On October 19th, 2017, astronomers made the first-ever detection of an interstellar object (ISO) in our Solar System. This body, named 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua), was spotted shortly after it flew by Earth on its way to the outer Solar System. Years later, astronomers are still hypothesizing what this object could have been (an interstellar “dust bunny,” hydrogen iceberg, nitrogen icebergs), with Harvard Prof. Abraham Loeb going as far as to suggest that it might have been an extraterrestrial solar sail.
Roughly three years later, interest in extraterrestrial visitors has not subsided, in part because of the release of the Pentagon report on the existence of “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” This prompted Loeb and several of his fellow scientists to form the Galileo Project, a multi-national, multi-institutional research team dedicated to bringing the search for Extraterrestrial Technological Civilizations (ETC) into the mainstream.
On October 19th, 2017, astronomers from the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar object in our Solar System. In honor of the observatory that first spotted it, this object (designated 1I/2017 U1) was officially named ‘Oumuamua by the IAU – a Hawaiian term loosely translated as “Scout” (or, “a messenger from afar arriving first.”)
Having spent the past few years presenting this controversial theory before the scientific and astronomical community, Prof. Loeb has since shared the story of how he came to it in his new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. The book is a seminal read, addresses the mystery of ‘Oumuamua, and (most importantly) urges readers to take seriously the possibility that an extraterrestrial encounter took place
For some time now, astronomers have known that the majority of systems in our galaxy consist of binary pairs rather than individual stars. What’s more, in recent decades, research has revealed that stars like our Sun are actually born in clusters within solar nebulas. This has led to efforts in recent years to locate G-type (yellow dwarf) stars in our galaxy that could be the Sun’s long-lost “solar siblings.”
And now, a new study by Harvard astronomers Amir Siraj and Prof. Abraham Loeb has shown that the Sun may once have once had a very similar binary companion that got kicked out of our Solar System. If confirmed, the implications of this could be groundbreaking, especially where theories on how the Oort Cloud formed and whether or not our system captured a massive object (Planet Nine) in the past.
Betelgeuse, the tenth brightest star in the night sky and the second brightest in the constellation Orion, has been behaving a little oddly lately. Beginning in December of 2019, researchers from Villanova University noticed the red supergiant was dimming noticeably. This trend continued into the new year, with Betelgeuse dimming throughout January and February of 2020. eventually losing two-thirds of its brilliance.
From this point onward, Betelgeuse began to brighten again and returned to its typical visual brightness by April. And now, the massive star dimming once again, and ahead of schedule. In response, an international team of researchers recently conducted a study where they theorized that this pattern might be the result of Betelgeuse “sneezing” out dense clouds of hot gas which then cooled.
In April of 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration history made history when it released the first image of a black hole ever taken. This accomplishment was decades in the making and triggered an international media circus. The picture was the result of a technique known as interferometry, where observatories across the world combined light from their telescopes to create a composite image.
This image showed what astrophysicists have predicted for a long time, that extreme gravitational bending causes photons to fall in around the event horizon, contributing to the bright rings that surround them. Last week, on March 18th, a team of researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) announced new research that shows how black hole images could reveal an intricate substructure within them.
The field of exoplanet research continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Thanks to missions like the Kepler Space Telescope, over four-thousand planets have been discovered beyond our Solar System, with more being confirmed all the time. Thanks to these discoveries and all that we’ve learned from them, the focus has begun to transition from the process of discovery to characterization.
For instance, a group of astronomers was able to image the surface of a planet orbiting a red dwarf star for the first time. Using data from the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, the team was able to provide a rare glimpse at the conditions on the planet’s surface. And while those conditions were rather inhospitable – akin to something like Hades, but with less air to breathe – this represents a major breakthrough in the study of exoplanets.
As of March 1st, 2018, 3,741 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,794 systems, with 622 systems having more than one planet. Most of the credit for these discoveries goes to the Kepler space telescope, which has discovered roughly 3500 planets and 4500 planetary candidates. In the wake of all these discoveries, the focus has shifted from pure discovery to research and characterization.
In this respect, planets detected using the Transit Method are especially valuable since they allow for the study of these planets in detail. For example, a team of astronomers recently discovered three Super-Earths orbiting a star known GJ 9827, which is located just 100 light years (30 parsecs) from Earth. The proximity of the star, and the fact that it is orbited by multiple Super-Earths, makes this system ideal for detailed exoplanet studies.
As with all Kepler discoveries, these planets were discovered using the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry), where stars are monitored for periodic dips of brightness. These dips are the result of exoplanets passing in front of the star (i.e. transiting) relative to the observer. While this method is ideal for placing constraints on the size and orbital periods of a planet, it can also allow for exoplanet characterization.
Basically, scientists are able to learn things about their atmospheres by measuring the spectra produced by the star’s light as it passes through the planet’s atmosphere. Combined with radial velocity measurements of the star, scientists can also place constraints on the planet’s mass and radius and can determine things about the planet’s interior structure.
For the sake of their study, the team analyzed data obtained by the K2 mission, which showed the presence of three Super-Earths around the star GJ 9827 (GJ 9827 b, c, and d). Since they initially submitted their research paper back in September of 2017, the presence of these planets has been confirmed by another team of astronomers. As Dr. Rodriguez told Universe Today via email:
“We detected three super-Earth sized planets orbiting in a very compact configuration. Specifically, the three planets have radii of 1.6, 1.2, and 2.1 times the radius of Earth and all orbit their host star within 6.2 days. We note that this system was independently discovered (simultaneously) by another team from Wesleyan University (Niraula et al. 2017).”
These three exoplanets are especially interesting because the larger of the two have radii that place them in the range between being rocky or gaseous. Few such exoplanets have been discovered so far, which makes these three a prime target for research. As Dr. Rodriguez explained:
“Super Earth sized planets are the most common type of planet we know of but we do not have one in our own solar system, limiting our ability to understand them. They are especially important because their radii span the rock to gas transition (as I discuss below in one of the other responses). Essentially, planets larger then 1.6 times the radius of the Earth are less dense and have thick hydrogen/helium atmospheres while planets smaller are very dense with little to no atmosphere.”
Another interesting thing about these super-Earths is how their short orbital periods – which are 1.2, 3.6 and 6.2 days, respectively – would result in fairly hot temperatures. In short, the team estimates that the three super-Earths experience surface temperatures of 1172 K (899 °C; 1650 °F), 811 K (538 °C; 1000 °F), and 680 K (407 °C; 764 °F), respectively.
By comparison, Venus – the hottest planet in the Solar System – experiences surface temperatures of 735 K (462 °C; 863 °F). So while temperatures on Venus are hot enough to melt lead, conditions on GJ 9827 b are almost hot enough to melt bronze.
However, the most significant thing about this discovery is the opportunities it could provide for exoplanet characterization. At just 100 light-years from Earth, it will be relatively easy for the next-generation telescopes (such as the James Webb Space Telescope) to conduct studies of their atmospheres and provide a more detailed picture of this system of planets.
In addition, these three strange planets are all in the same system, which makes conducting observation campaigns that much easier. As Rodriguez concluded:
“The GJ 9827 system is unique because one planet is smaller than this cutoff, one planet is larger, and the third planet has a radius of ~1.6 times the radius of the Earth, right on that border. So in one system, we have planets that span this rock to gas transition. This is important because we can study the atmosphere’s of these planets, look for differences in the composition of their atmospheres and begin to understand why this transition occurs at 1.6 times the radius of the Earth. Since all three planets orbit the same star, the effect of the host star is kept constant in this “experiment”. Therefore, if these three planets in GJ 9827 were instead orbiting three separate stars, we would have to worry about how the host star is influencing or affecting the planet’s atmosphere. In the GJ 9827 system, we do not have to worry about this since they orbit the same star.”
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.
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!
The core of the Milky Way Galaxy has always been a source of mystery and fascination to astronomers. This is due in part to the fact that our Solar System is embedded within the disk of the Milky Way – the flattened region that extends outwards from the core. This has made seeing into the bulge at the center of our galaxy rather difficult. Nevertheless, what we’ve been able to learn over the years has proven to be immensely interesting.
For instance, in the 1970s, astronomers became aware of the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of our galaxy, known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). In 2016, astronomers also noticed a curved filament that appeared to be extending from Sgr A*. Using a pioneering technique, a team of astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) recently produced the highest-quality images of this structure to date.
As Mark Morris – a professor of astronomy at the UCLA and the lead authority the study – explained in a CfA press release:
“With our improved image, we can now follow this filament much closer to the Galaxy’s central black hole, and it is now close enough to indicate to us that it must originate there. However, we still have more work to do to find out what the true nature of this filament is.”
After examining the filament, the research team came up with three possible explanations for its existence. The first is that the filament is the result of inflowing gas, which would produce a rotating, vertical tower of magnetic field as it approaches and threads Sgr A*’s event horizon. Within this tower, particles would produce radio emissions as they are accelerated and spiral in around magnetic field lines extending from the black hole.
The second possibility is that the filament is a theoretical object known as a cosmic string. These are basically long, extremely thin cosmic structures that carry mass and electric currents that are hypothesized to migrate from the centers of galaxies. In this case, the string could have been captured by Sgr A* once it came too close and a portion crossed its event horizon.
The third and final possibility is that there is no real association between the filament and Sgr A* and the positioning and direction it has shown is merely coincidental. This would imply that there are many such filaments in the Universe and this one just happened to be found near the center of our galaxy. However, the team is confident that such a coincidence is highly unlikely.
As Jun-Hui Zhao of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, and a co-author on the paper, said:
“Part of the thrill of science is stumbling across a mystery that is not easy to solve. While we don’t have the answer yet, the path to finding it is fascinating. This result is motivating astronomers to build next generation radio telescopes with cutting edge technology.”
All of these scenarios are currently being investigated, and each poses its own share of implications. If the first possibility is true – in which the filament is caused by particles being ejected by Sgr A* – then astronomers would be able to gleam vital information about how magnetic fields operate in such an environment. In short, it could show that near an SMBH, magnetic fields are orderly rather than chaotic.
This could be proven by examining particles farther away from Sgr A* to see if they are less energetic than those that are closer to it. The second possibility, the cosmic string theory, could be tested by conducting follow-up observations with the VLA to determine if the position of the filament is shifting and its particles are moving at a fraction of the speed of light.
If the latter should prove to be the case, it would constitute the first evidence that theoretical cosmic strings actually exists. It would also allow astronomers to conduct further tests of General Relativity, examining how gravity works under such conditions and how space-time is affected. The team also noted that, even if the filament is not physically connected to Sgr A*, the bend in the filament is still rather telling.
In short, the bend appears to be coincide with a shock wave, the kind that would be caused by an exploding star. This could mean that one of the massive stars which surrounds Sgr A* exploded in proximity to the filament in the past, producing the necessary shock wave that altered the course of the inflowing gas and its magnetic field. All of these mysteries will be the subject of follow-up surveys conducted with the VLA.
As co-author Miller Goss from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico (and a co-author on the study) said, “We will keep hunting until we have a solid explanation for this object. And we are aiming to next produce even better, more revealing images.”
In the hunt for extra-terrestrial life, scientists tend to take what is known as the “low-hanging fruit approach”. This consists of looking for conditions similar to what we experience here on Earth, which include at oxygen, organic molecules, and plenty of liquid water. Interestingly enough, some of the places where these ingredients are present in abundance include the interiors of icy moons like Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus and Titan.
Whereas there is only one terrestrial planet in our Solar System that is capable of supporting life (Earth), there are multiple “Ocean Worlds” like these moons. Taking this a step further, a team of researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) conducted a study that showed how potentially-habitable icy moons with interior oceans are far more likely than terrestrial planets in the Universe.
To begin, Lingam and Loeb address the tendency to confuse habitable zones (HZs) with habitability, or to treat the two concepts as interchangeable. For instance, planets that are located within an HZ are not necessarily capable of supporting life – in this respect, Mars and Venus are perfect examples. Whereas Mars is too cold and it’s atmosphere too thin to support life, Venus suffered a runaway greenhouse effect that caused it to become a hot, hellish place.
On the other hand, bodies that are located beyond HZs have been found to be capable of having liquid water and the necessary ingredients to give rise to life. In this case, the moons of Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Dione, Titan, and several others serve as perfect examples. Thanks to the prevalence of water and geothermal heating caused by tidal forces, these moons all have interior oceans that could very well support life.
As Lingam, a post-doctoral researcher at the ITC and CfA and the lead author on the study, told Universe Today via email:
“The conventional notion of planetary habitability is the habitable zone (HZ), namely the concept that the “planet” must be situated at the right distance from the star such that it may be capable of having liquid water on its surface. However, this definition assumes that life is: (a) surface-based, (b) on a planet orbiting a star, and (c) based on liquid water (as the solvent) and carbon compounds. In contrast, our work relaxes assumptions (a) and (b), although we still retain (c).”
As such, Lingam and Loeb widen their consideration of habitability to include worlds that could have subsurface biospheres. Such environments go beyond icy moons such as Europa and Enceladus and could include many other types deep subterranean environments. On top of that, it has also been speculated that life could exist in Titan’s methane lakes (i.e. methanogenic organisms). However, Lingam and Loeb chose to focus on icy moons instead.
“Even though we consider life in subsurface oceans under ice/rock envelopes, life could also exist in hydrated rocks (i.e. with water) beneath the surface; the latter is sometimes referred to as subterranean life,” said Lingam. “We did not delve into the second possibility since many of the conclusions (but not all of them) for subsurface oceans are also applicable to these worlds. Similarly, as noted above, we do not consider lifeforms based on exotic chemistries and solvents, since it is not easy to predict their properties.”
Ultimately, Lingam and Loeb chose to focus on worlds that would orbit stars and likely contain subsurface life humanity would be capable of recognizing. They then went about assessing the likelihood that such bodies are habitable, what advantages and challenges life will have to deal with in these environments, and the likelihood of such worlds existing beyond our Solar System (compared to potentially-habitable terrestrial planets).
For starters, “Ocean Worlds” have several advantages when it comes to supporting life. Within the Jovian system (Jupiter and its moons) radiation is a major problem, which is the result of charged particles becoming trapped in the gas giants powerful magnetic field. Between that and the moon’s tenuous atmospheres, life would have a very hard time surviving on the surface, but life dwelling beneath the ice would fare far better.
“One major advantage that icy worlds have is that the subsurface oceans are mostly sealed off from the surface,” said Lingam. “Hence, UV radiation and cosmic rays (energetic particles), which are typically detrimental to surface-based life in high doses, are unlikely to affect putative life in these subsurface oceans.”
“On the negative side,’ he continued, “the absence of sunlight as a plentiful energy source could lead to a biosphere that has far less organisms (per unit volume) than Earth. In addition, most organisms in these biospheres are likely to be microbial, and the probability of complex life evolving may be low compared to Earth. Another issue is the potential availability of nutrients (e.g. phosphorus) necessary for life; we suggest that these nutrients might be available only in lower concentrations than Earth on these worlds.”
In the end, Lingam and Loeb determined that a wide range of worlds with ice shells of moderate thickness may exist in a wide range of habitats throughout the cosmos. Based on how statistically likely such worlds are, they concluded that “Ocean Worlds” like Europa, Enceladus, and others like them are about 1000 times more common than rocky planets that exist within the HZs of stars.
These findings have some drastic implications for the search for extra-terrestrial and extra-solar life. It also has significant implications for how life may be distributed through the Universe. As Lingam summarized:
“We conclude that life on these worlds will undoubtedly face noteworthy challenges. However, on the other hand, there is no definitive factor that prevents life (especially microbial life) from evolving on these planets and moons. In terms of panspermia, we considered the possibility that a free-floating planet containing subsurface exolife could be temporarily “captured” by a star, and that it may perhaps seed other planets (orbiting that star) with life. As there are many variables involved, not all of them can be quantified accurately.”
Professor Leob – the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, the director of the ITC, and the study’s co-author – added that finding examples of this life presents its own share of challenges. As he told Universe Today via email:
“It is very difficult to detect sub-surface life remotely (from a large distance) using telescopes. One could search for excess heat but that can result from natural sources, such as volcanos. The most reliable way to find sub-surface life is to land on such a planet or moon and drill through the surface ice sheet. This is the approach contemplated for a future NASA mission to Europa in the solar system.”
Exploring the implications for panspermia further, Lingam and Loeb also considered what might happen if a planet like Earth were ever ejected from the Solar System. As they note in their study, previous research has indicated how planets with thick atmospheres or subsurface oceans could still support life while floating in interstellar space. As Loeb explained, they also considered what would happen if this ever happened with Earth someday:
“An interesting question is what would happen to the Earth if it was ejected from the solar system into cold space without being warmed by the Sun. We have found that the oceans would freeze down to a depth of 4.4 kilometers but pockets of liquid water would survive in the deepest regions of the Earth’s ocean, such as the Mariana Trench, and life could survive in these remaining sub-surface lakes. This implies that sub-surface life could be transferred between planetary systems.”
This study also serves as a reminder that as humanity explores more of the Solar System (largely for the sake of finding extra-terrestrial life) what we find also has implications in the hunt for life in the rest of the Universe. This is one of the benefits of the “low-hanging fruit” approach. What we don’t know is informed but what we do, and what we find helps inform our expectations of what else we might find.
And of course, it’s a very vast Universe out there. What we may find is likely to go far beyond what we are currently capable of recognizing!