News from Space: “Earth-Sized Diamond” In Space

White-Dwarf-640x353As our knowledge of the universe beyond our Solar System expands, the true wonder and complexity of it is slowly revealed. At one time, scientists believed that other systems would be very much like our own, with planets taking on either a rocky or gaseous form, and stars conforming to basic classifications that determined their size, mass, and radiation output. However, several discoveries of late have confounded these assumptions, and led us to believe that just about anything could exist out there.

For example, a team of astronomers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee recently identified the coldest, faintest white dwarf star ever detected, some 900 light years from Earth. Hovering near a much larger pulsar, this ancient stellar remnant has a temperature of less than 3,000 K, or about 2,700 degrees Celsius, which made it extremely difficult to detect. But what is especially impressive about this ancient stellar remnant is the fact that it is so cool that its carbon has crystallized.

radio-wave-dishesThis means, in effect, that this star has formed itself into an Earth-size diamond in space. The discovery was made by Prof. David Kaplan and his team from the UofW-M using the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO) Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), as well as other observatories. All of these instruments were needed to spot this star because its low energy output means that it is essentially “a diamond in the rough”, the rough being the endless vacuum of space, that is.

White dwarves like this one are what happens after a star about the size of our Sun spends all of its nuclear fuel and throws its outer layers off, leaving behind a tiny, super-dense core of elements (like carbon and oxygen). They burn at an excruciatingly slow pace, taking billions and billions of years to finally go out. Even newly transformed white dwarfs are incredibly hard to spot compared to active stars, and this one was only discovered because it happens to be nestled right up next to a pulsar.

White-Dwarf-diamondBy definition, a pulsar is what is left over when a neutron star when a slightly larger sun also runs its course. Those that spin are given the name of “pulsar” because their magnetic fields force radio waves out in tight beams that give the illusion of pulsations as they whir around, effectively strobing the universe like lighthouse. The pulsar that sits next to the diamond-encrusted white dwarf is known as PSR J2222-0137, and is 1.2 times the mass of our sun, but even smaller than the white dwarf.

Astronomers were tipped off to the presence of something near the pulsar by distortions in its radio waves, and an old-fashioned space hunt was then mounted for the culprit. The low mass made a white dwarf the most likely cause, but astronomers couldn’t see it because of its incredibly low luminosity. Because of this, the UofW-M team estimated the age of this object had to be upward of 11 billion years, the same age as the Milky Way Galaxy.

earth-size-diamond-in-space-detected-byastronomersThis meant that the object was already old when our galaxy was just beginning to coalesce. After all those eons to cool off, the star has likely collapsed into a crystallized chunk of carbon mixed with oxygen and some other elements. It could actually be possible, though extremely difficult, to land a spacecraft on an object like this. There may be many more stars in the sky with diamonds, perhaps some even older than this one.

Spotting this white dwarf was a bit of a fluke, though. Until more powerful instruments are devised that can see an incredibly dim, burnt out star, they’ll remain shrouded in the vast darkness of space. However, this is not the first time that an object composed of diamond was found in space by sheer stroke of luck. Remember the diamond planet, a body located some 40 light years from Earth that orbits the binary star 55 Cancri?

diamond_planetYep that one! Like I said, such discoveries are demonstrating that the universe is a much more interesting, awesome, and complex place than previously thought. Between diamond worlds, diamond planets, lakes of methane and atmospheres of plastic, it seems that just about anything is possible. Good to know, seeing as how so much of our plans for the future depend upon on getting out there!


The Case for Terraforming Venus

This weekend appears to be shaping up with a theme: news from space that isn’t about Mars. I swear that it’s entirely accidental. First there was the discovery of the diamond planet, 55 Cancri e, and now a story about the merits of terraforming another planetary neighbor. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s not Mars for a change.

Yes, it seems that there is a strong case for terraforming Venus instead of the Red Planet, and it comes from numerous scientists who claim that altering the climate on that planet could help us save our own. The reason being – and stop me if this sounds frightening – is because our planet could one day look just like our lifeless, acid ridden, cloud covered neighbor.

In short, Venus underwent a carbon-dioxide fueled cataclysm a long time ago, when it was still young and was believed to have oceans. In those early days, and as the sun got brighter, Venus’s oceans began to boil and evaporate into the atmosphere. As a result, carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere, due in part to the lack of carbon recycling which depends on the presence of oceans and seaborne algae. This is essentially a magnified version of the Greenhouse Effect, which scientists identify as the reason for rising temperatures and melting polar ice caps here at home.

Because of this, Venus became the hot, deadly planet that we are familiar with today, with surface temperatures that average 467°C (872°F), hot enough to melt lead. What’s more, its atmosphere consists of 96% carbon dioxide, which appear as thick layers of clouds that float 50-70 km above the surface. Above that, clouds and mist of concentrated sulfuric acid and gaseous sulfur dioxide lead to acid rains that could literally melt the flesh off your bones and the metal off a landing craft. Combined with the amount of sunlight it gets (twice that of Earth) and the lack of a magnetosphere, Venus is a pretty damn awful place to visit!

Of course, some would say that this makes terraforming the planet a pretty dangerous and poor prospect, at least compared to Mars. However, the benefits of terraforming Venus are far greater, certainly when we consider that the lessons gleamed from it could help us reverse the Greenhouse Effect here on Earth. In addition, it’s closer than Mars, making it easier and quicker to travel back and forth. And like the Earth, it resides within the solar system’s habitable zone and has its own atmosphere, not to mention it is nearly the same mass and size as Earth.

All of this, when taken together, would make Venus a far more suitable place to live once the terraforming process was complete. In short, its easier to convert an existing atmosphere than to create one from scratch. And, as noted, the process of converting the CO2 and sulfur-rich atmosphere into one that a breathable one that is rich with water and precipitation would go a long way to helping us device solutions to cleaning up our own atmosphere here at home.

This may sound like pure speculation, but in truth, many solutions have already been proposed. In fact, Carl Sagan began proposing that we introduce genetically-modified airborne algae into Venus atmosphere 50 years ago. Thought not 100 percent practical, it was a stepping stone to some more recent ideas which may prove doable. In 1981, NASA engineer James Oberg proposed that all the CO2 could be blown out into space. Again, not the most practical idea, but they were thinking and that’s what matters!

More recently, Paul Birch, a writer for the British Interplanetary Society, proposed flooding Venus with hydrogen. Once it interacting with the high concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, the end products would be graphite and plenty of water. Other plans involve carbon capture, nanotechnology, and other advanced forms of ecological engineering. These, alone or in combination, could prove to be the difference between thick glass clouds and sulfuric oceans and a lush green planet covered with water and vegetation.

A pretty interesting prospect; and if it all works out, humanity could end up with three habitable planets within the Solar System alone. Combined with pressure domes and sealed arcologies on the system’s various moons and larger asteroids, planet Earth could one day retire as the sole host of humanity and this thing we call “civilization”. In fact, I could foresee a time when our world goes on to become hallowed ground, hosting only a few hundred million people and free of heavy industry or urban sprawl. Hello idea for a story!

And, to mix up what I usually say at the end of every one of these posts, stay tuned for more news from Mars and other planets within our Solar System. There’s a lot of them out there, and someday, they might all places that our species calls “home”.

Source: IO9

A Diamond Bigger Than Earth

Some interesting news from space these days, and for once didn’t have to do with Mars. For many years, scientists at NASA and other space agencies have known about 55 Cancri e, an extrasolar planet that orbits the Sun-like star 55 Cancri A that is approximately 41 years from our system. Up until recently, it was believed that this planet was a “Super-Earth”, a planet many times the mass of Earth composed of granite.

Recently, however, scientists have announced that the planet may in fact be composed of carbon. That means, in essence, that the surface is composed of graphite and diamond. These findings come as part of a study that was released by the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie in Toulouse, France. Nikku Madhusudhan, a Yale researcher who was part of the project, estimates that at least a third of the planet’s mass, the equivalent of about three Earth masses, could be diamond.

Imagine that, three entire Earth’s worth of diamonds! The mind reels at the staggering amount of wealth and opulence that this planet could produce, if only human mining teams were able to access it. However, surface conditions might complicate that a little. According to that same report, the planet is incredibly hot, with temperatures on its surface reaching 1,648 Celsius (3,900 degrees Fahrenheit). Not exactly cozy, by Earth standards.

Speaking of which, this is another aspect of the discovery which is proving exciting. According to Madhusudhan, “This is our first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth,” adding that the discovery of the carbon-rich planet meant distant rocky planets could no longer be assumed to have chemical constituents, interiors, atmospheres, or biologies similar to Earth. And he’s not alone is suspecting that discoveries like this are just the tip of the iceberg, as we work our way further out into the universe and discover more examples of strange and exotic exoplanets.

Source: Yahoo