Precursors of Life Found Around Young, Sun-Like Stars

One of the great mysteries of science is how life arose on Earth. We just don’t know. Did it evolve from scratch, from chemical reactions inside Earth’s early primordial ooze? Did it come to us in bacterial form from Mars, where it evolved further here? Did our solar system pass through some cloud of organic material as it spun around the galaxy? Are we all just in The Matrix? We simply don’t know.

A hint comes from studies of a distant cluster of sun-like stars called IRAS 16293-2422, which discovered the presence of a complex organic molecule called methyl isocyanate. This “prebiotic” molecule is very similar to peptide, which is what holds the amino acids inside proteins together. Proteins are an essential part of life as we know it.

These stars are very young, suggesting that complex organic molecules can form even before planets do, under the right conditions. Methyl isocyanate was also discovered in the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko two years ago in our own solar system, which shows this compound also existed while our own planet was being formed. Methyl isocyanate has also been found inside large star-forming gas clouds, such as Orion KL and Sagittarius B2(N).

Together these findings suggest that the building blocks of organic life are easily found in the environments stars form within – it’s not something unique to our solar system. What we don’t know is how unique our solar system is in providing the conditions needed to build these components into actual living, breathing creatures such as ourselves! But we’re one step closer to understanding that process.

This discovery was made using the ALMA array, a group of 66 dishes high in the Andes mountains, using both new and archived data. The results are published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and summarized nicely at the AAAS Science website.

Image credit:

How Many Moons does Jupiter Have?

Ask two different astronomers, and you’re likely to get two different answers! It depends on what you call a “moon,” but the latest official tally is now 69 – with two more discovered today!

The two new moons, given the catchy names S/2016 J 1 and S/2017 J 1, are only about a mile across. The small, rocky debris orbiting Jupiter really tests the limits of what we consider to be a moon.

Like most of Jupiter’s moons, these two are in retrograde orbits. That is, they orbit in the opposite direction of Jupiter’s own rotation, implying they were passing asteroids that got captured by Jupiter’s gravity, as opposed to bodies that formed along with Jupiter itself. Jupiter’s huge mass means it captures a lot of debris in our solar system, sometimes claiming them as new moons.

Many of Jupiter’s moons have been observed and never seen again, so we can’t really be sure about the total count.

These latest moons were discovered by astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institute for Science. They were actually looking for “Planet X” – a hypothetical large, unseen planet in the outer reaches of our solar system. A few frames happened to include Jupiter, and so they analyzed these just out of curiosity and made this discovery.

If you look through binoculars or a telescope at Jupiter, you’ll see the four large “Galilean” satellites shown above: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – and each are fascinating in their own right.

Image credit: NASA / JPL

The Worst Planet in the Universe (so far) got Discovered.

Don’t go to the newly discovered exoplanet KELT-9B. It sucks.

KELT-9B holds the distinction of being the most inhospitable exoplanet discovered to date. With a temperature of 7800 degrees Fahrenheit, this gas giant (almost three times the size of Jupiter) is hotter than most stars!

This extreme heat is a result of orbiting close to a very hot “A-type” star (with the catchy name of HD 195689) and being tidally locked, so the same side of the planet always faces the star. That’s where it’s so hot. It’s so hot, that even though this planet is much larger than Jupiter, it only has about half the density – because the heat has caused it to puff up like a balloon. In fact, the planet is slowly evaporating from the extreme ultraviolet radiation hitting it.

But if that wasn’t bad enough, the star will be engulfed by its star as it turns into a red giant before it can evaporate away into nothing.

Definitely cross KELT-9B off your travel plans. This discovery was made at JPL, led by a visiting scientist from Ohio State University, Scott Gaudi. Detailed findings were published in the journal Nature.

Image credit: NASA/JPL

LIGO Detects New Gravitational Waves

In another win for Albert Einstein, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has observed its third merger of a pair of black holes. But this one’s a little bit special.

This time around, data on the spins of each black hole was gathered – and they were tilting away from each other in a way that defies explanation. Their behavior doesn’t really match up with models of how two wandering black holes that find each other would interact, suggesting they were possibly formed as a pair.

These black holes are 3 billion light years away, and so the gravity waves we are observing are from 3 billion years ago – when the universe was relatively young. Scientific American speculates that these primordial black holes may originate from the Big Bang itself, and may even have something to do with the origin of the universe’s mysterious dark matter.

The folks at Veritasium had a scoop on this release, and have a fun video explaining it that covers it nicely:

By the way, Frank’s Geekery is a patron of Veritasium – please consider supporting them as well.

Image credit: LIGO/Caltech/MIT/Sonoma State (Aurore Simonnet)

NASA’s Flinging a Probe into the Sun

Well, at least into the sun’s outer atmosphere. But still, that’s just as hard as it sounds – in fact it’s harder.

There are many firsts about the newly-renamed Parker Solar Probe:

  • The sun’s corona is hotter than the surface of the sun – this is the first time we’ll send a probe in designed to survive the 2,500-degree Fahrenheit temperatures that exist there, thanks to a 4.5-inch-thick carbon composite heat shield.
  • This is the first NASA mission named after a living person: Dr. Eugene Parker first proposed the “solar wind” that flows outward from the sun, and presumably other stars as well.
  • This will be the first time we’ve explored the region of space within the orbit of Mercury

This mission aims to answer many mysteries about the star we all depend on, and shed light on other stars as well. Why is the corona so much hotter than the sun itself? Where does the solar wind come from? There are still many mysteries about the sun, and this mission may reveal a few.

The Parker Solar Probe is set to launch in the summer of 2018 on a Delta IV Heavy rocket in Cape Canaveral. Using seven gravity assists from Venus over the course of seven years, the probe will ultimately make its closest approach to the sun at 3.9 million miles from its surface (Earth, in comparison, is 93 million miles away,) at a speed of 430,000 miles per hour. You can bet I’ll be watching the launch!

Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Saturn’s Enceladus Moon Tipped Over

Newly published findings from NASA’s Cassini Mission reveal that one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, appears to have been knocked over at some point – presumably by an asteroid.

Cassini found geological features called “Tiger stripes” associated with this impact, which have caused Enceladus’s spin axis to shift by 55 degrees. That’s more than halfway toward tipping over completely on its side!

This discovery also offers an explanation for why Enceladus’ North and South poles are so different geologically – they aren’t really this moon’s original poles at all.

Can we talk a little about how cool the Cassini mission is? I mean, here’s an actual photograph it took of Enceladus, if you’re wondering what it really looks like (well, the color is enhanced, but still, it’s a photo.)

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini has captured some really weird things around Saturn, such as its tiny moon “Pan”, which is shaped like a space-ravioli:

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini probe has also captured strange “hexagons” at Saturn’s poles, which can be explained by sinusoidal waves moving along a circular path:

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Last month, Cassini passed through Saturn’s rings, providing new data on the composition of Saturn’s most recognizable feature (which are generally only about 10 meters thick!) It also snapped some close-ups of the Keeler Gap, with its wavy edge created by the tiny moon Daphnis:

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

These are just the most recent of Cassini’s accomplishments; two years ago, it gave us evidence that Enceladus contains a global ocean underneath its outer layer of ice. And this is the same mission that gave us the Huygens probe, which in 2005 landed on the surface of Titan and sent back this picture:

NASA/JPL/ESA/University of Arizona

Cassini’s long mission is drawing to a close now; it is currently in its “grand finale,” as it orbits closer and closer to Saturn, sending back images of Saturn’s weather systems in unprecendented detail. Cassini will plunge into Saturn itself on September 15.

So long, Cassini, and thanks for all the great discoveries.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Jupiter Sure is Purty.

This week’s issue of Science magazine features publication of the findings of NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter. While I read through it yesterday, nothing really caught my attention that wasn’t reported earlier about its findings. But talk of giant weather systems caused by huge plumes of ammonia swelling up from the planet’s interior, or the newly discovered strength of Jupiter’s magnetic field (10X that of Earth) certainly captures the imagination.

But what really captures the imagination are the stunning pictures Juno gave us of our solar system’s largest planet. Especially the close-ups of its polar regions that we’ve never seen before. This may be the biggest benefit of Juno – just getting more people interested and curious about planetary science!

I mean, just look at these images NASA released:

It’s just plain art.

If you want to do more to support planetary missions like Juno, consider joining The Planetary Society – they are not only funding their own research, but are very effective at lobbying Congress to continue funding missions like Juno. I’m a proud member myself.

You’d also be surprised at how well you can see Jupiter right from your own backyard. On a clear night, you can make out details in Jupiter’s cloud bands and its Great Red Spot quite nicely, and in full color, in a modestly-priced telescope. Here’s an image taken from my own 8-inch telescope, right from my driveway in light-polluted suburbia:

OK, Juno’s pictures are just a little more impressive. But there is something special about seeing Jupiter with your own eyes. If you don’t own a telescope, find a local star party and take a peek through someone else’s! It’s quite a sight.

Remember that weird star they said might have a Dyson Sphere? It’s at it again.

“Tabby’s Star”, more formally KIC 8462852, made the news in 2015 due its very bizarre pattern of dimming. ┬áIts dimming wasn’t consistent with any known natural phenomenon, like clouds of gas or large planets passing in front of it, or sunspots. There was some rather sensational speculation that the star could be surrounded by some alien megastructure like a Dyson Sphere┬áintended to capture the star’s energy for some advanced civilization.

Well, it’s at it again, and astronomers are excited. Major telescopes around the world are turning to it in the hopes of gathering more data on what’s really going on with the “WTF star”.

The professional astronomers I’ve seen talk about this star are pretty confident it’s just some natural occurrence that we haven’t seen before. The press makes it sound as though all natural explanations for this star’s behavior have been ruled out, but that’s really not the case. The whole Dyson Sphere thing is a fun possibility, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Just because we don’t understand something isn’t proof of aliens – it’s just proof that we don’t understand something.

But, here’s the great thing about science – if studying this star gives us new insights into how the universe works, that could be just as exciting! Perhaps this star has something to tell us about dark matter, or some exotic proto-planetary disk, or a massive collision of its planets that enshrouded the star with rocky debris. Whatever the cause of its dimming, it’s sure to be as worthy of a science fiction story as the aliens we can imagine to be out there.

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