This Is How Earth Would Look to Alien Astronomers


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It has been less than 30 years since the discovery of the first exoplanets, and we’re still in the dark when it comes to the possibility of life on any of them. Our techniques for finding other planets isn’t particularly sensitive, and we’re not even certain what signals we need to prioritize. A new study could shed light on that question by using the only habitable planet known to exist: Earth. 

The study comes from the California Institute of Technology’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS) and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, led by graduate student Siteng Fan. The goal was to start with a planet we know supports life (Earth), and work backward to extrapolate what an alien looking in our direction might see. In that way, Fan and the team hope to nail down the “look” of a life-supporting exoplanet. To do that, they used 9,740 images of Earth taken by NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory. They include data on light reflected from Earth in multiple wavelengths. 

At our current level of technology, we can’t directly observe exoplanets. They’re too small and dim compared with stars, but we can infer their presence via gravity or the way they obscure light from their parent stars. Often, the most we can say about an exoplanet’s habitability is whether it has a chance of harboring liquid water based on proximity to the star. 

The team discovered that the second principal component of Earth’s reflected light curve correlates to the fraction of land in the illuminated hemisphere. Using the original images, they were able to pick out the values matching land and cloud cover and applied them to a contour map (see top). The green highlighted areas are landmasses, and the blue is water — Africa is in the center, and Asia is to the right. North America is peeking in at the left edge. 

If we apply these same light curve values to a distant exoplanet, it could help us determine if there’s cloud cover and liquid water on the surface. Confirming that a planet has a water cycle could be a big step toward proving habitability. Will we actually be able to gather such data? It’s possible! Upcoming instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope and Thirty Meter Telescope could have enough resolution to pick up some reflected light from small, rocky exoplanets. We could be on the verge of finding more Earth-like worlds.

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Scientists Use ‘UniverseMachine’ to Simulate 8 Million Universes


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Scientists saw the first hints of the effect dark matter has on the universe decades ago, but there’s still a great deal we don’t know about it. It’s difficult to determine the nature of dark matter interactions because we only have the one universe to observe. That’s why researchers from the University of Arizona created 8 million universes with varying conditions inside a supercomputer.

Our current understanding of the role played by dark matter is limited, but most researchers agree on the basics. After the Big Bang, the nebulous material we know as dark matter began clumping together into clouds known as dark matter haloes. Since dark matter makes up most of the matter in the universe, these haloes pulled in hydrogen atoms with the force of gravity, causing them to coalesce into the first stars. Many scientists believe that dark matter continues to form the backbone of galaxies to this day. 

In an effort to learn more about the mechanisms at work, astronomer Peter Behroozi from the University of Arizona used the school’s supercomputer to play god and create millions of simulated universes. Each of the 8 million universes had a unique set of physical constants to help researchers understand how dark matter affects regular matter over time. By comparing these results to the real universe, we can learn which rules match up with reality. The team calls this the “UniverseMachine.”

The University of Arizona’s Ocelote supercomputer has 336 nodes, each with two 28-core CPUs and 192GB of working memory. There’s also a separate large memory node with 2 terabytes of RAM for handling especially large data sets. Behroozi kept 2,000 Ocelote CPU cores busy non-stop for over three weeks to simulate all those universes. 

The University of Arizona Ocelote supercomputer.

We lack the technology to simulate every aspect of a whole universe — simulating a single galaxy accurately would take more computing power than Earth could muster in a hundred years. So, Behroozi and his colleagues focused on two of the most important properties in astronomy: the mass of stars and the rate at which new stars form. 

Little by little, the researchers honed in on properties that made their simulations more like the real thing. The findings could force a rethink of how dark matter affects star formation, too. According to Behroozi, denser dark matter in the early universe seemingly didn’t negatively impact star formation rates as expected. In fact, galaxies of a given size were more likely to form stars at a high rate for much longer. 

Behroozi is excited about what this model could teach us in the future. Soon, the team plans to expand the variables simulated in the UniverseMachine, including how often stars die in supernovae and how dark matter affects galaxy shapes.

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Astronomers Find 8 Repeating Radio Bursts From Deep Space


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The universe is rife with mysteries, but few are as perplexing as fast radio bursts (FRBs). These distant, highly energetic radio-frequency flashes were only discovered in 2007, and most observations have come from non-repeating sources. That makes it hard to study the phenomenon in detail. Astronomers knew of just a few repeating signals before, but a team of researchers reports the discovery of eight more repeating FRBs that could help us understand what’s going on out there. 

The first recorded FRBs happened in 2001, but no one spotted it in the data until a review in 2007. As the name implies, fast radio bursts last just a millisecond, and the signal here on Earth is minute — it’s similar to a cell phone calling from the moon. However, the sources are incredibly intense to be visible on Earth at all. Astronomers estimate the average FRB releases as much energy in a millisecond as the sun puts out in 80 years. 

While dozens of FRBs have cropped up in the data since that first signal, there’s only been a handful of repeating sources. The first of these is known as FRB 121102. It was alone until earlier this year when astronomers found two more repeating FRBs. The new study (available on the preprint arXiv service) from McGill University points to eight more repeating FRBs. 

The researchers used the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment radio telescope (above) to search for FRBs. They observed six new FRBs that repeated just once, and another that fired off three bursts. The last one has scientists particularly excited. Currently called FRB 180916.J0158+65, this source released ten fast radio bursts during four months of observations. 

It has been suggested that all FRBs might actually be repeating, but the time between flashes varies hugely. One of the newly identified repeaters flashes every few days, but other sources may go years between signals. To help unravel this mess, the McGill University team compared the new repeaters to non-repeating FRB signals. They found the repeaters and singles have similar “dispersion measures,” which describes the way the signal stretches as it travels across the universe. However, bursts from repeaters tend to be a few milliseconds longer than singles, and they sometimes release smaller sub-bursts after the main one. 

Knowing where FRBs will happen helps scientists get instruments pointed in the right direction to collect as much data as possible. The dominant hypotheses suggest FRB mechanisms like energetic supernovae and emissions from magnetized neutron stars known as magnetars, but no one knows for sure. With more confirmed repeating FRB sources, we may finally be closing in on an answer.

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Scientists Spot Largest Supernova on Record in Distant Galaxy


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A supernova is, by definition, a huge event. We’re talking about exploding stars, after all. Still, some supernovae are bigger than others, and astronomers recently identified what appears to be the largest supernova we’ve ever observed. The event, dubbed SN2016iet, included a long duration, unusual chemical signatures, and more conundrums. The researchers believe this supernova could challenge our models of star death. 

Scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA) made the first sighting of SN2016iet in 2016 using the Gaia satellite. Astronomers from multiple institutions have used the last three years to study the data and make additional observations. In a new paper, scientists point to SN2016iet as the largest supernova ever seen, but it wasn’t easy to get there. SN2016iet was so out of character for a supernova that astronomers initially thought there could be something wrong with the data. 

SN2016iet exploded a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The team estimates its distance at about one billion light-years in a previously uncatalogued dwarf galaxy. It formed about 54,000 light-years from the center of that galaxy. It was among the largest of stars with a mass of at least 200 suns. As a supergiant star, its life was short, just a few million years. It lost about 85 percent of its mass during the final phase of its life.

Using the MMT Observatory and Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the team confirmed that SN2016iet looks so unusual in large part due to the material ejected prior to the supernova. The star formed a cocoon of matter around itself, and the supernova blast collided with that material. 

SN2016iet grew in brightness considerably when it finally exploded.

The team says this is an example of a pair-instability supernova, something long-theorized but never observed. In a pair-instability supernova, production of electrons and positrons inside the star temporarily reduces internal pressure, leading to a partial collapse and accelerated runaway nuclear reactions. The resulting explosion completely obliterates the star without leaving a black hole or other solar remnants. This can only happen with very large stars in metal-poor galaxies. 

Scientists will continue observing SN2016iet for years to come. Most supernovas fade away in a few months, but this one should be visible much longer, providing an unprecedented opportunity to better understand solar processes.

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Astronomer: Earth’s Atmosphere Could Become the Lens of a Massive Telescope


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The conventional wisdom is that if you want to look at more distant objects in the universe, you need a bigger telescope. What if you didn’t have to build one, though? A new analysis claims it may be possible to use the Earth’s atmosphere as a giant lens to observe far-away stars and galaxies on the cheap. The process may even work in reverse to send signals to distant locales. 

Earth’s atmosphere has traditionally been seen as an impediment to astronomy. The thick envelope of gas that keeps us alive also obscures space. That’s why the most powerful telescopes are the ones we launch into orbit like Hubble and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. And then there are massive ground-based telescopes like the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope under construction in Chile. 

These projects are expensive and deviously complex. The Giant Magellan Telescope will cost around $1 billion, and the Webb Telescope is closing in on $10 billion after years of delays. The “terrascope” proposed by Columbia University astronomer David Kipping could be vastly easier. Using the Earth’s atmosphere as a lens to focus light has been proposed in the past, but Kipping’s new calculations demonstrate how powerful such a setup could be. 

As light from distant objects passes through Earth’s atmosphere, some of it passes through the upper atmosphere and refracts into a cone-like shape. If you were to place a small satellite in orbit around the moon, it could use a small mirror to collect that light, essentially magnifying distant objects. According to Kipping, a 1-meter terrascope could potentially amplify light by 22,500 times. That’s far, far beyond the capabilities of any telescope we could manufacture with current technology. 

Kipping also points out you could equip a terrascope with a radio transmitter rather than a mirror. By bouncing signals off the Earth’s atmosphere, you could potentially improve communication with other planets in the solar system. Some of them have atmospheres, so you could bounce the signal onward creating an “Internet across the solar system.”

That all sounds great, but there are a few potential pitfalls. For one, you can’t point the terrascope anyplace you like. Your lens is the Earth itself, so you can only spy on things that are behind the planet. That’s just a tiny fraction of the sky. Kipping’s calculations also use simplified atmospheric models that don’t take into account conditions like high-altitude clouds. Light contamination from Earth could also make terrascope signals too noisy to be useful. Kipping agrees there’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s a fascinating idea.

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Astronomers Spot Mysterious Flash From Our Galaxy’s Supermassive Black Hole


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You don’t usually think of a supermassive black hole as something that can go unnoticed, but many of these interstellar monsters are quite placid. For instance, Sagittarius A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A Star”) in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. It’s usually very dim, but astronomers recently saw Sagittarius A* flare up — in fact, it just got brighter than we’ve ever seen it. 

Astronomers have detected many active galactic nuclei like quasars around the universe, but Sagittarius A* is on the quiet side despite being four million times more massive than the sun. It’s a bright X-ray radio source due to the heating of matter in the black hole’s accretion disk, but it’s not active enough to be bright across most of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In May of this year, UCLA’s Tuan Do spotted an unusual pulse from Sagittarius A*. That was so unexpected that at first, he believed the flash came from a star in the same part of the sky called S0-2. However, it became apparent over the course of about two and a half hours that the source was variable and was, in fact, Sagittarius A*. At its peak, Sagittarius A* was 75 times brighter than usual in infrared. 

Scientists have been watching Sagittarius A* for decades, but no one was sure what to make of it for much of that time; it was just a strong X-ray source deep in the Milky Way. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, studies of objects near Sagittarius A* demonstrated it had a strong gravity explained best by a supermassive black hole. Today, the evidence for Sagittarius A* as the gravitational center of the Milky Way is quite solid. It’s under constant observation with instruments like the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii used by the UCLA team. 

Do and his team have speculated on several causes for the spike in brightness. Sagittarius A* itself would not emit radiation detectable on Earth, but objects near it being torn to shreds by gravitational shear would. It’s possible a large volume of matter fell into the black hole’s gravity well, and that caused the flash. The team points to two possibilities. First, the aforementioned S0-2, which is in a long 16-year orbit of Sagittarius A*. It made its closest approach yet last year, coming within 17 light hours of the event horizon. A part of the star may have been pulled away during that pass. There’s also a gas cloud called G2 that swing around Sagittarius A* in 2014. There were no cosmic fireworks at the time, but we could be seeing a delayed reaction.

More observatories should have data from the same time period, so they could shed light on the nature of the flash in the coming months.

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New Analysis of Kepler Data Finds Hundreds of New Exoplanets


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The Kepler Space Telescope ended its wildly successful planet-hunting mission last year, but it’s still making discoveries from the grave. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has since taken up the planet-hunter banner, but it’s got a long way to go before it’s on the same level as Kepler. The gap between the probes just got wider, too. A new analysis of data from Kepler has revealed hundreds of potential new exoplanets. 

Kepler launched in 2009 on a three and a half year mission to find distant worlds. NASA is used to missions operating long past their expected lifespan, but Kepler started experiencing issues in 2012. The spacecraft used the transit method of detecting exoplanets — it watched stars for telltale dips in brightness as planets passed in front of them. That meant Kepler had to remain pointed at the same region for long periods of time, but two of its four reaction wheels failed by mid-2013. 

NASA was able to restore Kepler to partial functionality in 2014 by stabilizing it with photons reflecting off its solar panels. This “K2” mission yielded more data and exoplanets, but much of that data is “messy” and hard to interpret. Enter, Ethan Kruse of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Kruse and his team devised a new method of processing the K2 data using Quasiperiodic Automated Transit Search (QATS) and EPIC Variability Extraction and Removal for Exoplanet Science Targets (EVEREST). The processing helps reduce the noisy arcs and curves in the K2 data. The result is many, many new exoplanet signals. 

NASA's K2 balancing act

NASA’s K2 balancing act gave the spacecraft a new lease on life after two unexpected reaction wheel failures.

This is not the first analysis of K2 data, so not all of the 818 planets detected in the study are new. However, an impressive 374 of the signals have not been detected previously. Of those, 154 are what’s known as reciprocally transiting planets. That means they transit their stars from our perspective on Earth, and Earth does the same from those planets. So, there could be alien astronomers running a similar experiment wondering if Earth supports life. The data points to worlds of various sizes from super-Earths to gas giants, and there are 87 multi-planet systems. 

Currently, all the objects listed in the new analysis are mere “candidate” exoplanets. Another team will have to go and check each signal to confirm. In the future, astronomers may be able to use the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope to take a closer look at some of these planetary systems. For now, most of the verification will take place at large ground-based observatories.

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Our Milky Way Galaxy Is Warped Instead of Flat


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From everything we’ve been able to tell, the Milky Way is a fairly typical galaxy. It’s a medium-large spiral with several smaller satellite galaxies, and the disk spans some 120,000 light-years. It can be hard to tell what the galaxy looks like from the inside, though. A new analysis focusing on a class of very bright stars indicates the Milky Way might be stranger than we thought with a warped and uneven central disk. 

Researchers at the University of Warsaw in Poland spent six years tracking a class of celestial objects known as cepheid variable stars. These “signpost” stars pulse at a stable frequency related to their brightness. Since we know from that pattern how bright the stars are, we can compare that with how much light reaches us to deduce the distance between Earth and the cepheid. The researchers point out the distance to cepheid stars is accurate to within five percent. With enough data points, it’s possible to measure many features of the galaxy. 

The University of Warsaw team used the Warsaw Telescope in Chile to amass data from 2,431 cepheid stars. They integrated that data into a new 3D map of the galaxy. This is the first such map built using direct measurements of stellar distances. Thus, it’s the most accurate we have. 

The 3D model of the Milky Way created by the researchers paints a picture of a galaxy that’s far from flat. Instead, the thickness of the galactic disk varies considerably, and it gets more variable the farther you get from the galactic core. In fact, the edges of the disk twist away from the core in opposite directions. The video below is in Polish, but it has a few useful visuals. Alien astronomers looking at the Milky Way from someplace else probably think our galaxy looks quite unusual. 

Currently, astronomers can only speculate about the cause of this curvature. The leading hypotheses include interactions with dark matter or massive interstellar gas clouds. It’s also possible that the Milky Way had a close encounter with another galaxy at some point in the distant past. 

In addition to mapping the Milky Way, the data on cepheid variable stars showed they were created in bunches. That suggests that star formation does not proceed at the same rate across the galaxy at all times, but happens in bursts. What causes these increases in star formation is unclear, but maybe it has something to do with the warped shape of the Milky Way? 

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TESS Finds Potentially Habitable Super-Earth Just 31 Light Years Away


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NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has only been scanning the skies for about a year, but it has already identified several new candidate exoplanets. As astronomers were working to confirm one recent sighting, they happened upon something unexpected. That solar system, known as GJ 357, hosts not one but three exoplanets. What’s more, one of those planets is a super-Earth in the habitable region of the star. 

TESS uses the transit method to spot exoplanets with its array of cameras, similar to the dearly departed Kepler satellite. It can scan multiple stars at the same time, watching for the telltale dips in light that indicate an exoplanet has passed in front of its host star. That’s what TESS saw in GJ 357, which is only 31 light-years away. To confirm the existence of the exoplanet dubbed GJ 357 b, astronomers used ground-based telescopes to measure the star’s radial velocity. This alternative method looks for tiny changes in light caused when a star “wobbles” in response to the gravity of orbiting planets. 

The team confirmed GJ 357 b, but they also found two more exoplanets now known as GJ 357 c and GJ 357 d. GJ 357 is a small M-type dwarf star, which is 40 percent cooler than the sun. GJ 357 b orbits the star in just 3.9 days and is 22 percent larger than Earth. The surface equilibrium temperature (a measure of solar radiation only) is 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius), ruling out life as we know it. GJ 357 c is a bit farther out, but still too hot for life. It’s 3.4 times as massive as Earth and orbits ever 9.1 Earth days. The temperature here is 260 degrees F (127 degrees C).

Astronomers are most interested in GJ 357 d, which sits near the outer edge of the system’s habitable zone with a 55.7-day orbit around the star. It’s 6.1 times more massive than Earth, meaning it could be rocky or gaseous. If it’s a rocky planet, it would be about twice as large as Earth. 

According to the team, GJ 357 d has an equilibrium temperature of  -64 degrees F (-53 degrees C). That sounds too low to be even potentially habitable, but this is only a measure of solar radiation. Earth’s equilibrium temperature is -1 degree F (-18 degrees C), but the atmosphere increases the surface temperature. GJ 357 d gets about as much solar radiation as Mars, and a sufficiently dense atmosphere could allow liquid water to flow on its surface. Astronomers around the world plan to take a closer look at this nearby super-Earth over the coming years.

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NASA’s newest planet-hunting satellite finds three new worlds – gpgmail


NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, a planet-seeking satellite that launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last April, has found three new worlds that orbit a nearby dwarf star that is both smaller and cooler than our own Sun.

The newfound planets range in size and temperature, but are all bigger than Earth and with a higher temp on average — which are calculated only based on their distance from the star they orbit, and its energy output, without factoring in any atmospheric effects since it’s not yet known whether they have atmospheres at all. At the low end, there’s TOI 270 d, which has an average temp of 150 F — almost three times Earth’s own.

Both TOI 270 d, the farthest from its own system’s central star, and TOI 270 c, its nearest neighbor, are thought to be primarily gaseous and most closely resemble Neptune in our own Solar System. These aren’t really equivalent, however, as they’re much smaller, and researchers at NASA say they’re actually more likely new types of planets not seen anywhere in our own local solar backyard.

The planets overall are interesting to researchers because they are all between 1.5 and just over 2 times the size of Earth, which is actually an unusual size for planets to be when considered overall. The TOI 270 system is also pretty much perfectly positioned for study by the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope, so it presents a great opportunity for future research once that space-based observatory gets up and running in 2021.


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