What If We Do Find Aliens?


Time to talk about my favorite topic: aliens.

We’ve covered the Fermi Paradox many times over several articles on Universe Today. This is the idea that the Universe is huge, and old, and the ingredients of life are everywhere. Life could and should have have appeared many times across the galaxy, but it’s really strange that we haven’t found any evidence for them yet.

We’ve also talked about how we as a species have gone looking for aliens. How we’re searching the sky for signals from their alien communications. How the next generation of space and ground-based telescopes will let us directly image the atmospheres of extrasolar planets. If we see large quantities of oxygen, or other chemicals that shouldn’t be around, it’s a good indication there’s life on their planet.

We’ve even talked about how aliens could use that technique on us. We’ve been sending our radio and television signals out into space for the last few decades. Who knows what crazy things they think about our “historical documents”? But Earth life itself has been broadcasting our existence for hundreds of millions of years, since the first plankton started filling our atmosphere with oxygen. A distant civilization could be analyzing our atmosphere and know exactly when we entered the industrial age.

But what we haven’t talked about, the space elephant in the room, if you will, is what we’ll do if we actually make contact. What are we going to say to each other? And what will happen if the aliens show up?

War of the Worlds
I’m hoping that first contact doesn’t start out like this. Credit: Henrique Alvim Correa, 1906, for the novel “The War of the Worlds”

Although there’s no official protocol on talking to aliens, scientists and research institutions have been puzzling out the best way we might communicate for quite a while.

Perhaps the best example is the SETI Institute, the US-based research group who have dedicated radio telescopes scanning the skies for messages from space.

Let’s imagine you’re a SETI researcher, and you’re browsing last night’s logs and you see what looks like a message. Maybe it’s instructions to build some kind of dimensional portal, or a recipe book.

Whatever you do, don’t try out the recipes. Instead, you need to make absolutely sure you’re not dealing with some kind of natural phenomenon. Then you need to reach out to other researchers and get them to confirm the signal.

The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. The telescope is currently being used in a new SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempt to look for possible alien radio signals from Tabby's Star. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF
The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. The telescope is currently being used in a new SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempt to look for possible alien radio signals from Tabby’s Star. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

If they agree it’s aliens, then you need to inform the International Astronomical Union and other international groups, like the United Nations, Committee on Space Research, etc.

Unless they’ve got some good reason to stop you, it’s time to announce the discovery to the worldwide media. You made the discovery, you get to break the news to the world.

At this point, of course, the entire world is going to freak right out. Whatever you do, however, you have to resist the urge to send back a message or build that dimensional portal, no matter how much you think you understand the science. Instead, let an international committee mull it over while you stockpile supplies in a secret alien proof bunker in the desert.

What kind of message should we actually craft to our new alien penpals? Will we become fast friends, jump starting our own technological progress, or will we insult them by accident?

In 2000, and international group of SETI researchers including the famous Jill Tarter devised The Rio Scale. It really easy to use, and there’s even a fun online calculator.

Step 1, figure out the class of phenomenon. Is it a message sent directly to Earth, expecting a reply? Or did we merely find some alien artifact or old timey Dyson sphere orbiting a nearby star?

Step 2, how verifiable is the discovery? Are we talking ongoing signals received by SETI researchers, or a hint in some old data that’s impossible to confirm?

Step 3, how far are we talking here? Hovering over Paris? Within our Solar System, or outside the galaxy?

Step 4, how sure are you? 100% certain, and everyone agrees because they can all see that enormous mothership floating above London? Or nobody believes you, and they’ve locked you up because of your insane ramblings and misappropriation of government equipment?

Punch in your numbers and you’ll get a rank on The Rio Scale between 0 and 10. Level 0 is “no importance” or “you’re a crank”, while level 10 is “extraordinary importance”, or “now would be a good time to panic”.

Movie poster from 'Independence Day.' Credit: 20th Century Fox
Not the best outcome. Credit: 20th Century Fox

SETI researcher Seth Shostak, calculated the Rio Scale for various sci-fi movies and shows. The first message from aliens in Independence Day would count as a 4. While the obliteration of the White House by a massive floating alien city that everybody could see would count as a 10.

the messages received in Contact, and independently confirmed by researchers around the world would qualify in the 4-8 range, while the monolith discovered on the Moon in 2001 would be a solid 6.

Now you know how important the discovery is, what do you say back to those chatty aliens?

This falls under the term CETI, which means Communications with Extraterrestrial Aliens, which shouldn’t be confused with SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Aliens. And it turns out, that horse has already left the stable.

When the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft were constructed, they were equipped with handy maps to find Earth’s precise location in the Milky Way.

The famous "Golden Record" carried aboard both Voyager 1 and 2 contains images, sounds and greetings from Earth. (NASA)
The famous “Golden Record” carried aboard both Voyager 1 and 2 contains images, sounds and greetings from Earth. (NASA)

In 1974, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake who composed a message in alienese and broadcast it into space from the Arecibo Observatory.

In 1999 and 2003 a series of signals were transmitted towards various interesting stars. The messages contained images of Earth, as well as various mathematical principles that could be used by aliens as a common language.

We’ll know if that was a good idea in a few decades.

In 2015, scientists like David Grinspoon, Seth Shostak and David Brin collected together to discuss if it’s a wise idea to send messages off into space, to broadcast our existence to potentially hostile alien civilizations.

According to Seth Shostak, the best message we can send is the entire internet. Just send it all, they’ll work out what we’re all about.

The science fiction author David Brin thinks that’s a terrible idea, and we should keep our mouths shut.

Personally, I think the aliens already know we’re here. If they wanted to invade and destroy our planet, they would have done it millions of years ago when early life made it obvious this planet was inhabited. The jig is up.

It’s a mind bending concept to imagine what life might be like if we knew with absolutely certainty that there’s an alien civilization right over there, on that world. I’m sure people will freak out for a while, but then we’ll probably just go back to life as normal. Human beings can get bored by the most surprising and amazing things.

If you learned there was definitely an alien civilization out there, how do you think humanity would respond? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Discovery Of A Nearby Super Earth With Only 5 Times Our Mass

Red dwarf stars have proven to be a treasure trove for exoplanet hunters in recent years. In addition to multiple exoplanets candidates being detected around stars like TRAPPIST-1, Gliese 581, Gliese 667C, and Kepler 296, there was also the ESO’s recent discovery of a planet orbiting within the habitable zone of our Sun’s closest neighbor – Proxima Centauri.

And it seems the trend is likely to continue, with the latest discovery comes from a team of European scientists. Using data from the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) and HARPS-N instruments, they detected an exoplanet candidate orbiting around GJ 536 – an M-class red dwarf star located about 32.7 light years (10.03 parsecs) from Earth.

According to their study, “A super-Earth Orbiting the Nearby M-dwarf GJ 536“, this planet is a super-Earth – a class of exoplanet that has between more than one, but less than 15, times the mass of Earth. In this case, the planet boasts a minimum of 5.36 ± 0.69 Earth masses, has an orbital period of 8.7076 ± 0.0025 days, and orbits its sun at a distance of 0.06661 AU.

Artist's impression of a system of exoplanets orbiting a low mass, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of a system of exoplanets orbiting a low mass, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL

The team was led by Dr. Alejandro Suárez Mascareño of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC). The discovery of the planet was part of his thesis work, which was conducted under Dr Rafael Rebolo – who is also a member of the IAC, the Spanish National Research Council and a professor at the University of Laguna. And while the planet is not a potentially habitable world, it does present some interesting opportunities for exoplanet research.

As Dr. Mascareño shared with Universe Today via email:

“GJ 536 b is a small super Earth discovered in a very nearby star. It is part of the group of the smallest planets with measured mass. It is not in the habitable zone of its star, but its relatively close orbit and the brightness of its star makes it a promising target for transmission spectroscopy IF we can detect the transit. With a star so bright (V 9.7) it would be possible to obtain good quality spectra during the hypothetical transit to try to detect elements in the  atmosphere of the planet. We are already designing a campaign for next  year, but I guess we won’t be the only ones.”

The survey that found this planet was part of a  joint effort between the IAC (Spain) and the Geneva Observatory (Switzerland). The data came from the HARPS and HARPS-N instruments, which are mounted on the ESO’s 3.6 meter telescope at the La Silla Observstory in Chile and the 3.6 meter telescope at the La Palma Observatory in Spain. This was combined with photometric data from the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS), which has observatories in Chile and Maui.

The research team relied on radial velocity measurements from the star to discern the presence of the planet, as well as spectroscopic observations of the star that were taken over a 8.6 year period. For all this, they not only detected an exoplanet candidate with 5 times the mass of Earth, but also derived information on the star itself – which showed that it has a rotational period of about 44 days, and magnetic cycle that lasts less than three years.

Artist's depiction of the interior of a low-mass star, such as the one seen in an X-ray image from Chandra in the inset. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
Artist’s depiction of the interior of a low-mass star, such as the one seen in an X-ray image from Chandra in the inset. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

By comparison, our Sun has a rotational period of 25 days and a magnetic cycle of 11 years, which is characterized by changes in the levels of solar radiation it emits, the ejection of solar material and in the appearance of sunspots. In addition, a recent study from the the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) showed that Proxima Centauri has a stellar magnetic cycle that lasts for 7 years.

This detection is just the latest in a long line of exoplanets being discovered around low-mass, low-luminosity, M-class (red dwarf) stars. And looking ahead, the team hopes to continue surveying GJ 536 to see if there is a planetary system, which could include some Earth-like planets, and maybe even a few gas giants.

“For now we have detected only one planet, but we plan to continue monitoring the star to search for other companions at larger orbital separations,” said Dr. Mascareño. “We estimate there is still room for other low-mass or even Neptune-mass planets at orbits from a hundred of days to a few years.”

The research also included scientists from the Astronomical Observatory at the University of Geneva, the University of Grenoble, The Astrophysical and Planetological Insitute of Grenoble, Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences in Portugal, and the University of Porto, Portugal.

Further Reading: arXiv

An Exoplanet With Huge Rings Intrigues

Back in 2007, astronomers observed a series of unusual eclipses coming from a star 420 light years from Earth. In 2012, a team from Japan and the Netherlands reasoned that this phenomena was due to the presence of a large exoplanet – designated J1407b – with a massive ring system orbiting the star. Since then, several surprising finds have been made.

For example, in 2015, the same team concluded that the ring system is one-hundred times larger and heavier than Saturn’s (and may be similarly sculpted by exomoons). And in their most recent study, they have shown that these giant rings may last for over 100,000 years, assuming they have a rare and unusual orbit around their planet.

In their previous work, Rieder and Kenworth determined that the ring system around J1407b consisted about 37 rings that extend to a distance of 0.6 AU (90 million km) from the planet. They also estimated that these rings are 100 times as massive as our Moon – 7342 trillion trillion metric tons. What’s more, while J1407b’s existence is yet to be confirmed, they were able to rule out the possibility of it having a circular orbit around the star.

Giant Rings. The rings around J1407b are so large that we could see in the dusk from the earth when they were placed around the planet Saturn. The rings can be seen above the Old Leiden Observatory. Credit: M. Kenworthy / Leiden University
Artist’s impression of what the rings around J1407b would look like from Earth if they were placed around Saturn. The rings can be seen above the Old Leiden Observatory. Credit: M. Kenworthy / Leiden University

As a result, there were doubts that such a ring system could exist. Given the fact that the planet periodically gets closer to its star, the ring system would experience gravitational disruption. Therefore, Steven Rieder (of the RIKEN institute in Japan) and Matthew Kenworth (of Leiden University in the Netherlands) set out to assess how long such a ring system could remain stable for.

For the sake of their study, titled “Constraints on the Size and Dynamics of the J1407b Ring System“, they conducted a series of simulations using the Astrophysical Multi-purpose Software Environment (AMUSE) framework. In the end, their results showed that a ring structure with an 11 year orbital period and a retrograde orbit could survive for at least 10,000 orbits.

In other words, the ring system that they hypothesized back in 2012 could endure for 110,000 years. As Rieder (the lead author on the paper) explained in a statement, the results were surprising, but happened to fit the facts:

“The system is only stable when the rings rotate opposite to how the planet orbits the star. It might be far-fetched: massive rings that rotate in opposite direction, but we now have calculated that a ‘normal’ ring system cannot survive.”

How such a ring system could have come about is a mystery, as retrograde ring systems are quite uncommon. But Rieder and Kenworth have stated that they think it might be the result of a catastrophic event – such as a massive collision – that caused the rings (or the planet) to change the direction of their rotation.

Their results also indicated that a retrograde ring system would allow for eclipses, like the one that was observed in 2007. While there was some chance of these being caused by another object, the results suggested otherwise. “The chance of that is minimal,” said Rieder. “Also, the velocity measured with previous observations may not be right, but that would be very strange, because those measurements are very accurate.”

In the future, Rieder and Kenswoth hope to investigate the mysteries of this ring formation more closely. This will include how it could have formed in the first place, and how it has evolved over time. Their study has been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics and be viewed online at arXiv.

Further Reading: astronomie.nl, arXiv

Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Confirmed Around Nearest Star!

For years, astronomers have been observing Proxima Centauri, hoping to see if this red dwarf has a planet or system of planets around it. As the closest stellar neighbor to our Solar System, a planet here would also be our closest planetary neighbor, which would present unique opportunities for research and exploration.

So there was much excitement when, earlier this month, an unnamed source claimed that the ESO had spotted an Earth-sized planet orbiting within the star’s habitable zone. And after weeks of speculation, with anticipation reaching its boiling point, the ESO has confirmed that they have found a rocky exoplanet around Proxima Centauri – known as Proxima b.

Located just 4.25 light years from our Solar System, Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star that is often considered to be part of a trinary star system – with Alpha Centauri A and B. For some time, astronomers at the ESO have been observing Proxima Centauri, primarily with telescopes at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Their interest in this star was partly due to recent research that has shown how other red dwarf stars have planets orbiting them. These include, but are not limited to, TRAPPIST-1, which was shown to have three exoplanets with sizes similar to Earth last year; and Gliese 581, which was shown to have at least three exoplanets in 2007.

The ESO also confirmed that the planet is potentially terrestrial in nature (i.e. rocky), similar in size and mass to Earth, and orbits its star with an orbital period of 11 days. But best of all are the indications that surface temperatures and conditions are likely suitable for the existence of liquid water.

It’s discovery was thanks to the Pale Red Dot campaign, a name which reflects Carl Sagan’s famous reference to the Earth as a “pale blue dot”. As part of this campaign, a team of astronomers led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé – from Queen Mary University of London – have been observing Proxima Centauri for signs of wobble (i.e. the Radial Velocity Method).

After combing the Pale Red Dot data with earlier observations made by the ESO and other observatories, they noted that Proxima Centauri was indeed moving. With a regular period of 11.2 days, the star would vary between approaching Earth at a speed of 5 km an hour (3.1 mph), and then receding from Earth at the same speed.

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
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

This was certainly an exciting result, as it indicated a change in the star’s radial velocity that was consistent with the existence of a planet. Further analysis showed that the planet had a mass at least 1.3 times that of Earth, and that it orbited the star at a distance of about 7 million km (4.35 million mi) – only 5% of the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

The discovery of the planet was made possible by the La Silla’s regular observation of the star, which took place star  between mid-January and April of 2016, using the 3.6-meter telescope‘s HARPS spectrograph. Other telescopes around the world conducted simultaneous observation in order to confirm the results.

One such observatory was the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory in Chile, which relied on its ASH2 telescope to monitor the changing brightness of the star during the campaign. This was essential, as red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are active stars, and can vary in ways that would mimic the presence of the planet.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé described the excitement of the past few months in an ESO press release:

“I kept checking the consistency of the signal every single day during the 60 nights of the Pale Red Dot campaign. The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, and at 30 days the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!”

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Proxima Centauri is smaller and cooler than the Sun and the planet orbits much closer to its star than Mercury. As a result it lies well within the habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.
Infographic comparing the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman

Two separate papers discuss the habitability of Proxima b and its climate, both of which will be appearing soon on the Institute of Space Sciences (ICE) website. These papers describe the research team’s findings and outline their conclusions on how the existence of liquid water cannot be ruled out, and discuss where it is likely to be distributed.

Though there has been plenty of excitement thanks to words like “Earth-like”, “habitable zone”, and “liquid water” being thrown around, some clarifications need to be made. For instance, Proxima b’s rotation, the strong radiation it receives from its star, and its formation history mean that its climate is sure to be very different from Earth’s.

For instance, as is indicated in the two papers, Proxima b is not likely to have seasons, and water may only be present in the sunniest regions of the planet. Where those sunny regions are located depends entirely on the planet’s rotation. If, for example, it has a synchronous rotation with its star, water will only be present on the sun-facing side. If it has a 3:2 resoncance rotation, then water is likely to exist only in the planet’s tropical belt.

In any case, the discovery of this planet will open the door to further observations, using both existing instruments and the next-generation of space telescopes. And as Anglada-Escudé states, Proxima Centauri is also likely to become the focal point in the search for extra-terrestrial life in the coming years.

This picture combines a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Solar System and is orbited by the planet Proxima b, which was discovered using the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope.
A view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, showing the location of Proxima Centauri in the sky. Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO/ESA/NASA/M. Zamani

“Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us,” he said. “Many people’s stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next…”

As we noted in a previous article on the subject, Project Starshot is currently developing a nanocraft that will use a laser-driven sail to make the journey to Alpha Centauri in 20 years time. But a mission to Proxima Centuari would take even less time (19.45 years at the same speed), and could study this newly-found exoplanet up-close.

One can only hope they are planning on altering their destination to take advantage of this discovery. And one can only imagine what they might find if and when they get to Proxima b!

A paper describing this milestone finding will be published in the journal Nature on August 25th, 2016, titled “A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri“.

Further Reading: ESO

ESO Announcement To Address Reports Of Proxima Centauri Exoplanet

For years, exoplanet hunters have been busy searching for planets that are similar to Earth. And when earlier this month, an unnamed source indicated that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) had done just that – i.e. spotted a terrestrial planet orbiting within the star’s habitable zone – the response was predictably intense.

The unnamed source also indicated that the ESO would be confirming this news by the end of August. At the time, the ESO offered no comment. But on the morning of Monday, August 22nd, the ESO broke its silence and announced that it will be holding a press conference this Wednesday, August 24th.

No mention was made as to the subject of the press conference or who would be in attendance. However, it is safe to assume at this point that it’s main purpose will be to address the burning question that’s on everyone’s mind: is there an Earth-analog planet orbiting the nearest star to our own?

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

For years, the ESO has been studying Proxima Centauri using the La Silla Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS). It was this same observatory that reported the discovery of a planet around Alpha Centauri B back in 2012 – which was the “closest planet to Earth” at the time – which has since been cast into doubt.

Relying on a technique known as the Radial Velocity (or Doppler) Method, they have been monitoring this star for signs of movement. Essentially, as planets orbit a star, they exert a gravitational influence of their own which causes the star to move in a small orbit around the system’s center of mass.

Ordinarily, a star would require multiple exoplanets, or a planet of significant size (i.e. a Super-Jupiter) in order for the signs to be visible. In the case of terrestrial planets, which are much smaller than gas giants, the effect on a star’s orbit would be rather negligible. But given that Proxima Centauri is the closest star system to Earth – at a distance of 4.25 light years – the odds of discerning its radial velocity are significantly better.

Artist's impression of the Earth-like exoplanet discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri B iby the European Southern Observatory on October 17, 2012. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the Earth-like exoplanet discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri B iby the European Southern Observatory on October 17th, 2012. Credit: ESO

According to the source cited by the German weekly Der Speigel, which was the first to report the story, the unconfirmed exoplanet is not only believed to be “Earth-like” (in the sense that it is a rocky body) but also orbits within it’s stars habitable zone (i.e. “Goldilocks Zone”).

Because of this, it would be possible for this planet to have liquid water on its surface, and an atmosphere capable of supporting life. However, we won’t know any of this for certain until we can direct the next-generation of telescopes – like the James Webb Space Telescope or Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – to study it more thoroughly.

This is certainly an exciting development, as confirmation will mean that there is planet similar to Earth that is within our reach. Given time and the development of more advanced propulsion systems, we might even be able to mount a mission there to study it up close!

The press conference will start at 1 p.m. Central European Time (CET) – 1 p.m. EDT/10 a.m. PDT. And you bet that we will be reporting on the results shortly thereafter! Stay tuned!

Further Reading: Seeker

Astronomers Discover Exoplanet With Triple Sunrises and Sunsets

This graphic shows the orbit of the planet in the HD 131399 system (red line) and the orbits of the stars (blue lines). The planet orbits the brightest star in the system, HD 131399A. Credit: ESO
This graphic shows the orbit of the planet in the HD 131399 system (red oval) and the orbits of the stars (blue arcs). The planet orbits the brightest star in the triple system, HD 131399A with a period of about 550 years. Credit: ESO

In the famous scene from the Star Wars movie “A New Hope” we recall young Luke Skywalker contemplating his future in the light of a binary sunset on the planet Tatooine. Not so many years later in 2011, astronomers using the Kepler Space Telescope discovered Kepler-16b, the first Tatooine-like planet known to orbit two suns in a binary system. Now astronomers have found a planet in a triple star system where an observer would either experience constant daylight or enjoy triple sunrises and sunsets each day, depending on the seasons, which last longer than human lifetimes.

They used the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope to directly image the planet, the first ever found inside a triple-star system. The three stars are named HD 131399A, HD 131399B and HD 131399C in order of decreasing brightness; the planet orbits the brightest and goes by the chunky moniker HD 131399Ab.

This annotated composite image shows the newly discovered exoplanet HD 131399Ab in the triple-star system HD 131399. The image of the planet was obtained with the SPHERE imager on the ESO Very Large Telescope in Chile. This is the first exoplanet to be discovered by SPHERE and one of very few directly-imaged planets. With a temperature of around 580 degrees Celsius and an estimated mass of four Jupiter masses, it is also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets. This picture was created from two separate SPHERE observations: one to image the three stars and one to detect the faint planet. The planet appears vastly brighter in this image than in would in reality in comparison to the stars. Credit: ESO/K. Wagner et al.
This composite image shows the newly discovered exoplanet HD 131399Ab in the triple-star system HD 131399. The image of the planet was obtained with the SPHERE imager.  This is the first exoplanet to be discovered by SPHERE and one of very few directly-imaged planets. This picture was created from two separate SPHERE observations: one of the three stars and one to detect the faint planet. The planet appears vastly brighter in this image than in would in reality in comparison to the stars. Credit: ESO/K. Wagner et al.

Located about 320 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus the Centaur HD 131399Ab is about 16 million years old, making it also one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date, and one for which we have a direct image. With a temperature of around 1,075° F (580° C) and the mass about four times that of Jupiter, it’s also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets.

This infrared image of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was one of the first produced by the SPHERE instrument soon after it was installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in May 2014. This picture shows how effective the adaptive optics system is at revealing fine detail on this tiny disc (just 0.8 arc seconds across). Credit: ESO/J.-L. Beuzit et al./SPHERE Consortium
This infrared image of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was one of the first produced by the SPHERE instrument soon after it was installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in May 2014. This picture shows how effective the adaptive optics system is at revealing fine detail on this tiny disc (just 0.8 arc seconds across). Credit: ESO/J.-L. Beuzit et al./SPHERE Consortium

To pry it loose from the glare of its host suns, a team of astronomers led by the University of Arizona used a state of the art adaptive optics system to give razor-sharp images coupled with SPHERE, an instrument that blocks the light from the central star(s) similar to the way a coronagraph blocks the brilliant solar disk and allows study of the Sun’s corona. Finally, the region around the star is photographed in infrared polarized light to make any putative planets stand out more clearly against the remaining glare.

The planet, HD 131399Ab, is unlike any other known world — its orbit around the brightest of the three stars is by far the widest known within a multi-star system. It was once thought that planets orbiting a multi-star system would be unstable because of the changing gravitational tugs on the planet from the other two stars. Yet this planet remains in orbit instead of getting booted out of the system, leading astronomers to think that planets orbiting multiple stars might be more common that previously thought.

This artist's impression shows a view of the triple star system HD 131399 from close to the giant planet orbiting in the system. The planet is known as HD 131399Ab and appears at the lower-left of the picture. Credit: ESO / L. Calcada
This artist’s impression shows a view of the triple star system HD 131399 from close to the giant planet orbiting in the system. The planet is known appears at the lower-left of the picture. Credit: ESO / L. Calcada

HD 131399Ab orbits HD 131399A, estimated to be 80% more massive than the Sun. Its double-star companions orbit about 300 times the Earth-Sun distance away. For much of the planet’s 550 year orbit, all three stars would appear close together in the sky and set one after the other in unique triple sunsets and sunrises each day. But when the planet reached the other side of its orbit around its host sun, that star and the pair would lie in opposite parts of the sky. As the pair set, the host would rise, bathing HD 131399Ab in near-constant daytime for about one-quarter of its orbit, or roughly 140 Earth-years.


Click to see a wonderful simulation showing how the planet orbits within the trinary system

Planets in multi-star systems are of special interest to astronomers and planetary scientists because they provide an example of how the mechanism of planetary formation functions in these more extreme scenarios. Since multi-star systems are just as common as single stars, so planets may be too.

How would our perspective of the cosmos change I wonder if Earth orbited triple suns instead of a single star? Would the sight deepen our desire for adventure like the fictional Skywalker? Or would we suffer the unlucky accident of being born at the start of a multi-decade long stretch of constant daylight? Wonderful musings for the next clear night under the stars.

Friendly Giants Have Cozy Habitable Zones Too

It is an well-known fact that all stars have a lifespan. This begins with their formation, then continues through their Main Sequence phase (which constitutes the majority of their life) before ending in death. In most cases, stars will swell up to several hundred times their normal size as they exit the Main Sequence phase of their life, during which time they will likely consume any planets that orbit closely to them.

However, for planets that orbit the star at greater distances (beyond the system’s “Frost Line“, essentially), conditions might actually become warm enough for them to support life. And according to new research which comes from the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University, this situation could last for some star systems into the billions of years, giving rise to entirely new forms of extra-terrestrial life!

In approximately 5.4 billion years from now, our Sun will exit its Main Sequence phase. Having exhausted the hydrogen fuel in its core, the inert helium ash that has built up there will become unstable and collapse under its own weight. This will cause the core to heat up and get denser, which in turn will cause the Sun to grow in size and enter what is known as the Red Giant-Branch (RGB) phase of its evolution.

The life cycle of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant on the right after billions of years. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
The life cycle of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant on the right after billions of years. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

This period will begin with our Sun becoming a subgiant, in which it will slowly double in size over the course of about half a billion years. It will then spend the next half a billion years expanding more rapidly, until it is 200 times its current size and several thousands times more luminous. It will then officially be a red giant star, eventually expanding to the point where it reaches beyond Mars’ orbit.

As we explored in a previous article, planet Earth will not survive our Sun becoming a Red Giant – nor will Mercury, Venus or Mars. But beyond the “Frost Line”, where it is cold enough that volatile compounds – such as water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide – remain in a frozen state, the remain gas giants, ice giants, and dwarf planets will survive. Not only that, but a massive thaw will set in.

In short, when the star expands, its “habitable zone” will likely do the same, encompassing the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. When this happens, formerly uninhabitable places – like the Jovian and Cronian moons – could suddenly become inhabitable. The same holds true for many other stars in the Universe, all of which are fated to become Red Giants as they near the end of their lifespans.

However, when our Sun reaches its Red Giant Branch phase, it is only expected to have 120 million years of active life left. This is not quite enough time for new lifeforms to emerge, evolve and become truly complex (i.e. like humans and other species of mammals). But according to a recent research study that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal – titled “Habitable Zone of Post-Main Sequence Stars” – some planets may be able to remain habitable around other red giant stars in our Universe for much longer – up to 9 billion years or more in some cases!

Ramses Ramirez, left, and Lisa Kaltenegger hold a replica of our own habitable world, as they hunt for other places in the universe where life can thrive. Credit: Chris Kitchen/University Photo
Ramses Ramirez (left) and Lisa Kaltenegger are on the hunt for other places in the universe where life can thrive. Credit: Chris Kitchen/University Photo

To put that in perspective, nine billion years is close to twice the current age of Earth. So assuming that the worlds in question also have the right mix of elements, they will have ample time to give rise to new and complex forms of life. The study’s co-author, Professor Lisa Kaltennegeris, is also the director of the Carl Sagan Institute. As such, she is no stranger to searching for life in other parts of the Universe. As she explained to Universe Today via email:

“We found that planets – depending on how big their Sun is (the smaller the star, the longer the planet can stay habitable) – can stay nice and warm for up to 9 Billion years. That makes an old star an interesting place to look for life. It could have started sub-surface (e.g. in a frozen ocean) and then when the ice melts, the gases that life breaths in and out can escape into the atmosphere – what allows astronomers to pick them up as signatures of life. Or for the smallest stars, the time a formerly frozen planet can be nice and warm is up to 9 billion years. Thus life could potentially even get started in that time.”

Using existing models of stars and their evolution – i.e. one-dimensional radiative-convective climate and stellar evolutionary models – for their study, Kaltenegger and Ramirez were able to calculate the distances of the habitable zones (HZ) around a series of post-Main Sequence (post-MS) stars. Ramses M. Ramirez – a research associate at the Carl Sagan Institute and the lead author of the paper – explained the research process to Universe Today via email:

“We used stellar evolutionary models that tell us how stellar quantities, mainly the brightness, radius, and temperature all change with time as the star ages through the red giant phase. We also used a  climate model to then compute how much energy each star is outputting at the boundaries of the habitable zone. Knowing this and the stellar brightness mentioned above, we can compute the distances to these habitable zone boundaries.”

After several billions years, yellow suns (like ours) become Red Giants, expanding to several hundred times their normal size. Credit: Wendy Kenigsburg
After several billions years, yellow suns (like ours) become Red Giants, expanding to several hundred times their normal size. Credit: Wendy Kenigsburg

At the same time, they considered how this kind of stellar evolution could effect the atmosphere of the star’s planets. As a star expands, it loses mass and ejects it outward in the form of solar wind. For planets that orbit close to a star, or those that have low surface gravity, they may find some or all of their atmospheres blasted away. On the other hand, planets with sufficient mass (or positioned at a safe distance) could maintain most of their atmospheres.

“The stellar winds from this mass loss erodes planetary atmospheres, which we also compute as a function of time,” said Ramirez. “As the star loses mass, the solar system conserves angular momentum by moving outwards. So, we also take into account how the orbits move out with time.” By using models that incorporated the rate of stellar and atmospheric loss during the Red Giant Branch (RGB) and Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) phases of star, they were able to determine how this would play out for planets that ranged in size from super-Moons to super-Earths.

What they found was that a planet can stay in a post-HS HZ for eons or more, depending on how hot the star is, and figuring for metallicities that are similar to our Sun’s. As Ramirez explained:

“The main result is that the maximum time that a planet can remain in this red giant habitable zone of hot stars is 200 million years. For our coolest star (M1), the maximum time a planet can stay within this red giant habitable zone is 9 billion years. Those results assume metallicity levels similar to those of our Sun. A star with a higher percentage of metals takes longer to fuse the non-metals (H, He..etc) and so these maximum times can increase some more, up to about a factor of two.”

Europa's cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.
Could Europa’s cracked, icy surface thaw and give rise to a new habitable world when our Sun becomes a Red Giant in a few billion years? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Within the context of our Solar System, this could mean that in a few billion years, worlds like Europa and Enceladus (which are already suspected of having life beneath their icy surfaces) might get a shot at becoming full-fledged habitable worlds. As Ramirez summarized beautifully:

“This means that the post-main-sequence is another potentially interesting phase of stellar evolution from a habitability standpoint. Long after the inner system of planets have been turned into sizzling wastelands by the expanding, growing red giant star, there could be potentially habitable abodes farther away from the chaos. If they are frozen worlds, like Europa, the ice would melt, potentially unveiling any preexisting life. Such pre-existing life may be detectable by future missions/telescopes looking for atmospheric biosignatures.”

But perhaps the most exciting take-away from their research study was their conclusion that planets orbiting within their star’s post-MS habitable zones would be doing so at distances that would make them detectable using direct imaging techniques. So not only are the odds of finding life around older stars better than previously thought, we should have no trouble in spotting them using current exoplanet-hunting techniques!

It is also worth noting that Kaltenegger and Dr. Ramirez have submitted a second paper for publication, in which they provide a list of 23 red giant stars within 100 light-years of Earth. Knowing that these stars, all of which are in our stellar neighborhood, could have life-sustaining worlds within their habitable zones should provide additional opportunities for planet hunters in the coming years.

And be sure to check out this video from Cornellcast, where Prof. Kaltenegger shares what inspires her scientific curiosity and how Cornell’s scientists are working to find proof of extra-terrestrial life.

Further Reading: The Astrophysical Journal

Did the Sun Steal Planet Nine?

Artist's impression of Planet Nine, blocking out the Milky Way. The Sun is in the distance, with the orbit of Neptune shown as a ring. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

One of the biggest new mysteries in our Solar System is the purported presence of a large and distant “Planet Nine,” traveling around the Sun in a twenty-thousand-year orbit far beyond Pluto. Although this far-flung world’s existence has yet to actually be confirmed (or even directly detected) some scientists are suggesting it might have originally been an exoplanet around a neighboring star, pilfered by our Sun during its impudent adolescence.

Continue reading “Did the Sun Steal Planet Nine?”

What’s Orbiting KIC 8462852 – Shattered Comet or Alien Megastructure?

“Bizarre.” “Interesting.” “Giant transit”.  That were the reactions of Planet Hunters project volunteers when they got their first look at the light curve of the otherwise normal sun-like star KIC 8462852 nearly.

Of the more than 150,000 stars under constant observation during the four years of NASA’s primary Kepler Mission (2009-2013), this one stands alone for the inexplicable dips in its light. While almost certainly naturally-caused, some have suggested we consider other possibilities.

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist's conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by NASA's Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle
Kepler-11, a sun-like star orbited by six planets. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist’s conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by the Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. During each pass or transit, the star’s light fades in a periodic way. 
Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

You’ll recall that the orbiting Kepler observatory continuously monitored stars in a fixed field of view focused on the constellations Lyra and Cygnus hoping to catch  periodic dips in their light caused by transiting planets. If a drop was seen, more transits were observed to confirm the detection of a new exoplanet.

And catch it did. Kepler found 1,013 confirmed exoplanets in 440 star systems as of January 2015 with 3,199 unconfirmed candidates. Measuring the amount of light the planet temporarily “robbed” from its host star allowed astronomers to determine its diameter, while the length of time between transits yielded its orbital period.

Graph showing the big dip in brightness of KIC 8462852 around 800 days (center) followed after 1500 days whole series of dips of varying magnitude. Credit: Boyajian et. all
Graph showing the big dip in brightness of KIC 8462852 around 800 days (center) followed after 1500 days whole series of dips of varying magnitude up to 22%. The usual drop in light when an exoplanet transits its host star is a fraction of a percent. The star’s normal brightness has been set to “1.00” as a baseline. Credit: Boyajian et. all

Volunteers with the Planet Hunters project, one of many citizen science programs under the umbrella of Zooniverse, harness the power of the human eye to examine Kepler light curves (a graph of a star’s changing light intensity over time), looking for repeating patterns that might indicate orbiting planets. They were the first to meet up with the perplexing KIC 8462852.

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A detailed look at a small part of the star’s light curve reveals an unknown, regular variation of its light every 20 days. Superimposed on that is the star’s 0.88 day rotation period. Credit: Boyajian et. all

This magnitude +11.7 star in Cygnus, hotter and half again as big as the Sun, showed dips all over the place. Around Day 800 during Kepler’s run, it faded by 15% then resumed a steady brightness until Days 1510-1570, when it underwent a whole series of dips including one that dimmed the star by 22%. That’s huge! Consider that an exo-Earth blocks only a fraction of a percent of a star’s light; even a Jupiter-sized world, the norm among extrasolar planets, soaks up about a percent.

Exoplanets also show regular, repeatable light curves as they enter, cross and then exit the faces of their host stars. KIC 8462852’s dips are wildly a-periodic.

Could a giant comet breakup followed by those pieces crumbling into even smaller comets be the reason for KIC's erratic changes in brightness? Credit: NASA
Could a giant comet breakup and subsequent cascading breakups of those pieces be behind KIC 8462852’s erratic changes in brightness? Credit: NASA

Whatever’s causing the flickering can’t be a planet. With great care, the researchers ruled out many possibilities: instrumental errors, starspots (like sunspots but on other stars), dust rings seen around young, evolving stars (this is an older star) and pulsations that cover a star with light-sucking dust clouds.

What about a collision between two planets? That would generate lots of material along with huge clouds of dust that could easily choke off a star’s light in rapid and irregular fashion.

A great idea except that dust absorbs light from its host star, warms up and glows in infrared light. We should be able to see this “infrared excess” if it were there, but instead KIC 8462852 beams the expected amount of infrared for a star of its class and not a jot more. There’s also no evidence in data taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) several years previously that a dust-releasing collision happened around the star.

Our featured star shines around 12th magnitude in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Northern Cross) high in the southern sky at nightfall this month. A 6-inch or larger telescope will easily show it. Use this map to get oriented and the map below to get there. Source: Stellarium
Our featured star shines at magnitude +11.7 in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (Northern Cross) high in the southern sky at nightfall this month. A 6-inch or larger telescope will easily show it. Use this map to get oriented and the map below to get there. Source: Stellarium

After examining the options, the researchers concluded the best fit might be a shattered comet that continued to fragment into a cascade of smaller comets. Pretty amazing scenario. There’s still dust to account for, but not as much as other scenarios would require.

Detailed map showing stars to around magnitude 12 with the Kepler star identified. It's located only a short distance northeast of the open cluster NGC 6886 in Cygnus. North is up. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Detailed map showing stars to around magnitude 12 with the Kepler star identified. It’s located only a short distance northeast of the open cluster NGC 6886 in Cygnus. North is up. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Being fragile types, comets can crumble all by themselves especially when passing exceptionally near the Sun as sungrazing comets are wont to do in our own Solar System. Or a passing star could disturb the host star’s Oort comet cloud and unleash a barrage of comets into the inner stellar system. It so happens that a red dwarf star lies within about 1000 a.u. (1000 times Earth’s distance from the Sun) of KIC 8462852. No one knows yet whether the star orbits the Kepler star or happens to be passing by. Either way, it’s close enough to get involved in comet flinging.

So much for “natural” explanations. Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale, who oversees the Planet Hunters and the lead author of the paper on KIC 8462852, asked Jason Wright, an assistant professor of astronomy at Penn State, what he thought of the light curves. “Crazy” came to mind as soon he set eyes on them, but the squiggles stirred a thought. Turns out Wright had been working on a paper about detecting transiting megastructures with Kepler.

There are Dyson rings and spheres and this, an illustration of a Dyson swarm. Could this or a variation of it be what we're detecting around KIC? Not likely, but a fun thought experiment. Credit: Wikipedia
There are Dyson rings and spheres and a Dyson swarm depicted here. Could this or a variation of it be what we’re seeing around KIC 8462852? Not likely, but a fun thought experiment. Credit: Wikipedia

In a recent blog, he writes: “The idea is that if advanced alien civilizations build planet-sized megastructures — solar panels, ring worlds, telescopes, beacons, whatever — Kepler might be able to distinguish them from planets.” Let’s assume our friendly aliens want to harness the energy of their home star. They might construct enormous solar panels by the millions and send them into orbit to beam starlight down to their planet’s surface. Physicist Freeman Dyson popularized the idea back in the 1960s. Remember the Dyson Sphere, a giant hypothetical structure built to encompass a star?

From our perspective, we might see the star flicker in irregular ways as the giant panels circled about it. To illustrate this point, Wright came up with a wonderful analogy:

“The analogy I have is watching the shadows on the blinds of people outside a window passing by. If one person is going around the block on a bicycle, their shadow will appear regularly in time and shape (like a regular transiting planet). But crowds of people ambling by — both directions, fast and slow, big and large — would not have any regularity about it at all.  The total light coming through the blinds might vary like — Tabby’s star.”

The Green Bank Telescope is the world's largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT's dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space.
The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully-steerable telescope. The GBT’s dish is 100-meters by 110-meters in size, covering 2.3 acres of space. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

Even Wright admits that the “alien hypothesis” should be seen as a last resort. But to make sure no stone goes  unturned, Wright, Boyajian and several of the Planet Hunters put together a proposal to do a radio-SETI search with the Green Bank 100-meter telescope. In my opinion, this is science at its best. We have a difficult question to answer, so let’s use all the tools at our disposal to seek an answer.

Star with a mystery, KIC 8462852, photographed on Oct. 15, 2015. Credit: Gianluca Masi
KIC 8462852, photographed on Oct. 15, 2015. It’s an F3 V star (yellow-white dwarf) located about 1,480 light years from Earth. Credit: Gianluca Masi

In the end, it’s probably not an alien megastructure, just like the first pulsar signals weren’t sent by LGM-1 (Little Green Men). But whatever’s causing the dips, Boyajian wants astronomers to keep a close watch on KIC 8462852 to find out if and when its erratic light variations repeat. I love a mystery, but  answers are even better.

“Super Saturn” Has an Enormous Ring System and Maybe Even Exomoons

Astronomers watching the repeated and drawn-out dimming of a relatively nearby Sun-like star have interpreted their observations to indicate an eclipse by a gigantic exoplanet’s complex ring system, similar to Saturn’s except much, much bigger. What’s more, apparent gaps and varying densities of the rings imply the presence of at least one large exomoon, and perhaps even more in the process of formation!

J1407 is a main-sequence orange dwarf star about 434 light-years away*. Over the course of 57 days in spring of 2007 J1407 underwent a “complex series of deep eclipses,” which an international team of astronomers asserts is the result of a ring system around the massive orbiting exoplanet J1407b.

“This planet is much larger than Jupiter or Saturn, and its ring system is roughly 200 times larger than Saturn’s rings are today,” said Eric Mamajek, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York. “You could think of it as kind of a super Saturn.”

The observations were made through the SuperWASP program, which uses ground-based telescopes to watch for the faint dimming of stars due to transiting exoplanets.

The first study of the eclipses and the likely presence of the ring system was published in 2012, led by Mamajek. Further analysis by the team estimates the number of main ring structures to be 37, with a large and clearly-defined gap located at about 0.4 AU (61 million km/37.9 million miles) out from the “super Saturn” that may harbor a satellite nearly as large as Earth, with an orbital period of two years.

Watch an animation of the team’s analysis of the J1407/J1407b eclipse below:

The entire expanse of J1407b’s surprisingly dense rings stretches for 180 million km (112 million miles), and could contain an Earth’s worth of mass.

“If we could replace Saturn’s rings with the rings around J1407b,” said Matthew Kenworthy from Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and lead author of the new study, “they would be easily visible at night and be many times larger than the full Moon.”

Saturn's relatively thin main rings are about 250,000 km (156,000 miles) in diameter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)
Saturn’s relatively thin main rings are about 250,000 km (156,000 miles) in diameter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

These observations could be akin to a look back in time to see what Saturn and Jupiter were like as their own system of moons were first forming.

“The planetary science community has theorized for decades that planets like Jupiter and Saturn would have had, at an early stage, disks around them that then led to the formation of satellites,” according to Mamajek. “However, until we discovered this object in 2012, no one had seen such a ring system. This is the first snapshot of satellite formation on million-kilometer scales around a substellar object.”

J1407b itself is estimated to contain 10-40 times the mass of Jupiter – technically, it might even be a brown dwarf.

Further observations will be required to observe another transit of J1407b and obtain more data on its rings and other physical characteristics as its orbit is about ten Earth-years long. (Luckily 2017 isn’t that far off!)

The team’s report has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: University of Rochester. Image credit: Ron Miller.

Note: the originally published version of this article described J1407 at 116 light-years away. It’s actually 133 parsecs, which equates to about 434 light-years. Edited above. – JM