A solar mini-eclipse on May 7

On May 7, 2003, Mercury, the innermost planet in the solar system, will pass in front of the Sun and produce a solar eclipse. But this event will hardly be noticed. Mercury’s small disk will indeed barely be bigger than the point of a pencil. Even the smallest sunspots on the solar surface are as big as the Earth and measure 10,000 km or more in diameter, while Mercury’s equatorial diameter is only 4878 km.

Distant world in peril discovered

When, in a distant future, the Sun begins to expand and evolves into a “giant” star, the surface temperature on the Earth will rise dramatically and our home planet will eventually be incinerated by that central body. Fortunately for us, this dramatic event is several billion years away. However, that sad fate will befall another planet, just discovered in orbit about the giant star HD 47536, already within a few tens of millions of years. At a distance of nearly 400 light-years from us, it is the second-remotest planetary system discovered to date.

Isolated star-forming cloud discovered in intracluster space

At a distance of some 50 million light-years, the Virgo Cluster is the nearest galaxy cluster. It is located in the zodiacal constellation of the same name (The Virgin) and is a large and dense assembly of hundreds of galaxies. The “intracluster” space between the Virgo galaxies is permeated by hot X-ray emitting gas and, as has become clear recently, by a sparse “intracluster population of stars”. So far, stars have been observed to form in the luminous parts of galaxies. The most massive young stars are often visible indirectly by the strong emission from surrounding cocoons of hot gas, which is heated by the intense radiation from the embedded stars. New observations by the Japanese 8-m Subaru telescope and the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) have now shown that massive stars can also form in isolation, far from the luminous parts of galaxies.

Discovery of nearest known brown dwarf

A team of European astronomers has discovered a Brown Dwarf object (a ‘failed’ star) less than 12 light-years from the Sun. It is the nearest yet known. Now designated Epsilon Indi B, it is a companion to a well-known bright star in the southern sky, Epsilon Indi, previously thought to be single. The binary system is one of the twenty nearest stellar systems to the Sun. The brown dwarf was discovered from the comparatively rapid motion across the sky which it shares with its brighter companion : the pair move a full lunar diameter in less than 400 years. It was first identified using digitised archival photographic plates from the SuperCOSMOS Sky Surveys and confirmed using data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey. Follow-up observations with the near-infrared sensitive SOFI instrument on the ESO 3.5-m New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory confirmed its nature and has allowed measurements of its physical properties.