39 Light Years: Part One

Image: Ben Roberts. Produced with Universe Sandbox

Sometime in the early 2000s, this place was still a speck of data in some astronomers brain. The announcement of a system of seven earth-sized planets was pretty big. The further revelation of three of those worlds sitting within their stars habitable zone was the icing on the cake.

As the first intelligent explorers approach TRAPPIST-1e, we present to you these images: the culmination of decades of waiting, hoping that return transmissions from the TRAPPIST-1 mission wouldn’t get lost in interstellar space. There were those who worried that anything beamed back by the missions wouldn’t even make it out of the system. TRAPPIST-1 is a red dwarf star: a tiny relic of a thing but incredibly ancient. Age estimates range from 8 to 12 billion years old. Red dwarf stars tend to be nasty little suckers, and TRAPPIST-1 is no exception. Extreme solar flare activity sometimes hits the system, as the parent star has a tantrum. Communication from the system is nothing short of a miracle. Nevertheless, here are some of the better images we’ve managed to glean from the stream of data being sent back. Thirty nine years worth. Thirty nine years of waiting.

Approach: A New Red Planet

The very first direct images of TRAPPIST-1 and it’s rocky retinue were messy little blobs of pixels.

Of course, many exoplanets (and exomoons) had been imaged directly using a variety of techniques. The use of coronagraphs to scrape together images from points of light across impossible distances was revealing new vistas for a long time. The following image was taken all the way back in 2004:

A disc of debris around the red dwarf star AU Microscopii. Image: Hubblesite.org

Of course, progress marched on, and as missions approached the system the world waited for new images. A first blurry image sped across the galactic neighbourhood:

A TRAPPIST-1 planet caught in transit across the host star. The faded object to left of centre is an artifact of the imaging process.

This image was a first test. As the mission approached the system, we began seeing more. High quality imaging was held off until final approach, in the interests of energy efficiency.

An infrared and monochromatic direct light image, taken from a distance of approximately 11 AU. Images: Ben Roberts

TRAPPIST-1e was waiting for us.

Image: Ben Roberts

Imaging of exoplanets is explored in a new video, presenting the concept of coronagraphy. Help astrobiology reach the world (this and others) by checking it out. Subscribe and share if you like.

This post is the first of a series taking us on a trip to a real alien world, and speculating on just what it could be like, using real world astrobiology. I hope you like it!

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The Last Ecosystem

Fragments of ancient life, spotted by explorers in a new system..

I’ve been working on some more astrobiology art. It’s taken on a life of its own, and I have to say, I’m paying more attention to these images than my YouTube channel!

I’ve been enamoured lately of dead or dying worlds. A recent video on my channel talked about the amazing possibility of limestone fragments orbiting the white dwarf star SDSSJ1043+0855. Ever since reading of this it’s captured my imagination. The notion that life has existed long ago, possibly before life began on earth bears thinking about.

Limestone is a mineral produced primarily by organisms which produce shells, using a matrix that incorporates calcium carbonate. In the early days of multicellularity, as the predator-prey paradigm took hold of Darwinian evolution, an ancestor of today’s molluscs discovered how to make use of an upsurge in calcium levels in the oceans. It used it to produce a protective suit of armour. This trick was so successful that molluscs became incredibly abundant. So abundant, in fact, that their remains ended up as vast deposits of limestone.

To the present day.

Using spectroscopy, the three elements that comprise calcium carbonate: carbon, oxygen and calcium have been detected in the upper atmosphere of this particular white dwarf. By themselves they aren’t a smoking gun. It’s also fair to point out that limestone can form abiotically. Limestone deposits in subterranean caves are one example. However, the vast majority of limestone on earth is biologically produced.

The “limestone” orbiting this star is believed to be embedded in the fragments of a large rocky object. We know nothing about this world, only that it probably existed and (possibly) limestone comprised part of it. Is it a fossil, spotted across the light years by modern humans? How long ago did this world harbour life? White dwarf stars (which aren’t technically stars! Find out why here) have been discovered which are nearly as old as the universe.

Earth is 4.6 billion years old. What of the world currently being torn up by the immense gravity of this white dwarf?

Dead worlds could be scattered across the galaxy.

It would be interesting to look forward and see how our own world eventually will die. For now, this white dwarf star and it’s companions are a way to look ahead at what may befall us. It’s believed that eventually the earth will become incapable of supporting life, as the sun begins to undergo senescence billions of years from now. What iterations will the terrestrial biosphere take over such a vast stretch of time? Will life start over? Are these “fossil” fragments within this unnamed rocky world pieces of its last ecosystems?

What will the last ecosystem on earth be?

Keeping a Lid on Life?

A comment on a facebook post I put up a few days ago got me thinking about habitability. Moreover, I got to thinking about the parameters of habitability.

We think that life here on earth is fragile, holding on to a thin silicate crust within a fairly narrow range of temperatures and conditions. For the most part it is. Life needs a fairly stable environment in order to keep on keeping on. However, there are plenty of examples of oddballs: extremophiles, that seem to do quite well in some pretty horrible places. The recent discovery of Antarctic microbes that derive energy from air itself expands the catalogue of organisms that could have analogues on other worlds.

Now, extremophiles do well in extreme environments. No brainer there, and there is no shortage of extreme environments in our solar system alone.

Venus is an example, and a good one. Analogous to Earth in size, density, gravity and composition, it differs markedly in others. No magnetic field, no water (at 0.002% of the atmosphere not worth mentioning), surface temperatures that melt lead, and atmospheric pressure ninety two times what we’re used to here. It’s horrible.

Why?

No plate tectonics. On earth we slowly sail about the globe on slabs of continental crust, which happen to be more buoyant than the thicker, denser oceanic crust. Driven by convection of magma in the mantle, crust is slowly pushed hither and thither by tectonic processes such as seafloor spreading.

To understand what this is, imagine a pot of something thick like soup or porridge on a stove top. As the contents of the pot heat up they begin to stir. Have you ever noticed when this begins to happen that as the surface begins bubbling the top layer is forced aside as new material wells up from below? This is seafloor spreading in a nutshell. Magma from within the earth wells up, heated by a radioactive core, and pushes the seafloor aside as it breaks through, forming new crust. The continental plates, perched atop this moving crust, slowly journey across the planet.

Why is this so important to life on Earth? Because our planets interior is so hot, plate tectonics (along with volcanism) is the primary means by which excess heat is released over time. If this didn’t happen, well, you wouldn’t be here reading this and there would be two Venuses in our solar system instead of one.

Venus, or any one of billions of hellish worlds in the Galaxy? Studying worlds like this gives us insights into life here on earth, because it shows just how unlivable other places can be.

For reasons unknown, Venus shut down. It’s core stopped spinning, it’s magnetic field dwindled to nothing and radiation from the sun began a process of stripping the planet of water. Water is a true miracle ingredient. Not only is it a solvent for biological processes, it’s also a lubricant for plate tectonics. Venus seized up and overheated: exactly like a car without oil will do.

A stagnant lid world is one which has no plate tectonics. Climate is seriously affected by such a situation. With no means of escape, heat builds up within, and eventually it becomes an exo-Venus: scorching hot.

Researchers looking at the issue of habitability on exoplanets have looked at the implications of a stagnant lid regime for the possibility of life. Whilst it would obviously be different to life on earth, other factors can lend habitability to a planet.

These other possibilities are exciting indeed. I’ve been exploring astrobiology through images, producing a bunch of pictures. They will be appearing over the next few posts, so I hope you enjoy them. They’re doing well on Instagram!

Thank you for reading the ramblings of a space nerd. The universe is just too intetesting to ignore.

Talk later!

P.S.

Check out my channel!

All images: ©Benjamin Roberts

Sailed the Ocean Blue

It’s been estimated that a good percentage of planets beyond our solar system may be water worlds.

We here on mother Earth like to think of our blue green marble as a water world. Indeed it is watery, and water is pretty much the reason anything lives here at all. That’s why astrobiologists naturally seek signs of water on exoplanets. “Follow the Water” is a central tenet in the search for extraterrestrial life.

But compared to some worlds, earth really isn’t that waterlogged at all. It’s 0.002 percent water by mass. Only a tiny fraction of that water is available to terrestrial life. That water which isn’t directly involved in biological processes is linked to them, linking life to the planet via seasons and climate.

Some exoplanets are believed to be up to fifty percent water! These are true ocean worlds. To date, up to thirty five percent of exoplanets larger than may be covered by vast layers of water that may or may not harbour life. The jury is well out on that, but the idea is intriguing (and tempting) as the traditional definition of habitable zones is being stretched and reinterpreted.

A water world with a thick atmosphere of steam.

For now, we have only our imaginations with which to explore these worlds…

An aerial view of remote coastline on a hypothetical watery exoplanet.

A new video!

Life in Transit

Interstellar pollution. Free floating organics infused by starlight and beginning their ascension towards life.

Imagination is an important part of science, for without it there would be no curiosity. Here we ponder the theory of panspermia. At it’s essence panspermia is a theory which posits that life on earth (or at least it’s building blocks) came from space. How did it get here? Ancient earth was infected in a sense. Compounds and molecules useful to life were brought here by comets or asteroids and dispersed by impacts.

It is only a theory, but it makes sense in several ways. Recent research gives some credence to it. Decide for yourself. I personally believe that terrestrial biogenesis and panspermia can both contribute equally to debate over the origin of life.

My channel needs you!

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClvBq6G-DkIlKci7xXdWYzA

Translations

More images.

I’ve been thinking some of these may look good as posters. Thoughts anyone? They provide another way to reach people, as I myself continue to explore and learn about a truly incredible topic.

I like the look and think my channel will finally benefit from a coherent look and vibe. The retro font works for me, and the surreal, fantastic feel of the pictures is my jam.

Channel News

A new video exploring the possibility of directly imaging exoplanets is coming very soon!

Here is a snippet; sans sound or effects just yet!

More coming.

Images of Astrobiology

The universe is turning out to be a more interesting place with each passing day for me. It’s not all about reading research articles and trawling the internet for interesting news in the vast field that is astrobiology.

I’ve been working on images related to various themes in astrobiology. This field really is a playground for the imagination, and it has something for everyone….

Recent news of a relic subsurface biosphere just beneath the surface of Mars…

Our ones and zeroes formed in starlight?

Something really special here: possible traces of limestones found in the fragments of objects orbiting a nearby white dwarf star…

 

Differing definitions of the Habitable Zone further push the limits of life in the universe..

Svante Arhenius, a swedish chemist and early pioneer of the theory of panspermia..

Ruminations on the code (codes?) that make life possible. How many languages does life have in the Universe?

Does the chemical rich, pitch black seabed of Europa host life? Does that of Enceladus?

 

The first image I created. I hope you’ve like these. There will be more! By the way, the background for this image comes from an online simulator called Goldilocks, by Jan Willem Tulp. His work can be found here. It’s really cool.

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