How Gravitational Waves Led Us to Neutron Star Gold

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Primordial Black Holes Might be Cosmic Gold Diggers

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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.

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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.

Sorry, Proxima Centauri Is Probably a Hellhole, Too

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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.”

TRAPPIST-1: The ‘Habitable’ Star System That’s Probably a Hellhole

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Red dwarfs can be angry little stars (NASA/GSFC/S. Wiessinger)

There are few places that elicit such vivid thoughts of exotic habitable exoplanets than TRAPPIST-1 — a star system located less than 40 light-years from Earth. Alas, according to two recent studies, the planetary system surrounding the tiny red dwarf star may actually be horrible.

For anyone who knows a thing or two about red dwarfs, this may not come as a surprise. Although they are much smaller than our sun, red dwarfs can pack a powerful space weather punch for any world that orbits too close. And, by their nature, any habitable zone surrounding a red dwarf would have to be really compact, a small detail that would bury any “habitable” exoplanet in a terrible onslaught of ultraviolet radiation and a blowtorch of stellar winds. These factors would make the space weather environment around TRAPPIST-1 extreme to say the least.

“The concept of a habitable zone is based on planets being in orbits where liquid water could exist,” said Manasvi Lingam, a Harvard University researcher who led a Center for Astrophysics (CfA) study, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology. “This is only one factor, however, in determining whether a planet is hospitable for life.”

The habitable zone around any star is the distance at which a small rocky world can orbit and receive just the right amount of heating to maintain liquid water on its hypothetical surface. Orbit too close and the water vaporizes; too far and it freezes. As life needs liquid water to evolve, seeking out exoplanets in their star’s habitable zone is a good place to start.

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The peaceful surface of a TRAPPIST-1 habitable zone exoplanet as imagined in this artist’s rendering (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

For the sun-Earth system, we live in the middle of the habitable zone, at a distance of one astronomical unit (1 AU). For a world orbiting a red dwarf like TRAPPIST-1, its orbital distance would be a fraction of that — i.e. three worlds orbit TRAPPIST-1 in the star’s habitable zone at between 2.8% and 4.5% the distance the Earth orbits the sun. This is because red dwarfs are very dim and produce meager heating — for a world to receive the same degree of heating that our planet enjoys, a red dwarf world would need to snuggle up really close to its star.

But just because TRAPPIST-1 is dim, it doesn’t mean it holds back on ultraviolet radiation. And, according to this study, the three “habitable” exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are likely anything but — they would receive disproportionate quantities of damaging ultraviolet radiation.

“Because of the onslaught by the star’s radiation, our results suggest the atmosphere on planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system would largely be destroyed,” said co-author Avi Loeb, who also works at Harvard. “This would hurt the chances of life forming or persisting.”

Life as we know it needs an atmosphere, so the erosion by UV radiation seems like a significant downer for the possible evolution of complex life.

That’s not the only bad news for our extraterrestrial life dreams around TRAPPIST-1, however. Another study carried out by the CfA and the University of Massachusetts in Lowell (and published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters) found more problems. Like the sun, TRAPPIST-1 generates stellar winds that blast energetic particles into space. As these worlds orbit the star so close, they would be sitting right next to the proverbial nozzle of a stellar blowtorch — models suggest they experience 1,000 to 100,000 times stellar wind pressure than the solar wind exerts on Earth.

And, again, that’s not good news if a planet wants to hold onto its atmosphere.

“The Earth’s magnetic field acts like a shield against the potentially damaging effects of the solar wind,” said Cecilia Garraffo of the CfA and study lead. “If Earth were much closer to the sun and subjected to the onslaught of particles like the TRAPPIST-1 star delivers, our planetary shield would fail pretty quickly.”

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The TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet family. TRAPPIST-1 e, f and g are located in the system’s habitable zone (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

So it looks like TRAPPIST-1 e, f and g really take a pounding from their angry little star, but the researchers point out that it doesn’t mean we should forget red dwarfs as potential life-giving places. It’s just that life would have many more challenges to endure than we do on our comparatively peaceful place in the galaxy.

“We’re definitely not saying people should give up searching for life around red dwarf stars,” said co-author Jeremy Drake, also from CfA. “But our work and the work of our colleagues shows we should also target as many stars as possible that are more like the sun.”

Newborn Star Found Growing Inside Magnetic Nest of Chaos

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NRAO/AUI/NSF; D. Berry

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that stars form in extremely powerful and ordered magnetic fields. But “conventional,” our universe is not (as Yoda might say).

In a new and fascinating study published in Astrophysical Journal Letters and carried out by astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, a star some 1,400 light-years away in the Serpens star-forming region had its magnetic field gauged.

The star, called Ser-emb 8, is embedded inside the magnetic field passing through the molecular cloud it was born in. As the surrounding dust aligns itself with the direction of these magnetic field lines, ALMA is able to make precise measurements of the polarization of the emissions produced by this dust. From these incredibly sensitive measurements, a map of the polarization of light could be created, providing a view of the magnetic nest the star was born in.

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Texture represents the magnetic field orientation in the region surrounding the Ser-emb 8 protostar, as measured by ALMA. The gray region is the millimeter wavelength dust emission. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); P. Mocz, C. Hull, CfA

And this nest is an unexpected one; it’s a turbulent region lacking the strong and ordered magnetism that would normally be predicted to be in the immediate vicinity of Ser-emb 8. Previous studies have shown newborn stars to possess powerful magnetic fields that take on an “hourglass” shape, extending from the protostar and reaching light-years into space. Ser-emb 8, however, is different.

“Before now, we didn’t know if all stars formed in regions that were controlled by strong magnetic fields. Using ALMA, we found our answer,” said astronomer Charles L. H. “Chat” Hull, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. “We can now study magnetic fields in star-forming clouds from the broadest of scales all the way down to the forming star itself. This is exciting because it may mean stars can emerge from a wider range of conditions than we once thought.”

By comparing these observations with computer simulations, an insightful view of the earliest magnetic environment surrounding a young star has been created.

“Our observations show that the importance of the magnetic field in star formation can vary widely from star to star,” added Hull in a statement. “This protostar seems to have formed in a weakly magnetized environment dominated by turbulence, while previous observations show sources that clearly formed in strongly magnetized environments. Future studies will reveal how common each scenario is.”

Hull and his team think that ALMA has witnessed a phase of star formation before powerful magnetic fields are generated by the young star, wiping out any trace of this pristine magnetic environment passing through the star forming region.

‘Failed’ Star Rapidly Orbits ‘Dead’ Star in Weird Stellar Pairing

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ESO

The galaxy may be filled with weird stellar wonders, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a binary system stranger than WD1202-024.

First thought to be an isolated white dwarf star approximately 40% the mass of our sun, astronomers studying observational data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope realized the stellar husk has company. In an extremely fast 71-minute orbit, the star has a brown dwarf, 67 times the mass of Jupiter, in tow — an unprecedented find.

White dwarfs are formed after sun-like stars run out of fuel and die. This will be the fate of our sun in about five billion years time, after it becomes depleted of hydrogen in its core and puffs-up into a red giant. Shedding its outer layers after a period of violent stellar turmoil, a planetary nebula will form with a tiny mass of degenerate matter — a white dwarf — in its center. Earth would be toast long before the sun turns into a red giant, however.

But in the case of WD1202-024, it seems that when it was a young star (before it passed through its final red giant phase), it had a brown dwarf in orbit.

Commonly known as “failed stars,” brown dwarfs are not massive enough to sustain sufficient fusion in their cores to spark the formation of a star. But they’re too massive to be called planets as they possess the internal circulation of material that is more familiar to stars (so with that in mind, I like to refer to brown dwarfs as “overachieving planets”). They are the bridge between stars and planets and fascinating objects in their own right.

But the brown dwarf in the WD1202 binary couldn’t have formed with only a 71-minute orbit around the white dwarf; it would have evolved further away. So what happened? After carrying out computer simulations of the system, the international team of researchers found a possible answer.

“It is similar to an egg-beater effect,” said astronomer Lorne Nelson, of Bishop’s University, Canada, during the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas on June 6th. “The brown dwarf spirals in towards the center of the red giant and causes most of the mass of the red giant to be lifted off of the core and to be expelled. The result is a brown dwarf in an extraordinarily tight, short-period orbit with the hot helium core of the giant. That core then cools and becomes the white dwarf that we observe today.”

In the future, the researchers hypothesize, the brown dwarf will continue to orbit the white dwarf until energy is depleted from the system via gravitational waves. In less than 250 million years, the orbital distance will be so small that the extreme tidal forces exerted by the white dwarf will start to drag brown dwarf material into the star, cannibalizing it.

This will turn WD1202 into a cataclysmic variable (CV), causing its brightness to flicker as the brown dwarf material is extruded into an accretion disk orbiting the white dwarf.

What a way to go.

The ‘Alien Megastructure’ Star Is Doing Weird Things Again

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NASA (edit by Ian O’Neill)

In our quest to understand what the heck is going on with Tabby’s Star, astronomers have been given a cosmic gift — a dimming event is happening right now and they’re collecting data in real time.

Early Friday morning, the star — officially designated KIC 8462852 — dipped in brightness inextricably and bulletins started to fly around the internet. Astronomers involved in the original discovery took to Twitter to announce the awesomeness and rally the world’s observatories to point their telescopes at the action 1,300 light-years away:

But why all the excitement? Well, this is the same star that, last year, hogged the headlines with speculation that a super advanced alien civilization was building some kind of “megastructure” around the star. (You can read my article on it here.) But why would the world’s media, let alone professional scientists, be okay with even hinting at the “alien” thing?

Well, as part of the Planet Hunters project, Tabby’s Star is wonderfully weird. After analyzing observations from NASA’s exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope, the citizen scientists noticed something peculiar.

Usually, Kepler’s ultra-sensitive optics detect the slight dimming of stars when any planets in orbit drift in front — an event known as a “transit.” These transits are typically very slight, but the signals detected at KIC 8462852 were mind-boggling. Between 2011 and 2013, Tabby’s Star exhibited a series of dips, dimming the brightness of the star by over 20 percent. Tabby’s Star was so-named after astronomer Tabetha Boyajian who led this research. Further studies of the star has also revealed a longer period of dimming.

And on Friday morning, it started happening again.

“At about 4 a.m. this morning, I got a phone call from Tabby [Boyajian] saying that Fairborn [Observatory] in Arizona had confirmed that the star was 3 percent dimmer than it normally is and that is enough that we are absolutely confident that this is no statistical fluke,” said Jason Wright, an associate professor of astronomy at Pennsylvania State University, during a live webcast. “We’ve now got it confirmed at multiple observatories I think.”

Now that astronomers are able to observe the star while the dimming is happening live (rather than studying past observations, which as been the case up until now), spectra of the star can be recorded and compared to previous data. This spectral information might reveal what material is causing the weird transit signals, potentially ruling some hypotheses out. But it might also create new questions.

Many hypotheses have been put forward for these unprecedented events before Friday. The most popular natural explanation has been the possibility that a giant “swarm” of comets drifted between the star and us, blocking the starlight. But this explanation falls short and doesn’t really explain why the brightness dips are so dramatic.

The most popular unnatural explanation is — you guessed italiens and astronomers are having a really hard job disproving this hypothesis. This idea is based around the possibility that a super advanced alien civilization (that’s well on its way to becoming a type II Kardashev civilization) is building a star-spanning solar array, akin to a Dyson swarm. In this scenario, the dimming in brightness would be caused by vast solar arrays blocking the light from view.

Now that the dimming is happening again, it will be interesting to see how the megastructure idea evolves.

Although imagining super-advanced aliens building stuff around a nearby star is fun, this episode so early in our hunt for extrasolar worlds is giving us a glimpse of just how strange our galaxy can be. In all likelihood, it probably isn’t an alien megastructure and more likely something astronomers have completely overlooked. But it could also be that these Kepler data are being caused by a natural stellar phenomenon that we’ve never seen before — a possibility that could be revealed very soon.

Two Exoplanets Are Whipping-Up a Pretty Protoplanetary Gas Spiral

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ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Tang et al.

Using the awesome power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, astronomers have probed the protoplanetary disk of a young star system — with a twist.

ALMA is no stranger to protoplanetary disks; the array of 66 radio antennae in the Atacama desert is extremely sensitive to the emissions from the gas and dust surrounding stars. But this observation has revealed something more — there are two obvious dusty rings (orange) that are being sculpted by the presence of massive worlds, but between them (in blue) is a spiral gas structure. If there’s one thing I love it’s space spirals!

When comparing these observations with theoretical modeling of the system — called AB Aurigae, located about 470 light-years away — for that gas spiral to exist, there must be some interplanetary interplay between two exoplanets orbiting the star at 30 and 80 AU (astronomical units, where 1 AU is the average distance that Earth orbits the sun). The spiral is following the direction of rotation of the disk.

Besides looking really pretty, studies of these spiral structures help astronomers identify the presence of exoplanets and build a better understanding of the nature of protoplanetary disks.

Smallest ‘Super-Earth’ Discovered With an Atmosphere — but It’s No Oasis

MPIA

For the first time, astronomers have detected an atmosphere around a small (and likely) rocky exoplanet orbiting a star only 39 light-years away. Although atmospheres have been detected on larger alien worlds, this is the smallest world to date that has been found sporting atmospheric gases.

Alas, Gliese (GJ) 1132b isn’t a place we’d necessarily call “habitable”; it orbits its red dwarf a little too close to have an atmosphere anything like Earth’s, so you’d have to be very optimistic if you expect to find life (as we know it) camping there. But this is still a huge discovery that is creating a lot of excitement — especially as this exo-atmosphere has apparently evolved intact so close to a star.

The atmosphere was discovered by an international team of astronomers using the 2.2 meter ESO/MPG telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile. As the exoplanet orbited in front of the star from our perspective (known as a “transit”), the researchers were able to deduce the physical size of the world by the fraction of starlight it blocked. The exoplanet is around 40 percent bigger than Earth (and 60 percent more massive) making it a so-called “super-Earth.”

Through precision observations of the infrared light coming from the exoplanet during the 1.6 day transits, the astronomers noticed that the planet looked larger at certain wavelengths of light than others. In short, this means that the planet has an atmosphere that blocks certain infrared wavelengths, but allows other wavelengths to pass straight through. Researchers of the University of Cambridge and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy then used this information to model certain chemical compositions, leading to the conclusion that the atmosphere could be a thick with methane or water vapor.

Judging by the exoplanet’s close proximity to its star, this could mean that the planet is a water world, with an extremely dense and steamy atmosphere. But this is just one of the possibilities.

“The presence of the atmosphere is a reason for cautious optimism,” writes a Max Planck Institute for Astronomy news release. “M dwarfs are the most common types of star, and show high levels of activity; for some set-ups, this activity (in the shape of flares and particle streams) can be expected to blow away nearby planets’ atmospheres. GJ 1132b provides a hopeful counterexample of an atmosphere that has endured for billion of years (that is, long enough for us to detect it). Given the great number of M dwarf stars, such atmospheres could mean that the preconditions for life are quite common in the universe.”

To definitively work out what chemicals are in GJ 1132b’s atmosphere, we may not be waiting that long. New techniques for deriving high-resolution spectra of exoplanetary atmospheres are in the works and this exoplanet will be high on the list of priorities in the hunt for extraterrestrial biosignatures. (For more on this, you can check out a recent article I wrote for HowStuffWorks.)

Although we’ll not be taking a vacation to GJ 1132b any time soon, the discovery of an atmosphere around such a small alien world will boost hopes that similar sized super-Earths will also host atmospheres, despite living close to red dwarf stars that are known for their flaring activity. If atmospheres can persist, particularly on exoplanets orbiting within a star’s so-called habitable zone, then there really should be cause for optimism that there really might be an “Earth 2.0” out there orbiting one of the many red dwarfs in our galaxy.

Exoplanets Are Sacrificing Moons to Their White Dwarf Overlords

An artist’s impression of a planet, comet and debris field surrounding a white dwarf star (NASA/ESA)

As if paying tribute, exoplanets orbiting white dwarfs appear to be throwing their exomoons into hot atmospheres of these stellar husks.

This fascinating conclusion comes from a recent study into white dwarf stars that appear to have atmospheres that are “polluted” with rocky debris.

A white dwarf forms after a sun-like star runs out of hydrogen fuel and starts to burn heavier and heavier elements in its core. When this happens, the star bloats into a red giant, beginning the end of its main sequence life. After the red giant phase, and the star’s outer layers have been violently ripped away by powerful stellar winds, a small bright mass of degenerate matter (the white dwarf) and a wispy planetary nebula are left behind.

But what of the planetary system that used to orbit the star? Well, assuming they weren’t so close to the dying star that they were completely incinerated, any exoplanets remaining in orbit around a white dwarf have an uncertain future. Models predict that dynamical chaos will ensue and gravitational instabilities will be the norm. Exoplanets will shift in their orbits, some might even be flung clear of the star system all together. One thing is for sure, however, the tidal shear created by the compact white dwarf will be extreme, and should anything stray too close, it will be ripped to shreds. Asteroids will be pulverized, comets will fall and even planets will crumble.

Stray too close to a white dwarf and tidal shear will rip you to shreds (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Now, in a science update based on research published late last year in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) have completed a series of simulations of white dwarf systems in an attempt to better understand where the “pollution” in these tiny stars’ atmospheres comes from.

To explain the quantities observed, the researchers think that not only is it debris from asteroids and comets, but the gravitational instabilities that throw the system into chaos are booting any moons — so-called exomoons — out of their orbits around exoplanets, causing them to careen into the white dwarfs.

The simulations also suggest that as the moons meander around the inner star system and fall toward the star, their gravities scramble to orbits of more asteroids and comets, boosting the around of material falling into the star’s atmosphere.

So there you have it, planets, should your star turn into a white dwarf (as our sun will in a few billion years), keep your moons close — your new stellar overlord will be asking for a sacrifice in no time.