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  • Images of strange solar system visitor peel away some of the mystery
    16.11.2017 20:19:28
    Images of strange solar system visitor peel away some of the mystery Madison WI (SPX) Nov 17, 2017 -
    A strange visitor, either asteroid or comet, zipping through our solar system at a high rate of speed is giving astronomers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to examine up close an object from somewhere else in our galaxy."It's a really rare object," explains Ralf Kotulla, a University of Wisconsin-Madison astronomer who, with colleagues from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), used the 3.5 meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of the solar system interloper.The object, known to astronomers as 1I/2017 U1, measures 180 meters by 30 meters. In shape, the object resembles a fat cigar, half a city block long, and was first discovered Oct. 19 by astronomers at the University of Hawaii combing the sky for near-Earth objects. Since then, astronomers who have access to telescope time have been zooming in on the object to see what they might learn.According to Kotulla, the interloper is speeding through the solar system at an astonishing 40,000 miles per hour. The high rate of speed and the orbit of the object could not be explained in the context of more run-of-the-mill comets or asteroids in our solar system.1I/2017 U1 dropped into our solar system from "above" the ecliptic, the plane where most planets and asteroids orbit the sun, and is now skipping away from the solar system, headed back to interstellar space."This object has considerable speed. It is not bound to the sun" like comets or asteroids native to our solar system, Kotulla explains. "Its orbit doesn't take it anywhere near the major planets."The WIYN Telescope made its observations of 1I/2017 U1 on Oct. 27 shortly after the object's closest pass to Earth. The WIYN team's findings are reported online this week (Nov. 13, 2017) in a preprint on Astro-Ph. The gist of the report is that 1I/2017 U1 - aside from its origin beyond the solar system, its unusual orbit and shape, and high rate of speed - is unremarkable when its physical properties are compared to similar objects from our own solar system.Because it is so small and moving at such a high rate of speed, the object, even to a relatively large telescope like WIYN, appears faint, a fuzzy spot on a background of stars. The combination of being faint and fast means that 1I/2017 U1 is unlikely to be observed by amateur astronomers, the cadre of sky watchers that typically identifies new comets or asteroids sweeping close to Earth.From the WIYN observations, no coma - a nebulous envelope of dust and gas created when comets heat up as they pass near the sun - is apparent. The WIYN team also failed to see a tail, the signature feature of a comet.But the absence of the fuzzy halo and a detectable tail, notes Kotulla, does not mean that it isn't a comet."That's one of the questions we're trying to answer," says the Wisconsin astronomer. "Comet or asteroid?"The WIYN observations revealed that the object is elongated in shape and rotates on an axis about once every eight hours. From the perspective of Earth, the object is seen sideways and, as it spins on its axis, end-on, explaining variations in brightness as sunlight is reflected off the comet or asteroid. It also has a reddish tinge and a low albedo, suggesting 1I/2017 U1 lacks the coating of ice that many comets acquire as they spend most of their time in cold storage in the outer reaches of the solar system.The upshot of the WIYN observations, says Kotulla, is that the visitor from some distant planetary system, beyond its robusto-cigar shape, looks very much like the objects that populate our own solar system.
  • Our Living Planet Shapes the Search for Life Beyond Earth
    16.11.2017 20:19:28
    Our Living Planet Shapes the Search for Life Beyond Earth Pasadena CA (JPL) Nov 16, 2017 -
    As a young scientist, Tony del Genio of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City met Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto."I thought, 'Wow, this is a one-time opportunity,'" del Genio said. "I'll never meet anyone else who found a planet."That prediction was spectacularly wrong. In 1992, two scientists discovered the first planet around another star, or exoplanet, and since then more people have found planets thanthroughout all of Earth's preceding history. As of this month, scientists have confirmed more than 3,500 exoplanets in more than 2,700 star systems. Del Genio has met many of these new planet finders.Del Genio is now co-lead of a NASA interdisciplinary initiative to search for life on other worlds. This new position as the lead of this project may seem odd to those who know him professionally. Why? He has dedicated decades to studying Earth, not searching for life elsewhere.We know of only one living planet: our own. But we know it very well. As we move to the next stage in the search for alien life, the effort will require the expertise of planetary scientists, heliophysicists and astrophysicists. However, the knowledge and tools NASA has developed to study life on Earth will also be one of the greatest assets to the quest.Habitable Worlds
    There are two main questions in the search for life: With so many places to look, how can we focus in on the places most likely to harbor life? What are the unmistakable signs of life - even if it comes in a form we don't fully understand?"Before we go looking for life, we're trying to figure out what kinds of planets could have a climate that's conducive to life," del Genio said. "We're using the same climate models that we use to project 21st century climate change on Earth to do simulations of specific exoplanets that have been discovered, and hypothetical ones."Del Genio recognizes that life may well exist in forms and places so bizarre that it might be substantially different from Earth. But in this early phase of the search, "We have to go with the kind of life we know," he said.Further, we should make sure we use the detailed knowledge of Earth. In particular, we should make sure of our discoveries on life in various environments on Earth, our knowledge of how our planet and its life have affected each other over Earth history, and our satellite observations of Earth's climate.Above all else, that means liquid water. Every cell we know of - even bacteria around deep-sea vents that exist without sunlight - requires water.Life in the Ocean
    Research scientist Morgan Cable of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is looking within the solar system for locations that have the potential to support liquid water. Some of the icy moons around Saturn and Jupiter have oceans below the ice crust. These oceans were formed by tidal heating, that is, warming of the ice caused by friction between the surface ice and the core as a result of the gravitational interaction between the planet and the moon."We thought Enceladus was just boring and cold until the Cassini mission discovered a liquid water subsurface ocean," said Cable. The water is spraying into space, and the Cassini mission found hints in the chemical composition of the spray that the ocean chemistry is affected by interactions between heated water and rocks at the seafloor. The Galileo and Voyager missions provided evidence that Europa also has a liquid water ocean under an icy crust. Observations revealed a jumbled terrain that could be the result of ice melting and reforming.As missions to these moons are being developed, scientists are using Earth as a testbed. Just as prototypes for NASA's Mars rovers made their trial runs on Earth's deserts, researchers are testing both hypotheses and technology on our oceans and extreme environments.Cable gave the example of satellite observations of Arctic and Antarctic ice fields, which are informing the planning for a Europa mission. The Earth observations help researchers find ways to date the origin of jumbled ice. "When we visit Europa, we want to go to very young places, where material from that ocean is being expressed on the surface," she said. "Anywhere like that, the chances of finding evidence of life goes up - if they're there."Water in Space
    For any star, it's possible to calculate the range of distances where orbiting planets could have liquid water on the surface. This is called the star's habitable zone.Astronomers have already located some habitable-zone planets, and research scientist Andrew Rushby, of NASA Ames Research Center, in Moffett Field, California, is studying ways to refine the search. Location alone isn't enough. "An alien would spot three planets in our solar system in the habitable zone [Earth, Mars and Venus]," Rushby said, "but we know that 67 percent of those planets are not very habitable."He recently developed a simplified model of Earth's carbon cycle and combined it with other tools to study which planets in the habitable zone would be the best targets to look at for life, considering probable tectonic activity and water cycles. He found that larger rocky planets are more likely than smaller ones to have surface temperatures where liquid water could exist, given the same amount of light from the star.Renyu Hu, of JPL, refined the search for habitable planets in a different way, looking for the signature of a rocky planet. Basic physics tells us that smaller planets must be rocky and larger ones gaseous, but for planets ranging from Earth-sized to about twice that radius, astronomers can't tell a large rocky planet from a small gaseous planet. Hu pioneered a method to detect surface minerals on bare-rock exoplanets and defined the atmospheric chemical signature of volcanic activity, which wouldn't occur on a gas planet.Vital Signs
    When scientists are evaluating a possible habitable planet, "life has to be the hypothesis of last resort," Cable said. "You must eliminate all other explanations." Identifying possible false positives for the signal of life is an ongoing area of research in the exoplanet community. For example, the oxygen in Earth's atmosphere comes from living things, but oxygen can also be produced by inorganic chemical reactions.Shawn Domagal-Goldman, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, looks for unmistakable, chemical signs of life, or biosignatures. One biosignature may be finding two or more molecules in an atmosphere that shouldn't be there at the same time. He uses this analogy: If you walked into a college dorm room and found three students and a pizza, you could conclude that the pizza had recently arrived, because college students quickly consume pizza. Oxygen "consumes" methane by breaking it down in various chemical reactions. Without inputs of methane from life on Earth's surface, our atmosphere would become totally depleted of methane within a few decades.Earth as Exoplanet
    When humans start collecting direct images of exoplanets, even the closest one will appear as a handful of pixels in the detector - something like the famous "blue dot" image of Earth from Saturn. What can we learn about planetary life from a single dot?Stephen Kane of the University of California, Riverside, has come up with a way to answer that question using NASA's Earth Polychromatic Imaging camera on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). These high-resolution images - 2,000 x 2,000 pixels - document Earth's global weather patterns and other climate-related phenomena."I'm taking these glorious pictures and collapsing them down to a single pixel or handful of pixels," Kane explained. He runs the light through a noise filter that attempts to simulate the interference expected from an exoplanet mission.DSCOVR takes a picture every half hour, and it's been in orbit for two years. Its more than 30,000 images are by far the longest continuous record of Earth from space in existence. By observing how the brightness of Earth changes when mostly land is in view compared with mostly water, Kane has been able to reverse-engineer Earth's rotation rate - something that has yet to be measured directly for exoplanets.When Will We Find Life?
    Every scientist involved in the search for life is convinced it's out there. Their opinions differ on when we'll find it."I think that in 20 years we will have found one candidate that might be it," says del Genio. Considering his experience with Tombaugh, he added, "But my track record for predicting the future is not so good."Rushby, on the other hand, says, "It's been 20 years away for the last 50 years. I do think it's on the scale of decades. If I were a betting man, which I'm not, I'd go for Europa or Enceladus."How soon we find a living exoplanet really depends on whether there's one relatively nearby, with the right orbit and size, and with biosignatures that we are able to recognize, Hu said. In other words, "There's always a factor of luck."
  • Closest Temperate World Orbiting Quiet Star Discovered
    16.11.2017 20:19:28
    Closest Temperate World Orbiting Quiet Star Discovered Paris (ESA) Nov 15, 2017 -
    A temperate Earth-sized planet has been discovered only 11 light-years from the Solar System by a team using ESO's unique planet-hunting HARPS instrument. The new world has the designation Ross 128 b and is now the second-closest temperate planet to be detected after Proxima b.It is also the closest planet to be discovered orbiting an inactive red dwarf star, which may increase the likelihood that this planet could potentially sustain life. Ross 128 b will be a prime target for ESO's Extremely Large Telescope, which will be able to search for biomarkers in the planet's atmosphere.A team working with ESO's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile has found that the red dwarf star Ross 128 is orbited by a low-mass exoplanet every 9.9 days. This Earth-sized world is expected to be temperate, with a surface temperature that may also be close to that of the Earth. Ross 128 is the "quietest" nearby star to host such a temperate exoplanet."This discovery is based on more than a decade of HARPS intensive monitoring together with state-of-the-art data reduction and analysis techniques. Only HARPS has demonstrated such a precision and it remains the best planet hunter of its kind, 15 years after it began operations," explains Nicola Astudillo-Defru (Geneva Observatory - University of Geneva, Switzerland), who co-authored the discovery paper.Red dwarfs are some of the coolest, faintest - and most common - stars in the Universe. This makes them very good targets in the search for exoplanets and so they are increasingly being studied. In fact, lead author Xavier Bonfils (Institut de Planetologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble - Universite Grenoble-Alpes/CNRS, Grenoble, France), named their HARPS programme The shortcut to happiness, as it is easier to detect small cool siblings of Earth around these stars, than around stars more similar to the Sun.Many red dwarf stars, including Proxima Centauri, are subject to flares that occasionally bathe their orbiting planets in deadly ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. However, it seems that Ross 128 is a much quieter star, and so its planets may be the closest known comfortable abode for possible life.Although it is currently 11 light-years from Earth, Ross 128 is moving towards us and is expected to become our nearest stellar neighbour in just 79 000 years - a blink of the eye in cosmic terms. Ross 128 b will by then take the crown from Proxima b and become the closest exoplanet to Earth!With the data from HARPS, the team found that Ross 128 b orbits 20 times closer than the Earth orbits the Sun. Despite this proximity, Ross 128 b receives only 1.38 times more irradiation than the Earth.As a result, Ross 128 b's equilibrium temperature is estimated to lie between -60C and 20C, thanks to the cool and faint nature of its small red dwarf host star, which has just over half the surface temperature of the Sun. While the scientists involved in this discovery consider Ross 128b to be a temperate planet, uncertainty remains as to whether the planet lies inside, outside, or on the cusp of the habitable zone, where liquid water may exist on a planet's surface.Astronomers are now detecting more and more temperate exoplanets, and the next stage will be to study their atmospheres, composition and chemistry in more detail. Vitally, the detection of biomarkers such as oxygen in the very closest exoplanet atmospheres will be a huge next step, which ESO's Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is in prime position to take."New facilities at ESO will first play a critical role in building the census of Earth-mass planets amenable to characterisation. In particular, NIRPS, the infrared arm of HARPS, will boost our efficiency in observing red dwarfs, which emit most of their radiation in the infrared. And then, the ELT will provide the opportunity to observe and characterise a large fraction of these planets," concludes Xavier Bonfils.
  • New NASA mission concept aimed at studying why planets lose their atmospheres
    16.11.2017 20:19:28
    Weitere Links:
    New NASA mission concept aimed at studying why planets lose their atmospheres Greenbelt MD (SPX) Nov 15, 2017 -
    A team of NASA scientists want to use Earth as a laboratory to understand how planets lose their atmospheres and has proposed a mission that the agency recently selected as one of five for further consideration as a possible NASA Explorer mission.In the proposed mission that some believe is a potential keystone in the study of the Sun and its effects on planetary atmospheres, the team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is advancing a dual-satellite, polar-orbiting mission to study the universal processes that control atmospheric erosion and its interaction with stellar winds, the continuously flowing stream of charged particles released from the Sun's corona.Called Mechanisms of Energetic Mass Ejection-Explorer, or MEME-X, the mission was one of five proposals that received Phase-A funding under NASA's Small Explorer Program. NASA also selected another Goddard mission, Focusing Optics X-ray Solar Imager [link to story]. Of the five, NASA is expected to select one or two for development and implementation.Cross-Disciplinary Mission
    "MEME-X has strong cross threads across NASA's scientific disciplines - planetary, heliophysics, astrophysics, and Earth science," said Thomas Moore, a Goddard scientist and the MEME-X principal investigator. In addition to providing details about the loss of mass in Earth's upper atmospheric layers, the mission could enhance scientists' understanding of the role that solar wind played in transforming Mars from a warm and wet environment that might have supported surface life on Mars to the cold, arid planet of today, he said.To that end, MEME-X will focus on one principal question: How do particles escape from Earth's upper atmosphere into the magnetosphere - the protective bubble that shields the planet from incoming radiation from the Sun - and then further, out into space. "Atmospheric escape is a fundamental process with wide-reaching consequences across space and planetary sciences," Moore said.Plasma, the dominant material in space, consists of negatively charged electrons and positively charged ions; that is, atoms that have lost their electrons. It is a fourth state of matter - not a gas, liquid, or solid - which conducts electricity and is affected by magnetic fields. On an astronomical scale, plasma is common. It's found in the Sun, in the constant stream of material that flows from the Sun - the solar wind - and throughout space. However, on Earth's surface, it's rare, found mostly in fires and in fluorescent and neon lights.For heliophysics, understanding the outflow of plasma from near-Earth space is particularly crucial, Moore added. The upflow of plasma from the high-latitude polar cap and auroral regions appears to affect the magnetosphere's response to variations in the solar wind and in turn influences space weather, which adds to the challenge of predicting space weather."For 40 years, we've had a long-standing mystery about how a portion of the atmosphere is heated by a factor of a hundred or more and ejected into space, where it dramatically modifies the near-Earth environment," said Doug Rowland, MEME-X deputy principal investigator and a heliophysicist at Goddard. "MEME-X, with its pair of miniaturized spacecraft and advanced instrumentation, will finally give us the tools we need to solve this problem."Equipped with plasma analyzers, which will be mounted on short booms extending along the spacecraft's spin axes, and other instruments developed in part with research-and-development funding, MEME-X would provide the first multipoint measurements of plasma to determine if the matter is being ejected by pressure, as in a geyser, or vacuumed away from Earth, as in a waterspout.Atmospheric Evolution and Habitability
    In addition to revealing the plasma outflow's effect on space weather, the mission could help answer important questions regarding the evolution of planetary atmospheres and planet habitability, Moore said.A case in point is Mars. Once wetter and warmer, and possibly congenial for life, the planet now looks dead. It's a desert world, with a sparse atmosphere and virtually no protective magnetic field. NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, recently discovered that most of the planet's atmosphere has been lost to space, violently scraped from the planet by solar wind.The question scientists want to answer is the role of the magnetosphere in atmospheric loss, particularly as it relates to solar wind. "This is a quest to discover and characterize fundamental processes that occur within the heliosphere and throughout the universe," Moore said. "We want to use the Earth's atmosphere as a laboratory."For more Goddard technology news, go here
  • Astronomers See Moving Shadows Around Planet-Forming Star
    16.11.2017 20:19:28
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    Astronomers See Moving Shadows Around Planet-Forming Star Amsterdam, Netherlands (SPX) Nov 10, 2017 -
    A team of mainly Dutch astronomers has observed moving shadows on a dust disk around a star. On multiple days they took a 'photo' of the star and its disk. They used the SPHERE instrument, partially built in the Netherlands, on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. Probably, processes in the inner disk cast their shadows at the outer disk. The astronomers publish their findings in The Astrophysical Journal.The discovery builds on an earlier publication in which the researchers made one image of the disk. By making multiple images, the astronomers clearly saw variations in the shadows. As a result, they could study the shadows in more detail.The astronomers observed the shadows near the star HD 135344B. That's a young star at a distance of about 450 light-years from Earth. The dust disk around the star shows striking spiral arms. The researchers suspect that they are caused by one or more heavy protoplanets that will evolve into Jupiter-like worlds.The astronomers saw subtle variations of brightness in the outer dust disk. They presume this is because the gas and dust in the inner disk quickly turn around the star. The astronomers do not know yet which process causes the quick turning of the dust."It may be winds, or swirls or clashes of pebbles." says Tomas Stolker who is the first author of the paper about the shadows. Stolker is now postdoc at ETH in Zurich (Switzerland). At the time of the observations, he was a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam.SPHERE is one of the newest instruments on ESO's Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal in northern Chile.The instrument has been partially developed and built in the Netherlands. It uses adaptive optics to correct for the vibrant Earth atmosphere. Furthermore, it has a coronagraph that blocks most of the starlight. In addition, polarization filters remove the last residue of star light. Finally, an image remains of the dust disk around the star.Stolker: "Two years ago, we already expected that the shadows on the outer disk were caused by processes in the internal disk. Unfortunately, we cannot see that part of the disk directly with SPHERE. But due to additional observations with SPHERE, we observed the shadows on the outer disk better, and therefore we now know more about the inner disk."In the future, researchers would like to make an image with SPHERE every few days. Stolker: "And if we also do photometric and spectroscopic observations at the same time, we can exclude certain scenarios."Research Report: "Variable Dynamics in the Inner Disk of HD 135344B Revealed with Multi-Epoch Scattered Light Imaging," Tomas Stolker, Mike Sitko, Bernard Lazareff, Myriam Benisty, Carsten Dominik, Rens Waters, Michiel Min, Sebastian Perez, Julien Milli, Antonio Garufi, Jozua de Boer, Christian Ginski, Stefan Kraus, Jean-Philippe Berger and Henning Avenhaus. To appear in the Astrophysical Journal
  • Scientists find potential 'missing link' in chemistry that led to life on earth
    16.11.2017 20:19:28
    Scientists find potential 'missing link' in chemistry that led to life on earth La Jolla CA (SPX) Nov 07, 2017 -
    Chemists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have found a compound that may have been a crucial factor in the origins of life on Earth.Origins-of-life researchers have hypothesized that a chemical reaction called phosphorylation may have been crucial for the assembly of three key ingredients in early life forms: short strands of nucleotides to store genetic information, short chains of amino acids (peptides) to do the main work of cells, and lipids to form encapsulating structures such as cell walls.Yet, no one has ever found a phosphorylating agent that was plausibly present on early Earth and could have produced these three classes of molecules side-by-side under the same realistic conditions.TSRI chemists have now identified just such a compound: diamidophosphate (DAP)."We suggest a phosphorylation chemistry that could have given rise, all in the same place, to oligonucleotides, oligopeptides, and the cell-like structures to enclose them," said study senior author Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, associate professor of chemistry at TSRI. "That in turn would have allowed other chemistries that were not possible before, potentially leading to the first simple, cell-based living entities."The study, reported in Nature Chemistry, is part of an ongoing effort by scientists around the world to find plausible routes for the epic journey from pre-biological chemistry to cell-based biochemistry.Other researchers have described chemical reactions that might have enabled the phosphorylation of pre-biological molecules on the early Earth. But these scenarios have involved different phosphorylating agents for different types of molecule, as well as different and often uncommon reaction environments."It has been hard to imagine how these very different processes could have combined in the same place to yield the first primitive life forms," said Krishnamurthy.He and his team, including co-first authors Clementine Gibard, Subhendu Bhowmik, and Megha Karki, all postdoctoral research associates at TSRI, showed first that DAP could phosphorylate each of the four nucleoside building blocks of RNA in water or a paste-like state under a wide range of temperatures and other conditions.With the addition of the catalyst imidazole, a simple organic compound that was itself plausibly present on the early Earth, DAP's activity also led to the appearance of short, RNA-like chains of these phosphorylated building blocks.Moreover, DAP with water and imidazole efficiently phosphorylated the lipid building blocks glycerol and fatty acids, leading to the self-assembly of small phospho-lipid capsules called vesicles - primitive versions of cells.DAP in water at room temperature also phosphorylated the amino acids glycine, aspartic acid and glutamic acid, and then helped link these molecules into short peptide chains (peptides are smaller versions of proteins)."With DAP and water and these mild conditions, you can get these three important classes of pre-biological molecules to come together and be transformed, creating the opportunity for them to interact together," Krishnamurthy said.Krishnamurthy and his colleagues have shown previously that DAP can efficiently phosphorylate a variety of simple sugars and thus help construct phosphorus-containing carbohydrates that would have been involved in early life forms. Their new work suggests that DAP could have had a much more central role in the origins of life."It reminds me of the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, who waves a wand and 'poof,' 'poof,' 'poof,' everything simple is transformed into something more complex and interesting," Krishnamurthy said.DAP's importance in kick-starting life on Earth could be hard to prove several billion years after the fact. Krishnamurthy noted, though, that key aspects of the molecule's chemistry are still found in modern biology."DAP phosphorylates via the same phosphorus-nitrogen bond breakage and under the same conditions as protein kinases, which are ubiquitous in present-day life forms," he said. "DAP's phosphorylation chemistry also closely resembles what is seen in the reactions at the heart of every cell's metabolic cycle."Krishnamurthy now plans to follow these leads, and he has also teamed with early-Earth geochemists to try to identify potential sources of DAP, or similarly acting phosphorus-nitrogen compounds, that were on the planet before life arose."There may have been minerals on the early Earth that released such phosphorus-nitrogen compounds under the right conditions," he said. "Astronomers have found evidence for phosphorus-nitrogen compounds in the gas and dust of interstellar space, so it's certainly plausible that such compounds were present on the early Earth and played a role in the emergence of the complex molecules of life."
  • Overlooked Treasure: The First Evidence of Exoplanets
    16.11.2017 20:19:28
    Overlooked Treasure: The First Evidence of Exoplanets Pasadena CA (JPL) Nov 02, 2017 -
    Beneath an elegant office building with a Spanish-style red tiled roof in Pasadena, California, three timeworn storerooms safeguard more than a century of astronomy. Down the stairs and to the right is a basement of wonder. There are countless wooden drawers and boxes, stacked floor to ceiling, with telescope plates, sunspot drawings and other records. A faint ammonia-like smell, reminiscent of old film, fills the air.Guarding one storeroom is a short black door with a sign saying "This door to be kept closed."Carnegie Observatories hosts 250,000 photographic plates taken at Mount Wilson, Palomar and Las Campanas observatories, spanning more than 100 years. In their heydays, the Mount Wilson 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes - the bigger saw its first light on Nov. 1, 1917 - were the most powerful instruments of their kind.Each indelibly changed humanity's understanding of our place in the cosmos. But these technological marvels were ahead of their time - in one case, capturing signs of distant worlds that wouldn't be recognized for a century.Mount Wilson is the site where some of the key discoveries about our galaxy and universe were made in the early 20th century. This is where Edwin Hubble realized that the Milky Way cannot be the extent of our universe, because Andromeda (or M31) is farther away than the most distant reaches of our galaxy. The photographic plate from the 100-inch Hooker Telescope from 1923, which captured this monumental realization, is blown up as a huge poster outside the Carnegie storerooms.Hubble and Milton Humason, whose Mount Wilson career began as a janitor, worked together to explore the expanding nature of the universe. Using the legendary telescopes, as well as data from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, they recognized that clusters of galaxies are traveling away from each other - and the more distant galaxies move away from each other at greater speeds.But there is a far lesser known, 100-year-old discovery from Mount Wilson, one that was unidentified and unappreciated until recently. It's actually: The first evidence of exoplanets.A detective story
    It started with Ben Zuckerman, professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was preparing a talk about the compositions of planets and smaller rocky bodies outside our solar system for a July 2014 symposium at the invitation of Jay Farihi, whom he had helped supervise when Farihi was a graduate student at UCLA. Farihi had suggested that Zuckerman talk about the pollution of white dwarfs, which are faint, dead stars composed of mainly hydrogen and helium.By "pollution," astronomers mean heavy elements invading the photospheres - the outer atmospheres - of these stars. The thing is, all those extra elements shouldn't be there - the strong gravity of the white dwarf should pull the elements into the star's interior, and out of sight.The first polluted white dwarf identified is called van Maanen's Star (or "van Maanen 2" in the scientific literature), after its discoverer Adriaan van Maanen. Van Maanen found this object in 1917 by spotting its subtle motion relative to other stars between 1914 and 1917. Astronomer Walter Sydney Adams, who would later become director of Mount Wilson, captured the spectrum - a chemical fingerprint - of van Maanen's Star on a small glass plate using Mount Wilson's 60-inch telescope.Adams interpreted the spectrum to be of an F-type star, presumably based on the presence and strength of calcium and other heavy-element absorption features, with a temperature somewhat higher than our Sun. In 1919, van Maanen called it a "very faint star."Today, we know that van Maanen's Star, which is about 14 light-years away, is the closest white dwarf to Earth that is not part of a binary system."This star is an icon," Farihi said recently. "It is the first of its type. It's really the proto-prototype."While preparing his talk, Zuckerman had what he later called a "true 'eureka' moment." Van Maanen's Star, unbeknownst to the astronomers who studied it in 1917 and those who thought about it for decades after, must be the first observational evidence that exoplanets exist.What does this have to do with exoplanets?Heavy elements in the star's outermost layer could not have been produced inside the star, because they would immediately sink due to the white dwarf's intense gravitational field. As more white dwarfs with heavy elements in their photospheres were discovered in the 20th century, scientists came to believe that the exotic materials must have come from the interstellar medium - in other words, elements floating in the space between the stars.But in 1987, more than 70 years after the Mount Wilson spectrum of van Maanen's Star, Zuckerman and his colleague Eric Becklin reported an excess of infrared light around a white dwarf, which they thought might come from a faint "failed star" called a brown dwarf. This was, in 1990, interpreted to be a hot, dusty disk orbiting a white dwarf. By the early 2000s, a new theory of polluted white dwarfs had emerged: Exoplanets could push small rocky bodies toward the star, whose powerful gravity would pulverize them into dust. That dust, containing heavy elements from the torn-apart body, would then fall on the star."The bottom line is: if you're an asteroid or comet, you can't just change your address. You need something to move you," Farihi said. "By far, the greatest candidates are planets to do that."NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has been instrumental in expanding the field of polluted white dwarfs orbited by hot, dusty disks. Since launch in 2004, Spitzer has confirmed about 40 of these special stars. Another space telescope, NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, also detected a handful, bringing the total up to about four dozen known today. Because these objects are so faint, infrared light is crucial to identifying them."We can't measure the exact amount of infrared light coming from these objects using telescopes on the ground," Farihi said. "Spitzer, specifically, just burst this wide open."Supporting the new "dusty disk" theory of pulled white dwarfs, in 2007, Zuckerman and colleagues published observations of a white dwarf atmosphere with 17 elements - materials similar to those found in the Earth-Moon system. (The late UCLA professor Michael Jura, who made crucial contributions to the study of polluted white dwarfs, was part of this team.)This was further evidence that at least one small, rocky body - or even a planet - had been torn apart by the gravity of a white dwarf. Scientists now generally agree that a single white dwarf star with heavy elements in its spectrum likely has at least one rocky debris belt - the remnants of bodies that collided violently and never formed planets - and probably at least one major planet.So, heavy elements that happened to be floating in the interstellar medium could not account for the observations. "About 90 years after van Maanen's discovery, astronomers said, 'Whoa, this interstellar accretion model can't possibly be right,'" Zuckerman said.Chasing the spectrum
    Inspired by Zuckerman, Farihi became enamored with the idea that someone had taken a spectrum with the first evidence of exoplanets in 1917, and that a record must exist of that observation. "I got my teeth in the question and I wouldn't let go," he said.Farihi reached out to the Carnegie Observatories, which owns the Mount Wilson telescopes and safeguards their archives. Carnegie Director John Mulchaey put volunteer Dan Kohne on the case. Kohne dug through the archives and, two days later, Mulchaey sent Farihi an image of the spectrum."I can't say I was shocked, frankly, but I was pleasantly blown out of my seat to see that the signature was there, and could be seen even with the human eye," Farihi said.The spectrum of van Maanen's Star that Farihi had requested is now located in a small archival sleeve, labeled with the handwritten date "1917 Oct 24" and a modern yellow sticky note: "possibly 1st record of an exoplanet."Cynthia Hunt, an astronomer who serves as chair of Carnegie's history committee, took the glass plate out of the envelope and placed it onto a viewer that lit it up. The spectrum itself just about 1/6th of an inch, or a bit over 0.4 centimeters.Though the plate seems unremarkable at first glance, Farihi saw two obvious "fangs" representing dips in the spectrum. To him, this was the smoking gun: Two absorption lines from the same calcium ion, meaning there were heavy elements in the photosphere of the white dwarf - indicating it likely has at least one exoplanet. He wrote about it in 2016 in New Astronomy Reviews.Exoplanets and debris disks
    Scientists have long thought the gravity of giant planets could be keeping debris belts in place, especially in young planetary systems. A recent study in The Astrophysical Journal showed that young stars with disks of dust and debris are more likely to have giant planets orbiting at great distance from their parent star than those without disks.A white dwarf is not a young star - on the contrary, it forms when a low-to-medium-mass star has already burned all of the fuel in its interior. But the principle is the same: The gravitational pull of giant exoplanets could throw small, rocky bodies into the white dwarfs.Our own Sun will become a red giant in about 5 billion years, expanding so much it may even swallow Earth before it blows off its outer layers and becomes a white dwarf. At that point, Jupiter's large gravitational influence may be more disruptive to the asteroid belt, flinging objects toward our much-dimmer Sun. This kind of scenario could explain the heavy elements at van Maanen's Star.Spitzer's observations of van Maanen's Star have not found any planets there so far. In fact, to date, no exoplanets have been confirmed orbiting white dwarfs, although one does have an object thought to be a massive planet. Other compelling evidence has emerged just in the last couple of years. Using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, scientists, including Zuckerman, recently announced that they had found evidence of a Kuiper-Belt-like object having been eaten by a white dwarf.Scientists are still exploring polluted white dwarfs and looking for the exoplanets they may host. About 30 percent of all white dwarfs we know about are polluted, but their debris disks are harder to spot. Jura put forward that with lots of asteroids coming in and colliding with debris, dust may be converted into gas, which would not have the same highly detectable infrared signal as dust.Farihi was thrilled about how his Mount Wilson archive detective work turned out. In 2016, he described the historical find in the context of a review paper about polluted white dwarfs, arguing that white dwarfs are "compelling targets for exoplanetary system research."Who knows what other overlooked treasures await discovery in the archives of great observatories - the sky-watching records of a cosmos rich in subtlety. Surely, other clues will be found by those motivated by curiosity who ask the right questions."It's personal interaction with data that can really spur us to get invested in the questions that we're asking," Farihi said.
  • 18-Month Twinkle in a Forming Star Suggests a Very Young Planet
    16.11.2017 20:19:28
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    18-Month Twinkle in a Forming Star Suggests a Very Young Planet Ottawa, Canada (SPX) Nov 07, 2017 -
    An international team of researchers have found an infrequent variation in the brightness of a forming star. This 18-month recurring twinkle is not only an unexpected phenomenon for scientists, but its repeated behavior suggests the presence of a hidden planet.This discovery is an early win for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) Transient Survey, just one-and-a-half years into its three-year mandate to monitor eight galactic stellar nurseries for variations in the brightness of forming stars. This novel study is critical to understanding how stars and planets are assembled.The survey is led by Doug Johnstone, Research Officer at the National Research Council of Canada and Greg Herczeg, Professor at Peking University (China), and is supported by an international team of astronomers from Canada, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the United Kingdom."This variation in the brightness or twinkle of the star EC 53 suggests that something large is disrupting the gravitational pull of the forming star. The fact that it recurs every 18 months suggests that this influence is orbiting around the star - it's quite likely a hidden, forming planet," says Doug Johnstone.It is thought that a companion planet is orbiting the star, and its passing gravitational pull disrupts the rate of the gas falling onto the forming star, providing a variation in the observed brightness, or light curve, of the star.Young stars are born in regions of the galaxy where molecular gas is abundant. When the star is young, gas and dust form a thick cloud that surrounds the star. Some of this material quickly flattens into a disk, in which planets will form. The cloud blocks the star itself from optical view, so astronomers study the star indirectly by using the cloud to learn details about the star growing inside.The star builds up its mass as gravity attracts gas to move from the disk onto the star, a process that also releases significant energy that heats up the surrounding gas cloud. Astronomers use telescopes sensitive to submillimetre wavelengths, like the JCMT, to measure the cloud brightness and reveal details about the growth of the star.EC 53's light curve anomaly was discovered by Hyunju Yoo, graduate student at Chungnam National University and advisor Jeong-Eun Lee, Professor at Kyung Hee University (South Korea), through careful analysis of monthly observations of Serpens Main, a stellar nursery known to contain many forming stars.Although the brightness of EC 53 has been observed to vary periodically at near-infrared wavelengths for some time, these submillimetre observations were essential in validating that the brightness variation was due to heating from gas accreting onto the forming star, rather than variations in the cloudiness of the environment."What caught my eye was a new round of data that showed a sudden brightness that hadn't existed in previous observations," says Lee. "I knew that something unique and interesting must be happening around this forming star. It turned out that it is indeed a very special object, providing a new window into how stars and planets form."A Deeper Understanding of the Formation of Stars and Planets
    For the remainder of the three-year submillimetre survey, the team will continue to monitor EC 53 and will also be searching for additional young stars showing variations in growth to learn more about how stars and planets assemble. There are already a half-dozen additional candidate variables within the survey.By studying these stars, and using additional telescope facilities such as the powerful Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the study will provide new and unique insight into the timescale for the formation of stars and planets, including whether planets form during or after the assembly of the star."This discovery marks a turning point; in a sense, it's like submillimetre astronomy is moving from taking pictures of our galaxy to taking videos," says Greg Herczeg."The last 25 years have been devoted to perfecting observing techniques and instruments to allow us to see early star formation. But with recent advances in technology, we can now observe regions changing over time, for a deeper understanding of how stars form. This discovery is just one example of how much more we can now learn."Monitoring the brightness of forming stars over time using submillimetre wavelengths is an unconventional approach to observing that has been made possible by recent advances in imaging technology, like SCUBA-2, and data reduction processing which enables precise calibration and measurement.Research Report: "The JCMT Transient Survey: Detection of Submillimeter Variability in a Class I Protostar EC 53 in Serpens Main," Hyunju Yoo et al., 2017 Nov. 1, Astrophysical Journal
  • Atmospheric beacons guide NASA scientists in search for life
    16.11.2017 20:19:28
    Atmospheric beacons guide NASA scientists in search for life Greenbelt MD (SPX) Nov 03, 2017 -
    Some exoplanets shine brighter than others in the search for life beyond the solar system. New NASA research proposes a novel approach to sniffing out exoplanet atmospheres. It takes advantage of frequent stellar storms - which hurl huge clouds of stellar material and radiation into space - from cool, young dwarf stars to highlight signs of habitable exoplanets.Traditionally, researchers have sought potential biosignatures as ways of identifying inhabited worlds: byproducts from life as we know it such as oxygen or methane that over time accumulate in the atmosphere to detectable amounts. But with current technology, according to Vladimir Airapetian, lead author of a Scientific Reports study published on Nov. 2, 2017, identifying these gases on distant terrestrial exoplanets is time-consuming, requiring days of observation time. The new study suggests hunting for cruder signatures of potentially habitable worlds instead, which would be easier to detect with current resources in less time."We're in search of molecules formed from fundamental prerequisites to life - specifically molecular nitrogen, which is 78 percent of our atmosphere," said Airapetian, who is a solar scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and at American University in Washington, D.C."These are basic molecules that are biologically friendly and have strong infrared emitting power, increasing our chance of detecting them."Present life on Earth tells Airapetian and his team of researchers they should look for atmospheres rich with water vapor and nitrogen, and oxygen, the product of life. Oxygen and nitrogen free-float stably in their molecular form - that is, two atoms of either oxygen or nitrogen bound together in one molecule. But in the vicinity of an active dwarf star, extreme space weather sparks distinct chemical reactions, which researchers can use as indicators of atmospheric composition.Stars like our Sun are turbulent in their adolescence and frequently produce powerful eruptions that fling stellar particles ahead of them to near-light speeds. Unlike our Sun, some yellow and most orange stars - which are a bit cooler than the Sun - may continue to produce these strong stellar storms for billions of years, generating frequent swarms of high-energy particles.When these particles reach an exoplanet, they flood its atmosphere with enough energy to break molecular nitrogen and oxygen into individual atoms, and water molecules into hydroxyl - one atom each of oxygen and hydrogen, bound together. From there, the reactive nitrogen and oxygen atoms spark a cascade of chemical reactions that ultimately produce what the scientists call atmospheric beacons: hydroxyl, more molecular oxygen, and nitric oxide - a molecule made of one nitrogen and one oxygen atom.Airapetian and his colleagues used a model to calculate just how much nitric oxide and hydroxyl would form and how much ozone would be destroyed in an Earth-like atmosphere around an active star.Earth scientists have used this model for decades to study how ozone - which forms naturally when sunlight strikes oxygen - in the upper atmosphere responds to solar storms, but it found a new application in this study; Earth is, after all, the best case study available in the search for life.Using a computer simulation, the researchers exposed the model atmosphere to the space weather they'd expect from a cool, active star. They found that ozone drops to a minimum and fuels the production of atmospheric beacons.For researchers, these chemical reactions are very useful. When starlight strikes the atmosphere, spring-like bonds within the beacon molecules absorb the energy and vibrate, sending that energy back into space as heat, or infrared radiation.Scientists know which gases emit radiation at particular wavelengths of light, so by looking at all the radiation coming from the atmosphere, it's possible to get a sense of what's in the atmosphere itself.Forming a detectable amount of these beacons requires a large quantity of molecular oxygen and nitrogen. So, if they are detected, these compounds could indicate an atmosphere filled with biologically friendly chemistry, as well as Earth-like atmospheric pressure - and thus the possibility of a habitable world, one needle in a vast haystack of exoplanets.This approach is also meant to weed out exoplanets without an Earth-like magnetic field. "A planet needs a magnetic field, which shields the atmosphere and protects the planet from stellar storms and radiation," Airapetian said."If stellar winds aren't so extreme as to compress an exoplanet's magnetic field close to its surface, the magnetic field prevents atmospheric escape, so there are more particles in the atmosphere and a stronger resulting infrared signal."Airapetian and his colleagues used data from NASA's Earth-studying TIMED mission - short for Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesophere Energetics Dynamics - to simulate how infrared observations of these beacons might appear.The data came from TIMED's spectroscopy instrument called SABER - short for Sounding of the Atmosphere using Broadband Emission Radiometry - which studies the very same chemistry that generates the atmospheric beacons, as it occurs in Earth's upper atmosphere in response to solar activity."Taking what we know about infrared radiation emitted by Earth's atmosphere, the idea is to look at exoplanets and see what sort of signals we can detect," said Martin Mlynczak, a co-author of the paper and the SABER associate principal investigator at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia."If we find exoplanet signals in nearly the same proportion as Earth's, we could say that planet is a good candidate for hosting life."The SABER data showed the frequency of intense stellar storms is directly related to the strength of the heat signals from the atmospheric beacons. With more storms, more beacon molecules are generated and the infrared signal would be strong enough, the scientists estimate, to be observed from nearby exoplanets with a six to 10-meter space-based telescope in just two hours of observation time."This is an exciting new proposed way to look for life," said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a Goddard astrobiologist not connected with the study. "But as with all signs of life, the exoplanet community needs to think hard about context. What are the ways non-biological processes could mimic this signature?"With the right kind of star, this work could lead to new strategies in the search for life that identify not just potentially habitable planets, but planetary systems, as the way a planet's atmosphere interacts with its parent star also has a key effect on its habitability.If promising signals are detected, researchers can coordinate observations with a future space-based observatory such as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, increasing the likelihood of discovering such a potential system."New insights on the potential for life on exoplanets depend critically on interdisciplinary research in which data, models and techniques are utilized from NASA Goddard's four science divisions: heliophysics, astrophysics, planetary and Earth sciences," Goddard senior astrophysicist and co-author William Danchi said. "This mixture produces unique and powerful new pathways for exoplanet research."
  • Scientists discover new type of deep-sea hunting called kleptopredation
    16.11.2017 20:19:28
    Scientists discover new type of deep-sea hunting called kleptopredation Washington (UPI) Nov 1, 2017 -

    In studying the plunderous ways of sea slugs, scientists have discovered a new way to catch a meal -- a technique called kleptopredation.

    As new research shows, sea slugs are the pirates of the seafloor, attacking prey in their post-meal malaise in order to steal the meal their target just consumed.

    "This is very exciting, we have some great results here that rewrite the text book on the way these creatures forage and interact with their environment," Trevor Willis, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, said in a news release.

    Nudibranchs, a family of brightly colored sea slugs, snack on hydroid colonies, a coral-like super organism. The colonies consist of a collection of individual polyps which capture and eat plankton and small crustaceans.

    When researchers analyzed the feeding habits of the colorful sea slugs, they found the gastropods prefer to consume polyps that have recently eaten a healthy helping of zooplankton.

    "Effectively we have a sea slug living near the bottom of the ocean that is using another species as a fishing rod to provide access to plankton that it otherwise wouldn't have," Willis said.

    The predation technique is new to biology.

    "People may have heard of kleptoparasitic behavior -- when one species takes food killed by another, like a pack of hyenas driving a lion from its kill for example," Willis said. "This is something else, where the predator consumes both its own prey and that which the prey has captured."

    Willis set out to study the consumption patterns of nudibranchs after he became intrigued by their specialization. By adopting such an exclusive diet, Willis was concerned the sea slugs could eat their way out of existence by depleting their sole source of nutrients.

    But the latest research -- detailed in the journal Biology Letters -- suggests hydroid polyps only make up a small percentage of the sea slug's diet. Nudibranchs mostly eat zooplankton -- zooplankton caught and consumed by hydroid polyps, of course.

    "Our ability to understand and predict ecosystems in the face of environmental change is impeded by a lack of understanding of trophic linkages," Willis said. "While we have some great results, like any science worth its salt, it raises more questions than it answers."
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