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Latest Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Stories

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2010-01-27 12:44:30

For the first time, astronomers have found a supernova explosion with properties similar to a gamma-ray burst, but without seeing any gamma rays from it. The discovery, using the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope, promises, the scientists say, to point the way toward locating many more examples of these mysterious explosions. "We think that radio observations will soon be a more powerful tool for finding this kind of supernova in the nearby Universe than...

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2009-12-17 15:15:00

Avatar's Moon Pandora Could Be Real In the new blockbuster Avatar, humans visit the habitable - and inhabited - alien moon called Pandora. Life-bearing moons like Pandora or the Star Wars forest moon of Endor are a staple of science fiction. With NASA's Kepler mission showing the potential to detect Earth-sized objects, habitable moons may soon become science fact. If we find them nearby, a new paper by Smithsonian astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger shows that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)...

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2009-12-16 12:30:00

Astronomers announced today that they have discovered a "super-Earth" orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. They found the distant planet with a small fleet of ground-based telescopes no larger than those many amateur astronomers have in their backyards. Although the super-Earth is too hot to sustain life, the discovery shows that current, ground-based technologies are capable of finding almost-Earth-sized planets in warm, life-friendly orbits. The discovery is being published...

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2009-12-15 09:55:00

About 550 light-years from Earth, a star like our Sun is writhing in its death throes. Chi Cygni has swollen in size to become a red giant star so large that it would swallow every planet out to Mars in our solar system. Moreover, it has begun to pulse dramatically in and out, beating like a giant heart. New close-up photos of the surface of this distant star show its throbbing motions in unprecedented detail. "This work opens a window onto the fate of our Sun five billion years from now,...

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2009-11-16 11:40:00

The constellation of Orion is a hotbed of massive star formation, most prominently in the Great Nebula that sits in Orion's sword.  The glowing gas of the Nebula is powered by a group of young massive stars, but behind it is a cluster of younger stars and clumps of gas. Still gathering together under gravity's pull, these gas clumps will eventually ignite into stars. The youthful cluster cannot be seen with traditional telescopes because of the surrounding gas and dust, but a new...

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2009-09-09 15:30:00

The simple picture of star formation calls for giant clouds of gas and dust to collapse inward due to gravity, growing denser and hotter until igniting nuclear fusion. In reality, forces other than gravity also influence the birth of stars. New research shows that cosmic magnetic fields play a more important role in star formation than previously thought. A molecular cloud is a cloud of gas that acts as a stellar nursery. When a molecular cloud collapses, only a small fraction of the cloud's...

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2009-07-29 14:27:41

A study published this week in the journal Nature offers an explanation for the origin of dwarf spheroidal galaxies. The research may settle an outstanding puzzle in understanding galaxy formation. Dwarf spheroidal galaxies are small and very faint, containing few stars relative to their total mass. They appear to be made mostly of dark matter - a mysterious substance detectable only by its gravitational influence, which outweighs normal matter by a factor of five to one in the universe as a...

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2009-06-10 15:17:49

In November 2008, Caroline Moore, a 14-year-old student from upstate New York, discovered a supernova in a nearby galaxy, making her the youngest person ever to do so. Additional observations determined that the object, called SN 2008ha, is a new type of stellar explosion, 1000 times more powerful than a nova but 1000 times less powerful than a supernova. Astronomers say that it may be the weakest supernova ever seen. Even though this explosion was a weakling compared to most supernovae, for...

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2009-06-10 13:35:00

Astronomers are announcing today that a sequence of images collected with the Smithsonian's Submillimeter Array (SMA) clearly reveals the presence of a rotating molecular disk orbiting the young binary star system V4046 Sagittarii. The SMA images provide an unusually vivid snapshot of the process of formation of giant planets, comets, and Pluto-like bodies. The results also confirm that such objects may just as easily form around double stars as around single stars like our Sun. These...

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2009-05-08 08:35:00

A new way of reading light will sharpen the view of planets around other stars Thanks to the ability of astronomers to detect the presence of extrasolar planets orbiting distant stars, scientists today are able to examine hundreds of solar systems. Now researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. have created an "astro-comb" to help astronomers detect lighter planets, more like Earth, around distant stars. The Harvard group will present their findings at...