Staring off into the ancient past with a $10 billion space telescope, hoping to find extraordinarily faint signals from the earliest galaxies, might seem like a forlorn task. But it’s only forlorn if we don’t find any. Now that the James Webb Space Telescope has found those signals, the exercise has moved from forlorn to hopeful.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the most complex and sophisticated observatory ever deployed. Using its advanced suite of infrared instruments, coronographs, and spectrometers – contributed by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) – this observatory will spend the next ten to twenty years building on the achievements of its predecessor, the venerable Hubble. This includes exoplanet characterization, star and planet formation, and the formation and evolution of the earliest galaxies in the Universe.
However, one of the main objectives of the JWST is to study the planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and other celestial bodies here in the Solar System. This includes Mars, the first Solar planet to get the James Webb treatment! The images Webb took (recently released by the ESA) provide a unique perspective on Mars, showing what the planet looks like in infrared wavelengths. The data yielded by these images could provide new insight into Mars’ atmosphere and environment, complimenting decades of observations by orbiters, landers, rovers, and other telescopes.
Have you ever held a chunk of gold in your hand? Not a little piece of jewelry, but an ounce or more? If you have, you can almost immediately understand what drives humans to want to possess it and know where it comes from.
We know that gold comes from stars. All stars are comprised primarily of hydrogen and helium. But they contain other elements, which astrophysicists refer to as a star’s metallicity. Our Sun has a high metallicity and contains 67 different elements, including about 2.5 trillion tons of gold.
Now astronomers have found a distant star that contains 65 elements, the most ever detected in another star. Gold is among them.
Scientists seem to have come up with a new parlor game – how many ways can we potentially detect exoplanets? The two most common methods, the transit method and the Doppler method, each have their own problems. Alternative methods are starting to sprout up, and a new one was recently proposed by Jacob Nibauer, an undergraduate student in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. His suggestion: look at a star’s chemical composition. And his findings after analyzing data on some 1,500 stars hold some surprises.
Author’s note – this article was written with Dr. Vincent Kofman, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), working in the Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration (SEEC), and the lead author on the research it discusses.
Thousands of exoplanets have been discovered in the recent decades. Planet hunters like TESS and Kepler, as well as numerous ground-based efforts, have pushed the field and we are starting to get a total number of planets that will allow us to perform effective statistical analysis on some of them.
Not only do the detected number of planets show us how common they are; it exposes our lack of understanding about how planets form, what conditions are present, and when planets may be habitable. The transit detection of an exoplanet primarily yields the orbital period, or the length of a year on the planet, and the relative size of the planet with respect to the star. The next steps are to characterize the planet. This usually requires follow up studies, using different observational strategies and more powerful telescopes.
In 1960, the first survey dedicated to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was mounted at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. This was Project Ozma, which was the brainchild of famed astronomer and SETI pioneer Frank Drake (for whom the Drake Equation is named). Since then, the collective efforts to find evidence of life beyond Earth have coalesced to create a new field of study known as astrobiology.
The search for extraterrestrial life has been the subject of renewed interest thanks to the thousands of exoplanets that have been discovered in recent years. Unfortunately, our efforts are still heavily constrained by our limited frame of reference. However, a new tool developed by a team of researchers from the University of Glasgow and Arizona State University (ASU) could point the way towards life in all of its forms!
Can you picture Jupiter without any observable clouds or haze? It isn’t easy since Jupiter’s latitudinal cloud bands and its Great Red Spot are iconic visual features in our Solar System. Those features are caused by upswelling and descending gas, mostly ammonia. After Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s cloud forms are probably the most recognizable feature in the Solar System.
Now astronomers with the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) have found a planet similar in mass to Jupiter, but with a cloud-free atmosphere.
“This is where we live. On a Blue Dot.” said Carl Sagan when the now famous Pale Blue Dot photo was released. Captured February 14, 1990 by the Voyager 1 Space Probe, Pale Blue Dot remains the most distant photograph of the Earth ever taken at 6 billion kilometers. This past February marked the 30th anniversary of Pale Blue Dot which was reprocessed using modern digital photo techniques creating an even more remarkable image.
Whether Pale Blue Dot, or Blue Marble, our planet is associated with the color blue. As Earth is the only inhabited world we know of, it might stand to reason that other habitable planets in space will also be blue. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Can the galaxy’s dead stars help us in our search for life? A group of researchers from Cornell University thinks so. They say that watching exoplanets transit in front of white dwarfs can tell us a lot about those planets.