Exploring Mysterious Worlds In ‘The Hunt For Planet B’

If the universe is a seemingly endless desert, planet Earth is just a grain of sand. The mere thought can send you down an existential rabbit hole. But I like to look at the universe and consider all of the possibilities just awaiting discovery. Astronomers have yet to find a solar system quite like ours. And of the thousands of known exoplanets, none quite match up with the planets in our cosmic backyard. But scientists have only just begun to scratch the surface of these planets outside the solar system. The next step is looking inside of them.

After years of delays, the Webb telescope is scheduled for launch December 18 from French Guiana. It will study exoplanets in new ways and look deeper into the universe than ever before.
The telescope’s name is not without controversy, and many still hope NASA will change it.
Webb will peer into the very atmospheres of exoplanets, some of which are potentially habitable. For those of you who submitted questions about the mission, we’ve tracked down answers from the experts.

Webb is ready to help us understand the origins of the universe and begin to answer key questions about our existence, such as where we came from and if we’re alone in the cosmos.
Other worlds

Oh, the places Webb will go! The telescope will look at varied objects, like stars and galaxies in the distant universe and planets in our own solar system, but many associate Webb with exoplanets.

Once it launches, the telescope will undergo months of setup to prepare for taking observations a million miles from Earth. Then, the magic begins.

The observatory is slated to look at the TRAPPIST-1 system, which includes seven Earth-size exoplanets orbiting a cool dwarf star about 40 light-years away.
But astronomers are also eager to investigate still other mysterious exoplanets, like those between the sizes of Earth and Neptune. No known planet like this exists in our solar system — but they are the most common exoplanet in our galaxy. Now, scientists want to know how they formed.

Across the universe

Scientists agree that for humankind, there is likely no Planet B. We must do everything we can to take care of Earth because they say it’s the only world for us. But looking ahead, it’s a question astronomers puzzle over: If Planet B exists, what might it be like?

Some believe it will be a true Earth twin where life forms in much the same way as it does here.
Others hope we’ll learn life can form in a variety of ways. When looking at the diversity of exoplanets around different types of stars, that doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
And then there is an even more intriguing idea: What if life didn’t begin on Earth at all, but somewhere else?

Fantastic creatures

If you’ve been working from home in the pandemic, chances are your pet has grown used to extra quality time — which makes the separation anxiety that much tougher once you’re back in the office.

Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, a lecturer in animal-computer interaction at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, has set out to change that with the DogPhone. Unlike other pet tech, DogPhone allows dogs to call their owners.

She tested her invention on Zach, her black Labrador retriever, by hiding a sensor inside a ball. If the ball is moved, it triggers a computer video call. The results are promising.
Ocean secrets

It’s time to go to the twilight zone — the one in the ocean. This region, before daylight gives way to the perpetual dark of the deep sea, is as mysterious to us as space.

The more researchers learn, the more they realize the animals that inhabit it play a critical role in regulating the Earth’s climate. Here, beautiful and bizarre creatures migrate up and down daily.
This zone has a surprising advocate: filmmaker James Cameron.

“It acts as this giant carbon pump that’s pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and taking it down into the deep ocean,” Cameron told CNN. It’s just one of many reasons he wants to preserve this region, the largest biomass on our planet.

Largest Known Comet Is Heading Close Enough To Us To Become Visible

Astronomers have discovered the largest known comet, and it’s about a thousand times more massive than others.  Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein, so named because it was found by University of Pennsylvania department of physics and astronomygraduate student Pedro Bernardinelli and Professor Gary Bernstein, is between 62 to 124 miles (100 to 200 kilometers) across. The team announced the discovery in June. This unusual comet will make itsclosest approach to our sun in 2031, but you’ll likely need a large amateur telescope to see it.  The giant comet, also known as C/2014 UN271, is from the outskirts of our solar system and has been making its way toward our sun for millions of years. This is also the most distant comet to be discovered on its inbound journey, which will provide scientists a chance to observe and study it for years to come.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein was found in six years of data collected by the Dark Energy Camera, which is located on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. The data collected by this camera feeds into The Dark Energy Survey, a collaboration of more than 400 scientists across seven countries and 25 institutions. The camera, also known as DECam, is helping to map 300 million galaxies across the night sky — but it also captures glimpses of comets and trans-Neptuinan objects, or icy celestial bodies that reside along the outskirts of the solar system, beyond Neptune’s orbit.

Bernardinelli and Bernstein used algorithms at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to identify trans-Neptunian objects. During their work, the astronomers traced 32 detections to one object. Comets are icy relics that were kicked out of the solar system when the giant planets formed and migrated to their current configurations. As comets approach our sun during their orbits, their ices evaporate, creating their signature appearance.

Comets include a nucleus, or the solid “dirty snowball” at its center. Comas are the gaseous clouds that form around the nucleus as the comet’s ices evaporate. The evaporating gas and dust is pushed behind the comet as well, creating two tails illuminated by sunlight. These tails can be hundreds or even millions of miles in length. Images of the object taken between 2014 and 2018 did not show a cometary tail. But within the past three years, the object grew a tail, which officially makes it Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein.

Observations made using the Las Cumbres Observatory network of telescopes around the globe helped confirm the status of the active comet. “Since we’re a team based all around the world, it just happened that it was my afternoon, while the other folks were asleep. The first image had the comet obscured by a satellite streak, and my heart sank. But then the others were clear enough and gosh: there it was, definitely a beautiful little fuzzy dot, not at all crisp like its neighbouring stars!” said Michele Bannister, astronomer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, in a statement.

The comet’s journey started over 3.7 trillion miles (6 trillion kilometers) away from the sun, or 40,000 astronomical units. The distance between Earth and the sun is one astronomical unit. For reference, Pluto is 39 astronomical units from the sun. The comet came from the OortCloud of objects, an isolated group of icy objects that are more distant than anything else in our solar system. Scientists believe this is where comets come from, but they have never actually observed an object within the OortCloud.

The OortCloud is located between 2,000 and 100,000 astronomical units from the sun. Eventually, NASA spacecraft like Voyager 1 and 2, as well as New Horizons will reach the OortCloud. But by the time they do, their power sources will have been dead for centuries. Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is currently about 1.8 billion miles (3 billion kilometers) away — about the distance of Uranus from the sun– and at its closest point in 2031, it will be just a bit more than Saturn’s distance to the sun.

“We have the privilege of having discovered perhaps the largest comet ever seen — or at least larger than any well-studied one — and caught it early enough for people to watch it evolve as it approaches and warms up,” Bernstein said in a statement. “It has not visited the planets in more than 3 million years.” This unusual opportunity to study an inbound comet will allow astronomers a chance to better understand the origin and composition of the comet. It may be just one of many giant comets originatingin the OortCloud.