The Moon’s Bombardment and Volcanism Combo

The Earth’s surface is subject to great change over geological time periods, due to the movement of tectonic plates, and volcanic activity, as well as long-term weathering and erosion.  As a result, craters caused by meteorite, asteroid and comet bombardment long ago is gradually eradicated.  We therefore look to the Moon’s cratered surface to provide clearer evidence of the bombardment history of the Earth/Moon binary.  That cratering history is then compared to other planets and objects in the inner solar system, allowing astronomers to discern patterns in cratering over long time periods.  One of the most significant events is the late, heavy bombardment.  Following  a period of relative quiet after the formation of the planets, this mass bombardment was thought to have occurred about 3.9 billion years ago:

“Competing models of meteorite-impact rate for the first 2 billion years (Ga) of Earth and Moon history. Note that Earth is believed to have formed about 4.55 Ga before present. Two hypotheses are shown: exponential decay of impact rate (dashes); and cool early Earth–late heavy bombardment (solid curve).” [see right-hand graph] (1).

More recently however, there has been a gradual realisation that this was not a sudden, dramatic event, but rather a sustained period of impacts by what were some colossal bodies:

“Recent high-resolution orbital data and images, more refined techniques for studying small lunar, terrestrial, and other impact samples and a better understanding of their ages, and improved dynamical models based on orbital and sample data have caused a paradigm shift in how we think about the lunar impact rate … The long-held idea of a “lunar cataclysm” at ~3.9 Ga is being replaced by the idea of an extended lunar bombardment from ~4.2 Ga to 3.5 Ga.” (3)  Read More…

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Proximal Planet Formation

Somehow or other (and it’s by no means clear how), some exoplanet gas giants whizz around their stars at great proximity.  The hottest of these objects so far discovered is an exoplanet named Kelt-9b.  It is a sub-brown dwarf of ~3 Jupiter masses.  It’s so close to its parent star that its rotation is tidally locked, and orbits the star in just 36 hours.  The temperature of its ‘dayside’ is over 4000 degrees C.  This remarkably high temperature is likely due to the immense amount of stellar radiation Kelt-9b is subjected to.  This temperature and stellar irradiation is driving off huge amounts of hydrogen from Kelt-9b’s atmosphere, creating an extended envelope of atomic hydrogen gas (1).  Other similar tailed gas giants have been studied before (2,3).  One can only imagine how spectacular this must look – a gas giant ‘comet’ streaming out a tail from near to or even within its parent star’s extended corona.

New analysis of Kelt-9b’s atmosphere has confirmed the presence of iron and titanium atoms within the planet’s atomic chemical soup (4).  It’s known that brown dwarfs can have cloudy atmospheres containing liquid iron rain, as well as other atmospheric dusts (5).  These dusty, cloudy atmospheres tend to form below 2,500 degrees Celsius, and then clear when the brown dwarf drops its temperature below about 1,500 degrees C.  Read More…

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Space Grease and Interstellar Objects

My yelp of delight upon hearing about this on the radio this morning was joyous.  Mrs DarkStar commented that few homes in the land would have met such a story in this way.  True, but few householders have written 98% of a book about missing planets and novel forms of planetary formation, and just need one more jigsaw piece to finish it.  And here it is: Space grease!  Admittedly, this does not sound too exciting.  But I have faced a problem figuring out just what can stick interstellar protoplanets together, given a lack of gas pressure in interstellar space (this gas pressure, apparent in the early solar system’s pre-solar nebula and subsequent protoplanetary disk, likely plays a part in granular accretion).  What better way to accrete than space grease.  There’s masses of it out there (10 billion trillion trillion tonnes in the Milky Way), created in stars, and distributed across space:

“Prof Tim Schmidt, a chemist at the University of New South Wales, Sydney and co-author of the study, said that the windscreen of a future spaceship travelling through interstellar space might be expected to get a sticky coating. “Amongst other stuff it’ll run into is interstellar dust, which is partly grease, partly soot and partly silicates like sand,” he said, adding that the grease is swept away within our own solar system by the solar wind.” (1)

Material moving through interstellar space encounters this grease routinely, then.  It will stick to surfaces.  Over billions of years of such interactions, major accumulations of this type of gloop will build up on objects, like interstellar comets, and free-floating asteroids and planets.

The first interstellar object to be directly observed moving through our solar system was 1I/’Oumuamua, a tumbling, shard-shaped object which was detected last autumn (2,3).  Such objects were expected to behave like comets, and outgas as they approach the Sun.  However, this object did not spray the solar system with its internal gases, leading astronomers to conclude that this object had originally been an asteroid which had been ejected from another star system.  However, recent observations and work on 1I/’Oumuamua’s trajectory indicate that its motion is being affected by another factor beyond gravitational interactions – it is moving faster than it should (4).  This is thought to be due to outgassing after all, leading to the conclusion that this object is an interstellar comet after all (5).

“Such outgassing is a behaviour typical for comets and contradicts the previous classification of `Oumuamua as an interstellar asteroid. “We think this is a tiny, weird comet,” commented Marco Micheli. “We can see in the data that its boost is getting smaller the farther away it travels from the Sun, which is typical for comets.”

““We did not see any dust, coma, or tail, which is unusual,” explained co-author Karen Meech of the University of Hawaii, USA. Meech led the discovery team’s characterisation of `Oumuamua in 2017. “We think that ‘Oumuamua may vent unusually large, coarse dust grains.”” (5)

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Planet Nine and the Kuiper belt

In conjunction with a scientist from the University of Michigan, the Caltech team who originally coined the term Planet Nine in 2016 have written a new paper about its formation, and the subsequent layout of the outer solar system.  Having set out the evidence for this proposed object in the paper (1), they note three possible scenarios for its formation:

1)  The planet’s capture from the retinue of a passing star; or, alternatively, the capture of a free-floating interstellar planet

2)  The planet’s semi-ejection from the inner solar system and subsequent gradual drift outwards

3)  The planet’s formation in situ.

All three of these scenarios require certain conditions for them to work, which means that no single formation theory stands out as particularly probable.  The capture and scattering models depend upon the interjection of outside bodies (passing stars or brown dwarfs, or objects in the Sun’s birth cluster).  The in situ formation of a planet so far from the Sun implies that the Sun’s protoplanetary disk was significantly larger than generally accepted.  The formation of Planet Nine in its calculated position thus remains problematic, based upon standard models of planetary and solar system formation (e.g. the Nice model).  Further, whatever processes which placed it in its proposed current position would have significantly affected the layout of the Kuiper belt within its overarching orbit.  This factor is what the current investigation described by this paper aims to solve.

This paper then describes computer simulations of the early Kuiper belt, and how  the shape and extent of the fledgling belt may have affected the complex interplay between it, Planet Nine, and the objects in the extended scattered disk (1).  The research team modelled two distinct scenarios for the early Kuiper belt, each of which matches one or more formation scenarios for Planet Nine.  The first is a ‘narrow’ disk, similar to that observed:  The Kuiper disk appears to be truncated around 50AU, with objects found beyond this zone likely having been scattered outwards by processes which remain contentious.  The second scenario is a ‘broad’ disk, where objects in the Kuiper belt would have routinely populated the space between Neptune and the proposed orbit of Planet Nine, hundreds of astronomical units out.  This would match a formation scenario involving an extensive protoplanetary disk.  Read More…

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New Simulations Point to Oort Cloud Disturbance in Gemini

The shard-like asteroid from deep space which shot through the solar system last years, known as ‘Oumuamua, set many an astronomer’s heart racing.  The peculiar body was determined to be the first confirmed interstellar asteroid to have been observed (1).  It’s possible, though, that other comets which pursue so-called hyperbolic orbits (moving fast enough to escape the solar system) also have an interstellar origin, rather than having originated from the Oort Cloud.  A team of Spanish astrophysicists, who have more than a passing interest in the topic of Planet X, have performed powerful computer simulations to build up a picture of the trajectories and spatial origins of various hyperbolic comets (2).  The objects they chose to consider have inbound velocities greater than 1km/s

Following adjustment for the Sun’s own movement through space towards the Solar Apex, interstellar visitors would likely have a more or less random distribution to their radiants (the position in the sky from which they came, rather like meteor showers striking the Earth’s atmosphere).  The Spanish team carried out statistical analysis on the emerging sky maps of these radiants, and looked for patterns or clusters of these origin points.  Statistically significant patterns did indeed emerge from the data.  A particularly large source was located in the zodiacal constellation Gemini.  Such a clustering might indicate a number of possibilities, which the astrophysicists explore in their paper.

One possibility is a close flyby of a star in the past which could have disrupted the outer edges of the distant Oort Cloud, sending comets in-bound towards the Sun.  Looking at the tracking of candidate flybys in the (by Cosmic standards) relatively recent past, Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, Raul de la Fuente Marcos & S. J. Aarseth argue that there is a possible correlation between this cluster of hyperbolic orbit radiants in Gemini, and a close flyby of a neighbouring binary red dwarf system known as Scholz’s star some 70,000 years ago (2).  At a current distance of about 20 light years, Scholz’s star may be a close neighbour to the Sun relatively speaking, but even so it took a while for it to be discovered. This was probably because of a combination of factors:  Its proximity to the Galactic plane, its relative dimness, and its slow relative movement across the sky (3).  Its distance was less than a light year 70,000 years ago, and its rapid movement away from us in the intervening time helps to explain why it was difficult to detect as a neighbouring binary star:  Its retreating motion is mostly along our line of sight, making it difficult to differentiate from background stars.  Read More…

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‘Oumuamua’s Many Cousins

The interstellar asteroid 1I/2017 U1 (otherwise known as 1I/’Oumuamua) is fast receding into the distance, towards the constellation of Pegasus (1).  The existence of this rocky visitor from the stars was announced last October (1).  Its trajectory was too fast for it to be a solar system comet – even one from the furthest reaches of the Oort Cloud.  That was an exciting discovery, because that meant that 1I/2017 U1 was the first confirmed observation of an object arriving in the solar system  from deep space.

Although 1I/2017 U1 was initially considered to be an interstellar comet, that thinking changed when it failed to emit any gases as it performed its perihelion transit around the Sun (3).  This barren rock, confirmed as an interstellar asteroid (4), is now speeding away from the Sun.  It spent a relatively short time in the observation zone of professional telescopes, thanks to its great speed, but this was enough to reveal more weirdness (5).  It is an elongated object spinning head over tip, doing cartwheels through the solar system.  Some wondered whether it might be artificial, given the lack of coma as it traversed past the Sun.  But attempts to pick up signals from the object came up blank (6).  Still, its shape is nothing like any known body in our Solar System.  If solar system asteroids resemble rocky potatoes, then 1I/2017 U1 is more like an interstellar carrot, spinning haphazardly through our system.  To remain intact under these conditions, its internal structure must be robust (7).

The colour of our interstellar carrot is neutral with a reddish hue.  The colouration may be patchy across its surface. Solar system minor bodies (asteroids, Kuiper Belt Objects, Trojans) vary in colour, often dependent upon which population group any particular object belongs to.  Continuing my daft vegetable analogy, solar system potatoes come in different varieties.  Many are neutral in colour, some are reddish, others distinctly red.  Like comparing a Maris Piper to a King Edward.  If we compare 1I/’Oumuamua’s colouration to those of various classes of solar system objects, then it seems to most resemble those of the dynamically excited populations of Kuiper Belt Objects.  However, it is less red than the scattered Trans-Neptunian objects whose orbits extend beyond the heliopause (7).

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New Infra-red Search for sub-Brown Dwarfs Planned

Brown dwarfs are notoriously hard to find.  It’s not so bad when they are first born: They come into the Universe with a blast, shedding light and heat in an infantile display of vigour.  But within just a few million years, they have burned their available nuclear fuels, and settle down to consume their leaner elemental pickings.  Their visible light dims considerably with time to perhaps just a magenta shimmer.  But they still produce heat, and the older they get, the more likely that a direct detection of a brown dwarf will have to be in the infra-red spectrum.

This doesn’t make them much easier to detect, though, because to catch these faint heat signatures in the night sky, you first need to have a cold night sky.  A very cold night sky.  Worse, water vapour in the atmosphere absorbs infra-red light along multiple stretches of the spectrum.  The warmth and humidity of the Earth’s atmosphere heavily obscures infra-red searches, even in frigid climates, and so astronomers wishing to search in the infra-red either have to build IR telescopes atop desert mountains (like in Chile’s Atacama desert), or else resort to the use of space-based platforms.  The downside of the latter is that the telescopes tend to lose liquid helium supplies rather quickly, shortening their lifespan considerably compared to space-based optical telescopes.

The first major sky search using a space telescope was IRAS, back in the 1980s.  Then came Spitzer at the turn of the century, followed by Herschel, and then WISE about five years ago.  Some infra-red telescopes conduct broad searches across the sky for heat traces, others zoom in on candidate objects for closer inspection.  Each telescope exceeds the last in performance, sometimes by orders of magnitude, which means that faint objects that might have been missed by early searches stand more of a chance of being picked up in the newer searches.

The next big thing in infra-red astronomy is the James Webb Space Telescope (JSWT), due for launch in Spring 2019.  The JSWT should provide the kind of observational power provided by the Hubble Space telescope – but this time in infra-red.  The reason why astronomers want to view the universe in detail using infra-red wavelengths is that very distant objects are red-shifted to such a degree that their light tends to be found in the infra-red spectrum, generally outside Hubble’s operational parameters (1).  Essentially, the JWST will be able to see deeper into space (and, therefore, look for objects sending their light to us from further back in time when the first stars and galaxies emerged).  Read More…

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Return of the Pioneer Anomaly

One of the many pieces of evidence put forward for the existence of Planet X over the last few decades is the so-called ‘Pioneer anomaly’.  The two Pioneer spacecraft were sent on an incredible voyage across the solar system, visiting a number of planets as they went.  They not only imaged these planets, but used the gravity of the planets to accelerate onwards, deeper into the solar system.  This gravity assist is often used to allow spacecrafts to pick up speed.  As the Pioneer probes travelled across the outer planetary zone and on towards the Heliopause beyond in the 1990s, it became apparent that the craft were not moving away from the solar system quite as quickly as the theoretical trajectory projections demanded.  Something was essentially slowing them down.  Additionally, similar effects were noted for the Galileo and Ulysses probes.

Many ideas were put forward, including either gravitational or physical interaction with clouds of interplanetary dust in the Kuiper Belt, or even the added gravitational tug of an undiscovered Planet X body.  One of the lead researchers into the Pioneer anomaly at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory  was John Anderson (1), who, interestingly, also had a longstanding interest in the possible existence of a Planet X body (2).  At one point, puzzled physicists began to wonder whether this marginal but definitive anomaly might require new laws of physics (3).  In the end, it was agreed by technical experts that the anomalous deceleration was a result of radiation pressure caused by non-uniform heat loss from the probes (4,5). Flights of fancy about missing planets and new physics were promptly put to bed.

Despite this, the anomaly seems to persist in the increasingly accurate navigation and telemetry data returning from various spacecraft performing flybys past the Earth (6).  Similarly, the Juno spacecraft, now orbiting fairly closely around Jupiter, is reported to be slightly misplaced from its expected position (7).  This has been determined by looking at the Doppler shift of ranging data from the probe as it circumnavigated the poles of the great gas giant.  Quixotically, Juno did not exhibit the same anomalous behaviour during a previous flyby of Earth.  This suggests that this is not, then, the result of an internal machination of the probe itself, as described for the Pioneer probes.  Instead, there does appear to be an unexplained external effect worth exploring:

Another mystery is that while in some cases the anomaly was clear, in others it was on the threshold of detectability or simply absent – as was the case with Juno‘s flyby of Earth in October of 2013. The absence of any convincing explanation has led to a number of explanations, ranging from the influence or dark matter and tidal effects to extensions of General Relativity and the existence of new physics. However, none of these have produced a substantive explanation that could account for flyby anomalies.” (8)  Read More…

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Jupiter’s Internal Powerhouse and Ultracool Dwarfs

Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet, is turning out to be as majestic as its ancient name implies.  High definition images taken of its poles, transmitted back to Earth by the space probe Juno, show a vibrant, churning cloudscape which appear to have been artistically generated in oils (1).  The gnarly appearance of the storms and tempests which are woven into this mind-blowingly immense vista seem peaceful enough from space, but the ferocity of their winds can only be imagined.  Although the colours have been enhanced to a certain extent artificially (2), Juno’s imaging equipment has captured the incredibly beautiful blue colours of the polar zones and the immense set of storms swirling within.

(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran)

These dramatic regions contrast strongly with the generally dull series of beige bands wrapping around the more familiar equatorial region (although Juno has also allowed us to better appreciate the intricate patterns of these banded zones, too) .  These blues are more reminiscent of the ice giants Neptune and Uranus, and perhaps even of Earth – although the constituent gases of the atmospheres of these worlds can differ significantly from Jupiter’s.  which give the clouds.  The different colours and properties of Jupiter’s clouds can be attributed to their constituent gases – mostly hydrogen and helium, but also water, ammonia, methane and sulphur.

It seems to me that the solar system is starting to come to life – not in the way of biological life, although that may yet come to be, but instead in terms of our appreciation of its rich complexity and visuality.  The Pioneer and Voyager space probes provided what were incredible images of the outer solar system planets back in their day.  But limitations in the image-capturing technology also created a sense in those images of dull uniformity.

In the decades before the space-probe images had been sent back from the outer solar system, sci-fi writers, film-makers and scientists had created an amazing array of ideas about what these worlds might be like.  This potential had become ingrained within the public collective consciousness, and to some extent helped drive NASA’s ambitious space programme forward.  This was enhanced by a sense of mystery – and a hope of alien life.  However, the images returning to our television screens in the latter part of the 20th century clearly did not do these worlds justice.  So, although obtaining the planetary images were astonishing achievements in themselves, the disappointing lack of features within them dashed many hopes, and provided the public with a new view of the outer solar system.  Like lifeless Mars and overheated Venus, the outer solar system consisted of a rather mundane set of giant planets distinctly lacking in the vibrant complexity of our own Earth.  Read More…

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Planet Nine and the Nice Model

It looks like it’ll be another long, lonely autumn for Dr Mike Brown on the summit of the Hawaiian dormant volcano Mauna Kea, searching for Planet Nine.  He made use of the 8m Subaru telescope last year, and it looks like he’s back again this year for a second role of the dice (unless he does all this by remote control from Pasadena?).  I can only assume, given the time of the year, that the constellation of Orion remains high on their list of haystacks to search.

A recent article neatly sums up the current state of play with the hunt for Planet Nine (1), bringing together the various anomalies which, together, seem to indicate the presence of an undetected super-Earth some twenty times further away than Pluto (or thereabouts).  Given how much, I’ve written about this materials already, it seems unnecessary to go over the same ground.  I can only hope that this time, Dr Brown and his erstwhile colleague, Dr Batygin, strike lucky.  They have their sceptical detractors, but the case they make for Planet Nine still seems pretty solid, even if the gloss has come off it a bit recently with the additional OSSOS extended scattered disk object discoveries (2).  But there’s nothing on Dr Brown’s Twitterfeed to indicate what his plans are regarding a renewed search for Planet Nine.

Even if the Planet Nine article’s discussion about a new hunt for the celestial needle in the haystack is misplaced, it does make a valid point that super-Earths, if indeed that is what this version of Planet X turns out to be, are common enough as exo-planets, and weirdly absent in  our own planetary backyard.  So a discovery of such an object way beyond Neptune would satisfy the statisticians, as well as get the bubbly flowing at Caltech.  Dr Brown did seem to think that this ‘season’ would be the one.  We await with bated breath…

Meanwhile, the theoretical work around Planet Nine continues, with a new paper written by Konstantin Batygin and Alessandro Morbidelli (3) which sets out the underlying theory to support the result of the 2016 computer simulations which support the existence of Planet Nine (4).  Dr Morbidelli is an Italian astrophysicist, working in the south of France, who is a proponent of the Nice model for solar system evolution (named after the rather wonderful French city where he works).  This model arises from a comparison between our solar system’s dynamics, and those of the many other planetary systems now known to us, many of which seem bizarre and chaotic in comparison to our own.  Thus, the Nice model seeks to blend the kinds of dynamical fluctuations which might occur during the evolution of a star’s planetary system with both the outcomes witnessed in our own solar system, and the more extreme exoplanets observed elsewhere (5).  It invokes significant changes in the positions of the major planets during the history of the solar system, for instance.  These migrations have knock on effects which then drive other disturbances in the status quo of the early solar system, leading to the variations witnessed both here and elsewhere.  For instance, Dr Morbidelli lists one of the several factors which brought about the Nice model:
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