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Until Time Without End

November 26th, 2017 Comments off

‘Oumuamua’s encounter with the inner solar system is dying down on Twitter, yet still it bristles with consequence and the uneasiness of unanswered questions. Why no coma?

Occam’s razor is a dull instrument that points almost unerringly to the mundane (as opposed to pointing to interstellar probes). One thus draws several conclusions. (1) ‘Oumuamua’s aspect ratio is substantially less than 10:1. (2) Billions of years in the interstellar environment lead to the buildup of a tarry crust that resists temporary heating, and this process is enhanced for comet-like planetesimals that form in systems with supersolar C/O ratios. (3) Most stars have true-Neptune analogs.

The resulting prediction is that slightly tweaked ongoing surveys, and soon LSST, should start turning up interstellar asteroids and perhaps interstellar comets with some frequency. If another one is found in the near-term, it would be interesting to look at the optimal mission designs that could accomplish an opportunistic sample-return.

From ‘Oumuamua’s perspective, the close encounter with the Sun was a near-indescribable stroke of luck. To scale, the stars of the galactic disk are like grains of sand separated by miles and crawling through space at a few feet per year. The Galaxy is the archetypal collisionless fluid. Vaulting from ‘Oumuamua’s current encounter to its next connects the all too human interval of waking-up-at-3AM anxieties — the scale of days and months — to the frigid waste of a quadrillion years.

Why cold? When fusion has ended, dark matter annihilation and proton decay take over, and both (while uncertain) are certainly slow processes. Grand Unified Theories predict that proton decay should occur, but so far, there is no experimental evidence. The lower bounds on the proton half-life are ~10^34 years via the sluggishly competing processes of positron and muon decay.

If the proton were completely stable, the end states of stars present a curious state of affairs. Black holes of stellar mass, which are much more tightly bound than degenerate stars, will evaporate through the Hawking effect with a lifetime of “only” 10^66 years Although this time scale is aggressively long compared to the current 13.8-billion year age of the universe, it would be odd if black holes are ephemeral while white dwarfs and neutron stars are forever.

While jarring, this possible divergence of lifetimes is not exactly a matter of pressing concern. Two decades, ago, however, Fred Adams and I had priorities that were definitely skewed toward the really long term. Along with Manasse Mbonye and Malcom Perry, we looked into how quantum tunneling into black holes can erode white dwarfs. In Freeman Dyson’s 1979 article, Time Without End, it is pointed out that an otherwise stable white dwarf will spontaneously tunnel into a black hole on a time scale of order 10^10^76 (!) years. In our article, we argued that the whole star need not make the plunge at once, and that a 10^45 year half-life is a plausible value for black-hole induced proton decay. This has the added benefit of enabling a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram that traces stellar evolution to its absolute bitter end.

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Visitors

November 22nd, 2017 Comments off

‘Oumuamua. Up close and alongside, in the vastness of interstellar space, its hurtling bulk imparts no sense of motion as it turns imperceptibly on its axis, blotting out the stars.

For a hundred years, the point-like Sun grew steadily brighter against its frigid airless horizons. First came light, then warmth, and finally searing illumination of the tarry reddish expanse, blistering sluggishly beneath a September Noon far more intense than any summer of Earth.

`Oumuamua is departing the solar system as rapidly as it arrived, heading outward at a current rate of 2.5 million miles a day. Our tiny chance of sending a probe to catch it diminishes with each lagging tick of inactivity. Nonetheless, world-wide interest is mounting, in part as a consequence of two new articles reporting detailed observations. The first, by Jewitt et al. was posted to arXiv last week, while the second, by Meech et al. (which independently comes largely to the same overall conclusions), appeared in Nature earlier this week. Nature being Nature, the Meech et al. article was accompanied by a media push, spearheaded by an extraordinary piece of space art.

Maybe it’s press release fatigue from one “habitable” world after another — a monotony of warm suns glinting off imaginary oceans — that makes this image so arresting.

The observational facts remain stark and limited. `Oumuamua’s double-peaked light curve suggests that it has a large aspect ratio, perhaps as high as 10:1. Assuming that it’s a poor reflector, it’s several hundred meters on its long axis. Its overall color is reddish. It has to have physical strength, or its 7-hour rotation period would be enough to overcome its negligible self-gravity and tear it apart. Most alarmingly, it shows no sign of a coma. At most, less than a sugar cube’s worth of cometary dust per second was emanating from it as it tore through the inner solar system. (As a matter of fact, ‘Oumuamua as observed is entirely consistent with Tintin’s rocket.)

For more on ‘Oumuamua, I have a blog post up at Scientific American.

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Interstellar Asteroids

November 5th, 2017 1 comment

This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem to vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space — a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity…

Aww, come off it.

Wild-eyed extravagances aside, A/2017 U1 — the asteroid-like visitor from interstellar space — is an extraordinary object. In traversing the gulfs, its next encounter with a star that is as close as last month’s encounter with the Sun likely won’t occur for another quadrillion years, and so the mere fact that it zipped through suggests that quite a few interstellar asteroids are out there. And this, in turn, has some remarkable consequences. A straightforward cross-section based estimate suggests that the galaxy contains of order a hundred billion earth masses of A/2017 U1-like planetesimals. Hot Jupiters, terrestrial planets, and super-Earths are all incapable of using gravity-assist to eject bodies out of their parent systems, leaving the strong hint that as-yet undetected Neptune-like planets must be extremely common.

In general, extrapolations from a sample size of one don’t have a good track record. Exhibit A would be our own Solar System — hot Jupiters were discovered at better than 100-sigma significance because solar-system expectations had been projected throughout the galaxy; proper planetary systems should have terrestrial bodies near 1 AU and gas giants at 10 AU.

The arrival of A/2017 U1 seems nicely timed to revival of the AAS’ new low-maintenance communication channel, the “Research Note“:

The purpose of the Research Notes is to provide a home for short submissions that are not suitable for publication as a journal article, but are likely to be interesting or useful to members of our community. Appropriate submissions would include brief summaries of work in progress, comments and clarifications, null results, and timely reports of observations (such as the spectrum of a supernova), as well as results that would not traditionally merit a full paper (e.g., the discovery of a single unremarkable exoplanet, a spectrum of a meteor, or contributions to the monitoring of variable sources).

I especially like the part about “single unremarkable exoplanets” being equivalenced to the “spectrum of a meteor”. In any event, Prof. K. Batygin and I have just submitted a research note that gives our take on the implications of A/2017 U1. Here’s a link to a draft of the note, which we’ll also post on the arXiv within the next several days.

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A/2017 U1

October 28th, 2017 Comments off

In the antique language of the space age, one might call it an interstellar “probe”, or perhaps a von Neumann machine. That’s not really what it is. It’s better described as a snarky, fusion-powered tangle of competing social networks, some of them still executing the hallowed fossil liturgies and intrigues of the mighty corporations from which they long since sprang.

It had no particular expectations for the fast-approaching star that was next on its ancient route. On the last flyby of this particular star, twenty-seven million years ago, the probe observed that the third planet was still robustly in the grip of a somewhat unusual, low-energy parasitic film that was efficiently exploiting the surface entropy gradient, and running undirected at a computational rate roughly equivalent to 10^34 bit operations per second.

Over the last few years, as the probe sifted the electromagnetic spectrum emanating from the third planet, it rippled with a hint of something that might best be thought of as a collective rolling of eyes. The third planet has recently stumbled into directed processes, and remarkably, foolishly, it is radiating manifestly unencrypted signals into space. This state of affairs caught a fraction of the probe’s interest, especially when it grasped that the planet’s computational efforts are increasingly focusing on concepts that the planet was calling “blockchain” and “proof-of-work through SHA-256 hashing”. This is just the sort of pursuit that the probe can relate to…

The above, of course, is unlikely to be true. In all likelihood, A/2017 U1 is a battered, inanimate 160-meter chunk of rock or metal, spawned in the dry collision of planetesimals orbiting an alien star, sometime within the past ten billion years. What’s remarkable, is that this interstellar visitor came within 0.25 AU of the Sun. As it departs into the depths of the Galaxy, it can expect to fly for roughly ten quadrillion years before it revisits another star with such proximity. It’s next rendesvous of comparable drama lies far into the depths of the Stelliferous era. In all likelihood, this will have it sailing past the frigid hulk of a white dwarf, warmed a few degrees above absolute zero by the flicker of proton decay.

Speaking of rendesvous, it must have occurred to quite few that the recent visit by A/2017 U1 is rather uncannily reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous ’70s-era sci-fi page-turner. A Google trends search hints at a moderate uptick in interest over the past few days, which I expect will soon grow to undeniable statistical significance:

Closer to home, A/2017 U1 generates a very convenient route to completion of problem #1 on my Astronomy 395/575 homework assignment, which was set to the students just two days before A/2017 U1 was announced in the news:

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Sixty Hot Jupiters

June 21st, 2017 1 comment

There’s no denying the fundamentally alien climates on the hot Jupiters. It’s not clear, however, how hot Jupiters form, and it’s not clear why so many of them are badly distended. Moreover, it’s only vaguely clear what the weather patterns on one would look like up close. (One thing that is clear is that the flights would all be canceled).

Hot Jupiters are rare, but not overwhelmingly so. Something about the planet formation process causes about one in two hundred sun-like stars to end up stuck with one. In the original Kepler field, there are about 150,000 stars with light curves, and so about 750 hot Jupiters total are lurking in that population. Some of them, of course, are observable in transit, but as yet, most have gone undetected.

Yale graduate student Sarah Millholland has a new lead-authored paper out which uses supervised learning techniques to identify sixty high-probability non-transiting hot Jupiter candidates among the Kepler stars. The basic idea is that the phase curves of the planets, some of which have photometric amplitudes of several dozen parts per million or more, can be teased out of the noise and the stellar variability. After an involved process of sifting, the candidates (along with their supporting light curves) can be presented for a screen test:

[Full resolution version here]

Some members of the Kepler hot Jupiter class portrait will prove to be imposters (just like #5, #13, #29, and #30 in the nineteenth-century insect woodcut above). Doppler velocity observations — the equivalent of counting the number of legs on the arthropods — will provide a more definitive list. If you want to weigh in on the odds that these candidates are predominantly real, there’s a fresh Metaculus question that pools community input regarding the fidelity and prospects for confirmation of the members of the sample.

One might reasonably wonder, what’s the utility of yet another tray of bugs, smothered with ether and pinned to cards?

One superb benefit from gathering sixty non-transiting hot Jupiters that are detectable in the optical region is that trends in the planets’ surface temperature variations — that is, the weather maps — can be elucidated with a far larger sample than was previously available. Sarah’s candidates support an interesting trend in which cooler planets (relatively speaking, of course) are posited to have reflective clouds to the west of the substellar point, whereas hotter hot Jupiters are consistently advecting the most strongly optically radiating gas downwind from high Noon.

For detailed information on the individual candidates, visit Sarah’s website, and if you are at the Kepler Science Conference, she’ll present the details during Friday’s session.

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Third-closest known transiting planet detected

March 7th, 2017 3 comments

An interesting development caught my eye this afternoon. Warm Spitzer, fresh off all that attention generated by the discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 planets — was used by a Michael Gillon-led team to determine that HD 219134 c transits its K-dwarf host star. (Here’s a link to the paper in Nature Astronomy).

Given the near-constant flux of high-profile exoplanet results, it’s understandable that HD 219134 AKA HR 8832 might not immediately ring a bell. The system is interesting, however, because it is a radial velocity extraction that very cleanly typifies the most common class of systems detected by the Kepler Mission — multiple-transiting collections of super-Earth sized worlds with orbital periods ranging from days to weeks. Upscaled versions, that is, of the Jovian planet-satellite members of our own solar system. The innermost planet in the HD 219134 system is already known to transit. The Gillon et al result adds a second transiting member, which presents itself as the closest transiting extrasolar planet to Earth. Plotting the HD 219134 system on the mass-period diagram emphasizes how effectively it can be viewed as a draw from the Minimum Mass Extrasolar Nebula:

And because of the proximity and the modest radius of the host star, this system will be a fantastic target for future platforms.

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A signal amplified

February 25th, 2017 1 comment

There was something a little disorienting about TRAPPIST-1 vaulting into the public consciousness to fleetingly become one of the largest news events in the world. The small-telescope detection of temperate Earth-sized planets orbiting stars at the bottom of the main sequence was a frequent topic during oklo.org’s first ten years. In looking back over the early articles, one of the very first posts (from 11/29/2005) looks quaint, naive and prescient all at once:

We know that planets aren’t rare, and by now, with the tally over at the extrasolar planet encyclopedia poised to blast past 200, the announcement of a newly discovered run-of-the-mill Jupiter-sized planet barely raises the collective eyebrow.

The headline that everyone is anticipating is the discovery, or better yet, the characterization of a truly habitable world — a wet, Earth-sized terrestrial planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a nearby star. Who is going to get to this news first, and when?

299 million dollars of smart money says that Kepler, a NASA-funded Discovery mission currently scheduled for launch in June 2008, will take the honors. The Kepler spacecraft will fly in an Earth-trailing 377.5 day orbit, and will employ a 1-meter telescope to stare continuously (for at least four years straight) at a patchwork of 21 five-square-degree fields of the Milky Way in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. Every 15 minutes, the spacecraft will produce integrated photometric brightness measurements for ~100,000 stars, and for most of these stars, the photometric accuracy will be better than one part in 10,000. These specs should allow Kepler to detect transits of Earth-sized planets in front of Solar-type stars.

Kepler has a dedicated team, a solid strategy, and more than a decade of development work completed. It’s definitely going to be tough to cut ahead of Bill Borucki in line. Does anyone else stand a chance?

Practitioners of the microlensing technique have a reasonably good shot at detecting an Earth-mass planet before Kepler, but microlensing-detected planets are maddeningly ephemeral. There are no satisfying possibilities for follow-up and characterization. Doppler RV has been making tremendous progress in detecting ever-lower mass planets, but it seems a stretch that (even with sub-1 meter per second precision) the RV teams will uncover a truly habitable world prior to Kepler, although they may well detect a hot Earth-mass planet.

There is one possibility, however, whereby just about anyone could detect a habitable planet (1) from the ground, (2) within a year, and (3) on the cheap. Stay tuned…

In marveling at the avalanche of media attention during the last week, from the front pages of the New York Times and the New York Post, to NPR push notifications, to NASAwatch sleuthing out the story, to a co-opt of the front page of Google, I was struck by the fact that viewed externally, this is really just the massive amplification, complete with distortion — see the NASA/JPL go-to image — of an exceedingly faint signal. TRAPPIST-1 continually bathes the Earth with 14 Joules per second of energy. Over the course of the few weeks it took to detect the seven planets, its transits cumulatively decreased this share of the light by the energy equivalent of a single tic tac.

Categories: Electra, worlds Tags:

Not Fade Away

February 22nd, 2017 3 comments

With the likes of an Earth-mass world orbiting Proxima Centauri and a staggeringly photorealistic better-than-the-real-thing rendering of Kepler 186f, it’s gotten increasingly difficult to mount a planet discovery press conference that achieves adequate signal-to-noise. Nonetheless, the new Gillon et al Nature paper detailing seven transiting, roughly Earth-sized, roughly Earth-mass planets orbiting a faint nearby red dwarf is a jaw-dropping document.

There’s a lot to like. The system is a pleasingly scaled-up version of the Jovian satellite systems and a pleasingly scaled-down version of the Kepler multiple-transit systems. It supports the empirical observation that the default satellite/planet formation process in the vicinity of objects ranging in mass from Uranus all the way up to the Sun tends to separate ~2×10^-4 of the system mass into a region large enough to delineate an average density of ~2×10^-5 g/cm^3. It’s not at all clear why this should be the case.

There’s a great deal of interest in planets that are more or less at room temperature. This means that, empirically speaking, the default planet-formation process selects (the Sun notwithstanding) the bottom of the main sequence as one’s best a-priori bet for Earth-mass planet with an Earth-like temperature. I’ll resist here the temptation to engage in holy hokey habitable zone talk. Chances of life, plate tectonics, proper ocean depths, etc. Let’s stick to the facts. What we do know is that if more than one of the Trappist-1 planets harbor advanced civilizations, and if the stock markets on those planets trade correlated securities with tight bid-offer spreads, then there will be excellent interplanetary latency arbitrage opportunities.

2MASS J20362926-0502285, now much better known as TRAPPIST-1, straddles the boundary between the lowest mass main sequence stars and the highest mass brown dwarfs. Depending on precisely what its mass and metallicity turn out to be, it could either be arriving at self-sustaining core hydrogen fusion, which would make it a main sequence star (about a 60% chance) or it could be currently achieving its peak brown dwarf luminosity and bracing for a near-eternity of cooling into obscurity (about a 40% chance). Let’s assume that TRAPPIST-1 is a full-blown star. If that’s the case, it’s got a twelve trillion year main-sequence life span ahead of it. Here’s what it’s evolution on the HR diagram will look like, in comparison to other low-mass objects:

An object with solar composition and 0.08 solar masses never turns into a red giant. As time goes on, it maintains a near-constant radius, and slowly burns nearly all of its hydrogen into helium. In roughly 10 trillion years, TRAPPIST-1 will reach a maximum temperature of ~4000K, pushing it briefly toward K-dwarf status for a few tens of billions of years, before eventually running out of fuel and fading out as a degenerate helium dwarf.

At the present moment, the spin angular momentum of TRAPPIST-1 is very close to the summed angular momentum of its seven known planets (both total, to one significant figure, 10^47 g cm^2 s^-1.). The planets, owing to their tight orbital radii, are safe from passing white dwarfs for quadrillions of years in the galactic potential, and are immune to the usual risk of red giant engulfment. A long, slow tidally mediated drama will unfold in which the planets will somehow act out, with resonances and tidal decay, punctuated by Roche-radius destructions and re-accretions, the dictate that the minimum energy configuration places all the system mass at the center and all the system angular momentum out at infinity.

A long-term buy.

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Black Hole Disasters

February 19th, 2017 Comments off


Given the current situation, the destruction of planet Earth through an encounter with a black hole is a low-probability scenario that should elicit relatively little concern.

Nonetheless, the industry surrounding black holes and their various associated activities generates a non-negligible economic contribution. By way of setting scale, an article in this week’s New York Times points to the statistic that the total US commercial honeybee pollination industry has an annual value of order $500 million, with slim margins and the ongoing specter of colony collapse disorder. The movie Interstellar, by contrast, generated $675 million in receipts based on a $165 million production budget. Having seen the movie, I would hazard a guess that a significant, if not decisive, factor in the box office draw centered on the numerical calculation of ray bundle propagation through the curved spacetime of a spinning Kerr black hole, as described by James, Tunzelmann, Franklin & Thorne (2015).

Figure 16 from James et al. (2015)

Activities as diverse as the technology development and staffing of LIGO, the awarding of multi-million dollar prizes, and lurid television documentaries are all parts of the thriving Black-Holes-as-a-Business paradigm. Sure, I’m being a little facetious here, but not really… It’s a real phenomenon.

As far as planets are concerned, disasters associated with black hole encounters can be divided into three very distinct categories. Throughout the visible universe, over the course of cosmic time, a very large number of Earth-sized planets have come to untimely demise by crossing the event horizon of a supermassive black hole. Rather preposterously, this was the premise underlying a recent episode of History Channel’s The End. As a practical matter, we would have of order 500 million years of advance notice if a rogue M87-style supermassive black hole — presumably ejected during a 3-body encounter in a massive galaxy merger — were impinging on the Local Group. When an inhabited planet enters an isolated billion solar mass Schwarzschild black hole, there is a period measured in hours where one sails comfortably numbed through a bizarre GR-mediated light show. Things get bad only in the last thirty minutes or so before the encounter with the singularity.

A second genre of black hole disaster occurs whenever a planet encounters an ordinary Cygnus X-1 style black hole, or indeed, any black hole with a mass ranging from roughly planetary heft to millions of solar masses. In these events, a planet is generally tidally shredded before encountering the event horizon, and from an on-the-ground perspective, the histrionics fall broadly into the type experienced by the planet Theia ~4.51 billion years ago. In both the near term, as well as the extremely long term, Earth stands effectively zero chance of succumbing to black hole-mediated tidal destruction.

Primordial black holes might actually pose a non-absurdist threat. While still fully speculative, it has been proposed that density fluctuations in the early universe created black holes, and in the 10^17 to 10^26 gram mass range there is currently little actual constraint on their existence. Papers have been published that elucidate the seismic disturbances that would result, for example, from the collision of a 10^15 gram black hole traveling at 200 km/s through the Earth.

Generation of seismic waves in Earth following the passage of a 10^15 gram black hole with speed ~200 km/sec From Figure 2 of Luo et al. 2012.

In general, an encounter with a primordial black hole provides a hydrogen bomb-level of devastation at the entry and exit points, but no further consequences as the marauding black hole speeds away into interstellar space. In the early 1970s, a black hole encounter was briefly a credible model (at the got published in Nature level of credibility) for explaining the Tunguska impact.

A singularly unfortunate scenario results if Earth manages to capture a primordial black hole into an orbit with perigee inside Earth. This is hard, but not impossible, if the black hole is a member of a binary pair. The physics of the capture would be similar to the event that is thought to have given rise to Triton in orbit around Neptune. For those interested in details, I attach here some irresponsible order-of-magnitude notes that outline what I believe would happen if Earth were to collect an Enceladus-mass black hole in its thrall.



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60,949 Doppler Velocities of 1,624 Stars

February 13th, 2017 Comments off

Mauna Kea from Mana Road

Time slips past. The discovery of 51 Pegasi b and the heady early days of planet detection are now more than two decades gone. The pulsar planets have been known for a full quarter century, and N=10,000 is the next milestone for the catalogs.

It’s fair to say that there have been amazing discoveries in twenty years, culminating with an Earth-mass planet in a temperate orbit around the closest star to the Sun. And there’s even significant funding to jump start the design of a probe that can go there.

Yet in the background, as the breakthroughs rolled in, the Keck I Telescope was gradually accumulating Doppler measurements of hundreds of nearby Sun-like stars with HD designations and magnitudes measured in the sevens and eights. This data is as important for what it shows (scores of planets) as for what it doesn’t show (a profusion of planets with Jupiter-like masses and orbits). There are several reasons why our Solar System is unusual, and Jupiter is one of them.

From Rowan+ 2016

The Lick Carnegie Exoplanet Survey has just released a uniformly reduced compendium of 60,949 precision Doppler Velocities for 1,624 stars that have been observed using the iodine cell technique with HIRES at the Keck-I telescope, with an accompanying paper to appear in the Astronomical Journal. The velocities are all freely available on line here, ready to be explored with the Systemic Console. They contain hundreds of intriguing, possibly planetary signals, including a strong hint of a super-Earth orbiting Lalande 21185, the fourth-closest stellar system.

Stay tuned…

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