Interstellar Space also a Frothing Primordial Soup!

16 07 2010

Image of the anthracene band recently identified in the Perseus star formation region. This molecule is formed by three hexagonal rings of carbon atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms. Credit: Gaby Perez and Susana Iglesias-Groth

Researchers from the University of Texas and the Astrophysics Institute of Canarias have announced a discovery of yet more evidence that life may be a common, natural result of cosmic processes.  The highly complex organic molecule anthracene has been detected in an interstellar cloud of molecular gas 700 light-years away toward the constellation Perseus.

Anthracene, which is a prebiotic chemical, is found in its oxidized form in aloe and possesses anti-inflammatory properties.  Perhaps more importantly, in the presence of starlight, water, and ammonia, anthracene can form amino acids and other compounds that act as the building blocks of life.

In all, good news for the astrobiologically-inclined.


Solar System has more than one “Planet X”?

12 06 2010

Recent observations of the nearby (44 light-years away) multi-planet star system Upsilon Andromedae have kindled in my mind an intriguing question:  Namely, can our own solar system have one or perhaps many “Planet Xs” hiding in oblique orbits?  Allow me to explain.

New findings show Upsilon Andromedae's planets have oblique orbits. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Field

It has been known for quite some time that the Upsilon Andromedae star system is composed of at least three Jupiter-sized planets (we can’t yet see Earth-sized planets or smaller, yet).  However, research recently presented at the American Astronomical Society suggests that unlike our solar system where the major planets orbit in the same plane, two of Upsilon Andromedae’s three known planets orbit askew with respect to each other to the tune of nearly 30 degrees tilt.  This defies what we have come to know as a “normal” star system configuration of planets.

While there have been many “Planet X” hypotheses in our own star system over the years, including recent research suggesting the possibility of a large, distant icy planet in our own solar system, (see Tyche post here,) astronomers have not yet been able to locate any of these proposed culprits of periodic extinctions or comet peculiarities.

However, planets are notoriously difficult to find, especially the farther away from the Sun they are.  Planets do not intrinsically emit their own light (except infrared), and their reflections get exponentially dimmer with distance.  So, with the recent Upsilon Andromedae findings in mind, perhaps the reason we’ve yet to find any Planet Xs isn’t because there’s no merit to the ideas, but rather that astronomers have been looking in the wrong orbital planes.

Let’s investigate a step further. With “ordinary” planet formation in a young star system, the conservation of angular momentum causes material around a new sun to flatten into a disk, (called a “proplyd” or protoplanetary disk,) and planets form from the material in this disk.  Hence, planets will be found in an orbital plane around a star, just like ours are.  However, when we look closely, we find that there are even notable oddities in our solar system.  Namely, Uranus is tilted almost completely 90-degrees onto its side, and Pluto is not only tilted sideways, but it also orbits obliquely, much like its Jupiter-sized kin in Upsilon Andromedae.  What does this mean?  At the very least, it means that the evolution of any star system is a dynamic process.  At most, this is an indicator that we’ve yet to fully describe our own system.

On this note, Upsilon Andromedae is actually a “quiet” binary star system.  The main star, Upsilon Andromedae A, is a yellow-white star not unfamiliar to human eyes.  However, it does have a dim, red dwarf brother (unsurprisingly called Upsilon Andromedae B) in a wide orbit, far enough away to leave the planets orbiting Upsilon Andromedae A alone, so far as we are able to tell.  However – it does beg the question: Might subtler interactions of Andromedae’s red dwarf or perhaps outer, dimmer planets we have yet to find be responsible for the oblique orbits we see?  And if so, have we found a distant mirror suggesting there might be more places to look for Planet X in the far reaches of our own system?

Food for thought.

Alien archeology – now a real science?

15 05 2010

Concept sketch of Mars xenoarchaeological site from movie Total Recall. Credit: Steve Burg

Well, I’ve done it.  Making good on a promise I made to myself while presenting a poster at the Society of American Archaeology conference in 2008, I recently submitted an article to the journal Space Policy outlining a framework for a science that doesn’t quite exist yet: Xenoarchaeology.

“Xeno” is Greek/Latin for “foreign” or “stranger.”

Seriously.  I drew from SETI protocols, interplanetary geological sample return guidelines, archaeology fundamentals, and historical examples to make a call for a proactive set of xenoarchaeological guidelines.  My argument?  -The moment that we find something we think might be the real deal on another planet is the wrong moment to try and figure out how to study it correctly and credibly.  And we’ve got spacecraft and landers everywhere these days.  -It’s only a matter of time until we do cross over something that makes us double-take.

To paraphrase my general points in the paper, an archeological mindset is particularly well-suited to analyzing a site of truly unknown character, but there are planetary science landmines a regular archaeologist would be completely unprepared to dodge.  Gravity, temperature, chemistry, and electromagnetic environment can all be (and likely are) very different on another world, which will affect essentially every property of an object.  On Earth we can take all of those things for granted – the strength and effectiveness of friction, for example.  On Mars?  We had to completely redesign the drill bits used on our Mars rovers simply because the effectiveness of a cutting edge on Mars is only half what it is here on Earth because the atmospheric pressure is so low, which is in turn because the gravity is 1/3 weaker.  See what I mean?

If it walks like an arrowhead, and it talks like an arrowhead… it might not actually be an arrowhead on Mars.

So, that’s my stab at taking a scientific discipline out of the realm of science fiction and elevating it to reality.  -The paper made it favorably through editorial review, and I am waiting to hear back on comments from the peer referees.

My ulterior motive?  I really do believe it’s only a matter of time until we find something – and if I center myself in the burgeoning discipline, when we do find something (if I don’t happen to be the one who stumbles across it, myself)… they’ll have to call me.

Fingers crossed.

(NOTE, 10/2010:  The paper was accepted and published!  Find it here.)

(NOTE, 05/2011: See the follow-up post on article responses here!)

Give it a rest, people: Voyager 2 spacecraft not hijacked by aliens

13 05 2010

NASA is having a hard time talking to the Voyager 2 probe.  It started in late April and has only gotten worse, with the latest transmission being quite garbled.  Now, I can understand a bit of fun, tounge-in-cheek speculation, but this “Aliens have hijacked Voyager 2!” thing has gotten way out of hand.  It’s as though someone has been subliminally beaming the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture into everyone’s minds…

Voyager 6 spacecraft after being hijacked by aliens as seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Credit: Paramount

…and for the unwashed, the movie centers around a mysterious cloud of energy headed for Earth destroying everything in its path.  It is revealed in the final act of the film that the cloud is actually the probe Voyager 6, which according to future history was lost, and Kirk and crew learn that it was hijacked, reprogrammed, and empowered by aliens before being sent back.  Sound familiar?

No one (or should I say, nothing?) has “done” anything to the blasted spacecraft, people.  It’s getting old.  How many other 30-year-old computers do you know of that are still running perfectly? 

Yes, Hartwig Hausdorf (who first made the alien hijacking crack) is allowed his opinion.  Is it realistic?  Nope.  Let’s just hope this probe can be recovered… It’d be a pity to lose one of only two “eyes” we have moving out of the solar system for the first time.

Sheesh, I just wish real science got this much press.

Solar System’s “Planet X” Returns!

30 04 2010

Researchers propose new planet "Tyche" on distant fringe of solar system. Inner planets on this diagram are too close to the Sun to see. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Our solar system may have just gotten a lot more interesting. Researchers studying the orbits of comets at the University of Louisiana have found a problem.  -They’ve discovered an inconsistency with how comets are spread out compared to what you would expect under ordinary galactic conditions.  In an article recently submitted to the journal Icarus, they propose the existence of another behemoth planet orbiting far beyond Pluto along the outskirts of the Oort Cloud (a huge sphere of proto-comets  that surrounds the solar system) and that this proposed planet, Tyche, is responsible for what they see.

This calls to mind another similar hypothesis based on the apparently cyclical nature of mass extinctions throughout Earth’s history and on geologic evidence from the Moon.  Called the Nemesis theory, it proposes that our solar system is actually a binary star system, and that the Sun’s twin is a small, dim, red dwarf star named Nemesis orbiting far beyond the Oort cloud.  As the theory goes, Nemesis passes close enough to the Oort cloud to send a deadly rain of comets into the inner solar system every few-score-million years or so.  The name here is completely appropriate, as those familiar with Greek Mythology will recall that Nemesis is the goddess of Retribution.

While the Tyche and Nemesis models are clearly different proposals, the researchers offering the new proposal are aware of the similarities.  According to Greek Mythology, Tyche is Nemesis’s good sister, the goddess of Fortune and Luck.  Say what you will about the penchant of astronomers to lean on mythology – I think it’s clever.

With all of these findings hinting at something going on in the outer solar system, it seems as though there’s something there to find.  A cold gas giant would be fascinating, as would the revelation that our Sun has had a twin all along.

Maybe even both.

-Orion Nebula a Frothing Primordial Soup!

11 03 2010

HIFI Spectrum of H20 and Organics in the Orion Nebula. Credit: ESA, HEXOS

As astro-biochemists and astrobiologists have been suspecting for quite some time, the star-forming regions of space are literally teeming with the building blocks of life as we know it.  With just a few hours behind the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared, or HIFI for short, (which is currently flying aboard Europe’s Herschel Space Observatory,) researchers quickly obtained the highest-resolution infrared spectrum ever taken of the famous stellar nursery known as the Orion Nebula.

What they found blew them away: Not just blurred suggestions of organic molecules, but hard fingerprints of water, methanol, sulphur oxide, dimethyl ether, hydrogen cyanide, and others.

The case for the ubiquity of life appears to be getting stronger all the while, and with it comes a strengthened rationale for continued space exploration!

CSI: Extinction Event…

1 03 2010

Gravity / electromagnetic profile of the buried Chicxulub impact crater. Yucatan, Mexico.

Penn State geoscientists have just made the first true bio-geospatial analysis of extinction patterns caused by the Yucatan impact 65 million years ago.  What does this mean, exactly?  -They managed to make the first determinations about where, how badly, and for how long specific places on Earth were devastated by the impact. 

Let me tell you, it ain’t pretty.

Sure, we’ve known for quite some time now that the ~5-mile wide rock responsible for the Chicxulub crater caused or contributed to a mass extinction (end of the dinosaurs, etc.,) from which it took life eons to recover, but now we have a real picture:

  • For instance, the asteroid was found to have entered the atmosphere from the southeast and traveled northwest to its point of impact in the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Researchers also found that in addition to the surface devastation from pervasive fires and high temperature debris, nanoplankton (a major ocean food source) disappeared for 40,000 years afterward.
  • Near darkness persisted in the region for nearly six months as a result of the impact, and toxic metals distributed by the meteor prevented ocean life from recovering  for a full 270,000 years.

Ouch.  The sooner we venture off-world and develop strategies for both manipulating near-Earth asteroids as well as for developing extraterrestrial human settlements, the better.

Jupiter has been hit twice in the last 20 years by comets large enough to destroy Earth’s biosphere entirely.  We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

1994 comet impact (fragment G), Jupiter.

2009 comet impact scar, Jupiter.

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