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NASA Space Telescopes Star at Astronomy Conference

A collection of NASA’s best known space observatories, often working in collaboration with new generations of powerful ground-based telescopes, starred this week in a series of headline grabbing discoveries involving galaxy clusters, black holes, stellar explosions and alien worlds at an Austin, Tex., meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Hubble Space Telescope images reveal early cluster of galaxies. Image Credit/NASA

In a deep space sky survey at infra-red wavelengths, the Hubble Space Telescope identified five tiny galaxies clustered together 13.1 billion light-years away. These are among the earliest star systems discovered — just 600 million years old when they formed.

Astronomers are hopeful the future James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s designated successor, will be able to look back even further to complete the story on how stars gathered to form the first galaxies.

NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope observes the merging of two galactic clusters in the distant universe. Image Credit/NASA

A bulging galaxy cluster, the largest grouping of star systems detected in the distant universe, has detected using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the National Science Foundation-funded Atacama Cosmology Telescope in Chile. This galaxy cluster, nicknamed “El Gordo,” is located more than seven billion light years from Earth and beams more X-ray energy  than more distant clusters.

Star clusters, which gathered under the influence of gravity, provide a means for scientists to study unseen dark matter and dark energy in the early universe. The former acts as a force for attracting matter, the latter,  a force for causing the cosmos to expand.

Using observations from NASA’s 16-year-old Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellite and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio telescope, an international team of researchers discovered a black hole in the Milky Way ejecting superfast knots of gas into space.

These knots, moving at 25 percent of the speed of light, formed just beyond the black hole’s event horizon.  Any closer to the black hole, and gravitational forces would have restricted the release.

The source of the blasts is a  black hole and a companion star that orbit one another 28,000 light years from the Earth.

The observations are helping scientists to understand a range of black hole phenomena.

Though just three years old, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has discovered nearly 500 new galactic ultra high energy sources. Prior to Fermi’s launching, astronomers knew of four ultra high energy objects, all pulsars.

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope finds a surprising number of high energy Gamma ray sources illustrated by the bright red and yellow colors in this composite of frequent sky surveys. Image credit/NASA

Fermi surprised experts when it revealed there is a wider range of sources, most beyond our Milky Way galaxy. Some have been identified as stellar explosions, massive double star systems. But most of the sources have yet to be identified.

The European and U. S. Hershel and Spitzer space telescopes identify billowing dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a star system just outside the Milky Way. Stars are forming in the bright regions to the left and right of center. Image credit/NASA

The Hershel Space Observatory mission, a European Space Agency project with NASA participation, teamed with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to reveal regions of fierce star formation in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy just beyond the Milky Way.

The Texas astronomy gathering was also presented with Spitzer images of star formation in the Milky Way galaxy. The imagery of the constellation Cyngnus X, 4,500 light years from Earth, reveals the amount of turmoil surrounding what to human observers on Earth   appear to be serene points of light in the night sky.

NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer captures stars, illustrated in blue and blue-green, blowing bubbles of gas and dust, illustrated in green and red, in this image of the constellations Cassiopeia and Cepheus. Image credit/NASA

NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) offered images of a broad stretch of cosmic clouds in the Milky Way bubbling with new star birth. The imagery reveals an array of star-forming clouds, where massive stars have blown out bubbles in the gas and dust.

NASA's Kepler space telescope proves its planet hunting powers by detecting a trio of rocky planets smaller than the Earth orbiting KOI-961, a red dwarf star. Image Credit/NASA

NASA’s Kepler space telescope also played a featured role at the astronomy conference. Since its launching in 2009, Kepler has discovered hundreds of candidate planets circling other stars.

Kepler’s primary mission is to discovery Earth-like “exo-planets”

Scientist announced the observatory has succeeded in locating three planets even smaller than the Earth orbiting KOI-961, a red dwarf star in the Milky Way.

Unfortunately, the three small worlds orbit so close to KOI-961 that conditions there are too hot for life as we know it.



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