The Hunt for Life #Aurora #Juno

Aurora on Earth are caused by particles from the Sun interacting with our planet’s protective magnetic field. Without that magnetic field on Earth, we would not be here. All life is entirely dependent on the shielding that our magnetic field provides. So if we are to search for life elsewhere, one good way to separate out those planets that may harbor life from those that do not, will be to search for Aurora. Except we’re not at the stage in our technology where we can image planets around other stars well enough to see aurora. So we have to find another way.

Luckily, the aurora also produces radio waves. So instead of watching, we can listen.

ET is not phoning home, but we are hearing the potential for life in our solar system

and beyond



Eureka, Europa. Plumes-a-plenty #Europa

From Hubble news center

New findings from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope show suspected water plumes erupting from Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. These observations bolster earlier Hubble work suggesting that Europa is venting water vapor.  The plumes are estimated to rise about 125 miles before, presumably, raining material back down onto Europa’s surface. This is exciting because Europa is a plausible place for life to have developed beyond the Earth. If the venting plumes originate in a subsurface ocean, they could act as an elevator to bring deep-sea life above Europa’s surface, where it could be sampled by visiting spacecraft. This offers a convenient way to access the chemistry of that ocean without drilling through miles of ice”

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Not quite a planet, not quite an asteroid #Centaur

Scientific classifications are not usually clean. Usually when we think we have objects classified into groups, along comes a new piece of data that blurs the line. Centaurs are one of these blurring data points. They are the same size and (mostly) the same composition as asteroids. But they exist in a different location, between Jupiter and Neptune, NOT between Jupiter and Mars. And most confusing, they have rings. New research now shows the origins of these rings – turns out these two aspects of strange location and presence of rings are connected! In an orbit so far out from the Sun, they get pulled and pushed by the large planets, breaking them up, and forming the rings.

Add confusing facet number 1 to confusing facet number 2, and both elements of confusion are explained.


Origin of minor planets’ rings revealed


Sappho’s Midnight Poem #sappho #MidnightPoem

2,500 years ago, Sappho sat down on Lesbos to write his poem.

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This is what he saw.

Astronomical software accurately dates 2,500-year-old lyric poem

Move over, Eris – a new distant world takes your record #V774104 @profmcateer


The title of “most distant object in the Solar System” has a new champion.

Astronomers have used  Japan’s Subaru telescope to reveal a new icy body at 15.5 billion km from the Sun. This is over 100AU, nearly three times further away than even far-flung Pluto. The previously recognized most distant object was the dwarf planet Eris, which resides at about 12 billion km. The new distant object – cataloged rather unimaginatively as V774104 – is probably the same size as New Mexico, and its orbit remains a mystery The dwarf planet could eventually join one of two clubs. If its orbit brings it closer to our sun, it would become part of a more common population of icy worlds that interact with Neptune. But if its orbit continues to sling it away from the sun, it could join a rare club with only two other known members, Sedna and 2012 VP113.

Those two bodies are both actually currently slightly closer in than Eris, but their orbits will reach far deeper into space, out to 66 billion km and 140 billion km, respectively. Such erratic orbits are difficult to explain. Indeed it unlikely there were formed in these particular orbits. Several existing theories propose differing origins. In one theory, these bodies were perturbed gravitationally by some other planet and pulled on to their strange trajectories. The passing planet would then have been expelled far out of the solar system. A second theory proposes that such objects could be stolen from a sister star that formed from the cloud of gas and dust as our Sun. A third theory proposes that gravitational forces acting on the solar system when the protosun was surrounded by other stellar nurseries, could have provided the necessary nudges.

And it has personal touch for one American scientist

From Science magazine

Mike Brown, a planetary astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena unaffiliated with the discovery, says that this is the allure of these extreme objects. “They carry the signature of whatever else happened,” he says. But until Sheppard pins down its orbit, V774104 may be interesting—or not, Brown says. “There’s no way to know what it means.” On the other hand, Brown acknowledges that he will have to give up the claim to having discovered the most distant solar system object, which came in 2005 when he found the dwarf planet Eris at a distance of 97 AU from the sun. “I have held the record for 10 years,” he says, jokingly. “I have to relinquish it. So I’m sad.”

And of course we should note that mankind is doing even better than V774104 – the Voyager 1 probe is even further away at 20 billion km from home and still going strong.

Smile, you’re on camera @profmcateer @algore #DSCOVR

There is nothing that puts life’s little trivialities in perspective quite like seeing yourself. Get outside your own perspective and look at yourself. See your own weakness. Now, that is all very well and good as a personal and psychological idea. But this is hard as a scientific endeavor. Back in 1998, Al Gore proposed a spacecraft that would sit between the Earth and the Sun, constantly sending back live images our blue sphere.

‘Wouldn’t it be nice,’ Gore asked in 1998, ‘to have that image continuous, live, 24 hours a day?'”

And so a mission was proposed to send a probe to a spot a million miles from Earth — a place known as the L1 Lagrange point, where the gravity of the Earth and the sun cancel each other out. The space probe, originally dubbed Triana, would point a telescope with a color camera back at our planet from L1, and send images down to Earth. At the very least, it’s a cool view. At best we would inspire the next generation to see Earth in its fragility and help us to tend to it future. Today, NASA announced that this view will be available every day on a new website dedicated to publishing these images. It took nearly 20 years to make this happen, but now the idea born by Al Gore is alive.

The prime science goal of this Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), is to “maintain the nation’s real-time solar wind monitoring capabilities, which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of space weather alerts and forecasts from NOAA.” This makes it a vital early warning of pending solar storms. But the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) was included as part of the package, and these data may steal the show.

Each daily sequence of images will reveal the whole globe over the course of a day. Image sequences from all previous days will also be archived on the site and can be searched by date and continent.

The new age of seeing ourselves as we really are has begun.


The Pluto Enigma #stillnotaplanet #plutoenigma @profmcateer

The part of science I like best is that the more we learn, the more questions we have. Pluto provides a perfect example of this. Initially a planet, although lonesome. Then it found its kin, a set of dwarf planets. And now, when we actually see it, it looks more Earthly than we could have imagined. Large, frosty glaciers, seemingly draining watery residue from icy mountains. A distinct, hazy atmosphere, layered and complex. Active landscapes. This is absolutely not the dead cold planet we teach about. This enigma is alive.

In the photo, the New Horizon’s spacecraft is looking back at Pluto, with the Sun setting through the mist. The glaciers slowly drain moisture from icy mountains that tower over smooth, lowland basins. Overhead, the sky is filled with haze – lots and lots of it, carved into multiple layers. The image, “reminds me of the Transantarctic Mountains along the Ross Ice Sheet, because of the tall mountains looming over a flat open expanse of ever-changing ice,” says New Horizons team member Simon Porter of the Southwest Research Institute.

But there the similarity to Earth ends. Pluto’s mountains cannot be made by plate tectonics. Pluto’s glaciers are made from nitrogen, not water ice. Pluto has something analogous to Earth’s hydrological cycle, where water evaporates from the oceans, rains or snows back down, and returns to the seas by rivers and glaciers. But Pluto’s chemistry and temperature are different, perhaps dominated by soft nitrogen ice, and also featuring methane and carbon monoxide ices. This is not Earth-like. It is not reminiscent of Mars or Venus. This is not a planet.

To use the word ‘planet ‘ to describe this land is doing it a disservice. It is so much more than that. This, is an enigma.

water, water everywhere… #curiosity #WaterOnMars

.. But no one to drink it.

The temperature is actually just right. But the lack of an atmosphere on Mars means they water boils ten degrees above the freezing point. However if it could be protected, say by existing below ground, or by adding some chemicals, then water could be abundant on our little brother planet.

New research show that Mars may have ample liquid water just below its surface, according to new measurements by Nasa’s Curiosity rover.

Prof Andrew Coates, head of planetary science at the Mullard Space Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, said: “The evidence so far is that any water would be in the form of permafrost. It’s the first time we’ve had evidence of liquid water there now.”

The latest findings suggest that Martian soil is damp with liquid brine. The presence of a salt significantly lowers the freezing point of water to around -70C, and the salt also soaks up water vapour from the atmosphere.

Plenty of water then, but no one around to drink?

Oceans of water on Mars #Marswater

The search for water on Mars hits new heights.

There is no doubt. Mars is now cold and dry. However there is plenty of evidence to show that flowing water was once abundant on Earth’s brother. And since there is life where there is water, the search for the history of water on Mars is a search for extraterrestrial life. If life did once exist, then it is not a large step to think it still might be hiding out.

Clearly there remains a lot unknown about how Mats could have lost water, and how much liquid water might remain in underground reservoirs. One way to solve these mysteries is to analyze the kinds of water molecules in the Martian atmosphere. In this new study, they two different types of water to help solve this riddle.

Image: MarsNASA / GSFC
NASA scientists have determined that a primitive ocean on Mars held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean and that the Red Planet has lost 87 percent of that water to space.

By studying the current ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in Martian water, we have now estimated how much total water the Red Planet used to have. They constructed new maps of the ratio between hydrogen and deuterium in the water in the Martian atmosphere using data gathered from 2008 to 2014 by the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the Keck Observatory and NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility in Hawaii. They found the ratio between deuterated water and normal water in some regions of Mars was higher than thought, typically seven times higher than in Earth’s oceans. This high ratio suggests that Mars has lost a great deal of water over time. 

One more step along the path to understanding our brother planet.

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