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Earth-like worlds may exist in nearby system

by Jacob Aron

There could be two Earth-like planets within cosmic spitting distance of our own. Both are likely too close to their star to host life, but the discovery opens the possibility of other planets in the system with more temperate climates.

Alpha Centauri is a binary star system just 4.3 light years away from our own. In 2012 astronomers announced that the system had a planet, which they dubbed Alpha Centauri Bb as it was apparently orbiting the smaller of the stars, Alpha Centauri B.

The team said it was a rocky world slightly more massive than Earth. But in 2013, other researchers called into question the existence of Bb, saying the evidence wasn’t good enough.

“If you ask anyone working in exoplanets, they would all have a different opinion about the existence of Alpha Centauri Bb,” says Brice-Oliver Demory of the University of Cambridge.

That’s why he and his colleagues have been using the Hubble Space Telescope to search for planet. They weren’t able to find it, but have instead seen hints of a second Earth-sized world in the system.

Star wobble

The original claim was based on the radial velocity method – a planet-hunting technique which looks at how the gravitational pull of a planet slightly wobbles its star. Demory’s Hubble search took a different approach, looking for signs of a dip in the light from Alpha Centauri B caused by the planet passing in front of, or transiting, the star. These two methods are independent of each other, so seeing Bb transit would reinforce the earlier patchy radial velocity data.

The original measurements suggested that Bb, if it exists, takes three or so days to orbit its star. But not all planets make transits as seen from Earth, because it depends on how the planet and star are aligned.

Demory’s team observed Alpha Centauri B in 2013 and 2014, for a total of 40 hours. The 2013 data showed signs of a transit consistent with Bb’s suggested orbital parameters, but it seemed to last slightly longer than expected, and the statistical validity of the signal disappeared when combined with the 2014 data. That doesn’t mean Bb isn’t there, just that if it exists, it is unlikely to transit as seen from Earth.

That still leaves a puzzle over what caused the 2013 signal. The team ruled out errors with Hubble itself or spots on the surface of the star, which can sometimes be mistaken for exoplanets.

They also dismissed the possibility of interference from Alpha Centauri A, the other star in the binary system, or from an unrelated, more distant star system that could have just been passing behind.

Scorchingly close

The only explanation left was that there is another planet in the system. The observations point to an Earth-sized planet with a year lasting no more than 20.4 days, putting it slightly further out than Bb but still scorchingly close to the star.

Astronomers have confirmed nearly 2000 exoplanets so far, and the evidence suggest many stars host multiple planets, just like our own solar system. That means confirming the discovery of one planet around Alpha Centauri B – even one with a hot, close orbit – hints at other planets in the system that might be more hospitable. “If you see one planet, the chance is there are other planets in the system,” says Demory.

“They work they’ve done holds tight; they give a very well balanced view on what this transit could be,” says Paul Wilson of the Paris Institute of Astrophysics in France. He’s not sure there is enough evidence yet to support a full discovery, but is keen to encourage the team. “I hope they will be able to detect an Earth-sized planet through the transit method. That would be fantastic.”

Unfortunately it’s going to be difficult to confirm either of these planets with our current generation of telescopes. Hubble could do it, but it would have to stare at Alpha Centauri for 20 days with no guarantee of finding anything, which would be seen as a waste of time for our most important space telescope, says Demory.

Upcoming instruments like the European Extremely Large TelescopeMovie Cameraor the Cheops space telescope might be able to see the new planet, but the best option could be a small satellite dedicated to staring at Alpha Centauri. Such a mission would only cost around $2 million. “It could be crowdfunded,” says Demory. Anyone fancy chipping in to find our nearest neighbours?

Reference: arxiv.org/abs/1503.07528

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Space

Voyager 2 has discovered something amazing: Denser space outside the solar system

In November 2018, after a 41-year voyage, Voyager 2 crossed the boundary beyond which the Sun’s influence ends, and entered interstellar space. But the mission of the little probe is not yet complete – it continues to make amazing discoveries

Perhaps the probes have found some kind of traffic jam at the edge of the solar system. The Voyager flight continues and we will soon find out what it was.

Voyager 2 discovered something amazing: as the distance from the Sun increases, the density of space increases.

Voyager 1, which entered interstellar space in 2012, transmitted similar indicators to Earth. New data have shown that the increase in density may be a feature of the interstellar medium.

The solar system has several boundaries, one of which, called the heliopause, is determined by the solar wind, or rather by its significant weakening. The space inside the heliopause is the heliosphere, and the space outside is the interstellar medium. But the heliosphere is not round. It looks more like an oval, in which the solar system is at the leading edge, and a kind of tail stretches behind it.

Both Voyagers crossed the heliopause at the leading edge, but within 67 degrees heliographic latitude and 43 degrees longitude apart.

Interstellar space is usually considered a vacuum, but this is not entirely true. The density of matter is extremely small, but it still exists. In the solar system, the solar wind has an average density of protons and electrons from 3 to 10 particles per cubic centimeter, but it is lower the further from the Sun.

The average concentration of electrons in the interstellar space of the Milky Way is estimated to be about 0.037 particles per cubic centimeter. And the plasma density in the outer heliosphere reaches approximately 0.002 electrons per cubic centimeter. When the Voyager probes crossed the heliopause, their instruments recorded the electron density of the plasma through plasma oscillations.

Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause on August 25, 2012 at a distance of 121.6 astronomical units from the Earth (121.6 times the distance from Earth to the Sun – about 18.1 billion km). When he first measured plasma oscillations after crossing the heliopause on October 23, 2013 at a distance of 122.6 astronomical units (18.3 billion km), he found a plasma density of 0.055 electrons per cubic centimeter.

After flying another 20 astronomical units (2.9 billion kilometers), Voyager 1 reported an increase in the density of interstellar space to 0.13 electrons per cubic centimeter.

Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause on November 5, 2018 at a distance of 119 astronomical units (17.8 billion kilometers. On January 30, 2019, it measured plasma oscillations at a distance of 119.7 astronomical units (17.9 billion kilometers), finding that the density plasma is 0.039 electrons per cubic centimeter.

In June 2019, Voyager 2’s Instruments showed a sharp increase in density to about 0.12 electrons per cubic centimeter at a distance of 124.2 astronomical units (18.5 billion kilometers).

What caused the increase in the density of space? One theory is that the lines of force of the interstellar magnetic field become stronger with distance from the heliopause. This can cause electromagnetic ion cyclotron instability. Voyager 2 did detect an increase in the magnetic field after crossing the heliopause.

Another theory is that the material carried away by the interstellar wind should slow down in the heliopause, forming a kind of plug, as evidenced by the weak ultraviolet glow detected by the New Horizons probe in 2018, caused by the accumulation of neutral hydrogen in the heliopause.

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Space

NASA has banned fighting and littering on the moon

New details of the agreement signed by representatives of a number of countries on the development of the moon and the extraction of minerals within the framework of the Artemis program have appeared. Reported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

So, astronauts involved in the mission are prohibited from littering and fighting on the territory of a natural satellite of the Earth.

So, we present to you the new rules for being on the Moon:

Everyone comes in peace;

Confidentiality is prohibited, all launched objects must be identified and registered;

All travel participants agree to help each other in case of emergencies;

All received data is transferred to the rest of the participants, and space systems must be universal;

Historic sites must be preserved and all rubbish must be disposed of;

Rovers and spacecraft should not interfere with other participants.

“”It is important not only to go to the moon with our astronauts, but also that we bring our values ​​with us,” said Mike Gold, acting head of NASA’s international and inter-agency relations.

According to him, violators of the above rules will be asked to “just leave” the territory of the moon.

The effect of these principles so far applies to eight signatory countries of the agreement: the USA, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Countries other than China can join if they wish.

 It should be noted that at the moment NASA is prohibited from signing any bilateral agreements with the PRC leadership.

The first NASA mission to the moon, known as “Artemis 1”, is scheduled for 2021 without astronauts, and “Artemis 2” will fly with a crew in 2023.

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Methane snow found on the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains

Scientists believe that it arose as a result of the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above the surface of the planet.

In the images of the Cthulhu region – a dark region in the equatorial regions of Pluto – planetary scientists have found large reserves of methane snow that covers the peaks of local mountains and hills. It formed quite differently from how snow forms on Earth, astronomers write in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

“The white caps on the tops of Pluto’s mountains did not arise from the cooling of air currents that rise along the slopes into the upper atmosphere, as it happens on Earth, but from the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above Pluto’s surface. This gas condensed on the mountain tops, “the scientists write.

We owe almost everything we know about Pluto to the New Horizons interplanetary station. It was launched in January 2006, and in mid-July 2015 the station reached the Pluto system. New Horizons flew just 13 thousand km from the dwarf planet, taking many photographs of its surface. 

New Horizons data indicated an interesting feature of Pluto – in its depths, a giant subglacial ocean of liquid water can be hidden. It can be a kind of engine of those geological processes, traces of which can be seen on the surface of a dwarf planet. Because of this discovery of New Horizons, many discussions began among planetary scientists. Scientists are trying to understand how such a structure could have arisen, as well as to find out the appearance of Pluto in the distant past.

Members of the New Horizons science team and their colleagues from France, led by planetary scientist from NASA’s Ames Research Center (USA) Tanguy Bertrand, have discovered another unusual feature of Pluto. They studied the relief of one of the regions of the dwarf planet – the Cthulhu region. This is what astronomers call a large dark region at Pluto’s equator, which is whale-like in shape and is covered in many craters, mountains and hills.

Snow in Pluto’s mountains

By analyzing images of these structures taken by the LORRI camera installed on board New Horizons, astronomers have noticed many blank spots on the slopes of the highest mountain peaks. Having studied their composition, scientists have found that they consist mainly of methane.

Initially, planetary scientists assumed that these are deposits of methane ice. However, Bertrand and his colleagues found that the slopes and even the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains are actually covered not only with ice, but also with exotic methane snow that forms right on their surface.

Planetary scientists came to this conclusion by calculating how methane behaves in Pluto’s atmosphere. In doing so, they took into account how the molecules of its gases interact with the sun’s rays and other heat sources. It turned out that at the equator of Pluto, at an altitude of 2-3 km from its surface, due to the special nature of the movement of winds, unique conditions have formed, due to which snow is formed from methane vapor.

Unlike Earth, where such deposits are formed as a result of the rise of warm air into the upper atmosphere, on Pluto this process goes in the opposite direction – as a result of contact of the cold surface of the peaks and slopes of mountains with warm air masses from the relatively high layers of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.

Previously, as noted by Bertrand and his colleagues, scientists did not suspect that this was possible. The fact is that they did not take into account that due to the deposition of even a small amount of methane snow and ice, the reflectivity of the peaks and slopes of mountains in the Cthulhu region increases. As a result, their surface temperature drops sharply, and snow forms even faster.

Scientists suggest that another mysterious feature of Pluto’s relief could have arisen in a similar way – the so-called Tartarus Ridges, located east of the Sputnik plain. A distinctive feature of this mountainous region is strange peaks that are shaped like skyscrapers or blades. Bertrand and his colleagues suggest that these peaks are also methane ice deposits that grow “from top to bottom.”

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