Back to Betelgeuse, Methenium in Orion, TRAPPIST-1 Update

Scientists found methenium, a simple organic compound, in a protoplanetary disk. I’ll talk about that this week, and why it’s a big deal.

The planet TRAPPIST-1c is about the same size as Venus, but it’s very likely airless.

Betelgeuse may explode as a supernova much sooner than we thought. Although there’s no official “safe distance” from a supernova, I’m about as sure as I can be that we’re close enough for a good view, and outside the danger zone. Folks living on Earth are, at any rate. Folks living elsewhere is something for me to talk about another time.

It’s been a while since I’ve explained why I’m okay with living in a vast and ancient universe, so I’ll wind up by talking about God, change and, briefly, abiogenesis.

This is No Ordinary Protoplanetary Disk: d203-506

ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), and the PDRs4All ERS Team's images: 'These Webb images show a part of the Orion Nebula known as the Orion Bar. The largest image, on the left, is from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument. At upper right, the telescope is focused on a smaller area using Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument). At the very center of the MIRI area is a young star system with a protoplanetary disk named d203-506. The pullout at the bottom right displays a combined NIRCam and MIRI image of this young system.' (June 26, 2023)
Webb images: the Orion Nebula’s Orion Bar and protoplanetary disk d203-506. (June 26, 2023)

Webb Makes First Detection of Crucial Carbon Molecule
Laura Betz, Christine Pulliam, Bethany Downer; Webb Telescope; NASA (June 26, 2023)

“A team of international scientists has used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to detect a new carbon compound in space for the first time. Known as methyl cation (pronounced cat-eye-on) (CH3+), the molecule is important because it aids the formation of more complex carbon-based molecules. Methyl cation was detected in a young star system, with a protoplanetary disk, known as d203-506, which is located about 1,350 light-years away in the Orion Nebula.

“Carbon compounds form the foundations of all known life, and as such are particularly interesting to scientists working to understand both how life developed on Earth, and how it could potentially develop elsewhere in our universe. The study of interstellar organic (carbon-containing) chemistry, which Webb is opening in new ways, is an area of keen fascination to many astronomers….

“… ‘This clearly shows that ultraviolet radiation can completely change the chemistry of a protoplanetary disk. It might actually play a critical role in the early chemical stages of the origins of life,’ elaborated Olivier Berné of the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Toulouse, lead author of the study….”

Let’s see, where to start? I’ll pick that enigmatic moniker, “d204-506”.

I spent a fair fraction of Wednesday afternoon looking for it in studies and catalogs.

Then I learned that it’s not protoplanetary disk d-204-506. It’s (probably) dark proplyd 203-506. Or just proplyd 203-506. Then again, maybe its Orion 203-506.

I’m guessing that the “d” in the d204-506 designation is there to show it’s a dark proplyd, not a bright or glowing one.

“Proplyd” is a contraction of protoplanetary disk, or a contraction of ionized protoplanetary disk. Depends on who you ask.1

“Proplyd” and an Irrelevant Linguistic Meander

Kepler's Platonic solid model of the Solar System, from 'Mysterium Cosmographicum.' (1596) Via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Getting “proplyd” from “protoplaneary disk” makes sense, to me at any rate.

If researchers got “proplyd” from “ionized protoplanetary disk”, then I’m not so sure.

Maybe they shuffling the words and highlighted a few letters. That’d give us PROtoPLanetarY disk ionizeD.

Which isn’t what I’d call either intuitive or obvious. Still, it could have been worse.

German is the second-most common language used in scientific papers.

I’ve run across that assertion, anyway.

So I ran “ionized protoplanetary disk” through Google Translate and got “ionisierte protoplanetare Scheibe“. Then I rendered “ionisierte protoplanetare Scheibe” as “eeonitiporototarashaiba“. That’s what it sounded like to me, using the online translator’s ‘Listen’ feature.

“Eeonitiporototarashaiba” is a mouthful. So I tried making “ionized protoplanetary disks” an acronym: IPD and IPS, in English and German, respectively.

These verbal variations on a theme reminded me of Kepler’s nested Platonic solids, Pythagorean harmonies, and orbital resonance. But I’d better stop now.

A Big Deal

NASA; Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Steward Observatory, University of Arizona; a whole lot of people and Hubble's images: the Trapezium cluster in the Orion Nebula. Visible light with Hubble's WFPC2 camera (left), infrared with Hubble's NICMOS (right). (ca. 2000)
The Trapezium cluster in the Orion Nebula: visible light, left; infrared, right. Hubble images (ca. 2000)

Anyway, this data from the JWST is a big deal. So is a recent analysis of it.

That’s what I gather, at least, from discussions of it.

“Formation of the Methyl Cation by Photochemistry in a Protoplanetary Disk” apparently isn’t part of today’s open access literature.

It was published in Nature’s June issue, so it’s behind a paywall. But I did fine an abstract on the NIH PubMed site. I’ll count that as good news.

Now, back to “the methyl cation” CH3+ and why it’s a big deal.

Scientists, I gather, figured that CH3+ could exist near a big, bright hot young star. But up to now, CH3+ hadn’t been spotted outside the Solar System.

Proplyd(?) d204-506’s red dwarf isn’t particularly bright and hot, as stars go. But Theta1 Orionis C is.

Theta1 Orionis C is one of four bright stars near the center of the Trapezium cluster.

The Trapezium cluster is part of the Orion Nebula that collapsed, forming stars: including Theta1 Orionis C. Both of which are near d204-506. Or, putting it another way, d204-506 is near the Trapezium cluster.

We figure our Solar System started in an environment like that. And that most protoplanetary nebulae get a cosmic sunburn from the ultraviolet radiation of nearby massive stars.

One more thing before I move on.

CH3+ has several names: methyl cation, methylium, carbenium and protonated methylene.

It’s a cation, which means it’s an ion with a positive electrical charge. And it’s an organic compound: which doesn’t mean it’s alive, just that it’s got carbon in it.2

Aristotle, Astronomy and Abiogenesis: Briefly

NASA, ESA, CSA, and J. Olmsted (STScI)'s illustration: absorption lines from dark cloud Chamaeleon I, showing which substances are present within the molecular cloud. Spectral data from three of the James Webb Space Telescope's instruments. (2023)I’m going to cover about two and a half millennia of philosophy, cosmology and related ideas in a few paragraphs, so remember: this is not an in-depth look.

Anaximander, Aristarchus and Aristotle figured that the element earth, the stuff we stand on, is basically different from what’s in the sky.

Aristarchus said our earth goes around the cosmic fire we call the sun. Aristotle sorted the elements by weight, more or less. His ideas got serious traction in Europe, about a thousand years back.

Then, about half a millennium back, some natural philosophers realized that how the sun, moon and stars move in our sky made more sense if they assumed that Earth went around the sun.

Natural philosophers who focused more on physical phenomena and less on metaphysics started being called “scientists” just shy of two centuries back. Some don’t seem to have gotten the memo, and that’s another topic.

Over the last century, we’ve learned that stuff on Earth and stuff in the sky is basically the same stuff. Which is why finding CH3+ in the Orion Nebula area is such a big deal.

See? I haven’t forgotten about CH3+ and d204-506!

Again, CH3+ is organic, but it’s not alive. On the other hand, it can and does combine with other stuff in ways that some scientists say will eventually produce living critters.

The idea that living critters can get started from stuff that’s not living is “abiogenesis”.3

That’s something I’ll get back to.

Trappist-1c: Not Venus 2.0, After All

NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)'s' graph: 'This graph compares the measured brightness of TRAPPIST-1 c to simulated brightness data for three different scenarios. The measurement (red diamond) is consistent with a bare rocky surface with no atmosphere (green line) or a very thin carbon dioxide atmosphere with no clouds (blue line).' (June 19, 2023) via Sky and Telescope
Comparing light from TRAPPIST-1 c (red dot with white error bar) to three simulated spectra:
Green line: rocky surface with no atmosphere.
Blue line: very thin cloudless carbon dioxide atmosphere.
Yellow line: thick carbon dioxide atmosphere with sulfuric acid clouds. (June 19, 2023)

Another Blow for Atmospheres in the TRAPPIST-1 System
60-Second Astro News — No Air on Venus Twin, Young Jupiter Discovery; Sky & Telescope (June 26, 2023)

“Astronomers are using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to take on the seven planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system, one by one. Observations have already showed the innermost world, TRAPPIST-1b, is airless. Now, new data suggest TRAPPIST-1c could at best host a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere, and it’s still possible that c is just as bare as b.

“The team, led by Sebastian Zieba (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany), watched TRAPPIST-1c pass behind its star using JWST’s mid-infrared camera, capturing its dayside brightness at 15 microns — a wavelength that carbon dioxide molecules absorb.

“‘TRAPPIST-1 c is interesting because it’s basically a Venus twin: It’s about the same size as Venus and receives a similar amount of radiation from its host star as Venus gets from the Sun,’ explains team member Kreidberg (also at Max Planck). ‘We thought it could have a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere like Venus.’…”

NASA/ESA/CSA/Joseph Olmsted (STScI)'s illustration (Science by Thomas P. Greene (NASA Ames), Taylor Bell (BAERI), Elsa Ducrot (CEA), Pierre-Olivier Lagage (CEA)): comparing TRAPPIST-1b's dayside temperature (measured using JWST Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI)) to computer models. This illustration shows what the temperature would be under various conditions. The temperature of the dayside of Mercury is also shown for reference. (March 27, 2023) see it’d have been cool if scientists had detected a Venus-like atmosphere around the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system’s Venus-size world, these results don’t disappoint me.

That’s because now we know a little more about the worlds around TRAPPIST-1. And that should help us figure how worlds like our Earth take shape.

TRAPPIST-1c, this month’s TRAPPIST-1 system headliner, might have a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere, based on the recent observations and analysis. But if so, its air would have to be much less dense than the Martian atmosphere.

I talked about looking for atmospheres in the TRAPPIST-1 system back in April, so I won’t geek out about that now. Except for one thing we’ve learned about TRAPPIST-1b, that system’s innermost world.

TRAPPIST-1b has an albedo of 0.02: with a very considerable margin of error.

If that number’s spot-on, TRAPPIST-1b reflects about as much light as asphalt. That’s one dark planet.4

Betelgeuse: It’s Gonna Blow!! Eventually

ESA/Herschel/PACS/L. Decin et al.'s Photodetecting Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) image: '...The red supergiant star Betelgeuse is seen here in a new view from the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA participation. Betelgeuse (center) is surrounded by a clumpy envelope of material in its immediate vicinity. The arcs to the left are material ejected from the star as it evolved into a red supergiant, and were shaped by its bow shock interaction with the interstellar medium. A faint linear bar of dust is illuminated at left, and may represent a dusty filament connected to the local galactic magnetic field, or the edge of an interstellar cloud. If so, then Betelgeuse's motion across the sky implies that the arcs will hit the wall in 5,000 years time, with the star itself colliding with the wall 12,500 years later. (January 2013)
Betelgeuse, Herschel’s PACS infrared image, with bow shocks and “straight wall”. (January 2013)

Betelgeuse is practically a next-door neighbor to the Solar System. It’s a red supergiant star that will explode as a supernova any time now. On a cosmic scale.

That was true when I wrote about it back in March, and it still is.

H. Raab's photos: the constellation Orion, showing changing brightness of Betelgeuse (Orion's right shoulder), (February 22, 2012 (left); February 21, 2020 (right). via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.I’ve got two reasons for coming back to Betelgeuse so soon.

① I found an infrared image of Betelgeuse and its bow shocks.

② The star was news again this month.

I suspect it was news mainly because scientists came up with a new estimate for when it’ll explode. As usual in situations like this, the new study is debatable and debated.

How Soon Will Betelgeuse Blow?
Monica Young, Sky & Telescope (June 9, 2023)

“…Typically, astronomers suggest it might explode within the next 100,000 years — that is, ‘soon’ on a cosmic timeframe, not a human one. But a new study posted June 1st on the arXiv has been making the rounds, in which Hideyuki Saio (Tohoku University, Japan) and colleagues claim that the star might be further along in its evolution, and that much closer to exploding, than we thought. However, others are taking issue with that result….

“…The claim comes down to the star’s pulsations. Betelgeuse is unstable, ‘breathing’ in and out regularly, with overlapping overtones. Following its brightness over the past century (thanks in part to data from the American Association for Variable Star Observers), astronomers have noted changes over periods of 2,200 days, 420 days, 230 days, and 185 days.

“Usually, astronomers treat the 420-day up-and-down as the primary in-and-out pulsation, with the shorter cycles as overtones. The 2,200-day (or 6-year) period isn’t generally considered part of these ins and outs, and is instead dubbed a long secondary period, a feature of unknown origin common to one-third of supergiant stars….”
[emphasis mine]

I suspect one reason for debate over what’s happening inside Betelgeuse has to do with it being a semiregular variable star. With emphasis on “semi-“.

This month’s study talks about cycles of 185, 230, 417 and 2190 days for Betelgeuse.

A paper published in 1984 discussed a 416 day and 2010 day cycle.

And sometimes the star’s changes in brightness are irregular or simply don’t happen.

This means, unless there’s something seriously wrong with our understanding of stars and physics, that Betelgeuse will explode at any moment. Again, on a cosmic scale.

Right now, most scientists see “at any moment” as being on the order of 100,000 years. Maybe a million.

On a cosmic scale, that’s not much:

  • Human events, in years
    • 1 — Next U.S. presidential election
    • 75 — Since The Ed Sullivan Show premiered
  • Cosmic events, in years
    • 100,000 — Consensus time before Betelgeuse supernova
    • 13,780,000,000 — Age of this universe

If Hideyuki Saio and the other authors are right, Betelgeuse is much closer to becoming a supernova then we figured. They say we’ve got on the order of decades to wait.5

“…We conclude that Betelgeuse should currently be in a late phase (or near the end) of the core carbon burning. After carbon is exhausted in the core, a core-collapse leading to a supernova explosion is expected in a few tens years….”
The evolutionary stage of Betelgeuse inferred from its pulsation periods
Hideyuki Saio et al., Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (submitted June 1, 2023) via arXiv, Cornell University

Safety and Bow Shocks

ESA/Herschel/PACS/L. Decin et al.'s PACS image, annotated: Betelgeuse, the star's direction of motion, envelope and bow shock; and a 'straight wall'. (January 2013)Recapping what I said back in March, the sort of supernova we’re expecting from Betelgeuse is what happens when a massive star runs out of fuel.

After running through its hydrogen, helium and carbon — I think I’ve got that right — Betelgeuse will start collapsing. That’ll heat its core to the point where neon and other elements can fuse. And that will produce enough energy to blow Betelgeuse apart.

Which would be bad news for us, if we were living within a certain distance of the star.

Which we’re not.

The exact safe distance from a supernova depends on who’s talking and how “safe” gets defined. Samples I found range from 50 to 150 light years. Maybe 30. One article said, quite accurately, ‘we don’t know’.

But since Betelgeuse is around 500 or 600 light-years away, fretting about being too close strikes me as pointless.

Partly because it’s several times as far away as high-end ‘safe distance’ estimates. And partly because supernovae have gone off (fairly) near Earth before.

As I see it, that puts ‘how to deal with a nearby supernova’ into the ‘make it a priority when it becomes an immediate problem’ category. “Immediate” in this case being — I’m guessing — on the order of generations or centuries.

Now, about Betelgeuse and bow shocks. The star has puffed out material several times in the cosmically-recent past. Betelgeuse is moving, relative to the dust and gas between stars, so the Betelgeuse-stuff has been piling up ahead of it.

That’s what’s labeled as “bow shocks” in that ESA/Herschel illustration.

The straight line Betelgeuse is heading for is probably the edge of an interstellar cloud, a dust filament connected with our galaxy’s magnetic field: or something else.

Either way, if the line feature is around the same distance from us as Betelgeuse, the bow shocks will run into it in about 5,000 years. Then, some 12,500 years later, so will Betelgeuse.6

If the line feature is closer to us than Betelgeuse, and the edge of an opaque cloud, we may not see the supernova. Unless it happens decades or centuries from now.

In which case, I gather that we’re at a nearly-ideal distance for watching the show.

Seeing Truth and Beauty in a Vast and Ancient Universe

NASA/ESA's image, detail: LH 95 stellar nursery in the Large Magellanic Cloud. (December 2006)I said I was going to talk about abiogenesis, and it’s late Friday afternoon now, so I’d better be quick about it.

Some of what I was going to say had to do with the science aspects of starting with a molecular cloud and ending with a place like Earth. In one case, at any rate: ours.

That’d take more time than I’ve got, so I’ll summarize the ‘faith and religion’ angle.

Basically, I think God is large and in charge. And so, although my opinion about how reality should work might matter to me and those around me: against the awesome spatial and temporal scale of the universe, my preferences don’t count.

“Our God is in heaven and does whatever he wills.”
(Psalms 115:3)

As it is, I enjoy living in a vast and ancient world. And I really like living in an era when we’re learning so much, so fast.

I also enjoy beauty and think truth matters. Happily, that’s part of being a Catholic.

And that’s a reason I have no trouble with science.

No matter where we look in this universe, we’ll find truth and beauty. They’re expressed in words and in the visible world: “the rational expression of the knowledge”, “the order and harmony of the cosmos” and “the greatness and beauty of created things.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 32, 41, 74, 2500)

Seeking truth and beauty will lead us to God. If we’re doing it right. (Catechism, 27, 31-35, 74)

I don’t know why the idea that God creates a universe that’s so much bigger and older than some folks thought, a few centuries back, upsets so many loudly-religious folks. I suspect it has something to do with Victorian-era politics. And that’s yet again another topic.

By now, I’m racing against the clock. So here are the highlights.

God is — well, God is God. Infinite. Eternal. All-powerful. Incomprehensible. (Catechism, 1, 202, 268-269)

God creates and sustains a (basically) good an ordered world. And is present to all creation. (Catechism, 299-300, 385-412)

Although God is here and now in every here and now, God is not ‘inside’ space and time. (Catechism, 205, 600, 645)

“In a State of Journeying”

USGS/Graham and Newman's geological time spiral: 'A path to the past.' (2008)I think God could have made a universe which was perfect in every detail from the get-go. Maybe God did, or has, or whatever tense describes the existence of a continuum other than our own.

But that’s not what this universe is like. We live in a creation that’s “in a state of journeying”, “in statu viae”, toward an ultimate perfection that’s not here yet. (Catechism, 302, 310)

Folks in all times have wondered where we, and the world, come from and where we’re going. That’s okay. When we learn something new, it’s an opportunity for “greater admiration” of God. (Catechism, 282-283)

That gets me into secondary causes. (Catechism, 304, 306-308)

And that’s still another topic. Topics.

Finally, about the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, extraterrestrial life and abiogenesis: finding evidence that life began elsewhere wouldn’t threaten my faith.

As I see it, studying how life gets started involves what we’re made of. Who we are is — you guessed it — another topic.

I’ve talked about life, the universe and everything before:

1 Gas, dust and words, mostly:

2 Stars! Nebulae! Science!

3 Physics and philosophy:

4 The TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, mostly:

5 Betelgeuse, the universe and The Ed Sullivan Show:

6 Supernovae and safety:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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