In our galaxy’s center, scientists see a void

An artist's conception of the implied distribution of young stars, represented here by Cepheids shown as blue stars, plotted on the background of a drawing of the Milky Way. With the exception of a small clump in the Galactic center, the central 8,000 light years appear to have very few Cepheids, and hence very few young stars.

An artist’s conception of the implied distribution of young stars, represented here by Cepheids shown as blue stars, plotted on the background of a drawing of the Milky Way. With the exception of a small clump in the Galactic center, the central 8,000 light years appear to have very few Cepheids, and hence very few young stars. (The University of Tokyo)

The Milky Way has a huge region that is evidently no place for youngsters. The center of our galaxy has an enormous void that surprisingly lacks young stars, astronomers announced last week.

Using a telescope in South Africa, the astronomers focused their study on a type of star called cepheids. These are youthful stars— just between 10 and 300 million years old, compared to the 4.6 billion years our Sun has under its belt. Cepheids are a key type of star for scientists to study, because they pulsate, and the pulsation time is linked to their brightness, allowing astronomers to figure out how far away the star is.

But when the scientists studied the inner part of our galaxy, they discovered a dearth of these young stars in a huge portion of the Milky Way’s center outside of its core.

“We already found some while ago that there are Cepheids in the central heart of our Milky Way (in a region about 150 light years in radius),” Noriyuki Matsunaga, a professor at the University of Tokyo and the leader of the team behind the discovery, said in a statement. “Now we find that outside this there is a huge Cepheid desert extending out to 8000 light years from the centre.”


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The finding gives scientists more information about the structure of our galaxy— an enormous spiral, made up of billions of stars, that measures about 100,000 light years across. The Earth is located about 26,000 light years from the center.

“The current results indicate that there has been no significant star formation in this large region over hundreds of millions years,” Giuseppe Bono, a coauthor of the new study, said in the statement. “The movement and the chemical composition of the new Cepheids are helping us to better understand the formation and evolution of the Milky Way.”

The study was published in the journal the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger

Juno is on its way to closest skim of Jupiter

This color view from NASA's Juno spacecraft is made from some of the first images taken by JunoCam after the spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 5th (UTC).

This color view from NASA’s Juno spacecraft is made from some of the first images taken by JunoCam after the spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 5th (UTC). (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)

NASA’s Juno spacecraft made a flashy arrival at Jupiter on July 4, and now, the probe has just passed another turning point in its mission.

Before Juno can start studying Jupiter up close as it orbits, it has to complete two big orbits, each of which lasts 53.5 days long. Currently in its first orbit, it has just made its way past the point most distant from Jupiter— five million miles away— and is now falling back towards the gas giant, with an arrival date of August 27.

Juno will be coming very close to the gas giant at the end of this month, cruising only 2,600 miles over Jupiter’s clouds. In fact, that’s the closest the craft will ever get to the planet during its mission.

After this coming pass, each orbit will be just a little bit further away from Jupiter, according to NASA.

“The altitude increases quite slowly at first, but during the last few orbits it ticks up a lot more,” a spokesman from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told in an email. “Even so, Juno’s closest approach distance never exceeds about 4,900 miles.”

And while the craft’s scientific instruments weren’t switched on for its arrival, they will be during this coming close approach.

“We’re in an excellent state of health, with the spacecraft and all the instruments fully checked out and ready for our first up-close look at Jupiter,” Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

Juno’s mission includes studying the gas giant’s structure and magnetosphere, and because the planet is so ancient, scientists hope that understanding Jupiter will help them better understand how the solar system formed.

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger

Asteroid strike could cause ‘immense suffering’

Artist's concept of the impact that created the asteroid Bennu. (Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)

Artist’s concept of the impact that created the asteroid Bennu. (Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)

A huge asteroid hurtling through space at 63,000mph could one day hit Earth causing “immense suffering and death”, astronomers say.

The space rock was discovered in 1999 and is likely to blast in between the Earth and the moon in 2135 – a little too close for comfort.

But on a return trip later in the century, it is estimated the asteroid known as 101955 Bennu could actually strike our planet.

Dante Lauretta, the NASA expert in charge of a new mission to analyse the asteroid, said: “That 2135 fly-by is going to tweak Bennu’s orbit, potentially putting it on course for the Earth later that century.”

More on this story on Sky News.

Strange ‘burning’ object spotted in sky over western US


NOW PLAYINGFragments from a Chinese rocket streak across the night sky

A strange, apparently burning object was spotted in the sky over parts of the western U.S. Wednesday night.

Fox 5 in Las Vegas reports that hundreds of viewers contacted the station about the streaking lights, which appeared in the sky around 9:35 p.m. PDT. The lights were said to be visible in Reno, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Idaho and Northern California.

The object generated plenty of buzz on social media.

“Amazing fireballs in the sky!! Did anyone else see them?,” tweeted the Death Valley National Park Service.

Amazing fireballs in the sky!! Did anyone else see them?@NASA

“It was seen here in Las Vegas. Looks like space debris burning up. Not confirmed,” tweeted the National Weather Service in Las Vegas, in response.

Citing the National Weather Service, Fox 5 reported that the object could be a Chinese rocket burning up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. However, Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada said that the object was likely a meteorite burning up, according to Fox 5.


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Another theory suggested that the lights could be related to the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, which peaks Thursday and Friday.

Tour 3D Pluto in new portable virtual-reality view

Viewers can explore distant Pluto with a new addition to the New York Times virtual reality app, using only a smartphone and a Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer (or just the smartphone).

Viewers can explore distant Pluto with a new addition to the New York Times virtual reality app, using only a smartphone and a Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer (or just the smartphone). (New York Times)

Get your Google Cardboards ready, because it’s time to take a 3D trip to Pluto.

The new 7-minute Pluto tour, narrated by the science writer Dennis Overbye of the New York Times, is available for download from the Times’ virtual reality app, and can be viewed through a Google Cardboard headset or on a plain smartphone screen for those who don’t have one.

The film, called “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart,” walks viewers through the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto last July before dropping them down on the surface and pointing out many alien geographic features on the surprisingly complex body. It’s possible to look around 360 degrees to see the full extent of the dwarf planet, its largest moon, Charon, and the far-off shining of the sun.

You can download the New York Times VR App here (there are options for both Android and Apple) to see the awesome 3D Pluto views. You can also see a modified version in a computer browser.

The vivid 3D view, so different from the few pixels we had seen before New Horizons’ approach, was pieced together for the film from New Horizons’ data, with help from the Universities Space Research Association’s Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas. Even now, only around half of the images and measurements have been beamed back to Earth from the spacecraft; new data will be coming until October, and scientists will be hard at work analyzing it for a long time after.

The Times sent free Cardboards to all of its print subscribers last November andplans to send them to select online subscribers as well; Google also offers Cardboards for sale online and instructions for how to build your own (even out of a pizza box).

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Alien megastructure? Dimming star may have less exotic explanation

Cascading comets around a distant star.

Cascading comets around a distant star. (NASA/JPL/CaltechNASA/JPL/Caltech)

A mysterious darkening star might not be home to an alien megastructure after all. Instead, the dimming that apparently occurred over the course of a century may actually have resulted from how telescopes and cameras have changed over time, researchers said.

Last fall, a star named KIC 8462852 made news when scientists found unusual fluctuations in the object’s light. The star is an otherwise-ordinary F-type star, slightly larger and hotter than Earth’s sun; it sits about 1,480 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.

But astronomer Tabetha “Tabby” Boyajian of Yale University in Connecticut and her colleagues, along with citizen scientists from the Planet Hunters crowdsourcing program, found something odd. They discovered dozens of strange instances of the star darkening over a 100-day period when they analyzed data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

The dimming events blocked up to 22 percent of the light from KIC 8462852, now nicknamed “Tabby’s Star,” making these events far too substantial to be caused by planets crossing (or “transiting”) the star’s face. Scientists also ruled out several other possible explanations, such as an enormous dust cloud.

Such analyses raised the possibility that astronomers had detected signs of alien life — specifically, a Dyson sphere, a megastructure built around a star to capture as much of the sun’s energy as possible to power an advanced civilization. (In science fiction, Dyson spheres — which are named after mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson — are often depicted as solid shells around stars, but they could also be spherical swarms of giant solar panels.)

So far, astronomers at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institutein California analyzing Tabby’s Starwith the Allen Telescope Array havenot detected any radio signals that would indicate the presence of an alien civilization. Scientists at SETI International in San Francisco and their colleagues have also failed to detect any laser signals from Tabby’s Star.

Still, in January, astronomer Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University reviewed archived photographic plates of the sky taken from 1890 to 1989 and found signs that Tabby’s Star had dimmed by about 20 percent over the past century. He noted that this finding was difficult to explain by natural means. For instance, Schaefer calculated that it would require 648,000 comets, each about 125 miles wide, passing by the star in the past century to cause such dimming.

Now, however, researchers suggest this seemingly century-long dimming trend might not be real. Instead, the apparent darkening may just be due to how astronomical instruments have changed over time.

In the new study, scientists pored over DASCH (Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard) data. This is a collection of more than 500,000 photographic glass plates taken by astronomers at Harvard in Massachusetts between 1885 and 1993 that the university is digitizing.

“It is exciting that we have these century-old data, which are incredibly valuable for checks like this,” study lead author Michael Hippke, an amateur astronomer from the German town of Neukirchen-Vluyn, told

The researchers looked not only at Tabby’s Star, but also at a number of comparable stars in the DASCH database. Results showed that many of these other stars experienced a drop in brightness similar to that of Tabby’s Star in the 1960s.

“That indicates the drops were caused by changes in the instrumentation, not by changes in the stars’ brightness,” study co-author Keivan Stassun at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, said in a statement.

“Now, what does that mean for the mystery? Are there no aliens after all? Probably not,” Hippke said in an email. “Still, the daylong dips found by Kepler are real. Something seems to be transiting in front of this star, and we still have no idea what it is.”

The best explanation so far for this dimming may be that a giant comet fragmented into thousands of smaller comets that are now crossing in front of Tabby’s Star, some scientists say. To help solve this celestial mystery, amateur astronomers around the world are working with the American Association of Variable Star Observers to find new dips in the star’s brightness, Hippke noted. Other groups, such as the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope, have also joined the effort, he said.

“Observing further dips in different colors can reveal information about the chemistry of the transiting object, which might confirm or reject a cometary origin,” Hippke said.

The scientists will detail their findings in the Astrophysical Journal.

Supersharp Mars photos show UK’s long-lost Beagle 2 lander

  • Original photo by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing Europe's Beagle 2 lander on the Red Planet (left), compared with a new "super-resolution restoration" image of the same site (right).

    Original photo by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing Europe’s Beagle 2 lander on the Red Planet (left), compared with a new “super-resolution restoration” image of the same site (right). (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Yu Tao et al/University College London)

New supersharp photos of Mars show Europe’s long-lost Beagle 2 lander, ancient Red Planet lake beds and snaking rover tracks in unprecedented detail.

Scientists “stacked and matched” photos captured over the years by NASA’s eagle-eyed Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) using new machine-vision methods, creating images in which features just 2 inches wide can be seen.

This resolution is five times greater than MRO or any other instrument orbiting Earth or Mars had been able to achieve, researchers said. Further use of this technique could help space agencies select safe landing sites for future Mars missions, search for pieces of other lost Red Planet hardware and perform a variety of other science work, they added. [Mars: The Spacecraft Graveyard]

“We now have the equivalent of drone-eye vision anywhere on the surface of Mars where there are enough clear repeat pictures,” study co-author Jan-Peter Muller, of University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, said in a statement. “It allows us to see objects in much sharper focus from orbit than ever before, and the picture quality is comparable to that obtained from landers.”

“As more pictures are collected, we will see increasing evidence of the kind we have only seen from the three successful rover missions to date,” Muller added, referring to NASA’s Pathfinder, Spirit/Opportunity and Curiosity missions. “This will be a game changer and the start of a new era in planetary exploration.”

The team applied the new technique to a variety of regions imaged by MRO, including the ancient, potentially habitable lake beds explored by Curiosity; the “Home Plate” region traversed by Spirit; and the site where Europe’s first Mars lander, Beagle 2, touched down in December 2003. [The Search for Beagle 2 on Mars in Photos]

The United Kingdom-led Beagle 2 was part of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission, which launched in June 2003 and arrived at the Red Planet six months later. The lander detached from its mother ship, the Mars Express orbiter, on Dec. 19, 2003, and was supposed to touch down on Christmas Day.

Beagle 2 never called its handlers from the Martian surface, and many experts assumed the craft had crashed. But last year, officials with the UK Space Agency announced that they had spotted the lander in MRO photos. These images appeared to show partially deployed solar arrays, suggesting that Beagle 2 had succeeded in touching down softly.

The newly released photos give the best looks yet at Beagle 2, which measures just 7 feet wide, scientists said.

The research team, led by Yu Tao of University College London, described the new “Super-Resolution Restoration” technique in a study that was published in the journal Planetary and Space Science in February. But team members have only recently begun using the method to zero in on specific locations on Mars.

The Mars Express orbiter continues to operate to this day.

Watch this breathtaking video of a solar flare

NOW PLAYINGNASA releases video of incredible solar flare

NASA has released an awe-inspiring video of a solar flare that erupted on the sun on April 17. The video shows a bright, strobe-like flash on the sun’s right side, which the space agency said was a “mid-level” solar flare.

The solar storm was captured by a NASA craft called the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which was launched in 2010.

Because it was recorded in ultraviolet light, the video has been color-coded, NASA said. Solar flares and their radiation can disrupt communications, but according to NASA, this one “only caused brief radio blackouts.”

Related: NASA discovers a moon around dwarf planet Makemake

The Solar Dynamics Observatory said that this region of the sun had so far only displayed minor flares, and that the arches in the footage after the flare is the sun’s “magnetic field reorganizing itself.”

The sun’s most intense flares, called “X-class,” are ten times bigger than “M-class” flares, which this one was, NASA said.

Hubble telescope captures sharpest image yet of mysterious red rectangle

An image of star HD 44179, surrounded by an extraordinary structure known as the Red Rectangle. This image was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

An image of star HD 44179, surrounded by an extraordinary structure known as the Red Rectangle. This image was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. (ESA/Hubble and NASA)

A striking new image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope delivers a deep look into a mysterious cosmic object called the Red Rectangle Nebula.

The Red Rectangle, so named because of its bizarre shape and striking color, is a nebula — a cosmic cloud of gas and particles. In this case, the nebula is formed by the central star, HD 44179, which is reaching the end of its life and shedding most of its mass into space.

The source of the red light emitted by the Red Rectangle baffled scientists for more than 30 years. The same kind of red emission was seen throughout the Milky Way and in other galaxies, but scientists weren’t sure what created it. The mystery was finally solved in 2007: The glow comes from strange activity at the molecular level inside clusters of dust.

This new image gives scientists the best understanding yet of the structure of the Red Rectangle, according to a statement from NASA. Instead of a rectangle, it appears that the nebula around the star is shaped like an “X,” with ladder-like rungs of glowing gas connecting the four arms.

The star at the center of the Red Rectangle is similar to Earth’s sun and is responsible for those evenly spaced lines as it releases gas and other material to create the nebula and its distinctive shape. NASA experts now believe the star is also a close binary (meaning it has a stellar partner), and is surrounded by a dense area of dust, according to the statement.

The star at the center of the Red Rectangle will eventually leave behind a hot white dwarf that will give off brilliant ultraviolet radiation that will cause the surrounding gas to glow.

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NASA releases cool images of dwarf planet Ceres

Ceres' Haulani Crater, with a diameter of 21 miles, shows evidence of landslides from its crater rim.  (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Ceres’ Haulani Crater, with a diameter of 21 miles, shows evidence of landslides from its crater rim. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

New NASA images reveal the bright craters on dwarf planet Ceres in stunning detail.

The pictures from NASA’s Dawn mission were taken 240 miles from the planet’s surface offering an incredible view of Ceres’ Haulani Crater. Evidence of landslides is clearly visible, as is a central ridge and smooth material on the crater floor.

NASA notes that an enhanced false-color view gives scientists insight into Ceres.

“Haulani perfectly displays the properties we would expect from a fresh impact into the surface of Ceres,” said Martin Hoffmann, co-investigator on the Dawn framing camera team, based at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, in a statement. “The crater floor is largely free of impacts, and it contrasts sharply in color from older parts of the surface.”

Related: NASA releases stunning Ceres close-up images

NASA says that the crater’s polygonal nature (meaning it resembles a shape made of straight lines) is interesting because most craters seen on other planetary bodies, such as Earth, are nearly circular. “The straight edges of some Cerean craters, including Haulani, result from pre-existing stress patterns and faults beneath the surface,” it explained.

The space agency also described Ceres’ 6-mile-wide Oxo Crater, which is the second-brightest feature on the dwarf planet, as a “hidden treasure.” Scientists are examining the signatures of minerals on Oxo’s crater floor, which appear different than elsewhere on Ceres.

“Little Oxo may be poised to make a big contribution to understanding the upper crust of Ceres,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Related: Scientists begin to unravel mystery behind bright spots on Ceres

Ceres lies between Mars and Jupiter. The dwarf planet has an average diameter of 590 miles and is the largest body in the main asteroid belt.

Dawn successfully entered Ceres‘ orbit on March 6 2015, making history as thefirst mission to achieve orbit around a dwarf planet

Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi spotted Ceres in 1801 and was the first object discovered in our solar system’s asteroid belt.

Related: Could the dwarf planet Ceres support life?

Initially classified as a planet, Ceres was later called an asteroid, and designated a dwarf planet in 2006.

The spacecraft will remain at its current altitude for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward, according to NASA. The end of the prime mission will be June 30, 2016.

A host of organizations are involved in the Dawn mission. UCLA, for example, is handling overall mission science, while the German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency, and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are involved as international partners.

The Dawn spacecraft was built by Dulles, Va.-based Orbital ATK.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.