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Earth-like worlds may exist in nearby system

Earth-like worlds may exist in nearby system 86

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

KOI-5Ab, the curious planet that orbits in a system of three suns

KOI-5Ab, the curious planet that orbits in a system of three suns 99
Photo: (Caltech / R. Hurt (IPAC))

To us, the Sun alone seems perfectly normal, but our solar system is actually a strange exception.

Most stars in the Milky Way galaxy have at least one companion star. In a system 1,800 light-years away, astronomers have finally confirmed the existence of a gas giant planet orbiting stars in a triple star system.

Called KOI-5, the system is located in the constellation Cygnus, and the exoplanet was confirmed ten years after it was first detected by the Kepler space telescope.

In fact, the planet – now known as KOI-5Ab – was discovered by Kepler when it began operations back in 2009.

“KOI-5Ab was dropped because it was difficult and we had thousands of other candidates,” astronomer David Siardi of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute said.

“There were lighter dives than the KOI-5Ab, and every day we learned something new from Kepler, so the KOI-5 was almost forgotten.”

Exoplanet hunters tend to avoid the complexities of multi-star systems; of the more than 4,300 exoplanets confirmed to date, less than 10 percent are multi-star systems, although such systems dominate the galaxy. As a result, little is known about the properties of exoplanets in multi-star systems compared to those orbiting a lone star.

After Kepler’s discovery, Chardy and other astronomers used ground-based telescopes such as the Palomar Observatory, Keck Observatory, and the Gemini North Telescope to study the system. By 2014, they had identified two companion stars, KOI-5B and KOI-5C.

Scientists were able to establish that the planet KOI-5Ab, is a gas giant that is about half the mass of Saturn and 7 times the size of Earth, and is in a very close five-day orbit around KOI-5A. KOI-5A and KOI-5B, both of roughly the same mass as the Sun, form a relatively close binary system with an orbital period of about 30 years.

KOI-5Ab, the curious planet that orbits in a system of three suns 100

A third star, KOI-5C, orbits the binary system at a much greater distance, with a period of about 400 years – slightly longer than Pluto’s 248-year orbit.

“By studying this system in more detail, perhaps we can understand how planets are created in the universe.”

The discovery was announced at the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

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Space

Why the universe does not fit into science

Why the universe does not fit into science 101
Photo: YouTube

Science can be compared to an artist painting what he has never seen, or to a writer describing other people’s travels: objects that he has never seen, places where he has never been. Sometimes such scientific “arts” turn out to be beautiful and interesting, but most of them will forever remain only theories, because they are beyond human capabilities.

In fact, science has the right only to speculate: how our universe appeared, how old it is, how many stars and other objects it contains.

Universe model

Why the universe does not fit into science 102

How many stars are there in the sky?

With an unarmed eye, a person can see about nine thousand stars in the sky in one cloudless and moonless night. And armed with binoculars or a telescope, much more – up to several million. However, this is much less than their true number in the universe. Indeed, only in our one galaxy (the Milky Way) there are about 400 billion stars. The exact amount, of course, is not known to science. And the visible universe contains about 170 billion galaxies.

It is worth clarifying that scientists can see the universe 46 billion light years deep in all directions. And the visible (observable) universe includes the space accessible to our eyes from the moment of the Big Explosion. In other words, only this (accessible to human perception) space science refers to our universe. Science does not consider everything that follows.

It is believed that there are supposedly a ceptillion (10 to 24 degrees) stars in our universe. These are theoretical calculations based on the approximate size and age of the universe. The origin of the universe is explained by the Big Bang theory. This is why the universe is constantly expanding and the more time passes, the more complex the universe and its components become.

Why the universe does not fit into science 103

It is not entirely correct to consider and perceive this scientific theory “head-on”. Scientists always claim that that explosion was not exactly an explosion, and the point that exploded was not the only one. After all, it was everywhere, because space did not exist then. And in general – everything happened quite differently from what is described in the Big Bang theory, but all other descriptions of the origin of the universe are even more incredible and inaccurate.

Separate but interconnected

That which is beyond the reach of human perception is usually discarded by science, or recognized as non-existent. Recognizing one thing, science does not want to recognize the existence of the other, although everything in our world is interconnected and is not able to exist separately – by itself.

Each object of the universe is a part of it much more than an independent, separate object.

Any person, like any material object of our world, consists of components: organs, cells, molecules, atoms. And each of its constituent parts can represent the whole world. Separate, and at the same time connected with all the others.

However, science, as a rule, perceives all the components of the universe – people, animals, plants, objects, the Earth, the Sun, other planets and stars – as separate subjects, thereby limiting itself.

Why the universe does not fit into science 104

Even what is considered the visible universe, one of the atoms of which could be called our solar system, is not subject to the boundaries of human perception. But perhaps the atom is an exaggeration, and our solar system is not even an atom, but one of its elements!

How, being so far from the truth, can one reason about something with the degree of probability with which science tries to reason about the origin of the universe?

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Space

An unexplained wobble shifts the poles of Mars

An unexplained wobble shifts the poles of Mars 105

The red planet sways from side to side like a whirligig when it loses speed. The new study allowed scientists to notice that the poles of Mars deviate slightly from the axis of rotation of the planet. On average, they move 10 cm from the center with a period of 200 days.

Such changes are called the Chandler Oscillations  – after the American astronomer Seth Chandler, who discovered them in 1891. Previously, they were only seen on Earth. It is known that the displacement of the poles of rotation of our planet occurs with a period of 433 days, while the amplitude reaches 15 meters. There is no exact answer why this is happening. It is believed that the fluctuations are influenced by processes in the ocean and the Earth’s atmosphere.

Chandler’s wobbles on Mars are equally perplexing. The authors of the study discovered them by comparing data from 18 years of studying the planet. The information was obtained thanks to three spacecraft that orbit the Red Planet: Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Global Surveyor. 

Since Mars has no oceans, it is likely that the Red Planet’s wobbly rotation is due to changes in atmospheric pressure. This is the first explanation that researchers have shared. In the future, there should be new details about the fluctuations that have so interested the scientific community.

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