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New data hints at water volcanoes on Ceres

New data hints at water volcanoes on Ceres 86

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft pulled into orbit earlier this month around the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt, it spotted a mysterious bright spot inside a crater. There were suspicions that the spot could be caused by water spewing into space, now fresh views, presented for the first time yesterday, lend weight to the idea.

The pictures show the bright spot is visible even from the side, meaning it probably protrudes above the crater. “What is amazing is you can see this feature while the rim is very likely in front of the line of sight,” said Andreas Nathues, who is in charge of the mission’s camera, and presented the images yesterday at the Lunar and Planetary Science conference (LPSC) in The Woodlands, Texas. “We believe this could be some kind of outgassing.”

Images taken from dusk to dawn on Ceres show that the spot brightens throughout the day and completely disappears at night. This suggests it could be a pocket of ice on the surface that is being heated by the sun and releasing gas, similarly to how a comet behaves. However, Natheus said the team needed higher resolution data to confirm its true nature. This won’t come for a while, as Dawn is currently on the dark side of Ceres and won’t emerge until mid-April.

Distant observations using the Herschel telescope show Ceres is spitting water from somewhere on its surface, but only Dawn will be able to pinpoint the location. Revealing the origin of Ceres’s water could determine whether there is the potential for life beneath its surface, as is thought to be the case on icy moons around Jupiter and Saturn.

But a model of Ceres presented at the LPSC has added a wrinkle by suggesting comet-like behaviour is only possible at the poles of the dwarf planet, not the lower-latitude areas where the bright spot has been seen.

Comet jets and cryo-volcanoes

Timothy Titus of the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, presented a thermal model that examines where on the surface ice could remain stable over the life time of the solar system, rather than boiling away more quickly. If Ceres is acting like a comet, it must have ice patches that can survive for a long time before being heated by the sun as it moves into a warmer part of its orbit.

Titus found that ice could only be stable in regions above 40 degrees latitude. But the plumes spotted by Herschel seemed to come from nearer the equator, which implies they can’t be comet-like. “The water ice is just not stable at the latitudes that the plumes are supposedly coming from,” Titus says.

Another explanation is cryovolcanism, in which ice and water are forced out of the surface by processes similar to those that drive magma volcanoes on Earth. But according to a second model presented at the LPSC by David O’Brien of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, Ceres doesn’t have enough muscle to drive these eruptions.

Water down deep

The idea is that Ceres has a subsurface ocean covered by an icy shell. As the bottom of the shell freezes, it expands, putting pressure on the ocean and the shell itself. In order to create a cryovolcano, says O’Brien, the water pressure needs to build up enough to launch up through the shell before the ice cracks and relieves the pressure.

We don’t know exactly how deep the ice is on Ceres, so O’Brien tried a range of plausible depths. None produced the conditions for spewing cryovolcanoes – the ice always cracked before enough pressure built up. The best case scenario was water reaching about 90 per cent of the way to the surface.

Intriguingly, that means water could potentially reach the surface from a deep crater, where there was less ice to get through – perhaps even from a crater like the one where Dawn saw the bright spot. That doesn’t mean there is a cryovolcano producing a massive plume, but it could be just enough to replenish the ice on the surface, countering the instability that Titus discovered.

So Ceres could be producing comet-like emissions in this region, driven by a weak cryovolcano. “It’s sort of a midpoint between comets and cryovolcanic icy worlds,” says Titus.

There is more than one way to make a cryovolcano, though. Some models suggest the core of Ceres may be heated by radioactive isotopes left over from the dwarf planet’s formation. These could provide enough energy for punchier volcanism, perhaps producing larger plumes – and heat would of course be beneficial for any bacteria that may be lurking below the surface. “Any place you’ve got the potential for liquid water, you’ve got the potential for life,” says Titus. “Ceres could be an extremely exciting astrobiological target.”

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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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