SpaceJibe

April 14, 2017

Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Shows More Signs It Could Support Alien Life

Filed under: Cool, Extraterrestrial Life, Life, Moon, Saturn — bferrari @ 9:07 am

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is looking more and more like a habitable world.

The same sorts of chemical reactions that sustain life near deep-sea hydrothermal vents here on Earth could potentially be occurring within Enceladus’ subsurface ocean, a new study published today (April 13) in the journal Science suggests.

These reactions depend on the presence of molecular hydrogen (H2), which, the new study reports, is likely being produced continuously by reactions between hot water and rock deep down in Enceladus’ sea.

Related: Photos of Enceladus, Saturn’s Geyser-Blasting Moon

“The abundance of H2, along with previously observed carbonate species, suggests a state of chemical disequilibria in the Enceladus ocean that represents a chemical energy source capable of supporting life,” Jeffrey Seewald, of the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, wrote in an accompanying “Perspectives” piece in the same issue of Science. (Seewald was not involved in the new Enceladus study.)

A Geyser-Blasting Ocean World

The 313-mile-wide (504 kilometers) Enceladus is just Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, but the object has loomed large in the minds of astrobiologists since 2005.

In that year, NASA’s Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft first spotted geysers of water ice erupting from “tiger stripe” fissures near Enceladus’ south pole. Scientists think these geysers are blasting material from a sizeable ocean buried beneath the satellite’s ice shell.

So, Enceladus has liquid water, one of the key ingredients required for life as we know it. (This ocean stays liquid because Saturn’s immense gravitational pull twists and stretches the moon, generating internal “tidal” heat.) And the new study suggests that the satellite possesses another key ingredient as well: an energy source.

 

A team of researchers led by Hunter Waite, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, analyzed observations made by Cassini during an October 2015 dive through Enceladus’ geyser plume.

This plunge was special in several ways. For one thing, it was Cassini’s deepest-ever dive through the plume; the probe got within a mere 30 miles (49 km) of Enceladus’ surface. In addition, Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) instrument alternated between “open-source” and “closed-source” modes during the encounter, rather than sticking to closed source (the usual routine).

INMS is just 0.25 percent as sensitive in open-source mode as it is in closed-source mode, Waite and his colleagues wrote in the new Science paper. But open source has a key advantage: It minimizes artifacts that have complicated previous attempts to measure H2 levels in the plume.

With this analytical hurdle cleared, Waite and his team were able to calculate that H2 makes up between 0.4 percent and 1.4 percent of the volume of Enceladus’ geyser plume. Further calculations revealed that carbon dioxide (CO2) makes up an additional 0.3 percent to 0.8 percent of the plume’s volume.

Related: Inside Enceladus, Icy Moon of Saturn (Infographic)

The molecular hydrogen is most likely being produced continuously by reactions between hot water and rock in and around Enceladus’ core, Waite and his colleagues concluded. They considered other possible explanations and found them wanting. For example, neither Enceladus’ ocean nor its ice shell are viable long-term reservoirs for volatile H2, the authors wrote, and processes that disassociate H2 from water ice in the shell don’t seem capable of generating the volume measured in the plume.

The hydrothermal explanation is also consistent with a 2016 study by another research group, which concluded that tiny silica grains detected by Cassini could have been produced only in hot water at significant depths.

“The story seems to be fitting together,” Chris Glein of SwRI, a co-author of the new Science paper, told Space.com.

Deep-Sea Chemical Reactions

Earth’s deep-sea hydrothermal vents support rich communities of life, ecosystems powered by chemical energy rather than sunlight.

“Some of the most primitive metabolic pathways utilized by microbes in these environments involve the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) with H2 to form methane (CH4) by a process known as methanogenesis,” Seewald wrote.

The inferred presence of H2 and CO2 in Enceladus’ ocean therefore suggests that similar reactions could well be occurring deep beneath the moon’s icy shell. Indeed, the observed H2 levels indicate that a lot of chemical energy is potentially available in the ocean, Glein said.

“It’s quite a bit larger than the minimum energy required to support methanogenesis,” he said.

Glein stressed, however, that nobody knows whether such reactions are actually occurring on Enceladus.

“This is not a detection of life,” Glein said. “It increases the habitability, but I would never suggest that this makes Enceladus more or less likely to have life itself. I think the only way to answer that question is, we need data.”

Seewald also counseled caution on astrobiological interpretations. He noted, for example, that molecular hydrogen is rare in Earth’s seawater, because hungry microbes quickly gobble it up.

“Is the presence of H2 in the Enceladus ocean an indicator for the absence of life, or is it a reflection of the very different geochemical environment and associated ecosystems on Enceladus?” Seewald wrote. “We still have a long way to go in our understanding of processes regulating the exchange of mass and heat across geological interfaces that define the internal structure of Enceladus and other ice-covered planetary bodies.”

Originally published on Space.com.

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February 22, 2017

Major Discovery! 7 Earth-Size Alien Planets Circle Nearby Star

Astronomers have never seen anything like this before: Seven Earth-size alien worlds orbit the same tiny, dim star, and all of them may be capable of supporting life as we know it, a new study reports.

“Looking for life elsewhere, this system is probably our best bet as of today,” study co-author Brice-Olivier Demory, a professor at the Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said in a statement.

The exoplanets circle the star TRAPPIST-1, which lies just 39 light-years from Earth — a mere stone’s throw in the cosmic scheme of things. So speculation about the alien worlds’ life-hosting potential should soon be informed by hard data, study team members said. [Images: The 7 Earth-Size Worlds of TRAPPIST-1]

“We can expect that, within a few years, we will know a lot more about these planets, and with hope, if there is life there, [we will know] within a decade,” co-author Amaury Triaud, of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England, told reporters on Tuesday (Feb. 21).

TRAPPIST-1 is an ultracool dwarf star that’s only slightly larger than the planet Jupiter and about 2,000 times dimmer than the sun.

The research team, led by Michaël Gillon of the University of Liège in Belgium, originally studied the star using the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), an instrument at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. (This explains the star’s common name; the object is also known as 2MASS J23062928-0502285.)

TRAPPIST spotted regular dimming events, which the team interpreted as evidence of three different planets crossing the face of, or transiting, the star. In May 2016, Gillon and his colleagues announced the existence of these three alien worlds, called TRAPPIST-1b, TRAPPIST-1c and TRAPPIST-1d. All three, the team reported, are roughly the size of Earth and may be capable of supporting life.

The astronomers kept studying the system, using TRAPPIST and a number of other telescopes on the ground. This follow-up work suggested that the supposed TRAPPIST-1d transits were actually caused by more than one planet, and also revealed evidence of additional possible worlds in the system.

A three-week observation campaign by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in September and October 2016 helped clear all of this up. Spitzer’s transit data confirmed the existence of planets b and c, but revealed that three worlds are responsible for the originally detected “TRAPPIST-1d” signal. And Spitzer also spotted two more exoplanets in the system, for a total of seven.

These seven worlds — which Gillon and his colleagues announced in the new study, published online today (Feb. 22) in the journal Nature — are all roughly Earth-size. The smallest is about 75 percent as massive as Earth, while the largest is just 10 percent heftier than our planet, the researchers said.

“This is the first time that so many planets of this kind are found around the same star,” Gillon said in Tuesday’s news conference. [Gallery: The Strangest Alien Planets]

All seven alien worlds occupy tight orbits, lying closer to TRAPPIST-1 than Mercury does to the sun. The orbital periods of the innermost six worlds range from 1.5 days to 12.4 days; the outermost planet, known as TRAPPIST-1h, is thought to complete one lap in about 20 days. (Spitzer spotted just one transit by TRAPPIST-1h, so its orbital path is not well-known.)

The six inner planets are in near-resonance, meaning their orbital periods are related to each other by a ratio of two small integers. This arrangement suggests that the worlds formed farther out in the system and then migrated in to their current positions, study team members said.

Data gathered by the various telescopes suggest that all six inner planets are rocky, like the Earth; not enough is known about planet h to determine its composition.

Because the seven alien worlds orbit so tightly, they’re probably all tidally locked, Gillon said. That is, they likely always show the same face to their host star, just as Earth’s moon only shows the “near side” to us.

And powerful gravitational tugs, both from TRAPPIST-1 and neighboring planets, could heat up the worlds’ insides considerably, leading to lots of volcanism, especially on the innermost two worlds, the researchers added.

Despite these characteristics — extreme closeness to their star and tidal locking — the TRAPPIST-1 system is a promising place to search for E.T., study team members said.

TRAPPIST-1 is so dim and cool that its “habitable zone” — that just-right range of distances where liquid water could exist — is quite close to the star. And even tidally locked planets are thought to be potentially habitable, as long as they have atmospheres that can transport heat from the day side to the night side, Gillon said.

“You’d have just a [temperature] gradient, but it’s not catastrophic for life,” he said.

Indeed, modeling work performed by the team suggests that three of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets (e, f and g) are in the habitable zone. And it’s possible that, given the right atmospheric conditions, water — and, by extension, life as we know it — could exist on all seven, Gillon said.

Such speculation is preliminary, he and other team members stressed; more data will be needed before the TRAPPIST-1 planets’ habitability can be gauged with confidence. Such work is already underway. The team has been studying the worlds’ atmospheres with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, for example.

Detailed characterization — and the search for signs of possible life, such as oxygen and methane — will have to wait until more powerful instruments come online, Triaud said. But that wait shouldn’t be long: NASA’s $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is slated to launch in late 2018, and huge, capable ground-based scopes such as the European Extremely Large Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope are scheduled to come online in the early to mid-2020s.

“I think that we’ve made a crucial step toward finding [out] if there is life out there,” Triaud said. “Here, if life managed to thrive, and releases gases similar to that that we have on Earth, then we will know.”

Characteristics of the seven TRAPPIST-1 worlds, compared to the rocky planets in our solar system. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Characteristics of the seven TRAPPIST-1 worlds, compared to the rocky planets in our solar system. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

If there were life-forms on one or more of the TRAPPIST-1 worlds, what would they see? Because of the star’s dimness, even daytime skies would never get brighter than Earth’s are just after sunset, Triaud said. (Still, the air would be warm, because most of TRAPPIST-1’s light is radiated in infrared, not visible, wavelengths.) And everything would be suffused in a sort of salmon-colored glow.

“The spectacle would be beautiful, because every now and then you would see another planet, maybe about as big as twice [Earth’s] moon in the sky, depending on which planet you were on,” Triaud said.

Future work may help determine just how common such seemingly exotic vistas are in the sun’s neck of the cosmic woods.

“About 15 percent of the stars in our neighborhood are very cool stars like TRAPPIST-1,” Demory said in the same statement. “We have a list of about 600 targets that we will observe in the future.”

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February 11, 2017

Ten reasons why NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will kick some cosmic butt

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology, Extraterrestrial Life, Gadgets, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 3:05 pm

Here are ten amazing facts about the JWST that you might not have known.

James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope

1. It’s as big as a tennis court

With a sunshield 22 metres (72 feet) in length, the size of a tennis court, and a mirror 6.5 metres (21 feet) wide the JWST, which is due to launch in October 2018, is over twice the size of the Hubble Space Telescope, making it the largest space telescope ever launched.
2. The mirrors are coated in a golf ball’s worth of gold
The JWST’s mirrors are covered in gold to optimise them for infrared light, with the gold further protected by a thin layer of glass. The thickness of this gold coating is 0.00001 centimetres across the 25 square-metre mirror’s surface, and in total the gold weighs 48.25 grams, roughly equivalent to the weight of a golf ball.
3. It’ll be about four times further from Earth than the Moon

The JWST will take about a month to reach a position 1.5 million kilometres (930,000 miles) from Earth known as Lagrange point 2, or L2. Here the telescope’s observations will be unhindered by Earth and the Moon although, if it malfunctions (as happened with Hubble), we currently have no way to go and fix it.

 

4. It could see a penny 24 miles away

The angular resolution of the JWST, which is the sharpness of the images, is incredibly precise. It can see at a resolution of 0.1 arc-seconds, which means that it could resolve a penny 24 miles (40 kilometres) away or a football 340 miles (550 kilometres) away.

5. It could find water on exoplanets

One of the JWST’s most notable abilities is that it will be able to detect planets around nearby stars by measuring infrared radiation, and it will even be able to measure the atmospheres of exoplanets by studying the starlight that passes through. By doing this it will be able to determine if an exoplanet has liquid water on its surface.

6. It’s seven times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope

The giant mirror of the JWST is made of 18 individual hexagonal segments composed of lightweight beryllium. It is almost three times the size of Hubble’s mirror, boasting a light-collecting area seven times greater, but both mirrors weigh almost the same owing to the lighter materials used on the JWST’s mirror.

7. It’ll see the first light of the universe

One of the goals of the JWST is to observe the first stars and galaxies that formed just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, an era of the universe that is not fully understood. The telescope will be sensitive to infrared light, which will enable it to do this.

8. It will unfold to its massive size in space

Many features of the JWST, including its giant mirrors and sunshield, are designed to be launched on a rocket in a smaller payload. The telescope will launch in a compact outfit and will unfold in its full configuration once it reaches space.

9. One side is hotter than Death Valley, the other is colder than Antarctica

The side of the JWST that will always face the Sun, the bottom of the sunshield, will reach temperatures of 85°C (185 °F). The other side, which houses the mirrors and science instruments, will operate at a much nippier -233°C (-388 °F).

10. It could keep working for a decade

The official mission lifespan for the JWST is between five and ten years. The telescope is limited by the amount of fuel it has on board used to maintain its position, which will be enough for a ten-year lifetime. Of course, other factors like budget cuts or malfunctions could end the mission earlier.

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August 24, 2016

‘Second Earth’ exoplanet found right under our noses – just four light years away

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Life, Outer Solar System — bferrari @ 2:29 pm

Proxima b is a likely target for Starshot project

 

Artist's impression of Proxima b and Proxima Centauri [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser]

Artist’s impression of Proxima b and Proxima Centauri [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser]

Rumours that a terrestrial planet orbiting Proxima Centauri – the Sun’s closest neighbour – may be Earth-like have been confirmed today in a paper published in Nature.

The possibility that extraterrestrial life may exist next door was first reported last week in Der Spiegel, a German weekly news magazine.

Excitement bubbled over and the European Southern Observatory refused to confirm or deny the rumours, as it wanted to keep the research under wraps. But it eventually gave in, and announced that all details would be revealed at the end of August.

Tantalising evidence shows the candidate planet, known as Proxima b, may be small and rocky and lies in the habitable zone around its star – just like Earth.

Proxima b’s equilibrium temperature is within the range where water may be in liquid form on its surface, the researchers believe.

It orbits around Proxima Centauri, a red-dwarf located only 4.25 light years away in the closest star system, Alpha Centauri. It’s much closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun at 0.05 astronomical units away, so a year only lasts 11.2 days.

How Earth-like is Proxima b?

Although the signs are promising, it’s completely hypothetical that Proxima b is Earth-like, the researchers said.

Infographic compares the orbit of Proxima b around Proxima Centauri with the same region of the Solar System [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman]

Infographic compares the orbit of Proxima b around Proxima Centauri with the same region of the Solar System [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman]

Professor Hugh Jones, who was part of the large team analysing data from Proxima b and a physics lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, told The Register: “Saying it’s more Earth-like than just its mass is speculative. It’s exciting because it’s the first time anybody has found a planet around the closest stars. We have been looking for ages.”

Sixteen years ago, researchers first spotted a signal that Proxima Centauri could be harbouring a planet. It took a while for confirmation because of the faint signal, Jones said.

Proxima Centauri is a faint star with a luminosity much lower than the Sun. Its surface temperature is 3,050 kelvin, as compared to the Sun’s 5,777 kelvin. Researchers used Doppler spectroscopy to measure changes in the velocity of the star caused by a gravitationally bound body that was orbiting around it.

The Doppler method is an effective way of detecting exoplanets, but it doesn’t give much information about the planet itself. Many properties, including Proxima b’s radius, are currently unknown.

Journey to Alpha Centauri

That doesn’t dampen the spirits of scientists and engineers working on the Breakthrough Starshot project, however.

Starshot was launched in April 2016 by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking. The project aims to send tiny “nanocrafts” to the Alpha Centauri system, about 25 trillion miles away, at 15 to 20 per cent of the speed of light.

Speaking about the research, Professor Avi Loeb, Chairman of the Breakthrough Starshot advisory committee and researcher at Harvard University, told The Register: “We will celebrate this important discovery within the Starshot team.”

“The discovery of the habitable planet around the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is strategically important for motivating the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, since it provides an obvious target for a flyby mission.

“A spacecraft equipped with a camera and various filters could take color images of the planet and infer whether it is green (harboring life as we know it), blue (with water oceans on its surface) or just brown (dry rock),” Loeb said.

The bright star is Alpha Centauri AB and Proxima Centauri is the fainter red dwarf star  [Photo credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2, Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani]

The bright star is Alpha Centauri AB and Proxima Centauri is the fainter red dwarf star [Photo credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2, Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani]

Proxima b has another property that increases its chances of harbouring life, Loeb, who was uninvolved in the research, said.

“Low-mass stars burn nuclear fuel at a slower rate, so they are more likely to live longer. Proxima Centauri is smaller than our Sun and will live about a thousand times longer. This means that any life on the planet has a longer time to develop and survive,” Loeb told The Register.

“Hence, a habitable rocky planet around Proxima would be the most natural location to where our civilization could aspire to move after the Sun will die, five billion years from now.”

The prospect of nanobots venturing to Proxima b to take photos is still very far away, and with current technology it’s still difficult to resolve Proxima b from its star. But with better telescopes and sensitive instruments being built in the next decade, the close proximity of Proxima b gives researchers their best fighting chance yet of looking out for extraterrestrial life.

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May 3, 2016

Three newly discovered Earth-sized planets may be prime spot to hunt alien life

Filed under: Cool, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 10:56 am
The artist’s impression provided by European Southern Observatory on May 2, 2016 shows an imagined view from the surface one of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. (ESO/M. Kornmesser via AP)

The artist’s impression provided by European Southern Observatory on May 2, 2016 shows an imagined view from the surface one of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. (ESO/M. Kornmesser via AP)

Astronomers searching for life beyond our solar system may need to look no farther than a little, feeble nearby star.

A Belgian-led team reported Monday that it’s discovered three Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star less than 40 light-years away. It’s the first time planets have been found around this type of star — and it opens up new, rich territory in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Because this star is so close and so faint, astronomers can study the atmospheres of these three temperate exoplanets and, eventually, hunt for signs of possible life. They’re already making atmospheric observations, in fact, using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope will join in next week.

Altogether, it’s a “winning combination” for seeking chemical traces of life outside our solar system, said Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Julien de Wit, a co-author of the study, released by the journal Nature.

The star in question — named Trappist-1 after the Belgian telescope in Chile that made the discovery — is barely the size of Jupiter and located in the constellation Aquarius.

Other exoplanet searches have targeted bigger, brighter stars more like our sun, but the starlight in these cases can be so bright that it washes out the signatures of planets. By comparison, cool dwarf stars that emit infrared light, like Trappist-1, make it easier to spot potential worlds.

University of Liege astronomers in Belgium — lead study authors Michael Gillon and Emmanuel Jehin — built the Trappist telescope to observe 60 of the nearest ultra-cool dwarf stars. The risky effort paid off, de Wit noted in an email.

“Systems around these tiny stars are the only places where we can detect life on an Earth-sized exoplanet with our current technology,” Gillon said in a statement. “So if we want to find life elsewhere in the universe, this is where we should start to look.”

The two inner exoplanets take between 1.5 and 2.4 days to orbit the Trappist-1 star. The precise orbit time of the third planet is not known, but it falls somewhere between 4.5 days and 73 days. That puts the planets 20 times to 100 times closer to their star than Earth is to our sun, Gillon noted. The setup is more similar in scale to Jupiter’s moons than to our solar system, he added.

Although the two innermost planets are very close to the star, it showers them with only a few times the amount of energy that Earth receives from our own sun. The third exoplanet farther out may receive significantly less of such radiation than Earth does.

The astronomers speculate the two inner exoplanets may have pockets where life may exist, while the third exoplanet actually might fall within the habitable zone — real estate located at just the right distance from a star in order to harbor water and, possibly, life.

Spitzer and Hubble should answer whether the exoplanets have large and clear atmospheres, according to de Wit. They also might be able to detect water and methane, if molecules are present.

Future observatories, including NASA’s James Web Space Telescope set to launch in 2018, should unearth even more details.

Gillon and his colleagues identified the three exoplanets by observing regular dips in the infrared signals emanating from the Trappist-1 star, some 36 light-years away. A single light-year represents about 6 trillion miles.

The astronomers conducted the survey last year using the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, or Trappist. It’s considered a prototype for a more expansive European project that will widen the search for potentially habitable worlds to 500 ultra-cool stars. This upcoming project is dubbed Speculoos — short for Search for Habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultra-Cool Stars.

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December 18, 2015

Wolf 1061 exoplanet: ‘Super-Earth’ discovered only 14 light-years away

Filed under: Cool, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Planets — bferrari @ 10:54 am

Alien life could be closer to us than previously thought. Scientists have just discovered the nearest habitable planet to Earth.

The new world is one of three surrounding a red dwarf star called Wolf 1061, which is just 14 light years away. It was detected by scientists at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia.

All three planets have the potential to be solid and rocky, but only Wolf 1061c exists within the “Goldilocks zone” — a distance from the star (much smaller and cooler than our sun) that is not too hot and not too cold for liquid water.

“This rare discovery is incredibly exciting,” UNSW’s Duncan Wright, who led the study, told CNN.

“Other planets found that are habitable are not nearly this close to Earth. Because of the close proximity of this planet to us, there is good opportunity to find out more about it.”

“The close proximity of the planets around Wolf 1061 means there is a good chance these planets may pass across the face of the star,” UNSW team member Rob Wittenmyer said in an earlier statement.

“If they do, then it may be possible to study the atmospheres of these planets in future to see whether they would be conducive to life.”

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NASA has confirmed more than 1,870 exoplanets — worlds outside our solar system. But this discovery is particularly important because Wolf 1061c is both habitable and close to our solar system.

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November 12, 2015

New planetary find “best chance for life outside our solar system”

Filed under: Cool, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life — bferrari @ 11:45 am

Astronomers have made two new planetary discoveries that they claim expand the known boundaries of our solar system — and they may be the biggest breakthroughs in the search for alien life.

The two finds, one planet at the edge of our solar system and one just beyond, have both been hailed as major scientific advances.

Commenting on one of the planets, Brad Tucker, an astronomer from Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra, Australia who was not involved in the research, said it “probably gives us the best chance for life outside our solar system right now.”

“One of the goals of astronomy and astrophysics and finding these planets is firstly to really find another Earth,” he added. “And part of the reason of finding another Earth is that we ultimately do want to find life in the universe. It’s a question that weighs on everyone’s mind.

Lying on the edge of our solar system, a new, rocky planet close to the size of Earth and named GJ 1132b, is the discovery that holds the most potential for finding new life to date, according to astronomers.

The scientists who discovered it it said its small size and proximity — it’s three times closer than any other similar object found orbiting a star — “bodes well for studies of the planet’s atmosphere,” according to their report in the journal, Nature.

“GJ 1132b (is) arguably the most important planet ever found outside the solar system,” Drake Deming, an astronomer at the University of Maryland said in an accompanying letter in the journal. He added that it’s proximity will “allow astronomers to study the planet with unprecedented fidelity.”

Found moving across a “red dwarf” star that is only a fifth of the size of the world’s sun, the planet has a radius only 16% larger than Earth’s, and has surface temperatures that reach 260 degrees Celsius. Although that’s too hot to retain liquid water or sustain life as we know it, Tucker said it was cool enough to support some of the basic building blocks of life, and possibly support life forms like bacteria.

“We haven’t even found anything close to this so far,” he said.

“It’s more habitable, it’s less harsh and this gives us a good strong chance of actually finding life or something as opposed to the other Earth-like planets found to date.”

The planet also completes an orbit or passes its star once every 1.6 days, providing more opportunities for research and measurement than any other planet has provided to date, Tucker added.

“By being able to find evidence of these smaller, more inner planets, these rocky planets that we have in our solar system, we’re really realizing that the planets are probably in the trillions in our galaxy alone.”

http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/12/world/solar-system-discoveries-earth/index.html#

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September 28, 2015

NASA Makes it Official: There’s Water on Mars !!!

Filed under: Cool, Extraterrestrial Life, Inner Solar System, Mars — bferrari @ 3:08 pm

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. (Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona) These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. (Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

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Speculation has been mounting that NASA’s announcement would involve flowing water. Scientists have long known that there is frozen water at Mars’ poles, but they have never discovered liquid water. The discovery could have huge consequences for future expeditions, including NASA’s goal of sending a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s.

Scientists have based their findings on an analysis of the mysterious dark streaks on Mars’ surface called Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL). The streaks haveintrigued scientists for some time, fading during cooler months and recurring annually at nearly the same locations. “The dark streaks form in late spring, grow through the summer and disappear by the fall,” explained Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

Using an an imaging spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Obiter (MRO), scientists detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where the streaks occur. Experts believe that the hydrated salts are likely a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate.

Mary Beth Wilhelm of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. and the Georgia Institute of Technology said the evidence of salty water could have major implications. “Our results may point to more habitable conditions on the near surface of Mars than formerly thought,” she said.

“This is tremendously exciting,” added Green. “We now have a great opportunity to be in the right locations to investigate that.”

Related: NASA releases stunning image of a supernova’s remnants

The spectrometer observations show signatures of hydrated salts at multiple RSL locations, but only when the dark features were relatively wide, according to NASA. When the researchers looked at the same locations and RSL weren’t as extensive, they detected no hydrated salt.

Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. (Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona) Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. (Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Armed with the latest RSL findings, scientists are keen to undertake more research over the coming years. “The only way that we will be able to tell if there is life on Mars will be to bring a sample back,” said Meyer.

Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars, a non-profit organization that aims to advance the goal of sending humans to Mars within the next two decades, welcomed Monday’s NASA announcement. “We’ve been speculating about whether there is liquid water on Mars for some time, but now that it has been confirmed, it might have some significant implications,” he told FoxNews.com. “First, it greatly enhances the chances of past or present life on Mars.  Everywhere there is liquid water on  earth, there is life. Is that true on Mars? We don’t know.”

Carberry added that water on Mars could also benefit future explorers. “If they can access the water, it will add significantly to the sustainability of human presence on Mars,” he said.

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August 19, 2014

Message from a Space Traveller… Far Far in the Future…

Filed under: Cool, Extraterrestrial Life, Life, Religion — bferrari @ 7:01 am

 

I remember when we took our first steps upon the moon. For millennia we had looked upon her as a merciful goddess, who gifted us with light in the darkness and the rule to measure our years. What bounty of life did she hold, we wondered, when we discovered our world was a sphere? Then we invented telescopes, and found her to possess not an alien world of cold white fire, but the rough beauty of the highest, most barren mountains.

Even though our imaginations had failed us, we still sought to visit her, this great beautiful land that had occupied our nights and dreams since the dawn of our species. From swan-pulled boats to great hot-air balloons, we struggled to reach the land that we could never touch. Then came the wars, the terrible wars, and we found ourselves thrust out of our gentle lives. Great new weapons were forged, new realms of science uncovered. And the secret of spaceflight discovered.

When I finally reached her, after travelling for three days aboard my tiny rocket pod, I touched down in one of the great basalt seas that dotted the moon’s surface. And there, I found the first signs of life on the moon; a flag in brilliant colours, a ship much larger and more alien than my own and a bronze plaque bearing the image of a world and an unknown language.

When we tested the dust upon these artifacts, we came to a startling conclusion. They were more than four million years old, the product of a civilisation little more advanced than our own. The world on the plaque was unrecognisable except to paleogeologists, as the state of our continents and seas in the distant past, when our race had swum through primordial seas. Imagine! Some other life had lived and breathed and touched the heavens, and vanished, yet still its creations endured upon the merciful moon.

When we walked the rust-red surface of Geyes, we bore the inscription upon the plaque with us, engraved on our ships. When we sailed the endless skies of Jalbador, we bore the inscription on our atmosuits. When we launched our first interstellar spaceship, she bore the inscription upon her brow and carried the plaque upon her bridge. And when we first made contact, we learned what the inscription said.

“We came in peace, for all mankind.”

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June 16, 2014

NASA’s real life Enterprise may take us to other star systems one day

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Extraterrestrial Life, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Outer Solar System, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 5:01 pm

Dr. Harold “Sonny” White is still working on a warp drive at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. His work is still in the experimental stage but that doesn’t mean he can’t imagine what the real lifeEnterprise ship would look like according to his math.

You’re looking at it right now.

..

 

This is the starship that may take us where no human has gone before. And it has me screaming like a little Klingon girl.

 

 

Concept 3D artist Mark Rademaker told io9 that “he worked with White to create the updated model, which includes a sleek ship nestled at the center of two enormous rings, which create the warp bubble.”

The updated model is the one you can see above, a variation of the original concept which, according to Dr. White, was rendered by Rademaker based on an idea by Matthew Jeffries, the guy who came with “the familiar Star Trek look.” This is the original warp drive spaceship concept:

Dr. White—whose daily life is working in future propulsion solutions for interplanetary travel in the near future, like ion and plasma thrusters—developed new theoretical work that solved the problems of the Alcubierre Drive concept, a theory that allowed faster-than-light travel based on Einstein’s field equations in general relativity, developed by theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre.

A spaceship equipped with a warp drive would allow faster-than-light travel by bending the space around it, making distances shorter. At the local level, however, the spaceship wouldn’t be moving faster than light. Therefore, warp drive travel doesn’t violate the first Einstein commandment: Thou shall not travel faster than light.

Not a fantasy, but real science

But Interstellar is just science fiction. Dr. White’s work at the Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate is science. And while his department only gets peanuts compared to NASA’s budget (not to talk about the Pentagon’s) I find his words comforting:

Perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility.

See, Dr. White and his colleagues aren’t making a movie or coming up with 3D renders for the sake of it. They just don’t just believe a real life warp drive is theoretically possible; they’ve already started the work to create one:

Working at NASA Eagleworks—a skunkworks operation deep at NASA’s Johnson Space Center—Dr. White’s team is trying to find proof of those loopholes. They have “initiated an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble” using an instrument called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer.

It may sound like a small thing now, but the implications of the research huge. In his own words:

Although this is just a tiny instance of the phenomena, it will be existence proof for the idea of perturbing space time-a “Chicago pile” moment, as it were. Recall that December of 1942 saw the first demonstration of a controlled nuclear reaction that generated a whopping half watt. This existence proof was followed by the activation of a ~ four megawatt reactor in November of 1943. Existence proof for the practical application of a scientific idea can be a tipping point for technology development.

The roadmap to the warp drive

According to Dr. White, this is a roadmap that they need to follow to achieve that final objective of rapid interstellar travel.

Every time I read that paragraph I smile—and these renders just make my smile so wide it looks stupid.

OK, Dr. White, you got our attention. Make it so.

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