The next time you’re stuck in a mundane traffic jam, find some excitement in your car engine’s secret identity: it’s actually not so different from the exotic exoplanets in our universe.
Seriously. Stay with me here.
French astronomers discovered that computer models used to simulate how car engines emit pollutants could also be used to model hot exoplanet atmospheres.
The planets in question are scorching goliaths. They’re the size of Neptune or Jupiter, but orbit 50 times closer to their star than Earth does the Sun. This gives them hydrogen-rich gaseous atmospheres of 1,000 to 3,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 to 5,431 degrees Fahrenheit), which whip around at speeds of 10,000 kilometers (over 6,000 miles) per hour.
Under such intense (to say the least) conditions, scientists historically had trouble modeling what chemicals might be found in these atmospheres. As the hellishly hot, insanely fast gasses swirl, they interact in unusual ways – creating chemicals that don’t fit the typical models astrophysicists use to simulate planets.
Almost shockingly, these extreme temperature and pressure conditions are not so different from those found in car engines. Car engine pollution models can examine temperatures over 2,000 degrees Celsius, along with a wide range of pressures. This makes them flexible enough to study warm exoplanets, too.
Since 2012, the research team has used these models to create simulations of the atmospheres on hot Jupiters and warm Neptunes, which were then made available to the astrophysics community in an open-access database.
The next step for this research will be to incorporate data from research at particle accelerators, which can provide information on how molecules absorb ultraviolet light at the extreme temperatures of exoplanets — data that was previously only available at room temperature.
“Other fields of research have an important role to play in the characterization of the fantastic diversity of worlds in the Universe, and in our understanding of their physical and chemical nature,” explained Oliva Venot, a lead authors and a researcher at Laboratoire Interuniversitaire des Systèmes Atmosphériques (Interuniversity Laboratory of Atmospheric Systems), in a press release.
These models could help scientists figure out how these far-away exoplanets work without ever being able to reach them. After all, at the moment, our car engines can’t yet transport us out to distant worlds. But they could get us a little closer to understanding them.
Between the glowing blue and yellow swirls of distant galaxies, this tiny pinprick of light doesn’t look like much: a white smudge on the infinite black of the universe.
But this tiny speck has enormous significance for astronomers. It’s the most distant star ever seen, affording astronomers a glimpse back in time.
The star, MACS J1149+2223 Lensed Star 1 (more simply known as “Icarus”) was about 9 billion light years away when it emitted the light now reaching Earth. Most other objects spotted at this distance are either galaxies or exploding stars (AKA supernovas), which produce much more light than this distant glimmer.
Thanks to the constant expansion of the universe, Icarus would now be much further away from our planet; by now, it’s probably gone supernova itself, and formed either a black hole or neutron star. (For why we can still view it, though, see #3.)
Here are four things you should know about this distant galactic neighbor, and why we’re just seeing it for the first time.
1. Spotting Icarus was a stroke of good luck
Icarus is so far away that we technically shouldn’t be able to see it: it’s about 100 times further away than the most distant star telescopes have been able to view before now. Fortunately, astronomers got a little bit of help from the universe in spotting it (and the Hubble telescope, props to that).
Icarus was visible because of an astronomical phenomenon called gravitational lensing. In short, the gravity of large, stacked-up celestial objects (in this case, a cluster of galaxies) bend light, creating a magnifying glass-effect for anything behind them. Overall, researchers told The Guardian, Icarus was magnified more than 2,000 times.
Icarus also got a special boost from an extra-magnifying star within the galaxy cluster, making it appear four times brighter over the course of the time the astronomers studied it. Thank you, physics.
2. The star is a blue supergiant
Icarus would be an oddity in the universe — if it were still around. Analysis of the star’s light showed it was a blue supergiant, one of the hottest and highest-mass stars we know of; the blue supergiant Rigel A, the bright left “foot” of the constellation Orion, is 23 times more massive than the sun, and estimated to be several hundred thousand times brighter.
Stars like Icarus and Rigel are rare in the universe today, but in the early universe, they were common; according to io9, most of the early stars were blue supergiants at some point in their lives.
That makes sense, since Icarus’ distant light is actually somewhat like a time machine.
3. Icarus gives a view back in time
The universe is way, way bigger than you can probably comprehend. And because of this astronomical (sorry) size, it can take a really long time for light to reach Earth from the cosmic wilderness. Even traveling at its immense speeds, by the time light from this distant star reached Earth, 9 billion years had passed.
When Icarus released the photons currently hitting the Hubble’s cameras, Earth hadn’t even formed yet — it would be another 4.4 billion years before our solar system even began to coalesce from the dust of the universe. Such distant views of the universe are helping astronomers learn about what the universe was like before our time, even giving us glimpses back to the moments after the Big Bang.
4. The view let scientists test dark matter theory
The Guardian reports that the team also used their view of Icarus to test a theory about dark matter, the mysterious substance that makes up 27 percent of the universe (its counterpart, dark energy, makes up another 68 percent). One theory proposed that dark matter was made of black holes, but what the researchers saw of Icarus didn’t support that theory — looking back at a decade of Hubble images, they didn’t see Icarus’ brightness vary over time. If the black-hole-dark-matter theory was correct, the star would have appeared brighter.
In the coming years, scientists hope to peer even further into our universe’s history with more powerful telescopes, like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Recent budget cuts from the White House threatened the future of WFIRST. If the government was unsure just how much these space telescopes could accomplish, this discovery from their predecessor might serve as an apt reminder.
New Horizons, the first NASA spacecraft to fly by Pluto, is still making history as it cruises deeper into the distant edges of the Solar System. Late last year, the little probe used one of its cameras to take a picture of a galactic star cluster — officially snapping the most distant picture from Earth ever made.
The previous record holder for the farthest picture was NASA’s Voyager 1. The probe, which flew by Jupiter and Saturn before heading out to interstellar space, captured a distant picture of Earth on February 14th, 1990, when Voyager 1 was 3.75 billion miles away. Known as the “Pale Blue Dot,” it was the last picture Voyager 1 took before its cameras were turned off shortly afterward. Since Voyager 1 is passing between star…
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For the past 30 years, popular opinion about where in space humans should go next has swayed between a new mission to the Red Planet and a return to the Moon. Considering the smorgasbord of problems we’ve made for ourselves on planet Earth, from ecological to economic, such goals of exploration and colonization can have a egoistic, even selfish, root — we may need to find a new home due to the aforementioned problems and a litany of unmentioned ones.
However, even the most optimistic colonization estimates are measured in decades, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll survive the rest of this century, let alone long enough to effectively expand humanity throughout the galaxy. But what if, right now, we could start the process of seeding life on other worlds? Humanity may not survive, but some form of life could.
Claudius Gros, theoretical physicist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, thinks we should consider it. He believes seeding life throughout the cosmos takes precedence over human colonization, and he also believes this process of intentionally seeding other planets in the universe with life, more succinctly known as deliberate panspermia, is within our technological capability.
Breakthrough Starshot is an ambitious plan to send the first probe ever to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighboring star after the Sun, using a laser propulsion system.
That trip is expected to take about 20 years and will require that a probe weighing just one gram be accelerated to a speed of 160 million kmh (100 million mph), or one-fifth the speed of light. The probe won’t have a braking system and is expected to whiz by the star hours after reaching it, just enough time to take pictures to transmit back to Earth.
In a recent study published in Journal of Physics Communications, Gros proposes that we use the same laser propulsion system to send a 1.5-ton spacecraft at slower speeds so we can do more than just take pictures. He wants to achieve a stable exoplanet orbit and seed other worlds with life via onboard “mini labs” that would grow genes and cells. The stated objective is TRAPPIST-1, but other exoplanets, such as the recently discovered Ross 128b, are also under consideration.
The Long Haul
Gros’ hypothetical 1.5-ton spacecraft for seeding life would launch from Earth, and huge, Earth-based lasers directed at the probe’s 50-kilometer-wide (31-mile-wide) light sail would propel it to roughly 30 percent of the speed of light for part of its journey.
Unlike the tiny probe used for the Alpha Centauri mission, Gros’ spacecraft would need to be able to stop once it reached its destination, though, so he devised a way to do so using a magnetic sail that would generate friction with protons. This will allow the craft to decelerate en route, much like letting a car coast to full stop on the highway.
“The reason for the magnetic sail is to create a magnetic field without loss of energy,” Gros told Futurism. “You don’t want to expend energy, so you generate the field once, and then with a superconducting loop, the current stays forever, and the magnetic field stays forever.”
According to Gros, the magnetic sail would have a radius of roughly 50 kilometers (31 miles), and each of its loops would generate a magnetic field. These fields would shift the momentum of the probe to whatever particles it encountered. Essentially, the protons between the Earth and the probe’s destination would create the friction it needed to decelerate.
It may seem strange to imagine a giant probe being slowed down by something as small and insignificant as protons. Further complicating the situation is the fact that scientists suspect that remnants of ancient supernovae may have swept gasses out of the space surrounding our solar system and those near it, thereby lowering the density of matter.
However, Gros explained that even with that lower concentration of matter, his design could provide the necessary friction to slow the hypothetical spacecraft enough to orbit, and not flyby, an exoplanet. “You can brake via friction from the interstellar medium,” he said.
The catch is that the added mass needed to provide deceleration puts a 12,000-year timeframe on his proposed journey to TRAPPIST-1. On a cosmic scale, that isn’t even a blink of an eye, but since humans rarely live past 100, no one alive now would survive to see our probe for seeding life reach its destimation.
A New Kind of Earth
Recently, scientists have begun to theorize that the growing number of exoplanets discovered orbiting red dwarfs could have water and oxygen. These planets had much longer periods of atmospheric cooling than the Earth had, which could have prevented life from forming on them back when it first emerged on Earth.
“It took the Sun 10 million years to cool to about today’s temperature, but small stars, like TRAPPIST-1, remained hot for hundreds of millions of years,” Gros said.
Consequently, he explained, the water vapor within the stratosphere of the TRAPPIST-1 planets was dissociated by the ultraviolet radiation of the host star into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen escapes into space, as it is too light to be retained by an Earth-like planet, and the oxygen left behind accumulates.
“If some of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets still have an ocean, they would also have a massive oxygen atmosphere. Earth’s oxygen pressure is 0.2 bars, but on TRAPPIST-1-like planets, it could be 100 bar or more,” said Gros.
This excess oxygen “eats up” biotic life, preventing protocell formation. Complex eukaryotes, which form the basis for present-day multi-cellular life, would never have had a chance to develop on an “oxygen planet.”
“We could have millions or billions of habitable exoplanets, but sterilized by oxygen from the beginning,” said Gros. Consequently, the common objection that we should avoid interfering with the natural evolution of alien life would fall away — we wouldn’t be interfering with anything.
The cosmic garden may await us, but the long transit time proposed by Gros may dissuade some from taking his seeding life project seriously. Even after the probe reached its destination, any life would take many billions of years to mature, Gros said.
Gros’ initiative for seeding life throughout the cosmos, dubbed the Genesis Project, forces us to step back and take a look at what we’re doing on Earth.
“If you are rational, you cannot argue a longterm project will have use on Earth, because no one will be around,” Gros said.
To Gros, his hypothetical mission ultimately forces humanity to consider a metaethical question. The most natural ethical system for our species is one that places us in the center, and that’s largely how we live. But do we need to follow this imperative 100 percent of the time? Gros doesn’t think so.
“An ethical system which is 99 percent humanity-centered is enough to build a thriving civilization, with the remaining 1 percent allowing us to pursue ‘non-rational’ projects like the Genesis project,” he told Futurism.
Tens of millions of years ago, a landmass that’s being referred to as Zealandia was largely submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean. This summer, a team of scientists set out on an underwater expedition using an advanced research vessel, and the results might yield brand-new insight into Earth’s prehistory.
More than thirty scientists from twelve different countries were present on the two-month excursion. By drilling into the ocean floor some 4,000 feet below the surface, they were able to collect 8,000 feet of sediment cores that will give us a glimpse into geological processes that have taken place over the last 70 million years.
“The cores acted as time machines for us allowing us [sic] to reach further and further back in time, first seeing the ancient underwater avalanches then evidence of rocks forged from a fiery origin,” wrote Stephen Pekar, one of the scientists who took part in the study, in a blog post. “One could imagine somewhere near by on Zealandia laid mountains that belched fiery rocks and rolling smoke.”
It’s thought that Zealandia broke off from Australia between 60 and 85 millions years ago, forming New Zealand and other islands in the region. However, there’s still some debate as to whether or not it could be classified as a continent in its own right.
In February 2017, Northwestern University geologist Michael Scotese told National Geographic that while it was continental, it wasn’t a continent. He compared its relationship with Australia to the link between North America and Greenland, and Africa and Madagascar.
Over the course of the expedition, over 8,000 fossils were found, giving the team an opportunity to study hundreds of different species. Knowing more about the creatures that inhabited Zealandia before it was submerged allows scientists to make informed guesses about what conditions were like.
“The discovery of microscopic shells of organisms that lived in warm shallow seas, and of spores and pollen from land plants, reveal that the geography and climate of Zealandia were dramatically different in the past,” read a statement from Gerald Dickens, who led the voyage.
Based on the remains that have been found, it’s thought that land-based animals once roamed around Zealandia. The region would have served as a bridge that could be used to cross between continents, according to a report from The Guardian.
Back to Zealandia
It’s expected that the findings of this expedition will help us better comprehend how life propagated through the South Pacific, and offer some fresh perspective to the debate as to whether or not Zealandia is a continent. Despite the region being well-known to geologists, this is the first peer-reviewed paper to look at it in detail.
The sediment cores and fossils gathered on this trip have given researchers plenty to work with now that they have returned home, but the expedition’s organizers are already eager to make their return.
There are hopes that further study could produce more information about climate change, relating to the history of Zealandia’s climate millions of years ago and today. A vessel equipped with drilling equipment is set to visit regions close to New Zealand, Australia, and Antarctica in 2018.