Cosmic Events

An exoplanet smaller than the Earth may have been identified in some far away solar system.

Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have detected what they believe is a planet two-thirds the size of Earth. The exoplanet candidate, called UCF-1.01, is located a mere 33 light-years away, making it possibly the nearest world to our solar system that is smaller than our home planet.

Exoplanets circle stars beyond our sun. Only a handful smaller than Earth have been found so far. Spitzer has performed transit studies on known exoplanets, but UCF-1.01 is the first ever identified with the space telescope, pointing to a possible role for Spitzer in helping discover potentially habitable, terrestrial-sized worlds.

“We have found strong evidence for a very small, very hot and very near planet with the help of the Spitzer Space Telescope,” said Kevin Stevenson from the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Stevenson is lead author of the paper, which has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. “Identifying nearby small planets such as UCF-1.01 may one day lead to their characterization using future instruments.”

Details here.

Meanwhile, closer to home: Cassini has seen lightning on Saturn. That in itself is not that unusual, but this lightning was spotted on the sunlight side of the planet. That’s a first:

Saturn was playing the lightning storm blues. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured images of last year’s storm on Saturn, the largest storm seen up-close at the planet, with bluish spots in the middle of swirling clouds. Those bluish spots indicate flashes of lightning and mark the first time scientists have detected lightning in visible wavelengths on the side of Saturn illuminated by the sun.

“We didn’t think we’d see lightning on Saturn’s day side – only its night side,” said Ulyana Dyudina, a Cassini imaging team associate based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “The fact that Cassini was able to detect the lightning means that it was very intense.”

More detail, pictures, here.

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