New Study Says a Fast Radio Burst Happens Every Second in the Universe

When astronomers first noted the detection of a Fast Radio Burst (FRB) in 2007 (aka. the Lorimer Burst), they were both astounded and intrigued. This high-energy burst of radio pulses, which lasted only a few milliseconds, appeared to be coming from outside of our galaxy. Since that time, astronomers have found evidence of many FRBs in previously-recorded data, and are still speculating as to what causes them.

Thanks to subsequent discoveries and research, astronomers now know that FRBs are far more common than previously thought. In fact, according to a new study by a team of researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), FRBs may occur once every second within the observable Universe. If true, FRBs could be a powerful tool for researching the origins and evolution of the cosmos.

The study, titled “A Fast Radio Burst Occurs Every Second throughout the Observable Universe“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study was led by Anastasia Fialkov, a postdoc researcher and Fellow at the CfA’s Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC). She was joined by Professor Abraham Loeb, the director of the ITC and the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard.

As noted, FRBs have remained something of a mystery since they were first discovered. Not only do their causes remain unknown, but much about their true nature is still not understood. As Dr. Fialkov told Universe Today via email:

“FRBs (or fast radio bursts) are astrophysical signals of an undetermined nature. The observed bursts are short (or millisecond duration), bright pulses in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum (at GHz frequencies). Only 24 bursts have been observed so far and we still do not know for sure which physical processes trigger them. The most plausible explanation is that they are launched by rotating magnetized neutron stars. However, this theory is to be confirmed.”

For the sake of their study, Fialkov and Loeb relied on observations made by multiple telescopes of the repeating fast radio burst known as FRB 121102. This FRB was first observed in 2012 by researchers using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and has since been confirmed to be coming from a galaxy located 3 billion light years away in the direction of the Auriga constellation.

Since it was discovered, additional bursts have been detected coming from its location, making FRB 121102 the only known example of a repeating FRB. This repetitive nature has also allowed astronomers to conduct more detailed studies of it than any other FRB. As Prof. Loeb told Universe Today via email, these and other reasons made it an ideal target for their study:

“FRB 121102 is the only FRB for which a host galaxy and a distance were identified. It is also the only repeating FRB source from which we detected hundreds of FRBs by now. The radio spectrum of its FRBs is centered on a characteristic frequency and not covering a very broad band. This has important implications for the detectability of such FRBs, because in order to find them the radio observatory needs to be tuned to their frequency.”

Image of the sky where the radio burst FRB 121102 was found, in the constellation Auriga. You can see its location with a green circle. At left is supernova remnant S147 and at right, a star formation area called IC 410. Credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo (DeepSkyColors.com)

Based on what is known about FRB 121102, Fialkov and Loeb conducted a series of calculations that assumed that it’s behavior was representative of all FRBs. They then projected how many FRBs would exist across the entire sky and determined that within the observable Universe, a FRB would likely be taking place once every second. As Dr. Fialkov explained:

“Assuming that FRBs are produced by galaxies of a particular type (e.g., similar to FRB 121102) we can calculate how many FRBs have to be produced by each galaxy to explain the existing observations (i.e., 2000 per sky per day). With this number in mind we can infer the production rate for the entire population of galaxies. This calculation shows that an FRB occurs every second when accounting for all the faint events.”

While the exact nature and origins of FRBs are still unknown – suggestions include rotating neutron stars and even alien intelligence! – Fialkov and Loeb indicate that they could be used to study the structure and evolution of the Universe. If indeed they occur with such regular frequency throughout the cosmos, then more distant sources could act as probes which astronomers would then rely on to plumb the depths of space.

For instance, over vast cosmic distances, there is a significant amount of intervening material that makes it difficult for astronomers to study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. Studies of this intervening material could lead to a new estimates of just how dense space is – i.e. how much of it is composed of ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energy – and how rapidly it is expanding.

Gemini composite image of the field around FRB 121102, the only repeating FRB discovered so far. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC

And as Prof. Loeb indicated, FRBs could also be used to explore enduring cosmlogical questions, like how the “Dark Age” of the Universe ended:

“FRBs can be used to measure the column of free electrons towards their source. This can be used to measure the density of ordinary matter between galaxies in the present-day universe. In addition, FRBs at early cosmic times can be used to find out when the ultraviolet light from the first stars broke up the primordial atoms of hydrogen left over from the Big Bang into their constituent electrons and protons.”

The “Dark Age”, which occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, was characterized by a “fog” of hydrogen atoms interacting with photons. As a result of this, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments. At present, scientists are still attempting to resolve how the Universe made the transition between these “Dark Ages” and subsequent epochs when the Universe was filled with light.

This period of “reionization”, which took place 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, was when the first stars and quasars formed. It is generally believed that UV light from the first stars in the Universe traveled outwards to ionize the hydrogen gas (thus clearing the fog). A recent study also suggested that black holes that existed in the early Universe created the necessary “winds” that allowed this ionizing radiation to escape.

To this end, FRBs could be used to probe into this early period of the Universe and determine what broke down this “fog” and allowed light to escape. Studying very distant FRBs could allow scientists to study where, when and how this process of “reionization” occurred. Looking ahead, Fialkov and Loeb explained how future radio telescopes will be able to discover many FRBs.

The planned Square Kilometer Array will be the world’s largest radio telescope when it begins operations in 2018. Credit: SKA

“Future radio observatories, like the Square Kilometer Array, will be sensitive enough to detect FRBs from the first generation of galaxies at the edge of the observable universe,” said Prof. Loeb. “Our work provides the first estimate of the number and properties of the first flashes of radio waves that lit up in the infant universe.”

And then there’s the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) at the at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, which recently began operating. These and other instruments will serve as powerful tools for detecting FRBs, which in turn could be used to view previously unseen regions of time and space, and unlock some of the deepest cosmological mysteries.

“[W]e find that a next generation telescope (with a much better sensitivity than the existing ones) is expected to see many more FRBs than what is observed today,” said Dr. Fialkov. “This would allow to characterize the population of FRBs and identify their origin. Understanding the nature of FRBs will be a major breakthrough. Once the properties of these sources are known, FRBs can be used as cosmic beacons to explore the Universe. One application is to study the history of reionization (cosmic phase transition when the inter-galactic gas was ionized by stars).”

It is an inspired thought, using natural cosmic phenomena as research tools. In that respect, using FRBs to probe the most distant objects in space (and as far back in time as we can) is kind of like using quasars as navigational beacons. In the end, advancing our knowledge of the Universe allows us to explore more of it.

Further Reading: CfA, Astrophysical Journal Letters

Ultraviolet Light Could Point the Way To Life Throughout the Universe

Ultraviolet light is what you might call a controversial type of radiation. On the one hand, overexposure can lead to sunburn, an increased risk of skin cancer, and damage to a person’s eyesight and immune system. On the other hand, it also has some tremendous health benefits, which includes promoting stress relief and stimulating the body’s natural production of vitamin D, seratonin, and melanin.

And according to a new study from a team from Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), ultraviolet radiation may even have played a critical role in the emergence of life here on Earth. As such, determining how much UV radiation is produced by other types of stars could be one of the keys to finding evidence of life any planets that orbit them.

The study, titled “The Surface UV Environment on Planets Orbiting M Dwarfs: Implications for Prebiotic Chemistry and the Need for Experimental Follow-up“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. Led by Sukrit Ranjan, a visiting postdoctoral researcher at the CfA, the team focused on M-type (red dwarf) stars to determine if this class of star produces enough UV radiation to kick-start the biological processes necessary for life to emerge.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

Recent studies have indicated that UV radiation may be necessary for the formation of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is necessary for all forms of life as we know it. And given the rate at which rocky planets have been discovered around red dwarf stars of late (exampled include Proxima b, LHS 1140b, and the seven planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system), how much UV radiation red dwarfs give off could be central to determining exoplanet habitability.

As Dr. Ranjan explained in a CfA press release:

“It would be like having a pile of wood and kindling and wanting to light a fire, but not having a match. Our research shows that the right amount of UV light might be one of the matches that gets life as we know it to ignite.”

For the sake of their study, the team created radiative transfer models of red dwarf stars. They then sought to determine if the UV environment on prebiotic Earth-analog planets which orbited them would be sufficient to stimulate the photoprocesses that would lead to the formation of RNA. From this, they calculated that planets orbiting M-dwarf stars would have access to 100–1000 times less bioactive UV radiation than a young Earth.

As a result, the chemistry that depends on UV light to turn chemical elements and prebiotic conditions into biological organisms would likely shut down. Alternately, the team estimated that even if this chemistry was able to proceed under a diminished level of UV radiation, it would operate at a much slower rate than it did on Earth billions of years ago.

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

As Robin Wordsworth – an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science and a co-author on the study – explained, this is not necessarily bad news as far as questions of habitability go. “It may be a matter of finding the sweet spot,” he said. “There needs to be enough ultraviolet light to trigger the formation of life, but not so much that it erodes and removes the planet’s atmosphere.”

Previous studies have shown that even calm red dwarfs experience dramatic flares that periodically bombard their planets with bursts UV energy. While this was considered to be something hazardous, which could strip orbiting planets of their atmospheres and irradiate life, it is possible that such flares could compensate for the lower levels of UV being steadily produced by the star.

This news also comes on the heels of a study that indicated how the outer planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system (including the three located within its habitable zone) might still have plenty of water of their surfaces. Here too, the key was UV radiation, where the team responsible for the study monitored the TRAPPIST-1 planets for signs of hydrogen loss from their atmospheres (a sign of photodissociation).

This research also calls to mind a recent study led by Professor Avi Loeb, the Chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University, Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation, and also a member of the CfA. Titled, “Relative Likelihood for Life as a Function of Cosmic Time“, Loeb and his team concluded that red dwarf stars are the most likely to give rise to life because of their low mass and extreme longevity.

Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the surface of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Compared to higher-mass stars that have shorter life spans, red dwarf stars are likely to remain in their main sequence for as long as six to twelve trillion years. Hence, red dwarf stars would certainly be around long enough to accommodate even a vastly decelerated rate of organic evolution. In this respect, this latest study might even be considered a possible resolution for the Fermi Paradox – Where are all the aliens? They’re still evolving!

But as Dimitar Sasselov – the Phillips Professor of Astronomy at Harvard, the Director of the Origins of Life Initiative and a co-author on the paper – indicated, there are still many unanswered questions:

“We still have a lot of work to do in the laboratory and elsewhere to determine how factors, including UV, play into the question of life. Also, we need to determine whether life can form at much lower UV levels than we experience here on Earth.”

As always, scientists are forced to work with a limited frame of reference when it comes to assessing the habitability of other planets. To our knowledge, life exists on only on planet (i.e. Earth), which naturally influences our understanding of where and under what conditions life can thrive. And despite ongoing research, the question of how life emerged on Earth is still something of a mystery.

If life should be found on a planet orbiting a red dwarf, or in extreme environments we thought were uninhabitable, it would suggest that life can emerge and evolve in conditions that are very different from those of Earth. In the coming years, next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope are the Giant Magellan Telescope are expected to reveal more about distant stars and their systems of planets.

The payoff of this research is likely to include new insights into where life can emerge and the conditions under which it can thrive.

Further Reading: CfA, The Astrophysical Journal

Even Though Red Dwarfs Have Long Lasting Habitable Zones, They’d be Brutal to Life

Artist's concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We're going to keep finding more and more solar systemsl like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST, with starshades, to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ever since scientists confirmed the existence of seven terrestrial planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1, this system has been a focal point of interest for astronomers. Given its proximity to Earth (just 39.5 light-years light-years away), and the fact that three of its planets orbit within the star’s “Goldilocks Zone“, this system has been an ideal location for learning more about the potential habitability of red dwarf stars systems.

This is especially important since the majority of stars in our galaxy are red dwarfs (aka. M-type dwarf stars). Unfortunately, not all of the research has been reassuring. For example, two recent studies performed by two separate teams from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) indicate that the odds finding life in this system are less likely than generally thought.

The first study, titled “Physical Constraints on the Likelihood of Life on Exoplanets“, sought to address how radiation and stellar wind would affect any planets located within TRAPPIST-1s habitable zone. Towards this end, the study’s authors – Professors Manasvi Lingam and Avi Loeb – constructed a model that considered how certain factors would affect conditions on the surface of these planets.

This artist’s concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This model took into account how the planets distance from their star would affect surface temperatures and atmospheric loss, and how this might affect the changes life would have to emerge over time. As Dr. Loeb told Universe Today via email:

“We considered the erosion of the atmosphere of the planets due to the stellar wind and the role of temperature on ecological and evolutionary processes. The habitable zone around the faint dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is several tens of times closer in than for the Sun, hence the pressure of the stellar wind is several orders of magnitude higher than on Earth. Since life as we know it requires liquid water and liquid water requires an atmosphere, it is less likely that life exists around TRAPPIST-1 than in the solar system.”

Essentially, Dr. Lingam and Dr, Loeb found that planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system would be barraged by UV radiation with an intensity far greater than that experienced by Earth. This is a well-known hazard when it comes to red dwarf stars, which are variable and unstable when compared to our own Sun. They concluded that compared to Earth, the chances of complex life existing on planets within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone were less than 1%.

“We showed that Earth-sized exoplanets in the habitable zone around M-dwarfs display much lower prospects of being habitable relative to Earth, owing to the higher incident ultraviolet fluxes and closer distances to the host star,” said Loeb. “This applies to the recently discovered exoplanets in the vicinity of the Sun, Proxima b (the nearest star four light years away) and TRAPPIST-1 (ten times farther), which we find to be several orders of magnitude smaller than that of Earth.”

Three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets – TRAPPIST-1e, f and g – dwell in their star’s so-called “habitable zone. CreditL NASA/JPL

The second study – “The Threatening Environment of the TRAPPIST-1 Planets“, which was recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters – was produced by a team from the CfA and the Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts. Led by Dr. Cecilia Garraffo of the CfA, the team considered another potential threat to life in this system.

Essentially, the team found that TRAPPIST-1, like our Sun, sends streams of charged particles outwards into space – i.e. stellar wind. Within the Solar System, this wind exerts force on the planets and can have the effect of stripping away their atmospheres. Whereas Earth’s atmosphere is protected by its magnetic field, planets like Mars are not – hence why it lost the majority of its atmosphere to space over the course of hundreds of million of years.

As the research team found, when it comes to TRAPPIST-1, this stream exerts a force on its planets that is between 1,000 to 100,000 times greater than what Earth experiences from solar wind. Furthermore, they argue that TRAPPIST-1’s magnetic field is likely connected to the magnetic fields of the planets that orbit around it, which would allow particles from the star to directly flow onto the planet’s atmosphere.

Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In other words, if TRAPPIST-1’s planets do have magnetic fields, they will not afford them any protection. So if the flow of charged particles is strong enough, it could strip these planets’ atmospheres away, thus rendering them uninhabitable. As Garraffo put it:

“The Earth’s magnetic field acts like a shield against the potentially damaging effects of the solar wind. If Earth were much closer to the Sun and subjected to the onslaught of particles like the TRAPPIST-1 star delivers, our planetary shield would fail pretty quickly.”

As you can imagine, this is not exactly good news for those who were hoping that the TRAPPIST-1 system would hold the first evidence of life beyond our Solar System. Between the fact that its planets orbit a star that emits varying degrees of intense radiation, and the proximity its seven planets have to the star itself, the odds of life emerging on any planet within it’s “habitable zone” are not significant.

The findings of the second study are particularly significant in light of other recent studies. In the past, Prof. Loeb and a team from the University of Chicago have both addressed the possibility that the TRAPPIST-1 system’s seven planets – which are relatively close together – are well-suited to lithopanspermia. In short, they determined that given their close proximity to each other, bacteria could be transferred from one planet to the next via asteroids.

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

But if the proximity of these planets also means that they are unlikely to retain their atmospheres in the face of stellar wind, the likelihood of lithopanspermia may be a moot point. However, before anyone gets to thinking that this is bad news as far as the hunt for life goes, it is important to note that this study does not rule out the possibility of life emerging in all red dwarf star systems.

As Dr. Jeremy Drake – a senior astrophysicist from the CfA and one of Garraffo’s co-authors – indicated, the results of their study simply mean that we need to cast a wide net when searching for life in the Universe.  “We’re definitely not saying people should give up searching for life around red dwarf stars,” he said. “But our work and the work of our colleagues shows we should also target as many stars as possible that are more like the Sun.”

And as Dr. Loeb himself has indicated in the past, red dwarf stars are still the most statistically-likely place to find habitable worlds:

“By surveying the habitability of the Universe throughout cosmic history from the birth of the first stars 30 million years after the Big Bang to the death of the last stars in 10 trillion years, one reaches the conclusion that unless habitability around low-mass stars is suppressed, life is most likely to exist near red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri or TRAPPIST-1 trillions of years from now.”

If there is one takeaway from these studies, it is that the existence of life within a star system does not simply require planets orbiting within the circumstellar habitable zones. The nature of the stars themselves and the role played by solar wind and magnetic fields also have to be taken into account, since they can mean the difference between a life-bearing planet and a sterile ball of rock!

Further Reading: CfA, International Journal of Astrobiology, The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Sun Probably Lost a Binary Twin Billions of Years Ago

For us Earthlings, life under a single Sun is just the way it is. But with the development of modern astronomy, we’ve become aware of the fact that the Universe is filled with binary and even triple star systems. Hence, if life does exist on planets beyond our Solar System, much of it could be accustomed to growing up under two or even three suns. For centuries, astronomers have wondered why this difference exists and how star systems came to be.

Whereas some astronomers argue that individual stars formed and acquired companions over time, others have suggested that systems began with multiple stars and lost their companions over time. According to a new study by a team from UC Berkeley and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), it appears that the Solar System (and other Sun-like stars) may have started out as binary system billions of years ago.

This study, titled “Embedded Binaries and Their Dense Cores“, was recently accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. In it, Sarah I. Sadavoy – a radio astronomer from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the CfA – and Steven W. Stahler (a theoretical physicist from UC Berkeley) explain how a radio surveys of a star nursery led them to conclude that most Sun-like stars began as binaries.

The dark molecular cloud, Barnard 68, is a stellar nursery that can only be studied using radio astronomy. Credit: FORS Team, 8.2-meter VLT Antu, ESO

They began by examining the results of the first radio survey of the giant molecular cloud located about 600 light-years from Earth in the Perseus constellation – aka. the Perseus Molecular Cloud. This survey, known as the VLA/ALMA Nascent Disk and Multiplicity (VANDAM) survey, relied the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile to conduct the first survey of the young stars (<4 million years old) in this star-forming region.

For several decades, astronomers have known that stars are born inside “stellar nurseries”, which are the dense cores that exist within immense clouds of dust and cold, molecular hydrogen. These clouds look like holes in the star field when viewed through an optical telescope, thanks to all the dust grains that obscure light coming from the stars forming within them and from background stars.

Radio surveys are the only way to probe these star-forming regions, since the dust grains emit radio transmissions and also do not block them. For years, Stahler has been attempting to get radio astronomers to examine molecular clouds in the hope of gathering information on the formation of young stars inside them. To this end, he approached Sarah Sadavoy – a member of the VANDAM team – and proposed a collaboration.

The two began their work together by conducting new observations of both single and binary stars within the dense core regions of the Perseus cloud. As Sadavoy explained in a Berkeley News press release, the duo were looking for clues as to whether young stars formed as individuals or in pairs:

“The idea that many stars form with a companion has been suggested before, but the question is: how many? Based on our simple model, we say that nearly all stars form with a companion. The Perseus cloud is generally considered a typical low-mass star-forming region, but our model needs to be checked in other clouds.”

Infrared image from the Hubble Space Telescope, showing a bright, fan-shaped object (lower right quadrant) thought to be a binary star that emits light pulses as the two stars interact. Credit: NASA/ESA/ J. Muzerolle (STScI)

Their observations of the Perseus cloud revealed a series of Class 0 and Class I stars – those that are <500,000 old and 500,000 to 1 million years old, respectively – that were surrounded by egg-shaped cocoons. These observations were then combined with the results from VANDAM and other surveys of star forming regions – including the Gould Belt Survey and data gathered by SCUBA-2 instrument on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii.

From this, they created a census of stars within the Perseus cloud, which included 55 young stars in 24 multiple-star systems (all but five of them binary) and 45 single-star systems. What they observed was that all of the widely separated binary systems – separated by more than 500 AU – were very young systems containing two Class 0 stars  that tended to be aligned with the long axis of their egg-shaped dense cores.

Meanwhile, the slightly older Class I binary stars were closer together (separated by about 200 AU) and did not have the same tendency as far as their alignment was concerned. From this, the study’s authors began mathematically modelling multiple scenarios to explain this distribution, and concluded that all stars with masses comparable to our Sun start off as wide Class 0 binaries. They further concluded that 60% of these split up over time while the rest shrink to form tight binaries.

“As the egg contracts, the densest part of the egg will be toward the middle, and that forms two concentrations of density along the middle axis,” said Stahler. “These centers of higher density at some point collapse in on themselves because of their self-gravity to form Class 0 stars. “Within our picture, single low-mass, sunlike stars are not primordial. They are the result of the breakup of binaries. ”

The two brightest stars of the Centaurus constellation, the binary star system of Alpha Centauri. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Skatebiker

Findings of this nature have never before been seen or tested. They also imply that each dense core within a stellar nursery (i.e. the egg-shaped cocoons, which typically comprise a few solar masses) converts twice as much material into stars as was previously thought. As Stahler remarked:

“The key here is that no one looked before in a systematic way at the relation of real young stars to the clouds that spawn them. Our work is a step forward in understanding both how binaries form and also the role that binaries play in early stellar evolution. We now believe that most stars, which are quite similar to our own sun, form as binaries. I think we have the strongest evidence to date for such an assertion.”

This new data could also be the start of a new trend, where astronomers rely on radio telescopes to examine dense star-forming regions with the hopes of witnessing more in the way of stellar formations. With the recent upgrades to the VLA and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, and the ongoing data provided by the SCUBA-2 survey in Hawaii, these studies may be coming sooner other than later.

Another interesting implication of the study has to do with something known as the “Nemesis hypothesis”. In the past, astronomers have conjectured that a companion star named “Nemesis” existed within our Solar System. This star was so-named because the theory held that it was responsible for kicking the asteroid which caused the extinction of the dinosaurs into Earth’s orbit. Alas, all attempts to find Nemesis ended in failure.

Artist’s impression of the binary star system of Sirius, a white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (a white supergiant). Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

As Steven Stahler indicated, these findings could be interpreted as a new take on the Nemesis theory:

“We are saying, yes, there probably was a Nemesis, a long time ago. We ran a series of statistical models to see if we could account for the relative populations of young single stars and binaries of all separations in the Perseus molecular cloud, and the only model that could reproduce the data was one in which all stars form initially as wide binaries. These systems then either shrink or break apart within a million years.”

So while their results do not point towards a star being around for the extinction of the dinosaurs, it is possible (and even highly plausible) that billions of years ago, the Solar planets orbited around two stars. One can only imagine what implications this could have for the early history of the Solar System and how it might have affected planetary formation. But that will be the subject of future studies, no doubt!

Further Reading: Berkeley News, arXiv

Solar Probe Plus Will ‘Touch’ The Sun

Coronal Mass Ejections (aka. solar flares) are a seriously hazardous thing. Whenever the Sun emits a burst of these charged particles, it can play havoc with electrical systems, aircraft and satellites here on Earth. Worse yet is the harm it can inflict on astronauts stationed aboard the ISS, who do not have the protection of Earth’s atmosphere. As such, it is obvious why scientists want to be able to predict these events better.

For this reason, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory – a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit engineering organization – are working to develop specialized sensors for NASA’s proposed solar spacecraft. Launching in 2018, this spacecraft will fly into the Sun atmosphere and “touch” the face of the Sun to learn more about its behavior.

This spacecraft – known as the Solar Probe Plus (SPP) – is currently being designed and built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Once it is launched, the SPP will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the Sun. During this time, it will conduct 24 flybys of the Sun and pass into the Sun’s upper atmosphere (corona), passing within 6.4 million km (4 million mi) of its surface.

At this distance, it will have traveled 37.6 million km (23.36 million mi) closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history. At the same time, it will set a new record for the fastest moving object ever built by human beings – traveling at speeds of up to 200 km/sec (124.27 mi/s). And last but not least, it will be exposed to heat and radiation that no spacecraft has ever faced, which will include temperatures in excess of 1371 °C (2500 °F).

As Seamus Tuohy, the Director of the Space Systems Program Office at Draper, said in a CfA press release:

“Such a mission would require a spacecraft and instrumentation capable of withstanding extremes of radiation, high velocity travel and the harsh solar condition—and that is the kind of program deeply familiar to Draper and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.”

In addition to being an historic first, this probe will provide new data on solar activity and help scientists develop ways of forecasting major space-weather events – which impact life on Earth. This is especially important in an age when people are increasingly reliant on technology that can be negatively impacted by solar flares – ranging from aircraft and satellites to appliances and electrical devices.

According to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, it is estimated that a huge solar event today could cause two trillion dollars in damage in the US alone – and places like the eastern seaboard would be without power for up to a year. Without electricity to provide heating, utilities, light, and air-conditioning, the death toll from such an event would be significant.

As such, developing advanced warning systems that could reliably predict when a coronal mass ejection is coming is not just a matter of preventing damage, but saving lives. As Justin C. Kasper, the principal investigator at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and a professor in space science at the University of Michigan, said:

“[I]n addition to answering fundamental science questions, the intent is to better understand the risks space weather poses to the modern communication, aviation and energy systems we all rely on. Many of the systems we in the modern world rely on—our telecommunications, GPS, satellites and power grids—could be disrupted for an extended period of time if a large solar storm were to happen today. Solar Probe Plus will help us predict and manage the impact of space weather on society.”

To this end, the SPP has three major scientific objectives. First, it will seek to trace the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the solar corona and solar wind. Second, its investigators will attempt to determine the structure and dynamics of plasma and magnetic fields as the source of solar wind. And last, it will explore the mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles – specifically electrons, protons, and helium ions.

To do this, the SPP will be equipped with an advanced suite of instruments. One of the most important of these is the one built by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory with technical support from Draper. Known as the Faraday Cup – and named after famous electromagnetic scientists Michael Faraday – this device will be operated by SAO and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Designed to withstand interference from electromagnetic radiation, the Farady Cup will measure the velocity and direction of the Sun’s charged particles, and will be only two positioned outside of the SPP’s protective sun shield – another crucial component. Measuring 11.43 cm (4.5 inches) thick, this carbon composition shield will ensure that the probe can withstand the extreme conditions as it conducts its many flybys through the Sun’s corona.

Naturally, the mission presents several challenges, not the least of which will be capturing data while operating within an extreme environment, and while traveling at extreme speeds. But the payoff is sure to be worth it. For years, astronomers have studied the Sun, but never from inside the Sun’s atmosphere.

By flying through the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles, the SPP is set to advance our understanding of the Sun and the origin and evolution of the solar wind. This knowledge could not only help us avoid a natural catastrophe here on Earth, but help advance our long-term goal of exploring (and even colonizing) the Solar System.

Further Reading: CfA

Stars at the Edge of our Galaxy May Have Been Stolen

Our Milky Way is a pretty vast and highly-populated space. All told, its stars number between 100 and 400 billion, with some estimates saying that it may have as many as 1 trillion. But just where did all these stars come from? Well, as it turns out, in addition to forming many of its own and merging with other galaxies, the Milky Way may have stolen some of its stars from other galaxies.

Such is the argument made by two astronomers from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. According to their study, which has been accepted for publication in the The Astrophysical Journal, they claim that roughly half of the stars that orbit at the extreme outer edge of the Milky Way were actually stolen from the nearby Sagittarius dwarf galaxy.

At one time, the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy was thought to be the closest galaxy to our own (a position now held by the Canis Major dwarf galaxy). As one of several dozen dwarf galaxies that surround the Milky Way, it has orbited our galaxy several times in the past. With each passing orbit, it becomes subject to our galaxy’s strong gravity, which has the effect of pulling it apart.

A model of the tidally shredded Sagittarius dwarf galaxy wrapping around a 3-D representation of the Milky Way disk. Credit: UCLA/D.R. Law

The long-term effects of this can be seen by looking to the farthest stars in our galaxy, which consist of the eleven stars that are at a distance of about 300,000 light-years from Earth (well beyond the Milky Way’s spiral disk). According the study produced by Marion Dierickx, a graduate student at Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy, half of these stars were taken from the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy in the past.

Professor Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard and Marion Dierickx PhD advisor, co-authored the study – titled, “Predicted Extension of the Sagittarius Stream to the Milky Way Virial Radius“. As he told Universe Today via email:

“We see evidence for streams of stars connected to the core of the galaxy, and indicating that this dwarf galaxy passed multiple times around the Milky Way center and was ripped apart by the tidal gravitational field of the Milky Way. We are all familiar with the tide in the ocean caused by the gravitational pull of the moon, but if the moon was a much more massive object – it would have pulled the oceans apart from the Earth and we would see a stream of vapor stretched away from the Earth.”

For the sake of their study, Dierickx and Loeb ran computer models to simulate the movements of the Sagittarius dwarf over the past 8 billion years. These simulations reproduced the streams of stars stretching away from the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy to the center of our galaxy. They also varied Sagittarius’ velocity and angle of approach to see if the resulting exchanges would match current observations.

Computer-generated image showing the disc of the Milky Way (red oval) and the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy (red dot). The yellow circles represent stars that have been ripped from the Sagittarius dwarf and flung far across space. Credit: Marion Dierickx / CfA

“We attempted to match the distance and velocity data for the core of the Sagitarrius galaxy, and then compared the resulting prediction for the position and velocity of the streams of stars,” said Loeb. “The results were very encouraging for some particular set of initial conditions regarding the start of the Sagittarius galaxy journey when the universe was roughly half its present age.”

What they found was that over time, the Sagittarius dwarf lost about one-third of its stars and nine-tenths of its dark matter to the Milky Way. The end result of this was the creation of three distinct streams of stars that reach one million light-years from galactic center to the very edge of the Milky Way’s halo. Interestingly enough, one of these streams has been predicted by simulations conducted by projects like the Sloan Digital Survey.

The simulations also showed that five of Sagittarius’ stars would end becoming part of the Milky Way. What’s more,  the positions and velocities of these stars coincided with five of the most distant stars in our galaxy. The other six do not appear to be from Sagittarius dwarf, and may be the result of gravitational interactions with another dwarf galaxy in the past.

“The dynamics of stars in the extended arms we predict (which is the largest Galactic structure on the sky ever predicted) can be used to measure the mass and structure of the Milky Way,” said Loeb. “The outer envelope of the Milky Way was never probed directly, because no other stream was known to extend that far.”

Computer model of the Milky Way, the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy, and the looping stream of material between the two. Credit: Tollerud, Purcell and Bullock/UC Irvine

Given the way the simulations match up with current observations, Dierickx is confident that more Sagittarius dwarf interlopers are out there, just waiting to be found. For instance, future instruments – like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which is expected to begin full-survey operations by 2022 – may be able to detect the two remaining streams of stars which were predicted by the survey.

Given the time scales and the distances involved, it is rather difficult to probe our galaxy (and by extension, the Universe) to see exactly how it evolved over time. Pairing observational data with computer models, however, has been proven to test our best theories of how things came to be. In the future, thanks to improved instruments and more detailed surveys, we just might know for certain!

And sure to check out this animation of the computer simulation, which shows the effects on the Milky Way’s gravity on the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy’s stars and dark matter.

Further Reading: CfA

Turns out Proxima Centauri is Strikingly Similar to our Sun

In August of 2016, the European Southern Observatory announced that the nearest star to our own – Proxima Centauri – had an exoplanet. Since that time, considerable attention has been focused on this world (Proxima b) in the hopes of determining just how “Earth-like” it really is. Despite all indications of it being terrestrial and similar in mass to Earth, there are some lingering doubts about its ability to support life.

This is largely due to the fact that Proxima b orbits a red dwarf. Typically, these low mass, low temperature, slow fusion stars are not known for being as bright and warm as our Sun. However, a new study produced by researchers at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has indicated that Proxima Centauri might be more like our star than we thought.

For instance, our Sun has what is known as a “Solar Cycle“, an 11-year period in which it experiences changes in the levels of radiation it emits. This cycle is driven by changes in the Sun’s own magnetic field, and corresponds to the appearance of Sunspots on its surface. During a “solar minimum”, the Sun’s surface is clear of spots, while at a solar maximum, one hundred sunspots can appear on an area the size of 1% the Sun’s surface area.

This image is a composite of 25 separate images spanning the period of April 16, 2012, to April 15, 2013. It uses the SDO AIA wavelength of 171 angstroms and reveals the zones on the sun where active regions are most common during this part of the solar cycle. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA/S. Wiessinger
Composite of 25 separate images spanning the period of April 16, 2012, to April 15, 2013, revealing active regions during this part of the Solar Cycle. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA/S. Wiessinger

For the sake of their research, the Harvard Smithsonian team examined Proxima Centauri over the course of several years to see if it too had a cycle. As they explain in their research paper, titled “Optical, UV, and X-Ray Evidence for a 7-Year Stellar Cycle in Proxima Centauri” they relied on several years worth optical, UV, and X-ray observations made of the star.

This included 15 years of visual data and 3 years of infrared data from the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS), 4 years of x-ray and UV data from the Swift x-ray telescope (XRT), and 22 years worth of x-ray observations taken by the Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA), the XXM-Newton mission and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

What they found was that Proxima Centauri does indeed have a cycle that involves changes in its minimum and maximum amount of emitting radiation, which corresponds to “starspots” on its surface. As Dr. Wargelin told Universe Today via email:

“The optical/ASAS data showed a nice 7-year cycle, as well as an 83-day rotation period. When we broke down that data by year we saw the period vary from around 77 to 90 days. We interpret that as ‘differential rotation’ like that found on the Sun. The rotation rate differs at different latitudes; on the Sun it’s around 35 days at the poles and 24.5 at the equator. The “average” rotation is usually given as 27.3 days.”

In essence, Proxima Centauri has its own cycle, but one that is a lot more dramatic than our Sun’s. Besides lasting 7 years from peak to peak, it involves spots covering over 20% of its surface at one time. These spots are apparently much bigger than the ones we regularly observe on our Sun as well.

X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Image credit: Chandra
An X-Ray image of Proxima Centauri. Credit: Chandra/Harvard/NASA

This was surprising, given that Proxima’s interior is very different from our Sun’s. Because of its low mass, the interior of Proxima Centauri is convective, where material in the core is transferred outward. In contrast, only the outer layer of our Sun undergoes convection while the core remains relatively still. This means that, unlike our Sun, energy is transferred to the surface through physical movement, and not radiative processes.

While these findings cannot tell us anything directly about whether or not Proxima b might be habitable, the existence of this solar cycle is an interesting find that might be leading in that general direction. As Dr. Wargelin explained:

“Magnetic fields are what drive high energy emission (UV and X rays) and stellar winds (like the solar wind) in solar-type and smaller stars, AND a stellar cycle (if it has one). That X-ray/UV emission and stellar wind can ionize/evaporate/strip the atmosphere of close-in planets, particularly if the planet doesn’t have a protective magnetic field of its own.

“Therefore….. a necessary but not sufficient requirement for understanding (i.e., modeling) the evolution of a planet’s atmosphere is understanding the magnetic field of the host star.  If you don’t understand why a star has a cycle (and standard theory says fully convective stars like Proxima can NOT have cycles) then you don’t understand its magnetic field.”

As always, further observations and research will be necessary before we can fully understand Proxima Centauri, and whether or not any planets that orbit it could support life. But then again, we’ve only known about Proxima b for a short time, and the rate at which we are learning new things about it is quite impressive!

Further Reading: CfA, arXiv

Venus-like Exoplanet 39 Light Years Distant Is Probably Baked & Sterile

Last year, astronomers discovered a terrestrial exoplanet orbiting GJ 1132, a red dwarf star located just 12 parsecs (39 light years) away from Earth. Though too close to its parent star to be anything other than extremely hot, astronomers were intrigued to note that it appeared to still be cool enough to have an atmosphere. This was quite exciting, as it represented numerous opportunities for research.

In essence, the planet appeared to be “Venus-like” – i.e. very hot, but still in possession of an atmosphere. What’s more, it was close enough to our Solar System that its atmosphere could be studied in detail. However, a debate began over whether its atmosphere would be hot and wet, or thin and tenuous. And after a year of study, a team of astronomers from the CfA believe they have unlocked that mystery.

In addition to being relatively close to our own Solar System in astronomical terms, the Venus-like exoplanet GJ 1132b also has a relatively small orbital period around its star. This means that opportunities to spot it as it passes in front of its star (i.e. the Transit Method), occur quite often.

Artist's concept of exoplanets orbiting a young, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltec
Artist’s concept of exoplanets orbiting a young, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This makes it an excellent target for detailed observation and study, which in turn will help astronomers to learn more about terrestrial exoplanets that orbit close to red dwarf stars. But as noted already, astronomers were divided on the issue of GJ 1132b’s atmosphere.

Thanks to the research efforts of Laura Schaefer and her colleagues from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), it now appears that the case for a thin atmosphere is the far more likely. Interestingly enough, this was confirmed by determining just how much oxygen the planet has in its atmosphere.

For the sake of their study, which was outlined in a paper that approved for publication in The Astrophysical Journal – titled “Predictions of the atmospheric composition of GJ 1132b” – they explain how they used a “magma ocean-atmosphere” model to determine what would happen to GJ 1132b over time if it began with a water-rich atmosphere.

They began with the knowledge that a planet like GJ 1132b – which orbits its star at a distance of 2.25 million km (1.4 million mi) – would be subjected to intense amounts of ultraviolet light. This would result in any water vapor in the atmosphere being broken down into hydrogen and oxygen (a process known as photolysis), with the hydrogen escaping into space and the oxygen being retained.

Comparison of best-fit size of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b with the Solar System planet Earth, as reported in the Open Exoplanet Catalogue[1] as of 2015-11-14. Open Exoplanet Catalogue (2015-11-14). Retrieved on 2015-11-14. Aldaron, a.k.a. Aldaro
Size comparison of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b with Earth, as reported in the Open Exoplanet Catalogue as of 2015-11-14. Credit: Open Exoplanet Catalogue/Aldaron
At the same time, they determined that the planet’s atmosphere and proximity to its star would lead to a severe greenhouse effect that would leave the surface molten for a long time. This “magma ocean” would likely interact with the atmosphere by absorbing some of the oxygen. How much would be absorbed and how much would be retained was the big question.

They concluded that the planet’s magma ocean would absorb about one-tenth of the oxygen in the atmosphere. The majority of the remaining 90 percent, according to their model, would be lost to space while a small margin would linger around the planet. This proved to be very much consistent with measurements made of the planet thus far.

As Dr. Laura Schaefer explained to Universe Today via email:

“We determined that the planet would likely have a thin atmosphere by doing a suite of models looking at atmospheric loss and interaction with a surface magma ocean. For the allowable composition range (esp. the abundance of water) based on the current mass measurement, nearly all of the allowed compositions resulted in thin atmospheres, except at the very extreme upper end of the range.”

This magma ocean-atmosphere model could not only help scientists to study terrestrial exoplanets that orbit close to their parent stars, but also to understand how our own planet Venus came to be. For some time, scientists have theorized that Venus began with significant amounts of water on its surface, but that it then underwent a significant change.

Artist's impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).
Artist’s impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

This ocean is believed to have evaporated due to Venus’ closer proximity to the Sun, with the ensuing water vapor triggering a runaway greenhouse effect. Over time, ultraviolet radiation from the Sun broke apart the water molecules, resulting in the hot, virtually waterless atmosphere we see today. However, what happened to all the oxygen has remained a mystery.

“We also have plans to use this model in the future to study Venus, which may have once had about the same amount of water as the Earth but is now very dry,” said Schaefer. “There is very little O2 left in Venus’ atmosphere, so this model would help us understand what happened to that oxygen (whether it was lost to space or absorbed by the planet’s mantle).”

Schaefer predicts that their model will also assist researchers with the study of other, similar exoplanets. One example is the TRAPPIST-1 system, which contains three planets that may lie with the star’s the habitable zone. But as Schaefer put it, the real value lies in the fact that we are more likely to find “Venus-like” worlds down the road:

“Most of the rocky planets that we know of and will discover in the near future will likely be hotter than the Earth or even Venus, just because it is easier to detect hotter planets. So there are a lot of planets out there similar to GJ 1132b just waiting to be studied!”

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. It’s scientists are dedicated to studying the origin, evolution and future of the universe.

And be sure to check out this video, courtesy of MIT news:

Further Reading: CfA, arXiv

Kepler Finds an Earth-Sized “Gas Giant”

Gas planets aren’t always bloated, monstrous worlds the size of Jupiter or Saturn (or larger) they can also apparently be just barely bigger than Earth. This was the discovery announced earlier today during the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, DC, when findings regarding the gassy (but surprisingly small) exoplanet KOI-314c were presented.

“This planet might have the same mass as Earth, but it is certainly not Earth-like,” said David Kipping of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), lead author of the discovery. “It proves that there is no clear dividing line between rocky worlds like Earth and fluffier planets like water worlds or gas giants.”

Discovered by the Kepler space telescope — ironically, during a hunt for exomoons — KOI-314c was found transiting a red dwarf star only 200 light-years away — “a stone’s throw by Kepler’s standards,” according to Kipping. (Kepler’s observation depth is about 3000 light-years.)

Relative size comparison of KOI-314c and Earth; both have similar mass. (J. Major)
Relative size comparison of KOI-314c and Earth; both have similar mass. (J. Major)

Kipping used a technique called transit timing variations (TTV) to study two of three exoplanets found orbiting KOI-314. Both are about 60% larger than Earth in diameter but their respective masses are very different. KOI-314b is a dense, rocky world four times the mass of Earth, while KOI-314c’s lighter, Earthlike mass indicates a planet with a thick “puffy” atmosphere… similar to what’s found on Neptune or Uranus.

Unlike those chilly worlds, though, this newfound exoplanet turns up the heat. Orbiting its star every 23 days, temperatures on KOI-314c reach 220ºF (104ºC)… too hot for water to exist in liquid form and thus too hot for life as we know it.

In fact Kipping’s team found KOI-314c to only be 30 percent denser than water, suggesting that it has a “significant atmosphere hundreds of miles thick,” likely composed of hydrogen and helium.

It’s thought that KOI-314c may have originally been a “mini-Neptune” gas planet and has since lost some of its atmosphere, boiled off by the star’s intense radiation.

Not only is KOI-314c the lightest exoplanet to have both its mass and diameter measured but it’s also a testament to the success and sensitivity of the relatively new TTV method, which is particularly useful in multiple-planet systems where the tiniest gravitational wobbles reveal the presence and details of neighboring bodies.

(Watch the latest Kepler Orrery video here)

“We are bringing transit timing variations to maturity,” Kipping said. He added during the closing remarks of his presentation at AAS223: “It’s actually recycling the way Neptune was discovered by watching Uranus’ wobbles 150 years ago. I think it’s a method you’ll be hearing more about. We may be able to detect even the first Earth 2.0 Earth-mass/Earth-radius using this technique in the future.”

Source: Harvard Smithsonian CfA press release

Earth’s Gold Came From Colliding Stars

Are you wearing a gold ring? Or perhaps gold-plated earrings? Maybe you have some gold fillings in your teeth… for that matter, the human body itself naturally contains gold — 0.000014%, to be exact! But regardless of where and how much of the precious yellow metal you may have with you at this very moment, it all ultimately came from the same place.

And no, I don’t mean Fort Knox, the jewelry store, or even under the ground — all the gold on Earth likely originated from violent collisions between neutron stars, billions of years in the past.

Recent research by scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts has revealed that considerable amounts of gold — along with other heavy elements — are produced during impacts between neutron stars, the super-dense remains of stars originally 1.4 to 9 times the mass of our Sun.

The team’s investigation of a short-duration gamma-ray outburst that occurred in June (GRB 130603B) showed a surprising residual near-infrared glow, possibly from a cloud of material created during the stellar merger. This cloud is thought to contain a considerable amount of freshly-minted heavy elements, including gold.

“We estimate that the amount of gold produced and ejected during the merger of the two neutron stars may be as large as 10 moon masses – quite a lot of bling!” said lead author Edo Berger.

"With this remnant of a dead neutron star, I thee wed." (FreeDigitalPhotos.net/bigjom)
“With this remnant of a dead neutron star, I thee wed.” (FreeDigitalPhotos.net/bigjom)

The mass of the Moon is 7.347 x 1022 kg… about 1.2% the mass of Earth. The collision between these neutron stars then, 3.9 billion light-years away, produced 10 times that much gold based on the team’s estimates.

Quite a lot of bling, indeed.

Gamma-ray bursts come in two varieties – long and short – depending on the duration of the gamma-ray flash. GRB 130603B, detected by NASA’s Swift satellite on June 3rd, lasted for less than two-tenths of a second.

Although the gamma rays disappeared quickly, GRB 130603B also displayed a slowly fading glow dominated by infrared light. Its brightness and behavior didn’t match the typical “afterglow” created when a high-speed jet of particles slams into the surrounding environment.

Instead, the glow behaved like it came from exotic radioactive elements. The neutron-rich material ejected by colliding neutron stars can generate such elements, which then undergo radioactive decay, emitting a glow that’s dominated by infrared light – exactly what the team observed.

“We’ve been looking for a ‘smoking gun’ to link a short gamma-ray burst with a neutron star collision,” said Wen-fai Fong, a graduate student at CfA and a co-author of the paper. “The radioactive glow from GRB 130603B may be that smoking gun.”

The team calculates that about one-hundredth of a solar mass of material was ejected by the gamma-ray burst, some of which was gold. By combining the estimated gold produced by a single short GRB with the number of such explosions that have likely occurred over the entire age of the Universe, all the gold in the cosmos – and thus on Earth – may very well have come from such gamma-ray bursts.

Watch an animation of two colliding neutron stars along with the resulting GRB below (Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.):

How much gold is there on Earth, by the way? Since most of it lies deep inside Earth’s core and is thus unreachable, the total amount ever retrieved by humans over the course of history is surprisingly small: about 172,000 tonnes, or enough to make a cube 20.7 meters (68 feet) per side (based on the Thomson Reuters GFMS annual survey.) Some other estimates put this amount at slightly more or less, but the bottom line is that there really isn’t all that much gold available in Earth’s crust… which is partly what makes it (and other “precious” metals) so valuable.

And perhaps the knowledge that every single ounce of that gold was created by dead stars smashing together billions of years ago in some distant part of the Universe would add to that value.

“To paraphrase Carl Sagan, we are all star stuff, and our jewelry is colliding-star stuff,” Berger said.

The team’s findings were presented today in a press conference at the CfA in Cambridge. (See the paper here.)

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian CfA