Astronomers Have Found Grease in Space

Over the course of many centuries, scientists learned a great deal about the types of conditions and elements that make life possible here on Earth. Thanks to the advent of modern astronomy, scientists have since learned that these elements are not only abundant in other star systems and parts of the galaxy, but also in the medium known as interstellar space.

Consider carbon, the element that is essential to all organic matter and life as we know it. This life-bearing element is also present in interstellar dust, though astronomers are not sure how abundant it is. According to new research by a team of astronomers from Australia and Turkey, much of the carbon in our galaxy exists in the form of grease-like molecules.

Their study, “Aliphatic Hydrocarbon Content of Interstellar Dust“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Gunay Banihan, a professor from the Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences of Erge University in Turkey, and included members from multiple departments from the University of New South Wales in Sydney (UNSW).

A new study by a team of Turkish and Australian astronomers has found evidence of grease-like molecules in interstellar dust. Credit: ESO/R. Fosbury (ST-ECF)

For the sake of their study, the team sought to determine exactly how much of our galaxy’s carbon is bound up in grease-like molecules. At present, it is believed that half of the interstellar carbon exists in pure form, whereas the rest in bound up in either grease-like aliphatic molecules (carbon atoms that form open chains) and mothball-like aromatic molecules (carbon atoms that form planar unsaturated rings).

To determine how plentiful grease-like molecules are compared to aromatic ones, the team created material with the same properties as interstellar dust in a laboratory. This consisted of recreating the process where aliphatic compounds are synthesized in the outflows of carbon stars. They then followed up on this by expanding the carbon-containing plasma into a vacuum at low temperatures to simulate interstellar space.

As Prof. Tim Schmidt, from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science in the School of Chemistry at UNSW Sydney and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“Combining our lab results with observations from astronomical observatories allows us to measure the amount of aliphatic carbon between us and the stars.”

Using magnetic resonance and spectroscopy, they were then able to determine how strongly the material absorbed light with a certain infrared wavelength. From this, the team found that there are about 100 greasy carbon atoms for every million hydrogen atoms, which works out to about half of the available carbon between stars. Expanding that to include all of the Milky Way, they determined that about 10 billion trillion trillion tonnes of greasy matter exists.

Artist’s impression of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech)

To put that in perspective, that’s enough grease to fill about 40 trillion trillion trillion packs of butter. But as Schmidt indicated, this grease is far from being edible.

“This space grease is not the kind of thing you’d want to spread on a slice of toast! It’s dirty, likely toxic and only forms in the environment of interstellar space (and our laboratory). It’s also intriguing that organic material of this kind – material that gets incorporated into planetary systems – is so abundant.”

Looking ahead, the team now wants to determine the abundance of the other type of non-pure carbon, which is the mothball-like aromatic molecules. Here too, the team will be recreating the molecules in a laboratory environment using simulations. By establishing the amount of each type of carbon in interstellar dust, they will be able to place constraints on how much of this elements is available in our galaxy.

This in turn will allow astronomers to determine exactly how much of this life-giving element is available, and could also help shed light on how and where life can take hold!

Further Reading: RAS, MNRAS

New Study Says Earth Avoided a “Carbon Overdose” During Formation

According to the Nebular Hypothesis, the Sun and planets formed 4.6 billion years ago from a giant cloud of dust and gas. This began with the Sun forming in the center, and the remaining material forming a protoplanetary disc, from which the planets formed. Whereas the planets in the outer Solar System were largely made up of gases (i.e. the Gas Giants), those closer to the Sun formed from silicate minerals and metals (i.e. the terrestrial planets).

Despite having a pretty good idea of how this all came about, the question of exactly how the planets of the Solar System formed and evolved over the course of billions of year is still subject to debate. In a new study, two researchers from the University of Heidelberg considered the role played by carbon in both the formation of Earth and the emergence and evolution of life.

Their study, “Spatial Distribution of Carbon Dust in the Early Solar Nebula and the Carbon Content of Planetesimals“, recently appeared in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. The study was conducted by Hans-Peter Gail, from the Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Heidelberg, and Mario Trieloff – from Heidelberg’s Institute of Earth Sciences and the Klaus-Tschira-Laboratory for Cosmochemistry.

A slice of the Allende meteorite with silicate globules of the size of a millimetre. Credit: Institute of Earth Science

For the sake of their study, the pair considered what role the element carbon – which is essential to life here on Earth – played in planetary formation. Essentially, scientists are of the opinion that during the earliest days of the Solar System – when it was still a giant cloud of dust and gas – carbon-rich materials were distributed to the inner Solar System from the outer Solar System.

Out beyond the “Frost Line” – where volatiles like water, ammonia and methane and are able to condense into ice – bodies containing frozen carbon compounds formed. Much like how water was distributed throughout the Solar System, that these bodies were supposedly kicked out of their orbits and sent towards the Sun, distributing volatile materials to the planetesimals that would eventually grow to become the terrestrial planets.

However, when one compares the kinds of meteors that distributed primordial material to Earth – aka. chondrite meteorites –  one notices a certain discrepancy. Basically, carbon is comparatively rare on Earth compared to these ancient rocks, the reason for which has remained a mystery. As Prof. Trieloff, who was the co-author on the study, explained in a University of Heidelberg press release:

“On Earth, carbon is a relatively rare element. It is enriched close to the Earth´s surface, but as a fraction of the total matter on Earth it is a mere one-half of 1/1000th. In primitive comets, however, the proportion of carbon can be ten percent or more.”

Artist’s conception of a solar system in formation. Credit: NASA/FUSE/Lynette Cook

“A substantial portion of the carbon in asteroids and comets is in long-chain and branched molecules that evaporate only at very high temperatures,” added Dr. Grail, the study’s lead author. “Based on the standard models that simulate carbon reactions in the solar nebula where the sun and planets originated, the Earth and the other terrestrial planets should have up to 100 times more carbon.”

To address this, the two researches constructed a model that assumed that short-duration flash-heating events – where the Sun heated the protoplanetary disc – were responsible for this discrepancy. They also assumed that all matter in the inner Solar System was heated to temperatures of between 1,300 and 1,800 °C (2372 to 3272 °F) before small planetesimals and terrestrial planets eventually formed.

Dr. Grail and Trieloff believe the evidence for this lies in the round grains in meteorites that form from molten droplets – known as chondrules. Unlike chondrite meteorites, which can be composed of up to a few percent carbon, chondrules are largely depleted of this element. This, they claim, was the a result of the same flash-heating events that took place before the chondrules could accrete to form meteorites. As Dr. Gail indicated:

“Only the spikes in temperature derived from the chondrule formation models can explain today’s low amount of carbon on the inner planets. Previous models did not take this process into account, but we apparently have it to thank for the correct amount of carbon that allowed the evolution of the Earth’s biosphere as we know it.”

Artist impression of the Late Heavy Bombardment period. Credit: NASA

In short, the discrepancy between the amount of carbon found in chondritic-rock material and that found on Earth can be explained by intense heating in the primordial Solar System. As Earth formed from chrondritic material, the extreme heat caused it to be depleted of its natural carbon. In addition to shedding light on what has been an ongoing mystery in astronomy, this study also offers new insight into how life in the Solar System began.

Basically, the researchers speculate that the flash-heating events in the inner Solar System may have been necessary for life here on Earth. Had there been too much carbon in the primordial material that coalesced into our planet, the result could have been a “carbon overdose”. This is because when carbon becomes oxidized, it forms carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas that can lead to a runaway heating effect.

This is what planetary scientists believe happened to Venus, where the presence of abundant CO2 – combined with its increased exposure to Solar radiation – led to the hellish environment that is there today. But on Earth, CO2 was removed from the atmosphere by the silicate-carbonate cycle, which allowed for Earth to achieve a balanced and life-sustaining environment.

“Whether 100 times more carbon would permit effective removal of the greenhouse gas is questionable at the very least,” said Dr. Trieloff. “The carbon could no longer be stored in carbonates, where most of the Earth’s CO2 is stored today. This much CO2 in the atmosphere would cause such a severe and irreversible greenhouse effect that the oceans would evaporate and disappear.”

Artist’s impression of the “Venus-like” exoplanet in a nearby star system. Credit: cfa.harvard.edu

It is a well-known fact that life here on Earth is carbon-based. However, knowing that conditions during the early Solar System prevented an overdose of carbon that could have turned Earth into a second Venus is certainly interesting. While carbon may be essential to life as we know it, too much can mean the death of it. This study could also come in handy when it comes to the search for life in extra-solar systems.

When examining distant stars, astronomers could ask, “were primordial conditions hot enough in the inner system to prevent a carbon overdose?” The answer to that question could be the difference between finding an Earth 2.0, or another Venus-like world!

Further Reading: University of Heidelberg, Astronomy and Astrophysics

Cooking Up Life in the Cosmic Kitchen

Ever burnt meat or grilled chicken till the skin was crisp? In the process, the meats released PAHs, complex molecules composed of carbon (shown here at "C") and hydrogen ("H"). This ball-and-stick figure represents benzo[a]pyrene, a PAH commonly produced when cooking food or burning wood has 20 carbon atoms and a dozen hydrogens. Credit: Dennis Bogdan with additions by the author
Ever burnt meat or grilled chicken till the skin was crisp? If you have, you’ve made some PAHs. Overcooked meats, burning wood and automobile exhaust release PAHs, complex molecules composed of carbon (shown here at “C”) and hydrogen (“H”). This ball-and-stick figure represents benzo[a]pyrene, a PAH commonly produced when cooking food or burning wood has 20 carbon atoms and a dozen hydrogens. Credit: Dennis Bogdan with additions by the author
Kitchens are where we create. From crumb cake to corn on the cob, it happens here. If you’re like me, you’ve occasionally left a turkey too long in the oven or charred the grilled chicken. When meat gets burned, among the smells informing your nose of the bad news are flat molecules consisting of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern called PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

PAHs make up about 10% of the carbon in the universe and are not only found in your kitchen but also in outer space, where they were discovered in 1998. Even comets and meteorites contain PAHs. From the illustration, you can see they’re made up of several to many interconnected rings of carbon atoms arranged in different ways to make different compounds. The more rings, the more complex the molecule, but the underlying pattern is the same for all.

Both simple and complex organic (carbon-containing) molecules have been found in space. Carbon is formed in the cores of red giant stars, where it gets cycled to the surface and dispensed into space. Credit: IAC; original image of the Helix Nebula (NASA, NOAO, ESA, the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner, STScI, & T.A. Rector, NRAO
Both simple and complex organic (carbon-containing) molecules have been found in space. Carbon is formed in the cores of red giant stars, where it gets cycled to the surface and dispensed into space. Credit: IAC; original image of the Helix Nebula (NASA, NOAO, ESA, the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner, STScI, & T.A. Rector, NRAO

All life on Earth is based on carbon. A quick look at the human body reveals that 18.5% of it is made of that element alone. Why is carbon so crucial? Because it’s able to bond to itself and a host of other atoms in a variety of ways to create a lots of complex molecules that allow living organisms to perform many functions. Carbon-rich PAHs may even have been involved in the evolution of life since they come in many forms with potentially many functions. One of those may have been to encourage the formation of RNA (partner to the “life molecule” DNA).

In the continuing quest to learn how simple carbon molecules evolve into more complex ones and what role those compounds might play in the origin of life, an international team of researchers have focused NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and other observatories on PAHs found within the colorful Iris Nebula in the northern constellation Cepheus the King.

Combination of three color images of NGC 7023 from SOFIA (red & green) and Spitzer (blue) show different populations of PAH molecules. Credits: NASA/DLR/SOFIA/B. Croiset, Leiden Observatory, and O. Berné, CNRS; NASA/JPL-Caltech/Spitzer
This photo is a combination of three infrared color images of the Iris Nebula (NGC 7023) from SOFIA (red & green) and Spitzer (blue) that shows different types of PAH molecules in different parts of the nebula. Credits: NASA/DLR/SOFIA/B. Croiset, Leiden Observatory, and O. Berné, CNRS; NASA/JPL-Caltech/Spitzer

Bavo Croiset of Leiden University in the Netherlands and team determined that when PAHs in the nebula are hit by ultraviolet radiation from its central star, they evolve into larger, more complex molecules. Scientists hypothesize that the growth of complex organic molecules like PAHs is one of the steps leading to the emergence of life.

Strong UV light from a newborn massive star like the one that sets the Iris Nebula aglow would tend to break down large organic molecules into smaller ones, rather than build them up, according to the current view. To test this idea, researchers wanted to estimate the size of the molecules at various locations relative to the central star.

The research team used a telescope on board NASA's SOFIA Observatory, a modified Boeing 747, to fly high above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere to get a better view of PAHs in the Iris Nebula. Credit: NASA
The research team used a telescope on board NASA’s SOFIA Observatory, a modified Boeing 747, to fly high above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere to get a better view of PAHs in the Iris Nebula in infrared light. Credit: NASA

Croiset’s team used SOFIA to get above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere so he could observe the nebula in infrared light, a form of light invisible to our eyes that we detect as heat. SOFIA’s instruments are sensitive to two infrared wavelengths that are produced by these particular molecules, which can be used to estimate their size. The team analyzed the SOFIA images in combination with data previously obtained by the Spitzer infrared space observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The analysis indicates that the size of the PAH molecules in this nebula vary by location in a clear pattern. The average size of the molecules in the nebula’s central cavity surrounding the young star is larger than on the surface of the cloud at the outer edge of the cavity. They also got a surprise: radiation from the star resulted in net growth in the number of complex PAHs rather than their destruction into smaller pieces.

A view of the Iris Nebula in normal or visible light showing the bright, young central star. Light from the star illuminates clouds of gas and dust that show the nebula's flower-like shape. Credit: Hunter Wilson
A view of the Iris Nebula in normal or visible light showing the bright, young central star. Light from the star illuminates clouds of gas and dust that show the nebula’s flower-like shape. Credit: Hunter Wilson

In a paper published in Astronomy and Astrophysics, the team concluded that this molecular size variation is due both to some of the smallest molecules being destroyed by the harsh ultraviolet radiation field of the star, and to medium-sized molecules being irradiated so they combine into larger molecules.

So much starts with stars. Not only do they create the carbon atoms at the foundation of biology, but it would appear they shepherd them into more complex forms, too. Truly, we can thank our lucky stars!

Why Do Red Giants Expand?

We know that the Sun will last another 5 billion years and then expand us a red giant. What will actually make this process happen?


One of the handy things about the Universe, apart from the fact that it exists, is that it lets us see crazy different configurations of everything, including planets, stars and galaxies.

We see stars like our Sun and dramatically unlike our Sun. Tiny, cool red dwarf stars with a fraction of the mass of our own, sipping away at their hydrogen juice boxes for billions and even trillions of years. Stars with way more mass than our own, blasting out enormous amounts of radiation, only lasting a few million years before they detonate as supernovae.

There are ones younger than the Sun; just now clearing out the gas and dust in their solar nebula with intense ultraviolet radiation. Stars much older than ours, bloated up into enormous sizes, nearing the end of their lives before they fade into their golden years as white dwarfs.

The Sun is a main sequence star, converting hydrogen into helium at its core, like it’s been doing for more than 4.5 billion years, and will continue to do so for another 5 or so. At the end of its life, it’s going to bloat up as a red giant, so large that it consumes Mercury and Venus, and maybe even Earth.

What’s the process going on inside the Sun that makes this happen? Let’s peel away the Sun and take a look at the core. After we’re done screaming about the burning burning hands, we’ll see that the Sun is this enormous sphere of hydrogen and helium, 1.4 million kilometers across, the actual business of fusion is happening down in the core, a region that’s a delicious bubblegum center a tiny 280,000 kilometers across.

The core is less than one percent of the entire volume, but because the density of hydrogen in the chewy center is 150 times more than liquid water, it accounts for a freakishly huge 35% of its mass.

It’s thanks to the mass of the entire star, 2 x 10^30 kg, bearing down on the core thanks to gravity. Down here in the core, temperatures are more than 15 million degrees Celsius. It’s the perfect spot for nuclear fusion picnic.

There are a few paths fusion can take, but the main one is where hydrogen atoms are mushed into helium. This process releases enough gamma radiation to make you a planet full of Hulks.

Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb
Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb

While the Sun has been performing hydrogen fusion, all this helium has been piling up at its core, like nuclear waste. Terrifyingly, it’s still fuel, but our little Sun just doesn’t have the temperature or pressure at its core to be able to use it.

Eventually, the fusion at the core of the Sun shuts down, choked off by all this helium and in a last gasp of high pitched mickey mouse voice terror the helium core begins to contract and heat up. At this point, an amazing thing happens. It’s now hot enough for a layer of hydrogen just around the core to heat up and begin fusion again. The Sun now gets a second chance at life.

As this outer layer contains a bigger volume than the original core of the Sun, it heats up significantly, releasing far more energy. This increase in light pressure from the core pushes much harder against gravity, and expands the volume of the Sun.

Even this isn’t the end of the star’s life. Dammit, Harkness, just stay down. Helium continues to build up, and even this extra shell around the core isn’t hot and dense enough to support fusion. So the core dies again. The star begins to contract, the gravitational energy heats up again, allowing another shell of hydrogen to have the pressure and temperature for fusion, and then we’re back in business!

Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer
Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer

Our Sun will likely go through this process multiple times, each phase taking a few years to complete as it expands and contracts, heats and cools. Our Sun becomes a variable star.

Eventually, we run out of usable hydrogen, but fortunately, it’s able to switch over to using helium as fuel, generating carbon and oxygen as byproducts. This doesn’t last long, and when it’s gone, the Sun gets swollen to hundreds of times its size, releasing thousands of times more energy.

This is when the Sun becomes that familiar red giant, gobbling up the tasty planets, including, quite possibly the Earth.The remaining atmosphere puffs out from the Sun, and drifts off into space creating a beautiful planetary nebula that future alien astronomers will enjoy for thousands of years. What’s left is a carbon oxygen core, a white dwarf.

The Sun is completely out of tricks to make fusion happen any more, and it’ll now cool down to the background temperature of the Universe. Our Sun will die in a dramatic way, billions of years from now when it bloats up 500 times its original volume.

What do you think future alien astronomers will call the planetary nebula left behind by the Sun? Give it a name in the comments below.

Meteorite May Contain Proof of Life on Mars, Researchers Say

Mars is currently home to a small army robotic rovers, satellites and orbiters, all of which are busy at work trying to unravel the deeper mysteries of Earth’s neighbor. These include whether or not the planet ever had liquid water on its surface, what the atmosphere once looked like, and – most importantly of all – if it ever supported life.

And while much has been learned about Martian water and its atmosphere, the all-important question of life remains unanswered. Until such time as organic molecules – considered to be the holy grail for missions like Curiosity – are found, scientists must look elsewhere to find evidence of Martian life.

According to a recent paper submitted by an international team of scientists, that evidence may have arrived on Earth three and a half years ago aboard a meteorite that fell in the Moroccan desert. Believed to have broken away from Mars 700,000 years ago, so-called Tissint meteorite has internal features that researchers say appear to be organic materials.

The paper appeared in the scientific journal Meteoritics and Planetary Sciences. In it, the research team – which includes scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) – indicate organic carbon is located inside fissures in the rock. All indications are the meteorite is Martian in origin.

“So far, there is no other theory that we find more compelling,” says Philippe Gillet, director of EPFL’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Laboratory. He and his colleagues from China, Japan and Germany performed a detailed analysis of organic carbon traces from a Martian meteorite, and have concluded that they have a very probable biological origin.

Artist's conception of an fragment as it blasts off from Mars. Boulder-sized planetary fragments could be a mechanism that carried life between Mars and Earth, UA planetary scientist Jay Melosh says. (Credit: The Planetary Society)
Artist’s conception of an fragment as it blasts off from Mars as a result of a meteor impact. Credit: The Planetary Society

The scientists argue that carbon could have been deposited into the fissures of the rock when it was still on Mars by the infiltration of fluid that was rich in organic matter.

If this sounds familiar, you may recall a previous Martian meteorite named ALH84001, found in the Allen Hills region in Antarctica. In 1996 NASA researchers announced they had found evidence within ALH84001 that strongly suggested primitive life may have existed on Mars more than 3.6 billion years ago. While subsequent studies of the now famous Allen Hills Meteorite shot down theories that the Mars rock held fossilized alien life, both sides continue to debate the issue.

This new research on the Tissint meteorite will likely be reviewed and rebutted, as well.

The researchers say the meteorite was likely ejected from Mars after an asteroid crashed on its surface, and fell to Earth on July 18, 2011, and fell in Morocco in view of several eyewitnesses.

Upon examination, the alien rock was found to have small fissures that were filled with carbon-containing matter. Several research teams have already shown that this component is organic in nature, but they are still debating where the carbon came from.

Chemical, microscopic and isotope analysis of the carbon material led the researchers to several possible explanations of its origin. They established characteristics that unequivocally excluded a terrestrial origin, and showed that the carbon content were deposited in the Tissint’s fissures before it left Mars.

This research challenges research proposed in 2012 that asserted that the carbon traces originated through the high-temperature crystallization of magma. According to the new study, a more likely explanation is that liquids containing organic compounds of biological origin infiltrated Tissint’s “mother” rock at low temperatures, near the Martian surface.

A piece of the Tissint meteorite that came to Earth via Mars. Credit: EPFL/Alain Herzog
A piece of the Tissint meteorite that landed on Earth on July 18th, 2011. Credit: EPFL/Alain Herzog

These conclusions are supported by several intrinsic properties of the meteorite’s carbon, e.g. its ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12. This was found to be significantly lower than the ratio of carbon-13 in the CO2 of Mars’s atmosphere, previously measured by the Phoenix and Curiosity rovers.

Moreover, the difference between these ratios corresponds perfectly with what is observed on Earth between a piece of coal – which is biological in origin – and the carbon in the atmosphere.

The researchers note that this organic matter could also have been brought to Mars when very primitive meteorites – carbonated chondrites – fell on it. However, they consider this scenario unlikely because such meteorites contain very low concentrations of organic matter.

“Insisting on certainty is unwise, particularly on such a sensitive topic,” warns Gillet. “I’m completely open to the possibility that other studies might contradict our findings. However, our conclusions are such that they will rekindle the debate as to the possible existence of biological activity on Mars – at least in the past.”

Be sure to check out these videos from EPFL News, which include an interview with Philippe Gillet, EPFL and co-author of the study:

And this video explaining the history of the Tissint meteor:

Further Reading: EPFL

Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 31, 2014: Bad Week in Space

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @cosmic_chatter)
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba)
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com / @ken_kremer)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 31, 2014: Bad Week in Space”

Carbon Impacts Planetary Atmospheric Formation

It might be common, but carbon could have a huge impact in the formation and evolution of a planet’s atmosphere. As it moves from the interior to the surface, carbon’s role is important. According to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, if Mars let go of its majority of carbon supply as methane, it probably would have been temperate enough to caused liquid water to form. Just how captive carbon escapes via iron-rich magma is offering us vital clues as to the role it plays in “early atmospheric evolution on Mars and other terrestrial bodies”.

While the atmosphere of a planet is its outer layer, it has its beginnings far below. During the formation of a planet, the mantle – a layer between a planet’s core and upper crust – latches on to subsurface carbon when it melts to create magma. When the viscous magma rises upwards to the surface, the pressure lessens and the captive carbon is released as gas. As an example, Earth’s captive carbon is encapsulated in magma as carbonate and its released gas is carbon dioxide. As we are aware, carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas” which enables our planet to absorb heat from the Sun. However, the release process for captive carbon on other planets – and its subsequent greenhouse effects – isn’t well understood..

“We know carbon goes from the solid mantle to the liquid magma, from liquid to gas and then out,” said Alberto Saal, professor of geological sciences at Brown and one of the study’s authors. “We want to understand how the different carbon species that are formed in the conditions that are relevant to the planet affect the transfer.”

Thanks to the new study, which also included researchers from Northwestern University and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, we’re able to take a closer look at the release processes for other terrestrial mantles, such as those found on the Moon, Mars and similar bodies. Here the captive carbon in the magma is formed as iron carbonyl – then escapes as methane and carbon monoxide. Like carbon dioxide, both of these gases have a huge potential as greenhouse.

The team, along with Malcolm Rutherford from Brown, Steven Jacobsen from Northwestern and Erik Hauri from the Carnegie Institution, came to some significant conclusions about the early volcanic history of Mars. If it followed the captive carbon theory, it might have very well released enough methane gas to have kept the Red Planet warm and cozy. However, it didn’t happen in an “Earth-like” manner. Here our mantel supports a condition known as “oxygen fugacity” – the volume of free oxygen available to react with other elements. While we have a high rate, bodies like early Mars and the Moon are poor in comparison.

Now the real science part comes into play. In order to discover how a lower oxygen fugacity impacts “carbon transfer”, the researchers experimented with volcanic basalt which closely match those located on both Mars and the Moon. Through various pressures, temperatures and oxygen fugacities, the volcanic rock was melted and studied with a spectrometer. This allowed the scientists to determine just how much carbon was absorbed and what form it took. Their findings? At low oxygen fugacities, captive carbon took the form of iron carbonyl and at low pressure the iron carbonyl released as carbon monoxide and methane.

“We found that you can dissolve in the magma more carbon at low oxygen fugacity than what was previously thought,” said Diane Wetzel, a Brown graduate student and the study’s lead author. “That plays a big role in the degassing of planetary interiors and in how that will then affect the evolution of atmospheres in different planetary bodies.”

As we know, Mars has a history of volcanism and studies such as this mean that large quantities of methane must have once been released via carbon transfer. Could this have triggered a greenhouse effect? It’s entirely possible. After all, methane in a early atmosphere may very well have supported conditions warm enough to have allowed liquid water to form on the surface.

Maybe even enough to pool…

Original Story Source: Brown University News Release.

The Last Outbursts of a Dying Star

As stars approach the inevitable ends of their lives they run out of stellar fuel and begin to lose a gravitational grip on their outermost layers, which can get periodically blown far out into space in enormous gouts of gas — sometimes irregularly-shaped, sometimes in a neat sphere. The latter is the case with the star above, a red giant called U Cam in the constellation Camelopardalis imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.

From the Hubble image description:

U Cam is an example of a carbon star. This is a rare type of star whose atmosphere contains more carbon than oxygen. Due to its low surface gravity, typically as much as half of the total mass of a carbon star may be lost by way of powerful stellar winds. Located in the constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe), near the North Celestial Pole, U Cam itself is actually much smaller than it appears in Hubble’s picture. In fact, the star would easily fit within a single pixel at the center of the image. Its brightness, however, is enough to saturate the camera’s receptors, making the star look much bigger than it really is.

The shell of gas, which is both much larger and much fainter than its parent star, is visible in intricate detail in Hubble’s portrait. While phenomena that occur at the ends of stars’ lives are often quite irregular and unstable, the shell of gas expelled from U Cam is almost perfectly spherical.

Image credit: ESA/NASA

Even the Early Universe Had the Ingredients for Life

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For us carbon-based life forms, carbon is a fairly important part of the chemical makeup of the Universe. However, carbon and oxygen were not created in the Big Bang, but rather much later in stars. How much later? In a surprising find, scientists have detected carbon much earlier in the Universe’s history than previously thought.

Researchers from Ehime University and Kyoto University have reported the detection of carbon emission lines in the most distant radio galaxy known. The research team used the Faint Object Camera and Spectrograph (FOCAS) on the Subaru Telescope to observe the radio galaxy TN J0924-2201. When the research team investigated the detected carbon line, they determined that significant amounts of carbon existed less than a billion years after the Big Bang.

How does this finding contribute to our understanding of the chemical evolution of the universe and the possibilities for life?

To understand the chemical evolution of our universe, we can start with the Big Bang. According to the Big Bang theory, our universe sprang into existence about 13.7 billion years ago. For the most part, only Hydrogen and Helium ( and a sprinkle of Lithium) existed.

So how do we end up with everything past the first three elements on the periodic table?

Simply put, we can thank previous generations of stars. Two methods of nucleosythesis (element creation) in the universe are via nuclear fusion inside stellar cores, and the supernovae that marked the end of many stars in our universe.

Over time, through the birth and death of several generations of stars, our universe became less “metal-poor” (Note: many astronomers refer to anything past Hydrogen and Helium as metals”). As previous generations of stars died out, they “enriched” other areas of space, allowing future star-forming regions to have conditions necessary to form non-star objects such as planets, asteroids, and comets. It is believed that by understanding how the universe created heavier elements, researchers will have a better understanding of how the universe evolved, as well as the sources of our carbon-based chemistry.

So how do astronomers study the chemical evolution of our universe?

By measuring the metallicity (abundance of elements past Hydrogen on the periodic table) of astronomical objects at various redshifts, researchers can essentially peer back into the history of our universe. When studied, redshifted galaxies show wavelengths that have been stretched (and reddened, hence the term redshift) due to the expansion of our universe. Galaxies with a higher redshift value (known as “z”) are more distant in time and space and provide researchers information about the metallicity of the early universe. Many early galaxies are studied in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as infra-red and visual.

The research team from Kyoto University set out to study the metallicity of a radio galaxy at higher redshift than previous studies. In their previous studies, their findings suggested that the main era of increased metallicity occurred at higher redshifts, thus indicating the universe was “enriched” much earlier than previous believed. Based on the previous findings, the team then decided to focus their studies on galaxy TN J0924-2201 – the most distant radio galaxy known with a redshift of z = 5.19.

The deep optical spectrum of TN J0924-2201 obtained with FOCAS on the Subaru Telescope. The red arrows point to the carbon emission line.

The research team used the FOCAS instrument on the Subaru Telescope to obtain an optical spectrum of galaxy TN J0924-2201. While studying TN J0924-2201, the team detected, for the first time, a carbon emission line (See above). Based on the detection of the carbon emission line, the team discovered that TN J0924-2201 had already experienced significant chemical evolution at z > 5, thus an abundance of metals was already present in the ancient universe as far back as 12.5 billion years ago.

If you’d like to read the team’s findings you can access the paper Chemical properties in the most distant radio galaxy – Matsuoka, et al at: http://arxiv.org/abs/1107.5116

Source: NAOJ Press Release

WASP-12b: A Carbon Rich Exoplanet

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Since its discovery in 2008, WASP-12b has been an unusual planet. This 1.4 Jovian mass, gas giant lies so close to its parent star that gas is being stripped from its atmosphere. But being stripped away isn’t the only odd property of this planet’s atmosphere. A new study has shown that it’s full of carbon.

The discovery was published in today’s issue of Nature was led by Nikku Madhusudhan, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University in combination with the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) team that originally discovered the planet. Unlike other recent studies of planetary atmospheres, this study did not employ transit spectroscopy. Instead, the team examined the reflective properties of the planet at four wavelengths, observations of which three came from another study using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii.

To determine the composition of the atmosphere, the flux of the planet at each of these wavelengths was then compared to models of planetary atmospheres with differing compositions. The models included compounds such as methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor and ammonia as well as the temperature distribution of the planet.

For a typical hot Jupiter, models have most closely fit a ratio of about 0.5 for carbon to oxygen which suggests that oxygen is more prevalent in the atmospheres, often in the form of water vapor, as well as very little methane. For WASP-12b, Madhusudhan’s team found an abundance of more than 100 times that of standard hot Jupiters for methane (CH4). When examining the carbon to oxygen ratio, they discovered a ratio greater than one implying that the planet is unusually carbon rich.

While WASP-12b is certainly not a friendly place for life, the discovery of a planet with so much carbon may hold implications for life elsewhere in the universe. Astronomers expect that the abundance was due to the formation of the planet from rocky materials high in carbon as opposed to icy bodies like comets. This suggests that there may be an entire range of carbon abundances available for planets. With the versatility of carbon for forming organic compounds, this enhanced abundance may lead to other, rocky planets covered in tar like substances rife with organics.

The team speculates that such worlds may exist in the same solar system. Previous studies have shown that WASP-12b’s orbit is not circular and some have suggested that this may indicate the presence of another body which tugs on 12b’s orbit.