Evie is an aeorspace engineer and will blog about current events in various fields including but not limited to: Space, Astronomy, Genetics, Biology, Green Energy, Neuroscience, Physics, Quantum Physics, Evolution, Environmental issues, Engineering.. Pretty much anything and everything that catches her eye. Stay tuned! Thoughts, comments, requests – always welcomed!
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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I'm excited about this new finding. Not only because water is a good thing to have in the far reaches of space, but because the new theory of how the water got there came into existence by analyzing new data, and discarding an old theory.
It is so important to remember that everything we think we know about stuff, can be totally turned around when new or additional information becomes available.
Back in 2001, water vapor was discovered in a cloud around a Carbon star named IRC+10216. It is the most studied carbon star to date. A Carbon star has an atmosphere containing more carbon than oxygen. The two elements combine to form carbon monoxide and the reaction continues until all the oxygen is consumed, leaving carbon atoms free to form other carbon compounds. This gives rise to the Carbon star's characteristic red 'sooty' look.
Located roughly 500 light years from Earth, IRC+10216 also known as CW Leonis, is about 4 times as massive as our Sun. Size wise, if placed in the center of our own solar system, it would sprawl out beyond the orbit of Jupiter. To the human eye, it is barely visible in the night sky, even using the most powerful telescopes. But in infrared light, it is the brightest star in the sky.
The water vapor observations were made by the Sub millimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS). SWAS was an astronomical observatory launched in 1998 with the purpose of examining microwaves from 487–556 GHz that originated in water molecules, oxygen, carbon, and carbon monoxide in space.
The discovery of said water vapor cloud was explained by a theory that made the most sense at the time. It was assumed that the heat coming from the star was melting and vaporizing nearby comets and other celestial objects like red dwarfs. It was speculated that "The most plausible explanation for this water vapor is that it is being vaporized from the surfaces of orbiting comets -- 'dirty snowballs' that are composed primarily of water ice." As stated by Harvard's Gary Melnick, Principal Investigator for SWAS.
Fast forward a few years to 2009, the European Space Agency launched the Herschel Space Observatory (formerly called Far Infrared and Sub millimeter Telescope or FIRST). Named after the very cool Herschel siblings, William and Caroline. A brother and sister who lived during the 1700's and discovered planets, comets, and infrared radiation amongst other things.
The Herschel Space Observatory now resides at the second Lagrange point of the Sun-Earth system (L2) about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.
The Lagrange points are actually really cool, and I'll get into them in more detail in a future post. Basically they are like 'parking spots' in space. Every 2 body system, (in this case the Earth-Sun system) has 5 such points, 2 of which are very stable, 3 are marginally so. Gravitational forces make it such that those 5 points in space remain constant in position relative to the 2 bodies in question. So if you were to place something in one of the Earth-Sun Lagrange points, it will appear to remain in a constant position with relation to both the Sun and the Earth at all times. Pretty neat trick.
The Herschel observatory itself has the largest single mirror ever built for a space telescope, 3.5 meters in diameter. The mirror does a great job collecting long wavelength radiation from even the coldest most distant objects in our Universe. It's got the largest spectral range of any space observatory in operation today, covering the far infrared to sub millimeter wavelengths.
The super sensitive equipment aboard Herschel has shown that the water vapor in the cloud varies in temperature significantly ranging from -200°C to 800°C. This variation does not fit with the comet melting theory. The water is just too hot to be coming from there. The high water temperatures indicate it's likely being formed a lot closer to the star itself, which is not a place comets exist stably. Which means, the old theory just went down the toilet.
What's the new theory then? Well, in order to accommodate the new found high temperature water, astronomers took a second look. They now believe that the ultraviolet light from surrounding stars can find its way through the 'sooty' cloud around the star, and break up molecules like carbon monoxide and silicon monoxide residing in it, liberating oxygen atoms that are then free to form water molecules.
According to Leen Decin, from the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium, who is the lead author of the paper on the topic “This is the only mechanism that explains the full range of the water’s temperature.” Water formed closer to the star, is hotter.
Leen Decin adds “This is a good example of how better instruments can change our picture completely.” And I am so happy to hear a scientist say this. All too often we get caught up with one specific theory and find it very difficult to let go. I see it in my own work as well, but I'm trying to be more free and open minded about ideas, flow with the data, get new perspectives, and not be dead locked on one particular view.
Anyway, Decin and her crew want to extend the observations to other carbon stars. “We are very hopeful that Herschel will find the same situations around those stars too,” she says.
So, at least for now, it would seem that ultraviolet light is in fact the secret ingredient to creating water in space! Annnd since water and carbon are the basis for life, at least on our planet, and we seem to have found them in somewhat of an abundance out there 500 light years away in a dust cloud.. maybe that means life like ours does exists in some form around those parts of the universe.
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And since at the end of the Triassic when the air was dessicated, and fossils have been found that indicate the formation of air sacs in bones (as in birds) and these were found high up like the creatures were desperately trying to stay in the air, maybe we can see our own planet as having had most of its H2O converted to vapor which immediately tried to vaporize but luckily for us was held by electromagnetism to the atmosphere which became so thick it was a gauzy womb, and when it fell, we failed to recognize this past. Maybe a just so story?