstellar comet

Pictures captured by the Hubble Space Telescope show the second known interstellar object, 2I/Borisov, in all its cometary glory.

The images were taken by the telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 on Oct. 12, when 2I/Borisov was 260 million miles from Earth. The object was discovered by Crimean amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov in August, and since then its path has been traced to far beyond our solar system.

2I/Borisov is currently zooming through our celestial neighborhood at a speed of 110,000 mph. The comet won’t come any closer than 190 million miles to us, with the closest approach expected on Dec. 7 — and it’s on a course to leave our solar system for good.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Hubble team hits ‘reset’ to fix balky camera

Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope gets its last close-up after a 2009 shuttle servicing mission. (NASA Photo)

NASA says the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 is back to doing science observations, a week after it went dark due to a telemetry glitch.

Basically, engineers hit the reset button to clear up the telemetry problem. After going through tests and calibration, the camera completed its first science observations just after noon ET (9 a.m. PT) today, NASA said in a status update.

Hubble’s three other main instruments — the Advanced Camera for Surveys, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph — were unaffected by WFC3’s glitch.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Hubble team works to revive camera amid shutdown

Hubble Space Telescope
NASA astronaut Andrew Feustel, perched on the end of the shuttle Atlantis’ robotic arm, helps to install the Wide Field Camera 3 during 2009 spacewalk to perform work on the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA Photo)

Engineers are working to bring the Hubble Space Telescope’s wide-angle camera back into operation after a hardware problem knocked it offline.

In a status update, NASA said the problem cropped up on Jan. 8 and forced a suspension of operations for the Wide Field Camera 3.

WFC3 was installed on the telescope nearly a decade ago during the space shuttle fleet’s final servicing mission. It’s designed to capture high-resolution images in visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths.

“Hubble will continue to perform science observations with its other three active instruments, while the Wide Field Camera 3 anomaly is investigated,” NASA said. Those instruments include the Advanced Camera for Surveys, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.

NASA said that WFC3 is “equipped with redundant electronics should they be needed to recover the instrument.”

Operations at NASA have been reduced agency-wide due to a partial government shutdown that’s lasted 19 days so far. However, Christine Pulliam, news director for the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute, said the shutdown “is not affecting the response to the anomaly.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Red dwarfs seem to wipe out life’s necessities

AU Microscopii with planet
An artist’s conception shows the red dwarf star AU Microscopii with a hypothetical planet and moon in the foreground. (NASA / ESA Illustration / G. Bacon)

Red dwarf stars have been seen as the biggest potential frontier for alien life, in part because they’re the most common stars in our galaxy. But observations made using the Hubble Space Telescope suggest that the frontier might turn out to be a desert.

“We may have found the limit to habitable planets,” said Carol Grady, a co-investigator on the Hubble observations from Eureka Scientific in Oakland, Calif. She laid out the research team’s findings today at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Hubble is back at work after breakdown

Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope gets its final close-up after a shuttle servicing mission in 2009. (NASA Photo)

The Hubble Space Telescope is doing science again, three weeks after going out of service due to a gyro failure.

In today’s mission update, NASA said the 28-year-old telescope conducted its first science observations since Oct. 5 overnight, focusing on a faraway galaxy.

Hubble went into safe mode when one of its three working gyroscopes failed, leaving mission managers with a weighty challenge.

Get the full story on GeekWire.