At the Heart of the Milky Way, Stars Come Close to Each Other All the Time

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At the center of our galaxy resides the Galactic Bulge, a densely-packed region of stars, dust, and gas. Within this massive structure, which spans thousands of light-years, there are an estimated 10 billion stars, most of which are old red giant stars. Because of this density, astronomers have often wondered if a galactic bulge is a likely place to find stars with habitable planets orbiting them.

Essentially, stars that are closely packed together are more likely to experience close encounters with other stars, which can be catastrophic for any planets that orbit them. According to a new study from Columbia University’s Cool Worlds Lab, most stars in the Bulge will experience dozens of close encounters over the course of a billion years, which could have significant implications for long-term habitability in this region.

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What are the Odds of Life Emerging on Another Planet?

In 1961, famed astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake formulated an equation for estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy at any given time. Known as the “Drake Equation“, this formula was a probabilistic argument meant to establish some context for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Of course, the equation was theoretical in nature and most of its variables are still not well-constrained.

For instance, while astronomers today can speak with confidence about the rate at which new stars form, and the likely number of stars that have exoplanets, they can’t begin to say how many of these planets are likely to support life. Luckily, Professor David Kipping of Columbia University recently performed a statistical analysis that indicates that a Universe teeming with life is “the favored bet.”

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One of the TRAPPIST-1 Planets Has an Iron Core

In February of 2017, a team of European astronomers announced the discovery of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1. Aside from the fact that all seven planets were rocky, there was the added bonus of three of them orbiting within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone. Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine whether or not any of these planets could be habitable.

In accordance with this goal, these studies have focused on whether or not these planets have atmospheres, their compositions and their interiors. One of the latest studies was conducted by two researchers from Columbia University’s Cool Worlds Laboratory, who determined that one of the TRAPPIST-1 planets (TRAPPIST-1e) has a large iron core – a finding which could have implications for this planet’s habitability.

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