Latest Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Stories

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

2009-04-29 10:20:00

It sounds like the plot of a sci-fi movie: rogue black holes roaming our galaxy, threatening to swallow anything that gets too close. In fact, new calculations by Ryan O'Leary and Avi Loeb (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) suggest that hundreds of massive black holes, left over from the galaxy-building days of the early universe, may wander the Milky Way. Good news, however: Earth is safe. The closest rogue black hole should reside thousands of light-years away. Astronomers are...

2009-03-19 16:45:00

Does a twin Earth exist somewhere in our galaxy? Astronomers are getting closer and closer to finding an Earth-sized planet in an Earth-like orbit. NASA's Kepler spacecraft just launched to find such worlds. Once the search succeeds, the next questions driving research will be: Is that planet habitable? Does it have an Earth-like atmosphere? Answering those questions will not be easy. Due to its large mirror and location in outer space, the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled for launch in...

2009-03-16 13:45:00

A new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope offers a rare view of an imminent collision between the cores of two merging galaxies, each powered by a black hole with millions of times the mass of the sun. The galactic cores are in a single, tangled galaxy called NGC 6240, located 400-million light years away in the constellation Ophiuchus. Millions of years ago, each core was the dense center of its own galaxy before the two galaxies collided and ripped each other apart. Now, these cores...

2009-02-24 09:39:37

On long, dark winter nights, the constellation of Orion the Hunter dominates the sky. Within the Hunter's sword, the Orion Nebula swaddles a cluster of newborn stars called the Trapezium. These stars are young but powerful, each one shining with the brilliance of 100,000 Suns. They are also massive, containing 15 to 30 times as much material as the Sun. Where did the Trapezium stars come from? The question is not as simple as it seems. When it comes to the theory of how massive stars form,...

Word of the Day
  • A fool; a simpleton: a term of abuse common in Ireland and to a less extent in the Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland.
This word is partly Irish in origin.