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Jan. 31, 2012

A Big Week for Astronomy

by Caitlin Gee

Click to enlarge images

by Caitlin Gee, High Technology High School, Lincroft, New Jersey

ESO/M. Kornmesser

Every year, scientists from all over the world congregate at the American Astronomical Society’s semi-annual meetings to discuss and share their findings from the past several months. January's meeting was no exception, as scientists unveiled a plethora of fascinating discoveries that add to humanity’s constantly-expanding knowledge of the universe.

Researchers from the University of Rochester announced that they had discovered the first ringed body outside of our solar system. This extraterrestrial mass, which resides 420 light years away, has at least four rings, the outermost ring stretching hundreds, maybe even thousands or millions times longer in diameter than the outermost ring of Saturn! Researchers discovered the mass after they observed unusual light interference occurring near the star 1SWASP J140747.93-394542.6. Due to the body’s extremely vast size, further research is needed to determine if it is a star, brown dwarf, or a planet.

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Vanderbilt University announced that they had discovered three of the smallest exoplanets on record. Exoplanets are planets that reside outside the solar system. These exoplanets were of particular interest to the team of researchers because they were rocky planets; out of the hundreds of exoplanets discovered in the Milky Way, very few bodies have been confirmed to have solid surfaces. Rocky planets are of special interest to astronomers because these planets are most likely to have the conditions needed to sustain life. Although these three planets are too close to the star that they orbit for life to be viable on their surfaces, the discovery of these planets suggests that there are a considerable amount of rocky planets waiting to be discovered.

Speaking of the Milky Way, scientists also revealed at the conference some exciting new information about our star system. One study revealed at the meeting estimated that there may be at least 100 billion planets in our galaxy! Using data gathered from other observatories, personnel from the European Southern Observatory used a technique called microlensing (read about it here) to determine how many planets were orbiting around each star. This research contributes even more evidence to the possibility that there are many more Earth-like planets waiting to be discovered! Another study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh revealed the color of our galaxy from an outside point of view to be, coincidentally, white. Researchers were able to estimate the color of the Milky Way by utilizing data of other galaxies and comparing it to the data of our galaxy.

Hopefully next year yields even more amazing information about the universe! If you want to find out about more of the announcements that were made at the AAS meeting, this link shares some of the other major stories coming from the conference.
For more about the American Astronomical Society meeting, listen to the Science Friday interview with freelance writer Ron Cowen, who reported on the meeting for Nature:

Kepler Telescope Spots Tiniest Exoplanets Yet

About Caitlin Gee

Caitlin attends High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. She was a TalkingScience intern in the winter of 2012.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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