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  • richardmitnick 8:49 am on July 10, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Is the Random Transiter weirder than Tabby’s Star?", , , , Binary star system HD 139139 aka the Random Transiter, , EarthSky   

    From EarthSky: “Is the Random Transiter weirder than Tabby’s Star?” 


    From EarthSky

    July 9, 2019
    Paul Scott Anderson

    Move over, Tabby’s Star. The Random Transiter may now be the weirdest star in the galaxy. Kepler data revealed 28 transits in front of this star in 87 days. What caused them? Multiple planets? A disintegrating planet? Alien megastructures?

    Artist’s concept showing 5 of the 7 Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1. These planets were discovered via transits, that is, when they passed in front of their star as seen from Earth. Similarly, Kepler spacecraft data revealed 28 transits in the binary star system HD 139139, aka the Random Transiter. But – while the TRAPPIST-1 planets have periodic, stable orbits – the orbits of the objects in the HD 139139 system are exceedingly, well … random. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/Newsweek.

    Planet transit. NASA/Ames

    Do you remember Tabby’s Star observed by the Kepler Space Telescope? That star with the weird dips in brightness that still haven’t been fully explained yet? The theories have ranged from groups of comets to disintegrating planets to even alien megastructures, and it has been determined that dust is somehow involved. But now, there’s a new discovery – first described publicly by planet-hunting astronomer Hugh Osborn on June 29, 2019 – that might be even more baffling than Tabby’s Star. It’s being called the Random Transiter. In a nutshell, this star, also seen by Kepler, was found over a period of 87 days to undergo up to 28 transits, that is 28 objects passing in front of the star, looking just like planets. The problem is that there is no evidence of regular, periodic orbits for these 28 objects, as would be expected for planets. Hence the moniker Random Transiter. So what is going on?

    The unusual findings were first noted by citizen astronomers looking at the Kepler data in spring 2018, and the first peer-reviewed paper was just published on June 28, 2019 MNRAS.

    Kepler light curve of HD 139139, showing the weird transits. Top panel: the raw 87-day lightcurve. Middle panel: lightcurve after filtering out the slow modulations due to star spots and trends that result from data processing. There are 28 transit-like events. Bottom panel: a shorter 15-day segment of the lightcurve containing four of the transit-like events.

    Schematic of a binary star system (gray circles) containing 2 planets: one on a P-type (Planetary-type, circumbinary) orbit and one on an S-type (Satellite-type) orbit. Not to scale. Astronomers considered these possible orbits when trying to explain the Random Transiter. Image via Philip D. Hall/Wikimedia Commons.

    According to Andrew Vanderburg, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin:

    “We’ve never seen anything like this in Kepler [spacecraft data], and Kepler’s looked at 500,000 stars.”

    The star, HD 139139, is a binary star about 350 light-years from Earth, with one sun-like star about 1.5 billion years old, and the other a bit smaller.

    The Kepler planet-hunter spacecraft observed this star for 87 days during the secondary K2 part of its mission. When the data were analyzed, 28 dips were seen in the star’s brightness, much as you would see when planets transit in from of a star. Astronomers have very successfully used these dips in starlight – seen by Kepler and now by the TESS spacecraft, Kepler’s successor – to find new planet candidates.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope, and K2 March 7, 2009 until November 15, 2018

    NASA/MIT TESS replaced Kepler in search for exoplanets

    But these 28 dips for HD 139139 seemed weird. Not only the number of them – that would be a lot of planets, or fewer planets in extremely short orbits around the stars – but also that they showed no signs of periodicity, as would be expected with planets. Each dip lasted between about 45 minutes to 7.5 hours, very short times for orbiting planets unless they were all close to the star. But if each planet orbited as quickly as inferred, then Kepler should have seen multiple, regular transits of them during the 80 days, but it didn’t. This shows that the orbits are more random somehow, not nice and neat with each planet orbiting in a certain amount of hours or days as is typically seen.

    Also, all but one of the transits were about 200 ppm deep. This translate to 27 objects all roughly the same size, about 50 percent larger than Earth. The other object would be approximately twice that size. From what astronomers have seen so far in terms of exoplanets, it would be very unusual to have 27 planets all the same size in a single planetary system. Plus these planets don’t seem to orbit as normal planets do. So, if they’re not planets, what are they?

    It’s more than a year since these observations now, and astronomers still don’t have an easy explanation. Right now, there are a plethora of theories being considered, but all of them have problems so far. As outlined by astronomer Hugh Osborn, these include:

    Multiple planets. The first obvious possibility, but would be very unusual, as already noted. That would still be the case even if it was 14 planets causing two dips each, regardless of which star they orbited in the binary system. The TRAPPIST-1 system has seven known Earth-sized planets, but all of them orbit the star in a normal manner, with stable, periodic orbits.

    A disintegrating planet. Conceivable, but even a disintegrating planet should show periodicity, causing a transit at the same point in each orbit. Also, HD139139’s dips occur at a minimum five hours apart. Such an orbit is likely unstable, and also incompatible with dips that last longer than five hours.

    Dust-emitting asteroids. This is similar to the disintegrating planet idea, but with multiple smaller bodies. The problem, though, is that the transits are almost all the same depth. Clumps of asteroids should produce dust clouds that are much more variable in size. They would also all have to be at just the right orbit to produce planet-sized dust clouds.

    Planets in a binary system. If the stars were moving, then not every orbit would produce a transit. That could work, but in this case it would need to be a triple star system, with another unseen star involved. The orbital periods for the planets and the main binary would need to be extremely short, and the team could not find a stable system which matched the data. Plus, the radial velocity measurements ruled out this being a triple system.

    • A young dipper star. Young stars can have random clumps of dust orbiting them, part of the dust disk that still surrounds the star. But this doesn’t seem to work either. This star system is old, and there should still be periodicity as the dust clumps orbit the star. The dips of HD 139139 are far more ordered and “planet-like” than would be expected from dust clumps.

    Short-lived star spots. Could the transiting objects actually be spots on the star itself? Possibly, but this aspect of star behavior isn’t as well understood yet. In this case, the spots would need to form, block starlight for a few hours at most, and then dissipate.

    SETI. Now this is the idea that tends to naturally get the most attention, for obvious reasons. Could these be artificial planet-sized objects, similar to Dyson spheres or other megastructures? There’s not enough known yet about this star system to either rule it out or not. The possibility, even if unlikely (depending on who you talk to) is of course exciting, but a lot more evidence would need to be found first before saying it is a leading contender. Finding 14-28 large objects, all the same size except for one is definitely weird, but all conceivable natural explanations would need to be eliminated first. Occam’s razor says it’s more likely that a natural explanation will be found, but at this point, the possibilities remain wide open.

    Other suggestions in online forums have included planets with huge ring systems, similar to J1047b, or “dust avalanches” where a dust ring close to the star is fed by dust spiraling in from elsewhere. Another idea was that there were planets orbiting multiple stars, but the other stars just happened to be hidden from view by HD 139139, by chance.

    I asked Osborn about that possibility on Twitter and he responded:

    Paul Scott Anderson @paulsanderson
    · Jul 1, 2019
    Replying to @exohugh

    Someone on Reddit wondered if it could be multiple stars with planets, that just happen to all be in our line of sight, behind one another, so the planets are lined up toward us by chance. Possible or not so much?

    or not so much?
    Hugh Osborn @exohugh

    Possible, sure. But this star’s radius, when viewed from Earth, is 0.000000014 degrees, so the probability of having an entirely unrelated star (with planets) crossing exactly that stellar disc is *extremely* small. But it’s a weird system, so Occam’s razor is struggling already!

    Astronomer Ben Montet has theorized that at least some of the transits might be caused by a circumbinary planet – orbiting both stars – but like everything else, it is just a hypothesis at this point.

    So as of now, there are a lot of questions, but few answers, much how the Tabby’s Star saga began. Tabetha Boyajian herself, the astronomer the star was nicknamed after, weighed in on the case of the Random Transiter and whether aliens should be considered at this point:

    I think we have to consider all options before we go there. This is one of those systems where it’s probably not going to be figured out without more data.

    Bottom line: The Random Transiter is definitely a very weird star with transits that look like ones made by planets, but the objects don’t seem to behave like normal orbiting planets.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.orgin 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

  • richardmitnick 9:47 am on July 7, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , EarthSky, NASA Mars Opportunity rover   

    From EarthSky: “Today in 2003: Opportunity blasts off to Mars” 


    From EarthSky

    July 7, 2019
    Deborah Byrd

    NASA’s Opportunity rover spent some 15 years exploring Mars. It surpassed all expectations for its endurance and longevity, to become one of the most successful planetary missions. Then it went silent.

    The dramatic image of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s shadow was taken on sol 180 (July 26, 2004) by the rover’s front hazard-avoidance camera as the rover moved farther into Endurance Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech.

    July 7, 2003. On this date, NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity blasted off on a journey to Mars. After traveling for some seven months through space, Opportunity landed on Mars’ Meridiani Planum on January 25, 2004, three weeks after its twin rover Spirit touched down on the other side of the planet.

    NASA Spirit rover

    Spirit stopped moving across Mars’ surface in 2009, and it stopped sending back signals to Earth in 2010. Meanwhile, Opportunity – designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters) across Mars’ surface – vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. It became one of the most successful feats of interplanetary exploration, effectively ending in 2018 (and officially ending in 2019) after some 15 years exploring the surface of Mars.

    In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 km) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot in Mars’ Perseverance Valley. The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. Presumably, the storm affected the rover’s solar panels. Opportunity’s final communication was received June 10, 2018.

    A layer of dust covers Opportunity’s solar arrays following a dust storm in January 2014, left, but by March 2014 much of the dust had blown away. Image via NASA/JPL Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State.

    But NASA didn’t know that yet. Throughout the late summer and fall of 2018, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) conducted a multifaceted, eight-month recovery strategy in an attempt to compel the rover to communicate. They sent more than a thousand commands to the rover … but there was no response. In what became a months-long outpouring of emotion, space fans on Twitter and other social media platforms began using the hashtags #ThankYouOppy and #GoodnightOppy.

    Space engineers made their last attempt to revive Opportunity on February 12, 2019, starting with a “wake-up song” played in the control room at JPL. The mission’s principal investigator, Steve Squyres, had chosen I’ll Be Seeing You, as performed by Billie Holiday. At 8:10 p.m., Holiday’s wistful voice floated up from the command floor:

    As was expected by that time, those final efforts at communication were to no avail. Opportunity remained silent on the surface of Mars. Project manager John Callas told the crowd of NASA employees gathered for the farewell transmission:

    This is a hard day. Even though it’s a machine and we’re saying goodbye, it’s still very hard and very poignant, but we had to do that. We came to that point.

    NASA’s Opportunity rover

    KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility, the Mars Exploration Rover-2 (MER-2) is tested for mobility and maneuverability. Set to launch in Spring 2003, the MER Mission will consist of two identical rovers designed to cover roughly 110 yards each Martian day. Each rover will carry five scientific instruments that will allow it to search for evidence of liquid water that may have been present in the planet’s past. The rovers will be identical to each other, but will land at different regions of Mars. The first rover has a launch window opening May 30, and the second rover a window opening June 25. MER-B rover was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame in 2010.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.orgin 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

  • richardmitnick 7:51 am on May 28, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Giant planets and comets battle in planet-forming disk", , , , , EarthSky, , HD 163296,   

    From EarthSky: “Giant planets and comets battle in planet-forming disk” 


    From EarthSky

    May 28, 2019
    Deborah Byrd

    A study of dust in the disk around the star HD 163296 suggests we’re glimpsing a gravitational interaction between giant planets and much-smaller objects, the future asteroids and comets of this newly forming solar system.

    Image from the ALMA telescope in Chile – not an artist’s concept – of the young star HD 163296. The star is surrounded by a disk of gas and dust, where at least 3 giant planets are thought to be forming … duking it out with this system’s future comets and asteroids. Image via ALMA/S. Dagnello/INAF

    The Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) – headquartered in Rome, Italy – announced a new study on May 23, 2019, that provides a key glimpse into the process by which solar systems build their planets. The study is based on observations with the ALMA telescope in Chile.

    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

    It explored whether the anomalous features in the dust and gas distributions in the planet-forming disk of a distant star – called HD 163296 – could arise from an interaction of the system’s giant planets with its planetesimals, or planet-building blocks. Leftover planetesimals, those that don’t go into forming planets, will one day become this system’s asteroids and comets.

    The new study is published in the peer reviewed The Astrophysical Journal.

    For centuries, astronomers have theorized that planets form in a flattened disk of gas and dust encircling a newly born star. In 2014, ALMA became the first to capture detailed images of these circumstellar disks, specifically a first image of bright concentric rings in a disk, around the star HL Tau. Thus the process by which solar systems are born is being revealed. Since then, ALMA has been capturing even smaller-scale structures in circumstellar disks – gaps, rings and spiral arms – most of them believed to be linked to the presence of young planets and to arise from the interplay of the new planets’ gravity with their surroundings. A statement from INAF explained:

    Among the best-studied disks observed by ALMA is that surrounding HD 163296, a 5 million-year-old star about twice the mass of our sun. HD 163296’s disk is both massive (a bit less than one tenth of the sun’s mass) and wide (about 500 au, twice the outer boundary of the Kuiper Belt in the solar system) and has been proposed to be home to at least three planets with masses comprised between twice that of Uranus and the one of Jupiter. ALMA’s most recent observations allowed to spatially and compositionally characterize the structure of HD 163296’s disk to a level previously undreamed of and showed how dust is still quite abundant (more than 300 times the mass of the Earth) in this disk notwithstanding its age and having produced at least three giant planets. The same observations also revealed some strange behaviors of the dust spatial distribution that could not easily be explained only as the result of its interplay with the gas and the newly formed giant planets.

    As planets form in a disk, the dust in the disk is thought to be swept up, so that it decreases over time. Astronomers expected dust to disappear over time from the region immediately inside HD 163296’s innermost planet. At the same time, they thought, dust coming from the outer regions of the disk should pile up outside the orbits of the second and third planets. ALMA’s observations revealed instead that the regions inside the first planet and between the first and second planets have some of the highest concentrations of dust of the whole disk. The new study explored whether these anomalous dust features could arise from the interaction of the giant planets with a component of the disk previously unaccounted for: the planetesimals.

    Diego Turrini of INAF – lead author of the study – said:

    “From the study of the solar system we know that mature circumstellar disks like HD 163296 are not composed only by gas and dust, but also contain an invisible population of small planetary objects similar to our asteroids and comets.”

    Turrini and his colleagues performed computer simulations showing how, during the growth of HD 163296’s three giant planets, a larger and larger fraction of the surrounding population of planetesimals is injected on very eccentric and very inclined orbits similar to those of the comets in our solar system. Francesco Marzari of the University of Padova, co-author of the study, commented:

    “The main outcome of this dynamical excitation is a higher rate of violent collisions among the planetesimals.”

    The team found that the collisions among planetesimals remain quite gentle until the giant planets approach their final masses but then they rapidly grow a hundredfold in violence and start grinding down the planetesimals. Marzari said:

    “These violent collisions replenish the dust population in the disk. The new dust produced by this process, however, has a different orbital distribution than the original one and mainly concentrates in two places: the orbital region within the first giant planet and the ring between the first and the second giant planets.”

    Read more details about the outcome of the study here

    Leonardo Testi, also co-author of the study and head of the ALMA Support Center of the European Southern Observatory, said:

    “This study was started as a pathfinder project to explore whether the dynamical excitation caused by newly formed giant planets could actually produce observable effects. As such, we just scratched the surface of this process and its implications. Nevertheless, its physical recipe is quite simple: massive planets forming in a disk of planetesimals. Given the widespread signatures of possible young giant planets we are discovering with ALMA and the extended duration of the dynamical effects caused by their appearance, we might be looking to a process that is quite common among circumstellar disks.”

    And so the question of how our Earth and solar system were made is being answered!

    Graphic showing the disk of icy planetesimals hidden in HD 163296’s circumstellar disk seen from above and the side. The young giant planets rapidly create a large population of exocomets acting as high-speed projectiles for the other bodies. Image via D. Turrini/INAF-IAPS.

    Bottom line: New telescopic observations of young star HD 163296 show rings of dust in its surrounding dust cloud indicating that giant planets are interacting with small bodies that will become asteroids and comets.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.orgin 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

  • richardmitnick 10:32 am on May 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Astronomers find 18 more Earth-sized exoplanets in Kepler data", , , , , EarthSky, , , Transit Least-Squares algorithm   

    From NASA via EarthSky: “Astronomers find 18 more Earth-sized exoplanets in Kepler data” 

    NASA image
    From NASA




    May 27, 2019
    Paul Scott Anderson

    A new survey algorithm – called Transit Least-Squares – has just caused the number of known, rocky, Earth-sized worlds orbiting distant stars to grow again, as astronomers add another 18 exoplanets to the list.

    Size comparison with Earth, Neptune and the 18 newly discovered exoplanets. Wouldn’t it be grand to see surface details on these new worlds? Image via NASA/JPL (Neptune), NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring (Earth), MPS/René Heller.

    Exoplanets about the same size as Earth can be some of the most difficult to detect, but their numbers are growing, and now scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Georg August University of Göttingen and the Sonneberg Observatory have added 18 more exoplanets to the ever-expanding list (as of May 1, 2019, there were 4,058 confirmed planets in 3,033 systems, with 658 systems having more than one planet). All 18 new exoplanets were found during a re-analysis of data from the highly effective Kepler Space Telescope planet-hunting mission, using a new, more sensitive search algorithm called Transit Least-Squares.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope, and K2 March 7, 2009 until November 15, 2018

    The first fruits of the new algorithm may be found in peer-reviewed findings published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics in two new papers, here and here. The first paper, focusing on exoplanet K2-32e, was published a few weeks ago, and the second paper regarding the other 17 exoplanets was published on May 21, 2019.

    These newly-found worlds are some of the smallest detected so far. They range in size from only 69 percent of the diameter of Earth (EPIC 201497682.03, 831 light-years away) to just slightly more than twice as large as Earth. All of them were hiding in the Kepler data, and were not found in previous searches because the search algorithms were not sensitive enough. Like many other exoplanet hunters, Kepler used the transit method, where a planet passes in front of its star, as seen from our vantage point here on Earth.

    Planet transit. NASA/Ames

    As the planet transits in front of the star, it blocks out a tiny amount of the light coming from the star, which can then be measured by astronomers. As René Heller of Max Planck Institute, first author of both papers, explained:

    “Standard search algorithms attempt to identify sudden drops in brightness. In reality, however, a stellar disk appears slightly darker at the edge than in the center. When a planet moves in front of a star, it therefore initially blocks less starlight than at the mid-time of the transit. The maximum dimming of the star occurs in the center of the transit just before the star becomes gradually brighter again.”

    As could be expected, larger planets are the easiest to detect, since they block out more light from their stars during a transit. The amount of light blocked by smaller planets can easily be missed, as it can be hard to distinguish from the natural brightness fluctuations of the star itself and the background noise that is part of these kinds of observations.

    The new Transit Least-Squares algorithm improves the sensitivity of the transit method, making it easier to find smaller planets like Earth, as Michael Hippke of Sonneberg Observatory said:

    “Our new algorithm helps to draw a more realistic picture of the exoplanet population in space. This method constitutes a significant step forward, especially in the search for Earth-like planets.”

    All of the new planets were found in data from the K2 part of the Kepler mission. The K2 phase was initiated after the primary mission ended in 2013, after technical malfunctions with the telescope’s reaction wheels, which helped to keep Kepler stable for its observations of stars (K2 then ended in 2018). These researchers re-analyzed the 517 stars from K2 that were known to have at least one planet each.

    So what are these new planets like?

    Most of them, unfortunately, are not good candidates for life, orbiting their stars closer than any seen before, with temperatures ranging from over 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) to 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius). One of them, however, EPIC 201238110.02, orbits within its star’s habitable zone, the region around a star where liquid water can exist. EPIC 201238110.02 is 1.87 times Earth’s diameter and 522 light-years away.

    The first planet, K2-32e, orbits the star EPIC 205071984 and is the fourth known planet in that system. The other three planets are all Neptune-sized.

    It is now expected that – using Transit Least-Squares – astronomers should be able to find at least another 100 Earth-sized planets in the data from the primary Kepler mission phase. This bodes well for discovering many more such worlds with other telescopes as well, such as NASA’s orbiting TESS satellite, the newest member of the planet-hunting family, which has picked up where Kepler left off.

    The European Space Agency’s PLATO is another mission that will benefit from these findings with the new algorithm, according to Laurent Gizon, managing director at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research:

    “This new method is also particularly useful to prepare for the upcoming PLATO mission to be launched in 2026 by the European Space Agency.”


    Future telescopes, both space and land-based, are expected to find thousands more exoplanets in the years ahead, including ones that are Earth-sized, like these 18 new ones. Some telescopes, such as NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, will also be able to analyze the atmospheres of some of those distant worlds, looking for trace gases that may be a sign of life.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

  • richardmitnick 8:41 am on May 22, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Earth has its own magnetic field., EarthSky, Lancaster University, Magnetic North, , , Reports that the magnetic north pole has started moving swiftly at 50km (31 miles) per year   

    From Lancaster University via EarthSky: “Magnetic north is shifting fast. What’ll happen to the northern lights?” 


    From Lancaster University




    May 22, 2019
    Nathan Case,
    Lancaster University

    As magnetic north shifts increasingly away from the geologic north pole – towards Siberia – studies suggest the northern lights could move with it.

    Northern lights over Lake Lappajärvi in Finland. Image via Santeri Viinamäki.

    Like most planets in our solar system, the Earth has its own magnetic field. Thanks to its largely molten iron core, our planet is in fact a bit like a bar magnet.


    It has a north and south magnetic pole, separate from the geographic poles, with a field connecting the two. This field protects our planet from radiation and is responsible for creating the northern and southern lights – spectacular events that are only visible near the magnetic poles.

    However, with reports that the magnetic north pole has started moving swiftly at 50km (31 miles) per year – and may soon be over Siberia – it has long been unclear whether the northern lights will move too. Now a new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, has come up with an answer.

    Our planetary magnetic field has many advantages. For over 2,000 years, travellers have been able to use it to navigate across the globe. Some animals even seem to be able to find their way thanks to the magnetic field. But, more importantly than that, our geomagnetic field helps protect all life on Earth.

    Earth’s magnetic field extends hundreds of thousands of kilometers out from the center of our planet – stretching right out into interplanetary space, forming what scientists call a “magnetosphere”.

    Magnetosphere of Earth, original bitmap from NASA. SVG rendering by Aaron Kaase

    This magnetosphere helps to deflect solar radiation and cosmic rays, preventing the destruction of our atmosphere. This protective magnetic bubble isn’t perfect though, and some solar matter and energy can transfer into our magnetosphere. As it is then funneled into the poles by the field, it results in the spectacular displays of the northern lights.

    A wandering pole

    Since Earth’s magnetic field is created by its moving, molten iron core, its poles aren’t stationary and they wander independently of one another. In fact, since its first formal discovery in 1831, the north magnetic pole has travelled over 1,240 miles (2,000 km) from the Boothia Peninsula in the far north of Canada to high in the Arctic Sea. This wandering has generally been quite slow, around 9km (6 mi) a year, allowing scientists to easily keep track of its position. But since the turn of the century, this speed has increased to 30 miles (50 km) a year. The south magnetic pole is also moving, though at a much slower rate (6-9 miles, or 10-15 km a year).

    This rapid wandering of the north magnetic pole has caused some problems for scientists and navigators alike. Computer models of where the north magnetic pole might be in the future have become seriously outdated, making accurate compass-based navigation difficult. Although GPS does work, it can sometimes be unreliable in the polar regions. In fact, the pole is moving so quickly that scientists responsible for mapping the Earth’s magnetic field were recently forced to update their model much earlier than expected.

    Will the aurora move?

    The aurora generally form in an oval about the magnetic poles, and so if those poles move, it stands to reason that the aurora might too. With predictions suggesting that the north pole will soon be approaching northern Siberia, what effect might that have on the aurora?

    The northern lights are currently mostly visible from northern Europe, Canada and the northern U.S. If, however, they shifted north, across the geographic pole, following the north magnetic pole, then that could well change. Instead, the northern lights would become more visible from Siberia and northern Russia and less visible from the much more densely populated U.S./Canadian border.

    Fortunately, for those aurora hunters in the northern hemisphere, it seems as though this might not actually be the case. A recent study made a computer model of the aurora and the Earth’s magnetic poles based on data dating back to 1965. It showed that rather than following the magnetic poles, the aurora follows the “geomagnetic poles” instead. There’s only a small difference between these two types of poles – but it’s an important one.

    Magnetic versus geomagnetic poles. Image via Wikipedia.

    The magnetic poles are the points on the Earth’s surface where a compass needle points downwards or upwards, vertically. They aren’t necessarily connected and drawing a line between these points, through the Earth, would not necessarily cross its center. Therefore, to make better models over time, scientists assume that the Earth is like a bar magnet at its center, creating poles that are exactly opposite each other – “antipodal”. This means that if we drew a line between these points, the line would cross directly through the Earth’s center. At the points where that line crosses the Earth’s surface, we have the geomagnetic poles.

    Positions of the north magnetic pole (red) and the geomagnetic pole (blue) between 1900 and 2020. Image via British Geological Survey.

    The geomagnetic poles are a kind of reliable, averaged out version of the magnetic poles, which move erratically all the time. Because of that, it turns out they aren’t moving anywhere near as fast as the magnetic north pole is. And since the aurora seems to follow the more averaged version of the magnetic field, it means that the northern lights aren’t moving that fast either. It seems as though the aurora are staying where they are – at least for now.

    We already know that the magnetic pole moves. Both poles have wandered ever since the Earth existed. In fact, the poles even flip over, with north becoming south and south becoming north. These magnetic reversals have occurred throughout history, every 450,000 years or so on average. The last reversal occurred 780,000 years ago meaning we could be due for a reversal soon.

    So rest assured that a wandering pole, even a fast one, shouldn’t cause too many problems – except for those scientists whose job it is to model it.

    Bottom line: Studies suggest that the northern lights could move as the Earth’s magnetic north pole heads towards Siberia.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition


    Lancaster University (legally the University of Lancaster) is a collegiate public research university in Lancaster, Lancashire, England. The university was established by Royal Charter in 1964, one of several new universities created in the 1960s.

    The university was initially based in St Leonard’s Gate in the city centre, before moving in 1968 to a purpose-built 300 acres (120 ha) campus at Bailrigg, 4 km (2.5 mi) to the south. The campus buildings are arranged around a central walkway known as the Spine, which is connected to a central plaza, named Alexandra Square in honour of its first chancellor, Princess Alexandra.

    Lancaster is one of only six collegiate universities in the UK; the colleges are weakly autonomous. The eight undergraduate colleges are named after places in the historic county of Lancashire, and each have their own campus residence blocks, common rooms, administration staff and bar.

    Lancaster is ranked in the top ten in all three national league tables, and received a Gold rating in the Government’s inaugural (2017) Teaching Excellence Framework. In 2018 it was awarded University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, and achieved its highest ever national ranking of 6th place within the guide’s national table. The annual income of the institution for 2016–17 was £267.0 million of which £37.7 million was from research grants and contracts, with an expenditure of £268.7 million.

  • richardmitnick 10:09 am on May 10, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Star formation burst created 50% of Milky Way disk stars", , , , , EarthSky, U Barcelona   

    From Universitat de Barcelona via EarthSky: “Star formation burst in the Milky Way 2-3 billion years ago” 

    From Universitat de Barcelona




    May 10, 2019
    Deborah Byrd

    Analysis of data from the Gaia satellite shows a powerful burst of star formation – a stellar baby boom – in our Milky Way galaxy 2 to 3 billion years ago. This single burst might have created half the stars in the galaxy’s flat disk.

    ESA/GAIA satellite

    This photographic image depicts our Milky Way galaxy as seen from the inside, but it isn’t a conventional photo. Instead, it’s the result of the integration of all the radiation received by the Gaia satellite during 22 months of continuous measurements. The shining dots aren’t stars, but instead stellar clusters with the massive and youngest stars of the region. The dark filaments track the gas and dust distribution, where the new stars are born. The insert shows the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, one of the closest star-forming regions to our solar system. Image via ESA/Gaia/DPAC/University of Barcelona.

    How do we know how our Milky Way galaxy formed and evolved? How do we know the rate at which the galaxy’s stars were born, and how that rate might have changed over billions of years of Milky Way history? Like so many new insights about our galaxy over the past year, new answers to these questions have come via ESA’s Gaia satellite, and its second data release of April 2018. The University of Barcelona said on May 8, 2019, that a team of its astronomers – along with astronomers at the Besançon Astronomical Observatory in France – analyzed Gaia data to learn of a powerful star formation burst in our Milky Way some 2 to 3 billion years ago. They now believe this burst marked the birth of more than 50 percent of the stars in the galaxy’s flat disk. An article at Nature Research Highlights explained:

    “Roger Mor at the University of Barcelona in Spain and his colleagues turned to data from the Gaia satellite, which precisely measures the distance from Earth to millions of stars. These measurements allow researchers to calculate a star’s true brightness and size, which can be fed into models to infer its age.

    The team simulated star formation in the Milky Way over time, and found it was in steady decline until roughly five billion years ago, when production suddenly ramped up. The researchers estimate that half the total mass of all the stars ever created in the Milky Way’s thin disk – which contains most of the galaxy’s stars – was produced during this period.”

    The study was published in April 2019 in the peer-reviewed journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    Artist’s concept of top view of Milky Way galaxy, showing distribution of 3 million stars used in a study by the Gaia satellite to detect the star formation burst. Gaia provided a precise distance measurement for each of these objects. Image via University of Barcelona.

    Milky Way NASA/JPL-Caltech /ESO R. Hurt

    Lead author Roger Mor said:

    “The timescale of this star formation burst together with the great amount of stellar mass involved in the process, billions of solar masses, suggests the disk of our galaxy did not have a steady and paused evolution. It may have suffered an external perturbation that began about five billion years ago.”

    Other studies using Gaia data have shown mergers and near mergers of other galaxies with our Milky Way (and this process is still ongoing, with the Milky Way and neighboring Andromeda galaxy due to collide, perhaps 4.5 billion years from now).

    Andromeda Galaxy Adam Evans

    Milkdromeda -Andromeda on the left-Earth’s night sky in 3.75 billion years-NASA

    Boom! Future motions of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies show them on a collision course. Meanwhile, the 3rd major galaxy in our Local Group – the Triangulum galaxy – is likely to give the collision a wide berth. Image via ESA/Gaia/DPAC.

    These astronomers said that one of these mergers could be the cause of the powerful star formation burst detected in this study.

    Bottom line: A new study using data from Gaia’s second date release reveals that stars in our Milky Way galaxy did not form at a steady or predictable rate, but rather at a rate determined in part by mergers of the Milky Way with other galaxies in its cosmic neighborhood. Galactic mergers appear to have caused a burst of star formation in the Milky Way, 2 to 3 billion years ago. The researchers estimate that half the total mass of all the stars ever created in the Milky Way’s thin disk – which contains most of the galaxy’s stars – was produced during this period.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.orgin 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

    Welcome to the University of Barcelona

    The University of Barcelona is the most formidable public institution of higher education in Catalonia, catering to the needs of the greatest number of students and delivering the broadest and most comprehensive offering in higher educational courses. The UB is also the principal centre of university research in Spain and has become a European benchmark for research activity, both in terms of the number of research programmes it conducts and the excellence these have achieved.

    Its own history closely tied to the history of Barcelona and of Catalonia, our university combines the values of tradition with its position as an institution dedicated to innovation and teaching excellence: a university that is as outward-looking and cosmopolitan as the city from which it takes its name.

    Welcome to the University of Barcelona. We hope to see you very soon!

    The University of Barcelona (Catalan: Universitat de Barcelona, UB; IPA: [uniβəɾsiˈtad də βəɾsəˈlonə]; Spanish: Universidad de Barcelona) is a public university located in the city of Barcelona, Catalonia in Spain. With 73 undergraduate programs, 273 graduate programs and 48 doctorate programs to over 63,000 students, UB is considered to be the best university in Spain in the QS World University Rankings of 2018, which ranked the university 156th overall in the world. In the 2016-2017 ranking of University Ranking by Academic Performance, UB is considered the best university in Spain and 45th university in the world. Also, according to the yearly ranking made by US News, it is the 81st-best university in the world, and the best university in Spain.

  • richardmitnick 12:55 pm on March 30, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Breakthrough Listen Project missed here, EarthSky, Laser SETI missed here, METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International, NIROSETI missed here, SETI@home missed here, Zoo Hypothesis   

    From METI International via EarthSky: “Scientists gather to contemplate The Great Silence” 


    METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International has announced plans to start sending signals into space

    From METI International




    March 24, 2019
    Paul Scott Anderson

    Are we alone? If advanced alien civilizations are out there, why haven’t we heard from them? Scientists call this Fermi’s Paradox – aka The Great Silence – and they gathered in Paris last week to discuss it.

    Where are they? The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi famously posed that question in 1950, and the question is now known as the Fermi Paradox or The Great Silence.

    Photo of Italian physicist Enrico Fermi from the 1940s. The Fermi Paradox was named after him in 1950. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

    Fermi asked – if other civilizations exist on other planets in our Milky Way galaxy, and if some have spread through the galaxy as both science fiction and scientists have conjectured – why haven’t we heard from them?

    To try to help answer these questions, the METI group held another one-day workshop in Paris last week (March 18, 2019). METI stands for Messaging Extraterrestial Intelligence. The workshop brought together researchers from diverse scientific fields including astrophysics, biology, sociology, psychology and history. The workshop took place at the Paris science museum Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie.

    According to Florence Raulin Cerceau, co-chair of the workshop and a member of METI’s Board of Directors:

    “Every two years, METI International organizes a one-day workshop in Paris as part of a series of workshops entitled ‘What is Life? An Extraterrestrial Perspective.’ This year, METI collaborated with the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie – a huge science museum in Paris – and the Centre Alexandre-Koyré – a research center for historical studies of science and technology – to gather renowned scientists, philosophers, and sociologists to debate the Fermi Paradox.”

    This puzzle of why we haven’t detected extraterrestrial life has been discussed often, but in this workshop’s unique focus, many of the talks tackled a controversial explanation first suggested in the 1970s called the Zoo Hypothesis.

    SETI/Allen Telescope Array situated at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 290 miles (470 km) northeast of San Francisco, California, USA, Altitude 986 m (3,235 ft)

    Modern searches for extraterrestrial intelligence have focused on looking for radio or laser signals. For example, the Allen Telescope Array near San Francisco has conducted this type of search. Image via SETI Institute.

    Artist’s concept of a Dyson sphere. Earthly scientists theorize that a construction like this one could be used by an advanced civilization to harness energy from its star. If an alien intelligence capable of building a Dyson Sphere exists, do they know about us? Image via SentientDevelopments.

    Another question is, if extraterrestrials know our civilization is here on Earth, then why have they been so quiet? This part of the conundrum is what’s known as The Great Silence. As Douglas Vakoch, president of METI, surmised:

    “Perhaps extraterrestrials are watching humans on Earth, much as we watch animals in a zoo. How can we get the galactic zookeepers to reveal themselves? If we went to a zoo and suddenly a zebra turned toward us, looked us in the eye, and started pounding out a series of prime numbers with its hoof, that would establish a radically different relationship between us and the zebra, and we would feel compelled to respond. We can do the same with extraterrestrials by transmitting powerful, intentional, information-rich radio signals to nearby stars.”

    However, an actual physical meeting with a highly advanced civilization might be dangerous, as noted by Danielle Briot, an astrophysicist at the Observatoire de Paris:

    “Past experience shows that any meeting of two civilizations is dangerous for both. Knowing that, civilized extraterrestrials will not try to communicate with us.”

    Inside Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris, the location of the METI workshop this month. Image via Leandro Neumann Ciuffo.

    Could we really be part of a galactic zoo? Being observed but from a distance? Or, going one step further, could we be quarantined from the rest of the galaxy? That idea was voiced by Jean-Pierre Rospars, the honorary research director at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) and co-chair of the workshop:

    “It seems likely that extraterrestrials are imposing a ‘galactic quarantine’ because they realize it would be culturally disruptive for us to learn about them. Cognitive evolution on Earth shows random features while also following predictable paths. By considering the regular and random components together, we can expect the repeated, independent emergence of intelligent species in the universe, and we should expect to see more or less similar forms of intelligence everywhere, under favorable conditions. There’s no reason to think that humans have reached the highest cognitive level possible. Higher levels might evolve on Earth in the future and already be reached elsewhere.”

    All of this is conjecture at this point, and depends on just how many civilizations are really out there, which is still unknown. The Drake Equation has been used to try to estimate that number, but there are still unknown variables to be accounted for.


    Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake

    Drake Equation, Frank Drake, Seti Institute

    How many exoplanets can support life? How many actually do? How often does intelligent life evolve? How many civilizations are more advanced than us?

    Searches like SETI have focused mainly on looking for radio or light signals. Civilizations similar to ours in development might use those technologies, but what about a civilization thousands or millions of years ahead of us? It seems likely their technology would be much more evolved was well. We would probably have very little in common with them, but perhaps also with less advanced civilizations, as noted by Roland Lehoucq, an astrophysicist at the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA):

    “The environment on an exoplanet will impose its own rules. There is no trend in biological evolution: the huge range of various morphologies observed on Earth renders any exobiological speculation improbable, at least for macroscopic ‘complex’ life.”

    Nicolas Prantzos, director of research of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), explained that:

    “It appears that although radio communications provide a natural means for SETI for civilizations younger than a few millennia, older civilizations should rather develop extensive programs of interstellar colonization, because this is the only way to achieve undisputable evidence – either for or against the existence of ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) – within their lifetime.”

    For some people, these questions may sound like something out of science fiction, but Cyril Birnbaum and Brigitte David of the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, insist that they are valid:

    “We are very interested in the scientific approach used in the analysis of the Fermi Paradox and the search for intelligent life in the universe. The question ‘Are we alone?’ affects us all, because it is directly related to humanity and our place in the cosmos. This is an essential question that will introduce the public to the scientific process in a show being designed at the planetarium.”

    Aliens have long been a staple of science fiction, as also discussed by Lehoucq and Steyer. As one example shown, the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 depicted “bat-men” in a series of satirical newspaper articles. Many readers, however, thought this was a factual account, when it wasn’t.

    Some people will argue that aliens have already found us, i.e. the UFO phenomenon. That is a subject of intense debate all by itself, but it’s an idea worth considering, since informed conjecture related to The Great Silence and the Fermi Paradox suggests that any civilizations advanced enough to colonize the galaxy should know about us by now. While the great majority of sightings can be explained as misidentifications and hoaxes, there are some cases that have not been – such as some well-documented military reports like Nimitz in 2004 (and a related previously secret Pentagon UFO study program) – as reported by The New York Times on December 16, 2017. While there is as yet no proof that aliens are involved in any of these incidents, they are certainly of interest and should be investigated, whatever the explanation turns out to be.

    In terms of The Great Silence, there are no easy answers, at least not yet. But bringing a multi-disciplinary approach – as with the METI workshop – is an interesting way to tackle the question, and one that might lead to something even more interesting. That’s because finding extraterrestrial intelligence – or not – will require input from a wide range of scientific fields.

    Bottom line: The Great Silence – and the search for alien intelligence in general – is one of the most significant mysteries facing humanity. On March 18, 2019, a group called METI – which stands for Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence – held a one-day workshop in Paris to discuss it.

    Really? Bottom line? Failure to mention:

    1.SETI@home, a SETI project running at UC Berkeley on BOINC software from the Space Science Lab

    SETI@home, a BOINC project originated in the Space Science Lab at UC Berkeley

    2.NIROSETI, an astronomical program to search for artificial signals in the optical (visible) and near infrared (NIR) wavebands of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is the first dedicated near-infrared SETI experiment. The instrument was created by a collaboration of scientists from the University of California, San Diego, Berkeley SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Toronto, and the SETI Institute. It uses the Anna Nickel 1-m telescope at the Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA. The instrument was commissioned (saw its first light) on 15 March 2015 and has been operated for more than 150 nights.

    UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument. (Photo by Laurie Hatch).jpg

    Shelley Wright of UC San Diego, with NIROSETI, developed at U Toronto, at the 1-meter Nickel Telescope at Lick Observatory at UC Santa Cruz

    3. Laser SETI

    Laser SETI, the future of SETI Institute research

    Big discoveries in science are often made when innovative instruments probe nature in new ways. Laser SETI will search the sky for a variety of pulsed light signals that might have been overlooked before. We may find ET, and we also may find new physics.

    SETI scientists spend most of their time looking for themselves. That is, we tend to look for the kinds of radio or light signals that we generate on Earth. For example, when Frank Drake began the first SETI observations in 1960, he chose to look for signals similar to those for AM radio broadcasting. It seemed to make sense that if humans use AM radio to communicate, then ET might do the same. But there is a vast menagerie of methods to encode sound into a radio signal, for example, using pulses. Drake did not look for short pulses. If he had he might have discovered a kind of neutron star called a pulsar, discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell and earning a Nobel Prize for her postdoctoral advisor, Anthony Hewish, but she was denied a share.

    Women in STEM – Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discovered pulsars with radio astronomy. Jocelyn Bell at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, Cambridge University, taken for the Daily Herald newspaper in 1968. Denied the Nobel.

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell at work on first plusar chart 1967 pictured working at the Four Acre Array in 1967. Image courtesy of Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory.

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell 2009

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943 – ), still working from http://www. famousirishscientists.weebly.com

    Thanks to additional donations outside of the Indiegogo campaign, we’re going to be able to deploy EIGHT cameras instead of four, meaning that we can fully monitor two independent fields-of-view! This is not only very exciting because we’re twice as close to all-sky coverage, but it’s an ideal balance between risk and progress. We need to prove out the instrument, housing, and operations before putting too much hardware at risk, yet two fields-of-view enable us to compare and contrast what we see in two different parts of the sky. This can be critical when you’re doing exploratory observations, for instance helping to distinguish instrumental effects from actual observed phenomena.

    We’ll start by deploying two enclosures (four cameras) to the first site, then let those “bake” through the worst weather we can find. Then, in the second half of this year, we’ll deploy the other two to another site thousands of miles away but pointing at the same two patches of sky. Having four cameras from two sites looking at each patch of sky not only gives us stellar confidence in any events we observe, it also provides coverage in case one site has inclement weather. That’s what it takes to watch all the sky all the TIME!

    The engineering model on the left (with some panels removed for visibility) is rapidly turning into reality! The sun shade opens and closes, both in this movie and in real life, and we’re now focusing on the environmental sensor suite: GPS, accelerometers, temperature, barometer, and of course integrating data from local observatory weather systems. We’re iterating on the mechanical drawings for the enclosure and box underneath which, in addition from protecting the equipment from the elements, will allow the whole system to be tilted forwards or backwards to facilitate field alignment across observatories. The second pair of cameras have been delivered from the manufacturer, and we’re working with them on a software upgrade to speed the readout rate which might nearly double our sensitivity to short pulses!

    Following up on previous updates, if you missed the Facebook Live we did with Laser SETI scientist Eliot Gillum and Indiegogo campaign whiz Ly Ly, the first and second half videos are available on the SETI Institute Facebook page! And finally, all perks were shipped at the end of Nov or early Dec, so we hope everyone has received their order and is now showing it off with the kind of pride and zeal normally reserved for pictures of a first-born child!

    Thanks again, and more to come as it develops!

    4. Breakthrough Listen Project-

    Breakthrough Listen Project


    UC Observatories Lick Autmated Planet Finder, fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA

    GBO radio telescope, Green Bank, West Virginia, USA

    CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia

    SKA Meerkat telescope, 90 km outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, SA

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    The primary objectives and purposes of METI International are to:

    Conduct scientific research and educational programs in Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

    Promote international cooperation and collaboration in METI, SETI, and astrobiology.

    Understand and communicate the societal implications and relevance of searching for life beyond Earth, even before detection of extraterrestrial life.

    Foster multidisciplinary research on the design and transmission of interstellar messages, building a global community of scholars from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts.

    Research and communicate to the public the many factors that influence the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, with a special emphasis on the last three terms of the Drake Equation: (1) the fraction of life-bearing worlds on which intelligence evolves, (2) the fraction of intelligence-bearing worlds with civilizations having the capacity and motivation for interstellar communication, and (3) the longevity of such civilizations.

    Offer programs to the public and to the scholarly community that foster increased awareness of the challenges facing our civilization’s longevity, while encouraging individual and community activities that support the sustainability of human culture on multigenerational timescales, which is essential for long-term METI and SETI research.

  • richardmitnick 10:45 am on March 16, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "There may be 50 billion free-floating planets in our galaxy", , , , , EarthSky,   

    From Universiteit Leiden via EarthSky: “There may be 50 billion free-floating planets in our galaxy” 

    From Universiteit Leiden




    March 10, 2019
    Paul Scott Anderson

    There are at least 200 billion stars in our galaxy, and perhaps even a greater number of planets. Now a new study suggests there could be an additional 50 billion rogue planets, not orbiting any stars.

    Artist’s concept of rogue planet CFBDSIR J214947.2-040308.9. Image via ESO/L. Calçada/P. Delorme/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)/R. Saito/VVV Consortium.

    Based on findings from space- and ground-based telescopes in recent years, astronomers now estimate there are billions of exoplanets – planets orbiting distant stars – in our galaxy alone. But what about planets that don’t orbit stars? How many rogue, or free-floating planets wander the depths of space unbound? Some have already been found, and earlier this year astronomers at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands announced results of their new study, suggesting there are some 50 billion free-floating planets in our Milky Way galaxy.

    These astronomers’ results were published on February 14, 2019, in the peer-reviewed journal Astronomy and Astrophysics[not made available at A&A see “astronomers’ results”.pdf on prior link.]

    Only a dozen or so rogue planets have been discovered. How did these astronomers’ research determine there might be 50 billion more?

    They ran computer simulations of 1,500 stars in the Trapezium star cluster, a well-known region of star formation located some 1,300 light-years away in the Orion Nebula, in the direction of our constellation Orion.

    The simulation included 2,522 planets orbiting 500 stars within the Trapezium cluster and showed that 357 of them would become free-floating planets within the first 11 million years of their evolution. Simon Portegies Zwart, an astronomer at the University of Leiden, recently told Bruce Dorminey of Forbes:

    “Of these, 281 leave the cluster, others remain bound to the cluster as free-floating intra-cluster planets.”

    View of the Orion Nebula – a well-known region of star formation – via the Hubble Space Telescope. The Trapezium star cluster is the bright area just left of center. It contains about 2,000 known stars, but there may be more as well. It is a young open cluster where the stars are all roughly the same age. Image via NASA/ESA/Hubble Space Telescope.

    NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

    So 281 of 2,522 newly born planets would leave their original star-forming cluster altogether, to roam the space between stars and star clusters, according to this computer simulation. The researchers then extrapolated those numbers to the rest of the galaxy, based on estimates of 200 billion stars in our galaxy. After all, the Trapezium star cluster is just one of thousands of known star clusters. All of the Milky Way’s stars are thought to have originated in vast star-forming clouds like those in the Orion Nebula, and to have started life in star clusters much like the Trapezium star cluster.

    If, as calculated, about a quarter of the Milky Way’s stars have lost one or more planets, as many as 50 billion planets should be rogue or free-floating, in our galaxy alone!

    Bound exoplanets likely outnumber stars in the galaxy; our single sun has eight major planets, and we’ve now seen thousands of planets orbiting single stars in multiple-planet systems. The estimates for the total numbers of planets in our Milky Way – both bound to stars, and rogue – is staggering.

    Just a few decades ago, it wasn’t yet known if any exoplanets existed. Now, current observations suggest there are hundreds of billions. Combine that with the billions of galaxies, and the implications are mind-blowing.

    Closer view of the Trapezium star cluster in the Orion Nebula (bright stars near center of photo). Image via ESO/M.McCaughrean et al. (AIP).

    Here is another question. Might any of those free-floating planets collide with other planets or with their stars? They can and do, according to these astronomers’ recent computer simulation. Zwart said in Forbes:

    “Collisions among planets and between planets and their host star are common. This happens in more than three percent of planetary systems.”

    Zwart also thinks that our own solar system might have lost one or two planets – probably less massive than Neptune – earlier in its youth. He said:

    “But who knows what happened very early on, when Jupiter and Saturn had just formed and the rocky planets just started to emerge.”

    Artist’s concept of exoplanet Kepler-186f. Most exoplanets – as might be assumed – orbit their own stars, but there may be billions more in our galaxy alone that do not. NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle.

    The ejection of planets from their home planetary systems might be more common in denser star clusters (the Trapezium star cluster is considered a “looser” cluster), since more frequent encounters between stars in dense clusters will make the planetary systems unstable. But the study of the Trapezium cluster shows that planets leave their home systems in looser clusters as well.

    Two of the dozen or so confirmed rogue planets so far were announced last year – OGLE-2012-BLG-1323 and OGLE-2017-BLG-0560. The first is estimated to have a mass between Earth and Neptune, while the other has a mass between Jupiter and a brown dwarf star.

    Rogue planets are not easy to detect, but as astronomers learn more about them, they’ll be able to find more in the coming years. If this new study is any indication, there are many of them awaiting discovery.

    Bottom line: The existence of 200 billion stars in our galaxy – and an even greater number of planets – is difficult enough to wrap our minds around. The idea of another 50 billion planets just floating around, not bound to any stars, is even more incredible. It might sound like science fiction, but, if astronomers at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands are right, these 50 billion rogue planets do exist.

    See the full article here.


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Universiteit Leiden Heijmans onderhoudt

    Universiteit Leiden was founded in 1575 and is one of Europe’s leading international research universities. It has seven faculties in the arts, sciences and social sciences, spread over locations in Leiden and The Hague. The University has over 6,500 staff members and 26,900 students. The motto of the University is ‘Praesidium Libertatis’ – Bastion of Freedom.

  • richardmitnick 11:21 am on February 1, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A fast-moving comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) is nearing its February encounter with the sun and Earth, , , , Comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) is traveling through space at the amazing speed of 147948 miles per hour (238099 km/h) or 66 km per second relative to Earth., , Discovered by Japanese astronomer Masayuki Iwamoto in late 2018, EarthSky, The best nights for observing the comet (with binoculars and small telescopes) should be on February 11 and 12, The celestial visitor will safely pass by Earth at some 28 million miles (45 million km)   

    From EarthSky: “Speedy comet approaching Earth’s vicinity” 


    From EarthSky

    February 1, 2019
    Eddie Irizarry

    A fast-moving comet, C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto), is nearing its February encounter with the sun and Earth. It’ll pass near some galaxies as seen from Earth, providing a great opportunity for astrophotographers.

    Comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) is seen at the bottom of this beautiful image by Rolando Ligustri. Used with permission by EarthSky

    A new celestial visitor – a comet – was discovered[Minor Planet Center] by Japanese astronomer Masayuki Iwamoto in late 2018. It’ll provide nice opportunities for astrophotographers, as it will pass close to a couple of Messier objects in February 2019. It’s a fast-moving comet that will be closest to Earth on February 12, 2019, at around 2:57 p.m. ET (19:57 UTC; translate to your time zone). The celestial visitor will safely pass by Earth at some 28 million miles (45 million km). The comet has been designated C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto).

    This comet is fast! Comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) is traveling through space at the amazing speed of 147,948 miles per hour (238,099 km/h) or 66 km per second, relative to Earth.

    The best nights for observing the comet (with binoculars and small telescopes) should be on February 11 and 12. Preliminary estimates suggest the newly found comet might reach a brightness or magnitude between 7 and 7.8 , which means it should be easily seen with small telescopes and binoculars. It will not be visible to the eye alone.

    A closer look at comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto)’s orbit. Image via NASA/JPL.

    During closest approach to Earth, comet Iwamoto will be located in front of the constellation Leo the Lion, which is visible late at night at this time of year.

    Astrophotographers might be able to capture this comet passing close to some galaxies, as seen from our perspective. See the illustrations below:

    Late on the night of Saturday, February 2, 2019, Comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) passes close to M104 (Sombrero Galaxy), providing a nice opportunity to astrophotographers. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.

    On February 2, 2019, comet Iwamoto passes close to Messier 104 (Sombrero Galaxy), while by February 10, 2019, the celestial visitor will appear passing very close to Messier 95, a galaxy in the constellation Leo.

    Facing east on February 10, 2019 at around 10 p.m. CT as seen from the central US. Comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) will pass close to some galaxies in Leo, especially Messier 95. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.

    The comet was detected in images taken on December 18, 2018.

    Comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) looks great in this image taken on January 17, 2019, by Rolando Ligustri.

    The orbit of comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) is very elliptical (elongated). Its orbit suggests this comet came from the Oort cloud of comets surrounding our solar system.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.orgin 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

  • richardmitnick 10:26 am on December 27, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , EarthSky, , What does Ceres’ carbon mean?   

    From EarthSky and SwRI: “What does Ceres’ carbon mean?” 


    From EarthSky

    December 27, 2018
    Paul Scott Anderson

    Earlier this month, scientists announced that dwarf planet Ceres has more carbon-rich organics than previously thought, both on and below its surface. Here’s why that’s exciting.

    False-color image of dwarf planet Ceres – largest body in the asteroid belt – from the Dawn spacecraft. The image shows Ceres’ famous bright spots, and the false color highlights differences in surface materials. Image via NASA PhotoJournal.

    Carbon is one of the most common elements in the universe and is the basis of organic biology on Earth. It can be found throughout the solar system, even in meteorites that bounce to Earth’s surface from other parts of space. Now scientists have found that another body in the solar system – the dwarf planet Ceres – is much richer in carbon that previously thought. Those results were published in a peer-reviewed article in Nature Astronomy on December 10, 2018.

    Astronomer Simone Marchi at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) was the lead author of the new paper. He said:

    “Ceres is like a chemical factory. Among inner solar system bodies, Ceres has a unique mineralogy, which appears to contain up to 20 percent carbon by mass in its near surface. Our analysis shows that carbon-rich compounds are intimately mixed with products of rock-water interactions, such as clays.”

    The interior structure of Ceres as scientists now understand it. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

    Why is the presence of carbon so intriguing? Carbon isn’t by itself necessarily the product of or connected to life, although it does serve as the basis for organic chemistry and biology on Earth. When combined with oxygen and hydrogen, carbon can form many groups of important biological compounds including sugars, alcohols and fats. Its presence on Ceres is evidence that the basic ingredients for life – including carbon – can be found in many different places, not only in our solar system but throughout the universe.

    More specifically, the new findings show that Ceres was, and still is, rich in amorphous carbon – a carbon-rich organic material – which is significant in terms of how carbon is distributed throughout the solar system. (Organic materials are any molecules that contain carbon – they can be formed on their own without life but are also building blocks of life). The new data suggests that Ceres contains several times more amorphous carbon on its surface and in its subsurface than even the most carbon-rich meteorites.

    While Ceres contains more carbon than meteorites, the study also shows that 50 to 60 percent of Ceres’ upper crust may have a composition similar to primitive carbonaceous chondrite meteorites – some of the most complex of all meteorites.

    Close-up view inside Urvara crater on Ceres. The 6,500-foot (1981-meter) central ridge is made from materials uplifted from deep below the surface, which experienced rock-water chemical interactions. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

    As Marchi explained:

    “Our results imply that either Ceres accreted ultra-carbon-rich materials or that carbon was concentrated in its crust. Both potential scenarios are important, because Ceres’ mineralogical composition indicates a global-scale event of rock-water alteration, which could provide conditions favorable to organic chemistry.”

    In other words, the carbon on Ceres may originate from when Ceres first formed or from incoming impacts of other asteroids. Scientists don’t know yet which scenario is correct. But regardless, the evidence for chemical reactions with water is intriguing, since that can eventually lead to the formation of the building blocks of life, even if not life itself.

    Ceres is classified as a dwarf planet but is also the largest asteroid in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft recently finished its mission at Ceres on November 1, 2018, studying its geology and sending back incredible high-resolution images of its surface from orbit.

    NASA Dawn Spacescraft

    One big surprise was the “bright spots” – light-colored deposits, now determined to be sodium carbonate salts – on the darker rocky surface. Scientists think they were formed when when water came up to the surface from deeper below and then evaporated in Ceres’ extremely tenuous and sporadic water vapor “atmosphere.”

    The best-known bright spots are those in Occator Crater, which stand out starkly against the darker rocky surface.

    High-resolution view of Cerealia Facula – a sodium carbonate (salt) deposit – in Occator Crater. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/Roman Tkachenko.

    Whether Ceres ever had conditions suitable for life to evolve is still unknown, although there is also evidence that it has, or at least once had, water below the surface – maybe even a subsurface ocean. This water produced chemical reactions when it came in contact with minerals in rocks. There is also evidence for past cryovolcanic activity – cryovolcanoes, which erupt water, ammonia or methane rather than molten rock. It’s even possible that the subsurface environment was once warm and wet enough for basic biological chemistry to actually begin, although no direct signs of that have been discovered yet.

    Bottom line: As the largest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres is a fascinating world, and has been more geologically active than previously thought. The fact that Ceres is rich in organic carbon is a big part of its geological history and now scientists are beginning to understand what that means not only for the widespread presence of carbon in the solar system but also how organic chemistry can – at least sometimes – lead to the development of life itself.

    See the full EarthSky article here .

    From SwRI: “SwRI-led team finds evidence for carbon-rich surface on Ceres”

    December 10, 2018

    A team led by Southwest Research Institute has concluded that the surface of dwarf planet Ceres is rich in organic matter. Data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft indicate that Ceres’ surface may contain several times the concentration of carbon than is present in the most carbon-rich, primitive meteorites found on Earth.

    “Ceres is like a chemical factory,” said SwRI’s Dr. Simone Marchi, a principal scientist who was the lead author of research published in Nature Astronomy today. “Among inner solar system bodies, Ceres has a unique mineralogy, which appears to contain up to 20 percent carbon by mass in its near surface. Our analysis shows that carbon-rich compounds are intimately mixed with products of rock-water interactions, such as clays.”

    Ceres is believed to have originated about 4.6 billion years ago at the dawn of our solar system. Dawn data previously revealed the presence of water and other volatiles, such as ammonium derived from ammonia, and now a high concentration of carbon. This chemistry suggests Ceres formed in a cold environment, perhaps outside the orbit of Jupiter. An ensuing shakeup in the orbits of the large planets would have pushed Ceres to its current location in the main asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

    “With these findings, Ceres has gained a pivotal role in assessing the origin, evolution and distribution of organic species across the inner solar system,” Marchi said. “One has to wonder about how this world may have driven organic chemistry pathways, and how these processes may have affected the make-up of larger planets like the Earth.”

    Geophysical, compositional and collisional models based on Dawn data revealed that Ceres’ partially differentiated interior has been altered by fluid processes. Dawn’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer has shown that the overall low albedo of Ceres’ surface is a combination of rock-water interaction products such as phyllosilicates and carbonates and a significant amount of spectrally neutral darkening agents, such as an iron oxide called magnetite.

    Because Dawn’s Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector limits magnetite to only a few percent by mass, the data point to the presence of an additional darkening agent, probably amorphous carbon, a carbon-rich organic material. Interestingly, specific organic compounds have also been detected near a 31-mile-wide impact crater named Ernutet, giving further support to the widespread presence of organics in Ceres’ shallow subsurface.

    The new study also finds that 50-60 percent of Ceres’ upper crust may have a composition similar to primitive carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. This material is compatible with contamination from infalling carbonaceous asteroids, a possibility supported by Ceres’ battered surface.

    “Our results imply that either Ceres accreted ultra-carbon-rich materials or that carbon was concentrated in its crust,” Marchi said. “Both potential scenarios are important, because Ceres’ mineralogical composition indicates a global-scale event of rock-water alteration, which could provide conditions favorable to organic chemistry.”

    The paper “An aqueously altered carbon-rich Ceres” was published on December 10 in Nature Astronomy. The Dawn mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. JPL is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Northrop Grumman in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

    For more information visit Planetary Science or contact Deb Schmid, (210) 522-2254, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, PO Drawer 28510, San Antonio, TX 78228-0510.

    See the full SwRI article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.orgin 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

    • stewarthoughblog 10:35 pm on December 27, 2018 Permalink | Reply

      Some very interesting science here, but “but also how organic chemistry can – at least sometimes – lead to the development of life itself.” is faith based speculation, not objective science. There is no viable evidence that organic chemistry ever formed sufficiently to posit that any serious biochemical compounds ever formed anything remotely complex that could be considered anything relevant to anything living.


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