Featured image is an infrared image of the core of the Milky Way, captured by NASA’s Spitzer space telescope. Infrared imaging allows you to see many stars which are normally obscured by intergalactic dust.
Astronomers at the University of Auckland claim that there are actually around 100 billion habitable, Earth-like planets in the Milky Way — significantly more than the previous estimate of around 17 billion. There are roughly 500 billion galaxies in the universe, meaning there is somewhere in the region of 50,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (5×1022) habitable planets. I’ll leave you to do the math on whether one of those 50 sextillion planets has the right conditions for nurturing alien life or not.
The previous figure of 17 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way came from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in January, which analyzed data from the Kepler space observatory. Kepler essentially measures the dimming (apparent magnitude) of stars as planets transit in front of them — the more a star dims, the larger the planet. Through repeated observations we can work out the planet’s orbital period, from which we can usually derive the orbital distance and surface temperature. According to Phil Yock from the University of Auckland, Kepler’s technique generally finds “Earth-sized planets that are quite close to parent stars,” and are therefore “generally hotter than Earth [and not habitable].”
The University of Auckland’s technique, called gravitational microlensing, instead measures the number of Earth-size planets that orbit at twice the Sun-Earth distance. This results in a list of planets that are generally cooler than Earth — but by interpolating between this new list, and Kepler’s list, the Kiwi astronomers hope to generate a more accurate list of habitable, Earth-like planets. “We anticipate a number in the order of 100 billion,” says Yock.
Gravitational microlensing, an effect theorized by Einstein back in 1936, is exactly what it sounds like. Essentially, light emitted by a star is bent by the gravity of massive objects, ultimately allowing astronomers to work out just how large those objects are. Gravitational microlensing has been used in recent years to detect planets the size of Neptune or Jupiter, and now Yock his colleagues at the University of Auckland have proposed a new method for detecting Earth-sized planets. The astronomers hope to use this new microlensing technique with a huge suite of telescopes — located in Chile, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Texas — to confirm their estimate of 100 billion Earth-like habitable planets.
Suffice it to say, if the Milky Way contains 100 billion Earth-like planets, and there’s somewhere in the region of 500 billion galaxies, then there’s an extremely high chance of other planets harboring life. As for how we’ll get to those planets, though — or, alternatively, how the residents of those planets will get to us — remains a very big question. The nearest probably-habitable planet is Tau Ceti e, which is 11.9 light years from Earth. The fastest spacecraft ever, Helios II, traveled at 43 miles per second (70km/s), or 0.000234c (the speed of light). At that speed it would take 51,000 years for a spacecraft to reach Tau Ceti e.
Harold White’s possible Alcubierre warp drive, and star shipIt gets worse: Helios II was only travelling that fast because it was orbiting close to the Sun; Voyager, for example, travels at just 8 miles per second (so, about 200,000 years to reach Tau Ceti e). To reach another star within a reasonable time period (say, 50-100 years) we would need a propulsion system that’s capable of around 0.1c (10% light speed). There are a few proposed methods for reaching such insane speeds (antimatter rockets, fusion rockets), but nothing that’s being immediately (and seriously) considered for interstellar travel. Who knows, maybe NASA’s warp drive will pan out? If they can work out the whole annihilating-the-star-system-upon-arrival issue, that is…
Gravitational microlensing unlocks the secret of alien life
Research paper: doi: 10.1093/mnras/stt318 – “Extending the planetary mass function to Earth mass by microlensing at moderately high magnification”
Russia and America’s Long Space Partnership Could Soon Fall Apart
It’s Not You
During the 1960s, the United States and Russia were engaged in a bitter space race. But starting in the 1970s, their rival space agencies started to collaborate. Nowadays, both countries help run the International Space Station.
But it’s starting to look, Ars Technica reports, as though international rivalries could tear that mutually beneficial relationship apart. If it does, it’ll be a blow not just to space research but to the prospects of a friendly, demilitarized international space community.
I Just Need Some Space
One key issue driving the split is that after NASA decommissioned its Space Shuttle program, it started relying on Russia to launch its astronauts and equipment into orbit. Increasingly, though, NASA has inked contracts with American companies like SpaceX, cutting Russia out of the loop.
“I think we are going through a long transition in the relationship,” space historian John Logsdon told Ars. “When Russia joined the station partnership, it demanded and got, on the basis of its human spaceflight experience, treatment as first among US partners. Now, 25 years later, it is no longer a space superpower, but one among several second-tier countries.”
What does China want to do on the Moon’s far side?
What will China’s Chang’e-4 mission learn about the far side of the Moon? Here are a few things the mission is designed to do.
Learn about the Moon’s history
No space mission has ever explored the far side from the surface. As such, it’s the first chance to explore a mysterious region of Earth’s natural satellite.
The “face” that’s never seen from Earth has some key differences to the more familiar “near side”. The far side has a thicker, older crust that is pocked with more craters. There are also very few of the “maria” (dark basaltic “seas” created by lava flows) that are evident on the near side.
Chang’e-4 has reportedly landed at a site known as Von Kármán crater, a 180km depression located in the far side’s southern hemisphere. But Von Kármán lies within a much bigger hole punched in the Moon – the South Pole-Aitken basin.
It’s the oldest, largest and deepest such basin on the Moon and formed when an asteroid – perhaps 500km across, or more – collided with it billions of years ago.
This event was so powerful that it is thought to have ploughed through the Moon’s outer crust layer and through into the zone known as the mantle.
One of the mission’s objectives is to study any exposed material from the mantle present at the landing site. This would provide insights into the internal structure and history of the Moon.
Indeed, data from orbiting spacecraft show that the composition of the basin is different from the surrounding lunar highlands. But exposed mantle material on the surface is just one possibility among several to explain this observation.
The rover will use its panoramic camera to identify interesting locations and its Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS) to study minerals in the floor of the crater (as well as of ejecta – rocks thrown out by nearby space impacts).
Additionally, the Lunar Penetrating Radar (LPR) instrument will be able to look into the shallow subsurface of the Moon, down to a depth of about 100m. It could probe the thickness of the lunar regolith – the broken up rocks and dust that make up the surface – and shed light on the structure of the upper lunar crust.
After the huge impact that created the South Pole-Aitken basin, a large amount of melted rock would have filled the depression. The science team wants to use Chang’e-4 to identify and study variations in its composition.
Filling an astronomy gap
The far side of the Moon has long been regarded as an ideal spot for conducting a particular kind of radio astronomy – in the low-frequency band – because it’s shielded from the radio noise of Earth.
There’s a frequency band (below about 10MHz) where radio astronomy observations can’t be conducted from Earth, because of manmade radio interference and other, natural factors.
Chang’e-4’s lander is carrying an instrument called the Low Frequency Spectrometer (LFS) which can make low frequency radio observations. It will be used in concert with a similar experiment on the Queqiao orbiting satellite.
The objectives include making a map of the radio sky at low frequencies and studying the behaviour of the Sun.
Speaking in 2016, Liu Tongjie, from the Chinese space agency (CNSA), said: “Since the far side of the Moon is shielded from electromagnetic interference from the Earth, it’s an ideal place to research the space environment and solar bursts, and the probe can ‘listen’ to the deeper reaches of the cosmos.”
Thus, the mission will fill a gap in astronomical observation, allowing scientists to study cosmic phenomena in a way that has never been possible from our planet.
Radiation on the Moon
Several space agencies want to land humans on the Moon in the not-too-distant future, and might send astronauts there for longer than we’ve ever stayed before. So understanding the potential risks from radiation are vital.
Earth’s thick atmosphere and strong magnetic field provide adequate shielding against galactic cosmic rays and energetic charged particles travelling from the Sun.
But astronauts on the Moon will be outside this protective bubble and exposed to particles travelling through open space at near the speed of light – with potentially damaging consequences for their health.
The Lunar Lander Neutrons and Dosimetry (LND) experiment, supplied by researchers in Germany, will aim to fill in some gaps in our understanding about the lunar radiation environment.
It will provide dosimetry (measure the ionising radiation dose that could be absorbed by the human body) with a view to future exploration, and contribute to understanding of particles originating from the Sun.
Mysterious signals are coming from deep space
Image Credit: CC BY 4.0 ESO / S. Brunier
Astronomers have picked up a very unusual repeating signal from a distant galaxy and nobody knows what it is.
Known as a fast radio burst – the signal is a powerful burst of radio waves that, despite lasting mere milliseconds, generates as much energy as the Sun does in an entire day.
While several of these bursts have been picked up over the last few years, this one – which is coming from a source 1.5 billion light years away – is particularly unusual because it appears to be repeating.
It is only the second time a repeating fast radio burst has ever been detected by scientists and as things stand, its exact nature and origins remain a complete mystery.
It has even been suggested that these repeating signals could be evidence of intelligent aliens.
“Knowing that there is another suggests that there could be more out there,” said astrophysicist Ingrid Stairs from the University of British Columbia.
“And with more repeaters and more sources available for study, we may be able to understand these cosmic puzzles – where they’re from and what causes them.”
Source: BBC News |
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