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.

Repeating “Fast Radio Bursts” Detected in Another Galaxy — Probably Not Aliens, Interesting Anyway

The Green Bank Radio Telescope (NRAO)

A radio astronomy project intended to find signals from intelligent aliens has announced the intriguing detections of “repeating” fast radio bursts (FRBs) from a single source in a galaxy three billion light-years distant. This is definitely an exciting development, but probably not for the reasons you think.

The ambitious $100 million Breakthrough Listen project aims to scan a million stars in our galaxy and dozens of nearby galaxies across radio frequencies and visible light in hopes of discovering a bona fide artificial signal that could be attributed to an advanced alien civilization. But in its quest, Breakthrough Listen has studied the signals emanating from FRB 121102 — and recorded 15 bursts — to better understand what might be causing it.

FRBs remain a mystery. First detected by the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia, these very brief bursts of radio emissions seemed to erupt from random locations in the sky. But the same location never produced another FRB, making these bizarre events very difficult to understand and impossible to track.

Hypotheses ranged from powerful bursts of energy from supernovae to active galactic nuclei to (you guessed it) aliens, but until FRB 121102 repeated itself in 2015, several of these hypotheses could be ruled out. Supernovae, after all, only have to happen once — this FRB source is repeating, possibly hinting at a periodic energetic phenomenon we don’t yet understand. Also, because FRB 121102 is a repeater, in 2016 astronomers could trace back the location of its source to a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years from Earth.

Now we ponder the question: What in the universe generates powerful short bursts of radio emissions from inside a dwarf galaxy, repeatedly?

Using the Green Bank Telescope in the West Virginia, scientists of Breakthrough Listen recorded 400 TB of data over a five hour period on Aug. 26. In these data, 15 FRBs were recorded across the 4 to 8 GHz radio frequency band. The researchers noted the characteristic frequency dispersion of these FRBs, caused by the signal traveling through gas between us and the source.

Now that we have dedicated and extremely detailed measurements of this set of FRBs, astrophysicists can get to work trying to understand what natural phenomenon is generating these bursts. This is the story so far, but as we’re talking radio emissions, mysteries and a SETI project, aliens are never far away…

Probably Not Aliens

It may be exciting to talk about the possibility of aliens generating this signal — as a means of communication or, possibly, transportation via beamed energy — but that avenue of speculation is just that: speculation. But to speculate is understandable. FRBs are very mysterious and, so far, astrophysicists don’t have a solid answer.

But this mystery isn’t without precedent.

In 1967, astronomers Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish detected strange radio pulses emanating from a point in the sky during a quasar survey to study interplanetary scintillation (IPS). The mysterious pulses had an unnaturally precise period of 1.33 seconds. At the time, nothing like it had been recorded and the researchers were having a hard time explaining the observations. But in the back of their minds, they speculated that, however unlikely, the signal might be produced by an alien intelligence.

During a dinner speech in 1977, Bell Burnell recalled the conundrum they faced:

“We did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem – if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe how does one announce the results responsibly? Who does one tell first? We did not solve the problem that afternoon, and I went home that evening very cross here was I trying to get a Ph.D. out of a new technique, and some silly lot of little green men had to choose my aerial and my frequency to communicate with us.”

This first source was nicknamed “LGM-1” (as in “Little Green Men-1”), but far from being an artificial source, the duo had actually identified the first pulsar — a rapidly-spinning, highly magnetized neutron star that generates powerful emissions from its precessing magnetic poles as it rotates.

This is how science works: An interesting signal is detected and theories are formulated as to how that signal could have been generated.

In the case of LGM-1, it was caused by an as-yet-to-be understood phenomenon involving a rapidly-spinning stellar corpse. In the case of FRB 121102, it is most likely an equally as compelling phenomenon, only vastly more powerful.

The least likely explanation of FRB 121102 makes a LOT of assumptions, namely: aliens that have become so incredibly technologically advanced (think type II or even type III on the Kardashev Scale) that they can fire a (presumably) narrow beam directly at us through intergalactic space over and over again (to explain the repeated FRB detections) — the odds of which would be vanishingly low — unless the signal is omnidirectional, so they’d need to access way more energy to make this happen. Another assumption could be that intelligent, technologically advanced civilizations are common, so it was only a matter of time before we saw a signal like FRB 121102.

Or it could be a supermassive black hole (say) doing something very energetic that science can’t yet explain.

Occam’s razor suggests the latter might be more reasonable.

This isn’t to say aliens don’t exist or that intelligent aliens aren’t transmitting radio signals, it just means the real cause of this particular FRB repeater is being generated by a known phenomenon doing something unexpected, or a new (and potentially more exciting) phenomenon that’s doing something exotic and new. It doesn’t always have to be aliens.


The Solar Eclipse Is Going to Cost the U.S. $700 Million? Good.

A photo of the 2012 annular eclipse from Malibu, Calif., using an old digital camera and solar filter (Ian O’Neill)

The U.S. media is currently saturated with hot takes, histories, weird facts, “how to’s” and weather reports around the Great American Eclipse that will glide across the continent on Monday (yes, THIS Monday, it’s finally here). But, today, one news report stood out from the crowd:

Inevitably, Twitter had an opinion about this.

On reading the NBC News report (that was penned by an unknown Reuters writer), it is as tone deaf as the headline.

“American employers will see at least $694 million in missing output for the roughly 20 minutes that outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates workers will take out of their workday on Monday to stretch their legs, head outside the office and gaze at the nearly two-and-a-half minute eclipse,” they write.

“Stretch their legs” for a “two-and-a-half minute eclipse,” — wow, what a waste of time. Worse than that, “[m]any people may take even longer to set up their telescopes or special viewing glasses, or simply take off for the day.” Unbelievable. Those skiving freeloaders.

How dare they take some time to step away from their computer screens to take a little time to gaze in awe at the most beautiful and rare natural celestial event to occur on our planet.

How dare they put pressure on the U.S. economy by bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue from the monstrous multi-trillion dollar consumerist machine.

How dare they be moved to tears as the moon completely blocks the sun, an event that has caused fear, suspicion, omen, wonderment, joy, inspiration, excitement and unadulterated passion throughout the history of our species.

How dare th— oh wait a minute. The lede appears to be buried:

“Compared to the amount of wages being paid to an employee over a course of a year, it is very small,” Challenger said. “It’s not going to show up in any type of macroeconomic data.”

So what you’re staying is, $700 million won’t even show up as a blip in economic analyses? Tell me more.

“It also pales when compared with the myriad other distractions in the modern workplace, such as March Madness, Cyber Monday, and the Monday after the Super Bowl,” they write. Well, whatdoyouknow, the Super Bowl is a distraction too? Those monsters.

So what you’re saying is, this isn’t really news. As a science news producer, I completely understand the pressures to keep up with the news cycle and finding fresh takes on tired stories (and let’s face it, 2017 has seen its fair share of eclipse articles). But for this particular angle, I think I would have most likely relegated the “lost” revenue to a footnote in a more informative and less clickbaity piece.

Monday’s eclipse will do untold good to this nation. The U.S. is going through a tumultuous stage in its young history, to put it mildly. This nation needs perspective to overcome the ineptitude, anti-science rhetoric and messages of segregation coming from its government; it needs an event that will be enjoyed by everyone, not just a fortunate subsection of society or the elite. The eclipse will inspire millions of people to look up (safely!) and ponder why is it that our planet’s only natural satellite can exactly fit into the disk of the sun.

Astronomy is an accessible gateway to the sciences and the eclipse will inspire, catalyzing many young minds to consider a future in STEM fields of study. This will enrich society in a myriad of ways and the economic gains from events such as Monday’s eclipse will make “$700 million” look like a piss in a swimming pool.

So, you know what? I’m glad this eclipse will “cost” the U.S. $700 million — I see it as an accidental investment in the future of this nation, a healthy nation that will hopefully put the antiscience stance of its current leaders behind it.

Want more eclipse stuff? Here’s a couple of my favorite angles:
How Eclipses Reveal Information About Alien Worlds, Light-Years Away
How a Total Solar Eclipse Helped Prove Einstein Right About Relativity

Also, be sure to view the eclipse safely:
Total Solar Eclipse 2017: When, Where and How to See It (Safely)

Sorry, Proxima Centauri Is Probably a Hellhole, Too

The surface of Proxima b as imagined in this artist’s impression. Sadly, the reality probably doesn’t include an atmosphere (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

The funny thing about habitable zones is that they’re not necessarily habitable. In fact, depending on the star, some of them are likely downright horrible.

Take, for example, the “habitable zone exoplanet” orbiting our neighboring star Proxima Centauri. When the discovery of Proxima b was announced last year, the world erupted with excitement. After all, astronomers had detected an Earth-sized world right on our galactic doorstep, a mere four light-years away.

Immediately there was discussion about Proxima b’s habitable potential (could there be aliens?) and the possibility of the world becoming an interstellar target (might we one day go there on vacation?).

Alas, for the moment, these exo-dreams are pure fantasy as the only things we know about this world are its mass and its orbital period around the star. We have no clue about the composition of this exoplanet’s atmosphere — or even if it has an atmosphere at all. And, according to new research published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Proxima b would probably be a very unlikely place to find extraterrestrial life and you’d be ill advised to invest in a vacation home there.

Like TRAPPIST-1 — that other star system that contains “habitable, but probably not so habitable” exoplanets — Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star. By their nature, red dwarfs are small and cooler than our sun. Their habitable zones are therefore very compact; to receive enough heating energy to keep water in a liquid state on their surfaces, any “habitable” red dwarf exoplanets would need to snuggle up really close to their star. Liquid water (as we all know) is essential for life. So, if you want to find life as we know it (not that weird Titan life), studying habitable zone planets would be a good place to start. And as red dwarfs are abundant in our galaxy, seeking out habitable zone planets in red dwarf star systems would, at first, seem like an even better place to start.

Except, probably not.

Red dwarfs are angry. They erupt with powerful flares, have powerful stellar winds and their habitable zones are awash with intense ultraviolet radiation. And, like TRAPPIST-1, Proxima Centauri probably wouldn’t be a great place to live.

But the researchers decided to test this hypothesis by throwing Earth in at the deep end.

“We decided to take the only habitable planet we know of so far — Earth — and put it where Proxima b is,” said Katherine Garcia-Sage, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and lead author of the study.

The big advantage for Earth is that it possesses a powerful global magnetic field that can deflect our sun’s solar wind and coronal mass ejections with a minimum of effort. But put Earth in a habitable zone orbit around Proxima Centauri and bad stuff starts to happen, fast.

At this location, the intensity of extreme ultraviolet radiation becomes a problem. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the researchers could gauge the star’s activity and how much radiation would hit Proxima b. According to their calculations, the exoplanet receives hundreds of times more extreme ultraviolet radiation than Earth receives from our sun and, even if we assume Proxima b has an “Earth-like” magnetosphere, it will lose its atmosphere very quickly.

As ultraviolet radiation will ionize the exoplanet’s atmosphere, electrons (that are negatively charged) will be readily stripped from light atoms (hydrogen) and eventually the heavier atoms too (like oxygen and nitrogen). As the electrons are lost to space, a powerful “charge separation” is created and the positively charged ions that are left behind in the atmosphere will be dragged with the electrons, causing them to also be lost to space. Granted, the global magnetic field will have an effect on the rate of atmosphere loss, but the researchers estimate that this process will drain an atmosphere from Proxima b 10,000 times faster than what happens on Earth.

“This was a simple calculation based on average activity from the host star,” added Garcia-Sage. “It doesn’t consider variations like extreme heating in the star’s atmosphere or violent stellar disturbances to the exoplanet’s magnetic field — things we’d expect provide even more ionizing radiation and atmospheric escape.”

In the worst-case scenario, where the outer atmospheric temperatures are highest and the planet exhibits an “open” field line configuration, Proxima b would lose the equivalent of the whole of Earth’s atmosphere in just 100 million years. If the atmospheric temperatures are cool and a “closed” magnetic field line configuration is assumed, it will take 2 billion years for the atmosphere to be completely lost to space. Either way you look at it, unless the atmosphere is being continuously replaced (perhaps by very active volcanism), Proxima b will have very little chance to see life evolve.

“Things can get interesting if an exoplanet holds on to its atmosphere, but Proxima b’s atmospheric loss rates here are so high that habitability is implausible,” said Jeremy Drake, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and study co-author. “This questions the habitability of planets around such red dwarfs in general.”