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.
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.
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 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
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.
CO2 is more than just the stuff that comes out of smokestacks, tailpipes, cigarettes and campfires. It is also a crucial element here on planet Earth, essential to life and its processes. It is used by plants to make sugars during photosynthesis. It is emitted by all animals, as well as some plants, fungi and microorganisms, during respiration. It is used by any organism that relies either directly or indirectly on plants for food; hence, it is a major component of the Carbon Cycle. It is also a major greenhouse gas, hence why it is so closely associated with Climate Change.
Joseph Black, a Scottish chemist and physician, was the first to identify carbon dioxide in the 1750s. He did so by heating calcium carbonate (limestone) with heat and acids, the result of which was the release of a gas that was denser than normal air and did not support flame or animal life. He also observed that it could be injected into calcium hydroxide (a liquid solution of lime) to produce Calcium Carbonate. Then, in 1772, another chemist named Joseph Priestley came up with of combining CO2 and water, thus inventing soda water. He was also intrinsic in coming up with the concept of the Carbon Cycle.
Since that time, our understanding of CO2 and its importance as both a greenhouse gas and an integral part of the Carbon Cycle has grown exponentially. For example, we’ve come to understand that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 fluctuate slightly with the change of the seasons, driven primarily by seasonal plant growth in the Northern Hemisphere. Concentrations of carbon dioxide fall during the northern spring and summer as plants consume the gas, and rise during the northern autumn and winter as plants go dormant, die and decay.
Traditionally, atmospheric CO2 levels were dependent on the respirations of animals, plants and microorganisms (as well as natural phenomena like volcanoes, geothermal processes, and forest fires). However, human activity has since come to be the major mitigating factor. The use of fossil fuels has been the major producer of CO2 since the Industrial Revolution. By relying increasingly on fossil fuels for transportation, heating, and manufacturing, we are threatening to offset the natural balance of CO2 in the atmosphere, water and soil, which in turn is having observable and escalating consequences for our environment. As is the process of deforestation which deprives the Earth of one it’s most important CO2 consumers and another important link in the Carbon Cycle.
NASA is quite proud of its spinoffs technology developed for the space agency’s needs in space that in turn contribute to commercial innovations that improve life here on Earth. And rightly so. Just as a quick example, improvements in spacesuits have led to better protection for firefighters, scuba divers and people working in cold weather. But the list of NASA spinoffs is quite extensive.
Just like NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) has a Technology Transfer office to help inventors and businesses use space technology for non-space applications. The latest invention touted as an ESA spinoff is a small hand-held device called a Carbon Hero that might help make people more aware of the carbon footprint they are leaving behind due to vehicle emissions.
Used in conjunction with a cell phone, the Carbon Hero receives data from navigation satellites to determine the mode of transportation being used. The device’s algorithm is able to use the speed and position of the user to determine how they are traveling, and how much CO2 they are generating. The user doesn’t have to enter any information, the data is computed automatically.
The user would get feedback on the environmental impact of different types of transportation – whether by train, plane, bike or by foot. The Carbon Hero lets the user compare one kind of travel with another and calculate the environmental benefits daily, weekly and monthly.
“If you go on a diet you want to see if all that effort has made a difference so you weigh yourself. The beauty of our system is that it’s easy; you have a “weighing scale” on you all the time giving you your carbon footprint. When you make the effort to walk instead of taking the car you can immediately see the result, so it feels more worthwhile doing it and you are more likely to stick with it,” says Andreas Zachariah, a graduate student from the Royal College of Art in London and inventor of Carbon Hero.
The device has been tested using the GPS system, but will be fully operational after Galileo, the European global navigation system is fully up and running.
We’ve heard about life being created in a puddle of primordial chemical soup, sparked by lightning strikes, or organic molecules falling to Earth from comets or planets, such as Mars. But now, there is an alternative. Early Earth was radioactive; the Moon also had a lower orbit, generating strong tidal forces. Due to the close proximity to abundant water, radioactive beaches may have possessed all the essential ingredients for organic compounds, and eventually life, to thrive.
Research by the University of Washington, Seattle, suggests that perhaps the highly radioactive environment of Earth some 4 billion years ago may have been the ideal time for life to form. The orbit of the Moon also had a part to play in this offbeat theory.
Through strong tidal forces by a Moon that orbited far closer to the Earth than it does today, radioactive elements accumulated on the beaches could be gravitationally sorted. The chemical energy in these beach hot spots was probably high enough to allow self-sustaining fission processes (which occurs in natural concentrations of uranium). The main product from fission is heat, therefore powering chemical processes and the generation of organic, life-giving compounds.
“Amino acids, sugars and [soluble] phosphate can all be produced simultaneously in a radioactive beach environment.” – Zachary Adam, an astrobiologist at the University of Washington Seattle.
This is a hard theory to understand, it is well known that radioactivity breaks down organic molecules and causes a whole host of problems for us carbon-based creatures. But in the early Earth, devoid of plants and animals, radioactive processes may have provided energy for life to begin in the first place.
This theory also partially explains why life may be a very rare occurrence in the universe: there must be the correct concentration of radioactive elements, on the surface of a water-dominated developing planet, with tidal forces supplied by a closely orbiting stellar body. The Earth may, after all, be unique.