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
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….”
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
“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.
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
I talked about religious beliefs, assumptions and an opinion poll a year ago; and a very unexpected opinion a few months before that:
- “Exoplanets, Iron, Evolution and Strange Geochemistry” (January 22, 2022)
- “Science, Religion, COVID-19 and an Unexpected Opinion” (November 8, 2021)
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 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” newsnetdaily.com (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.”
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 11:22–23 [emphasis mine])
“Our God is in heaven and does whatever he wills.”
Living in, and appreciating, “a grain from a balance”:
- “Exoplanets, Iron, Evolution and Strange Geochemistry“
(January 22, 2022)
- “HD 63935: Two Sub-Neptunes and Maybe More“
(October 23, 2021)
- “Seeking Strange New Worlds, Life and Civilizations“
(January 16, 2021)
- “Oxygen, Alien Life“
(February 23, 2018)
- “Alien Life: Notions and Research“
(January 5, 2018)
- The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia (exoplanet.eu)
- “Astronomers Find What May Be a Habitable World 31 Light-Years Away“
Michelle Starr, ScienceAlert (February 3, 2023)
- Doppler spectroscopy (radial velocity measurements)
- Milky Way
- Extremely Large Telescope
- Gliese 1002 (GJ 1002)
- Iota Ceti
- Kepler space telescope
- Methods of detecting exoplanets
- Milky Way
- Minimum mass
- Red dwarf
- “Two temperate Earth-mass planets orbiting the nearby star GJ 1002“
A. Suárez Mascareño, E. González-Álvarez, M. R. Zapatero Osorio, J. Lillo-Box, J. P. Faria, V. M. Passegger, J. I. González Hernández, P. Figueira, A. Sozzetti, R. Rebolo, F. Pepe, N. C. Santos, S. Cristiani, C. Lovis, A. M. Silva, I. Ribas, P. J. Amado, J. A. Caballero, A. Quirrenbach, A. Reiners, M. Zechmeister, V. Adibekyan, Y. Alibert, V. J. S. Béjar, S. Benatti9, V. D’Odorico, M. Damasso, J.-B. Delisle, P. Di Marcantonio, S. Dreizler, D. Ehrenreich, A. P. Hatzes, N. C. Hara, Th. Henning, A. Kaminski, M. J. López-González, C. J. A. P. Martins, G. Micela19, D. Montes, E. Pallé1, S. Pedraz, E. Rodríguez, C. Rodríguez-López, L. Tal-Or, S. Sousa, S. Udry; Astronomy & Astrophysics (received September 16, 2022; accepted November 21, 2022) via EDP Sciences / aanda.org
- ESO (European Southern Observatory)
- CARMENES instrument overview (Calar Alto high-Resolution search for M dwarfs with Exoearths with Near-infrared and optical Echelle Spectrographs)
- ESPRESSO – Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations
- NASA Exoplanet Archive
- “Discovery Alert: Two ‘Nearby’ Worlds Might be Habitable“,Pat Brennan, NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program, NASA (January 24, 2023)
- “Kepler’s View of the Galaxy“, Dana Berry, NASA Kepler Mission (updated December 15, 2022)
- “Impact of Superflares on Planet Habitability around Small Stars May Be Weaker than Thought“
Sci News (August 9, 2021)
- “Giant white-light flares on fully convective stars occur at high latitudes“
Ekaterina Ilin, Katja Poppenhaeger, Sarah J. Schmidt, Silva P. Järvinen, Elisabeth R Newton, Julián D Alvarado-Gómez, J. Sebastian Pineda, James R. A. Davenport, Mahmoudreza Oshagh, Ilya Ilyin; Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (published 05 August 5, 2021) via Oxford Adademic
- “Lessons from early Earth: UV surface radiation should not limit the habitability of active M star systems“
Jack T. O’Malley-James, L. Kaltenegger; Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (published April 9, 2019) via Oxford Adademic
- “Study: Nearest exoplanets could host life“
Linda B. Glaser, Cornell Chronicle (April 9, 2019)
- Astrobiology at NASA
- About Astrobiology
- Astrobiology Strategy
- History of Astrobiology
- Astrobiology Program FAQ
- “A Voice Among the Stars: Poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón Will Ride to Europa on NASA Spacecraft“, Aaron Gronstal (January 30, 2023)
- “Exo-Asteroids and Habitability around M-Dwarfs“, Aaron Gronstal (January 26, 2023)
- “A New Method to Detect Exoplanet Atmospheres with Webb“, Aaron Gronstal (January 24, 2023)
- “NASA’s TESS Discovers Planetary System’s Second Earth-Size World“; Jeanette Kazmierczak, NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; Claire Andreoli, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland; Calla Cofield, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Southern California; Jeanette Kazmierczak, editor (January 10, 2023)
- “Webb’s View of the Molecular Cloud Chameleon I (Annotated)“
NASA, ESA, CSA, and M. Zamani (ESA/Webb); Science: F. Sun (Steward Observatory), Z. Smith (Open University), and the Ice Age ERS Team (January 23, 2023)