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Interstellar object approaching our solar system

Interstellar object approaching our solar system

In the year 2017, an interstellar space object spurted across our solar system. It was named Oumuamua. It was the first time we had ever detected an interstellar object passing through the solar system and its unusual shape was evocative of the artificial vessel in Rendezvous with Rama science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke. Presently, a Ukrainian has found an object zooming through our solar system that has been confirmed as a comet — and this is something that the sun is unlikely to capture.

The comet, named C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), was caught on the night of September 9-10 by the Gemini North Telescope’s Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph. The picture manifested a very articulated tail indicating outgassing and confirming that the object is a comet. This is another first, with C/2019 Q4 being the first interstellar visitor to form a tail due to outgassing.

Comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) is likely our second interstellar visitor after Oumuamua. Gennady Borisov found it. The coma can already be detected by scientists— the blurred ice and dust trail that spins off the comet as it approaches the sun and starts to melt. And contrary to’ Oumuamua, Q4 is still approaching Earth. While it will not be nearer than 180 million miles, until December 7 it will not achieve that point. We have more time to watch this ancient visitor, and there are hopes that from the coma of debris it sheds we can detect hints about its origin. We didn’t identify Oumuamua until it was out of our solar system already, but C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) was picked up previously.


“This is the first highly active object that we’ve seen coming in from something that formed around another star,” Michele Bannister, an astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast, explained to National Geographic.

Andrew Stephens, an astronomer who works with the Gemini Observatory, was responsible for coordinating the observations. As he remarked:

“This image was possible because of Gemini’s ability to rapidly adjust observations and observe objects like this, which have very short windows of visibility. However, we had to scramble for this one since we got the final details at 3:00 am and were observing it by 4:45!”

Comets such as C/2019 Q4 aren’t notable— at any given moment there are an estimated 10,000 bits of interstellar debris in orbit between here and Neptune. But this material is small and highly hard to observe. It is much more unusual to identify parts of incoming interstellar objects. We don’t have comprehensive comet pictures yet because the present core is so tiny in diameter ranging from 1.2 to 10 miles. It should be noticeable through April 2020 with mid-powered telescopes, but after that date only with professional telescopes will be observed. C/2019 Q4 is supposed to disappear from perspective by October 2020 — assuming, of course, it’s not something entirely different.

Comets in the solar system might share the same place of origin

Comets in the solar system might share the same place of origin

According to new research, all comets might come from the same place. Astronomer Christian Eistrup from Leiden University used chemical models on fourteen widely known comets only to find a clear pattern. 

Comets move through the solar system and they are made of dust, ice, and small rocks. Their nuclei can span as wide as several kilometers. Some of them have strange orbits around the Sun and have also hit Earth in the past. Eistrup said that the composition of comets is very well known and are usually considered as icy balls. So he wanted to find out if they actually belong to one group or are divided by several subsets. 

Eistrup’s research team also included Ewine van Dishoeck, Kavli Prize winner who created models for predicting the chemical composition of protoplanetary discs, which are flat discs made of dust and gas encompassing younger stars. These discs help in knowing about the formation of stars and planets. These were now applied to comets. Ewine along with Eistrup used statistics to understand if there was a particular place in the solar system where the models meet the comets’ data. It turned out that all the fourteen comets showed the same result. Each comet could be described by only one model indicating that their common origin. The work can be found here.

The origin is near to our Sun at a time when a protoplanetary disc encircled it while the formation of the planets took place. The model suggests a zone that is farther from the Sun’s nucleus and where the temperature varies in the range of 21 to 28 Kelvin, a very low temperature where CO (carbon monoxide) turns into ice. There are several reactions that are taking place in the ice phase in the time frame of a hundred thousand to million years. This explains different comets with different types of compositions. 

The orbits of the comets vary since some of the comets might have been disturbed by planets like Jupiter, which explains the varied nature of the orbits. 

Eistrup wants to test the hypothesis on many more comets as the current sample size is pretty small, only fourteen. He hopes that astronomers studying the solar system and its origins can use his results which can provide them with new insights, hence he is interested to discuss this model with other comet researchers. 

We still do not how life started on our planet. However, the chemistry of the comets could be responsible for some of life’s building blocks. Life could start with the right comet hitting the right planet accompanied by a suitable environment. Understanding comets could lead to understanding the origin of life on our planet. 

ZTF Spots Asteroid with Shortest Year 2019 LF6

ZTF Spots Asteroid with Shortest Year

Astronomers have spotted an unusual asteroid with the shortest “year” known for any asteroid. The rocky body, dubbed 2019 LF6, is about a kilometre in size and circles the sun roughly every 151 days. In its orbit, the asteroid swings out beyond Venus and, at times, come closer in than Mercury, which circles the sun every 88 days. 2019 LF6 is one of only 20 known “Atira” asteroids, whose orbits fall entirely within Earth’s.

“You don’t find kilometre-size asteroids very often these days,” says Quanzhi Ye, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech who discovered 2019 LF6 and works with Tom Prince, the Ira S. Bowen Professor of Physics at Caltech and a senior research scientist at JPL, and George Helou, the executive director of IPAC, an astronomy center at Caltech.

“Thirty years ago, people started organizing methodical asteroid searches, finding larger objects first, but now that most of them have been found, the bigger ones are rare birds,” he says. “LF6 is very unusual both in orbit and in size—its unique orbit explains why such a large asteroid eluded several decades of careful searches.”

2019 LF6 was discovered via the Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, a state-of-the-art camera at the Palomar Observatory that scans the skies every night for transient objects, such as exploding and flashing stars and moving asteroids. Because ZTF scans the sky so rapidly, it is well-suited for finding Atira asteroids, which have short observing windows.

“We only have about 20 to 30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset to find these asteroids,” says Ye.

To find the Atira asteroids, the ZTF team has been carrying out a dedicated observing campaign, named Twilight after the time of day best suited for discovering the objects. Twilight was developed by Ye and Wing-Huen Ip of the National Central University in Taiwan. So far, the program has discovered one other Atira asteroid, named 2019 AQ3. Before 2019 LF6 came along, 2019 AQ3 had the shortest known year of any asteroid, orbiting the sun roughly every 165 days.

“Both of the large Atira asteroids that were found by ZTF orbit well outside the plane of the solar system,” says Prince. “This suggests that sometime in the past they were flung out of the plane of the solar system because they came too close to Venus or Mercury,” says Prince.

In addition to the two Atira objects, ZTF has so far found around 100 near-Earth asteroids and about 2,000 asteroids orbiting in the Main Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Ye says he hopes the Twilight program will lead to more Atira discoveries, and he looks forward to the possible selection by NASA of the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) mission, a proposed spacecraft designed to look for asteroids closer to the sun than previous surveys. NEOCam would pick up the infrared, or heat, signatures of asteroids. (Ye works at IPAC, which would process and archive data for the NEOCam mission, but is not part of that team.)

“Because Atira asteroids are closer to the sun and warmer than other asteroids, they are brighter in the infrared,” says Helou.”NEOCam has the double advantage of its location in space and its infrared capability to find these asteroids more easily than telescopes working at visible wavelengths from the ground.”

The International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center listing for 2019 LF6 is at https://minorplanetcenter.net/mpec/K19/K19M45.html.

Materials provided by the California Institute of Technology

nasa kepler planetary system

18 Earth Sized Exoplanets detected by astronomers

Humans are always looking for traces of life beyond the Earth. They look for Earth-sized planets which may have an Earth-like atmosphere to search for traces of life. A group of researchers from Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), the Georg August University of Göttingen, and Sonneberg Observatory have recently observed around 18 Earth-sized planets beyond the solar system. The research was published in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Some of them are believed to have conditions suitable for life and were previously overlooked. This came to light after analyzing the data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. They are expecting close to 100 more exoplanets after analyzing the data even more. There are close to 4000 planets outside our solar system and 96% are said to be bigger than our Earth. It is not accurate as smaller planets are harder to track down than bigger planets. Small world planets can be potentially habitable planets and 18 newly discovered planets are Earth-sized.

Scientists look for a transit method to look out for stars with periodically recurring faint dips in star’s light and we can observe this if a star happens to have a planet whose orbital plane is aligned with line of sight of Earth and only then the planet blocks a small fraction of light as it passes in front of the star, once per orbit.

Standard algorithms search for sudden drops in brightness but in reality, when a planet moves in front of a star it blocks less starlight than at mid-way of the transit. Maximum dimming occurs at the center of the transit. For larger planets, the dip it produces is pretty obvious, even if the algorithm is searching for a sudden dip. Thus smaller planets are difficult to differentiate from normal fluctuations of stars.

The research team has decided to test as to what may be the result if they use a more gradual light curve in detecting planets than a sudden dip in brightness. They applied the algorithm to K2 Kepler Mission which resulted in the finding of 18 new planets, however, they are found to be non-habitable as they are orbiting very close to their stars and temperatures are expected to be as high as 100-1000 degrees Celsius.

The lone exception was EPIC 201238110.02, orbiting a red dwarf, which is placed in a habitable zone which is not too hot or not too cold. Planets like these have been found before but they have their own set of problems, when orbiting a red dwarf star, they usually spew out a lot of flares and radiation which could be deadly for nearby planets. However, this is a usual observation and not always true in reality. The Kepler archive has data set for thousands of stars and the newly implemented algorithm will keep looking for new Earth-like planets.

Would you like to go to these planets in other solar system and live there? Tell us with a short and quick comment.

Read more news about exoplanets:

  1. Rare-Earth elements detected in the atmosphere of an exoplanet for the first time
  2. NASA’s TESS detects Earth-sized planet for the first time
Magnificent CME Solar eruption of plasma

Researchers discover mystery of exotic material in Sun’s atmosphere

A group of researchers from Ireland and France have declared an important finding on the behaviour of matter in the highly extreme conditions of the atmosphere of Sun. They used radio telescopes and UV cameras on a spacecraft of NASA for knowing about the exotic “fourth state of matter” about which very less is known. This state of matter called plasma may be significant in the development of safe, green and environment-friendly nuclear generator. The results of the study have been published in the Nature Communications journal.

Although the matter we encounter in our daily lives can be differentiated to either solid, liquid or gas, the Universe is majorly made of plasma. It is an extremely unstable fluid which is also highly electrical in nature. Even the Sun is composed of plasma. However, the irony lies in the fact that although the plasma is the most common state of matter in the Universe, human beings have a vague idea of it. Reason being its scarcity on Earth, which makes it difficult to understand.

Laboratories on Earth try to simulate the conditions of space however the Sun is the natural laboratory in which the behaviour of plasma can be understood, which is not possible for the ones attempted on Earth.

Dr Eoin Carley, a Postdoc researcher at the Trinity College Dublin who led the joint collaboration said that the sun’s atmosphere has very extreme conditions with the temperatures of plasma soaring to excess of one million degrees Celsius and particles travelling very close to the speed of light. These particles shine very brightly at the radio wavelengths, hence the behaviour of the plasma can be monitored with the aid of large radio telescopes.

Scientists worked with the researchers at the Paris Observatory and the observations of the Sun were performed by a radio telescope situated in Nançay, central France. These observations were combined with the UV cameras mounted on the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. It was then seen that plasma on the Sun can eject pulses resembling those from the light house. Scientists were aware of this for many years but could observe it directly for the first time with the help of these highly advanced equipments.

The problem with nuclear fusion plasmas is that they are highly unstable. When the plasma starts producing energy, the reaction is switched off by natural processes. This indicates that it is difficult to produce energy while keeping the plasma stable. By learning about the instability of plasma on the Sun, scientists can learn how to control plasma.


NASA proposes a new mission to Neptune’s moon Triton

NASA has recently proposed to send a spacecraft to the largest moon of Neptune, Triton.

About Triton:
Triton – Neptune’s own natural satellite was the first Neptunian moon to be discovered. It was initially discovered in 1846 in the Month of October by the English astronomer William Lassell. Triton is the only moon in the solar system that has a retrograde orbit. A retrograde orbit moves in the direction that is completely opposite to the planet’s rotation. The surface is mostly made up of matter believed to be Nitrogen and has an icy-cold surface. Triton is therefore considered to be the coldest known object in the solar system, with surface temperatures of almost -235°C. Triton is also thought to harbor an ocean which can pave way for new life.

NASA’S project:
After the confirmation of a pending approval, we might be able to have a glimpse of what the Triton looks like. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory proposed a patent during a conference in Texas with a mission to send a spacecraft named “Trident” to Triton with the motive of finding out whether the Triton is, in fact, a habitable world for the people of the Earth or not. 

The last good glimpse we got of Neptune and Triton was during a 1989 flyby of NASA’s Voyager 2 which had to be the very first time any spacecraft had ever done in history. Below is the video of Triton captured by Voyager 2.

Rather than spending billions of dollars on the project, the proposed spacecraft called Trident aims to keep the costs down low and is roughly the “price of a small mission to the moon,” as it is mentioned in the daily report of the New York Times.

“The time is the best now to do it at a low cost,” quoted Louise Prockter at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. Prockter is the director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston and the principal investigator of the proposed mission to Triton. According to the reports, if the mission to the Triton becomes a successful one and if it gives positive results by proving that new life can be created up there, it will be a huge achievement for us.

The outer solar system routine visits are usually conducted as NASA flagship missions that cost billions of dollars, like the recently concluded Cassini mission to Saturn or the Europa Clipper spacecraft set for launch in the 2020s.

Although these missions produce significant achievements of great importance to mankind, less expensive missions also exist which might add up to the advanced study of planetary science.

On Mars, no single spacecraft was sent to do everything, but in aggregate and over time, the robots sent there revealed the planet’s watery and ocean-like past and set the stage for future astronauts to make a visit and follow up.

Keeping all that aside, let us hope that at least on Triton we find the existence of life in some form.