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Early May Astronomy Bulletin
« on: May 02, 2021, 07:54 »
MARS COULD SUPPORT PRESENT DAY MICROBIAL LIFE
Brown University

As NASA's Perseverance rover begins its search for ancient life on the surface of Mars, a new study suggests that the Martian subsurface might be a good place to look for possible present-day life on the Red Planet. The study looked at the chemical composition of Martian meteorites -- rocks blasted off of the surface of Mars that eventually landed on Earth. The analysis determined that those rocks, if in consistent contact with water, would produce the chemical energy needed to support microbial communities similar to those that survive in the unlit depths of the Earth. Because these meteorites may be representative of vast swaths of the Martian crust, the findings suggest that much of the Mars subsurface could be habitable. In recent decades, scientists have discovered that Earth's depths are home to a vast biome that exists largely separated from the world above. Lacking sunlight, these creatures survive using the by-products of chemical reactions produced when rocks come into contact with water. One of those reactions is radiolysis, which occurs when radioactive elements within rocks react with water trapped in pore and fracture space. The reaction breaks water molecules into their constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. The liberated hydrogen is dissolved in the remaining groundwater, while minerals like pyrite soak up free oxygen to form sulphate minerals. Microbes can ingest the dissolved hydrogen as fuel and use the oxygen preserved in the sulphates to "burn" that fuel. In places like Canada's Kidd Creek Mine, these "sulphate-reducing" microbes have been found living more than a mile underground, in water that hasn't seen the light of day in more than a billion years.

For this new study, the researchers wanted to see if the ingredients for radiolysis-driven habitats could exist on Mars. They drew on data from NASA's Curiosity rover and other orbiting spacecraft, as well as compositional data from a suite of Martian meteorites, which are representative of different parts of the planet's crust. The researchers were looking for the ingredients for radiolysis: radioactive elements like thorium, uranium and potassium; sulphide minerals that could be converted to sulphate; and rock units with adequate pore space to trap water. The study found that in several different types of Martian meteorites, all the ingredients are present in adequate abundances to support Earth-like habitats. This was particularly true for regolith breccias -- meteorites sourced from crustal rocks more than 3.6 billion years old -- which were found to have the highest potential for life support. Unlike Earth, Mars lacks a plate tectonics system that constantly recycle crustal rocks. So these ancient terrains remain largely undisturbed. The researchers say the findings help make the case for an exploration program that looks for signs of present-day life in the Martian subsurface. Prior research has found evidence of an active groundwater system on Mars in the past, the researchers say, and there's reason to believe that groundwater exists today. One recent study, for example, raised the possibility of an underground lake lurking under the planet's southern ice cap. This new research suggests that wherever there's groundwater, there's energy for life. While there are certainly technical challenges involved in subsurface exploration, they aren't as insurmountable as people may think. A drilling operation wouldn't require "a Texas-sized oil rig," and recent advances in small drill probes could soon put the Martian depths within reach.


NEW SUPER-EARTH FOUND ORBITING RED DWARF STAR
Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC)

In recent years there has been an exhaustive study of red dwarf stars to find exoplanets in orbit around them. These stars have effective surface temperatures between 2400 and 3700 K (over 2000 degrees cooler than the Sun), and masses between 0.08 and 0.45 solar masses. In this context, a team of researchers specializing in the search for planets around this type of stars, has discovered a super-Earth orbiting the star GJ 740, a red dwarf star situated some 36 light years from Earth. The planet orbits its star with a period of 2.4 days and its mass is around 3 times the mass of Earth. Because the star is so close to the Sun, and the planet so close to the star, this new super-Earth could be the object of future researches with very large diameter telescopes towards the end of this decade. The data also indicate the presence of a second planet with an orbital period of 9 years, and a mass comparable to that of Saturn (close to 100 Earth masses), although its radial velocity signal could be due to the magnetic cycle of the star (similar to that of the Sun), so that more data are needed to confirm that the signal is really due to a planet. The Kepler mission, recognised at one of the most successful in detecting exoplanets using the transit method (which is the search for small variations in the brightness of a star caused by the transit between it and ourselves of planets orbiting around it), has discovered a total of 156 new planets around cool stars. From its data it has been estimated that this type of stars harbours an average of 2.5 planets with orbital periods of less than 200 days. Cool stars are also an ideal target for the search for planets via the radial velocity method. This method is based on the detection of small variations in the velocity of a star due to the gravitational attraction of a planet in orbit around it, using spectroscopic observations. Since the discovery in 1998 of the first radial velocity signal of an exoplanet around a cool star, until now, a total of 116 exoplanets has been discovered around this class of stars using the radial velocity method. This detection was possible due to a six year observing campaign with HARPS-N, complemented with measurements with the CARMENES spectrograph on the 3.5m telescope at the Calar Alto Observatory (Almería) and HARPS, on the 3.6m telescope at the La Silla Observatory (Chile), as well as photometric support from the ASAP and EXORAP surveys.


HYDROXYL MOLECULE DETECTED IN EXOPLANET
Trinity College Dublin

Astronomers have detected a new chemical signature in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet . The hydroxyl radical (OH) was found on the dayside of the exoplanet WASP-33b. This planet is a so-called 'ultra-hot Jupiter', a gas-giant planet orbiting its host star much closer than Mercury orbits the Sun and therefore reaching atmospheric temperatures of more than 2,500° C (hot enough to melt most metals). This is the first direct evidence of OH in the atmosphere of a planet beyond the Solar System. It shows not only that astronomers can detect this molecule in exoplanet atmospheres, but also that they can begin to understand the detailed chemistry of this planetary population. In the Earth's atmosphere, OH is mainly produced by the reaction of water vapour with atomic oxygen. It is a so-called 'atmospheric detergent' and plays a crucial role in the Earth's atmosphere to purge pollutant gasses that can be dangerous to life (e.g., methane, carbon monoxide). In a much hotter and bigger planet like WASP-33b, where astronomers have previously detected signs of iron and titanium oxide gas) OH plays a key role in determining the chemistry of the atmosphere through interactions with water vapour and carbon monoxide. Most of the OH in the atmosphere of WASP-33b is thought to have been produced by the destruction of water vapour due to the extremely high temperature.

To make this discovery, the team used the InfraRed Doppler (IRD) instrument at the 8.2-meter diameter Subaru Telescope located in the summit area of Maunakea in Hawai`i (about 4,200 m above sea level). This new instrument can detect atoms and molecules through their 'spectral fingerprints”, unique sets of dark absorption features superimposed on the rainbow of colours (or spectrum) that are emitted by stars and planets. As the planet orbits its host star, its velocity relative to the Earth changes with time. Just like the siren of an ambulance or the roar of a racing car's engine changes pitch while speeding past us, the frequencies of light (e.g., colour) of these spectral fingerprints change with the velocity of the planet. This allows astronomers to separate the planet's signal from its bright host star, which normally overwhelms such observations, despite modern telescopes being nowhere near powerful enough to take direct images of such 'hot Jupiter' exoplanets. By taking advantage of the unique capabilities of IRD, the astronomers were able to detect the tiny signal from hydroxyl in the planet's atmosphere. While WASP-33b may be a giant planet, these observations are the testbed for the next-generation facilities like the Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope in searching for biosignatures on smaller and potentially rocky worlds, which might provide hints to one of the oldest questions of humankind: 'Are we alone?’


RCW 120 NEBULA IS YOUNGER THAN BELIEVED
West Virginia University

In the southern sky, situated about 4,300 light years from Earth, lies RCW 120, an enormous glowing cloud of gas and dust. This cloud, known as an emission nebula, is formed of ionized gases and emits light at various wavelengths. An international team of researchers studied RCW 120 to analyze the effects of stellar feedback, the process by which stars inject energy back into their environment. Their observations showed that stellar winds cause the region to expand rapidly, which enabled them to constrain the age of the region. These findings indicate that RCW 120 must be less than 150,000 years old, which is very young for such a nebula. About seven light years from the centre of RCW 120 lies the boundary of the cloud, where a plethora of stars are forming. How are all of these stars being formed? To answer that question, we need to dig deep into the origin of the nebula. RCW 120 has one young, massive star in its centre, which generates powerful stellar winds. The stellar winds from this star are much like those from our own Sun, in that they throw material out from their surface into space. This stellar wind shocks and compresses the surrounding gas clouds. The energy that is being input into the nebula triggers the formation of new stars in the clouds, a process known as "positive feedback" because the presence of the massive central star has a positive effect on future star formation. The team used SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) to study the interactions of massive stars with their environment.

SOFIA is an airborne observatory consisting of a 2.7-metre telescope carried by a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. SOFIA observes in the infrared regime of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is just beyond what humans can see. For observers on the ground, water vapour in the atmosphere blocks much of the light from space that infrared astronomers are interested in measuring. However, its cruising altitude of 13 km puts SOFIA above most of the water vapour, allowing researchers to study star-forming regions in a way that would not be possible from the ground. Overnight, the in-flight observatory observes celestial magnetic fields, star-forming regions (like RCW 120), comets and nebulae. Thanks to the new upGREAT receiver that was installed in 2015, the airborne telescope can make more precise maps of large areas of the sky than ever before. The research team opted to observe the spectroscopic [CII] line with SOFIA, which is emitted from diffuse ionized carbon in the star-forming region. Using their [CII] observations from SOFIA, the research team found that RCW 120 is expanding at 15 km/s, which is incredibly fast for a nebula. From this expansion speed, the team was able to put an age limit on the cloud and found that RCW 120 is much younger than previously believed. With the age estimate, they were able to infer the time it took for the star formation at the boundary of the nebula to kick in after the central star had been formed. These findings suggest that positive feedback processes occur on very short timescales and point to the idea that these mechanisms could be responsible for the high star formation rates that occurred during the early stages of the Universe.


NEW ALL-SKY MAP OF MILKY WAY’S OUTER REACHES
NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Astronomers using data from NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) telescopes have released a new all-sky map of the outermost region of our galaxy. Known as the galactic halo, this area lies outside the swirling spiral arms that form the Milky Way's recognizable central disk and is sparsely populated with stars. Though the halo may appear mostly empty, it is also predicted to contain a massive reservoir of dark matter, a mysterious and invisible substance thought to make up the bulk of all the mass in the Universe. The data for the new map comes from ESA's Gaia mission and NASA's Near Earth Object Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or NEOWISE, which operated from 2009 to 2013 under the moniker WISE. The study makes use of data collected by the spacecraft between 2009 and 2018. The new map reveals how a small galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) -- so named because it is the larger of two dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way -- has sailed through the Milky Way's galactic halo like a ship through water, its gravity creating a wake in the stars behind it. The LMC is located about 160,000 light-years from Earth and is less than one-quarter the mass of the Milky Way. Though the inner portions of the halo have been mapped with a high level of accuracy, this is the first map to provide a similar picture of the halo's outer regions, where the wake is found -- about 200,000 light-years to 325,000 light-years from the galactic centre. Previous studies have hinted at the wake's existence, but the all-sky map confirms its presence and offers a detailed view of its shape, size, and location. This disturbance in the halo also provides astronomers with an opportunity to study something they can't observe directly: dark matter. While it doesn't emit, reflect, or absorb light, the gravitational influence of dark matter has been observed across the Universe. It is thought to create the scaffolding on which galaxies are built, such that without it, galaxies would fly apart as they spin. Dark matter is estimated to be five times more common in the Universe than all the matter that emits and/or interacts with light, from stars to planets to gas clouds.

Although there are multiple theories about the nature of dark matter, all of them indicate that it should be present in the Milky Way's halo. If that's the case, then as the LMC sails through this region, it should leave a wake in the dark matter as well. The wake observed in the new star map is thought to be the outline of this dark matter wake; the stars are like leaves on the surface of this invisible ocean, their position shifting with the dark matter. The interaction between the dark matter and the Large Magellanic Cloud has big implications for our galaxy. As the LMC orbits the Milky Way, the dark matter's gravity drags on the LMC and slows it down. This will cause the dwarf galaxy's orbit to get smaller and smaller, until the galaxy finally collides with the Milky Way in about 2 billion years. These types of mergers might be a key driver in the growth of massive galaxies across the Universe. In fact, astronomers think the Milky Way merged with another small galaxy about 10 billion years ago. The authors of the paper also think the new map -- along with additional data and theoretical analyses -- may provide a test for different theories about the nature of dark matter, such as whether it consists of particles, like regular matter, and what the properties of those particles are. The team mapped the positions of over 1,300 stars in the halo. The challenge arose in trying to measure the exact distance from Earth to a large portion of those stars: It's often impossible to figure out whether a star is faint and close by or bright and far away. After identifying stars most likely located in the halo (because they were not obviously inside our galaxy or the LMC), the team looked for stars belonging to a class of giant stars with a specific light "signature" detectable by NEOWISE. Knowing the basic properties of the selected stars enabled the team to figure out their distance from Earth and create the new map. It charts a region starting about 200,000 light-years from the Milky Way's centre, or about where the LMC's wake was predicted to begin, and extends about 125,000 light-years beyond that. One model by the Arizona team, included in the new study, predicted the general structure and specific location of the star wake revealed in the new map. Once the data had confirmed that the model was correct, the team could confirm what other investigations have also hinted at: that the LMC is likely on its first orbit around the Milky Way. If the smaller galaxy had already made multiple orbits, the shape and location of the wake would be significantly different from what has been observed. Astronomers think the LMC formed in the same environment as the Milky Way and another nearby galaxy, M31, and that it is close to completing a long first orbit around our galaxy (about 13 billion years). Its next orbit will be much shorter due to its interaction with the Milky Way.


FAST-SPINNING BLACK HOLES NARROW DARK MATTER SEARCH
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Ultralight bosons are hypothetical particles whose mass is predicted to be less than a billionth the mass of an electron. They interact relatively little with their surroundings and have thus far eluded searches to confirm their existence. If they exist, ultralight bosons such as axions would likely be a form of dark matter, the mysterious, invisible stuff that makes up 85 percent of the matter in the Universe. Now, physicists at MIT's LIGO Laboratory have searched for ultralight bosons using black holes -- objects that are mind-bending orders of magnitude more massive than the particles themselves. According to the predictions of quantum theory, a black hole of a certain mass should pull in clouds of ultralight bosons, which in turn should collectively slow down a black hole's spin. If the particles exist, then all black holes of a particular mass should have relatively low spins. But the physicists have found that two previously detected black holes are spinning too fast to have been affected by any ultralight bosons. Because of their large spins, the black holes' existence rules out the existence of ultralight bosons with masses between 1.3x10-13 electronvolts and 2.7x10-13 electronvolts -- around a quintillionth the mass of an electron. The study is also the first to use the spins of black holes detected by LIGO and Virgo, and gravitational-wave data, to look for dark matter. Ultralight bosons are being searched for across a huge range of super-light masses, from 1x10-33 electronvolts to 1x10-6 electronvolts. Scientists have so far used tabletop experiments and astrophysical observations to rule out slivers of this wide space of possible masses. Since the early 2000s, physicists proposed that black holes could be another means of detecting ultralight bosons, due to an effect known as superradiance.

If ultralight bosons exist, they could interact with a black hole under the right circumstances. Quantum theory posits that at a very small scale, particles cannot be described by classical physics, or even as individual objects. This scale, known as the Compton wavelength, is inversely proportional to the particle mass. As ultralight bosons are exceptionally light, their wavelength is predicted to be exceptionally large. For a certain mass range of bosons, their wavelength can be comparable to the size of a black hole. When this happens, superradiance is expected to quickly develop. Ultralight bosons are then created from the vacuum around a black hole, in quantities large enough that the tiny particles collectively drag on the black hole and slow down its spin. In their study, the team looked through all 45 black hole binaries reported by LIGO and Virgo to date. The masses of these black holes -- between 10 and 70 times the mass of the Sun -- indicate that if they had interacted with ultralight bosons, the particles would have been between 1x10-13 electronvolts and 2x10-11 electronvolts in mass. For every black hole, the team calculated the spin that it should have if the black hole was spun down by ultralight bosons within the corresponding mass range. From their analysis, two black holes stood out: GW190412 and GW190517. Just as there is a maximum velocity for physical objects -- the speed of light -- there is a top spin at which black holes can rotate. GW190517 is spinning at close to that maximum. The researchers calculated that if ultralight bosons existed, they would have dragged its spin down by a factor of two. The researchers also accounted for other possible scenarios for generating the black holes' large spins, while still allowing for the existence of ultralight bosons. For instance, a black hole could have been spun down by bosons but then subsequently sped up again through interactions with the surrounding accretion disk -- a disk of matter from which the black hole could suck up energy and momentum. In other words, it's unlikely that the black holes' high spins are due to an alternate scenario in which ultralight bosons also exist. Given the masses and high spins of both black holes, the researchers were able to rule out the existence of ultralight bosons with masses between 1.3x10-13 electronvolts and 2.7x10-13 electronvolts.
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ROTATING INFANT GALAXY DISCOVERED WITH NATURAL COSMIC TELESCOPE
National Institutes of Natural Sciences

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers found a rotating baby galaxy 1/100th the size of the Milky Way at a time when the Universe was only seven percent of its present age. Thanks to assistance by the gravitational lens effect, the team was able to explore for the first time the nature of small and dark "normal galaxies" in the early Universe, representative of the main population of the first galaxies, which greatly advances our understanding of the initial phase of galaxy evolution. Many of the galaxies that existed in the early Universe were so small that their brightness is well below the limit of the current largest telescopes on Earth and in Space, making difficult to study their properties and internal structure. However, the light coming from the galaxy named RXCJ0600-z6, was highly magnified by gravitational lensing, making it an ideal target for studying the properties and structure of a typical baby galaxies. Gravitational lensing is a natural phenomenon in which light emitted from a distant object is bent by the gravity of a massive body such as a galaxy or a galaxy cluster located in the foreground. The name "gravitational lensing" is derived from the fact that the gravity of the massive object acts like a lens. When we look through a gravitational lens, the light of distant objects is intensified and their shapes are stretched. In other words, it is a "natural telescope" floating in space. The ALMA Lensing Cluster Survey (ALCS) team used ALMA to search for a large number of galaxies in the early Universe that are enlarged by gravitational lensing. Combining the power of ALMA, with the help of the natural telescopes, the researchers are able to uncover and study fainter galaxies.

Why is it crucial to explore the faintest galaxies in the early Universe? Theory and simulations predict that the majority of galaxies formed few hundred millions years after the Big-Bang are small, and thus faint. Although several galaxies in the early Universe have been previously observed, those studied were limited to the most massive objects, and therefore the less representative galaxies, in the early Universe, because of telescopes capabilities. The only way to understand the standard formation of the first galaxies, and obtain a complete picture of galaxy formation, is to focus on the fainter and more numerous galaxies. The ALCS team performed a large-scale observation program that took 95 hours, which is a long time for ALMA observations, to observe the central regions of 33 galaxy clusters that could cause gravitational lensing. One of these clusters, called RXCJ0600-2007, is located in the direction of the constellation of Lepus, and has a mass 1000 trillion times that of the Sun. The team discovered a single distant galaxy that is being affected by the gravitational lens created by this natural telescope. ALMA detected the light from carbon ions and stardust in the galaxy and, together with data taken with the Gemini telescope, determined that the galaxy is seen as it was about 900 million years after the Big Bang (12.9 billion years ago). Further analysis of these data suggested that a part of this source is seen 160 times brighter than it is intrinsically. By precisely measuring the mass distribution of the cluster of galaxies, it is possible to "undo" the gravitational lensing effect and restore the original appearance of the magnified object. By combining data from Hubble Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope with a theoretical model, the team succeeded in reconstructing the actual shape of the distant galaxy RXCJ0600-z6. The total mass of this galaxy is about 2 to 3 billion times that of the Sun, which is about 1/100th of the size of our own Milky Way Galaxy. What astonished the team is that RXCJ0600-z6 is rotating. Traditionally, gas in the young galaxies was thought to have random, chaotic motion. Only recently has ALMA discovered several rotating young galaxies that have challenged the traditional theoretical framework, but these were several orders of magnitude brighter (larger) than RXCJ0600-z6. When the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Extremely Large Telescope are completed, they may be able to detect clusters of stars in the galaxy, and possibly even resolve individual stars. There is an example of gravitational lensing that has been used to observe a single star 9.5 billion light-years away, and this research has the potential to extend this to less than a billion years after the birth of the Universe.


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