Life Beneath Europa’s Ice Might Be a Non-Starter

New models trying to infer the geology of potentially habitable moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn hint at surprisingly cool, geologically inactive worlds, the opposite of what a diverse alien ecosystem would need


Imagine a spaceship finally landing on Europa and slowly drilling into the ice. After weeks of very careful progress, it pierces the moon’s frozen shell and releases a small semi-autonomous submarine connected to the probe with an umbilical to ensure constant communication and a human taking over in case of an emergency. Much of the time, it will chart a course of its own since piloting it with an hour long delay between command and response would be less than ideal. It navigates through the salty ocean, shining its light on structures never before seen by a human eye, making its way deeper and further into the alien environment to find absolutely… nothing at all.

That’s the sad scenario proposed by a team of geologists who crunched the numbers on the four leading contenders to host alien life in our outer solar system: Europa, Ganymede, Titan, and Enceladus. According to their models, looking at gravity, the weight of water and ice on the rocks underneath, and the hardness of the rocks themselves, these moons would be more or less geologically dead. Without volcanoes or sulfur vents, there would be very little in terms of nutrient exchange and therefore, very little food and fuel for an alien ecosystem more complex than microbe colonies.

Of course, these results are a pretty serious departure from the hypotheses commonly held by planetary scientists that the gravity of gas giants cause tidal kneading inside their moons, citing Io as an example. According to the researchers’ model, only Enceladus would be a promising world to look for life, as evidenced by the plumes breaking through its icy crust, spraying organic material into space. The reason why the numbers are different, they say, is because its core is likely to be porous, meaning its ocean would be heated deep inside the moon, fueling geysers and churning organic matter while effectively making the little world a ball of soggy slush.

Since these findings are so different from what’s implied by observations, the researchers aren’t in a rush to publish them are are soliciting other scientists’ opinions to make sure they have a complete picture, and lead investigator Paul Byrne grumbled about his disappointment with what the models indicate. That said, while he’s hoping to be proven wrong, we shouldn’t forget that these are alien worlds and while we’ve spent decades studying them, our knowledge came in bursts. Simply put, we might know a fair bit but far from everything and disappointing surprises may lurk under their icy surfaces and subterranean oceans.

[This article originally appeared on World of Weird Things]

This Weird Star System Is Flipping Awesome

The binary system observed by ALMA isn’t wonky, it’s the first example of a polar protoplanetary disk

Artwork of the system HD 98000. This is a binary star comprising two sun-like components, surrounded by a thick disk of material. What’s different about this system is that the plane of the stars’ orbits is inclined at almost 90 degrees to the plane of the disk. Here is a view from the surface of an imagined planet orbiting in the inner edge of the disk [University of Warwick/Mark Garlick].

Some star systems simply don’t like conforming to cosmic norms. Take HD 98000, for example: It’s a binary system consisting of two sun-like stars and it also sports a beautiful protoplanetary disk of gas and dust. So far, so good; sounds pretty “normal” to me. But that’s only part of the story.

When a star is born, it will form a disk of dust and gas — basically the leftovers of the molecular cloud the star itself formed in — creating an environment in which planets can accrete and evolve. Around a single star (like our solar system) the protoplanetary disk is fairly well behaved and will create a relatively flat disk around the star’s spin axis. For the solar system, this flat disk would have formed close to the plane of the ecliptic, an imaginary flat surface that projects out from the sun’s equator where all the planets, more or less, occupy. There are “wonky” exceptions to this rule (as, let’s face it, cosmic rules are there to be broken), but the textbook descriptions of a star system in its infancy will usually include a single star and a flat, boring disk of swirling material primed to build planets.

Cue HD 98000, a star system that has flipped this textbook description on its head, literally. As a binary, this is very different to what we’re used to with our single, lonely star. Binary stars are very common throughout the galaxy, but HD 98000 has a little something extra that made astronomers take special note. As observed by the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA), its protoplanetary disk doesn’t occupy the same plane as the binary orbit; it’s been flipped by 90 degrees over the orbital plane of the binary pair. Although such systems have been long believed to be theoretically possible, this is the first example that has been found.

“Discs rich in gas and dust are seen around nearly all young stars, and we know that at least a third of the ones orbiting single stars form planets,” said Grant M. Kennedy, of the University of Warwick and lead author of the study published today in the journal Nature Astronomy, in a statement. “Some of these planets end up being misaligned with the spin of the star, so we’ve been wondering whether a similar thing might be possible for circumbinary planets. A quirk of the dynamics means that a so-called polar misalignment should be possible, but until now we had no evidence of misaligned discs in which these planets might form.”

Artwork of the system HD 98000. This is a binary star comprising two sun-like components, surrounded by a thick disc of material [University of Warwick/Mark Garlick]

This star system makes for some rather interesting visuals, as shown in the artist’s impression at the top of the page. Should there be a planetary body orbiting the stars on the inner edge of the disk, an observer would be met with a dramatic pillar of gas and dust towering into space with the two stars either side of it in the distance. As they orbit one another, the planetary observer would see them switch positions to either side of the pillar. It goes without saying that any planet orbiting two stars would have very different seasons than Earth. It will even have two different shadows cast across the surface.

“We used to think other solar systems would form just like ours, with the planets all orbiting in the same direction around a single sun,” added co-author Daniel Price of Monash University. “But with the new images we see a swirling disc of gas and dust orbiting around two stars. It was quite surprising to also find that that disc orbits at right angles to the orbit of the two stars.”

Interestingly, the researchers note that there are another two stars orbiting beyond the disk, meaning that our hypothetical observer would have four suns of different brightnesses in the sky.

The most exciting thing to come out of this study, however, is that ALMA has detected signatures that hint at dust growth in the disk, meaning that material is in the process of clumping together. Planetary formation theories suggest that accreting dust will go on to form small asteroids and planetoids, creating a fertile enviornment in which planets can evolve.

“We take this to mean planet formation can at least get started in these polar circumbinary discs,” said Kennedy. “If the rest of the planet formation process can happen, there might be a whole population of misaligned circumbinary planets that we have yet to discover, and things like weird seasonal variations to consider.”

What was that I was saying about “cosmic norms”? When it comes to star system formation, there doesn’t appear to be any.


How Is Stardust Created? #TRIUMFology

I worked on TRIUMF’s Five-Year Plan (2020-2025) last year, so Astroengine is featuring a few physicsy articles that were included in the document to tell the center’s story

When (neutron) stars collide… [NASA/CXC/M.WEISS]

Last year, I had the honor to help write TRIUMF’s Five-Year Plan for 2020-2025. TRIUMF is Canada’s particle accelerator center, located next to the University of British Columbia’s campus in Vancouver, and it tackles some of the biggest problems facing physics today.

Every five years, research facilities in Canada prepare comprehensive documents outlining their strategies for the next five. In this case, TRIUMF asked me to join their writer team and I was specifically tasked with collaborating with TRIUMF’s management to develop and write the Implementation Plan (PDF) — basically an expanded version of the Strategic Plan (PDF) — detailing the key initiatives the center will carry out between 2020 and 2025.

As the location of the world’s largest and oldest operational cyclotron, the center is a multi-faceted physics lab with hundreds of scientists and engineers working on everything from understanding the origins of matter to developing radiopharmaceuticals to treat late-stage cancers. I only had a vague understanding about the scope of TRIUMF’s work before last year, but, as the months progressed after visiting the center in April 2018, I was treated to an unparalleled learning experience that was as dizzying as it was rewarding.

As a science communicator, I wanted to understand what makes TRIUMF “tick,” so I decided to speak to as many TRIUMF scientists, engineers, collaborators, and managers as possible. During my interviews, I was excited and humbled to hear stories of science breakthroughs, personal achievements and mind-bending physics concepts, so I included a series of miniature articles to complement the Implementation Plan’s text. As the Five-Year Plan is a public document (you can download the whole Plan here, in English and French), I’ve been given permission by TRIUMF to re-publish these articles on Astroengine.

“Beyond Multimessenger Astronomy”

Background: To kick off the series, we’ll begin with nuclear science. Specifically, how astrophysical processes create heavy elements and how TRIUMF studies the formation of radioisotopes in the wake of neutron star collisions.

After the 2017 LIGO detection of gravitational waves caused by the collision of two neutron stars (get the details here), and the near-simultaneous detection of a gamma-ray burst from the same location, scientists heralded a new era for astronomy — nicknamed “multimessenger astronomy,” where gravitational wave and electromagnetic signals measured at the same time from the same event can create a new understanding of astrophysical processes. In this case, as it was confirmed to be a neutron star merger — an event that is theorized to generate r-process elements — spectroscopic analysis of the GRB’s afterglow confirmed that, yes, neutron star collisions do indeed create the neutron-rich breeding ground for heavy elements (like gold and platinum). Although multimessenger astronomy may be a new thing, TRIUMF has been testing these theories in the laboratory environment for years, using rare isotope beams colliding into targets that mimic the nuclear processes that produce the heavy elements in our universe. This process is known as nucleogenesis, and it’s how our cosmos forges the elements that underpin stardust, the stuff that makes the planets, stars, and the building blocks of life.

For this mini-article, I had a fascinating chat with Dr. Iris Dillmann, a nuclear physics research scientist at TRIUMF. I’ve lightly edited the text for context and clarity. The original article can be found on page 22 of the Implementation Plan (PDF).

The GRIFFIN experiment is part of the ISAC facility that uses rare-isotope beams to carry out physics experiments [TRIUMF]

The article: TRIUMF’s investigations into neutron-rich isotopes were well-established before the advent of multi-messenger astronomy. “It was a cherry on top of the cake to get this confirmation, but the experimental program was already going on,” said Dillmann.

“What we do is multi-messenger nuclear physics; we are not looking directly into stars. TRIUMF is doing experiments here on Earth.”

Whereas the combination of gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation from astrophysical events gives rise to a new era of multi-messenger astronomy, TRIUMF’s Isotope Separator and Accelerator (ISAC) facilitates the investigation of heavy isotopes through an array of nuclear physics experiments all under one roof that can illuminate the characteristics of isotopes that have been identified in neutron star mergers.

“For example, astronomers can identify one interesting isotope and realize that they need more experimental information on that one isotope,” she said. “We then have the capability to go through the different setups and, say, measure the mass of the isotope with the TRIUMF Ion Trap for Atomic and Nuclear Science (TITAN) experiment’s Penning trap.”

From there, Dillmann added, the Gamma-Ray Infrastructure For Fundamental Investigations of Nuclei (GRIFFIN) experiment can use decay spectroscopy to investigate the half-lives of rare isotope beams and their underlying nuclear structure. Other nuclear properties such as moments and charge radii can be measured using laser spectroscopy. TRIUMF scientists can also directly measure the reaction cross-sections of explosive hydrogen and helium burning in star explosions with the Detector of Recoils And Gammas Of Nuclear reactions experiment (DRAGON) and the TRIUMF UK Detector Array (TUDA).

With ISAC, all these measurements are carried out in one place, where teams from each experiment work side by side to solve problems quickly and collaborate effectively. “We have the setups in the hall to investigate an isotope from different perspectives to try to get a complete picture just from one department — the nuclear physics department,” said Dillmann.


Why “TRIUMFology”?

…because I have a “PhD” in TRIUMFology! Not sure if I can include it in my resume, but I love the honor all the same. Thanks Team TRIUMF!

Wonky Star Systems May Be Born That Way

A nearby baby star has been discovered with a warped protoplanetary disk — a feature that may reveal the true nature of the solar system’s planetary misalignments


Textbook descriptions of our solar system often give the impression that all the planets orbit the sun in well-behaved near-circular orbits. Sure, there’s a few anomalies, but, in general, we’re led to believe that everything in our interplanetary neighborhood travels around the sun around a flat orbital plane. This, however, isn’t exactly accurate.

Pluto, for example, has an orbit around the sun that is tilted by over 17 degrees out of the plane of the ecliptic (an imaginary flat plane around which the Earth orbits the sun). Mercury has an inclination of seven degrees. Even Venus likes to misbehave and has an orbital inclination of over three degrees. If all the material that built the planets originated from the same protoplanetary disk that was — as all the artist’s impressions would have us believe — flat, what knocked all the planet’s out of alignment with the ecliptic?

Until now, it was assumed that, during the early epoch of our solar system’s planet-forming days, dynamic chaos ruled. Planets jostled for gravitational dominance, Jupiter bullied smaller worlds into other orbits (possibly chucking one or two unfortunates into deep space), and gravitational instabilities threw the rest into disorderly orbital paths. Other star systems also exhibit this orbital disorder, so perhaps it’s just an orbital consequence of a star system’s growing pains.

But there might be another contribution to the chaos: perhaps wonky star systems were just born that way.

Cue a recent observation campaign of the nearby baby star L1527. Located 450 light-years away in the direction of the Taurus Molecular Cloud, L1527 is a protostar embedded in a thick protoplanetry disk. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in Chile, astronomers of the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research (CPR) and Chiba University in Japan discovered that the L1527 disk is actually two disks morphed into one — both of which are out of alignment with one another. Imagine a vinyl record that has been left on a heater and you wouldn’t be far off visualizing what this baby star system looks like.

The RIKEN study, published on Jan. 1 in Nature, suggests that this warping may have been caused by jets of material emanating from the star’s birth, kicking planet-forming material into this warped configuration and, should this configuration remain stable, could result in planets with orbital planes that are significantly out of alignment.

“This observation shows that it is conceivable that the misalignment of planetary orbits can be caused by a warp structure formed in the earliest stages of planetary formation,” said team leader Nami Sakai in a RIKEN press release. “We will have to investigate more systems to find out if this is a common phenomenon or not.”

It’s interesting to think that if this protoplanetary disk warping is due to the mechanics behind the formation of the star itself, we might be able to look at mature star systems to see the ancient fingerprint of a star’s earliest outbursts or, possibly, its initial magnetic environment.

It’s possible “that irregularities in the flow of gas and dust in the protostellar cloud are still preserved and manifest themselves as the warped disk,” added Sakai. “A second possibility is that the magnetic field of the protostar is in a different plane from the rotational plane of the disk, and that the inner disk is being pulled into a different plane from the rest of the disk by the magnetic field.”

Though orbital chaos undoubtedly contributed to how our solar system looks today, with help of this research, we may be also getting a glimpse of how warped our sun’s protoplanetry disk may have been before the planets even formed.

Our Universe Is a Cosmic Mixologist Looking for the Recipe of Life

Creating the conditions of interstellar space in the lab has led to a sweet discovery

The Egg Nebula, as imaged by Hubble, is a protoplanetary nebula with a young star in its core [NASA/ESA]

What do you get if you combine water with methanol and then bombard the mix with radiation? It turns out that the resulting cocktail is where the building blocks for life are found. But these chemicals aren’t bubbling out of the puddles of primordial goo pooling on some alien planet; the cocktail shaker is the frigid depths of interstellar space and the mixologist is the universe.

As described in a new study published on Tuesday in Nature Communications, a team of NASA scientists took what they knew of interstellar space and recreated it in a laboratory experiment. Interstellar space may not seem like a place where the chemistry of life could gain a foothold, but given enough time and the right ingredients, chemical reactions do happen — albeit very slowly. And if there’s one thing the universe has it’s time, and we’re beginning to understand that the cosmos we reside in could be a vast organic experiment.

“The universe is an organic chemist,” said Scott Sandford, a senior scientist in the NASA Ames Astrophysics and Astrochemistry Laboratory and co-investigator of the study. “It has big beakers and lots of time — and the result is a lot of organic material, some of which is useful to life.” 

To see what chemistry might be going on in the void between the stars, the researchers simulated this extreme environment inside a vacuum chamber at Ames that was cooled to near-absolute zero. Inside, they placed an aluminum substance and then added the gaseous mixture of water vapor and methanol, a very common carbon-based molecule that is known to exist throughout our galaxy. Holding the aluminum at such low temperatures caused a frosty layer to form upon it. Then, they irradiated the substance with ultraviolet light — a form of radiation that is abundant in stellar nurseries, for example — and found that some interesting chemical reactions had occurred.

They discovered that a variety of sugar derivatives had formed on the substance — and one of those sugars was 2-deoxyribose. Yes, the same stuff you’d find in deoxyribonucleic acid. That’s the “D” in our DNA.

But this isn’t the first time an essential ingredient for life has been created in the lab while simulating the conditions of interstellar space. In 2009, the same team announced the discovery of uracil in their laboratory experiments — a key component of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is central to protein synthesis in living systems. Also, in 2016, a French group discovered the formation of ribose, the sugar found in RNA.

“For more than two decades we’ve asked ourselves if the chemistry we find in space can make the kinds of compounds essential to life. So far, we haven’t picked a single broad set of molecules that can’t be produced,” said Sandford in a NASA statement. 

Although these are significant discoveries that provide new insights to how and where the most basic ingredients for life may form, it’s a long way from helping us understand whether or not life is common throughout the universe. But it turns out that some of the coldest spaces in the cosmos could also be the most fertile environments for the formation of a range of chemicals that are essential for life on Earth. It’s not such a reach, then, to realize that the protoplanetary disks surrounding young stars will also contain these chemicals and, as planets form, these chemicals become an intrinsic ingredient in young planets, asteroids and comets. Over four billion years ago, when the planets condensed from our baby Sun’s nebulous surroundings, Earth may have formed with just the right abundance of molecules that form the backbone of DNA and RNA to kick-start the genesis of life on our planet. Or those ingredients were delivered here later in the frozen cores of ancient comets and asteroids.

The building blocks of life are probably everywhere, but what “spark” binds these chemicals in such a way that allows life to evolve? This question is probably well beyond our understanding for now, but it seems that if you give our Cosmic Mixologist enough time to concoct all the chemicals for life, life will eventually emerge from the cocktail.

If Aliens Pilot Interstellar Object ‘Oumuamua, They Snubbed Us

The Seti Institute has monitored the object for radio transmissions, just in case it isn’t natural

We humans are a sensitive bunch. We keep pondering the question: “are we alone?” If we consider the answer is a “yes,” we then start having an existential crisis over our place in the universe. But if the answer is a “no,” a can of worms open and we start asking even more questions. “If they’re out there, where are they?” “Isn’t it a bit weird we haven’t heard from our extraterrestrial neighbors?” “Are they just too far away for us to communicate?” and my personal favorite: “Have they consciously decided not to communicate with us because we’re considered not worth communicating with?!” The Fermi Paradox is certainly as paradoxical as they come.

Cue a random object that cruised through our solar system last year. The interstellar visitor zoomed right into our interplanetary neighborhood, used the Sun’s gravity for a cheeky course correction, and then slingshotted itself back out into deep space. The whole thing happened so quickly that astronomers only noticed when the thing was speeding away from us at high speed.

Naturally, we took a hint from science fiction, remembering Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel “Rendezvous With Rama” — when a huge artificial object appears from interstellar space and a brave team of astronauts are sent to intercept it. Might this interstellar object also be artificial? After all, it has an odd, tumbling shape (like a spinning cigar) and the precision at which it flew past us with the trajectory it did (using the Sun to change its direction and speed of travel) just feels artificial.

So, with the help of the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in California, astronomers decided to take aim at the departing object from 
Nov. 23 and Dec. 5, 2017, when it was 170 million miles from Earth. The objective was to listen out for artificial radio transmissions that might reveal any kind of extraterrestrial intelligence. By monitoring frequencies from 1 to 10 GHz (at 100 MHz intervals), the ATA would be able to detect a very low powered onmidirectional transmitter, with a transmitting power as low as 10 Watts — the approximate equivalent to a citizen band radio.

According to the SETI study to be published in the February 2019 issue of Acta Astronautica, no signals were detected. Though this is obviously a blow for working out whether this thing was being actively piloted by some kind of intelligence, it does narrow down the true nature of the object, that has since been named ‘Oumuamua — which, in Hawaiian, roughly means “scout,” or “messenger.”

“We were looking for a signal that would prove that this object incorporates some technology — that it was of artificial origin,” said Gerry Harp, lead author of the study, in a SETI Institute statement. “We didn’t find any such emissions, despite a quite sensitive search. While our observations don’t conclusively rule out a non-natural origin for ‘Oumuamua, they constitute important data in assessing its likely makeup.”

Although this doesn’t prove ‘Oumuamua isn’t an alien spacecraft, it does put limits on the frequencies it could be transmitting on, if it is transmitting. And even if it isn’t transmitting, it doesn’t mean it’s not artificial. Could it be an ancient spacecraft that’s been sailing the interstellar seas for millions or billions of years, long after its intelligent occupants have died? Or long after its artificial intelligence has run out of energy? 

Or — and this is the big one — did it zoom through our solar system, aware of our presence, and not bother communicating with us? If that scenario played out, we need to re-open that can o’ worms and try to understand where we stand in the universal ecosystem of competing intelligences. Perhaps we are the cosmic equivalent of an ant colony; our intelligence just isn’t worth the time when compared with the unimaginable alien intelligences that have the technology to send ‘Oumuamuas to probe distant star systems for life.

Alas, it’s probably a case of Occam’s razor, where the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one: ‘Oumuamua is probably a strange-looking asteroid or ancient comet that was randomly shot at us by some distant star system and astronomers were lucky to detect it. But, we still need to ponder the least likely explanations, you just never know…

Here’s a Glimpse of the Jaw-Dropping Physics Surrounding Our Supermassive Black Hole

Simulation of Material Orbiting close to a Black Hole
Simulation of material orbiting close to a black hole (ESO/Gravity Consortium/L. Calçada)

Full disclosure: I wrote the press release for the University of Waterloo, whose researcher, Avery Broderick, developed the theory behind the accretion disk hotspots that have now been observed immediately surrounding our galaxy’s supermassive black hole. Read the full release on the UW website. Below is a long-form version of my article, including quotes from my interview with Broderick.

New observations of the center of our galaxy have, for the first time, revealed hotspots in the disk of chaotic gas orbiting our Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*).

Using the tremendous resolving power of the ESO’s Very Large Telescope array in Chile, astronomers used the new GRAVITY instrument to detect the “wobble” of bright patches embedded inside the accretion disk that spins with the black hole. These bright features are clocking speeds of 30 percent the speed of light.

This is the first time any feature so close to a black hole’s event horizon has been seen and, using thirteen-year-old predictions by astrophysicists, we have a good idea about what’s causing the fireworks.

“It’s mind-boggling to actually witness material orbiting a massive black hole at 30 percent of the speed of light,” said scientist Oliver Pfuhl, of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and co-investigator of the study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. “GRAVITY’s tremendous sensitivity has allowed us to observe the accretion processes in real time in unprecedented detail.”

It is thought that the accretion disk surrounding a black hole is threaded with a powerful magnetic field that frequently becomes unstable and “reconnects.” Similar to the physics that drives the explosive flares in the Sun’s lower corona, these reconnection events rapidly accelerate the plasma in the disk, discharging vast quantities of radiation. These flaring events inside Sgr A*’s accretion disk create hotspots that get pulled in the direction of the material’s spin as it slowly gets digested by the black hole. The GRAVITY instrument was able to deduce that the accretion disk material is orbiting the black hole in a clockwise direction from our perspective and the accretion disk is almost face-on.

Artist’s impression of a hot accretion disk surrounding a black hole [NASA]
The original theory behind these hotspots was derived by Avery Broderick (University of Waterloo) and Avi Loeb (Harvard University) when they were both working at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the mid-2000s. In 2005 and 2006, the pair published papers that described theoretical computer models that simulated reconnection events in a black hole’s accretion disk, which caused intense heating and bright flares. The resulting hotspot would then continue to orbit with the speeding accretion disk material, cooling down and spreading out, before another instability and reconnection event would be triggered.

Their work was inspired by the detection of enigmatic bright flares erupting in the vicinity of Sgr A*. These flares were powerful and regular, occurring almost daily. At the time, a few theories were being explored—from supernovas detonating near the supermassive black hole, to asteroids straying too close to the black hole’s gravitational maw—but Broderick and Loeb decided to focus on the extreme region immediately surrounding the black hole’s event horizon.

“Avi and I thought: ‘well, if the flare timescales are close to orbital timescales around the black hole, wouldn’t it be interesting if they are actually bright features embedded in the accretion flow orbiting close to it?’,” Broderick told me.

Black holes are gravitational masters of their domain; anything that drifts too close will be blended into a superheated disk of plasma surrounding them. The matter trapped in the accretion disk then flows toward the event horizon—the point at which nothing, not even light, can escape—and consumed by the black hole via mechanisms that aren’t yet fully understood. The researchers knew that if their model was an accurate depiction of what is going on in the core of our galaxy, these hotspots could be used as visual probes to trace out structures in the accretion disk and in space-time itself.

This plot shows a comparison of the data with the hotspot model including various effects of General and Special Relativity. The continuous blue curve denotes a hot spot on a circular orbit with 1.17 times the innermost stable circular orbit, i.e. just outside the event horizon, of a 4 million solar mass black hole. The axis give the offset from the center in micro-arcseconds [MPE/GRAVITY collaboration]
It’s Sgr A*’s gravity of 4 million Suns that gives the flares a super-boost, however. “In our orbiting hotspot model, a key component of the brightening is actually caused by gravitational lensing,” added Broderick, referring to a consequence of Einstein’s general relativity, when the gravity of black holes warp space-time so much as to form lenses that can magnify the light from distant astronomical sources. “It’s like a black hole analog of a lighthouse.”

Now that GRAVITY has confirmed the existence of these hotspots, Broderick is overjoyed.

“I’m still absorbing it; it’s extremely exciting,” he said. “I’m bouncing around a little bit! The fact you can track these flares is completely new, but we predicted that you could do this.”

The GRAVITY study is led by Roberto Abuter of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in Garching, Germany, and it describes the detection of three flares emanating from Sgr A* earlier this year. Although the hotspots cannot be fully resolved by the VLT, with the help of Broderick and Loeb’s predictions, Abuter’s team recognized the “wobble” of emissions from the flares as their associated hotspots orbited the supermassive black hole.

This discovery opens a brand-new understanding of the environment immediately surrounding Sgr A* and will complement observations made by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), an international collaboration of radio telescopes that are currently taking data to acquire the first image of a black hole, which is expected early next year.

Broderick hopes that these advances will help us to understand how black holes grow and consume matter, and if the predictions of general relativity break down at one of the most gravitationally extreme environments in the universe. But he’s most excited about how the first EHT image of a black hole will impact society as a whole: “It’s going to be a wonderful event, I think it will be an iconic image and it will make black holes real to a lot of people, including a lot of scientists,” he said.

Aside: In 2016, I had the incredible good fortune to visit the VLT at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory as part of the #MeetESO event. I interviewed several VLT and ALMA scientists, including Oliver Pfuhl, and helped produce the mini-documentary below:

Hitching a Ride on an ‘Evolving Asteroid’ to Travel to the Stars

The interstellar asteroid spaceship concept that would contain all the resources required to maintain a generations of star travelers (Nils Faber & Angelo Vermeulen)

When ʻOumuamua visited our solar system last year, the world’s collective interest (and imagination) was firing on all cylinders. Despite astronomers’ insistence that asteroids from other star systems likely zip through the solar system all the time (and the reason why we spotted this one is because our survey telescopes are getting better), there was that nagging sci-fi possibility that ʻOumuamua wasn’t a natural event; perhaps it was an interstellar spaceship piloted by (or at least once piloted by) some kind of extraterrestrial — “Rendezvous With Rama“-esque — intelligence. Alas, any evidence for this possibility has not been forthcoming despite the multifaceted observation campaigns that followed the interstellar vagabond’s dazzling discovery.

Still, I ponder that interstellar visitor. It’s not that I think it’s piloted by aliens, though that would be awesome, I’m more interested in the possibilities such objects could provide humanity in the future. But let’s put ʻOumuamua to one side for now and discuss a pretty nifty project that’s currently in the works and how I think it could make use of asteroids from other stars.

Asteroid Starships Ahoy!

As recently announced by the European Space Agency, researchers at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, are designing a starship. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill solar sail or “warpship.” The TU Delft Starship Team, or DSTART, aims to bring together many science disciplines to begin the ground-work for constructing an interstellar vehicle hollowed out of an asteroid.

Obviously, this is a long-term goal; humanity is currently having a hard enough time becoming a multiplanetary species, let alone a multistellar species. But from projects like these, new technologies may be developed to solve big problems and those technologies may have novel applications for society today. Central to ESA’s role in the project is an exciting regenerative life-support technology that is inspired by nature, a technology that could reap huge benefits not only for our future hypothetical interstellar space fliers.

Called the MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) program, scientists are developing a system that mimics aquatic ecosystems on Earth. A MELiSSA pilot plant in Barcelona is capable of keeping rat “crews” alive for months at a time inside an airtight habitat. Inside the habitat is a multi-compartment loop with a “bioreactor” at its core, which consists of algae that produces oxygen (useful for keeping the rats breathing) while scrubbing the air of carbon dioxide (which the rats exhale). The bioreactor was recently tested aboard the International Space Station, demonstrating that the system could be applied to a microgravity environment.

Disclaimer: Space Is Really Big

Assuming that humanity isn’t going to discover faster-than-light (FTL) travel any time soon, we’re pretty much stuck with very pedestrian sub-light-speed travel times to the nearest stars. Even if we assume some sensible iterative developments in propulsion technologies, the most optimistic projections in travel time to the stars is many decades to several centuries. While this is a drag for our biological selves, other research groups have shown that robotic (un-crewed) missions could be done now — after all, Voyager 1 is currently chalking up some mileage in interstellar space and that spacecraft was launched in the 1970’s! But here’s the kicker: Voyager 1 is slow (even if it’s the fastest and only interstellar vehicle humanity has built to date). If Voyager 1 was aimed at our closest star Proxima Centauri (which it’s not), it would take tens of thousands of years to get there.

But say if we could send a faster probe into interstellar space? Projects like Icarus Interstellar and Breakthrough Starshot are approaching this challenge with different solutions, using technology we have today (or technologies that will likely be available pretty soon) to get that travel time down to less than one hundred years.

One… hundred… years.

Sending robots to other stars is hard and it would take generations of scientists to see an interstellar mission through from launch to arrival — which is an interesting situation to ponder. But add human travelers to the mix? The problems just multiplied.

The idea of “worldships” (or generation ships) have been around for many years; basically vast self-sustaining spaceships that allow their passengers to live out their lives and pass on their knowledge (and mission) to the next generation. These ships would have to be massive and contain everything that each generation needs. It’s hard to comprehend what that starship would look like, though DSTART’s concept of hollowing out an asteroid to convert it into an interstellar vehicle doesn’t sound so outlandish. To hollow out an asteroid and bootstrap a self-sustaining society inside, however, is a headache. Granted, DSTART isn’t saying that they are actually going to build this thing (their project website even states: “DSTART is not developing hardware, nor is it building an actual spacecraft”), but they do assume some magic is going to have to happen before it’s even a remote possibility — such as transformative developments in nanotechnology, for example. The life-support system, however, would need to be inspired by nature, so ESA and DSTART scientists are going to continue to help develop this technology for self-sustaining, long-duration missions, though not necessarily for a massive interstellar spaceship.

Hyperbolic Space Rocks, Batman!

Though interesting, my reservation about the whole thing is simple: even if we did build an asteroid spaceship, how the heck would we accelerate the thing? This asteroid would have to be big and probably picked out of the asteroid belt. The energy required to move it would be extreme; to propel it clear of the sun’s gravity (potentially via a series of gravitational assists of other planets) could rip it apart.

So, back to ʻOumuamua.

The reason why astronomers knew ʻOumuamua wasn’t from ’round these parts was that it was moving really, really fast and on a hyperbolic trajectory. It basically barreled into our inner star system, swung off our sun’s gravitational field and slingshotted itself back toward the interstellar abyss. So, could these interstellar asteroids, which astronomers estimate are not uncommon occurrences, be used in the future as vehicles to escape our sun’s gravitational domain?

Assuming a little more science fiction magic, we could have extremely advanced survey telescopes tasked with finding and characterizing hyperbolic asteroids that could spot them coming with years of notice. Then, we could send our wannabe interstellar explorers via rendezvous spacecraft capable of accelerating to great speeds to these asteroids with all the technology they’d need to land on and convert the asteroid into an interstellar spaceship. The momentum that these asteroids would have, because they’re not gravitationally bound to the sun, could be used as the oomph to achieve escape velocity and, once setting up home on the rock, propulsion equipment would be constructed to further accelerate and, perhaps, steer it to a distant target.

If anything, it’s a fun idea for a sci-fi story.

I get really excited about projects like DSTART; they push the limits of human ingenuity and force us to find answers to seemingly insurmountable challenges. Inevitably, these answers can fuel new ideas and inspire younger generations to be bolder and braver. And when these projects start partnering with space agencies to develop existing tech, who knows where they will lead.

Proxima Centauri Unleashes ‘Doomsday’ Flare

Proxima b just got roasted.

Proxima b weather report: Sunny with the chance of a flare of doom (NASA)

Having a bad day? Well, spare a thought for any hypothetical aliens living on Proxima b.

Proxima Centauri is a small, dim M dwarf—commonly known as a red dwarf—located approximately 4.2 light-years away. Over the last couple of years, this diminutive star has spent a lot of time in the headlines after the discovery of a small rocky world, called Proxima b, inside the star’s habitable zone.

With the knowledge that there’s a potentially temperate world on our cosmic doorstep, speculation started to fly that this exoplanet could become a future interstellar destination for humanity or that it’s not just a “habitable” world, perhaps it’s inhabited, too.

Putting aside the fact that we have no idea whether this interesting exoplanet possesses water of any kind, let alone if it even has an atmosphere (two pretty important ingredients for life as we know it), it is certainly an incredible find. But there are some caveats to Proxima b’s habitability and the main one is the unpredictability of its star.

The problem with red dwarfs is that they are angry little stars. In fact, they have long been known as “flare stars” as, well, they produce flares. What they lack in energy output they certainly make up for in explosions. Really, really big explosions.

Last March, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile detected a cataclysmic stellar flare erupting from Proxima Centauri, and this thing put anything our Sun can produce to shame.

“March 24, 2017, was no ordinary day for Proxima Cen,” said astronomer Meredith MacGregor, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington D.C., in a statement.

Over just ten seconds on that special day, a powerful flare boosted Proxima Centauri’s brightness by over 1,000 times greater than normal. This mega-flare event was preceded by a smaller flare event and both flares occurred over a two minute period.

The brightness of Proxima Centauri as observed by ALMA over the two minutes of the event on March 24, 2017 (Meredith MacGregor, Carnegie)

Although astronomers have little idea where Proxima b was in relation to the flaring site, it would have undoubtedly received one hell of a radiation dose from the eruption.

“It’s likely that Proxima b was blasted by high energy radiation during this flare,” said MacGregor. “Over the billions of years since Proxima b formed, flares like this one could have evaporated any atmosphere or ocean and sterilized the surface, suggesting that habitability may involve more than just being the right distance from the host star to have liquid water.”

The habitable zone around any star is the distance at which a world must orbit to receive just the right amount of energy to maintain water in a liquid state. Liquid water, as we all know, is necessary for life (as we know it) to evolve. Whereas the Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of nearly 100 million miles (a distance that unsurprisingly puts us inside our star’s habitable zone), for a star as cool as Proxima Centauri, its habitable zone is closer. Much, much closer. This means Proxima b, with an orbital distance of approximately 4.6 million miles, is nearly 22 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun. Orbiting so close to a star pumping out a flare ten times more powerful than the largest flare our Sun can generate is the space weather equivalent of sitting inside the blast zone of a nuclear weapon.

As MacGregor argues, Proxima Centauri is known to generate these kinds of flares, and Proxima b has been bathed in its radiation for eons. It doesn’t seem likely that the exoplanet would be able to form an atmosphere, let alone hold onto one.

So, what of Proxima b’s hypothetical aliens? Well, unless they’ve found a niche deep under layers of ice and/or rock, it seems that this “habitable” world is anything but.

For more on why Proxima b would be a bad place to take your honeymoon, read
Sorry, Proxima Centauri Is Probably a Hellhole, Too.

Exocomets Seen Transiting Kepler’s Stars

ESO/L. Calçada

If you thought detecting small planets orbiting stars dozens of light-years distant was impressive, imagine trying to “see” individual comets zoom around their star. Well, astronomers have done just that after poring over 201,250 targets in the Kepler dataset.

NASA’s Kepler mission has been taking observational data since 2009, staring unblinkingly at a small area of sky in the direction of the constellation Cygnus until it transitioned into the K2 mission in 2013. In total, the space telescope has discovered over 2,500 confirmed exoplanets (and over 5,000 candidate exoplanets), transforming our understanding of the incredible menagerie of alien worlds in our galaxy. After including discoveries by other observatories, we know of over 3,500 exoplanets that are out there.

Kepler looks for very slight dips in light as exoplanets pass in front of their stars to detect alien worlds (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Kepler detects exoplanets by watching out for periodic dips in the brightness of stars in its field of view. Should a slight dip in brightness be detected, it could mean that there’s an exoplanet orbiting in front of its host star—an event known as a “transit.” While these transits can help astronomers learn about the physical size of exoplanets and the period of their orbits, for example, there’s much more information in the transit data than initially meets the eye.

In a new study to be published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on Feb. 21, a team of researchers are reporting that they have found evidence for individual comets transiting in front of two stars. They detected six individual transits at the star KIC 3542116, which is located approximately 800 light-years from Earth, and one transit at KIC 11084727. Both stars of a similar type (F2V) and are quite bright.

Though other observations have revealed dusty evidence of cometary activity in other star systems before, this is the first time individual comets have been found leaving their own transit signal in Kepler data. And it turns out that their transit fingerprint is a little bit special:

One comet’s three transits around its host star, KIC 3542116. Credit: Rappaport et al. MNRAS 474, 1453, 2018.

“The transits have a distinct asymmetric shape with a steeper ingress and slower egress that can be ascribed to objects with a trailing dust tail passing over the stellar disk,” the astronomers write in their paper (arXiv preprint). “There are three deeper transits with depths of ≃ 0.1 percent that last for about a day, and three that are several times more shallow and of shorter duration.”

In other words, when compared with the transit of an exoplanet, comet transits appear wonky (or asymmetric). This is because comets possess tails of gas and dust that trail the nucleus; as the comet passes in front of its star, starlight is quickly blocked, but as it drifts by in its orbit, the dusty tail will act as a starlight dimmer, gradually allowing more starlight to be seen by Kepler. An exoplanet—or, indeed, any spherical object without a dusty tail—will create a symmetrical dip in the transit signal. Other possible causes of this unique transit signal (such as starspots and instrumental error) were systematically ruled out. (Interestingly, in a 1999 Astronomy & Astrophysics paper, this asymmetric comet transit signal was predicted by another team of researchers, giving this current work some extra certainty.)

But just because there was evidence of six comet transits at KIC 3542116, it doesn’t mean there were six comets. Some of those transits could have been caused by the same comet, so the researchers have hedged their bets, writing: “We have tentatively postulated that these are due to between 2 and 6 distinct comet-like bodies in the system.”

Using these transit data, the study also takes a stab at how big these comets are and even estimates their orbital velocities. The researchers calculate that these comets have masses that are comparable to Halley’s Comet, the famous short-period comet that orbits the sun every 74-79 years and was last visible from Earth in 1986. For the deeper transits (for KIC 3542116 and the single transit at KIC 11084727), they estimate that the comets causing those transits are travelling at speeds of between 35 to 50 kilometers per second (22 to 31 miles per second). For the shallow, narrow transits at KIC 3542116, the inferred speeds are between 75 to 90 kilometers per second (47 to 56 miles per second).

“From these speeds we can surmise that the corresponding orbital periods are ⪆ 90 days (and most probably, much longer) for the deeper transits, and ⪆ 50 days for the shorter events,” they write.

But the fact that comets were detected at two similar F2V-type stars gives the researchers pause. Is there something special about these stars that means there’s more likelihood of possessing comets? Or is it just chance? Also, the fact that these comet transits were identified by visually analyzing the Kepler datasets suggests that there are likely many more transits hiding in the archived Kepler observations.

One thing’s for sure: this is a mind-blowing discovery that underscores just how valuable exoplanet-hunting missions are for probing the environment around other stars and not just for discovering strange new worlds. I’m excited for what other discoveries are waiting in Kepler transit data and for future exoplanet-hunting missions such as NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) that is scheduled for launch this year.