New Measurement Of Hubble Constant Adds To Cosmic Mystery


New measurements of the rate of expansion of the universe, led by astronomers at the University of California, Davis, add to a growing mystery: Estimates of a fundamental constant made with different methods keep giving different results.

“There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of mystification and from my point of view it’s a lot of fun,” said Chris Fassnacht, professor of physics at UC Davis and a member of the international SHARP/H0LICOW collaboration, which made the measurement using the W.M. Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

A paper about the work is published by the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The Hubble constant describes the expansion of the universe, expressed in kilometers per second per megaparsec. It allows astronomers to figure out the size and age of the universe and the distances between objects.

Graduate student Geoff Chen, Fassnacht and colleagues looked at light from extremely distant galaxies that is distorted and split into multiple images by the lensing effect of galaxies (and their associated dark matter) between the source and Earth. By measuring the time delay for light to make its way by different routes through the foreground lens, the team could estimate the Hubble constant.

Using adaptive optics technology on the W.M. Keck telescopes in Hawaii, they arrived at an estimate of 76.8 kilometers per second per megaparsec. As a parsec is a bit over 30 trillion kilometers and a megaparsec is a million parsecs, that is an excruciatingly precise measurement. In 2017, the H0LICOW team published an estimate of 71.9, using the same method and data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hints of new physics

The new SHARP/H0LICOW estimates are comparable to that by a team led by Adam Reiss of Johns Hopkins University, 74.03, using measurements of a set of variable stars called the Cepheids. But it’s quite a lot different from estimates of the Hubble constant from an entirely different technique based on the cosmic microwave background. That method, based on the afterglow of the Big Bang, gives a Hubble constant of 67.4, assuming the standard cosmological model of the universe is correct.

An estimate by Wendy Freedman and colleagues at the University of Chicago comes close to bridging the gap, with a Hubble constant of 69.8 based on the luminosity of distant red giant stars and supernovae.

A difference of 5 or 6 kilometers per second over a distance of over 30 million trillion kilometers might not seem like a lot, but it’s posing a challenge to astronomers. It might provide a hint to a possible new physics beyond the current understanding of our universe.

On the other hand, the discrepancy could be due to some unknown bias in the methods. Some scientists had expected that the differences would disappear as estimates got better, but the difference between the Hubble constant measured from distant objects and that derived from the cosmic microwave background seems to be getting more and more robust.

“More and more scientists believe there’s a real tension here,” Chen said. “If we try to come up with a theory, it has to explain everything at once.”

Additional authors on the paper are: Sherry Suyu, Inh Jee and Simona Vegetti, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Garching, Germany; Cristian Rusu, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Tokyo; James Chan, Vivien Bonvin, Martin Millon and Frederic Courbin, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland; Kenneth Wong and Alessandro Sonnenfeld, Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, Tokyo; Matthew Auger, University of Cambridge, U.K.; Stefan Hilbert, Exzellenzcluster Universe, Garching, Germany; Simon Birrer, Xuheng Ding, Anowar Shajib and Tommaso Treu, UCLA; Leon Koopmans and John McKean, University of Groningen, the Netherlands; David Lagattuta, Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon, France; Aleksi Holkala, Tuusula, Finland; and Dominique Sluse, Leiden University, the Netherlands.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Mars Once Had Salt Lakes Similar To Those On Earth


Mars once had salt lakes that are similar to those on Earth and has gone through wet and dry periods, according to an international team of scientists that includes a Texas A&M University College of Geosciences researcher.

Marion Nachon, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M, and colleagues have had their work published in the current issue of Nature Geoscience.

The team examined Mars’ geological terrains from Gale Crater, an immense 95-mile-wide rocky basin that is being explored with the NASA Curiosity rover since 2012 as part of the MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) mission.

The results show that the lake that was present in Gale Crater over 3 billion years ago underwent a drying episode, potentially linked to the global drying of Mars.

Gale Crater formed about 3.6 billion years ago when a meteor hit Mars and created its large impact crater.

“Since then, its geological terrains have recorded the history of Mars, and studies have shown Gale Crater reveals signs that liquid water was present over its history, which is a key ingredient of microbial life as we know it,” Nachon said. “During these drying periods, salt ponds eventually formed. It is difficult to say exactly how large these ponds were, but the lake in Gale Crater was present for long periods of time — from at least hundreds of years to perhaps tens of thousands of years,” Nachon said.

So what happened to these salt lakes?

Nachon said that Mars probably became dryer over time, and the planet lost its planetary magnetic field, which left the atmosphere exposed to be stripped by solar wind and radiation over millions of years.

“With an atmosphere becoming thinner, the pressure at the surface became lesser, and the conditions for liquid water to be stable at the surface were not fulfilled anymore,” Nachon said. “So liquid water became unsustainable and evaporated.”

The salt ponds on Mars are believed to be similar to some found on Earth, especially those in a region called Altiplano, which is near the Bolivia-Peru border.

Nachon said the Altiplano is an arid, high-altitude plateau where rivers and streams from mountain ranges “do not flow to the sea but lead to closed basins, similar to what used to happen at Gale Crater on Mars,” she said. “This hydrology creates lakes with water levels heavily influenced by climate. During the arid periods Altiplano lakes become shallow due to evaporation, and some even dry up entirely. The fact that the Atliplano is mostly vegetation free makes the region look even more like Mars,” she said.”

Nachon added that the study shows that the ancient lake in Gale Crater underwent at least one episode of drying before “recovering.” It’s also possible that the lake was segmented into separate ponds, where some of the ponds could have undergone more evaporation.

Because up to now only one location along the rover’s path shows such a drying history, Nachon said it might give clues about how many drying episodes the lake underwent before Mars’s climate became as dry as it is currently.

“It could indicate that Mars’s climate ‘dried out’ over the long term, on a way that still allowed for the cyclical presence of a lake,” Nachon said. “These results indicate a past Mars climate that fluctuated between wetter and drier periods. They also tell us about the types of chemical elements (in this case sulphur, a key ingredient for life) that were available in the liquid water present at the surface at the time, and about the type of environmental fluctuations Mars life would have had to cope with, if it ever existed.”

Ancient Stars Shed Light On Earth’s Similarities To Other Planets


Earth-like planets may be common in the universe, a new UCLA study implies. The team of astrophysicists and geochemists presents new evidence that the Earth is not unique. The study was published in the journal Science on Oct. 18.

“We have just raised the probability that many rocky planets are like the Earth, and there’s a very large number of rocky planets in the universe,” said co-author Edward Young, UCLA professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry.

The scientists, led by Alexandra Doyle, a UCLA graduate student of geochemistry and astrochemistry, developed a new method to analyze in detail the geochemistry of planets outside of our solar system. Doyle did so by analyzing the elements in rocks from asteroids or rocky planet fragments that orbited six white dwarf stars.

“We’re studying geochemistry in rocks from other stars, which is almost unheard of,” Young said.

“Learning the composition of planets outside our solar system is very difficult,” said co-author Hilke Schlichting, UCLA associate professor of astrophysics and planetary science. “We used the only method possible — a method we pioneered — to determine the geochemistry of rocks outside of the solar system.”

White dwarf stars are dense, burned-out remnants of normal stars. Their strong gravitational pull causes heavy elements like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen to sink rapidly into their interiors, where the heavy elements cannot be detected by telescopes. The closest white dwarf star Doyle studied is about 200 light-years from Earth and the farthest is 665 light-years away.

“By observing these white dwarfs and the elements present in their atmosphere, we are observing the elements that are in the body that orbited the white dwarf,” Doyle said. The white dwarf’s large gravitational pull shreds the asteroid or planet fragment that is orbiting it, and the material falls onto the white dwarf, she said. “Observing a white dwarf is like doing an autopsy on the contents of what it has gobbled in its solar system.”

The data Doyle analyzed were collected by telescopes, mostly from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, that space scientists had previously collected for other scientific purposes.

“If I were to just look at a white dwarf star, I would expect to see hydrogen and helium,” Doyle said. “But in these data, I also see other materials, such as silicon, magnesium, carbon and oxygen — material that accreted onto the white dwarfs from bodies that were orbiting them.”

When iron is oxidized, it shares its electrons with oxygen, forming a chemical bond between them, Young said. “This is called oxidation, and you can see it when metal turns into rust,” he said. “Oxygen steals electrons from iron, producing iron oxide rather than iron metal. We measured the amount of iron that got oxidized in these rocks that hit the white dwarf. We studied how much the metal rusts.”

Rocks from the Earth, Mars and elsewhere in our solar system are similar in their chemical composition and contain a surprisingly high level of oxidized iron, Young said. “We measured the amount of iron that got oxidized in these rocks that hit the white dwarf,” he said.

The sun is made mostly of hydrogen, which does the opposite of oxidizing — hydrogen adds electrons.

The researchers said the oxidation of a rocky planet has a significant effect on its atmosphere, its core and the kind of rocks it makes on its surface. “All the chemistry that happens on the surface of the Earth can ultimately be traced back to the oxidation state of the planet,” Young said. “The fact that we have oceans and all the ingredients necessary for life can be traced back to the planet being oxidized as it is. The rocks control the chemistry.”

Until now, scientists have not known in any detail whether the chemistry of rocky exoplanets is similar to or very different from that of the Earth.

How similar are the rocks the UCLA team analyzed to rocks from the Earth and Mars?

“Very similar,” Doyle said. “They are Earth-like and Mars-like in terms of their oxidized iron. We’re finding that rocks are rocks everywhere, with very similar geophysics and geochemistry.”

“It’s always been a mystery why the rocks in our solar system are so oxidized,” Young said. “It’s not what you expect. A question was whether this would also be true around other stars. Our study says yes. That bodes really well for looking for Earth-like planets in the universe.”

White dwarf stars are a rare environment for scientists to analyze.

The researchers studied the six most common elements in rock: iron, oxygen, silicon, magnesium, calcium and aluminum. They used mathematical calculations and formulas because scientists are unable to study actual rocks from white dwarfs. “We can determine the geochemistry of these rocks mathematically and compare these calculations with rocks that we do have from Earth and Mars,” said Doyle, whose background is in geology and mathematics. “Understanding the rocks is crucial because they reveal the geochemistry and geophysics of the planet.”

“If extraterrestrial rocks have a similar quantity of oxidation as the Earth has, then you can conclude the planet has similar plate tectonics and similar potential for magnetic fields as the Earth, which are widely believed to be key ingredients for life,” Schlichting said. “This study is a leap forward in being able to make these inferences for bodies outside our own solar system and indicates it’s very likely there are truly Earth analogs.”

Young said his department has both astrophysicists and geochemists working together.

“The result,” he said, “is we are doing real geochemistry on rocks from outside our solar system. Most astrophysicists wouldn’t think to do this, and most geochemists wouldn’t think to ever apply this to a white dwarf.”

The research was funded by NASA.

Gas ‘Waterfalls’ Reveal Infant Planets Around Young Star


The birthplaces of planets are disks made out of gas and dust. Astronomers study these so-called protoplanetary disks to understand the processes of planet formation. Beautiful images of disks made with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) how distinct gaps and ring features in dust, which may be caused by infant planets.

To get more certainty that these gaps are actually caused by planets, and to get a more complete view of planet formation, scientists study the gas in the disks in addition to dust. 99 percent of a protoplanetary disk’s mass is gas, of which carbon monoxide (CO) gas is the brightest component, emitting at a very distinctive millimeter-wavelength light that ALMA can observe.

Last year, two teams of astronomers demonstrated a new planet-hunting technique using this gas. They measured the velocity of CO gas rotating in the disk around the young star HD 163296. Localized disturbances in the movements of the gas revealed three planet-like patterns in the disk.

In this new study, lead author Richard Teague from the University of Michigan and his team used new high-resolution ALMA data from the Disk Substructures at High Angular Resolution Project (DSHARP) to study the gas’s velocity in more detail. “With the high fidelity data from this program, we were able to measure the gas’s velocity in three directions instead of just one,” said Teague. “For the first time, we measured the motion of the gas rotating around the star, towards or away from the star, and up- or downwards in the disk.”

Unique gas flows

Teague and his colleagues saw the gas moving from the upper layers towards the middle of the disk at three different locations. “What most likely happens is that a planet in orbit around the star pushes the gas and dust aside, opening a gap,” Teague explained. “The gas above the gap then collapses into it like a waterfall, causing a rotational flow of gas in the disk.”

This is the best evidence to date that there are indeed planets being formed around HD 163296. But astronomers cannot say with one hundred percent certainty that the gas flows are caused by planets. For example, the star’s magnetic field could also cause disturbances in the gas. “Right now, only a direct observation of the planets could rule out the other options. But the patterns of these gas flows are unique and it is very likely that they can only be caused by planets,” said co-author Jaehan Bae of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who tested this theory with a computer simulation of the disk.

The location of the three predicted planets in this study correspond to the results from last year: they are likely located at 87, 140 and 237 AU. (An astronomical unit — AU — is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun.) The closest planet to HD 163296 is calculated to be half the mass of Jupiter, the middle planet is Jupiter-mass, and the farthest planet is twice as massive as Jupiter.

Planet atmospheres

Gas flows from the surface towards the midplane of the protoplanetary disk have been predicted by theoretical models to exist since the late ’90s, but this is the first time that they have been observed. Not only can they be used to detect infant planets, they also shape our understanding of how gas giant planets obtain their atmospheres.

“Planets form in the middle layer of the disk, the so-called midplane. This is a cold place, shielded from radiation from the star,” Teague explained. “We think that the gaps caused by planets bring in warmer gas from the more chemically active outer layers of the disk, and that this gas will form the atmosphere of the planet.”

Teague and his team did not expect that they would be able to see this phenomenon. “The disk around HD 163296 is the brightest and biggest disk we can see with ALMA,” said Teague. “But it was a big surprise to actually see these gas flows so clearly. The disks appears to be much more dynamic than we thought.”

“This gives us a much more complete picture of planet formation than we ever dreamed,” said co-author Ted Bergin of the University of Michigan. “By characterizing these flows we can determine how planets like Jupiter are born and characterize their chemical composition at birth. We might be able to use this to trace the birth location of these planets, as they can move during formation.”

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Hubble Observes First Confirmed Interstellar Comet


NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has given astronomers their best look yet at an interstellar visitor — comet 2I/Borisov — whose speed and trajectory indicate it has come from beyond our solar system.

This Hubble image, taken on Oct. 12, 2019, is the sharpest view of the comet to date. Hubble reveals a central concentration of dust around the nucleus (which is too small to be seen by Hubble).

Comet 2I/Borisov is only the second such interstellar object known to have passed through the solar system. In 2017, the first identified interstellar visitor, an object officially named ‘Oumuamua, swung within 24 million miles of the Sun before racing out of the solar system. “Whereas ‘Oumuamua appeared to be a rock, Borisov is really active, more like a normal comet. It’s a puzzle why these two are so different,” said David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), leader of the Hubble team who observed the comet.

As the second known interstellar object found to enter our solar system, the comet provides invaluable clues to the chemical composition, structure and dust characteristics of planetary building blocks presumably forged in an alien star system a long time ago and far away.

“Though another star system could be quite different from our own, the fact that the comet’s properties appear to be very similar to those of the solar system’s building blocks is very remarkable,” said Amaya Moro-Martin of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Hubble photographed the comet at a distance of 260 million miles from Earth. The comet is falling past the Sun and will make its closest approach to the Sun on Dec. 7, 2019, when it will be twice as far from the Sun as Earth.

The comet is following a hyperbolic path around the Sun, and currently is blazing along at an extraordinary speed of 110,000 miles per hour. “It’s traveling so fast it almost doesn’t care that the Sun is there,” said Jewitt.

By the middle of 2020 the comet will streak past Jupiter’s distance of 500 million miles on its way back into interstellar space where it will drift for untold millions of years before skirting close to another star system.

Crimean amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov discovered the comet on Aug. 30, 2019. After a week of observations by amateur and professional astronomers all over the world, the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center and the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, computed a trajectory for the comet, which confirms that it came from interstellar space.

Until now, all cataloged comets have come from either a ring of icy debris at the periphery of our solar system, called the Kuiper belt, or the hypothetical Oort cloud, a shell of comets about a light-year from the Sun, defining the dynamical edge of our solar system.

Borisov and ‘Oumuamua are only the beginning of the discoveries of interstellar objects paying a brief visit to our solar system, say researchers. According to one study there are thousands of such interlopers here at any given time, though most are too faint to be detected with current-day telescopes.

Observations by Hubble and other telescopes have shown that rings and shells of icy debris encircle young stars where planet formation is underway. A gravitational “pinball game” between these comet-like bodies or planets orbiting other stars can hurtle them deep into space where they go adrift among the stars.

Future Hubble observations of 2I/Borisov are planned through January 2020, with more being proposed.

“New comets are always unpredictable,” said Max Mutchler, another member of the observing team. “They sometimes brighten suddenly or even begin to fragment as they are exposed to the intense heat of the Sun for the first time. Hubble is poised to monitor whatever happens next with its superior sensitivity and resolution.”

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA (the European Space Agency) and NASA. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

Strong Earthquake Strikes Indonesia, Killing At Least 20 People


A 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck the remote Maluku Islands in eastern Indonesia on Thursday morning, killing at least 20 people.

Indonesian officials said the quake, which was detected at 8:46 a.m. local time, did not present the threat of a tsunami. But it was classified as a “strong” earthquake in Ambon, a city of more than 300,000 people and the capital of Maluku Province. The United States Geological Survey said the epicenter was about 23 miles northeast of Ambon.

At least 20 people were killed in the quake, the authorities said, including a man who was killed when a building partially collapsed at an Islamic university in Ambon, according to Reuters. More than 100 people were reported injured in the quake, and the authorities said about 2,000 had been displaced from their homes.

It was not immediately known how many people were injured or how extensive the damage was across the islands, but the nation’s disaster management agency posted several photos and videos on Twitter showing cracked roads and damaged buildings. The nation’s meteorology, climate and geophysics agency reported at least 69 aftershocks, including one of magnitude 5.6.

Deadly earthquakes are common for Indonesia and its roughly 260 million people. In 2004, a tsunami generated by an earthquake largely destroyed the city of Banda Aceh, killing about 225,000 people in more than a dozen countries.

In 2018 alone, six quakes had at least a 6.0 magnitude. More than 4,300 people were killed in an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Sulawesi in September 2018, and the previous month, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake killed more than 550 people when it struck the island of Lombok, near Bali.


For 400 years people have tracked sunspots, the dark patches that appear for weeks at a time on the Sun’s surface. They have observed but been unable to explain why the number of spots peaks every 11 years.

A University of Washington study published this month in the journal Physics of Plasmas proposes a model of plasma motion that would explain the 11-year sunspot cycle and several other previously mysterious properties of the Sun.

“Our model is completely different from a normal picture of the Sun,” said first author Thomas Jarboe, a UW professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “I really think we’re the first people that are telling you the nature and source of solar magnetic phenomena — how the Sun works.”

The authors created a model based on their previous work with fusion energy research. The model shows that a thin layer beneath the Sun’s surface is key to many of the features we see from Earth, like sunspots, magnetic reversals and solar flow, and is backed up by comparisons with observations of the Sun.

“The observational data are key to confirming our picture of how the Sun functions,” Jarboe said.

In the new model, a thin layer of magnetic flux and plasma, or free-floating electrons, moves at different speeds on different parts of the Sun. The difference in speed between the flows creates twists of magnetism, known as magnetic helicity, that are similar to what happens in some fusion reactor concepts.

“Every 11 years, the Sun grows this layer until it’s too big to be stable, and then it sloughs off,” Jarboe said. Its departure exposes the lower layer of plasma moving in the opposite direction with a flipped magnetic field.

When the circuits in both hemispheres are moving at the same speed, more sunspots appear. When the circuits are different speeds, there is less sunspot activity. That mismatch, Jarboe says, may have happened during the decades of little sunspot activity known as the “Maunder Minimum.”

“If the two hemispheres rotate at different speeds, then the sunspots near the equator won’t match up, and the whole thing will die,” Jarboe said.

“Scientists had thought that a sunspot was generated down at 30 percent of the depth of the Sun, and then came up in a twisted rope of plasma that pops out,” Jarboe said. Instead, his model shows that the sunspots are in the “supergranules” that form within the thin, subsurface layer of plasma that the study calculates to be roughly 100 to 300 miles (150 to 450 kilometers) thick, or a fraction of the sun’s 430,000-mile radius.

“The sunspot is an amazing thing. There’s nothing there, and then all of a sudden, you see it in a flash,” Jarboe said.

The group’s previous research has focused on fusion power reactors, which use very high temperatures similar to those inside the Sun to separate hydrogen nuclei from their electrons. In both the sun and in fusion reactors the nuclei of two hydrogen atoms fuse together, releasing huge amounts of energy.

The type of reactor Jarboe has focused on, a spheromak, contains the electron plasma within a sphere that causes it to self-organize into certain patterns. When Jarboe began to consider the Sun, he saw similarities, and created a model for what might be happening in the celestial body.

“For 100 years people have been researching this,” Jarboe said. “Many of the features we’re seeing are below the resolution of the models, so we can only find them in calculations.”

Other properties explained by the theory, he said, include flow inside the Sun, the twisting action that leads to sunspots and the total magnetic structure of the sun. The paper is likely to provoke intense discussion, Jarboe said.

“My hope is that scientists will look at their data in a new light, and the researchers who worked their whole lives to gather that data will have a new tool to understand what it all means,” he said.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Co-authors are UW graduate students Thomas Benedett, Christopher Everson, Christopher Hansen, Derek Sutherland, James Penna, UW postdoctoral researchers Aaron Hossack and John Benjamin O’Bryan, UW affiliate faculty member Brian Nelson, and Kyle Morgan, a former UW graduate student now at CTFusion in Seattle.