March 2016 has been a good month for astronomy topics in the news. There have been monster stars seen through the Hubble Space Telescope, data released from pictures taken through the Karl J. Lansky Very Large Array (VLA) revealing the earliest stages in planet formation, and two comets passing remarkably close to earth being studied by the scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.
If you are looking for research paper topics for your astronomy class, take a look at these three recent news subjects.
Hubble’s monster stars
Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope were able to identify more than 800,000 stars in the Tarantula Nebula by 2014, but the studies certainly didn’t conclude with counting. The Tarantula Nebula has been nicknamed a star factory, but the sheer quantity of stars there is only the beginning. What scientists announced in March is another important find: dozens of stars with masses over 100 times the mass of the sun. The reason the discovery is so important is because typically massive stars are rare, and studying them can help scientists’ understanding of the relationship between gravitational waves and black holes.
Dr. Paul Crowther, author of the study being released by the Royal Astronomical Society on the massive stars, told Christina Beck of the Christian Science Monitor in her March 17, 2016, article “Hubble Finds Massive Stars in Tarantula Nebula,” “Although our galaxy is much larger than the Tarantula Nebula, there are likely as many massive stars in that small corner of the universe as there are in the entire Milky Way Galaxy.”
Consider using this study as a jumping off point for a paper on
- The nature and importance of massive stars
- Other groundbreaking discoveries made through the Hubble Space Telescope
- The relationship between massive stars, binary stars and binary black holes
The VLA and the very young planet
Images of HL Tauri, located about 450 light-years from Earth, taken by the VLA, have revealed something scientists studying earlier images from the star were hoping to find: evidence of a planet in formation. HL Tauri is a very young star–only around a million years old–so it’s surprising for it to have planets. But the evidence is there for several outer planets surrounding the star. What the VLA was able to reveal is a mass roughly 3 to 8 times the mass of Earth that is currently forming near the star. Scientists posit that this planet is forming at the right distance for an Earth-like planet to exist, and they are excited because they have very little data about planet formation.
Carlos Carrasco-Gonzales of the National Autonomous University of Mexico explained in an Astronomy Now article “VLA reveals earliest stages of planet formation,” posted March 18, 2016, “With planets, we haven’t been so fortunate [to have many to observe], so getting a look at this very early stage in planet formation is extremely valuable.”
This news makes a good lead in for research paper topics including:
- The difference in the wavelengths received by the VLA and the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimeter Array, which took the earlier images of HL Tauri
- The Goldilocks zone, or the location best-suited for a planet to develop life
- Current ideas about planet formation
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and twin comets
Comets passing by the Earth too closely is the stuff of Hollywood disaster movies, but in the case of P/2016 BA14 and 252P/LINEAR, scientists aren’t worried. They’re intrigued about what they might find out by these two comets with remarkably similar orbits. “We know comets are relatively fragile things, as in 1993 when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was discovered and its pieces linked to a flyby of Jupiter,” noted Jet Propulsion Laboratory Center of NEO Studies manager Paul Chodas in “Twin comets to make close approach to Earth” by Justin Boggs, posted March 19, 2016, at WatchABC15.com.
Chodas suggested that a previous pass through the solar system could have had the same impact on 252P/LINEAR, and broken off the chunk now being called P/2016 BA14. The comets had their closest approach on March 21, 2016, at 8:14 a.m. ET. The pair passing by Earth so closely gave scientists an opportunity to study them and determine where they come from. Consider using this news for a research paper on recent discoveries about comets.
Has astronomy news inspired a research paper topic for you? Tell us in the comments.