We have comets and asteroids to thank for Earth’s water, according to the most widely-held theory among scientists. But it’s not that cut-and-dried. It’s still a bit of a mystery, and a new study suggests that not all of Earth’s water was delivered to our planet that way.
Pluto has been the focus of a lot of attention for more than a decade now. This began shortly after the discovery of Eris in the Kuiper Belt, one of many Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) that led to the “Great Planetary Debate” and the 2006 IAU Resolution. Interest in Pluto also increased considerably thanks to the New Horizons mission, which conducted the first flyby of this “dwarf planet” in July of 2015.
The data this mission provided on Pluto is still proving to be a treasure trove for astronomers, allowing for new discoveries about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere, and even formation. For instance, a new study produced by researchers from the Southwest Research Institute (and supported by NASA Rosetta funding) indicates that Pluto may have formed from a billion comets crashing together.
The study, titled “Primordial N2 provides a cosmochemical explanation for the existence of Sputnik Planitia, Pluto“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Icarus. The study was authored by Dr. Christopher R. Glein – a researcher with the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division – and Dr. J. Hunter Waite Jr, an SwRI program director.
The origin of Pluto is something that astronomers have puzzled over for some time. An early hypothesis was that it was an escaped moon of Neptune that had been knocked out of orbit by Neptune’s current largest moon, Triton. However, this theory was disproven after dynamical studies showed that Pluto never approaches Neptune in its orbit. With the discovery of the Kuiper Belt in 1992, the true of origin of Pluto began to become clear.
Essentially, while Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, it is similar in orbit and composition to the icy objects that surround it. On occasion, some of these objects are kicked out of the Kuiper Belt and become long-period comets in the Inner Solar System. To determine if Pluto formed from billions of KBOs, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr. examined data from the New Horizons mission on the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia.
This large glacier forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface (aka. Pluto’s “Heart”). They then compared this to data obtained by the NASA/ESA Rosetta mission, which studied the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P) between 2014 and 2016. As Dr. Glein explained:
“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation. We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”
This research also comes up against a competing theory, known as the “solar model”. In this scenario, Pluto formed from the very cold ices that were part of the protoplanetary disk, and would therefore have a chemical composition that more closely matches that of the Sun. In order to determine which was more likely, scientists needed to understand not only how much nitrogen is present at Pluto now (in its atmosphere and glaciers), but how much could have leaked out into space over the course of eons.
They then needed to come up with an explanation for the current proportion of carbon monoxide to nitrogen. Ultimately, the low abundance of carbon monoxide at Pluto could only be explained by burial in surface ices or destruction from liquid water. In the end, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr.’s research suggests that Pluto’s initial chemical makeup, which was created by comets, was modified by liquid water, possibly in the form of a subsurface ocean.
“This research builds upon the fantastic successes of the New Horizons and Rosetta missions to expand our understanding of the origin and evolution of Pluto,” said Dr. Glein. “Using chemistry as a detective’s tool, we are able to trace certain features we see on Pluto today to formation processes from long ago. This leads to a new appreciation of the richness of Pluto’s ‘life story,’ which we are only starting to grasp.”
While the research certainly offers an interesting explanation for how Pluto formed, the solar model still satisfies some criteria. In the end, more research will be needed before scientists can conclude how Pluto formed. And if data from the New Horizons or Rosetta missions should prove insufficient, perhaps another to New Frontiers mission to Pluto will solve the mystery!
Another topic with plenty of updates. Since we started Astronomy Cast we’ve visited many smaller objects in the Solar System up close, from Ceres and Vesta to Pluto, not to mention a comet. What have we learned?
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70,000 years ago, our keen-eyed ancestors may have noticed something in the sky: a red dwarf star that came as close as 1 light year to our Sun. They would’ve missed the red dwarf’s small, dim companion—a brown dwarf—and in any case they would’ve quickly returned to their hunting and gathering. But that star’s visit to our Solar System had an impact astronomers can still see today.
The star in question is called Scholz’s star, after astronomer Ralf-Dieter Scholz, the man who discovered it in 2013. A new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society by astronomers at the Complutense University of Madrid, and at the University of Cambridge, shows the impact Scholz’s star had. Though the star is now almost 20 light years away, its close approach to our Sun changed the orbits of some comets and asteroids in our Solar System.
When it came to our Solar System 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s star entered the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is a reservoir of mostly-icy objects that spans the range from about 0.8 to 3.2 light years from the Sun. Its visit to the Oort Cloud was first explained in a paper in 2015. This new paper follows up on that work, and shows what impact the visit had.
“Using numerical simulations, we have calculated the radiants or positions in the sky from which all these hyperbolic objects seem to come.” – Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, Complutense University of Madrid.
In this new paper, the astronomers studied almost 340 objects in our Solar System with hyperbolic orbits, which are V-shaped rather than elliptical. Their conclusion is that a significant number of these objects had their trajectories shaped by the visit from Scholz’s star. “Using numerical simulations, we have calculated the radiants or positions in the sky from which all these hyperbolic objects seem to come,” explains Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, a co-author of the study now published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. They found that there’s a cluster of these objects in the direction of the Gemini Constellation.
“In principle,” he adds, “one would expect those positions to be evenly distributed in the sky, particularly if these objects come from the Oort cloud. However, what we find is very different—a statistically significant accumulation of radiants. The pronounced over-density appears projected in the direction of the constellation of Gemini, which fits the close encounter with Scholz’s star.”
There are four ways that objects like those in the study can gain hyperbolic orbits. They might be interstellar, like the asteroid Oumuamua, meaning they gained those orbits from some cause outside our Solar System. Or, they could be natives of our Solar System, originally bound to an elliptical orbit, but cast into a hyperbolic orbit by a close encounter with one of the planets, or the Sun. For objects originally from the Oort Cloud, they could start on a hyperbolic orbit because of interactions with the galactic disc. Finally, again for objects from the Oort Cloud, they could be cast into a hyperbolic orbit by interactions with a passing star. In this study, the passing star is Scholz’s star.
The timing of Scholz’s star’s visit to the Oort Cloud and our Solar System strongly coincides with the data in this study. It’s very unlikely to be coincidental. “It could be a coincidence, but it is unlikely that both location and time are compatible,” says De la Fuente Marcos. In fact, De la Fuente Marcos points out that their simulations suggest that Scholz’s star approached even closer than the 0.6 light-years pointed out in the 2015 study.
The one potentially weak area of this study is pointed out by the authors themselves. As they say in their summary, “…due to their unique nature, the orbital solutions of hyperbolic minor bodies are based on relatively brief arcs of observation and this fact has an impact on their reliability. Out of 339 objects in the sample, 232 have reported uncertainties and 212 have eccentricity with statistical significance.” Translated, it means that some of the computed orbits of individual objects may have errors. But the team expects the overall conclusions of their study to be correct.
The study of minor objects with hyperbolic orbits has heated up since the interstellar asteroid Oumuamua made its visit. This new study successfully connects one population of hyperbolic objects with a pre-historic visit to our Solar System by another star. The team behind the study expects that follow up studies will confirm their results.
Some might say it’s paranoid to think about an asteroid hitting Earth and wiping us out. But the history of life on Earth shows at least 5 major extinctions. And at least one of them, about 65 million years ago, was caused by an asteroid.
Preparing for an asteroid strike, or rather preparing to prevent one, is rational thinking at its finest. Especially now that we can see all the Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) out there. The chances of any single asteroid striking Earth may be small, but collectively, with over 15,000 NEAs catalogued by NASA, it may be only a matter of time until one comes for us. In fact, space rocks strike Earth every day, but they’re too small to cause any harm. It’s the ones large enough to do serious damage that concern NASA.
NASA has been thinking about the potential for an asteroid strike on Earth for a long time. They even have an office dedicated to it, called the Office of Planetary Defense, and minds there have been putting a lot of thought into detecting hazardous asteroids, and deflecting or destroying any that pose a threat to Earth.
One of NASA’s proposals for dealing with an incoming asteroid is getting a lot of attention right now. It’s called the Hyper-velocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, or HAMMER. HAMMER is just a concept right now, but it’s worth talking about. It involves the use of a nuclear weapon to destroy any asteroid heading our way.
The use of a nuclear weapon to destroy or deflect an asteroid seems a little risky at first glance. They’re really a weapon of last resort here on Earth, because of their potential to wreck the biosphere. But out in space, there is no biosphere. If scientists sound a little glib when talking about HAMMER, the reality is they’re not. It makes perfect sense. In fact, it may be the only sensible use for a nuclear weapon.
The idea behind HAMMER is pretty simple; it’s a spacecraft with an 8.8 ton tip. The tip is either a nuclear weapon, or an 8.8 ton kinetic impactor. Once we detect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, we use space-based and ground-based systems to ascertain its size. If its small enough, then HAMMER will not require the nuclear option. Just striking a small asteroid with sufficient mass will divert it away from Earth.
If the incoming asteroid is larger, or if we don’t detect it early enough, then the nuclear option is chosen. HAMMER would be launched with an atomic warhead on it, and the incoming offender would be destroyed. It sounds like a pretty tidy solution, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
A lot depends on the size of the object and when it’s detected. If we’re threatened by an object we’ve been aware of for a long time, then we might have a pretty good idea of its size, and of its trajectory. In that case, we can likely divert it with a kinetic impactor.
But for larger objects, we might require a fleet of impactors already in space, ready to be sent on a collision course. Or we might use the nuclear option. The ER in HAMMER stands for Emergency Response for a reason. If we don’t have enough time to plan or respond, then a system like HAMMER could be built and launched relatively quickly. (In this scenario, relatively quickly means years, not months.)
One of the problems is with the asteroids themselves. They have different orbits and trajectories, and the time to travel to different NEO‘s can vary widely. And things in space aren’t static. We share a region of space with a lot of moving rocks, and their trajectories can change as a result of gravitational interactions with other bodies. Also, as we learned from the arrival of Oumuamua last year, not all threats will be from our own Solar System. Some will take us by surprise. How will we deal with those? Could we deploy HAMMER quickly enough?
Another cautionary factor around using nukes to destroy asteroids is the risk of fracturing them into multiple pieces without destroying them. If an object larger than 1 km in diameter threatened Earth, and we aimed a nuclear warhead at it but didn’t destroy it, what would we do? How would we deal with one or more fragments heading towards Earth?
HAMMER and the whole issue of dealing with threatening asteroids is a complicated business. We’ll have to prepare somehow, and have a plan and systems in place for preventing collisions. But our best bet might lie in better detection.
We’ve gotten a lot better at detecting Near Earth Objects,(NEOs), Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHOs), and Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) lately. We have telescopes and projects dedicated to cataloguing them, like Pan-STARRS, which discovered Oumuamua. And in the next few years, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will come online, boosting our detection capabilities even further.
It’s not just extinctions that we need to worry about. Asteroids also have the potential to cause massive climate change, disrupt our geopolitical order, and generally de-stabilize everything going on down here on Earth. At some point in time, an object capable of causing massive damage will speed toward us, and we’ll either need HAMMER, or another system like it, to protect ourselves and the planet.
Ever since we’ve been able to get closer looks at comets in our Solar System, we’ve noticed something a little puzzling. Rather than being round, they’re mostly elongated or multi-lobed. This is certainly true of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P or Chury for short.) A new paper from an international team coordinated by Patrick Michel at France’s CNRS explains how they form this way.
The European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft Rosetta visited 67P in 2014, end even placed its lander Philae on the surface. Rosetta spent 17 months orbiting 67P, and at its closest approach, Rosetta was only 10 km (6 mi) from 67P’s surface. Rosetta’s mission ended with its guided impact into 67P’s surface in September, 2016, but the attempt to understand the comet and its brethren didn’t end then.
Though Rosetta’s pictures of 67P are the most detailed comet pictures we have, other spacecraft have visited other comets. And most of those other comets appear elongated or multi-lobed, too. Scientists explain these shapes with a “comet merger theory.” Two comets collide, creating the multi-lobed appearance of comets like 67P. But there’s been a problem with that theory.
In order for comets to merge and come out looking the way they do, they would have to merge very slowly, or else they would explode. They would also have to be very low-density, and be very rich in volatile elements. The “comet merger theory” also says that these types of gentle mergers between comets would have to have happened billions of years ago, in the early days of the Solar System.
The problem with this theory is, how could bodies like 67P have survived for so long? 67P is fragile, and subjected to repeated collisions in its part of the Solar System. How could it have retained its volatiles?
In the new paper, the research team ran a simulation that answers these questions.
The simulation showed that when two comets meet in a destructive collision, only a small portion of their material is pulverized and reduced to dust. On the sides of the comets opposite from the impact point, materials rich in volatiles withstand the collision. They’re still ejected into space, but their relative speed is low enough for them to join together in accretion. This process forms many smaller bodies, which keep clumping up until they form just one, larger body.
The most surprising part of this simulation is that this entire process may only take a few days, or even a few hours. The whole process explains how comets like 67P can keep their low density, and their abundant volatiles. And why they appear multi-lobed.
The simulation also answered another question: how can comets like 67P survive for so long?
The team behind the simulation thinks that the process can take place at speeds of 1 km/second. These speeds are typical in the Kuiper Belt, which is the disc of comets where 67P has its origins. In this belt, collisions between comets are a regular occurrence, which means that 67P didn’t have to form in the early days of the Solar System as previously thought. It could have formed at any time.
The team’s work also explains the surface appearance of 67P and other comets. They often have holes and stratified layers, and these features could have formed during re-accretion, or sometime after its formation.
One final point from the study concerns the composition of comets. One reason they’re a focus of such intense interest is their age. Scientists have always thought of them as ancient objects, and that studying them would allow us to look back into the primordial Solar System.
Though 67P—and other comets—may have formed much more recently than we used to believe, this process shows that there is no significant amount of heating or compaction during the collision. As a result, their original composition from the the early days of the Solar System is retained intact. No matter when 67P formed, it’s still a messenger from the formative days.
You can watch a video from the simulation here: http://www.dropbox.com/s/u7643hanvva57rp/Catastrophic%20disruptions.mp4?dl=0
The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is celebrating 22 years of observing the Sun, marking one complete solar magnetic cycle in the life of our star. SOHO is a joint project between NASA and the ESA and its mission is to study the internal structure of the sun, its extensive outer atmosphere, and the origin of the solar wind.
The activity cycle in the life of the Sun is based on the increase and decrease of sunspots. We’ve been watching this activity for about 250 years, but SOHO has taken that observing to a whole new level.
Though sunspot cycles work on an 11-year period, they’re caused by deeper magnetic changes in the Sun. Over the course of 22 years, the Sun’s polarity gradually shifts. At the 11 year mark, the orientation of the Sun’s magnetic field flips between the northern and southern hemispheres. At the end of the 22 year cycle, the field has shifted back to its original orientation. SOHO has now watched that cycle in its entirety.
SOHO is a real success story. It was launched in 1995 and was designed to operate until 1998. But it’s been so successful that its mission has been prolonged and extended several times.
SOHO’s 22 years of observation has turbo-charged our space weather forecasting ability. Space weather is heavily influenced by solar activity, mostly in the form of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). SOHO has observed well over 20,000 of these CMEs.
Space weather affects key aspects of our modern technological world. Space-based telecommunications, broadcasting, weather services and navigation are all affected by space weather. So are things like power distribution and terrestrial communications, especially at northern latitudes. Solar weather can also degrade not only the performance, but the lifespan, of communication satellites.
Besides improving our ability to forecast space weather, SOHO has made other important discoveries. After 40 years of searching, it was SOHO that finally found evidence of seismic waves in the Sun. Called g-modes, these waves revealed that the core of the Sun is rotating 4 times faster than the surface. When this discovery came to light, Bernhard Fleck, ESA SOHO project scientist said, “This is certainly the biggest result of SOHO in the last decade, and one of SOHO’s all-time top discoveries.”
SOHO also has a front row seat for comet viewing. The observatory has witnessed over 3,000 comets as they’ve sped past the Sun. Though this was never part of SOHO’s mandate, its exceptional view of the Sun and its surroundings allows it to excel at comet-finding. It’s especially good at finding sun-grazer comets because it’s so close to the Sun.
“But nobody dreamed we’d approach 200 (comets) a year.” – Joe Gurman, mission scientist for SOHO.
“SOHO has a view of about 12-and-a-half million miles beyond the sun,” said Joe Gurman in 2015, mission scientist for SOHO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “So we expected it might from time to time see a bright comet near the sun. But nobody dreamed we’d approach 200 a year.”
A front-row seat for sun-grazing comets allows SOHO to observe other aspects of the Sun’s surface. Comets are primitive relics of the early Solar System, and observing them with SOHO can tell scientists quite a bit about where they formed. If a comet has made other trips around the Sun, then scientists can learn something about the far-flung regions of the Solar System that they’ve traveled through.
Watching these sun-grazers as they pass close to the Sun also teaches scientists about the Sun. The ionized gas in their tails can illuminate the magnetic fields around the Sun. They’re like tracers that help observers watch these invisible magnetic fields. Sometimes, the magnetic fields have torn off these tails of ionized gas, and scientists have been able to watch these tails get blown around in the solar wind. This gives them an unprecedented view of the details in the movement of the wind itself.
SOHO is still going strong, and keeping an eye on the Sun from its location about 1.5 million km from Earth. There, it travels in a halo orbit around LaGrange point 1. (It’s orbit is adjusted so that it can communicate clearly with Earth without interference from the Sun.)
You can also check out daily views of the Sun from SOHO here.
On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally thought to be a comet, this interstellar visitor quickly became the focus of follow-up studies that sought to determine its origin, structure, composition, and rule out the possibility that it was an alien spacecraft!
While ‘Oumuamua is the first known example of an interstellar asteroid reaching our Solar System, scientists have long suspected that such visitors are a regular occurrence. Aiming to determine just how common, a team of researchers from Harvard University conducted a study to measure the capture rate of interstellar asteroids and comets, and what role they may play in the spread of life throughout the Universe.
The study, titled “Implications of Captured Interstellar Objects for Panspermia and Extraterrestrial Life“, recently appeared online and is being considered for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. The study was conducted by Manasavi Lingam, a postdoc at the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC), and Abraham Loeb, the chairman of the ITC and a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
For the sake of their study, Lingam and Loeb constructed a three-body gravitational model, where the physics of three bodies are used to compute their respective trajectories and interactions with one another. In Lingam and Loeb’s model, Jupiter and the Sun served as the two massive bodies while a far less massive interstellar object served as the third. As Dr. Loeb explained to Universe Today via email:
“The combined gravity of the Sun and Jupiter acts as a ‘fishing net’. We suggest a new approach to searching for life, which is to examine the interstellar objects captured by this fishing net instead of the traditional approach of looking through telescope or traveling with spacecrafts to distant environments to do the same.”
Using this model, the pair then began calculating the rate at which objects comparable in size to ‘Oumuamua would be captured by the Solar System, and how often such objects would collide with the Earth over the course of its entire history. They also considered the Alpha Centauri system as a separate case for the sake of comparison. In this binary system, Alpha Centauri A and B serve as the two massive bodies and an interstellar asteroid as the third.
As Dr. Lingam indicated:
“The frequency of these objects is determined from the number density of such objects, which has been recently updated based on the discovery of ‘Oumuamua. The size distribution of these objects is unknown (and serves as a free parameter in our model), but for the sake of obtaining quantitative results, we assumed that it was similar to that of comets within our Solar System.”
In the end, they determined that a few thousands captured objects might be found within the Solar system at any time – the largest of which would be tens of km in radius. For the Alpha Centauri system, the results were even more interesting. Based on the likely rate of capture, and the maximum size of a captured object, they determined that even Earth-sized objects could have been captured in the course of the system’s history.
In other words, Alpha Centauri may have picked up some rogue planets over time, which would have had drastic impact on the evolution of the system. In this vein, the authors also explored how objects like ‘Oumuamua could have played a role in the distribution of life throughout the Universe via rocky bodies. This is a variation on the theory of lithopanspermia, where microbial life is shared between planets thanks to asteroids, comets and meteors.
In this scenario, interstellar asteroids, which originate in distant star systems, would be the be carriers of microbial life from one system to another. If such asteroids collided with Earth in the past, they could be responsible for seeding our planet and leading to the emergence of life as we know it. As Lingam explained:
“These interstellar objects could either crash directly into a planet and thus seed it with life, or be captured into the planetary system and undergo further collisions within that system to yield interplanetary panspermia (the second scenario is more likely when the captured object is large, for e.g. a fraction of the Earth’s radius).”
In addition, Lingam and Loeb offered suggestions on how future visitors to our Solar System could be studied. As Lingam summarized, the key would be to look for specific kinds of spectra from objects in our Solar Systems:
“It may be possible to look for interstellar objects (captured/unbound) in our Solar system by looking at their trajectories in detail. Alternatively, since many objects within the Solar system have similar ratios of oxygen isotopes, finding objects with very different isotopic ratios could indicate their interstellar origin. The isotope ratios can be determined through high-resolution spectroscopy if and when interstellar comets approach close to the Sun.”
“The simplest way to single out the objects who originated outside the Solar System, is to examine the abundance ratio of oxygen isotopes in the water vapor that makes their cometary tails,” added Loeb. “This can be done through high resolution spectroscopy. After identifying a trapped interstellar object, we could launch a probe that will search on its surface for signatures of primitive life or artifacts of a technological civilization.”
It would be no exaggeration to say that the discovery of ‘Oumuamua has set off something of a revolution in astronomy. In addition to validating something astronomers have long suspected, it has also provided new opportunities for research and the testing of scientific theories (such as lithopanspermia).
In the future, with any luck, robotic missions will be dispatched to these bodies to conduct direct studies and maybe even sample return missions. What these reveal about our Universe, and maybe even the spread of life throughout, is sure to be very illuminating!
Further Reading: arXiv
In August of 2014, the ESA’s Rosetta mission made history when it rendezvoused with the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. For the next two years, the probe flew alongside the comet and conducted detailed studies of it. And in November of 2014, Rosetta deployed its Philae probe onto the comet, which was the first time in history that a lander was deployed to the surface of a comet.
During the course of its mission, Rosetta revealed some truly remarkable things about this comet, including data on its composition, its gaseous halo, and how it interacts with solar wind. In addition, the probe also got a good look at the endless stream of dust grains that were poured from the comet’s surface ice as it approached the Sun. From the images Rosetta captured, which the ESA just released, it looked a lot like driving through a snowstorm!
The image below was taken two years ago (on January 21st, 2016), when Rosetta was at a distance of 79 km from the comet. At the time, Rosetta was moving closer following the comet reaching perihelion, which took place during the previous August. When the comet was at perihelion, it was closer to the Sun and at its most active, which necessitated that Rosetta move farther away for its own protection.
As you can see from the image, the environment around the comet was extremely chaotic, even though it was five months after the comet was at perihelion. The white streaks reveal the dust grains as they flew in front of Rosetta’s camera over the course of a 146 second exposure. For the science team directing Rosetta, flying the spacecraft through these dust storms was like trying to drive a car through a blizzard.
Those who have tried know just how dangerous this can be! On the one hand, visibility is terrible thanks to all the flurries. On the other, the only way to stay oriented is to keep your eyes pealed for any landmarks or signs. And all the while, there is the danger of losing control and colliding with something. In much the same way, passing through the comet’s dust storms was a serious danger to the spacecraft.
In addition to the danger of collisions, flying through these clouds was also hazardous for the spacecraft’s navigation system. Like many robotic spacecraft, Rosetta relies on star trackers to orient itself – where it recognizes patterns in the field of stars to orient itself with respect to the Sun and Earth. When flying closer to the comet, Rosetta’s star trackers would occasionally become confused by dust grains, causing the craft to temporarily enter safe mode.
This occurred on March 28th, 2015 and again on May 30th, 2016, when Rosetta was conducting flybys that brought it to a distance of 14 and 5 km from the comet’s surface, respectively. On both occasions, Rosetta’s navigation system suffered from pointing errors when it began tracking bright dust grains instead of stars. As a result, on these occasions, the mission team lost contact with the probe for 24 hours.
As Patrick Martin, the ESA’s Rosetta mission manager, said during the second event:
“We lost contact with the spacecraft on Saturday evening for nearly 24 hours. Preliminary analysis by our flight dynamics team suggests that the star trackers locked on to a false star – that is, they were confused by comet dust close to the comet, as has been experienced before in the mission.”
Despite posing a danger to Rosetta’s solar arrays and its navigation system, this dust is also of high scientific interest. During the spacecraft’s flybys, three of its instruments studied tens of thousands of grains, analyzing their composition, mass, momentum and velocity, and also creating 3D profiles of their structure. By studying these tiny grains, scientists were also able to learn more about the bulk composition of comets.
Before it reached its grand finale and crashed into the comet’s surface on September 30th, 2016, Rosetta made some unique scientific finds about the comet. These included mapping the comet’s surface features, discerning its overall shape, analyzing the chemical composition of its nucleus and coma, and measuring the ratio of water to heavy water on its surface.
All of these findings helped scientists to learn more about how our Solar System formed and evolved, and shed some light on how water was distributed throughout our Solar System early in its history. For instance, by determining that the ratio of water to heavy water on the comet was much different than that of Earth’s, scientists learned that Earth’s water was not likely to have come from comets like Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
On top of that, the spacecraft took more than a hundred thousand image of the comet with its high-resolution OSIRIS camera (including the ones shown here) and its navigation camera. These images can be perused by going to the ESA’s image browser archive. I’m sure you’ll agree, they are all as beautiful as they are scientifically relevant!
Further Reading: ESA
In the past thirty years, thousands of extra-solar planets have been discovered beyond our Solar System. For the most part, they have been detected by the Kepler Space Telescope using a technique called Transit Photometry. For this method, astronomers measure periodic dips in a star’s brightness – which are the result of planets passing in front of them relative to an observer – to confirm the presence of planets.
Thanks to a new research effort conducted by a team of professional and amateur astronomers, something much smaller than planets were recently detected orbiting a distant star. According to a new study published by the research team, six exocomets were observed orbiting around KIC 3542116, a spectral type F2V star located 800 light years from Earth. These comets are the smallest objects to date detecting the Transit Photometry method.
The study which details their findings, titled “Likely Transiting Exocomets Detected by Kepler“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Saul Rappaport of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, the team also consisted of amateur astronomers, members of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the University of Texas, Northeastern University, and NASA’s Ames Research Center.
This is the first time that Transit Photometry has been used to detect object as small as comets. These comets were balls of ice and dust – comparable in size to Halley’s Comet – that were found to be traveling at speeds of about 160,934 km/h (100,000 mph) before they vaporized. The researchers were able to detect them by picking out their tails, the clouds of dust and gas that form when comets get closer to their star and begin to sublimate.
This was no easy task, since the tails managed to obscure only about a tenth of 1% of the star’s light. As Saul Rappaport, who is also the professor emeritus of physics at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, explained in an MIT press release:
“It’s amazing that something several orders of magnitude smaller than the Earth can be detected just by the fact that it’s emitting a lot of debris. It’s pretty impressive to be able to see something so small, so far away.”
Credit for the original detection goes to Thomas Jacobs, an amateur astronomer who lives in Bellevue, Washington, and is a member of Planet Hunters. This citizen scientist project was first established by Yale University and consists of amateur astronomers who dedicated their time to the search for exoplanets. Members are given access to data from the Kepler Space Telescope in the hopes that they would notice things that computer algorithms might miss.
Back in January, Jacobs began scanning four years of data obtained during Kepler‘s main mission. During this phase, which lasted from 2009 to 2013, Kepler scanned over 200,000 stars and conducted measurements of their light curves. After five months of sifting through the data (on March 18th), he noticed several curious light patterns amid background noise coming from KIC 3542116. As Jacobs said:
“Looking for objects of interest in the Kepler data requires patience, persistence, and perseverance. For me it is a form of treasure hunting, knowing that there is an interesting event waiting to be discovered. It is all about exploration and being on the hunt where few have traveled before.”
Specifically, Jacobs was searching for signs of single transits, which are not like those that are caused by planets orbiting a star (i.e. periodic). While looking at KIC 3542116, he noticed three single transits, and then alerted Rappaport and Andrew Vanderburg, as astrophysicist at University of Texas and member of the CfA. Jacobs had worked with both men in the past, and wanted their opinion on these findings.
As Rapport recalled, the process of interpreting the data was challenging, but rewarding. Initially, they noted that the lightcurves did not resemble those caused by planetary transits, which are characterized by a sudden and sharp drop in light, followed by a sharp rise. In time, Rapport noted the asymmetry in the three lightcurves resembled those of disintegrated planets, which they had observed before.
“We sat on this for a month, because we didn’t know what it was — planet transits don’t look like this,” said Rappaport. “Then it occurred to me that, ‘Hey, these look like something we’ve seen before’… We thought, the only kind of body that could do the same thing and not repeat is one that probably gets destroyed in the end. The only thing that fits the bill, and has a small enough mass to get destroyed, is a comet.”
Based on their calculations, which indicated that each comet blocked out about one-tenth of 1% of the star’s light, the research team concluded that the comet likely disintegrated entirely, creating a dust trail that was sufficient to block out light for several months before it disappeared. After conducting additional observations, they also noted three more transits in the same time period that were similar to the ones noticed by Jacobs.
The fact that these six exocomets appear to have transited very close to their star in the past four years raises some interesting questions, and answering them could have drastic implications for extra-solar research. It could also advance our understanding of our own Solar System. As Vanderburg explained:
“Why are there so many comets in the inner parts of these solar systems? Is this an extreme bombardment era in these systems? That was a really important part of our own solar system formation and may have brought water to Earth. Maybe studying exocomets and figuring out why they are found around this type of star… could give us some insight into how bombardment happens in other solar systems.”
Between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, the Solar System also experienced a period of intense comet activity known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. During this time, asteroids and comets are believed to have impacted bodies in the inner Solar System on a regular basis. Interestingly, this period of heavy bombardment is believed to be what was responsible for the distribution of water to Earth and the other terrestrial planets.
As noted, KIC 3542116 belongs to the spectral type F2V, a yellow-white class of star that is typically 1 to 1.4 times as massive as our Sun and quite bright. Since it is comparable in size and mass to our Sun, it is possible that the bombardment period it is experiencing is similar to what the Solar System went through. Watching it unfold could therefore tell us much about how similar activity influenced the evolution of our Solar System billions of years ago.
In addition to the study’s significance to the study of astrophysics and astronomy, it also demonstrates the important role citizen scientists play today. Were it not for the tireless work performed by Jacobs, who sifts through Kepler data between working his day job and on the weekends, this discovery would not have been possible.
“I could name 10 types of things these people have found in the Kepler data that algorithms could not find, because of the pattern-recognition capability in the human eye,” said Rappaport. “You could now write a computer algorithm to find this kind of comet shape. But they were missed in earlier searches. They were deep enough but didn’t have the right shape that was programmed into algorithms. I think it’s fair to say this would never have been found by any algorithm.”
In the future, the research team expects that the deployment Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – which will be led by MIT – will continue to conduct the type of research performed by Kepler.