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The hunt for alien worlds has been the source of many exciting discoveries, as the number of confirmed planets outside Earth's solar sytem has more than doubled this past year. 

Here's a look at the top 10 planetary finds of 2016, including the discovery of the closest Earth-like neighbor, Proxima b; alien worlds that have more than one sun; and even one distant planet potentially located in Earth's solar system: 

1. Earth's cosmic neighbor

In August, astronomers announced the discovery of a world called Proxima b, which orbits Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth's own sun. 

Proxima b has a minimum mass of about 1.3 times the Earth's, and it's located roughly 4.22 light-years away. What's more, it orbits within the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, which means this planet could have a surface temperature that would allow for the presence of liquid water. This means that this rocky world has the potential to support life.

2. Planet Nine

A giant, icy world called Planet Nine is thought to exist in the Kuiper Belt at the outer edge of Earth's solar system, and astronomers could be on the cusp of actually finding the distant world. 

This undiscovered planet is believed to be about 10 times more massive than Earth and have an average temperature of minus 374.8 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 226 degrees Celsius). Astronomers announced the potential for the discovery of Planet Nine in January 2016, and in October, they predicted the planet would be found within 16 months or so

Astronomers are using mathematical modeling and computer simulations to pin down the location of this alien world. Observations of the orbits of six other, smaller objects in the Kuiper Belt suggest that a much more massive body (which would, theoretically, be Planet Nine) has a strong gravitational influence in this region.

3. 1,284 new exoplanets

In May, astronomers announced the discovery of 1,284 new exoplanets, the single largest haul of alien worlds made to date. 

Among the exoplanets discovered were nine rocky worlds that could possibly support life as we know it. This discovery was made using NASA's Kepler space telescope, which finds planets that dim their stars as they orbit past. The number of confirmed exoplanets now stands at a staggering grand total of 3,439. 

"This gave scientists hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth," NASA officials said in a statement

In fact, two of the exoplanets, Kepler-1638b and Kepler-1229b, are among the most Earth-like planets ever found, as they orbit within their host stars' habitable zones.

4. Rogue planet

A giant alien planet called 2MASS J2126 was found orbiting 600 billion miles (1 trillion kilometers) from its host star, making this planet's star system the largest one known. 

In fact, the exoplanet has such a wide orbit that astronomers previously thought it was a "rogue" planet flying freely through space. For comparison, 2MASS J2126 orbits 7,000 times farther from its star than Earth does from the sun. At that distance, the gas-giant exoplanet completes one orbit every 900,000 years or so.

5. 1 star, 3 exoplanets

In May, astronomers found an alien solar system called TRAPPIST-1, which lies 40 light-years from Earth. The system features a tiny, ultracool dwarf star and three small potentially habitable exoplanets

As an ultracool dwarf star, TRAPPIST-1 is 2,000 times less bright and less than half as warm as the sun. What's more, this alien world is only about one-twelfth the sun's mass and less than one-eighth the sun's width, making it only slightly larger in diameter than Jupiter.

This strange star was discovered using the TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) telescope in Chile. The three exoplanets found orbiting TRAPPIST-1 are each only about 10 percent larger in diameter than Earth. The discovery of this alien solar system marked the first time that an exoplanet had been found orbiting an ultracool dwarf star, astronomers said.

6. Jewel clouds

Also this year, astronomers detected exotic weather on a large exoplanet known as HAT-P-7b. The upper atmosphere of this alien world boasts powerful winds and clouds composed at least partially of corundum, the mineral that forms sapphires and rubies. This was the first discovery of weather on a gas giant planet outside the solar system.

HAT-P-7b is about 40 percent larger than Jupiter and is located 1,040 light-years from Earth. The planet orbits its host star every 2.2 days, and it is tidally locked, with the same side always facing its parent star — just like the moon always presents the same face to Earth.

7. Characterization of super-Earth atmosphere

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers characterized the atmosphere of a "super-Earth" exoplanet for the first time, revealing hydrogen and helium, but no water vapor, in the air of an alien world called 55 Cancri e. 

Located 40 light-years from Earth's solar system, 55 Cancri e is an exoplanet that is about two times wider and eight times more massive than Earth. What's more, this alien world lies incredibly close to its host star, completing one orbit every 18 hours, indicating that the planet is far too hot to host life as we know it. In fact, scientists estimate that surface temperatures on 55 Cancri e can reach up to 3,630 degrees F (2,000 degrees C).

8. Star trio

Another exoplanet discovered this year was also spotted orbiting multiple stars. The strange new world, HD 131399Ab, circles three stars at once in a highly exotic celestial arrangement. 

HD 131399Ab is located 340 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Centaurus. For about half of the planet's orbit through the system, which lasts 550 Earth-years, all three stars are visible in the sky.

The system exhibits a strange configuration: Exoplanet HD 131399Ab orbits a large, bright star — call it Star A — and then the exoplanet and Star A are orbited by a pair of stars referred to as Star B and Star C. This multistar system was the first found with such an exotic configuration.

9. New K-2 finds

NASA's Kepler space telescope suffered two gyroscope failures in 2013 that rendered it unable to hold its former focus on one precise patch of the sky. But that didn't stop Kepler: Scientists developed a new mission for the scope, aptly named K-2. Using its two remaining gyroscopes, its thrusters and the pressure of sunlight, the telescope now observes different portions of the sky, each for up to 83 days, and then rotates to prevent sunlight from coming into its field of view.

K-2 has unveiled 58 candidate planets, 127 of which have already been confirmed. This includes two rocky exoplanets called K2-72c and 72e, which orbit within the habitable zone of their host star (located about 181 light-years from Earth). 

K2-72c circles slightly closer to the host star with a 15-day orbit, while sibling K2-72e has a 24-day orbit. Additionally, K2-72c is about 10 percent warmer than Earth, while K2-72e is about 6 percent colder than Earth.

10. Triple suns

Yet another planet with multiple stars was discovered in 2016. A newfound alien planet called KELT-4Ab has three suns in its sky

Similar to exoplanet HD 131399Ab and its star trio, KELT-4Ab has a strange celestial configuration. KELT-4Ab orbits the star KELT-A once every three days. In turn, a nearby pair of stars then orbits KELT-A.

What's more, the twin stars, KELT-B and KELT-C, orbit one another once every 30 years, and together they travel around KELT-A and its planet every 4,000 years or so. Astronomers estimate that, to viewers on the planet, KELT-A would appear to be about 40 times as large as the sun appears in the sky on Earth, while the pair of stars would appear about as bright as the full moon in the sky. This strange system is only one of the few known to contain three stars

Author: Samantha Mathewson
Source: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/wildest-alien-planet-discoveries-of-2016/ar-BBxH5sc

 

Categorized in Science & Tech

Ellen Stofan, current NASA chief scientist, said sending humans to Mars would be a powerful step in the search for life beyond Earth.

"I am someone who believes it is going to take humans on the surface [of Mars] … to really get at the question of not just did life evolve on Mars, but what is the nature of that life," Stofan said at a scientific workshop in Irvine, California, hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. "To me, we're going to go Mars because Mars holds the answers to such fundamental scientific questions that we're trying to ask."

The workshop, titled "Searching for Life Across Space and Time," drew together leading scientists who are, through various avenues, working to find signs of alien life in Earth's solar system and beyond. Stofan has argued before for the scientific benefits of a human mission to the Red Planet.

Stofan said she believes strongly in sending humans to Mars to search for signs of life because humans can perform tasks that would be difficult for a rover. Humans can operate drills that could go deeper than the few inches plumbed by the Curiosity rover, or even beyond a depth of 6.5 feet (2 meters), which is the expected limit for the Mars 2020 rover. Humans could potentially explore more locations than a rover could and perform deeper scientific analysis than what is possible using a remote, robotic scientific laboratory, she said.

"We now know water was stable for long periods of time on the surface [of Mars], and Mars' potential for habitability, I think, is huge," Stofan said. "I do believe that we need … brave people to spend time on Mars, to have a scientific laboratory on Mars, to do the work that we need to do to truly understand what life on Mars tells us about life beyond Earth."

Multiple sessions at the meeting focused on the search for signs of ancient life or even present-day life on Mars. Today, the surface of the Red Planet appears to be inhospitable to the kind of life that exists on Earth, mainly because liquid water exists only in very small amounts, and is extremely salty. Other factors would also make life hard on the Red Planet, including high doses of space radiation (because Mars lacks the protective atmosphere and magnetic field that Earth has),and wildly oscillating surface temperatures: During the Martian summer months, the surface of the planet might be 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) during the day, but plummet to minus 100 F (minus 73 C) at night.

Image:

There are examples of extreme life-forms on Earth that can survive in some of those conditions, including frigid temperatures and exposure to high doses of radiation. However, liquid water is a necessity for all known Earth-based life-forms. But based on the discovery of brines on the surface of Mars, some people think it's possible that life exists on the Red Planet today. With that in mind, some people are concerned that sending rovers and humans to Mars could risk contaminating the planet with Earth-based microbes.

Right now, NASA has plans that could allow scientists to bring rock samples backto Earth from Mars, Stofan said. An in-depth analysis of a Martian rock might help the scientific community make a more informed decision about whether life likely exists on Mars today, and thus what steps would be needed to prevent biological contamination from a human visit to the Red Planet, Stofan said.

"I think these are questions that should be in the hands of the science community via the [NAS]," she said.

Stofan briefly addressed concerns about whether NASA could actually pull off its plan to send humans into orbit around Mars by the early 2030s and onto the planet's surface by the late 2030s, saying that she is an "incredible optimist on this."

The scientist added that she has also heard people say that there is "no real reason" to send humans to the surface of Mars (as opposed to robotic missions), and she called on members of the science community to "speak up" if they disagree.

Image: Martian sand dunes

The scientific interest in Mars extends beyond NASA. The European, Indian and Chinese space agencies are all sending probes or rovers to Mars. Private companies (primarily Elon Musk's SpaceX) are also working on plans related to Mars. Someone in the audience asked Stofan if she thought the global scientific community is engaged in a sort of "soft space race" to Mars.

"I really don't see it as a soft race. I see it as this amazing confluence of interests," Stofan said. "I think Mars has incredible public appeal. .... It engages the public in a way that very few other things do, which is great.

Author:  CALLA COFIELD

Source:  http://www.nbcnews.com/

Categorized in Science & Tech

LIFE probably does not exist on Mars as there is no water on the surface of the planet, a new study found.

A new study of meteorites that have crashed into the surface of the Red Planet over millions of years has found none showed signs of rust, suggesting there is no liquid present on Earth’s neighbour.

Our Neightbouring planet still harbours plenty of secrets, but alien life may not be one of them
Who would live in a place like this? A photo of the barren Martian surface

Who would live in a place like this? A photo of the barren Martian surface

There is less moisture on Mars than in the driest place on Earth – the Atacama Desert in Chile and Peru.

Some weather stations in this region have received no rain for years, while another station reports an average of one millimetre per year.

An international team of planetary scientists led by the University of Stirling suggested rust free meteorites showed Mars was incredibly dry and has been for millions of years.

The findings showed how difficult it would be for life to exist on Mars today as Earth’s nearest neighbour is the primary target in the search for life elsewhere.

Dr Christian Schröder said: “Evidence shows that more than three billion years ago Mars was wet and habitable.

“However, this latest research reaffirms just how dry the environment is today.

“For life to exist in the areas we investigated, it would need to find pockets far beneath the surface, located away from the dryness and radiation present on the ground.”

National Geographic series Mars

An artist’s impression of astronauts exploring Mars

A study last year using data from the Curiosity Rover investigating Gale crater suggested very salty liquid water might be able to condense in the top layers of Martian soil overnight.

But the lecturer in environmental science and planetary exploration and science team collaborator for the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity mission added: "But, as our data show, this moisture is much less than the moisture present even in the driest places on Earth."

The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity provided data on a cluster of meteorites at Meridiani Planum - a plain just south of the planet's equator and at a similar latitude to Gale crater.

The study comes as the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli lander prepares to land on Mars to search for life

The European Space Agency's Schiaparelli craft, which failed in its mission to land a exploration robot on the Red Planet

Author:  Tony Whitfield

Source:  https://www.thesun.co.uk

Categorized in News & Politics

The search for life on Mars might just center around a strange funnel-shaped surface feature inside a crater, scientists say in a new study. Located in what is known as the Hellas depression, the feature could hold the “ingredients of life.”

The Daily Mail reported last week that a new study suggests that volcanic activity on Mars might have been a key contributor to the odd funnel depression that could be Mars’ best chance to host living organisms. Scientists have believed that a volcano located beneath a glacier on Mars’ surface created the Hellas depression, but new data taken from stereoscopic images and digital elevation models indicates that the formation is not only volcanic in origin, it might be similar to “ice cauldrons” on Earth. Such a formation could create an environment warm enough to host liquid water and chemical nutrients that might support life.

Ice cauldrons are found on Earth in places like Iceland and Greenland, created when volcanoes erupt under an ice sheet. On Mars, these same conditions potentially could host life.

Joseph Levy, a research associate and lead author of the study from the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, explained the reasoning behind the study’s site choice.

“We were drawn to this site because it looked like it could host some of the key ingredients for habitability – water, heat, and nutrients.”

The Hellas depression, as noted, is located in a crater at the edge of the Hellas basin. Ancient glacial deposits surround the feature.

Photo of Mars' Hellas basin

The Hellas basin on Mars. [Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)/Getty Images]

Nor is the feature, which was first discovered in 2009 in images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, unique. It is similar to a depression in the Galaxias Fossae region.

“These landforms caught our eye because they’re weird looking. They’re concentrically fractured so they look like a bull’s-eye. That can be a very diagnostic pattern you see in Earth materials,” Levy admitted.

The study concluded that the two funnel structures were formed in different ways. The Galaxias Fossae depression seems to be a product of an impact, while the Hellas depression showed several indications of volcanism.

Levy and his fellow researchers suggest that such depressions on Mars should be considered as prime locations for the search for life on the Red Planet. The Hellas formation is of particular interest due to its possible volcanic origins and the potential for life-fostering properties.

The search for life on Mars might have received a boost or perhaps even a confirmation (or denial) of its existence last month had the Rocosmos and European Space Agency’s lander been able to continue its mission on the planet’s surface. Called Schiaparelli, the lander was an astrobiology project specifically designed to search for life on Mars. As the Inquisitr reported, Schiaparelli exploded on impact with the surface on October 19, a victim of its parachute deploying too early (although conspiracy theorists oddly accused NASA of shooting down the craft to maintain its scientific dominance).

Mars landscape at sunset

Mars life might be found first in a crater in the Hellas basin that exhibits a strange funnel-shaped depression. [Image by Jurik Peter/Shutterstock]

Beyond Mars, the search for life outside the bounds of the Solar System received help from the Parkes Observatory in Australia this week. According to Space.com, the telescope joined the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project, the astronomical initiative launched by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, becoming the third telescope in the line-up that includes the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory in Northern California.

“The addition of Parkes is an important milestone,” Milner said in a statement. “These major instruments are the ears of planet Earth, and now they are listening for signs of other civilizations.”

The Parkes dish’s first Breakthrough Listen observations were received from the nearest star system, Proxima Centauri, where a planet has been detected that exists in the star’s habitable zone.

Author:  Norman Byrd

Source:  http://www.inquisitr.com/

Categorized in News & Politics
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