Two Nearby Habitable(?) Worlds; Elements for Life

Alejandro Suárez Mascareño's and Inés Bonet's (IAC) impression: GJ 1002's two Earth-mass planets.
Alejandro Suárez Mascareño’s and Inés Bonet’s (IAC) impression of GJ 1002’s two Earth-mass planets.

We’ve found two new worlds, GJ 1002 b and c, that could be habitable. They’re the right size and most likely around the right temperature.

Actually, make that three new worlds. Another one, Wolf 1069 b, showed up in my news feed as I was writing this.1 But Wolf 1069 b will wait for another time.

What with one thing and another — including an unexpected visit from a daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter — I didn’t ramble on as much as usual this week.

So I’ll take a brief, for me, look at GJ 1002 b and c. And I’ll talk about literally cool data from the JWST: a look at ingredients for “the building blocks of life” in the Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud.

GJ 1002’s Two Maybe-Habitable Worlds

Screenshot: 'Discovery Alert: Two 'Nearby' Worlds Might be Habitable' (January 23, 2023)Studying these worlds will scientists more pieces for the ‘are we alone’ puzzle.

Discovery Alert: Two ‘Nearby’ Worlds Might be Habitable
Pat Brennan, NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program, NASA (January 24, 2023)
The discovery: Two planets about as massive as Earth orbit a red-dwarf star only 16 light-years away – nearby in astronomical terms. The planets, GJ 1002 b and c, lie within the star’s habitable zone, the orbital distance that could allow liquid water to form on a planet’s surface if it has the right kind of atmosphere.
Key facts: Whether red-dwarf stars are likely to host habitable worlds is a subject of scientific debate. On the minus side, these stars — smaller, cooler, but far longer-lived than stars like our Sun — tend to flare frequently in their youth. Such flares could potentially strip the atmospheres from closely orbiting planets, and the two planets orbiting GJ 1002 are close indeed….
“…On the plus side, however, GJ 1002 seems to be mature enough to have gotten over its youthful tantrums….”

Jon Lomberg's illustration: showing the Kepler spacecraft's search volume. (commissioned ca. 1990-92 by Smithsonian Institution for display in National Air and Space Museum) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.First off, GJ 1002 really is “nearby in astronomical terms.”

The red dwarf is about 16 light-years out, in the general direction of Iota Ceti. Compared to the Kepler space telescope’s search area (the yellow cone in that illustration), it’s practically next door. Most stars viewed by Kepler were between 500 and 3,000 light-years of us.

Backing off a bit, to a galactic scale, GJ 1002 is almost in our back yard.

Next, a few clarifications. Or, putting it another way, I’ve found more information about the GJ 1002 planetary system. Or indulged in nitpicking. Either way, here goes —

GJ 1002 b orbits its sun every 10 days, eight hours, 18 minutes and several seconds. GJ 1002 c’s year is 21 days, four hours, 50 minutes and many seconds long. I can see why the NASA article rounded it to 10 and 20 days.

Planet b’s mass might be 1.08 time Earth’s: give or take 0.13. Planet c is more massive, 1.36 times Earth’s mass. Give or take 0.17.

We may confirm that b has “…a mass slightly higher than Earth’s…” and that c is “…about a third more massive than Earth…” But in each case, that’s the minimum mass, based on current data.

Scientists sorted out how much GJ 1002’s planets tug their star toward and away from us during each orbit, using data from the European Southern Observatory’s ESPRESSO and CARMENES instruments.

Radial velocity measurements or Doppler spectroscopy are fancy ways of naming that method for finding exoplanets.2

There’s more I’d like to say about these newly-discovered worlds.3 But if I do that, I won’t have time to talk about cool new data — literally — from the James Webb Space Telescope.

CHONS, Methanol, CHNOPS and the Chamaeleon I Dark Molecular Cloud

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)
Graphs of data from JWST instruments: showing evidence of frozen substances, including methanol.
NASA, ESA, CSA, et al.'s image by JWST Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam) of the Chameleon I dark molecular cloud's central region, 630 light years away. Protostar Ced 110 IRS 4 (orange, upper left) illuminates cold, wispy cloud material (blue, centre). Light from background stars like NIR 38 and J110621 (orange dots) can be used to detect ices in the cloud, which absorb starlight passing through them.
Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud. Light from background star NIR 38 revealed CHONS.

Webb Unveils Dark Side of Pre-stellar Ice Chemistry
Laura Betz, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; Bethany Downer, ESA/Webb Chief Science Communications Officer; Christine Pulliam, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland (January 23, 2023)
“If you want to build a habitable planet, ices are a vital ingredient because they are the main source of several key elements — namely carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur (referred to here as CHONS). These elements are important ingredients in both planetary atmospheres and molecules like sugars, alcohols, and simple amino acids.
“An international team of astronomers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has obtained an in-depth inventory of the deepest, coldest ices measured to date in a molecular cloud. In addition to simple ices like water, the team was able to identify frozen forms of a wide range of molecules, from carbonyl sulfide, ammonia, and methane, to the simplest complex organic molecule, methanol. (The researchers considered organic molecules to be complex when having six or more atoms.) This is the most comprehensive census to date of the icy ingredients available to make future generations of stars and planets, before they are heated during the formation of young stars….”

“If you want to build a habitable planet….” That first sentences could send me down a rabbit hole.

But terraforming Venus, Mars and maybe other worlds is — another topic. One that’s very hypothetical today: since we don’t (quite) have the technology; and, maybe more to the point, don’t have economic incentives that’d make it worthwhile.

Acronym time.

The NASA article talked about CHONS: the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. They’re the four most common elements in living organisms.

On Earth, at any rate. And that’s yet another topic.

Another acronym, CHNOPS, stands for carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. The extra element, phosphorus, is vital, since it’s part of some lipids and nucleic acids.

Two nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, handle data storage and transfer in our cells. Our cell membranes include phospholipids: so without CHONS and CHNOPS, we wouldn’t live.

And, yes, CHNOPS is pronounced schnaps. Scientific jargon has gotten a great deal less stuffy since my youth. Which, granted, is my opinion and yet again another topic.

Back to that article. This data from the JWST is “the most comprehensive census to date”: which is a big deal for scientists who are figuring out how planets form.4

I’m running out of time, so here’s another excerpt:

“…’Our results provide insights into the initial, dark chemistry stage of the formation of ice on the interstellar dust grains that will grow into the centimeter-sized pebbles from which planets form in disks,’ said Melissa McClure, … principal investigator of the observing program and lead author of the paper describing this result. ‘These observations open a new window on the formation pathways for the simple and complex molecules that are needed to make the building blocks of life.
“In addition to the identified molecules, the team found evidence for molecules more complex than methanol, and, although they didn’t definitively attribute these signals to specific molecules, this proves for the first time that complex molecules form in the icy depths of molecular clouds before stars are born….”
(Laura Betz, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; Bethany Downer, ESA/Webb Chief Science Communications Officer; Christine Pulliam, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland (January 23, 2023) [emphasis mine])

It’s a big jump, going from complex organic molecules to trout, daffodils and us.

But we’ve been filling in gaps in our knowledge of how clouds of interstellar gas collapse into stars, planets and — in Earth’s case — us. Quite a few of those gaps have been filled in since I started paying attention, a little over a half-century back.

God’s God, I’m Not, and I’m Okay With That

Survata's 'do you believe in extraterrestrial life' survey results. (ca. 2013)
Extraterrestrial Life: a Survata Opinion Poll. (ca. 2013)

I talked about religious beliefs, assumptions and an opinion poll a year ago; and a very unexpected opinion a few months before that:

About that opinion poll, I’d be in the “I’m not sure” segment. We’re finding ample evidence that our corner of this galaxy is stocked with life’s building blocks. But so far we’ve found no unequivocal evidence that life exists anywhere except on Earth.

And, although people who aren’t human might be living just a few dozen light-years away, we’ve found no solid evidence that we have neighbors.

So “I’m not sure” about extraterrestrial intelligence. Right now, we don’t know.

If we learn that extraterrestrial life exists: and that we have neighbors? From my viewpoint, that’s great! There’s a great deal we could learn.

Meanwhile, I sure won’t say that God either must have provided us with company or that there can’t be life anywhere except here. Either way, it’s not my decision.

“A False Choice”

'The Descent of the Modernists,' E. J. Pace. (1922)The opinion poll and op-ed — or, rather, a review of a New York Times op-ed — were mostly good news.

“…If the cultural conversation requires people to choose between their faith and science, most will choose faith, but we don’t have to ask people to choose. It is a false choice.
“At the same time, Haarsma said, there are Christians who present faith as opposed to the obvious, instead of ‘faith as a commitment lived in response’ to the evidence. She also said the passionate anti-science rhetoric of a minority of Christians online encourages scientists to reject people of faith as a whole….”
(“Reviews | How Covid raised the stakes in the war between faith and science” (November 7, 2021))

Survata recognizing that Catholics aren’t Baptists, and that we’re both Christians, indicates at least some understanding of our beliefs.

The New York Times is still behind a paywall, so I don’t have access to the Haarsma op-ed.

But the review lets me hope that at least one Times contributor realizes that “the passionate anti-science rhetoric of a minority of Christians online” may not reflect Catholicism’s core beliefs.

It’s a step in the right direction.

And that paradigm shift may explain why it’s been months since I’ve seen “Christians believe”, followed by some reference to fundamentalist preferences in my news feeds.

Or maybe that weirdness deficit is due to AI personalization. I don’t go looking for lunacy. There’s a superabundance of the stuff oozing from headlines, as it is. It feels like there is, at any rate. Sometimes.

“…God … Does Whatever He Wills.”
NGC 4848 and other galaxies, image by Hubble/ESA.

In any case, I’ve just about run out of time this week. So I’ll wrap this up with quotes from a Saint and the Bible, followed by the usual links.

Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.’…
“…So in this way they arrived at a knowledge of the god who made things, through the things which he made.”
(Sermon 241, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 411) [emphasis mine])

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.”
(Wisdom 11:2223 [emphasis mine])

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

Living in, and appreciating, “a grain from a balance”:

1 Another new world:

2 Details:

3 More details:

4 Elements for life:

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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