Astronomers are Tracking the Interstellar Asteroid ‘Oumuamua to its Home System

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 – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine the asteroid’s origin, what it encountered in interstellar space, its true nature (is it a comet or an asteroid?), and whether or not it is an alien spacecraft (it’s not).

In all this time, the question of  ‘Oumuamua’s origin has remained unanswered. Beyond theorizing that it came from the direction of the Lyra Constellation, possibly from the Vega system, there have been no definitive answers. Luckily, an international team led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) have tracked ‘Oumuamua and narrowed down its point of origin to four possible star systems.

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Astronauts Could Use the ScanMars Device to Search for Water on Mars

Analogue astronauts have tested a ground-penetrating radar named ScanMars at a Mar-like area in Oman. Image: OEWF – Austrian Space Forum

There’s solid evidence for the existence of water on Mars, at least in frozen form at the planet’s poles. And a more recent study confirms the existence of liquid water at the south pole. But visitors to Mars will need to know the exact location of usable water deposits at other Martian locations. A ground-penetrating radar called ScanMars may be up to the task.

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Oumuamua Accelerated Out of the Solar System Like a Comet

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally though to be a comet, follow-up observations conducted by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and others confirmed that ‘Oumuamua was actually a rocky body that had originated outside of our Solar System.

Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to learn more about this interstellar visitor, and some missions have even been proposed to go and study it up close. However, the most recent study of ‘Oumuamua, conducted by a team of international scientists, has determined that based on the way it left our Solar System, ‘Oumuamua is likely to be a comet after all.

The study recently appeared in the journal Nature under the title “Non-gravitational acceleration in the trajectory of  1I/2017 U1 (Oumuamua)“. The study team was led by Marco Micheli of the ESA SSA-NEO Coordination Center and the INAF Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma and included members from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the Planetary Science Institute, and The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL).

As noted, when it was first discovered – roughly a month after it made its closest approach to the Sun – scientists believed ‘Oumuamua was an interstellar comet. However, follow-up observations showed no evidence of gaseous emissions or a dusty environment around the body (i.e. a comet tail), thus leading to it being classified as a rocky interstellar asteroid.

This was followed by a team of international researchers conducting a study that showed how ‘Oumuamua was more icy that previously thought. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and the William Herschel Telescope in La Palma, the team was able to obtain spectra from sunlight reflected off of ‘Oumuamua within 48 hours of the discovery. This revealed vital information about the composition of the object, and pointed towards it being icy rather than rocky.

The presence of an outer-layer of carbon rich material also explained why it did not experience outgassing as it neared the Sun. Following these initial observations, Marco Micheli and his team continued to conduct high-precision measurements of ‘Oumuamua and its position using ground-based facilities and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

By January, Hubble was able to snap some final images before the object became too faint to observe as it sped away from the Sun on its way to leaving the Solar System. To their surprise, they noted that the object was increasing its velocity deviating from the trajectory it would be following if only the gravity of the Sun and the planets were influencing its course.

Oumuamua as it appeared using the William Herschel Telescope on the night of October 29. Queen’s University Belfast/William Herschel Telescope

In short, they discovered that ‘Oumuamua was not slowing down as expected, and as of June 1st, 2018, was traveling at a speed of roughly 114,000 km/h (70,800 mph). The most likely explanation, according to the team, is that ‘Oumuamua is venting material from its surface due to solar heating (aka. outgassing). The release of this material would give ‘Oumuamua the steady push it needed to achieve this velocity.

As Davide Farnocchia, a researcher from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent ESA press release:

“We tested many possible alternatives and the most plausible one is that ’Oumuamua must be a comet, and that gasses emanating from its surface were causing the tiny variations in its trajectory.”

Moreover, the release of gas pressure would also explain how ‘Oumuamua is veering off course since outgassing has been known to have the effect of perturbing the comet’s path. Naturally, there are still some mysteries that still need to be solved about this body. For one, the team still has not detected any dusty material or chemical signatures that typically characterize a comet.

As such, the team concluded that ‘Oumuamua must have been releasing only a very small amount of dust, or perhaps was releasing more pure gas without much dust. In either case, ‘Oumuamua is estimated to be a very small object, measuring about 400 meters (1312 ft) long. In the end, the hypothesized outgassing of ‘Oumuamua remains a mystery, much like its origin.

Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, ‘Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

In fact, the team originally performed the Hubble observations on ‘Oumuamua in the hopes of determining its exact path, which they would then use to trace the object back to its parent star system. These new results mean this will be more challenging than originally thought. As Olivier Hainaut, a researcher from the European Southern Observatory and a co-author on the study, explained:

“It was extremely surprising that `Oumuamua first appeared as an asteroid, given that we expect interstellar comets should be far more abundant, so we have at least solved that particular puzzle. It is still a tiny and weird object, but our results certainly lean towards it being a comet and not an asteroid after all.”

Detlef Koschny, another co-author on the study, is responsible for Near-Earth Object activities under ESA’s Space Situational Awareness program. As he explained, the study of ‘Oumuamua has provided astronomers with the opportunity to improve asteroid detection methods, which could play a vital role in the study of Near-Earth Asteroids and determining if they post a risk.

“Interstellar visitors like these are scientifically fascinating, but extremely rare,” he said. “Near-Earth objects originating from within our Solar System are much more common and because these could pose an impact risk, we are working to improve our ability to scan the sky every night with telescopes such as our Optical Ground Station that contributed to this fascinating discovery.”

Since ‘Oumuamua’s arrival, scientists have determined that there may be thousands of interstellar asteroids currently in our Solar System, the largest of which would be tens of km in radius. Similarly, another study was conducted that revealed the presence of an interstellar asteroid (2015 BZ509) that – unlike ‘Oumuamua, which was an interloper to out system – was captured by Jupiter’s gravity and has since remained in a stable orbit.

This latest study is also timely given the fact that June 30th is global “Asteroid Day”, an annual event designed to raise awareness about asteroids and what can be done to protect Earth from a possible impact. In honor of this event, the ESA co-hosted a live webcast with the European Southern Observatory to discuss the latest science news and research on asteroids. To watch a replay of the webcast, go to the ESA’s Asteroid Day webpage.

Further Reading: ESA, ESO, TED, Nature

Ceres Has Even More Organic Molecules on it Than Previously Thought

In March of 2015, NASA’s Dawn mission became the first spacecraft to visit the protoplanet Ceres, the largest body in the Main Asteroid Belt. It was also the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet, having arrived a few months before the New Horizons mission made its historic flyby of Pluto. Since that time, Dawn has revealed much about Ceres, which in turn is helping scientists to understand the early history of the Solar System.

Last year, scientists with NASA’s Dawn mission made a startling discovery when they detected complex chains of carbon molecules – organic material essential for life – in patches on the surface of Ceres. And now, thanks to a new study conducted by a team of researchers from Brown University (with the support of NASA), it appears that these patches contain more organic material than previously thought.

The new findings were recently published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters under the title “New Constraints on the Abundance and Composition of Organic Matter on Ceres“. The study was led by Hannah Kaplan, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, with the assistance of Ralph E. Milliken and Conel M. O’D. Alexander – an assistant professor at Brown University and a researcher from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, respectively.

A new analysis of Dawn mission data suggests those organics could be more plentiful than originally thought. Credit: NASA/Rendering by Hannah Kaplan

The organic materials in question are known as “aliphatics”, a type of compound where carbon atoms form open chains that are commonly bound with oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and chlorine. To be fair, the presence of organic material on Ceres does not mean that the body supports life since such molecules can arise from non-biological processes.

Aliphatics have also been detected on other planets in the form of methane (on Mars and especially on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan). Nevertheless, such molecules remains an essential building block for life and their presence at Ceres raises the question of how they got there. As such, scientists are interested in how it and other life-essential elements (like water) has been distributed throughout the Solar System.

Since Ceres is abundant in both organic molecules and water, it raises some intriguing possibilities about the protoplanet. The results of this study and the methods they used could also provide a template for interpreting data for future missions. As Dr. Kaplan – who led the research while completing her PhD at Brown – explained in a recent Brown University press release:

“What this paper shows is that you can get really different results depending upon the type of organic material you  use to compare with and interpret the Ceres data. That’s important not only for Ceres, but also for missions that will soon explore asteroids that may also contain organic material.”

Enhanced color-composite image, made with data from the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows the area around Ernutet crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The original discovery of organics on Ceres took place in 2017 when an international team of scientists analyzed data from the Dawn mission’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIRMS). The data provided by this instrument indicated the presence of these hydrocarbons in a 1000 km² region around of the Ernutet crater, which is located in the northern hemisphere of Ceres and measures about 52 km (32 mi) in diameter.

To get an idea of how abundant the organic compounds were, the original research team compared the VIRMS data to spectra obtained in a laboratory from Earth rocks with traces of organic material. From this, they concluded that between 6 and 10% of the spectral signature detected on Ceres could be explained by organic matter.

They also hypothesized that the molecules were endogenous in origin, meaning that they originated from inside the protoplanet. This was consistent with previous surveys that showed signs of hydorthermal activity on Ceres, as well others that have detected ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, and salts – all of which suggested that Ceres had an interior environment that can support prebiotic chemistry.

But for the sake of their study, Kaplan and her colleagues re-examined the data using a different standard. Instead of relying on Earth rocks for comparison, they decided to examine an extraterrestrial source. In the past, some meteorites – such as carbonaceous chondrites – have been shown to contain organic material that is slightly different than what we are familiar with here on Earth.

Artist’s rendition of the Dawn mission on approach to the protoplanet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL

After re-examining the spectral data using this standard, Kaplan and her team determined that the organics found on Ceres were distinct from their terrestrial counterparts. As Kaplan explained:

“What we find is that if we model the Ceres data using extraterrestrial organics, which may be a more appropriate analog than those found on Earth, then we need a lot more organic matter on Ceres to explain the strength of the spectral absorption that we see there. We estimate that as much as 40 to 50 percent of the spectral signal we see on Ceres is explained by organics. That’s a huge difference compared to the six to 10 percent previously reported based on terrestrial organic compounds.”

If the concentrations of organic material are indeed that high, then it raises new questions about where it came from. Whereas the original discovery team claimed it was endogenous in origin, this new study suggests that it was likely delivered by an organic-rich comet or asteroid. On the one hand, the high concentrations on the surface of Ceres are more consistent with a comet impact.

This is due to the fact that comets are known to have significantly higher internal abundances of organics compared with primitive asteroids, similar to the 40% to 50% figure this study suggests for these locations on Ceres. However, much of those organics would have been destroyed due to the heat of the impact, which leaves the question of how they got there something of a mystery.

Dawn spacecraft data show a region around the Ernutet crater where organic concentrations have been discovered (labeled “a” through “f”). The color coding shows the strength of the organics absorption band, with warmer colors indicating the highest concentrations. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF/MPS/DLR/IDA

If they did arise endogenously, then there is the question of how such high concentrations emerged in the northern hemisphere. As Ralph Milliken explained:

“If the organics are made on Ceres, then you likely still need a mechanism to concentrate it in these specific locations or at least to preserve it in these spots. It’s not clear what that mechanism might be. Ceres is clearly a fascinating object, and understanding the story and origin of organics in these spots and elsewhere on Ceres will likely require future missions that can analyze or return samples.”

Given that the Main Asteroid Belt is composed of material left over from the formation of the Solar System, determining where these organics came from is expected to shed light on how organic molecules were distributed throughout the Solar System early in its history. In the meantime, the researchers hope that this study will inform upcoming sample missions to near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), which are also thought to host water-bearing minerals and organic compounds.

These include the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2, which is expected to arrive at the asteroid Ryugu in several weeks’ time, and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission – which is due to reach the asteroid Bennu in August. Dr. Kaplan is currently a science team member with the OSIRIS-REx mission and hopes that the Dawn study she led will help the OSIRIS-REx‘s mission characterize Bennu’s environment.

“I think the work that went into this study, which included new laboratory measurements of important components of primitive meteorites, can provide a framework of how to better interpret data of asteroids and make links between spacecraft observations and samples in our meteorite collection,” she said. “As a new member to the OSIRIS-REx team, I’m particularly interested in how this might apply to our mission.”

The New Horizons mission is also expected to rendezvous with the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69 on January 1st, 2019. Between these and other studies of “ancient objects” in our Solar System – not to mention interstellar asteroids that are being detected for the first time – the history of the Solar System (and the emergence of life itself) is slowly becoming more clear.

Further Reading: Brown University, Geophysical Research Letters

The Black Hole Ultimate Solar System: a Supermassive Black Hole, 9 Stars and 550 Planets

Shortly after Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity in 1915, physicists began to speculate about the existence of black holes. These regions of space-time from which nothing (not even light) can escape are what naturally occur at the end of most massive stars’ life cycle. While black holes are generally thought to be voracious eaters, some physicists have wondered if they could also support planetary systems of their own.

Looking to address this question, Dr. Sean Raymond – an American physicist currently at the University of Bourdeaux – created a hypothetical planetary system where a black hole lies at the center. Based on a series of gravitational calculations, he determined that a black hole would be capable of keeping nine individual Suns in a stable orbit around it, which would be able to support 550 planets within a habitable zone.

He named this hypothetical system “The Black Hole Ultimate Solar System“, which consists of a non-spinning black hole that is 1 million times as massive as the Sun. That is roughly one-quarter the mass of Sagittarius A*, the super-massive black hole (SMBH) that resides at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy (which contains 4.31 million Solar Masses).

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

As Raymond indicates, one of the immediate advantages of having this black hole at the center of a system is that it can support a large number of Suns. For the sake of his system, Raymond chose 9, thought he indicates that many more could be sustained thanks to the sheer gravitational influence of the central black hole. As he wrote on his website:

“Given how massive the black hole is, one ring could hold up to 75 Suns! But that would move the habitable zone outward pretty far and I don’t want the system to get too spread out. So I’ll use 9 Suns in the ring, which moves everything out by a factor of 3. Let’s put the ring at 0.5 AU, well outside the innermost stable circular orbit (at about 0.02 AU) but well inside the habitable zone (from about 2.7 to 5.4 AU).”

Another major advantage of having a black hole at the center of a system is that it shrinks what is known as the “Hill radius” (aka. Hill sphere, or Roche sphere). This is essentially the region around a planet where its gravity is dominant over that of the star it orbits, and can therefore attract satellites. According to Raymond, a planet’s Hill radius would be 100 times smaller around a million-sun black hole than around the Sun.

This means that a given region of space could stably fit 100 times more planets if they orbited a black hole instead of the Sun. As he explained:

“Planets can be super close to each other because the black hole’s gravity is so strong! If planets are little toy Hot wheels cars, most planetary systems are laid out like normal highways (side note: I love Hot wheels).  Each car stays in its own lane, but the cars are much much smaller than the distance between them.  Around a black hole, planetary systems can be shrunk way down to Hot wheels-sized tracks.  The Hot wheels cars — our planets — don’t change at all, but they can remain stable while being much closer together. They don’t touch (that would not be stable), they are just closer together.”

This is what allows for many planets to be placed with the system’s habitable zone. Based on the Earth’s Hill radius, Raymond estimates that about six Earth-mass planets could fit into stable orbits within the same zone around our Sun. This is based on the fact that Earth-mass planets could be spaced roughly 0.1 AU from each other and maintain a stable orbit.

Given that the Sun’s habitable zone corresponds roughly to the distances between Venus and Mars – which are 0.3 and 0.5 AU away, respectively – this means there is 0.8 AUs of room to work with. However, around a black hole with 1 million Solar Masses, the closest neighboring planet could be just 1/1000th (0.001) of an AU away and still have a stable orbit.

Doing the math, this means that roughly 550 Earths could fit in the same region orbiting the black hole and its nine Suns. There is one minor drawback to this whole scenario, which is that the black hole would have to remain at its current mass. If it were to become any larger, it would cause the Hill radii of its 550 planets to shrink down further and further.

Once the Hill radius got down to the point where it was the same size as any of the Earth-mass planets, the black hole would begin to tear them apart. But at 1 million Solar masses, the black hole is capable of supporting a massive system of planets comfortably. “With our million-Sun black hole the Earth’s Hill radius (on its current orbit) would already be down to the limit, just a bit more than twice Earth’s actual radius,” he says.

Illustration of tightly-packed orbits of Earth-mass planets in orbit around the Sun (in black) vs. around a supermassive black hole (green). Credit: Sean Raymond

Lastly, Raymond considers the implications that living in such a system would have. For one, a year on any planet within the system’s habitable zone would be much shorter, owing to the fact their orbital periods would be much faster. Basically, a year would last roughly 1.6 days for planets at the inner edge of the habitable zone and 4.6 days for planets at the outer edge of the habitable zone.

In addition, on the surface of any planet in the system, the sky would be a lot more crowded! With so many planets in close orbit together, they would pass very close to one another. That essentially means that from the surface of any individual Earth, people would be able to see nearby Earths as clear as we see the Moon on some days. As Raymond illustrated:

“At closest approach (conjunction) the distance between planets is about twice the Earth-Moon distance. These planets are all Earth-sized, about 4 times larger than the Moon. This means that at conjunction each planet’s closest neighbor appears about twice the size of the full Moon in the sky. And there are two nearest neighbors, the inner and outer one. Plus, the next-nearest neighbors are twice as far away so they are still as big as the full Moon during conjunction. And four more planets that would be at least half the full Moon in size during conjunction.”

He also indicates that conjunctions would occur almost once per orbit, which would mean that every few days, there would be no shortage of giant objects passing across the sky. And of course, there would be the Sun’s themselves. Recall that scene in Star Wars where a young Luke Skywalker is watching two suns set in the desert? Well, it would a little like that, except way more cool!

According to Raymond’s calculations, the nine Suns would complete an orbit around the black hole every three hours. Every twenty minutes, one of these Suns would pass behind the black hole, taking just 49 seconds to do so. At this point, gravitational lensing would occur, where the black hole would focus the Sun’s light toward the planet and distort the apparent shape of the Sun.

To illustrate what this would look like, he provides an animation (shown above) created by – a planet modeller who develops space graphics for Kerbal and other programs – using Space Engine.

While such a system may never occur in nature, it is interesting to know that such a system would be physically possible. And who knows? Perhaps a sufficiently advanced species, with the ability to tow stars and planets from one system and place them in orbit around a black hole, could fashion this Ultimate Solar System. Something for SETI researchers to be on the lookout for, perhaps?

This hypothetical exercise was the second installment in two-part series by Raymond, titled “Black holes and planets”. In the first installment, “The Black Hole Solar System“, Raymond considered what it would be like if our system orbited around a black hole-Sun binary. As he indicated, the consequences for Earth and the other Solar planets would be interesting, to say the least!

Raymond also recently expanded on the Ultimate Solar System by proposing The Million Earth Solar System. Check them all out at his website, PlanetPlanet.net.

Further Reading: PlanetPlanet

The Giant Planets in the Solar System Stunted the Growth of Mars

For centuries, astronomers and scientists have sought to understand how our Solar System came to be. Since that time, two theories have become commonly-accepted that explain how it formed and evolved over time. These are the Nebular Hypothesis and the Nice Model, respectively. Whereas the former contends that the Sun and planets formed from a large cloud of dust and gas, the latter maintains the giant planets have migrated since their formation.

This is what has led to the Solar System as we know it today. However, an enduring mystery about these theories is how Mars came to be the way it is. Why, for example, is it significantly smaller than Earth and inhospitable to life as we know it when all indications show that it should be comparable in size? According to a new study by an international team of scientists, the migration of the giant planets could have been what made the difference.

For over a decade, astronomers have been operating under the assumption that shortly after the formation of the Solar System, the gas and ice giants of the outer Solar System (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) began to migrate outward. This is the substance of the Nice Model, which asserts that this migration had a profound effect on the evolution of the Solar System and the formation of the terrestrial planets.

This model – named for the location of the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur (in Nice, France), where it was initially developed – began as an evolutionary model that helped explain the observed distributions of small objects like comets and asteroids. As Matt Clement, a graduate student in the HL Dodge Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Oklahoma and the lead author on the paper, explained to Universe Today via email:

“In the model, the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) originally formed much closer to the Sun.  In order to reach their current orbital locations, the entire solar system undergoes a period of orbital instability.  During this unstable period, the size and the shape of the giant planet’s orbits change rapidly.”

For the sake of their study, which was recently published in the scientific journal Icarus under the title “Mars Growth Stunted by an Early Giant Planet Instability“, the team expanded on the Nice Model. Through a series of dynamical simulations, they attempted to show how, during the early Solar System, the growth of Mars was halted thanks to the orbital instabilities of the giant planets.

The purpose of their study was also to address a flaw in the Nice Model, which is how the terrestrial planets could have survived a serious shake up of the Solar System. In the original version of the Nice Model, the instability of the giant planets occurred a few hundred million years after the planets formed, which coincided with the Late Heavy Bombardment – when the inner Solar System was bombarded by a disproportionately large number of asteroids.

This period is evidenced by spike in the Moon’s cratering record, which was inferred from an abundance of samples from the Apollo missions with similar geological dates. As Clement explained:

“A problem with this is that it is difficult for the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) to survive the violent instability without being ejected out of the solar system or colliding with one another. Now that we have better, high resolution images of lunar craters and more accurate methods for dating the Apollo samples, the evidence for a spike in lunar cratering rates is diminishing. Our study investigated whether moving the instability earlier, while the inner terrestrial planets were still forming, could help them survive the instability, and also explain why Mars is so small relative to the Earth.”

Clement was joined by Nathan A. Kaib, a OU astrophysics professor, as well as Sean N. Raymond of the University of Bordeaux and Kevin J. Walsh from the Southwest Research Institute. Together, they used the computing resources of the OU Supercomputing Center for Education and Research (OSCER) and the Blue Waters supercomputing project to perform 800 dynamical simulations of the Nice model to determine how it would impact Mars.

These simulations incorporated recent geological evidence from Mars and Earth that indicate that Mars’ formation period was about 1/10th that of Earth’s. This has led to the theory that Mars was left behind as a “stranded planetary embryo” during the formation of the Sun’s inner planets. As Prof. Kaib explained to Universe Today via email, this study was therefore intended to test how Mars emerged from planetary formation as a planetary embryo:

“We simulated the “giant impact phase” of terrestrial planet formation (the final stage of the formation process). At the beginning of this phase, the inner Solar System (0.5-4 AU) consists of a disk of about 100 moon-to-mars-sized planetary embryos embedded in a sea of much smaller, more numerous rocky planetesimals. Over the course of 100-200 million years the bodies making up this system collide and merge into a handful (typically 2-5) rocky planetary mass bodies. Normally, these types of simple initial conditions build planets on Mars-like orbits that are about 10x more massive than Mars. However, when the terrestrial planet formation process is interrupted by the Nice model instability, many of the planet building blocks near the Mars region are lost or tossed into the Sun. This limits the growth of Mars-like planets and produces a closer match to our actual inner solar system.”

Size comparison between Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA

What they found was that this revised timeline explained the disparity between Mars and Earth. In short, Mars and Earth vary considerably in size, mass and density because the giant planets became unstable very early in the Solar System’s history. In the end, this is what allowed Earth to become the only life-bearing terrestrial planet in the Solar System, and for Mars to become the cold, desiccated and thinly-atmosphered place that it is today.

As Prof. Kaib explained, this is not the only model for explaining the disparity between Earth and Mars, but the evidence all fits:

“Without this instability, Mars likely would have had a mass closer to Earth’s and would be a very different, perhaps more Earth-like, planet compared to what it is today,” he said. “I should also say that this is not the only mechanism capable of explaining the low mass of Mars. However, we already know that the Nice model does an excellent job of reproducing many features of the outer Solar System, and if it occurs at the right time in the Solar System’s history it also ends up explaining our inner Solar System.”

This study could also have drastic implications when it comes to the study of extra-solar systems. At present, our models for how planets form and evolve are based on what we have been able to learn from our own Solar System. Hence, by learning more about how gas giants and terrestrial planets grew and assumed their current orbits, scientists will be able to create more comprehensive models of how life-bearing planets could merge around other stars.

It certainly would help narrow the search for “Earth-like” planets and (dare we dream?) planets that support life.

Further Reading: University of Oklahoma, Icarus

This Meteorite is One of the Few Remnants from a Lost Planet that was Destroyed Long Ago

What if our Solar System had another generation of planets that formed before, or alongside, the planets we have today? A new study published in Nature Communications on April 17th 2018 presents evidence that says that’s what happened. The first-generation planets, or planet, would have been destroyed during collisions in the earlier days of the Solar System and much of the debris swept up in the formation of new bodies.

This is not a new theory, but a new study brings new evidence to support it.

The evidence is in the form of a meteorite that crashed into Sudan’s Nubian Desert in 2008. The meteorite is known as 2008 TC3, or the Almahata Sitta meteorite. Inside the meteorite are tiny crystals called nanodiamonds that, according to this study, could only have formed in the high-pressure conditions within the growth of a planet. This contrasts previous thinking around these meteorites which suggests they formed as a result of powerful shockwaves created in collisions between parent bodies.

“We demonstrate that these large diamonds cannot be the result of a shock but rather of growth that has taken place within a planet.” – study co-author Philippe Gillet

Models of planetary formation show that terrestrial planets are formed by the accretion of smaller bodies into larger and larger bodies. Follow the process long enough, and you end up with planets like Earth. The smaller bodies that join together are typically between the size of the Moon and Mars. But evidence of these smaller bodies is hard to find.

One type of unique and rare meteorite, called a ureilite, could provide the evidence to back up the models, and that’s what fell to Earth in the Nubian Desert in 2008. Ureilites are thought to be the remnants of a lost planet that was formed in the first 10 million years of the Solar System, and then was destroyed in a collision.

Ureilites are different than other stony meteorites. They have a higher component of carbon than other meteorites, mostly in the form of the aforementioned nanodiamonds. Researchers from Switzerland, France and Germany examined the diamonds inside 2008 TC3 and determined that they probably formed in a small proto-planet about 4.55 billion years ago.

Philippe Gillet, one of the study’s co-authors, had this to say in an interview with Associated Press: “We demonstrate that these large diamonds cannot be the result of a shock but rather of growth that has taken place within a planet.”

According to the research presented in this paper, these nanodiamonds were formed under pressures of 200,000 bar (2.9 million psi). This means the mystery parent-planet would have to have been as big as Mercury, or even Mars.

The key to the study is the size of the nanodiamonds. The team’s results show the presence of diamond crystals as large as 100 micrometers. Though the nanodiamonds have since been segmented by a process called graphitization, the team is confident that these larger crystals are there. And they could only have been formed by static high-pressure growth in the interior of a planet. A collision shock wave couldn’t have done it.

This is what’s called a High-Angle Annular Dark-Field (HAADF) Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy (STEM) image. The image on the left shows diamond segments with similar crystal orientations. The image on the right is a magnification of the green square area. The orange lines highlight the inclusion trails, which match between the diamond segments. But those same trails are absent from the intersecting graphite. Image: Farhang Nabiei, Philippe Gillet, et. al.

But the parent body of the ureilite meteorite in the study would have to have been subject to collisions, otherwise where is it? In the case of this meteorite, a collision and resulting shock wave still played a role.

The study goes on to say that a collision took place some time after the parent body’s formation. And this collision would have produced the shock wave that caused the graphitization of the nanodiamonds.

The key evidence is in what are called High-Angle Annular Dark-Field (HAADF) Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy (STEM) images, as seen above. The image is two images in one, with the one on the right being a magnification of a part of the image on the left. On the left, dotted yellow lines indicate areas of diamond crystals separate from areas of graphite. On the right is a magnification of the green square.

The inclusion trails are what’s important here. On the right, the inclusion trails are highlighted with the orange lines. They clearly indicate inclusion lines that match between adjacent diamond segments. But the inclusion lines aren’t present in the intervening graphite. In the study, the researchers say this is “undeniable morphological evidence that the inclusions existed in diamond before these were broken into smaller pieces by graphitization.”

To summarize, this supports the idea that a small planet between the size of Mercury and Mars was formed in the first 10 million years of the Solar System. Inside that body, large nanodiamonds were formed by high-pressure growth. Eventually, that parent body was involved in a collision, which produced a shock wave. The shock wave then caused the graphitization of the nanodiamonds.

It’s an intriguing piece of evidence, and fits with what we know about the formation and evolution of our Solar System.

Sources:

Look at This Fascinating Variety of Planet-Forming Disks Around Other Stars

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has released a stunning collection of images of the circumstellar discs that surround young stars. The images were captured with the SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. We’ve been looking at images of circumstellar disks for quite some time, but this collection reveals the fascinating variety of shapes an sizes that these disks can take.

New images from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope are revealing the dusty discs surrounding nearby young stars in greater detail than previously achieved. They show a bizarre variety of shapes, sizes and structures, including the likely effects of planets still in the process of forming. Image: ESO/H. Avenhaus et al./E. Sissa et al./DARTT-S and SHINE collaborations

We have a widely-accepted model of star formation supported by ample evidence, including images like these ones from the ESO. The model starts with a cloud of gas and dust called a giant molecular cloud. Within that cloud, a pocket of gas and dust begins to coalesce. Eventually, as gravity causes material to fall inward, the pocket becomes more massive, and exerts even more gravitational pull. More gas and dust continues to be drawn in.

The material that falls in also gives some angular momentum to the pocket, which causes rotation. Once enough material is accumulated, fusion ignites and a star is born. At that point, there is a proto-star inside the cloud, with unused gas and dust remaining in a rotating ring around the proto-star. That left over rotating ring is called a circumstellar disc, out of which planets eventually form.

There are other images of circumstellar discs, but they’ve been challenging to capture. To image any amount of detail in the disks requires blocking out the light of the star at the center of the disk. That’s where SPHERE comes in.

A detailed view of the SPHERE instrument and its main subsystems. SPHERE is installed on the ESO’s VLT and saw first light in 2014. Image: ESO

SPHERE was added to the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in 2014. It’s primary job is to directly image exoplanets, but it also has the ability to capture images of circumstellar discs. To do that, it separates two types of light: polarized, and non-polarized.

Light coming directly from a star—in these images, a young star still surrounded by a circumstellar disc—is non-polarized. But once that starlight is scattered by the material in the disk itself, the light becomes polarized. SPHERE, as its name suggests, is able to separate the two types of light and isolate just the light from the disk. That is how the instrument captures such fascinating images of the disks.

An edge-on view of the disc surrounding the star GSC 07396-00759. The disc extends from the lower-left to the upper-right and the central grey region shows where the star was masked out. Credit:
ESO/E. Sissa et al.

Ever since it became clear that exoplanets are not rare, and that most stars—maybe all stars—have planets orbiting them, understanding solar system formation has become a hot topic. The problem has been that we can’t really see it happening in real time. We can look at our own Solar System, and other fully formed ones, and make guesses about how they formed. But planet formation is hidden inside those circumstellar disss. Seeing into those disks is crucial to understanding the link between the properties of the disk itself and the planets that form in the system.

The discs imaged in this collection are mostly from a study called the DARTTS-S (Discs ARound T Tauri Stars with SPHERE) survey. T Tauri stars are young stars less than 10 million years old. At that age, planets are still in the process of forming. The stars range from 230 to 550 light-years away from Earth. In astronomical terms, that’s pretty close. But the blinding bright light of the stars still makes it very difficult to capture the faint light of the discs.

One of the images is not a T Tauri star and is not from the DARTTS-S study. The disc around the star GSC 07396-00759, in the image above, is actually from the SHINE (SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets) survey, though the images itself was captured with SPHERE. GSC 07396-00759 is a red star that’s part of a multiple star system that was part of the DARTTS-S study. The puzzling thing is that red star is the same age as the T TAURI star in the same system, but the ring around the red star is much more evolved. Why the two discs around two stars the same age are so different from each other in terms of time-scale and evolution is a puzzle, and is one of the reasons why astronomers want to study these discs much more closely.

We can study our own Solar System, and look at the positions and characteristics of the planets and the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt. From that we can try to guess how it all formed, but our only chance to understand how it all came together is to look at other younger solar systems as they form.

The SPHERE instrument, and other future instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to look into the circumstellar discs around other stars, and to tease out the details of planetary formation. These new images from SPHERE are a tantalizing taste of the detail and variety we can expect to see.

70,000 Years Ago a Nearby Star Messed With the Orbits Of Comets and Asteroids in our Solar System

70,000 years ago, our keen-eyed ancestors may have noticed something in the sky: a red dwarf star that came as close as 1 light year to our Sun. They would’ve missed the red dwarf’s small, dim companion—a brown dwarf—and in any case they would’ve quickly returned to their hunting and gathering. But that star’s visit to our Solar System had an impact astronomers can still see today.

The star in question is called Scholz’s star, after astronomer Ralf-Dieter Scholz, the man who discovered it in 2013. A new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society by astronomers at the Complutense University of Madrid, and at the University of Cambridge, shows the impact Scholz’s star had. Though the star is now almost 20 light years away, its close approach to our Sun changed the orbits of some comets and asteroids in our Solar System.

When it came to our Solar System 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s star entered the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is a reservoir of mostly-icy objects that spans the range from about 0.8 to 3.2 light years from the Sun. Its visit to the Oort Cloud was first explained in a paper in 2015. This new paper follows up on that work, and shows what impact the visit had.

“Using numerical simulations, we have calculated the radiants or positions in the sky from which all these hyperbolic objects seem to come.” – Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, Complutense University of Madrid.

In this new paper, the astronomers studied almost 340 objects in our Solar System with hyperbolic orbits, which are V-shaped rather than elliptical. Their conclusion is that a significant number of these objects had their trajectories shaped by the visit from Scholz’s star. “Using numerical simulations, we have calculated the radiants or positions in the sky from which all these hyperbolic objects seem to come,” explains Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, a co-author of the study now published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. They found that there’s a cluster of these objects in the direction of the Gemini Constellation.

A comparison of the Solar System and its Oort Cloud. 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s Star and companion passed along the outer boundaries of our Solar System (Credit: NASA, Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester)

“In principle,” he adds, “one would expect those positions to be evenly distributed in the sky, particularly if these objects come from the Oort cloud. However, what we find is very different—a statistically significant accumulation of radiants. The pronounced over-density appears projected in the direction of the constellation of Gemini, which fits the close encounter with Scholz’s star.”

There are four ways that objects like those in the study can gain hyperbolic orbits. They might be interstellar, like the asteroid Oumuamua, meaning they gained those orbits from some cause outside our Solar System. Or, they could be natives of our Solar System, originally bound to an elliptical orbit, but cast into a hyperbolic orbit by a close encounter with one of the planets, or the Sun. For objects originally from the Oort Cloud, they could start on a hyperbolic orbit because of interactions with the galactic disc. Finally, again for objects from the Oort Cloud, they could be cast into a hyperbolic orbit by interactions with a passing star. In this study, the passing star is Scholz’s star.

In this image the blue is a hyperbolic orbit while the green is a parabolic orbit. Image: By ScottAlanHill [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
The timing of Scholz’s star’s visit to the Oort Cloud and our Solar System strongly coincides with the data in this study. It’s very unlikely to be coincidental. “It could be a coincidence, but it is unlikely that both location and time are compatible,” says De la Fuente Marcos. In fact, De la Fuente Marcos points out that their simulations suggest that Scholz’s star approached even closer than the 0.6 light-years pointed out in the 2015 study.

The one potentially weak area of this study is pointed out by the authors themselves. As they say in their summary, “…due to their unique nature, the orbital solutions of hyperbolic minor bodies are based on relatively brief arcs of observation and this fact has an impact on their reliability. Out of 339 objects in the sample, 232 have reported uncertainties and 212 have eccentricity with statistical significance.” Translated, it means that some of the computed orbits of individual objects may have errors. But the team expects the overall conclusions of their study to be correct.

The study of minor objects with hyperbolic orbits has heated up since the interstellar asteroid Oumuamua made its visit. This new study successfully connects one population of hyperbolic objects with a pre-historic visit to our Solar System by another star. The team behind the study expects that follow up studies will confirm their results.

Jupiter’s Atmospheric Bands Go Surprisingly Deep

For centuries, astronomers have been observing Jupiter swirling surface and been awed and mystified by its appearance. The mystery only deepened when, in 1995, the Galileo spacecraft reached Jupiter and began studying its atmosphere in depth. Since that time, astronomers have puzzled over its colored bands and wondered if they are just surface phenomenon, or something that goes deeper.

Thanks to the Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting Jupiter since July of 2016, scientists are now much closer to answering that question. This past week, three new studies were published based on Juno data that presented new findings on Jupiter’s magnetic field, its interior rotation, and how deep its belts extend. All of these findings are revising what scientists think of Jupiter’s atmosphere and its inner layers.

The studies were titled “Measurement of Jupiter’s asymmetric gravity field“, “Jupiter’s atmospheric jet streams extend thousands of kilometres deep” and “A suppression of differential rotation in Jupiter’s deep interior“, all of which were published in Nature on March 7th, 2018. The studies were led by Prof. Luciano Iess of Sapienza University of Rome, the second by Prof. Yohai Kaspi and Dr. Eli Galanti of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and the third by Prof. Tristan Guillot of the Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur.

Jupiter’s South Pole, taken during a Juno flyby on Dec 16th, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/David Marriott

The research effort was led by Professo Kaspi and Dr. Galanti, who in addition to being the lead authors on the second study were co-authors on the other two. The pair have been preparing for this analysis even before Juno launched in 2011, during which time they built mathematical tools to analyze the gravitational field data and get a better grasp of Jupiter’s atmosphere and its dynamics.

All three studies were based on data gathered by Juno as it passed from one of Jupiter’s pole to the other every 53-days – a maneuver known as a “perijove”. With each pass, the probe used its advanced suite of instruments to peer beneath the surface layers of the atmosphere. In addition, radio waves emitted by the probe were measured to determine how they were shifted by the planet’s gravitational field with each orbit.

As astronomers have understood for some time, Jupiter’s jets flow in bands from east to west and west to east. In the process, they disrupt the even distribution of mass on the planet. By measuring changes in the planet’s gravity field (and thus this mass imbalance), Dr. Kaspi and Dr. Galanti’s analytical tools were able to calculate how deep the storms extend beneath the surface and what it’s interior dynamics are like.

Above all, the team expected to find anomalies because of the way the planet deviates from being a perfect sphere – which is due to how its rapid rotation squishes it slightly. However, they also looked for additional anomalies that could be explained due to the presence of powerful winds in the atmosphere.

This image from Juno’s JunoCam captured the south pole in visible light only. It’s a puzzle why the north and south poles are so similar, yet have a different number of cyclones. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

In the first study, Dr. Iess and his colleagues used precise Doppler tracking of the Juno spacecraft to conduct measurements of Jupiter’s gravity harmonics – both even and odd. What they determined was Jupiter’s magnetic field has a north-south asymmetry, which is indicative of interior flows in the atmosphere.

Analysis of this asymmetry was followed-up on in the second study, where Dr. Kaspi, Dr. Galanti and their colleagues used the variations in the planet’s gravity field to calculate the depth of Jupiter’s east-west jet streams. By measuring how these jets cause an imbalance in Jupiter’s gravity field, and even disrupt the mass of the planet, they concluded that they extend to a depth of 3000 km (1864 mi).

From all this, Prof. Guillot and his colleagues conducted the third study, where they used the previous findings about the planet’s gravitational field and jet streams and compared the results to predictions of interior models. From this, they determined that the interior of the planet rotates almost like a rigid body and that differential rotation decreases farther down.

In addition, they found that the zones of atmospheric flow extended to between 2,000 km (1243 mi) and 3,500 km (2175 mi) deep, which was consistent with the constraints obtained from the odd gravitational harmonics. This depth also corresponds to the point where electric conductivity would become large enough that magnetic drag would suppress differential rotation.

Based on their findings, the team also calculated that Jupiter’s atmosphere constitutes 1% of its total mass. For comparison, Earth’s atmosphere is less than a millionth of its total mass. Still, as Dr. Kaspi explained in Weizzmann Institute press release, this was rather surprising:

“That is much more than anyone thought and more than what has been known from other planets in the Solar System. That is basically a mass equal to three Earths moving at speeds of tens of meters per second.”

All told, these studies have shed new light on the Jupiter’s atmospheric dynamics and interior structure. At present, the subject of what resides at Jupiter’s core remains unresolved. But the researchers hope to analyze further measurements made by Juno to see whether Jupiter has a solid core and (if so) to determine its mass. This in turn will help astronomers learn a great deal about the Solar System’s history and formation.

In addition, Kaspi and Galanti are looking to use some of the same methods they developed to characterize Jupiter’s jet streams to tackle its most iconic feature – Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. In addition to determining how deep this storm extends, they also hope to learn why this storm has persisted for so many centuries, and why it has been noticeably shrinking in recent years.

The Juno mission is expected to wrap up in July of 2018. Barring any extensions, the probe will conduct a controlled deorbit into Jupiter’s atmosphere after conducting perijove 14. However, even after the mission is over, scientists will be analyzing the data it has collected for years to come. What this reveals about the Solar System’s largest planet will also go a long way towards informing out understanding of the Solar System.

Further Reading: Weizmann Institute of Science, Nature, Nature (2), Nature (3),