Earth Resides in Oddball Solar System, Alien Worlds Show

Original Article

Our solar system may be an oddball in the universe. A new study using data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope shows that in most cases, exoplanets orbiting the same star have similar sizes and regular spacing between their orbits.

By contrast, our own solar system has a range of planetary sizes and distances between neighbors. The smallest planet, Mercury, is about one-third the size of Earth — and the biggest planet, Jupiter, is roughly 11 times the diameter of Earth. There also are very different spacings between individual planets, particularly the inner planets.

This means our solar system may have formed differently than other solar systems did, the research team suggested, although more observations are needed to learn what the different mechanisms were. [The Most Intriguing Alien Planet Discoveries of 2017]

“The planets in a system tend to be the same size and regularly spaced, like peas in a pod. These patterns would not occur if the planet sizes or spacings were drawn at random,” Lauren Weiss, the study’s lead author and an astrophysicist at the University of Montreal, said in a statement.

The research team examined 355 stars that had a total of 909 planets, which periodically transit across their faces (as seen from Earth). The planets are between 1,000 and 4,000 light-years away from Earth.

After running a statistical analysis, the team found that a system with a small planet would tend to have other small planets nearby — and vice-versa, with big planets tending to have big neighbors. These extrasolar systems also had regular orbital spacing between the planets.

“The similar sizes and orbital spacing of planets have implications for how most planetary systems form,” researchers said in the statement. “In classic planet-formation theory, planets form in the protoplanetary disk that surrounds a newly formed star. The planets might form in compact configurations with similar sizes and a regular orbital spacing, in a manner similar to the newly observed pattern in exoplanetary systems.”

In our own solar system, however, the story is very different. The four terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) are very widely spaced apart. The team pointed to evidence from other research that Jupiter and Saturn may have disrupted the structure of the young solar system. While the statement did not specify how, several other research studies have examined the movements of these giant planets and their potential impact on the solar system.

Each of the exoplanets examined in the study was originally found by Kepler, which launched in 2009 and continues to send data today. But more-detailed information was obtained with the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii; Weiss is a member of the California-Kepler Survey team there, which is examining the light signatures of thousands of planets discovered by Kepler.

Weiss said she plans a follow-up study at Keck to look for Jupiter-like planets in multiplanet systems. The aim is to better understand if the presence of a Jupiter-size planet would alter the position of other planets in the same system.

“Regardless of their outer populations, the similarity of planets in the inner regions of extrasolar systems requires an explanation,” researchers said in the statement. “If the deciding factor for planet sizes can be identified, it might help determine which stars are likely to have terrestrial planets that are suitable for life.”

The study was published Jan. 3 in The Astronomical Journal.

Astronomers Are Gearing Up to Listen for Evidence of Aliens from a Mysterious Interstellar Object

Original Article

By Patrick Caughill

LISTENING IN

Our solar system was recently introduced to the first interstellar object in late November. The object, called ‘Oumuamua (a Hawaiian word for “messenger”), has caught the attention of astronomers and space enthusiasts who are toying with the possibility of it being an interstellar space probe sent by an advanced civilization elsewhere in the universe.

Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire behind the Breakthrough Listen research program, is intrigued by this possibility. Shortly after meeting with Harvard’s astronomy department chair, Avi Loeb, Breakthrough Listen announced it will be focusing on ‘Oumuamua to investigate if the object is transmitting radio signals, a telltale sign that it’s not just a space rock.

Image credit: Brooks Bays / SOEST Publication Services / Univ. of Hawaii

In an email to Milner, Loeb says, “The more I study this object, the more unusual it appears, making me wonder whether it might be an artificially made probe which was sent by an alien civilization,” which put a great deal of heft behind such a claim.

The object was first spotted by the Pan-STARRS survey telescope in Hawaii and has since been discovered to have some uncharacteristic qualities of a typical asteroid or comet. ‘Oumuamua was first thought to be a comet but since it lacked a coma, or tail of evaporated material, that was quickly ruled out. The shape of the object also is peculiar as it is much longer than it is wide, while most asteroids are rounder in shape. This certainly doesn’t disqualify it as an asteroid as the lack of a coma did for its prospects of being a comet but it still raises some questions.

ALIEN SHOUT OUTS

Breakthrough Listen will begin listening to the object using the Green Bank Telescope starting this Wednesday, December 13, at 3 p.m. Eastern time. The telescope will look at the asteroid for ten hours across four bands of radio frequency in the hopes of intercepting a radio signal transmitted from the object. The technology could allow for a rapid turn-around time of just days

Scientists do admit that the likelihood of this object being anything other than naturally occurring is very small. However, science does not tend to work in the realm of absolute impossibility. Andrew Siemion the director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and leader of the center’s Breakthrough Listen Initiative told The Atlantic,  “It would be difficult to work in this field if you thought that every time you looked at something, you weren’t going to succeed,” a sentiment that is likely to be common in other SETI pursuits.

‘Oumuamua is just the latest development to excite SETI enthusiasts. Its appearance in our solar system is just one of the closest objects of potential extraterrestrial influence. The Kepler Space Telescope has noticed a distant star, known as KIC 8462852, which also exhibits some uncharacteristic qualities, leading to observers questioning whether an advanced civilization is present.

Many humans seem to be eager to prove that we are not alone in the universe. To that end, they can tend to cling to any remote possibility more than the evidence should afford. While mysterious signals or strange objects should absolutely pique our interests, we shouldn’t focus on the answer being aliens. There is plenty we have yet to learn about the universe around us, and yes, intelligent life elsewhere in the universe might be part of that elusive knowledge. We can get just as excited about learning more about the mechanics of the universe which can help us gain important insight on just how we got here, and on a cosmic scale, where we are headed.

‘Monster’ planet discovery stuns scientists

Original Article

By Fox News

Astronomers have discovered a planet the size of Jupiter orbiting a star that’s only half the size of the sun — a celestial phenomenon that contradicts theories of planet formation.

NGTS-1b, a massive, 986-degrees-hot ball of gas revolving around a red M-dwarf star 600 light years from Earth, is the largest planet compared to the size of its star ever found.

The discovery contradicts theories that a star so small could form a planet so large. Scientists previously theorized that small stars could form rocky planets, but they did not gather enough material to form planets the size of Jupiter.

STARGZERS FIND TWENTY NEW EARTH-LIKE PLANETS THAT COULD HOST LIFE

As red M-dwarf stars are the most common type in the universe, scientists now believe there may be many more planets like this.

MonsterPlanet2

Artist’s impression of planet NGTS-1b with its neighbouring sun (credit University of Warwick/Mark Garlick)

NGTS-1b was spotted by an international collaboration of researchers using the Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) facility in Chile, according to a report from the University of Warwick.

It is about 2.8 million miles away from its star — only 3 percent of the 93-million-mile distance between Earth and the sun. A year on NGTS-1b — the time it takes to revolve around its star — occurs every 2.6 Earth days.

NASA RELEASES EERIE PLAYLIST OF SPELLBINDING SPACE SOUNDS

“The discovery of NGTS-1b was a complete surprise to us. Such massive planets were not thought to exist around such small stars,” said the lead author of the research, Dr. Daniel Bayliss of the University of Warwick’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Group. “This is the first exoplanet we have found with our new NGTS facility, and we are already challenging the received wisdom of how planets form.”

“NGTS-1b was difficult to find, despite being a monster of a planet, because its parent star is small and faint,” said Warwick Professor Peter Wheatley. “Small stars are actually the most common in the universe, so it is possible that there are many of these giant planets waiting to found.

“Having worked for almost a decade to develop the NGTS telescope array, it is thrilling to see it picking out new and unexpected types of planets. I’m looking forward to seeing what other kinds of exciting new planets we can turn up.”

SUNSCREEN ‘SNOW’ FALLS ON SCORCHING-HOT ALIEN PLANET

The astronomers’ report, ‘NGTS-1b: a hot Jupiter transiting an M-dwarf’, will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

First interstellar object from beyond our solar system spotted by astronomers

Original Article

By Chloe Farand

Mysterious space rock passes near Earth at ‘extremely fast’ 15.8 miles per second asteroid-getty.jpg

For the first time ever a comet or asteroid that likely originated from outside our solar system has passed close enough to Earth to be visible by astronomers.

The interstellar object has sparked huge enthusiasm from scientists who are urgently working to gather information on the mysterious body before it disappears from sight.

According to astronomers, the object is on a hyperbolic trajectory which suggests the body has escaped from a star from outside our solar system.

Early findings published by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Centre state: “If further observations confirm the unusual nature of this orbit, this object may be the first clear case of an interstellar comet.”

The mysterious object, named A/2017 U1, was discovered by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii.

Rob Weryk from the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Astronomy was the first to identify the moving object. Comparing his findings with images taken at the European Space Agency’s telescope on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, he concluded the object came from somewhere else in our galaxy.

The alien space rock, believed to have come from the direction of the constellation Lyra, is less than 400 metres in diameter and is travelling through space at a remarkable 15.8 miles (25.5 kilometres) per second.

interstellar-object.jpg
A/2017 U1 passed through our inner solar system in September and October (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists have long believed in the existence of such interstellar objects because huge amounts of material is thought to be ejected when planets are formed. However, this sighting is the first of its kind.

Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Centre for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), said: “We have been waiting for this for decades. It’s long been theorised that such objects exist – asteroids or comets moving around between the stars and occasionally passing through our solar system – but this is the first such detection. So far, everything indicates this is likely an interstellar object, but more data would help confirm it.”

New information obtained from observing the object could allow astronomers to know more about its origin and possibly its composition.

“This is the most extreme orbit I have ever seen,” said David Farnocchia from CNEOS’ Jet propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“It is going extremely fast and on such a trajectory that we can say with confidence that this object is on its way out of the solar system and not coming back.”

The small body came closest to the Sun on 9 September before making a hairpin turn and passing under the Earth’s orbit on 14 October at a distance of about 15 million miles (24 million kilometres), or about 60 times the distance to the Moon.

Half the Universe’s Missing Matter Has Just Been Finally Found

Original Article

By Leah Crane

The missing links between galaxies have finally been found. This is the first detection of the roughly half of the normal matter in our universe – protons, neutrons and electrons – unaccounted for by previous observations of stars, galaxies and other bright objects in space.

You have probably heard about the hunt for dark matter, a mysterious substance thought to permeate the universe, the effects of which we can see through its gravitational pull. But our models of the universe also say there should be about twice as much ordinary matter out there, compared with what we have observed so far.

Two separate teams found the missing matter – made of particles called baryons rather than dark matter – linking galaxies together through filaments of hot, diffuse gas.

“The missing baryon problem is solved,” says Hideki Tanimura at the Institute of Space Astrophysics in Orsay, France, leader of one of the groups. The other team was led by Anna de Graaff at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

Because the gas is so tenuous and not quite hot enough for X-ray telescopes to pick up, nobody had been able to see it before.

“There’s no sweet spot – no sweet instrument that we’ve invented yet that can directly observe this gas,” says Richard Ellis at University College London. “It’s been purely speculation until now.”

So the two groups had to find another way to definitively show that these threads of gas are really there.

Both teams took advantage of a phenomenon called the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect that occurs when light left over from the big bang passes through hot gas. As the light travels, some of it scatters off the electrons in the gas, leaving a dim patch in the cosmic microwave background – our snapshot of the remnants from the birth of the cosmos.

Stack ‘em up

In 2015, the Planck satellite created a map of this effect throughout the observable universe. Because the tendrils of gas between galaxies are so diffuse, the dim blotches they cause are far too slight to be seen directly on Planck’s map.

Both teams selected pairs of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that were expected to be connected by a strand of baryons. They stacked the Planck signals for the areas between the galaxies, making the individually faint strands detectable en masse.

Tanimura’s team stacked data on 260,000 pairs of galaxies, and de Graaff’s group used over a million pairs. Both teams found definitive evidence of gas filaments between the galaxies. Tanimura’s group found they were almost three times denser than the mean for normal matter in the universe, and de Graaf’s group found they were six times denser – confirmation that the gas in these areas is dense enough to form filaments.

“We expect some differences because we are looking at filaments at different distances,” says Tanimura. “If this factor is included, our findings are very consistent with the other group.”

Finally finding the extra baryons that have been predicted by decades of simulations validates some of our assumptions about the universe.

“Everybody sort of knows that it has to be there, but this is the first time that somebody – two different groups, no less – has come up with a definitive detection,” says Ralph Kraft at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts.

“This goes a long way toward showing that many of our ideas of how galaxies form and how structures form over the history of the universe are pretty much correct,” he says.

New Observations Deepen Mystery of “Alien Megastructure” Star

Original Article

By Mike Wall

Artist’s illustration depicting a hypothetical dust ring orbiting KIC 8462852, also known as Boyajian’s Star or Tabby’s Star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There’s a prosaic explanation for at least some of the weirdness of “Tabby’s star,” it would appear.

The bizarre long-term dimming of Tabby’s star—also known as Boyajian’s star, or, more formally, KIC 8462852—is likely caused by dust, not a giant network of solar panels or any other “megastructure” built by advanced aliens, a new study suggests.

Astronomers came to this conclusion after noticing that this dimming was more pronounced in ultraviolet (UV) than infrared light. Any object bigger than a dust grain would cause uniform dimming across all wavelengths, study team members said. [13 Ways to Hunt Intelligent Aliens]

“This pretty much rules out the alien megastructure theory, as that could not explain the wavelength-dependent dimming,” lead author Huan Meng of the University of Arizona said in a statement. “We suspect, instead, there is a cloud of dust orbiting the star with a roughly 700-day orbital period.”

STRANGE BRIGHTNESS DIPS

KIC 8462852, which lies about 1,500 light-years from Earth, has generated a great deal of intrigue and speculation since 2015. That year, a team led by astronomer Tabetha Boyajian (hence the star’s nicknames) reported that KIC 8462852 had dimmed dramatically several times over the past half-decade or so, once by 22 percent.

No orbiting planet could cause such big dips, so researchers began coming up with possible alternative explanations. These included swarms of comets or comet fragments, interstellar dust and the famous (but unlikely) alien-megastructure hypothesis.

The mystery deepened after the initial Boyajian et al. study. For example, other research groups found that, in addition to the occasional short-term brightness dips, Tabby’s star dimmed overall by about 20 percent between 1890 and 1989. In addition, a 2016 paper determined that its brightness decreased by 3 percent from 2009 to 2013.

The new study, which was published online Tuesday (Oct. 3) in The Astrophysical Journal, addresses such longer-term events.

From January 2016 to December 2016, Meng and his colleagues (who include Boyajian) studied Tabby’s star in infrared and UV light using NASA’s Spitzer and Swift space telescopes, respectively. They also observed it in visible light during this period using the 27-inch-wide (68 centimeters) telescope at AstroLAB IRIS, a public observatory near the Belgian village of Zillebeke.

The observed UV dip implicates circumstellar dust—grains large enough to stay in orbit around Tabby’s star despite the radiation pressure but small enough that they don’t block light uniformly in all wavelengths, the researchers said.

MYSTERIES REMAIN

The new study does not solve all of KIC 8462852’s mysteries, however. For example, it does not address the short-term 20 percent brightness dips, which were detected by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. (Kepler is now observing a different part of the sky during its K2 extended mission and will not follow up on Tabby’s star for the forseeable future.)

And a different study—led by Joshua Simon of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California—just found that Tabby’s star experienced two brightening spells over the past 11 years. (Simon and his colleagues also determined that the star has dimmed by about 1.5 percent from February 2015 to now.)

“Up until this work, we had thought that the star’s changes in brightness were only occurring in one direction—dimming,” Simon said in a statement. “The realization that the star sometimes gets brighter in addition to periods of dimming is incompatible with most hypotheses to explain its weird behavior.”

You can read the Simon et al. study for free at the online preprint site arXiv.org.

Why The Sun Has Been On The Fritz

Original Article

By George Dvorsky

The solar flare as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on September 10, 2017. (Image: NASA/SDO/Goddard)

Since early last week, the Sun has belched out a steady stream of solar flares, including the most powerful burst recorded in the star’s current 11-year cycle. It sounds very alarming, but scientists say this is simply what stars do every now and then, and that there’s nothing to be concerned about.

Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation that stream out into space after periods of sunspot-associated magnetic activity. Sunspots are surface features that occasionally form owing to the strong magnetic field lines that come up from within the Sun and pierce through the solar surface. Solar flares are the largest explosive events in the Solar System, producing bright flashes that last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Earth’s atmosphere protects us from most of their harmful rays, but this radiation can disturb GPS, radio, and communications signals, particularly near our planet’s polar regions.

The solar flare as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on September 10, 2017. (Image: NASA/SDO/Goddard)

On Sunday September 10, 2017, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded an X8.2 class flare. Class X flares are the most intense flares, and the number attached to it denotes its strength, where X2 is twice as intense as X1, and X3 is three times as intense, and so on. M-class flares are a tenth the size of X-class flares and C-class flares are the weakest of the bunch. Both X- and M-class flares can cause brief radio blackouts on Earth, and other mild technological disruptions. Unless it’s part of an unusually strong solar storm—the kind that happens about once every one hundred years—in which case that would be very bad.

The latest flare spurted out from the Sun’s Active Region 2673, which scientists first noticed on August 29. Activity from this region began to intensify on September 4. Over the past week, NASA has catalogued six sizeable flares, including X2.2 and X9.3 flares on September 6, and an X1.3 flare on September 7. The X9.3 flare is the largest flare recorded so far in the current solar cycle—an approximately 11 year-cycle in which the Sun’s activity waxes and wanes. We’re in the ninth year of the current cycle, and we’re heading towards a solar minimum in terms of intensity. Flares like this are rare during this waning phase, but as these latest bursts show, they can still be pretty intense.

This gif shows both the X2.2 and the X9.3 flares that the Sun emitted on Sept. 6, 2017. (Image: NASA/GSFC/SDO)

“Big flares towards the end of sunspot cycles are not unusual, and in fact, that’s fairly standard behavior,” said Scott MacIntosh, director of the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric research (NCAR), in an interview with Gizmodo. “The trick is to explain why.”

MacIntosh says that when the Sun’s activity gets low, the magnetic systems underlying the spots appear to be in close-contact near the equator. This creates an opportunity for the Sun to produce “hybrid” sunspots—regions which contain magnetic fields that twist like water in the Northern and Southern hemisphere oceans.

“Remember how the rotation of the Earth makes water [spin] in different directions in each hemisphere? The Sun does the same thing for the same reason—the Coriolis force,” said MacIntosh. “Those systems are very unstable. Typically these types of spots produce the biggest, baddest flares and coronal mass ejections when they emerge through the Sun’s surface.”

But the paradoxical thing, says MacIntosh, is that the periods of very low solar activity are known to have produced the biggest geomagnetic storms in history, and these late-cycle events can persist for a very long time, even though the total number of flares is low. “It’s basically about how the different magnetic systems interact,” he says.

As a result of the most recent solar flares, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has issued a moderate geomagnetic storm watch for September 13, and a minor geomagnetic storm watch for September 14. This shouldn’t cause too much of a problem on Earth, but as NASA Solar Scientist Mitzi Adams explained to Gizmodo, we need to be concerned about flares and coronal mass ejections, since we’re now so reliant on technology that can be impacted by these events.

“The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) shows an image from SOHO’s coronagraph with ‘speckles.’ The speckles are energetic charged particles interacting with the camera, which do degrade the camera over time,” said Adams. “These events also cause radio blackouts, corrosion in pipelines, and ground-induced currents that can damage transformers. Through monitoring and basic research, the goal is to understand what the Sun does and is likely to do so that we can prepare satellites, power grids, and even astronauts.”

The particles that speckle our cameras, says Adams, arrive about an hour after traveling about 93,000,000 miles per hour (150,000,000 km/h) from the Sun to the Earth. But the bulk of the particles take a couple of days to reach our planet, giving us some time to prepare.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified the Space Weather Prediction Center as being run by NASA. Sorry about the error.