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Are Other Solvents Outside Of Water Possible For Alien Life

October 18, 2017 by  
Filed under Around The Net

Life on early Earth seems to have begun with a paradox: while life needs water as a solvent, the essential chemical backbones of early life-forming molecules fall apart in water. Our universal solvent, it turns out, can be extremely corrosive.

Some have pointed to this paradox as a sign that life, or the precursor of life, originated elsewhere and was delivered here via comets or meteorites. Others have looked for solvents that could have the necessary qualities of water without that bond-breaking corrosiveness.

In recent years the solvent often put forward as the eligible alternative to water is formamide, a clear and moderately irritating liquid consisting of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Unlike water, it does not break down the long-chain molecules needed to form the nucleic acids and proteins that make up life’s key initial instruction manual, RNA. Meanwhile it also converts via other useful reactions into key compounds needed to make nucleic acids in the first place.

Although formamide is common in star-forming regions of space, scientists have struggled to find pathways for it to be prevalent, or even locally concentrated, on early Earth. In fact, it is hardly present on Earth today except as a synthetic chemical for companies.

New research presented by Zachary Adam, an earth scientist at Harvard University, and Masashi Aono, a complex systems scientist at Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at Tokyo Institute of Technology, has produced formamide by way of a surprising and reproducible pathway: bombardment with radioactive particles. 

The two and their colleagues exposed water and a mixture of two chemicals known to have existed on early Earth (hydrogen cyanide and aqueous acetonitrile) to the high-energy particles emitted from a cylinder of cobalt-60, an artificially produced radioactive isotope commonly used in cancer therapy. The result, they report, was the production of substantial amounts of formamide more quickly than earlier attempts by researchers using theoretical models and in laboratory settings. 

It remains unclear whether early Earth had enough radioactive material in the right places to produce the chemical reactions that led to the formation of formamide. And even if the conditions were right, scientists cannot yet conclude that formamide played an important role in the origin of life.

Still, the new research furthers the evidence of the possible role of alternative solvents and presents a differing picture of the basis of life. Furthermore, it is suggestive of processes that might be at work on other exoplanets as well – where solvents other than water could, with energy supplied by radioactive sources, provide the necessary setting for simple compounds to be transformed into far more complex building blocks.

“Imagine that water-based life was preceded by completely unique networks of interacting molecules that approximated, but were distinct from and followed different chemical rules, than life as we know it,” said Adam.

Their work was presented at recent gatherings of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, and the Astrobiology Science Conference.

The team of Adam and Aono are hardly the first to put forward the formamide hypothesis as a solution to the water paradox, and they are also not the first to posit a role for high-energy, radioactive particles in the origin of life. 

An Italian team led by Rafaelle Saladino of Tuscia University recently proposed formamide as a chemical that would supply necessary elements for life and would avoid the “water paradox.” Since the time that Marie Curie described the phenomenon of radioactivity, scientists have proposed innumerable ways that the emission of particle-shedding atomic nuclei might have played roles, either large or small, in initiating life on Earth.

Putting formamide and radioactivty together, as Adam and Aono have done, is a potentially significant step forward, though one that needs deeper study.

“If we have formamide as a solvent, those precursor molecules can be kept stable, a kind of cradle to preserve very interesting products,” said Aono, who has moved to Tokyo-based Keio University while remaining a fellow at ELSI.

The experiment with cobalt-60 did not begin as a search for a way to concentrate the production of formamide. Rather, Adam was looking more generally into the effects of gamma rays on a variety of molecules and solvents, while Aono was exploring radioactive sources for a role in the origin of life.

The two came together somewhat serendipitously at ELSI, an origins-of-life research center created by the Japanese government. ELSI was designed to be a place for scientists from around the world and from many different disciplines to tackle some of the notoriously difficult issues in origins of life research. At ELSI, Adam, who had been unable to secure sites to conduct laboratory tests in the United States, learned from Aono about a sparingly-used (and free) cobalt-60 lab; they promptly began collaborating.

It is well known that the early Earth was bombarded by high-energy cosmic particles and gamma rays. So is the fact that numerous elements (aluminum-26, iron-60, iodine-129) have existed as radioactive isotopes that can emit radiation for minutes to millennium, and that these isotopes were more common on early Earth than today. Indeed, the three listed above are now extinct on Earth, or nearly extinct, in their natural forms.

Less known is the presence of “natural nuclear reactors” as sites where a high concentration of uranium in the presence of water has led to self-sustaining nuclear fission. Only one such spot has been found —in the Oklo region of the African nation of Gabon — where spent radioactive material was identified at 16 sites separate sites. Scientists ultimately concluded widespread natural nuclear reactions occurred in the region some 2 billion years ago.

That time frame would mean that the site would have been active well after life had begun on Earth, but it is a potential proof of concept of what could have existed elsewhere long before.

Adam and Aono remain agnostic about where the formamide-producing radioactive particles came from. But they are convinced that it is entirely possible that such reactions took place and helped produce an environment where each of the backbone precursors of RNA could readily be found in close quarters.

Current scientific thinking about how formamide appeared on Earth focuses on limited arrival via asteroid impacts or through the concentration of the chemical in evaporated water-formamide mixtures in desert-like conditions. Adam acknowledges that the prevailing scientific consensus points to low amounts of formamide on early Earth.

“We are not trying to argue to the contrary,” he said, “but we are trying to say that it may not matter.”

If you have a unique place (or places) on the Earth creating significant amounts of formamide over a long period of time through radiolysis, then an opportunity exists for the onset of some unique chemistry that can support the production of essential precursor compounds for life, Adam said.

“So, the argument then shifts to — how likely was it that this unique place existed? We only need one special location on the entire planet to meet these circumstances,” he said.

After that, the system set into motion would have the ability to bring together the chemical building blocks of life.

“That’s the possibility that we look forward to investigating in the coming years,” Adam said.

James Cleaves, an organic chemist also at ELSI and a co-author of the cobalt-60 paper, said while production of formamide from much simpler compounds represents progress, “there are no silver bullets in origin of life work. We collect facts like these, and then see where they lead.”


Alien Megastructure Around Star May Not Exist

October 13, 2017 by  
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There’s a prosaic explanation for at least some of the weirdness of “Tabby’s star,” it would appear.

The bizarre long-term dimming of Tabby’s star — also known as Boyajian’s star, or, more formally, KIC 8462852 — is likely caused by dust, not a giant network of solar panels or any other “megastructure” built by advanced aliens, a new study suggests.

Astronomers came to this conclusion after noticing that this dimming was more pronounced in ultraviolet (UV) than infrared light. Any object bigger than a dust grain would cause uniform dimming across all wavelengths, study team members said

“This pretty much rules out the alien megastructure theory, as that could not explain the wavelength-dependent dimming,” lead author Huan Meng of the University of Arizona said in a statement. “We suspect, instead, there is a cloud of dust orbiting the star with a roughly 700-day orbital period.”

Strange brightness dips

KIC 8462852, which lies about 1,500 light-years from Earth, has generated a great deal of intrigue and speculation since 2015. That year, a team led by astronomer Tabetha Boyajian (hence the star’s nicknames) reported that KIC 8462852 had dimmed dramatically several times over the past half-decade or so, once by 22 percent.

No orbiting planet could cause such big dips, so researchers began coming up with possible alternative explanations. These included swarms of comets or comet fragments, interstellar dust and the famous (but unlikely) alien-megastructure hypothesis.

The mystery deepened after the initial Boyajian et al. study. For example, other research groups found that, in addition to the occasional short-term brightness dips, Tabby’s star dimmed overall by about 20 percent between 1890 and 1989. In addition, a 2016 paper determined that its brightness decreased by 3 percent from 2009 to 2013.

The new study, which was published online Tuesday (Oct. 3) in The Astrophysical Journal, addresses such longer-term events.

From January 2016 to December 2016, Meng and his colleagues (who include Boyajian) studied Tabby’s star in infrared and UV light using NASA’s Spitzer and Swift space telescopes, respectively. They also observed it in visible light during this period using the 27-inch-wide (68 centimeters) telescope at AstroLAB IRIS, a public observatory near the Belgian village of Zillebeke.

The observed UV dip implicates circumstellar dust — grains large enough to stay in orbit around Tabby’s star despite the radiation pressure but small enough that they don’t block light uniformly in all wavelengths, the researchers said.

The new study does not solve all of KIC 8462852’s mysteries, however. For example, it does not address the short-term 20 percent brightness dips, which were detected by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. (Kepler is now observing a different part of the sky during its K2 extended mission and will not follow up on Tabby’s star for the forseeable future.)

And a different study — led by Joshua Simon of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California — just found that Tabby’s star experienced two brightening spells over the past 11 years. (Simon and his colleagues also determined that the star has dimmed by about 1.5 percent from February 2015 to now.)

“Up until this work, we had thought that the star’s changes in brightness were only occurring in one direction — dimming,” Simon said in a statement. “The realization that the star sometimes gets brighter in addition to periods of dimming is incompatible with most hypotheses to explain its weird behavior.”


Astronomers Ponder The Role Of Physics In Life

September 25, 2017 by  
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Understanding the origin of life is arguably one of the most compelling quests for humanity. This quest has inevitably moved beyond the puzzle of life on Earth to whether there’s life elsewhere in the universe. Is life on Earth a fluke? Or is life as natural as the universal laws of physics?

Jeremy England, a biophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is trying to answer these profound questions. In 2013, he formulated a hypothesis that physics may spontaneously trigger chemicals to organize themselves in ways that seed “life-like” qualities.

Now, new research by England and a colleague suggests that physics may naturally produce self-replicating chemical reactions, one of the first steps toward creating life from inanimate substances.

This might be interpreted as life originating directly from the fundamental laws of nature, thereby removing luck from the equation. But that would be jumping the gun.

Life had to have come from something; there wasn’t always biology. Biology is born from the raw and lifeless chemical components that somehow organized themselves into prebiotic compounds, created the building blocks of life, formed basic microbes and then eventually evolved into the spectacular array of creatures that exist on our planet today.  

“Abiogenesis” is when something nonbiological turns into something biological and England thinks thermodynamics might provide the framework that drives life-like behavior in otherwise lifeless chemicals. However, this research doesn’t bridge life-like qualities of a physical system with the biological processes themselves, England said.

“I would not say I have done anything to investigate the ‘origin of life’ per se,” England told Live Science. “I think what’s interesting to me is the proof of principle – what are the physical requirements for the emergence of life-like behaviors?”

Self-organization in physical systems

When energy is applied to a system, the laws of physics dictate how that energy dissipates. If an external heat source is applied to that system, it will dissipate and reach thermal equilibrium with its surroundings, like a cooling cup of coffee left on a desk. Entropy, or the amount of disorder in the system, will increase as heat dissipates. But some physical systems may be  sufficiently out of equilibrium that they “self-organize” to make best use of an external energy source, triggering interesting self-sustaining chemical reactions that prevent the system from reaching thermodynamic equilibrium and thus maintaining an out-of-equilibrium state, England speculates. (It’s as if that cup of coffee spontaneously produces a chemical reaction that sustains a hotspot in the center of the fluid, preventing the coffee from cooling to an equilibrium state.) He calls this situation “dissipation-driven adaptation” and this mechanism is what drives life-like qualities in England’s otherwise lifeless physical system.

A key life-like behavior is self-replication, or (from a biological viewpoint) reproduction. This is the basis for all life: It starts simple, replicates, becomes more complex and replicates again. It just so happens that self-replication is also a very efficient way of dissipating heat and increasing entropy in that system.

In a study published July 18 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,  England and co-author Jordan Horowitz tested their hypothesis. They carried out computer simulations on a closed system (or a system that doesn’t exchange heat or matter with its surroundings) containing a “soup” of 25 chemicals. Although their setup is very simple, a similar type of soup may have pooled on the surface of a primordial and lifeless Earth. If, say, these chemicals are concentrated and heated by an external source – a hydrothermal vent, for example – the pool of chemicals would need to dissipate that heat in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics. Heat must dissipate and the entropy of the system will inevitably increase.

Under certain initial conditions, he found that these chemicals may optimize the energy applied to the system by self-organizing and undergoing intense reactions to self-replicate. The chemicals fine-tuned themselves naturally. These reactions generate heat that obeys the second law of thermodynamics; entropy will always increase in the system and the chemicals would self-organize and exhibit the life-like behavior of self-replication.

“Essentially, the system tries a bunch of things on a small scale, and once one of them starts experiencing positive feedback, it does not take that long for it to take over the character of organization in the system,” England told Live Science.

This is a very simple model of what goes on in biology: chemical energy is burned in cells that are – by their nature – out of equilibrium, driving the metabolic processes that maintain life. But, as England admits, there’s a big difference between finding life-like qualities in a virtual chemical soup and life itself.

Sara Imari Walker, a theoretical physicist and astrobiologist at Arizona State University who was not involved in the current research, agrees.

“There’s a two-way bridge that needs to be crossed to try to bridge biology and physics; one is to understand how you get life-like qualities from simple physical systems and the other is to understand how physics can give rise to life,” Imari Walker told Live Science. “You need to do both to really understand what properties are unique to life and what properties are characteristic of things that you consider to be almost alive […] like a prebiotic system.”

Emergence of life beyond Earth?

Before we can even begin to answer the big question of whether these simple physical systems may influence the emergence of life elsewhere in the universe, it would be better to understand where these systems exist on Earth first.

“If, when you say ‘life,’ you mean stuff that is as stunningly impressive as a bacterium or anything else with polymerases and DNA, my work doesn’t yet tell us anything about how easy or difficult it is to make something that complex, so I shouldn’t speculate about what we’d be likely to find elsewhere than Earth,”  England said. (Polymerases are proteins that assemble DNA and RNA.)

This research doesn’t specifically identify how biology emerges from nonbiological systems, only that in some complex chemical situations, surprising self-organization occurs. These simulations do not consider other life-like qualities – such as adaptation to environment or reaction to stimuli. Also, this thermodynamics test on a closed system does not consider the role of information reproduction in life’s origins, said Michael Lässig, a statistical physicist and quantitative biologist at the University of Cologne in Germany.

“[This] work is indeed a fascinating result on non-equilibrium chemical networks but it is still a long way from a physics explanation of the origins of life, which requires the reproduction of information,” Lässig, who was not involved in the research, told Live Science.

There’s a critical role for information in living systems, added Imari Walker. Just because there appears to be natural self-organization exhibited by a soup of chemicals, it doesn’t necessarily mean living organization.

“I think there’s a lot of intermediate stages that we have to get through to go from simple ordering to having a full-on information processing architecture like a living cell, which requires something like memory and hereditary,” said Imari Walker. “We can clearly get order in physics and non-equilibrium systems, but that doesn’t necessarily make it life.”

To say England’s work could be the “smoking gun” for the origin of life is premature, and there are many other hypotheses as to how life may have emerged from nothing, experts said. But it is a fascinating insight into how physical systems may self-organize in nature. Now that researchers have a general idea about how this thermodynamic system behaves, it would be a nice next step to identify sufficiently out-of-equilibrium physical systems that naturally occur on Earth, England said.


Astronomers Find Titanium Oxide On Aline Planet

September 22, 2017 by  
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For the first time ever, titanium oxide has been spotted in an exoplanet’s skies, a new study reports.

Astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile detected the substance in the atmosphere of WASP-19b, a huge, scorching-hot planet located 815 light-years from Earth.

The presence of titanium oxide in the atmosphere of WASP-19b can have substantial effects on the atmospheric temperature structure and circulation,” study co-author Ryan MacDonald, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in England, said in a statement.  

One possible effect is “thermal inversion.” If enough titanium oxide is present, the stuff can keep heat from entering or exiting an atmosphere, causing upper layers to be hotter than lower layers, researchers said. (This phenomenon occurs in Earth’s stratosphere, but the culprit is ozone, not titanium oxide.)

Artist’s illustration showing the exoplanet WASP-19b, whose atmosphere contains titanium oxide. In large enough quantities, titanium oxide can prevent heat from entering or escaping an atmosphere, leading to a “thermal inversion” in which temperatures are higher in the upper atmosphere than lower down.

WASP-19b is a bizarre world about the mass of Jupiter. The alien planet lies incredibly close to its host star, completing one orbit every 19 hours. As a result, WASP-19b’s atmospheric temperatures are thought to hover around 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius).

The research team — led by Elyar Sedaghati of the European Southern Observatory, the German Aerospace Center and the Technical University of Berlin — studied WASP-19b for more than a year using the VLT’s refurbished FORS2 instrument. These observations allowed them to determine that small amounts of titanium oxide, along with water and wisps of sodium, swirl around in the exoplanet’s blistering air.

“Detecting such molecules is, however, no simple feat,” Sedaghati said in the same statement. “Not only do we need data of exceptional quality, but we also need to perform a sophisticated analysis. We used an algorithm that explores many millions of spectra spanning a wide range of chemical compositions, temperatures, and cloud or haze properties in order to draw our conclusions.”

In addition to shedding new light on WASP-19b, the new study — which was published online today (Sept. 13) in the journal Nature — should improve researchers’ modeling of exoplanet atmospheres in general, team members said.

“To be able to examine exoplanets at this level of detail is promising and very exciting,” said co-author Nikku Madhusudhan, also of the University of Cambridge. 


Can The James Webb Telescope Find Life In Our Solar System

September 18, 2017 by  
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The soon-to-launch James Webb Space Telescope will turn its powerful eye on two of the solar system’s top candidates for hosting alien life: the icy moons Enceladus and Europa, the agency confirmed in a statement this month.

Both Europa (a moon of Jupiter) and Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) are thought to possess subsurface oceans of liquid water beneath thick outer layers of ice. Both moons have also shown evidence of enormous plumes of liquid shooting up through cracks in the surface ice; these plumes could be caused by subsurface geysers, which could provide a source of heat and nutrients to life-forms there, scientists have said.

“We chose these two moons because of their potential to exhibit chemical signatures of astrobiological interest,” said Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), who is leading an effort to use the telescope to study objects in Earth’s solar system.  

The James Webb Space Telescope, nicknamed “Webb,” will capture infrared light, which can be used to identify objects that generate heat but are not hot enough to radiate light (including humans, which is why many night-vision systems utilize infrared light). Researchers are hoping that Webb can help to identify regions on the surfaces of these moons where geologic activity, such as plume eruptions, are taking place. 

Enceladus’ plumes were studied in detail by the Cassini probe at Saturn. The spacecraft spotted hundreds of plumes, and even flew through some of them and sampled their composition. Europa’s plumes were spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope, and researchers know far less about them than those on Europa.

“Are they made of water ice? Is hot water vapor being released? What is the temperature of the active regions and the emitted water?” Geronimo Villanueva, lead scientist on the Webbobservation of Europa and Enceladus, said in the statement. “Webb telescope’s measurements will allow us to address these questions with unprecedented accuracy and precision.”

Webb’s observations will help pave the way for the Europa Clipper mission, a $2 billion orbital mission to the icy moon. Scheduled to launch in the 2020s, Europa Clipper will search for signs of life on Europa. The observations with Webb could identify areas of interest for the Europa Clipper mission to investigate, according to the statement.

As seen by Webb, the Saturn moon Enceladus will appear about 10 times smaller than Europa, so scientists will not be able to capture high-resolution views of Enceladus’ surface, according to the statement. However, Webb can still analyze the molecular composition of Enceladus’ plumes. 

But it’s also possible that the observations won’t catch a plume erupting from Europa’s surface; scientists don’t know how frequently these geysers erupt, and the limited observing time with Webb may not coincide with one of them. The telescope can detect organics — elements such as carbon that are essential to the formation of life as we know it — in the plumes. However, Villanueva cautioned that Webb does not have the power to directly detect life-forms in the plumes.

Webb is set to launch in 2018 and will orbit the sun at the L2 Lagrange point, which is about one million miles (1.7 million km) farther from the sun than the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The telescope will provide high-resolution views of both the very distant and very nearby universe. Scientists have already begun submitting ideas for objects or regions that should be observed using Webb’s powerful eye, and Europa and Enceladus are among the objects that are now guaranteed observing time.


Project Blue Telescope Goes CrowdFunding

September 15, 2017 by  
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The private space telescope initiative Project Blue launched a new crowdfunding campaign Sept. 6 in a second attempt to raise money for its mission to directly image Earth-like exoplanets. 

The initiative aims to launch a small space telescope into low-Earth orbit. The telescope will spy on our interstellar neighbor Alpha Centauri and image any Earth-like planets that might orbit the star system.

In support of Project Blue, BoldlyGo Institute and numerous organizations, including the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Mission Centaur, launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $175,000 over the next two months. The funds will be used to establish mission requirements, design the initial system architecture and test its capability for detecting exoplanets. Project leaders will also begin looking for potential partners who could manufacture parts of the space telescope, representatives said in a statement. 

“We’re very excited to pursue such an impactful space mission and, as a privately-funded effort, to include a global community of explorers and space science advocates in Project Blue from the beginning,” Jon Morse, CEO of BoldlyGo Institute, said in the statement.

Last year, Project Blue organizers attempted to raise $1 million through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, but the campaign was canceled after only $335,597 was contributed and Project Blue received none of the funds (as is Kickstarter’s policy). 

With the IndieGoGo campaign, however, the organizers have a more flexible goal and will be able to keep all contributions from supporters, even if the initial goal of $175,000 is not reached. So far, more than $45,000 has been raised through the campaign.

The neighboring star system Alpha Centauri is located only 4.37 light-years from Earth, making it a target for scientific research. Project Blue estimates it will take about $50 million to build the special-purpose telescope, which is planned to launch in 2021. 

The small space telescope will use a specialized coronagraph to block the bright glare of Alpha Centauri’s stars and detect planets that may be orbiting there. One planet, Proxima b, has already been detected around Proxima Centauri. 

However, Proxima b was discovered indirectly, by measuring the planet’s gravitational effect on its host star. Instead, the Project Blue telescope will be designed to directly image Earth-like planets in Alpha Centauri’s neighborhood.



Do Trappist-1 Planets Have Enough Water For Alien Life

September 11, 2017 by  
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The new study looks at how much ultraviolet (UV) radiation is received by each of the planets, because this could affect how much water the worlds could sustain over billions of years, according to the study. Lower-energy UV light can break apart water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms on a planet’s surface, while higher-energy UV light (along with X-rays from the star) can heat a planet’s upper atmosphere and free the separated hydrogen and oxygen atoms into space, according to the study. (It’s also possible that the star’s radiation destroyed the planets’ atmospheres long ago.)

The researchers measured the amount of UV radiation bathing the TRAPPIST-1 planets using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, and in their paper they estimate just how much water each of the worlds could have lost in the 8 billion years since the system formed.

It’s possible that the six innermost planets (identified by the letters b, c, d, e, f and g), pelted with the highest levels of UV radiation, could have lost up to 20 Earth-oceans’ worth of water, according to the paper. But it’s also possible that the outermost four planets (e, f, g and h — the first three of which are in the star’s habitable zone) lost less than three Earth-oceans’ worth of water.

If the planets had little or no water to start with, the destruction of water molecules by UV radiation could spell the end of the planets’ habitability. But it’s possible that the planets were initially so rich in liquid water that, even with the water loss caused by UV radiation, they haven’t dried up,  according to one of the study’s authors, Michaël Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liège in Belgium. Gillon was also lead author on two studies that first identified the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets.

“It is very likely that the planets formed much farther away from the star [than they are now] and migrated inwards during the first 10 million years of the system,” Gillon told in an email.

Farther away from their parent star, the planets might have formed in an environment rich in water ice, meaning the planets could have initially had very water-rich compositions.

“We’re talking about dozens, and maybe even hundreds of Earth-oceans, so a loss of 20 Earth-oceans wouldn’t matter much,” Gillon said. “What our results show is that even if the outer planets were initially quite water-poor like the original Earth, they could still have some water on their surfaces.”


Will The James Webb Telescope Easily Find Earth Like Planets

August 17, 2017 by  
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The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), billed as “NASA’s premier observatory of the next decade,” could search for signs of an atmosphere on Proxima b. When it launches next year, JWST will be the most powerful space-based observatory yet, and the largest ever contrcuted. Its 6.5-meter mirror (nearly three times the size of the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror) is expected to yield insights into the entire universe, ranging from the formation of planets and galaxies to peering at exoplanets in higher resolution than ever before.

There is only so much telescope time for JWST, however, and as with Hubble observations, astronomers will receive access on a competitive basis. Among the many proposals for the telescope that have emerged in recent months following NASA’s solicitation of science projects, a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal (a draft version of which is available on Arxiv) suggests using the JWST to probe Proxima b’s atmosphere.

If such observations go forward, the telescope will provide an unparalleled view of Proxima b. JWST is optimized for infrared wavelengths, which can be used to examine a planet’s heat emissions. Because JWST will be orbiting the sun, it won’t be peering through Earth’s atmosphere, whose warmth can interfere with observations.

“Other telescopes are not able to do this,” Ignas Snellan, an astronomy researcher at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and the paper’s lead author, told Seeker in an email. “Hubble is too small and works in the wrong wavelength range. Current ground-based telescopes cannot touch the mid-infrared because of very high thermal backgrounds, and are in a not enough stable environment, in contrast to JWST, which operates from space.”

The astronomers hope to use JWST to determine whether or not Proxima b has an atmosphere. Snellan said this will be very difficult, because the planet is very faint compared to its parent star. The research team therefore proposes looking for carbon dioxide.

The team’s method “looks for a striking signature that is expected from this molecule at 15 micron, that varies strongly from one wavelength to the next,” Snellan explained. “It will be very challenging, but we think doable.”

Finding carbon dioxide isn’t necessarily a sign of life as we know it. The gas is only found in trace amounts in Earth’s atmosphere (which is mostly made up of nitrogen and oxygen), even though carbon is the primary basis for life on our planet.

But carbon dioxide is a common gas on both Venus, which has a hellishly thick atmosphere, and Mars. Though the Red Planet once had a much thicker atmosphere long ago, today it is very thin. Scientists are still investigating how this atmospheric loss occurred, but suggest that the sun might have pushed light molecules out of Mars’ upper atmosphere that could not be held in by the planet’s gravity. Life may have existed on Mars in the ancient past, but scientists aren’t sure if that was possible then — or even now.

Might Proxima b be hospitable to life? Scientists are eager to look at the exoplanet in more detail, but Snellen notes that even better telescopes will be needed to answer that question. He suggests that the European Extremely Large Telescope could do the job after construction of the massive observatory is completed in the next decade. It would be able to probe for oxygen, which is a more definitive sign of life.

Meanwhile, the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, which aims to one day send ultra-fast nanoprobes to the Alpha Centauri star system, is planning to soon begin examining the system’s three stars. The initiative recently partnered with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope to look for worlds that could be habitable.


Astronomers Develop Laser SETI Program To Look For E.T.

August 14, 2017 by  
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The best way to find laser flashes from an alien civilization is to look everywhere, all the time, and a new project aims to do just that.

The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, has released details of the effort, which it calls “Laser SETI: First-Ever All-Sky All-the-Time Search.”

The first flash from the group is that it has launched a crowdfunding drive to support the project via the website Indiegogo, which you can read about here.

Hosted by Hanneke Weitering On Aug. 8, 1977, the Salyut 5 space station fell out of space and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. Salyut 5 was a Soviet space station and part of the highly-secretive Almaz military space station program. It launched in 1976 and housed two crew of cosmonauts as they conducted military experiments and other scientific research in orbit. Originally, four crewed missions were supposed to go to Salyut 5. However, the third crew was unable to dock their spacecraft and had to return home. The fourth mission had to be cancelled because Salyut 5 was starting to run low on propellant for its main engines and attitude control system. Salyut 5 couldn’t be refuelled, so it was deorbited and left to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Though Laser SETI is cost-effective, astronomy-grade cameras must be purchased and optics fabricated, SETI Institute researchers said. The organization aims to raise $100,000 via the crowdfunding campaign, which runs through Aug. 18.

“The universe we call home is vast!” said SETI Institute president and CEO Bill Diamond. “It’s also nearly 14 billion years old, so it’s very difficult to imagine that we are alone. Yet extraterrestrial life still eludes our efforts to find it. Now you have a chance to be a part of the technology that can change that forever.”

For the last 50 years, whether the extraterrestrials are wielding massive radio transmitters or high-powered lasers, astronomers carrying out SETI experiments have assumed that the aliens are on the air, all the time.

“But that might not be right,” Diamond said. “After all, would these otherworldly beings relentlessly target our solar system if, like the overwhelming majority of galactic stars, they’re more than 100 light-years away — far enough that they haven’t learned we’re here, because our own signals haven’t yet reached them?”

Laser SETI is the first experiment to circumvent this assumption, Diamond adds, “because it’s designed to find a very short ping that doesn’t stay on all the time — it can detect a laser flash as short as a microsecond, and one that might not repeat for days, weeks, or even longer.”

Laser SETI on Indiegogo from SETI on Vimeo.


Astronomers Find Stratrosphere On Alien World

August 10, 2017 by  
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A huge, superhot alien planet has a stratrosphere, like Earth does, a new study suggests. 

“This result is exciting because it shows that a common trait of most of the atmospheres in our solar system — a warm stratosphere — also can be found in exoplanet atmospheres,” study co-author Mark Marley, of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, said in a statement.

“We can now compare processes in exoplanet atmospheres with the same processes that happen under different sets of conditions in our own solar system,” Marley added. [Gallery: The Strangest Alien Planets] 

The research team, led by Thomas Evans of the University of Exeter in England, detected spectral signatures of water molecules in the atmosphere of WASP-121b, a gas giant that lies about 880 light-years from Earth. These signatures indicate that the temperature of the upper layer of the planet’s atmosphere increases with the distance from the planet’s surface. In the bottom layer of the atmosphere, the troposphere, the temperature decreases with altitude, study team members said.

WASP-121b lies incredibly close to its host star, completing one orbit every 1.3 days. The planet is a “hot Jupiter”; temperatures at the top of its atmosphere reach a sizzling 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit (2,500 degrees Celsius), researchers said.

“The question [of] whether stratospheres do or do not form in hot Jupiters has been one of the major outstanding questions in exoplanet research since at least the early 2000s,” Evans told “Currently, our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres is pretty basic and limited. Every new piece of information that we are able to get represents a significant step forward.”

The discovery is also significant because it shows that atmospheres of distant exoplanets can be analyzed in detail, said Kevin Heng of the University of Bern in Switzerland, who is not a member of the study team. 

“This is an important technical milestone on the road to a final goal that we all agree on, and the goal is that, in the future, we can apply the very same techniques to study atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets,” Heng told “We would like to measure transits of Earth-like planets. We would like to figure out what type of molecules are in the atmospheres, and after we do that, we would like to take the final very big step, which is to see whether these molecular signatures could indicate the presence of life.”

Available technology does not yet allow such work with small, rocky exoplanets, researchers said. 

“We are focusing on these big gas giants that are heated to very high temperatures due to the close proximity of their stars simply because they are the easiest to study with the current technology,” Evans said. “We are just trying to understand as much about their fundamental properties as possible and refine our knowledge, and, hopefully in the decades to come, we can start pushing towards smaller and cooler planets.”

WASP-121b is nearly twice the size of Jupiter. The exoplanet transits, or crosses the face of, its host star from Earth’s perspective. Evans and his team were able to observe those transits using an infrared spectrograph aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“By looking at the difference in the brightness of the system for when the planet was not behind the star and when it was behind the star, we were able to work out the brightness and the spectrum of the planet itself,” Evans said. “We measured the spectrum of the planet using this method at a wavelength range which is very sensitive to the spectral signature of water molecules.”

The team observed signatures of glowing water molecules, which indicated that WASP-121b’s atmospheric temperatures increase with altitude, Evans said. If the temperature decreased with altitude, infrared radiation would at some point pass through a region of cooler water-gas, which would absorb the part of the spectrum responsible for the glowing effect, he explained. 

There have been hints of stratospheres detected on other hot Jupiters, but the new results are the most convincing such evidence to date, Evans said.

“It’s the first time that it has been done clearly for an exoplanet atmosphere, and that’s why it’s the strongest evidence to date for an exoplanet stratosphere,” he said. 

He added that researchers might be able to move closer to studying more Earth-like planets with the arrival of next-generation observatories such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and big ground-based observatories such as the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). JWST is scheduled to launch late next year, and GMT, E-ELT and TMT are expected to come online in the early to mid-2020s.


Are ‘Super-Earth’ Alien Planets Carving Up Planet-Forming Disks

July 25, 2017 by  
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NASA’s Kepler space telescope and other instruments have revealed the existence of thousands of alien planets. Most of them are “super-Earths” — rocky worlds with Earth- to Neptune-size masses. 

But the existence of so many super-Earths seems to contradict astronomers’ understanding of planet formation. Indeed, observations of newborn solar systems show features that seem to need the presence of more massive gas giants like Jupiter.

Scientists may have just solved that mystery, or at least part of it. University of Arizona postdoctoral researcher Ruobing Dong and his colleagues propose that super-Earths can carve out multiple gaps in the disks of gas and dust that surround young stars.

Young stars form with clouds of gas and dust around them, which, as the star spins, eventually coalesce into a disk. As tiny dust grains in this disk collide, they form larger bodies, and those bodies attract more gas and dust in turn. Eventually, some accrete enough mass to form protoplanets. 

Some young planets eventually pull in enough material that a gap opens up in the disk. Astronomers looking at stars with protoplanetary disks have generally thought the gaps would need a large planet to take up so much material — a gas giant planet like Jupiter. 

Dong and his team used computer simulations to reproduce and help explain some of the observations telescopes have made of young stars with their protoplanetary disks still intact — specifically, the stars HL Tauri and TW Hydrae, which the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile observed in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

ALMA saw that the disks around those stars had gaps in them, making a ringlike pattern. Some of the gaps were quite close together — likely too close, in fact, for the orbits of giant planets to remain stable, the researchers said. 

“Among the gaps in HL Tauri and TW Hydrae revealed by ALMA, two pairs of them are extremely narrow and very close to each other,” Dong said in a statement. “In conventional theory, it is difficult for a planet to open such gaps in a disk. They can never be this narrow and this close to each other for reasons of the physics involved.” 

The computer simulations performed by Dong and his team produced disks like those observed by ALMA — even without any gas giants in the mix.

“One super-Earth turned out to be sufficient to create the multiple rings and multiple, narrow gaps we see in the actual observations,” Dong said.

Super-Earths could, at least temporarily, remain stable even when they are in orbits close together, the researchers added. So the new results, which were published in the July 13 issue of The Astrophysical Journal, could help to explain the seeming disconnect between the known exoplanet population and planet-formation theories: Gas giants may not be necessary to carve out gaps.


Does Uranus Have An Odd Magnetic Field

July 18, 2017 by  
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The planet Uranus just keeps getting weirder.

The icy gas world that strangely orbits the sun on its side may also have a wonky magnetic field that constantly flickers on and off, new research suggests.

Magnetic fields around planets, or magnetospheres, create shields against the bombardment of radiation from the sun known as solar wind. On Earth, for example, the magnetosphere lines up pretty closely with the planet’s axis of rotation, and magnetic field lines emerge from Earth’s north and south poles. On Uranus, however, the magnetosphere is a bit more chaotic.

Uranus’ spin axis is tilted by a whopping 98 degrees, and the planet’s off-center magnetic field is tilted by another 60 degrees. Every time the planet rotates (about every 17.24 hours), this lopsided magnetic field tumbles around, opening and closing periodically as the magnetic field lines disconnect and reconnect, the study found. 

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta figured this out by simulating Uranus’ messy magnetosphere using numerical models and data from NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, which flew by the planet in 1986.

“Uranus is a geometric nightmare,” Carol Paty, an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “The magnetic field tumbles very fast, like a child cartwheeling down a hill head over heels. When the magnetized solar wind meets this tumbling field in the right way, it can reconnect, and [so] Uranus’ magnetosphere goes from open to closed to open on a daily basis.”

When the magnetosphere opens up, it allows solar particles to bombard the planet. Then, when the magnetic field lines reconnect, this natural shield can continue to block the solar wind.

This process may be related to auroras on Uranus. Just like the auroras on Earth and other planets, Uranus’ atmosphere lights up when particles from the solar wind enter it and interact with gases like nitrogen and oxygen. 

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has previously observed auroras on Uranus, but astronomers face difficulties in studying how these auroras interact with the magnetosphere, because the planet is so far away — nearly 2 billion miles (3.2 billion kilometers) from Earth. The space agency is currently considering sending another spacecraft to Uranus and Neptune to investigate those planet’s magnetic fields, among other things.

Xin Cao, a Ph.D. candidate at Georgia Tech who led the study, said that studying Uranus can teach scientists a lot about planets outside of the solar system. “The majority of exoplanets [worlds outside the solar system] that have been discovered appear to also be ice giants in size,” he said. “Perhaps what we see on Uranus and Neptune is the norm for planets: very unique magnetospheres and less-aligned magnetic fields.

“Understanding how these complex magnetospheres shield exoplanets from stellar radiation is of key importance for studying the habitability of these newly discovered worlds,” Cao added.

The results of this study were published June 27 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.


Can Mankind Use Light To Travel To Other Planets

July 3, 2017 by  
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Humanity should focus its efforts on exploring other worlds that we might inhabit, and to get there, Earthlings may need to ride on a beam of light, famed physicist Stephen Hawking says.

Hawking made his remarks on June 20 at Starmus, an arts and science festival in Norway whose advisory board he sits on. In his speech, he reiterated his belief that humans need to explore space to avoid the dangers of our own finite world. And then he described how humans could one day travel on a beam of light, harnessing the power of Einstein’s theory of relativity to reach mind-bogglingly distant planets.

Earth in peril

The human imagination has led us to peer ever deeper into the universe with scientific tools, Hawking said. Yet despite this ability to investigate the most distant reaches of the universe without leaving our backyards, humans shouldn’t be content with this sedentary approach.

“Shouldn’t we be content to be cosmic sloths, enjoying the universe from the comfort of Earth? The answer is, no,” Hawking said in his address. “The Earth is under threat from so many areas that it is difficult for me to be positive.”

What’s more, humans are naturally curious explorers who are driven to push into the unknown. Hawking described the looming threats of a too-crowded world facing climate change, the collapse of animal species and the draining of physical resources. (Hawking has previously mentioned his conviction that humanity is doomed in the next millennium unless people can come up with an escape plan.)

“When we have reached similar crises in our history, there has usually been somewhere else to colonize. Columbus did it in 1492 when he discovered the New World. But now there is no new world. No Utopia around the corner,” Hawking said.

Explore the unknown

The easiest targets are the places closest to home: the moon and Mars, Hawking said in his Starmus address. The moon is nearby, but it’s small, has no liquid water and lacks a magnetic field to shield people from radiation. Mars may once have had liquid water and an atmosphere, but no longer.

But an even more promising idea is to explore some of the planets in the vicinity of our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, at a distance of about 4.5 light-years from Earth, where 1 light-year is nearly 6 trillion miles (10 million kilometers). A planet circling Proxima Centauri, called Proxima Centauri b, may be somewhat similar to Earth, at least in a few respects, Hawking said.

However, we’ll never know how hospitable Proxima b is unless we can get there. At current speeds, using chemical propulsion, it would take 3 million years to reach the exoplanet, Hawking saidThus, space colonization requires a radical departure in our travel technology.

“To go faster would require a much higher exhaust speed than chemical rockets can provide — that of light itself,” Hawking said. “A powerful beam of light from the rear could drive the spaceship forward. Nuclear fusion could provide 1 percent of the spaceship’s mass energy, which would accelerate it to a tenth of the speed of light.”

Going faster than that would require harnessing matter-antimatter annihilation or as-yet-undreamed-of technology, he added. (When matter and antimatter come into contact, they annihilate, releasing gobs of energy.)

Tiny space probes

To bring these seeming pipe dreams closer to reality, Hawking, along with physicist and billionaire Yuri Milner, has founded a company called Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to make interstellar travel a reality. As an early prototype, the team is creating a teensy space probe, just a few centimeters wide, attached to a miniscule light sail. The plan is to send 1,000 of these “StarChips” and their sails into the void, with arrays of lasers uniting to form one powerful light beam to propel the tiny sails with gigawatts of power, Hawking said.

The energy imparted to the tiny space probes could zoom them to speeds reaching about 100 million mph (160 million km/h), which would mean they would reach Mars in a day (as opposed to 260 days using propulsion). At one-fifth the speed of light, the probes would reach Alpha Centauri in just 20 years and send images of any possible planets back on another light beam, Hawking said. Another physicist, Claudius Gros has proposed using these tiny space explorers to colonize far-flung planets with a biosphere of unicellular organisms, Hawking said

“Human colonization on other planets is no longer science fiction. It can be science fact. The human race has existed as a separate species for about 2 million years. Civilization began about 10,000 years ago, and the rate of development has been steadily increasing. If humanity is to continue for another million years, our future lies in boldly going where no one else has gone before,” Hawking said.


NASA Finds More Alien Worlds

June 28, 2017 by  
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NASA announced the latest crop of planet discoveries from the Kepler Space Telescope during a briefing on Monday morning June 19. 

The briefing will be at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) during the Kepler Science Conference at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. You can watch the exoplanet announcement here, courtesy of NASA TV. NASA will livestream the conference.

The briefing will incude a panel of four experts, according to a statement by NASA: Mario Perez, Kepler program scientist in the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington; Susan Thompson, Kepler research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California; Benjamin Fulton, doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the California Institute of Technology; and Courtney Dressing, NASA Sagan Fellow at the California Institute of Technology. A question-and-answer session will follow.

Kepler has been hunting for extrasolar planets since its launch in 2009. This latest set of exoplanet candidates will use a more complete data set than ever before, with analysis of greater sophistication. The spacecraft started a new mission, called K2, after the failure of two reaction wheels that stabilized the spacecraft in 2013. The K2 mission was a modified version of the original planet-hunting mandate, seeking worlds around relatively nearby red dwarf stars. 

Newfound exoplanets are often listed as candidates because it can take time to verify that they are actually there. Kepler finds planets by observing the light of stars over a period of time, using a process called the transit method. If the light dims, then it’s possible a planet passed in front of it. The evidence for an exoplanet is considered stronger if the light dims more than once on a predictable schedule, indicating that something is in orbit around the star. 

Kepler was the first mission capable of seeing planets the size of Earth around other stars in the “habitable zone” — the region at a distance from a star where liquid water could exist without freezing or boiling away immediately. 

According to NASA, thus far Kepler has found 4,496 exoplanet candidates. Some 2,335 have been confirmed and 21 are Earth-size planets in the habitable zone. Since the mission was renamed K2, an additional 520 exoplanet candidates have been found, with 148 confirmed.



NASA To Focus New Horizon On Another Object Beyond Pluto

June 14, 2017 by  
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The team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission is about to get some good looks at the Pluto probe’s next flyby target, if everything goes according to plan.  

New Horizons is speeding toward a Jan. 1, 2019, close encounter with a small object called 2014 MU69, which lies about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond the orbit of Pluto.

On Saturday (June 3), 2014 MU69 will cross in front of a distant star in an “occultation” visible from a narrow band of land and sea in the Southern Hemisphere. Stellar occultations can reveal key details about the light-blocking foreground body, so New Horizons team members have deployed to Argentina and South Africa to watch the show.

“Our primary objective is to determine if there are hazards near MU69 — rings, dust or even satellites — that could affect our flight planning,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement.

“But we also expect to learn more about its orbit, and possibly determine its size and shape,” Stern added. “All of that will help feed our flyby planning effort.”

Astronomers have not been able to nail down 2014 MU69’s precise orbit yet; as its name suggests, the object was discovered just three years ago. So the New Horizons team used images of MU69 taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and star-mapping data from Europe’s Gaia mission to determine where MU69’s shadow will fall on Earth on Saturday.

The researchers have access to more than two dozen fixed-base telescopes along this projected shadow path. And they brought along 25 portable telescopes, 22 of which are new, 16-inch (40 centimeters) instruments, mission team members said.

The team will space out the telescopes, placing one every 6 to 18 miles (10 to 29 km) along the path. This strategy will increase the chances that at least one instrument will get a good enough look at the 2-second-long occultation to help researchers determine MU69’s size, reflectivity and other key characteristics, team members said. (2014 MU69 is thought to be about 25 miles, or 40 km, across.)

“Deploying on two different continents also maximizes our chances of having good weather,” New Horizons deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin, also from SwRI, said in the same statement. “The shadow is predicted to go across both locations, and we want observers at both, because we wouldn’t want a huge storm system to come through and cloud us out — the event is too important and too fleeting to miss.”

The team will have two chances to gather similar data next month as well: 2014 MU69 will occult another star on July 10, and a different one on July 17. New Horizons scientists will observe both events. And they plan to use NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) — a 747 jet outfitted with a 100-inch (254 cm) telescope — during the July 10 occultation, mission team members said.

SOFIA will allow the team to get above any inclement weather as well as maneuver into the middle of the shadow path.

New Horizons famously flew by Pluto in July 2015, giving humanity its first-ever up-close looks at that diverse and complex world. The mission team was able to start mapping out the Pluto encounter nearly seven years ahead of time, researchers said. The timeline is more compressed with 2014 MU69, because New Horizons’ handlers couldn’t begin focusing on this second target until Pluto was in the probe’s rearview mirror.

“Spacecraft flybys are unforgiving,” Stern said. “There are no second chances. The upcoming occultations are valuable opportunities to learn something about MU69 before our encounter, and help us plan for a very unique flyby of a scientifically important relic of the solar system’s era of formation.”


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