Category: Planetary Systems (page 1 of 14)

New Research Finds The Very Early Solar System Went Through an Especially Intense Period of Asteroid Collisions

An artist’s view of the very early solar system, where dust was collecting into small rocks, which smashed into each other and some became larger. The height of the crash-ups took place during a surprisingly short period of time. (Tobias Stierli, flaeck / PlanetS)

In the earliest days of our solar system — before any planets had been cobbled together — the recently formed Sun was circled by cosmic gas and dust. Over time, fragments of rock formed from the dust and many of these orbiting rocks smashed together and some became the gradually larger components of planets-to-be.  Others were not part of any planet formation and became asteroids orbiting the Sun, and sometimes falling to Earth as meteorites.

Scientists have found that these asteroids (and their Earth-bound pieces) remained relatively unchanged since their formation billions of years ago.

And so they provide an archive of sorts, in which the conditions of the early solar system are preserved.

Alison Hunt, a planetary scientist at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, led a team that looked at some of that early solar system history and came up with some surprising results.

She and her team at the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS found that almost all of the asteroidal-cores-turned-meteorites they studied had been formed in a short four-million-year period starting almost eight million years the solar system first came into being.  A four million-year time span is short in astronomical terms and also unusual in terms of the precision achieved for the dating.

These results, and some inferences about why this period was so chaotic in the early solar system, were reported in Nature Astronomy late last month.

But before we look at why this might have happened, let’s explore a bit about how the team achieved such precise data about when many asteroids were formed.

One of the iron meteorite samples the team analyzed that was, long ago, the core of an asteroid. (Aurelia Meister)

To access this asteroid/meteorite archive, the researchers had to prepare and examine the extraterrestrial material from iron meteorites that had fallen to Earth.  Once part of the metallic cores of asteroids, samples from 18 different iron meteorites were used in the analysis.

The researchers first had to dissolve the samples to be able to isolate the elements palladium, silver and platinum — the key to their efforts.

Using a mass spectrometer they measured abundances of different and identifiable isotopes of these elements, and with their results they could put tighter constraints on the timing of events in the early solar system.

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A Clue Into The Makeup of Jupiter’s Moon Europa Provided by the Greenland Ice Sheet

Double ridge ice formations seen on Europa are similar to formations detected on the Greenland Ice Sheet. This artist’s rendering shows how double ridges on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa may form over shallow, refreezing water pockets within the ice shell. This mechanism is based on the study of an analogous double ridge feature found on Earth’s Greenland Ice Sheet. (Justice Blaine Wainwright)

Europa’s ice crust is crossed by thousands of double ridges, pairs of long parallel raised lines with a small valleys in between, sometimes as much as hundreds of miles long and skyscraper-height tall rims. While these double ridges are ubiquitous on Europa’s surface, how they form remains something of a mystery to scientists.

Dustin Schroeder, an associate professor of geophysics at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, was working on an issue related to climate change when he saw double ridges similar to those seen on Europa here on Earth.  The ridges, in Northwest Greenland, were tiny when compared with those on Europa, but the found the same “M”-shaped crest as found everywhere on that Jovian moon.

“We were working on something totally different related to climate change and its impact on the surface of Greenland when we saw these tiny double ridges – and we were able to see the ridges go from ‘not formed’ to ‘formed,’ ” Schroeder said.

Could the double ridges be forming as a result of processes similar to those that form the double ridges on Europa?

If so, then Greenland would provide a possibly important new window into a central question about Europa:  Is that thick ice shell surrounding the subsurface ocean completely solid, or does it have what are called “water sills” within the shell?

This is important because, as the Nature Communications paper concludes, “If the same process is responsible for Europa’s double ridges, our results suggest that shallow liquid water is spatially and temporally ubiquitous across Europa’s ice shell.”

Or as Schroeder put it, “If the mechanism we see in Greenland is how these things happen on Europa, it suggests there’s water everywhere,” he said in a release.

They can make this inference because the double ridges formed in Greenland are the known, and detectable, result of the dynamics of subsurface water surrounded by the ice sheet.

Surface imagery comparison of a double ridge on Europa (a) and on Earth (b), on the Northwest Greenland Ice Sheet.

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The World’s Most Capable Space Telescope Readies To Observe. What Will Exoplanet Scientists Be Looking For?

This artist’s concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star.  The James Webb is expected to begin science observations this summer. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The decades-long process of developing, refining, testing, launching, unfurling and now aligning and calibrating the most capable space telescope in history is nearing fruition.  While NASA has already released a number of “first light” images of photons of light moving through the James Webb Space Telescope’s optical system, the  jaw-dropping “first light” that has all the mirrors up and running together to produce an actual scientific observation is a few months off.

Just as the building and evolution of the Webb has been going on for years, so has the planning and preparation for specific team observation “campaigns.”   Many of these pertain to the earliest days of the universe, of star and galaxy formation and other realms of cosmology,  but an unprecedented subset of exoplanet observations is also on its way.

Many Worlds earlier discussed the JWST Early Release Science Program, which involves observations of gigantic hot Jupiter planets to both learn about their atmospheres and as a way to collect data that will guide exoplanet scientists in using JWST instruments in the years ahead.

Now we’ll look at a number of specific JWST General Observation and Guarantreed Time efforts that are more specific and will collect brand new information about some of the major characteristics and mysteries of a representative subset of the at least 100 billion exoplanets in our galaxy.

This will be done by using three techniques including transmission spectroscopy — collecting and analyzing the light that passes through an exoplanet’s atmosphere as it passes in front of its Sun.  The JWST will bring unprecedented power to characterizing the wild diversity of exoplanets now known to exist; to the question of whether “cool” and dim red dwarf stars (by far the most common in the galaxy) can maintain atmospheres; to newly sensitive studies of the chemical makeup of exoplanet atmospheres; and to the many possibilities of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets, a seven rocky planet solar system that is relatively nearby.

An artist’s interpretation of GJ 1214b,one of a group of super-Earth to mini-Neptune sized planets to be studied in the JWST Cycle1 observations. The planet is known to be covered by a thick haze which scientists expect the JWST to pierce as never before and allow them to study atmospheric chemicals below.

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Venus, as Never Seen Before

The darkside of Venus, as imaged by an optical and near infrared camera on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. (NASA)

For the first time, the surface of Venus has been imaged in visible wavelengths from space. The camera on the Parker Solar Probe pierced through the thick Venusian cloud cover and captured blurred but extremely valuable images of the highlands and lowlands of the planet.

The breakthrough images came thanks to a spacecraft with an entirely different mission — the Parker Probe, which has been exploring and progressively nearing the Sun in unprecedented ways.  And to get ever closer, it uses trips around Venus to slow down and thereby fly closer to the Sun.

It was during two of those trips around Venus in 2000 and 2001 that the Parker camera, which sees in visible and near infrared wavelengths, was able to  image the night side of Venus.  This was a first and totally unexpected, since Venus is known to have a dense cover of clouds.

The planet is also, of course, stunningly hot, with a mean temperature of 867 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface.  But the temperatures are lower on the elevated Aphrodite Terra, the largest highland region on the Venusian surface, and that is the area that shows as being dark in the images.

“Venus is the third brightest thing in the sky, but until recently we have not had much information on what the surface looked like because our view of it is blocked by a thick atmosphere,” said Brian Wood, lead author on the new study in Geophysical Research Letters and a physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.  “Now, we finally are seeing the surface in visible wavelengths for the first time from space.”

The presentation below, put together by NASA, the John’s Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and Naval Research Lab, is a stitched together video of the Parker Probe’s  Feb. 20, 2021 pass by the dark side of the planet.

Clouds of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid obstruct most of the visible light coming from Venus’ surface and so observing from both the ground and from space has relied on radar and observing wavelengths in the infrared that can pierce through the clouds.

But on two passes, the the Parker Probe’s Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) picked up a range of wavelengths from 470 nanometers to 800 nanometers. Some of that light is the near-infrared – wavelengths that we cannot see, but sense as heat – and some is in the visible range, between 380 nanometers and about 750 nanometers.… Read more

More On The Very Hot Science of Stellar Flares and Their Implications For Habitability

A solar flare, imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Among the many scientific fields born, or reborn, by the rise of astrobiology and its search for life beyond Earth is the study of stars, including our own Sun.  Now that we know that planets — from the large and gaseous to the small and rocky — are common in our galaxy and number in the many, many billions, there is suddenly vast amount of real estate where life potentially could arise.

We already know that many of those planets large and small are not candidates for habitability for any number of reasons, and that makes the understanding of what general conditions are required for life all the more pressing.

And as the astrobiological effort speeds ahead, it has become clear that the make-up, behavior and location of the stars that host exoplanets is central to that understanding.

Many stellar issues are suddenly important, and perhaps none more so than the nature, frequency and consequences of the constant stellar eruption of  flares, superflares and coronal mass ejections.

Created as intense bursts of radiation coming from the release of magnetic energy following reconnections in stars’ coronas, flares and related coronal mass ejections are the largest explosive events in solar systems. The energy released by a major flare from our Sun is about a sixth of the total solar energy released each second and equal to 160,000,000,000 megatons of TNT

The current focus of study is flares coming off red dwarf stars — much smaller and less energetic than our Sun, but the most common stars in the galaxy, by a lot.  Many are already known to have multiple rocky planets within a distance from the star termed the “habitable zone,” where in theory water could sometimes be liquid.

But red dwarf stars universally experience intense flaring in their early periods, and the planets orbiting in the those red dwarf habitable zones can be 20 times closer to their stars than we are to the Sun.

The crucial question is whether those flares forever sterilize the planets in their systems, which is certainly a possibility.  But a related question is whether the flares might also deliver amounts of ultraviolet radiation that may be essential to the formation of the chemical building blocks of life.

Not surprisingly, this is a subject of not only intense study but of heated debate as well.

Violent stellar flares from young red dwarf stars, as illustrated here, could potentially evaporate the atmosphere of a planet.

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What The James Webb Space Telescope Can Do For Exoplanet Science and What It Cannot Do

The James Webb Space Telescope, as rendered by an artist. The telescope is scheduled to launch later this month. (NASA)

When the James Webb Space Telescope finally launches (late this month, if the schedule holds) it will forever change astronomy.

Assuming that its complex, month-long deployment in space works as planned, it will become the most powerful and far-seeing observatory in the sky.  It will have unprecedented capabilities to probe the earliest days of the universe, shedding new light on the formation of the first stars and galaxies.  And it will observe in new detail the most distant regions of our solar system.

Deep space astrophysics is what JWST was first designed for in the early 1990s, and that will be its transformative strength.

But much is also being made of what JWST can do for the study of exoplanets and some are even talking about how it just might be able to find biosignatures — signs of distant life.

While it is probably wise to never say never regarding an observatory with the power and capabilities of JWST,  the reality is that it was not designed to look for the exoplanets most likely to be habitable.  Actually, when it was first proposed, the observatory had no exoplanet-studying capabilities at all because no exoplanets had yet been found.

What was added on is substantial and exoplanet scientists say JWST can help advance the field substantially.  But there are definite limits and finding biosignatures — life — is almost certainly a reach too far for JWST.

When starlight passes through a planet’s atmosphere, certain parts of the light are absorbed by the atmosphere’s elements. By studying which parts of light are absorbed, scientists can determine the composition of the planet’s atmosphere. (Christine Daniloff/MIT, Julien de Wit)

Astronomer Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago, who has played a leadership role in planning JWST exoplanet observations for the telescope’s early day, says that people need to know these limitations so the pioneering exoplanet science that will be possible with JWST is not seen as somehow disappointing.

As he explained, it is essential to understand that the kind of exoplanet observing that the JWST will mostly do is “transit spectroscopy.”  This involves staring at a star when an exoplanet is expected to transit in front of it.  When that happens, light from the star will pass through the atmosphere of the exoplanet (if there is one) and through spectroscopy scientists can determine what molecules are in that hoped-for atmosphere.… Read more

Why Does Our Solar System Have No Super-Earths, and Other Questions for Comparative Planetology

An artist’s impression of the exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. Using the European Southern Observatory’s telescope at La Silla, Chile, and other telescopes around the world, an international team of astronomers discovered this super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint star LHS 1140. This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth. (ESO)

Before the explosion in discovery of extrasolar planets, the field of comparative planetology was pretty limited  — confined to examining the differences between planets in our solar system and how they may have come to pass.

But over the past quarter century, comparative planetology and the demographics of planets came to mean something quite different.  With so many planets now identified in so many solar systems, the comparisons became not just between one planet and another but also between one solar system and another.

And the big questions for scientists became the likes of:  How and why are the planetary makeups of distant solar systems often so different from our own and from each other; what does the presence  or absence of large planets in a solar system do to the distribution of smaller planets;  how large can a rocky planet can get before it turns to a gas giant planet; and on a more specific subject, why do some solar systems have hot Jupiters close to the host star and others have cold Jupiters much further out like our own

Another especially compelling question involves our own solar system, though as something of an outlier rather than a prototype.

That question involves the absence in our solar system of anything in the category of a “super-Earth” — a rocky or gaseous extrasolar planet with a mass greater than Earth’s but substantially below those of our solar system’s planets next in mass,  Uranus and Neptune.

The term “super-Earth” refers only to the mass and radii of the planet, and so does not imply anything about the surface conditions or habitability. But in the world of comparative planetology “super-Earths” are very important because they are among the most common sized exoplanets found so far and some do seem to have planetary characteristics associated with habitability.

Yet they do not exist in our solar system.  Why is that?

Artist rendition of Earth in comparison to one of the many super-Earth planets. (NASA)

In a recent article in The Astrophysical Journal Letters,  planetary demographer Gijs D.… Read more

NASA Should Build a Grand Observatory Designed to Search For Life Beyond Earth, Top Panel Concludes

The National Academy of Sciences has released it’s “Decadal Survey,” with guidance and recommendations for the fields of astronomy, astrobiology and astrophysics.(NASA)

NASA should begin developing a mission that can tell us whether life in the near galaxy is abundant, rare or essentially absent, The National Academy of Sciences recommended yesterday.

The call for a next Grand Observatory telescope with this ambitious goal represents the first time that the Academy, in its Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics, has given top priority to the science of  exoplanets and the search for life far beyond Earth.

The long-awaited NAS survey did not select a single mission concept, although several NASA-commissioned studies were extensively researched and assembled for the Decadal over the past four years.

Rather, they set the science goal of giving an answer – as complete as possible – to the eternally-asked question of whether life exists solely on Earth or can be found on the billions of other planets we now know orbit their own suns.

Decadal steering committee co-chair Robert Kennicutt Jr., a professor at University of Arizona and Texas A & M University, said that a flood of discoveries and astronomical and technological advances in recent decades made clear that the time for such a mission had come.

“We’re laying down a marker here,” Kennicutt said  in a press conference.  “We think that progress in this field has taken us to the point that within the planning horizon of this survey, we can really contemplate imaging  Earth-like planets in their habitable zones around other stars and spectroscopically studying them for atmospheric composition, perhaps including biomarkers. with the ultimate goal of answering one of the most profound questions:  Are we alone in the universe?”

The proposed mission, he said, would as a result have the transformative scientific power of the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch next month.  It would change the way that scientists and citizens see the world.

The telescope envisioned by Decadal Survey would search for small rocky planets in the habitable zone of heir sun — where the temperatures would allow for liquid water to exist rather than just water vapor or ice.  This artist’s concept ia of Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world found in the habitable zone of a distant sun-like star. ( NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.)

But the road to an actual mission will be long and definitely uphill.… Read more

Metal Mini-Asteroids Detected Passing Near Earth, Offering Potentially Great Science and Maybe Future Mining

An artist impression of a close flyby of the metal-rich Near-Earth asteroid 1986 DA. Astronomers using the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility have confirmed that the asteroid is made of 85% metal. (Addy Graham/University of Arizona)

Metal asteroids offer something rare in the solar system — the core of a planet without all the rock that normally surrounds it.

Since it is impossible to directly examine a planetary or lunar core if the parent body remains intact, metal-rich asteroids where the upper mantle and crust layers have been lost to a cataclysmic crash offer a potential path to, in effect, peek inside the depths (and deep time) of an object.

The asteroid Psyche is such an object, and that’s why NASA approved a mission to the asteroid that is scheduled to launch next year.  Orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter in the largest asteroid belt, Psyche appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, and as such reveals the early evolution of our solar system.

But Psyche is not the only metal-rich asteroid known to astronomers, and it certainly is not the closest.

Two much smaller “mini-Pysches” have been detected that are also comprised of iron, nickel, and other metals ranging from platinum to rare earth elements.  And these two mini-asteroids — 1986 DA and 2016 ED85 — were recently found to have their spectral signatures are quite similar to asteroid Psyche.

And unlike Psyche, which is between 180 million and 360 million miles away, these mini-Psyches orbit less than twenty million from Earth every 20 to 30 years.

“These kind of metal-rich Near-Earth asteroids are extremely rare,” said Vishnu Reddy of the University of Arizona, and co-author of a recent paper in Planetary Science Journal.  “There are some 27,000 known Near-Earth objects, and only these two are metal rich.  Of the 1.2 million asteroids that have been identified, only a little over a dozen are in that metal-rich category.”

Reddy  has been part of a group researching unusual near-Earth objects since 2005, and so these findings are most rewarding.

“In the years ahead we can study Psyche, a large metal-rich object that is quite far away,” Reddy said.  “And now we also know of two much smaller metal-rich objects that are also much, much closer to us.”

Artist’s conception of Psyche, with orbiter spacecraft.  The mission, led by Linda Elkins-Tanton at Arizona State University, is scheduled to launch next year. 

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Many Planets Form in a Soup of Life-Friendly Organic Compounds

Artist’s depiction of a protoplanetary disk with young planets forming around a star. The right-side panel zooms in to show various organic molecules that are accreting onto a planet. (M.Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian)

One of the more persuasive arguments in favor of the potential existence of life beyond Earth is that the well-known chemical building blocks of that life are found throughout the galaxy.  These chemical components aren’t all present in all examined solar systems and planets, but they are common and behave in ways familiar to scientists here.

And when it comes elements and compounds found on distant planets but not found here, there just aren’t many. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist — some unstable compounds in interstellar space, for instance — but rather that the cosmos holds many surprises but none have involved extraterrestrial elements or compounds near planets or stars.

This is in large part the result of how elements are formed in the universe.  Other than hydrogen and helium, all other elements are forged in the thermonuclear explosion of stars that have exhausted their supply of fuel.  These massive explosions (supernovae) then shoot the newly-formed elements out into space where they can and do collect in gas and dust clouds that will form other new stars.  They are spread throughout the disks that form around new stars and over time they become components of new planets in formation.

This galactic evolution includes the bonding together of carbon-based organic compounds — the building blocks of life as we know it.  They are an essential component to any theory of a planet’s habitability and,  while their presence in space and star nurseries has been known for some time,  they have remained a subject of great interest but limited detailed knowledge.

That is why an international team from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. set out to intensively study five disks forming around young stars to determine more precisely what organic compounds were present and available for objects developing into planets.

And the results are striking:  The abundance of organic material detected was 10 to 100 times more than expected.

“These planet-forming disks are teeming with organic molecules, some of which are implicated in the origins of life here on Earth,” said team leader Karin Öberg. “This is really exciting; the chemicals in each disk will ultimately affect the type of planets that form and determine whether or not the planets can host life.”… Read more

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