‘Crasher Asteroids’ Photobomb Hubble’s Deep Gaze Into the Universe

NASA, ESA, and B. Sunnquist and J. Mack (STScI)

Like the infamous “Crasher Squirrel” that launched one of the most prolific memes in online history, “crasher asteroids” have photobombed the Hubble Space Telescope’s otherwise uninterrupted view of the ancient universe.

While carrying out its Frontier Fields survey of a random postage stamp-sized part of the sky in the direction of the galaxy cluster Abell 370, Hubble imaged many galaxies located at different distances over different epochs in time.

Visible in the observation are elliptical galaxies and spiral galaxies. Many are bright and bluish, but the vast majority are dim and reddish. The reddest blobs are the most distant galaxies in our observable universe; their light has been stretched (red-shifted) after traveling for billions of years through an expanding cosmos. These galaxies are the most ancient galaxies that formed within a billion years after the Big Bang.

But mixed in with this Hubble view of ancient light are bright arcs and dashes — tracks carved out by the rocky junk in our own solar system that is drifting in Hubble’s field of view, located a mere 160 million miles from Earth (on average). It’s sobering to think that the light from the reddest galaxies is nearly three times older than these asteroids.*

Abel 370 is located along the solar system’s ecliptic plane, around which the planets orbit the sun and the majority of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter are located. So, like looking through a swarm of bees, Hubble has captured the trails of asteroids in the foreground.

The trails themselves are created not by the motion of the asteroids, however, but by the motion of Hubble. While fixing its gaze on distant galaxies for hours at a time as it orbits Earth, Hubble’s position changes and, through an observational effect known as parallax, the positions of those asteroids appear to trace an arc when compared with the stationary background of galaxies billions of light-years distant.

As Hubble scanned its field of view, it revealed 20 asteroid trails, seven of which are unique objects (some of the asteroid trails were repeated observations of the same object, just captured at different times in Hubble’s orbit). Only two of these asteroids were previously discovered, the other five are newly discovered objects that were too faint for other observatories to detect.

So it goes to show that photobombing asteroids are useful for science and, though Hubble was observing the most distant objects in the cosmos, it was able to see a few of the rocks in our cosmic backyard.

*NOTE: Asteroids formed around the time our solar system first started creating planets, some 4.6 billion years ago. The most ancient galaxies are located over 13 billion light-years away, meaning the ancient light from those galaxies was produced 13 billion years ago.

Friday Flashback: Banff Ground Squirrel Witnessed Apollo 11 Landing (2009)

Buzz Aldrin poses for Armstrong's camera in 1969. Little did the astronauts realize... they were being watched... (NASA/NatGeo/Ian O'Neill)
Buzz Aldrin poses for Armstrong’s camera in 1969. Little did the astronauts realize… they were being watched… (NASA/NatGeo/Ian O’Neill)

The Solar System Just Had an Interstellar Visitor. Now It’s Gone

Hello, goodbye interstellar comet. The hyperbolic orbit of Comet C/2017 C1 as plotted by JPL’s Small-Body Database Browser (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Update: At original time of writing, C/2017 U1 was assumed to be a comet. But Followup observations by the Very Large Telescope in Chile on Oct. 25 found no trace of cometary activity. The object’s name has now been officially changed to A/2017 U1 as it is more likely an interstellar asteroid, not a comet.

Astronomers using the PanSTARRS 1 telescope in Maui may have discovered an alien comet.

Comets and asteroids usually originate from the outermost reaches of the solar system — they’re the ancient rocky, icy debris left over from the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago.

However, astronomers have long speculated that comets and asteroids originating from other stars might escape their stars, traverse interstellar distances and occasionally pay our solar system a visit. And looking at C/2017 U1’s extreme hyperbolic trajectory, it looks very likely it’s not from around these parts.

“If further observations confirm the unusual nature of this orbit this object may be the first clear case of an interstellar comet,” said Gareth Williams, associate director of the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (MPC). A preliminary study of C/2017 U1 was published earlier today. (Since this statement, followup observations have indicated that the object might be an asteroid and not a comet.)

According to Sky & Telescope, the object entered the solar system at the extreme speed of 16 miles (26 kilometers) per second, meaning that it is capable of traveling a distance of 850 light-years over 10 million years, a comparatively short period in cosmic timescales.

Spotted on Oct. 18 as a very dim 20th magnitude object, astronomers calculated its trajectory and realized that it was departing the solar system after surviving a close encounter with the sun on Sept. 9, coming within 23.4 million miles (0.25 AU). Comets would vaporize at that distance from the sun, but as C/2017 U1’s speed is so extreme, it didn’t have time to heat up.

“It went past the sun really fast and may not have had time to heat up enough to break apart,” said dynamicist Bill Gray. Gray estimates that the comet is approximately 160 meters wide with a surface reflectivity of 10 percent.

But probably the coolest factor about this discovery is the possible origin of C/2017 U1. After calculating the direction at which the comet entered the solar system, it appears to have come from the constellation of Lyra and not so far from the star Vega. For science fiction fans this holds special meaning — that’s the star system where the SETI transmission originated in the Jodie Foster movie Contact.

For more on this neat discovery, check out the Sky & Telescope article.

Antimatter Angst: The Universe Shouldn’t Exist

The Veil Nebula as seen by Hubble. Because it looks cool (NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team)

The universe shouldn’t exist, according to new ultra-precise measurements of anti-protons.

But the fact that I’m typing this article and you’re reading it, however, suggests that we are here, so something must be awry with our understanding of the physics the universe is governed by.

The universe is the embodiment of an epic battle between matter and antimatter that occurred immediately after the Big Bang, 13.82 billion years ago. Evidently, matter won — because there are galaxies, stars, planets, you, me, hamsters, long walks on sandy beaches and beer — but how matter won is one of the biggest mysteries hanging over physics.

It is predicted that equal amounts of matter and antimatter were produced in the primordial universe (a basic prediction by the Standard Model of physics), but if that’s the case, all matter in the universe should have been annihilated when it came into contact with its antimatter counterpart — a Big Bang followed by a big disappointment.

This physics conundrum focuses on the idea that all particles have their antimatter twin with the same quantum numbers, only the exact opposite. Protons have anti-protons, electrons have positrons, neutrinos have anti-neutrinos etc.; a beautiful example of symmetry in the quantum world. But should one of these quantum numbers be very slightly different between matter and antimatter particles, it might explain why matter became the dominant “stuff” of the universe.

So, in an attempt to measure one of the quantum states of particles, physicists of CERN’s Baryon–Antibaryon Symmetry Experiment (BASE), located near Geneva, Switzerland, have made the most precise measurement of the anti-proton’s magnetic moment. BASE is a complex piece of hardware that can precisely measure the magnetic moments of protons and anti-protons in an attempt to detect an extremely small difference between the two. Should there be a difference, this might explain why matter is more dominant than antimatter.

However, this latest measurement of the magnetic moment of anti-protons has revealed that the magnetic moments of both protons and anti-protons are exactly the same to a record-breaking level of precision. In fact, the anti-proton measurement is even more precise than our measurements of the magnetic moment of a proton — a stunning feat considering how difficult anti-protons are to study.

“It is probably the first time that physicists get a more precise measurement for antimatter than for matter, which demonstrates the extraordinary progress accomplished at CERN’s Antiproton Decelerator,” said physicist Christian Smorra in a CERN statement. The Antiproton Decelerator is a machine that can capture antiparticles (created from particle collisions that occur at CERN’s Proton Synchrotron) and funnel them to other experiments, like BASE.

Antimatter is very tricky to observe and measure. Should these antiparticles come into contact with particles, they annihilate — you can’t simply shove a bunch of anti-protons into a flask and expect them to play nice. So, to prevent antimatter from making contact with matter, physicists have to create magnetic vacuum “traps” that can quarantine anti-protons from touching matter, thereby allowing further study.

A major area of research has been to develop ever more sophisticated magnetic traps; the slightest imperfections in a trap’s magnetic field containing the antimatter can allow particles to leak. The more perfect the magnetic field, the less chance there is of leakage and the longer antimatter remains levitating away from matter. Over the years, physicists have achieved longer and longer antimatter containment records.

In this new study, published in the journal Nature on Oct. 18, researchers used a combination of two cryogenically-cooled Penning traps that held anti-protons in place for a record-breaking 405 days. In that time they were able to apply another magnetic field to the antimatter, forcing quantum jumps in the particles’ spin. By doing this, they could measure their magnetic moments to astonishing accuracy.

According to their study, anti-protons have a magnetic moment of −2.792847344142 μN (where μN is the nuclear magneton, a physical constant). The proton’s magnetic moment is 2.7928473509 μN, almost exactly the same — the slight difference is well within the experiment’s error margin. As a consequence, if there’s a difference between the magnetic moment of protons and anti-protons, it must be much smaller than the experiment can currently detect.

These tiny measurements have huge — you could say: universal — implications.

“All of our observations find a complete symmetry between matter and antimatter, which is why the universe should not actually exist,” added Smorra. “An asymmetry must exist here somewhere but we simply do not understand where the difference is.”

Now the plan is to improve methods of capturing antimatter particles, pushing BASE to even higher precision, to see if there really is an asymmetry in magnetic moment between protons and anti-protons. If there’s not, well, physicists will need to find their asymmetry elsewhere.

Spinning Comet Slams its Brakes as It Makes Earth Flyby

Images of Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak’s jets as observed by the Discovery Channel Telescope on March 19, 2017 (Schleicher/Lowell Observatory)

Although comets are static lumps of ancient ice for most of their lives, their personalities can rapidly change with a little heat from the sun. Now, astronomers have witnessed just how dynamic comets can be, seeing one dramatically slow its rate of rotation to the point where it may even reverse its spin.

Comets are the leftover detritus of planetary formation that were sprinkled around our sun 4.6 billion years ago. These primordial icy remains collected in the outermost reaches of the solar system and that’s where they stay until they get knocked off their gravitational perches to begin an interplanetary roller coaster ride. Some are unlucky and end up diving straight to a fiery, solar death. But others set up in stable orbits, making regular passes through the inner solar system, dazzling observers with their beautiful tails formed through heating by the sun.

One mile-wide short-period comet is called 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak and it’s a slippery celestial object. First discovered in 1858 by U.S. astronomer Horace Parnell Tuttle, it disappeared soon after. But in 1907, French astronomer Michael Giacobini “rediscovered” the comet, only for it to disappear once again. Then, in 1951, Slovak astronomer Ľubor Kresák made the final “discovery” and now astronomers know exactly where to find it and when it will turn up in our night skies.

Its name, Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, reflects the wonderful 100-year discovery and rediscovery history of astronomy’s quest to keep tabs on the comet’s whereabouts.

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak as observed on March 22, 2017 (Kees Scherer/Knight Observatory, Tomar)

Now, 41P is the focus of an interesting cometary discovery. Taking 5.4 years to complete an orbit around the sun, 41P came within 13-million miles to Earth earlier this year, the closest it has come to our planet since it was first discovered by Tuttle. So, astronomers at Lowell Observatory, near Flagstaff, Ariz., used the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope near Happy Jack, the 1.1-meter Hall telescope and the 0.9-meter Robotic telescope on Anderson Mesa, to zoom-in on the interplanetary vagabond to measure its rotational speed.

Comets can be unpredictable beasts. Composed of rock and icy volatiles, when they are slowly heated by the sun as they approach perihelion (the closest point in their orbit to the sun), these ices sublimate (i.e. turn from ice to vapor without melting into a liquid), blasting gas and dust into space.

Over time, these jets are known to have a gradual effect the comet’s trajectory and rotation, but, over an astonishing observation run, Lowell astronomers saw a dramatic change in this comet’s spin. Over a short six-week period, the comet’s rate of rotation slowed from one rotation every 24 hours to once every 48 hours — its rate of rotation had halved. This is the most dramatic change in comet rotation speed ever recorded — and erupting jets from the comet’s surface are what slammed on the brakes.

This was confirmed by observing cyanogen gas, a common molecule found on comets that is composed of one carbon atom and one nitrogen atom, being ejected into space as the comet was being heated by sunlight.

“While we expected to observe cyanogen jets and be able to determine the rotation period, we did not anticipate detecting a change in the rotation period in such a short time interval,” said Lowell astronomer David Schleicher, who led the project, in a statement. “It turned out to be the largest change in the rotational period ever measured, more than a factor of ten greater than found in any other comet.”

For this rapid slowdown to occur, the researchers think that 41P must have a very elongated shape and be of very low density. In this scenario, if the jets are located near the end of its length, enough torque could be applied to cause the slowdown. If this continues, the researchers predict that the direction of rotation may even reverse.

“If future observations can accurately measure the dimensions of the nucleus, then the observed rotation period change would set limits on the comet’s density and internal strength,” added collaborator Matthew Knight. “Such detailed knowledge of a comet is usually only obtained by a dedicated spacecraft mission like the recently completed Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.”

How Gravitational Waves Led Us to Neutron Star Gold

Artist impression of a violent neutron star collision (Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.)

One hundred and thirty million years ago in a galaxy 130 million light-years away, two neutron stars met their fate, merging as one. Trapped in a gravitational embrace, these two stellar husks spiraled closer and closer until they violently ripped into one another, causing a detonation that reverberated throughout the cosmos.

On August 17, the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Italian Virgo gravitational wave detector felt the faint ripples in spacetime from that ancient neutron star collision washing through our planet. Until now, LIGO and Virgo have only confirmed the collisions and mergers of black holes, so the fact that a nearby (a relative term in this case) neutron star merger had been detected was already historic.

But the implications for this particular neutron star signal, which is comparatively weak in comparison with the black hole mergers that have come before it, are so profound that I’ve been finding it hard to put this grand discovery into words (though I have tried).

Why It Matters

With regards to gravitational waves, I feel I’ve described each gravitational wave discovery as “historic” and “a new era for astronomy” since their first detection on Sept. 15, 2015, but the detection of GW170817 may well trump all that have come before it, even though the signal was generated by neutron stars and not black hole heavyweights.

The thing with black holes is that when they collide and merge, they don’t necessarily produce electromagnetic radiation (i.e. visible light, X-rays or infrared radiation). They can go “bump” in the cosmic night and no intelligent being with a conventional telescope would see it happen. But in the the gravitational domain, black hole mergers echo throughout the universe; their gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, warping spacetime as they propagate. To detect these “invisible” waves, we must build instruments that can “see” the infinitesimal wobbles in the fabric of spacetime itself, and this is where laser interferometry comes in.

Very precise lasers are fired down miles-long tunnels in “L” shaped buildings in the two LIGO detectors (in Washington and Louisiana) and the Virgo detector near Pisa. When gravitational waves travel through us, these laser interferometers can measure the tiny spacetime warps. The more detectors measuring the same signal means a more precise observation and scientists can then work out where (and when) the black hole merger occurred.

There are many more details that can be gleaned from the gravitational wave signal from black hole mergers, of course — including the progenitor black holes’ masses, the merged mass, black hole spin etc. — but for the most part, black hole mergers are purely a gravitational affair.

Neutron stars, however, are a different beast and, on Aug. 17, it wasn’t only gravitational wave detectors that measured a signal from 130 million light-years away; space telescopes on the lookout for gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) also detected a powerful burst of electromagnetic radiation in the galaxy of NGC 4993, thereby pinpointing the single event that generated the gravitational waves and the GRB.

And this is the “holy shit” moment.

As Caltech’s David H. Reitze puts it: “This detection opens the window of a long-awaited ‘multi-messenger’ astronomy.”

What Reitze is referring to is that, for the first time, both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves (across the EM spectrum) have been observed coming from the same astrophysical event. The gravitational waves arrived at Earth slightly before the GRB was detected by NASA’s Fermi and ESA’s INTEGRAL space telescopes. Both space observatories recorded a short gamma-ray burst, a type of high-energy burst that was theorized (before Aug. 17) to be produced by colliding neutron stars.

The growing family of merging black holes and neutron stars observed with gravitational waves (LIGO-Virgo/Frank Elavsky/Northwestern University)

Now scientists have observational evidence that these types of GRBs are produced by colliding neutron stars as the gravitational wave fingerprint unquestionably demonstrates the in-spiraling and merger of two neutron stars. This is a perfect demonstration of multi-messenger astronomy; where an energetic event can be observed simultaneously in EM and gravitational waves to reveal untold mysteries of the universe’s most energetic events.

Another Nod to Einstein

The fact that the gravitational waves and gamma-rays arrived at approximately the same time is yet another nod to Einstein’s general relativity. The century-old theory predicts that gravitational waves should travel at the speed of light and, via this brand spanking new way of doing multi-messenger astronomy, physicists and astronomers have again bolstered relativity with observational evidence.

But why did the gravitational waves arrive slightly before the GRB? Well, NASA’s Fermi team explains: “Fermi’s [Gamma-ray Burst Monitor instrument] saw the gamma-ray burst after the [gravitational wave] detection because the merger happened before the explosion,” they said in a tweet.

In other words, when the two neutron stars collided and merged, the event immediately dissipated energy as gravitational waves that were launched through spacetime at the speed of light — that’s the source of GW170817 — but the GRB was generated shortly after.

Enter the Kilonova

As the neutron stars smashed together, huge quantities of neutron star matter were inevitably blasted into space, creating a superheated, dense volume of free neutrons. Neutrons are subatomic particles that form the building blocks of atoms and if the conditions are right, the neutron star debris will undergo rapid neutron capture process (known as “r-process”) where neutrons combine with one another faster than the newly-formed radioactive particles can decay. This mechanism is responsible for synthesizing elements heavier than iron (elements lighter than iron are formed through stellar nucleosynthesis in the cores of stars).

Artist impression of colliding neutron stars generating gravitational waves and a “kilonova” (NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet)

For decades astronomers have been searching for observational evidence of the r-process in action and now they have it. Soon after the merger, massive amounts of debris erupted in a frenzy of heavy element creation, triggering an energetic eruption known as a “kilonova” that was seen as a short GRB. The GRB was cataloged as “SSS17a.”

The Golden Ticket

Follow-up observations by the Hubble Space Telescope, Gemini Observatory and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope have all detected spectroscopic signatures in the afterglow consistent with the r-process taking place at the site of the kilonova, meaning heavy elements are being formed and, yes, it’s a goldmine. As in: there’s newly-synthesized gold there. And platinum. And all the other elements heavier than iron that aren’t quite so sexy.

And there’s lots of it. Researchers estimate that that single neutron star collision produced hundreds of Earth-masses of gold and platinum and they think that neutron star mergers could be the energetic process that seed the galaxies with heavy elements (with supernovas coming second).

So, yeah, it’s a big, big, BIG discovery that will reverberate for the decades to come.

The best thing is that we now know that our current generation of advanced gravitational wave detectors are sensitive enough to not only detect black holes merging billions of light-years away, but also detect the nearby neutron stars that are busy merging and producing gold. As more detectors are added and as the technology and techniques mature, we’ll be inundated with merging events big and small, each one teaching us something new about our universe.

Gravity and the Dark Side of the Cosmos: LIVE Perimeter Institute Lecture

Streaming LIVE here, today, at 4 p.m. PDT/7 p.m. EDT/11 p.m. GMT

The Perimeter Institute’s public lecture series is back! At 7 p.m. EDT (4 p.m. PDT) today, Erik Verlinde of the University of Amsterdam will ask: Are we standing on the brink of a new scientific revolution that will radically change our views on space, time, and gravity? Specifically, Verlinde will discuss the possibility that gravity may be an emergent phenomena and not a fundamental force of nature. Ohh, interesting.

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (in Ontario, Canada) always puts on a superb production and you can watch Dr Verlinde’s talk via the live feed above. You can also participate via social media using the hashtag #piLIVE and follow @perimeter and @erikverlinde on Twitter.

Watch the preview:

Cassini’s Legacy: Enigmatic Enceladus Will Inspire Us for Generations to Come

NASA’s Cassini mission captured this view of icy moon Enceladus on March 29, 2017. The crescent is lit by the sun, but the near-side green hue is reflected sunlight bouncing off Saturn’s atmosphere — a.k.a. “Saturn glow” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The day before Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, dramatically ending 13 years of Saturn exploration (and nearly two decades in space), I was sitting on a bench outside the Von Karman Visitor Center on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus in La Cañada Flintridge with Linda Spilker, who served as the mission’s project scientist since before Cassini was launched.

What was supposed to be a quick 5-minute chat before lunch, turned into a wonderful 20-minute discussion about Cassini’s discoveries. But it was also about what the spacecraft meant to Spilker and how other space missions have shaped her life.

“I feel very fortunate to be involved with Cassini since the very beginning … and just to be there, to be one of the first to see SOI [Saturn Orbital Insertion] with those first incredible ring pictures,” she told me. “I love being an explorer. I worked on the Voyager mission during the flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; that sort of whet my appetite and made me want more, to become an explorer to go to the Saturn system.”

Spilker especially loved studying Saturn’s rings, not only from a scientific perspective, but also because they are so beautiful, she continued. “It’s been a heartwarming experience,” she said.

Before Cassini crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, it took a series of observations that created this mosaic of Saturn and its rings. Cassini plunged into the Saturnian atmosphere on Sept. 15 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Mindaugas Macijauskas)

But Cassini’s “legacy discovery,” said Spilker, was the revelation that the tiny icy moon of Enceladus is active, venting water vapor into space from powerful geysers emerging from the moon’s “tiger stripes” — four long fissures in the moon’s south pole. After multiple observations of these geysers and direct sampling of the water particles during flybys, Cassini deduced that the icy space marble hides a warm, salty ocean.

“What Cassini will be remembered for — its legacy discovery — will be the geysers coming from Enceladus with the ocean with the potential for life. It’s a paradigm shift.” — Linda J. Spilker, Cassini project scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Sept. 14, 2017.

Alongside Jupiter’s moon Europa, Enceladus has become a prime destination for future explorations of life beyond Earth. Its subsurface ocean contains all the ingredients for life as we know it and Cassini was the mission that inadvertently discovered its biological potential. So now we know about this potential, Spilker is keen to see a dedicated life-hunting mission that could go to Enceladus, perhaps even landing on the surface to return samples to Earth.

Artist impression of Cassini flying through Enceladus’ water plumes venting from the moon’s south pole (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As Enceladus is much smaller and less massive than Europa, its gravity is lower, meaning that landing on the surface is an easier task. Also, the radiation surrounding Saturn is much less aggressive than Jupiter’s radiation belts, meaning less radiation shielding is needed for spacecraft going to Saturn’s moons.

But if we ever send a surface mission to Enceladus (or any of the icy moons in the outer solar system), the planetary protection requirements will be extreme.

“If any life were found on these moons, it would be microbial,” said Larry Soderblom, an interdisciplinary scientist on the Cassini mission. “Some [terrestrial] bacteria are very resilient and can survive in hot acid-reducing environments. They can be tenacious. We have to make sure we don’t leave any of these kinds of Earthly bacteria on these promising moons.”

Soderblom has a unique perspective on solar system exploration. His career spans a huge number of NASA missions since the 1960’s, including Mariner 6, 7, 9, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers, Deep Space 1, to name a few. While chatting to me under the shade of a tree on the JPL campus, he pointed out that the outer solar system was seen as a very different place over half a century ago.

“When I started to explore the solar system as a young guy just out of graduate school, our minds-eye view of the outer solar system was pretty bleak,” he remembered. “We expected lifeless, dead, battered moons with no geologic activity.”

After being involved with many outer solar system missions, this view has radically changed. Not only have we discovered entire oceans on Enceladus and Europa, there’s active volcanoes on Jupiter’s tortured moon Io, an atmosphere on Titan sporting its own methane cycle and surface lakes of methane and ethane. Other moons show hints of extensive subsurface oceans too, including distant Triton, a moon of Neptune. When NASA’s New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015, the robotic spacecraft didn’t see a barren, dull rock as all the artistic impressions that came before seemed to suggest. The dwarf planet is a surprisingly dynamic place with a rich geologic history.

With a diameter of only 313 miles, tiny Enceladus is a surprising powerhouse of internal activity. Subsurface oceans are heated through tidal interactions with Saturn (and, possibly, radioactivity in its rocky core), forcing water through its south pole fissures (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Sending our robotic emissaries to these distant and unforgiving places has revolutionized our understanding of the solar system and our place in it. Rather than the gas and ice giant moons being dull, barren and static, our exploration has revealed a rich bounty of geologic variety. Not only that, we’re almost spoilt for choices for our next giant leap of scientific discovery.

Missions like Cassini are essential for science. Before that spacecraft entered Saturn orbit 13 years ago, we had a very limited understanding of what the Saturnian system was all about. Now we can confidently say that there’s a tiny moon there with incredible biological potential — Enceladus truly is Cassini’s legacy discovery that will keep our imaginations alive until we land on the ice to explore its alien ocean.

For more on my trip to JPL, read my two HowStuffWorks articles:

Why Cassini Crashed: Protecting Icy Moon Enceladus at All Costs

What Epic Space Missions Like Cassini Teach Us About Ourselves

Sun Erupts With a Monster X9-Class Solar Flare — Earth Feels Its Punch

Credit: NASA/SDO

This morning, the sun erupted with the most powerful solar flare in a decade, blasting the Earth’s upper atmosphere with energetic X-ray and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) radiation.

The flare was triggered by intense magnetic activity over an active region called AR2673 that has been roiling with sunspot activity for days, threatening an uptick in space weather activity. As promised, that space weather brought an explosive event at 1202 UTC (8:02 a.m. PT) that ionized the Earth’s upper atmosphere and causing a shortwave radio blackout over Europe, Africa and the Atlantic Ocean, reports Spaceweather.com.

Radio blackout map: When the Earth’s ionosphere is energized by X-ray and EUV radiation from solar flares, certain radio frequencies are absorbed by increased ionization of certain layers of the atmosphere, posing issues for global radio communications (NOAA)

The powerful X9.3-class flare came after an earlier X2.2 blast from the same active region, a significant flare in itself. X-class flares are the most powerful type of solar flares.

The electromagnetic radiation emitted by flaring events affect the Earth’s ionosphere immediately, but now space weather forecasters are on the lookout for a more delayed impact of this eruption.

The powerful X9-class solar flare erupted from the active region (AR) 2673, a large cluster of sunspots — seen here by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (NASA/SDO)

Solar flares can create magnetic instabilities that may launch coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — basically vast magnetized bubbles of energetic solar plasma — into interplanetary space. Depending on the conditions, these CMEs may take hours or days to reach Earth (if they are Earth-directed) and can generate geomagnetic storms should they collide and interact with our planet’s global magnetic field.

Update: According to observations gathered by NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft, the flare did produce a CME and space weather forecasters are determining its trajectory to see whether it is Earth-directed. Also, NASA has produced a series of beautiful images from the SDO, showing the flare over a range of frequencies.

Primordial Black Holes Might be Cosmic Gold Diggers

Neutron stars might have black hole parasites in their cores (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

When the universe’s first black holes appeared is one of the biggest mysteries in astrophysics. Were they born immediately after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago? Or did they pop into existence after the first population of massive stars exploded as supernovas millions of years later?

The origin of primordial black holes isn’t a trivial matter. In our modern universe, the majority of galaxies have supermassive black holes in their cores and we’re having a hard time explaining how they came to be the monsters they are today. For them to grow so big, there must have been a lot of primordial black holes formed early in the universe’s history clumping together to form progressively more massive black holes.

Now, in a new study published in Physical Review Letters, Alexander Kusenko and Eric Cotner, who both work at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have arrived at an elegant theory as to how the early universe birthed black holes.

Primordial beginnings

Immediately after the Big Bang, the researchers suggest that a uniform energy field pervaded our baby universe. In all the superheated chaos, long before stars started to form, this energy field condensed as “Q balls” and clumped together. These clumps of quasi-matter collapsed under gravity and the first black holes came to be.

These primordial black holes have been singled out as possible dark matter candidates (classed as massive astrophysical compact halo objects, or “MACHOs”) and they may have coalesced to quickly seed the supermassive black holes. In short: if these things exist, they could explain a few universal mysteries.

But in a second Physical Review Letters study, Kusenko teamed up with Volodymyr Takhistov (also from UCLA) and George Fuller, at UC San Diego, to investigate how these primordial black holes may have triggered the formation of heavy elements such as gold, platinum and uranium — through a process known as r-process (a.k.a. rapid neutron capture process) nucleosynthesis.

It is thought that energetic events in the universe are responsible for the creation for approximately half of elements heavier than iron. Elements lighter than iron (except for hydrogen, helium and lithium) were formed by nuclear fusion inside the cores of stars. But the heavier elements formed via r-process nucleosynthesis are thought to have been sourced via supernova explosions and neutron star collisions. Basically, the neutron-rich debris left behind by these energetic events seeded regions where neutrons could readily fuse, creating heavy elements.

These mechanisms for heavy element production are far from being proven, however.

“Scientists know that these heavy elements exist, but they’re not sure where these elements are being formed,” Kusenko said in a statement. “This has been really embarrassing.”

A cosmic goldmine

So what have primordial black holes got to do with nucleosynthesis?

If we assume the universe is still populated with these ancient black holes, they may collide with spinning neutron stars. When this happens, the researchers suggest that the black holes will drop into the cores of the neutron stars.

Alexander Kusenko/UCLA

Like a parasite eating its host from the inside, material from the neutron star will be consumed by the black hole in its core, causing the neutron star to shrink. As it loses mass, the neutron star will spin faster, causing neutron-rich debris to fling off into space, facilitating (you guessed it) r-process nucleosynthesis, creating the heavy elements we know and love — like gold. The whole process is expected to take about 10,000 years before the neutron star is no more.

So, where are they?

There’s little evidence that primordial black holes exist, so the researchers suggest further astronomical work to study the light of distant stars that may flicker by the passage of invisible foreground black holes. The black holes’ gravitational fields will warp spacetime, causing the starlight to dim and brighten.

It’s certainly a neat theory to think that ancient black holes are diving inside neutron stars to spin them up and create gold in the process, but now astronomers need to prove that primordial black holes are out there, possibly contributing to the dark matter budget of our universe.

Heavy Stellar Traffic Sends Dangerous Comets Our Way

New image of comet ISON
Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) as imaged by TRAPPIST–South national telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in 2013 (TRAPPIST/E. Jehin/ESO)

Sixty-six million years ago Earth underwent a cataclysmic change. Back then, our planet was dominated by dinosaurs, but a mass extinction event hastened the demise of these huge reptiles and paved the way for the mammalian takeover. Though there is some debate as to whether the extinction of the dinosaurs was triggered by an isolated disaster or a series of disasters, one event is clear — Earth was hit by a massive comet or asteroid and its impact had global ramifications.

The leading theory is that a massive comet slammed into our planet, creating the vast Chicxulub Crater buried under the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, enshrouding the atmosphere in fine debris, blotting out the sun for years.

Although there is strong evidence of comet impacts on Earth, these deep space vagabonds are notoriously hard to track, let alone predict when or how often they may appear. All we know is that they are out there, there are more than we thought, they are known to hit planets in the solar system and they can wreak damage of apocalyptic proportions.

Now, using fresh observations from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission, astronomer Coryn Bailer-Jones, who works at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Munich, Germany, has added an interesting component to our understanding of cometary behavior.

Stellar Traffic

Long-period comets are the most mysterious — and troubling — class of comet. They will often appear from nowhere, after falling from their distant gravitational perches, zoom through the inner solar system and disappear once more — often to be never seen again. Or they hit something on their way through. These icy bodies are the pristine left-overs of our solar system’s formation five billion years ago, hurled far beyond the orbits of the planets and into a region called the Oort Cloud.

In the Oort Cloud these ancient masses have remained in relative calm far from the gravitational instabilities close to the sun. But over the eons, countless close approaches by other stars in our galactic neighborhood have occurred, causing very slight gravitational nudges to the Oort Cloud. Astronomers believe that such stellar encounters are responsible for knocking comets from this region, sending them on a roller-coaster ride to the inner solar system.

The Gaia mission is a space telescope tasked with precisely mapping the distribution and motion of stars in our galaxy, so Bailer-Jones has investigated the rate of stellar encounters with our solar system. Using information in Gaia’s first data release (DR1), Bailer-Jones has published the first systematic estimate of stellar encounters — in other words, he’s estimated the flow of stellar traffic in the solar system’s neighborhood. And the traffic was found to be surprisingly heavy.

In his study, to be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, Bailer-Jones estimates that, on average, between 490 and 600 stars will come within 16.3 light-years (5 parsecs) of our sun and 19-24 of them will come within 3.26 light-years (1 parsec) every million years.

According to a press release, all of these stars will have some gravitational effect on the solar system’s Oort Cloud, though the closest encounters will have a greater influence.

This first Gaia data release is valid for five million years into the past and into the future, but astronomers hope the next data release (DR2) will be able to estimate stellar traffic up to 25 million years into the past and future. To begin studying the stellar traffic that may have been responsible for destabilizing the dinosaur-killing comet that hit Earth 66 million years ago will require a better understanding of the mass distribution of our galaxy (and how it influences the motion of stars) — a long-term goal of the Gaia project.

An Early Warning?

Spinning this idea into the future, could this project be used to act as an early warning system? Or could it be used to predict when and where a long-period comet may appear in the sky?

In short: “No,” Bailer-Jones told Astroengine via email. “Some close stellar encounters will for sure shake up the Oort cloud and fling comets into the inner solar system, but which comets on which orbits get flung in we cannot observe.”

He argues that the probability of comets being gravitationally nudged can be modeled statistically, but this would require a lot of assumptions to be made about the Oort Cloud, a region of space that we know very little about.

Also, the Oort Cloud is located well beyond the sun’s heliosphere and is thought to be between 50,000 and 200,000 AU (astronomical units, where 1 AU is the average distance between the sun and the Earth) away, so it would take a long time for comets to travel from this region, creating a long lag-time between stellar close approach and the comet making an appearance.

“Typically it takes a few million years for a comet to reach the inner solar system,” he added, also pointing out that other factors can complicate calculations, such as Jupiter’s enormous gravity that can deflect the passage of comets, or even fling them back out of the solar system again.

This is a fascinating study that goes to show that gravitational perturbations in the Oort Cloud are far from being rare events. A surprisingly strong flow of stellar traffic will constantly rattle otherwise inert comets, but how many are dislodged and sent on the long journey to the solar system’s core remains a matter for statistics and probability.