Atom & Cosmos

A new view of Beta Pictoris, plus Kleopatra's moons and organics on Titan in this week's news

Reimaging an extrasolar planet
New portraits of the massive planet orbiting the star Beta Pictoris are providing astronomers with a better estimate of the planet’s mass and temperature. The new pictures were recorded in 2010 at shorter infrared wavelengths than the first images, taken in 2009. The new observations indicate that the planet has a mass from 7 to 11 times that of Jupiter and has a temperature ranging from 1,127° Celsius to 1,727° C, an international team of astronomers reports in the April Astronomy & Astrophysics. —Ron Cowen

Kleopatra’s moons
Just as Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, gave birth to twins, so has Kleopatra the asteroid. Planetary scientists have discovered that the asteroid has two moons, each about 8 kilometers across, spawned in the past 100 million years. The moons were most likely created when a chunk of space debris sideswiped Kleopatra, spinning up the asteroid and causing it to shed material, a French-American team reports in the February Icarus. By tracking the orbits of the newfound moons, the team measured the density of Kleopatra and found that the asteroid is a loosely bound amalgam of metal and rock. —Ron Cowen

Organic delivery
Comets may have seeded the atmospheres of both Earth and Saturn’s moon Titan. Spanish researchers base their proposal on the similar abundances of nitrogen and organic compounds in the atmospheres of the two bodies — even though Titan resides in a much colder part of the solar system. Titan could have incorporated icy, cometlike bodies rich in nitrogen and organic compounds from its immediate neighborhood during formation, while comets could have delivered the material to Earth a few hundred million years later, after the planet had formed. The researchers make their case in an upcoming Planetary and Space Science paper posted online at on February 22. —Ron Cowen

Grainy view of early solar system
Tiny meteorite grains, known to be among the solar system’s first solids, are providing new information about conditions in the planet-forming disk that surrounded the young sun. By measuring variations in the abundance of oxygen isotopes within grain layers only a thousandth of a millimeter thick, scientists have reconstructed the different environments the grains encountered. Additional studies may offer clues to the origin of the planet-forming disk, Justin Simon of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and his colleagues report in the March 4 Science. —Ron Cowen