The two GRAIL spacecraft flew one in front of the other, precisely measuring the distance of their separation in order to detect very small fluctuations in the Moon’s gravitational field. When the spacecraft passed over a region of higher density, the local gravitational field would become enhanced, slightly accelerating the leading spacecraft (called “Ebb”) before the trailing spacecraft (“Flow”) experienced that acceleration. By mapping these acceleration fluctuations, scientist have gained an invaluable understanding of density fluctuations deep below the Moon’s surface that would have otherwise remained invisible.
During this recent analysis, the researchers discovered a gravitational “anomaly” beneath the South Pole-Aitken basin—a vast depression on the lunar far side spanning 2,000 miles wide and several miles deep. This anomaly represents a huge accumulation of mass hundreds of miles below the basin.
“Imagine taking a pile of metal five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii and burying it underground. That’s roughly how much unexpected mass we detected,” said Peter B. James, of Baylor University and lead author of the study, in a statement.
How did all that material end up buried inside the Moon’s mantle? The South Pole-Aitken basin was created four billion years ago in the wake of a massive asteroid impact. In fact, the basin is known to be one of the biggest impact craters in the solar system. If this crater was formed by an impact, it stands to reason that the gravitational anomaly is being caused by the dense metallic remains of the massive asteroid that met its demise when the Earth-Moon system was in the throes of formation.
“When we combined [the GRAIL data] with lunar topography data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, we discovered the unexpectedly large amount of mass hundreds of miles underneath the South Pole-Aitken basin,” added James. “One of the explanations of this extra mass is that the metal from the asteroid that formed this crater is still embedded in the Moon’s mantle.”
There may be other explanations, one of which focuses on the formation of the Moon itself. As the lunar interior cooled after formation, the large subsurface mass could be an accumulation of “dense oxides associated with the last stage of lunar magma ocean solidification,” the researchers note.
The metallic corpse of an ancient asteroid is the leading candidate, however, and computer simulations carried out by the team indicated that if the conditions are right, the dense iron-nickel core of an asteroid can be dispersed inside the Moon’s mantle where it remains embedded today without sinking into the lunar core.
Although there were certainly larger asteroid impacts throughout the history of our solar system, the Moon’s South Pole-Aitkin basin is the largest preserved impact crater known, making it a prime candidate to study ancient impact sites
“[It’s] one of the best natural laboratories for studying catastrophic impact events, an ancient process that shaped all of the rocky planets and moons we see today,” said James.
It just so happens that we currently have a mission at the basin, exploring this strange and unexplored place. On Jan. 3, the Chinese Chang’e 3 mission achieved the first soft touchdown on the lunar far side, landing inside Von Kármán crater and releasing a robotic rover, Yutu-2, to explore the landscape. At time of writing, the mission is ongoing.
Gather ’round the campfire kids, it’s time to tell the sad story of a brave bat named Brian.
On March 15, 2009, Twitter was days away from its third birthday, Ashton Kutcher was one month away from becoming the first tweep to reach one million followers, and a community of space enthusiasts habitually live-tweeted the final space shuttle launches from the comfort of their homes. They were simpler times.
One launch, however, became infamous — nay, historic — not for the fact it was one of the last handful of launches of NASA’s shuttle program, but because there was a tiny stowaway attached to the shuttle’s bulbous orange external fuel tank minutes before ignition.
During the countdown to the launch of STS-119, as we watched in anticipation of the successful start of Space Shuttle Discovery’s International Space Station (ISS) servicing mission, something seemed amiss at Discovery’s launch pad. At the time, the assumption was that a fruit bat (a common species in Florida) had mistakenly thought the orange external fuel tank of the shuttle was a tree to latch itself onto. Follow-up investigations identified the bat as a free-tailed bat and, though its intentions were unclear, zoologists posited that the unfortunate critter may have broken its wing. This would explain why it didn’t fly away when the shuttle’s boosters ignited, carrying the bat to the heavens — literally and metaphorically.
No one really knows how long the bat held on for, but some creative-thinkers hypothesized that the bat remained attached for the duration, making it into space. I don’t think I have to explain why this didn’t happen — it was more likely booted from the fuel tank in the first seconds of launch enduring a fiery death via rocket booster exhaust — but it was a poetic thought. Regardless of the bat’s fate, it’s ultimate sacrifice made this routine launch special. What was “just another” live-tweeted shuttle launch, became a spectacle that rapidly evolved into an international news story. That bat was special.
And that bat’s name was Brian.
Why “Brian”? A bit of background: For some personal reason that I cannot fathom, I like to name things “Brian.” I’ve always done it. The squirrel that lives in my backyard? Brian. An interesting and unnamed rock on the surface of Mars? Brian. My first car? Brian. That gopher that demolished my newly-planted garden of impatiens in 2011? Brian. A random free-tailed bat hanging off the shuttle’s external fuel tank? Brian. There’s no reason and no logic behind this, Brian just seems to fit. It’s a personal mystery.
So, when lightheartedly tweeting about the bat on March 15, 2009, I called the bat Brian and the name stuck. I had no idea about its gender, and it didn’t have a nametag, but that bat was a Brian alright. Suddenly, other space enthusiasts following the launch called him Brian and, for reasons I have yet to understand ten years later, in those minutes before launch, “Brian the Bat” went viral and suddenly everyone was personally invested in that “routine” space launch. Yes, there were billions of dollars of hardware on that launchpad with seven brave astronauts on board, but everyone was talking about Brian who was shivering on the side of the vehicle, a place that no living creature should have been.
Was Brian confused? Was he frozen to the cold tank? Would he fly away in the nick of time? No one knew, but the clock was ticking and the commentator on the NASA live video stream seemed confident that, as the boosters began their ignition sequence, the bat would be scared by the vibrations and fly to safety.
For reasons known only to Brian, he remained attached. And as the boosters roared to life, he held tight. As the plume of smoke and steam enveloped Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39, I sat with the computer screen nearly pressed to my nose, seeking out the dark pixels of Brian in the place where he was last seen. But the resolution was too low and Brian’s fate was unknown. (Days later, NASA analysts reviewed infrared imagery from the launch, revealing two very sad facts. 1) Brian was warm while attached to the fuel tank, so he hadn’t frozen to death and was alive up to launch, and 2) he remained in place when Discovery lifted off.)
As the adrenaline ebbed and Space Shuttle Discovery soared into the atmosphere, solid rocket boosters separating and tumbling back to Earth, the sad reality crept in. Brian was, in all likelihood, toast.
But his legacy would live on.
Assuming that little space-launch chapter was over, I wrote a summary about Brian’s adventures for Universe Today and on Astroengine with the assumption that Brian would be soon lost to the annals of shuttle-era history. Little did I know, however, that Norwegian journalist Geir Barstein was paying close attention…
Brian also made appearances in The Sun newspaper (but the article has since disappeared) and other smaller publications, and I participated in a number of radio shows devoted to that now-famous shuttle launch.
Not only was the whole event a poignant one, it also made me realize something about the power of social media. In all my years covering space stories, particularly when I was a producer at Discovery News (now called “Seeker”), shuttle launches would receive very little attention. Apart from a few outliers, such as the final shuttle launch, the articles I’d publish about one of NASA’s most significant programs would receive very little readership. The routine nature of these launches meant that, unless you were at Cape Canaveral, interest in seeing shuttles launch into space was lukewarm at best. As a space enthusiast, I was frustrated. Every launch in my eyes was special and certainly not “routine.”
Brian, however, made me realize by accident that you have to seek out the unique thing about that one launch that will hook readers to that story. Granted, not all launches have a “Brian the Bat” moment, but that doesn’t mean they’re not special.
I like to think that the cosmos is doing Brian a solid by commemorating that brave little bat’s ultimate sacrifice.
The event may have been a footnote in humanity’s quest to explore our universe, but I truly believe that the viral social media (and then mainstream media) attention Brian whipped up created a buzz around a launch that may not have otherwise made an impact.
As a science communicator, I’m always on the lookout for interesting hooks to stories that wouldn’t otherwise be of interest, and on March 15, 2009, Brian was that hook — who knows what kind of impact that little free-tailed bat had on viewers who wouldn’t have otherwise been paying attention to one of the biggest endeavors in human exploration history.
So, tomorrow, on March 15, 2019, raise a drink to Brian’s legacy. He will live on in the spirit he inspired when he left our planet attached to the space shuttle’s external fuel tank.
The NASA mission looks like it’s getting comfortable in Elysium Planitia.
Like any self-respecting social media influencer, Mars’s latest resident is hard at work snapping photos of its new digs. The robot has even thrown in a beautiful selfie for good measure.
NASA’s InSight lander touched down on the Red Planet on Nov. 26 and since then its mission controllers have been hard at work checking out the instrumentation and surroundings. Using its Instrument Deployment Camera, or IDC, InSight has been giving us a tour of its permanent home. Fans on social media have even been nominating names for the rocks that can be seen embedded in the dusty regolith — the only rocks we’ll see close up for the duration of the mission.
Very early on, NASA scientists knew they’d landed in the right place. The beautifully-flat plain of Elysium Planitia has a landscape that is in stark contrast to Curiosity’s Mount Sharp environment; instead of seeing a smorgasbord of geological features — created by ancient water action and ongoing aeolian (wind-blown) processes — Elysium is flat, dusty and appears to only have small-ish rocks strewn over its surface. You see, InSight cares little for what’s on the surface; the science it’s after lies below the stationary lander, all the way to the planet’s core.
“The near-absence of rocks, hills and holes means it’ll be extremely safe for our instruments,” said InSight’s Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement. “This might seem like a pretty plain piece of ground if it weren’t on Mars, but we’re glad to see that.”
Now that InSight’s raw image archive is churning out new pictures daily, mission scientists are scoping out its “work space” directly in front of the lander’s robotic arm. Over the coming weeks, optimal positions for InSight’s two main experiments — the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) andHeat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) —will be decided on and then commands will be sent to the lander to begin the painstaking task of retrieving them from its deck and setting them down on the ground. The main task will be to determine exact locations that are smooth, flat and contain small rocks that are no bigger than half an inch. This will ensure stable contact with the ground so seismic and heat flow measurements can be continuously carried out. InSight is basically going to give Mars an internal examination 24/7, listening to the slightest seismic waves like a doctor would listen to your heartbeat. And it looks like InSight has landed inside a depression, likely created by an ancient crater that has been filled with loose material over time — this is great news for HP3 that has a self-digging probe (called the “mole”) that will now have an easier task of burrowing meters underground.
But what about that selfie? Well, here you go:
This photo is a mosaic composed of 11 different images snapped by the lander’s robotic arm-mounted camera. You can see the lander’s open solar panels and stowed instrumentation on the deck, including SEIS and HP3. And no, the selfie isn’t a fake; by sticking a bunch of individual photos together, they’ve overlapped to edit out any trace of the arm itself. Curiosity does the same thing; so did Opportunity and Spirit. InSight’s older sibling, Phoenix also did it. Selfies are as much the rage on Mars as they are on Earth. Not only do they look cool, they are also useful for mission controllers to monitor the build-up of dust on solar panels, for example.
The NASA probe was launched in 1977 and has now joined its twin, Voyager 1, to begin a new chapter of interstellar discovery
Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist and lead of the NASA Cassini mission imaging team, probably said it best:
Voyager 1 made us an interstellar species; 6 yrs later, Voyager 2 makes it look easy. While these are historic, soul-stirring achievements, I am most happy right now that Ed Stone, the best Project Scientist who ever lived, lived to see this moment.
It can be easy to lump today’s announcement about Voyager 2 entering interstellar space as “simply” another magnificent science achievement for NASA — but that would be too narrow; the Voyager spacecraft have become so much more. They represent humanity at our best; our will to explore, our need to push boundaries, our excitement for expanding the human experience far beyond terrestrial shores. They also act as a means to understand the sheer scale of our solar system. And what better way to measure that scale than with a human life.
Ed Stone started working on the Voyager Program in 1972 as a project scientist. Now, at 82 years old, he’s still working on the Voyagers nearly half a century later as they continue to send back data from the frontier beyond our solar system. When we start measuring space missions in half-centuries, or missions that have lasted entire careers, it becomes clear how far we’ve come. Not only does NASA build really tough space robots that surpass expectations routinely, returning new discoveries and revelations about the universe that surrounds us, the Voyagers have become a monument to the essence of being human, something with which Stone would probably agree.
Although most of the instruments aboard the Voyagers are no longer functional, both missions are still returning data from the shores of the interstellar ocean and, on Nov. 5, mission controllers noticed that one of Voyager 2’s instruments, the Plasma Science Experiment (PSE), had detected a rapid change in its surrounding environment. Used to being immersed the comparatively warm and tenuous solar wind flowing past it, its plasma measurements detected a change. The spacecraft had passed into a region of space where the plasma was now denser and cooler. Three other particle experiments also detected a dramatic change; solar wind particle counts were down, but cosmic ray counts precipitously increased. Voyager 1’s PSE failed in 1980, so couldn’t measure this boundary when it entered interstellar space in 2012, so Voyager 2 is adding more detail about what we can expect happens when a spacecraft travels from the heliosphere, through the heliopause and into interstellar space.
“There is still a lot to learn about the region of interstellar space immediately beyond the heliopause,” said Stone in a NASA statement.
The heliosphere can be imagined as a vast magnetized bubble that is generated by the Sun. This bubble is inflated by the solar wind, a persistent stream of solar particles that ebb and flow with the Sun’s 11-year cycle. When the Sun is at its most active, the bubble expands; at its least active, it contracts. This dynamic solar sphere of influence affects the flux of high-energy cosmic rays entering the inner solar system, but the physics at this enigmatic boundary is poorly understood. With the help of the Voyagers, however, we’re getting an in-situ feel for the plasma environment at the boundary of where the Sun’s magnetism hits the interstellar medium.
To achieve this, however, we had to rely on two spacecraft that were launched before I was born, in 1977. Voyager 2 is now 11 billion miles away (Voyager 1 is further away, at nearly 14 billion miles) and it took the probe 41 years just to reach our interstellar doorstep. Neither Voyagers have “left” the solar system, not by a long shot. The gravitational boundary of the solar system is thought to lie some 100,000 AU (astronomical units, where one AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun), the outermost limit to the Oort Cloud — a region surrounding the solar system that contains countless billions of icy objects, some of which become the long-period comets that intermittently careen through the inner solar system. Voyager 2 is barely 120 AU from Earth, so as you can see, it has a long way to go (probably another 30,000 years) before it really leaves the solar system — despite what the BBC tells us.
So, tonight, as we ponder our existence on this tiny pale blue dot, look up and think of the two space robot pioneers that are still returning valuable data despite being in deep space for over four decades. I hope their legacy lives on well beyond the life of their radioactive generators, and that the next interstellar spacecraft (no pressure, New Horizons) lives as long, if not longer, than the Voyagers.
It’s always fun to browse through the raw image archive for any Mars mission. You see rocks, dust, more rocks and more dust, but then you see something strange, sitting atop the dirt that is like nothing you’ve seen before.
Once, there was a piece of plastic on the ground in front of Curiosity. Plastic! Not alien plastic though, it was likely something that fell off the rover. Mars rover Opportunity even found strange “blueberries” scattered over Meridiani Planum that turned out to be spherical hematite inclusions, basically little balls of mineral that were formed via water action in Mars’ ancient past.
Now there’s a shiny rock just sitting there, in front of Curiosity.
Mars isn’t known for its shiny objects. Everything is a ruddy color (because of the iron-oxide-laced dust that covers everything) and dull. So, when mission controllers saw this small shiny object, it became a focus of interest. They’ve even named it “Little Colonsay.” Don’t get too excited for an explanation that’s too outlandish, but it will be an interesting find if it turns out to be what scientists think it is.
“The planning team thinks it might be a meteorite because it is so shiny,” writes Susanne Schwenzer, Curiosity mission team member.
Meteorites have been discovered on Mars before by the Mars rovers — and Curiosity is no stranger to finding space rocks strewn on the ground — though it would still be a rare find by Curiosity if it does turn out to be a (likely) metallic chunk of space rock. As pointed out by Schwenzer, the team intend to carry out further analysis of the sample, as well as some other interesting rocks, with Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument to decipher what it’s made of.
So as we welcome the InSight mission to the Red Planet to begin its unprecedented study of Mars’ interior, always remember there’s still plenty of gems sitting on the surface waiting to be found.
After following InSight’s journey and dramatic landing on Mars, I’m now emotionally attached to the space robot.
It’s funny how our perception of the robots we send into space changes with the experiences we have with them. Take NASA’s InSight lander, for example.
I was thrilled to be able to see the mission launch on May 5 from my backyard. I was following the launch feed from my office in the early hours of the morning — lift-off was just after 4 a.m., so I was particularly proud that I hadn’t fallen asleep in my home office. Going outside, I looked to the northwest in hopes of glimpsing the light of the Atlas V-401 rocket as it rose into the dark pre-dawn skies. After I’d seen confirmation via the live-stream video of launch from Vandenburg Air Force Base (130 miles to the northwest of my home in Woodland Hills), I stood precariously on a patio chair to get a better view over my roof and… there it was! A bright plume rising and moving very fast toward the south. And then it was gone; the first ever mission to Mars launched from California was on its way into interplanetary space.
Needless to say, I quickly became invested in this space robot, but before I witnessed its launch from afar, it was another anonymous piece of cold space hardware. As soon as I saw its rocket plume, the mission became “real” and InSight was warmly embedded in my emotions.
NASA likes to play up the dangers of sending missions to Mars — and I can’t blame them; more Mars missions have failed than have succeeded. But in recent years, NASA has beaten the odds and landed all of their surface missions and inserted a bunch of satellites into orbit successfully. The last failed NASA mission to Mars was nearly 20 years ago (the Mars Polar Lander in 1999), everything else since — Mars Odyssey, the two Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix lander (InSight’s twin), Curiosity, MAVEN — have all been resounding successes.
Then, on Monday (Nov. 26), after nearly seven months since I saw it fly over my roof, InSight landed on the dusty surface of Mars.
I was fortunate to be at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on that day, covering the event for Scientific American and HowStuffWorks, and it was a thrill to be in the hub of all the festivities and spend time with my fellow science communicators. JPL always puts together a great event — whether that be the landing of Curiosity over six years ago, or the sad farewell of Cassini last year — and this was no different. The air was thick with anticipation, and all of the mission scientists, managers and engineers were more than willing to share their stories with the dozens of journalists, reporters, social media peeps and TV crews who were in attendance.
Then it was time for landing.
Sending a mission to Mars is risky and, as already pointed out, in the earlier days of humanity throwing stuff at Mars the majority of the missions failed. So, understandably, everyone had a healthy level of nervousness that there was always a chance that InSight might just make another (expensive) crater in the Martian dirt. But that wasn’t to be. And by all accounts, the landing couldn’t have gone better.
The two Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft that were flying with InSight during its time cruising from Earth became the undisputed silicon heroes of the day. Their purpose was to relay telemetry data from InSight as the lander slammed into the Martian atmosphere to commence its hair-raising entry, descent and landing (EDL) on Mars — a.k.a. the Seven Minutes or Six and a Half Minutes Of Terror, depending on who you talk to. As InSight would be landing in a region where there wouldn’t be a satellite overpass for several hours after landing, MarCO became the relay that, in real time (minus the several minute lag-time that it takes for any signal to travel at the speed of light between Mars and Earth) prevented too many chewed fingernails and passed the message to mission control that the lander had landed safely and everything was, well, just perfect.
In the media area, with a live feed streaming from just next door on the JPL campus, any nervousness evaporated when we all cheered with the mission controllers who were celebrating on the screen. Memories of Curiosity’s landing came flooding back. NASA has done it again, we’re on Mars!
And then, despite warnings that it might be some time before we see the first view of Elysium Planitia from InSight’s camera, we became aware that the mood had changed in mission control. Managers were now huddled around a computer terminal. They were receiving the first image only a few minutes after touch down!
Keep in mind that relaying this image would have been impossible without InSight’s MarCO travel buddies. The success of the mission didn’t depend on MarCO, but they sure made the landing event a more lively celebration, rather than a “yes we’re on Mars, but no pictures until tomorrow!” anticlimax. I asked a couple of the MarCO managers what was next for their robotic heroes, and they said that their mission was complete and that they were a proof of concept “that was now proven.” Apparently, managers for other robotic space missions are planning MarCO-like payloads for future missions. Justifiably so.
Monday was a blur, but I remember walking away from JPL feeling emotional and humbled. Humanity is capable of doing incredible, bold things, I thought to myself. Why can’t we be more like this? Discussing the nature of humanity and our contradictory ways can be saved for another day, however.
Now that we’ve lived InSight’s dramatic journey to Mars, the lander has become more than a robot, it’s a bona fide Mars explorer that, like Curiosity and all the landers and rovers that have come before it, is an extension of the human experience. Designed to live in the Martian environment, InSight has arrived home. Hopes are high for some incredible scientific discoveries about Mars’ interior and its evolution, but I’m also hopeful that the mission will inspire people to embrace our natural urge to explore and discover new things about our universe. This time exploration will be done through the eyes of the newest space robot to join its Martian family, but some time in the next couple of decades, it will be human eyes exploring Elysium Planitia.
For more about the science behind InSight, read my articles for Scientific American and HowStuffWorks.com:
When rains came to one of the driest places on Earth, an unprecedented mass extinction ensued.
The assumption was that this rainfall would turn this remote region of the Atacama Desert in Chile into a wondrous, floral haven — dormant seeds hidden in the parched landscape would suddenly awake, triggered by the “life-giving” substance they hadn’t seen for centuries — but it instead decimated over three quarters of the native bacterial life, microbes that shun water in favor of the nitrogen-rich compounds the region has locked in its dry soil.
In other words, death fell from the skies.
“We were hoping for majestic blooms and deserts springing to life. Instead, we learned the contrary, as we found that rain in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert caused a massive extinction of most of the indigenous microbial species there,” said astrobiologist Alberto Fairen, who works at Cornell Cornell University and the Centro de Astrobiología, Madrid. Fairien is co-author of a new study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports.
“The hyperdry soils before the rains were inhabited by up to 16 different, ancient microbe species. After it rained, there were only two to four microbe species found in the lagoons,” he added in a statement. “The extinction event was massive.”
Climate models suggest that these rains shouldn’t hit the core regions of Atacama more than once every century, though there is little evidence of rainfall for at least 500 years. Because of the changing climate over the Pacific Ocean, however, modern weather patterns have shifted, causing the weird rain events of March 25 and Aug. 9, 2015. It also rained more recently, on June 7, 2017. Besides being yet another reminder about how climate change impacts some of the most delicate ecosystems on our planet, this new research could have some surprise implications for our search for life on Mars.
Over forty years ago, NASA carried out a profound experiment on the Martian surface: the Viking 1 and 2 landers had instruments on board that would explicitly search for life. After scooping Mars regolith samples into their chemical labs and adding a nutrient-rich water mix, one test detected a sudden release of carbon dioxide laced with carbon-14, a radioisotope that was added to the mix. This result alone pointed to signs that Martian microbes in the regolith could be metabolizing the mixture, belching out the CO2.
Alas, the result couldn’t be replicated and other tests threw negative results for biological activity. Scientists have suggested that this false positive was caused by inorganic reactions, especially as, in 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander discovered toxic and highly reactive perchlorates is likely common all over Mars. Since Viking, no other mission has attempted a direct search for life on Mars and the missions since have focused on seeking out water and past habitable environments rather than directly testing for Mars germs living on modern Mars.
With this in mind, the new Atacama microbe study could shed some light on the Viking tests. Though the out-gassing result was likely a false positive, even if all the samples collected by the two landers contained microscopic Martians, the addition of the liquid mix may well have sterilized the samples — the sudden addition of a large quantity of water is no friend to microbial life that has adapted to such an arid environment.
“Our results show for the first time that providing suddenly large amounts of water to microorganisms — exquisitely adapted to extract meager and elusive moisture from the most hyperdry environments — will kill them from osmotic shock,” said Fairen.
Another interesting twist to this research is that NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity discovered nitrate-rich deposits in the ancient lakebed in Gale Crater. These deposits might provide sustenance to Mars bacteria (and may be a byproduct of their metabolic activity), like their interplanetary alien cousins in Atacama.
As water-loving organisms, humans have traditionally assumed life elsewhere will bare similar traits to life as we know it. But as this study shows, some life on Earth can appear quite alien; the mass extinction event in the high deserts of Chile could teach us about how to (and how not to) seek out microbes on other planets.
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 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:
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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):
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.