exoplanets (2)

Brine Europa...

Salt-laden water welling up from below gives Europa’s fissures and cracks their distinctive color.
Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech and SETI Institute


Topics: Astrobiology, Exoplanets, Planetary Exploration, SETI

The sea sloshing beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa just might be the best incubator for extraterrestrial life in our solar system. And yet it is concealed by the moon’s frozen outer shell—presenting a challenge for astrobiologists who would love nothing more than to peer inside. Luckily they can catch a partial glimpse by analyzing the flavor of the surface. And the results are salty.

A new study published this week in Science Advances suggests that sodium chloride—the stuff of table salt—exists on Europa’s surface. Because the exterior is essentially formed from frozen seawater, the finding suggests that Europa’s hidden sea is drenched in table salt—a crucial fact for constraining the possibilities for life on the alien world.

Not that scientists have tasted a slice of the distant moon. To analyze Europa’s composition, astronomers study the light emanating from its surface, splitting it into a rainbow-like spectrum to search for any telltale absorption or emission lines that reveal the world’s chemistry. There is just one problem: Ordinary table salt is white and thus gives off a featureless spectrum. But harsh radiation—which exists at Europa’s surface in abundance—just might add a dash of color. That much was realized in 2015 when two NASA planetary scientists Kevin Hand and Robert Carlson published a study suggesting the yellowish-brown gunk on Europa might be table salt baked by radiation. To reach that conclusion, Hand and Carlson re-created the conditions on Europa within vacuum chambers—or as Hand calls them, “stainless steel shiny objects that are humming and whizzing.” Next, they placed table salt into those chambers, lowered the pressures and temperatures to simulate Europa’s surface, and blasted the samples with an electron gun to simulate the intense radiation.


Water on Europa—with a Pinch of Salt, Shannon Hall, Scientific American

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An artist's impression of the planetesimal orbiting on a 2-hour period within the gaseous disc around SDSS J1228+1040 (by Mark Garlick).


Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, Exoplanets, Spectrograph, White Dwarfs

When the hydrogen fuel that keeps a star like our sun burning brightly is exhausted, the star expands into a red giant before collapsing into a hot, dense white dwarf. Although the stellar swelling engulfs nearby planets, theoretical models suggest that some planets and planetary cores up to hundreds of kilometers in diameter can survive the star’s death and fall into closer orbit. But identifying solid bodies around a dim stellar core is difficult. Now Christopher Manser (University of Warwick) and colleagues have used a new spectroscopic method to identify a planetesimal orbiting a white dwarf 400 light-years from our solar system.

Astronomers have discovered most exoplanets—including an asteroid-like body orbiting a white dwarf—via the transit method, identifying periodic dimming as an object passes in front of its host star. But the method requires a lucky geometry of the planetary system’s orbital plane relative to Earth. Manser and his team instead turned to short-cadence optical spectroscopy using data from the 10.4 m Gran Telescopio Canarias in Spain. They focused on one of just a few white dwarfs that, based on metal emission lines in the stellar and disk spectra, are suspected to be surrounded by disks of gas and dust. Minute-by-minute observations over several nights in 2017 and 2018 let the researchers deconstruct the light emanating from the disk and determine how much variation had occurred over a year.


A glimpse of a planetary system’s final stages, Rachel Berkowitz, Physics Today

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