Preferentially Earth-Sized Planets With Lots Of Water

Computer simulations by astrophysicists at the University of Bern of the formation of planets orbiting in the habitable zone of low mass stars such as Proxima Centauri show that these planets are most likely to be roughly the size of Earth and to contain large amounts of water.


In August 2016, the announcement of the discovery of a terrestrial exoplanet orbiting in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri stimulated the imagination of the experts and the general public. After all this star is the nearest star to our sun even though it is ten times less massive and 500 times less luminous. This discovery together with the one in May 2016 of a similar planet orbiting an even lower mass star (Trappist-1) convinced astronomers that such red dwarfs (as these low mass stars are called) might be hosts to a large population of Earth-like planets.

How could these objects look like? What could they be made of? Yann Alibert and Willy Benz at the Swiss NCCR PlanetS and the Center of Space and Habitability (CSH) at the University of Bern carried out the first computer simulations of the formation of the population of planets expected to orbit stars ten times less massive than the sun.

“Our models succeed in reproducing planets that are similar in terms of mass and period to the ones observed recently,” Yann Alibert explains the result of the study that has been accepted for publication as a Letter in the journal “Astronomy and Astrophysics.” “Interestingly, we find that planets in close-in orbits around these type of stars are of small sizes. Typically, they range between 0.5 and 1.5 Earth radii with a peak at about 1.0 Earth radius. Future discoveries will tell if we are correct!” the researcher adds.

Ice at the bottom of the global ocean

In addition, the astrophysicists determined the water content of the planets orbiting their small host star in the habitable zone. They found that considering all the cases, around 90% of the planets are harbouring more than 10% of water. For comparison: Earth has a fraction of water of only about 0,02%. So most of these alien planets are literally water worlds in comparison! The situation could be even more extreme if the protoplanetary disks in which these planets form live longer than assumed in the models. In any case, these planets would be covered by very deep oceans at the bottom of which, owing to the huge pressure, water would be in form of ice.

Water is required for life as we know it. So could these planets be habitable indeed? “While liquid water is generally thought to be an essential ingredient, too much of a good thing may be bad,” says Willy Benz. In previous studies the scientists in Bern showed that too much water may prevent the regulation of the surface temperature and destabilizes the climate. “But this is the case for Earth, here we deal with considerably more exotic planets which might be subjected to a much harsher radiation environment, and/or be in synchronous ” he adds.

Following the growth of planetary embryos

To start their calculations, the scientists considered a series of a few hundreds to thousands of identical, low mass stars and around each of them a protoplanetary disk of dust and gas. Planets are formed by accretion of this material. Alibert and Benz assumed that at the beginning, in each disk there were 10 planetary embryos with an initial mass equal to the mass of the Moon. In a few day’s computer time for each system the model calculated how these randomly located embryos grew and migrated. What kind of planets are formed depends on the structure and evolution of the protoplanetary disks.

“Habitable or not, the study of planets orbiting very low mass stars will likely bring exciting new results, improving our knowledge of planet formation, evolution, and potential habitability,” summarizes Willy Benz. Because these stars are considerably less luminous than the sun, planets can be much closer to their star before their surface temperature becomes too high for liquid water to exist. If one considers that these type of stars also represent the overwhelming majority of stars in the solar neighbourhood and that close-in planets are presently easier to detect and study, one understands why the existence of this population of Earth-like planets is really of importance.

ALMA Explores the Hubble Ultra Deep Field: Deepest Ever Millimeter Observations Of Early Universe

International teams of astronomers have used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to explore the distant corner of the Universe first revealed in the iconic images of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF). These new ALMA observations are significantly deeper and sharper than previous surveys at millimetre wavelengths. They clearly show how the rate of star formation in young galaxies is closely related to their total mass in stars. They also trace the previously unknown abundance of star-forming gas at different points in time, providing new insights into the “Golden Age” of galaxy formation approximately 10 billion years ago.


The new ALMA results will be published in a series of papers appearing in the Astrophysical Journal and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. These results are also among those being presented this week at the Half a Decade of ALMA conference in Palm Springs, California, USA.

In 2004 the Hubble Ultra Deep Field images, pioneering deep-field observations with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, were published. These spectacular pictures probed more deeply than ever before and revealed a menagerie of galaxies stretching back to less than a billion years after the Big Bang. The area was observed several times by Hubble and many other telescopes, resulting in the deepest view of the Universe to date.

Astronomers using ALMA have now surveyed this seemingly unremarkable, but heavily studied, window into the distant Universe for the first time both deeply and sharply in the millimetre range of wavelengths. This allows them to see the faint glow from gas clouds and also the emission from warm dust in galaxies in the early Universe.

ALMA has observed the HUDF for a total of around 50 hours up to now. This is the largest amount of ALMA observing time spent on one area of the sky so far.

One team led by Jim Dunlop (University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom) used ALMA to obtain the first deep, homogeneous ALMA image of a region as large as the HUDF. This data allowed them to clearly match up the galaxies that they detected with objects already seen with Hubble and other facilities.

This study showed clearly for the first time that the stellar mass of a galaxy is the best predictor of star formation rate in the high redshift Universe. They detected essentially all of the high-mass galaxies and virtually nothing else.

Jim Dunlop, lead author on the deep imaging paper sums up its importance: “This is a breakthrough result. For the first time we are properly connecting the visible and ultraviolet light view of the distant Universe from Hubble and far-infrared/millimetre views of the Universe from ALMA.”

The second team, led by Manuel Aravena of the Núcleo de Astronomía, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile, and Fabian Walter of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, conducted a deeper search across about one sixth of the total HUDF.

“We conducted the first fully blind, three-dimensional search for cool gas in the early Universe,” said Chris Carilli, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, New Mexico, USA and member of the research team. “Through this, we discovered a population of galaxies that is not clearly evident in any other deep surveys of the sky.” [4]

Some of the new ALMA observations were specifically tailored to detect galaxies that are rich in carbon monoxide, indicating regions primed for star formation. Even though these molecular gas reservoirs give rise to the star formation activity in galaxies, they are often very hard to see with Hubble. ALMA can therefore reveal the “missing half” of the galaxy formation and evolution process.

“The new ALMA results imply a rapidly rising gas content in galaxies as we look back further in time,” adds lead author of two of the papers, Manuel Aravena (Núcleo de Astronomía, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile). “This increasing gas content is likely the root cause for the remarkable increase in star formation rates during the peak epoch of galaxy formation, some 10 billion years ago.”

The results presented today are just the start of a series of future observations to probe the distant Universe with ALMA. For example, a planned 150-hour observing campaign of the HUDF will further illuminate the star-forming potential history of the Universe.

“By supplementing our understanding of this missing star-forming material, the forthcoming ALMA Large Program will complete our view of the galaxies in the iconic Hubble Ultra Deep Field,” concludes Fabian Walter.

Astronomers specifically selected the area of study in the HUDF, a region of space in the faint southern constellation of Fornax (The Furnace), so ground-based telescopes in the southern hemisphere, like ALMA, could probe the region, expanding our knowledge about the very distant Universe. Probing the deep, but optically invisible, Universe was one of the primary science goals for ALMA.

In this context “high mass” means galaxies with stellarmasses greater than 20 billion times that of the Sun ( 2 × 10^10 solar masses). For comparison, the Milky Way is a large galaxy and has a mass of around 100 billion solar masses.

This region of sky is about seven hundred times smaller than the area of the disc of the full Moon as seen from Earth. One of the most startling aspects of the HUDF was the vast number of galaxies found in such a tiny fraction of the sky.

ALMA’s ability to see a completely different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum from Hubble allows astronomers to study a different class of astronomical objects, such as massive star-forming clouds, as well as objects that are otherwise too faint to observe in visible light, but visible at millimetre wavelengths.

The search is referred to as “blind” as it was not focussed on any particular object.

Cosmology Safe As Universe Has No Sense Of Direction

The universe is expanding uniformly according to research led by UCL which reports that space isn’t stretching in a preferred direction or spinning.

The new study, published today in Physical Review Letters, studied the cosmic microwave background (CMB) which is the remnant radiation from the Big Bang. It shows the universe expands the same way in all directions, supporting the assumptions made in cosmologists’ standard model of the universe.


First author, Daniela Saadeh (UCL Physics & Astronomy), said: “The finding is the best evidence yet that the universe is the same in all directions. Our current understanding of the universe is built on the assumption that it doesn’t prefer one direction over another, but there are actually a huge number of ways that Einstein’s theory of relativity would allow for space to be imbalanced. Universes that spin and stretch are entirely possible, so it’s important that we’ve shown ours is fair to all its directions.”

The team from UCL and Imperial College London used measurements of the CMB taken between 2009 and 2013 by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite. The spacecraft recently released information about the polarisation of CMB across the whole sky for the first time, providing a complementary view of the early universe that the team was able to exploit.

The researchers modelled a comprehensive variety of spinning and stretching scenarios and how these might manifest in the CMB, including its polarisation. They then compared their findings with the real map of the cosmos from Planck, searching for specific signs in the data.

Daniela Saadeh, explained: “We calculated the different patterns that would be seen in the cosmic microwave background if space has different properties in different directions. Signs might include hot and cold spots from stretching along a particular axis, or even spiral distortions.”

Collaborating author Dr Stephen Feeney (Imperial College London) added: “We then compare these predictions to reality. This is a serious challenge, as we found an enormous number of ways the Universe can be anisotropic. It’s extremely easy to become lost in this myriad of possible universes — we need to tune 32 dials to find the correct one.”

Previous studies only looked at how the universe might rotate, whereas this study is the first to test the widest possible range of geometries of space. Additionally, using the wealth of new data collected from Planck allowed the team to achieve vastly tighter bounds than the previous study. “You can never rule it out completely, but we now calculate the odds that the universe prefers one direction over another at just one in 121,000,” said Daniela Saadeh.

Most current cosmological studies assume that the Universe behaves identically in every direction. If this assumption were to fail, a large number of analyses of the cosmos and its content would be flawed.

Daniela Saadeh, added: “We’re very glad that our work vindicates what most cosmologists assume. For now, cosmology is safe.”

The work was kindly supported by the Perren Fund, IMPACT fund, Royal Astronomical Society, Science and Technology Facilities Council, Royal Society, European Research Council, and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Astronomers Capture Best View Ever Of Disintegrating Comet

Astronomers have captured the sharpest, most detailed observations of a comet breaking apart 67 million miles from Earth, using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The discovery is published online in Astrophysical Journal Letters.


In a series of images taken over three days in January 2016, Hubble showed 25 fragments consisting of a mixture of ice and dust that are drifting away from the comet at a pace equivalent to the walking speed of an adult, said UCLA astrophysicist David Jewitt, who led the research team.

The images suggest that the roughly 4.5-billion-year-old comet, named 332P/Ikeya-Murakami, or comet 332P, may be spinning so fast that material is ejected from its surface. The resulting debris is now scattered along a 3,000-mile-long trail, larger than the width of the continental United States.

These observations provide insight into the volatile behavior of comets as they approach the sun and begin to vaporize, unleashing powerful forces.

“We know that comets sometimes disintegrate, but we don’t know much about why or how,” Jewitt said. “The trouble is that it happens quickly and without warning, so we don’t have much chance to get useful data. With Hubble’s fantastic resolution, not only do we see really tiny, faint bits of the comet, but we can watch them change from day to day. That has allowed us to make the best measurements ever obtained on such an object.”

The three-day observations show that the comet shards brighten and dim as icy patches on their surfaces rotate into and out of sunlight. Their shapes change, too, as they break apart. The icy relics comprise about four percent of the parent comet and range in size from roughly 65 feet wide to 200 feet wide. They are separating at only a few miles per hour as they orbit the sun at more than 50,000 miles per hour.

The Hubble images show that the parent comet changes brightness frequently, completing a rotation every two to four hours. A visitor to the comet would see the sun rise and set in as little as an hour, Jewitt said.

The comet is much smaller than astronomers thought, measuring only 1,600 feet across, about the length of five football fields.

Comet 332P was discovered in November 2010, after it surged in brightness and was spotted by two Japanese amateur astronomers.

Based on the Hubble data, the research team suggests that sunlight heated the surface of the comet, causing it to expel jets of dust and gas. Because the nucleus is so small, these jets act like rocket engines, spinning up the comet’s rotation, Jewitt said. The faster spin rate loosened chunks of material, which are drifting off into space. The research team calculated that the comet probably shed material over a period of months, between October and December 2015.

Jewitt suggested that some of the ejected pieces have themselves fallen to bits in a kind of cascading fragmentation. “We think these little guys have a short lifetime,” he said.

Hubble’s sharp vision also spied a chunk of material close to the comet, which may be the first salvo of another outburst. The remnant from still another flare-up, which may have occurred in 2012, is also visible. The fragment may be as large as comet 332P, suggesting the comet split in two. But the remnant wasn’t spotted until Dec. 31, 2015, by a telescope in Hawaii.

That discovery prompted Jewitt and colleagues to request Hubble Space Telescope time to study the comet in detail.

“In the past, astronomers thought that comets die when they are warmed by sunlight, causing their ices to simply vaporize away,” Jewitt said. “But it’s starting to look like fragmentation may be more important. In comet 332P we may be seeing a comet fragmenting itself into oblivion.”

The researchers estimate that comet 332P contains enough mass for 25 more outbursts. “If the comet has an episode every six years, the equivalent of one orbit around the sun, then it will be gone in 150 years,” Jewitt said. “It’s just the blink of an eye, astronomically speaking. The trip to the inner solar system has doomed it.”

The icy visitor hails from the Kuiper belt, a vast swarm of objects at the outskirts of our solar system. As the comet traveled across the system, it was deflected by the planets, like a ball bouncing around in a pinball machine, until Jupiter’s gravity set its current orbit, Jewitt said.

Co-authors include Harold Weaver Jr., research professor at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Explaining Why The Universe Can Be ‘Transparent’: Universe’s Reionization Is Based On A Galaxy’s Dust Content

Two papers published by an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside and several collaborators explain why the universe has enough energy to become transparent.


The study led by Naveen Reddy, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Riverside, marks the first quantitative study of how the gas content within galaxies scales with the amount of interstellar dust.

This analysis shows that the gas in galaxies is like a “picket fence,” where some parts of the galaxy have little gas and are directly visible, whereas other parts have lots of gas and are effectively opaque to ionizing radiation. The findings were just published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The ionization of hydrogen is important because of its effects on how galaxies grow and evolve. A particular area of interest is assessing the contribution of different astrophysical sources, such as stars or black holes, to the budget of ionizing radiation.

Most studies suggest that faint galaxies are responsible for providing enough radiation to ionize the gas in the early history of the universe. Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence that the amount of ionizing radiation that is able to escape from galaxies depends on the amount of hydrogen within the galaxies themselves.

The research team led by Reddy developed a model that can be used to predict the amount of escaping ionizing radiation from galaxies based on straightforward measurements on how “red,” or dusty, their spectra appear to be.

Alternatively, with direct measurements of the ionizing escape fraction, their model may be used to constrain the intrinsic production rate of ionizing photons at around two billion years after the Big Bang.

These practical applications of the model will be central to the interpretation of escaping radiation during the cosmic “dark ages,” a topic that is bound to flourish with the coming of 30-meter telescopes, which will allow for research unfeasible today, and the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next orbiting observatory and the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The research ties back to some 400,000 years after the Big Bang, when the universe entered the cosmic “dark ages,” where galaxies and stars had yet to form amongst the dark matter, hydrogen and helium.

A few hundred million years later, the universe entered the “Epoch of Reionization,” where the gravitational effects of dark matter helped hydrogen and helium coalesce into stars and galaxies. A great amount of ultraviolet radiation (photons) was released, stripping electrons from surrounding neutral environments, a process known as “cosmic reionization.”

Reionization, which marks the point at which the hydrogen in the Universe became ionized, has become a major area of current research in astrophysics. Ionization made the Universe transparent to these photons, allowing the release of light from sources to travel mostly freely through the cosmos.

The data for this research was acquired through the low resolution imaging spectrograph on the W.M. Keck Observatory.

The collaborators of this research are Charles Steidel (Caltech), Max Pettini (University of Cambridge), Milan Bogosavljevic (Astronomical Observatory, Belgrade) and Alice Shapley (UCLA).

Discovery Nearly Doubles Known Quasars From The Ancient Universe

Quasars are supermassive black holes that sit at the center of enormous galaxies, accreting matter. They shine so brightly that they are often referred to as beacons and are among the most-distant objects in the universe that we can currently study. New work from a team led by Carnegie’s Eduardo Bañados has discovered 63 new quasars from when the universe was only a billion years old.


This is the largest sample of such distant quasars presented in a single scientific article, almost doubling the number of ancient quasars previously known. The findings will be published by The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

“Quasars are among the brightest objects and they literally illuminate our knowledge of the early universe,” Bañados said.

But until now, the population of known ancient quasars was fairly small, so scientists’ ability to glean information from them was limited. One of the main challenges is finding these distant quasars, which are extremely rare. Scientists have searched for them for decades, but the effort is comparable to finding a needle in a haystack.

The quasars discovered by Bañados and his team will provide valuable information from the first billion years after the Big Bang, which is a period of great interest to astronomers.


The universe was created in the Big Bang and hot matter exploded everywhere. But then it cooled off enough for the first protons and electrons to form and then to coalesce into hydrogen atoms, which resulted in a dark universe for a long time. It wasn’t until these atomic nuclei formed larger structures that light was able to shine once again in the universe. This happened when gravity condensed the matter and eventually formed the first sources of illumination, which might have included quasars.

There is still a lot about this era when the universe’s lights were turned back on that science doesn’t understand. But having more examples of ancient quasars will help experts to figure out what happened in those first billion years after the Big Bang.

“The formation and evolution of the earliest light sources and structures in the universe is one of the greatest mysteries in astronomy,” Bañados said. “Very bright quasars such as the 63 discovered in this study are the best tools for helping us probe the early universe. But until now, conclusive results have been limited by the very small sample size of ancient quasars.”

The coming years will see a great improvement in what we know about the early universe thanks to these discoveries.

Ripples In Fabric Of Space-time? Hundreds Of Undiscovered Black Holes

New research by the University of Surrey published today in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society has shone light on a globular cluster of stars that could host several hundred black holes, a phenomenon that until recently was thought impossible.


Globular clusters are spherical collections of stars which orbit around a galactic centre such as our Milky-way galaxy. Using advanced computer simulations, the team at the University of Surrey were able to see the un-see-able by mapping a globular cluster known as NGC 6101, from which the existence of black holes within the system was deduced. These black holes are a few times larger than the Sun, and form in the gravitational collapse of massive stars at the end of their lives. It was previously thought that these black holes would almost all be expelled from their parent cluster due to the effects of supernova explosion, during the death of a star.

“Due to their nature, black holes are impossible to see with a telescope, because no photons can escape,” explained lead author Miklos Peuten of the University of Surrey. “In order to find them we look for their gravitational effect on their surroundings. Using observations and simulations we are able to spot the distinctive clues to their whereabouts and therefore effectively ‘see’ the un-seeable.”

It is only as recently as 2013 that astrophysicists found individual black holes in globular clusters via rare phenomena in which a companion star donates material to the black hole. This work, which was supported by the European Research Council (ERC), has shown that in NGC 6101 there could be several hundred black holes, overturning old theories as to how black holes form.

Co-author Professor Mark Gieles, University of Surrey continued, “Our work is intended to help answer fundamental questions related to dynamics of stars and black holes, and the recently observed gravitational waves. These are emitted when two black holes merge, and if our interpretation is right, the cores of some globular clusters may be where black hole mergers take place.”

The researchers chose to map this particular ancient globular cluster due to its recently found distinctive makeup, which suggested that it could be different to other clusters. Compared to other globular clusters NGC 6101 appears dynamically young in contrast to the ages of the individual stars. Also the cluster appears inflated, with the core being under-populated by observable stars.

Using computer simulation, the team recreated every individual star and black hole in the cluster and their behaviour. Over the whole lifetime of thirteen billion years the simulation demonstrated how NGC 6101 has evolved. It was possible to see the effects of large numbers of black holes on the visible stars, and to reproduce what was observed for NGC6101. From this, the researchers showed that the unexplainable dynamical apparent youth is an effect of the large black hole population.

“This research is exciting as we were able to theoretically observe the spectacle of an entire population of black holes using computer simulations. The results show that globular clusters like NGC 6101, which were always considered boring are in fact the most interesting ones, possibly each harbouring hundreds of black holes. This will help us to find more black holes in other globular clusters in the Universe. ” concluded Peuten.