Tag Archives: Solar system

SO YOU CAN SKYWATCH FOR IT

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.

 

 

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.

PLANETS X AND Y

“Planet X” might actually exist — and so might “Planet Y.”

At least two planets larger than Earth likely lurk in the dark depths of space far beyond Pluto, just waiting to be discovered, a new analysis of the orbits of “extreme trans-Neptunian objects” (ETNOs) suggests.

Researchers studied 13 ETNOs — frigid bodies such as the dwarf planet Sedna that cruise around the sun at great distances in elliptical paths. [Meet Our Solar System’s Dwarf Planets]

Image: Planet NASA/JPL-Caltech
Two or more unknown planets could exist beyond the orbit of Pluto in our solar system, new research suggests.

Theory predicts a certain set of details for ETNO orbits, study team members said. For example, they should have a semi-major axis, or average distance from the sun, of about 150 astronomical units (AU). (1 AU is the distance from Earth to the sun — roughly 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers.) These orbits should also have an inclination, relative to the plane of the solar system, of almost 0 degrees, among other characteristics.

But the actual orbits of the 13 ETNOs are quite different, with semi-major axes ranging from 150 to 525 AU and average inclinations of about 20 degrees.Nightly News

“This excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters makes us believe that some invisible forces are altering the distribution of the orbital elements of the ETNOs, and we consider that the most probable explanation is that other unknown planets exist beyond Neptune and Pluto,” lead author Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, of the Complutense University of Madrid, said in a statement.

“The exact number is uncertain, given that the data that we have is limited, but our calculations suggest that there are at least two planets, and probably more, within the confines of our solar system,” he added.

The potential undiscovered worlds would be more massive than Earth, researchers said, and would lie about 200 AU or more from the sun — so far away that they’d be very difficult, if not impossible, to spot with current instruments.

The new results are detailed in two papers in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters.

— Mike Wall, Space.com

This is a condensed version of a report from Space.com. Read the full report. Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow Space.com @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+.

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