Author: Marc Kaufman (page 1 of 25)

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

The Cosmos, As Viewed By The James Webb Space Telescope

The iconic “Pillars of Creation” image, on left, was taken in visible light by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. A new, near-infrared-light view from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, at right, helps us peer through more of the dust in this star-forming region. The thick, dusty brown pillars are no longer as opaque and many more red stars that are still forming come into view.  The pillars of gas and dust seem darker and less penetrable in Hubble’s view, and they appear more permeable in Webb’s. (NASA)

The James Webb Space Telescope was developed to allow us to see the cosmos in a new way — with much greater precision, using infrared wavelengths to piece through dust around galaxies, stars and planets, and to look further back into time and space.

In the less than four months since the first Webb images were released,  the pioneering telescope has certainly shown us a remarkable range of abilities.  And as a result, we’ve been treated to some dazzling new views of the solar system, the galaxy and beyond.  This is just the beginning and we thankfully have years to come of new images and the scientific insights that come with them.

Just as the Hubble Space Telescope, with its 32 years of service and counting, ushered in a new era of space imagining and understanding, so too is the Webb telescope revolutionizing how we see and understand our world writ large.  Very large.

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2 during a flyby more than three decades ago, the Hubble Space Telescope last year, and the JWST this summer. ( NASA/ESA/CSA))

The differences between the Webb’s image and previous images of Neptune are certainly dramatic, in terms of color, precision and what they tell us about the planet.

Surely most striking in Webb’s new image is the crisp view of the planet’s rings, some of which have not been seen since NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe Neptune during its flyby in 1989. In addition to several bright, narrow rings, the Webb image clearly shows Neptune’s fainter, never-seen dust bands as well.

Neptune is an ice giant planet. Unlike Jupiter and Saturn, which consist primarily of hydrogen and helium, Neptune has an interior that is much richer in heavier elements (“heavier is the sense of not hydrogen or helium.) One of the most abundant heavy molecules is methane, which appears blue in Hubble’s visible wavelengths but largely white in the Webb’s near-infrared camera.… Read more

Clues About Conditions on Early Earth As Life Was Emerging

What set the stage for the emergence of life on early Earth?

There will never be a single answer to that question, but there are many partial answers related to the global forces at play during that period.  Two of those globe-shaping dynamics are the rise of the magnetic fields that protected Earth from hazardous radiation and winds from the Sun and other suns,  and plate tectonics that moved continents and in the process cycled and recycled the compounds needed for life.

A new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS)  reports from some of the world’s oldest rocks in Western Australia evidence that the Earth’s crust was pushing and pulling in a manner similar to modern plate tectonics at least 3.25 billion years ago.

Additionally, the study provides the earliest proof so far of the planet’s magnetic north and sound poles swapping places — as they have innumerable times since.  What the switching of the poles tells researchers is that there was an active, evolved magnetic field around the Earth from quite early days,.

Together, the authors say, the two findings offer clues into how geological  and electromagnetic changes may have produced an environment more conducive to the emergence of life on Earth.


The early Earth was a hellish place with meteor impact galore and a choking atmosphere.  Yet fairly early in its existence, the Earth developed some of the key geodynamics needed to allow life to emerge.  The earliest evidence that microbial life was presented is dated at 3.7 billion years ago, not that long after the formation of the planet 4.5 billion years ago. (Simone Marchi/SwRI)

According to author Alec Brenner, a doctoral student at Harvard’s Paleomagnetics Lab,  the new research “paints this picture of an early Earth that was already really geodynamically mature. It had a lot of the same sorts of dynamic processes that result in an Earth that has essentially more stable environmental and surface conditions, making it more feasible for life to evolve and develop.”

And speaking specifically of the novel readings of continental movement 3.25 billion years ago, fellow author and Harvard professor Roger Fu said that “finally being able to reliably read these very ancient rocks opens up so many possibilities for observing a time period that often is known more through theory than solid data.”… Read more

Did Ancient Mars Life Kill Itself Off?

The study revealed that while ancient Martian life may have initially prospered, it would have rendered the planet’s surface covered in ice and uninhabitable, under the influence of hydrogen consumed by microbes and methane released by them into the atmosphere. (Boris Sauterey and Regis Ferrière)

The presence of life brings many unexpected consequences.

On Earth, for instance, when cyanobacteria spread widely in ancient oceans more than two billion years ago, their production of increasingly large amounts of oxygen killed off much of the other anaerobic life present at the day because oxygen is a toxin, unless an organism  finds ways to adapt.   One of the first global ices followed because of the changed chemistry of the atmosphere.

Now a group of researchers at the University of Arizona has modeled a similar dynamic that could have potentially taken place on early Mars.

As the group reports in the journal Nature Astronomy, their work has found that if microbial life was present on a wetter and warmer ancient Mars — as some now think  that it potentially was — then it would almost certainly have lived below the surface.  The rock record shows that the atmosphere would then have consisted largely of carbon dioxide and hydrogen, which would have warmed the planet with a greenhouse effect.

By using a model that takes into account how processes occurring above and below ground influence each other, they were able to predict the climatic feedback of the change in atmospheric composition caused by the biological activity of these microbes.

In a surprising twist, the study revealed that while ancient Martian life may have initially prospered, its chemical feedback to the atmosphere would have kicked off a global cooling of the planet by the methanogen’s use of the atmospheric hydrogen for energy and the production of methane as a byproduct.

That replacement of hydrogen with methane ultimately would render its surface uninhabitable and drive life deeper and deeper underground, and possibly to extinction.

“According to our results, Mars’ atmosphere would have been completely changed by biological activity very rapidly, within a few tens or hundreds of thousands of years,” said Boris Sauterey, a former postdoctoral student at the University of Arizona who is now a fellow at Sorbonne Université in Paris. .

“By removing hydrogen from the atmosphere, microbes would have dramatically cooled down the planet’s climate.”

Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover has been exploring since landing in early 2021.

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Where Might Plumes of Water Vapor Come From on Icy Moons?

This illustration depicts a plume of water vapor that could potentially be emitted from the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. New research sheds light on what plumes, if they do exist, could reveal about lakes that may be inside the moon’s crust. (NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI)

It’s been some years since Europa scientists agreed that the Jovian moon has a large global ocean beneath miles of ice.  More recently, scientists have identified what they view as pockets of water surrounded by ice but much nearer the surface than the ocean below.  And there has been research as well into what may be salty, slushy pocket of water further down in the ice covering.

With NASA’s mission to Europa scheduled to launch in about two years, modeling of these all potential collections of liquid water has picked up to prepare for the Europa Clipper arrival to come.

The latest research into what the subsurface lakes on Europa may look like and how they may behave comes in a recently published paper in Planetary Science Journal.

A key finding supports the idea that water could potentially erupt above the surface of Europa either as plumes of vapor or as cryovolcanic activity —  flowing, slushy ice rather than molten lava.

Computer modeling in the paper goes further, showing that if there are eruptions on Europa, they likely come from shallow, wide lakes embedded in the ice and not from the global ocean far below.

“We demonstrated that plumes or cryolava flows could mean there are shallow liquid reservoirs below, which Europa Clipper would be able to detect,” said Elodie Lesage, Europa scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of the research.

“Our results give new insights into how deep the water might be that’s driving surface activity, including plumes. And the water should be shallow enough that it can be detected by multiple Europa Clipper instruments.”

A minimally processed version of this image was captured by JunoCam, the public engagement camera aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft. It was taken during the mission’s close flyby earlier this fall, almost 950 miles above the moon’s surface. The raw image was processed by “citizen scientist” Navaneeth Krishnan to add enhanced color contrast that allow larger surface features to stand out more.

The question of whether or not Europa has plumes is not settled.  While the plumes coming from Saturn’s moon Enceladus have been well studied and even had a spacecraft fly through one, Europa has only some fuzzy Hubble Space Telescope, Galileo mission and ground-based telescope images that suggest a plume.… Read more

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