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Can We Trust a Handful of Grains to Tell Us About the Early Earth? A Look at the Hayabusa2 Asteroid Sample

The Hayabusa2 sample return capsule returning to Earth. The bright streak in the sky is the capsule, shock heated as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The bright lights on the ground are buildings. (JAXA)

In the early hours of December 6, 2020, what appeared to be a shooting star blazed across the sky above the Woomera desert in South Australia. The source was the sample return capsule from JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission, which contained precious material from a near-Earth asteroid known as Ryugu.

Within 60 hours, the capsule had been retrieved and flown to the curation facility at JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Japan. In vacuum conditions to prevent any trace of contamination, the capsule was opened to reveal over 5 grams of asteroid grains.

This material is expected to have undergone little change since the early days of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, and its highly anticipated analysis could provide new information about how the Earth acquired water and organics needed to begin life. The sample is the first ever collected from a carbonaceous (C-type) asteroid, which resemble primitive meteorites found to have a chemical composition close to that of the Sun.

Tet despite a rigorously planned and executed journey of over 5,000 million kilometers to bring back a pristine sample from space, concerns have remained. Chief among these are whether the rocky grains in the sample capsule were typical of the asteroid.

If the Hayabusa2 spacecraft had inadvertently gathered grains from an unusual spot, or if the grains had been altered during the collection and return to Earth, then deductions about the asteroid’s composition–and therefore our solar system’s past–could be wrong.  

The sample from asteroid Ryugu (from Yada et al. Nature Astronomy 2021)

The Hayabusa2 team had already gone to rather extreme lengths to mitigate this issue.

In addition to the rapid retrieval operation that ensured that the sample was not contaminated by our planet’s atmosphere, the spacecraft had performed the dangerous landing twice on the surface of asteroid Ryugu to collect samples from two separate sites.

One of these locations was close to where the spacecraft had made an artificial crater, ejecting material from beneath the asteroid’s surface to be gathered during the second collection operation. Rocky grains from below the top layer surface are expected to be particularly pristine, as they have been protected from the bombardment of sunlight, cosmic rays and micrometeorites.… 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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“Tantalizing” Carbon Signals From Mars

This mosaic was made from images taken by the Mast Camera aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover on the 2,729th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. It shows the landscape of the Stimson sandstone formation in Gale crater. In this general location, Curiosity drilled the Edinburgh hole, a sample from which was enriched in carbon-12. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.)

The rugged and parched expanses of Western Australia are where many of the oldest signs of ancient life on Earth have been found, embedded in the sedimentary rocks that have been undisturbed there for eons.  One particularly significant finding from the Tumbiana Formation contained a substantial and telltale excess of the carbon-12 isotope compared with carbon-13.

Since carbon 12 is used by living organisms, that carbon-12 excess in the rocks was interpreted to mean that some life-form had been present long ago (about 2.7 billion years) and left behind that “signature”  of its presence. What was once a microbial mat that could have produced the carbon-12 excess was ultimately found nearby.

After nine years of exploring Gale Crater on Mars, scientists with NASA’s Curiosity rover have collected a substantial number of rock samples that they have similarly drilled, pulverized, gasified and analyzed.

And as explained in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS,) researchers have found quite a few Martian specimen that have the same carbon-12 excesses as those found in Western Australia.

Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, long-time principal investigator for the instrument that found the carbon-12 excess on Mars, called the results “tantalizingly interesting.”

And the lead author of the PNAS paper, Christopher House of Penn State University, said that “On Earth, processes that would produce the carbon signal we’re detecting on Mars are biological.”  Like from Western Australia and elsewhere.

So something unusual and important has been discovered. But exactly what it is and how it came to be remains very much a work in progress.

Perhaps biology did play a role, the team writes.  If so, it would involve ancient bacteria in the Martian surface that would have produced a unique carbon signature when they released methane into the atmosphere. Ultraviolet light would have then converted that gas into larger, more complex molecules that would rain down and become part of Martian rocks.

Scientists with NASA and European Mars missions traveled to the Western Australian Outback to hone their research techniques before their missions launched.

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A Red Supergiant Star Is Caught Going Explosively Supernova, A First

Supernova (SN) 2020tlf, identified by red markers, in the act of exploding 120 million light years away. The bright white region to the upper right is the crowded center of the star’s galaxy, the oval-shaped NGC 5731. This direct image was captured using the Pan-STARRS camera at the Haleakala Observatory, Hawai’i.  It shows the supernova in optical light. (Pan-STARRS/YSE)

When a large star reaches the end of its life it runs out of fuel, collapses and explodes into a supernova. The explosion releases enormous amounts of energy and light, turning a luminous object that is small at a distance into a large glowing ball.

Supernova temperatures have been modeled to reach 6,000 times higher than the core temperature of our Sun. Much of the matter in the star is sent flying into space and, in moments, the gigantic eruption is over. These cataclysmic events — the most energetic explosions ever seen by humans — are known to send far into the cosmos shock waves of compressed gas clouds that eventually birth new stars.

Supernova are stupendous astrophysical events which are of great interest to astronomers.  And over the past several years an international team including the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Hawai’i  have actually captured such an explosion of a red supergiant star — the first such imaging of its kind.

“For the first time, we watched a red supergiant star explode!” said Wynn Jacobson-Galán, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study in The Astrophysical Journal. “This is a breakthrough in our understanding of what massive stars do moments before they die.”

“It’s like watching a ticking time bomb,” said senior author Raffaella Margutti, an associate professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley, and one of those who monitored the star for several months before it exploded.

“We’ve never confirmed such violent activity in a dying red supergiant star, where we see it produce such a luminous emission then collapse and combust. Until now.”

An artist’s video rendering of a red supergiant star transitioning into a Type II supernova, emitting a violent eruption of radiation and gas on its dying breath before collapsing and exploding.  (W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko)

A supernova of the type and size of the one just observed are known to occur periodically,  but predicting when massive stars will reach that final violent stage and having telescopes in place to observe it has been a bridge too far.… Read more

The Amazing Unfurling Of The James Webb Space Telescope

The last view of the JWST and its unfurled solar arrays after it separated from the Ariane 5 launch vehicle and started it’s month-long and extraordinarily complicated deployment. (NASA)

Over the next three weeks-plus, the James Webb Space Telescope will play out an unfurling and deployment in deep space unlike anything this world has seen before.

It took decades to perfect the observatory — a segmented telescope on a heat shield  the length of a tennis court that was squeezed for launch into a rocket payload compartment less than 30 feet in diameter.  The unfurling has begun and will continue over 25 more days, with 50 major deployments and 178 release mechanisms to set the pieces free.

The process has been likened to the undoing of an origami creation, or like the opening of a massive, many-featured Swiss army knife but without a human to pull the parts out.

Adding to the stress of these days,  the JWST will be much further out into space than the Hubble Space Telescope, which is in a very close orbit around the Earth at an altitude of about 340 miles.  The JWST will be over 930,000 miles away from Earth at the stable orbital point called the second Lagrange point 2 (L2) — way too far away for any manual fixes or upgrades like the ones accomplished by astronauts for the Hubble.

Four days after liftoff, the observatory has unfurled some of its solar panels, has deployed some of the pallet that will hold the sunshield and has extended the tower assembly about 6 feet from its storage space.   Here is a video from the Goddard Space Flight Center illustrating all the steps needed to make JWST whole:

 

And here is a more detailed depiction of the many stages of deployment, what is being deployed and how.

JWST will  have the largest telescope mirror ever sent into space — 21 feet in diameter compared with the Hubble’s 8-foot diameter.  Because it is so large, it had to be divided into 18 hexagonal segments of the lightweight element beryllium, each one roughly the size of a coffee table. Together, the segments must align almost perfectly, moving in alignment within a fraction of a wavelength of light.

Webb mission systems engineer Mike Menzel, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a deployment-explaining video called “29 Days on the Edge” that every single releases and deployment must work.… Read more

A Huge Watery Reservoir May Lie Beneath the Surface of The “Grand Canyon” of Mars

The Valles Marineris in equatorial Mars and is one of the the largest canyon in the solar system.  It is surpassed in length only by the rift valleys of Earth. (NASA)

That early Mars was much wetter and warmer than it is today has been well established by numerous missions.  Water ice is visible at the poles and many fossil rivers have been found in the southern highlands of Mars.  The Curiosity rover found as well that the large crater where it landed — Gale Crater – once had a lake and in-flowing streams.

But the presence of water, or proof that water once flowed, has been missing in the equatorial latitudes  of the planet.

However, now a paper based on data from the European/Russian Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) strongly suggests that the Candor Chasma, located near the heart of the massive canyon system called Valles Marineris, has either large deposits of a kind of permafrost water ice just below its surface or of rocks formed in water and now containing that H2O in their structure.

The article to appear in the journal Icarus says that the discovery of large amounts of hydrogen in the region speaks of this aqueous  past.

“We found a central part of Valles Marineris to be packed full of water – far more water than we expected,” Alexey Malakhov, of the Russian Space Research Institute and a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

“This is very much like Earth’s permafrost regions, where water ice permanently persists under dry soil because of the constant low temperatures.”

 

Valles Marineris, seen at an angle of 45 degrees to the surface in near-true color and with four times vertical exaggeration. The image covers an area of about 400,000 square miles. The largest portion of the canyon, which spans right across the image, is known as Melas Chasma. Candor Chasma is the connecting trough immediately to the north. The digital terrain model was created from 20 images taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera of the Mars Express Orbiter. (ESA)

Valles Marineris is 10 times longer and 4 times deeper than our Grand Canyon.  Geologists have theorized that Valles Marineris began to open along geological faults about 3.5 billion years ago. The faulting may have been caused by the tectonic activity that accompanied the growth of the giant volcanoes in Tharsis, lying just to the west.Read more

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

Touching the Sun

An illustration of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe flying past the sun. The spacecraft has a carbon-carbon heat shield (carbon fibers in a carbon matrix) that can protect it from temperatures of up to 2500 F, about the melting point of steel.  (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Parker Solar Probe is the stuff of superlatives and marvels.

Later this week, it will pass but 5.3 million miles from the sun — much closer than Mercury or any other spacecraft  have ever come — and it will be traveling at a top speed of 101 miles per second, the fastest human-made object ever created.

It’s designed to withstand temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit and solar radiation 475 times the intensity at Earth orbit.

And as it reaches its perihelion, or closest pass of this orbit, it will be on only its 10th of 24 planned progressively closer solar passes.  In the years ahead, it will ultimately skim into the upper corona, the atmosphere of charged and unimaginably hot plasma that surrounds the sun and other stars.  The Parker Probe will, quite literally, touch the sun.

Something rather awe-inspiring to think about this coming Sunday, when the next pass takes place.

The mission, however, surely does not have record-setting as its goal.  Rather, those records are necessary to achieve the scientific goals — to fly close enough to the sun to understand how and where the gravity-defying force of the “solar wind” originates; to determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields and switchbacks that are hotly debated as a possible source of that solar wind; and to resolve the mystery of why the sun’s corona is unexpectedly hotter than the solar “surface” below it.

“Parker Solar Probe is already telling us many important things about the sun that we didn’t know,” said Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.  “We are definitely getting closer to understanding some of the big questions we had before, such as the source of the solar wind.  But we have to be mindful that in whatever we find, the Sun is always changing.”

And incidently, he said, more than 99.9 percent of all the matter in our solar system is in and around the sun.

 

Solar wind activity at different scales as imaged by the Parker Probe’s Wide-field Imager (WISPR) instrument earlier this year during.
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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

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