Scientists discover closest-ever Earth-sized exoplanet

In this artist's rendering of GJ 1132b, a rocky exoplanet very similar to Earth in size and mass, circles a red dwarf star. GJ 1132b is relatively cool (about 450 degrees F) and could potentially host an atmosphere. At a distance of only 39 light-years, it will be a prime target for additional study with Hubble and future observatories like the Giant Magellan Telescope. (Dana Berry)

In this artist’s rendering of GJ 1132b, a rocky exoplanet very similar to Earth in size and mass, circles a red dwarf star. GJ 1132b is relatively cool (about 450 degrees F) and could potentially host an atmosphere. At a distance of only 39 light-years, it will be a prime target for additional study with Hubble and future observatories like the Giant Magellan Telescope. (Dana Berry)

In the search for an Earth-like exoplanet, scientists appear to have stumbled on one that looks more like Venus.

The planet, named GJ 1132b, is orbiting a small star located a mere 39 light-years from Earth, making it the closest Earth-sized exoplanet yet discovered. It’s believed to be about 440 degrees Fahrenheit on its rocky surface, and is likely tidally locked, meaning that it has a permanent day and night side, presenting the same face to its star.

Related: Ancient exoplanets raise prospects of intelligent alien life

Because of its scorching temperatures, GJ 1132b probably can’t retain liquid water on its surface, making it uninhabitable for life as we know it. However, scientists say it is cool enough to host a substantial atmosphere.

“If we find this pretty hot planet has managed to hang onto its atmosphere over the billions of years it’s been around, that bodes well for the long-term goal of studying cooler planets that could have life,” said Zachory Berta-Thompson, a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, in a statement. Berta-Thompson was part of a study on the discovery that appeared in the journal Nature.

And it is similar in size to Earth. Researchers found that GJ 1132b is 16 percent larger than Earth, with a diameter of about 9,200 miles. It has a mass 60 percent greater than Earth.

Related: NASA spots more planets out of solar system that may be like Earth

What is intriguing scientists most is its proximity to Earth, which means it could be far easier to learn more about its characteristics, from the composition of its atmosphere to the pattern of its winds and the color of its sunsets.

“We finally have a target to point our telescopes at, and [can] dig much deeper into the workings of a rocky exoplanet, and what makes it tick,” said Berta-Thompson. “This planet is going to be a favorite target of astronomers for years to come.”

The centuries-old search for a planet like ours has intensified of late, thanks to more powerful telescopes and efforts like NASA’s Kepler mission. More than 1,900 planets have been discovered so far- including a collection of eight earlier this year. But many are much further away or little more than rocky fireballs, with surface temperatures in the thousands of degrees – far too hot to hold onto any kind of atmosphere.

Berta-Thompson and an international team that included scientists from Brazil, France and Portugal discovered the planet using the MEarth-South Observatory, a Harvard University-led array of eight 40-centimeter-wide robotic telescopes located in the mountains of Chile. The array monitors small, nearby stars called M dwarfs, which are scattered all over the night sky and often are orbited by planets.

Related: Rare doomed planet with extreme seasons discovered

On May 10, one telescope picked up a faint dip from GJ 1132. “Our galaxy spans about 100,000 light-years,” Berta-Thompson says. “So this is definitely a very nearby solar neighborhood star.”

The robotic telescope immediately started observing GJ 1132 at much faster 45-second intervals to confirm the measurement – a very slight dip of about 0.3 percent of the starlight. To confirm their finding, the researchers pointed other telescopes in Chile at the star, and found that GJ 1132’s brightness dimmed by 0.3 percent every 1.6 days – a signal that a planet was regularly passing in front of the star.

“We didn’t know the planet’s period from one single event, but when we phased many of them together, this signal popped out,” Berta-Thompson said, adding that researchers will now start looking for sister planets of GJ 1132.

Berta-Thompson hopes that astronomers will use the James Webb Space Telescope, the much larger successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that is launching in 2018, to identify the color and the chemical makeup of the planet’s atmosphere, along with the pattern of its winds.

“We think it’s the first opportunity we have to point our telescopes at a rocky exoplanet and get that kind of detail, to be able to measure the color of its sunset, or the speed of its winds, and really learn how rocky planets work out there in the universe,” Berta-Thompson said. “Those will be exciting observations to make.”

 

Originally available here

Buzz Aldrin commemorates his first ever spacewalk with historic selfie

(NASA)

(NASA)

Kim Kardashian has some serious competition from Buzz Aldrin. The astronaut touted “the first space selfie” on social media Thursday to commemorate his first ever spacewalk.

“Did you know I took the first space selfie during Gemini 12 mission in 1966? BEST SELFIE EVER,” he posted on Instagram.

#TBT 49 years ago today I performed my 1st space walk during my #Gemini12 mission. I like to call it space floating.

A photo posted by Buzz Aldrin (@drbuzzaldrin) on

Aldrin took his first spacewalk 49 years ago today –
an outing that lasted 5 hours and 30 minutes. NASA notes that Aldrin was the first astronaut to practice his spacewalking tasks underwater in a swimming pool. Later, in 1969, he would join Neil Armstrong in the first moon landing.

Related: Solar winds blamed for turning Mars into cold, barren place

Space selfies are now common practice for astronauts, such
as Scott Kelly, who recently broke the U.S. record for most days in space.

 

Originally available here

Here’s what happens when an asteroid is ripped apart by a dead star

An asteroid torn apart by the strong gravity of a white dwarf has formed a ring of dust particles and debris orbiting the Earth-sized burnt out stellar core. Gas produced by collisions within the disc is detected in observations obtained over 12 years with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, and reveal a narrow glowing arc. (Mark Garlick and University of Warwick/ESO)

An asteroid torn apart by the strong gravity of a white dwarf has formed a ring of dust particles and debris orbiting the Earth-sized burnt out stellar core. Gas produced by collisions within the disc is detected in observations obtained over 12 years with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, and reveal a narrow glowing arc. (Mark Garlick and University of Warwick/ESO)

For the first time, scientists have captured an image of a glowing debris ring that formed as a result of an asteroid being ripped apart by a dead star.

Captured by scientists at the University of Warwick in the U.K., the rings are comprised of dust particles and debris as a result of the star’s gravity tearing apart asteroids that came too close. Gas produced by collisions among the debris within the ring is illuminated by ultraviolet rays from the star, causing it to emit a dark, red glow.

Related: Fright night flyby: Skyscraper-sized asteroid will pass Earth on Halloween

“We knew about these debris disks around white dwarfs for over 20 years, but have only now been able to obtain the first image of one of these disks,” said Christopher Manser, of the University of Warwick’s Astrophysics Group who led the research, said in a statement.

While looking a lot like Saturn’s rings, the scale of the white dwarf known as SDSS1228+1040 and its debris is many times greater in size.

“The diameter of the gap inside of the debris ring is 700,000 kilometers [434,960 miles], approximately half the size of the Sun and the same space could fit both Saturn and its rings, which are only around 270,000 km [167,770 miles] across,” Manser said. “At the same time, the white dwarf is seven times smaller than Saturn but weighs 2500 times more.”

Related: Asteroid 1,800 feet across to whip past Earth on Monday, approaching within 745,000 miles

While large stars — those more massive than around 10 times the mass of the Sun — suffer a spectacularly violent climax as a supernova explosion at the ends of their lives, smaller stars are spared such a dramatic end. When stars like the Sun come to the ends of their lives they exhaust their fuel, expand as red giants and later expel their outer layers into space.

The hot and very dense core of the former star — a white dwarf — is all that remains.

Researchers said studying such systems can help us get a sense of what our own solar system will look like once the Sun runs out of fuel.

“Over the past decade, we have learned that remnants of planetary systems around white dwarfs are ubiquitous, and over 30 debris disks have been found by now,” Boris Gänsicke, also of the University of Warwick’s Astrophysics Group, said in a statement. “While most of them are in a stable state, just like Saturn’s rings, a handful are seen to change, and it is those systems that can tell us something about how these rings are formed.”

Originally available here

Solar winds blamed for turning Mars into cold, barren place

Scientists have long puzzled over just how Mars went from a warm and wet environment to the cold and arid planet depicted in the movie “The Martian.”

Now, they appear to have the answer.

Data from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission released Thursday show that solar winds over time appear to have stripped away the atmosphere that kept the Red Planet balmy – and that things were at their worse during solar storms.

“Solar-wind erosion is an important mechanism for atmospheric loss, and was important enough to account for significant change in the Martian climate,” said Joe Grebowsky, MAVEN project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and a co-author on one of several papers of the journal Science and a special issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Related: Mars has flowing liquid water, NASA confirms

“MAVEN also is studying other loss processes — such as loss due to impact of ions or escape of hydrogen atoms — and these will only increase the importance of atmospheric escape,” he added in a statement.

John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said the search for a mechanism to the change has been a goal of scientists ever since they found that Mars appears to have had a “thick atmosphere warm enough to support liquid water which is a key ingredient and medium for life as we currently know it.”

“Understanding what happened to the Mars atmosphere will inform our knowledge of the dynamics and evolution of any planetary atmosphere,” he said. “Learning what can cause changes to a planet’s environment from one that could host microbes at the surface to one that doesn’t is important to know, and is a key question that is being addressed in NASA’s journey to Mars.”

Based on the MAVEN measurements, solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about a quarter pound every second.

“Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder and another co-author on one of the papers, said in a statement. “We’ve seen that the atmospheric erosion increases significantly during solar storms, so we think the loss rate was much higher billions of years ago when the sun was young and more active.”

Launched in 2013, the goal of NASA’s MAVEN mission is to determine how much of the planet’s atmosphere and water have been lost to space.

The theory on the role of the solar winds was bolstered earlier this year when a series of dramatic solar storms hit Mars’ atmosphere and MAVEN found that the loss was accelerated. The combination of greater loss rates and increased solar storms in the past suggests that loss of atmosphere to space was likely a major process in changing the Martian climate.

Related: Do Mars rover photos show potential signs of ancient life?

The solar wind is a stream of particles, mainly protons and electrons, flowing from the sun’s atmosphere at a speed of about one million miles per hour. The magnetic field carried by the solar wind as it flows past Mars can generate an electric field, much as a turbine on Earth can be used to generate electricity. This electric field accelerates electrically charged gas atoms, called ions, in Mars’ upper atmosphere and shoots them into space.

The latest results indicate that the loss is experienced in three different regions of the Red Planet: down the “tail,” where the solar wind flows behind Mars, above the Martian poles in a “polar plume,” and from an extended cloud of gas surrounding Mars. The science team determined that almost 75 percent of the escaping ions come from the tail region, and nearly 25 percent are from the plume region, with just a minor contribution from the extended cloud.

Water, or lack thereof, has long fascinated scientists studying Mars.

This year, there have been several studies offering further proof that ancient regions of Mars bear signs of abundant water, including valleys carved by rivers and mineral deposits that only form in the presence of water.

Among them was a study that found the planet would have probably had an Arctic Ocean’s worth of water covering almost half of its northern hemisphere. There would have been enough water to cover the entire surface of the planet in a liquid layer about 450 feet deep.

Another study found that there were probably streams and lakes on Mars between 3.8 billion and 3.3 billion years ago.

Related: NASA confirms ancient lakes existed on Mars 2 to 3 billion years ago

Recently, researchers using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observed the seasonal appearance of hydrated salts indicating briny liquid water on Mars. However, the current Martian atmosphere is far too cold and thin to support long-lived or extensive amounts of liquid water on the planet’s surface.

In other MAVEN results reported in Science, data indicate a steady mixing of carbon dioxide, argon, and nitrogen dioxide, as well as higher amounts of oxygen than previously estimated. The density of these elements about 124 miles from Mars’ surface varied substantially as MAVEN completed each orbit, which the authors suggest may be caused by gravity wave interactions with wind and small-scale mixing processes occurring below.

Another study found an aurora in the northern hemisphere, which dips lower into the atmosphere than any other confirmed aurora to date, at 37 miles. MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph, which depicts ultraviolet light, detected this aurora during a solar energetic particle outburst. But where this type of aurora on Earth is driven by magnetism of the poles, the authors suspect that Mars’ aurora may be driven by the remnant magnetic field of the crust, creating a more even and diffuse aurora.

 

Originally available here

The icy world of Saturn’s moon Enceladus comes into view

This unprocessed view of Saturn's moon Enceladus was acquired by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during a close flyby of the icy moon on Oct. 28, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

This unprocessed view of Saturn’s moon Enceladus was acquired by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during a close flyby of the icy moon on Oct. 28, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

NASA has released the latest images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus taken by the Cassini spacecraft during its close flyby Wednesday, which suggest that this is one cold place.

The images were taken when the probe passed about 30 miles  above the moon’s south polar region. The spacecraft will continue transmitting data from the encounter for the next several days.

Related: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft to make flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus

“Cassini’s stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come,” said Linda Spilker, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.

Enceladus boasts an icy, barren landscape riddled with deep canyons, dubbed “tiger stripes.”  Beneath its icy exterior is an ocean, heated in part by tidal forces from Saturn and another moon, Dione.

Related: Cassini gets close encounter with Saturn’s moon Enceladus

Among the goals of the flyby is determining how habitable the ocean environment is within Enceladus. There is the possibility that microscopic organisms similar to those that thrive around Earth’s deep sea volcanic vents might exist there. To help answer the habitability question, scientists will be trying to determine how much hydrothermal activity is occurring within Enceladus.

Related: NASA releases striking new images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus

Scientists also expect to learn more about the chemistry of the plume on Enceladus. The low altitude of the encounter should offer Cassini greater sensitivity to heavier, more massive molecules, including organics, than the spacecraft has observed in previous efforts.

The flyby should also help settle a debate about what makes up the plume – column-like, individual jets, or sinuous, icy curtain eruptions — or even a combination of both. The answer would make clearer how material is getting to the moon’s surface from the ocean below.

originally available here

Long-lost Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle prototype saved by scrap dealer

 

lunar-rover-prototype-876.jpg

 (NASA)

Where’s Harry Broderick when you need him?

That obscure reference is to “Salvage 1,” a short-lived 1979 TV series starring Andy Griffith. It was about a junkman who built a spaceship to travel to the moon and recover the equipment the Apollo astronauts left behind, with the intention of selling it for a fortune.

In the end, he gave the gear back to NASA free of charge, because it was Andy Griffith, after all. But now a real-life scrap dealer owns an obscure relic from the Apollo program and is planning to put it up for sale.

The website Motherboard recently reported on its investigation into the fate of an early prototype of the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle. A famous NASA photo shows rocket scientist Werner von Braun cruising around in the vehicle, which looks nothing like the ones that went to the moon but was used to develop many of their systems.

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Related:

Out of this world driver Eugene Cernan recounts his ride on the moon

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Government documents uncovered by Motherboard said the vehicle ended up in a backyard in Blountsville, Ala., about an hour south of NASA’s Huntsville research facility, and its existence was reported to NASA in 2014 by a U.S. Air Force historian who spotted it while passing by. Unfortunately, according to the documents, by the time the space agency got around to investigating the matter, the vehicle had been sold for scrap to an unidentified dealer and destroyed.

But after Motherboard ran the story, the scrap dealer, who remains anonymous,contacted the site and said he knew exactly what it was, and that he still had it in storage. In fact, he said, NASA had been in negotiations with him to acquire it last year, but didn’t offer any money.

“NASA told me when they came out to inspect it that they had looked for it for 25 years. It is the von Braun, the first and last they made. I was told it is the rarest of all the units,” he said.

The dealer said NASA tried to get him to loan the vehicle to it as discussions continued, but he feared once NASA had it in its possession, his negotiating leverage would be lost.

NASA has not commented on why it gave up trying to retrieve the vehicle, or why it reported it was destroyed.

The junkyard owner said he still plans to sell it, but he believes it should be saved. A photo he provided to Motherboard shows that the 600-pound vehicle is rusty and corroded, but largely intact. Its tires are still with it but have been removed from the wheels.

It’s just like most old cars you spot in a junkyard, but none have a vehicle history report like this one.

 

originally available here

Mysterious space object set to enter Earth’s atmosphere next month

Space object WT1190F observed on 9 Oct. 2015 with the University of Hawaii 2.2-metre telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. (Credits: B. Bolin, R. Jedicke, M. Micheli)

Space object WT1190F observed on 9 Oct. 2015 with the University of Hawaii 2.2-metre telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. (Credits: B. Bolin, R. Jedicke, M. Micheli)

A mysterious piece of space junk dubbed WT1190F will enter Earth’s atmosphere on Friday Nov. 13, scientists say, plunging into the Indian Ocean about 62 miles off the coast of Sri Lanka.

The object, which was discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey, is being closely monitored by the European Space Agency’s Near Earth Object Coordination Centre (NEOCC).

“The object is likely man made,” explained the NEOCC, in a statement, noting that, at most, it is about 6.6 feet wide. “The object is quite small, at most a couple of meters in diameter, and a significant fraction if not all of it can be expected to completely burn up in the atmosphere.”

Related: Comet Lovejoy appears to be a well-stocked bar in space

Scientists expect that WT1190F will enter Earth’s atmosphere at about 2:20 a.m. ET on Nov. 13 but will not pose a significant threat to the surrounding area.

What the object actually is, however, remains a mystery. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. told Nature that WT1190F could be a spent rocket stage, a paneling shed from a recent moon mission, or even a piece of debris dating back to the Apollo missions.

The ESA’s NEOCC sees WT1190F as a valuable opportunity. “First, the object is interesting to better understand the re-entry of satellites and debris from high orbits,” it explained. “Second, it provides us with an ideal opportunity to test our readiness for any possible future events involving an asteroid, since the components of this scenario, from discovery to impact, are all very similar.”

Related: Skyscraper-sized asteroid will pass Earth on Halloween

Space continues to throw out surprises. A skyscraper-sized asteroid, for example, will fly by Earth on Halloween, according to scientists, who say that the object was only discovered earlier this month.

Originally available here

Comet Lovejoy appears to be a well-stocked bar in space

Picture of the comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) on 12 February 2015 from 50km south of Paris. (Credits: Fabrice Noel)

Picture of the comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) on 12 February 2015 from 50km south of Paris. (Credits: Fabrice Noel)

If you are looking for a good time, it might be worth stopping by Comet Lovejoy.

That’s because the famous comet is releasing huge amounts of alcohol as well as a type of sugar in space, according to NASA. This marks the first time that ethyl alcohol, the same type found in alcoholic beverages, has been observed in a comet.

“We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,” Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France and the lead author of a paper on the discovery published in Science Advances, said in astatement.

Related: Lovejoy Lives! Comet Survives Hellish Encounter With Sun

It also raises the prospect that comets could have been a source of the complex organic molecules required for the emergence of life. The team found 21 different organic molecules in gas from the comet, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar.

“The result definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry,” said Stefanie Milam of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., a co-author on the paper, in the statement. “During the Late Heavy Bombardment about 3.8 billion years ago, when many comets and asteroids were blasting into Earth and we were getting our first oceans, life didn’t have to start with just simple molecules like water, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen. Instead, life had something that was much more sophisticated on a molecular level.”

Comet Lovejoy (formally cataloged as C/2014 Q2) is one of the brightest and most active comets since comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.  Earlier this year, it was so bright that stargazers could see its green colors with the naked eye.

Related: ‘Comet of the century’ nears Earth

For the latest research, scientists took advantage of the comet’s close pass to the sun on Jan. 30 when it was bright and most active – and releasing water at the rate of 20 tons per second.

Sunlight energizes molecules in the comet’s atmosphere, causing them to glow at specific microwave frequencies. Each kind of molecule glows at specific signature frequencies, allowing the team to identify it with detectors on the telescope.

The findings could lend support to the theory that comet impacts on ancient Earth delivered a supply of organic molecules that could have assisted the origin of life.

“We’re finding molecules with multiple carbon atoms. So now you can see where sugars start forming, as well as more complex organics such as amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – or nucleobases, the building blocks of DNA,” Milam said. “These can start forming much easier than beginning with molecules with only two or three atoms.”

In July, the European Space Agency reported that the Philae lander from its Rosetta spacecraft in orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov­-Gerasimenko detected 16 organic compounds as it descended toward and then bounced across the comet’s surface. According to the agency, some of the compounds detected play key roles in the creation of amino acids, nucleobases, and sugars from simpler “building-block” molecules.

Astronomers think comets preserve material from the ancient cloud of gas and dust that formed the solar system. The clouds contain countless grains of dust with carbon dioxide, water, and other gases forming a layer of frost on the surface of these grains. Radiation in space powers chemical reactions in this frost layer to produce complex organic molecules.

“The next step is to see if the organic material being found in comets came from the primordial cloud that formed the solar system or if it was created later on, inside the protoplanetary disk that surrounded the young sun,” said Dominique Bockelée-Morvan from Paris Observatory, a co-author of the paper, in the paper.

If you are looking for a good time, it might be worth stopping by Comet Lovejoy.

That’s because the famous comet is releasing huge amounts of alcohol as well as a type of sugar in space, according to NASA. This marks the first time that ethyl alcohol, the same type found in alcoholic beverages, has been observed in a comet.

“We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,” Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France and the lead author of a paper on the discovery published in Science Advances, said in astatement.

Related: Lovejoy Lives! Comet Survives Hellish Encounter With Sun

It also raises the prospect that comets could have been a source of the complex organic molecules required for the emergence of life. The team found 21 different organic molecules in gas from the comet, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar.

“The result definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry,” said Stefanie Milam of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., a co-author on the paper, in the statement. “During the Late Heavy Bombardment about 3.8 billion years ago, when many comets and asteroids were blasting into Earth and we were getting our first oceans, life didn’t have to start with just simple molecules like water, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen. Instead, life had something that was much more sophisticated on a molecular level.”

Comet Lovejoy (formally cataloged as C/2014 Q2) is one of the brightest and most active comets since comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.  Earlier this year, it was so bright that stargazers could see its green colors with the naked eye.

Related: ‘Comet of the century’ nears Earth

For the latest research, scientists took advantage of the comet’s close pass to the sun on Jan. 30 when it was bright and most active – and releasing water at the rate of 20 tons per second.

Sunlight energizes molecules in the comet’s atmosphere, causing them to glow at specific microwave frequencies. Each kind of molecule glows at specific signature frequencies, allowing the team to identify it with detectors on the telescope.

The findings could lend support to the theory that comet impacts on ancient Earth delivered a supply of organic molecules that could have assisted the origin of life.

“We’re finding molecules with multiple carbon atoms. So now you can see where sugars start forming, as well as more complex organics such as amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – or nucleobases, the building blocks of DNA,” Milam said. “These can start forming much easier than beginning with molecules with only two or three atoms.”

In July, the European Space Agency reported that the Philae lander from its Rosetta spacecraft in orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov­-Gerasimenko detected 16 organic compounds as it descended toward and then bounced across the comet’s surface. According to the agency, some of the compounds detected play key roles in the creation of amino acids, nucleobases, and sugars from simpler “building-block” molecules.

Astronomers think comets preserve material from the ancient cloud of gas and dust that formed the solar system. The clouds contain countless grains of dust with carbon dioxide, water, and other gases forming a layer of frost on the surface of these grains. Radiation in space powers chemical reactions in this frost layer to produce complex organic molecules.

“The next step is to see if the organic material being found in comets came from the primordial cloud that formed the solar system or if it was created later on, inside the protoplanetary disk that surrounded the young sun,” said Dominique Bockelée-Morvan from Paris Observatory, a co-author of the paper, in the paper.

originally available here

‘Spooky’ Halloween asteroid may actually be a comet

 

This graphic depicts the orbit of asteroid 2015 TB145 as it flies past Earth on Oct. 31, 2015.

This graphic depicts the orbit of asteroid 2015 TB145 as it flies past Earth on Oct. 31, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The big asteroid that will zoom past Earth on Halloween may actually be a comet, NASA researchers say.

The roughly 1,300-foot-wide asteroid 2015 TB145, which some astronomers have dubbed “Spooky,” will cruise within 300,000 miles of Earth on Halloween — just 1.3 times the average distance between our planet and the moon.

Though 2015 TB145 poses no threat on this pass, the flyby will mark the closest encounter with such a big space rock until August 2027, when the 2,600-foot-wide 1999 AN10 comes within 1 Earth-moon distance (about 238,000 miles), NASA officials said. [Potentially Dangerous Asteroids (Images)]

Astronomers plan to beam radio waves at 2015 TB145 on Halloween using a 110-foot-wide antenna at NASA’s Deep Space Network facility in Goldstone, California, then collect the reflected signals with the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory.

Such work should reveal key details about the space rock’s size, shape, surface features and other characteristics — including, perhaps, its true identity.

“The asteroid’s orbit is very oblong with a high inclination to below the plane of the solar system,” Lance Benner, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

“Such a unique orbit, along with its high encounter velocity — about 35 kilometers or 22 miles per second — raises the question of whether it may be some type of comet,” added Benner, who leads NASA’s asteroid radar research program. “If so, then this would be the first time that the Goldstone radar has imaged a comet from such a close distance.”

Asteroid 2015 TB145 will be too faint to spot on Halloween with the naked eye, but anyone who’s interested can get a look at the object online, thanks to live telescope views provided by the Slooh Community Observatory and the Virtual Telescope Project.

The Virtual Telescope Project will air a webcast at 8 p.m. ET on Oct. 30, whileSlooh’s broadcast begins at 1 p.m. ET on Oct. 31.

2015 TB145, which was just discovered on Oct. 10, completes one lap around the sun every three years or so. It’s part of a near-Earth object (NEO) population thought to number in the millions.

Just 13,000 NEOs have been detected to date, meaning there are lots of potentially dangerous space rocks cruising through Earth’s neighborhood unseen and unnamed. But there is some good news: Models suggest that about 95 percent of the biggest NEOs — the ones that could threaten human civilization if they hit Earth — have been discovered, and none of them pose a danger for the foreseeable future.

 

 

Originally available here

Earth may be much older than we thought, scientists say

UCLA's Mark Harrison was one of the researchers whose study concluded that Earth was 300 million years older than previously thought. (Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)

UCLA’s Mark Harrison was one of the researchers whose study concluded that Earth was 300 million years older than previously thought. (Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)

Researchers have found evidence in Western Australia that Earth may be 300 million years older than we thought.

That is the conclusion from a team of geochemists at UCLA and Stanford University who found evidence that life likely existed on Earth at least 4.1 billion years ago and may have begun shortly after the planet formed 4.54 billion years ago.

“Twenty years ago, this would have been heretical; finding evidence of life 3.8 billion years ago was shocking,” said Mark Harrison, professor of geochemistry at UCLA and the co-author of the research published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Related: Astrophysicist: Bible supports scientific evidence on age of Earth

“Life on Earth may have started almost instantaneously,” he said in a statement. “With the right ingredients, life seems to form very quickly.”

Because Earth’s rock record only extends to 4 billion years, earlier periods of history are accessible only through mineral grains deposited in sediments, the researchers wrote.

In this case, researchers led by UCLA’s Elizabeth Bell studied more than 10,000 zircons originally formed from molten rocks, or magmas, from Western Australia. The scientists then identified 656 zircons containing dark specks that could be revealing and closely analyzed 79 of them with Raman spectroscopy, a technique that shows the molecular and chemical structure of ancient microorganisms in three dimensions.

Related: Confirmed: Oldest fragment of early Earth is 4.4 billion years old

They were searching for carbon, the key component for life. One of the 79 zircons contained graphite – pure carbon – in two locations. The carbon contained in the zircon also has a characteristic signature –  a specific ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 – that indicates the presence of photosynthetic life.

From that, the researchers concluded that life existed prior to the massive bombardment of the inner solar system that formed the moon’s large craters 3.9 billion years ago.

“If all life on Earth died during this bombardment, which some scientists have argued, then life must have restarted quickly,” said Patrick Boehnke, a co-author of the research and a graduate student in Harrison’s laboratory.

The researchers know the zircon is 4.1 billion years old, based on its ratio of uranium to lead. They can’t say how much older the graphite is.

Originally available here