News from Space: “Life” Molecules Detected in Space!

SagitariusB2The secret to the creation to life in our universe appears to be seeding – the proper elements in the right mix in the right places to form the right kind of molecules. Only then can these molecules evolve chemically into more and more complex structures, thus following a general pathway toward biology. The pathway for life as we know it starts with carbon, but one which is specific organized and structured.

Recently, a team of astronomers  at the ALMA Observatory reported the discovery of this very element while probing distant galaxies. What they found was not just interstellar carbon, but a form of carbon with a branched structure. The discovery was made in the gaseous-star forming region known as Sagittarius B2 – a giant molecular cloud of gas and dust that is located about 390 light years from the center of the Milky Way.

radio-wave-dishesSimple carbon chains aren’t particularly unusual in the cosmos, but complex carbon is a different matter. It is what the researchers, based at Cornell University and the Max Planck Institute, describe as finding a molecular needle in a cosmic haystack. The actual molecule in question is isopropyl cyanide, and it was discerned thanks to the miracle known as radio astronomy.

Within clouds of interstellar dust and gas, elements find themselves shielded from the harsh radiation of open space and are, thus, free to form into more complex arrangements. These molecules don’t just sit there, but instead move around within their cloud-homes and bump into each other. The result of this activity are radio signals which can be detected light-years away – in this case, by radio telescopes here on Earth.

MaxPlanckIns_radiowavepulseEvery molecule has a different radio signal, so it’s possible to pick apart the contents of interstellar junk by examining a cloud’s frequency spectra. NASA, via the Ames Research Center, even maintains a radio-emission frequency database to aid in the tracking of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a form of molecule thought to contain much of the universe’s carbon stockpiles.

The branching carbon structure of isopropyle cyanide is of particular interest because it’s thought that this arrangement is a step on the way to the production of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and hence organic life. The discovery gives weight to the increasingly popular notion that life, or at least many of the key steps leading toward life, actually occurs off-planet.

alien-worldLife on Earth may have been well on its way while the planet was still just space dust waiting to come together into our rock-home. What’s more, the molecules discovered by the ALMA team probably aren’t alone.  As the authors, led by astronomer Arnaud Belloche, wrote:

[Isopropyle cyanide’s] detection therefore bodes well for the presence in the [interstellar medium] (ISM) of amino acids, for which such side-chain structure is a key characteristic… This detection suggests that branched carbon-chain molecules may be generally abundant in the [interstellar medium].

The discovery follows a general progression in recent years adding more and more life-ingredients to our picture of the ISM. A 2011 study revealed that complex organic matter should be created in large volumes from stars, while a 2012 report study found that conditions within the ISM are uniquely suited to the creation of increasingly complex molecules, “step[s] along the path toward amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively.”

sugar-in-space-molecules_58724_990x742Also in 2012, astronomers working for ALMA found basic sugar molecules hanging out in the gas cloud around IRAS 16293-2422 – a young star located some 400 light-years from Earth. The particular form, glycoaldehyde, is thought to be a key component of the reaction behind the creation of DNA. Indeed, more and more, the universe is looking less and less like a harsh environment in which life must struggle to emerge, to a life factory.


News from Space: Jupiter’s Eye Disappearing

jupiterJupiter’s Red Eye, that trademark spot on the gas giant’s surface that is its most recognizable feature, appears to be shrinking faster than ever. Earlier this year, amateur astronomers had observed and photographed the Eye and noted that it had grown smaller. Shorlty thereafter, astronomers observed it using the Hubble Space Telescope and came to the same conclusion. Based on their calculations, they estimate that Jupiter’s Eye, a giant long-lasting storm, is narrowing by more than 900 kilometres a year, much faster than before.

At this rate, they claim, it will be gone by 2031 – just 17 years from now. Using historic sketches and photos from the late 1800s, astronomers determined the spot’s diameter then at 41,000 km (25,475 miles) across. Now, it is turned from a giant ovoid into a discrete circle that is a mere 16,500 kilometres (10,252 miles) across. Many who’ve attempted to see Jupiter’s signature feature have been frustrated in recent years not only because the spot’s pale color makes it hard to see  against adjacent cloud features, but because it’s physically getting smaller.

Jupiter-GRS-Hubble-shrink-panel-580x399As to what causing the drastic downsizing, there are no firm answers yet. However, NASA has a theory, which was shared by Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA:

In our new observations it is apparent that very small eddies are feeding into the storm. We hypothesized that these may be responsible for the accelerated change by altering the internal dynamics of the Great Red Spot.

Michael Wong, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, seems to be in agreement. He stated that one theory is the spot eats smaller storms, and that it is consuming fewer of them. But for the time being, scientists can’t be sure why its getting smaller, why the eye is red in the first place, or what will happen once it is completely gone.

Jupiters_EyeThe Great Red Spot has been a trademark of the planet for at least 400 years – a giant hurricane-like storm whirling in the planet’s upper cloud tops with a period of 6 days. But as it’s shrunk, its period has likewise grown shorter and now clocks in at about 4 days. The storm appears to be conserving angular momentum by spinning faster and wind speeds are increasing as well, making one wonder whether they’ll ultimately shrink the spot further or bring about its rejuvenation.

In short, the eye could become a thing of the past, the sort of thing children many years from now will only read about or see in pictures to give them some idea of how the Solar System once looked. Or, its possible that it could blow up again and become as it once was, a massive red Eye observable from millions of kilometres away. Who knows? In the meantime, check out this video by NASAJuno, explaining what little we know about Jupiter’s most prominent feature (while it lasts):

News from Space: Planet Hunting Flower-Shaped Starshade

nasa-starshadeWith over 1800 extra-solar planets discovered in the past 30 years, the search for life beyond our Solar System has begun anew. Astronomers believe that every star in the galaxy has a planet, and that one fifth of these might harbor life. The greatest challenge, though, is in being able to spot these “Earth-like” exoplanets. Due to the fact that they emit very little light compared to their parent stars (usually less than one-millionth the level of radiance), direct imaging is extremely rare and difficult.

As such, astronomers rely predominantly on is what is known as Transit Detection – spotting the planet’s as they cross in front of the star’s disc. This too presents difficulties, because the transit method requires that part of the planet’s orbit intersect a line-of-sight between the host star and Earth. The probability that an exoplanet will be in a randomly oriented orbit that can allow for it be observed in front of its star is therefore somewhat small.

starshade-8Luckily, engineers and astronomers at NASA and other federal space agencies are considering the possibility of evening these odds with new technology and equipment. Once such effort comes from Princeton’s High Contrast Imaging Laboratory, where Jeremy Kasdin and his team are working on a revolutionary space-based observatory known as a “starshade” – a flower petal-shaped device that allows a telescope to photograph planets from 50,000 kilometers away.

Essentially, the starshade blocks light from distant stars that ordinarily outshine their dim planets, making a clear view impossible. When paired with a space telescope, the starshade adds a new and powerful instrument to NASA’s cosmic detection toolkit. The flower-shaped petals are part of what makes the starshade so effective. The starshade is also unique in that, unlike most space-based instruments, it’s one part of a two-spacecraft observation system.

starshade-foldedAs Dr. Stuasrt Shaklan, NASA Jet Propulsion Labratory’s lead engineer on the starshade project, explaned:

The shape of the petals, when seen from far away, creates a softer edge that causes less bending of light waves. Less light bending means that the starshade shadow is very dark, so the telescope can take images of the planets without being overwhelmed by starlight… We can use a pre-existing space telescope to take the pictures. The starshade has thrusters that will allow it to move around in order to block the light from different stars.

This process presents a number of engineering challenges that Shaklan and his team are working hard to unravel, from positioning the starshade precisely in space, to ensuring that it can be deployed accurately. To address these, his research group will create a smaller scale starshade at Princeton to verify that the design blocks the light as predicted by the computer simulations. Concurrently, the JPL team will test the deployment of a near-full scale starshade system in the lab to measure its accuracy.

starshade_petalsDespite these challenges, the starshade approach could offer planet-hunters many advantages, thanks in no small part to its simplicity. Light from the star never reaches the telescope because it’s blocked by the starshade, which allows the telescope system to be simpler. Another advantage of the starshade approach is that it can be used with a multi-purpose space telescope designed to make observations that could be useful to astronomers working in fields other than exoplanets.

As part of NASA’s New World’s Mission, the starshade engineers are optimistic that refining their technology could be the key to major exoplanet discoveries in the near future. And given that over 800 planets have been detected so far in 2014 – that’s almost half of the 1800 that have been detected in total – anything that can assist in their detection process at this point is likely to lead to an explosion in planetary discoveries.

And with one-fifth of these planets being a possible candidate for life… well, you don’t have to do the math to know that the outcome will be might exciting! In the meantime, enjoy this video from TED Talks, where Professor Jeremy Kasdin speaks about the starshade project:


News from Space: New Map of the Universe Confirms The Big Bang!

planckAfter 15 months of observing deep space, scientists with the European Space Agency Planck mission have generated a massive heat map of the entire universe.The “heat map”, as its called, looks at the oldest light in the universe and then uses the data to extrapolate the universe’s age, the amount of matter held within, and the rate of its expansion. And as usual, what they’ve found was simultaneously reassuring and startling.

When we look at the universe through a thermal imaging system, what we see is a mottled light show caused by cosmic background radiation. This radiation is essentially the afterglow of the Universe’s birth, and is generally seen to be smooth and uniform. This new map, however, provides a glimpse of the tiny temperature fluctuations that were imprinted on the sky when the Universe was just 370,000 years old.

big_bangSince it takes light so long to travel from one end of the universe to the other, scientists can tell – using red shift and other methods – how old the light is, and hence get a glimpse at what the universe looked like when the light was first emitted. For example, if a galaxy several billion light years away appears to be dwarfish and misshapen by our standards, it’s an indication that this is what galaxies looked like several billion years ago, when they were in the process of formation.

Hence, like archaeologists sifting through sand to find fossil records of what happened in the past, scientists believe this map reveals a sort of fossil imprint left by the state of the universe just 10 nano-nano-nano-nano seconds after the Big Bang. The splotches in the Planck map represent the seeds from which the stars and galaxies formed. As is heat-map tradition, the reds and oranges signify warmer temperatures of the universe, while light and dark blues signify cooler temperatures.universe

The cooler temperatures came about because those were spots where matter was once concentrated, but with the help of gravity, collapsed to form galaxies and stars. Using the map, astronomers discovered that there is more matter clogging up the universe than we previously thought, at around 31.7%, while there’s less dark energy floating around, at around 68.3%. This shift in matter to energy ratio also indicates that the universe is expanding slower than previously though, which requires an update on its estimated age.

All told, the universe is now believed to be a healthy 13.82 billion years old. That wrinkles my brain! And also of interest is the fact that this would appear to confirm the Big Bang Theory. Though widely considered to be scientific canon, there are those who dispute this creation model of the universe and argue more complex ideas, such as the “Steady State Theory” (otherwise known as the “Theory of Continuous Creation”).

24499main_MM_Image_Feature_49_rs4In this scenario, the majority of matter in the universe was not created in a single event, but gradually by several smaller ones. What’s more, the universe will not inevitable contract back in on itself, leading to a “Big Crunch”, but will instead continue to expand until all the stars have either died out or become black holes. As Krzysztof Gorski, a member of the Planck team with JPL, put it:

This is a treasury of scientific data. We are very excited with the results. We find an early universe that is considerably less rigged and more random than other, more complex models. We think they’ll be facing a dead-end.

Martin White, a Planck project scientist with the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, explained further. According to White, the map shows how matter scattered throughout the universe with its associated gravity subtly bends and absorbs light, “making it wiggle to and fro.” As he went on to say:

The Planck map shows the impact of all matter back to the edge of the Universe. It’s not just a pretty picture. Our theories on how matter forms and how the Universe formed match spectacularly to this new data.

planck_satThe Planck space probe, which launched in 2009 from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, is a European Space Agency mission with significant contribution from NASA. The two-ton spacecraft gathers the ancient glow of the Universe’s beginning from a vantage more than a million and a half kilometers from Earth. This is not the first map produced by Planck; in 2010, it created an all-sky radiation map which scientists, using supercomputers, removed all interfering background light from to get a clear view at the deep background of the stars.

However, this is the first time any satellite has been able to picture the background radiation of the universe with such high resolution. The variation in light captured by Planck’s instruments was less than 1/100 millionth of a degree, requiring the most sensitive equipment and the contrast. So whereas cosmic radiation has appeared uniform or with only slight variations in the past, scientists are now able to see even the slightest changes, which is intrinsic to their work.planck-attnotated-580x372

So in summary, we have learned that the universe is a little older than previously expected, and that it most certainly was created in a single, chaotic event known as the Big Bang. Far from dispelling the greater mysteries, confirming these theories is really just the tip of the iceberg. There’s still the grandiose mystery of how all the fundamental laws such as gravity, nuclear forces and electromagnetism work together.

Ah, and let’s not forget the question of what transpires beneath the veil of an even horizon (aka. a Black Hole), and whether or not there is such a thing as a gateway in space and time. Finally, there’s the age old question of whether or not intelligent life exists somewhere out there, or life of any kind. But given the infinite number of stars, planets and possibilities that the universe provides, it almost surely does!

And I suppose there’s also that persistent nagging question we all wonder when we look up at the stars. Will we ever be able to get out there and take a closer look? I for one like to think so, and that it’s just a matter of time!

To boldly go!
To boldly go!

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