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Cosmic Space

Uranus and Enceladus top planetary scientists’ to-do list

Uranus has long been the butt of jokes, but the ice giant is finally getting its day in the sun, thanks to a recommendation in the National Academies’ newly released survey of potential interplanetary missions.

The decadal survey, drawn up by teams of scientists, serves as a roadmap for research in planetary science and astrobiology over the next 10 years. And the survey’s highest priority for multibillion-dollar flagship missions is to send an orbiter and a piggyback atmospheric probe to Uranus (preferably pronounced “urine-us,” not “your-anus”). Launch would come as early as 2031 or 2032, when the orbital mechanics are optimal for a multibillion-mile cruise.

In preparation for this decadal survey, a team of scientists led by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory drew up preliminary plans for a mission to Uranus or its ice-giant neighbor, Neptune.  Separately, Purdue University researchers developed a mission concept called OCEANUS (Observatory Capture Exploring the Atmospheric Nature of Uranus and Neptune) that included a Saturn flyby as well as a years-long study of Uranus.

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Cosmic Space

Astronomers detect first hints of extragalactic planet

A blip recorded by the NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has pointed astronomers to what might be the first planet detected passing across a star in a galaxy beyond our own — but we may not know for sure anytime soon.

The observation of an X-ray transit in the spiral galaxy M51, about 28 million light-years away in the northern constellation Canes Venatici, is reported in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Even if the detection of a planet in M51 goes unconfirmed, the Chandra observations demonstrate that X-ray transits could become a new method for tracking planets far beyond our solar system.

“We are trying to open up a whole new arena for finding other worlds by searching for planet candidates at X-ray wavelengths, a strategy that makes it possible to discover them in other galaxies,” Rosanne Di Stefano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, lead author of the newly published study, said in a news release.

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Cosmic Space

Jupiter and Saturn pair up to make a Christmas Star

Are you ready for a remake of the Christmas Star story? Depending on how much stock you put in historical hypotheses, this year’s solstice on Dec. 21 could bring a replay of the phenomenon that the Three Kings saw in the Gospel of Matthew.

That’s when Jupiter and Saturn can be seen incredibly close together in the night sky. If the skies are clear, the two planets will be hard to miss in southwest skies just after sunset, as seen from mid-northern latitudes. Jupiter will sparkle brighter, and Saturn will be shining only a tenth of a degree to the upper right. With a small telescope, you might be able to see both planets and their moons in a single field of view.

“Some astronomers suggest the pair will look like an elongated star, and others say the two planets will form a double planet,” NASA says in a blog posting about the Dec. 21 conjunction. “To know for sure, we’ll just have to look and see. Either way, take advantage of this opportunity because Jupiter and Saturn won’t appear this close in the sky until 2080!”

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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.

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GeekWire

New Earth-sized planet ‘rescued’ from old data

Exoplanet
An artist’s conception shows Kepler-1649c orbiting around its host red dwarf star. (NASA / Ames Research Center Illustration / Daniel Rutter)

An alien Earth that just might be habitable has been discovered in years-old records, thanks to sharp-eyed astronomers who gave the data a second look.

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GeekWire

TESS adds new types of planets to its collection

TESS probe
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. (NASA Illustration)

Astronomers report that NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, has detected its first Earth-sized planet lying in its parent star’s habitable zone, plus its first planet orbiting two stars.

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Real-life planet quest goes far beyond Star Wars

Luke Skywalker on Tatooine
Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, and its two suns are a good example of science echoing Star Wars. Or is it the other way around? (Lucasfilm / 20th Century Fox Photo)

Over the past 42 years, filmgoers have seen exotic worlds come to life in a succession of Star Wars movies — a series that is now coming to a climax with “Star Wars: Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker.” But are those exoplanets really all that exotic anymore?

Sure, we’ve seen two suns in the sky over the sands of Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet. We’ve been to an ice planet (Hoth) and a lava planet (Mustafar). We’ve even spent time on a habitable exomoon that’s in orbit around a gas giant (Endor).

Back in 1977, most of us might have thought those types of worlds to be science-fiction fantastical. Today, they’re seen as totally plausible categories in the study of thousands of planets beyond our solar system. And Rory Barnes, a University of Washington astronomer who focuses on astrobiology and the habitability of exoplanets, suspects Star Wars creator George Lucas knew this could happen.

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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.

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Scientists fine-tune standards for habitable planets

M-dwarf planet
An artist’s conception shows a hypothetical planet with two moons orbiting within the habitable zone of an M-dwarf star. (NASA / Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Illustration / D. Aguilar)

Astronomers have identified thousands of stars that have planets, and that number could mushroom even faster when waves of next-generation telescopes come online. But where are the best places to look for life?

newly released study focuses on the most plentiful category of stars in our Milky Way galaxy — M-dwarf stars, also known as red dwarfs — and delivers good news as well as bad news for astrobiologists.

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TESS helps scientists find a super-cool super-Earth

Planet GJ 357 d
An artist’s conception depicts GJ 357 d orbiting its host star. (Cornell University Illustration / Jack Madden)

Astronomers are sharing a flood of findings from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, including the detection of a potentially habitable super-Earth far beyond our solar system.

The planet is said to circle an M-type dwarf star called GJ 357, about 31 light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra. Known as GJ 357 d, the world is at least six times more massive than Earth — and orbits the star every 55.7 days, at a distance that’s only 20% as far away as Earth is from our own sun.

With that orbit, GJ 357 d would be broiling-hot if it were in our solar system. But its parent star is so much dimmer than our sun that the super-Earth could conceivably be just warm enough to have liquid water. That characteristic serves as the definition for habitable zones around alien suns.

“This is exciting, as this is humanity’s first nearby super-Earth that could harbor life – uncovered with help from TESS, our small, mighty mission with a huge reach,” astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger, who’s the director of Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute, said in a news release.

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