Bad News. Planets Orbiting Red Dwarfs Might not have the Raw Materials for Life

New research from the Hubble Space Telescope and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope is dampening some of the enthusiasm in the search for life. Observations by both ‘scopes suggest that the raw materials necessary for life may be rare in solar systems centered around red dwarfs.

And if the raw materials aren’t there, it may mean that many of the exoplanets we’ve found in the habitable zones of other stars just aren’t habitable after-all.

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A Guide to Hunting Zombie Stars

R Aquarii is called a symbiotic star system because of their relationship. As the white dwarf draws in material from the Red Giant, it ejects some if it in weird looping patterns, seen in this Hubble image. Image Credit: By Judy Schmidt from USA - Symbiotic System R Aquarii, CC BY 2.0,

Apparently not all supernovas work. And when they fail, they leave behind a half-chewed remnant, still burning from leftover heat but otherwise lifeless: a zombie star. Astronomers aren’t sure how many of these should-be-dead creatures lurk in the interstellar depths, but with recent simulations scientists are making a list of their telltale signatures so that future surveys can potentially track them down.

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Astronomers Count all the Photons in the Universe. Spoiler Alert: 4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Photons

Imagine yourself in a boat on a great ocean, the water stretching to the distant horizon, with the faintest hints of land just beyond that. It’s morning, just before dawn, and a dense fog has settled along the coast. As the chill grips you on your early watch, you catch out of the corner of your eye a lighthouse, feebly flickering through the fog.

And – yes – there! Another lighthouse, closer, its light a little stronger. As you scan the horizon more lighthouses signal the dangers of the distant coast.
Continue reading “Astronomers Count all the Photons in the Universe. Spoiler Alert: 4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Photons”

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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Scientists are Using Artificial Intelligence to See Inside Stars Using Sound Waves

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has captured images of a growing dark region on the surface of the Sun. Called a coronal hole, it produces high-speed solar winds that can disrupt satellite communications. Image: Solar Dynamics Observatory / NASA

How in the world could you possibly look inside a star? You could break out the scalpels and other tools of the surgical trade, but good luck getting within a few million kilometers of the surface before your skin melts off. The stars of our universe hide their secrets very well, but astronomers can outmatch their cleverness and have found ways to peer into their hearts using, of all things, sound waves. Continue reading “Scientists are Using Artificial Intelligence to See Inside Stars Using Sound Waves”

Ancient Star Found that’s Only Slightly Younger than the Universe Itself

According to the most widely-accepted cosmological theory, the first stars in our Universe formed roughly 150 to 1 billion years after the Big Bang. Over time, these stars began to come together to form globular clusters, which slowly coalesced to form the first galaxies – including our very own Milky Way. For some time, astronomers have held that this process began for our galaxy some 13.51 billion years ago.

In accordance with this theory, astronomers believed that the oldest stars in the Universe were short-lived massive ones that have since died. However, a team of astronomers from Johns Hopking University recently discovered a low-mass star in the Milky Way’s “thin disk” that is roughly 13.5 billion-year-old. This discovery indicates that some of the earliest stars in the Universe could be alive, and available for study.

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Binary Stars Orbiting Each Other INSIDE a Planetary Nebula

Planetary nebulae are a fascinating astronomical phenomena, even if the name is a bit misleading. Rather than being associated with planets, these glowing shells of gas and dust are formed when stars enter the final phases of their lifespan and throw off their outer layers. In many cases, this process and the subsequent structure of the nebula is the result of the star interacting with a nearby companion star.

Recently, while examining the planetary nebula M3-1, an international team of astronomers noted something rather interesting. After observing the nebula’s central star, which is actually a binary system, they noticed that the pair had an incredibly short orbital period – i.e. the stars orbit each other once every 3 hours and 5 minutes. Based on this behavior, the pair are likely to merge and trigger a nova explosion.

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Astronomers See A Dead Star Come Back To Life Thanks To A Donor Star

It’s not exactly an organ donor, but a star in the direction of the hyper-populated core of the Milky Way donating some of its mass to a dormant neighbor. The result? The dormant neighbor sprung back to life with an X-ray burst captured by the ESA‘s INTEGRAL (INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory) space observatory.

“INTEGRAL caught a unique moment in the birth of a rare binary system” – Enrico Bozzo, University of Geneva.

The neighbors have likely been paired together for billions of years, which is not in itself noteworthy: stars often live in binary pairs. But the pair spotted by INTEGRAL on August 13th 2017 is very unusual. The donor star is a red giant, and the recipient is a neutron star. So far, astronomers only know of 10 of these pairs, called ‘symbiotic X-ray binaries’.

To understand what’s happening between these neighbors, we have to look at stellar evolution.

The donor star is in its red giant phase. That’s when a star in the same mass range as our star reaches the later stage of its life. As its mass is depleted, gravity can’t hold the star together in the same way it has for the early part of its life. The star expands outwards by millions of kilometers. As it does so, it sheds stellar material from its outer layers in a solar wind that travels several hundreds of km/sec.

The red giant and the neutron star may have traveled different evolutionary pathways, but proximity made them partners. Image: ESA

Its neighbor is in a different state. It’s a star that had an initial mass of about 25 to 30 times the Sun. When a star this big approaches the end of its life, it suffers a different fate. Stars this large live fast, and burn through their fuel quickly. Then, they explode as supernovae, in this case leaving a corpse behind. In the binary system captured by INTEGRAL, the corpse is a spinning neutron star with a magnetic field.

Neutron stars are dense. In fact, they’re some of the densest stellar objects we know of, packing as much mass as one-and-a-half of our Suns into an object that’s only about 10 km across.
When the red giant’s stellar wind met the neutron star, the neutron star slowed its rate of spin, and burst into life, emitting high-energy x-rays.

“INTEGRAL caught a unique moment in the birth of a rare binary system,” says Enrico Bozzo from University of Geneva and lead author of the paper that describes the discovery. “The red giant released a sufficiently dense slow wind to feed its neutron star companion, giving rise to high-energy emission from the dead stellar core for the first time.”

After INTEGRAL spotted the x-ray burst from the binary, other observations quickly followed. The ESA’s XMM Newton and NASA’s NuSTAR and Swift space telescopes got to work, along with ground-based telescopes. These observations confirmed what initial observations showed: this is a very peculiar pair of stars.

“…we believe we saw the X-rays turning on for the first time.” – Erik Kuulkers, ESA INTEGRAL Project Scientist.

The neutron star spins very slowly, taking about 2 hours to revolve, which is remarkable since other neutron stars can spin many times per second. The magnetic field of the neutron star was also much stronger than expected. But the magnetic field around a neutron star is thought to weaken over time, making this a relatively young neutron star. And a red giant is old, so this is a very odd pairing of old red giant with young neutron star.

One possible explanation is that the neutron star didn’t form from a supernova, but from a white dwarf. In that scenario, the white dwarf would’ve collapsed into a neutron star after a very long period of feeding on material from the red giant. That would explain the disparity in ages of the two stars in the system.

An artist’s illustration of ESA’s INTEGRAL space observatory. INTEGRAL was launched in 2002 to study some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe. Image: ESA.

“These objects are puzzling,” says Enrico. “It might be that either the neutron star magnetic field does not decay substantially with time after all, or the neutron star actually formed later in the history of the binary system. That would mean it collapsed from a white dwarf into a neutron star as a result of feeding off the red giant over a long time, rather than becoming a neutron star as a result of a more traditional supernova explosion of a short-lived massive star.”

The next question is how long will this process go on? Is it short-lived, or the beginning of a long-term relationship?

“We haven’t seen this object before in the past 15 years of our observations with INTEGRAL, so we believe we saw the X-rays turning on for the first time,” says Erik Kuulkers, ESA’s INTEGRAL project scientist. “We’ll continue to watch how it behaves in case it is just a long ‘burp’ of winds, but so far we haven’t seen any significant changes.”

The INTEGRAL space observatory was launched in 2002 to study some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe. It focuses on things like black holes, neutron stars, active galactic nuclei and supernovae. INTEGRAL is a European Space Agency mission in cooperation with the United States and Russia. Its projected end date is December, 2018.

This is the Surface of a Giant Star, 350 Times Larger Than the Sun

When it comes to looking beyond our Solar System, astronomers are often forced to theorize about what they don’t know based on what they do. In short, they have to rely on what we have learned studying the Sun and the planets from our own Solar System in order to make educated guesses about how other star systems and their respective bodies formed and evolved.

For example, astronomers have learned much from our Sun about how convection plays a major role in the life of stars. Until now, they have not been able to conduct detailed studies of the surfaces of other stars because of their distances and obscuring factors. However, in a historic first, an international team of scientists recently created the first detailed images of the surface of a red giant star located roughly 530 light-years away.

The study recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature under the title “Large Granulation cells on the surface of the giant star Π¹ Gruis“. The study was led by Claudia Paladini of the Université libre de Bruxelles and included members from the European Southern Observatory, the Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, Georgia State University, the Université Grenoble Alpes, Uppsala University, the University of Vienna, and the University of Exeter.

The surface of the red giant star Π¹ Gruis from PIONIER on the VLT. Credit: ESO

For the sake of their study, the team used the Precision Integrated-Optics Near-infrared Imaging ExpeRiment (PIONIER) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) to observe the star known as Π¹ Gruis. Located 530 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Grus (The Crane), Π1 Gruis is a cool red giant. While it is the same mass as our Sun, it is 350 times larger and several thousand times as bright.

For decades, astronomers have sought to learn more about the convection properties and evolution of stars by studying red giants. These are what become of main sequence stars once they have exhausted their hydrogen fuel and expand to becomes hundreds of times their normal diameter. Unfortunately, studying the convection properties of most supergiant stars has been challenging because their surfaces are frequently obscured by dust.

After obtaining interferometric data on Π1 Gruis in September of 2014, the team then relied on image reconstruction software and algorithms to compose images of the star’s surface. These allowed the team to determine the convection patterns of the star by picking out its “granules”, the large grainy spots on the surface that indicate the top of a convective cell.

This was the first time that such images have been created, and represent a major breakthrough when it comes to our understanding of how stars age and evolve. As Dr. Fabien Baron, an assistant professor at Georgia State University and a co-author on the study, explained:

“This is the first time that we have such a giant star that is unambiguously imaged with that level of details. The reason is there’s a limit to the details we can see based on the size of the telescope used for the observations. For this paper, we used an interferometer. The light from several telescopes is combined to overcome the limit of each telescope, thus achieving a resolution equivalent to that of a much larger telescope.”

Earth scorched by red giant Sun
Artist’s impression of the Earth scorched by our Sun as it enters its Red Giant Branch phase. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Fsgregs

This study is especially significant because Π1 Gruis in the last major phase of life and resembles what our Sun will look like when it is at the end of its lifespan. In other words, when our Sun exhausts its hydrogen fuel in roughly five billion years, it will expand significantly to become a red giant star. At this point, it will be large enough to encompass Mercury, Venus, and maybe even Earth.

As a result, studying this star will give scientists insight into the future activity, characteristics and appearance of our Sun. For instance, our Sun has about two million convective cells that typically measure 2,000 km (1243 mi) in diameter. Based on their study, the team estimates that the surface of Π1 Gruis has a complex convective pattern, with granules measuring about 1.2 x 10^8 km (62,137,119 mi) horizontally or 27 percent of the diameter of the star.

This is consistent with what astronomers have predicted, which was that giant and supergiant stars should only have a few large convective cells because of their low surface gravity. As Baron indicated:

“These images are important because the size and number of granules on the surface actually fit very well with models that predict what we should be seeing. That tells us that our models of stars are not far from reality. We’re probably on the right track to understand these kinds of stars.”

An illustration of the structure of the Sun and a red giant star, showing their convective zones. These are the granular zones in the outer layers of the stars. Credit: ESO

The detailed map also indicated differences in surface temperature, which were apparent from the different colors on the star’s surface. This are also consistent with what we know about stars, where temperature variations are indicative of processes that are taking place inside. As temperatures rise and fall, the hotter, more fluid areas become brighter (appearing white) while the cooler, denser areas become darker (red).

Looking ahead, Paladini and her team want to create even more detailed images of the surface of giant stars. The main aim of this is to be able to follow the evolution of these granules continuously, rather than merely getting snapshots of different points in time.

From these and similar studies, we are not only likely to learn more about the formation and evolution of different types of stars in our Universe; we’re also sure to get a better understanding of what our Solar System is in for.


Further Reading: Georgia State University, ESO, Nature

New Study of Antares Creates the Best Map Ever of a Distant Star

When stars exhaust their supply of hydrogen fuel, they exit the main sequence phase of their evolution and enter into what is known as the Red Giant Branch (RGB) phase. This is characterized by the stars expanding significantly and becoming tens of thousands of times larger than our Sun. They also become dimmer and cooler, which lends them a reddish-orange appearance (hence the name).

Recently, a team of astronomers used the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) to map one such star, the red supergiant Antares. In so doing, they were able to create the most detailed map of a star other than our Sun. The images they took also revealed some unexpected things about this supergiant star, all of which could help astronomers to better understand the dynamics and evolution of red giant stars.

The study which details their work, titled “Vigorous Atmospheric Motions in the Red Supergiant Supernova Progenitor Antares“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. As indicated in the study, the team – which was led by Keiichi Ohnaka, an associate professor at the UCN Institute of Astronomy in Chile = relied on the VLTI at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile to map Antares’s surface and measure the motions of its surface material.

Artist’s impression of the red supergiant star Antares, located 550 ly away in the constellation of Scorpius. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The purpose of their study was to chart how stars that have entered their RGB phase begin to change. The VLTI is uniquely suited to this task, since it is capable of combining light from four different telescopes – the 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes, or the smaller Auxiliary Telescopes – to create one virtual telescope that has the resolution of a telescope lens measuring 200 meters across.

This allows the VLTI to resolve fine details far beyond what can be seen with a single telescope. As Prof. Ohnaka explained in a recent ESO press statement:

How stars like Antares lose mass so quickly in the final phase of their evolution has been a problem for over half a century. The VLTI is the only facility that can directly measure the gas motions in the extended atmosphere of Antares — a crucial step towards clarifying this problem. The next challenge is to identify what’s driving the turbulent motions.”

For their study, the team relied on three of the VLTI Auxiliary Telescopes and an instrument called the Astronomical Multi-BEam combineR (AMBER). This near-infrared spectro-interferometric instrument combines three telescopic beams coherently, allowing astronomers to measure the visibilities and closure phases of stars. Using these instruments, the team obtained images of Antares’ surface over a small range of infrared wavelengths.

From these, the team was able to calculate the difference between the speed of atmospheric gas at different locations on Antares’ surface, as well as its average speed over the entire surface. This resulted in a two-dimensional velocity map of Antares, which is the first such map created of another star other than the Sun. As noted, it is also the most-detailed map of any star beyond our Solar System to date.

The study also made some interesting discoveries of what takes place on Antares’ surface and in its atmosphere. For example, they found evidence for high-speed upwellings of gas that reached distances of up to 1.7 Solar radii into space – much farther than previously thought. This, they claimed, could not be explained by convection alone, the process whereby cold material moves downwards and hot material upwards in a circular pattern.

This process occurs on Earth in the atmosphere and with ocean currents, but it is also responsible for moving pockets of hotter and colder gas around within stars. The fact that convection cannot explain the behavior of Antares extended atmosphere would therefore suggests that some new and unidentified process common to red giant stars must be responsible.

These results therefor offer new opportunities for research into stellar evolution, which is made possible thanks to next-generation instruments like the VTLI. As Ohnaka concluded:

“In the future, this observing technique can be applied to different types of stars to study their surfaces and atmospheres in unprecedented detail. This has been limited to just the Sun up to now. Our work brings stellar astrophysics to a new dimension and opens an entirely new window to observe stars.”

Not only is this kind of research improving our understanding of stars beyond our Solar System, it lets us know what to expect when our Sun exits it main sequence phase and begins expanding to become a red giant. Though that day is billions of years away and we can’t be certain humanity will even be around by that time, knowing the mechanics of stellar evolution is important to our understanding of the Universe.
It pays to know that even after we are gone, we can predict what will still be here and for how long. Be sure to check out this 3D animation of Antares, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO, Nature