Spinning Comet Slams its Brakes as It Makes Earth Flyby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Cassini Crashed: Protecting Icy Moon Enceladus at All Costs

What Epic Space Missions Like Cassini Teach Us About Ourselves

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

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Credit: NASA/SDO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy Stellar Traffic Sends Dangerous Comets Our Way

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

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

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

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

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

Stellar Traffic

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Early Warning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inevitably, Twitter had an opinion about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, Proxima Centauri Is Probably a Hellhole, Too

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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.”

Weird Form of Alien Life May Be Possible on Saturn’s Moon Titan

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Artist’s impression of Titan’s surface and atmosphere (credit: Benjamin de Bivort, debivort.org / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Titan is a very strange moon.

Orbiting the ringed gas giant Saturn, Titan is the only moon in the solar system that sports a thick atmosphere. Although the moon is extremely cold, its atmosphere is very dynamic; exhibiting seasons, precipitation and even creating vast seas.

Although this may sound very much like Earth’s atmosphere — where water evaporates from the oceans, condenses as clouds and precipitates as rain, forming rivers that flow back into the oceans — Titan’s atmosphere is dominated by a methane cycle, not a water cycle.

This may sound like the antithesis of Earth’s life-giving chemistry, but astrobiologists have been gradually finding clues to Titan’s habitable potential and today (July 28) scientists have announced the confirmation of a key molecule that could be the proverbial backbone to a weird kind of “alternative” alien life on Titan — based not on liquid water, but on liquid methane.

“The presence of vinyl cyanide in an environment with liquid methane suggests the intriguing possibility of chemical processes that are analogous to those important for life on Earth,” said astrochemistry researcher Maureen Palmer, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Palmer is lead author of a study published in Science Advances describing the detection of vinyl cyanide (also known as acrylonitrile) at Titan using the awesome power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

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B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); NASA

Previous observations of Titan’s atmosphere by NASA’s Cassini mission and chemical modeling of the moon’s surface have hinted that it is the ideal environment for vinyl cyanide to form. But it was only when analysis of archived data collected by ALMA between February to May 2014 was carried out that its presence was confirmed. And there appears to be a lot of the stuff.

So what is vinyl cyanide and why is it so important?

The molecule (C2H3CN) has the ability to form membranes and, if found in liquid pools of hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface, it could form a kind of lipid-based cell membrane analog of living organisms on Earth. In other words, this molecule could stew in primordial pools of hydrocarbons and arrange itself in such a way to create a “protocell” that is “stable and flexible in liquid methane,” said Jonathan Lunine (Cornell University) who, in 2015, was a member of the team who modeled vinyl cyanide and found that it might form cell membranes.

“This is a step forward in understanding whether Titan’s methane seas might host an exotic form of life,” Lunine, who wasn’t a member part of the team that announced today’s results, said in a statement.

Life As We Don’t Know It

When studying Titan’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere, ALMA detected three unambiguous millimeter-wavelength signals produced by vinyl cyanide that originated from 200 kilometers above Titan’s surface. It is well known that the moon’s atmosphere is a vast chemical factory; the energy of the sun and particles from space convert simple organic molecules into more complex chemistry. These chemicals then cycle down to Titans rich hydrocarbon surface.

But speculating about life on Titan is a hard task. The moon’s atmosphere is often compared with that of early Earth’s, but there are some huge differences. Titan is crazy-cold, averaging around 95 Kelvin (that’s an incredible -178 degrees Celsius or -288 degrees Fahrenheit); at no time in history has Earth’s atmosphere been that cold. Also, it’s thought that early Earth had large quantities of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, Titan does not. As for water? Frozen. Oxygen? Forget about it.

So this research underpins our quest to find the chemistry of life as we DON’T know it, using the building blocks that follow the pattern of life that we do know, but swapping out key components (like water) to see if an analog of life’s chemistry can under very alien conditions.

“Saturn’s moon, Enceladus is the place to search for life like us, life that depends on — and exists in — liquid water,” said Lunine. “Titan, on the other hand, is the place to go to seek the outer limits of life — can some exotic type of life begin and evolve in a truly alien environment, that of liquid methane?”

Perhaps it’s time for a return mission to Titan’s extreme surface.

Massive, Long-Period Comets Are Way More Common Than We Thought

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NASA/JPL-Caltech

During the formation of the solar system, when the planets were molten messes and asteroid collisions (or “mudball” collisions, possibly) were commonplace, chunks of icy debris were flung away from the chaos surrounding our messy young star and relegated to a lifetime of solitude in the furthest-most reaches of the sun’s gravitational influence. This debris eventually settled and formed what is known as the Oort Cloud, a mysterious spherical shell of countless mountain-sized objects located nearly 200 billion miles away.

As the Oort Cloud is so distant, and there are no telescopes on Earth (or off-Earth) that can resolve these objects, we can only guess at how many icy lumps are out there lurking in the dark. But should a passing star cause a gravitational wobble in that region, a few of those ancient objects may be knocked off their delicate gravitational perches and they take the plunge back toward the sun, becoming what we humans call “long-period comets.” Only when we see these comets can we get a hint of the population of the Oort Cloud and the nature of long-period comets. But, as many of these deep space vagabonds have orbital periods of hundreds to millions of years, they are notoriously difficult to track.

A long period comet may appear in the sky tomorrow, but it may not return in Earth’s skies until the age of humanity is long gone and intelligent cockroaches roam the planet. It’s hard to keep track of comets with orbital periods longer than our lifespans, let alone the lifespan of our civilization.

So it may not come as a surprise that astronomers have woefully underestimated the number of long-period comets, according to a new study using observations from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, mission. But not only that, these things are a lot bigger than we thought.

The study, which has been published in The Astrophysical Journal, found that WISE had detected three to five times more long-period comets pass the sun over an eight-month period than expected and revealed that there are seven-times more long-period comets at least 1 kilometer across.

“The number of comets speaks to the amount of material left over from the solar system’s formation,” said lead author James Bauer, of the University of Maryland, College Park, in a NASA statement. “We now know that there are more relatively large chunks of ancient material coming from the Oort Cloud than we thought.”

WISE completed its primary mission in 2011, but has now embarked on a new mission to look out for dim asteroids and comets that stray close to Earth, called NEOWISE (NEO is for “Near-Earth objects”). During its primary mission, WISE was tasked to observe the universe in infrared wavelengths — revealing the otherwise hidden secrets of distant galaxies and the faint glow of mysterious objects traveling through the solar system. Among these objects were a surprising number of long-period comets, objects that WISE was uniquely qualified to characterize.

When comets approach the sun, their ices sublimate, dust is blasted into space and they form their trademark coma (a gaseous “atmosphere”) and tails around their nuclei. These factors obscure the main mass of the comet; astronomers cannot directly see the icy nucleus through the gas and dust — astronomers therefore have a hard time estimating the size of the comet.

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To gauge the size of a comet’s nucleus, WISE precisely measures the size of the comet’s coma and subtracts those measurements from dust models to reveal the nucleus’ size (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

But studying WISE’s precision infrared measurements of the comets’ comas, the researchers were able to deduce the actual nuclei sizes by subtracting observational data from theoretical models of the behavior of dust around a comet. In all, 56 long-period comets were studied and compared with observations of 95 “Jupiter family comets” — comets that have short orbital periods around the sun and are gravitationally influenced by Jupiter. This comparison between the two families of comets revealed that long-period comets aren’t only bigger than we expected, these monsters are up to twice the size of Jupiter family comets.

“Our results mean there’s an evolutionary difference between Jupiter family and long-period comets,” Bauer said.

The difference in comet sizes may not come as a surprise — Jupiter family comets have orbital periods less than 20 years and therefore spend much more time being heated by the sun. They lose mass through ice sublimation that, in turn, dislodges dust and other material, ultimately shedding mass. Long-period comets on the other hand are pristine having spend most of their lives in the deep space deep freeze, so they hold onto the material they were born with billions of years ago. Long-period comets are the epitome of primordial.

Naturally, no comet research would be complete without an Existential Reality Check™ and, as you may have guessed, this new research has a dark side.

“Comets travel much faster than asteroids, and some of them are very big,” said co-author Amy Mainzer, principal investigator of the NEOWISE mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Studies like this will help us define what kind of hazard long-period comets may pose.”

The Sun Just Unleashed a Massive Explosion — at Mars

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NASA/ESA/SOHO

The Earth and Mars are currently on exact opposite sides of the sun — a celestial situation known as “Mars solar conjunction” — a time when we have no way of directly communicating with satellites and rovers at the Red Planet. So, when the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO) spotted a huge (and I mean HUGE) bubble of superheated plasma expand from the solar disk earlier today (July 23), it either meant our nearest star had launched a vast coronal mass ejection directly at Earth or it had sent a CME in the exact opposite direction.

As another solar observatory — the STEREO-A spacecraft — currently has a partial view of the other side of the sun (it orbits ahead of Earth’s orbit, so it can see regions of the sun that are out of view from our perspective), we know that this CME didn’t emanate from the sun’s near side, it was actually launched away from us and Mars will be in for some choppy space weather very soon.

It appears the CME emanated from active region (AR) 2665, a region of intense magnetic activity exhibiting a large sunspot.

“If this explosion had occurred 2 weeks ago when the huge sunspot was facing Earth, we would be predicting strong geomagnetic storms in the days ahead,” writes Tony Phillips of Spaceweather.com.

CMEs are magnetic bubbles of solar plasma that are ejected at high speed into interplanetary space following a magnetic eruption in the lower corona (the sun’s lower atmosphere). From STEREO-A’s unique vantage point, it appears the CME detected by SoHO was triggered by a powerful solar flare that generated a flash of extreme-ultraviolet radiation (possibly even generating X-rays):

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Observation by STEREO-A of the flaring event that likely triggered today’s CME (NASA/STEREO)

When CMEs encounter Earth’s global magnetic field, the radiation environment surrounding our planet increases, posing a hazard for satellites and unprotected astronauts. In addition, if the conditions are right, geomagnetic storms may commence, creating bright aurorae at high latitudes. These storms can overload power grids on the ground, triggering mass blackouts. Predicting when these storms will occur is of paramount importance, so spacecraft such as SoHO, STEREO and others are constantly monitoring our star’s magnetic activity deep inside the corona and throughout the heliosphere.

Mars, however, is a very different beast to Earth in that it doesn’t have a strong global magnetosphere to shield against incoming energetic particles from the sun, which the incoming CME will be delivering very soon. As it lacks a magnetic field, this CME will continue to erode the planet’s thin atmosphere, stripping some of the gases into space. Eons of space weather erosion has removed most of the Martian atmosphere, whereas Earth’s magnetism keeps our atmospheric gases nicely contained.

When NASA and other space agencies check in with their Mars robots after Mars solar conjunction, it will be interesting to see if any recorded the space weather impacts of this particular CME.

h/t Spaceweather.com

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.”