NASA’s ‘Holy-grail’: Solar system with seven Earth-like planets found

There have been many discoveries of potentially habitable planets orbiting stars other than our own over the last few years. Now things are getting even more exciting. Scientists have documented a star surrounded by seven Earth-like planets – several of which would be at the right temperature for liquid water, and potentially life, to exist.

But is it possible to know anything about what these planets are like beyond simple measures such as temperature and mass? There may indeed be several factors that can give us a clue – let’s take a look at what planetary processes we might expect to find there.

The seven planets orbit an ‘ultracool dwarf‘ a mere 39 light years away. However, with a mass of only 8% of our sun’s and shining less than 0.1% as brightly, it is at the small, faint end of the ‘red dwarf‘ star type, barely able to power itself by nuclear fusion.

Telling transits

In 2010, a group of scientists began monitoring the closest dwarf stars using a robotic telescope in Chile called TRAPPIST (the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope). They were hoping to find periodic dips in brightness caused by a planet passing in front of the star, cutting out part of its light (a transit). In 2016, they found their first candidate: an ultracool dwarf.

They named this star TRAPPIST-1 and began to study it with more powerful telescopes, including NASA’s Spitzer space telescope. This revealed a total of seven transiting exoplanets there.

  • The amount of light blocked out by each exoplanet during a transit reveals its size
  • The repeat frequency reveals each exoplanet’s orbit time
  • From this, the laws of gravity allow us to work out its distance from the star.

Amazingly, the planets of TRAPPIST-1 span only a narrow range of sizes, not much different to Earth, and are all much closer to their star than Earth is to the sun. However, TRAPPIST-1 is so faint that even its innermost planet may be just cool enough for liquid water to exist on its surface, while its outermost planet may be just warm enough to avoid global freezing.

This artist’s conception shows what the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and distances from the star. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The slight irregularities in transit times can be attributed to neighbouring exoplanets influencing each others’ orbits. This suggest that most of the family are Earth-like in their density and not just their size. There is no way to be sure yet how much water most of them have, if any. Similarly, it’s hard to know whether any resemblance to Earth extends as far as having plate tectonics and a distinction between oceanic and continental crust like Earth.

Seeds of life?

With most or maybe all of its seven known planets in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold ‘Goldilocks zone‘ around the star, TRAPPIST-1 offers the intriguing prospect of several Earth-like planets capable of hosting Earth-like life around the same star.

TRAPPIST-1 is as young as ultracool dwarfs go, maybe only half a billion years old. Thanks to the frugal rate at which it uses its nuclear fuel it has a further 10 trillion years left to run (a thousand times longer than the sun). On Earth, it took two billion years to go from microbes to multi-cellular organisms and another billion years for intelligence to emerge. So while we may not expect advanced civilisations to exist on the TRAPPIST-1 planets, some simple lifeforms may be in the works or already exist.

TRAPPIST-1 and its planets are sure to be among the prime targets for the James Webb Space Telescope, likely to begin operations in 2019. This should be able to detect the presence of any atmosphere about a planet whilst it is in transit across the star and maybe even reveal whether atmospheric composition seems to have been modified by living processes. Until then however, all we can do is wait…

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Fishy on a plastic dishy

Do you love your seafood? Along with your favourite portion of fish, you might also be eating up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year, with dozens of those becoming embedded in your tissues.

Microplastics are extremely tiny pieces of plastic debris that end up in our oceans from the disposal of consumer products and industrial waste. We dump huge amounts of plastic waste into the ocean every year, much of it ending up as microplastic.

There are more than five trillion pieces of microplastic in the world’s oceans and the equivalent of one rubbish truck of plastic waste gets added to the sea every minute.

Worringly, studies have found that high concentrations of these plastics stunts the growth of marine life and alters their feeding habits, leading them to prefer eating the plastic over their natural food.

Researchers from the University of Ghent in Belgium believe that microplastics accumulate in the body over time and could be a long term health risk. The amount of plastic absorbed will only get worse as pollution in the oceans increases.

Dr Colin Janssen, who led the research, said the presence of plastic particles in the body was ‘a concern’.

Research has established that they do enter our bodies and can stay there for a while, but where do they go? Are they encapsulated by tissue and forgotten about by the body or are they causing inflammation? Are chemicals leaching out of these plastics and causing toxicity? We simply do not know the answers yet, which is why current research into their properties is so important.

A change of focus

Hi everyone! 

This is a very quick and more of a reflective post to explain some of the changes I’ll be making to my blog in a few weeks time. 

When I first started this blog, I didn’t really have a clear direction of what to do with it – I knew I just wanted to practice my writing and that was all. I don’t recommend this approach, and here’s why:

  • I didn’t have a flow. Most blogs follow a specific theme or focus to talk about, with individual sections being closely related. Mine wasn’t and it seemed too random. 
  • I didn’t establish a style.  Many of my posts were on completely unrelated topics and too far in between for me to practice writing regularly on a familiar area. 
  • I didn’t know what was coming next. Each post I made was individually researched whenever I had the time to write, instead of forming a coherent string of posts. This is fine if you can manage it and organise each collection of posts around a certain topic, but this quickly got too time consuming for me. 

So I’ll still be writing, but my main focus from now on will be to bring in the other skills I’m learning about in my MSc, namely creating videos. I hope to have a fully functioning YouTube channel soon with some fun and simple science experiments to do at home and in the classroom. 

Why experiments? 

From my schools outreach work I’ve been developing a lot of my presenting skills and also have lots of ideas for experiments that I’d like to share with a wider audience. I also would like more presenting experience in general, and this will help me evidence that on social media. 

Thanks for reading this if you did, and I hope you stick around for the first lot of experiment videos, coming soon! 

What will Trump mean for science?

In a shocking twist of events, Donald J. Trump has been elected as the next president of the United States after a long and divisive campaign in which science was rarely mentioned. Many scientists now have to consider what a Trump administration will mean for their work and are understandably worried at the outlook.

Trump will be the first- anti-science president we have ever had. As a young graduate pursuing a career in science communication, the possibly severe consequences are extremely worrying. With an already crumbling scientific infrastructure in the US, funding for science will only take a massive hit, with the US being less equipped to recruit the world leaders on scientific issues to progress their fields of study.

Trumping on the planet

Chief among many concerns in the scientific community are Trump’s views on climate change. There’s no way around it. Donald Trump is going to be a disaster for the planet. As a candidate, Trump vowed to ‘cancel’ the Paris climate agreement that was signed earlier this year and pledged to eliminate environmental regulations. He called global warming a Chinese hoax. He wants to scrap all major regulations put in place by President Obama to reduce US carbon dioxide emissions, including the Clean Power Plan. He  wants to repeal all federal spending on clean, sustainable energy sources. He wants to pull the United States out of the Paris climate deal altogether and has also hinted at wanting to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency altogether.

 

So what happens if Trump gets his way? It’s unlikely he’ll stop the progression of renewable energy whatsoever, but his proposals are likely to increase CO2 emisions: Lux Research estimated Trump’s policies would lead to an extra 3.4 billion tons of CO2 emitted:

There is now real concern in the scientific community what it might mean that the public scientific method isn’t embraced by Trump and how he may view other science in other fields.

Funding scientific research

Although Trump has pledged to cut federal spending, he hasn’t explained how this will affect funding for scientific research. The majority of academic researchers rely on grants from government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It means for a lot of early research scientists, there is a lot of uncertainty facing their careers and what a reduction in funding would mean for their ability to have a career as a scientist.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the country’s largest society of scientific researchers and have been urging Trump to appoint a respected scientist as his next science adviser. This would allow them to make major scientific issues, such as climate change and research investment a central part of Trump’s agenda.

However, one thing to consider is how research will be affected in terms of skilled scientists immigrating to the US for work or education. They would still be welcome, but would they want to go?

University outreach – in a box!

This blog has been adapted from the University of the West of England (UWE) Science Communication Unit (SCU) blog, where I study an MSc in Science Communication and also work with the BoxEd team, delivering schools outreach. If you’d like to know more about the unit, please click here.

The Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE has been involved in developing an ambitious new outreach programme for secondary schools in the region called BoxEd. We’ve worked with over 4,000 school pupils in the last 18 months, finding tardigrades, hacking robots and solving murder mysteries with science, technology, engineering and maths.

stem-roadshow-tweetThe idea behind the project is not only to engage local communities and raise pupil aspirations. Our plan is to refocus outreach within the university so that it no longer competes with student learning or research time, but instead functions to develop undergraduate skills and to showcase UWE’s cutting edge research.

The outreach activities are developed by specialists, but then led by undergraduate students and student interns, who develop confidence and skills. UWE Bristol students can use their outreach activities to count towards their UWE Futures Award, and in some degree courses we are looking at ways that outreach projects can provide credit and supplement degree modules. Researchers can use the activities to increase their research impact and share their work with internal and external audiences – getting students excited about research through explaining it to young people. Enabling students to lead outreach – including Science Communication Masters and Postgraduate Certificate students – means that the university delivers more activities, reaching more schools and giving more school pupils the chance to participate.

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The brainchild of UWE Bristol staff Mandy Bancroft and John Lanham, the development stages of the project have been led by Debbie Lewis and Corra Boushel from the Faculty for Health and Applied Science and the Science Communication Unit with support from Laura Fogg Rogers. The project is now being expanded into a university-wide strategy with cross-faculty support to cover all subject areas, not only STEM.

Katherine Bourne is another student in the SCU, studying towards a PGCert in Science Communication whilst also working on the BoxEd project. She has been involved with promoting BoxEd to current MSc students who will develop new activities to go into schools as part of their Science in Public Spaces module, run by Emma Weitkamp and Erik Stengler. Special thanks go to Kath, as well as to Jack Bevan, a graduate intern also employed on the project and the Student Ambassadors involved with delivering the sessions in schools.

The Science of the Aurora

The British Science Festival 2016 in Swansea has just come to a close, with one talk at the Festival proving particularly captivating; Dr Melanie Windridge delivered a passionate and mesmerising talk regarding the science of the Northern Lights, also known as the aurora. This ethereal display of colour and light is often seen by those living at Northern latitudes and has been a dazzling source of wonder for centuries of humans. The aurora over time and different civilisations has created stories of spirits and been an omen of death and war – but what is the aurora actually, and how is it created?

The aurora originates from the sun, and the charged particles (plasma) that it throws out in all directions; this moving plasma is called the solar wind.

NorthernLights journey_short.020

On top of this, the sun sometimes releases more matter into the solar system in solar eruptions or giant Coronal Mass Ejections.

The sun throws out billions of tonnes of matter into the solar system which would be dangerous to our planet and all life on it – but the Earth’s magnetic field forms a protective bubble called the magnetosphere. Without this, the onslaught of the solar wind and coronal ejections from the sun would be like a plasma rifle shooting millions of highly charged particles at our planet.

Magnetosphere_whitebkgd

 

Most of the plasma is pushed away from our planet along the magnetosphere when it hits Earth, but the magnetosphere also gains energy from the solar wind. This causes the magnetic field pattern of the Earth to change – the ‘tail’ of the magnetophere is pushed closer and closer together until the fields break explosively, catapulting electrons to Earth. This process is called a substorm and is highlighted in the NASA video below:

When the charged particles hit the Earth’s atmosphere, they interact with the gases oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen to create the spectacular light show we see – the Northern and Southern Lights.

When the electrons in the plasma collide with the gas in our atmosphere, they are ‘excited’ to higher energy states. They then lose this energy by emitting different wavelengths of light, which we perceive as the colours of the aurora. Oxygen usually emits a green or yellow light, whereas nitrogen usually gives off a blue light.

 

Dr Windridge is a plasma physicist at Imperial College London and has expedited to many northern countries in search of this beautiful phenomenon to study and learn about its causes. As a writer and storyteller, she has cultivated a collection of the stories that the aurora has created across different people in different stretches of time, each group viewing the aurora as something different, with varying meanings. You can find out more about her book, ‘Aurora: In search of the Northern Lights’, here. 

The challenges of women in STEM

Carlotta Berry, a professor at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, has been selected as one of Into Diversity’s 2016 Inspiring Women in STEM for her efforts to encourage the next generation of young people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and careers.

As well as other work, Berry co-founded the RoseBUD program which encourages students from underrepresented groups toward STEM careers and has helped increase diversity in the institute’s student body, especially among electrical engineering subjects.

Her work, along with many other inspirational female scientists, highlights a major issue of the lack of women in STEM subjects, with many barriers and obstacles existing for women pursuing STEM careers. Research conducted at Yale University has shown that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist in higher stead than a woman with the same qualifications during the recruitment process. When presented with two imaginary applicants whose accomplishments were identical, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to hire the male, with the woman’s salary on average nearly $4,000 lower if she was hired.

Many cultural forces also continue to stand in the way of women entering STEM careers, ranging from girls being steered towards other professions from an early age, gender bias and sexual harassment in the workplace.

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Primatologist Jane Goodall was once referred to as “The blonde girl studying apes” by a National Geographic editor. That ‘girl’ went on to become world famous for her field studies of chimpanzees.

Paving ways to empowering women in science is of huge importance as the lack of an equal representation from both genders has large and very real implications for research. Collaboration is now the foundation of much of STEM research; including gender in research can make careers and avenues of research more relevant to women, attracting more women to science. General knowledge in a field tends to expand as more women get involved in science and there are lots of places where you can show the direct link between increases in numbers of women and an outcome in knowledge, such as biology, medicine and history. An example of positive collaboration was The Human Genome Project, whose goal was the complete mapping and understanding of all genes of humans and drawing researchers from fields including biology, chemistry, genetics, physics, mathematics and computer science.

The stereotypical image of individual research geniuses shouting ‘eureka!’ is giving way to more collaborative research done by teams. Involving more qualified women as well as additional social identities such as gay people and those with physical disabilities can enrich the creativity and insight of a research team and increase the chances for true innovation.

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Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space and worked as the science specialist on a 1992 Spacelab mission.

‘Science problems’ affect everyone – children, women and men. However, whoever is dealing with the scientific enquiry usually has an impact on what science solves and who things are designed for. Analysts say that more women are needed in research to increase the range of inventions that tackle problems by thinking about issues in different ways than men do. Will there be more drive to invent a drug for male-pattern baldness or for a seat belt for pregnant women in car crashes?

Women are also raised to be more socially aware than men, and broader emotional intelligence can yield immensely positive results in scientific research. Stanford psychologists have shown that women tend to exhibit more ‘communal’ qualities, such as fostering relations and creating an inclusive environment. But we don’t just want to have more talented women – we want to make sure our talented women don’t end up stuck in lower level positions. We want them in leadership positions, directing the field.

Maybe one day we can have a world where talented boys and girls can pursue lives and careers as historically perceived as not appropriate to their gender. But until then, encouragement and information is what we can provide – there is only so far they can go on their own.

If you’ve experienced gender bias regarding pursuing a STEM career or education or have any thoughts on the subject, share your story below.