Shortly after 12:11 a.m. EDT on Sept. 25, 2013, Swift's Burst Alert Telescope triggered on a spike of gamma rays from a source in the constellation Fornax. The spacecraft automatically alerted observatories around the world that a new burst -- designated GRB 130925A, after the date -- was in progress and turned its X-ray Telescope (XRT) toward the source. Other satellites also detected the rising tide of high-energy radiation, including Fermi, the Russian Konus instrument onboard NASA's Wind spacecraft, and the European Space Agency's (ESA) INTEGRAL observatory. The burst was eventually localized to a galaxy so far away that its light had been traveling for 3.9 billion years, longer than the oldest evidence for life on Earth.
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The vast reaches of empty space between galaxies are bridged by tendrils of hydrogen and helium, which can be used as a precise "light meter." In a recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, a team of scientists finds that the light from known populations of galaxies and quasars is not nearly enough to explain observations of intergalactic hydrogen. The difference is a stunning 400 percent.
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Many large heavenly bodies and events in the universe, such as the birth and death of stars, generate energy in different wavelengths of light, which existing telescopes can find, says Nergis Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at MIT. But compact astrophysical objects — such as neutron stars and light-eating black holes, which are believed to produce energy in the form of gravitational wave radiation — remain concealed from human view. These waves, unlike light, she says, “flow through everything, because matter is basically transparent to them. They come to us unobstructed right from the source.” For Mavalvala, gravitational waves are “a clean messenger bearing information about how the universe is put together.”
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The discovery of a split-second burst of radio waves by scientists using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico provides important new evidence of mysterious pulses that appear to come from deep in outer space. Exactly what may be causing such radio bursts represents a major new enigma for astrophysicists. Possibilities include a range of exotic astrophysical objects, such as evaporating black holes, mergers of neutron stars, or flares from magnetars -- a type of neutron star with extremely powerful magnetic fields.
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Yale University astronomers, using a new type of telescope made by stitching together telephoto lenses, recently discovered seven previously unseen galaxies that may yield important insights into dark matter and galaxy evolution, while possibly signaling the discovery of a new class of objects in space.
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NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has photographed an unusual structure 100,000 light years long, which resembles a corkscrew-shaped string of pearls and winds around the cores of two colliding galaxies. The unique structure of the star spiral may yield new insights into the formation of stellar superclusters that result from merging galaxies and gas dynamics in this rarely seen process.
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A galaxy about 23 million light years away is the site of a giant black hole, shock waves, and vast reservoirs of gas. This galactic fireworks display is taking place in NGC 4258 (also known as M106), a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way. This galaxy is famous, however, for something that our Galaxy doesn't have - two extra spiral arms that glow in X-ray, optical, and radio light. These features, or anomalous arms, are not aligned with the plane of the galaxy, but instead intersect with it. Because NGC 4258 is relatively close to Earth, astronomers can study how this black hole is affecting its galaxy in great detail. The supermassive black hole at the center of NGC 4258 is about ten times larger than the one in the Milky Way, and is also consuming material at a faster rate, potentially increasing its impact on the evolution of its host galaxy.
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Computer modeling by NASA scientists shows that friction could be the key to survival for some distant Earth-sized planets traveling in dangerous orbits. The findings are consistent with observations that Earth-sized planets appear to be very common in other star systems. Although heat can be a destructive force for some planets, the right amount of friction, and therefore heat, can be helpful and perhaps create conditions for habitability.
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A group of astronomers has been able to follow stardust being made in real time — during the aftermath of a supernova explosion. For the first time they show that these cosmic dust factories make their grains in a two-stage process, starting soon after the explosion, but continuing for years afterwards. The team used ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in northern Chile to analyse the light from the supernova SN2010jl as it slowly faded.
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“An origin of life is not the same as an origin of a biosphere, and that’s an important distinction,” says David Grinspoon, a planetary scientist and curator of astrobiology for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Did life start out like little sparks that are vulnerable to extinction? And did it, once it transitioned to a global phenomenon, become like a self-sustaining flame?
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