Could There Be Life On The First Earth-Sized, Habitable Zone Planet Found By NASA’s TESS?

“Appearing in 11 independently viewed TESS sectors, TOI 700 possesses at least 3 planets orbiting it. Although TOI 700 is an M-class red dwarf, it exhibits no flaring, benefitting potential lifeforms. The third planet from the star — TOI 700d — is only 19% larger than Earth, receiving 86% of the incident energy on Earth. Even though the planet is likely to be tidally locked, with the same face always towards its star, it’s still potentially habitable. Everything depends on the composition of the atmosphere and how energy flows around the world.”

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, TESS, has been scanning the sky in various chunks for more than a year now, with its greatest coverage in the polar regions of the sky. In the south pole, about 100 light-years away, the M-class star TOI 700 resides. TESS observations have revealed three exoplanets around it, where the outermost one, TOI 700d, is both Earth-sized and in the right zone to have liquid water on its surface, if its atmosphere is just right.

Does this mean there could be life on it? Surprisingly, perhaps, the answer is that the conditions might be just right! Come get the scoop today!

Ask Ethan: Does A Time-Stopping Paradox Prevent Black Holes From Growing?

“[F]or any object falling into a black hole, time slows down upon approach and comes to a standstill as the object reaches the event horizon. Reaching and passing that border would take an infinite amount of time measured by a distant observer… if ‘eating’ matter would take infinite time… how could supermassive black holes come into existence?”

From the perspective of an infalling particle, when you pass the event horizon of a black hole, you simply go straight through and head inevitably towards the central singularity. That should increase the black hole’s mass and cause the black hole and its event horizon to grow. On the other hand, from an external observer’s perspective, any particle that falls in will never be seen to cross the event horizon, creating an apparent paradox by where black holes would be disallowed from growing.

So, who’s right, and how do we reconcile these two points of view? Find out, and here’s the spoiler: black holes really do grow!

Eight New Quadruple Lenses Aren’t Just Gorgeous, They Reveal Dark Matter’s Temperature

“Ever since astronomers first realized that the Universe required the existence of dark matter to explain the cosmos that we see, we’ve sought to understand its nature. While direct detection efforts have still failed to bear fruit, indirect detection through astronomical observations not only reveal the presence of dark matter, but this novel method of using quadruply lensed quasar systems has given us some very strong, meaningful constraints on just how cold dark matter needs to be.

Dark matter that’s too hot or energetic cannot form structures below a certain scale, and the observations of these ultra-distant, quadruple-lens systems show us that dark matter must form clumps on very small scales after all, consistent with them being born as arbitrarily cold as we can imagine. Dark matter’s not hot, nor can it even be very warm. As more of these systems come in and our instruments go beyond what even Hubble’s capabilities are, we might even discover what cosmologists have long suspected: dark matter must not only be cold today, but it must have been born cold.”

We might not yet know the nature of dark matter, as we’ve never been able to detect the particle responsible for it directly. But we know it clumps and gravitates together, with the exact way it would do so dependent on the amount of kinetic energy it had when it was born relative to its mass. Dark matter could have been extremely hot, such as a scenario where it was made from neutrinos, cold, such as from a very heavy WIMP particle (or a born-super-cold axion), or anywhere in between.

Thanks to a new technique involving quadruple-lens systems, we’ve just learned how cold dark matter needs to be. Get the (beautiful) story today!

The Milky Way Is Gaining New Stars From A Collision That Hasn’t Even Occurred Yet

“This is the first direct evidence of new stars forming from any galactic stream associated with the Magellanic Clouds, and it appears to have occurred from a stream of gas that’s already passed through the galactic plane. It’s eminently conceivable that it was that very event – when this gas ejected from the Magellanic Clouds passed through the Milky Way’s disk – was what triggered the formation of the new stars we’re seeing today.

When you take all of this information together, it leads to a remarkable conclusion that changes the way we think our local galactic neighborhood is evolving. New gas is already being funneled into the Milky way from satellite galaxies that are still nearly 200,000 light-years away. This gas, low in heavy element abundance but cool in temperature, provides about 95% of the cold gas suitable for the formation of new Milky Way stars. These nearby galaxies haven’t even encountered us yet, and we’re already forming new stars because of them.”

In another few hundred million years, the two Magellanic Clouds, located a little less than 200,000 light-years away, will collide with and begin merging with our Milky Way. But already, over 100 million years ago, a fraction of the gas from these clouds came into our galaxy and formed stars! 94,000 light-years away, in the halo of the Milky Way, these stars are unlike anything else seen in our galaxy before.

Here’s how the Milky Way has gained stars from a collision that hasn’t even occurred yet, and what it means for our galaxy’s future!

Did LIGO Just Discover Two Fundamentally Different Types Of Neutron Star Mergers?

“The first neutron star-neutron star merger ever directly observed was seen in both gravitational waves and in various forms of light, giving us a window into the nature of short gamma ray bursts, kilonovae, and the origin of the heaviest elements of all. The second one, however, had no robustly confirmed electromagnetic counterpart at all. The only major physical differences were the combined mass (2.74 vs. 3.4 solar masses), the initial object formed (neutron star vs. black hole), and the distance to the event (130 vs. 518 million light-years).

It’s possible that there really was an electromagnetic counterpart, and we simply weren’t able to see it. However, it’s also possible that binary neutron star mergers that directly lead to a black hole don’t produce electromagnetic signatures or enriched, heavy elements at all. It’s possible that this binary neutron star system, the most massive one ever discovered to date, represents a fundamentally different class of objects than have ever been seen before. This incredible idea should get put to the test over the next few years, as gravitational wave detectors continue to find more and more of these mergers. If there are two different classes of neutron star mergers, LIGO and Virgo will lead us to that conclusion, but we have to wait for the scientific data to know for sure.”

Neutron stars, when they merge, can produce gamma ray bursts, ejecta, the heaviest elements of all, and electromagnetic afterglows that cover nearly the full spectrum of where light can exist. We saw this with a gravitational wave + gamma ray signal that occurred on August 17, 2017, leading to a revolutionary understanding of kilonovae. But our second merging binary neutron star system, which was seen in gravitational waves on April 25, 2019, displayed no such signal at all.

It might be a failure of detection, or it might be due to some fundamental differences between these different events. My bet’s on the latter; here’s what we think might be going on!

Astronomers Find A Galaxy Of Unusual Size (G.O.U.S.), And Discover Why It Exists

“At 800,000 light-years across and with some 4 trillion stars inside, this is one of the largest spiral galaxies ever discovered: a true cosmic outlier. At just 230 million light-years away, it’s also close enough that we can image and identify its globular clusters and star formation rate. The fact that a galaxy this large and massive is so regularly shaped, with such low levels of star formation and so few globular clusters (1600) for its incredible size really does make this a cosmic unicorn.

This galaxy of unusual size really is a first-of-its-kind, and not just for being so beautifully symmetric and quiet, but for growing to this enormous magnitude without a single major disruptive event throughout its history. In all the Universe, there may not be another like it, but the odds are far better that this is just the first discovery of a new type of spiral galaxy: a G.O.U.S.”

How big can a spiral galaxy gets? While most of them are only tens of thousands of light-years across, larger ones like the Milky Way and Andromeda are common, and a small fraction are even bigger. But the newest record-holder, UGC 2885 or Rubin’s galaxy, is truly unusual: it looks like it’s never had a major or even a mid-sized merger before.

How did this galaxy come to exist? Astronomers have cracked the mystery, so go learn all the details about the new cosmic record-holder here!

The Smallest Galaxies Have Off-Kilter Black Holes, But Astronomers Know Why

“Over 100 dwarf galaxies are now known to possess these black holes, with the first verified one discovered in 2011. However, solely finding radio emissions isn’t enough: active black holes and star-formation bursts can create that signal. Researchers led by Dr. Amy Reines just conducted the first large-scale radio survey looking for black holes in dwarf galaxies. Using the Very Large Array, her team surveyed 111 dwarf galaxies, and found 13 of them that showed evidence for massive black holes. Remarkably, approximately half of the black holes were not located at the galaxy’s centers, but were significantly off-kilter.”

When we examine the supermassive black holes we find in the Universe, they’re pretty much always found at the centers of galaxies. However, these are for black holes of millions-to-billions of solar masses and galaxies comparable in mass (or even greater than that) to the Milky Way. But dwarf galaxies, the majority of galaxies in the Universe, are predicted to have much smaller black holes. The first large survey of these galaxies was just undertaken, revealing a population of dwarf galaxies with black holes. 

But half of them are located off-center, rather than at the center! Why is that? Astronomers know, and you can too!

Ask Ethan: Could We Just Build A ‘Space Sunshade’ To Counteract Global Warming?

“[A]s a fan of terraforming options in the solar system, especially Mars, I thought that I would leverage my knowledge to assuage the fears of innocents. In this case, I thought to myself “If global warming is such a critical issue, why don’t we do something ‘cheap’ and ‘simple’ like building a solar shade at a Lagrange point?"”

If you want to deal with all of our climate change issues, going beyond global warming and including things like ocean acidification, we’ll truly need to address the changing contents of our atmosphere and our continued burning of fossil fuels. But if all we truly cared about was reducing the temperature effects of global warming, perhaps we don’t need to reduce our greenhouse gas use at all. Perhaps we don’t even need to resort to potentially Earth-changing geoengineering solutions; perhaps we could simply launch what’s known as a Space Sunshade and block out a fraction of the Sun’s light before it ever arrived here at Earth.

Believe it or not, as launch costs decrease and new orbit-sustaining propulsion technologies come into being, this might be the cheapest and safest way to fight global warming. Here’s the science for the curious.

How Certain Are We That Protons Don’t Decay?

“There is no arguing, however, that in all our endeavors to measure the stability of the proton, we’ve never observed even one event of a proton spontaneously decaying into lighter particles and violating the conservation of baryon number. If the proton is truly stable and will never decay, it means that a whole lot of proposed extensions to the Standard Model — Grand Unification Theories, supersymmetry, supergravity and string theory among them — cannot describe our Universe.

Regardless of whether the proton is truly stable forever and ever or “only” stable for a septillion times the current age of the Universe, the only way we’ll figure it out is by performing the critical experiments and watching how the Universe behaves. We have a matter-filled Universe almost completely devoid of antimatter, and nobody knows why. If the proton turns out to be truly stable, many of our best ideas for what could cause it will be ruled out.

The secrets of nature may remain a mystery for a little while longer, but as long as we keep looking, there’s always the hope of a new, revolutionary discovery.”

Do protons decay? If they do, we’d have a hint of where our matter-antimatter asymmetry comes from. We’d have an idea that grand unification might be correct, either with or without supersymmetry, extra dimensions, or string theory. And we’d learn that nothing, not even the humble atom, will be stable forever; much like galaxies and black holes, they’ll also eventually decay.

But if the proton is stable, as we’ve observed so far, it’s back to the drawing board on all of it. Here’s how certain we are, at the start of 2020, that the proton really is stable.

No, We Still Can’t Use Quantum Entanglement To Communicate Faster Than Light

“There’s an awful lot that you can do by leveraging the bizarre physics of quantum entanglement, such as by creating a quantum lock-and-key system that’s virtually unbreakable with purely classical computations. But the fact that you cannot copy or clone a quantum state — as the act of merely reading the state fundamentally changes it — is the nail-in-the-coffin of any workable scheme to achieve faster-than-light communication with quantum entanglement.

There are a lot of subtleties associated with how quantum entanglement actually works in practice, but the key takeaway is this: there is no measurement procedure you can undertake to force a particular outcome while maintaining the entanglement between particles. The result of any quantum measurement is unavoidably random, negating this possibility. As it turns out, God really does play dice with the Universe, and that’s a good thing. No information can be sent faster-than-light, allowing causality to still be maintained for our Universe.”

You might think that if you have two entangled quantum particles, you can separate them by a large distance, make an observation of some physical property at one location, measure your member of the entangled pair, and use that existing entanglement to send information about what you observed instantaneously to anywhere in the Universe. It’s a brilliant and clever idea, and it turns out it’s absolutely forbidden by the laws of physics.

What’s really going on with quantum entanglement, and why can’t it send information faster than light? Find out today.