Mystery object found in weird orbit beyond Neptune

By Shannon Hall

“I hope everyone has buckled their seatbelts because the outer solar system just got a lot weirder.” That’s what Michele Bannister, an astronomer at Queens University, Belfast tweeted on Monday.

She was referring to the discovery of a TNO or trans-Neptunian object, something which sits beyond Neptune in the outer solar system. This one is 160,000 times fainter than Neptune, which means the icy world could be less than 200 kilometres in diameter. It’s currently above the plane of the solar system and with every passing day, it’s moving upwards – a fact that makes it an oddity.

The TNO orbits in a plane that’s tilted 110 degrees to the plane of the solar system. What’s more, it swings around the sun backwards unlike most of the other objects in the solar system. With this in mind, the team that discovered the TNO nicknamed it “Niku” after the Chinese adjective for rebellious.

To grasp how truly rebellious it is, remember that a flat plane is the signature of a planetary system, as a star-forming gas cloud creates a flat disk of dust and gas around it. “Angular momentum forces everything to have that one spin direction all the same way,” says Bannister. “It’s the same thing with a spinning top, every particle is spinning the same direction.”

That means anything that doesn’t orbit within the plane of the solar system or spins in the opposite direction must have been knocked off course by something else. “It suggests that there’s more going on in the outer solar system than we’re fully aware of,” says Matthew Holman at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, part of the team that discovered Niku using the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System 1 Survey (Pan-STARRS 1) on Haleakala, Maui.

Planet Nine

He should know – Batygin was one of two astronomers who earlier this year announced that the presence of another highly inclined group of objects could be pointing toward a large undiscovered world, perhaps 10 times as massive as Earth, lurking even further away – the so-called Planet Nine.

Upon further analysis, the new TNO appears to be part of another group orbiting in a highly inclined plane, so Holman’s team tested to see if their objects could also be attributed to the gravitational pull of Planet Nine.

It turns out Niku is too close to the solar system to be within the suggested world’s sphere of influence, so there must be another explanation. The team also tried to see if an undiscovered dwarf planet, perhaps similar to Pluto, could supply an explanation, but didn’t have any luck. “We don’t know the answer,” says Holman.

Bannister couldn’t be more thrilled. “It’s wonderful that it’s so confusing,” she says. “I’m looking forward to seeing what the theoretical analysists do once they get their hands on this one.”

But Batygin isn’t jumping up and down just yet. “As they say in the paper, what they have right now is a hint,” he says. “If this hint develops into a complete story that would be fantastic.”

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2100700-mystery-object-in-weird-orbit-beyond-neptune-cannot-be-explained/

NASA’s chief scientist says we’ll find aliens by 2025

During a panel discussion on Tuesday, April 7 NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan had some exciting news:

“I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years,” Stofan said.

However, Stofan and the team of panelists were less sure about exactly where humankind will discover the first signs of alien life.

“I think we’re one generation away in our solar system, whether it’s on an icy moon or on Mars, and one generation [away] on a planet around a nearby star,” said another panelist member and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld.

Last month, Business Insider spoke with NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay about where he thought humankind would first find signs of alien life in our solar system. Surprisingly, the most likely place is not nearby or on any surface.

We need to start looking underground, according to McKay.

“Things are better below the surface,” says McKay, who is a senior scientist with NASA’s Planetary Systems Branch. She investigates where else life could exist in our solar system.

Unfortunately, designing and dispatching a lander that can dig deep beneath a planet’s surface is incredibly difficult and expensive. The only places scientists have drilled, collected, and examined samples beneath the surface is on the moon and Mars.

One place where we wouldn’t need to dig and drill is on Saturn’s tiny moon, Enceladus. It harbors a massive ocean underneath a thick layer of ice on its surface. Two different teams of scientists found compelling evidence there that indicates active volcanoes line the tiny moon’s seafloor.

McKay is excited about the prospect of Enceladus for another reason though. “Enceladus is most likely to give us an answer soonest,” he said. “The reason is Enceladus has a plume coming into space.”

In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft flew by Enceladus and spotted plumes of water vapor and other materials gushing out of its surface. If there’s life in the solar system, the first place we’re likely to find it is inside of those plumes, McKay said.

Sadly, Cassini is not equipped with the right instruments to detect signs of life in these plumes. And right now, NASA has no plans to dispatch another probe to Saturn or its moons anytime soon. That’s not stopping McKay and others from discussing what they’d look for there if they had the chance.

“I’d suggest that the best molecules to measure are amino acids, the building blocks of proteins,” McKay said during a live webcast hosted by The Kavli Foundation in January. “Life on Earth has made specific choices in amino acids. It uses a set of just 20 amino acids to build proteins, and those amino acids are all left-handed.”

Left-handed amino acids are chemically identical (meaning they have all the same atoms in the same amounts) to right-handed animo acids. The difference is that they are structured in a way so they’re mirror images of one another, just like how your right and left hands are the same shape but don’t line up when you put one on top of the other.

One of the outstanding mysteries in astrobiology is why RNA and DNA is only constructed from proteins built by left-handed amino acids. Regardless of why or how, this fact will come in handy during potential future studies of Enceladus.

“If Chris were to find amino acids in the plumes of Enceladus, the challenge becomes determining whether they are the products of a biological process,” Steven Benner, president of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida, said during the webcast. “If he were to find that they’re all the same hand, that would be convincing, because that’s what makes the protein evolvable.”

For McKay, the excitement of the hunt is not just about discovering whether aliens exist. It’s discovering unique alien life that is completely different from life on Earth, which might be quite a bit harder since the building blocks of life are so complex.

“In my mind that’s the real question. Not, ‘Is there life on these other worlds?’ but ‘iI there a second genesis of life on these other worlds?'” McKay told Business Insider. “That’s a subtlety that’s not obvious until you think about it.”

A second-genesis of alien life could, in theory, have a completely different biomolecular structure from life on Earth. Right now, scientists debate whether or not life on Earth originated on another celestial object, like Mars, that then hitched a ride to Earth inside of a meteorite.

That is not a stretch to imagine, researchers say, since Mars was covered with liquid water around the same time that life is believed to have begun on Earth. If we do find evidence of life on Mars and it has the same DNA as us, then it’s probably our cousins, McKay told Business Insider.

If we want to find truly unique alien life, then we’ll have to travel farther than next door.

“As we go from Mars to Europa to Enceladus to Titan, as the worlds get farther away from Earth the conditions get less and less like Earth,” McKay said. “We’re more likely to find life that’s not related to us the farther out we go.”

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/where-were-most-likely-to-find-alien-life-in-the-space-2015-4#ixzz3Wlha9IoQ

Thanks to Da Brayn