The Strange Interstellar Object Oumuamua Was a Comet and Not The Space Probe Some Had Proposed

New research concludes that the interstellar object that entered our solar system and then rocketed out was a small comet and not a spacecraft, as some had speculated. (JPL/NASA)

In 2017, an  unusual small object flew into our solar system from afar,  approached the inner solar system and the Sun and then sped back out to interstellar space.  In all, it was detected and followed for 11 days.

The object was puzzling because such interstellar visitors had not been observed before, and most mysterious because it accelerated in a most unusual way out of the solar system.  This was not the normal behavior of any object in the solar system.

The object, a few hundred meters in length, was first identified as an asteroid because it had not of the sparkle of a comet, and a “dark comet” was proposed, and  then  something perhaps sent by aliens to explore the solar system.  After all, the shape of the object known as ‘Oumuamua — Hawaiian for “Scout”– was described as reddish and sometimes shaped like a pancake and sometimes like a cigar.

‘Oumuamua became an object of great fascination among space scientists and even became the subject a popular book by a Harvard astronomer who argued that it was clearly an alien lightsail. That is, a probe that is propelled by the propulsive radiation of starlight itself.

Now, a paper offers a very different, and apparently quite compelling, explanation.,

In Nature, University of California, Berkeley astrochemist Jennifer Bregner and Cornell University astronomer Darryl propose that the comet’s mysterious deviations from a typical object’s path around the Sun can be explained by a simple physical mechanism likely common among many icy comets: outgassing of hydrogen as the comet warmed up in the sunlight.

What made ‘Oumuamua different from every other well-studied comet in our solar system was its size. It was so small that the gravitational nudge it received around the Sun was slightly altered by the tiny push created when hydrogen gas spurted out of the ice.

And that’s what caused the acceleration, the scientists say.

An artist rendering of ‘Oumuamua, the first known alien object to enter our solar system. It was identified by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii. It was later followed by observatories around the world and astronomers generally concluded that it had been traveling for millions of years before its chance encounter with our solar system.

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What Would Happen If Our Solar System Had a Super-Earth Like Many Others? Chaos.

Our solar system’s rocky planets are tiny compared with the larger gas and ice giants. Exoplanet research has found, however, that the most common planets in the galaxy appear to be super-Earths and sub-Neptunes, types of planets not found in our system. Size comparison of the planets. (Alexaldo/iStock/Getty)

Before astronomers began to find planets — many, many planets — orbiting Suns other than ours,  the scientific consensus was that if other solar systems were ever found they would probably look much like ours.  That would mean small, rocky planets closest to the Sun and large gaseous planets further out.

That assumption crash and burned with the discovery of the first discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a star — 51 Peg.  It was a hot, Jupiter-sized planet that circled its Sun in four days.

That planetary rude awakening was followed by many others, including the discovery of many rocky planets much larger than those in our system which came to be called  super-Earths.  And equally common are gaseous planets quite a bit smaller than any near us, given the name sub-Neptunes.

Many papers have been written theorizing why there are no super-Earth or sub-Neptunes in our solar system.  And now astrophysicist Stephen Kane of the University of California, Riverside has taken the debate another direction by asking this question:  What would happen to our solar system planets if a super-Earth or sub-Neptune was present?

The results of his dynamic computer simulations are not pretty: the orbits of many of our planets would change substantially and that would ultimately result in some being kicked out of the solar system forever.  The forces of orbit-transforming gravity set loose by the addition of a super-Earth are strong indeed.

The term super-Earth is a reference only to an exoplanet’s size – larger than Earth and smaller than Neptune – but not suggesting they are necessarily similar to our home planet. The true nature of these planets, such as Gliese 832c, above, remains ambiguous because we have nothing like it in our own solar system. Super-Earths they are common among planets found so far in our galaxy. (Planetary Habitability Laboratory/University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo)

Let’s go back to our actual solar system for some context.

The gap in size between the size of our terrestrial planets and giant gas planets is great. The largest terrestrial planet is Earth, and the smallest gas giant is Neptune, which is four times wider and 17 times more massive than Earth.… Read more

A Scientific Bonanza From Asteroid Ryugu and Hayabusa2

Optical microscope images of six particle samples that were selected from what Hayabusa2 brought back to Earth from asteroid Ryugu. {Japan Aerospace Expedition Agency (JAXA), Science.}

Collecting and transporting back to Earth samples of other planets, moons, asteroids and comets is extremely difficult, costly and time-consuming.  But as just-released papers based on Japan’s Hayabusa2 sample return mission to the asteroid Ryugu make abundantly clear, the results can be fabulous.

In a series of articles in the journal Science, scientists who studied the samples (which were returned to Earth in late 2020) and commentators marvel at the opportunity to study material that was formed as the solar system itself formed — more than 4.5 billion years ago.

The sample contains thousands of different organic (carbon-based) molecules of different kinds, including amino acids and a range of aromatic hydrocarbons.  There are also many minerals formed in the presence of water.

This composition was not a big surprise based on other similar carbon-based meteorites that have fallen to Earth. But they were totally clean samples that were in no way contaminated by life and  physical conditions on our planet. They also had not made the fiery passage through our atmosphere before landing and becoming a meteorite that someone may chance to find.

What they are, then, are pristine examples of the early solar system — solar system baby pictures — with the chemistry and physical thumbprints of the solar nebula and interstellar space from which our Sun and solar system were formed.

The asteroid Ryugu at 30 miles, as photographed by Hayabusa2.  Ryugu is a near-Earth asteroid, far from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.   (JAXA, University of Tokyo and collaborators)

The return capsule brought back about 10 grams of the asteroid.  That might not seem like a lot, but it was more than enough to learn a great deal about an important asteroid from an ancient asteroid family.

As Hiroshi Naraoka of Kyushu University and his colleagues conclude in their Ryugu paper, “Meteorites made of material similar to Ryugu may have delivered amino acids and other prebiotic organic molecules to the early Earth and other rocky planets — providing the building blocks of life.”

Ryugu provides the best chance to date to study what precisely could have been delivered.

Hayabusa2 touchdown on asteroid Ryugu in 2019. (JAXA)

The studies together tell the history of Ryugu, its history and its composition. Read more

New Martian Surprise From The Curiosity Rover

NASA researchers found that waves on the surface of a shallow lake in Gale Crater stirred up sediment billions of years ago. That sediment eventually creating rippled textures left in rock. (NASA/JPLVCaltech/MSSS)

In its more than a decade of exploring Gale Crater on Mars, the rover Curiosity has found innumerable signs of the presence of long-ago water.

There have been fossil streams, alluvial fans, lakes shallow and deep, deltas and countless examples of rocks infiltrated and chemically transformed in the presence of water.  The picture of the crater as a watery environment in the warmer and wetter days of Martian history — 4 billion to 3 billion years ago — is well established.

Nonetheless. it still came as a wonder that the rover came across the entirely unexpected remains of fossilized ripples in a shallow lake bed.  What was even more surprising is that it was found in an area previously determined to have little likelihood of having ever been wet.

“Billions of years ago, waves on the surface of a shallow lake stirred up sediment at the lake bottom, over time creating rippled textures left in rock,” NASA said in a statement last week.

It was the first time such a feature has been discovered in Gale Crater, although the rover has passed through numerous fossil lake beds.

The Marker Band is a continuous dark, thin and hard layer running from left to right (but thinning out on the left) setting off the region of the rippled rock bed.   Both its composition and origins are not well understood. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

One of the mission’s main goals has been to find out if this area in the southern highlands of Mars might have once been habitable for microbial life.

It was determined within the first two years of the rover’s time in Gale Crater that the crater was indeed once habitable based on the past presence of significant amounts of water and chemicals left behind by that long-departed water. Understanding the crater’s history of water has been a central goal of the mission.

The Curiosity team was thrilled by their new find.

“This is the best evidence of water and waves that we’ve seen in the entire mission,” said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada. “We climbed through thousands of feet of lake deposits and never saw evidence like this.”

The rippled fossils are in an area set off by a black, hard-rock line called the “Marker Band.”… Read more

A New Twist On Planet Formation

This image of the nearby young star TW Hydrae reveals the classic rings and gaps that signify planets are being formed in this protoplanetary disk. {ESO, Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)}

Before the first exoplanets were discovered in the 1990s,  our own solar system served as the model for what solar systems looked like.  The physical and chemical dynamics that formed our system were also seen as the default model for what might have occurred in solar systems yet to be found.

As the number of exoplanets identified ballooned via the Kepler Space Telescope and others, and  it became clear that exoplanets were everywhere and orbiting most every star, the model of our own solar system became obviously flawed.  The first exoplanet identified, after all, was a “hot Jupiter” orbiting very close to its star — a planetary placement previously thought to be impossible.

With the growing number of known exoplanets and their most unusual placements, the field of planet formation — focused earlier on understanding on how the planets of our system came into being and what they were made of — expanded to take in the completely re-arranged planetary and solar system menagerie being found.

This was basic science seeking to understand these newfound worlds, but it also became part of the fast-growing field of astrobiology, the search for planets that might be habitable like our own.

In this context, planet formation became associated with the effort to learn more about the dynamics that actually make a planet habitable — the needed composition of a planet, the nature of its Sun, its placement in a solar system and how exactly it was formed.

So the logic of planet formation became the subject of myriad efforts to understand what might happen when a star is born, surrounded by a ring of gas and dust that will in time include larger and larger collections of solids that can evolve into meteors, planetesimals and if all goes a particular way, into planets.

A thin section of primitive meteorite under a microscope. The various colors suggest different minerals that comprise meteorites. The round-shaped mineral aggregates are called chondrules, which are among the oldest known materials in our solar system. (Science)

As part of this very broad effort to understand better how planets form, meteorites have been widely used to learn about what the early solar system was like. Meteorites are from asteroids that formed within the first several million years of planetary accretion.… Read more

The JWST Discovers its First Earth-Sized Exoplanet

Artist rendering of LHS 475 b, an Earth-sized exoplanet recently identified using the James Webb Space Telescope. This was the first planet of its size detected by the JWST. {NASA / ESA / CSA / Leah Hustak (STScI)}

In the search for life on distant planets, scientists generally focus on identifying Earth-sized, rocky planets, finding planets in their host star’s habitable zone, and having available the telescope power to read the chemical make-up of the atmospheres.

A relatively small number of Earth-sized exoplanets discovered by telescopes in space and on Earth have meet some of the key characteristics.  But now with the James Webb Space Telescope in operation, with its 21-foot high-precision mirror, scientists have been looking forward to finding small, rocky planets that meet all the key criteria.

And during its first year of operation, the JWST  has already found and studied one small planet that meets at least some or those criteria.  The planet identified, called LHS 475 b, is nearly the same size as Earth, having 99% of our planet’s diameter, scientists said, and is a relatively nearby 41-light-years away.

The research team that detected the small planet is led by Kevin Stevenson and Jacob Lustig-Yaeger, both of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

The team chose to observe this target with Webb after reviewing targets of interest from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which hinted at the planet’s existence. Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) captured the planet easily and clearly with only two transit observations.

“There is no question that the planet is there,” said Lustig-Yaeger. “Webb’s pristine data validate it.”

“With this telescope, rocky exoplanets are the new frontier.”

The TRAPPIST-1 system contains a total of seven known Earth-sized planets orbiting a weak red dwarf star. Three of the planets — TRAPPIST-1e, f and g — are located in the habitable zone of the star (shown in green in this artist’s impression), where temperatures are potentially moderate enough for liquid water to exist on the surface.  As a comparison to the TRAPPIST-1 system the inner part of the Solar System and its habitable zone is shown. (NASA)

Earth-sized exoplanets have been found earlier.  The Trappist-1 system, only 39 light-years away, is famously known to include seven small, rocky planets, and it was detected by a small, ground-based telescope.

The Kepler Space Telescope also detected a debated but significant number of Earth-sized planets during its nine-year survey of one small section of the distant sky last decade. … Read more

The World of Water Worlds

Artist rendering of a water world exoplanet. NASA predicts that quite a few exist in the galaxies but none has been confirmed. Two new candidates have been put forward. (The Cosmic Companion)

Among the most intriguing types of exoplanet expected to be orbiting distant stars is the  “water world,” planets that are liquid to a far, far greater extent than on Earth.

Astronomers have theorized the existence of such planets and several candidates have been put forward, though not confirmed.  But the logic is strong enough for NASA scientists to conclude there are likely many of them in our galaxy.

Now two new potential water worlds have been proposed in a planetary system 218 light years away.

Using both the Hubble Space Telescope and data from the retired Spitzer Space Telescope, a team from Montreal has identified  the planets circling a red dwarf star.  Water, they propose, may well make up a significant portion of the planets.

Though the telescopes can’t directly observe the planets’ surfaces, other paths to identifying a water world are known.  By determining the planets’ densities through measurements of their weight and radii (and then volume), these planets — which would normally be described as “super-Earths because of their size — are lighter than rock worlds but heavier than gas-dominated ones.

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Many Complex Organic Compounds –Evolved Building Blocks of Life — Are Formed Where Stars Are Being Born

The Taurus Molecular Cloud is an active site for star formation.  It is also filled with complex organic molecules, including the kind that are building blocks for life.  The Cloud is 450 light years away, but similar star-forming regions with complex organics are found thoughout the galaxy. (Adapted, ESA/Herschel/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Recent reports about the detection of carbon-based organic molecules on Mars by the instruments of the Perseverance rover included suggestions that some of the organics may well have fallen from space over the eons, and were then preserved on the Martian surface.

Given the cruciality of organics as building blocks of life –or even as biosignatures of past life — it seems surely important to understand more about how and where the organics might form in interstellar space, and how they might get to Mars, Earth and elsewhere.

After all, “follow the organics” has replaced the NASA rallying cry to “follow the water” in the search for extraterrestrial life in the solar system and cosmos.

And it turns out that seeking out and identifying organics in space is a growing field of its own that has produced many surprising discoveries.  That was made clear during a recent NASA webinar featuring Samantha Scibelli of the University of Arizona, a doctoral student in astronomy and astrophysics who has spent long hours looking for these organics in space and finding them.

She and associate professor of astronomy Yancy Shirley have been studying the presence and nature of complex organics in particular in a rich star-forming region, the Taurus Molecular Cloud.

Using the nearby radio observatory at Kitt Peak outside of Tucson, she has found a range of complex organics in starless or pre-stellar cores with the Cloud.  The campaign is unique in that some 700 hours of observing time were given to them, allowing for perhaps the most thorough observations of its kind.

The results have been surprising and intriguing.

In this mosaic image stretching 340 light-years across, the James Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) displays the Tarantula Nebula star-forming region in a new light, including tens of thousands of never-before-seen young stars that were previously shrouded in cosmic dust. The most active region appears to sparkle with massive young stars, appearing pale blue. (NASA/STScI)

A first take-away (surprising to those unfamiliar with the field) is that complex organics are often detected in these star-forming regions throughout the galaxy and cosmos — just as they were found in many regions of the Taurus cloud.… Read more

Tantalizing Organic Compounds Found on Mars

The NASA/ESA Perseverance rover on xxx. New findings tell of the presence of organic material — the building blocks of life — in several locations at Jezero Crater — for the first time found in igneous rock.  The long-ago environment when the organics were deposited were deemed to have been “habitable.” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

When searching for signs of ancient life on Mars, NASA scientists increasingly focus on organic material — the carbon-based compounds that are the building blocks of life.  Organics were found by the Curiosity rover in Gale Crater, and now new papers report they have also been identified by the instruments of the Perseverance rover in very different kinds of rock in Jezero Crater.

Unlike the Gale Crater organics that were found in sedimentary rocks, these newly found specimens are in igneous rocks — formed when molten rock cools and crystallizes — and are mixed with other compounds known to preserve organics well.

These rock samples are part of the NASA and European Space Agency Mars Sample Return mission, and so they could be brought to Earth in the future for more intensive study. Scientists are excited about what might some day be found.

The new findings about organics and the geology of Jezero Crater are part of a trio of articles in the journal Science published Wednesday.

The lead author of one of the papers, Michael Tice of Texas A&M University, gave this overview of what the Perseverance team is reporting:

“These three papers show that samples collected in the floor of Jezero should be able to tell us a lot about whether living organisms ever inhabited rocks under the surface of the crater over the past several billion years,”  he wrote to me.

The paper he led, Tice said, shows that small amounts of water passed through those rocks at three different times, and that conditions at each of those times could have supported life. “Even more importantly, minerals were formed from the water that are known to be able to preserve organic matter and even fossils on Earth.”

Different kinds of carbon-based organic compounds were viewed within a rock called “Garde” by SHERLOC, one of the instruments on the end of the robotic arm aboard the Perseverance rover. The rover used its drill grind away a patch of rock so that SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) could analyze its interior.

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The Late Heavy Bombardment Brought Oceans of Water to Ancient Mars, New Research Says

Mars was bombarded by water and carbon-rich asteroids in its infancy, delivering oceans of water and organic compounds needed for life.  (Detlev Vans Ravenswaay/Science Source)

Mars looks largely desiccated today,but long ago it had oceans full of water delivered by asteroids during the Late Heavy Bombardment period, new research reports

During that tumultuous time solar system history some 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, an intense barrage of primordial asteroids called chondrites crashed into Mars.

Using a measure called a global equivalent layer (GEL), the findings conclude that if all the water from the chondrites was in liquid form and was resting on the planet’s surface and not tied up within the crust or polar ice, it would fill a global ocean roughly 300 meters (almost 1,000 feet) deep.

What’s more, said Martin Bizzarro of the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Star and Planet Formation and a co-author of the new paper, “our study is the first to firmly establish that organic molecules relevant for life must have been present in the early evolution of the planet together with water.” 

This is because carbon-containing chondrites carried prebiotic elements essential to life.

That asteroids brought water (and organics) to Mars and other planets during the Bombardment is not new.  But to quantify the amount and find such a huge delivery of water could change some of the long-running debate about early Mars and water.

A specimen of the Murchison meteorite specimen at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.  Among the most studied meteorites in the world, it is a carbonaceous chondrite from Mars that landed as a meteorite in Australia in 1969.   It contains about 12 percent water and is the kind of broken-apart asteroid originally from the outer solar system could have delivered massive amounts of water to Mars, and Earth as well.  (Wikipedia Commons)

As described in the new paper in Science Advances, the consensus view on Mars water has been that much of it came from outgassing from the planet’s mantle as it cooled and while the crust was forming.

But lead author Ke Zhu of the Université de Paris, Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and colleagues report that a substantial amount of water came instead from the carbonaceous chondrites from the outer Solar System.  Chondrites are primordial asteroids and generally contain water.  Asteroids from the inner solar system are generally water-poor because their proximity to the Sun leads to a significant drying out.… Read more

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