A Mars Colony Could be a Hydrogen Factory, Providing Propellant for the Inner Solar System

There are lots of potential uses for a Mars colony.  It could be a research outpost, mining colony, or even a possible second home if something happens to go drastically wrong on our first one.  But it could also be a potential source of what is sure to be one of the most valuable elements in the space economy – hydrogen.  

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Worlds With Hydrogen in Their Atmospheres Could Be the Perfect Place to Search for Life

We’re waiting patiently for telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope to see first light, and one of the reasons is its ability to study the atmospheres of exoplanets. The idea is to look for biosignatures: things like oxygen and methane. But a new study says that exoplanets with hydrogen in their atmospheres are a good place to seek out alien life.

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Astronomy Cast Ep. 513: Stellar Fusion

The Sun. It’s a big ball of fire, right? Apparently not. In fact, what’s going on inside of the Sun took us some time and knowledge of physics to finally figure out: stellar fusion. Let’s talk about the different kinds of fusion, and how we’re trying to adapt it to generate power here on Earth.

We usually record Astronomy Cast every Friday at 3:00 pm EST / 12:00 pm PST / 20:00 PM UTC. You can watch us live on AstronomyCast.com, or the AstronomyCast YouTube page.

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Spectrum of Antimatter Observed for First Time

Ever since the existence of antimatter was proposed in the early 20th century, scientists have sought to understand how relates to normal matter, and why there is an apparent imbalance between the two in the Universe. To do this, particle physics research in the past few decades has focused on the anti-particle of the most elementary and abundant atom in the Universe – the antihydrogen particle.

Until recently, this has been very difficult, as scientists have been able to produce antihydrogen, but unable to study it for long before it annihilated. But according to recent a study that was published in Nature, a team using the ALPHA experiment was able to obtain the first spectral information on antihydrogen. This achievement, which was 20 years in the making, could open up an entirely new era of research into antimatter.

Measuring how elements absorb or emit light – i.e. spectroscopy – is a major aspect of physics, chemistry and astronomy. Not only does it allow scientists to characterize atoms and molecules, it allows astrophysicists to determine the composition of distant stars by analyzing the spectrum of the light they emit.

Measuring the antihydrogen spectrum with high-precision offers an extraordinary new tool to test whether matter behaves differently from antimatter and thus to further test the robustness of the Standard Model (mage: Maximilien Brice/CERN)
The ALPHA experiment probes whether matter behaves differently from antimatter by measuring the antihydrogen spectrum with high-precision, further testing the robustness of the Standard Model. Credit: Maximilien Brice/CERN

In the past, many studies have been conducted into the spectrum of hydrogen, which constitutes roughly 75% of all baryonic mass in the Universe. These have played a vital role in our understanding of matter, energy, and the evolution of multiple scientific disciplines. But until recently, studying the spectrum of its anti-particle has been incredibly difficult.

For starters, it requires that the particles that constitute antihydrogen – antiprotons and positrons (anti-electrons) – be captured and cooled so that they may come together. In addition, it is then necessary to maintain these particles long enough to observe their behavior, before they inevitable make contact with normal matter and annihilate.

Luckily, technology has progressed in the past few decades to the point where research into antimatter is now possible, thus affording scientists the opportunity to deduce whether the physics behind antimatter are consistent with the Standard Model or go beyond it. As the CERN research team – which was led by Dr. Ahmadi of the Department of Physics at the University of Liverpool – indicated in their study:

“The Standard Model predicts that there should have been equal amounts of matter and antimatter in the primordial Universe after the Big Bang, but todays Universe is observed to consist almost entirely of ordinary matter. This motivates physicists to carefully study antimatter, to see if there is a small asymmetry in the laws of physics that govern the two types of matter.”

ALPHA uses a magnetic trap to hold neutral atoms of anthydrogen and then conduct spectrographic analyis. Credit: CERN
ALPHA uses a magnetic trap to hold neutral atoms of antihydrogen and then subjecting them to spectrographic analysis. Credit: CERN

Beginning in 1996, this research was conducted using the AnTiHydrogEN Apparatus (ATHENA) experiment, a part of the CERN Antiproton Decelerator facility. This experiment was responsible for capturing antiprotons and positrons, then cooling them to the point where they can combine to form anithydrogen. Since 2005, this task has become the responsibility of ATHENA’s successor, the ALPHA experiment.

Using updated instruments, ALPHA captures atoms of neutral antihydrogen and holds them for a longer period before they inevitably annihilate  During this time, research teams conduct spectrographic analysis using ALPHA’s ultraviolet laser to see if the atoms obey the same laws as hydrogen atoms. As Jeffrey Hangst, the spokesperson of the ALPHA collaboration, explained in a CERN update:

“Using a laser to observe a transition in antihydrogen and comparing it to hydrogen to see if they obey the same laws of physics has always been a key goal of antimatter research… Moving and trapping antiprotons or positrons is easy because they are charged particles. But when you combine the two you get neutral antihydrogen, which is far more difficult to trap, so we have designed a very special magnetic trap that relies on the fact that antihydrogen is a little bit magnetic.”

In so doing, the research team was able to measure the frequency of light needed to cause a positron to transition from its lowest energy level to the next. What they found was that (within experimental limits) there was no difference between the antihydrogen spectral data and that of hydrogen. These results are an experimental first, as they are the first spectral observations ever made of an antihydrogen atom.

Besides allowing for comparisons between matter and antimatter for the first time, these results show that antimatter’s behavior – vis a vis its spectrographic characteristics – are consistent with the Standard Model. Specifically, they are consistent with what is known as Charge-Parity-Time (CPT) symmetry.

This symmetry theory, which is fundamental to established physics, predicts that energy levels in matter and antimatter would be the same. As the team explained in their study:

“We have performed the first laser-spectroscopic measurement on an atom of antimatter. This has long been a sought-after achievement in low-energy antimatter physics. It marks a turning point from proof-of-principle experiments to serious metrology and precision CPT comparisons using the optical spectrum of an anti-atom. The current result… demonstrate that tests of fundamental symmetries with antimatter at the AD are maturing rapidly.”

In other words, the confirmation that matter and antimatter have similar spectral characteristics is yet another indication that the Standard Model holds up – just as the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 did. It also demonstrated the effectiveness of the ALPHA experiment at trapping antimatter particles, which will have benefits other antihydrogen experiments.

Naturally, the CERN researchers were very excited by this find, and it is expected to have drastic implications. Beyond offering a new means of testing the Standard Model, it is also expected to go a long way towards helping scientists to understand why there is a matter-antimatter imbalance in the Universe. Yet another crucial step in discovering exactly how the Universe as we know it came to be.

Further Reading: CERN

Weekly Space Hangout – November 4, 2016: Mars and Where to Land on it with Dr. Matt Golombek

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
Dr. Matt Golombek, Senior Research Scientist at the JPL; Mars Exploration Rover Project Scientist; Mars Exploration Program Landing Site Scientist.

Guests:

Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)

Their stories this week:

The entire sky mapped via hydrogen

First light on VLT’s adaptive optics mirror

JWST’s sunshield completed

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you would like to sign up for the AstronomyCast Solar Eclipse Escape, where you can meet Fraser and Pamela, plus WSH Crew and other fans, visit our site linked above and sign up!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

Who Discovered Helium?

Scientists have understood for some time that the most abundant elements in the Universe are simple gases like hydrogen and helium. These make up the vast majority of its observable mass, dwarfing all the heavier elements combined (and by a wide margin). And between the two, helium is the second lightest and second most abundant element, being present in about 24% of observable Universe’s elemental mass.

Whereas we tend to think of Helium as the hilarious gas that does strange things to your voice and allows balloons to float, it is actually a crucial part of our existence. In addition to being a key component of stars, helium is also a major constituent in gas giants. This is due in part to its very high nuclear binding energy, plus the fact that is produced by both nuclear fusion and radioactive decay. And yet, scientists have only been aware of its existence since the late 19th century.

Continue reading “Who Discovered Helium?”

What is the Life Cycle Of The Sun?

The Sun has always been the center of our cosmological systems. But with the advent of modern astronomy, humans have become aware of the fact that the Sun is merely one of countless stars in our Universe. In essence, it is a perfectly normal example of a G-type main-sequence star (G2V, aka. “yellow dwarf”). And like all stars, it has a lifespan, characterized by a formation, main sequence, and eventual death.

This lifespan began roughly 4.6 billion years ago, and will continue for about another 4.5 – 5.5 billion years, when it will deplete its supply of hydrogen, helium, and collapse into a white dwarf. But this is just the abridged version of the Sun’s lifespan. As always, God (or the Devil, depending on who you ask) is in the details!

To break it down, the Sun is about half way through the most stable part of its life. Over the course of the past four billion years, during which time planet Earth and the entire Solar System was born, it has remained relatively unchanged. This will stay the case for another four billion years, at which point, it will have exhausted its supply of hydrogen fuel. When that happens, some pretty drastic things will take place!

The Birth of the Sun:

According to Nebular Theory, the Sun and all the planets of our Solar System began as a giant cloud of molecular gas and dust. Then, about 4.57 billion years ago, something happened that caused the cloud to collapse. This could have been the result of a passing star, or shock waves from a supernova, but the end result was a gravitational collapse at the center of the cloud.

Protoplanet Hypothesis
Artist’s concept of a star surrounded by a molecular cloud to form a swirling disk called a “protoplanetary disk.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

From this collapse, pockets of dust and gas began to collect into denser regions. As the denser regions pulled in more and more matter, conservation of momentum caused it to begin rotating, while increasing pressure caused it to heat up. Most of the material ended up in a ball at the center while the rest of the matter flattened out into disk that circled around it.

The ball at the center would eventually form the Sun, while the disk of material would form the planets. The Sun spent about 100,000 years as a collapsing protostar before temperature and pressures in the interior ignited fusion at its core. The Sun started as a T Tauri star – a wildly active star that blasted out an intense solar wind. And just a few million years later, it settled down into its current form. The life cycle of the Sun had begun.

The Main Sequence:

The Sun, like most stars in the Universe, is on the main sequence stage of its life, during which nuclear fusion reactions in its core fuse hydrogen into helium. Every second, 600 million tons of matter are converted into neutrinos, solar radiation, and roughly 4 x 1027 Watts of energy. For the Sun, this process began 4.57 billion years ago, and it has been generating energy this way every since.

However, this process cannot last forever since there is a finite amount of hydrogen in the core of the Sun. So far, the Sun has converted an estimated 100 times the mass of the Earth into helium and solar energy. As more hydrogen is converted into helium, the core continues to shrink, allowing the outer layers of the Sun to move closer to the center and experience a stronger gravitational force.

The Sun captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory Spacecraft.
The Sun captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory Spacecraft.

This places more pressure on the core, which is resisted by a resulting increase in the rate at which fusion occurs. Basically, this means that as the Sun continues to expend hydrogen in its core, the fusion process speeds up and the output of the Sun increases. At present, this is leading to a 1% increase in luminosity every 100 million years, and a 30% increase over the course of the last 4.5 billion years.

In 1.1 billion years from now, the Sun will be 10% brighter than it is today, and this increase in luminosity will also mean an increase in heat energy, which Earth’s atmosphere will absorb. This will trigger a moist greenhouse effect here on Earth that is similar to the runaway warming that turned Venus into the hellish environment we see there today.

In 3.5 billion years from now, the Sun will be 40% brighter than it is right now. This increase will cause the oceans to boil, the ice caps to permanently melt, and all water vapor in the atmosphere to be lost to space. Under these conditions, life as we know it will be unable to survive anywhere on the surface. In short, planet Earth will come to be another hot, dry Venus.

Core Hydrogen Exhaustion:

All things must end. That is true for us, that is true for the Earth, and that is true for the Sun. It’s not going to happen anytime soon, but one day in the distant future, the Sun will run out of hydrogen fuel and slowly slouch towards death. This will begin in approximate 5.4 billion years, at which point the Sun will exit the main sequence of its lifespan.

With its hydrogen exhausted in the 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, causing the Sun to grow in size and enter the Red Giant phase of its evolution. It is calculated that the expanding Sun will grow large enough to encompass the orbit’s of Mercury, Venus, and maybe even Earth. Even if the Earth survives, the intense heat from the red sun will scorch our planet and make it completely impossible for life to survive.

Final Phase and Death:

Once it reaches the Red-Giant-Branch (RGB) phase,  the Sun will haves approximately 120 million years of active life left. But much will happen in this amount of time. First, the core (full of degenerate helium), will ignite violently in a helium flash – where approximately 6% of the core and 40% of the Sun’s mass will be converted into carbon within a matter of minutes.

The Sun will then shrink to around 10 times its current size and 50 times its luminosity, with a temperature a little lower than today. For the next 100 million years, it will continue to burn helium in its core until it is exhausted. By this point, it will be in its Asymptotic-Giant-Branch (AGB) phase, where it will expand again (much faster this time) and become more luminous.

Over the course of the next 20 million years, the Sun will then become unstable and begin losing mass through a series of thermal pulses. These will occur every 100,000 years or so, becoming larger each time and increasing the Sun’s luminosity to 5,000 times its current brightness and its radius to over 1 AU.

At this point, the Sun’s expansion will either encompass the Earth, or leave it entirely inhospitable to life. Planets in the Outer Solar System are likely to change dramatically, as more energy is absorbed from the Sun, causing their water ices to sublimate – perhaps forming dense atmosphere and surface oceans. After 500,000 years or so, only half of the Sun’s current mass will remain and its outer envelope will begin to form a planetary nebula.

The post-AGB evolution will be even faster, as the ejected mass becomes ionized to form a planetary nebula and the exposed core reaches 30,000 K. The final, naked core temperature will be over 100,000 K, after which the remnant will cool towards a white dwarf. The planetary nebula will disperse in about 10,000 years, but the white dwarf will survive for trillions of years before fading to black.

Ultimate Fate of our Sun:

When people think of stars dying, what typically comes to mind are massive supernovas and the creation of black holes. However, this will not be the case with our Sun, due to the simple fact that it is not nearly massive enough. While it might seem huge to us, but the Sun is a relatively low mass star compared to some of the enormous high mass stars out there in the Universe.

As such, when our Sun runs out of hydrogen fuel, it will expand to become a red giant, puff off its outer layers, and then settle down as a compact white dwarf star, then slowly cooling down for trillions of years. If, however, the Sun had about 10 times its current mass, the final phase of its lifespan would be significantly more (ahem) explosive.

When this super-massive Sun ran out of hydrogen fuel in its core, it would switch over to converting atoms of helium, and then atoms of carbon (just like our own). This process would continue, with the Sun consuming heavier and heavier fuel in concentric layers. Each layer would take less time than the last, all the way up to nickel – which could take just a day to burn through.

Then, iron would starts to build up in the core of the star. Since iron doesn’t give off any energy when it undergoes nuclear fusion, the star would have no more outward pressure in its core to prevent it from collapsing inward. When about 1.38 times the mass of the Sun is iron collected at the core, it would catastrophically implode, releasing an enormous amount of energy.

Within eight minutes, the amount of time it takes for light to travel from the Sun to Earth, an incomprehensible amount of energy would sweep past the Earth and destroy everything in the Solar System. The energy released from this might be enough to briefly outshine the galaxy, and a new nebula (like the Crab Nebula) would be visible from nearby star systems, expanding outward for thousands of years.

All that would remain of the Sun would be a rapidly spinning neutron star, or maybe even a stellar black hole. But of course, this is not to be our Sun’s fate. Given its mass, it will eventually collapse into a white star until it burns itself out. And of course, this won’t be happening for another 6 billion years or so. By that point, humanity will either be long dead or have moved on. In the meantime, we have plenty of days of sunshine to look forward to!

We have written many interesting articles on the Sun here at Universe Today. Here’s What Color Is The Sun?, What Kind of Star is the Sun?, How Does The Sun Produce Energy?, and Could We Terraform the Sun?

Astronomy Cast also has some interesting episodes on the subject. Check them out- Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and AllEpisode 108: The Life of the Sun, Episode 238: Solar Activity.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Guide.

Why Do Red Dwarfs Live So Long?

While our Sun will only survive for about 5 billion more years, smaller, cooler red dwarfs can last for trillions of years. What’s the secret to their longevity?

You might say our Sun will last a long time. And sure, another 5 billion years or so of main sequence existence does sound pretty long lived. But that’s nothing compared to the least massive stars out there, the red dwarfs.

These tiny stars can have just 1/12th the mass of the Sun, but instead of living for a paltry duration, they can last for trillions of years. What’s the secret to their longevity? Is it Botox?

To understand why red dwarfs have such long lifespans, we’ll need to take a look at main sequence stars first, and see how they’re different. If you could peel back the Sun like a grapefruit, you’d see juicy layers inside.

In the core, immense pressure and temperature from the mass of all that starstuff bears down and fuses atoms of hydrogen into helium, releasing gamma radiation.

Outside the core is the radiative zone, not hot enough for fusion. Instead, photons of energy generated in the core are emitted and absorbed countless times, taking a random journey to the outermost layer of the star.

And outside the radiative zone is the convective zone, where superheated globs of hot plasma float up to the surface, where they release their heat into space.

Then they cool down enough to sink back through the Sun and pick up more heat. Over time, helium builds up in the core. Eventually, this core runs out of hydrogen and it dies. Even though the core is only a fraction of the total mass of hydrogen in the Sun, there’s no mechanism to mix it in.

A red dwarf is fundamentally different than a main sequence star like the Sun. Because it has less mass, it has a core, and a convective zone, but no radiative zone. This makes all the difference.

Red dwarf convection. Credit: NASA
Red dwarf convection. Credit: NASA

The convective zone connects directly to the core of the red dwarf, the helium byproduct created by fusion is spread throughout the star. This convection brings fresh hydrogen into the core of the star where it can continue the fusion process.

By perfectly using all its hydrogen, the lowest mass red dwarf could sip away at its hydrogen fuel for 10 trillion years.

One of the biggest surprises in modern astronomy is just how many of these low mass red dwarf worlds have planets. And some of the most Earthlike worlds ever seen have been found around red dwarf stars. Planets with roughly the mass of Earth, orbiting within their star’s habitable zone, where liquid water could be present.

One of the biggest problems with red dwarfs is that they can be extremely variable. For example, 40% of a red dwarf’s surface could be covered with sunspots, decreasing the amount of radiation it produces, changing the size of its habitable zone.

Red Dwarf. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Red Dwarf. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Other red dwarfs produce powerful stellar flares that could scour a newly forming world of life. DG Canes Venaticorum recently generated a flare 10,000 times more powerful than anything ever seen from the Sun. Any life caught in the blast would have a very bad day.

Fortunately, red dwarfs only put out these powerful flares in the first billion years or so of their lives. After that, they settle down and provide a nice cozy environment for trillions of years. Long enough for life to prosper we hope.

In the distant future, some superintelligent species may figure out how to properly mix the hydrogen back into the Sun, removing the helium, if they do, they’ll add billions of years to the Sun’s life.

It seems like such a shame for the Sun to die with all that usable hydrogen sitting just a radiative zone away from fusion.

Have you got any ideas on how we could mix up the hydrogen in the Sun and remove the helium? Post your wild ideas in the comments!