Life On Titan Possible Without Water

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is a truly fascinating place. Aside from Earth, it is the only place in the Solar System where rainfall occurs and there are active exchanges between liquids on the surface and fog in the atmosphere – albeit with methane instead of water. It’s atmospheric pressure is also comparable to Earth’s, and it is the only other body in the Solar System that has a dense atmosphere that is nitrogen-rich.

For some time, astronomers and planetary scientists have speculated that Titan might also have the prebiotic conditions necessary for life. Others, meanwhile, have argued that the absence of water on the surface rules out the possibility of life existing there. But according to a recent study  produced by a research team from Cornell University, the conditions on Titan’s surface might support the formation of life without the need for water.

When it comes to searching for life beyond Earth, scientists focus on targets that possess the necessary ingredients for life as we know it – i.e. heat, a viable atmosphere, and water. This is essentially the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where we search for conditions resembling those here on Earth. Titan – which is very cold, quite distant from our Sun, and has a thick, hazy atmosphere – does not seem like a viable candidate, given these criteria.

Diagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong
Diagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong

However, according to the Cornell research team – which is led by Dr. Martin Rahm – Titan presents an opportunity to see how life could emerge under different conditions, one which are much colder than Earth and don’t involve water.

Their study – titled “Polymorphism and electronic structure of polyimine and its potential significance for prebiotic chemistry on Titan” – appeared recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In it, Rahm and his colleagues examined the role that hydrogen cyanide, which is believed to be central to the origin of life question, may play in Titan’s atmosphere.

Previous experiments have shown that hydrogen cyanide (HCN) molecules can link together to form polyimine, a polymer that can serve as a precursor to amino acids and nucleic acids (the basis for protein cells and DNA). Previous surveys have also shown that hydrogen cyanide is the most abundant hydrogen-containing molecule in Titan’s atmosphere.

As Professor Lunine – the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and Director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science and co-author of the study – told Universe Today via email: “Organic molecules, liquid lakes and seas (but of methane, not water) and some amount of solar energy reaches the surface. So this suggests the possibility of an environment that might host an exotic form of life.”

What other surprises may be found beneath Titan's thick haze and clouds? (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)
Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere may conceal clues as to the possibility of life-giving conditions on its surface. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major

Using quantum mechanical calculations, the Cornell team showed that polyimine has electronic and structural properties that could facilitate prebiotic chemistry under very cold conditions. These involve the ability to absorb a wide spectrum of light, which is predicted to occur in a window of relative transparency in Titan’s atmosphere.

Another is the fact that polyimine has a flexible backbone, and can therefore take on many different structures (aka. polymorphs). These range from flat sheets to complex coiled structures, which are relatively close in energy. Some of these structures, according to the team, could work to accelerate prebiotic chemical reactions, or even form structures that could act as hosts for them.

“Polyimine can form sheets,” said Lunine, “which like clays might serve as a catalytic surface for prebiotic reactions. We also find the polyimine absorbs sunlight where Titan’s atmosphere is quite transparent, which might help to energize reactions.”

In short, the presence of polyimine could mean that Titan’s surface gets the energy its needs to drive photochemical reactions necessary for the creation of organic life, and that it could even assist in the development of that life. But of course, no evidence has been found that polyimine has been produced on the surface of Titan, which means that these research findings are still academic at this point.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it's own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit:
Proposed missions to Titan have included (from left to right) the TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer) and NASA’s Titan Mare Explorer. Credit:

However, Lunine and his team indicate that hydrogen cyanide may very well have lead to the creation of polyimine on Titan, and that it might have simply escaped detection because of Titan’s murky atmosphere. They also added that future missions to Titan might be able to look for signs of the polymer, as part of ongoing research into the possibility of exotic life emerging in other parts of the Solar System.

“We would need an advanced payload on the surface to sample and search for polyimines,” answered Lunine, “or possibly by a next generation spectrometer from orbit. Both of these are “beyond Cassini”, that is, the next generation of missions.”

Perhaps when Juno is finished surveying Jupiter’s atmosphere in two years time, NASA might consider retasking it for a flyby of Titan? After all, Juno was specifically designed to peer beneath a veil of thick clouds. They don’t come much thicker than on Titan!

Further Reading: PNAS

‘Wow!’ Signal Was…Wait For It…Comets

The Wow! signal. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)
The Wow! signal recorded on August 15, 1977. The ones, twos and threes indicate weak background noise. Letters, especially those closer to the end of the alphabet, represent stronger signals. The “6EQUJ5” is read from top to bottom (see graph below) and shows the signal rising from “6” to “U” before dropping back down to “5”. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)

Comets get blamed for everything. Pestilence in medieval Europe? Comets! Mass extinctions? Comets! Even the anomalous brightness variations in the Kepler star KIC 8462852 was blamed for a time on comets. Now it looks like the most famous maybe-ET signal ever sifted from the sky, the so-called “Wow!” signal, may also be traced to comets.

Say it ain’t so!

The Big Ear Observatory, on the grounds of Ohio Wesleyan University, operated from 1963-1998. It was part of Ohio State University's long-running Search for Extraterrestrial (SETI) program. The observatory was torn down in 1998 to make room for a golf course. Credit: / NAAPO
The Big Ear Observatory, on the grounds of Ohio Wesleyan University, operated from 1963-1998. It was part of Ohio State University’s long-running Search for Extraterrestrial (SETI) program. The observatory was torn down in 1998 to make room for a golf course. Credit: / NAAPO

In August 1977, radio astronomer Jerry Ehman was looking through observation data from the Ohio State’s now-defunct Big Ear radio telescope gathered a few days earlier on August 15. He was searching for signals that stood apart from the background noise that might be broadcast by an alien civilization. Since hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and emits energy at the specific frequency of 1420 megahertz (just above the TV and cellphone bands), aliens might adopt it as the “lingua franca” of the cosmos. Scientists here on Earth concentrated radio searches at and around that frequency looking for strong signals that mimicked hydrogen.

Ehman’s searches turned up mostly background noise, but that mid-August night he spotted a surprise — a vertical column with the alphanumerical sequence “6EQUJ5″ that indicated a strong signal at hydrogen’s frequency. Exactly as predicted. Big Ear picked up the signal from near the 5th magnitude star Chi-1 Sagittarii in eastern Sagittarius not far from the globular cluster M55.

Astonished by the find, Ehman pulled out a red pen, circled the sequence and wrote a big “Wow!” in the margin. Ever since, it’s been called the Wow! signal and considered one of the few signals from space that defies explanation. Before we look at how that may change, let’s make sense of the code.

Plot of signal strength vs time of the Wow! signal on August 15, 1977. Credit: Maksim Rossomakhin
Plot of signal strength vs time of the Wow! signal on August 15, 1977. The signal rose and fell during the 72 seconds observation window. Credit: Maksim Rossomakhin

Each digit on the chart corresponded to a signal intensity from 0 to 35. Anything over “9” was represented by a letter from A to Z. It was probably the “U” that knocked Ehman’s socks off, since it indicated to a radio burst 30 times greater than the background noise of space.

In Big Ear’s 35 years of operation, it was the most intense, unexplainable signal ever recorded. What’s more, it was narrowly focused and very close to hydrogen’s special frequency.

Big Ear listened for just 72 seconds before Earth’s rotation carried the signal’s location out of “view” of antenna.  Since the radio array had two feed horns, the transmission was expected to appear three minutes apart in each of the horns, but only a single one ever picked it up.

Despite follow-up observations by Ehman and others (more than 100 studies were made of the region) the signal was gone. Never heard from again. Nor has anything else like it ever been recorded anywhere else in the sky.

Careful scrutiny eliminated earthbound possibilities such as aircraft or satellites. Nor would anyone have been transmitting at 1420 MHz since it was within a protected part of the radio spectrum used by astronomers and off-limits to regular broadcasters. The nature of the signal implied a point source somewhere beyond the Earth. But where?

On August 15, 1977, periodic comets 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs would have both been very close to the small swath of sky south of Chi Sagittarii where the Wow! signal was received. Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium
On August 15, 1977, periodic comets 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs would have both been very close to the narrow swath of sky south of Chi Sagittarii where the Wow! signal was received. Could they be implicated? Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium

If it really was an attempt at alien contact, why try only once and for so short a time interval? Even Ehman doubted (and still doubts) an extraterrestrial intelligence origin, but a much more recent suggestion made by Prof. Antonio Paris of St. Petersburg College, Florida may offer an answer. Paris earlier worked as an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense and returned to the “scene of the crime” looking for any likely suspects. After studying astronomical databases, he discovered that two faint comets,  266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, discovered only within the past decade, had been plying the very area of the Wow! signal on August 15, 1977.

A huge cloud of hydrogen surrounded Comet Hale-Bopp when it neared the Sun in the spring of 1997. Ultraviolet light, charted by the SWAN instrument on the SOHO spacecraft, revealed a cloud 100 million kilometres wide and diminishing in intensity outwards (contour lines). It far exceeded the great comet's visible tail (inset photograph). Although generated by a comet nucleus perhaps 40 kilometres in diameter, the hydrogen cloud was 70 times wider than the Sun itself (yellow circle to scale)
A huge cloud of hydrogen surrounded Comet Hale-Bopp when it neared the Sun in 1997. Ultraviolet light, charted by the SWAN instrument on the SOHO spacecraft, revealed that the cloud far exceeded the great comet’s visible tail (inset photo) —  70 times wider than the Sun itself (yellow circle to scale at right). Credit: SOHO (ESA & NASA) and SWAN Consortium / inset: Dennis di Cicco

If you recall, a comet has two or three basic parts: a fuzzy head or coma and one or two tails streaming off behind. Invisible to earthbound telescopes, but showing clearly in orbiting telescopes able to peer into ultraviolet light, the coma is further wrapped in a huge cloud of neutral hydrogen gas.

As the Sun warms a comet’s surface, water ice or H2O vaporizes from its nucleus. Energetic solar UV light breaks down those water molecules into H2 and O. The H2 forms a huge, distended halo that can expand to many times the size of the Sun.

Paris published a paper earlier this year exploring the possibility that the hydrogen envelopes of either or both comets were responsible for the strong 1420 MHz signal snagged by Big Ear. On the surface, this makes sense, but not all astronomers agree. First off, if comets are so radio-bright in hydrogen light, why don’t radio telescopes pick them up more often? They don’t. Second, some astronomers doubt that the signals from these comets would have been strong enough to be picked up by the array.

image of the full page of the computer printout that contains the "Wow!" signal. Credit:
Image of the full page of the computer printout that contains the “Wow!” signal. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO)

A quick check on 266P and 335P at the time of the signal show them both around 5 a.u. from the sun (Jupiter’s distance) and extremely faint at magnitudes 22 and 27 respectively. Were they even active enough at those distances to form clouds big enough for the antenna to detect?

Paris knows there’s only one way to find out. Comet 266P/Christensen will swing through the same area again on Jan. 25, 2017, while 335P/Gibbs follows suit on January 7, 2018. Unable to use an existing radio telescope (they’re all booked up!), he’s begun a gofundme campaign to purchase and install a 3-meter radio telescope to track and analyze the spectra of these two comets. The goal is $20,000 and Paris is already well on his way there.

It would be a little bit sad if the Wow! signal turned out to be a “just a comet”, but the possibility of solving a 39-year-old mystery would ultimately be more satisfying, don’t you think?

Fast Radio Bursts On Repeat – Aliens, Or A Rotating Neutron Star?

Very recently, a team of scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) achieved an historic first by being able to pinpoint the source of fast radio bursts (FRBs). With the help of observatories around the world, they determined that these radio signals originated in an elliptical galaxy 6 billion light years from Earth. But as it turns out, this feat has been followed by yet another historic first.

In all previous cases where FRBs were detected, they appeared to be one-off events, lasting for mere milliseconds. However, after running the data from a recent FRB through a supercomputer, a team of scientists at McGill University in Montreal have determined that in this instance, the signal was repeating in nature. This finding has some serious implications for the astronomical community, and is also considered by some to be proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

FRBs have puzzled astronomers since they were first detected in 2007. This event, known as the Lorimer Burst, lasted a mere five milliseconds and appeared to be coming from a location near the Large Magellanic Cloud, billions of light years away. Since that time, a total of 16 FRBs have been detected. And in all but this one case, the duration was extremely short and was not followed up by any additional bursts.

The NSF's Arecibo Observatory, which is located in Puerto Rico, is the world largest radio telescope. Credit: NAIC
The NSF’s Arecibo Observatory, which is located in Puerto Rico, is the world largest radio telescope. Credit: NAIC

Because of their short duration and one-off nature, many scientists have reasoned that FRBs must be the result of cataclysmic events – such as a star going supernova or a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. However, after sifting through data obtained by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, a team of students from McGill University – led by PhD student Paul Scholz – determined that an FRB detected in 2012 did not conform to this pattern.

In an article published in Nature, Scholz and his associates describe how this particular signal – FRB 121102 – was followed by several bursts with properties that were consistent with the original signal. Running the data which was gathered in May and June through a supercomputer at the McGill High Performance Computing Center, they determined that FRB 121102 had emitted a total of 10 new bursts after its initial detection.

This would seem to indicate that FRBs have more than just one cause, which presents some rather interesting possibilities. As Paul Scholz told Universe Today via email:

“All previous Fast Radio Bursts have only been one-time events, so a lot of explanations for them have involved a cataclysmic event that destroys the source of the bursts, such as a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. Our discovery of repeating bursts from FRB 121102 shows that the source cannot have been destroyed and it must have been due to a phenomenon that can repeat, such as bright pulses from a rotating neutron star.”

The Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis
The Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

Another possibility which is making the rounds is that this signal is not natural in origin. Since their discovery, FRBs and other “transient signals” – i.e. seemingly random and temporary signals – from the Universe have been the subject of speculation. As would be expected, there have been some who have suggested that they might be the long sought-after proof that extra-terrestrial civilizations exist.

For example, in 1967, after receiving a strange reading from a radio array in a Cambridge field, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her team considered the possibility that what they were seeing was an alien message. This would later be shown to be incorrect – it was, in fact, the first discovery of a pulsar. However, the possibility these signals are alien in origin has remained fixed in the public (and scientific) imagination.

This has certainly been the case since the discovery of FRBs. In an article published by New Scientists in April of 2015 – titled “Cosmic Radio Plays An Alien Tune” – writer and astrophysicist Sarah Scoles explores the possibility of whether or not the strange regularity of some FRBs that appeared to be coming from within the Milky Way could be seen as evidence of alien intelligence.

However, the likelihood that these signals are being sent by extra-terrestrials is quite low. For one, FRBs are not an effective way to send a message. As Dr. Maura McLaughlin of West Virginia University – who was part of the first FRB discovery –  has explained, it takes a lot of energy to make a signal that spreads across lots of frequencies (which is a distinguishing feature of FRBs).

Scientists have been exploring the possibility that radio bursts
For decades, scientists have been exploring the possibility that radio bursts are signals from alien civilizations. Credit: AdamBurn/DeviantArt

And if these bursts came from outside of our galaxy, which certainly seems to be the case, they would have to be incredibly energetic to get this far. As Dr. McLaughlin explained to Universe Today via email:

“The total amount of power required to produce just one FRB pulse is as much as the Sun produces in a month! Although we might expect extraterrestrial civilizations to send short-duration signals, sending a signal over the very wide radio bandwidths over which FRBs are detected would require an improbably immense amount of energy. We expect that extraterrestrial civilizations would transmit over a very narrow range of radio frequencies, much like a radio station on Earth. 

But regardless of whether these signals are natural or extra-terrestrial in origin, they do present some rather exciting possibilities for astronomical research and our knowledge of the Universe. Moving forward, Scholz and his team hope to identify the galaxy where the radio bursts originated, and plans to use test out some recently-developed techniques in the process.

“Next we would like to localize the source of the bursts to identify the galaxy that they are coming from,” he said. “This will let us know about the environment around the source. To do this, we need to use radio interferometry to get a precise enough sky location. But, to do this we need to detect a burst while we are looking at the source with such a radio telescope array. Since the source is not always bursting we will have to wait until we get a detection of a burst while we are looking with radio interferometry. So, if we’re patient, eventually we should be able to pinpoint the galaxy that the bursts are coming from.”

In the end, we may find that rapid burst radio waves are a more common occurrence than we thought. In all likelihood, they are being regularly emitted by rare and powerful stellar objects, ones which we’ve only begun to notice. As for the other possibility? Well, we’re not saying it’s aliens, but we’re quite sure others will be!


Further Reading: McGill University

Radio waves absent from the reputed megastructure-encompassed Kepler star?

Astronomers at the SETI institute (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) have reported their findings after monitoring the reputed megastructure-encompassed star KIC 8462852.  No significant radio signals were detected in observations carried out from the Allen Telescope Array between October 15-30th (nearly 12 hours each day).  However, there are caveats, namely that the sensitivity and frequency range were limited, and gaps existed in the coverage (e.g., between 6-7 Ghz).

Lead author Gerald Harp and the SETI team discussed the various ideas proposed to explain the anomalous Kepler brightness measurements of KIC 8462852, “The unusual star KIC 8462852 studied by the Kepler space telescope appears to have a large quantity of matter orbiting quickly about it. In transit, this material can obscure more than 20% of the light from that star. However, the dimming does not exhibit the periodicity expected of an accompanying exoplanet.”  The team went on to add that, “Although natural explanations should be favored; e.g., a constellation of comets disrupted by a passing star (Boyajian et al. 2015), or gravitational darkening of an oblate star (Galasyn 2015), it is interesting to speculate that the occluding matter might signal the presence of massive astroengineering projects constructed in the vicinity of KIC 8462582 (Wright, Cartier et al. 2015).”

One such megastructure was discussed in a famous paper by Freeman Dyson (1960), and subsequently designated a ‘Dyson Sphere‘.  In order to accommodate an advanced civilisation’s increasing energy demands, Dyson remarked that, “pressures will ultimately drive an intelligent species to adopt some such efficient exploitation of its available resources. One should expect that, within a few thousand years of its entering the stage of industrial development, any intelligent species should be found occupying an artificial biosphere which completely surrounds its parent star.”  Dyson further proposed that a search be potentially conducted for artificial radio emissions stemming from the vicinity of a target star.

An episode of Star Trek TNG featured a memorable discussion regarding a ‘Dyson Sphere‘.

The SETI team summarized Dyson’s idea by noting that Solar panels could serve to capture starlight as a source of sustainable energy, and likewise highlighted that other, “large-scale structures might be built to serve as possible habitats (e.g., “ring worlds”), or as long-lived beacons to signal the existence of such civilizations to technologically advanced life in other star systems by occluding starlight in a manner not characteristic of natural orbiting bodies (Arnold 2013).”  Indeed, bright variable stars such as the famed Cepheid stars have been cited as potential beacons.

The Universe Today’s Fraser Cain discusses a ‘Dyson Sphere‘.

If a Dyson Sphere encompassed the Kepler catalogued star, the SETI team were seeking in part to identify spacecraft that may service a large structure and could be revealed by a powerful wide bandwidth signal.  The team concluded that their radio observations did not reveal any significant signal stemming from the star (e.g., Fig 1 below).  Yet as noted above, the sensitivity was limited to above 100 Jy and the frequency range was restricted to 1-10 Ghz, and gaps existed in that coverage.

Fig 1 from Harp et al. 2015 ( indicating the lack of signal detected for the Kepler star (black symbols).
Fig 1 from Harp et al. (2015) conveys the lack of radio waves emerging from the star KIC 8462852 (black symbols), however there were sensitivity and coverage limitations (see text).  The signal emerging from the quasar 3c84 is shown via blue symbols.

What is causing the odd brightness variations seen in the Kepler star KIC 8462852?   Were those anomalous variations a result of an unknown spurious artefact from the telescope itself, a swath of comets temporarily blocking the star’s light, or perhaps something more extravagant.  The latter should not be hailed as the de facto source simply because an explanation is not readily available.  However, the intellectual exercise of contemplating the technology advanced civilisations could construct to address certain needs (e.g., energy) is certainly a worthy venture.

What’s Orbiting KIC 8462852 – Shattered Comet or Alien Megastructure?

“Bizarre.” “Interesting.” “Giant transit”.  That were the reactions of Planet Hunters project volunteers when they got their first look at the light curve of the otherwise normal sun-like star KIC 8462852 nearly.

Of the more than 150,000 stars under constant observation during the four years of NASA’s primary Kepler Mission (2009-2013), this one stands alone for the inexplicable dips in its light. While almost certainly naturally-caused, some have suggested we consider other possibilities.

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist's conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by NASA's Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle
Kepler-11, a sun-like star orbited by six planets. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist’s conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by the Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. During each pass or transit, the star’s light fades in a periodic way. 
Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

You’ll recall that the orbiting Kepler observatory continuously monitored stars in a fixed field of view focused on the constellations Lyra and Cygnus hoping to catch  periodic dips in their light caused by transiting planets. If a drop was seen, more transits were observed to confirm the detection of a new exoplanet.

And catch it did. Kepler found 1,013 confirmed exoplanets in 440 star systems as of January 2015 with 3,199 unconfirmed candidates. Measuring the amount of light the planet temporarily “robbed” from its host star allowed astronomers to determine its diameter, while the length of time between transits yielded its orbital period.

Graph showing the big dip in brightness of KIC 8462852 around 800 days (center) followed after 1500 days whole series of dips of varying magnitude. Credit: Boyajian et. all
Graph showing the big dip in brightness of KIC 8462852 around 800 days (center) followed after 1500 days whole series of dips of varying magnitude up to 22%. The usual drop in light when an exoplanet transits its host star is a fraction of a percent. The star’s normal brightness has been set to “1.00” as a baseline. Credit: Boyajian et. all

Volunteers with the Planet Hunters project, one of many citizen science programs under the umbrella of Zooniverse, harness the power of the human eye to examine Kepler light curves (a graph of a star’s changing light intensity over time), looking for repeating patterns that might indicate orbiting planets. They were the first to meet up with the perplexing KIC 8462852.

A detailed look at a small part of the star’s light curve reveals an unknown, regular variation of its light every 20 days. Superimposed on that is the star’s 0.88 day rotation period. Credit: Boyajian et. all

This magnitude +11.7 star in Cygnus, hotter and half again as big as the Sun, showed dips all over the place. Around Day 800 during Kepler’s run, it faded by 15% then resumed a steady brightness until Days 1510-1570, when it underwent a whole series of dips including one that dimmed the star by 22%. That’s huge! Consider that an exo-Earth blocks only a fraction of a percent of a star’s light; even a Jupiter-sized world, the norm among extrasolar planets, soaks up about a percent.

Exoplanets also show regular, repeatable light curves as they enter, cross and then exit the faces of their host stars. KIC 8462852’s dips are wildly a-periodic.

Could a giant comet breakup followed by those pieces crumbling into even smaller comets be the reason for KIC's erratic changes in brightness? Credit: NASA
Could a giant comet breakup and subsequent cascading breakups of those pieces be behind KIC 8462852’s erratic changes in brightness? Credit: NASA

Whatever’s causing the flickering can’t be a planet. With great care, the researchers ruled out many possibilities: instrumental errors, starspots (like sunspots but on other stars), dust rings seen around young, evolving stars (this is an older star) and pulsations that cover a star with light-sucking dust clouds.

What about a collision between two planets? That would generate lots of material along with huge clouds of dust that could easily choke off a star’s light in rapid and irregular fashion.

A great idea except that dust absorbs light from its host star, warms up and glows in infrared light. We should be able to see this “infrared excess” if it were there, but instead KIC 8462852 beams the expected amount of infrared for a star of its class and not a jot more. There’s also no evidence in data taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) several years previously that a dust-releasing collision happened around the star.

Our featured star shines around 12th magnitude in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Northern Cross) high in the southern sky at nightfall this month. A 6-inch or larger telescope will easily show it. Use this map to get oriented and the map below to get there. Source: Stellarium
Our featured star shines at magnitude +11.7 in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Northern Cross) high in the southern sky at nightfall this month. A 6-inch or larger telescope will easily show it. Use this map to get oriented and the map below to get there. Source: Stellarium

After examining the options, the researchers concluded the best fit might be a shattered comet that continued to fragment into a cascade of smaller comets. Pretty amazing scenario. There’s still dust to account for, but not as much as other scenarios would require.

Detailed map showing stars to around magnitude 12 with the Kepler star identified. It's located only a short distance northeast of the open cluster NGC 6886 in Cygnus. North is up. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Detailed map showing stars to around magnitude 12 with the Kepler star identified. It’s located only a short distance northeast of the open cluster NGC 6886 in Cygnus. North is up. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Being fragile types, comets can crumble all by themselves especially when passing exceptionally near the Sun as sungrazing comets are wont to do in our own Solar System. Or a passing star could disturb the host star’s Oort comet cloud and unleash a barrage of comets into the inner stellar system. It so happens that a red dwarf star lies within about 1000 a.u. (1000 times Earth’s distance from the Sun) of KIC 8462852. No one knows yet whether the star orbits the Kepler star or happens to be passing by. Either way, it’s close enough to get involved in comet flinging.

So much for “natural” explanations. Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale, who oversees the Planet Hunters and the lead author of the paper on KIC 8462852, asked Jason Wright, an assistant professor of astronomy at Penn State, what he thought of the light curves. “Crazy” came to mind as soon he set eyes on them, but the squiggles stirred a thought. Turns out Wright had been working on a paper about detecting transiting megastructures with Kepler.

There are Dyson rings and spheres and this, an illustration of a Dyson swarm. Could this or a variation of it be what we're detecting around KIC? Not likely, but a fun thought experiment. Credit: Wikipedia
There are Dyson rings and spheres and a Dyson swarm depicted here. Could this or a variation of it be what we’re seeing around KIC 8462852? Not likely, but a fun thought experiment. Credit: Wikipedia

In a recent blog, he writes: “The idea is that if advanced alien civilizations build planet-sized megastructures — solar panels, ring worlds, telescopes, beacons, whatever — Kepler might be able to distinguish them from planets.” Let’s assume our friendly aliens want to harness the energy of their home star. They might construct enormous solar panels by the millions and send them into orbit to beam starlight down to their planet’s surface. Physicist Freeman Dyson popularized the idea back in the 1960s. Remember the Dyson Sphere, a giant hypothetical structure built to encompass a star?

From our perspective, we might see the star flicker in irregular ways as the giant panels circled about it. To illustrate this point, Wright came up with a wonderful analogy:

“The analogy I have is watching the shadows on the blinds of people outside a window passing by. If one person is going around the block on a bicycle, their shadow will appear regularly in time and shape (like a regular transiting planet). But crowds of people ambling by — both directions, fast and slow, big and large — would not have any regularity about it at all.  The total light coming through the blinds might vary like — Tabby’s star.”

The Green Bank Telescope is the world's largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT's dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space.
The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

Even Wright admits that the “alien hypothesis” should be seen as a last resort. But to make sure no stone goes  unturned, Wright, Boyajian and several of the Planet Hunters put together a proposal to do a radio-SETI search with the Green Bank 100-meter telescope. In my opinion, this is science at its best. We have a difficult question to answer, so let’s use all the tools at our disposal to seek an answer.

Star with a mystery, KIC 8462852, photographed on Oct. 15, 2015. Credit: Gianluca Masi
KIC 8462852, photographed on Oct. 15, 2015. It’s an F3 V star (yellow-white dwarf) located about 1,480 light years from Earth. Credit: Gianluca Masi

In the end, it’s probably not an alien megastructure, just like the first pulsar signals weren’t sent by LGM-1 (Little Green Men). But whatever’s causing the dips, Boyajian wants astronomers to keep a close watch on KIC 8462852 to find out if and when its erratic light variations repeat. I love a mystery, but  answers are even better.

Faces of the Solar System

“Look, it has a tiny face on it!”

This sentiment was echoed ‘round the web recently, as an image of Pluto’s tiny moon Nix was released by the NASA New Horizons team. Sure, we’ve all been there. Lay back in a field on a lazy July summer’s day, and soon, you’ll see faces of all sorts in the puffy stratocumulus clouds holding the promise of afternoon showers.

Pluto's moon Nix as imaged by New Horizons from 590,000 kilometers distant. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Pluto’s moon Nix as imaged by New Horizons from 590,000 kilometers distant. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

This predilection is so hard-wired into our brains, that often our facial recognition software sees faces where there are none. Certainly, seeing faces is a worthy survival strategy; not only is this aspect of cognition handy in recognizing the friendlies of our own tribe, but it’s also useful in the reading of facial expressions by giving us cues of the myriad ‘tells’ in the social poker game of life.

And yes, there’s a term for the illusion of seeing faces in the visual static: pareidolia. We deal lots with pareidolia in astronomy and skeptical circles. As NASA images of brave new worlds are released, an army of basement bloggers are pouring over them, seeing miniature bigfoots, flowers, and yes, lots of humanoid figures and faces. Two craters and the gash of a trench for a mouth will do.

Now that new images of Pluto and its entourage of moons are pouring in, neural circuits ‘cross the web are misfiring, seeing faces, half-buried alien skeletons and artifacts strewn across Pluto and Charon. Of course, most of these claims are simply hilarious and easily dismissed… no one, for example, thinks the Earth’s Moon is an artificial construct, though its distorted nearside visage has been gazing upon the drama of humanity for millions of years.

Do you see the 'Man in the Moon?' Image credit: Dave Dickinson
Do you see the ‘Man in the Moon?’ Image credit: Dave Dickinson

The psychology of seeing faces is such that a whole region of the occipital lobe of the brain known as the fusiform face area is dedicated to facial recognition. We each have a unique set of neurons that fire in patterns to recognize the faces of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and other celebs (thanks, internet).

Damage this area at the base of the brain or mess with its circuitry, and a condition known as prosopagnosia, or face blindness can occur. Author Oliver Sacks and actor Brad Pitt are just a few famous personalities who suffer from this affliction.

The 'Snowman of Vesta,' as imaged by NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The ‘Snowman of Vesta,’ as imaged by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Conversely, ‘super-recognizers’ at the other end of the spectrum have a keen sense for facial identification that verges on a super-power. True story: my wife has just such a gift, and can immediately spot second-string actors and actresses in modern movies from flicks and television shows decades old.

It would be interesting to know if there’s a correlation between face blindness, super-recognition and seeing faces in the shadows and contrast on distant worlds… to our knowledge, no such study has been conducted. Do super-recognizers see faces in the shadowy ridges and craters of the solar system more or less than everyone else?

A well-known example was the infamous ‘Face on Mars.’ Imaged by the Viking 1 orbiter in 1976, this half in shadow image looked like a human face peering back up at us from the surface of the Red Planet from the Cydonia region.

Image credit: The 'Face on Mars': HiRISE vs Viking 1 (inset): Image credit: NASA/JPL
Image credit: The ‘Face on Mars’: HiRISE vs Viking 1 (inset): Image credit: NASA/JPL

But when is a face not a face?

Now, it’s not an entirely far-fetched idea that an alien entity visiting the solar system would place something (think the monolith on the Moon from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) for us to find. The idea is simple: place such an artifact so that it not only sticks out like a sore thumb, but also so it isn’t noticed until we become a space-faring society. Such a serious claim would, however, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, demand serious and rigorous evidence.

But instead of ‘Big NASA’ moving to cover up the ‘face,’ they did indeed re-image the region with both the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Global Surveyor at a much higher resolution. Though the 1.5 kilometer feature is still intriguing from a geological perspective… it’s now highly un-facelike in appearance.

A 'face' or... more fun with 'scifi spacecraft pareidolia. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Paramount Pictures
A ‘face’ or… more fun with ‘scifi spacecraft pareidolia.’ Image credit: NASA/JPL/Paramount Pictures

Of course, it won’t stop the deniers from claiming it was all a big cover-up… but if that were the case, why release such images and make them freely available online? We’ve worked in the military before, and can attest that NASA is actually the most transparent of government agencies.

We also know the click bait claims of all sorts of alleged sightings will continue to crop up across the web, with cries of ‘Wake up, Sheeople!’ (usually in all caps) as a brave band of science-writing volunteers continue to smack down astro-pareidolia on a pro bono basis in battle of darkness and light which will probably never end.

What examples of astro-pareidolia have you come across in your exploits?

Krafft Ehricke’s Extraterrestrial Imperative

Krafft Ehricke’s Extraterrestrial Imperative

What if you believe in something with all your heart and it still doesn’t come true? If you’re Krafft Ehricke then you tell everyone that you can and hope that all together you can make it happen. At least that’s the message from Marsha Freeman’s semi-biography “Krafft Ehricke’s Extraterrestrial Imperative“. Though reading this book may tell you only a bit of Ehricke’s life, it will tell you a lot more about his dreams that he apparently worked toward, with all his heart.

Krafft Ehricke was a compatriot of Wernher von Braun. Both were Germans who brought the V2 rocket into production. After the war, Ehricke joined the German rocketeer group that travelled to the US. There he made significant contributions to the US space program especially with the Centaur upper stage. It, together with the Atlas rocket, made the solar system accessible to humankind. It was also a crowning achievement of Ehricke’s.

While this book provides a little more description of Ehricke’s life, it’s mostly a collection of Ehricke’s efforts to keep space exploration alive. With the Apollo program funding starting to decrease in 1965, Ehricke apparently took it upon himself to advocate for continued and even augmented expenditures.

He describes the Moon as Earth’s seventh continent. He continually vouchsafes space as being a resource to counter the limits to growth dogma of the 1970s. He also wrote of three Laws of Astronautics; the first being that the only limits of humankind are ones placed by himself. The book’s author uses lectures, documents and letters to support this impression of almost frenzied desire to get humankind space bound.

Accompanying these are many illustrative examples of technical solutions; fusion reactors to support life on the Moon, automated vehicles to prepare landing surfaces on the Moon, and, a fictional account of a trip from low Earth orbit to the Martian surface, and back of course. Together, these show a person keenly interested in and technically capable of getting humanity space bound.

This book does great credit to Ehricke’s extraterrestrial imperative. But, it reflects only on this part of his life. As we know, this part, to have humans space bound, remains for humanity to accomplish. As well, the technical capability remains. Still humanity looks for the necessary desire to make it happen. This book has many logical, reasonable, rational arguments for putting people into space.

Yet, these are from a person writing them 40 years ago. Many of the arguments remain and we are still Earth bound. So while the book has some description of Ehricke and a lot of Ehricke’s passion, it is a reflection of what was and adds little to current initiatives to return people to space.

It is surprising to many that the Apollo program began winding down long before a human stepped upon the Moon’s surface. Yet, many recognized the implication of this retreat and sought to do something about it. Marsha Freeman’s book “Krafft Ehricke’s Extraterrestrial Imperative” describes one man’s passionate efforts to keep this dream alive. Sadly, it is still a dream, shared by many but no more real than from many years ago.

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