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…
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…
This article will explore the potential for life to develop in the outer planetary systems of red giant stars. It will then discuss the death-throes of red giant stars, and whether the subsequent outward thrust of stellar material might provide another mechanism for free-floating planets in interstellar space.
Exoplanets have already been found orbiting extremely old stars, one some 11 billion years old (1). This star, named Kepler-444, makes our own Sun, at a mere 4.6 billion years old, seem like an infant in comparison. The implication of this is that life could readily have got going early on in the history of the universe, long before the birth of our Sun. Furthermore, if these exoplanets were to benefit from a relatively stable stellar environment during that long timescale, then the chances of life evolving into higher forms are statistically more probable. Scale this up across trillions of stars, and the possibilities become clear.
Our own Sun has a shorter lifespan than this. Its main sequence life is expected to last another 5 billion years, by which point it will have burned up all of its hydrogen fuel. Then it will swell into a red giant star, before collapsing down into a white dwarf. For Earth, this post-main sequence (post-MS) phase of the Sun’s life will be pretty disastrous. The Sun’s expansion to a red giant will swallow the Earth up. However, a less catastrophic outcome might be expected for planets in the outer solar system, beyond, say, Jupiter. In fact, their climates might significantly improve – for a while, at least. The habitable zone of the solar system will expand outwards, along with the expanding star. Saturn’s largest moon Titan, for instance, might benefit greatly from a far milder climate – as long as it can hang onto its balmy atmosphere in the red heat of the dying Sun.
The expansion of habitable zones, as late main sequence stars become hydrogen-starved, offers the potential for life to make a new start in previously frigid environments. The burning question here is how long these outer planets have to get life going before the red giant then withdraws into its cold white shell. A study published last year by scientists at the Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute attempted to answer this question (2), choosing to examine yellow dwarf stars whose sizes range from half that of the Sun, to approximately twice its mass. They argue that the larger stars along this sequence could well have larger rocky terrestrial planets in their outer planetary systems than our Sun does (at least, insofar as we know it does!) This is because the density of materials in their initial proto-planetary disks should be that much greater for larger stars (3). Larger Earth-like planets in outer regions mean more potential for stable atmospheric conditions during the post-MS period under consideration. In other words, the growing red giant (which is shedding its mass pretty wildly at this point) would not necessarily blast away an outer planet’s atmosphere if that rocky planet had sufficient gravity to hold onto it.
For some time, astrophysicists have argued over how many Dark Stars there might be in the galaxy, with varying opinions. (Note that astronomers use several different names for these objects: sub-brown dwarfs, Y Dwarfs, ‘planemos’). In this short article, I argue that new evidence presented about the stellar populations of open star clusters point towards there being more Dark Stars than stars in our galaxy.
When I use the term ‘Dark Star’ in my book (1) and internet articles, I’m generally referring to gas giant planets/ultra-cool dwarf stars which are several times more massive than Jupiter, up to perhaps ~13 times as massive (at this point, the gas giant begins to burn deuterium and is reclassified as a brown dwarf). Most examples of these objects (perhaps more than a few million years old) are essentially dark. By contrast, very young examples light up more brightly, because they still retain some heat from their formation. It’s a curious quirk of nature that these sub-brown dwarfs are actually smaller in size than Jupiter, despite being heavier. Because these objects are so small, and so dim, they are extraordinarily difficult to observe. Some have been found, but they are usually either extremely young (and therefore still burning brightly), or are exoplanets discovered orbiting parent stars (and so detectable through gravitational ‘wobble’ effects, or other means of finding massive exoplanets).
It has been my contention for some time that the populations of these objects are significantly underestimated. It is recognised generally that these ultra-cool dwarf stars may be free-floating objects in inter-stellar space, often as a result of having been ejected from young star systems as the fledgling planets in those systems jostle for position. Opinions about their numbers vary greatly among astrophysicists. There may be twice as many of these objects as stars, according to studies involving gravitational microlensing surveys of the galactic bulge (2). Other studies conflict with this conclusion, arguing that there may be as few as 1 object of 5-15 MJup size per 20-50 stars in a cluster (3). This discrepancy is important because the difference is perhaps as high as two orders of magnitude, and this ultimately affects our understanding of how many free-floating Dark Stars we can expect to find out there.
Their mass, lying between that of Jupiter and the deuterium-burning limit at about 13 MJup (4) seems to single Dark Stars out as rather special objects:
“An abrupt change in the mass function at about a Jupiter mass favours the idea that their formation process is different from that of stars and brown dwarfs. They may have formed in proto-planetary disks and subsequently scattered into unbound or very distant orbits.” (2)
Therefore, if the number of free-floating sub-brown dwarfs (also sometimes known as “planemos”) is on the high end of expectation, then it means that there are also likely to be far more of these objects in wide, distant orbits around their parent stars. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of there being a similar Dark Star object (or more) in our own immediate solar neighbourhood. Read More…
Not so long ago, brown dwarfs (failed stars caught in an awkward in-betweener zone between stars and planets) were hypothetical bodies. Their low stellar masses allow for only a very short period of light-emission in their early years, after which they cool and darken considerably.
“[A] brown dwarf has too little mass to ignite the thermonuclear reactions by which ordinary stars shine. However, it emits heat released by its slow gravitational contraction and shines with a reddish colour, albeit much less brightly than a star.” (1)
It was recognised early on that if they existed at all, they would be very difficult to spot – and so it proved. In recent years, the ability to detect these objects has improved considerably, including more effective infra-red sky surveys. As they have become more common, the frontier of sub-stellar bodies has dropped in mass into the ultra-cool stellar bodies known as sub-brown dwarfs – many of which would equally properly be designated as rogue gas giant planets. These objects tend to have masses below 13 times that of Jupiter (13Mj) (2). These objects have always interested me greatly, and very early on in my own research efforts I was advocating the potential importance of sub-brown dwarfs in the hunt for additional planets orbiting our own Sun at great distances (3). I used the term ‘Dark Star’ to describe these ultra-cool objects; a term suggested by a friend of mine. Some can be found orbiting stars (usually beyond 50AU) while others are free-floating entities in their own right.