Space And The Universe News

  • Another Giant Antarctic Iceberg Breaks Free
    by Matt Williams on May 24, 2024 at 11:08 pm

    On May 20th, 2024, an iceberg measuring 380 square kilometers (~147 mi2) broke off the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica. This event (A-83) is this region’s third significant iceberg calving in the past four years. The first came In 2021, when A-74 broke off the ice sheet, while an even larger berg named A-81 followed in 2023. The separation of this iceberg was captured by two Earth Observation satellites – the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-1 and NASA’s Landsat 8 satellites – which provided radar imaging and thermal data, respectively.

    The iceberg has been officially designated A-83 by the U.S. National Ice Center, which assigns names based on the Antarctic quadrant where the iceberg was first sighted. Since Brunt is located in the eastern Weddell Sea, its bergs receive an ‘A’ designation while the numbers are assigned sequentially. Routine monitoring of ice shelves by satellites allows scientists to track the effects of Climate Change in remote regions like Antarctica. In particular, scientists can monitor how ice shelves retain their structural integrity in response to changing ice dynamics and increases in atmospheric and ocean temperatures.

    Brightness temperature data from the U.S. Landsat 8 mission. Credit: ESA/USGS

    This calving event (like its predecessors) was caused by the weakening of the ice at the McDonald Ice Rumples and the extension of the ‘Halloween Crack’ into the ice shelf. The Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission relies on radar imaging to return images throughout the year, regardless of whether it’s day or night. This is especially important during the winter when there is virtually no sunlight for six months (known as Antarctic Night). Missions like Landsat 8 rely on thermal imaging to help scientists characterize ice sheet thickness.

    As the image above shows, the thinner ice appears warmer since it is closer in temperature to open water, while thicker continental ice appears darker. The temperature differences between the ocean and ice sheets also help scientists identify where the calving line is. Fortunately, the iceberg does not threaten the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley VI Research Station, an international research platform that observes Earth, atmospheric, and space weather. While it is still located on the Brunt Ice Shelf, the station was relocated in 2017 to the Caird coast after the outer ice shelf was deemed unstable.

    The ongoing loss of Antarctic ice is one of the clearest indications of rising global temperatures and a dire warning. In addition to contributing to rising sea levels, coastal flooding, and extreme weather, the loss of polar ice leads to additional solar radiation being absorbed by Earth’s oceans, causing temperatures to rise further. Monitoring the polar ice sheets is vital to adaptation and mitigation strategies, as spelled out in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6).

    Further Reading: ESA

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  • Fish are Adapting to Weightlessness on the Chinese Space Station
    by Scott Alan Johnston on May 24, 2024 at 7:24 pm

    Four zebrafish are alive and well after nearly a month in space aboard China’s Tiangong space station. As part of an experiment testing the development of vertebrates in microgravity, the fish live and swim within a small habitat aboard the station.

    While the zebrafish have thus far survived, they are showing some signs of disorientation. The taikonauts aboard Tiangong – Ye Guangfu, Li Cong, and Li Guangsu – have reported instances of swimming upside down, backward, and in circular motions, suggesting that microgravity is having an effect on their spatial awareness.

    The zebrafish were launched aboard Shenzhou-18, which carried them, as well as a batch of hornwort, to orbit on April 25, 2024. The aim of the project is to create a self-sustaining ecosystem, studying the effects of both microgravity and radiation on the development and growth of these species.

    As a test subject, zebrafish have several advantages. Their short reproductive and development cycle, and transparent eggs, allow scientists to study their growth quickly and effectively, and their genetic makeup shares similarities with humans, potentially offering insights that are relevant to human health. The zebrafish genome has been fully sequenced, and for these reasons zebrafish are commonly used in scientific experiments on Earth. Seeing how these well-studied creatures behave in such an extreme environment may have a lot to tell us about the life and development of vertebrates across species while exposed to microgravity.

    The developmental stages of a zebrafish (danio rerio). Ed Hendel, Wikimedia Commons.

    The taikonauts aboard Tiangong perform feeding and water sampling at regular intervals, and cameras allow scientists on the ground to monitor the aquarium.

    This is not the first time fish have been to space. Starting in 2012, a Japanese research project brought medaka and zebrafish to the International Space Station for study in a similar aquatic habitat. The results of those studies revealed a decrease in bone density in the fish within just ten days. Human astronauts experience similar effects in orbit, though not on such quick time scales, and they can be mitigated somewhat through rigorous exercise routines.

    Earlier fish in space include a mummichog aboard Skylab 3 in 1973 (and again in 1975 aboard Apollo-Soyuz), and zebrafish aboard the Soviet space station Salyut 5 in 1976. A variety of fish reached orbit aboard space shuttles in the 1990s, too.

    The health and sustainability of animal life in space is a key area of research for human spaceflight efforts. If humans are to travel on long-term space missions, like those required to reach Mars, then understanding the biological implications of space travel is vital. These zebrafish are the latest in a long line of experiments undertaken in this pressing area of research.  

    Learn More:

    Gong Zhe “Aquatic antics: Fish exhibit disorientation in China Space Station.” CGTN.

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  • Marvel at the Variety of Planets Found by TESS Already
    by Andy Tomaswick on May 24, 2024 at 6:51 pm

    The hunt for new exoplanets continues. On May 23rd, an international collaboration of scientists published the NASA TESS-Keck Catalog, an effort to publicly release over 9000 radial velocity measurements collected by NASA’s space-based Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the ground-based Keck Observatory, located in Hawai’i, and the Automated Planet Finder, located at the Lick Observatory in California. An accompanying analysis of these validated 32 new planetary candidates and found the masses of 126 confirmed planets and candidates with a wide range of masses and orbits. Let’s dig into some details.

    Radial velocity (RV) measurements are a backbone of exoplanet hunting. Telescopes collect data on how a star “wobbles” by checking for a red-shift (if it’s moving toward the Earth) or blue-shift (if it’s moving away) based on the gravitational pull of an exoplanet orbiting it. If the data presents a repeating pattern, the scientists know they have a likely exoplanet candidate on their hands.

    To calculate the planet’s rotational period, scientists use the frequency of the changes in light from the star. They can estimate a planet’s orbital period based on how quickly the star cycles through the red and blue shifts they would expect from a complete planetary orbit. Unfortunately, since telescope time is limited, most of the exoplanets found so far using this method have much shorter orbital periods than the Earth.

    Fraser discusses the end of TESS’s first mission.

    Calculating a planet’s mass is also possible using the RV method – simply by calculating the planet’s gravitational pull as it is either directly behind or in front of the star. The magnitude of the respective red or blue shift can be directly tied to the planet’s mass, causing the gravitational pull.

    Some truly unique worlds are hiding in the data, with two that stood out enough to be mentioned in a press release from the Keck Observatory. One is an overweight version of a “sub-Neptune”,” while another is a rapidly orbiting “super-Earth”.” 

    A “sub-Neptune” is a category of planet that is a gas giant slightly smaller than Neptune, the smallest gas giant in our solar system. A planet known as TOI-1824 falls into this category but has a unique weight – it’s 19 times as massive as Earth despite being only about 2.6 times its size. That is an extremely dense planet and well outside of the range of other typical sub-Neptunes, which typically vary between 6 and 12 times the mass of our own planet.

    TESS has had plenty of data updates over its lifetime – Fraser discusses one here.

    A planet in the dataset that is closer in size to our own is TOI-1798c. From the mass perspective, it’s about the same size as Earth. However, it is so close to its parent’s star that it orbits it every 12 hours. This puts it in the category of an “Ultra-short period” (USP) orbit. Typically, USPs are tidally locked to their star and blasted with massive amounts of radiation. Estimates put the solar radiation it receives from its host star at 3000 times that received by the Earth. It doesn’t sound like an enjoyable vacation spot.

    Doubtless, other exoplanets are hiding in the trove of data released as part of this paper. And each of those unique systems warranted their own published paper as well. As humanity begins to collect more and more discovered exoplanets, more strange and exciting new worlds will be found. It’s a crazy galaxy out there, and we’re only just starting to explore it.

    Learn More:
    Keck Observatory – New Catalog Showcases a Diverse Exoplanet Landscape with Strange, Exotic Worlds
    Polanski et al. – The TESS-Keck Survey. XX. 15 New TESS Planets and a Uniform RV Analysis of All Survey Targets
    UT – TESS Has Found Thousands of Possible Exoplanets. Which Ones Should JWST Study?
    UT – Six Planets Found Orbiting an Extremely Young Star

    Lead Image:
    Artist’s rendering of some of the exoplanets contained in the TESS-Keck Catalog.
    Credit – W. M. Keck Observatory / Adam Makarneko

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  • NASA is Practicing for the Moon With Partial Space Suits
    by Scott Alan Johnston on May 24, 2024 at 5:19 pm

    In just a few short years, NASA hopes to put humans back on the lunar surface. The first moonwalk in more than 50 years is scheduled for no earlier than September 2026 as part of the Artemis III mission. In preparation, astronauts, scientists, and flight controllers are conducting simulated spacewalks here on Earth.

    “Field tests play a critical role in helping us test all of the systems, hardware, and technology we’ll need to conduct successful lunar operations during Artemis missions,” said Barbara Janoiko of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Our engineering and science teams have worked together seamlessly to ensure we are prepared every step of the way for when astronauts step foot on the Moon again.”

    Astronauts Kate Rubins and Andre Douglas donned mock spacesuits and test gear for a week of simulated moonwalking near Flagstaff, Arizona, where a volcanic desert served as a stand-in for the lunar surface.

    NASA astronaut Kate Rubins observes a geology sample she collected during a simulated moonwalk.
    NASA/Josh Valcarcel

    The tests were multipurpose, making sure that communications protocols with mission control were effective, putting technological devices that will used by moonwalkers through their paces, and doing dry runs of science-related activities, such as gathering geology samples.

    The technology tested included an augmented reality visor that could provide navigational information to astronauts, helping them stay oriented and relocate the lunar lander in an emergency.
    The test also simulated the communications procedures, allowing both astronauts and ground-based- teams to work together remotely to retrieve the most valuable geological samples and problem-solve in real-time.

    “During Artemis III, the astronauts will be our science operators on the lunar surface with an entire science team supporting them from here on Earth,” said Cherie Achilles, science officer for the test at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This simulation gives us an opportunity to practice conducting geology from afar in real-time.”

    NASA astronaut Andre Douglas collects soil samples during the first in a series of four simulated moonwalks in Arizona. NASA/Josh Valcarcel

    All told the astronauts performed four ‘moonwalks’ and six technology demonstrations over the course of the week. These activities represent the fifth in a series of field tests, and are the “highest fidelity Artemis moonwalk mission simulation to date,” according to a NASA press release.

    Artemis III is targeting the lunar south pole, which is a new environment for humans, far removed from the landing sites of the Apollo mission of 1969-72. The permanently shadowed craters of the south pole are expected to hold water ice, a valuable resource in space not just as a refreshing drink, but also as a source of the primary ingredients (hydrogen and oxygen) needed to make rocket fuel.

    Rubins and Douglas’s space suits were open-sleeved for the Arizona desert, but prototypes of the actual spacesuits, currently under development by Axiom Space, are also undergoing testing. Future tests will have them put through their paces underwater at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas.

    Learn More:

    NASA Tests Technology, Practices Artemis Moonwalks in Arizona Desert.” NASA.

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  • Toxic Perchlorate on Mars Could Make Life More Interesting
    by Mark Thompson on May 24, 2024 at 2:21 pm

    The search for life in the Universe has fascinated humans for centuries. Mars has of course been high on the list of potential habitats for alien existence but since the numerous spacecraft images that have come back showing a barren landscape, it seems Mars may not be so habitable after all. That is, until recently. The Martian regolith, the top layer of dust upon the surface has been found to be full of perchlorate salts.  These chemicals are poisonous to most life on Earth but a new study suggests that some extremophile protein enzymes and RNA may just be able to survive!

    Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the last of the major planets to have a solid surface. To the casual observer, Mars has a red hue to it which is the result of an iron-oxide rich surface. You might known iron-oxide by its more familiar name of rust. It is about half the size of Earth but does have some familiar surface features. Volcanoes pepper the surface but these are, as far as we know, extinct and caps of ice adorn the polar regions. 

    Featured Image: True-color image of the Red Planet taken on October 10, 2014, by India’s Mars Orbiter mission from 76,000 kilometers (47,224 miles) away. (Credit: ISRO/ISSDC/Justin Cowart) (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

    Early observers, with poor quality telescopes believed Mars was criss-crossed with a great global irrigation system that carried melt water from the polar caps to the drier equatorial regions. We have since learned that these were just optical illusions and that the polar caps were largely made of carbon dioxide ice. As time progressed, the expectations of finding alien life on Mars slowly dwindled away. It has been kept alive though with hints of surface liquid water making the odd appearance and chemicals found in Martian meteorites that suggest biological processes. There is no doubt that the debate of life on Mars has still not reached a conclusion.

    As we continue to search for evidence of life we are in parallel expanding our knowledge of life on Earth. In our search, whichever way we turn, under whichever rock we look or even indeed whichever corner of the world we search we can find signs of life. No matter how extreme the environment, life seems to find a way and as we learn more about the conditions where life can exist here, it helps in our search for alien life too. 

    Among the many missions to Mars, there is mounting evidence for perchlorate salts in the Martian surface. These salts are composed of oxygen and chlorine atoms and are usually considered to be harmful to life on Earth. They can combine with water in the atmosphere to produce solutions of brine (salty water). The presence of water in many different states on Mars has informed NASA’s strategy for the search for life there to ‘follow the water’. The concept is simple, look for water and you may find life! 

    A team of researchers at the College of Biological Sciences have recently published their research in the Nature Communication journal. They studied how the geochemical environment on Mars could shape and support past, or even present life on the red planet! Led by Assistant Professor Aaron Engelhart, the team studied two types of RNA (ribonucleic acid) and enzymes that are key components to life on Earth. To their surprise they found that, while the RNA functioned well in the perchlorate brine, the enzymes were less suited. They did find though that proteins that have evolved to survive extreme environments on Earth were well suited to the brine solution. 

    It is a tantalising twist to the hunt for life. Where we started to lose hope for finding signs of past or present life on Mars due to the hospitable environment, the results showed that RNA is actually well suited to salty properties of the brine. With tolerance to such environmental factors the research breathes tantalising new angles into the search for life. 

    Source : Exploring extremes in the search for life on Mars

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  • Astronomers Propose a 14-Meter Infrared Space Telescope
    by Evan Gough on May 23, 2024 at 7:58 pm

    The Universe wants us to understand its origins. Every second of every day, it sends us a multitude of signals, each one a clue to a different aspect of the cosmos. But the Universe is the original Trickster, and its multitude of signals is an almost unrecognizable cacophony of light, warped, shifted, and stretched during its long journey through the expanding Universe.

    What are talking apes to do in this situation but build another telescope adept at understanding a particular slice of all this noisy light? That’s what astronomers think we should do, to nobody’s surprise.

    Due to the size of the Universe and its ongoing expansion, light from the Universe’s first galaxies is stretched into the infrared. This ancient light holds clues to the Universe’s origins and, by extension, our origins. It takes a powerful infrared telescope to sense and decipher this light. Earth’s atmosphere blocks infrared light which is why we keep building infrared space telescopes.

    Infrared telescopes are also well-suited to observing planets as they form. Dense environments like protoplanetary disks are opaque to most light, but infrared light can reveal what’s going on in these planet-forming environments. The dust absorbs light, then emits it in the infrared, and also scatters it. That confounds optical telescopes, but infrared telescopes like SALTUS are designed to deal with it.

    A team of astronomers from the USA and Europe has joined the chorus calling for a new infrared space telescope. It’s tentatively called SALTUS, the Single Aperture Large Telescope for Universe Studies. In a new paper, the astronomers outline the science case for SALTUS.

    “The SALTUS Probe mission will provide a powerful far-infrared (far-IR) pointed space observatory to explore our cosmic origins and the possibility of life elsewhere,” write the authors of the new paper.

    The paper is titled “Single Aperture Large Telescope for Universe Studies (SALTUS): Science Overview.” Gordon Chin from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is the lead author. It’s in pre-print at arxiv.org.

    If built, SALTUS will be different from the powerful JWST. The JWST has four instruments that cover an infrared frequency range from 600 to 28,500 nanometers, or 0.6 to 28.5 microns, which is from the near-infrared (NIR) to the mid-infrared (MIR). SALTUS would cover 34 to 660 ?m, which is in the far-infrared (FIR). SALTUS’ range is unavailable to any current observatory, space or ground-based.

    There are no precise definitions of what exact ranges constitute NIR, MIR, and FIR, but this table is a useful representation. Image Credit: Wikipedia
    There are no precise definitions of what exact ranges constitute NIR, MIR, and FIR, but this table is a useful representation. Image Credit: Wikipedia

    Infrared telescopes need to be kept cool. They use sunshades and cryogenic coolers to keep temperatures down and IR light detectable. The longer the wave of infrared light, the cooler the sensor needs to be. Sunshades are passive and cool the primary mirror, but the instruments require active cryogenic cooling, and those systems have a limited lifetime that restricts mission length. In SALTUS’s case, the baseline mission length is five years.

    During those five years, SALTUS will make use of its 14-meter primary mirror and its pair of instruments to open a “powerful window to the Universe through which we can explore our cosmic origins,” according to the paper’s authors.

    The two instruments are the SAFARI-Lite spectrometer (SALTUS Far-Infrared Lite) and HiRX (High-Resolution receiver.) Using these instruments, SALTUS will complement the observing capabilities of the JWST and ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array.

    Its aperture is so large that it’ll be the only Far-IR observatory with arcsec-scale spatial resolution. One arcsecond is defined as the ability to show two posts standing 4.8mm apart from 1km away as separate posts. “This will permit an unmasking of the true nature of the cold Universe, which holds the answers to many of the questions concerning our cosmic origins,” the authors write.

    SALTUS has a unique design among space telescopes. It features an inflatable primary mirror, which is new to space telescopes but has been proven during decades of use in ground-based telecommunications. A two-layer sunshield will keep the inflatable mirror cool.

    SALTUS large aperture will provide high sensitivity and is aimed at a couple of foundational questions.

    How does habitability develop while planets are forming? To address this question, SALTUS will trace carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen in 1,000 different protoplanetary disks. It has the power to recognize numerous molecular and atomic species and different lattice modes of ice and some minerals. No existing telescope has this capability.

    SALTUS' far IR observing capabilities will let it see a portion of protoplanetary disks that are obscured in other wavelengths. This will open a new window into planet formation and how habitability develops. Image Credit: Chin et al. 2025/Miotello et al. Protostars and Planets 2023.
    SALTUS’ far IR observing capabilities will let it see a portion of protoplanetary disks that are obscured in other wavelengths. This will open a new window into planet formation and how habitability develops. Image Credit: Chin et al. 2025/Miotello et al. Protostars and Planets 2023.

    Habitability, as far as we understand it, revolves around water. Water begins its journey in the same molecular clouds where stars form. SALTUS will follow water’s journey from molecular cloud to protoplanetary disks to icy planetesimals and comets that deliver water to planets like Earth. A key part of SALTUS’s work will be deriving deuterium/hydrogen ratios.

    This simple graphic shows how water arrives on planets and can lead to habitability. SALTUS will follow the water's journey by observing hundreds of protoplanetary disks. Image Credit: Chin et al. 2024.
    This simple graphic shows how water arrives on planets and can lead to habitability. SALTUS will follow the water’s journey by observing hundreds of protoplanetary disks. Image Credit: Chin et al. 2024.

    How do galaxies form and evolve? SALTUS will measure how galaxies form and acquire more mass. It’ll measure heavy elements and interstellar dust from the Universe’s first galaxies to today. The telescope will also probe the co-evolution of galaxies and their supermassive black holes (SMBHs.)

    Tracking the rapid evolution of dust grains in galaxies in the Universe’s first billion years is part of understanding galaxy formation and evolution. SALTUS can do that by observing PAHs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and their spectral lines. Some PAH spectral lines are very faint but entirely visible to SALTUS.

    There’s a causal link between star formation and active galactic nuclei (AGN) that influences galaxy growth and evolution. But the two phenomena take place on wildly different spatial scales, and the phase that links them together is obscured by dust. SALTUS’s high resolution and sensitive far-IR spectroscopy will give astronomers a clearer view of AGN and how they shape galaxies.

    SALTUS would be placed into a Sun-Earth Halo L2 orbit. Its maximum distance from Earth would be 1.8 million km (1.12 million miles). That orbit would give the telescope two continuous 20º viewing zones around the ecliptic poles, resulting in full sky coverage every six months.

    The SALTUS concept is designed in response to the 2020 Decadal Survey and NASA’s Astrophysical Roadmap. It’s a direct response to NASA’s 2023 Astrophysics Probe Explorer (APEX) solicitation. The questions it’ll help answer come directly from those works.

    “SALTUS has both the sensitivity and spatial resolution to address not just the open science questions of the year 2023 but, more importantly, the unknown questions that will be raised in the 2030s,” the authors write in their summary. “SALTUS is forward-leaning and well-suited to serving the current and future needs of the astronomical community.”

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    • A New Venus-Sized World Found in the Habitable Zone of its Star
      by Andy Tomaswick on May 23, 2024 at 6:02 pm

      The parade of interesting new exoplanets continues. Today, NASA issued a press release announcing the discovery of a new exoplanet in the Gliese 12 system, sized somewhere between Earth and Venus and inside the host star’s habitable zone. Two papers detail the discovery, but both teams think that the planet is an excellent candidate for follow-up with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to try to tease out whether it has an atmosphere and, if so, what that atmosphere is made of.

      But before JWST knew where to look, another workhorse of the exoplanet hunt had to do its job. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) found this planet in a system only 40 light years away. That would make it the closest known example of a rocky, Earth or Venus-sized exoplanet in its star’s habitable zone.

      Gliese 12 is a red dwarf, only weighing about 27% of the Sun’s weight. Due to the intricacies of fusion, this amounts to the star outputting about 60% of the light of our Sun, which, in turn, means its habitable zone is much closer than our own. The planet, known as Gliese 12b, orbits its parent star once every 12.8 days. But more importantly, it receives about 85% of the energy that Venus typically receives from the Sun.

      Fraser discusses some of the accomplishments of TESS.

      The similarity between our closest neighbor and this exoplanet is striking. It could also lead to new discoveries about the formation of our solar system. Current theory holds that Venus and the Earth originally had an atmosphere and then lost it. They diverged to become the Eden-like Earth and the hell-like Venus because of one crucial substance – water.  

      Venus’ atmosphere lacked water, so when its current atmosphere started to form, none of the liquid necessary for life as we know it was available. Earth, on the other hand, had plenty of water to spare, allowing it to eventually develop life and humans to evolve there.

      One of the holy grails of astrobiology is to find an Earth analog, where the solar radiation, day length, size, atmospheric makeup, and other factors are similar enough for a reasonable chance for life to evolve. We can quickly determine many of those numbers, such as orbit, size, and the amount of solar radiation a planet receives. But finding details like atmospheric makeup is harder.

      Artist’s depiction of Gliese 12b in comparison to Earth, with different atmospheres – from no atmosphere at all on the left to a atmosphere like Venus’ on the right.
      Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (Caltech/IPC)

      Hence why the researchers suggested JWST should get involved. The world’s most powerful space-based telescope would be capable of detecting the atmospheric makeup of Gliese 12b using a technique called transmission spectroscopy. That’s when the light from a planet’s host star is forced through the planet’s atmosphere, and what wavelengths are absorbed can give an astronomer an idea of what kind of gases are present in that atmosphere.

      For now, it’s pure speculation whether Gliese12b has any atmosphere. But with some observational time on JWST, scientists should be able to answer that question easily. Until then, workhorses like TESS will keep picking up new exoplanet candidates for JWST to look at. There are undoubtedly some more interesting ones hiding out there amongst the stars—it’s only a matter of time before we find them.

      Learn More:
      Kuzuhara et al. – Gliese 12 b: A Temperate Earth-sized Planet at 12 pc Ideal for Atmospheric Transmission Spectroscopy
      Dholakia et al.- Gliese 12 b, a temperate Earth-sized planet at 12 parsecs discovered with TESS and CHEOPS
      UT – TESS Finds Eight More Super-Earths
      UT – Hubble Succeeds Where TESS Couldn’t: It Measured the Nearest Transiting Earth-Sized Planet

      Lead Image:
      Artist’s depiction of Gliese 12b and its parent star.
      Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech / R Hurt (Caltech-IPAC)

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    • Webb Explains a Puffy Planet
      by Mark Thompson on May 23, 2024 at 9:57 am

      I love the concept of a ‘puffy’ planet! The exoplanets discovered that fall into this category are typically the same size of Jupiter but 1/10th the mass! They tend to orbit their host star at close in orbits and are hot but one has been found that is different from the normal. This Neptune-mass exoplanet has been thought to be cooler but still have a lower density. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has recently discovered that tidal energy from its elliptical orbit keeps its interior churning and puffs it out. 

      WASP-107b is more than three quarters the volume of Jupiter but, like most fluffy planets, is one-tenth the mass making it one of the least dense planets known. Its unusual property however is that whilst most puffy planets are hot, WASP-107b is relatively cool. This goes against initial observations which had also suggested, due to its mass, radius and age it was thought to have a small rock core with a hydrogen and helium rich atmosphere.

      Recent observations of this exoplanet by the JWST revealed far less methane in the atmosphere than expected. The orientation of the orbit making it edge on to us means we can study the planet’s atmosphere by examining the light from the star as it passes through the gas. This technique known as transmission spectroscopy can be used to identify the signatures of gasses in the star’s spectrum. Using JWSTs Near-Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument and data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, the abundances of methane, water vapour, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and ammonia could be revealed.

      Artist impression of the James Webb Space Telescope

      Not only did this reveal the lack of methane but also provided evidence that hot gas from lower altitudes was mixing with cooler gas layers from higher up. One of the properties of methane is that it is unstable at high temperatures and, beyond 1200 degrees the bonds between hydrogen and carbon breakdown. This is not the case with other carbon based molecules suggesting the higher temperature.  It suggests that the interior of the planet must be hotter than thought with a more massive core than expected. It’s thanks to JWST’s higher level of sensitivity that the mystery looks like it may finally have been solved.

      The team, led by Luis Welbanks from Arizona State University (ASU) explored a number of possibilities. First that it had more mass in its core than first expected. If this was true then the atmosphere is likely to have contracted as the planet cooled. In time and, without a source of heat to give the atmosphere energy and cause it to expand, the planet should be much smaller than observed. Even though the planet orbits the star at a distance of of just over 8 million kilometres it still does not get enough energy to drive the inflation of the atmosphere. 

      One theory is that the higher internal temperatures are generated by tidal heating. In just the same way that the gravitational force of Jupiter causes tidal heating on Io, the highly elliptical orbit of WASP-107b could be the answer. As the planet swings by the host star in its non-circular orbit it is squished and squashed providing a source of heat. 

      Understanding the source of heat on WASP-107b has helped the team learn more about the properties and processes. Knowing how much energy is there helps to determine the proportions of other elements like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulphur. Calculating this helps to determine the mass of the core  which, according to the recent studies reveal is twice as massive as originally estimated.

      Source : Webb Cracks Case of Inflated Exoplanet

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    • The Largest Camera Ever Built Arrives at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory
      by Carolyn Collins Petersen on May 23, 2024 at 4:15 am

      It’s been 20 years in the making, but a 3200-megapixel camera built especially for astrophysics discoveries has finally arrived at its home. The Legacy of Space and Time (LSST) camera was delivered to the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile in mid-May, 2024.

      The camera traveled from its construction lab at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The technical crew outfitted it with specialized data loggers, monitors, and GPS attached to track the conditions of its trip. Then they put it into a specially built container and the whole assemblage made the trip from San Francisco airport to Santiago on the 14th of May via a chartered flight. Once in Chile, it traveled up to the site for five hours up a 35-kilometer dirt road. It arrived on the 16th, completing a huge step toward opening the Rubin Observatory, according to construction project manager. “Getting the camera to the summit was the last major piece in the puzzle,” he said. “With all Rubin’s components physically on-site, we’re on the home stretch towards transformative science with the LSST.”

      This video documents the journey of the LSST Camera from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California to Rubin Observatory on the summit of Cerro Pachón in Chile. The camera arrived on the summit on 16 May 2024. Credit:RubinObs/NSF/AURA/S. Deppe/O. Bonin, T. Lange, M. Lopez, J. Orrell (SLAC National Lab)

      The LSST Camera is the final major component of Rubin Observatory’s Simonyi Survey Telescope to arrive at the summit. It’s about the size of a small car. Inside, its focal plane contains 189 CCD sensors arranged on an array of “rafts”. The sensors deliver a combined 3200-megapixel view.

      Now that it has arrived, the camera undergoes several months of testing in the observatory’s white room. After that, it goes on the Simonyi Survey Telescope, with its newly-coated 8.4-meter mirror and 3.4-meter secondary mirror.

      About the Vera Rubin Observatory

      This unique observatory is named after astronomer Vera C. Rubin. Her work focused on the mysterious “dark matter” that seems to permeate the Universe. Along with her team, she studied dozens of galaxies to understand what was influencing their motions. It turned out to be dark matter. The search for dark matter and its existence throughout the Universe is one of the main goals of the observatory that now bears her name.

      Understanding the distribution of dark matter is where the LSST Camera will come in handy. For one thing, it will spend a decade taking images of the sky each night, performing a massive survey that will provide a complete image of the visible sky every 3-4 mights. Each area it images will be about the size of 40 full moons and the survey will take advantage of the 8.4-meter telescope moving quickly between imaging positions. In full operation, the Observatory will deliver a 500-petabyte set of images and data products about the sky.

      The complete focal plane of the future LSST Camera is more than 2 feet wide and contains 189 individual sensors that will produce 3,200-megapixel images. Crews at SLAC have now taken the first images with it. (Jacqueline Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)
      The complete focal plane of the future LSST Camera is more than 2 feet wide and contains 189 individual sensors that will produce 3,200-megapixel images. Crews at SLAC have now taken the first images with it. (Jacqueline Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

      Not only will the Rubin Observatory perform this unprecedented survey in very high resolution, but will also track objects that change in brightness—called “transients.” That includes supernovae, variable stars, mergers of dense objects such as neutron stars or black holes, and other quickly changing events and objects. In addition, it will track asteroids and other objects that wander through the Solar System.

      The formation and evolution of the Milky Way Galaxy is another research area for telescope users. Rubin should be able to track stellar streams throughout the Galaxy and chart their paths. That information could give precious insight into just how our Galaxy formed and how stars from cannibalized galaxies move through it.

      What’s Next for Vera Rubin Observatory and the LSST Camera

      Once the LSST Camera got delivered to the Cerro Pachón site, technicians moved it into an immense white room. That’s a controlled environment that protects the instrument while they work to get it ready for installation on the telescope. They inspected the camera and downloaded data about the “ride” from the U.S. to Chile from all the instruments attached to it. “Our goal was to make sure the camera not only survived, but arrived in perfect condition,” said Kevin Reil, Observatory Scientist at Rubin. “Initial indications—including the data collected by the data loggers, accelerometers, and shock sensors—suggest we were successful.”

      View of Rubin Observatory at sunset in December 2023. The 8.4-meter telescope at Rubin Observatory, equipped with the highest-resolution digital camera in the world, will take enormous images of the southern hemisphere sky, covering the entire sky every few nights. Rubin will do this over and over for 10 years, creating a timelapse view of the Universe that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. What new Solar System exploration missions will of these observations inspire? Image Credit: RubinObs/NSF/AURA/H. Stockebrand
      View of Rubin Observatory at sunset in December 2023. The 8.4-meter telescope at Rubin Observatory, equipped with the highest-resolution digital camera in the world, will take enormous images of the southern hemisphere sky, covering the entire sky every few nights. Rubin will do this over and over for 10 years, creating a timelapse view of the Universe. Image Credit: RubinObs/NSF/AURA/H. Stockebrand

      The observatory is still in the final stages of construction. The telescope is in place, and other instruments and infrastructure are being finalized. It should all be ready for “first light” and the beginning of science operations sometime in 2025. Between now and then, more parts of the telescope and its mirrors should be installed, and there will be tests of various other instruments both on and off the sky as scientists get ready to start using Rubin next year. Once observations begin, astronomers using Rubin could discover around 17 billion stars and ~20 billion galaxies in the distant Universe.

      For More Information

      LSST Camera Arrives at Rubin Observatory in Chile, Paving the Way for Cosmic Exploration
      Vera C. Rubin Observatory

      The post The Largest Camera Ever Built Arrives at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory appeared first on Universe Today.

    • This is the Largest Planet-Forming Disk Ever Seen
      by Matt Williams on May 23, 2024 at 12:56 am

      Roughly 1,000 light-years from Earth, there is a cosmic structure known as IRAS 23077+6707 (IRAS 23077) that resembles a giant butterfly. Ciprian T. Berghea, an astronomer with the U.S. Naval Observatory, originally observed the structure in 2016 using the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS). To the surprise of many, the structure has remained unchanged for years, leading some to question what IRAS 2307 could be.

      Recently, two international teams of astronomers made follow-up observations using the Submillimeter Array at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Hawaii to better understand IRAS 2307. In a series of papers describing their findings, the teams revealed that IRAS 23077 is actually a young star surrounded by a massive protoplanetary debris disk, the largest ever observed. This discovery offers new insight into planet formation and the environments where this takes place.

      The first paper, led by Berghea, reports the discovery that IRAS 23077 is a young star located in the middle of what appeared to be an enormous planet-forming disk. In the second paper, led by CfA postdoc Kristina Monsch, the researchers confirm the discovery of this protoplanetary disk using data from Pan-STARRS and the Submillimeter Array (SMA). The first paper has been accepted for publication, while the second was published on May 13th in The Astrophysical Journal Letters (respectively).

      An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. The solar system formed from such a disk. Astronomers suggest this birthplace was protected by a larger filament of molecular gas and dust early in history. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)
      An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. The solar system formed from such a disk. Astronomers suggest this birthplace was protected by a larger filament of molecular gas and dust early in history. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

      Protoplanetary disks are basically planetary nurseries consisting of the gas and dust that have settled around newly formed stars. Over time, these disks become rings as material coalesces into protoplanets in certain orbits, where they will eventually become rocky planets, gas giants, and icy bodies. For astronomers, these disks can be used to constrain the size and mass of young stars since they rotate with a specific signature. Unfortunately, obtaining accurate observations of these disks is sometimes hampered by how they are oriented relative to Earth.

      Whereas some disks appear “face-on” in that they are fully visible to Earth observers, some planet-forming disks (like IRAS 23077) are only visible “edge-on,” meaning the disk obscures light coming from the parent star. Nevertheless, the dust and gas signatures of these disks are still bright at millimeter wavelengths – which the SMA observes. When the Pan-STARRS and SWA teams observed IRAS 23077 using the combined power of their observatories, they were quite surprised by what they saw.

      Kristina Monsch, an SAO astrophysicist and a postdoctoral fellow at the CfA, led the SMA campaign. As she related their findings in a recent CfA news release:

      “After finding out about this possible planet-forming disk from Pan-STARRS data, we were keen to observe it with the SMA, which allowed us to understand its physical nature. What we found was incredible – evidence that this was the largest planet-forming disk ever discovered. It is extremely rich in dust and gas, which we know are the building blocks of planets.”

      “The data from the SMA offer us the smoking–gun evidence that this is a disk, and coupled with the estimate of the system’s distance, that it is rotating around a star likely two to four times more massive than our own Sun. From the SMA data we can also weigh the dust and gas in this planetary nursery, which we found has enough material to form many giant planets – and out to distances over 300 times further out than the distance between the Sun and Jupiter!”

      The inset for this image shows compelling evidence that IRAS 23077 contains a planet-forming disk. Along with dust grains, the SMA can also observe the cold carbon monoxide gas that comprises the bulk of a planet-forming disk. Credit: SAO/ASIAA/SMA/K. Monsch et al.; Optical: Pan-STARRS

      After Berghea observed IRAS 23077, he suggested the nickname “Dracula’s Chivito,” which paid tribute to “Gomez’s Hamburger,” another protoplanetary disk that is only visible edge-on. First, Since Berghea grew up in the Transylvania region in Romania, close to where Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s tale) lived, he suggested Dracula. Having grown up in Uruquay, Berghea’s co-author Ana suggested “chivito,” a hamburger-like sandwich and the national dish of her ancestral country. Said co-author Joshua Bennett Lovell, an SAO astrophysicist and an SMA Fellow at CfA:

      “The discovery of a structure as extended and bright as IRAS 23077 poses some important questions. Just how many more of these objects have we missed? Further study of IRAS 23077 is warranted to investigate the possible routes to form planets in these extreme young environments, and how these might compare to exoplanet populations observed around distant stars more massive than our Sun.”

      The discovery of this disk also incentivizes astronomers to search for similar objects in our galaxy. These observations could yield valuable information on planetary systems in the earliest stage of formation, which could lead to new insights into how the Solar System came to be. The SMA is an array of telescopes in Hawaii jointly operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA) in Taiwan.

      Further Reading: CfA

      The post This is the Largest Planet-Forming Disk Ever Seen appeared first on Universe Today.

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