The Elements of Life Mapped Across Milky Way

To say “we are stardust” may be a cliche, but it’s an undeniable fact that most of the essential elements of life are made in stars.

“For the first time, we can now study the distribution of elements across our Galaxy,” says Sten Hasselquist of New Mexico State University. “The elements we measure include the atoms that make up 97% of the mass of the human body.”

The new results come from a catalog of more than 150,000 stars; for each star, it includes the amount of each of almost two dozen chemical elements. The new catalog includes all of the so-called “CHNOPS elements” – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur – known to be the building blocks of all life on Earth.

This is the first time that measurements of all of the CHNOPS elements have been made for such a large number of stars.

How do we know how much of each element a star contains? Of course, astronomers cannot visit stars to spoon up a sample of what they’re made of, so they instead use a technique called spectroscopy to make these measurements. This technique splits light – in this case, light from distant stars – into detailed rainbows (called spectra). We can work out how much of each element a star contains by measuring the depths of the dark and bright patches in the spectra caused by different elements.

Astronomers in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey have made these observations using the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) spectrograph on the 2.5m Sloan Foundation Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. This instrument collects light in the near-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum and disperses it, like a prism, to reveal signatures of different elements in the atmospheres of stars. A fraction of the almost 200,000 stars surveyed by APOGEE overlap with the sample of stars targeted by the NASA Kepler mission, which was designed to find potentially Earth-like planets. The work presented today focuses on ninety Kepler stars that show evidence of hosting rocky planets, and which have also been surveyed by APOGEE.

While the Sloan Digital Sky Survey may be best known for its beautiful public images of the sky, since 2008 it has been entirely a spectroscopic survey. The current stellar chemistry measurements use a spectrograph that senses infrared light – the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) spectrograph, mounted on the 2.5-meter Sloan Foundation Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

Jon Holtzman of New Mexico State University explains that “by working in the infrared part of the spectrum, APOGEE can see stars across much more of the Milky Way than if it were trying to observe in visible light. Infrared light passes through the interstellar dust, and APOGEE helps us observe a broad range of wavelengths in detail, so we can measure the patterns created by dozens of different elements.”

The new catalog is already helping astronomers gain a new understanding of the history and structure of our Galaxy, but the catalog also demonstrates a clear human connection to the skies. As the famous astronomer Carl Sagan said, “we are made of starstuff.” Many of the atoms which make up your body were created sometime in the distant past inside of stars, and those atoms have made long journeys from those ancient stars to you.

While humans are 65% oxygen by mass, oxygen makes up less than 1% of the mass of all of elements in space. Stars are mostly hydrogen, but small amounts of heavier elements such as oxygen can be detected in the spectra of stars. With these new results, APOGEE has found more of these heavier elements in the inner Galaxy. Stars in the inner galaxy are also older, so this means more of the elements of life were synthesized earlier in the inner parts of the Galaxy than in the outer parts.

While it’s fun speculate what impact the inner Galaxy’s composition might have on where life pops up, we are much better at understanding the formation of stars in our Galaxy. Because the processes producing each element occur in specific types of stars and proceed at different rates, they leave specific signatures in the chemical abundance patterns measured by SDSS/APOGEE. This means that SDSS/APOGEE’s new elemental abundance catalog provides data to compare with the predictions made by models of galaxy formation.

Jon Bird of Vanderbilt University, who works on modelling the Milky Way, explains that “these data will be useful to make progress on understanding Galactic evolution, as more and more detailed simulations of the formation of our galaxy are being made, requiring more complex data for comparison.”

“It’s a great human interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky Way,” said Jennifer Johnson of The Ohio State University. “This allows us to place constraints on when and where in our galaxy life had the required elements to evolve, a sort ‘temporal Galactic habitable zone'”.

New Study Highlights Charged Particles Role In Creating Upper Atmosphere Discharge Similar to Terrestrial Lightning

Scientists from NASA and three universities have presented new discoveries about the way heat and energy move and manifest in the ionosphere, a region of Earth’s atmosphere that reacts to changes from both space above and Earth below.

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Far above Earth’s surface, within the tenuous upper atmosphere, is a sea of particles that have been split into positive and negative ions by the Sun’s harsh ultraviolet radiation. Called the ionosphere, this is Earth’s interface to space, the area where Earth’s neutral atmosphere and terrestrial weather give way to the space environment that dominates most of the rest of the universe – an environment that hosts charged particles and a complex system of electric and magnetic fields. The ionosphere is both shaped by waves from the atmosphere below and uniquely responsive to the changing conditions in space, conveying such space weather into observable, Earth-effective phenomena creating the aurora, disrupting communications signals, and sometimes causing satellite problems.

Many of these effects are not well-understood, leaving the ionosphere, for the most part, a region of mystery. Scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., the University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of California, Berkeley, presented new results on the ionosphere at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Dec. 14, 2016, in San Francisco.

One researcher explained how the interaction between the ionosphere and another layer in the atmosphere, the thermosphere, counteract heating in the thermosphere – heating that leads to expansion of the upper atmosphere, which can cause premature orbital decay. Another researcher described how energy outside the ionosphere accumulates until it discharges – not unlike lightning – offering an explanation for how energy from space weather crosses over into the ionosphere. A third scientist discussed two upcoming NASA missions that will provide key observations of this region, helping us better understand how the ionosphere reacts both to space weather and to terrestrial weather.

Changes in the ionosphere are primarily driven by the Sun’s activity. Though it may appear unchanging to us on the ground, our Sun is, in fact, a very dynamic, active star. Watching the Sun in ultraviolet wavelengths of light from space – above our UV light-blocking atmosphere – reveals constant activity, including bursts of light, particles, and magnetic fields.

Occasionally, the Sun releases huge clouds of particles and magnetic fields that explode out from the Sun at more than a million miles per hour. These are called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. When a CME reaches Earth, its embedded magnetic fields can interact with Earth’s natural magnetic field – called the magnetosphere – sometimes compressing it or even causing parts of it to realign.

It is this realignment that transfers energy into Earth’s atmospheric system, by setting off a chain reaction of shifting electric and magnetic fields that can send the particles already trapped near Earth skittering in all directions. These particles can then create one of the most recognizable and awe-inspiring space weather events – the aurora, otherwise known as the Northern Lights.

But the transfer of energy into the atmosphere isn’t always so innocuous. It can also heat the upper atmosphere – where low-Earth satellites orbit – causing it to expand like a hot-air balloon.

“This swelling means there’s more stuff at higher altitudes than we would otherwise expect,” said Delores Knipp, a space scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “That extra stuff can drag on satellites, disrupting their orbits and making them harder to track.”

This phenomenon is called satellite drag. New research shows that this understanding of the upper atmosphere’s response to solar storms – and the resulting satellite drag – may not always hold true.

“Our basic understanding has been that geomagnetic storms put energy into the Earth system, which leads to swelling of the thermosphere, which can pull satellites down into lower orbits,” said Knipp, lead researcher on these new results. “But that isn’t always the case.”

Sometimes, the energy from solar storms can trigger a chemical reaction that produces a compound called nitric oxide in the upper atmosphere. Nitric oxide acts as a cooling agent at very high altitudes, promoting energy loss to space, so a significant increase in this compound can cause a phenomenon called overcooling.

“Overcooling causes the atmosphere to quickly shed energy from the geomagnetic storm much quicker than anticipated,” said Knipp. “It’s like the thermostat for the upper atmosphere got stuck on the ‘cool’ setting.”

That quick loss of energy counteracts the previous expansion, causing the upper atmosphere to collapse back down – sometimes to an even smaller state than it started in, leaving satellites traveling through lower-density regions than anticipated.

A new analysis by Knipp and her team classifies the types of storms that are likely to lead to this overcooling and rapid upper atmosphere collapse. By comparing over a decade of measurements from Department of Defense satellites and NASA’s Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics, or TIMED, mission, the researchers were able to spot patterns in energy moving throughout the upper atmosphere.

“Overcooling is most likely to happen when very fast and magnetically-organized ejecta from the Sun rattle Earth’s magnetic field,” said Knipp. “Slow clouds or poorly-organized clouds just don’t have the same effect.”

This means that, counterintuitively, the most energetic solar storms are likely to provide a net cooling and shrinking effect on the upper atmosphere, rather than heating and expanding it as had been previously understood.

Competing with this cooling process is the heating that caused by solar storm energy making its way into Earth’s atmosphere. Though scientists have known that solar wind energy eventually reaches the ionosphere, they have understood little about where, when and how this transfer takes place. New observations show that the process is localized and impulsive, and partly dependent on the state of the ionosphere itself.

Traditionally, scientists have thought that the way energy moves throughout Earth’s magnetosphere and atmosphere is determined by the characteristics of the incoming particles and magnetic fields of the solar wind – for instance, a long, steady stream of solar particles would produce different effects than a faster, less consistent stream. However, new data shows that the way energy moves is much more closely tied to the mechanisms by which the magnetosphere and ionosphere are linked.

“The energy transfer process turns out to be very similar to the way lightning forms during a thunderstorm,” said Bob Robinson, a space scientist at NASA Goddard and the Catholic University of America.

During a thunderstorm, a buildup of electric potential difference – called voltage – between a cloud and the ground leads to a sudden, violent discharge of that electric energy in the form of lightning. This discharge can only happen if there’s an electrically conducting pathway between the cloud and the ground, called a leader.

Similarly, the solar wind striking the magnetosphere can build up a voltage difference between different regions of the ionosphere and the magnetosphere. Electric currents can form between these regions, creating the conducting pathway needed for that built-up electric energy to discharge into the ionosphere as a kind of lightning.

“Terrestrial lightning takes several milliseconds to occur, while this magnetosphere-ionosphere ‘lightning’ lasts for several hours – and the amount of energy transferred is hundreds to thousands of times greater,” said Robinson, lead researcher on these new results. These results are based on data from the global Iridium satellite communications constellation.

Because solar storms enhance the electric currents that let this magnetosphere-ionosphere lightning take place, this type of energy transfer is much more likely when Earth’s magnetic field is jostled by a solar event.

The huge energy transfer from this magnetosphere-ionosphere lightning is associated with heating of the ionosphere and upper atmosphere, as well as increased aurora.

Looking Forward

Though scientists are making progress in understanding the key processes that drive changes in the ionosphere and, in turn, on Earth, there is still much to be understood. In 2017, NASA is launching two missions to investigate this dynamic region: the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, and Global Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD.

“The ionosphere doesn’t only react to energy input by solar storms,” said Scott England, a space scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who works on both the ICON and GOLD missions. “Terrestrial weather, like hurricanes and wind patterns, can shape the atmosphere and ionosphere, changing how they react to space weather.”

ICON will simultaneously measure the characteristics of charged particles in the ionosphere and neutral particles in the atmosphere – including those shaped by terrestrial weather – to understand how they interact. GOLD will take many of the same measurements, but from geostationary orbit, which gives a global view of how the ionosphere changes.

Both ICON and GOLD will take advantage of a phenomenon called airglow – the light emitted by gas that is excited or ionized by solar radiation – to study the ionosphere. By measuring the light from airglow, scientists can track the changing composition, density, and even temperature of particles in the ionosphere and neutral atmosphere.

ICON’s position 350 miles above Earth will enable it to study the atmosphere in profile, giving scientists an unprecedented look at the state of the ionosphere at a range of altitudes. Meanwhile, GOLD’s position 22,000 miles above Earth will give it the chance to track changes in the ionosphere as they move across the globe, similar to how a weather satellite tracks a storm.

“We will be using these two missions together to understand how dynamic weather systems are reflected in the upper atmosphere, and how these changes impact the ionosphere,” said England.

BREAKING NEWS: New Study Shows Counter-Intuitive Finding Of Warming and Cooling Cycles in Earth’s Thermosphere  (PART I  of  II)

New discoveries have reversed scientific templates and formulas which were used for decades by climatologists, astrophysicists, cosmologists and other disciplines to understand the Earth – Sun connection which includes space weather and climate change. It was historically believed the Sun’s solar cycle was in harmony with the fluctuation of heating and cooling of the Mesosphere and Thermosphere.

This is to say, during solar maximum it was believed the solar radiation was creating super-heated hydrogen and oxygen atoms and thus generating a super-heated Meso/Thermosphere. In like, it was believed solar minimum would spawn the cooling of H and O atoms thus cooling this region.

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Scientists using the TIMED (Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics) satellite, have upended the above universally accepted theory highlighting a second ‘counter-intuitive’ platform of the Sun-Earth connection as it related to climate, a more accurate statement would be (as it relates to cyclical warming and cooling trends.)  I mention the “second” counter-intuitive’ concept with the “first” being my published research identifying the natural cyclical inter-working of the Earth’s inner core, outer core, mantle, and lithosphere.

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The TIMED satellite (Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics) primary science objective of the TIMED mission is to understand the energy transfer into and out of the Mesosphere and Lower Thermosphere/Ionosphere region of Earth’s atmosphere. This region is located approximately 40-110 miles (60-180 kilometers) above the surface and is a gateway between Earth’s environment and space, where the Sun’s energy is first deposited into Earth’s environment.

To put in the most simple, yet scientifically sound foundation and absolutely amazing term – “so it is above – as it is below”.

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Important Editors Statement: Folks, Mitch here telling you this new discovery is putting me at another level of understanding and yet ironically creates a bit of consternation as to the astonishing accuracy of my research. As a background to my current moment of conflict, I have personally interviewed the most brilliant scientists in the world. I have produced “on the record” in-depth discussions publicly recorded and published – and I have had “off the record” discussions of which I cannot disclose due to the sensitive nature of their positions. What I am reflecting upon is once again the brilliance of these minds of which I humbly say are far beyond my own – yet for some known, but mostly unknown reason, they could not see what I see. Part of that answer is the compartmentalizing of their focused discipline, their academic and agency directive, the drive to push their selected field of research one step beyond the known.

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I have published two books both of which are telling of the knowledge I have acquired from such people who just happen to be gifted scientists. It is also no secret they come from the highest established agencies such as NASA, NOAA, ESA, US Naval Observatory, Royal Observatory to name a few. Also from the greatest educational establishments such a USC, UCLA, Harvard, Johns Hopkins to name a few more.

COMING NEXT WEEK – First Counter-Intuitive Concept
(Part – II) The Cause of Heating and Cooling Cycles of Earth’s Core and Climate Change


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