Friday, July 31, 2015

Pluto, Earth 2.0, and Life in the Universe

Pluto may have nitrogen glaciers, and the planet's air pressure is much lower than scientists expected.

Kepler 452b, "Earth 2.0," isn't the first roughly Earth-size planet found in a star's habitable zone: but the star, Kepler 452, is remarkably similar to our sun.

Another planet, HIP 11915b, is the first we've found that's around Jupiter's size: and orbiting its star at about the same distance as Jupiter. This is the first other planetary system that 'looks like' our Solar system.

Scientists still haven't found life elsewhere in the universe: but the odds seem to be getting better that we will, eventually.
  1. Pluto's Probable Glaciers
  2. Kepler 452b: 'Earth 2.0?'
  3. HIP 11915b: An Extrasolar Jupiter
I put a quick look at New Horizons' current status, and an afterword about life, faith, and space aliens, toward the end of this post:
A 'science threatens faith' op-ed got my attention this week, so I wrote about beliefs, reasonable and otherwise, before getting around to the interesting stuff. Feel free to skip ahead to Pluto's Probable Glaciers, take a walk, or whatever suits your fancy.

Oh Ye of Brittle Faith

Since that's a snarky paraphrase of Matthew 8:26, I'd better explain a few things.

Back in my youth, the more loudly-Christian folks probably realized that Jesus isn't English. But the way they insisted that the only 'real' Bible was one using an archaic dialect of my language could easily give that impression.

They also seemed to believe the Almighty had decreed that the dress code and musical taste of a particular middle-class American subculture, from about 1945 to 1954, should forever be observed by all.

I didn't agree, but their rants and rigid faith helped me learn to love rock 'n roll — and become a Catholic. (May 3, 2015; August 26, 2012; August 20, 2012)

Many of these folks also seemed convinced that God created the universe in 4004 BC. I'll get back to that.

As a Catholic, I must take the Bible, Sacred Scripture, very seriously, and read it often. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 77-82, 101-133)

But I don't assume that folks knew everything there is to know when the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was assembled, more than two dozen centuries back.

Some Catholics may believe that a 17th century Calvinist must be right: but that's not what the Church teaches. Poetry isn't science, and ignorance is not a virtue. (July 17, 2015; March 29, 2015; October 10, 2014)

Imaginative "History"

I'm a Christian, a Catholic: one of those "superstitious and idolatrous" papists Ussher wrote about. (February 5, 2014)

More recent descriptions of our beliefs and history are occasionally — much more imaginative. (January 11, 2015)

Then there's grand old American tradition of believing that Catholics aren't — or weren't — allowed to own or read Bibles.

There's a very tiny bit of truth in that notion. Before Gutenberg's movable type made mass-produced books possible, very few Europeans could afford Bibles.

I talked about Bibles, medieval Europe, and the price of helicopters, a few years back. That remains one of this blog's most-visited posts. (January 27, 2009)

If you're waiting for a rant about folks who don't share my faith: you'll have a long wait. As a Catholic, must respect folks who don't believe what I do.1

That's not always easy, but remembering how long it took for me to become a Catholic helps.

Having grown up in the 1960s helps, too. I was one of 'those crazy kids' who thought seeing everyone as a neighbor made sense. I still do, and now have more understanding of why it's a good idea. (March 27, 2015; January 18, 2015)

Back then, I didn't think learning more about this fascinating universe was a bad idea; and I still don't.

Science, Truth, and God

Studying this astounding creation is more than allowed: it is part of being human. (Catechism, 159, 2293-2295)

Scientific discoveries are invitations " even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator...." (Catechism, 283, 341)

The Catholic Church's view of science shouldn't be surprising — We're told that truth is very important. (Catechism, Prologue, 27, 74, more under Truth in the index)

Faith, in the Catholic sense, is not reason: but it's not unreasonable.

Since I believe that the things of faith come from God, that God created the world, and is Truth — fearing knowledge of God's world would be illogical.

Truth cannot contradict truth. (Catechism, 156-159)

That's why I'm not bothered when we discover some new facet of reality.

Deliberately disbelieving facts isn't a good idea. At all. "Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience...." (Catechism, 1849)

Bottom line: Seeking truth and seeking God are compatible. So are faith and reason. I thought this was true before I became a Catholic, and still do.

More importantly, that's what the Church says. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 35, 50, 154, 274, 1706)

Earth 2.0, Aristotle, and All That

I'll be talking about "Earth 2.0," Kepler 452b, later. It's a planet that might, maybe, support life.

One of the first "Earth 2.0" headlines I saw was by scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst, Jeff Schweitzer, who has a Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology.

He probably knows his field very well, and made some remarkable assumptions about Christianity:
"Earth 2.0: Bad News for God"
Jeff Schweitzer, Huffington Post (July 23, 2015)

"...Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of god, and all life was created in six days. All life in all the heavens. In six days...."
I've known Christians who apparently agree with Dr. Schweitzer — that Christianity depends on believing that one of the Genesis creation narratives is literally true.

I don't, but like I said: I'm a Catholic.

Oddly enough, I've yet to encounter a Christian who insists that Earth is flat, based on Job 9:6-7. International long distance telephone service may have something to do with that. (October 10, 2014; October 3, 2014)

Dr. Schweitzer may have read Dante's "The Divine Comedy," and assumed that the poem's geocentric cosmology was a vital tenet of Christian faith.

As for the 'creation took six days' thing: I think it's hard to live in America and not hear that vehemently asserted.

Let's remember that Dante Alighieri was a poet, not a natural philosopher: although "The Divine Comedy" included references to science/natural philosophy of the early 1300s.

However, as Tennyson's imperfect knowledge of Victorian railroad technology in "Locksley Hall" shows,2 Poets focus on poetry and art: not science and technology. (July 18, 2014)

A few decades before Dante finished his poem, some European scholars had insisted that Earth had to be the only world like ours: because Aristotle said so.

Although the 219 Propositions of 1277 were later annulled, the principle of Proposition 27/219 is still valid. God's God, Aristotle's not. (February 23, 2014)

If Christianity depended on believing that Earth is only slightly over six millennia old, our faith would have begun crumbling shortly after 1778.

That's when Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, published "Les époques de la nature." He had carefully measured how fast iron cools, extrapolated from that data, and found that Earth was about 75,000 years old. He was wrong by several powers of ten.

Another scientist used similar methods in 1862, getting an age of Earth at somewhere between 20,000,000 and 400,000,000 years.

Since then, we've learned about heat from radioactive decay, convection currents in Earth's mantle: and some folks still insist that Ussher must be right.

Like I said, I'm a Catholic: and figure part of my job is admiring God's creation, not telling the Almighty how it should have been made. (March 29, 2015; September 19, 2014)

Predictably, Dr. Schweitzer's op-ed got a response:
Since looking for life in the universe may become 'political,' I'll repeat what I've said before. "Liberal" and "conservative" aren't the only possible positions, and thinking is not a sin:

Mapping Pluto

(From NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI, used w/o permission.)
("Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this sharper global view of Pluto. (The lower right edge of Pluto in this view currently lacks high-resolution color coverage.) The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away from Pluto, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers). That’s twice the resolution of the single-image view captured on July 13 and revealed at the approximate time of New Horizons’ July 14 closest approach."
(Tricia Talbert, NASA))

I posted the lower-resolution version of this image, released July 14, Two weeks ago. (July 17, 2015)

Some places on Pluto will probably have other names, after the IAU decides which ones they like. For now, here's a closer look at Pluto's landscape, northeast of Cthulhu Regio — that dark patch called The Whale earlier — from a previous post. (July 24, 2015)

(From NASA/JHU/APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The mission team says the ice appears to flow around the mountains and collect in craters"
(BBC News))

(From Mika McKinnon, NASA/JHUAPL; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
("Map of Pluto, with (informal) names for some of the largest surface features"
(Mika McKinnon, New Horizons Scientist, NASA/JHUAPL))

(From Mika McKinnon, NASA/JHUAPL; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A closer look at The Brass Knuckles.)

More about places on Pluto:

1. Pluto's Probable Glaciers

(From NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Just a small amount of heat from below could be enough to enable the very cold nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices to flow"
(BBC News))
"New Horizons: Pluto may have 'nitrogen glaciers' "
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (July 24, 2015)

"Pluto would appear to have glaciers of nitrogen ice, the latest pictures from the New Horizons probe suggest.

"Scientists believe they see evidence of surface material having flowed around mountains and even ponding in craters.

"The activity is certainly recent, they say, and may even be current.

"But the mission team cautions that it has received only 4-5% of the data gathered during 14 July's historic flyby of the dwarf planet, and any interpretations must carry caveats.

" 'Pluto has a very complicated story to tell; Pluto has a very interesting history, and there is a lot of work we need to do to understand this very complicated place,' said Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator...."
"Recent," in this case, means geologically recent. Washington University's William B. (Bill) McKinnon said that "recent" in this case is "no more than a few tens of millions of years."

That image shows the edge of Sputnik Planum, a large plain on the west half of Tombaugh Regio — Pluto's "heart."

Like the BBC News article says, if these are glaciers, they're frozen nitrogen. Water ice would be too hard, too brittle, to flow at Pluto's temperatures. Scientists figure that Sputnik Planum's ice is a mix of frozen nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane.

New Horizons will keep 'looking' at Pluto for several days. Then it'll be spun up, giving it stability without draining power for its thrusters. That gives the spacecraft more power for transmitting data back to Earth. It'll take about 16 months to send the uncompressed data back.

By then New Horizons should be heading for a Kuiper belt object: probably 2014 MU69 (in January 2019) or 2014 PN70 (in March 2019).

Plutonian Air Pressure: Dropping?

(From NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("New Horizons has sped past Pluto and is continuing to image the dwarf planet to study its tenuous atmosphere backlit by the Sun"
(BBC News))
"...This statement comes from measurements made by the probe as it was looking back at Pluto following the flyby.

"It could tell from the passage of sunlight and radiowaves through the Plutonian 'air' that the pressure was only about 10 microbars at the surface (1 microbar is about a millionth of the air pressure on Earth at sea level).

"The other key detection was of hazes in the atmosphere. These are likely the consequence of high-up methane being broken apart and processed by sunlight into simple hydrocarbons like ethylene and acetylene, which then fall, cool and condense to form a mist of ice particles.

"Some of this material will probably be further processed into more complex chemistry that rains on to the surface to give certain regions their characteristic reddish hue...."
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News)
Pluto's atmosphere is very thin, but was getting thicker: probably because frozen gas on its northern polar 'ice cap' was evaporating. (July 24, 2015)

That was last week. Last Friday, NASA announced that Pluto's atmosphere may be changing rapidly:
"New Horizons Reveals Pluto's Atmospheric Pressure Has Sharply Decreased"
Lillian Gipson, NASA (July 24, 2015, updated July 30, 2015)

"Pluto's atmosphere may be changing before our eyes. Measurements with NASA's New Horizons spacecraft have revealed that Pluto's atmosphere has an unexpectedly low surface pressure compared to that derived from previous observations. One explanation for the low pressure is that about half of Pluto's atmosphere may have recently frozen onto the planet's surface. If confirmed, it could indicate that further decreases in pressure may soon be in store.

"The pressure measurement is the first ever obtained for the surface of Pluto. It was made by REX, the spacecraft's radio experiment, about one hour after New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto on July 14. In a carefully-planned observation that had never before been attempted, two radio dishes on Earth--part of NASA's Deep Space Network-- beamed radio waves precisely timed to reach Pluto just as New Horizons passed behind the dwarf planet.

"The radio waves traveled through Pluto's atmosphere en route to the spacecraft and were bent, or refracted, by the atmospheric gases. The amount of bending -- which appears as a shift in the frequency of the radio waves -- revealed that the gas pressure at Pluto's surface was only 1/100-thousandth that of the pressure on the surface of Earth. That's about half the amount calculated from previous Earth-based observations.

" 'For the first time we have ground truth, measuring the surface pressure at Pluto, giving us an invaluable perspective on conditions at the surface of the planet,' said New Horizons researcher Ivan Linscott of Stanford University. 'This crucial measurement may be telling us that Pluto is undergoing long-anticipated global change.'

"New Horizons is expected to transmit a wider variety of REX measurements of Pluto’s atmospheric pressure in the next few weeks."
It's quite possible that Pluto's air pressure dropped sharply since the last Earth-based observation. Or maybe observing starlight as Pluto passes between the star and Earth shows one phenomenon, and observing radio signals sent through Pluto's atmosphere shows another.

Either way: we have more data now than we did before New Horizon's flyby, with much more coming. There's a great deal left to learn about Pluto.

2. Kepler 452b: 'Earth 2.0?'

(From ESO, used w/o permission.)
("The orbital period of Kepler 452b (shown in this artist's impression) is very similar to that of Earth"
(BBC News) )
" 'Earth 2.0' found in Nasa Kepler telescope haul"
Paul Rincon, BBC News (July 23, 2015)

"A haul of planets from Nasa's Kepler telescope includes a world sharing many characteristics with Earth.

"Kepler-452b orbits at a very similar distance from its star, though its radius is 60% larger.

"Mission scientists said they believed it was the most Earth-like planet yet.

"Such worlds are of interest to astronomers because they might be small and cool enough to host liquid water on their surface - and might therefore be hospitable to life.

"Nasa's science chief John Grunsfeld called the new world 'Earth 2.0' and the 'closest so far' to our home.

"It is around 1,400 light years away from Earth...."
This isn't the first time scientists spotted a planet that may support life as we know it, and Kepler-452b certainly isn't the closest. It is, however, remarkable in that it's orbiting a star that's a great deal like ours.

It's even at about the right distance from the star for our sort of life — and quite possibly a ball of rock and metal, like the planet we're living on.

Ten other somewhat-Earth-like planets are within 50 light-years of us. I've at least mentioned several of them in earlier posts:
These aren't Star Trek's "class M" planets, with surface gravity that's close to Earth's, and a shirtsleeve climate curiously similar to southern California's. We're learning that planets are far more varied than the our Solar System's selection.

So far we've found none quite like Earth, but there's a vast number of places we haven't studied yet. (November 7, 2014; June 27, 2014; May 16, 2014)

More about possibly-habitable planets:
One more item, a discovery announced yesterday:

3. HIP 11915b: An Extrasolar Jupiter

(From ESO/M. Kornmesser, used w/o permission.)
("An artist's rendering shows an exoplanet called HIP 11915b around the Sun-like star HIP 11915. Image credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser."
"HIP 11915b: Jupiter Twin Found Orbiting Sun-Like Star"
Megan Bedell, University of Chicago; Jorge Meléndez, Universidade de São Paulo; Richard Hook, ESO Public Information Officer; via (July 15, 2015)

"Using the HARPS planet-hunting instrument on the 3.6-m telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory, Chile, astronomers have discovered a Jupiter-mass exoplanet orbiting the Sun-like star HIP 11915 at almost exactly the same distance as Jupiter.

"Although many exoplanets similar to Jupiter have been found at a variety of distances from Sun-like stars, the newfound planet, HIP 11915b, in terms of both mass and distance from its host star, and in terms of the similarity between the host star and our Sun, is the most accurate analogue yet found for the Sun and Jupiter.

"HIP 11915 is not only similar in mass to the Sun, but is also about the same age. To further strengthen the similarities, the composition of the star is similar to the Sun's.

"The star is located in the constellation Cetus, about 200 light-years away. It is too faint to be seen without optical aid, but can be picked up with binoculars...."
This is at least as exciting as finding Kepler-452b.

As of yesterday, scientists have found 1,938 planets orbiting in 1,227 planetary systems other than ours. 485 of those planetary systems have more than one planet. (The Extrasolar Planet Encyclopaedia)

"HIP" in HIP 11915 stands for Hipparcos, an ESA satellite launched in 1989. Hipparcos is the name of an ancient Greek natural philosopher — and stands for High Precision Parallax Collecting Satellite.

Abbreviations like HIP, BD, Gl, and SAO, tell astronomers which star catalog the designation number comes from.

Making things a bit more complicated, one star often appears in several catalogs: like Gliese 667, that's also called 142 G. Scorpii, CD−34°11626, GJ 667, HD 156384, HIP 84709, HR 6426, LHS 442/442/443, and SAO 20867.

Where was I? Acronyms, ancient natural philosophers, catalog numbers, HIP 11915b. Right.

I don't think HIP 11915b supports life. It's a gas giant, like Jupiter. Writers have imagined life existing in Jupiter's atmosphere, like the featured creature in Arthur C. Clarke's "A Meeting with Medusa."

I enjoy stories like that, but realize that Jupiter's atmosphere is almost certainly too turbulent to support life: no matter how exotic. (December 19, 2014)

Getting back to HIP 11915, it looks like there isn't another Jupiter-size planet orbiting the star closer than HIP 11915b. There could be Earth-size planets orbiting the star, maybe in the habitable zone. That's a lot of "could be" and "maybe."

There's been scientific speculation that Earth is habitable because Jupiter orbits where it does.

Most planets in the Solar System have orbits closer to Jupiter's orbital plane than our star's equatorial plane. Mercury is an exception.

It's very likely that Jupiter acts as a shield for the inner Solar System, attracting and getting hit by comets that would otherwise have struck Earth or another inner planet. It's possible that Jupiter also caused the Late Heavy Bombardment, some 4,100,000,000 to 3,800,000,000 years ago.

Or maybe the Late Heavy Bombardment didn't happen. The last time I checked, scientists still aren't all convinced that it's a real event, not a misinterpretation of data.

That doesn't mean that Ussher was right, after all. Scientists are, and have been for some time, convinced that Earth is about 4,540,000,000 years old: give or take 50,000,000. They're also quite sure that this universe started 13,798,000,000 years back; give or take 37,000,000.3

More about HIP 11915b and Jupiter:

Current Status

(From NASA/APL/Southwest Research Institute, used w/o permission.)
(New Horizons position at 1700 UTC/1200 Central Daylight Time. (CDT) (July 23, 2015))

As I said before, this is a blog, not a news service. These folks have been updating fairly often, if you're looking for current information:

"The Universe is .... Queerer than We Can Suppose"

Now and then I get to the end of a post, and have something to say that doesn't quite fit in. (April 24, 2015; April 17, 2015; August 29, 2014)

This is one of those times.

Dr. Schweitzer's "Earth 2.0: Bad News for God" op-ed reminded me of assumptions I run into about life, the universe, and all that.

An op-ed from last year, "Habitable Exoplanets are Bad News for Humanity," reflected — my opinion — Cold War angst and disenchantment with the 19th century's silly optimism about science, technology, and inevitable progress.

That gave me an opportunity to discuss the Fermi paradox, and the possibility that space aliens may not be human. (May 9, 2014)

I think Haldane was most likely right about at least one thing:
"I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."
(J. B. S. Haldane, Wikiquote)

The Martians Are Coming! The Martians Are Coming!

I don't believe that we're alone in the universe: or that we'll find life on other planets. So far, we don't know.

I'd be surprised if we find unequivocal evidence of extraterrestrial life in the next few months: but I'd be very surprised if we are standing on the only life-bearing world.

Finding any sort of life, the equivalent of pond scum or bacteria, would be a momentous discovery: and would probably upset some folks.

But let's imagine that we hit the jackpot later this year.

A spaceship — obviously not from Earth — arrives, and settles into orbit around Earth's moon.

In this hypothetical situation, I'm pretty sure that some folks would panic. Others would start waving 'beam me up' signs at the sky, and the usual gaggle of experts would have dignified conniptions.

On the faith front, folks like the regrettable Westboro (Kansas) Baptist Church would probably declare that God hates us and/or that doom is nigh. Others would write op-ed pieces like Dr. Schweitzer's: and some might feel that 'science was right all along,' and despair.

About despair, it's a really bad idea and we're not supposed to do it. (Catechism, 2091)

I don't think either the familiar "War of the Worlds" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" scenarios are likely, by the way. And that's another topic. Topics. (April 18, 2014; November 15, 2013)

Meanwhile, in this hypothetical 'space aliens have arrived' situation, I figure that the Pope would say something low-key and sensible about the events; and some monks, like Jesuit Guy Consolmagno, would join other scientists in collecting and analyzing data about the new arrival.

Some of the world's billion-plus Catholics would, I'm pretty sure, be much less calm.

Drawing a line through the last half-century's goofiness, some would probably set up their own little 'Catholic Church of Just Us Humans,' or decide that the aliens are some kind of government plot.

As I've said before: like any big group, we've got our share of crazies.

"...Our Cousins in the Cosmos...."

It's been some time since I quoted Brother Guy Consolmago's personal opinion about our neighbors in the universe, if any. (November 7, 2014)

This is one man's opinion, not official Church policy, but I think he makes sense:
"...Frankly, if you think about it, any creatures on other planets, subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as us, made of the same kinds of atoms, with an awareness and a will recognizably like ours would be at the very least our cousins in the cosmos. They would be so similar to us in all the essentials that I don't think you'd even have the right to call them aliens."
("Brother Astronomer;" Chapter Three, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? — Brother Guy Consolmagno (2000))
Finally, if — and this is a very big if — we do share this universe with other folks: we may be working on the job outlined in Matthew 28:19 for a very long time. And that's yet another topic.

More about Pluto, a comet, and the universe:

1 Truth and respect are important:
" 'All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it.'26 This duty derives from 'the very dignity of the human person.'27 It does not contradict a 'sincere respect' for different religions which frequently 'reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men,'28 nor the requirement of charity, which urges Christians 'to treat with love, prudence and patience those who are in error or ignorance with regard to the faith.'29"
(Catechism, 2104)
2 Tennyson wrote "...the ringing grooves of change..." in "Locksley Hall" before learning why railroads are called rail roads:
"...Tennyson himself later wrote that his striking, though peculiar, metaphor for change (both visual and aural) arose from a misperception during his own first journey by rail: 'When I went by the first train from Liverpool to Manchester (1830), I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line.'..."
("Lucy on the Earth in Stasis" Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections on Natural History. Stephen Jay Gould, Harmony Books (1995). Cited in " 'Ringing down the grooves of change:' Tennyson's mistaken railway analogy;" George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History Emeritus, Brown University; )
3 Some quantum phenomena are easier to explain if we're not in the only space-time continuum:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.