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October 2019: Worlds Big and Small

October 2019

In the show this time, we talk to Sadie Jones about her outreach work at the University of Southampton, Alice Humpage rounds up the latest news, and we find out what we can see in the October night sky from Ian Morison, Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske.

The News

This month in the news: an unexpectedly large planet around a small star, a visitor from outside the solar system, a lost lunar lander, and water in the atmosphere of a super-earth.

First, a large planet has been found orbiting a small star. GJ 3512 b is a gas giant with a mass at least half of that of Jupiter, but potentially much bigger. What's interesting about this planet is that it is orbiting a red dwarf.

The current theories about planet formation don't expect this to be possible, as they predict that there wouldn't have been enough material around the red dwarf earlier in its life to form planets as large as this one. This means that theories have to be re-examined in order to explain this strange planet. The paper on this finding can be seen here.

Next, a new interstellar visitor has been discovered in the solar system. The comet, named Borisov, is only the second comet found to have come from outside of our solar system. The first was the cigar shaped 'Oumuamua discovered in October 2017.

Many interstellar objects are thought to come through our solar system within the orbit of the Earth, and even more reach Neptune, but they are very hard to spot. The comet is likely to stick around for a year, and will be closest to the Sun in December (2019). As it gets closer, the comet will provide fascinating insights into the conditions outside of our solar system.

In some less good news, India is still trying to connect to its lost lunar lander. The Vikram lander, part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, was meant to reach the south pole of the moon on the 6th of September after launching in late July. Contact was lost only a couple of kilometres from its destination, and still hasn't been made.

ISRO, the Indian space research organisation, has already successfully launched a lunar orbiter as part of this mission, and though the Vikram would only have been in operation for 2 weeks, the missions triumph would have made India only the fourth country to achieve a soft landing on a body outside the Earth. The organisation says the orbiter has found the lander near to where it was expected to be, though images have yet to be released.

Finally, astronomers have found water in the atmosphere of a Super-Earth for the first time.

K2-18b is eight times the mass of the Earth, and is orbiting a red dwarf star. The planet lies in the habitable-zone of its star, which for this system is a quarter of the way closer than the Earth is to our Sun.

Crude estimates of the temperature of the planet put it between -73 and 47 degrees celsius, though this depends on the surface and atmosphere of the planet. The study found water vapour in the atmosphere of the planet, and the discovery is an excellent look into the atmospheres of planets which may have the potential to support life.

Though the extent of the water is unknown due to technological limitations, the next generation of space telescopes will allow us to find out how much water vapour surrounds this planet.

Interview with Sadie Jones

This month we talk to Sadie Jones of the University of Southampton about her work in astronomy outreach.

She discusses how she got into astronomy and got a job in outreach, before talking about the work that the university does, including its impressive mobile planetarium.

Sadie also discusses the recent public outreach projects she has been involved in organising, for example talking about supernovae in an airport and a cipher challenge to decode strange messages from space.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere’s night sky during October 2019.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske tell us what we can see in the southern hemisphere’s night sky during October 2019.

Odds and Ends

An interesting idea for making X-ray observations has been developed. Hard X-rays at high energies are very difficult to observe with the optics we have on our current missions. A new paper demonstrates a slightly different method of lens making for use in x-ray telescopes. The idea involves a stacked set of disks with prisms etched into them using UV lithography. From the results the paper presents, the idea looks promising.

A paper published in the journal Nature computed the mass of a millisecond pulsar by measuring a Shapiro delay in its pulse arrival times. It was estimated to weigh around 2.17 solar masses, making it the heaviest neutron star ever found, pushing the limits of what's thought possible for these objects. This measurement can help us understand what neutron stars are made of, and by extension how particles behave under the extreme pressures present in neutron star cores.

In 2022, ESA will be launching the JUICE mission. This exciting project will be sent to observe three of Jupiter's moons. The mission was planned to end with a controlled crash onto the surface, however this raises the question of our social responsibilities on other planets. Some moons cannot be crash landed on for fear of contamination, amongst other things, so where do we draw the line? This issue ties in with the recently emerging issue of space politics in general.

Show Credits

News:Alice Humpage
Interview:Sadie Jones and Alex Clarke
Night sky:Ian Morison and Haritina Mogosanu
Presenters:Michael Wright, Tiaan Bezuidenhout, and Mariam Rashid
Editors:George Bendo, Alex Clarke, Deepika Venkattu, and Tom Scragg
Segment Voice:Tess Jaffe
Website:Fiona Porter and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Fiona Porter
Cover art:K2-18b and K2-18c orbiting their red M-dwarf star. CREDIT: Alex Boersma

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