Tag Archives: astrophysics

DEPENDS ON YOUR PRECISE DEFINITIONS

This is not really a new suspicion or discovery, more like a confirmation of suspicions and prior tracking.
 
Nevertheless my wife and I were watching a NASA video today and she asked me something about how far out a probe had went and I told her, in giving my answer, that I suspected our own solar system was much larger than we thought, and that it some ways may even extend to the edge of or even encompass the closest next solar system. That therefore, despite current thinking, that in some ways our solar system may very well share elements with, let’s say, Proxima Centauri. That is to say that we may be or even share stellar matter with Proxima Centauri or even be part of a Solar Cluster including our own and the Centauri systems. Therefore the probe was not really likely to leave our real solar system any time soon.
 
It depends very much on what we have in common (materially, energetically, and gravitationally) with neighboring solar systems, what we share, and precisely how you define a “Solar System.” In addition to how sensitive we are in being able to detect possible connections, correlations, and shared associations.
 
But in any case I’ve always suspected, even as a child, and going back to my earliest studies of astrophysics that our solar system was much larger than thought and that it contained other matter and energy systems than those which we can currently detect.
 
That’s was before I saw this which only further confirms these suspicions that I have had for many, many years now.

Exciting news everyone, a potential new dwarf planet has just been discovered in the Kuiper Belt at the edge of the Solar System. Called 2014 UZ224, it’s located beyond the orbit of Pluto, and may be one of a hundred such objects still undiscovered.

This particular object is thought to be about 530 kilometers (330 miles) across, compared to 2,374 kilometers (1,475 miles) for Pluto, one of the other five confirmed dwarf planets at the moment. The others are Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Haumea. Another candidate, 2015 RR245, was announced earlier this year.

It was found by a team led by David Gerdes from the University of Michigan, as part of a larger map of galaxies called the Dark Energy Survey (DES). Using specialized computer software, they found the moving object about 13.7 billion kilometers (8.5 billion miles) from the Sun, about twice as far as Pluto. It completes an orbit in about 1,100 years.

According to NPR, it has taken two years to confirm the existence of 2014 UZ224. It is thought to be the third most distant known object in the Solar System.

We don’t know much else about the dwarf planet at the moment, aside from its size and orbital characteristics. But the discovery hints at even more objects in the outer Solar System, most notably Planet Nine, a world thought to be 10 times as massive as Earth. The search for this world continues.

The existence of 2014 UZ224 has been officially verified by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), but like 2015 RR245 before it, it’s not clear if it will be given official dwarf planet status yet. That will depend on a number of factors, including whether it is spherical. If so, though, it would be the smallest dwarf planet found so far.

Dwarf planet or not, our Solar System just got a little bit busier.

TITAN’S COLD CURE

Regardless of whether it harbors life on Titan or not such a compound could provide great benefits and numerous applications for our future use, regardless of whether those applications are biological, chemical, or physical.

Also this would make for a great sci-fi story, mundane or hard sci-fi.

 

Ultracold-Resistant Chemical on Titan Could Allow It to Harbor Life

Computer simulations reveal that a compound found on Saturn’s largest moon may be able to form a freeze-resistant, flexible membrane that could encapsulate cells or organelles

This computational finding could have lasting implications for scientists who study Titan’s geochemistry.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Astrobiologists and planetary scientists have a fairly good idea of which chemicals might indicate the presence of oxygen-breathing, water-based life—that is if it is like us. When it comes to worlds such as Saturn’s moon Titan, however, where temperatures are too cold for aqueous biochemistry, it’s much harder to know which chemicals could signal the existence of hydrocarbon-based life.

A Cornell University team may have found a plausible candidate chemical that future missions to Titan could search for. The computer-simulation study, which appeared in the February 27 Science Advances [http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400067], found that acrylonitrile, a hydrocarbon known to form in Titan’s atmosphere, can organize itself into a structure having the same toughness and flexibility characteristic of the membranes that envelop cells on Earth and form the boundaries of organelles like mitochondria and the nucleus.

This computational finding could have lasting implications for scientists who study Titan’s geochemistry. For many planetary scientists, it’s their favorite moon. Like Earth, Titan has a dense atmosphere complete with clouds, mountains, riverbeds and liquid seas on its surface. In fact, Titan would probably be the most promising place, rather than Europa, to look for extraterrestrial life in the solar system if not for its frigidity.

Titan is way too cold for life as we know it. At Titanian surface temperatures (–179 Celsius) phospholipids—the chemical compounds that comprise cell membranes—and the water-based solutions that fill cells would be frozen solid. Any life that evolved on Titan’s surface would have to be made of a very different set of chemicals.

In the team’s computer model acrylonitriles formed hollow balls (called azotosomes) that behave, even in the cold, in much the way hollow balls made of Earthly phospholipids (called liposomes) that form membranes in our cells and organelles. Like liposomes, azotosomes can bend into many different shapes and could act as a barrier between the inside and the outside of the bubbles they form, keeping the ethane–methane mix of Titan’s seas from penetrating the encapsulation. (Because this study is the first of its kind, we don’t know much about which hydrocarbons would be inside the azotosome.)

The degree of similarity between the hypothetical azotosomes and Earth-based liposomes was a surprise to the researchers. “I’m not a biochemist, so I didn’t really know what I was looking for [at first],” says James Stevenson, the chemical engineering grad student who ran the computer simulations. “And when I did the calculations—lo and behold!” The simulated azotosomes at Titanian temperature were just as stretchable as liposomes at Earth temperatures. Because flexibility and the ability to withstand poking and twisting are crucial for evolving complex cellular behavior, azotosomes could potentially be a very useful structure for hypothetical alien life in ethane–methane seas and lakes such as those on Titan.

This study demonstrates that “at least in a computer simulation, one can build structures of a size and geometry [roughly] equivalent to the containers that were on the Earth when life began,” says planetary physicist and study co-author Jonathan Lunine. “You can do it with materials that we know are present on Titan…So we’ve presented potentially one step toward the evolution of life under Titan conditions.”

Chemical engineer and co-author Paulette Clancy compares figuring out how life might form on Titan in the absence of liquid water to “trying to make an omelet without any eggs. It sort of redefines how you think about an omelet,” she says.

Scientists will not know whether the acrylonitrile on Titan’s surface actually forms the azotosome structures, let alone whether those structures are components of life, unless a new we send another probe and investigate the hydrocarbon seas’ chemistry in more detail. “Titan is literally awash with organics—but it’s impossible to disentangle them remotely,” Ralph Lorenz, a NASA scientist who designs and builds planetary exploration probes and who was not involved in this study, wrote in an e-mail. “You need to land, sample the material and use sophisticated chemistry instruments (like those on the Mars rover Curiosity) to see how complex the compounds have become and whether they can execute any of the functions of life.”

Lorenz and others have proposed a few designs for automated submarines or torpedo-shaped probes that could remotely explore Titan’s seas, but those missions are several decades away. Furthermore, even if the space agencies began building a craft for a mission to Titan right away, it would be impossible to get it there before Saturn’s seasonal revolution renders the moon’s northern hemisphere inaccessible for direct-to-Earth communications. The hydrocarbons seas are clustered on Titan’s northern hemisphere, and because that hemisphere will be facing away from the Earth, any missions to Titan during the 2020s will require an orbiter companion that can relay signals back to Earth. Orbiters are expensive, so we probably won’t be able to probe Titan’s hydrocarbon seas until the 2030s.

So for the time being Titanian azotosomes will remain a hypothetical. But on the bright side, when the next mission does reach Titan, it will have a much more precise idea of which chemicals it should try to find.

 

 

YOUR BLACK MOON AT WORK

New supermoon – and Black Moon – on February 18, 2015

 

Tonight for February 18, 2015
Moon Phase Courtesy U.S. Naval Observatory

The new moon comes on February 18, 2015, and then reaches perigee less than one-third day later. It’s the closest new moon of the year, which qualifies it as a new moon supermoon. It’s also a seasonal Black Moon; that is, the third of four new moons in the current season (December solstice to March equinox). The moon reaches lunar perigee – the moon’s closest point to Earth for the month – some 7.6 hours after the moon turns new at 23:47 UTC (6:47 p.m. CDT) on February 18. Don’t expect to see anything special, not even a little crescent like that in the photo above. A full moon supermoon is out all night – brighter than your average full moon. But a new moon supermoon is only out during the daytime hours, hidden in the sun’s glare. Follow the links below to learn more about the supermoon/ Black Moon of February 18, 2015.

Can new moons be supermoons?

Spring tides accompany February 2015’s supermoon.

February 2015 new moon also a seasonal Black Moon

Seasonal Black Moon and monthly Blue Moon in 2015

Monthly Black Moon and seasonal Blue Moon in 2016
View larger. | Youngest possible lunar crescent, with the moon’s age being exactly zero when this photo was taken — at the precise moment of the new moon – at 07:14 UTC on July 8, 2013. Image by Thierry Legault. Visit his website. Used with permission.

View larger. | Youngest possible lunar crescent, with the moon’s age being exactly zero when this photo was taken — at the precise moment of the new moon – at 07:14 UTC on July 8, 2013. Image by Thierry Legault. Visit his website. Used with permission.

Can new moons be supermoons? Yes, the February 18 new moon qualifies as a supermoon, if you accept the definition by Richard Nolle that started the whole supermoon craze a few years ago. Nolle, who is credited for coining the term, defines a supermoon as:

… a new or full moon which occurs with the moon at or near (within 90% of) its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit.

Given that definition, the new moon of February 18, 2015 definitely makes the grade.

Some people dislike the term supermoon, maybe because some supermoons – like the February 18 supermoon – don’t look all that super. But we like the term. We like it better than perigee new moons, which is what we used to call a new moon closest to Earth.

Taking it further, some object to a new moon being called a supermoon because a new moon isn’t visible (unless there’s a solar eclipse).

Nonetheless, the February 2015 new moon enjoys supermoon status, according to Nolle’s definition. We’ve already seen other media talking about it. Hate to say it, y’all, but the term supermoon – which is so simple and clear – will likely outlive the objectors!

By the way, the next supermoon will arrive with the new moon of March 20, 2015. The March new moon will actually pass in front of the sun, to stage a total solar eclipse at far-northern Arctic latitudes. From Greenland, Iceland, Europe, northern Africa and northeastern Asia, varying degrees of a partial eclipse will be visible. In other words, if you’re on the right spot on Earth, the March 20 new moon will be seen in silhouette against the bright solar disk (remember to use eye protection).

Read more: Supermoon causes total eclipse of equinox sun on March 20

Live by the moon with your 2015 EarthSky lunar calendar!
You won’t see today’s new moon at perigee – the

You won’t see today’s new moon at perigee – the “supermoon” – but Earth’s oceans will feel it. Expect higher-than-usual tides in the days following a supermoon.

Spring tides accompany February 2015’s supermoon. Will the tides be larger than usual at the February new moon? Yes, all new moons (and full moons) combine with the sun to create larger-than-usual tides, but perigee new moons (or perigee full moons) elevate the tides even more.

Each month, on the day of the new moon, the Earth, moon and sun are aligned, with the moon in between. This line-up creates wide-ranging tides, known as spring tides. High spring tides climb up especially high, and on the same day low tides plunge especially low.

The February 18 extra-close new moon will accentuate the spring tide, giving rise to what’s called a perigean spring tide. If you live along an ocean coastline, watch for high tides caused by the February 2015 perigean new moon – or supermoon. It’s likely to follow the date of new moon by a day or so.

Will these high tides cause flooding? Probably not, unless a strong weather system accompanies the perigean spring tide. Still, keep an eye on the weather, because storms do have a large potential to accentuate perigean spring tides.

Learn more: Tides and the pull of the moon and sun
Total solar eclipse photo by Ben Cooper/Launch Photography. Visit Launch Photography online.

There’s no such thing as a black-colored moon seen in Earth’s sky, unless you mean the moon’s silhouette in front of the sun during a total solar eclipse. Read more: Supermoon causes total eclipse of equinox sun on March 20 This total solar eclipse photo is by Ben Cooper/Launch Photography.

February 2015 new moon also a seasonal Black Moon Some people may also call this February 2015 new moon a Black Moon. We’d never heard the term Black Moon until about a year ago, but here’s our best understanding of it. Usually, there are only three new moons in one season, the period of time between a solstice and an equinox – or vice versa. However, there are four new moons in between the December 2014 solstice and the March 2015 equinox. Some people call the third of these four new moons a seasonal Black Moon.

December solstice: December 21, 2014

New moon: December 22, 2014
New moon: January 20, 2015
New moon: February 18, 2015
New moon: March 20, 2015 (9:36 Universal Time)

March equinox: March 20, 2015 (22:45 Universal Time)

There is also a monthly definition for Black Moon. It’s the second of two new moons to occur in one calendar month. A Black Moon by this definition last happened on March 30, 2014, and will next happen on October 30, 2016.

Seasonal Black Moon and monthly Blue Moon in 2015 It may be of interest to know that in the year 2015, a seasonal Black Moon (February 18, 2015) and a monthly Blue Moon (July 31, 2015) occur in the same calendar year. A Blue Moon by the monthly definition of the term refers to the second of two full moons in one calendar month.

Monthly Black Moon and seasonal Blue Moon in 2016 And next year, in 2016, we find that a monthly Black Moon (October 30, 2016) and a seasonal Blue Moon (May 22, 2016) happen in the same calendar year. A Blue Moon by the seasonal definition of the term refers to the third of four full moons in one season.

Bottom line: The new moon on February 18, 2015, is both a supermoon and a seasonal Black Moon. Will you see it? No. The moon will be hidden in the sun’s glare throughout the day. However, those along coastlines might expect higher than usual tides in the days following this close new moon.

HARD MAP

Space Without the Space

When we think about our solar system, most of our mind’s likely wander to Jupiter’s immensely large storm, or Saturn’s fantastical rings. Perhaps some picture Neptune’s deep blue hue, or its sea of liquid diamond. The point being, these huge objects capture our imagination because they are so far-flung from Earthly sights, like the rolling seas of blue and green and the rocks that crunch beneath our shoes. We kind of look over the fact that the vast majority of planets are composed almost entirely of gas; our solar system included.

This handy graphic by XKCD helps drive this point home:

Credit: XKCD

Here, in a piece called “Space Without the Space,” XKCD’s Randall Munroe stitched together an old school, pirate-like map that shows all of the solid ground in our solar system (excluding speculative estimates solid “ground” we might find deep within the cores of gas-giants). Earth clearly wins hands down, though it’s unclear as to how Munroe incorporated the oceans of Earth in the map. Venus comes in at a close second, which isn’t surprising since it’s very similar to Earth in size. Then we have the other rocky bodies, Mercury and Mars.

What might be surprising to some is just how similar in size the planets and moons are. Three out of four of the Galilean moons (Callisto, Ganymede and Io) make up a considerable amount of the map. Ganymede, in particular, is the most noteworthy. Believe it or not, it’s actually a bit larger than the inner-most planet from the Sun, Mercury (it’s not that much smaller than Mars, for that matter). It even appears as if all of the dwarf-planets (pictured near the bottom) could fit inside any of the three largest Galilean moons.

A comparison of Mars, Mercury, the Moon and Ganymede (credit: NASA/SolStation)

It’s also neat that he grouped asteroids, comets and other small planetoids together. They make a small, but discernible fraction of our solar system’s rock. I’m not sure which point of view is cooler: the fact that there are so many of these objects scattered throughout our solar system that, together, they are the same size as a small moon, or that objects so numerous (there are billions, perhaps even trillions, of them) could be so small that all of them combined only add up to the size of a small moon. I’ll leave that one up to you guys.

How Planets Form:

Despite just how vastly different they are in size and composition, terrestrial planets and gaseous ones form in a strikingly similar manner (at least we think so).

It’s understood that based on our most current model, our solar system (along with all of the other planetary systems we’ve found circling distant “Suns”) formed following the collapse of a nebular cloud. From there, it’s understood that after a newly born star emerges from its cocoon, an elliptical disk of material, called a protoplanetary disk, encircles the young star.

Artist rendering of a protoplanetary disk (Image Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA Artwork by Lynette Cook)

The disk is composed of a variety of materials: including ice, water-ice, rock, grains and some heavier elements (iron, nickel, gold, etc), but gas is by far the most prevalent type of material. Within the chaotic, spinning disks, the materials collide and start to coalesce into a planet. After enough of the materials gather, gravity takes over and helps transform the oddly shaped planetesimals into the spherical planets we all know and love.

Gas-Giants v.s. Rocky Bodies:

Of course, the concentration and the quantity of the materials dictate what the planets are made of and the number of them that form, but a different mechanism — one occurring much farther out within the disk — starts to influence the proto-planets. After hundreds of millions of years of slow accretion, all at once, they start accreting gaseous envelopes (like an atmosphere). The growth can be stanched by stellar phenomena (like solar winds), but these effects are diluted over vast distances, thus allowing the more distant planets to keep on growing until they are more gas than rock.

At such distances, the temperatures also drop off, eventually becoming so cold that even gas itself freezes over. The newly acquired mass allows the large bodies to capture the frozen gas and become even more immense, until the planets become full-blown gas-giants.

 See a larger image here.

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