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Nobel Prize Winner in Physics predicts: Life in the universe is everywhere

Nobel Prize Winner in Physics predicts: Life in the universe is everywhere 88

By NUÑO DOMÍNGUEZ

Didier Queloz directs the scientific operations of a space telescope that will observe hundreds of extrasolar planets in our cosmic neighborhood.

Nobel Prize Winner in Physics predicts: Life in the universe is everywhere 89
Swiss astrophysicist Didier Queloz, Nobel Prize winner in physics 2019.YURI MOK / GETTY

In 2012 mankind first captured light reflected from a terrestrial planet outside our Solar System. It was called 55 Cancri-e and was 40 light years away. A robotic probe would take 180,000 years to get there. Planet 55 Cancri-e is so close to its sun that a year there lasts only 18 hours. The radiation is so intense that the rock is completely molten, forming a massive ocean of lava at 1,700 degrees Celsius. Observations indicate that this world is a super earth with several times the mass of our planet, but less than that of gaseous worlds like Neptune. Interestingly enough, judging from the list of 4,100 exoplanets discovered to date, these super Earths are much more common than planets like ours. We are rare.

55 Cancri-e will be one of the first planets to have its radius measured in unprecedented detail by the European space telescope Cheops, which has just entered orbit. This measurement may clarify for the first time if it is a truly rocky planet or if it is gaseous.

Didier Queloz (Geneva, 1966), astrophysicist, scientific director of the European mission and winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics, together with his mentor Michel Mayor, discovered that they discovered the first exoplanet orbiting a star other than the Sun in 1995. It is a gas giant resembling Jupiter, but with very high temperatures due to its proximity to its star. At first it also seemed a rarity almost impossible to believe, but now we know that these worlds are very abundant around the Solar System.

All of these discoveries, says Queloz, are essential in order to begin to understand our true place within the universe and to know what is needed for life to arise in the exoplanets. Hours before successful rocket takeoff Soyoy who put the Cheops telescope into orbit, Queloz explains the long road of astronomical exploration ahead before we find inhabited worlds. This, he warns, as long as our civilization does not destroy itself before that.

Question. What does it mean to discover over 4,000 extrasolar planets in just a quarter of a century?

Answer. It is a revolution in our view of the universe. It is the continuation of the Copernican revolution that made us see that the earth is not the center of the solar system. The discovery of exoplanets now helps us know that ours is one of many other solar systems. The diversity of exoplanets is fascinating because no one expected it. For obvious reasons we knew our Solar System very well and we had a model that worked very well to explain its origin and formation. But now we see that it cannot explain many of the planets we are discovering. We are just one system among many, and now we must understand them all.

P. What kind of questions will Cheops answer?

R. For example, we are now talking about super earths and mininetuns, two types of exoplanets, but we really don’t know what they are, or what they look like. Cheops is the first mission that will address this question and increase our understanding of the true nature of these worlds. First it will measure its size, which in turn can tell us something about its structure, especially if we also know its mass, which would tell us if we are facing a rocky world like Earth.

P. What would be the next step?

R. If the light from the star is reflected on these planets, the amount that reflects us will tell how its surface is, whether it is gas or rock, and whether these rocks are dark or light. This is a big step forward that prepares us for the next. Thanks to two instruments that will start working in the coming years, the James Webb space telescope it’s the Extremely Large Telescope in Chile, we will be able to study the light spectrum of the planet’s atmospheres as they pass before their star. All of this will shed light on the history of all known solar systems.

P. When do you think life will be discovered in an exoplanet?

R. It is very difficult. Before clarifying this we must answer two other questions. It is not clear that life outside the Solar System is as we know it. We are the product of concrete chemistry, and that chemistry has led to life forms such as we know, but there may be other types of chemistry that lead to other living forms. I am not talking about anything exotic, but on the same basis: water, carbon. You have to be very cautious, I don’t believe we learn anything by looking for life as we know it or even trying to hear signs of extraterrestrial civilizations. If we really want to learn, we must start from scratch, understand what are the fundamental elements of life.

P. How do you approach this goal?

R. It is necessary to approach the planets as a whole, to understand their nature, their chemistry, their precipitations. All of this applies to us in developing a theory of the origin of life that could be applied to both Earth and other stars and their planets. We are too far away yet. The study of exoplanets is not a new field, it is a new science. It is astrophysics, but also chemistry, biology and other disciplines. We have to start forming a new generation of exoplanet seekers that combine knowledge of astrophysics and chemistry, for example. Perhaps in 50 years, in 100 years, we will have the technical means and the knowledge to confirm that life in the universe is everywhere.

P. Are you skeptical of projects like SETI looking for signs of extraterrestrial civilizations?

R. I’m not. But I don’t believe you tell us anything about the origin of life. What it tells us is whether there is a possibility that advanced societies will survive themselves without destroying themselves. It is very interesting. How long does it take since a civilization develops nuclear weapons until it starts using them without causing their total destruction? We have spent 50 years. Can we continue 500 years?

P. When do you think we can reach any exoplanets?

R. We will not be able to reach any of these planets in the next 1,000 years. The technology to do so simply does not exist. Also, humans are not biologically designed for this trip. We may be able to send a robotic probe at some point, but the distances are so huge, it would be necessary to reach such a high speed that this barrier cannot be broken today.

P. In addition to searching for Earth-like planets, Cheops will allow you to look in detail at very different worlds, such as 55 Cancri-e.

R. We know many solar systems like this star, which has five planets. They are called and compact super Earth systems, because planets are extremely close to their star and very often find several planets together. In the case of 55 Cancri-e, the planet is slightly larger than the earth. We think it is rocky. We are still not sure if it lacks atmosphere, but there is plenty of evidence that it has already lost it and that the planet is covered by an ocean of lava. The heat of your sun has melted the rocks of this planet. It’s a hellish, extreme world, but we think planets of this kind are very abundant. More than half of all stars can have planets like this, and most interestingly, we don’t even understand how these worlds can form, how they evolve. So this will be one of the main goals of Cheops.

P. One day after winning the Nobel Prize, Michel Mayor told this newspaper that God does not need to explain the universe. What do you think?

R. I think this is not science. Science is based on facts and on the basis of them rational rational theories are formed that can be demonstrated. God has no place in this, it is something that exists only within you. You have to believe him. Science does not need you to believe in it. God is a psychological concept. Personally I do not need a God to explain the universe.

P. When will we get the first Cheops results?

R. If all goes well, in a couple of months we’ll start with the observation program. We already have some clear goals. One is a world that spins so fast that it is warping, flattening. I hope until the summer [do Hemisfério Norte] have the first scientific results.

P. What is the minimum and maximum distance this telescope can see?

R. Let’s look at stars that are very close at 10 light years, and we can get to about 200 light years. These are our nearest regions. Remember that the Kepler space telescope was looking at planets that are 2,000 light years away. Here we are exploring our nearest neighborhood.

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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 90
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 91

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 92
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 93

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 94

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 95

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 96

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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