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An artist's rendition of the newly discovered rocky planet, Kepler-10b.  (Source: NASA)

"Hanny's Voorwerp", the green space blob, is seen at the bottom, while IC 2497 a galaxy hosting a dead quasar and black hole, is seen at the top.  (Source: NASA/ESA/William Keel, Univ. of Alabama/the Galaxy Zoo team)
Two deep space discoveries open the door to fascinating possibilities

I. A New Home?  Close, but no Cigar

Scientists got a bit warmer in their hunt for a new extrasolar home for mankind.  Using the ultra high-tech Kepler probe, which detects planets via light disturbances and attempts to analyze their composition, scientists discovered [press release] a rocky world similar in size to the planet Earth.

Unfortunately they were a little too hot in this case.  The planet, dubbed Kepler-10b, is ten times closer to its sun than Mercury is to our Sun.  The planet is likely similar to the prison world depicted in the Chronicles of Riddick -- molten by day, icy cold by night -- not exactly an ideal place to make your new home.

The planet is the first rocky planet to be discovered by the Kepler probe, which is currently 8 months into its mission, searching for habitable worlds.  While the location is poor for colonization, the size is just about right -- the rocky ball measures approximately 1.4 times the size of Earth in diameter.

Natalie Batalha, deputy science team leader for the NASA mission cheers the discovery, stating, "All of Kepler's best capabilities have converged to yield the first solid evidence of a rocky planet orbiting a star other than our sun."

And Kepler program scientist Douglas Hudgins adds, "Although this planet is not in the habitable zone, the exciting find showcases the kinds of discoveries made possible by the mission and the promise of many more to come."

II. The Blob -- Evidence of a Dead Quasar

Meanwhile scientists announced [press release] that they may have finally figured out what a massive green space blob was by using new images from the Hubble Space Telescope and new x-ray observations.

The blob rests 650 million light years away and was discovered in 2007 by Dutch secondary school biology teacher Hanny van Arkel.  It was named Hanny's Voorwerp (Dutch for "object") in her honor.

It turns out that the blob is a cloud of hot gas ejected from a previously acted neighboring quasar.  That quasar also output radiation, which eventually hit the gas cloud as they move through space.  The result was excitement of the cloud's oxygen atoms, producing a green glow.

Scientists were able to confirm that the neighboring galaxy had harbored the quasar by the fact that small stars had formed in the cloud (see yellowish dots in the upper right of the Hubble picture).  These stars are typically formed when jets of quasar particles collide with slower gas particles in a gas cloud, compressing the gas and forming a new star.

Further evidence was found in x-ray images, which show the quasar at the center of the neighboring galaxy -- IC 2497 -- was no longer active, likely because the black hole that powered it ran out of "food" (stellar matter).  The blob was still glowing strong, as it takes light tens of thousands of years to travel from the galaxy to the neighboring cloud.

The result was surprising as it showed the quasar deactivated in under 200,000 years -- far faster that physicists and astronomers though possible.  This discovery should help to provide revolutionary new insights into supermassive black holes and quasars.  And that's a rare opportunity, as quasars are typically much farther away and their environment is hard to study due to the overwhelming brightness of an active quasar.





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