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.


New from Space: Simulations and X-Rays Point to Dark Matter

center_universe2The cosmic hunt for dark matter has been turning up some interesting clues of late. And during the month of June, two key hints came along that might provide answers; specifically simulations that look at the “local Universe” from the Big Bang to the present day and recent studies involving galaxy clusters. In both cases, the observations made point towards the existence of Dark Matter – the mysterious substance believed to make up 85 per cent of the mass of the Universe.

In the former case, the clues are the result of new supercomputer simulations that show the evolution of our “local Universe” from the Big Bang to the present day. Physicists at Durham University, who are leading the research, say their simulations could improve understanding of dark matter due to the fact that they believe that clumps of the mysterious substance – or halos – emerged from the early Universe, trapping intergalactic gas and thereby becoming the birthplaces of galaxies.

universe_expansionCosmological theory predicts that our own cosmic neighborhood should be teeming with millions of small halos, but only a few dozen small galaxies have been observed around the Milky Way. Professor Carlos Frenk, Director of Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, said:

I’ve been losing sleep over this for the last 30 years… Dark matter is the key to everything we know about galaxies, but we still don’t know its exact nature. Understanding how galaxies formed holds the key to the dark matter mystery… We know there can’t be a galaxy in every halo. The question is: ‘Why not?’.

The Durham researchers believe their simulations answer this question, showing how and why millions of halos around our galaxy and neighboring Andromeda failed to produce galaxies. They say the gas that would have made the galaxy was sterilized by the heat from the first stars that formed in the Universe and was prevented from cooling and turning into stars. However, a few halos managed to bypass this cosmic furnace by growing early and fast enough to hold on to their gas and eventually form galaxies.

dark_matterThe findings were presented at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth on Thursday, June 26. The work was funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the European Research Council. Professor Frenk, who received the Royal Astronomical Society’s top award, the Gold Medal for Astronomy, added:

We have learned that most dark matter halos are quite different from the ‘chosen few’ that are lit up by starlight. Thanks to our simulations we know that if our theories of dark matter are correct then the Universe around us should be full of halos that failed to make a galaxy. Perhaps astronomers will one day figure out a way to find them.

Lead researcher Dr Till Sawala, in the Institute for Computational Cosmology, at Durham University, said the research was the first to simulate the evolution of our “Local Group” of galaxies, including the Milky Way, Andromeda, their satellites and several isolated small galaxies, in its entirety. Dr Sawala said:

What we’ve seen in our simulations is a cosmic own goal. We already knew that the first generation of stars emitted intense radiation, heating intergalactic gas to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. After that, the gas is so hot that further star formation gets a lot more difficult, leaving halos with little chance to form galaxies. We were able to show that the cosmic heating was not simply a lottery with a few lucky winners. Instead, it was a rigorous selection process and only halos that grew fast enough were fit for galaxy formation.

darkmatter1The close-up look at the Local Group is part of the larger EAGLE project currently being undertaken by cosmologists at Durham University and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. EAGLE is one of the first attempts to simulate from the beginning the formation of galaxies in a representative volume of the Universe. By peering into the virtual Universe, the researchers find galaxies that look remarkably like our own, surrounded by countless dark matter halos, only a small fraction of which contain galaxies.

The research is part of a program being conducted by the Virgo Consortium for supercomputer simulations, an international collaboration led by Durham University with partners in the UK, Germany, Holland, China and Canada. The new results on the Local Group involve, in addition to Durham University researchers, collaborators in the Universities of Victoria (Canada), Leiden (Holland), Antwerp (Belgium) and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (Germany).

ESO2In the latter case, astronomers using ESA and NASA high-energy observatories have discovered another possible hint by studying galaxy clusters, the largest cosmic assemblies of matter bound together by gravity. Galaxy clusters not only contain hundreds of galaxies, but also a huge amount of hot gas filling the space between them. The gas is mainly hydrogen and, at over 10 million degrees celsius, is hot enough to emit X-rays. Traces of other elements contribute additional X-ray ‘lines’ at specific wavelengths.

Examining observations by ESA’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Chandra spaceborne telescopes of these characteristic lines in 73 galaxy clusters, astronomers stumbled on an intriguing faint line at a wavelength where none had been seen before. The astronomers suggest that the emission may be created by the decay of an exotic type of subatomic particle known as a ‘sterile neutrino’, which is predicted but not yet detected.

dark_matter_blackholeOrdinary neutrinos are very low-mass particles that interact only rarely with matter via the so-called weak nuclear force as well as via gravity. Sterile neutrinos are thought to interact with ordinary matter through gravity alone, making them a possible candidate as dark matter. As Dr Esra Bulbul – from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, and lead author of the paper discussing the results – put it:

If this strange signal had been caused by a known element present in the gas, it should have left other signals in the X-ray light at other well-known wavelengths, but none of these were recorded. So we had to look for an explanation beyond the realm of known, ordinary matter… If the interpretation of our new observations is correct, at least part of the dark matter in galaxy clusters could consist of sterile neutrinos.

The surveyed galaxy clusters lie at a wide range of distances, from more than a hundred million light-years to a few billion light-years away. The mysterious, faint signal was found by combining multiple observations of the clusters, as well as in an individual image of the Perseus cluster, a massive structure in our cosmic neighborhood.

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.The implications of this discovery may be far-reaching, but the researchers are being cautious. Further observations with XMM-Newton, Chandra and other high-energy telescopes of more clusters are needed before the connection to dark matter can be confirmed. Norbert Schartel, ESA’s XMM-Newton Project Scientist, commented:

The discovery of these curious X-rays was possible thanks to the large XMM-Newton archive, and to the observatory’s ability to collect lots of X-rays at different wavelengths, leading to this previously undiscovered line. It would be extremely exciting to confirm that XMM-Newton helped us find the first direct sign of dark matter. We aren’t quite there yet, but we’re certainly going to learn a lot about the content of our bizarre Universe while getting there.

Much like the Higgs Boson, the existence of Dark Matter was first theorized as a way of explaining how the universe appears to have mass that we cannot see. But by looking at indirect evidence, such as the gravitational influence it has on the movements and appearance of other objects in the Universe, scientists hope to one day confirm its existence. Beyond that, there is the mystery of “Dark Energy”, the hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and is believed to be behind accelerations in the expansion of the universe.

As with the discovery of the Higgs Boson and the Standard Model of particle physics, detecting these two invisible forces will at last confirm that the Big Bang and Cosmological theory are scientific fact – and not just working theories. When that happens, the dream of humanity finally being able to understand the universe (at both the atomic and macro level) may finally become a reality!

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News From Space: First Blue Exoplanet Discovered!

HD_189733_b_deep_blue_dotEver since our astronomers have gained the ability to see into deep space and discern what lies in distant solar systems, a total of 910 extra-solar planets have been discovered. Of those, only a handful have been confirmed as potentially habitable by Earth scientists. Despite these discovered, it was not until recently that a “blue planet” outside of the Solar System, thanks to NASAs Hubble telescope.

But here’s the kicker: as it turns out, the planet is not blue due to the presence of liquid water. The blue color likely comes from clouds in the atmosphere made of molten glass. The planet is known as HD 189733 b, located roughly 63 light years away from Earth in the constellation of Vulpecula (aka. the Fox). Initially discovered in 2005 by French astronomers who observed it passing in front of its star, HD 189733 b is one of the best-studied exoplanets.

Hd189733b_blue_planet_artPrior to this new finding, it was already known that the planet was a hot Jupiter — a massive gas giant that orbits very close to its parent star — and that, using polarimetry, it was most likely blue. Since that time, the blue color has been confirmed by a spectrograph aboard Hubble which scanned the planet during an eclipse. As it passed behind its parent star and out of our vision, Hubble recorded less blue light coming from the star, while the other colors remained the same.

This strongly indicates that the light reflected by HD 189733 b’s atmosphere is blue and thus, if we were close enough to directly observe the planet, it would appear blue. This is an apparent first for astrophysicists and astronomers, who wouldn’t normally be able to observe such a fluctuation from 63 light years away. But the size of the planet, plus the amount of light reflecting off it from its very-close-by star, mean that Hubble can do its thing.

blue_planet_image2-640x660As for the cause of the color itself, the current theory is that the planets atmosphere is full of clouds that contain tiny silicate particles, which absorb some light frequencies but reflect and scatter blue light. In the words of NASA, because the surface of the planet is around  815 Celsius (1,500 Fahrenheit), these particles are likely in a molten, liquid state that periodically turn into rain. Yes, you read that right, the planet experiences periods of molten glass rain!

In addition to that, it is also known that its orbital period (length of a year) is only 2.2 days. The planet is also tidally locked, meaning that one side is always facing towards the sun while the other experiences perpetual night. So basically, outside of its blue color, HD 189733 b is about as uninhabitable as it gets.

Ah well, the search for a truly Earth-like exoplanet continues I guess! And in the meantime, enjoy this short video from Hubble ESA – a computer graphic representation of the universe’s other “blue planet”:


The Kessel Run: The Fandom Obsession

hyperspaceIf you were to get into a discussion with a true Star Wars fan, it would only be a matter of time before the subject of the Kessel run came up. Long considered one of the biggest enigmas to come out of the franchise, Han’s boast in A New Hope about his ship’s capabilities – with the Kessel Run as a reference – still has some people scratching their noggins and scrambling for explanations today.

To refresh people’s memory, this is how the boast went down in the course of Han’s introduction to Luke and Obi-Wan at the Mos Eisley Cantina:

Han: “Fast ship? You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?”
Obi-Wan: “Should I have?”
Han: “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs!”

See what I mean? A parsec is a unit of distance, not time, so from an astronomical perspective, it made no sense. How could Han have used it to explain how quickly his ship could travel? Well, as it happens, there are some possible and even oddball explanations that have been drafted as the franchise has expanded over the years.

kessle_mapAnother important point to make here is about the Kessel Run itself. As a smuggler, Han was deeply involved in running “glimmerstim spice” during his pre-Rebel days (a clear rip off from Dune, but whatever). This took him to and from Kessel, a remote planet located in the Outer Rim that is surrounded by a black hole cluster known as the Maw. As an unnavigable mess, it provided a measure of protection for smugglers running the Imperial blockade that guarded the space lanes near the planet.

All of this comes up in the Jedi Academy Trilogy, a series of novels written by Kevin J. Anderson that are part of the expanded Star Wars universe, and is the first case of the Run being detailed. From these an other sources, we are told that the Run is an 18-parsec route that led away from Kessel, around the Maw, and into the far more navigable area of space known as The Pit. Here, smugglers had to contend with asteroids, but any smuggler worth his salt could find their way through without too much difficulty, and didn’t have to worry about Imperial patrols from this point onward.

MFalconTo cut down on the distance traveled, pilots could dangerously skirt the edges of the black holes, a maneuver dangerous because it involves getting pulled in by their gravitational forces. If a ship were fast enough, it could risk cutting it closer than most, thus shaving more distance of the route while still being able to break free after it all to complete the run.

Hence we have the first possible explanation to Han’s ambiguous statement. Han’s boast was not about the time taken for him to complete the Run, but the fact that Millennium Falcon was so fast that he was able to cut a full third of the Run off and still make it out. The Falcon would have to be a pretty sweet ship to do that! And it would also fit in with all his other boasts, about how the ship could  “make 0.5 past light speed”, and was the “fastest ship in the fleet”.

However, there are other explanations as well. For starters, this expanded universe explanation does not jive with what Lucas himself said, what was presented in the novelization of the original movie, and of course what astronomers and megafans have to say. In the first instance, Lucas claimed in the commentary of the Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope DVD that the “parsecs” are due to the Millennium Falcon’s advanced navigational computer rather than its engines, so the navicomputer would calculate much faster routes than other ships could.

HanIn the A New Hope novelization, Han says “standard time units” in the course of his conversation with Luke and Ben, rather than “parsecs.” And in the revised fourth draft of A New Hope that was released in 1976, the description for “Kessel Run” is described as a bit of hapless misinformation that Obi-Wan doesn’t believe for a second. In short, Han erred when he said it and didn’t realize it.

And then there is the far more farfetched and mind-bending explanation as made by Kyle Hill in a recent article by Wired magazine. Here, he argues that the true intent of Han’s statement was that he was, in fact, a time traveler. By combining some basic laws of physics – namely that the speed of light (c) is unbreakable and 0.99 ad infinitum is as fast as anything can go – and the details of Han’s boast, a more clear picture of how this works emerges.

First, because the shortened Kessel Run spans 12 parsecs (39.6 light-years), a ship traveling nearly light-speed would take a little more than 39.6 years to get there. Factoring in time dilation, anyone watching the Kessel Run would see Solo speeding along for almost 40 years, but Solo himself would experience only a little more than half a day. So basically, in the time it takes Han to complete just one Kessel Run, the rest of the galaxy continues on its usual path for 40 years, which pushed the date of Han’s birth 40 years into the past.

time-slipConfused yet? Well, the idea is that Han would have been born long before events in A New Hope, and even The Phantom Menace took place. After completing his run, no doubt trying to avoid Republic authorities or some such equivalent, he came upon a universe that had gone through the ringer with a Sith coup d’etat, Imperial oppression, and a looming Civil War. What could he do but stick to smuggling and hope to make a living?

REALLY doesn’t make sense in terms of the storyline, does it? Ah, but what can you do? People like to find quirky explanations for things that don’t make sense. It can be fun! But of course, there’s a final and much, much simpler explanation that I haven’t even mentioned yet, and it’s one that’s far more believable given the so-called evidence.

george_lucas02Put simply, Lucas made a mistake. The parsecs line was a misfire, an oversight, and/or brain fart on his part. Nothing more, and all these attempts at explanation are just an obvious attempt to make something that doesn’t fit fit. It makes perfect sense when you think about it: since A New Hope was the first Star Wars movie, that meant Lucas was directing it all by himself. The assistance he sorely needed in terms of directing, writing, editing, etc. didn’t come until the movie was almost complete and he was looking bankruptcy and a nervous breakdown in the eye.

And remember, this is the same movie where a Storm Trooper walked head first into a door aboard the Death Star, Luke yells “Carrie” to Carrie Fisher while they are shooting, the cast and camera can be seen in numerous widescreen shots, and just about every technical problem that could go wrong did go wrong, some of which even made it into the final cut. As far as bloopers, outtakes and errors are concerned, the first Star Wars movie was a mess!

See? So really, is it hard to imagine a simple oversight like a typo could have made it on screen and no one caught it? Hell no! And frankly, I think fandom would be a lot happier if Lucas had remembered these early days of his career and not decided to make the prequels all by himself. Sure, there were plenty of people to catch these kinds of simple errors the second time around, but his many flaws as a movie maker found other ways to shine through – i.e. Jar Jar, lazy directing, too much special effects, wooden dialogue, confused storyline, continuity errors and plot holes galore!

star-wars-complete-cast-20042Ah, but that’s another topic entirely. Point is, Star Wars had simple beginnings and plenty of mistakes were made along the way. One can’t expect something so grand and significant in terms of popular culture to be consistent or error free. And Lucas was never really good at producing a seamless product. In the end, it was a fun ride until the new ones came out, and even then he was still making money hand over fist.

And with Disney at the helm now, chances are we’re in for a real treat with some high-budgets and high-production values. And I’m sure there will be plenty of things for the meganerds and uberfans to poke fun at and make compilation videos of. And I of course will be writing about all of it 😉