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Exoplanets where life could develop as on Earth

Cambridge UK (SPX)

Aug 03, 2018

Scientists have identified a group of planets outside our solar system where the same chemical conditions that may have led to life on Earth exist.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB), found that the chances for life to develop on the surface of a rocky planet like Earth are connected to the type and strength of light given off by its host star.

Their study, published in the journal Science Advances, proposes that stars which give off sufficient ultraviolet (UV) light could kick-start life on their orbiting planets in the same way it likely developed on Earth, where the UV light powers a series of chemical reactions that produce the building blocks of life.

The researchers have identified a range of planets where the UV light from their host star is sufficient to allow these chemical reactions to take place, and that lie within the habitable range where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.

“This work allows us to narrow down the best places to search for life,” said Dr. Paul Rimmer, a postdoctoral researcher with a joint affiliation at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC LMB, and the paper’s first author. “It brings us just a little bit closer to addressing the question of whether we are alone in the universe.”

The new paper is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC LMB, bringing together organic chemistry and exoplanet research. It builds on the work of Professor John Sutherland, a co-author on the current paper, who studies the chemical origin of life on Earth.

In a paper published in 2015, Professor Sutherland’s group at the MRC LMB proposed that cyanide, although a deadly poison, was in fact a key ingredient in the primordial soup from which all life on Earth originated.

In this hypothesis, carbon from meteorites that slammed into the young Earth interacted with nitrogen in the atmosphere to form hydrogen cyanide. The hydrogen cyanide rained to the surface, where it interacted with other elements in various ways, powered by the UV light from the Sun. The chemicals produced from these interactions generated the building blocks of RNA, the close relative of DNA which most biologists believe was the first molecule of life to carry information.

In the laboratory, Sutherland’s group recreated these chemical reactions under UV lamps, and generated the precursors to lipids, amino acids and nucleotides, all of which are essential components of living cells.

“I came across these earlier experiments, and as an astronomer, my first question is always what kind of light are you using, which as chemists they hadn’t really thought about,” said Rimmer. “I started out measuring the number of photons emitted by their lamps, and then realized that comparing this light to the light of different stars was a straightforward next step.”

The two groups performed a series of laboratory experiments to measure how quickly the building blocks of life can be formed from hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulphite ions in water when exposed to UV light. They then performed the same experiment in the absence of light.

“There is chemistry that happens in the dark: it’s slower than the chemistry that happens in the light, but it’s there,” said senior author Professor Didier Queloz, also from the Cavendish Laboratory. “We wanted to see how much light it would take for the light chemistry to win out over the dark chemistry.”

The same experiment run in the dark with the hydrogen cyanide and the hydrogen sulphite resulted in an inert compound which could not be used to form the building blocks of life, while the experiment performed under the lights did result in the necessary building blocks.

The researchers then compared the light chemistry to the dark chemistry against the UV light of different stars. They plotted the amount of UV light available to planets in orbit around these stars to determine where the chemistry could be activated.

They found that stars around the same temperature as our Sun emitted enough light for the building blocks of life to have formed on the surfaces of their planets. Cool stars, on the other hand, do not produce enough light for these building blocks to be formed, except if they have frequent powerful solar flares to jolt the chemistry forward step by step. Planets that both receive enough light to activate the chemistry and could have liquid water on their surfaces reside in what the researchers have called the abiogenesis zone.

Among the known exoplanets which reside in the abiogenesis zone are several planets detected by the Kepler telescope, including Kepler 452b, a planet that has been nicknamed Earth’s ‘cousin,’ although it is too far away to probe with current technology. Next-generation telescopes, such as NASA’s TESS and James Webb telescopes, will hopefully be able to identify and potentially characterize many more planets that lie within the abiogenesis zone.

Of course, it is also possible that if there is life on other planets, that it has or will develop in a totally different way than it did on Earth.

“I’m not sure how contingent life is, but given that we only have one example so far, it makes sense to look for places that are most like us,” said Rimmer. “There’s an important distinction between what is necessary and what is sufficient. The building blocks are necessary, but they may not be sufficient: it’s possible you could mix them for billions of years and nothing happens. But you want to at least look at the places where the necessary things exist.”

According to recent estimates, there are as many as 700 million trillion terrestrial planets in the observable universe. “Getting some idea of what fraction have been, or might be, primed for life fascinates me,” said Sutherland. “Of course, being primed for life is not everything and we still don’t know how likely the origin of life is, even given favorable circumstances – if it’s really unlikely then we might be alone, but if not, we may have company.”

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Exoplanets_where_life_could_develop_as_on_Earth_999.html.

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Pair of colliding stars spill radioactive molecules into space

Charlottesville VA (SPX)

Aug 02, 2018

When two Sun-like stars collide, the result can be a spectacular explosion and the formation of an entirely new star. One such event was seen from Earth in 1670. It appeared to observers as a bright, red “new star.” Though initially visible with the naked eye, this burst of cosmic light quickly faded and now requires powerful telescopes to see the remains of this merger: a dim central star surrounded by a halo of glowing material flowing away from it.

Approximately 348 years after this event, an international team of astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the NOEMA (Northern Extended Millimeter Array) radio telescopes studied the remains of this explosive stellar merger – known as CK Vulpeculae (CK Vul) – and discovered the clear and convincing signature of a radioactive version of aluminum (26Al, an atom with 13 protons and 13 neutron) bound with atoms of fluorine, forming 26-aluminum monofluoride (26AlF).

This is the first molecule bearing an unstable radioisotope definitively detected outside of our solar system. Unstable isotopes have an excess of nuclear energy and eventually decay into a stable, less-radioactive form. In this case, the 26-aluminum (26Al) decays to 26-magnesium (26Mg).

“The first solid detection of this kind of radioactive molecule is an important milestone in our exploration of the cool molecular universe,” said Tomasz Kami?ski, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and lead author on a paper appearing in Nature Astronomy.

The researchers detected the unique spectral signature of these molecules in the debris surrounding CK Vul, which is approximately 2,000 light-years from Earth. As these molecules spin and tumble through space, they emit a distinctive fingerprint of millimeter-wavelength light, a process known as “rotational transition.” Astronomers consider this the “gold standard” for molecular detections.

These characteristic molecular fingerprints are usually taken from laboratory experiments and then used to identify molecules in space. In the case of 26AlF, this method is not applicable because 26-aluminum is not present on Earth. Laboratory astrophysicists from the University of Kassel/Germany therefore used the fingerprint data of stable and abundant 27AlF molecules to derive accurate data for the rare 26AlF molecule.

“This method of extrapolation is based on the so-called Dunham approach,” explained Alexander Breier from the Kassel team. “It allows researchers to precisely calculate the rotational transitions of 26AlF with an accuracy far beyond the needs of astronomical observers.”

The observation of this particular isotopologue provides fresh insights into the merger process that created CK Vul. It also demonstrates that the deep, dense inner layers of a star, where heavy elements and radioactive isotopes are forged, can be churned up and cast into space by stellar collisions. “We are observing the guts of a star torn apart three centuries ago by a collision,” observed Kami?ski. “How cool is that?”

The astronomers also determined that the two stars that merged were relatively low-mass, with one being a red giant star with a mass somewhere between 0.8 and 2.5 times that of our Sun.

“This first direct observation of this isotope in a stellar-like object is also important in the broader context of galactic chemical evolution,” noted Kami?ski. “This is the first time an active producer of the radioactive nuclide 26Al has been directly observationally identified.”

It has been known for decades that there is about three entire Suns’ worth of 26Al spread across the Milky Way. But these observations, made at gamma-ray wavelengths, could only identify that the signal was there; they couldn’t pinpoint individual sources and it was unclear how the isotopes got there.

With current estimates on the mass of 26Al in CK Vul (about a quarter the mass of Pluto) and the rare occurrence of mergers such as this, it seems rather unlikely that mergers are solely responsible for this galactic radioactive material, the astronomers conclude.

However, ALMA and NOEMA can only detect the amount of 26Al bound with fluorine. The actual mass of 26Al in CK Vul (in atomic form) may be much greater. It is also possible that other merger remnants may have far greater amounts. Astronomers may also have underestimated the current merger rates in the Milky Way. “So this is not a closed issue and the role of mergers may be non-negligible,” speculated Kamiski.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Pair_of_colliding_stars_spill_radioactive_molecules_into_space_999.html.

Space, not Brexit, is final frontier for Scottish outpost

By Roland Jackson

Farnborough, United Kingdom (AFP)

July 20, 2018

Never mind Brexit: For a remote peninsula in the Scottish highlands, the buzz is all about hi-tech rocket launchers firing satellites into space.

In just three years’ time, rockets will send satellites into orbit from the rugged stretch of coastline, under British government plans unveiled this week.

The sleepy county of Caithness and Sutherland has been selected as the site of the country’s first ever space port, Britain announced at the Farnborough Airshow, a showpiece event for the global aerospace sector.

The UK Space Agency awarded a ?2.5-million ($3.3-million, 2.8-million-euro) grant towards the construction of a vertical space port facility in Sutherland, which will become operational in 2021.

The announcement has boosted hopes for an industry worried about the effects of Britain leaving the European Union and raised spirits in pro-EU Scotland, which was outvoted in the 2016 referendum.

“It is rocket science,” Roy Kirk, area manager for Caithness and Sutherland at Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), a development agency for Scotland’s devolved government, said in an interview with AFP at Farnborough.

The launchers, made by established player Lockheed Martin and startup business Orbex, will stand 17 meters (56 feet) tall and will fire rockets that take just eight minutes to get into orbit.

– Boost to local economy –

“We are delighted we have been selected as a spaceport for vertical launch,” said Kirk, adding that the site would also create tourism opportunities.

“The local economy will benefit.”

The space port would employ about 40 staff within three years of operation, but the supply chain around that would support nearer 400 jobs.

Satellite uses include navigation, weather forecasting, telecommunications and financial transactions, while they are also vital for defense and energy sectors.

The Sutherland facility will cost an estimated ?17.3 million to build, including some ?10 million from HIE.

The port will be well positioned geographically to launch satellite rockets over the North Pole.

– ‘No different than before Brexit’ –

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is seeking to develop the UK space industry after its role in European space projects was called into question by Brexit.

Space is one of Britain’s fastest growing sectors and generates more than ?13 billion of income per year.

“Our ambition to grow the space sector is in no way any different than it was before Brexit,” Graham Turnock, head of the UK Space Agency, told AFP on the sidelines of Farnborough.

“We are actually looking to the opportunities for trade deals with the rest of the world after Brexit so we are very positive about that.

“We are still aiming to achieve 10 percent of the world space market by 2030. We are very confident that we can do that.”

He also sought to dispel concerns that Britain’s departure from the European Union in 2019 would hurt the industry.

“Obviously we are talking to the EU about our future participation in the space programs.

“We have said that we’d very much like to continue to participate in Galileo Copernicus, but it takes two sides to want to have that discussion.”

Britain wants continued participation in the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system — but Brussels rejects the idea.

UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling meanwhile appeared at Farnborough to champion the space investment.

“After pioneering the development of those small satellites over many years, adding our own space ports means we can now move to offering customers a one stop shop in the United Kingdom,” Grayling told delegates.

“A full package of services — from design to build, right up to launch.”

– Focus on strategy –

Brexit has sparked uncertainty but also opportunity, some academics argue.

“The main impact of Brexit right now is uncertainty,” said Martin Barstow, professor of astrophysics and space science at the University of Leicester, which is launching a government-backed global industry hub Space Park in the central English city in 2020.

“Having said that, there have been some positive consequences as a result,” he added, citing government investment in both Space Park Leicester and the Sutherland spaceport.

“The government suddenly needed to focus on industrial strategy and suddenly needed to focus on investment in the regions quite quickly.”

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Space_not_Brexit_is_final_frontier_for_Scottish_outpost_999.html.

Ukraine eyes new Spaceport downunder

Moscow (Sputnik)

Mar 13, 2018

The Ukrainian Space Agency has reportedly come up with an ambitious proposal to establish a spaceport some 11,500 km from home.

According to The West Australian newspaper, Kiev has been lobbying both Canberra and the northwestern Australian state government of Kimberley for two years now, with its proposals falling on deaf ears.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia, Nikolai Kulinich, assured the newspaper that the proposal was “very realistic,” adding that “Ukraine could launch tomorrow morning if we had a site. We offer our people and our expertise if Australia has land for use.”

According to the Ukrainian Space Agency, it would require between 5,000 and 7,000 square kilometers of territory on a commercial lease. It would like to establish its space port near the Curtain Air Base, a Royal Australian Air Force airbase and civilian airport. A preliminary study could be completed for about half a million dollars, The West Australian says, with a study on construction and feasibility possible within two years.

The Ukrainian Space Agency envisions its Australian spaceport venture becoming Asia’s key spaceport, with launches sponsored by Australian, Japanese, Singaporean, South Korean and Indonesian partners.

Private investments, as well as contributions from Australia’s neighbors and allies, are expected to fund the construction of the spaceport, including its launch pads, hangars and support facilities.

Commenting on the ambitious plan, observers have pointed out that Ukraine’s once-proud space industry is but a shadow of its former self following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine’s space enterprises, including legendary enterprises like the Yuzhmash rocket plant and the Yuzhnoye design bureau have fallen on particularly hard times after the severing of space and rocketry industry cooperation with Russia in 2014, with many rocket scientists leaving Ukraine in pursuit of better opportunities elsewhere.

As to the potential costs of Ukraine’s proposed space port idea, Moscow’s experience with the construction of its Vostochny Cosmodrome has given some indication of the tremendous price tag attached to building a spaceport from scratch. Vostochny, expected to be completed later this year, has been estimated to cost upwards of $7.5 billion US.

Expert opinion aside, social media users aren’t too thrilled about the idea either, hatching a series of memes about the lack of realism in Kiev’s plan.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Ukraine_eyes_new_Spaceport_downunder_999.html.

Trump pushes for new ‘space force’

Washington (AFP)

March 13, 2018

President Donald Trump said Tuesday he wants the US military to create a new “space force,” adding to the Pentagon’s current ground, navy and air forces.

Trump told troops at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station near San Diego that the new group would be able to encapsulate the “tremendous amount” of work the military and government are doing in space-related defense.

“My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” Trump said.

“We may even have a space force… We have the air force, we’ll have the space force, we’ll have the army, the navy.

“Maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen,” he said.

Since taking office, Trump has frequently touted his support for the US military and placed high-ranking generals in top White House and cabinet posts.

Last year some legislators pushed a bill in Congress that included a provision to establish a new branch of the military dubbed the Space Corps.

But the military itself has resisted, saying it does not need to create another force and its attendant bureaucracy.

“At a time when we are trying to integrate the department’s joint warfighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congressman Michael Turner in a letter last July.

It would be “premature to add additional organizational and administrative tail to the department at a time I am trying to reduce overhead,” he added.

The idea was finally dropped from the Pentagon’s funding bill by the end of last year, but it retains some support in Congress, where advocates say the US is facing significant strategic vulnerabilities in the face of Russian and Chinese pushes into space warfare.

Republican Representative Mike Rogers told a February 28 conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that a separate space corps could be carved out from the air force within “three to five years”.

He said China and Russia have become “near peers” to the US in space capabilities, and the US is not pushing hard enough to stay ahead.

“That’s unacceptable that we have allowed that to happen, particularly in a day and age when it is essential to have those space capabilities to fight and win wars,” he said.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Trump_pushes_for_new_space_force_999.html.

Elon Musk plans to launch spacecraft for Mars in 2019

by Ray Downs

Washington (UPI)

Mar 11, 2018

Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk said Sunday that he is on track to launch a spacecraft for Mars by next year.

“We are building the first ship, or interplanetary ship, right now,” Musk said during a question and answer session at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. “And we’ll probably be able to do short flights, short up and down flights, probably some time in the first half of next year.”

Musk said that his ship — the Big Falcon Rocket — will be capable of greatly reducing the average cost of a spaceflight as far as Mars in large part because it will be reusable.

“This question of reusability is so fundamental to rocketry,” Musk said. “It is the fundamental breakthrough that’s needed.”

After a series of short flights, Musk said he hopes to have a cargo mission land on Mars by 2022.

Musk said the goal is to begin a human colony on Mars and the first spaceflights there will begin to plant those seeds.

“Once you can get there, the opportunity is immense,” Musk said. “We’re going to do our best to get there and then make sure there’s an environment in which entrepreneurs can flourish.”

In September, Musk said the Big Falcon Rocket could also one day be used for travel to different points on earth, with the possibility of flights from New York City to Shanghai taking less then 40 minutes.

Space bases could preserve civilization in World War III: Elon Musk

Washington (AFP) March 12, 2018 – Bases on the moon and Mars could help preserve human civilization and hasten its regeneration on earth in the event of a third world war, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, said on Sunday.

Musk, the founder of rocket and spacecraft company SpaceX, said the company’s interplanetary ship could begin test flights as soon as next year.

There is “some probability” that there will be another Dark Ages, “particularly if there is a third world war,” Musk said at the SXSW conference.

“We want to make sure that there’s enough of a seed of human civilization somewhere else to bring civilization back, and perhaps shorten the length of the Dark Ages,” he said.

“I think a moon base and a Mars base that could perhaps help regenerate life back here on earth would be really important.”

Musk said he thinks that SpaceX’s interplanetary ship will “be able to do short flights, short sort of up and down flights, probably sometime in the first half of next year.”

SpaceX launched the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, last month, sending Musk’s red Tesla Roadster car toward an orbit near Mars.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Elon_Musk_plans_to_launch_spacecraft_for_Mars_in_2019_999.html.

Mars Express views moons set against Saturn’s rings

Paris (ESA)

Mar 02, 2018

New images and video from ESA’s Mars Express show Phobos and Deimos drifting in front of Saturn and background stars, revealing more about the positioning and surfaces of the Red Planet’s mysterious moons.

Mars’ two small moons are intriguing objects. While we know something of their size, appearance and position thanks to spacecraft such as ESA’s Mars Express, much remains unknown. How and where did they form? What are they made of? What exactly is on their surfaces – and could we send a lander to find out?

Mars Express has been studying Mars and its moons for many years. The satellite recently observed both Phobos, Mars’ innermost and largest moon at up to 26 km in diameter, and Deimos, Phobos’ smaller sibling at 6.2 km in diameter, to produce this new video and series of images.

The video combines 30 images as individual frames and shows Phobos passing through the frame with the gas giant planet Saturn, which sits roughly a billion kilometers away, visible as a small ringed dot in the background.

Precise positioning

Mars Express has been working for more than 14 years at the Red Planet. While several other spacecraft are currently at Mars, including ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, Mars Express’ near-polar elliptical orbit gives it some advantages for certain observations.

In particular, its path takes it closer to Phobos than any other spacecraft, and allows it to periodically observe the moon close up from within 150 km – in the summer of 2017, it came as close as 115 km.

The images of Phobos and Saturn comprising the video were taken on 26 November 2016 by the High Resolution Stereo Camera. Mars Express was travelling at about 3 km/s when it obtained these views, highlighting the importance of knowing Phobos’ exact position: the spacecraft had just seconds to image the rocky body as it passed by.

Scientists repeatedly refine our knowledge of the moons’ positioning in the sky and ensure it is up-to-date by observing each moon against background reference stars and other Solar System bodies. These calculated positions are incredibly precise, and can be accurate to just a couple of kilometers.

Studying the surface

These images are also key to understanding the surface and structure of the moons. Alongside the view of Phobos set against Saturn, Mars Express also obtained images of Phobos against a reference star on 8 January 2018 (star circled in red), close-up images of Phobos’ pockmarked surface on 12 September 2017, and images of Deimos with Saturn on 15 January 2018.

The frames of Phobos’ surface were taken during close flybys, and show the bumpy, irregular and dimpled surface in detail. Phobos has one of the largest impact craters relative to body size in the Solar System: Stickney crater’s 9 km diameter is around a third of the moon’s diameter. It is visible as the largest crater in these frames.

The same side of the moon always faces the planet, which means multiple flybys are needed to build up a full map of its surface.

Deimos is visible as an irregular and partially shadowed body in the foreground of one of the new Mars Express images, with the delicate rings of Saturn just about visible encircling the small dot in the background.

Deimos is significantly further away from Mars than its bigger sibling: while Phobos sits at just 6000 km from the surface, Deimos orbits at nearly 23 500 km. For comparison, our own satellite is around 16 times further from Earth than Deimos is from Mars.

Future missions to Mars

There is much we still wish to know about the Mars system. The moons remain particularly mysterious, with open questions about their origins, formation and composition. As a result, combined with their proximity to the Red Planet, the little moons have generated a lot of interest as a target for future missions.

Phobos in particular has been considered for a possible landing and sample-return mission. Owing to its nearness to Mars and one side always facing its parent, the moon could also be a possible location for a more permanent observation post. This would enable long-term monitoring and study of the martian surface and atmosphere, and communications relay for other spacecraft.

Understanding more about the positioning, surface, composition and terrain of both Phobos and Deimos from Mars Express observations is important for preparing for future missions.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Mars_Express_views_moons_set_against_Saturns_rings_999.html.

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