Throughout recorded history, humans have looked up at the night sky and witnessed the major astronomical events known as a “supernova.” The name, still used by astronomers, referred to the belief that these bursts of light in the “firmament” signaled the birth of a “new star.” With the birth of telescopes and modern astronomy, we have since learned that supernovae are what occur at the end of a star’s lifecycle. At this point, when a star has exhausted its hydrogen and helium fuel, it experiences gravitational collapse at its center.
This leads to a tremendous explosion that can be seen billions of light-years distant, releasing tremendous amounts of energy and blowing the star’s outer layers off. Thanks to an international team of astronomers led by the University of Southhampton, the most powerful cosmic explosion has been confirmed! The stellar explosion, AT2021lwx, took place about 8 billion light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula and was over ten times brighter than any supernova ever observed and 100 times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined!
When low to medium-mass stars exhaust their supply of hydrogen, they exit their main sequence phase and expand to become red giants – what is known as the Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) phase. Stars in this phase of their evolution become variable (experiences changes in brightness) to shed their outer lays, spreading dust throughout the interstellar medium (ISM) that is crucial to the development of planetary nebulas and protoplanetary systems. For decades, astronomers have sought to better understand the role Red Giant stars play.
Studying interstellar and protoplanetary dust is difficult because it is so faint in visible light. Luckily, this dust absorbs light and radiates brightly in the infrared (IR), making it visible to IR telescopes. Using archival data from now-retired Akari and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) missions, a team of Japanese astronomers conducted the first long-period survey of dusty AGBs and observed that the variable intensity of these stars coincides with the amount of dust they produce. Since this dust plays an important role in the formation of planets, this study could shed light on the origins of life.
The Universe is over 13 billion years old, so a 12-year slice of that time might seem uneventful. But a timelapse movie from NASA shows how much can change in just over a decade. Stars pulse, asteroids follow their trajectories, and distant black holes flare as they pull gas and dust toward themselves.
Gravity is a funny force. The gravity of every given object technically impacts every other given object, though, in practice, large distance and small masses make those forces negligible for such interactions. But in some cases, especially when large groups are floating in empty space, gravity can still hold sway over considerable distances. Such is the case with a new pair of brown dwarfs found by astronomers at the Keck Observatory.
Black holes are more than just massive objects that swallow everything around them – they’re also one of the universe’s biggest and most stable energy sources. That would make them invaluable to the type of civilization that needs huge amounts of power, such as a Type II Kardashev civilization. But to harness all of that power, the civilization would have to encircle the entire black hole with something that could capture the power it is emitting.
Tracking exoplanets is hard – especially when that exoplanet is so far away from its parent star that the normally used “transit” method of watching it dim the light of the star itself is ineffectual. But it really helps if the planet is huge, and has its own infrared glow, no matter how far away from its star it might be. At least those properties allowed a team of scientists from the University of Hawai’i to track a particular exoplanet called (and we’re not kidding) Coconuts-2b.
Of the more than 600,000 known asteroids in our Solar System, almost 10 000 are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). These are asteroids or comets whose orbits bring them close to Earth’s, and which could potentially collide with us at some point in the future. As such, monitoring these objects is a vital part of NASA’s ongoing efforts in space. One such mission is NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), which has been active since December 2013.
And now, after two years of study, the information gathered by the mission is being released to the public. This included, most recently, NEOWISE’s second year of survey data, which accounted for 72 previously unknown objects that orbit near to our planet. Of these, eight were classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), based on their size and how closely their orbits approach Earth.
The story of KIC 8462852 appears far from over. You’ll recall NASA’s Kepler mission had monitored the star for four years, observing two unusual incidents, in 2011 and 2013, when its light dimmed in dramatic, never-before-seen ways. Models to explain its erratic behavior were so lacking that some considered the possibility that alien megastructures built to capture sunlight around the host star (think Dyson Spheres) might be the cause.
Shattered comets and asteroids were also suggested as possible explanations — dust and ground-up rock would be at the right temperature to glow in the infrared — but Kepler could only observe in visible light where any debris would be invisible or swamped by the light of the star. So researchers looked through older observations made in 2010 by the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope. Unfortunately, WISE observed the star before the strange variations were seen and therefore before any putative dust-busting collisions.
Not to be stymied, astronomers next checked out the data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which like WISE, is optimized for infrared light. Spitzer just happened to observe KIC 8462852 much more recently in 2015.
“Spitzer has observed all of the hundreds of thousands of stars where Kepler hunted for planets, in the hope of finding infrared emission from circumstellar dust,” said Michael Werner, the Spitzer project scientist and the lead investigator of that particular Spitzer/Kepler observing program.
I’d love to report that Spitzer tracked down glowing dust but no, it also came up empty-handed. This makes the idea of an asteroidal smash-up very unlikely, but not one involving comets according to Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University (Ames) who led the new study. Marengo proposes that cold comets are responsible. Picture a family of comets traveling on a very long, eccentric orbit around the star with a very large comet at the head of the pack responsible for the big fading seen by Kepler in 2011. Later, in 2013, the rest of the comet family, a band of various-sized fragments lagging behind, would have passed in front of the star and again blocked its light. By 2015, the comets would have moved even farther away on their long orbital journey, leaving no detectable infrared excess.
“This is a very strange star,” said Marengo. “It reminds me of when we first discovered pulsars. They were emitting odd signals nobody had ever seen before, and the first one discovered was named LGM-1 after ‘Little Green Men.'”
Clearly, more long-term observations are needed. And frankly, I’m still puzzled why cold or less active comets might still not be detected by their glowing dust. But let’s assume for a moment the the comet idea is correct. If so, we should expect to see similar dips in KIC 8462852’s light as the comet swarm swings around again.
Beam us up, Scotty. There’s no signs of intelligent life out there. At least, no obvious signs, according to a recent survey performed by researchers at Penn State University. After reviewing data taken by the NASA Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope of over 100,000 galaxies, there appears to be little evidence that advanced, spacefaring civilizations exist in any of them.
First deployed in 2009, the WISE mission has been able to identify thousands of asteroids in our solar system and previously undiscovered star clusters in our galaxy. However, Jason T. Wright, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, conceived of and initiated a new field of research – using the infrared data to assist in the search for signs of extra-terrestrial civilizations.
And while their first look did not yield much in the way of results, it is an exciting new area of research and provides some very useful information on one of the greatest questions ever asked: are we alone in the universe?
“The idea behind our research is that, if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced spacefaring civilization, the energy produced by that civilization’s technologies would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths,” said Wright, “exactly the radiation that the WISE satellite was designed to detect for other astronomical purposes.”
This logic is in keeping with the theories of Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev and theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. In 1964, Kardashev proposed that a civilization’s level of technological advancement could be measured based on the amount of energy that civilization is able to utilize.
To characterize the level of extra-terrestrial development, Kardashev developed a three category system – Type I, II, and III civilizations – known as the “Kardashev Scale”. A Type I civilization uses all available resources on its home planet, while a Type II is able to harness all the energy of its star. Type III civilizations are those that are advanced enough to harness the energy of their entire galaxy.
Similarly, Dyson proposed in 1960 that advanced alien civilizations beyond Earth could be detected by the telltale evidence of their mid-infrared emissions. Believing that a sufficiently advanced civilization would be able to enclose their parent star, he believed it would be possible to search for extraterrestrials by looking for large objects radiating in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
These thoughts were expressed in a short paper submitted to the journal Science, entitled “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation“. In it, Dyson proposed that an advanced species would use artificial structures – now referred to as “Dyson Spheres” (though he used the term “shell” in his paper) – to intercept electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths from visible light downwards and radiating waste heat outwards as infrared radiation.
“Whether an advanced spacefaring civilization uses the large amounts of energy from its galaxy’s stars to power computers, space flight, communication, or something we can’t yet imagine, fundamental thermodynamics tells us that this energy must be radiated away as heat in the mid-infrared wavelengths,” said Wright. “This same basic physics causes your computer to radiate heat while it is turned on.”
However, it was not until space-based telescopes like WISE were deployed that it became possible to make sensitive measurements of this radiation. WISE is one of three infrared missions currently in space, the other two being NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory – a European Space Agency mission with important NASA participation.
WISE is different from these missions in that it surveys the entire sky and is designed to cast a net wide enough to catch all sorts of previously unseen cosmic interests. And there are few things more interesting than the prospect of advanced alien civilizations!
To search for them, Roger Griffith – a postbaccalaureate researcher at Penn State and the lead author of the paper – and colleagues scoured the entries in the WISE satellites database looking for evidence of a galaxy that was emitting too much mid-infrared radiation. He and his team then individually examined and categorized 100,000 of the most promising galaxy images.
And while they didn’t find any obvious signs of a Type II civilization or Dyson Spheres in any of them, they did find around 50 candidates that showed unusually high levels of mid-infrared radiation. The next step will be to confirm whether or not these signs are due to natural astronomical processes, or could be an indication of a highly advanced civilization tapping their parent star for energy.
In any case, the team’s findings were quite interesting and broke new ground in what is sure to be an ongoing area of research. The only previous study, according to the G-HAT team, surveyed only about 100 galaxies, and was unable to examine them in the infrared to see how much heat they emitted. What’s more, the research may help shed some light on the burning questions about the very existence of intelligent, extra-terrestrial life in our universe.
“Our results mean that, out of the 100,000 galaxies that WISE could see in sufficient detail, none of them is widely populated by an alien civilization using most of the starlight in its galaxy for its own purposes,” said Wright. “That’s interesting because these galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations, if they exist. Either they don’t exist, or they don’t yet use enough energy for us to recognize them.”
Alas, it seems we are no closer to resolving the Fermi Paradox. But for the first time, it seems that investigations into the matter are moving beyond theoretical arguments. And given time, and further refinements in our detection methods, who knows what we might find lurking out there? The universe is very, very big place, after all.
The research team’s first research paper about their Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies Survey (G-HAT) survey appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series on April 15, 2015.
Nature once again shows us how hard it is to fit astronomical objects into categories. An examination of a so-far unique brown dwarf — an object that is a little too small to start nuclear fusion and be a star — shows that it could have been as hot as a star in the ancient past.
The object is one of a handful of brown dwarfs that are called “Y dwarfs”. This is the coolest kind of star or star-like object we know of. These objects have been observed at least as far back as 2008, although they were predicted by theory before.
A group of scientists observed the object, called WISE J0304-2705, with NASA’s space-based Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Looking at the spectrum of light it had emitted, which shows the object’s composition, has scientists saying that what the brown dwarf is made of suggests it is rather old — billions of years old.
“Our measurements suggest that this Y dwarf may have a composition … or age characteristic of one of the galaxy’s older members,” stated David Pinfield at the University of Hertfordshire, who led the research.
“This would mean its temperature evolution could have been rather extreme – despite starting out at thousands of degrees, this exotic object is now barely hot enough to boil a cup of tea.”
While the object started out hot, its interior never was quite enough to fuse hydrogen. That led to the extreme cooling visible today.
Models suggest the object would have begun its life shining at 2,800 degrees Celsius (5,072 Fahrenheit), for a phase that would have lasted for 20 million years. In the next 100 million years, its temperature would have almost halved to 1,500 Celsius (2,730 Fahrenheit).
And it would have kept cooling, with a temperature of 1,000 Celsius (1,832 Fahrenheit) after a billion years, and after billions of more years, the temperature we see today — somewhere between 100 Celsius (212 Fahrenheit) and 150 Celsius (302 Fahrenheit).
The paper will be published shortly in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The research is available in preprint version on Arxiv. One limitation of the research is the small number of Y dwarfs discovered, only about 20, which means that more observations will be needed to see if other objects could have had this same evolution.