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Mid July Astronomy Bulletin
« on: July 11, 2021, 08:36 »
DISCOVERY OF GIANT COMET

Spaceweather.com

Astronomers have discovered a comet so big, it might actually be a minor planet. The object is named 2014 UN271. Astronomers Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein found it in archival images from the Dark Energy Survey. It appears to be about 100 km wide, 2 or 3 times bigger than record-breaking Comet Hale-Bopp of the 1990s. Although 2014 UN271 is falling toward the Sun, we may never see it with our naked eyes. At closest approach in early 2031, the behemoth comet will be just outside the orbit of Saturn, too far for naked-eye viewing. Some astronomers are estimating a maximum brightness near magnitude +17, about the same as Pluto's moon Charon. 2014 UN271 has an extremely elongated orbit stretching from ~the neighbourhood of Saturn out to a distance of almost a light year. At the far reaches of its orbit, 2014 UN271 barely feels the Sun's gravity and could be snatched out of the Solar System altogether by the ephemeral pull of galactic tides. Discovering such a traveller during its brief time among the planets is very lucky indeed. There is talk of a space mission to intercept 2014 UN271. The European Space Agency is building a probe called Comet Interceptor designed to investigate comets coming from deep space. It, or something like it, might be able to visit 2014 UN271 a decade from now. With an object like this, we have to expect surprises. 2014 UN271 certainly poses no threat to Earth, but it could brighten more (or less) than expected. Multiple groups of astronomers have already detected signs of out-gassing even though 2014 UN271 is still beyond Uranus. Early signs of activity may bode well for future visibility through small telescopes if not the unaided eye.

METHANE PLUMES ON SATURN'S MOON ENCELADUS

University of Arizona

Giant water plumes erupting from Enceladus have long fascinated scientists and the public alike, inspiring research and speculation about the vast ocean that is believed to be sandwiched between the moon's rocky core and its icy shell. Flying through the plumes and sampling their chemical makeup, the Cassini spacecraft detected a relatively high concentration of certain molecules associated with hydrothermal vents on the bottom of Earth's oceans, specifically dihydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. The amount of methane found in the plumes was particularly unexpected. Researchers applied new mathematical models that combine geochemistry and microbial ecology to analyze Cassini plume data and model the possible processes that would best explain the observations. They conclude that Cassini's data are consistent either with microbial hydrothermal vent activity, or with processes that don't involve life forms but are different from the ones known to occur on Earth. On Earth, hydrothermal activity occurs when cold seawater seeps into the ocean floor, circulates through the underlying rock and passes close by a heat source, such as a magma chamber, before spewing out into the water again through hydrothermal vents. On Earth, methane can be produced through hydrothermal activity, but at a slow rate. Most of the production is due to microorganisms that harness the chemical disequilibrium of hydrothermally produced dihydrogen as a source of energy, and produce methane from carbon dioxide in a process called methanogenesis. The team looked at Enceladus' plume composition as the end result of several chemical and physical processes taking place in the moon's interior. First, the researchers assessed what hydrothermal production of dihydrogen would best fit Cassini's observations, and whether this production could provide enough "food" to sustain a population of Earthlike hydrogenotrophic methanogens. To do that, they developed a model for the population dynamics of a hypothetical hydrogenotrophic methanogen, whose thermal and energetic niche was modelled after known strains from Earth.

The authors then ran the model to see whether a given set of chemical conditions, such as the dihydrogen concentration in the hydrothermal fluid, and temperature would provide a suitable environment for these microbes to grow. They also looked at what effect a hypothetical microbe population would have on its environment -- for example, on the escape rates of dihydrogen and methane in the plume. The results suggest that even the highest possible estimate of abiotic methane production -- or methane production without biological aid -- based on known hydrothermal chemistry is far from sufficient to explain the methane concentration measured in the plumes. Adding biological methanogenesis to the mix, however, could produce enough methane to match Cassini's observations. For example, methane could come from the chemical breakdown of primordial organic matter that may be present in Enceladus' core and that could be partially turned into dihydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide through the hydrothermal process. This hypothesis is very plausible if it turns out that Enceladus formed through the accretion of organic-rich material supplied by comets.

EARTH-LIKE BIOSPHERES MAY BE RARE

RAS

A new analysis of known exoplanets has revealed that Earth-like conditions on potentially habitable planets may be much rarer than previously thought. The work focuses on the conditions required for oxygen-based photosynthesis to develop on a planet, which would enable complex biospheres of the type found on Earth. The number of confirmed planets in our own Milky Way galaxy now numbers into the thousands. However planets that are both Earth-like and in the habitable zone - the region around a star where the temperature is just right for liquid water to exist on the surface - are much less common. At the moment, only a handful of such rocky and potentially habitable exoplanets are known. However the new research indicates that none of these has the theoretical conditions to sustain an Earth-like biosphere by means of ‘oxygenic’ photosynthesis - the mechanism plants on Earth use to convert light and carbon dioxide into oxygen and nutrients. Only one of those planets comes close to receiving the stellar radiation necessary to sustain a large biosphere: Kepler−442b, a rocky planet about twice the mass of the Earth, orbiting a moderately hot star around 1,200 light years away. The study looked in detail at how much energy is received by a planet from its host star, and whether living organisms would be able to efficiently produce nutrients and molecular oxygen, both essential elements for complex life as we know it, via normal oxygenic photosynthesis. By calculating the amount of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) that a planet receives from its star, the team discovered that stars around half the temperature of our Sun cannot sustain Earth-like biospheres because they do not provide enough energy in the correct wavelength range. Oxygenic photosynthesis would still be possible, but such planets could not sustain a rich biosphere.

Planets around even cooler stars known as red dwarfs, which smoulder at roughly a third of our Sun’s temperature, could not receive enough energy to even activate photosynthesis. Stars that are hotter than our Sun are much brighter, and emit up to ten times more radiation in the necessary range for effective photosynthesis than red dwarfs, however generally do not live long enough for complex life to evolve. Since red dwarfs are by far the most common type of star in our galaxy, this result indicates that Earth-like conditions on other planets may be much less common than we might hope. The study puts strong constraints on the parameter space for complex life, so unfortunately it appears that the “sweet spot” for hosting a rich Earth-like biosphere is not so wide.

EVIDENCE FOR POPULATION OF FREE-FLOATING PLANETS

RAS

Tantalising evidence has been uncovered for a mysterious population of “free-floating” planets, planets that may be alone in deep space, unbound to any host star. The results include four new discoveries that are consistent with planets of similar masses to Earth. The study used data obtained in 2016 during the K2 mission phase of NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. During this two-month campaign, Kepler monitored a crowded field of millions of stars near the centre of our Galaxy every 30 minutes in order to find rare gravitational microlensing events. The study team found 27 short-duration candidate microlensing signals that varied over timescales of between an hour and 10 days. Many of these had been previously seen in data obtained simultaneously from the ground. However, the four shortest events are new discoveries that are consistent with planets of similar masses to Earth. These new events do not show an accompanying longer signal that might be expected from a host star, suggesting that these new events may be free-floating planets. Such planets may perhaps have originally formed around a host star before being ejected by the gravitational tug of other, heavier planets in the system. Predicted by Albert Einstein 85 years ago as a consequence of his General Theory of Relativity, microlensing describes how the light from a background star can be temporarily magnified by the presence of other stars in the foreground. This produces a short burst in brightness that can last from hours to a few days. Roughly one out of every million stars in our Galaxy is visibly affected by microlensing at any given time, but only a few percent of these are expected to be caused by planets.

Kepler was not designed to find planets using microlensing, nor to study the extremely dense star fields of the inner Galaxy. This meant that new data reduction techniques had to be developed to look for signals within the Kepler dataset. These signals are extremely difficult to find. Astronomers pointed an elderly, ailing telescope with blurred vision at one the most densely crowded parts of the sky, where there are already thousands of bright stars that vary in brightness, and thousands of asteroids that skim across the field. From that cacophony, astronomers try to extract tiny, characteristic brightenings caused by planets, and they only have one chance to see a signal before it’s gone. It’s about as easy as looking for the single blink of a firefly in the middle of a motorway, using only a handheld phone. Kepler has achieved what it was never designed to do, in providing further tentative evidence for the existence of a population of Earth-mass, free-floating planets. Now it passes the baton on to other missions that will be designed to find such signals, signals so elusive that Einstein himself thought that they were unlikely ever to be observed. Confirming the existence and nature of free-floating planets will be a major focus for upcoming missions such as the NASA Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, and possibly the ESA Euclid mission, both of which will be optimised to look for microlensing signals.

EXOPLANETS IN 2,034 STAR SYSTEMS COULD SEE EARTH

Cornell University

Scientists have identified 2,034 nearby star-systems -- within the cosmic distance of 326 light-years -- that could find Earth merely by watching our pale blue dot cross our Sun. That's 1,715 star-systems that could have spotted Earth since human civilization blossomed about 5,000 years ago, and 319 more star-systems that will be added over the next 5,000 years. Exoplanets around these nearby stars have a cosmic front-row seat to see if Earth holds life. Of the 2,034 star-systems passing through the Earth Transit Zone over the 10,000-year period examined, 117 objects lie within about 100 light-years of the Sun and 75 of these objects have been in the Earth Transit Zone since commercial radio stations on Earth began broadcasting into space about a century ago. Included in the catalogue of 2,034 star-systems are seven known to host exoplanets. Each one of these worlds has had or will have an opportunity to detect Earth, just as Earth's scientists have found thousands of worlds orbiting other stars through the transit technique. By watching distant exoplanets transit -- or cross -- their own Sun, Earth's astronomers can interpret the atmospheres backlit by that Sun. If exoplanets hold intelligent life, they can observe Earth backlit by the Sun and see our atmosphere's chemical signatures of life.

The Ross 128 system, with a red dwarf host star located in the Virgo constellation, is about 11 light-years away and is the second-closest system with an Earth-size exoplanet (about 1.8 times the size of our planet). Any inhabitants of this exoworld could have seen Earth transit our own Sun for 2,158 years, starting about 3,057 years ago; they lost their vantage point about 900 years ago. The Trappist-1 system, at 45 light-years from Earth, hosts seven transiting Earth-size planets -- four of them in the temperate, habitable zone of that star. While we have discovered the exoplanets around Trappist-1, they won't be able to spot us until their motion takes them into the Earth Transit Zone in 1,642 years. Potential Trappist-1 system observers will remain in the cosmic Earth transit stadium seats for 2,371 years. Analysis shows that even the closest stars generally spend more than 1,000 years at a vantage point where they can see Earth transit. If we assume the reverse to be true, that provides a healthy timeline for nominal civilizations to identify Earth as an interesting planet. The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is an ambitious project underway that is looking to launch a nano-sized spacecraft toward the closest exoplanet detected around Proxima Centauri -- 4.2 light-years from us -- and fully characterize that world. One might imagine that worlds beyond Earth that have already detected us, are making the same plans for our planet and solar system. This catalogue is an intriguing thought experiment for which one of our neighbours might be able to find us.

WHITE DWARF IS SO MASSIVE IT MIGHT COLLAPSE

W. M. Keck Observatory

Astronomers have discovered the smallest and most massive white dwarf ever seen. The smouldering cinder, which formed when two less massive white dwarfs merged, is heavy, packing a mass greater than that of our Sun into a body about the size of our Moon. It may seem counterintuitive, but smaller white dwarfs happen to be more massive. This is due to the fact that white dwarfs lack the nuclear burning that keep up normal stars against their own self gravity, and their size is instead regulated by quantum mechanics. The discovery was made by the Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, which operates at Caltech's Palomar Observatory; two Hawai'i telescopes -- W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawai'i Island and University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy's Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) on Haleakala, Maui -- helped characterize the dead star, along with the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar, the European Gaia space observatory, and NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory. White dwarfs are the collapsed remnants of stars that were once about eight times the mass of our Sun or lighter. Our Sun, for example, after it first puffs up into a red giant in about 5 billion years, will ultimately slough off its outer layers and shrink down into a compact white dwarf. About 97 percent of all stars become white dwarfs. While our Sun is alone in space without a stellar partner, many stars orbit around each other in pairs. The stars grow old together, and if they are both less than eight solar-masses, they will both evolve into white dwarfs. The new discovery provides an example of what can happen after this phase. The pair of white dwarfs, which spiral around each other, lose energy in the form of gravitational waves and ultimately merge. If the dead stars are massive enough, they explode in what is called a type Ia supernova. But if they are below a certain mass threshold, they combine together into a new white dwarf that is heavier than either progenitor star. This process of merging boosts the magnetic field of that star and speeds up its rotation compared to that of the progenitors.

Astronomers say that the newfound tiny white dwarf, named ZTF J1901+1458, took the latter route of evolution; its progenitors merged and produced a white dwarf 1.35 times the mass of our Sun. The white dwarf has an extreme magnetic field almost 1 billion times stronger than our Sun's and whips around on its axis at a frenzied pace of one revolution every seven minutes (the zippiest white dwarf known, called EPIC 228939929, rotates every 5.3 minutes. What's more, astronomers think that the merged white dwarf may be massive enough to evolve into a neutron-rich dead star, or neutron star, which typically forms when a star much more massive than our Sun explodes in a supernova. If this neutron star formation hypothesis is correct, it may mean that a significant portion of other neutron stars take shape in this way. The newfound object's close proximity (about 130 light-years away) and its young age (about 100 million years old or less) indicate that similar objects may occur more commonly in our galaxy. Data from Swift, which observes ultraviolet light, helped nail down the size and mass of the white dwarf. With a diameter of 2,670 miles, ZTF J1901+1458 secures the title for the smallest known white dwarf, edging out previous record holders, RE J0317-853 and WD 1832+089, which each have diameters of about 3,100 miles.


THE GOLDILOCKS SUPERNOVA

University of California - Santa Barbara

Scientists have discovered the first convincing evidence for a new type of stellar explosion -- an electron-capture supernova. While they have been theorized for 40 years, real-world examples have been elusive. They are thought to arise from the explosions of massive super-asymptotic giant branch (SAGB) stars, for which there has also been scant evidence. The discovery also sheds new light on the thousand-year mystery of the supernova from A.D. 1054 that was visible all over the world in the daytime, before eventually becoming the Crab Nebula. Historically, supernovae have fallen into two main types: thermonuclear and iron-core collapse. A thermonuclear supernova is the explosion of a white dwarf star after it gains matter in a binary star system. These white dwarfs are the dense cores of ash that remain after a low-mass star (one up to about 8 times the mass of the Sun) reaches the end of its life. An iron core-collapse supernova occurs when a massive star -- one more than about 10 times the mass of the Sun -- runs out of nuclear fuel and its iron core collapses, creating a black hole or neutron star. Between these two main types of supernovae are electron-capture supernovae. These stars stop fusion when their cores are made of oxygen, neon and magnesium; they aren't massive enough to create iron. While gravity is always trying to crush a star, what keeps most stars from collapsing is either ongoing fusion or, in cores where fusion has stopped, the fact that you can't pack the atoms any tighter. In an electron capture supernova, some of the electrons in the oxygen-neon-magnesium core get smashed into their atomic nuclei in a process called electron capture. This removal of electrons causes the core of the star to buckle under its own weight and collapse, resulting in an electron-capture supernova. If the star had been slightly heavier, the core elements could have fused to create heavier elements, prolonging its life. So it is a kind of reverse Goldilocks situation: The star isn't light enough to escape its core collapsing, nor is it heavy enough to prolong its life and die later via different means. Over the decades, theorists have formulated predictions of what to look for in an electron-capture supernova and their SAGB star progenitors. The stars should have a lot of mass, lose much of it before exploding, and this mass near the dying star should be of an unusual chemical composition. Then the electron-capture supernova should be weak, have little radioactive fallout, and have neutron-rich elements in the core.

The new study involved a team of scientists using dozens of telescopes around and above the globe. The team found that the supernova SN 2018zd had many unusual characteristics, some of which were seen for the first time in a supernova. It helped that the supernova was relatively nearby -- only 31 million light-years away -- in the galaxy NGC 2146. This allowed the team to examine archival images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope prior to the explosion and to detect the likely progenitor star before it exploded. The observations were consistent with another recently identified SAGB star in the Milky Way, but inconsistent with models of red supergiants, the progenitors of normal iron core-collapse supernovae. The authors looked through all published data on supernovae, and found that while some had a few of the indicators predicted for electron-capture supernovae, only SN 2018zd had all six: an apparent SAGB progenitor, strong pre-supernova mass loss, an unusual stellar chemical composition, a weak explosion, little radioactivity and a neutron-rich core. The new discoveries also illuminate some mysteries of the most famous supernova of the past. In A.D. 1054 a supernova happened in the Milky Way Galaxy that, according to Chinese and Japanese records, was so bright that it could be seen in the daytime for 23 days, and at night for nearly two years. The resulting remnant, the Crab Nebula, has been studied in great detail. The Crab Nebula was previously the best candidate for an electron-capture supernova, but its status was uncertain partly because the explosion happened nearly a thousand years ago. The new result increases the confidence that the historic SN 1054 was an electron-capture supernova. It also explains why that supernova was relatively bright compared to the models: Its luminosity was probably artificially enhanced by the supernova ejecta colliding with material cast off by the progenitor star as was seen in SN 2018zd.


UNDERSTANDING THE ORIGINS OF MATTER IN THE MILKY WAY

University of Maryland Baltimore County

New findings suggest that carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen cosmic rays travel through the galaxy toward Earth in a similar way, but, surprisingly, that iron arrives at Earth differently. Learning more about how cosmic rays move through the galaxy helps address a fundamental, lingering question in astrophysics: How is matter generated and distributed across the Universe? Cosmic rays are atomic nuclei -- atoms stripped of their electrons -- that are constantly whizzing through space at nearly the speed of light. They enter Earth's atmosphere at extremely high energies. Information about these cosmic rays can give scientists clues about where they came from in the galaxy and what kind of event generated them. An instrument on the International Space Station (ISS) called the Calorimetric Electron Telescope (CALET) has been collecting data about cosmic rays since 2015. The data include details such as how many and what kinds of atoms are arriving, and how much energy they're arriving with. Cosmic rays arrive at Earth from elsewhere in the galaxy at a huge range of energies -- anywhere from 1 billion volts to 100 billion billion volts. The CALET instrument is one of extremely few in space that is able to deliver fine detail about the cosmic rays it detects. A graph called a cosmic ray spectrum shows how many cosmic rays are arriving at the detector at each energy level. The spectra for carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen cosmic rays are very similar, but the key finding from the new paper is that the spectrum for iron is significantly different. There are several possibilities to explain the differences between iron and the three lighter elements. The cosmic rays could accelerate and travel through the galaxy differently, although scientists generally believe they understand the latter.

An instrument like CALET is important for answering questions about how cosmic rays accelerate and travel, and where they come from. Instruments on the ground or balloons flown high in Earth's atmosphere were the main source of cosmic ray data in the past. But by the time cosmic rays reach those instruments, they have already interacted with Earth's atmosphere and broken down into secondary particles. With Earth-based instruments, it is nearly impossible to identify precisely how many primary cosmic rays and which elements are arriving, plus their energies. But CALET, being on the ISS above the atmosphere, can measure the particles directly and distinguish individual elements precisely. Iron is a particularly useful element to analyse. On their way to Earth, cosmic rays can break down into secondary particles, and it can be hard to distinguish between original particles ejected from a source (like a supernova) and secondary particles. That complicates deductions about where the particles originally came from. Measuring cosmic rays gives scientists a unique view into high-energy processes happening far, far away. The cosmic rays arriving at CALET represent "the stuff we're made of. We are made of stardust. The latest finding creates more questions than it answers, emphasizing that there is still more to learn about how matter is generated and moves around the galaxy.

OBSERVATIONS OF DISTANT GALAXIES CLOSE IN ON COSMIC DAWN

RAS

New observations of six of the most distant galaxies currently known have helped to pinpoint the moment of first light in the Universe, known as ‘cosmic dawn’. Today our Universe is full of light, however this was not the case until the first stars and galaxies formed. The new work narrows down the moment when the Universe was first bathed in starlight to a small window just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Prior to this the Universe was a dark place, with dust and gas gradually collecting via gravity to eventually form these first stars and galaxies, bringing to an end the cosmic Dark Ages. The UK-led research team examined the ages of stars contained in six galaxies seen when the Universe was 550 million years old. Detailed observations of the average ages of the stars in each galaxy were made with the world’s most powerful ground- and space-based telescopes. These new observations have pushed the earliest period of star formation back to well beyond the horizon accessible with current telescopes. However the team also predicts that the next generation of telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), due for launch later this year, will have the sensitivity to directly probe these earliest epochs of the Universe.

RUSSIA LAUNCHING NEW ISS MODULE

ARS Technica

The Russian space corporation, Roscosmos has released photos showing the much-anticipated Nauka space station module enclosed in its payload fairing. This will be Russia's first significant addition to the International Space Station in more than a decade, and it will provide the Russians with their first module dedicated primarily to research. "Nauka" means science in Russian. This is a sizable module, including crew quarters, an airlock for scientific experiments, and much more. With a mass of about 24 metric tons, it is about 20 percent larger than the biggest Russian segment of the station, the Zvezda service module. The timing for this launch, scheduled for as early as July 15 on a Proton rocket, is notable. For one, the multi-purpose Nauka module is more than a dozen years late due to a lack of budget for the project on top of technical issues. At times, it seemed like the module was never actually going to launch. Additionally, Russia is launching its largest module at a time when its future participation in the International Space Station program is uncertain. Russian officials have said the existing hardware on orbit, much of which is more than two decades old, is aging beyond repair. The Russians have said they may pull out of the program in 2025 and build a brand-new station.

So why launch a new module just a few years before exiting the station? One possibility is that the Russians are simply posturing. Some NASA officials have speculated privately that this may be an angle to obtain new funds from the United States. With the success of SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicle and nearing availability of Boeing's Starliner, NASA is no longer annually sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Roscosmos to purchase Soyuz seats for access to the station. This was an important source of funding for Russia's space program. However, NASA would like to keep the station flying for another decade, and for this it needs the Russians. The first elements of the International Space Station were launched in 1998, and it was designed such that the US and Russian segments were dependent upon one another for attitude control, power, and other critical resources. The NASA officials suspect Russia may seek "maintenance" funding from the United States in return for keeping its part of the space station going. Nauka's launch is an important symbolic win for Russia's space program, in that it is increasingly rare for Roscosmos to develop and fly new hardware. Mostly, the program maintains and launches decades-old spacecraft such as the Soyuz vehicle and the Proton rocket. After being encapsulated in its payload fairing, Nauka will now move to a "filling station" at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where it will be fuelled and pressurized. After that, it will be mated to its Proton rocket for a launch.  


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