This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to three researchers for their contributions to two unique fields.
Half of the 9 million Swedish krona (A$1.34 million) award goes to James Peebles, a Canadian cosmologist at Princeton University, “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology.”
The other half is split between two Swiss astronomers, Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva, and Didier Queloz from the University of Geneva and University of Cambridge, “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.”
Göran Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said that together, these contributions provide us with an “understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos.”
Peebles’ theoretical calculations have allowed cosmologists to interpret the cosmic microwave background (CMB), leftover radiation from the aftermath of the universe’s birth 13.8 billion years ago. Discovered by accident more than 50 years ago, the CMB represents a goldmine for cosmologists, containing secrets to the universe’s origins, age, and composition.
While Peebles’ theoretical framework has provided the key to unlocking the secrets of the CMB, it has also left cosmologists with an even bigger question—one that revolves around the composition of the universe.
Currently, regular matter—the stuff that makes up the stars, the planets, and everything on Earth—is believed to comprise only 5% of the total mass and energy in the universe. The remainder includes a mixture of dark matter (25%), a mysterious form of matter that is invisible to traditional observational techniques, and dark energy (70%), which is thought to be the reason for the universe’s expansion.
While these “dark” components remain mostly elusive, the pioneering work of US astronomer Vera Rubin proved almost beyond doubt that dark matter exists. Rubin’s ideas revolutionised cosmology, but sadly she never won a Nobel Prize and passed away in 2016.
Mayor and Queloz were honoured for their 1995 discovery of an exoplanet – a planet outside our Solar system—orbiting a Sun-like star.
Using custom-made instruments on the Observatoire de Haute-Provence telescope in France, Mayor and Queloz observed a distant star in the constellation Pegasus, called 51 Pegasi, and found it to be wobbling.
This wobble is caused by the gravitational effects of a planet tugging on its host star and is observable via the changing nature of the star’s light. When viewed by a distant observer, the wobble affects the star’s light spectrum. If the star is moving towards an observer, its spectrum appears slightly shifted towards the blue end, but if it is moving away, it is shifted towards the red end.
By looking at these “Doppler shifts” using an observational method known as radial velocity, astronomers can not only detect the presence of a planet, but also estimate its mass and orbital period (the length of the planet’s “year”).
Mayor and Queloz discovered a Jupiter-mass planet, dubbed 51 Pegasi b. Its orbital period was just 4.2 days, compared with Earth’s 365-day journey around the Sun. This itself was a surprise, as astronomers didn’t expect such a massive planet to orbit so quickly and closely around its host star. The discovery gave rise to the nickname “hot Jupiter” for these types of planets, and heralded a new era of exoplanet research.
Today, more than 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered in the Milky Way galaxy, with many more expected in the years to come. Besides giving astronomers new insights into how our Solar system and its planets formed and evolved, exoplanet research may also answer the ultimate question of whether we are alone in the universe.
Cosmic theorist and planet-hunters share physics prize as Nobels reward otherworldly discoveries (2019, October 9)
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Interstellar visitor is reddish, new study finds – CBC.ca
In a new study published in Nature Astronomy on Monday, astronomers are pulling back the curtain on some of the mysteries behind our solar system’s first confirmed interstellar comet.
The comet, 2I/Borisov, was discovered by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov on Aug. 30, though its orbit was unknown.
But by the end of September, the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center confirmed that the comet came from beyond our solar system.
Because Borisov is so distant — 420 million kilometres from Earth — it’s difficult to determine a lot of its characteristics. However, this new study, the astronomers were able to determine a few of its interesting qualities.
Using two telescopes, the Gemini North Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and the William Herschel Telescope in La Palma, Spain, they were able to determine that the nucleus, or core, is roughly one kilometre in diameter.
They also identified a short tail and an extended coma, or cloud of debris that gives comets their fuzzy appearance. And they determined its colour.
“We found this colour of the comet is almost the same as other colour of the typical comets in our solar system,” said co-author of the paper Piotr Guzik, an astronomer at the Astronomical Observatory at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. “It’s not red like Mars … it’s just a bit more red light in its spectrum than the blue light.”
In another study, researchers also found that Borisov contained cyanogen, which is made up of a carbon atom and a nitrogen atom that are bonded. It is a poisonous gas to us, but commonly found in comets.
Second interstellar visitor
Borisov is the second known object to come from another star system.
While ‘Oumuamua was detected on its way out of the solar system, Borisov was detected on its way in, which means astronomers will be able to study this one for some time.
“The next year is going to be extremely exciting, as we will be able to follow 2I’s evolution as it zooms through our solar system,” said Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory, in a statement. “In comparison, we had only a few weeks to study ‘Oumuamua before it became too faint.”
So far, the Borisov findings suggest it isn’t very different from our own local comets, something that Guzik believes could shed light on exoplanets, which orbit other stars.
“Such objects are just part of other planetary systems. It was not until, I guess, around 1990 that we found the first planet systems around other stars, and now part of such a system is here,” Guzik said. “So we can investigate some material that left some planetary system and compare it to what we see here and probably learn something about the formation of other planetary systems.”
Though the recent study found cyanogen, Guzik said that he’s hopeful that, as the comet gets nearer the sun, astronomers will discover more about its composition.
“It will be very interesting to find out more, especially what’s driving its activity,” he said.
Borisov will reach perihelion — its closest approach to the sun — on Dec. 7, when it will be roughly 300 million kilometres away.
Guzik also hopes that, eventually, astronomers will be able to determine its home star system.
“It would be really nice to know where it originated,” Guzik said. “If we could point to the star and say, ‘This is the star.'”
Asteroid news: Did alien space rock dust cloud spark new life on Earth? – Express.co.uk
Scientists have now posited an asteroid disintegration once blanketed Earth with dust millions of years ago. It is thought the cosmic event dramatically cooled Earth, triggering an ice age followed by significant increases of new animals. The work, led by Professor Birger Schmitz of Sweden’s Lund University, provides new insight into the impact of extraterrestrial events on Earth’s evolution.
The asteroid expert told the Observer: “We know about the 6 mile (10km) asteroid that crashed on Earth 67 million years ago and killed off the dinosaurs, but this event was very different.
“It occurred about 470 million years ago when an asteroid 3,000 times bigger than the dinosaur-killer was destroyed during a collision with another asteroid beyond the orbit of Mars.
“It filled the solar system with dust and caused a major dimming of sunlight falling on Earth.”
The theory is a reduction in radiation made the planet’s temperatures drop significantly.
This triggered a succession of ice ages, meaning water froze, ice caps spread and sea levels dropped.
This created isolated shallow seas which were an ideal breeding ground for generating new species.
Cold water also holds more dissolved oxygen, which would also have boosted speciation.
Scientists are already aware ice ages appeared around this time and life underwent a spike in biodiversity, particularly in the oceans.
The first coral reefs began to grow then and peculiar tentacled predators called nautiloids first appeared.
This is called as the great Ordovician bio-diversification event (GOBE).
Scientists have argued over GOBE’s cause but now Professor Schmitz, who studying space dust particles in seabed sediments, believes it was triggered by asteroid dust clouds.
He said: “The sediments laid down at this time are rich in the isotope helium-3 – which they could only have picked up travelling through space. It is a crucial clue.”
READ MORE: NASA chief reveals nuclear ‘game changer’
Professor Rebecca Freeman, of the University of Kentucky, told Science how she agreed with the idea.
She said: “Other scientists have backed his idea. “It isn’t necessarily the answer to every question we have about GOBE, but it certainly ties together a lot of observations.”
Professor Schmitz’s research has also caused interest for another reason.
As the world warms dangerously, some scientists have proposed spreading a veil of dust hovering in space over the Earth, reflecting sunlight away from our overheating planet.
But the idea is controversial with critics because it could have unexpected side-effects.
Now evidence shows such an experiment occurred naturally 470 million years ago.
The result was a major change in our meteorology and the evolution of life here.
Professor Schmitz added: “It is certainly worth bearing in my mind in coming years.”
Alien life possibly found on Mars in 1970s, ex-NASA scientist says – Fox News
In the article, Gilbert Levin, who worked on the Viking missions to the Red Planet during that decade, makes it clear that he believes data from the Labeled Release (LR) in 1976 was supportive of finding life.
“On July 30, 1976, the LR returned its initial results from Mars,” Levin wrote in the op-ed, entitled “I’m Convinced We Found Evidence of Life on Mars in the 1970s.”
“Amazingly, they were positive. As the experiment progressed, a total of four positive results, supported by five varied controls, streamed down from the twin Viking spacecraft landed some 4,000 miles apart.”
He continued: “The data curves signaled the detection of microbial respiration on the Red Planet. The curves from Mars were similar to those produced by LR tests of soils on Earth. It seemed we had answered that ultimate question.”
The LR, which was led by Levin, took samples of Martian soil that contained organic compounds and looked for carbon dioxide. Astonishingly, the results seemed to indicate that the carbon dioxide was “being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as on Earth.”
Fox News has reached out to NASA for comment for this story.
However, Levin seemed to criticize the space agency for not following up on the LR findings, even if NASA concluded that it “found a substance mimicking life, but not life.”
“Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA’s subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results,” he continued. “Instead the agency launched a series of missions to Mars to determine whether there was ever a habitat suitable for life and, if so, eventually to bring samples to Earth for biological examination.”
NASA has made subsequent visits to Mars, including the InSight lander, which landed in November 2018. The Curiosity rover, which has been on Mars since August 2012, detected a surprising spike in the level of methane that it has not yet been able to explain.
Last November, NASA announced that it had picked a landing spot for its upcoming Mars 2020 mission, a rover that will not include “a life-detection test,” Levin wrote.
“With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern,” said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in a June statement. On Earth, methane is produced both biologically and geologically.
Levin pleaded for the space agency to put “life detection experiments on the next Mars mission possible” to be more precise in their hunt for life, but in also keeping “with well-established scientific protocol.” He also wants an independent group of scientists to review the Viking LR data.
“Such an objective jury might conclude, as I did, that the Viking LR did find life,” Levin concluded. “In any event, the study would likely produce important guidance for NASA’s pursuit of its holy grail.”
The newly published op-ed is not the first time Levin has suggested that life was found on Mars. In 1997, he published “his conclusion that the LR had, indeed, discovered living microorganisms on the Red Planet,” according to his website.
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