I grew up watching Star Trek which taught me that life was about finding a crew to explore the Universe and to do good in that Universe where you can. I love the intersection of astronomy and society - how the exploration of the Universe reminds us to cherish life on our own world. I make decent pasta sauce. @BeWonder_Full
Unless you’re reading this in an aircraft or the International Space Station, then you’re currently residing on the surface of a planet. You’re here because the planet is here. But how did the planet get here? Like a rolling snowball picking up more snow, planets form from loose dust and gas surrounding young stars. As the planets orbit, their gravity draws in more of the lose material and they grow in mass. We’re not certain when the process of planet formation begins in orbit of new stars, but we have incredible new insights from one of the youngest solar systems ever observed called IRS 63.
Swirling in orbit of young stars (or protostars) are massive disks of dust and gas called circumstellar disks. These disks are dense enough to be opaque hiding young solar systems from visible light. However, energy emanating from the protostar heats the dust which then glows in infrared radiation which more easily penetrates obstructions than wavelengths of visible light. In fact, the degree to which a newly forming star system is observed in either visible or infrared light determines its classification. Class 0 protostars are completely enshrouded and can only be observed in submillimeter wavelengths corresponding to far-infrared and microwave light. Class I protostars, are observable in the far-infrared, Class II in near-infrared/red, and finally a Class III protostar’s surface and solar system can be observed in visible light as the remaining dust and gas is either blown away by the increasing energy of the star AND/OR has formed into PLANETS! That’s where we came from. That leftover material orbiting newly forming stars is what accumulates to form US. The whole process from Class 0 to Class III, when the solar system leaves its cocoon of dust and joins the galaxy, is about 10 million years. But at what stage does planet formation begin? The youngest circumstellar disks we’d observed are a million years old and had shown evidence that planetary formation had already begun. The recently observed IRS 63 is less than 500,000 years old – Class I – and shows signs of possible planet formation. The excitement? We were surprised to see evidence of planetary formation so early in the life of a solar system.
“This is where we live. On a Blue Dot.” said Carl Sagan when the now famous Pale Blue Dot photo was released. Captured February 14, 1990 by the Voyager 1 Space Probe, Pale Blue Dot remains the most distant photograph of the Earth ever taken at 6 billion kilometers. This past February marked the 30th anniversary of Pale Blue Dot which was reprocessed using modern digital photo techniques creating an even more remarkable image.
Whether Pale Blue Dot, or Blue Marble, our planet is associated with the color blue. As Earth is the only inhabited world we know of, it might stand to reason that other habitable planets in space will also be blue. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
REMINDER: – Universe Today will be hosting an interview with Dr. Dirk Schulze-Makuch, co-author of the research featured in this article, on Thursday October 15th, 2020 at 8:30am PT. Click the video below to watch live or to see the recorded stream afterward
Out Earthing Earth
What planet is this?
If you said Hoth, that’s a good guess. But, it’s actually Earth depicted in one of two known “snowball” states. The entire planet’s surface was locked beneath glacial ice during the Cryogenian Period 650 million years ago and during the Huronian Glaciation 2 – 2.4 billion years ago.
Most massive planet in the solar system – twice that of all the other planets combined. This giant world formed from the same cloud of dust and gas that became our Sun and the rest of the planets. But Jupiter was the first-born of our planetary family. As the first planet, Jupiter’s massive gravitational field likely shaped the rest of the entire solar system. Jupiter could’ve played a role in where all the planets aligned in their orbits around the Sun…or didn’t as the asteroid belt is a vast region which could’ve been occupied by another planet were it not for Jupiter’s gravity. Gas giants like Jupiter can also hurl entire planets out of their solar systems, or themselves spiral into their stars. Saturn’s formation several million years later probably spared Jupiter this fate. Jupiter may also act as a “comet catcher.” Comets and asteroids which could otherwise fall toward the inner solar system and strike the rocky worlds like Earth are captured by Jupiter’s gravitational field instead and ultimately plunge into Jupiter’s clouds. But at other times in Earth’s history, Jupiter may have had the opposite effect, hurling asteroids in our direction – typically a bad thing but may have also resulted in water-rich rocks coming to Earth that led to the blue planet we know of today.
Last week, an incredible announcement was made about the search for extraterrestrial life: Phosphine gas detected in the clouds of Venus – a potential indicator of life or “biosignature.” Now some gases might be a false positive for biosignatures because they can be created by other chemical processes on a planet like photochemical processes in the atmosphere or geological processes beneath the surface that create a given gas. For example, methane can also be a biosignature, and we’ve been hunting it down on Mars, but we know that methane can also be created geologically. Finding phosphine in Venusian clouds is truly remarkable because we don’t presently know of any way to create phosphine abiotically or without life being a part of the equation. Question is – how much life??
We recently observed the strongest magnetic field ever recorded in the Universe. The record-breaking field was discovered at the surface of a neutron star called GRO J1008-57 with a magnetic field strength of approximately 1 BILLION Tesla. For comparison, the Earth’s magnetic field clocks in at about 1/20,000 of a Tesla – tens of trillions of times weaker than you’d experience on this neutron star…and that is a good thing for your general health and wellbeing.
Neutron stars are the “dead cores” of once massive stars which have ended their lives as supernova. These stars exhausted their supply of hydrogen fuel in their core and a power balance between the internal energy of the star surging outward, and the star’s own massive gravity crushing inward, is cataclysmically unbalanced – gravity wins. The star collapses in on itself. The outer layers fall onto the core crushing it into the densest object we know of in the Universe – a neutron star. Even atoms are crushed. Negatively charged electrons are forced into the atomic nuclei meeting their positive proton counterparts creating more neutrons. When the core can be crushed no further, the outer remaining material of the star rebounds back into space in a massive explosion – a supernova. The resulting neutron star, made of the crushed stellar core, is so dense that a single sugar-cube-sized sampling would weigh billions of tons – as much as a mountain (though if you’re “worthy” you MIGHT able to lift it since Thor’s Hammer is made of the stuff). Neutron stars are typically about 20km in diameter and can still be a million degrees Kelvin at the surface.
But if they’re “dead,” how can neutron stars be some of the most magnetic and powerful objects in the Universe?
I wear glasses for astigmatism. But, as a stargazer with a visual impediment, turns out I’m in good company. The GREGOR telescope, a solar telescope located at the Teide Observatory in the Canary Islands also suffered from an astigmatism that was recently corrected…to very stellar results.
Opened in 2012, GREGOR is part of a new generation of solar (Sun observing) telescopes. Before 2002, solar scopes were quite small in diameter; under one metre. The Sun is close, and VERY bright, so your telescope doesn’t need to be as wide as those used for deep-space imaging. GREGOR itself is 1.5m (compare that to some of the largest telescopes imaging distant faint objects like the Keck Observatory at 10m. But without the special filters/optics used by a solar scope, a regular telescope staring at the Sun would be destroyed by the Sun’s light). A telescope’s power is often related to its ability to magnify. But just like enlarging a low-resolution photo, the more you magnify, the fuzzier the image becomes (that’s why those scenes in crime shows where they yell ‘enhance!’ and a photo grows to reveal a criminal are not realistic). Ultimately, a telescope’s diameter provides the higher resolution photo. GREGOR is designed to take those high-resolution images of our local Star. How high resolution? Imagine being able to distinguish a 50km wide feature on the Sun from 140 million km away – basically the same as being able to read the text on a coin from a kilometre away.
While our planet orbits the Sun each year – a billion kilometers – our entire Solar System is drifting through the Milky Way Galaxy making one rotation every 225-250 million years (that means dinosaurs actually lived on the other side of the Galaxy!) Humanity has been on Earth for a small fraction of that journey, but parts of what we’ve missed is chronicled. It is written into the rock and life of our planet by the explosions of dying stars – supernova. Turns out supernovas write in radioactive ink called Iron-60.
As the Sun travels through the Galaxy, so too do the hundreds of billions of other stars that comprise the Milky Way; all swirling and spiraling in varying directions. If you could time travel to a distant past, you’d look up and see an unfamiliar sky – different stars, different constellations, and sometimes the glow of a brilliant supernova. Stars explode in the Milky Way about once every fifty years. Given the immense size of the Galaxy at around 150,000 light years in diameter, the odds of one of those stars exploding in our backyard is low. But while supernova happen in the Galaxy twice a century, those in close proximity to Earth, within 400 light years, do happen once every few million years. And along Earth’s epic 4.5 billion-year journey, it appears that we’ve had close encounters with supernova several times. In fact, we seem to be travelling through the fallout cloud of supernovae right now.