From confirming the 5000th alien world to discovering the farthest star ever, March 2022 witnessed some great astronomical milestones. Here is a list of the top five discoveries in Astronomy and Astrophysics that amazed every science enthusiast in March 2022.

Astronomers confirmed the 5000th exoplanet

Curating a significant milestone in the hunt for exoplanets, astronomers have finally confirmed the detection of the 5000th alien world. The list of these 5000 plus worlds includes small, rocky planets like Earth and gas giants many times larger than Jupiter. Some of these are also the hot Jupiters that stay in extremely close orbits around their stars.

Further, there are super-Earths which are possible rocky worlds bigger than Earth, and mini-Neptunes, which are just the smaller versions of our solar system’s Neptune. Some of these worlds orbit a single star, just like in our solar system, while others orbit more than one star at once. While some orbit the collapsed remnants of dead stars, a few freely wander around without any host star.

The first exoplanet was discovered around a pulsar in 1992 with the radial velocity technique. Since then, the hunt hasn’t stopped. Over the years, the methods to detect exoplanets have advanced, and several missions, especially the Kepler and TESS, have joined hands in the expedition. However, of the 5,000 exoplanets found so far, 4,900 are located within just a few thousand light-years of us. This means that there exist many more planets in our galaxy that we haven’t found yet. And this number can be close to 100 to 200 billion.

Several missions are expected to come online to accelerate the chase in the following years. These include the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Extremely Large Telescope in Chile. Moreover, with Webb working in full swing in the coming months, the exoplanet expedition will get more exciting.

Click here to read the official announcement!

Hubble discovers the farthest star ever

In another exciting voyage of the cosmos, the Hubble Space Telescope has spotted the most distant single star ever detected in space. Earendel, which comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning rising light or morning star, lies 12.9 billion light-years from Earth. Moreover, it is expected to have formed about 900 million years after the Big Bang, making it almost 8.2 billion years older than the Earth and the Sun.

The star was discovered with the help of data collected during Hubble’s RELICS (Reionization Lensing Cluster Survey) program. Researchers explained that an intersecting alignment of a massive cluster of galaxies between us and the star magnified it by a few thousand. The magnification caused by gravitational lensing allowed the star to be captured by Hubble.

Strange Milky Way Bubbles, Diamond Dust On Mercury, And Other Exciting Discoveries In March 2022. 1
Magnification of Earendel caused by a nearby galaxy | Image: NASA/ESA/Brian Welch (JHU)/Dan Coe (STScI)/Peter Laursen (DAWN)

This has been one of the most celebrated milestones achieved by Hubble in its three decades of service. The researchers are now hoping to peer even farther into the cosmos with Webb in the coming years.

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Largest shock wave in the universe

A new study has tracked the largest shockwave in the observable universe. The colossal shockwave is 60 times larger than the Milky Way and has been blasting through space at near-light-speed for 200 million years.

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Image credit: Francesco de Gasperin/SARAO

This shock wave came from Abell 3667, a chaotic galaxy cluster located about 730 million light-years from Earth. Abell 3667 is composed of two groups of galaxies colliding, which together amounts to more than 550 individual galaxies slowly amalgamating into each other.

Whenever massive objects in the universe collide, they generate powerful shock waves that travel through the fabric of spacetime. Similarly, the cosmic collisions in Abell 3667 caused shock waves that acted as giant particle accelerators and accelerated the electrons almost to the speed of light. When these energetic charged particles interacted with the region’s magnetic field, they generated radio waves with a frequency equivalent to the cyclotron frequency recorded by the MeerKAT radio telescope array in South Africa.

Moreover, research hints that this shock wave first blasted about 1 billion years ago, when the two galaxy clusters in Abell 3667 first collided. The collision emitted the twin arcs of radio waves, which moved at more than 3.3 million miles per second (5.3 million kilometers per second), reaching about 13 million light-years apart from each other.

Origin of gigantic new bubbles around the Milky Way

Recently, the X-ray telescope, named eROSITA, onboard the Spektr-RG space observatory, discovered a pair of gigantic X-ray-emitting bubbles. Each of these bubbles is almost 36,000 light-years tall and 45,600 light-years wide. The pair has been remarkably similar to the huge gamma-ray-emitting bubbles(now known as Fermi Bubbles) that were first detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope in 2010.

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An artist’s representation of a pair of bubbles around the Milky Way’s center | Image: ESA

Since their detection, their origin has been an intense subject of debate. Although many theories have been proposed, only a few fit all the multi-wavelength observational data. But now, the new data from eROSITA has suggested that these bubbles result from incredibly powerful jets blasted outwards by Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, about 2.6 million years ago.

Simulations have shown that these jets lasted for about 100,000 years, blazing out at about 2.5% of the speed of light, eventually forming bubbles. Although Sgr A* is quite inactive at the moment, the existence of such bubbles suggests that it was much more active before.

Mercury’s surface is probably covered with diamond dust

Simulations have hinted that Mercury’s surface could be littered with diamond debris. Precisely speaking, the crust of Mercury is expected to contain almost 16 quadrillion tons of diamonds. 

Mercury’s crust is known to mostly comprise graphite, a pure form of carbon. However, the planet is full of craters resulting from the meteoroids and comets that struck it over the years. And now, studies have claimed that the pressure wave resulting from asteroids or comets striking the surface of Mercury at tens of kilometers per second could transform that graphite into diamond. 

However, these diamonds are probably not similar to the clear gemstones that we cut and make into jewelry. Still, they might be comparable to the small cloudy diamonds used in industry as abrasives. Although this revelation has made Mercury an interesting target for planetary observations, the conditions of the planets are way too extreme for its exploration. To date, only NASA’s MESSENGER and Mariner 10 missions have made close observations of the planet.

Nevertheless, a new collaborative mission by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, named BepiColombo, is expected to investigate the planet after arriving there in December 2025. So we can expect this mission to confirm the presence of diamonds and reveal a few more secrets about Mercury in the coming years.

Learn Astrophysics at home

Did you always want to learn how the universe works? Read our 30-article Basics of Astrophysics series absolutely free of cost. From the popular topics such as stars, galaxies, and black holes to the detailed concepts of the subject like the concept of magnitude, the Hertzsprung Russell diagram, redshift, etc., there is something for everyone in this series. All the articles are given here. Happy reading!

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