Scientists Find Evidence Of Complex Organic Molecules From Enceladus

Using mass spectrometry data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, scientists found that large, carbon-rich organic molecules are ejected from cracks in the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Southwest Research Institute scientists think chemical reactions between the moon’s rocky core and warm water from its subsurface ocean are linked to these complex molecules.

“We are, yet again, blown away by Enceladus. Previously we’d only identified the simplest organic molecules containing a few carbon atoms, but even that was very intriguing,” said SwRI’s Dr. Christopher Glein, a space scientist specializing in extraterrestrial chemical oceanography. He is coauthor of a paper in Nature outlining this discovery. “Now we’ve found organic molecules with masses above 200 atomic mass units. That’s over ten times heavier than methane. With complex organic molecules emanating from its liquid water ocean, this moon is the only body besides Earth known to simultaneously satisfy all of the basic requirements for life as we know it.”

Prior to its deorbit in September of 2017, Cassini sampled the plume of material emerging from the subsurface of Enceladus. The Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) and the SwRI-led Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) made measurements both within the plume and Saturn’s E-ring, which is formed by plume ice grains escaping Enceladus’ gravity.

“Even after its end, the Cassini spacecraft continues to teach us about the potential of Enceladus to advance the field of astrobiology in an ocean world,” Glein said. “This paper demonstrates the value of teamwork in planetary science. The INMS and CDA teams collaborated to reach a deeper understanding of the organic chemistry of Enceladus’ subsurface ocean than would be possible with only one data set.”

During Cassini’s close flyby of Enceladus on Oct. 28, 2015, INMS detected molecular hydrogen as the spacecraft flew through the plume. Previous flybys provided evidence for a global subsurface ocean residing above a rocky core. Molecular hydrogen in the plume is thought to form by the geochemical interaction between water and rocks in hydrothermal environments.

“Hydrogen provides a source of chemical energy supporting microbes that live in the Earth’s oceans near hydrothermal vents,” said SwRI’s Dr. Hunter Waite, INMS principal investigator who also was a coauthor of the new paper. “Once you have identified a potential food source for microbes, the next question to ask is ‘what is the nature of the complex organics in the ocean?’ This paper represents the first step in that understanding — complexity in the organic chemistry beyond our expectations!”

“The paper’s findings also have great significance for the next generation of exploration,” Glein said. “A future spacecraft could fly through the plume of Enceladus, and analyze those complex organic molecules using a high-resolution mass spectrometer to help us determine how they were made. We must be cautious, but it is exciting to ponder that this finding indicates that the biological synthesis of organic molecules on Enceladus is possible.”

Astronomers See Distant Eruption As Black Hole Destroys Star

For the first time, astronomers have directly imaged the formation and expansion of a fast-moving jet of material ejected when the powerful gravity of a supermassive black hole ripped apart a star that wandered too close to the cosmic monster.

The scientists tracked the event with radio and infrared telescopes, including the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), in a pair of colliding galaxies called Arp 299, nearly 150 million light-years from Earth. At the core of one of the galaxies, a black hole 20 million times more massive than the Sun shredded a star more than twice the Sun’s mass, setting off a chain of events that revealed important details of the violent encounter.

Only a small number of such stellar deaths, called tidal disruption events, or TDEs, have been detected, although scientists have hypothesized that they may be a more common occurrence. Theorists suggested that material pulled from the doomed star forms a rotating disk around the black hole, emitting intense X-rays and visible light, and also launches jets of material outward from the poles of the disk at nearly the speed of light.

“Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events,” said Miguel Perez-Torres, of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Granada, Spain.

The first indication came on January 30, 2005, when astronomers using the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands discovered a bright burst of infrared emission coming from the nucleus of one of the colliding galaxies in Arp 299. On July 17, 2005, the VLBA revealed a new, distinct source of radio emission from the same location.

“As time passed, the new object stayed bright at infrared and radio wavelengths, but not in visible light and X-rays,” said Seppo Mattila, of the University of Turku in Finland. “The most likely explanation is that thick interstellar gas and dust near the galaxy’s center absorbed the X-rays and visible light, then re-radiated it as infrared,” he added. The researchers used the Nordic Optical Telescope on the Canary Islands and NASA’s Spitzer space telescope to follow the object’s infrared emission.

Continued observations with the VLBA, the European VLBI Network (EVN), and other radio telescopes, carried out over nearly a decade, showed the source of radio emission expanding in one direction, just as expected for a jet. The measured expansion indicated that the material in the jet moved at an average of one-fourth the speed of light. Fortunately, the radio waves are not absorbed in the core of the galaxy, but find their way through it to reach the Earth.

These observations used multiple radio-telescope antennas, separated by thousands of miles, to gain the resolving power, or ability to see fine detail, required to detect the expansion of an object so distant. The patient, years-long data collection rewarded the scientists with the evidence of a jet.

Most galaxies have supermassive black holes, containing millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun, at their cores. In a black hole, the mass is so concentrated that its gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape. When those supermassive black holes are actively drawing in material from their surroundings, that material forms a rotating disk around the black hole, and superfast jets of particles are launched outward. This is the phenomenon seen in radio galaxies and quasars.

“Much of the time, however, supermassive black holes are not actively devouring anything, so they are in a quiet state,” Perez-Torres explained. “Tidal disruption events can provide us with a unique opportunity to advance our understanding of the formation and evolution of jets in the vicinities of these powerful objects,” he added.

“Because of the dust that absorbed any visible light, this particular tidal disruption event may be just the tip of the iceberg of what until now has been a hidden population,” Mattila said. “By looking for these events with infrared and radio telescopes, we may be able to discover many more, and learn from them,” he said.

Such events may have been more common in the distant Universe, so studying them may help scientists understand the environment in which galaxies developed billions of years ago.

The discovery, the scientists said, came as a surprise. The initial infrared burst was discovered as part of a project that sought to detect supernova explosions in such colliding pairs of galaxies. Arp 299 has seen numerous stellar explosions, and has been dubbed a “supernova factory.” This new object originally was considered to be a supernova explosion. Only in 2011, six years after discovery, the radio-emitting portion began to show an elongation. Subsequent monitoring showed the expansion growing, confirming that what the scientists are seeing is a jet, not a supernova.

Mattila and Perez-Torres led a team of 36 scientists from 26 institutions around the world in the observations of Arp 299. They published their findings in the 14 June online issue of the journal Science.

The Long Baseline Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Scientists Introduce Cosmochemical Model For Pluto Formation

Southwest Research Institute scientists integrated NASA’s New Horizons discoveries with data from ESA’s Rosetta mission to develop a new theory about how Pluto may have formed at the edge of our solar system.

“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation,” said Dr. Christopher Glein of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. The research is described in a paper published online today in Icarus. At the heart of the research is the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia, a large glacier that forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface. “We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”

In addition to the comet model, scientists also investigated a solar model, with Pluto forming from very cold ices that would have had a chemical composition that more closely matches that of the Sun.

Scientists needed to understand not only the nitrogen present at Pluto now — in its atmosphere and in glaciers — but also how much of the volatile element potentially could have leaked out of the atmosphere and into space over the eons. They then needed to reconcile the proportion of carbon monoxide to nitrogen to get a more complete picture. Ultimately, the low abundance of carbon monoxide at Pluto points to burial in surface ices or to destruction from liquid water.

“Our research suggests that Pluto’s initial chemical makeup, inherited from cometary building blocks, was chemically modified by liquid water, perhaps even in a subsurface ocean,” Glein said. However, the solar model also satisfies some constraints. While the research pointed to some interesting possibilities, many questions remain to be answered.

“This research builds upon the fantastic successes of the New Horizons and Rosetta missions to expand our understanding of the origin and evolution of Pluto,” said Glein. “Using chemistry as a detective’s tool, we are able to trace certain features we see on Pluto today to formation processes from long ago. This leads to a new appreciation of the richness of Pluto’s ‘life story,’ which we are only starting to grasp.”

New Find Shows Yucatan Peninsula Asteroid Strike Warmed Planet for 100,000 Years

A small team of researchers from the U.S. and Tunisia has found evidence that suggests a huge asteroid that struck the Earth approximately 66 million years ago caused the planet to warm up for approximately 100,000 years. In their paper published in the journal Science, the group describes their study of oxygen ratios in ancient fish bones and what it revealed.

Prior research has shown that approximately 66 million years ago, a massive asteroid struck the Earth at a point near what is now Chicxulub, Mexico. Other studies have suggested the sudden change in climate that resulted is what caused the dinosaurs to go extinct. The belief has been that the smoke and particles thrust into the atmosphere blocked out the sun causing the planet to cool for a long period of time. In this new effort, the researchers suggest the cooling period likely was shorter than thought and that it was followed by a lengthy hot spell. The researchers came to this conclusion by studying the bones and teeth of ancient fish.

The fish remains were sifted from sediment samples collected at a site in El Kef, Tunisia. During the time before and long after the asteroid strike, the area was covered by the Tethys Sea. The researchers looked at oxygen ratios in the fish remains as a means of determining the temperature of the water at the time that the fish died. Collecting samples from different layers allowed for building a temperature timeline that began before the asteroid strike and lasting hundreds of thousands of years thereafter. In looking at their timeline the group found that sea temperatures had risen approximately 5°C not long after the asteroid struck and had stayed at that temperature for approximately 100,000 years.

The researchers suggest the strike by the asteroid very likely released a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because the ground area where it struck was rich in carbonates. The strike very likely would have also ignited large long-burning forest fires which would have also released a lot of carbon into the air. The evidence suggests that the cooling after the impact was short-lived as massive amounts of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere setting off global warming.

The researchers note that a lot more work will need to be done to confirm their findings. Another site will have to be found with similar evidence, for example, to prove that the warming was not localized.

BREAKING NEWS: ‘Lost’ Asteroid To Pass Close To Earth Tuesday Evening

An asteroid that was lost by tracking satellites eight years ago has been spotted again as it prepares to make an unnervingly close pass by the Earth on May 15. While the giant space rock is expected to miss the planet, the asteroid will give sky watchers a chance to see the action unfold live online.

On Nov. 30, 2010, astronomers discovered an asteroid that could be as large as one of the Great Pyramids of ancient Egypt. It passed within nine million miles of Earth and then scientists lost track of it as it headed back to the outer solar system.

Asteroid 2010 WC9, which is about 426 feet in diameter, was observed for too short of a time for astronomers to be able to predict when its orbit might bring it back to our neighborhood.

This same asteroid is back and about to buzz by us about 70 times closer (126,000 miles away) than it did eight years ago. That puts it at about half the distance between the Earth and moon, making it one of the closest approaches ever observed by such a sizable asteroid.

London’s Northolt Branch Observatories, which helped to rediscover the asteroid, will be broadcasting the flyby live on Facebook. Don’t worry, the broadcast won’t be like a countdown to the apocalypse. 2010 WC9 will sail by the planet safely at about 6:05 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on May 15.

While this asteroid isn’t a threat (this time) it does emphasize the need to keep a watchful eye on the sky to catalog and track as many space rocks as possible.

“There are lots of asteroids and comets in our solar system and it’s impossible to predict the trajectories of all of these objects, but we need to try,} University of Saskatchewan astronomy professor Daryl Janzen said in a news release on May 10.

Just last month, astronomers discovered a slightly smaller asteroid just hours before it passed by the Earth and came even closer to hitting the moon.

On the cosmic scale, these asteroids are large enough to do some damage if they were to impact Earth, especially near a populated area. However, they aren’t considered big enough to do the kind of catastrophic damage caused by the space rock believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs.

“There is an extremely low probability of the planet coming into contact with one of these large near-Earth objects in our lifetime, but there is really good evidence that it happened in the past and led to mass extinction on the planet,” Janzen added. “So, although the probability is low, it’s important to discover as many NEOs as we can, so that if one does enter into a collision course with Earth, we can try to do something about it.”

TRAPPIST-1 Planets Provide Clues To The Nature Of Habitable Worlds

TRAPPIST-1 is an ultra-cool red dwarf star that is slightly larger, but much more massive, than the planet Jupiter, located about 40 light-years from the Sun in the constellation Aquarius.

Among planetary systems, TRAPPIST-1 is of particular interest because seven planets have been detected orbiting this star, a larger number of planets than have been than detected in any other exoplanetary system. In addition, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are Earth-sized and terrestrial, making them an ideal focus of study for planet formation and potential habitability.

ASU scientists Cayman Unterborn, Steven Desch, and Alejandro Lorenzo of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, with Natalie Hinkel of Vanderbilt University, have been studying these planets for habitability, specifically related to water composition. Their findings have been recently published in Nature Astronomy.

Water on the TRAPPIST-1 Planets

The TRAPPIST-1 planets are curiously light. From their measured mass and volume, all of this system’s planets are less dense than rock. On many other, similarly low-density worlds, it is thought that this less-dense component consists of atmospheric gasses.

“But the TRAPPIST-1 planets are too small in mass to hold onto enough gas to make up the density deficit,” explains geoscientist Unterborn. “Even if they were able to hold onto the gas, the amount needed to make up the density deficit would make the planet much puffier than we see.”

So scientists studying this planetary system have determined that the low-density component must be something else that is abundant: water. This has been predicted before, and possibly even seen on larger planets like GJ1214b, so the interdisciplinary ASU-Vanderbilt team, composed of geoscientists and astrophysicists, set out to determine just how much water could be present on these Earth-sized planets and how and where the planets may have formed.

Calculating water amounts on TRAPPIST-1 planets

To determine the composition of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, the team used a unique software package, developed by Unterborn and Lorenzo, that uses state-of-the-art mineral physics calculators. The software, called ExoPlex, allowed the team to combine all of the available information about the TRAPPIST-1 system, including the chemical makeup of the star, rather than being limited to just the mass and radius of individual planets.

Much of the data used by the team to determine composition was collected from a dataset called the Hypatia Catalog, developed by contributing author Hinkel. This catalog merges data on the stellar abundances of stars near to our Sun, from over 150 literature sources, into a massive repository.

What they found through their analyses was that the relatively “dry” inner planets (labeled “b” and “c” on this image) were consistent with having less than 15 percent water by mass (for comparison, Earth is 0.02 percent water by mass). The outer planets (labeled “f” and “g” on this image) were consistent with having more than 50 percent water by mass. This equates to the water of hundreds of Earth-oceans. The masses of the TRAPPIST-1 planets continue to be refined, so these proportions must be considered estimates for now, but the general trends seem clear.

“What we are seeing for the first time are Earth-sized planets that have a lot of water or ice on them,” says ASU astrophysicist and contributing author, Steven Desch.

But the researchers also found that the ice-rich TRAPPIST-1 planets are much closer to their host star than the ice line. The “ice line” in any solar system, including TRAPPIST-1’s, is the distance from the star beyond which water exists as ice and can be accreted into a planet; inside the ice line water exists as vapor and will not be accreted. Through their analyses, the team determined that the TRAPPIST-1 planets must have formed much farther from their star, beyond the ice line, and migrated in to their current orbits close to the host star.

There are many clues that planets in this system and others have undergone substantial inward migration, but this study is the first to use composition to bolster the case for migration. What’s more, knowing which planets formed inside and outside of the ice line allowed the team to quantify for the first time how much migration took place.

Because stars like TRAPPIST-1 are brightest right after they form and gradually dim thereafter, the ice line tends to move in over time, like the boundary between dry ground and snow-covered ground around a dying campfire on a snowy night. The exact distances the planets migrated inward depends on when they formed. “The earlier the planets formed,” says Desch, “the further away from the star they needed to have formed to have so much ice.” But for reasonable assumptions about how long planets take to form, the TRAPPIST-1 planets must have migrated inward from at least twice as far away as they are now.

Too much of a good thing

Interestingly, while we think of water as vital for life, the TRAPPIST-1 planets may have too much water to support life.

“We typically think having liquid water on a planet as a way to start life, since life, as we know it on Earth, is composed mostly of water and requires it to live,” explains Hinkel. “However, a planet that is a water world, or one that doesn’t have any surface above the water, does not have the important geochemical or elemental cycles that are absolutely necessary for life.”

Ultimately, this means that while M-dwarf stars, like TRAPPIST-1, are the most common stars in the universe (and while it’s likely that there are planets orbiting these stars), the huge amount of water they are likely to have makes them unfavorable for life to exist, especially enough life to create a detectable signal in the atmosphere that can be observed. “It’s a classic scenario of ‘too much of a good thing,'” says Hinkel.

So, while we’re unlikely to find evidence of life on the TRAPPIST-1 planets, through this research we may gain a better understanding of how icy planets form and what kinds of stars and planets we should be looking for in our continued search for life.

Hubble Finds Huge System Of Dusty Material Enveloping The Young Star HR 4796A

Astronomers have used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to uncover a vast, complex dust structure, about 150 billion miles across, enveloping the young star HR 4796A. A bright, narrow, inner ring of dust is already known to encircle the star and may have been corralled by the gravitational pull of an unseen giant planet. This newly discovered huge structure around the system may have implications for what this yet-unseen planetary system looks like around the 8-million-year-old star, which is in its formative years of planet construction.

The debris field of very fine dust was likely created from collisions among developing infant planets near the star, evidenced by a bright ring of dusty debris seen 7 billion miles from the star. The pressure of starlight from the star, which is 23 times more luminous than the Sun, then expelled the dust far into space.

But the dynamics don’t stop there. The puffy outer dust structure is like a donut-shaped inner tube that got hit by a truck. It is much more extended in one direction than in the other and so looks squashed on one side even after accounting for its inclined projection on the sky. This may be due to the motion of the host star plowing through the interstellar medium, like the bow wave from a boat crossing a lake. Or it may be influenced by a tidal tug from the star’s red dwarf binary companion (HR 4796B), located at least 54 billion miles from the primary star.

“The dust distribution is a telltale sign of how dynamically interactive the inner system containing the ring is,” said Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona, Tucson, who used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to probe and map the small dust particles in the outer reaches of the HR 4796A system, a survey that only Hubble’s sensitivity can accomplish.

“We cannot treat exoplanetary debris systems as simply being in isolation. Environmental effects, such as interactions with the interstellar medium and forces due to stellar companions, may have long-term implications for the evolution of such systems. The gross asymmetries of the outer dust field are telling us there are a lot of forces in play (beyond just host-star radiation pressure) that are moving the material around. We’ve seen effects like this in a few other systems, but here’s a case where we see a bunch of things going on at once,” Schneider further explained.

Though long hypothesized, the first evidence for a debris disk around any star was uncovered in 1983 with NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite. Later photographs revealed an edge-on debris disk around the southern star Beta Pictoris. In the late 1990s, Hubble’s second-generation instruments, which had the capability of blocking out the glare of a central star, allowed many more disks to be photographed. Now, such debris rings are thought to be common around stars. About 40 such systems have been imaged to date, largely by Hubble.