Endless blinding white ice as far as the eye can see. This is the common scene from the window of planes delivering researchers to Antarctica. However, this is not always the case. While there are mountain ranges and valleys, for a recent research expedition, a large ringed structure came into view on the King Baudouin ice shelf as they were beginning aerial surveys.
Geophysicist Christian Mueller with the Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Germany, was looking out the window of an instrument laden plane when the previously unknown ringed formation, 2000 meters (1.24 miles) in diameter, came into view. Looking into research publications, he found evidence that this may be a meteorite impact event from 2004.
The discovery occurred on December 20th from the AWI Polar 6 aircraft as they were flying over the Princess Ragnhild Coast. The formation is located on the King Baudouin Ice Shelf not far from their landing site at Princess Elizabeth station.
Two studies were found in the literature by the researchers which pointed to a possible impact event over east Antarctica in 2004. Triangulation of infrasound monitoring data pointed to the area where the ringed formation is located. The infrasound monitoring sites are located worldwide and primarily used to detect nuclear testing events. On February 15, 2013, the same type of data was used to better understand the asteroid explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia.
The second study involved local observations. A separate set of researchers, located at Davis Station, an Australian base off the coast of east Antarctica, reported seeing a dust trail in the upper atmosphere during the same time.
Researcher Mueller stated in the AWI provided video, “I looked out of the window, and I saw an unusual structure on the surface of the ice. There was some broken ice looking like icebergs, which is very unusual on a normally flat ice shelf, surrounded by a large, wing-shaped, circular structure.” Altogether, the AWI researchers said that they make the claim “without any confidence.” They intend to request funding to make followup studies to determine its origin.
Cheryl Santa Maria, of the Digital Reporter, also reported that there are survey images showing this structure that date back 25 years. Furthermore, a story by LiveScience quoted Dr. Peter Brown of Centre of Planetary Science and Exploration at the University of Western Ontario as stating that the size of a meteorite is roughly 5 to 10% of the impact crater’s diameter. This would indicate an impactor about 100 meters in size and much larger than the estimated size of the event as estimated by infrasound data from 2004.
The infrasound data estimated that the asteroid was probably the size of a house, about 10 meters (33 feet) across. In contrast, the asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, had an estimated size of 20 meters. Dr. Brown was quoted as expressing doubt that the formation is an impact site. The effects of a 100 meter object would have been much more distinctive and likely more readily detected by researchers located in eastern Antarctica. Thus, reporting of the ring formation by the AWI researchers is bringing to light additional information and comments from experts that raises doubts. Follow up studies will be necessary to determine the true origins of the ringed structured.
How can astrobiologists find extraterrestrial life? In everyday life, we usually don’t have any problem telling that a dog or a rosebush is a living thing and a rock isn’t. In the climatic scene of the movie ‘Europa Report’ we can tell at a glance that the multi-tentacled creature discovered swimming in the ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa is alive, complicated, and quite possibly intelligent.
But unless something swims, walks, crawls, or slithers past the cameras of a watching spacecraft, astrobiologists face a much tougher job. They need to devise tests that will allow them to infer the presence of alien microbial life from spacecraft data. They need to be able to recognize fossil traces of past alien life. They need to be able to determine whether the atmospheres of distant planets circling other stars contain the tell-tale traces of unfamiliar forms of life. They need ways to infer the presence of life from knowledge of its properties. A definition of life would tell them what those properties are, and how to look for them. This is the first of a two part series exploring how our concept of life influences the search for extraterrestrial life.
What is it that sets living things apart? For centuries, philosophers and scientists have sought an answer. The philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) devoted a great deal of effort to dissecting animals and studying living things. He supposed that they had distinctive special capacities that set them apart from things that aren’t alive. Inspired by the mechanical inventions of his times, the Renaissance philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed that living things were like clockwork machines, their special capacities deriving from the way their parts were organized.
In 1944, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) wrote What is Life? In it, he proposed that the fundamental phenomena of life, including even how parents pass on their traits to their offspring, could be understood by studying the physics and chemistry of living things. Schrödinger’s book was an inspiration to the science of molecular biology.
Living organisms are made of large complicated molecules with backbones of linked carbon atoms. Molecular biologists were able to explain many of the functions of life in terms of these organic molecules and the chemical reactions they undergo when dissolved in liquid water. In 1955 James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and showed how it could be the storehouse of hereditary information passed from parent to offspring.
While all this research and theorizing has vastly increased our understanding of life, it hasn’t produced a satisfactory definition of life; a definition that would allow us to reliably distinguish things that are alive from things that aren’t. In 2012 the philosopher Edouard Mahery argued that coming up with a single definition of life was both impossible and pointless. Astrobiologists get by as best they can with definitions that are partial, and that have exceptions. Their search is conditioned by our knowledge of the specific features of life on Earth; the only life we currently know.
Here on Earth, living things are distinctive in their chemical composition. Besides carbon, the elements hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur are particularly important to the large organic molecules that make up terrestrial life. Water is a necessary solvent. Since we don’t know for sure what else might be possible, the search for extraterrestrial life typically assumes its chemical composition will be similar to that of life on Earth.
Making use of that assumption, astrobiologists assign a high priority to the search for water on other celestial bodies. Spacecraft evidence has proven that Mars once had bodies of liquid water on its surface. Determining the history and extent of this water is a central goal of Mars exploration. Astrobiologists are excited by evidence of subsurface oceans of water on Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and perhaps on other moons or dwarf planets. But while the presence of liquid water implies conditions appropriate for Earth-like life, it doesn’t prove that such life exists or has ever existed.
Organic chemicals are necessary for Earth-like life, but, as for water, their presence doesn’t prove that life exists, because organic materials can also be formed by non-biological processes. In 1976, NASA’s two Viking landers were the first spacecraft to make fully successful landings on Mars. They carried an instrument; called the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, that tested the soil for organic molecules.
Even without life, scientists expected to find some organic materials in the Martian soil. Organic materials formed by non-biological processes are found in carbonaceous meteorites, and some of these meteorites should have fallen on Mars. They were surprised to find nothing at all. At the time, the failure to find organic molecules was considered a major blow to the possibility of life on Mars.
In 2008, NASA’s Phoenix lander discovered an explanation of why Viking didn’t detect organic molecules. If found that the Martian soil contains perchlorates. Containing oxygen and chlorine, perchlorates are oxidizing agents that can break down organic material. While perchlorates and organic molecules could coexist in Martian soil, scientists determined that heating the soil for the Viking analysis would have caused the perchlorates to destroy any organic material it contained. Martian soil might contain organic materials, after all.
At a news briefing in December 2014, NASA announced that an instrument carried on board the Curiosity Mars rover had succeeded in detected simple organic molecules on Mars for the first time. Researchers believe it is possible that the molecules detected may be breakdown products of more complex organic molecules that were broken down by perchlorates during the process of analysis.
The chemical make-up of terrestrial life has also guided the search for traces of life in Martian meteorites. In 1996 a team of investigators lead by David McKay of the Johnson Space Center in Houston reported evidence that a Martian meteorite found at Alan Hills in Antarctica in 1984 contained chemical and physical evidence of past Martian life.
There have since been similar claims about other Martian meteorites. But, non-biological explanations for many of the findings have been proposed, and the whole subject has remained embroiled in controversy. Meteorites have not so far yielded the kind of evidence needed to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life beyond reasonable doubt.
Following Aristotle, most scientists prefer to define life in terms of its capacities rather than its composition. In the second installment, we will explore how our understanding of life’s capacities has influenced the search for extraterrestrial life.
It is a scientific fact that water exists on Mars. Though most of it today consists of water ice in the polar regions or in subsurface areas near the temperate zones, the presence of H²O has been confirmed many times over. It is evidenced by the sculpted channels and outflows that still mark the surface, as well as the presence of clay and mineral deposits that could only have been formed by water. Recent geological surveys provide more evidence that Mars’ surface was once home to warm, flowing water billions of years ago.
But where did the water go? And how and when did it disappear exactly? As it turns out, the answers may lie here on Earth, thanks to meteorites from Mars that indicate that it may have a global reservoir of ice that lies beneath the surface.
Together, researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington and NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division examined three Martian meteorites. What they found were samples of water that contained hydrogen atoms that had a ratio of isotopes distinct from that found in water in Mars’ mantle and atmosphere.
This new study examined meteors obtained from different periods in Mars’ past. What the researchers found seemed to indicate that water-ice may have existed beneath the crust intact over long periods of time.
As Professor Tomohiro told Universe Today via email, the significance of this find is that “the new hydrogen reservoir (ground ice and/or hydrated crust) potentially accounts for the “missing” surface water on Mars.”
Basically, there is a gap between what is thought to have existed in the past, and what is observed today in the form of water ice. The findings made by Tomohiro and the international research team help to account for this.
“The total inventory of “observable” current surface water (that mostly occurs as polar ice, ~10E6 km3) is more than one order magnitude smaller than the estimated volume of ancient surface water (~10E7 to 10E8 km3) that is thought to have covered the northern lowlands,” said Tomohiro. “The lack of water at the surface today was problematic for advocates of such large paleo-ocean and -lake volume.”
In their investigation, the researchers compared the water, hydrogen isotopes and other volatile elements within the meteorites. The results of these examinations forced them to consider two possibilities: In one, the newly identified hydrogen reservoir is evidence of a near-surface ice interbedded with sediment. The second possibility, which seemed far more likely, was that they came from hydrated rock that exists near the top of the Martian crust.
“The evidence is the ‘non-atmospheric’ hydrogen isotope composition of this reservoir,” Tomohiro said. “If this reservoir occurs near the surface, it should easily interact with the atmosphere, resulting in “isotopic equilibrium”. The non-atmospheric signature indicates that this reservoir must be sequestered elsewhere of this red planet, i.e. ground-ice.”
While the issue of the “missing Martian water” remains controversial, this study may help to bridge the gap between Mars supposed warm, wet past and its cold and icy present. Along with other studies performed here on Earth – as well as the massive amounts of data being transmitted from the many rover and orbiters operating on and in orbit of the planet – are helping to pave the way towards a manned mission, which NASA plans to mount by 2030.
The team’s findings are reported in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
UPDATE: Tune in this Sunday as the good folks over at the Virtual Telescope Project feature a live webcast covering the Geminid meteor shower this Sunday on December 14th at 2:00 UT.
This weekend presents a good reason to brave the cold, as the Geminid meteor shower peaks on the morning of Sunday, December 14th. The Geminids are dependable, with a broad peak spanning several days, and would be as well known as their summer cousins the Perseids, were it not for the fact that they transpire in the dead of northern hemisphere winter.
But do not despair. While some meteor showers are so ephemeral as to be considered all but mythical in the minds of most meteor shower observers, the Geminids always deliver. We most recently caught a memorable display of the Geminids in 2012 from a dark sky locale in western North Carolina. Several meteors per minute pierced the Appalachian night, offering up one of the most memorable displays by this or any meteor shower in recent years.
The Geminids are worth courting frostbite for, that’s for sure. But there’s a curious history behind this shower and our understanding of meteor showers in general, one that demonstrates the refusal of some bodies in our solar system to “act right” and fit into neat scientific paradigms.
It wasn’t all that long ago that meteor showers — let alone meteorites — were not considered to be astronomical in origin at all. Indeed, the term meteor and meteorology have the same Greek root meaning “of the sky,” suggesting ideas of an atmospheric origin. Lightning, hail, meteors, you can kind of see how they got there.
In fact, you could actually face ridicule for suggesting that meteors had an extraterrestrial source back in the day. President Thomas Jefferson was said to have done just that concerning an opinion espoused by Benjamin Silliman of a December 14th, 1807, meteorite fall in Connecticut, leading to the apocryphal and politically-tinged response attributed to the president that, “I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie, than that stones would fall from heaven.”
Indeed, no sooner than The French Academy of Sciences considered the matter settled earlier in the same decade, then a famous meteorite fall occurred in Normandy on April 26th, 1803,… right on their doorstep. The universe, it seemed, was thumbing its nose at scientific enlightenment.
Things really heated up with the spectacular display known as the Leonid meteor storm in 1833. On that November morning, stars seemed to fall like snowflakes from the sky. You can imagine the sight, as the Earth plowed headlong into the meteor stream. The visual effect of such a storm looks like the starship Enterprise plunging ahead at warp speed with stars streaming by, as if imploring humanity to get hip to the fact that meteor showers and their radiants are indeed a reality.
Still, a key problem persisted that gave ammunition to the naysayers: no new “space rocks” were found littering the ground at sunrise after a meteor shower. We now know that this is because meteor showers hail from wispy cometary debris left along intersections of the Earth’s orbit. Meteorite Man Geoff Notkin once mentioned to us that no meteorite fall has ever been linked to a meteor shower, though he does get lots of calls around Geminid season.
The name of the game in the 19th century soon became identifying new meteor showers. Streams evolve over time as they interact with planets (mostly Jupiter), and the 19th century played host to some epic meteor storms such as the Andromedids that have since been reduced to a trickle.
The Geminids are, however, the black sheep of the periodic meteor shower family. The shower was first noticed by US and UK observers in 1862, and by the 1870s astronomers realized that a new minor shower with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) hovering around 15 was occurring near the middle of December from the constellation Gemini.
The source of the Geminids, however, was to remain a mystery right up until the late 20th century.
In the late 1940s, astronomer Fred Whipple completed the Harvard Meteor Project, which utilized a photographic survey that piqued the interest of astronomers worldwide: debris in the Geminid stream appeared to have an orbital period of just 1.65 years, coupled with a high orbital inclination. Modeling suggested that the parent body was most likely a short period comet, and that the stream had undergone repeated perturbations courtesy of Earth and Jupiter.
In 1983, the culprit was found, only to result in a deeper mystery. The Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) discovered an asteroid fitting the bill crossing the constellation Draco. Backup observations from the Palomar observatory the next evening cinched the discovery, and today, we recognize the source of the Geminids as not a comet — as is the case with every other major meteor shower — but asteroid 3200 Phaethon, a 5 kilometre diameter rock in a 524 day orbit.
So why doesn’t this asteroid behave like one? Is 3200 Phaethon a rogue comet that has long since settled down for the quiet space rock life? Obviously, 3200 Phaethon has lots of material shedding off from its surface, as evidenced by the higher than normal ratio of fireballs seen during the Geminid meteors. 3200 Phaethon also passes 0.14 AUs from the Sun — 47% closer than Mercury — and has the closest perihelion of any known asteroid to the Sun, which bakes the asteroid periodically with every close pass.
One thing is for certain: activity linked to the Geminid meteor stream is increasing. The Geminids actually surpassed the Perseids in terms of dependability and output since the 1960s, and have produced an annual peak ZHR of well over 100 in recent years. In 2014, expect a ZHR approaching 130 per hour as seen from a good dark sky site just after midnight local on the morning of December 14th as the radiant rides high in the sky. Remember, this shower has a broad peak, and it’s worth starting your vigil on Saturday or even Friday morning. The Geminid radiant also has a steep enough declination that local activity can start before midnight… also exceptional among meteor showers. This year, the 52% illuminated Moon rises around midnight local on the morning of December 14th.
And there’s another reason to keep an eye on the 2014 Geminids. 3200 Phaethon passed 0.12 AU (18 million kilometers) from Earth on December 10th, 2007, which boosted displays in the years after. And just three years from now, the asteroid will pass even closer on December 10th, 2017, at just 0.07 AUs (10.3 million kilometers) from Earth…
Are we due for some enhanced activity from the Geminids in the coming years?
All good reasons to bundle up and watch for the “Tears of the Twins” this coming weekend, and wonder at the bizzaro nature of the shower’s progenitor.
During the Hadean Eon, some 4.5 billion years ago, the world was a much different place than it is today. As the name Hades would suggest (Greek for “underworld”), it was a hellish period for Earth, marked by intense volcanism and intense meteoric impacts. It was also during this time that outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and water vapor.
Little of this primordial atmosphere remains, and geothermal evidence suggests that the Earth’s atmosphere may have been completely obliterated at least twice since its formation more than 4 billion years ago. Until recently, scientists were uncertain as to what could have caused this loss.
But a new study from MIT, Hebrew Univeristy, and Caltech indicates that the intense bombardment of meteorites in this period may have been responsible.
This meteoric bombardment would have taken place at around the same time that the Moon was formed. The intense bombardment of space rocks would have kicked up clouds of gas with enough force to permanent eject the atmosphere into space. Such impacts may have also blasted other planets, and even peeled away the atmospheres of Venus and Mars.
In fact, the researchers found that small planetesimals may be much more effective than large impactors – such as Theia, whose collision with Earth is believed to have formed the Moon – in driving atmospheric loss. Based on their calculations, it would take a giant impact to disperse most of the atmosphere; but taken together, many small impacts would have the same effect.
Hilke Schlichting, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says understanding the drivers of Earth’s ancient atmosphere may help scientists to identify the early planetary conditions that encouraged life to form.
“[This finding] sets a very different initial condition for what the early Earth’s atmosphere was most likely like,” Schlichting says. “It gives us a new starting point for trying to understand what was the composition of the atmosphere, and what were the conditions for developing life.”
What’s more, the group examined how much atmosphere was retained and lost following impacts with giant, Mars-sized and larger bodies and with smaller impactors measuring 25 kilometers or less.
What they found was that a collision with an impactor as massive as Mars would have the necessary effect of generating a massive a shockwave through the Earth’s interior and potentially ejecting a significant fraction of the planet’s atmosphere.
However, the researchers determined that such an impact was not likely to have occurred, since it would have turned Earth’s interior into a homogenous slurry. Given the appearance of diverse elements observed within the Earth’s interior, such an event does not appear to have happened in the past.
A series of smaller impactors, by contrast, would generate an explosion of sorts, releasing a plume of debris and gas. The largest of these impactors would be forceful enough to eject all gas from the atmosphere immediately above the impact zone. Only a fraction of this atmosphere would be lost following smaller impacts, but the team estimates that tens of thousands of small impactors could have pulled it off.
Such a scenario did likely occur 4.5 billion years ago during the Hadean Eon. This period was one of galactic chaos, as hundreds of thousands of space rocks whirled around the solar system and many are believed to have collided with Earth.
“For sure, we did have all these smaller impactors back then,” Schlichting says. “One small impact cannot get rid of most of the atmosphere, but collectively, they’re much more efficient than giant impacts, and could easily eject all the Earth’s atmosphere.”
However, Schlichting and her team realized that the sum effect of small impacts may be too efficient at driving atmospheric loss. Other scientists have measured the atmospheric composition of Earth compared with Venus and Mars; and compared to Venus, Earth’s noble gases have been depleted 100-fold. If these planets had been exposed to the same blitz of small impactors in their early history, then Venus would have no atmosphere today.
She and her colleagues went back over the small-impactor scenario to try and account for this difference in planetary atmospheres. Based on further calculations, the team identified an interesting effect: Once half a planet’s atmosphere has been lost, it becomes much easier for small impactors to eject the rest of the gas.
The researchers calculated that Venus’ atmosphere would only have to start out slightly more massive than Earth’s in order for small impactors to erode the first half of the Earth’s atmosphere, while keeping Venus’ intact. From that point, Schlichting describes the phenomenon as a “runaway process — once you manage to get rid of the first half, the second half is even easier.”
This gave rise to another important question: What eventually replaced Earth’s atmosphere? Upon further calculations, Schlichting and her team found the same impactors that ejected gas also may have introduced new gases, or volatiles.
“When an impact happens, it melts the planetesimal, and its volatiles can go into the atmosphere,” Schlichting says. “They not only can deplete, but replenish part of the atmosphere.”
The group calculated the amount of volatiles that may be released by a rock of a given composition and mass, and found that a significant portion of the atmosphere may have been replenished by the impact of tens of thousands of space rocks.
“Our numbers are realistic, given what we know about the volatile content of the different rocks we have,” Schlichting notes.
Jay Melosh, a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at Purdue University, says Schlichting’s conclusion is a surprising one, as most scientists have assumed the Earth’s atmosphere was obliterated by a single, giant impact. Other theories, he says, invoke a strong flux of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, as well as an “unusually active solar wind.”
“How the Earth lost its primordial atmosphere has been a longstanding problem, and this paper goes a long way toward solving this enigma,” says Melosh, who did not contribute to the research. “Life got started on Earth about this time, and so answering the question about how the atmosphere was lost tells us about what might have kicked off the origin of life.”
Going forward, Schlichting hopes to examine more closely the conditions underlying Earth’s early formation, including the interplay between the release of volatiles from small impactors and from Earth’s ancient magma ocean.
“We want to connect these geophysical processes to determine what was the most likely composition of the atmosphere at time zero, when the Earth just formed, and hopefully identify conditions for the evolution of life,” Schlichting says.
Schlichting and her colleagues have published their results in the February edition of the journal Icarus.
In the reeds that line the banks of the celestial river Eridanus, you’ll find Hebe on the prowl this month. Discovered in 1847 by German amateur astronomer Karl Ludwig Hencke , the asteroid may hold the key to the origin of the H-chondrites, a large class of metal-rich stony meteorites found in numerous amateur and professional collections around the world. You can now see this interesting minor planet with nothing more than a pair of binoculars or small telescope.
The first four asteroids – Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta – were discovered in quick succession from 1801 to 1807. Then nothing turned up for years. Most astronomers wrongly assumed all the asteroids had been found and moved on to other projects like measuring the orbits of double stars and determining stellar parallaxes. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Hencke, who worked as a postmaster during the day, doggedly persisted in sieving the stars for new asteroids in his free time at night. His systematic search began in 1830. Fifteen years and hundreds of cold nights at the eyepiece later he turned up 5 Astrae (asteroid no. 5) on Dec. 8, 1845, and 6 Hebe on July 1, 1847.
Energized by the finds, astronomers returned to their telescopes with renewed gusto to join in the hunt once again. The rest is history. As of November 2014 there are 415,688 numbered asteroids and a nearly equal number of unnumbered discoveries. Fittingly, asteroid 2005 Hencke honors the man who kept the fire burning.
At 120 miles (190 km) across, Hebe is one of the bigger asteroids (officially 33rd in size in the main belt) and orbits the Sun once every 3.8 years. It will be our guest this final month of the year shining at magnitude +8.2 in early December, +8.5 by mid-month and +8.9 when you don your party hat on New Year’s Eve. All the while, Hebe will loop across the barrens of Eridanus west of Orion. Use the maps here to help track it down. I’ve included a detailed color map above, but also created a “black stars on white” version for those that find reverse charts easier to use.
In more recent times, Hebe’s story takes an interesting turn. Through a study of its gravitational nudges on other asteroids, astronomers discovered that Hebe is a very compact, rocky object, not a loosey-goosey pile of rubble like some asteroids. Its high density provides strong evidence for a composition of both rock and iron. Scientists can determine the approximate composition of an asteroid’s surface by studying its reflectance spectrum, or what colors or wavelengths are reflected back from the object after a portion is absorbed by its surface. They use infrared light because different minerals absorb different wavelengths of infrared light. That data is compared to infrared absorptions from rocks and meteorites found on Earth. Turns out, our friend Hebe’s spectrum is a good match to two classes of meteorites – the H-chondrites, which comprise 40% of known meteorites – and the rarer IIE silicated iron meteorites.
Because Hebe orbits close to an unstable zone in the asteroid belt, any impacts it suffers are soon perturbed by Jupiter’s gravity and launched into trajectories than can include the Earth. When you spot Hebe in your binoculars the next clear night, you might just be seeing where many of the more common space rocks in our collections originated.
It’s a dangerous universe out there, for a budding young space-faring species.
Killer comets, planet sterilizing gamma ray bursts, and death rocks from above are all potential hazards that an adolescent civilization has to watch out for.
This week offers two close shaves, as newly discovered Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) 2014 WC201 and 2014 WX202 pass by the Earth-Moon system.
The passage of 2014 WC201 is coming right up tonight, as the 27-metre space rock passes about 570,000 kilometres from the Earth. That’s 1.4 times farther than the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
And the good news is, the Virtual Telescope Project will be bringing the passage of 2014 WC201 live tonight starting at 23:00 Universal Time/6:00 PM EST.
Shining at an absolute magnitude of +26, 2014 WC201 will be visible as a +13 apparent magnitude “star” at closest approach at 4:51 UT (December 2nd)/11:51 PM EST (December 1st) moving through the constellation Ursa Major. This puts it within range of a large backyard telescope, though the 80% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon will definitely be a mitigating factor for observation.
At an estimated 27 metres/81 feet in size, 2014 WC201 will no doubt draw “house-sized” or “building-sized” comparisons in the press. Larger than an F-15 jet fighter, asteroids such as WC201 cry out for some fresh new descriptive comparisons. Perhaps, as we near a “Star Wars year” in 2015, we could refer to 2014 WC201 as X-wing sized?
Another Apollo NEO also makes a close pass by the Earth this week, as 6-metre 2014 WX202 passes 400,000 kilometres (about the same average distance as the Earth to the Moon) from us at 19:56 UT/2:56 PM EST on December 7th. Though closer than WC201, WX202 is much smaller and won’t be a good target for backyard scopes. Gianluca Masi over at the Virtual Telescope Project also notes that WX202 will also be a difficult target due to the nearly Full Moon later this week.
The last Full Moon of 2014 occurs on December 6th at 6:26 AM EST/11:26 Universal Time.
2014 WX202 has also generated some interest in the minor planet community due to its low velocity approach relative to the Earth. This, coupled with its Earth-like orbit, is suggestive of something that may have escaped the Earth-Moon system. Could WX202 be returning space junk or lunar ejecta? It’s happened before, as old Apollo hardware and boosters from China’s Chang’e missions have been initially identified as Near Earth Asteroids.
The Earth also occasionally hosts a temporary “quasi-moon,” as last occurred in 2006 with the capture of RH120. 2014 WX202 makes a series of more distant passes in the 2030s, and perhaps it will make the short list of near Earth asteroids for humans to explore in the coming decades.
And speaking of which, humanity is making two steps in this direction this week, with two high profile space launches.
First up is the launch of JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 from the Tanegashima Space Center on December 3rd at 4:22 UT/11:22 PM EST. The follow up to the Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa 2 will rendezvous with asteroid 1999 JU3 in 2018 and return samples to Earth in late 2020. The vidcast for the launch of Hayabusa 2 goes live at 3:00 UT/10:00 PM EST on Tuesday, December 2nd.
And the next mission paving the way towards first boot prints on an asteroid is the launch of a Delta 4 Heavy rocket with EFT-1 from Cape Canaveral this Thursday morning on December 4th near sunrise at 7:05 AM EST/12:05 UT. EFT-1 is uncrewed, and will test key technologies including reentry on its two orbit flight. Expect to see crewed missions of Orion to begin around 2020, with a mission to an Earth crossing asteroid sometime in the decade after that.
And there are some decent prospects to catch sight of EFT-1 on its first pass prior to its orbit raising burn over the Atlantic. Assuming EFT-1 lifts off at the beginning of its launch window, western Australia may see a good dusk pass 55 minutes after liftoff, and the southwestern U.S. may see a visible pass at dawn about 95 minutes after EFT-1 leaves the pad.
We’ll be tracking these prospects as the mission evolves on launch day via Twitter, and NASA TV will carry the launch live starting at 4:30 AM EST/9:30 UT.
The Orion capsule will come in hot on reentry at a blistering 32,000 kilometres per hour over four hours after liftoff in a reentry reminiscent of the early Apollo era.
Of course, if an asteroid the size of WC201 was on a collision course with the Earth it could spell a very bad day, at least in local terms. For comparison, the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor was estimated to be 18 metres in size, and the 1908 Tunguska impactor was estimated to be 60 metres across. And about 50,000 years ago, a 50 metre in diameter space rock came blazing in over the ponderosa pine trees near what would one day be the city of Flagstaff, Arizona to create the 1,200 metre diameter Barringer Meteor Crater you can visit today.
All the more reason to study hazardous space rocks and the technology needed to reach one in the event that we one day need to move one out of the way!
Some of science’s most pressing questions involve the origins of life on Earth. How did the first lifeforms emerge from the seemingly hostile conditions that plagued our planet for much of its history? What enabled the leap from simple, unicellular organisms to more complex organisms consisting of many cells working together to metabolize, respire, and reproduce? In such an unfamiliar environment, how does one even separate “life” from non-life in the first place?
Glycerol is an organic molecule that is present in the cell membranes of all living things. In animal cells this membrane takes the form of a phospholipid bilayer, a dual-layer membrane that sandwiches water-repelling fatty acids between outer and inner sheets of water-soluble molecules. This type of membrane allows the cell’s inner aqueous environment to remain separate and protected from its external, similarly watery world. Glycerol is a vital component of each phospholipid because it forms the backbone between the molecule’s two characteristic parts: a polar, water-soluble head, and a non-polar, fatty tail.
Many scientists believe that cell membranes such as these were a necessary prerequisite to the evolution of multicellular life on Earth; however, their complex structure requires a very specific environment – namely, one low in calcium and magnesium salts with a fairly neutral pH and stable temperature. These carefully balanced conditions would have been hard to come by on the prehistoric Earth.
Icy bodies born in interstellar space offer an alternative scenario. Scientists have already discovered organic molecules such as amino acids and lipid precursors in the Murchison meteorite that landed in Australia in 1969. Although the idea remains controversial, it is possible that glycerol could have been brought to Earth in a similar manner.
Meteors typically form from tiny crumbs of material in cold molecular clouds, regions of gaseous hydrogen and interstellar dust that serve as the birthplace of stars and planetary systems. As they move through the cloud, these grains accumulate layers of frozen water, methanol, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Over time, high-energy ultraviolet radiation and cosmic rays bombard the icy fragments and cause chemical reactions that enrich their frozen cores with organic compounds. Later, as stars form and ambient material falls into orbit around them, the ices and the organic molecules they contain are incorporated into larger rocky bodies such as meteors. The meteors can then crash into planets like ours, potentially seeding them with building blocks of life.
In order to test whether or not glycerol could be created by the high-energy radiation that typically bombards interstellar ice grains, the team at the University of Hawaii designed their own meteorites: small bits of icy methanol cooled to 5 degrees Kelvin. After blasting their model ices with energetic electrons meant to mimic the effects of cosmic rays, the scientists found that some molecules of methanol within the ices did, in fact, transform into glycerol.
While this experiment appears to be a success, scientists realize that their laboratory models do not exactly replicate conditions in interstellar space. For instance, methanol traditionally makes up only about 30% of the ice in space rocks. Future work will investigate the effects of high-energy radiation on model ices made primarily of water. High-energy electrons fired in a lab are also not a perfect substitute for true cosmic rays and do not represent effects on ice that may result from ultraviolet radiation in interstellar space.
More research is necessary before scientists can draw any global conclusions; however, this study and its predecessors do provide compelling evidence that life as we know it truly could have come from above.
It may seem all but impossible to determine how the Solar System formed, given that it happened roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Luckily, much of the debris that was left over from the formation process is still available today for study, circling our Solar System in the form of rocks and debris that sometimes make their way to Earth.
Among the most useful pieces of debris are the oldest and least altered type of meteorites, which are known as chondrites. They are built mostly of small stony grains, called chondrules, that are barely a millimeter in diameter.
And now, scientists are being provided with important clues as to how the early Solar System evolved, thanks to new research based on the the most accurate laboratory measurements ever made of the magnetic fields trapped within these tiny grains.
To break it down, chondrite meteorites are pieces of asteroids — broken off by collisions — that have remained relatively unmodified since they formed during the birth of the Solar System. The chondrules they contain were formed when patches of solar nebula – dust clouds that surround young suns – was heated above the melting point of rock for hours or even days.
The dust caught in these “melting events” was melted down into droplets of molten rock, which then cooled and crystallized into chondrules. As chondrules cooled, iron-bearing minerals within them became magnetized by the local magnetic field in the gas cloud. These magnetic fields are preserved in the chondrules right on up to the present day.
The chondrule grains whose magnetic fields were mapped in the new study came from a meteorite named Semarkona – named after the town in India where it fell in 1940.
Roger Fu of MIT – working under Benjamin Weiss – was the chief author of the study; with Steve Desch of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration attached as co-author.
According to the study, which was published this week in Science, the measurements they collected point to shock waves traveling through the cloud of dusty gas around the newborn sun as a major factor in solar system formation.
“The measurements made by Fu and Weiss are astounding and unprecedented,” says Steve Desch. “Not only have they measured tiny magnetic fields thousands of times weaker than a compass feels, they have mapped the magnetic fields’ variation recorded by the meteorite, millimeter by millimeter.”
The scientists focused specifically on the embedded magnetic fields captured by “dusty” olivine grains that contain abundant iron-bearing minerals. These had a magnetic field of about 54 microtesla, similar to the magnetic field at Earth’s surface (which ranges from 25 to 65 microtesla).
Coincidentally, many previous measurements of meteorites also implied similar field strengths. But it is now understood that those measurements detected magnetic minerals that were contaminated by the Earth’s own magnetic field, or even from the hand magnets used by the meteorite collectors.
“The new experiments,” Desch says, “probe magnetic minerals in chondrules never measured before. They also show that each chondrule is magnetized like a little bar magnet, but with ‘north’ pointing in random directions.”
This shows, he says, that they became magnetized before they were built into the meteorite, and not while sitting on Earth’s surface. This observation, combined with the presence of shock waves during early solar formation, paints an interesting picture of the early history of our Solar System.
“My modeling for the heating events shows that shock waves passing through the solar nebula is what melted most chondrules,” Desch explains. Depending on the strength and size of the shock wave, the background magnetic field could be amplified by up to 30 times. “Given the measured magnetic field strength of about 54 microtesla,” he added, “this shows the background field in the nebula was probably in the range of 5 to 50 microtesla.”
There are other ideas for how chondrules might have formed, some involving magnetic flares above the solar nebula, or passage through the sun’s magnetic field. But those mechanisms require stronger magnetic fields than what has been measured in the Semarkona samples.
This reinforces the idea that shocks melted the chondrules in the solar nebula at about the location of today’s asteroid belt, which lies some two to four times farther from the sun than the Earth’s orbits.
Desch says, “This is the first really accurate and reliable measurement of the magnetic field in the gas from which our planets formed.”
How hazardous are the thousands and millions of asteroids that surround the third rock from the Sun – Earth? Since an asteroid impact represents a real risk to life and property, this is a question that has been begging for answers for decades. But now, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have received data from a variety of US Department of Defense assets and plotted a startling set of data spanning 20 years.
This latest compilation of data underscores how frequent some of these larger fireballs are, with the largest being the Chelyabinsk event on February 15, 2013 which injured thousands in Russia. The new data will improve our understanding of the frequency and presence of small and large asteroids that are hazards to populated areas anywhere on Earth.
The data from “government sensors” – meaning “early warning” satellites to monitor missile launches (from potential enemies) as well as infrasound ground monitors – shows the distribution of bolide (fireball) events. The data first shows how uniformly distributed the events are around the world. This data is now released to the public and researchers for more detailed analysis.
The newest data released by the US government shows both how frequent bolides are and also how effectively the Earth’s atmosphere protects the surface. A subset of this data had been analyzed and reported by Dr. Peter Brown from the University of Western Ontario, Canada and his team in 2013 but included only 58 events. This new data set holds 556 events.
The newly released data also shows how the Earth’s atmosphere is a superior barrier that prevents small asteroids’ penetration and impact onto the Earth’s surface. Even the 20 meter (65 ft) Chelyabinsk asteroid exploded mid-air, dissipating the power of a nuclear blast 29.7 km (18.4 miles, 97,400 feet) above the surface. Otherwise, this asteroid could have obliterated much of a modern city; Chelyabinsk was also saved due to sheer luck – the asteroid entered at a shallow angle leading to its demise; more steeply, and it would have exploded much closer to the surface. While many do explode in the upper atmosphere, a broad strewn field of small fragments often occurs. In historical times, towns and villages have reported being pelted by such sprays of stones from the sky.
NASA and JPL emphasized that investment in early detection of asteroids has increased 10 fold in the last 5 years. Researchers such as Dr. Jenniskens at the SETI Institute has developed a network of all-sky cameras that have determined the orbits of over 175,000 meteors that burned up in the atmosphere. And the B612 Foundation has been the strongest advocate of discovering of all hazardous asteroids. B612, led by former astronauts Ed Lu and Rusty Schweikert has designed a space telescope called Sentinel which would find hazardous asteroids and help safeguard Earth for centuries into the future.
Speed is everything. While Chelyabinsk had just 1/10th the mass of Nimitz-class super carrier, it traveled 1000 times faster. Its kinetic energy on account of its speed was 20 to 30 times that released by the nuclear weapons used to end the war against Japan – about 320 to 480 kilotons of TNT. Briefly, asteroids are considered to be any space rock larger than 1 meter and those smaller are called meteoroids.
Two earlier surveys can be compared to this new data. One by Eugene Shoemaker in the 1960s and another by Dr. Brown. The initial work by Shoemaker using lunar crater counts and the more recent work of Dr. Brown’s group, utilizing sensors of the Department of Defense, determined estimates of the frequency of asteroid impacts (bolide) rates versus the size of the small bodies. Those two surveys differ by a factor of ten, that is, where Shoemaker’s shows frequencies on the order of 10s or 100s years, Brown’s is on the order of 100s and 1000s of years. The most recent data, which has adjusted Brown’s earlier work is now raising the frequency of hazardous events to that of the work of Shoemaker.
The work of Dr. Brown and co-investigators led to the following graph showing the frequency of collisions with the Earth of asteroids of various sizes. This plot from a Letter to Nature by P. Brown et al. used 58 bolides from data accumulated from 1994 to 2014 from government sensors. Brown and others will improve their analysis with this more detailed dataset. The plot shows that a Chelyabinsk type event can be expected approximately every 30 years though the uncertainty is high. The new data may reduce this uncertainty. Tungunska events which could destroy a metropolitan area the size of Washington DC occur less frequently – about once a century.
Asteroids come in all sizes. Smaller asteroids are much more common, larger ones less so. A common distribution seen in nature is represented by a bell curve or “normal” distribution. Fortunately the bigger asteroids number in the hundreds while the small “city busters” count in the 100s of thousands, if not millions. And fortunately, the Earth is small in proportion to the volume of space even just the space occupied by our Solar System. Additionally, 69% of the Earth’s surface is covered by Oceans. Humans huddle on only about 10% of the surface area of the Earth. This reduces the chances of any asteroid impact effecting a populated area by a factor of ten.
Altogether the risk from asteroids is very real as the Chelyabinsk event underscored. Since the time of Tugunska impact in Siberia in 1908, the human population has quadrupled. The number of cities of over 1 million has increased from 12 to 400. Realizing how many and how frequent these asteroid impacts occur plus the growth of the human population in the last one hundred years raises the urgency for a near-Earth asteroid discovery telescope such as B612’s Sentinel which could find all hazardous objects in less than 10 years whereas ground-based observations will take 100 years or more.
The estimated cumulative flux of impactors at the Earth. The bolide impactor flux at Earth (Bolide flux 1994-2013 – black circles) based on ~20 years of global observations from US Government sensors and infrasound airwave data. Global coverage averages 80% among a total of 58 observed bolides with E > 1 kt and includes the Chelyabinsk Chelyabinsk bolide (far right black circle). This coverage correction is approximate and the bolide flux curve is likely a lower limit. The brown-coloured line represents an earlier powerlaw fit from a smaller dataset for bolides between 1 – 8 m in diameter15. Error bars represent counting statistics only. For comparison, we plot de-biased estimates of the near-Earth asteroid impact frequency based on all asteroid survey telescopic search data through mid- 2012 (green squares)8 and other earlier independently analysed telescopic datasets including NEAT discoveries (pink squares) and finally from the Spacewatch (blue squares) survey, where diameters are determined assuming an albedo of 0.1. Energy for telescopic data is computed assuming a mean bulk density of 3000 kgm-3 and average impact velocity of 20.3 kms-1. The intrinsic impact frequency for these telescopic data was found using an average probability of impact for NEAs as 2×10-9 per year for the entire population. Lunar crater counts converted to equivalent impactor flux and assuming a geometric albedo of 0.25 (grey solid line) are shown for comparison9, though we note that contamination by secondary craters and modern estimates of the NEA population which suggest lower albedos will tend to shift this curve to the right and down. Finally, we show estimated influx from global airwave measurements conducted from 1960-1974 which detected larger (5-20m) bolide impactors (upward red triangles) using an improved method for energy estimation compared to earlier interpretations of these same data.