Author: Marc Kaufman (page 1 of 20)

Breakthrough Listen Searches The Crowded Center of the Milky Way for Possible Signals From Intelligent Beings

The Galactic Center from radio to X-ray frequencies.  ( X-Ray: NASA, CXC, UMass, D. Wang et al.; Radio: NRF, SARAO, MeerKAT)

Searching for technologically advanced civilizations inhabiting distant exoplanets is the astrobiological equivalent of swinging for the fences.

While much of the search of extraterrestrial life is now focused on microbes and chemical biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres that would likely be byproducts of life, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (or SETI) takes a very different approach.

SETI practitioners scan the skies for radio signals, and now laser signals, that are irregular and different from what is naturally produced.  Were such a signal to be detected, then it would be studied as the potential work of extraterrestrial life that is highly advanced — perhaps far more so than we Earthlings.

This search has been going on since Cornell University astronomer Frank Drake began it 1960 and has advanced (in steps large and small) ever since.  The biggest financial boost to the search took place five years ago when techno-billionaire Yuri Milner, in partnership with Stephen Hawking and other prominent scientists,  set up the Breakthrough Listen project with $100 million to buy telescope time and to greatly expand the SETI search.

And as part of that expanded search, radio telescopes focused on the crowded galactic center of the Milky Way for 600 observing hours.  The thinking was that stars and likely exoplanets are most plentiful in that central region — some 60 million  stars in the line of sight into the galactic center at low astronomical frequencies; 500,000 at higher frequencies  — and so the chances of finding a signal were perhaps higher.

Some preliminary and partial results of that effort were recently released and, unfortunately, no signals were found.  That has been the fate of all SETI searches so far.

But as SETI scientists explain, the night sky is huge and the percentage of stars (and their exoplanets) that have been sampled remains quite small.

The Green Bank Radio Observatory in West Virginia is one of the two main sites for the Breakthrough Listen galactic center campaign.  The other is the Parkes Telescope in Australia . (NRAO)

This latest effort was unique in that it was the “most sensitive and deepest targeted SETI” survey ever done of the galactic center, as the SETI scientists write in a study set to be published in the Astronomical Journal (a preprint is currently available on the arXiv).… Read more

Novel Sights and Sounds on Mars


The helicopter Ingenuity has now flown three times on Mars and has proven itself to be a dependable (for now) and potentially ground-breaking addition to Mars science.

Ingenuity, brought to Mars as part of the Perseverance rover landing, took off early Sunday morning on its third and most ambitious Martian mission yet.  The 4-pound helicopter traveled a total of 330 feet laterally, stayed aloft for 80 seconds and reached a maximum speed of about 4.5 mph, handily breaking marks set on its previous two flights.

In the video above, you can see the helicopter taking off on the bottom left, crossing the screen, and then coming back a bit later to land in the same spot.

The “flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing,” said Dave Lavery, the Ingenuity program executive at NASA Headquarters. “With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions.”

If this capacity proves to be robust it will clearly have many positive implications for Mars science with successor rotorcraft — allowing scientists to quickly study areas surrounding a rover and to put their discoveries into larger geological contexts.

Ingenuity rover preparing to go airborne. The wings, legs and more were folded up for its long ride to Mars and then robotically unfurled on the Martian surface. (NASA)

The Mastcam-Z imager aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, which is parked at “Van Zyl Overlook” and serving as a communications base station, captured video of Ingenuity.

The Ingenuity team has been pushing the helicopter’s limits by adding instructions to capture more photos of its own – including from the color camera, which captured its first images on the second flight. As with everything else about these flights, the additional steps are meant to provide insights that could be used by future aerial missions.

The helicopter’s black-and-white navigation camera, meanwhile, tracks surface features below, and this flight put the onboard processing of these images to the test. Ingenuity’s flight computer, which autonomously flies the craft based on instructions sent up hours before data is received back on Earth, utilizes the same resources as the cameras.

If Ingenuity flies too fast, the flight algorithm can’t track surface features.

On Earth, NASA sought to simulate those conditions in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab vacuum chambers, which were filled with wispy air consisting primarily of carbon dioxide. … Read more

The Hows and Whys of Mars Sample Return

Combining two images, this mosaic shows a close-up view of the rock target named “Yeehgo” taken by the SuperCam instrument on NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars. To be compatible with the rover’s software, “Yeehgo” is an alternative spelling of “Yéigo,” the Navajo word for diligent.

One of the fondest dreams and top priorities of space science for years has been  to bring a piece of Mars back to Earth to study in the kind of depth possible only in a cutting-edge laboratory.

While the instruments on Mars rovers can tell us a lot,  returning a sample to study here on Earth is seen as the  way to ultimately tease out the deepest secrets of the composition of Mars, its geological and geochemical history and possibly the presence of life, life fossils or of the precursor molecules  of life.

But bringing such a sample to Earth is extraordinarily difficult.  Unlike solar system bodies that have been sampled back on Earth — the moon, a comet and some asteroids — Mars has the remains of an atmosphere.  That means any samples would have to lift off in a rocket brought to Mars and with some significant propulsive power, a task that so far has been a technical bridge too far.

That is changing now and the Mars Sample Return mission has begun.  The landing of the Perseverance rover in Jezero Crater on Mars signaled that commencement and the rover will be used to identify, drill into and collect intriguing bits of Mars.  This is a long-term project, with the best case scenario seeing those Mars samples arriving on Earth in a decade.  So this entirely unprecedented, high-stakes campaign will be playing out for a long time.

“I think that Mars scientists would like to return as much sample as possible,” said Lindsay Hays, NASA Mars Sample Return deputy program scientist.  “Being able to return samples that we collected with purpose is how we take the next step in our exploration of Mars.”

“And it seems that there are still so many unknowns, even in our solar system, even with the planets right next door, that every time we do something new, we answer a couple of questions that we hoped to and but also find a whole bunch of new things that we never expected.”

“I am so excited to see what comes of this adventure.  And I think that is a feeling shared by Mars scientists and planetary scientists broadly.”… Read more

The Space Telescope That Could Find a Second Earth

This rare picture of an exoplanet (called 2M1207B) shows a red world several times Jupiter’s size orbiting a brown dwarf much smaller and dimmer than our sun. LUVOIR is after more elusive targets: small, rocky planets around bright stars. (ESO)

What will it take to capture images and spectra of a distant world capable of harboring life?
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For all the excitement surrounding the search for distant exoplanets in recent years, the 4,000-plus planets confirmed so far have been unseen actors on the cosmic stage. Except for a handful of very large bodies imaged by ground-based telescopes, virtually all exoplanets have been detected only when they briefly dim the light coming from their host stars or when their gravity causes the star to wobble in a distinctive way. Observing these patterns and using a few other methods, scientists can determine an exoplanet’s orbit, radius, mass, and sometimes density—but not much else. The planets remain, in the words of one researcher in the field, “small black shadows.”

Scientists want much more. They’d like to know in detail the chemical makeup of the planets’ atmospheres, whether liquid water might be present on their surfaces, and, ultimately, whether these worlds might be hospitable to life.

Answering those questions will require space telescopes that don’t yet exist. To determine what kinds of telescopes, NASA commissioned two major studies that have taken large teams of (mostly volunteer) scientists and engineers four years to complete. The results are now under review by the National Academy of Sciences, as part of its Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics that will recommend government funding priorities for the 2030s. Past and current NASA mega-projects, from the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 to the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch this year, have all gone through this same vetting process. Sometime this spring, the Decadal Survey is expected to wrap up its deliberations and make recommendations.

That puts four proposals in the running to become NASA’s next “Great Observatory” in space: an X-ray telescope called Lynx; the Origins Space Telescope for studying the early universe; and two telescopes devoted mostly, but not exclusively, to exoplanets. One is called HabEx, for Habitable Exoplanet Observatory. The other—the most ambitious, most complex, most expensive, and most revolutionary of all these concepts—is called LUVOIR, for Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor.… Read more

What Happened to All That Water on Ancient Mars? A New Theory With a Surprising Answer

How did Mars lose the surface water that was plentiful on its surface 3 to 4 billion years ago?  New research says it did not leave the planet but rather was incorporated on a molecular level into Martian minerals.  (NASA)

Once it became clear in the past decade that the surface of ancient Mars, the inevitable question arose regarding what happened to it all since the planet is today so very dry.  And the widely-accepted answer has been that the water escaped into space, especially after the once thicker atmosphere of Mars was stripped away.

But NASA-funded research just made public has a new and bold and very different answer:  Much of the water that formed rivers, lakes and deep oceans on Mars, the research concludes, sank below the planet’s surface and is trapped inside minerals in the planet’s rocky crust.

Since early Mars is now thought to have had as much surface water as half of the the Earth’s Atlantic Ocean — enough to cover most of Mars in at least 100 meters of water — that means huge volumes of water became incorporated into the molecular structure of clays, sulfates, carbonates, opals and other hydrated minerals.

While some of the early water surely disappeared from Mars via atmospheric escape, the new findings, published in the latest issue of Science, conclude that atmospheric loss can not account for much or most of its water loss — especially now that estimates of how much water once existed on the surface of the planet have increased substantially.

“Atmospheric escape doesn’t fully explain the data that we have for how much water actually once existed on Mars,” said Eva Scheller, lead author and a doctoral candidate at the California Institute of Technology.  The rate of water loss was found to be too slow to explain what happened.

Scheller and others at Caltech set out to find other explanations. Based on modeling and data collected by Mars orbiters, rovers and from meteorites, they concluded that between 30 and 99 percent of that very early Martian surface water can now be found trapped in the minerals of the planet’s crust.

Mars mudstone, as imaged by the Curiosity rover.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As described in a release for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the team studied the quantity of water on Mars over time in all its forms (vapor, liquid, and ice) and the chemical composition of the planet’s current atmosphere and crust through the analysis of meteorites as well as using data provided by Mars rovers and orbiters. … Read more

A Close Exoplanet Found That May Have An Atmosphere Ideal For Study

Planet Gliese 486b is close to us (in a relative sense), rocky, on the small side and may have an atmosphere.  These conclusions come from studying the planet using both the transit and radial velocity techniques, which have been the primary methods used by astronomers to find and characterize exoplanets.  Charts showing the presence of the planet using both techniques are in the blue boxes. (Render Area, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, MPIA)

Different methods of searching for and finding distant exoplanets give different information about the planets found.

The transit method — where an exoplanets passed in front of its sun and dims the bright sunlight ever so slightly — gives astronomers not only a detection but also its radius or size.

The radial velocity method — where an exoplanet’s gravity causes its host star to “wobble” in a way that can be measured — provides different information about mass and orbit.

If a planet can be measured by both the transit and radial velocity methods, an important added dimension can be determined — how dense the planet might be.  This tells us if the planet is rocky or gaseous, watery or even if it has a central core and might have an atmosphere.  So many things have to go right that this kind of dual detection has seldom been accomplished for a  relatively small and rocky planet, but such a new planet has now been found.

The planet, Gliese 486b, is a super-Earth orbiting its host star at only 24 light-years away.  That makes the planet the third closest transiting exoplanet to Earth that is known, and the closest with a measured mass that transits a red dwarf star.

The authors of the study in the journal Science say Gliese 486b is an ideal candidate for learning how to best search for and characterize an all-important atmosphere, and to study potential habitability, too.  Future telescopes will make this kind of work more of a reality.

“Gliese 486 b is not hot enough to be a lava world,” lead author Trifon Trifonov of the Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie and colleagues write. “But its temperature of ~700 Kelvin (800 degrees Fahrenheit) makes it suitable for emission spectroscopy and …. studies in search of an atmosphere.”

Artist impression of the surface of the newly discovered hot super-Earth Gliese 486 b. With a temperature of about 700 Kelvin (almost 800 degrees Fahrenheit), 486b possibly has an atmosphere.

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NASA’s Perseverance Rover Lands on Mars — The Third Martian Arrival in a Week

This true-color Mars globe includes Terra Meridiani, the region where NASA’s Opportunity rover explored from 2004 to 2018.  Two more Mars rovers — one from NASA and the other from China — are scheduled to land this week and then later in the year. (NASA/Greg Shirah)

Mars is receiving visitors these days.  Quite a few of them.

The most prominent visitor is NASA’s Perseverance rover,  which made a difficult but smooth precision landing at 3.55 ET  this afternoon.

The rover now sits in Jezero Crater, in an area that clearly once had lots of water flowing.   The site was selected, in part, because the Perseverance rover’s official mission includes — for the first time since the mid 1970s — an effort to find signs of long ago life.

Perseverance will join the Curiosity rover on Mars, that pioneering machine that has revolutionized our understanding of the planet since it landed in 2012  The Curiosity and Perseverance rovers are similar in design but carry different instruments with different goals.

A key difference:  Curiosity was tasked with determining whether Mars had once been habitable and found that it definitely had been, with flowing rivers, large lakes and necessary-for-life organic compounds.  Perseverance will take another scientific step forward and search for signs that Mars actually was once inhabited.

Perseverance also joins China’s Tianwen-1 (“heavenly questions”) probe,  which went into orbit around Mars last week.  It is the first Chinese spacecraft to arrive at Mars, and later this spring or summer the Chinese space agency will attempt to land a rover as well on the planet’s northern plains..

And then there’s the Hope spacecraft which entered into Mars orbit last week as well.  Launched by the United Arab Emirates, it was placed in a wide orbit so it could study the planet’s weather and climate systems, which means it also can see the full planet in one view.

These spacecraft will join several others on or orbiting Mars, making this by far the busiest time ever for exploration of Mars — a real milestone.

NASA’s Perseverance rover will land in Jezero Crater. This image was produced using instruments on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which helps identify potential landing sites for future missions. On ancient Mars, water carved channels and transported sediments to form fans and deltas within lake basins, as is clearly visible at here at Jezaro Crater (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

That the Perseverance mission has a formal goal of searching for ancient signs of life is a big deal, and involves a lot of history.… Read more

New Insights Into How Earth Got Its Nitrogen

An artist’s conception shows a protoplanetary disk of dust and gas around a young star. New research by Rice University shows that Earth’s nitrogen came from both inner and outer regions of the disk that formed our solar system, contrary to earlier theory.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists have long held that many of the important compounds and elements that make life possible on Earth arrived here after the planet was formed and was orbiting the sun.  These molecules came via meteorites and comets, it was thought,  from the colder regions beyond Jupiter.

But in a challenge to that long-accepted view, a team from Rice University has found isotopic signatures of nitrogen from both the inner and the outer disk in iron meteorites that fell to Earth.  What this strongly suggests is that the seeds of rocky, inner solar system planets such as Earth were bathed in  dust that contained nitrogen and other volatiles, and the growing planet kept some of that “local” material.

“Our work completely changes the current narrative,” said Rice University graduate student and lead author Damanveer Grewal. “We show that the volatile elements were present in the inner disk dust, probably in the form of refractory (non-gaseous) organics, from the very beginning. This means that contrary to current understanding, the seeds of the present-day rocky planets — including Earth — were not volatile-free.”

The solar protoplanetary disk was separated into two reservoirs, with the inner solar system material having a lower concentration of nitrogen-15 and the outer solar system material being nitrogen-15 rich. The nitrogen isotope composition of present-day Earth lies in between, according to a new Rice University study that shows it came from both reservoirs. (Credit: Illustration by Amrita P. Vyas)

This work helped settle a prolonged debate over the origin of life-essential volatile elements — such as hydrogen, water, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen, ammonia — on Earth and other rocky bodies in the solar system.

“Researchers have always thought that the inner part of the solar system, within Jupiter’s orbit, was too hot for nitrogen and other volatile elements to condense as solids, meaning that volatile elements in the inner disk were only in the gas phase,” Grewal said.

Because the seeds of present-day rocky planets, also known as protoplanets, grew in the inner disk by accreting locally sourced dust, he said it appeared they did not contain nitrogen or other volatiles because of the high temperatures, necessitating their delivery from the outer solar system.… Read more

How to Predict the Make-Up of Rocky Exoplanets Too Small and Distant to Directly Observe

The seven planets of the Trappist-1 solar system.  The first planets were discovered five years ago and others in 2017.  Trappist-1 is a dream system for researchers to study because it includes so many rocky planets.  The planets do, however, orbit very close to a relatively small and cool Red Dwarf star, which makes the system and its potential for habitability different than if they orbited a sun-like star. (NASA)

In trying to tease out what a planet is made of, its density is of great importance.   Scientists can use that measure  of density — the amount of matter contained in a given volume — to determine what ratio of a planet is likely is gas, or water, or rocks, or rocks and iron and more. They can even help determine if the planet has a central core.

So determining the density of exoplanets is a high priority and one that has been especially important for the Trappist-1 solar system, the amazing collection of seven “Earth-sized” rocky planets orbiting a Red Dwarf star some 40 light years away.

The Trappist-1 planets have been a major focus of study since its first planets were discovered in 2016, and now a new and rather surprising finding about the density of the planets has been accepted for publication in the Planetary Science Journal .  While the planets are somewhat different sizes, they appear to be all almost the exact same density.  This provides a goldmine of information for scientists.

Equally exciting, while the seven Trappist-1 planets have similar densities, they are 8% less dense than they would be if they had the same chemical composition as our planet.  It may not seem like a lot, but to astrophysicists it is.

“This is the information we needed to make hypotheses about their composition and understand how these planets differ from the rocky planets in our solar system,” said lead author Eric Agol of the University of Washington.

What Agol considers the team’s most robust conclusions:  The Trappist-1 planets have a “common make-up” just as the rocky planets in our solar system do, but are nonetheless in some significant ways different from our rocky planets.  “TRAPPIST-1 has a different ‘recipe’ for forming terrestrial planets, and a more uniform recipe as well,” he told me.

A planet’s density is determined not just by its composition, but also by its size: Gravity compresses the material a planet is made of, increasing the planet’s density.

Read more

More Weird and Wild Planets

A world called TOI-849b could be the exposed, naked core of a former gas giant planet whose atmosphere was blasted away by its star.  Every day is a bad day on planet TOI-849b. . It hugs its star so tightly that a year – one trip around the star – takes less than a day. And it pays a high price for this close embrace: an estimated surface temperature of nearly 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius) It’s a scorcher even compared to Venus, which is 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius). About half the mass of our own Saturn, this planet orbits a Sun-like star more than 700 light-years from Earth. (NASA/Exoplanet Exploration Program)

The more we learn about the billions upon billions of planets that orbit beyond our solar system, the more we are surprised by the wild menagerie of objects out there.  From the start, many of these untolled planets have been startling, paradigm-breaking,  mysterious, hellish, potentially habitable and just plain weird.  Despite the confirmed detection of more than 4,000 exoplanets, the job of finding and characterizing these worlds remains in its early phases.  You could make the argument that  learning a lot more about these distant exoplanets and their solar systems is not just one of the great tasks of future astronomy, but of future science.

And that is why Many Worlds is returning to the subject of “Weird Planets,” which first appeared in this column at the opening of 2019.  It has been the most viewed column in our archive, and a day seldom goes by without someone — or some many people — decide to read it.

So here is not a really a sequel, but rather a continuation of writing about this unendingly rich subject.  And as I will describe further on,  almost all of the planets on display so far have been detected and characterized without ever having been seen.  The characteristics and colors presented in these (mostly) artistic renderings are the result of indirect observing and discovery — measuring how much light dims when a faraway planet crosses its host star, or how much the planet’s gravity causes its sun to move.

As a result, these planets are sometimes called “small, black shadows.” Scientists can infer a lot from the indirect measurements they make and from the beginnings of the grand effort to spectroscopically read the chemical makeup of exoplanet atmospheres. … Read more

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