More stories

  • in

    The tiny dot in this image may be the first look at exomoons in the making

    New telescope images may provide the first view of moons forming outside the solar system.

    The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile glimpsed a dusty disk of potentially moon-forming material around a baby exoplanet about 370 light-years from Earth. The Jupiter-like world is surrounded by enough material to make up to 2.5 Earth moons, researchers report online July 22 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. Observations of this system could offer new insight into how planets and moons are born around young stars.

    ALMA observed two planets, dubbed PDS 70b and 70c, circling the star PDS 70 in July 2019. Unlike most other known exoplanets, these two Jupiter-like worlds are still forming — gobbling up material from the disk of gas and dust swirling around their star (SN: 7/2/18). During this formation process, planets are expected to wrap themselves in their own debris disks, which control how planets pack on material and form moons.

    Around PDS 70c, ALMA spotted a disk of dust about as wide as Earth’s orbit around the sun. With previously reported exomoon sightings still controversial, the new observations offer some of the best evidence yet that planets orbiting other stars have moons (SN: 4/30/19).

    Unlike PDS 70c, 70b does not appear to have a moon-forming disk. That may be because it has a narrower orbit than PDS 70c, which is nearly as far from its star as Pluto is from the sun. That puts PDS 70c closer to an outer disk of debris surrounding the star.

    Just inside a ring of debris surrounding a young star is the planet PDS 70c, which is surrounded by its own disk of possible moon-forming material (bright dot at center).ALMA/ESO, NAOJ and NRAO, M. Benisty et al

    “C is getting all the material from the outer disk, and b is getting starved,” says study coauthor Jaehan Bae, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

    “In the past, b must have gotten some material in its [disk], and it could have already formed moons,” Bae says. But to make the new images, ALMA observed wavelengths of light emitted by sand-sized dust grains, not large objects, so those moons would not be visible. More

  • in

    How do scientists calculate the age of a star?

    We know quite a lot about stars. After centuries of pointing telescopes at the night sky, astronomers and amateurs alike can figure out key attributes of any star, like its mass or its composition.

    To calculate a star’s mass, just look it its orbital period and do a bit of algebra. To determine what it’s made of, look to the spectrum of light the star emits. But the one variable scientists haven’t quite cracked yet is time.

    “The sun is the only star we know the age of,” says astronomer David Soderblom of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “Everything else is bootstrapped up from there.”

    Even well-studied stars surprise scientists every now and then. In 2019 when the red supergiant star Betelgeuse dimmed, astronomers weren’t sure if it was just going through a phase or if a supernova explosion was imminent. (Turns out it was just a phase.) The sun also shook things up when scientists noticed that it wasn’t behaving like other middle-aged stars. It’s not as magnetically active compared with other stars of the same age and mass. That suggests that astronomers might not fully understand the timeline of middle age.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!
    There was a problem signing you up.

    Calculations based on physics and indirect measurements of a star’s age can give astronomers ballpark estimates. And some methods work better for different types of stars. Here are three ways astronomers calculate the age of a star.

    Hertzsprung-Russell diagrams

    Scientists do have a pretty good handle on how stars are born, how they live and how they die. For instance, stars burn through their hydrogen fuel, puff up and eventually expel their gases into space, whether with a bang or a whimper. But when exactly each stage of a star’s life cycle happens is where things get complicated. Depending on their mass, certain stars hit those points after a different number of years. More massive stars die young, while less massive stars can burn for billions of years.

    At the turn of the 20th century, two astronomers — Ejnar Hertzsprung and Henry Norris Russell — independently came up with the idea to plot stars’ temperature against their brightness. The patterns on these Hertzsprung-Russell, or H-R, diagrams corresponded to where different stars were in that life cycle. Today, scientists use these patterns to determine the age of star clusters, whose stars are thought to have all formed at the same time.

    The caveat is that, unless you do a lot of math and modeling, this method can be used only for stars in clusters, or by comparing a single star’s color and brightness with theoretical H-R diagrams. “It’s not very precise,” says astronomer Travis Metcalfe of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. “Nevertheless, it’s the best thing we’ve got.”

    [embedded content]
    Measuring a star’s age isn’t as easy as you’d think. Here’s how scientists get their ballpark estimates.

    Rotation rate

    By the 1970s, astrophysicists had noticed a trend: Stars in younger clusters spin faster than stars in older clusters. In 1972, astronomer Andrew Skumanich used a star’s rotation rate and surface activity to propose a simple equation to estimate a star’s age: Rotation rate = (Age) -½.

    This was the go-to method for individual stars for decades, but new data have poked holes in its utility. It turns out that some stars don’t slow down when they hit a certain age. Instead they keep the same rotation speed for the rest of their lives.

    “Rotation is the best thing to use for stars younger than the sun,” Metcalfe says. For stars older than the sun, other methods are better.

    Stellar seismology

    The new data that confirmed rotation rate wasn’t the best way to estimate an individual star’s age came from an unlikely source: the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope. Not just a boon for exoplanet research, Kepler pushed stellar seismology to the forefront by simply staring at the same stars for a really long time.

    Watching a star flicker can give clues to its age. Scientists look at changes in a star’s brightness as an indicator of what’s happening beneath the surface and, through modeling, roughly calculate the star’s age. To do this, one needs a really big dataset on the star’s brightness — which the Kepler telescope could provide.

    “Everybody thinks it was all about finding planets, which was true,” Soderblom says. “But I like to say that the Kepler mission was a stealth stellar physics mission.”

    This approach helped reveal the sun’s magnetic midlife crisis and recently provided some clues about the evolution of the Milky Way. Around 10 billion years ago, our galaxy collided with a dwarf galaxy. Scientists have found that stars left behind by that dwarf galaxy are younger or about the same age as stars original to the Milky Way. Thus, the Milky Way may have evolved more quickly than previously thought.

    As space telescopes like NASA’s TESS and the European Space Agency’s CHEOPS survey new patches of sky, astrophysicists will be able to learn more about the stellar life cycle and come up with new estimates for more stars.

    Aside from curiosity about the stars in our own backyard, star ages have implications beyond our solar system, from planet formation to galaxy evolution — and even the search for extraterrestrial life.

    “One of these days — it’ll probably be a while — somebody’s going to claim they see signs of life on a planet around another star. The first question people will ask is, ‘How old is that star?’” Soderblom says. “That’s going to be a tough question to answer.” More

  • in

    Marsquakes reveal the Red Planet boasts a liquid core half its diameter

    Mars has had its first CT scan, thanks to analyses of seismic waves picked up by NASA’s InSight lander. Diagnosis: The Red Planet’s core is at least partially liquid, as some previous studies had suggested, and is somewhat larger than expected.

    InSight reached Mars in late 2018 and soon afterward detected the first known marsquake (SN: 11/26/18; SN: 4/23/19). Since then, the lander’s instruments have picked up more than a thousand temblors, most of them minor rumbles. Many of those quakes originated at a seismically active region more than 1,000 kilometers away from the lander. A small fraction of the quakes had magnitudes ranging from 3.0 to 4.0, and the resulting vibrations have enabled scientists to probe Mars and reveal new clues about its inner structure.

    Simon Stähler, a seismologist at ETH Zurich, and colleagues analyzed seismic waves from 11 marsquakes, looking for two types of waves: pressure and shear. Unlike pressure waves, shear waves can’t pass through a liquid, and they move more slowly, traveling side to side through solid materials, rather than in a push-and-pull motion in the same direction a wave is traveling like pressure waves do.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!
    There was a problem signing you up.

    Of those 11 events, six sets of vibrations included shear waves strong enough to stand out from background noise. The strength of those shear waves suggests that they reflected off of the outer surface of a liquid core, rather than entering a solid core and being partially absorbed, Stähler says. And the difference in arrival times at InSight for the pressure waves and shear waves for each quake suggest that Mars’ core is about 3,660 kilometers in diameter, he and colleagues report in the July 23 Science.

    That’s a little more than half of the diameter of the entire planet, larger than most previous estimates. The Red Planet’s core is so big, in fact, that it blocks InSight from receiving certain types of seismic waves from a large part of the planet. That, in turn, suggests that Mars may be more seismically active than the lander’s sensors can detect. Indeed, one of the regions in the lander’s seismic blind spot is the Tharsis region, home to some of Mars’ largest volcanoes. Volcanic activity there, as well as the motion of molten rock within the crust in that region, could trigger quakes or seismic waves.

    Seismic waves (red lines in this illustration) traveling through Mars from a quake’s source (example, red dot) to the InSight lander (white dot) reveal the Red Planet’s internal structure, including a massive core (yellow-white) more than half the diameter of the planet.Chris Bickel/Science

    While the newly analyzed data confirm the planet’s outer core is liquid, it’s not clear yet whether Mars has a solid inner core like Earth, says study coauthor Amir Khan, a geophysicist also at ETH Zurich. “The signal should be there in the seismic data,” he says. “We just need to locate it.”

    In a separate analysis also published in Science, Khan and colleagues suggest that InSight’s seismic blind spot may also stem, in part, from the way that seismic waves slow down and bend as they travel deep within the planet. Changes in seismic wave speed and direction can result from gradual variations in rock temperature or density, for example.

    Mars’ seismic waves also hint at the thickness of the planet’s crust. As they bounce back and forth within the planet, the waves bounce off interfaces between different layers and types of rocks, says Brigitte Knapmeyer-Endrun, a seismologist at the University of Cologne in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. In a separate study in Science, she and her team analyzed seismic signals that reflected off several such interfaces near Mars’ surface, making it difficult to determine the depth at which the planet’s crust ends and the underlying mantle begins, she says. The researchers concluded, however, that the average thickness of the crust likely lies between 24 and 72 kilometers. For comparison, Earth’s oceanic crust is about 6 to 7 kilometers thick, while the planet’s continental crust averages from 35 to 40 kilometers thick.

    Together, these seismic analyses are the first to investigate the innards of a rocky planet other than Earth, Stähler says. As such, they provide “ground truth” for measurements made by spacecraft orbiting Mars, and could help scientists better interpret data gathered from orbit around other planets, such as Mercury and Venus.

    The findings could also provide insights that would help planetary scientists better understand how Mars formed and evolved over the life of the solar system, and how the Red Planet ended up so unalike Earth, says Sanne Cottaar, a geophysicist at the University of Cambridge. Cottaar wrote a commentary, also published in Science, on the new research. “Mars was put together with similar building blocks” as Earth, she says, “but had a different result.” More

  • in

    NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has begun its first science campaign

    NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars has seen its future, and it’s full of rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. After spending the summer trundling through Jezero Crater and checking out the sights, it’s now time for Percy to get to work, teasing out the geologic history of its new home and seeking out signs of ancient microbial life.

    “We’ve actually been on a road trip,” project manager Jennifer Trosper, who is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said at a July 21 news conference. “And during it, we will take our very first sample from the surface of Mars.”

    Percy is about 1 kilometer south of where it landed on February 18 (SN: 2/17/21). After driving itself around a region of sand dunes, accompanied by its tagalong helicopter Ingenuity (SN: 4/30/21), the robotic explorer has pulled up to its first sampling spot: a garden of flat, pale stones dubbed paver stones. “This is the area where we are really going to be digging in, both figuratively and literally, to understand the rocks that we have been on for the last several months,” said Kenneth Farley, Perseverance project scientist at Caltech.

    The team has been trying to figure out whether these rocks are volcanic or sedimentary. “We still don’t have the answer,” Farley said. Images taken a few centimeters above the surface show what the team is up against: The rocks are littered with dust and pebbles, probably blown in from elsewhere, and the smoother surfaces have a mysterious purplish coating. “All of these factors conspire to prevent us from peering into the rock and actually seeing what it is made out of,” he said.

    In the coming weeks, Percy will bore a smooth cavity in one of those rocks and get below the surface crud. Instruments on its robotic arm will then move in close to produce detailed chemical and mineralogical maps that will reveal the rocks’ true nature. Then, sometime in mid-August, the team will extract its first sample. That sample will go into a tube that will eventually get dropped off — along with samples from other locales — for some future mission to pick up and bring to Earth (SN: 7/28/20).

    Cameras scouting farther afield have turned up future sampling sites. A small far-off hill shows hints of finely layered rock that may be mud deposits. “This is exactly the kind of rock that we are most interested in investigating for looking for potential biosignatures,” Farley said.

    And the way that rocks are strewn about an ancient river delta in the distance suggests that the lake that once filled Jezero Crater went through multiple episodes of filling in and drying up. If true, Farley said, then the crater may have preserved “multiple time periods when we might be able to look for evidence of ancient life that might have existed on the planet.” More

  • in

    A century of astronomy revealed Earth’s place in the universe

    A century ago, the Milky Way galaxy was the entirety of the known universe. We had no idea what made the stars shine, and only one star — our own sun — was known to harbor any planets. Of those planets, humans had explored only one: Earth.

    “The stellar universe, as we know it … is a flattened, watch-shaped organization of stars and nebulae,” astronomer Harlow Shapley wrote in Science News Bulletin, the earliest version of Science News, in August 1921 (SN: 8/8/1921, p. 3). That sparkling pocket watch was the Milky Way, and at the time Shapley wrote this, astronomers were just beginning to conceive that anything at all might lie beyond it.

    Today, spacecraft have flown by every one of the solar system’s planets, taking close-ups of their wildly alien faces. The solar system, it turns out, contains a cornucopia of small rocky and icy bodies that have challenged the very definition of a planet. Thousands of planets have been spotted orbiting other stars, some of which may have the right conditions for life to thrive. And the Milky Way, we now know, is just one of billions of galaxies.

    The last 100 years have brought a series of revolutions in astronomy, each one kicking Earth a bit farther from the center of things. Along the way, people have not exactly been receptive to these blows to our home planet’s centrality. In 1920, the question of whether there could be other “island universes” — galaxies — was the subject of the Great Debate between two astronomers. In the 1970s, when Mars was shown to have a pink sky, not blue, reporters booed. Their reaction “reflects our wish for Mars to be just like the Earth,” said astronomer Carl Sagan afterward. And in the 1990s, astronomers almost missed extrasolar planets hiding in their data because they had tailored their search techniques to find planets more like those in our own solar system.

    But turning our focus from Earth has opened our minds to new possibilities, new universes, new places where life might exist. The next century of astronomy could bring better views of our cosmic origins and new strategies for finding worlds that other creatures call home.

    The misperceptions of decades past suggest scientists should be careful when predicting just what we’ll find in the future.

    “You learn a lot of humility in this business,” says planetary scientist Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute, based in Tucson. “You always learn a lot more when you’re wrong than when you’re right.”

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!
    There was a problem signing you up.

    More than the Milky Way

    At the turn of the 20th century, conventional wisdom held that the Milky Way stood alone. It contained stars, sometimes organized in clusters, and fuzzy patches of light known as nebulae. That was about it.

    Some nebulae had spiral structures, “appearing in the telescope like vast Fourth-of-July pinwheels,” as Science News Letter, the predecessor of Science News, described them in 1924. In the 18th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant had described nebulae as “higher universes,” or, “so to speak, Milky Ways.” But by the early 1900s, most astronomers thought that drawing that parallel was ridiculous.

    “No competent thinker,” wrote historian of astronomy Agnes Clerke in 1890, can “maintain any single nebula to be a star system of coordinate rank with the Milky Way.”

    By the 1920s, though, that view was already being challenged. As early as 1914, astronomer Heber Curtis of Lick Observatory in California argued that spiral nebulae are not part of the Milky Way, but rather “inconceivably distant galaxies of stars or separate stellar universes so remote that an entire galaxy becomes but an unresolved haze of light.”

    Around the same time, Shapley, of Mount Wilson Observatory in California, began to prove that the Milky Way itself was inconceivably vast.

    Shapley built on work by Henrietta Leavitt, one of a group of women “computers” at Harvard University who pored over photographic plates capturing the night sky. In studying photographs of the Magellanic Clouds, which we now know are two small galaxies that orbit the Milky Way, Leavitt noticed that certain stars varied in brightness over time, some of them in a peculiar way. “It is worthy of notice,” she wrote in 1908, that “the brighter variables have the longer periods.” In other words, brighter stars twinkled more slowly.

    In the early 1900s, astronomer Henrietta Leavitt discovered a feature of certain stars, called Cepheid variables, that helped other astronomers measure cosmic distances. Those stars ultimately helped prove that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies.Photo by Margaret Harwood, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection, Shapley Collection

    That meant that these variable stars, called Cepheids, could be used to estimate cosmic distances. It’s hard to tell how far away a cosmic object truly is — bright-looking stars could be intrinsically dim but close, while faint-looking stars could be intrinsically bright but distant. But all the Cepheids within the same cloud should be roughly the same distance from Earth. That meant “their periods are apparently associated with their actual emission of light,” Leavitt wrote in 1912. To figure out any Cepheid’s true brightness, all an astronomer had to do was measure its twinkling speed. It was a short step from there to figuring out its distance.

    Shapley put this fact to use just a few years later, measuring distances to Cepheids within globular clusters of stars to figure out the sun’s position in the Milky Way. To his surprise, the sun was not in the center of the galaxy but off to one side. The Milky Way’s starry disk was also about 10 times wider than previous astronomers had assumed: about 300,000 light-years across, according to his calculations. (He overshot a bit; modern astronomers think it’s somewhere between 120,000 and 200,000 light-years.)

    He and Curtis took their opposing views to the public at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., in April 1920, in an event that became known as the Great Debate. Each had 40 minutes to present their views on whether there is only one or several universes — what we now think of as galaxies.

    Shapley, who was in his 30s and considered a rising star in the field, went first. A former journalist who reportedly was uncomfortable speaking to crowds, he read his argument from a typewritten script. He barely touched on the question of other universes, focusing instead on his new measurements of the Milky Way’s size. The implication was that the Milky Way was too large for other galaxies to make sense.

    Curtis was an older, well-respected authority on spiral nebulae, as well as a gifted speaker. He argued for the then-standard view that the Milky Way was much smaller than Shapley supposed. But even a large Milky Way shouldn’t negate the possibility of other, equally large galaxies, he argued. The spectra of light coming from spiral nebulae was similar enough to that of the Milky Way that they could be similar objects, he maintained.

    Both astronomers were partly right, and partly wrong.

    Galaxies come into view

    The Great Debate was resolved by a young astronomer named Edwin Hubble working at Mount Wilson. Hubble also used Leavitt’s Cepheid variable technique to measure cosmic distances, this time by finding the variable stars in the spiral nebulae themselves.

    Hubble started observing the Andromeda nebula, one of the brightest nebulae on the sky, in the fall of 1923. He used Mount Wilson’s 60-inch telescope and its 100-inch telescope, then the world’s largest. Over the next year or so, he studied 35 Cepheids in Andromeda and a different nebula called Triangulum. Their periods were long enough that the nebulae had to be on the order of a million light-years away for the stars to appear so faint. (We now know it’s more like 2.5 million light-years to Andromeda and 2.7 million to Triangulum.)

    Astronomer Edwin Hubble, shown here holding a drawing of a galaxy, proved that there are other galaxies outside of the Milky Way.Hale Observatories, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

    “Measuring the distance to Andromeda was a big deal because it was the first evidence that there are galaxies beyond our own,” says astronomer Emily Levesque of the University of Washington in Seattle. “It changed what we thought of as the shape of our universe.”

    A few hints that the Milky Way was not alone had cropped up before that, but Hubble’s finding clinched it. Even if the Milky Way was as big as Shapley claimed, Andromeda lay outside its borders. When Shapley received Hubble’s paper, he reportedly said, “Here is the letter that destroyed my universe.”

    Science News Letter reported Hubble’s finding under the headline “Sky Pinwheels Are Stellar Universes 6,000,000,000,000,000,000 Miles Away” in December 1924 (SN: 12/6/24, p. 2).

    “It seems probable that many of the smaller spiral nebulae are still more remote and appear smaller on this account,” the story quotes Hubble as saying. “The portion of the universe within the range of our investigation consists of vast numbers of stellar galaxies comparable to our own, scattered about through nearly empty space and separated from one another by distances of inconceivable magnitude.” Here at last was the modern view of the universe.

    By the end of the decade, Hubble had not only shown that the spiral nebulae were “island universes,” he also had begun to classify different galaxy types and think about how they evolved over time. What’s more, he showed that galaxies were flying away from each other at speeds proportional to their distance. In other words, the universe was expanding.

    By the end of the century, astronomers knew that the universe was dotted with billions of galaxies of all shapes and sizes. In April 1990, NASA launched the first optical space telescope into Earth’s orbit, giving the world a new perspective on space.

    “Instead of these blurry blobs from even the best mountaintop observatories on our planet,” says planetary scientist Jim Bell of Arizona State University in Tempe, “all of a sudden the entire realm of solar system, galaxy, extragalactic … was opened up by getting above the atmosphere.”

    NASA named the telescope after the scientist who opened astronomers’ minds to the existence of such a universe: the Hubble Space Telescope.

    The images it has captured over 30 years of operations — star clusters, galaxies and nebulae — are so iconic they are printed on everything from socks and coffee mugs to high fashion runway designs. The telescope itself was recently immortalized in Lego form.

    “It’s the one that literally everyone has heard of,” says Levesque. Most people today think Hubble was “the guy who built the telescope.”

    One image from early on in the space telescope’s tenure stands out. In December 1995, the telescope’s director, Robert Williams, decided to train the observatory on a tiny, dark patch of sky near the handle of the Big Dipper for 10 consecutive days. The resulting portrait of this featureless bit of sky revealed thousands of previously unknown galaxies sending their light from farther away than astronomers had ever seen before (SN: 1/20/96, p. 36). The universe as Edwin Hubble had imagined it, chock-full of island universes, was captured in one hard look.

    As for Henrietta Leavitt, she missed out on the recognition she deserved for helping knock the Milky Way from its central perch. A Swedish mathematician wrote to her in 1925 saying that her work “has impressed me so deeply that I feel seriously inclined to nominate you to the Nobel Prize in physics for 1926.” He received a reply from Shapley, by then director of the Harvard College Observatory: Leavitt had died four years earlier.

    Steps to Mars

    The first liquid-fueled rockets, precursors to the ones that later carried robots and people into space, launched in the 1920s. A century later, robots have flown past, orbited or landed on every planetary body that was known in 1920, and a few that weren’t. People have walked on the moon and have lived in space for more than a year at a time. And serious talks about sending people to Mars are in the works.

    NASA used to explore other worlds in a clear order, first observing with telescopes and then carrying out increasingly complex missions: flybys, orbiters, landers, rovers, then people and sample returns. “We’ve taken that entire progression on the moon, in [the last] century,” Bell says. “Sometime in this new century, we’ll add Mars to that list. All the rest of the solar system, we’ve got large chunks of that matrix checked off.”

    After the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, space launches came fast and furious. Many were demonstrations of political and military might. But a lot of them had scientific merit, too. The Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft photographed the farside of the moon in 1959 — shortly after NASA’s founding. Spacecraft flew past Venus and Mars in the 1960s, sending back the first closeup data on their alien atmospheres and surfaces.

    That same decade, humans landed on the moon and brought back rocks, opening a wide and detailed window into the history of the solar system. The lunar samples from the Apollo missions gave scientists a way to figure out how old planetary surfaces are around the solar system, taught us that the entire inner solar system was bombarded with impacts in its youth and gave us an origin story for the moon (SN: 7/6/19 & 7/20/19, p. 18).

    “Until we started the space program, we really had no idea what the geology was on other places,” says Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute. “Early in the century, they were still debating whether the craters on the moon were impact craters or volcanic calderas. Even right there in our own backyard, we didn’t know what was going on.”

    And extraterrestrial geology was surprising. Without meaning to, planetary scientists had based a lot of their expectations for other worlds on the Earth. The cover of Science News from June 1976, the month before NASA’s Viking 1 lander became the first long-lived spacecraft to land softly on Mars, showed Mars with a Cheez Whiz–colored desert under a clear blue sky. In the sleep-deprived rush to release the first color images sent back by Viking 1, scientists processed the image to produce a blue sky there, too.

    Before NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft landed on Mars in July 1976, Science News and others envisioned the Red Planet with a blue sky. Mars’ sky is actually a dusty yellowish-pink.

    But the day after the landing, James Pollack of the imaging team told reporters that the Martian sky was actually pink, probably thanks to scattered light from dust particles suspended in the air.

    “When we found the sky of Mars to be a kind of pinkish-yellow rather than the blue which had erroneously first been reported, the announcement was greeted by a chorus of good-natured boos from the assembled reporters,” Sagan later wrote in the introduction to his popular book Cosmos. “They wanted Mars to be, even in this respect, like the Earth.”

    Still, the Viking 1 and 2 landings brought Mars down to Earth, so to speak. “Mars had become a place,” Viking project scientist Gerald Soffen said in an interview for a NASA historical project published in 1984. “It went from a word, an abstract thought, to a real place.”

    In some ways, the Viking landers’ views of Mars were disappointing. The mission’s central goal was explicitly to search for microbial life. It was “a long shot,” journalist Janet L. Hopson wrote in Science News in June 1976 (SN: 6/5/76, p. 374). But “even if no signs of life appear, [biologists] stand to gain their first real perspective on terrestrial biochemistry, life origins and evolution.”

    The results of the Viking mission’s life-detection experiments were inconclusive, a finding almost worse than a true negative.

    NASA subsequently pulled back from seeking life directly. The next 45 years of Mars missions searched for signs of past water, potentially habitable environments and organic molecules, instead of living organisms. All of those features turned up in data from the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers in the 2000s and 2010s.

    Now, NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed in February 2021, is hunting for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will cache rock samples that a future mission will bring back to Earth. And the joint Russian and European space agencies’ ExoMars rover — named Rosalind Franklin, after the chemist whose work was central to discovering DNA’s structure — aims to seek molecular signatures of life on Mars and just below the surface after it launches in 2022.

    Sagan predicted in 1973 that if he had been born 50 years in the future, the search for life on Mars would have already been completed. Today, 48 years later, we’re still looking.

    The first image taken on the surface of Mars, in July 1976, shows the footpad of NASA’s Viking 1 lander and the rocks of a basin called Chryse Planitia.NASA

    Almost 45 years later, the small helicopter Ingenuity landed with the Perseverance rover and became the first robot to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere. Its blades span 1.2 meters.JPL-Caltech/NASA, Arizona State Univ.

    Exotic moons

    The year after the Vikings landed on Mars, another pair of spacecraft launched to check almost the entire rest of the solar system off scientists’ must-see list. Astronomers realized that in 1977, the planets would line up in such a way that a spacecraft launched that year could reach Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune one by one, stealing a little angular momentum from each world as it went along. The mission was dubbed Voyager (SN: 8/27/77, p. 132).

    “There’s never been anything like it, and there never will be again,” says Bell, of Arizona State. “It was comparable to the voyages of Magellan or Darwin or Lewis and Clark. Just an absolutely profound mission of discovery that completely changed the landscape of planetary science in this century.”

    Voyager’s views of the outer solar system forced scientists to think outside of the “Earth box,” says Hansen, who worked on the mission. “The Voyager imaging team, bless their hearts, they would make predictions and then they’d be wrong,” she says. “And we would learn something.”

    Hansen recalls chatting with a member of the imaging team when the spacecraft was approaching Jupiter and its dozens of moons. “He said, ‘Candy, we will see craters on [moons] Io and Europa, because we know from the density that those are rocky worlds. But not on Ganymede and Callisto, because those are ice,’ ” she recalls. Instead, the images showed Ganymede and Callisto were covered in craters. “That was an aha moment — ice is going to act like rock at those temperatures.” Meanwhile, ocean-swathed Europa and molten Io had almost no craters.

    The moons of Jupiter presented “a whole, previously unimagined family of exotic worlds, each radically different not only from its companions, but also from everything else in the planet-watcher’s experience,” journalist Jonathan Eberhart wrote in Science News in April 1980 (SN: 4/19/80, p. 251).

    Before 1979, Earth was the only geologically active, rocky world scientists knew about. But Voyager changed that view, too. A member of Voyager’s optical navigation team, Linda Morabito, spotted an odd, mushroom-shaped feature extending off the edge of Io while she was trying to plot the spacecraft’s position on March 9, 1979. She consulted with the science team, and they soon realized they were looking at a gigantic volcanic plume. Io was erupting in real time.

    Three planetary scientists had predicted Io’s fire before the plumes were discovered. The three suggested the moon was heated by a gravitational tug-of-war between Jupiter and one or two of its other moons, Europa and Ganymede.

    But most of the planetary science community was stunned. “We take gravity for granted here. It keeps our feet on the ground,” Hansen says. “But gravity molds and shapes so many things in so many unexpected ways.”

    Voyager and subsequent missions to the outer planets, like Galileo at Jupiter in the 1990s and Cassini at Saturn in the 2000s, transformed our view of the solar system in another profound way. They revealed several surprising parts of the solar system where life might exist today.

    Voyager hinted that Europa might have a liquid water ocean beneath an icy shell. Galileo strengthened that idea, and suggested the ocean might be salty and have contact with the moon’s rocky core, which could provide chemical nutrients for microbial life. NASA is now developing a mission to fly past Europa. “I will not be surprised if life is somehow discovered on Europa in my lifetime, or in this century,” Bell says.

    Spacecraft have revealed that some moons let their insides out. Jupiter’s moon Io (left) spurts plumes of magma as high as 390 kilometers into the air. Jupiter’s moon Europa (center) and Saturn’s moon Enceladus (right) both host subsurface seas and may vent water into space.From left: JPL-caltech/NASA, Univ. of Arizona; JPL-Caltech/NASA, SETI Institute; JPL-caltech/NASA, Space Science Institute

    Spacecraft have revealed that some moons let their insides out. Jupiter’s moon Io (top) spurts plumes of magma as high as 390 kilometers into the air. Jupiter’s moon Europa (center) and Saturn’s moon Enceladus (bottom) both host subsurface seas and may vent water into space.From top: JPL-caltech/NASA, Univ. of Arizona; JPL-Caltech/NASA, SETI Institute; JPL-caltech/NASA, Space Science Institute

    Shortly after the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004, scientists realized that the tiny moon Enceladus vents dramatic plumes of water vapor, dust and ice crystals into space from a hidden subsurface sea. That moon also looks like a good place for life.

    If the last century of exploring the solar system was about coming to grips with alien geology, Hansen says, this coming century is going to be about oceanography — getting a grip on the strange seas in our own solar system.

    “I think that’s going to shape a lot of the research going forward,” Hansen says. Now that it’s clear these moons have oceans, researchers will ask if they are habitable, and eventually, if they are inhabited.

    Exoplanets detected

    The first planet spotted outside our solar system — an exoplanet — was so different from anything in our solar system that astronomers weren’t hunting for anything like it.

    “Knowing that there are actually planets around other stars now seems so trivial to say,” says exoplanet observer Debra Fischer of Yale University. “But we had arguments in 1995 about whether other stars have planets.”

    So when astronomer Michel Mayor of the Geneva Observatory turned his spectrograph on the sky in April 1994, he kept quiet about his hopes of finding true exoplanets. He was more likely to find brown dwarfs, failed stars that never grew massive enough to burn hydrogen.

    His instrument used a clever new way to hunt for other worlds, called the radial velocity technique. Previous exoplanet hunters had looked directly for a star’s motion in response to the gravity of an orbiting planet, watching to see if the star would move back and forth in the sky. That technique had led to several planetary claims, even dating back to 1855, but none of them had held up. Those motions are tiny; Jupiter’s influence moves the sun by just 12 meters per second.

    Instead, Mayor and others studied a shift in the wavelength of starlight as a star moved to and fro. As a star approaches us, the light shifts to shorter, or bluer, wavelengths; as it moves away, the light grows redder. Calculating the velocity of a star’s back-and-forth motion, astronomers could figure out the minimum mass and length of the year of whatever was tugging that star.

    The shifts Mayor was looking for were still minuscule. The search was considered futile, and fringe — like looking for little green men. So astronomers who explicitly claimed to be searching for planets had a hard time scheduling observations at telescopes. Brown dwarfs, on the other hand, were considered legitimate science, and would be easier to detect.

    So the world was astounded when, in October 1995, Mayor and his student Didier Queloz reported strong evidence not of a brown dwarf, but of a true planet orbiting the sunlike star 51 Pegasi, about 50 light-years from our solar system.

    The new planet was weird. It seemed to be about half the mass of Jupiter, too puny to be a brown dwarf. But it orbited the star once every 4.23 Earth days, putting it incredibly close to its star. There’s nothing like that in our solar system, and astronomers had no idea how it could exist.

    “The news flashed through the astronomical community like a lightning bolt,” wrote journalist Ron Cowen in Science News, in the first of three stories on the new planet he would write within a month (SN: 10/21/95, p. 260).

    51 Peg b, as it came to be known, launched a new era. “It means planets exist around other sunlike stars, we can find them, and they might be the exciting ones,” says Yale anthropologist Lisa Messeri, who has studied how astronomers create worlds out of pixels and spectra. “Firsts are exciting because they promise there will be seconds and thirds and fourths.”

    The search was on. A group from San Francisco quickly found two more planets hiding in data the researchers hadn’t finished analyzing yet. Those next two planets, 70 Vir b and 47 UMa b, were also more massive and closer to their stars than expected.

    The existence of these three worlds, which were named hot Jupiters because their close-in orbits should make them sizzle, upended the paradigm for what a planet could be like. Clearly, our solar system was not the template for the universe.

    Yet for a few years after 51 Peg b was announced, astronomers debated whether the planet was really there. Maybe the star’s apparent back-and-forth was just its outer atmosphere breathing in and out. Those debates waned as more planets were discovered, but it took a new technique to really convince everyone.

    Astronomers had predicted at least back to the 1850s that some planets would pass in front of their stars from the perspective of Earth. As it crossed, or transited, the face of its star, a planet could reveal its presence by blocking a little bit of the star’s light.

    But if other solar systems are like ours, transits would be incredibly difficult to detect. Our planets are too small and too far from the sun to cast a large shadow. Hot Jupiters, on the other hand, should block way more of a star’s light than any planets in our solar system. With the discovery of 51 Peg b, transits seemed not only possible to detect, but almost easy.

    The first transiting extrasolar planet revealed itself in 1999, when then-Harvard graduate student David Charbonneau drove to Colorado to do his thesis work with astronomer Tim Brown. Brown had built a tiny telescope on a friend’s farm north of Boulder, setting up the computers in a repurposed turkey coop, to search for transiting planets. By the time Charbonneau arrived, however, the farm had been sold and the telescope relocated to a lab site.

    To practice the technique, Charbonneau aimed Brown’s telescope at a star, called HD 209458, that already had a suspected planet. The star’s light dimmed by about 1 percent, and then it shone bright again. That was a clear sign of a planet about 32 percent wider than Jupiter.

    That discovery ended all doubts about the existence of exoplanets, says Fischer, who had worked with the exoplanet-hunting group in San Francisco. “It happened like that,” Fischer says, with a finger snap. The combined size and mass of the planet unambiguously ruled out brown dwarfs or other exotic explanations. “It walks like a Jupiter, talks like a Jupiter, it’s a Jupiter.”

    There was another advantage to the transit method: It can show the composition of a planet’s atmosphere. Planets detected by the wobble technique were “little more than phantoms,” Cowen wrote in Science News in 2007. They were too small to be seen, and too close to the star to be photographed directly.

    “Everyone had assumed that if you wanted to [detect] the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet, you’d have to image it,” Charbonneau told Science News. But starlight filtering through a transiting planet’s sky could reveal what gases surround the alien world without the need for a snapshot.

    Hunt for habitable planets

    Transits soon overtook wobbles as the most fruitful planet-finding strategy. That was mostly thanks to the launch of NASA’s Kepler space telescope in March 2009.

    Kepler’s mission was explicitly about finding other Earths. For nearly four years, the telescope stared at 170,000 stars in a single patch of sky to catch as many transiting planets as it could. In particular, its operators were hoping for Earth-sized planets in Earthlike orbits around sunlike stars — places where life could conceivably exist.

    The years that followed were a boom time for planet finders. By the end of its nearly 10-year run, Kepler had confirmed almost 2,700 planets and thousands more potential planets. Findings went beyond the hot Jupiters to worlds the size of Earth and planets in the “habitable zone,” where temperatures could be right for liquid water.

    Discoveries came so quickly that a single new world stopped being a news story. Kepler’s data shifted from revealing new worlds one by one to taking an exoplanet census. It showed that hot Jupiters are not actually the most common type of planet; they were just the easiest ones to spot. The most common type makes no appearance in our solar system: worlds between the size of Earth and Neptune, which may be rocky super-Earths or gaseous mini-Neptunes.

    And Kepler revealed that there are more planets in the galaxy than stars. Every one of the billions and billions of stars in the Milky Way should have at least one world in its orbit.

    But the telescope never really achieved the goal of finding another Earth. Kepler required three transits to confirm a world’s existence. That means the telescope had to stare for at least three years to find a planet orbiting at Earth’s exact distance.

    By 2013, after four years of observing, half of Kepler’s stabilizing reaction wheels had failed. The telescope couldn’t maintain its unblinking view of the same part of the sky. Mission scientists cleverly reprogrammed the telescope to look at other stars for shorter spans of time. But most of the planets found there orbited closer to their stars than Earth does, meaning they couldn’t be Earth twins.

    Finally, Kepler ran out of fuel in 2018, with no true Earth analog in sight.

    Messeri recalls an exoplanet conference at MIT in 2011 where a lot of the conversation was about finding a twin of Earth.

    “It was a peak of excitement — maybe we’re going to find this planet in the next three years, or five years. It felt close,” she says. “What’s interesting is, in the 10 years since then, it still feels that close.”

    But astronomers had already realized they might not need a true Earth analog to find a planet where life could exist. Rocky worlds orbiting smaller, dimmer stars than the sun are easier to find, and might be just as friendly to life.

    Charbonneau again was ahead of the curve, having started a program called MEarth in 2008 to hunt for habitable planets around puny M dwarf stars using eight small telescopes in Arizona (plus another eight in Chile that were added in 2014). Within six months, Charbonneau and colleagues had found a super-Earth dubbed GJ 1214b that is probably a water world — maybe a bit too wet for life.

    The European Southern Observatory started the TRAPPIST, for TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope, survey from La Silla, Chile, in 2010. Another telescope, at Oukaïmeden Observatory in Morocco, came online to search for planets orbiting Northern Hemisphere stars in 2016. Among that survey’s discoveries is the TRAPPIST-1 system of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a single M dwarf star, three of which might be in the habitable zone (SN: 3/18/17, p. 6).

    The star TRAPPIST-1 hosts seven planets (shown in an artist’s illustration) that all probably have a rocky composition. At least three of the planets could have temperatures that are good for life.JPL-Caltech/NASA

    NASA’s successor to Kepler, TESS, or Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, has been scanning the entire sky since April 2018 for small planets orbiting bright nearby stars, including M dwarfs. It spotted more than 2,200 potential planets in its first full-sky scan, scientists announced in March 2021.

    These days, astronomers are joining up with scientists across disciplines, from planetary scientists who study hypothetical exoplanet geology to microbiologists and chemists who think about what kinds of aliens could live on those planets and how to detect those life-forms. That’s a big shift from even 10 years ago, Messeri says. In the early 2010s, no one was talking about life.

    “You weren’t allowed to say that,” she says. “Astronomers would whisper it to me during fieldwork, but this was not a search for aliens.”

    Exoplanet astronomy is on firmer ground now. Its leading figures have won MacArthur “genius” grants. Pioneer planet finders Mayor and Queloz won the 2019 Nobel Prize in physics. The work is no longer hidden away in conferences that are actually about stars. “It doesn’t have to legitimize itself anymore,” Messeri says. “It’s a real science.”

    The promise that transiting planets can reveal the contents of their alien atmospheres may soon be fulfilled. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope may launch this year, after many years of delays. One of its first tasks will be to probe the atmospheres of transiting planets, including those of TRAPPIST-1.

    If anything is alive on those absolutely alien, unearthly worlds, maybe the next century will bring it to light. More

  • in

    The latest picture of a black hole captures Centaurus A’s massive jets

    The Event Horizon Telescope is expanding its portfolio of black hole images.

    In 2019, the telescope unveiled the first image of a black hole, revealing the supermassive beast 55 light-years from Earth at the center of galaxy M87 (SN: 4/10/19). That lopsided orange ring showed the shadow of the black hole on its glowing accretion disk of infalling material. Since then, observations from the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, have yielded more detailed views of M87’s black hole (SN: 9/23/20). Now, EHT data have revealed new details of the supermassive black hole at the heart of a galaxy near our own, called Centaurus A.

    Rather than zooming in close enough to see the black hole’s shadow, the new picture offers the clearest view yet of the powerful plasma jets erupting from the black hole. This perspective gives insight into how supermassive black holes blast such plasma jets into space, researchers report online July 19 in Nature Astronomy.

    “It’s a fairly impressive feat,” says radio astronomer Craig Walker of capturing the new high-resolution image. “These [jets] are some of the most powerful things in the universe,” says Walker, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, N.M., who was not involved in the work. Because such superfast plasma streams are thought to influence how galaxies grow and evolve, astronomers are keen to understand how the jets form (SN: 3/29/19).

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!
    There was a problem signing you up.

    Researchers pointed the global network of radio dishes that make up the EHT at Centaurus A for six hours in April 2017, during the same observing run that delivered the first picture of a black hole (SN: 4/10/19). About 12 million light-years from Earth, Centaurus A is one of the brightest galaxies in the sky and is known for the huge jets expelled by its central black hole.

    “They extend to pretty much the entire scale of the galaxy,” says Michael Janssen, a radio astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. “If we were to see radio light [with our eyes], and we were to look at the night sky, then we would see these jets of Centaurus A as a structure that is 16 times bigger than the full moon.”

    Using the EHT, Janssen and colleagues homed in on the base of those jets, which gush out from either side of the black hole’s accretion disk. The new image is 16 times as sharp as previous observations of the jets, probing details less than one light-day across — about four times the distance from the sun to Pluto. One of the most striking features that the image reveals is that only the outer edges of the jets seem to glow.

    The supermassive black hole in the galaxy Centaurus A launches two jets of plasma in opposite directions (zoomed-out view of the jets at left). In a new close-up view taken by the Event Horizon Telescope (at right; estimated location of the black hole indicated with an arrow), the jet moving toward Earth points toward the image’s top left, with two bright edges and a dark center. The jet moving away from Earth, also bright only at the edges, points toward the bottom right.M. Janssen et al/Nature Astronomy 2021

    “That’s still a puzzle,” Janssen says. One possibility is that the jets are rotating, which might cause material in some regions of the jets to emit light toward Earth, while others don’t. Or the jets could be hollow, Janssen says.

    Recent observations of a few other galaxies have hinted that the jets of supermassive black holes are brighter around the edges, says Denise Gabuzda, an astrophysicist at University College Cork in Ireland, who wasn’t involved in the work. “But it’s been hard to know whether it was a common feature, or whether it was something quirky about the few that had been observed.”

    The new view of Centaurus A’s black hole provides evidence that this edge-brightening is common, Gabuzda says. “It’s fairly rare to be able to detect the jets coming out in both directions, but in the images of Centaurus A … you can clearly see that both of them are brighter at the edges.”

    The next step will be to compare the EHT image of Centaurus A with computer simulations based on Einstein’s general theory of relativity, to test how well relativity holds up in this extreme environment, Janssen says. Examining the polarization, or orientation, of the light waves emanating from Centaurus A’s jets could also reveal the structure of their magnetic fields — just as polarization revealed the magnetism around M87’s black hole (SN: 3/24/21). More

  • in

    Lakes of liquid water at Mars’ southern ice cap may just be mirages

    Maybe hold off on that Martian ice fishing trip. Two new studies splash cold water on the idea that potentially habitable lakes of liquid water exist deep under the Red Planet’s southern polar ice cap.

    The possibility of a lake roughly 20 kilometers across was first raised in 2018, when the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft probed the planet’s southern polar cap with its Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding, or MARSIS, instrument. The orbiter detected bright spots on radar measurements, hinting at a large body of liquid water beneath 1.5 kilometers of solid ice that could be an abode to living organisms (SN: 7/25/18). Subsequent work found hints of additional pools surrounding the main lake basin (SN: 9/28/20).

    But the planetary science community has always held some skepticism over the lakes’ existence, which would require some kind of continuous geothermal heating to maintain subglacial conditions (SN: 2/19/19). Below the ice, temperatures average –68° Celsius, far past the freezing point of water, even if the lakes are a brine containing a healthy amount of salt, which lowers water’s freezing point. An underground magma pool would be needed to keep the area liquid — an unlikely scenario given Mars’ lack of present-day volcanism.

    “If it’s not liquid water, is there something else that could explain the bright radar reflections we’re seeing?” asks planetary scientist Carver Bierson of Arizona State University in Tempe.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    In a study published in the July 16 Geophysical Research Letters, Bierson and colleagues describe a couple other substances that could explain the reflections. Radar’s reflectivity depends on the electrical conductivity of the material the radar signal moves through. Liquid water has a fairly distinctive radar signature, but examining the electrical properties of both clay minerals and frozen brine revealed those materials could mimic this signal.

    Adding weight to the non-lake explanation is a study from an independent team, published in the same issue of Geophysical Research Letters. The initial 2018 watery findings were based on MARSIS data focused on a small section of the southern ice cap, but the instrument has now built up three-dimensional maps of the entire south pole, where hundreds to thousands of additional bright spots appear.

    “We find them literally all over the region,” says planetary scientist Aditya Khuller, also of Arizona State University. “These signatures aren’t unique. We see them in places where we expect it to be really cold.”

    Creating plausible scenarios to maintain liquid water in all of these locations would be a tough exercise. Both Khuller and Bierson think it is far more likely that MARSIS is pointing to some kind of widespread geophysical process that created minerals or frozen brines.

    While previous work had already raised doubts about the lake interpretation, these additional data points might represent the pools’ death knell. “Putting these two papers together with the other existing literature, I would say this puts us at 85 percent confidence that this is not a lake,” says Edgard Rivera-Valentín, a planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston who was not involved in either study.

    The lakes, if they do exist, would likely be extremely cold and contain as much as 50 percent salt — conditions in which no known organisms on Earth can survive. Given that, the pools wouldn’t make particularly strong astrobiological targets anyway, Rivera-Valentín says. (SN: 5/11/20).

    Lab work exploring how substances react to conditions at Mars’ southern polar ice cap could help further constrain what generates the bright radar spots, Bierson says.

    In the meantime, Khuller already has his eye on other areas of potential habitability on the Red Planet, such as warmer midlatitude regions where satellites have seen evidence of ice melting in the sun. “I think there are places where liquid water could be on Mars today,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s at the south pole.”  More

  • in

    Souped-up supernovas may produce much of the universe’s heavy elements

    Violent explosions of massive, magnetized stars may forge most of the universe’s heavy elements, such as silver and uranium.

    These r-process elements, which include half of all elements heavier than iron, are also produced when neutron stars merge (SN: 10/16/17). But collisions of those dead stars alone can’t form all of the r-process elements seen in the universe. Now, scientists have pinpointed a type of energetic supernova called a magnetorotational hypernova as another potential birthplace of these elements.

    The results, described July 7 in Nature, stem from the discovery of an elderly red giant star — possibly 13 billion years old — in the outer regions of the Milky Way. By analyzing the star’s elemental makeup, which is like a star’s genetic instruction book, astronomers peered back into the star’s family history. Forty-four different elements seen in the star suggest that it was formed from material left over “by a special explosion of one massive star soon after the Big Bang,” says astronomer David Yong of the Australian National University in Canberra.

    The ancient star’s elements aren’t from the remnants of a neutron star merger, Yong and his colleagues say. Its abundances of certain heavy elements such as thorium and uranium were higher than would be expected from a neutron star merger. Additionally, the star also contains lighter elements such as zinc and nitrogen, which can’t be produced by those mergers. And since the star is extremely deficient in iron — an element that builds up over many stellar births and deaths — the scientists think that the red giant is a second-generation star whose heavy elements all came from one predecessor supernova-type event.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Simulations suggest that the event was a magnetorotational hypernova, created in the death of a rapidly spinning, highly magnetized star at least 25 times the mass of the sun. When these stars explode at the end of their lives as a souped-up type of supernova, they may have the energetic, neutron-rich environments needed to forge heavy elements.

    Magnetorotational hypernovas might be similar to collapsars — massive, spinning stars that collapse into black holes instead of exploding. Collapsars have previously been proposed as birthplaces of r-process elements, too (SN: 5/8/19).

    The researchers think that magnetorotational hypernovas are rare, composing only 1 in 1,000 supernovas. Even so, such explosions would be 10 times as common as neutron star mergers today, and would produce similar amounts of heavy elements per event. Along with their less energetic counterparts, called magnetorotational supernovas, these hypernovas could be responsible for creating 90 percent of all r-process elements, the researchers calculate. In the early universe, when massive, rapidly rotating stars were more common, such explosions could have been even more influential.

    The observations are impressive, says Stan Woosley, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the new study. But “there is no proof that the [elemental] abundances in this metal-deficient star were made in a single event. It could have been one. It could have been 10.” One of those events might even have been a neutron star merger, he says.

    The scientists hope to find more stars like the elderly red giant, which could reveal how frequent magnetorotational hypernovas are. For now, the newly analyzed star remains “incredibly rare and demonstrates the need for … large surveys to find such objects,” Yong says. More