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.

Tabby’s Star Dust-Up: There’s No Alien Megastructure

Sadly, not aliens (NASA/Getty/Ian O’Neill)

If you were hoping that the bizarre transit signals coming from Tabby’s Star were signs of a massive alien construction site, you’d better sit down.

A new study published in Astrophysical Journal Letters today documents a highly-detailed astronomical study of the star, concluding that this stellar oddity is driven by natural phenomena and most likely not caused by an extraterrestrial intelligence.

Since citizen scientists of the exoplanet project Planet Hunters identified the odd transit signal of KIC 8462852 from publicly-available data collected by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope in 2015, the world has been captivated by what it means. Though KIC 8462852 is a fairly average star as stars go, it exhibited inexplicable dimming events that have never been seen before.

Finding something extraordinary in deep space is often followed by extraordinary explanations, including the possibility that some super-advanced alien civilization is building a “megastructure” around its star. Over time, more rational hypotheses have been ruled out, but how do you rule out aliens fiddling with their star’s brightness? Well, that’s taken a little more time.

Now, thanks to a study headed by astronomer Tabetha Boyajian of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, it seems the alien megastructure hypothesis has bitten the dust, literally.

“Dust is most likely the reason why the star’s light appears to dim and brighten,” Boyajian said in a statement. “The new data shows that different colors of light are being blocked at different intensities. Therefore, whatever is passing between us and the star is not opaque, as would be expected from a planet or alien megastructure.”

As you’d expect, if something solid (like a massive Alien Made™ solar energy collector) were to pass in front of a star, all wavelengths of light would be stopped at the same time. The fact that the dimming events are wavelength (brightness) dependent suggests that whatever is blocking the starlight isn’t a solid mass.

Boyajian, Tabby’s Star’s namesake who led the team that discovered the stellar dimming phenomenon, and her team of over 100 astronomers carried out an unprecedented observation campaign on the star from March 2016 to December 2017 using the Las Cumbres Observatory network. The project was supported by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $100,000 from 1,700 backers.

During the campaign, four distinct dimming events were detected at Tabby’s Star and each were given names by the project’s crowdfunding community. Starting in May 2017, the first two dips were named “Elsie” and “Celeste,” and the second two were named after the lost cities of Scotland’s “Scara Brae” and Cambodia’s “Angkor.”

“They’re ancient; we are watching things that happened more than 1,000 years ago. They’re almost certainly caused by something ordinary, at least on a cosmic scale. And yet that makes them more interesting, not less. But most of all, they’re mysterious.” — from “The First Post-Kepler Brightness Dips of KIC 8462852,” ApJL, 2018

Although the story of the alien megastructure may be coming to an end, this astronomical saga has been an incredible success for science outreach and public engagement with citizen science projects, like Planet Hunters. In this incredible age of astronomy where there’s simply too much data to analyse, scientists are increasingly turning to the public for help in making groundbreaking discoveries.

“If it wasn’t for people with an unbiased look on our universe, this unusual star would have been overlooked,” added Boyajian. “Again, without the public support for this dedicated observing run, we would not have this large amount of data.”

So, the search continues and I, for one, am excited for the next “alien megastructure” mystery …

Read more: The ‘Alien Megastructure’ Star Is Doing Weird Things Again

It’s a Trap: Extraterrestrial Ozone May be Hidden at Exoplanets’ Equators

eso1736a-rotated (1)

Fortunately for life on Earth, our planet has an ozone layer. This high-altitude gas performs an invaluable service to biology, acting as a kind of global “sunscreen” that blocks the most damaging forms of ultraviolet radiation. Early in the evolution of terrestrial life, if there were no ozone layer, life would have found it difficult to gain a foothold.

So, in our effort to seek out exoplanets that are suitable for life, future telescopes will seek out so-called “biosignatures” in the atmospheres of alien worlds. Astrobiologists would be excited to find ozone in particular — not only for its biology-friendly, UV-blocking abilities, but also because the molecule’s building blocks (three oxygen atoms) can originate from biological activity on the planet’s surface.

But in a new study published Wednesday (Nov. 29) in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, researchers modeling atmospheric dynamics on tidally-locked “habitable zone” exoplanets have concluded that finding ozone in these exo-atmospheres may be a lot more challenging than we thought.

Red Dwarf Hellholes

Recently, two exoplanets have taken the science news cycle by storm. The first, Proxima b, is touted as the closest temperate exoplanet beyond our solar system. Located a mere 4.22 light-years from Earth, this (presumably) rocky world orbits its star, Proxima Centauri, at just the right distance within the habitable zone. Should this world possess an atmosphere, it would receive just the right amount of energy for any water on its surface to exist in a liquid state. As liquid water is essential for life on Earth, logic dictates that life may be possible there too.

Whether or not Proxima b has the right orbit about its star is academic; there are many other factors to consider before calling it “Earth-like.” For starters, habitable zone exoplanets around red dwarfs will be “tidally locked.” Tidal locking occurs because red dwarf habitable zones are very close to the cool star; so to receive the same amount of heating as our (obviously) habitable Earth, habitable exoplanets around red dwarfs need to cuddle up close. And because they are so close, the same hemisphere will always face the star, while the other hemisphere will always face away. These strange worlds are anything but “Earth-like.”

Also, Proxima Centauri is an angry little star, blasting its locale with regular flares, irradiating its interplanetary space with X-rays, UV and high-energy particles — things that will strip atmospheres from planets and drench planetary surfaces with biology-wrecking radiation. As I’ve previously written, Proxima b is likely a hellhole. And things don’t bode well for that other “habitable” exoplanet TRAPPIST-1d, either.

It’s a Trap

But let’s just say, for astrobiology-sake, that a tidally-locked world orbiting a red dwarf does host an atmosphere and an alien biosphere has managed to evolve despite these stellar challenges. This biosphere is also pretty Earth-like in that oxygen-producing lifeforms are there and the planetary atmosphere has its own ozone layer. As previously mentioned, ozone would be a pretty awesome molecule to find (in conjunction with other biosignatures). But what if no ozone is detected? Well, according to Ludmila Carone, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, and her team, not finding detecting ozone doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there, it’s just that the atmospheric dynamics of tidally-locked worlds are very different to Earth’s.

“Absence of traces of ozone in future observations does not have to mean there is no oxygen at all,” said Carone in a statement. “It might be found in different places than on Earth, or it might be very well hidden.”

Earth’s ozone is predominantly produced at the equator where sun-driven chemical reactions occur high in the atmosphere. Atmospheric flows then transport chemicals like ozone toward the poles, giving our planet a global distribution. When carrying out simulations of tidally-locked worlds, however, Carone’s team found that atmospheric flows may operate in reverse, where atmospheric flows travel from the poles to the equator. Therefore, any ozone produced at the equator will become trapped there, greatly reducing our ability to detect it.

“In principle, an exoplanet with an ozone layer that covers only the equatorial region may still be habitable,” added Carone. “Proxima b and TRAPPIST-1d orbit red dwarfs, reddish stars that emit very little harmful UV light to begin with. On the other hand, these stars can be very temperamental, and prone to violent outbursts of harmful radiation including UV.”

So the upshot is, until we have observatories powerful enough to study these hypothetical exoplanetary atmospheres — such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) or the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) — we won’t know. But modelling the hypothetical atmospheres of these very alien worlds will help us understand what we will, or won’t, see in the not-so-distant future.

“We all knew from the beginning that the hunt for alien life will be a challenge,” said Carone. “As it turns out, we are only just scratching the surface of how difficult it really will be.”

Sorry, Proxima Centauri Is Probably a Hellhole, Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except, probably not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.”

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.”

Great Balls of ‘Space Mud’ May Have Built Earth and Delivered Life’s Ingredients

Artist’s impression of the molten surface of early Earth (NASA)

When imagining how our planet formed 4.6 billion years ago from the protoplanetary disk surrounding our sun, images of large pieces of marauding space rock slamming into the molten surface of our proto-Earth likely come to mind.

But this conventional model of planetary creation may be missing a small, yet significant, detail. Those massive space rocks may not have been the conventional solid asteroids — they might have been massive balls of space mud.

This strange detail of planetary evolution is described in a new study published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) journal Science Advances and it kinda makes logical sense.

Using the wonderfully-named Mars and Asteroids Global Hydrology Numerical Model (or “MAGHNUM”), planetary scientists Phil Bland (Cornell University) and Bryan Travis (Planetary Science Institute) simulated the movement of material inside primordial carbonaceous chondrite asteroids — i.e. the earliest asteroids that formed from the sun’s protoplanetary disk that eventually went on to become the building blocks for Earth.

A simulated cross section of a 200-meter wide asteroid showing its internal temperature profile and convection currents (temperatures in Celsius). Credit: PSI

It turns out that these first asteroids weren’t cold and solid lumps of rock at all. By simulating the distribution of rock grains inside these asteroids, the researchers realized that the internal heat of the objects would have melted the icy volatiles inside, which then mixed with the fine dust particles. Convection would have then dominated a large portion of these asteroids, causing continuous mixing of water and dust. Like a child squishing a puddle of dirt to create sloppy “mud pies,” this convection would have formed a ball of, you guessed it, space mud.

Travis points out that “these bodies would have accreted as a high-porosity aggregate of igneous clasts and fine-grained primordial dust, with ice filling much of the pore space. Mud would have formed when the ice melted from heat released from decay of radioactive isotopes, and the resulting water mixed with fine-grained dust.”

In other words: balls of mud held together by mutual gravity, gently convected by the heat produced by the natural decay of radioactive materials.

Should this model hold up to further scrutiny, it has obvious implications for the genesis of life on Earth and could impact the study of exoplanets and their habitable potential. The ingredients for life on Earth originated in the primordial protoplanetary soup, but until now the assumption has been that the space rocks carrying water and other chemicals were solid and frozen. If they were in fact churning away in space as dynamic mud asteroids, they could have been the “pressure cookers” that delivered those ingredients to Earth’s surface.

So the next question would be: how did these exotic asteroids shape life on Earth?

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


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.

Mysterious Fomalhaut b Might Not Be an Exoplanet After All

The famous exoplanet was the first to be directly imaged by Hubble in 2008 but many mysteries surround its identity — so astronomers are testing the possibility that it might actually be an exotic neutron star.

NASA, ESA, P. Kalas, J. Graham, E. Chiang, E. Kite (University of California, Berkeley), M. Clampin (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), M. Fitzgerald (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), and K. Stapelfeldt and J. Krist (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Located 25 light-years from Earth, the bright star Fomalhaut is quite the celebrity. As part of a triple star system (its distant, yet gravitationally bound siblings are orange dwarf TW Piscis Austrini and M-type red dwarf LP 876-10) Fomalhaut is filled with an impressive field of debris, sharing a likeness with the Lord Of The Rings’Eye of Sauron.” And, in 2008, the eerie star system shot to fame as the host of the first ever directly-imaged exoplanet.

At the time, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a mere speck in Fomalhaut’s “eye,” but in the years that followed the exoplanet was confirmed — it was a massive exoplanet approximately the size of Jupiter orbiting the star at a distance of around 100 AU (astronomical units, where 1 AU is the average distance the Earth orbits the sun). It was designated Fomalhaut b.

This was a big deal. Not only was it the first direct observation of a world orbiting another star, Hubble was the aging space telescope that found it. Although the exoplanet was confirmed in 2013 and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially named the exoplanet “Dagon” after a public vote in 2015, controversy surrounding the exoplanet was never far away, however.

Astronomers continue to pick at Fomalhaut’s mysteries and, in new research to be published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Fomalhaut b’s identity has been thrown into doubt yet again.

“It has been hypothesized to be a planet, however there are issues with the observed colors of the object that do not fit planetary models,” the researchers write. “An alternative hypothesis is that the object is a neutron star in the near fore- or background of Fomalhaut’s disk.” The research team is lead by Katja Poppenhaeger, of Queen’s University, Belfast, and a preprint of their paper (“A Test of the Neutron Star Hypothesis for Fomalhaut b”) can be found via arXiv.org.

Artist’s impression of Fomalhaut b inside its star’s debris disk (ESA, NASA, and L. Calcada – ESO for STScI)

Fomalhaut b was detected in visible and near-infrared wavelengths, but followup studies in other wavelengths revealed some peculiarities. For starters, the object is very bright in blue wavelengths, something that doesn’t quite fit with exoplanetary formation models. To account for this, theorists pointed to a possible planetary accretion disk like a system of rings. This may be the reason for the blue excess; the debris is reflecting more starlight than would be expected to be reflected by the planet alone. However, when other studies revealed the object is orbiting outside the star system’s orbital plane, this explanation wasn’t fully consistent with what astronomers were seeing.

Other explanations were put forward — could it be a small, warm world with lots of planetesimals surrounding it? Or is it just a clump of loosely-bound material and not a planet at all? — but none seem to quite fit the bill.

In this new research, Poppenhaeger’s team pondered the idea that Fomalhaut b might actually be a neutron star either in front or behind the Fomalhaut debris disk and, although their work hasn’t proven whether Fomalhaut b is an exoplanet or not, they’ve managed to put some limits on the neutron star hypothesis.

Neutron stars are the left-overs of massive stars that have run out of fuel and gone supernova. They are exotic objects that are extremely dense and small and, from our perspective, may produce emissions in visible and infrared wavelengths that resemble a planetary body. Cool and old neutron stars will even generate bluer light, which could explain the strange Fomalhaut b spectra.

Neutron stars also produce ultraviolet light and X-rays and, although it is hard to separate the UV light coming from the exoplanet and the UV light coming from the star, X-ray emissions should be resolvable.

Artist’s impression of a magnetar, an extreme example of a neutron star (ESO/L.Calçada)

So, using observations from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the researchers looked at Fomalhaut b in soft X-rays and were able to put some pretty strong constraints on whether or not this object really could be a neutron star. As it turned out, Chandra didn’t detect X-rays (within its capabilities). This doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a neutron star, it constrains what kind of neutron star it could be. Interestingly, it also reveals how far away this object could be.

Assuming it is a neutron star with a typical radius of 10 kilometers, and as no X-ray emissions within Chandra’s wavelength range were detected, this object would be a neutron star with a surface temperature cooler than 90,000 Kelvin — revealing that it is over 10 million years old. For this hypothesis to hold, the neutron star would actually lie behind the Fomalhaut system, around 44 light-years (13.5 parsecs) from Earth.

Further studies are obviously needed and, although the researchers point out that Fomalhaut b is still most likely an exoplanet with an extensive ring system (just with some strange and as-yet unexplained characteristics), it’s interesting to think that it could also be a neutron star that isn’t actually in the Fomalhaut system at all. In fact, it could be the closest neutron star to Earth, providing a wonderful opportunity for astronomical studies of these strange and exotic objects.