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Astronomers raking in discoveries

WASHINGTON – The year 2008 is turning out to be stellar for astronomy. New discoveries in the sky are popping up like fireflies.

Recent highlights include a whopping haul of new planets around faraway stars. A baby planet caught in the process of forming. An alien solar system that bears a remarkable resemblance to our own. Two stars merging. The littlest black hole ever detected. Organic molecules – the possible stuff of life – discovered on a moon of Saturn and on an alien planet.

On Tuesday, astronomers reported the discovery of 10 extrasolar planets trillions of miles from Earth. That boosts the roster of alien planets to 287 since the first two were identified in 1996.

Using robotically controlled telescopes in Spain, South Africa, Australia, Arizona and Hawaii, an international collaboration known as SuperWASP – for Wide Area Search for Planets – measured slight dips in the brightness of certain stars. The dips were caused by planets that passed in front of the stars, blocking some of their light.

The new planets range from half the mass of Jupiter, the largest body in our solar system, to more than eight times bigger than Jupiter. One planet zooms around its star – its “year” – in a little more than a day.

“The flood of new discoveries from SuperWASP will revolutionize our understanding of how planets form,” said Tim Lister, an astronomer at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Also on Tuesday, American and British astronomers using radio telescopes found what appears to be a “protoplanet” orbiting a young star in the constellation Taurus. The object is a bright clump of material in a dusty disk surrounding the star. If it proves to be an embryonic planet, it would be the youngest such object yet detected.

Another surprise last week was an unusual pair of stars in the Big Dipper that are so close together they share some of their contents.

NASA scientists reported last week the smallest known black hole, an object so heavy that nothing, not even light, can escape it. This little monster is 15 miles wide but weighs almost four times as much as the sun.

“This black hole is really pushing the limits,” said astrophysicist Nikolai Shaposhnikov at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“For many years, astronomers have wanted to know the smallest possible size of a black hole, and this little guy is a big step toward answering that question.”


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