Sunday, January 31, 2016

TYC9486-927-1 Star System: Largest Solar System Ever Discovered?

Labeled as a “rogue planet” when it was discovered eight years ago, does the exoplanet 2MASSJ2126-8140 and its parent star TYC9486-927-1 make up the largest solar system discovered so far? 

By: Ringo Bones 

When it was first discovered and observed by astronomers eight years ago, the exoplanet 2MASSJ2126-8140 was first thought of as a “rogue planet” – i.e. a planet ejected away from its parent star and destined to wander forever across the universe because it doesn’t seem to orbit any star. But after a few years of careful observation, it was then found out that this exoplanet is part of the largest solar system discovered so far. 

Exoplanet 2MASSJ2126-8140, a gas giant type planet, was recently found out to lie one million kilometers away from its parent star TYC9486-927-1 which makes its orbit 140 times wider than Pluto’s orbital path around our Sun. Only a handful of extremely wide pairs of this kind have been found in recent years. Details were published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society back in January 27, 2016. 

Exoplanet 2MASSJ2126-8140 has an observed mass between 12 to 15 times that of the planet Jupiter.  
Exoplanet 2MASSJ2126-8140’s distance from its parent star is around 7,000 times the distance between Earth and the Sun and about 140 times the distance between Pluto and the Sun. This makes it the widest of any planet around a star discovered so far by a significant margin – about three times the width of the previously widest pair discovered. If it orbited around our Sun, exoplanet 2MASSJ2126-8140 would lie far beyond Pluto – like approximately in the midst of our Solar System’s Oort Cloud. 

That huge gap – which equals to 6,900 Astronomical Units (AU) – means it would take exoplanet 2MASSJ2126-8140 about 900,000 years to complete a single orbit around its parent star TYC9486-927-1. By estimating the parent star’s age using its lithium signature, the researchers say TYC9486-927-1 is somewhere between 10 million and 45 million years old. This would mean that exoplanet 2MASSJ2126-8140 has completed less than 50 orbits around its parent star since coalescing from the primordial gas and dust from which it first came.  

Friday, January 29, 2016

Planet Nine: The New Pluto?

Given that it has a mass of 10 times that of planet Earth, could “Planet Nine” be the “new Pluto”?

By: Ringo Bones 

Back in January 20, 2016 researchers led by resident astronomers of the California Institute of Technology – Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin – unveiled the evidence of the existence of a newly discovered planet which was shown to be up to 10 times more massive than our own planet Earth. Currently tentatively named “Planet Nine”, the Caltech astronomers Brown and Batygin used mathematical modeling and computer simulations to describe the newly discovered planet’s mass and probable location in our Solar System even though the newly discovered Planet Nine is yet to be observed directly. 

The researchers claim that a huge planet 10 times the mass of Earth probably exists in the frozen Kuiper Belt region of our Solar System. The planet has not yet been located or photographed directly but its presence could explain the high eccentricity of the orbits of Trans Neptunian Objects / Kuiper Belt Objects in which the now dwarf planet Pluto is a member since 2006. At its inferred location, the tentatively named “Planet Nine” could probably take between 10,000 to 20,000 years to complete one orbit around the Sun. By way of comparison, planet Neptune is 17 times the mass of Earth and takes 164.8 years to complete one orbit around the Sun while the planet Uranus is 14.5 times the mass of Earth and takes 84 years to complete one orbit around the Sun. 

The evidence for the claim that “Planet Nine” exists is that six of the most distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) have orbits that line up in a way that would only happen if the gravity of a massive unknown planet were pulling on them. The researchers predicted that Planet Nine’s gravity would cause another Kuiper Belt Objects to be forced into orbits perpendicular to Planet Nine’s orbit. Some astronomers upon hearing of the discovery even suggested that Planet Nine could be responsible for sending comets originating in the Kuiper Belt to be flung towards the inner Solar System that might have triggered cometary impact mass extinction events during the planet Earth’s distant past. But at present, there’s still insufficient data to make Planet Nine a bona fide planet that could truly replace Pluto as our Solar System’s ninth planet. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Ancient Globular Star Clusters: Most Likely Home of Advanced Extraterrestrial Life?

Given that they’ve been around when our universe was still a few billion years old, are ancient globular star clusters the most likely part of our Milky Way galaxy to harbor advanced intelligent extraterrestrial life? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Even though the hypothesis has probably been worked out by a few science fiction authors during the last two centuries, it was in a recent press conference during the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society back in January 6, 2016 that Dr. Rosanne DiStefano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics presented her team’s latest research findings indicating that we may one day find intelligent space-faring civilizations occupying star clusters at the edges of our own Milky Way galaxy. According to DiStefano, lead author of the study published from a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory states that: “A globular cluster might be the first place in which intelligent life is identified in our galaxy.” 

These ancient globular star clusters are spherical in shape and can contain anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of individual stars. In fact, the oldest stars in the Milky Way galaxy can be found in these areas with a ripe old age of about 10-billion years old. By way of comparison, current data shows that the age of our universe is about 13.8-billion years and scientists believe that some stars in these ancient globular star clusters may have been already around since the birth of our galaxy. The data that determined the age of these ancient globular star clusters have previously played an essential role in helping astronomers pinpoint the center of the Milky Way and aid in determining the exact age of the universe. 

The main factor that determines the possibility of carbon-based Earth-like life-forms occurring in a typical star system is its Goldilocks or habitable zone. This refers to a “just right” distance between a planet and its parent star which directly affects the average temperature and the planet’s ability to allow water in its liquid state to exist. Brighter more energetically burning stars produce a larger potential habitable zone than their smaller, fainter counterparts but brighter, larger, more energetically burning stars have a much shorter lifespan and the largest of them seldom last for more than 150-million years. 

Habitable planets that could exist in these ancient globular star clusters would have to be huddled near dim red dwarf stars and this is critical because smaller orbits help protect these planets from the violent forces found in such a crowded galactic neighborhood – forces that could eventually push a small world out into cold interstellar space. DiStefano claims that once these planets do form, they can survive for long periods of time, even longer than the current age of the universe. 

Some of these globular star clusters are packed to the brim and astronomers have estimated that some contain up to a million stars that span a combined distance of up to 100 light-years. To give you an idea of how dense that is, our Sun’s nearest neighboring star is close to 4 light-years away. 

The main idea drawn by this research includes the high probability of the formation of potentially habitable worlds in a globular cluster due to the sheer volume of stars and that these worlds could survive for billions of years. This is important because complex life takes time to evolve and to develop the kind of intelligence needed to build and maintain a civilization – especially a space-faring one.