International Astronomy Day started in 1973 by Doug Berger. As the then president of the Astronomical Association of Northern California, he wanted to make astronomy more accessible to the public.
While it may feel that space is infinitely remote, the study and celebration of what space is and may contain is a truly down-to-earth matter. By studying the stars, scientists can learn more about Earth’s history and possibly its future.
Let’s celebrate International Astronomy Day with a selection of articles about the fascinating nature of space, a less final frontier than before.
When observing the light emitted by nearby stars, Dr David Ramm at the University of Canterbury made a discovery that turned astronomers’ understanding of orbital mechanics on its head. With an orbit lying roughly halfway between two very close stars in a binary system, the nu Octantis exoplanet seemed impossible at first glance.
However, Ramm’s continuing research and recent space missions have provided more evidence that supports his unprecedented discovery. But will our exoplanet orbital theories, which will have to be adjusted, be able to confidently describe it?
Following on from previous research, Professor Eugene Oks at Auburn University presents further evidence that an explanation for dark matter could lie with a ‘second flavour’ of hydrogen atoms. This time, his extensive survey of millions of galaxies give insights into the characteristics of ‘gravitational lensing’: a light-bending effect, first predicted by Einstein.
Once again, his results uphold the idea that undetectable hydrogen atoms can at least partially explain the enigmatic source of mass, without any need to break with our current understanding of fundamental physics.
The NASA Kepler Space Telescope revolutionised our understanding of the universe. By continuously observing over half a million stars during its four-year mission, Kepler discovered thousands of exoplanets and many hundreds of these are Earth-like in size and composition, and tens of them reside in the habitable ‘Goldilocks’ zone.
Kepler and similar space-based telescopes never actually ‘see’ these planets, instead they watch for tell-tale periodic dips in brightness. When a star twinkles, suggesting an alien planet has been detected, Dr Steve B Howell at NASA’s Ames Research Centre has the job of determining what it is. Using some of the largest ground-based telescopes on Earth, the researchers are identifying the planets which might be best-suited to harbouring life.
Planetary science is the scientific study of how planetary systems are formed and how their components (planets, moons, and gas systems) interact with one another. Planetary science can help us answer scientific and philosophical questions such as how our Solar System came into being, where life came from, and what are the necessary conditions for life to exist elsewhere.
A unified society of astronomers will be vital in our attempts to answer questions such as these.
Ask any astronomer, and they will tell you that gravitational waves are the greatest scientific discovery of the 21st century so far. In his research, Miguel Holgado at the University of Illinois studies the clever astronomical techniques which can be used to observe the very largest of these elusive ripples, originating from supermassive black holes as they orbit around each other.
His results suggest that these binaries are likely far rarer than astronomers originally thought, but could also help them to refine their observation techniques.