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


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

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.




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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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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