Could Barnard’s Star harbor an icy home for life?

Red dwarf and planets
An artist’s conception shows three planets around a red dwarf star. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

Where’s the nearest exoplanet with conditions that are right for life? Over the past couple of years, astrobiologists have talked up Proxima Centauri b, which is sitting just 4.2 light-years away.

But Villanova University astrophysicist Edward Guinan favors a world that’s just a bit farther out, at least in astronomical terms. It’s Barnard’s Star b, a super-Earth that orbits Barnard’s Star, 6 light-years from our solar system.

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Supernova leftovers point to a messy blowup

White dwarf and red giant
This artist’s view shows a white dwarf star accumulating material from a nearby red giant star. Ultimately, the white dwarf erupts into a supernova. (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canaria Illustration / Romano Corradi)

In what sounds like a cosmic episode of “CSI,” sleuthing astronomers have figured out what touched off a stellar explosion 545 million light-years away, based on evidence left behind at the scene of the crime.

An international team of astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories to sift through the chemical fingerprints left behind in the remnants of a Type Ia supernova known as SN 2015cp. The astronomers knew the type of star that blew up: It was a carbon-oxygen white dwarf. But they wanted to find out whether a different kind of star had a hand in the blast.

Today the astronomers reported the detection of hydrogen-rich debris in the vicinity of the supernova site — which cracks the case wide open.

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Scientists seek new ways to track technosignatures

Image: Alien megastructure
An artist’s conception shows a crumbling megastructure known as a Dyson sphere orbiting a distant star. Could such structures produce detectable technosignatures? (Danielle Futselaar Illustration)

Could extraterrestrial civilizations leave their fingerprints as chlorofluorocarbons in planetary atmospheres, or the waste heat generated by industrial processes, or artificial bursts of neutrinos or gravitational waves?

That’s what a vanguard of astronomers would like to find out, and they’re hoping to win more support for an approach that widens the nearly 60-year-old search for alien radio signals to include other alien indicators.

Those indicators — which could include anomalous chemicals in exoplanet atmospheres or readings that hint at the presence of alien megastructures — have come to be known collectively as technosignatures. It’s a term that originated with Jill Tarter, one of the pioneers in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

“When the astrobiology people started talking about ‘biosignatures,’ it just seemed obvious,” Tarter told GeekWire this week at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

Tarter said the term crystallizes the idea that scientists should look for a variety of technological traces potentially pointing to intelligent life beyond Earth.

“We’re really talking about more than just searching for radio signals or optical signals,” she said. “What is it that technology does to modify its environment in a way that we can detect over interstellar distances, and distinguish from what life does?”

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Search for fast radio bursts enters a new era

CHIME antenna
One of the radio antennas of the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, spreads out beneath the night sky near Penticton, B.C. (CHIME Photo)

A new radio telescope in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley has detected 13 new sources of mysterious extragalactic phenomena known as fast radio bursts, including the second known source of repeated bursts.

And the experiment is just barely getting started.

The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, picked up the radio signatures of the bursts over the course of three weeks in July and August, while the telescope was in its pre-commissioning phase and running at only a fraction of its design capacity.

Fast radio bursts, also known as FRBs, are powerful spikes of radio emissions that emanate from galaxies beyond our own Milky Way and last for mere milliseconds. Only 60 FRB sources have been detected, including the 13 announced today.

“Their origin is still unknown,” said the University of British Columbia astronomer Deborah Good, one of the co-authors of two papers about the detections published today by the journal Nature.

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Hubble team works to revive camera amid shutdown

Hubble Space Telescope
NASA astronaut Andrew Feustel, perched on the end of the shuttle Atlantis’ robotic arm, helps to install the Wide Field Camera 3 during 2009 spacewalk to perform work on the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA Photo)

Engineers are working to bring the Hubble Space Telescope’s wide-angle camera back into operation after a hardware problem knocked it offline.

In a status update, NASA said the problem cropped up on Jan. 8 and forced a suspension of operations for the Wide Field Camera 3.

WFC3 was installed on the telescope nearly a decade ago during the space shuttle fleet’s final servicing mission. It’s designed to capture high-resolution images in visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths.

“Hubble will continue to perform science observations with its other three active instruments, while the Wide Field Camera 3 anomaly is investigated,” NASA said. Those instruments include the Advanced Camera for Surveys, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.

NASA said that WFC3 is “equipped with redundant electronics should they be needed to recover the instrument.”

Operations at NASA have been reduced agency-wide due to a partial government shutdown that’s lasted 19 days so far. However, Christine Pulliam, news director for the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute, said the shutdown “is not affecting the response to the anomaly.”

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Red dwarfs seem to wipe out life’s necessities

AU Microscopii with planet
An artist’s conception shows the red dwarf star AU Microscopii with a hypothetical planet and moon in the foreground. (NASA / ESA Illustration / G. Bacon)

Red dwarf stars have been seen as the biggest potential frontier for alien life, in part because they’re the most common stars in our galaxy. But observations made using the Hubble Space Telescope suggest that the frontier might turn out to be a desert.

“We may have found the limit to habitable planets,” said Carol Grady, a co-investigator on the Hubble observations from Eureka Scientific in Oakland, Calif. She laid out the research team’s findings today at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

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TESS mission adds ‘sub-Neptune’ to discovery list

TESS probe
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite, or TESS, with an assortment of exoplanets. (NASA / GSFC / MIT Illustration)

Less than a year after NASA’s TESS spacecraft was launched, the scientists behind the mission have unveiled their third confirmed planet, a weird alien world that’s between Earth and Neptune in size. And hundreds of additional potential finds are in the pipeline.

The latest exoplanet on the list is HD 21749b, which orbits a star that’s about 80 percent as massive as our sun, located about 53 light-years away in the southern constellation Reticulum. Its 36-day orbital period is a record high for the TESS mission.

The “sub-Neptune” planet is about three times Earth’s size, but 23 times its mass. In comparison, Neptune is almost four times as wide as Earth but only 17 times as massive.

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3-D views reveal ‘Orion’s Dragon’ in space

Orion's Dragon
A color-coded image that’s based on SOFIA infrared data shows “Orion’s Dragon” in the Orion Nebula, more than 1,300 light-years from Earth. (NASA / USRA / DLR Image)

Spectral readings from the Orion Nebula have charted the cosmic weather patterns for powerful stellar winds that have created a bubble of material that’s 12 light-years wide, as well as a structure that’s been nicknamed “Orion’s Dragon.”

The dragon shape stands out in a 3-D video produced using data from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, a Boeing 747 jet that’s been converted to carry a 106-inch telescope and other scientific instruments.

“When we first saw it, we were standing around my computer screen looking at it and say, ‘Hey, doesn’t that look like a dragon?’ And everybody said, ‘Yeah, that looks like a dragon,’ ” Joan Schmelz, the SOFIA project’s associate director for science and public outreach at the Universities Space Research Association, said today at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

There’s even a stereoscopic video clip that pops out when seen with red-blue 3-D glasses. (You can download the MPG file via the SOFIA website.)

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‘Oumuamua points to plethora of interstellar objects

An artist’s conception shows what the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua might look like. (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser)

The cigar-shaped object known as ‘Oumuamua may be the first interstellar interloper to be discovered, but it’s not likely to be the last. Statistics suggest that there are lots more space rocks like it out there.

How many? About 100 septillion in our Milky Way galaxy, according to Yale astronomer Gregory Laughlin, who has analyzed the light curve and weird orbit of ‘Oumuamua — a Hawaiian word that basically means “first messenger from afar.”

That number is a 1 followed by 26 zeroes.

Laughlin arrived at that estimate by extrapolating from the observational capabilities of the Pan-STARRS Telescope in Hawaii, the instrument that first detected the object back in October 2017.

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Government shutdown puts a damper on science

Welcome sign at AAS
Arata Expositions’ Jason Edwards puts down a “Welcome” sign for the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting at the Seattle Convention Center. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

It’s been called the “Super Bowl of Astronomy,” but when the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting plays out in Seattle this week, some of the stars won’t be taking the field.

The AAS meeting is just one of the scientific endeavors diminished by the partial government shutdown in Washington, D.C., which entered its 17th day today.

NASA representatives, and researchers whose travel would typically be funded by NASA, have had to cancel their plans to be in Seattle due to the tiff involving the Trump administration and Republicans on one side, and Democrats on the other.

The shutdown affects only a quarter of the federal government — which means that the Defense Department and the Energy Department can continue research and development activities. Work continues as well at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and at the National Institutes of Health.

But most employees at NASA as well as at the Agriculture Department, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service are on furlough.

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