Astronomers See the Wreckage from a Collision Between Exoplanets

The history of our Solar System is punctuated with collisions. Collisions helped create the terrestrial planets and end the reign of the dinosaurs. And a massive collision between Earth and an ancient body named Theia likely created the Moon.

Now astronomers have found of evidence of a collision between two exoplanets in a distant solar system.

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What Will the James Webb Space Telescope See? A Whole Bunch of Dust, That’s What

When it comes to the first galaxies, the James Webb Space Telescope will attempt to understand the formation of those galaxies and their link to the underlying dark matter. In case you didn’t know, most of the matter in our universe is invisible (a.k.a. “dark”), but its gravity binds everything together, including galaxies. So by studying galaxies – and especially their formation – we can get some hints as to how dark matter works. At least, that’s the hope. It turns out that astronomy is a little bit more complicated than that, and one of the major things we have to deal with when studying these distant galaxies is dust. A lot of dust.

That’s right: good old-fashioned dust. And thanks to some fancy simulations, we’re beginning to clear up the picture.

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We May Soon Be Able To See the First, Supergiant Stars in the Universe

We need to talk about the dark ages. No, not those dark ages after the fall of the western Roman Empire. The cosmological dark ages. The time in our universe, billions of years ago, before the formation of the first stars. And we need to talk about the cosmic dawn: the birth of those first stars, a tumultuous epoch that completely reshaped the face the cosmos into its modern form.

Those first stars may have been completely unlike anything we see in the present universe. And we may, if we’re lucky, be on the cusp of seeing them for the first time.

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This Star Killed its Companion and is now Escaping the Milky Way

Our universe is capable of some truly frightening scenarios, and in this case we have an apparent tragedy: two stars, lifelong companions, decide to move away from the Milky Way galaxy together. But after millions of years of adventure into intergalactic space, one star murders and consumes the other. It now continues its journey through the universe alone, much brighter than before, surrounded by a shell of leftover remnants.

At least, we think. All we have to go on right now is a crime scene.

Let’s investigate.

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Stars Are The Universe’s Neat Freaks

Imagine, if you will, that the Universe was once a much dirtier place than it is today. Imagine also that what we see around us, a relatively clean and unobscured Universe, is the result of billions of years of stars behaving like giant celestial Roombas, cleaning up the space around them in preparation for our arrival. According to a set of recently published catalogues, which detail the latest findings from the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory, this description is actually quite fitting.

These catalogues represents the work of an international team of over 100 astronomers who have spent the past seven years analyzing the infrared images taken by the Herschel Astrophysical Terahertz Large Area Survey (Herschel-ATLAS). Presented earlier this week at the National Astronomy Meeting in Nottingham, this catalogue revealed that 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the Universe looked much different than it does today.

In order to put this research into context, it is important to understand the important of infrared astronomy. Prior to the deployment of missions like Herschel (which was launched in 2009), astronomers were unable to see a good portion of the light emitted by stars and galaxies. With roughly half of this light being absorbed by interstellar dust grains, research into the birth and lives of galaxies was difficult.

But thanks to surveys like Herschel ATLAS – as well NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) – astronomers have been able to account for this missing energy. And what they have seen (especially from this latest survey) has been quite remarkable, presenting a Universe that is far denser than previously expected.

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI
Artist’s impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI

Professor Haley Gomez of Cardiff University presented this catalogue during the third day of the National Astronomy Meeting (which ran from June 27th to July 1st). As she told Universe Today via email:

“The Herschel survey is the largest one of the sky in these special infrared light. Because of this we see rare objects that we might not see in a smaller patch of sky, but also we now see hundreds of thousands of dusty galaxies, compared to the few hundred we saw in previous telescopes. So this is a massive improvement in terms of knowing what kinds of galaxies there are. Some of these are so covered in dust we might never had seen them using visible light telescopes. Because of the unprecedented large area we have with this Herschel survey, we see a huge variety in the type of objects too, from nearby dusty star forming clouds, to nearby dusty galaxies like Andromeda, to galaxies that shone their infrared light more than 12 billion years ago.  We can also use this survey to understand the structure of galaxies in the universe – the so-called cosmic web in a way we’ve never been able to do in the far infrared.”

The images they showed gave all those present a glimpse of the unseen stars and galaxies that have existed over the last 12 billion years of cosmic history. In sum,  over half-a-million far-infrared sources have been spotted by the Herschel-ATLAS survey. Many of these sources were galaxies that are nearby and similar to our own, and which are detectable using using conventional telescopes.

The others were much more distant, their light taking billions of years to reach us, and were obscured by concentrations of cosmic dust. The most distant of these galaxies were roughly 12 billion light-years away, which means that they appeared as they would have 12 billion years ago.

Herschel fig2smallAn illustration of the time reach of the Herschel ATLAS and the kinds of objects it has discovered. Credit: Herschel-ATLAS/ESA/ALMA/ NRAO
Herschel fig2smallAn illustration of the time reach of the Herschel ATLAS and the kinds of objects it has discovered. Credit: Herschel-ATLAS/ESA/ALMA/ NRAO

Ergo, astronomers now know that 12 billion years ago (i.e. shortly after the Big Bang)., stars and galaxies were much dustier than they are now. They further concluded that the evolution of our galaxies since shortly after the Big Bang has essentially been a major clean-up effort, as stars gradually absorbed the dust that obscured their light, thus making it the more “visible” place it is today.

The data released by the survey includes several maps and additional files which were described in an article produced by Dr. Elisabetta Valiante and a research team from Cardiff University – titled “The Herschel-ATLAS Data Release 1 Paper I: Maps, Catalogues and Number Counts“. As Dr. Valiante told Universe Today via email:

“Gas and dust are the main components of stars: they collapse to form stars and they are ejected at the end of stars’ life. The interesting thing that has been discovered thanks to the Herschel data is that the two phenomena are not in equilibrium. We knew this was true 10 billion years ago, but we expected, according to the current models, that some equilibrium was reached at more recent times. Instead, the amount of dust in galaxies 5 billion years ago was much larger than the amount we see in galaxies today: this was unexpected.”

Until recently, such a survey would have been impossible due to the fact that many of these infrared sources would have  been invisible to astronomers. The reason for this, which was revealed by the survey, was that these galaxies were so dusty that they would have been virtually impossible to detect with conventional optics. What’s more, their light would have been gravitationally magnified by intervening galaxies.

"This dazzling infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. In visible-light pictures, this region cannot be seen at all because dust lying between Earth and the galactic center blocks our view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Infrared images (like the one captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope here) show countless stars and galaxies that are obscured in visible-light by cosmic dust. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The huge size of the survey has also meant that changes that have occurred in galaxies – relatively recent in cosmic history – can be studied for the first time. For instance, the survey showed that even only one billion years in the past, a small fraction of the age of the universe, galaxies were forming stars at a faster rate and contained more dust than they do today.

Dr. Nathan Bourne – from the University of Edinburgh – is the lead author of another other paper describing the catalogues. As he told Universe Today via email:

“We can think of galaxies as big recycling machines. When they form, they accrete gas (mostly hydrogen and helium, with traces of lithium and a couple of other elements) from the universe around them, and they turn it into stars. As time goes on, the stars pump this gas back out into the galaxy, into the interstellar medium. Due to the nuclear processes within the stars, the gas is now enriched by heavy elements (what we call metals, though they include both metals and non-metals), and some of these form microscopic solid particles of dust, as a sort of by-product.

“But there are still stars forming, and the next generations of stars recycle this interstellar material, and now that it contains heavy elements and dust, things are a bit different, and planets can also form around the new stars, from accumulations of this heavy material. So, if you look at the big picture, when the first galaxies started forming within the first billion years after the Big Bang, they began using up the gas around them, and then while they are active they fill their interstellar medium up with gas and dust, but by the end of a galaxy’s lifecycle, it has used up all this gas and dust, and you could say that it has cleaned itself.”

The catalogues and maps of the hidden universe are a triumph for the Herschel team. Despite the fact that the last information obtained by the Herschel observatory was back in 2013, the maps and catalogues produced from its years of service have become vital to astronomers. In addition to showing the Universe’s hidden energy, they are also laying the groundwork for future research.

. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA (top), NASA/DIRBE Team/COBE/ (bottom)
IR images of the entire sky take by the WISE All-Sky Data Release (top), and a projection of the IR sky created by images taken by the COBE spacecraft (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA (top), NASA/DIRBE Team/COBE/ (bottom)

“Now we need to explain why there is dust where we did not expect to find it.” said Valiante. “And to explain this, we need to change our theories about how the Universe evolves. Our data poses a challenge we have accepted, but we haven’t overcome it yet!”

“[W]e understand a lot more about how galaxies evolve,” added Bourne, “about when most of the stars formed, what happens to the gas and dust as galaxies evolve, and how rapidly the star-forming activity in the Universe as a whole has faded in the latter half of the Universe’s history. It’s fair to say that this understanding comes from having a whole suite of different types of instruments studying different aspects of galaxies in complementary ways, but Herschel has certainly contributed a major part of that effort and will have a lasting legacy.”

Ensuring Herschel’s lasting legacy is one of the main aims of the Herschel Extragalactic Project (HELP) program, which is overseen by the EU Research Executive Agency. Other projects they oversee include the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey (HerMES), which also released survey data late last month. All of this has left a lasting mark on the field of astronomy, despite the fact that Herschel is no longer in operation. As Professor Gomez said of the Herschel Observatory’s enduring contributions:

“The Herschel Space Observatory stopped taking data in 2013, yet our understanding of the dusty universe is really only just starting with the release of large surveys and galaxy catalogues in recent months. Ultimately, once astronomers have gone through all the valuable data, Herschel will have provided a view of the infrared universe covering 1000 square degrees of the sky.”

The implications of these findings are also likely to have a far-reaching effect, ranging from cosmology and astronomy, to perhaps shedding some light on that tricky Fermi paradox. Could it be intelligent life that emerged billions of years ago didn’t venture to other star systems because they couldn’t see them? Just a thought…

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society, ESA

NASA Discovers 72 New Asteroids Near Earth

Of the more than 600,000 known asteroids in our Solar System, almost 10 000 are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). These are asteroids or comets whose orbits bring them close to Earth’s, and which could potentially collide with us at some point in the future. As such, monitoring these objects is a vital part of NASA’s ongoing efforts in space. One such mission is NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), which has been active since December 2013.

And now, after two years of study, the information gathered by the mission is being released to the public. This included, most recently, NEOWISE’s second year of survey data, which accounted for 72 previously unknown objects that orbit near to our planet. Of these, eight were classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), based on their size and how closely their orbits approach Earth.

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Do Comets Explain Mystery Star’s Bizarre Behavior?

The story of KIC 8462852 appears far from over. You’ll recall NASA’s Kepler mission had monitored the star for four years, observing two unusual incidents, in 2011 and 2013, when its light dimmed in dramatic, never-before-seen ways. Models to explain its erratic behavior were so lacking that some considered the possibility that alien megastructures built to capture sunlight around the host star (think Dyson Spheres) might be the cause.

But a search using the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array for two weeks in October detected no significant radio signals or other signs of intelligent life emanating from the star’s vicinity. Something had passed in front of the star and blocked its light, but what?

The Spitzer Space Telescope observatory trails behind Earth as it orbits the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Spitzer Space Telescope observatory trails behind Earth as it orbits the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Shattered comets and asteroids were also suggested as possible explanations — dust and ground-up rock would be at the right temperature to glow in the infrared — but Kepler could only observe in visible light where any debris would be invisible or swamped by the light of the star. So researchers looked through older observations made in 2010 by the  Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope. Unfortunately, WISE observed the star before the strange variations were seen and therefore before any putative dust-busting collisions.

Not to be stymied, astronomers next checked out the data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which like WISE, is optimized for infrared light.  Spitzer just happened to observe KIC 8462852 much more recently in 2015.

“Spitzer has observed all of the hundreds of thousands of stars where Kepler hunted for planets, in the hope of finding infrared emission from circumstellar dust,” said Michael Werner, the Spitzer project scientist and the lead investigator of that particular Spitzer/Kepler observing program.

Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3) as imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope. The images was taken January 10, 2010 when the comet was 2.5AU from the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3)  imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope in January 2010. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

I’d love to report that Spitzer tracked down glowing dust but no, it also came up empty-handed. This makes the idea of an asteroidal smash-up very unlikely, but not one involving comets according to Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University (Ames) who led the new study. Marengo proposes that cold comets are responsible. Picture a family of comets traveling on a very long, eccentric orbit around the star with a very large comet at the head of the pack responsible for the big fading seen by Kepler in 2011. Later, in 2013, the rest of the comet family, a band of various-sized fragments lagging behind, would have passed in front of the star and again blocked its light. By 2015, the comets would have moved even farther away on their long orbital journey, leaving no detectable infrared excess.

“This is a very strange star,” said Marengo. “It reminds me of when we first discovered pulsars. They were emitting odd signals nobody had ever seen before, and the first one discovered was named LGM-1 after ‘Little Green Men.'”

Clearly, more long-term observations are needed. And frankly, I’m still puzzled why cold or less active comets might still not be detected by their glowing dust. But let’s assume for a moment the the comet idea is correct. If so, we should expect to see similar dips in KIC 8462852’s light as the comet swarm swings around again.

More Evidence that the Milky Way has Four Spiral Arms

Astronomers have been arguing over just how many spiral arms our Galaxy exhibits. Is the Milky Way a four or two-armed spiral galaxy? Astronomers had often assumed the Milky Way was potentially a four-armed spiral galaxy, but comparatively recent observations from NASA’s Spitzer telescope implied the Galaxy had two spiral arms.  In 2013, astronomers mapped star forming regions and argued they had found the two missing arms, bringing the total number of arms back to four.

The case for a four-armed Milky Way may have just gotten stronger.

A team of Brazilian astronomers used star clusters embedded in their natal clouds to trace the Galaxy’s structure. “Our results favour a four-armed spiral Galaxy, which includes the Sagittarius-Carina, Perseus, and Outer arms.”, remarked the group from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul.

Image credit: Urquhart JS et al / Robert Hurt, the Spitzer Science Center / Robert Benjamin.
Spiral map of the Galaxy by Urquhart et al. 2013 (image credit: Urquhart et al. 2013, R. Hurt, the Spitzer Science Center, R. Benjamin).

“Despite efforts aimed at improving our understanding of the Galaxy’s structure, questions remain. There is no consensus regarding the number and shape of the Galaxy’s spiral arms.”, noted lead author D. Camargo.  He added that the Sun’s location within the obscured disc of the Galaxy was a principal factor hindering our understanding of the Milky Way’s broader structure.  In other words, we do not have a bird’s eye view of our Galaxy.

The team remarked that young embedded clusters are excellent tracers of the Galaxy’s structure, “The present results indicate that the Galaxy’s embedded clusters are predominantly located in the spiral arms.”  They noted that star formation may occur after the collapse and fragmentation of giant molecular clouds found within spiral arms, and consequently the young embedded star clusters that subsequently emerge are excellent probes of Galactic structure as they have not displaced far from their birthplace.

A projected face-on view of the distribution of embedded star clusters studied by Camargo et al. 2015. The objects appear to lie on the Sagittarius-Carina spiral arm, Perseus arm, and potentially an extension of the Outer arm (image credit: Camargo et al. 2015).

The team used data from NASA’s WISE infrared telescope to identify young clusters still embedded in their natal clouds, which are often encompassed by significant dust.  Infrared stellar light is less obscured by dust than visible light, giving the astronomers an unprecedented view.  Indeed, the group discovered 7 new embedded clusters, several of which (designated Camargo 441-444) may belong to a larger aggregate that resides in the Perseus arm.   They suggested that a giant molecular cloud was compressed by the spiral arm which may have triggered star formation in several clumps, and numerous star clusters with similar ages emerged (an alternative or concurrent scenario is sequential formation).

Astronomer A. Mainzer discusses NASA’s WISE telescope (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer), which was used by Camargo et al. 2015 to identify embedded star clusters.

The team also used near-infrared data from the 2MASS survey to determine distances for the star clusters, once the objects were identified in the WISE images.  A primary goal of their work was to establish accurate fundamental cluster parameters, which would bolster any resulting conclusions concerning the Galaxy’s overall structure.   An innovative algorithm was therefore adopted to minimize contamination by foreground and background stars along the sight-line, which may otherwise appear as cluster members and degrade the reliability of any distant estimates.

“The embedded clusters in the present sample are distributed along the Sagittarius-Carina, Perseus, and Outer arms.”, concluded the team. They likewise noted that the search for new embedded clusters throughout the entire Galaxy must continue unabated, since such targets may foster our understanding of the Galaxy’s structure.

The discoveries are described in a new study by D. Camargo, C. Bonatto, and E. Bica that is entitled “Tracing the Galactic spiral structure with embedded clusters”. The research has been accepted for publication, and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS).  A preprint of the work is available on arXiv.

100,000 Galaxies, and No Obvious Signs of Life

Beam us up, Scotty. There’s no signs of intelligent life out there. At least, no obvious signs, according to a recent survey performed by researchers at Penn State University. After reviewing data taken by the NASA Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope of over 100,000 galaxies, there appears to be little evidence that advanced, spacefaring civilizations exist in any of them.

First deployed in 2009, the WISE mission has been able to identify thousands of asteroids in our solar system and previously undiscovered star clusters in our galaxy. However, Jason T. Wright, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, conceived of and initiated a new field of research – using the infrared data to assist in the search for signs of extra-terrestrial civilizations.

And while their first look did not yield much in the way of results, it is an exciting new area of research and provides some very useful information on one of the greatest questions ever asked: are we alone in the universe?

“The idea behind our research is that, if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced spacefaring civilization, the energy produced by that civilization’s technologies would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths,” said Wright, “exactly the radiation that the WISE satellite was designed to detect for other astronomical purposes.”

This logic is in keeping with the theories of Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev and theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. In 1964, Kardashev proposed that a civilization’s level of technological advancement could be measured based on the amount of energy that civilization is able to utilize.

Freemon Dyson theorized that eventually, a civilization would be able to build a megastructure around its star to capture all its energy. Credit: SentientDevelopments.com
Freemon Dyson theorized that eventually, a civilization would be able to enclose its star with a megastructure that would to capture and utilize its energy. Credit: sentientdevelopments.com

To characterize the level of extra-terrestrial development, Kardashev developed a three category system – Type I, II, and III civilizations –  known as the “Kardashev Scale”. A Type I civilization uses all available resources on its home planet, while a Type II is able to harness all the energy of its star. Type III civilizations are those that are advanced enough to harness the energy of their entire galaxy.

Similarly, Dyson proposed in 1960 that advanced alien civilizations beyond Earth could be detected by the telltale evidence of their mid-infrared emissions. Believing that a sufficiently advanced civilization would be able to enclose their parent star, he believed it would be possible to search for extraterrestrials by looking for large objects radiating in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

These thoughts were expressed in a short paper submitted to the journal Science, entitled “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation“. In it, Dyson proposed that an advanced species would use artificial structures – now referred to as “Dyson Spheres” (though he used the term “shell” in his paper) – to intercept electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths from visible light downwards and radiating waste heat outwards as infrared radiation.

“Whether an advanced spacefaring civilization uses the large amounts of energy from its galaxy’s stars to power computers, space flight, communication, or something we can’t yet imagine, fundamental thermodynamics tells us that this energy must be radiated away as heat in the mid-infrared wavelengths,” said Wright. “This same basic physics causes your computer to radiate heat while it is turned on.”

Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, will scan the entire sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images
The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) scans the entire sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, it was not until space-based telescopes like WISE were deployed that it became possible to make sensitive measurements of this radiation. WISE is one of three infrared missions currently in space, the other two being NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory – a European Space Agency mission with important NASA participation.

WISE is different from these missions in that it surveys the entire sky and is designed to cast a net wide enough to catch all sorts of previously unseen cosmic interests. And there are few things more interesting than the prospect of advanced alien civilizations!

To search for them, Roger Griffith – a postbaccalaureate researcher at Penn State and the lead author of the paper – and colleagues scoured the entries in the WISE satellites database looking for evidence of a galaxy that was emitting too much mid-infrared radiation. He and his team then individually examined and categorized 100,000 of the most promising galaxy images.

And while they didn’t find any obvious signs of a Type II civilization or Dyson Spheres in any of them, they did find around 50 candidates that showed unusually high levels of mid-infrared radiation. The next step will be to confirm whether or not these signs are due to natural astronomical processes, or could be an indication of a highly advanced civilization tapping their parent star for energy.

WISE will find the most luminous galaxies in the universe -- incredibly energetic objects bursting with new stars. The infrared telescope can see the glow of dust that shrouds these galaxies, hiding them from visible-light telescopes. An example of a dusty, luminous galaxy is shown here in this infrared portrait of the "Cigar" galaxy taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Dust is color-coded red, and starlight blue. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Steward Observatory
WISE will take images of the most luminous galaxies in the universe, such as the “Cigar” galaxy shown here – taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Steward Observatory

In any case, the team’s findings were quite interesting and broke new ground in what is sure to be an ongoing area of research. The only previous study, according to the G-HAT team, surveyed only about 100 galaxies, and was unable to examine them in the infrared to see how much heat they emitted. What’s more, the research may help shed some light on the burning questions about the very existence of intelligent, extra-terrestrial life in our universe.

“Our results mean that, out of the 100,000 galaxies that WISE could see in sufficient detail, none of them is widely populated by an alien civilization using most of the starlight in its galaxy for its own purposes,” said Wright. “That’s interesting because these galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations, if they exist. Either they don’t exist, or they don’t yet use enough energy for us to recognize them.”

Alas, it seems we are no closer to resolving the Fermi Paradox. But for the first time, it seems that investigations into the matter are moving beyond theoretical arguments. And given time, and further refinements in our detection methods, who knows what we might find lurking out there? The universe is very, very big place, after all.

The research team’s first research paper about their Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies Survey (G-HAT) survey appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series on April 15, 2015.

Further Reading: Astrophysical Journal via EurekAlert, JPL-NASA

Mars Loses an Ocean But Gains the Potential for Life

It’s hard to believe it now looking at Mars’ dusty, dessicated landscape that it once possessed a vast ocean. A recent NASA study of the Red Planet using the world’s most powerful infrared telescopes clearly indicate a planet that sustained a body of water larger than the Earth’s Arctic Ocean.

If spread evenly across the Martian globe, it would have covered the entire surface to a depth of about 450 feet (137 meters). More likely, the water pooled into the low-lying plains that cover much of Mars’ northern hemisphere. In some places, it would have been nearly a mile (1.6 km) deep. 

Three of the best infrared observatories in the world were used to study normal to heavy water abundances in Mars atmosphere, especially the polar caps, to create a global map of the planet's water content and infer an ancient ocean. Credit: NASA/ GSFC
Three of the best infrared observatories in the world were used to study normal to heavy water abundances in Mars atmosphere, especially the polar caps, to create a global map of the planet’s water content and infer an ancient ocean. Credit: NASA/ GSFC

Now here’s the good part. Before taking flight molecule-by-molecule into space, waves lapped the desert shores for more than 1.5 billion years – longer than the time life needed to develop on Earth. By implication, life had enough time to get kickstarted on Mars, too.

A hydrogen atom is made up of one proton and one electron, but its heavy form, called deuterium, also contains a neutron. HDO or heavy water is rare compared to normal drinking water, but being heavier, more likely to stick around when the lighter form vaporizes into space. Credit: NASA/GFSC
A hydrogen atom is made up of one proton and one electron, but its heavy form, called deuterium, also contains a neutron. HDO or heavy water is rare compared to normal drinking water, but being heavier, more likely to stick around when the lighter form vaporizes into space. Credit: NASA/GFSC

Using the three most powerful infrared telescopes on Earth – the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the ESO’s Very Large Telescope and NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility – scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center studied water molecules in the Martian atmosphere. The maps they created show the distribution and amount of two types of water – the normal H2O version we use in our coffee and HDO or heavy water, rare on Earth but not so much on Mars as it turns out.

Maps showing the distribution of H20 and HDO across the planet made with the trio of infrared telescopes. Credit: NASA/GSFC
Maps showing the distribution of H20 and HDO (heavy water) across the planet made with the trio of infrared telescopes. Credit: NASA/GSFC

In heavy water, one of the hydrogen atoms contains a neutron in addition to its lone proton, forming an isotope of hydrogen called deuterium. Because deuterium is more massive than regular hydrogen, heavy water really is heavier than normal water just as its name implies. The new “water maps” showed how the ratio of normal to heavy water varied across the planet according to location and season. Remarkably, the new data show the polar caps, where much of Mars’ current-day water is concentrated, are highly enriched in deuterium.

It's thought that
It’s thought that the decay of Mars’ once-global magnetic field, the solar wind stripped away much of the planet’s early, thicker atmosphere, allowing solar UV light to break water molecules apart. Lighter hydrogen exited into space, concentrating the heavier form. Some of the hydrogen may also departed due to the planet’s weak gravity. Credit: NASA/GSFC

On Earth, the ratio of deuterium to normal hydrogen in water is 1 to 3,200, but at the Mars polar caps it’s 1 to 400.  Normal, lighter hydrogen is slowly lost to space once a small planet has lost its protective atmosphere envelope, concentrating the heavier form of hydrogen. Once scientists knew the deuterium to normal hydrogen ratio, they could directly determine how much water Mars must have had when it was young. The answer is A LOT!

Goddard scientists estimate that only 13% of Mars' original water reserves are still around today, concentrated in the icy polar caps. The rest took off for space. Credit: NASA/GSFC
Goddard scientists estimate that only 13% of Mars’ original water reserves are still around today, concentrated in the icy polar caps. The rest took off for space. Credit: NASA/GSFC

Only 13% of the original water remains on the planet, locked up primarily in the polar regions, while 87% of the original ocean has been lost to space. The most likely place for the ocean would have been the northern plains, a vast, low-elevation region ideal for cupping huge quantities of water. Mars would have been a much more earth-like planet back then with a thicker atmosphere, providing the necessary pressure, and warmer climate to sustain the ocean below.

Mars at the present time has little to no liquid water on its cold, desert-like surface. Long ago, the Sun saw its reflection from wave-rippled lakes and a northern ocean. Credit: NASA/GSFC
Mars at the present time has little to no liquid water on its cold, desert-like surface. Long ago, the Sun almost certainly saw its reflection from wave-rippled lakes and a northern ocean. Credit: NASA/GSFC

What’s most exciting about the findings is that Mars would have stayed wet much longer than originally thought. We know from measurements made by the Curiosity Rover that water flowed on the planet for 1.5 billion years after its formation. But the new study shows that the Mars sloshed with the stuff much longer. Given that the first evidence for life on Earth goes back to 3.5 billion years ago – just a billion years after the planet’s formation – Mars may have had time enough for the evolution of life.

So while we might bemoan the loss of so wonderful a thing as an ocean, we’re left with the tantalizing possibility that it was around long enough to give rise to that most precious of the universe’s creations – life.

To quote Charles Darwin: “… from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Illustration showing Mars evolving from a wet world to the present-day Red Planet. Credit: NASA/GSFC
Illustration showing Mars evolving from a wet world to the present-day where liquid water can’t pond on its surface without vaporizing directly into the planet’s thin air. As Mars lost its atmosphere over billions of years, the remaining water, cooled and condensed to form the north and south polar caps. Credit: NASA/GSFC