NASA Space Place – Is There A Super-Earth In The Solar System Out Beyond Neptune?

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in August, 2016.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceWhen the advent of large telescopes brought us the discoveries of Uranus and then Neptune, they also brought the great hope of a Solar System even richer in terms of large, massive worlds. While the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt were each found to possess a large number of substantial icy-and-rocky worlds, none of them approached even Earth in size or mass, much less the true giant worlds. Meanwhile, all-sky infrared surveys, sensitive to red dwarfs, brown dwarfs and Jupiter-mass gas giants, were unable to detect anything new that was closer than Proxima Centauri. At the same time, Kepler taught us that super-Earths, planets between Earth and Neptune in size, were the galaxy’s most common, despite our Solar System having none.

The discovery of Sedna in 2003 turned out to be even more groundbreaking than astronomers realized. Although many Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) were discovered beginning in the 1990s, Sedna had properties all the others didn’t. With an extremely eccentric orbit and an aphelion taking it farther from the Sun than any other world known at the time, it represented our first glimpse of the hypothetical Oort cloud: a spherical distribution of bodies ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of A.U. from the Sun. Since the discovery of Sedna, five other long-period, very eccentric TNOs were found prior to 2016 as well. While you’d expect their orbital parameters to be randomly distributed if they occurred by chance, their orbital orientations with respect to the Sun are clustered extremely narrowly: with less than a 1-in-10,000 chance of such an effect appearing randomly.

Whenever we see a new phenomenon with a surprisingly non-random appearance, our scientific intuition calls out for a physical explanation. Astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown provided a compelling possibility earlier this year: perhaps a massive perturbing body very distant from the Sun provided the gravitational “kick” to hurl these objects towards the Sun. A single addition to the Solar System would explain the orbits of all of these long-period TNOs, a planet about 10 times the mass of Earth approximately 200 A.U. from the Sun, referred to as Planet Nine. More Sedna-like TNOs with similarly aligned orbits are predicted, and since January of 2016, another was found, with its orbit aligning perfectly with these predictions.

Ten meter class telescopes like Keck and Subaru, plus NASA’s NEOWISE mission, are currently searching for this hypothetical, massive world. If it exists, it invites the question of its origin: did it form along with our Solar System, or was it captured from another star’s vicinity much more recently? Regardless, if Batygin and Brown are right and this object is real, our Solar System may contain a super-Earth after all.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Caption: A possible super-Earth/mini-Neptune world hundreds of times more distant than Earth is from the Sun. Image credit: R. Hurt / Caltech (IPAC)

About NASA Space Place

With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov (facebook|twitter) to explore space and Earth science!

“Stargazing In Upstate NY In August: See The Milky Way, Perseid Meteor Shower” Article Up At newyorkupstate.com And syracuse.com

Greetings, fellow astrophiles!

The August stargazing article for newyorkupstate.com and syracuse.com was posted in early August to great reception (currently at +4400 shares!). While this post to CNYO is a little on the late side, there are still a few days to catch some of the celestial eye candy mentioned in the post, including a great Milky Way image courtesy of friend and fellow Kopernik Astronomical Society member Patrick Manley.

2016august24_patrickmanley_nyusmall

Caption: The Milky Way center is visible this month in Upstate New York. Photo by Patrick Manley of Kopernik Astronomical Society in Vestal.

Click for a larger view.

Link at newyorkupstate.com provided below:

newyorkupstate.com/outdoors/2016/08/
stargazing_in_upstate_ny_in_august_see_the_milky_way_perseid_meteor_shower.html

Or (if you want to show your CNY bias when you click)

syracuse.com/outdoors/2016/08/
stargazing_in_upstate_ny_in_august_see_the_milky_way_perseid_meteor_shower.html

If the content is relevant and readable, feel free to let feedback@newyorkupstate.com and/or feedback@syracuse.com know! I’m also happily accepting content recommendations, questions, and critiques of the content as they stand – the Contact Page is always open.

NASA News Digest: Space Science For 5 July – 20 July 2016

Greetings fellow astrophiles,

The NASA News Service provides up-to-date announcements of NASA policy, news events, and space science. A recent selection of space science articles are provided below, including direct links to the full announcements. Those interested in receiving these announcements from NASA can subscribe to their service by sending an email to: hqnews-request@newsletters.nasa.gov?subject=subscribe

NASA’s Juno Spacecraft In Orbit Around Mighty Jupiter

RELEASE 16-071 (Click here for the full article) – 5 July 2016

After an almost five-year journey to the solar system’s largest planet, NASA’s Juno spacecraft successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit during a 35-minute engine burn. Confirmation that the burn had completed was received on Earth at 8:53 p.m. PDT (11:53 p.m. EDT) Monday, July 4.

“Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America’s birthday another reason to cheer — Juno is at Jupiter,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. “And what is more American than a NASA mission going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before? With Juno, we will investigate the unknowns of Jupiter’s massive radiation belts to delve deep into not only the planet’s interior, but into how Jupiter was born and how our entire solar system evolved.”

More information on the Juno mission is available at: www.nasa.gov/juno

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: facebook.com/NASAJuno twitter.com/NASAJuno

NASA Flights To Track Greenhouse Gases Across Eastern US

RELEASE 16-072 (Click here for the full article) – 6 July 2016

actamerica_c130_photoThis month, NASA begins an airborne experiment to improve scientists’ understanding of the sources of two powerful greenhouse gases and how they cycle into and out of the atmosphere.

Atmospheric Carbon and Transport–America, or ACT-America, is a multi-year airborne campaign that will measure concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in relation to weather systems. The study will gather real-time measurements from research aircraft and ground stations to improve the ability to detect and quantify the surface sources and sinks of the gases.

For more information about ACT-America, go to: act-america.larc.nasa.gov

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit: www.nasa.gov/earth

NASA’s Next Mars Rover Progresses Toward 2020 Launch

RELEASE 16-072 (Click here for the full article) – 15 July 2016

m2020-rover-cadAfter an extensive review process and passing a major development milestone, NASA is ready to proceed with final design and construction of its next Mars rover, currently targeted to launch in the summer of 2020 and arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021.

The Mars 2020 rover will investigate a region of Mars where the ancient environment may have been favorable for microbial life, probing the Martian rocks for evidence of past life. Throughout its investigation, it will collect samples of soil and rock and cache them on the surface for potential return to Earth by a future mission.

“The Mars 2020 rover is the first step in a potential multi-mission campaign to return carefully selected and sealed samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth,” said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This mission marks a significant milestone in NASA’s Journey to Mars – to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars, and to advance our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet.”

For more information about Mars 2020, visit: mars.nasa.gov/mars2020

NASA’s Hubble Telescope Makes First Atmospheric Study Of Earth-Sized Exoplanets

RELEASE 16-076 (Click here for the full article) – 20 July 2016

hubble-trappistUsing NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have conducted the first search for atmospheres around temperate, Earth-sized planets beyond our solar system and found indications that increase the chances of habitability on two exoplanets.

Specifically, they discovered that the exoplanets TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, approximately 40 light-years away, are unlikely to have puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres usually found on gaseous worlds.

“The lack of a smothering hydrogen-helium envelope increases the chances for habitability on these planets,” said team member Nikole Lewis of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. “If they had a significant hydrogen-helium envelope, there is no chance that either one of them could potentially support life because the dense atmosphere would act like a greenhouse.”

Julien de Wit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led a team of scientists to observe the planets in near-infrared light using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. They used spectroscopy to decode the light and reveal clues to the chemical makeup of an atmosphere. While the content of the atmospheres is unknown and will have to await further observations, the low concentration of hydrogen and helium has scientists excited about the implications.

For imaged and more information about Hubble, visit: nasa.gov/hubble & hubblesite.org/news/2016/27

NASA Establishes Institute to Explore New Ways to Protect Astronauts

RELEASE 16-079 (Click here for the full article) – 20 July 2016

iss036e006520NASA is joining with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to operate a new institute charged with researching and developing innovative approaches to reduce risks to humans on long-duration exploration missions, including NASA’s Journey to Mars.

Work under the Translational Research Institute Cooperative Agreement, overseen by NASA’s Human Research Program, begins Oct. 1.

Translational research is an interdisciplinary model of research that focuses on translating fundamental research concepts into practice, with appreciable health outcomes. The NASA Translational Research Institute (NTRI) will implement a “bench-to-spaceflight” model, moving results or methods from laboratory experiments or clinical trials to point-of-care astronaut health and performance applications. The goal of the research is to produce promising new approaches, treatments, countermeasures or technologies that have practical application to spaceflight.

For more information on NASA’s Human Research Program, go to: www.nasa.gov/hrp

For more information about NASA’s Journey to Mars, visit: www.nasa.gov/journeytomars