It’s possible that some extraterrestrials were at the most recent Astronomy on Tap Seattle gathering, at which we explored the possibility of life on Mars and looked at exciting new techniques for capturing images of exoplanets.
We have met the Martians and they are us—maybe
“Are we all Martian-Americans? We still don’t know,” said Bob Abel, a professor of applied physics at Olympic College and collaborator with the University of Washington’s Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Group. Abel gave a talk titled, “Where Are the Martians?” at Astronomy on Tap Seattle April 26.
Giving a quick geological and topographical history of Mars, Abel said that the Red Planet is just one-half the diameter of Earth, and thus has just one-eighth the volume of Earth, so Mars cooled off pretty quickly.
“During the early formation of the solar system, it would have cooled to the point where liquid water could exist on its surface before the Earth got to that point,” Abel said, adding that it’s clear that water was once abundant on Mars. The rovers Spirit and Curiosity both landed in craters that used to be lakes, and Opportunity set down on the edge of what scientists think was once a salty sea.
In addition, Abel said that Spirit found opaline silica in Gusev Crater on Mars.
“The place where you find this on Earth is near geysers and hydrothermal vents,” Abel said. You’ll find heat, water, and minerals around these vents. “You’ve got all the stuff for life, and you find the most primitive life clustered around these on Earth.”
The surface of Mars is awfully barren now, but life could have conceivably existed there in the distant past. Scientists have found meteorites from Mars on Earth, and inside some of those meteorites they’ve found structures that look like nanobacteria. The debate continues over whether these are biological or not.
“It’s still somewhat up in the air, but it’s tantalizing evidence,” Abel said. “The question still remains, did life start earlier on Mars, since it was capable of being inhabited? And by the time Earth was habitable, did meteorites come to Earth and start life on Earth?”
The investigation continues.
As for present-day Mars, while the surface appears devoid of life, we may find something if we dig a little deeper. Abel said that Curiosity detects occasional outbursts of methane on Mars. He pointed out that most methane on Earth is created by biology.
“I’m personally rooting for flatulence, but we don’t know yet what’s causing it,” he laughed. But, through measurements made by many different Mars orbiters, we’ve learned that the planet’s outer core is molten. So beneath the surface there is heat, water, hydrocarbons, and soil: everything life wants. Abel recalled a talk last year by Penelope Boston, head of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
“She can’t see how life doesn’t exist below the surface of Mars,” Abel said.
Snapshots of exoplanets
Getting photographs of exoplanets—planets orbiting far-away stars—is a relatively new field within astronomy. The first such images were captured just eight years ago or so. Benjamin Gerard said the technology and capabilities within the field are advancing rapidly. Gerard, a doctoral student in physics and astronomy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, uses the Gemini Planet Imager to trick out pictures of planets near stars that are many light years away. These photos can be useful for figuring out the components of a planet’s atmosphere and whether it has oceans and continents.
Gerard said the main challenges in exoplanet imaging are resolution and contrast. He explained that the key to good resolution is adaptive optics. If you’ve looked through a telescope you have likely had nights when the objects you observe appear to be wiggling around because of atmospheric turbulence. Gemini corrects for this with adaptive optics.
Light from the object hits a deformable mirror as well as a component called a wave-front sensor. The sensor measures the amount of turbulence, sends the information to the mirror’s actuators, which can correct for the aberration.
“The mirror deforms once every millisecond,” Gerard said. “This aberration gets corrected and is constantly re-focused onto the camera. Once it reaches that point this image that is very turbulent suddenly becomes much more stable and we can get much better resolution.”
Gerard said this is a plus for ground-based telescopes.
“With this technique, we can basically take a ten-meter telescope and make it like we were in space,” he said. “With adaptive optics we actually do better than any space telescope in resolution.”
The problem of contrast is apparent to anyone who has visited social media, which is full of bad-contrast photos. Especially common are pics of people posed in front of windows. Often the people appear as silhouettes because the light from the window is way brighter. While exoplanets don’t pose in front of cosmic windows, contrast is a huge problem when it comes to getting the images.
“A planet like Earth is about ten billion times dimmer than it’s host star,” Gerard pointed out. Using a coronagraph helps block out the light of the star and remove its glare from the image. They also use a technique called angular differential imaging to overcome aberrations within the instruments. This is a little bit counter-intuitive to the amateur astrophotographer who typically uses an instrument rotator during long exposures to compensate for the apparent motion of objects caused by the rotation of the Earth.
“For exoplanet imaging this is actually helpful, so we turn off the instrument rotator and the planet appears to rotate with respect to the view of the fixed telescope instrumental aberrations,” Gerard said. “We can distinguish one from the other.” Computer algorithms can later put images made in this way back together to create even greater contrast.
Gerard hopes they’ll be able to do even better in the near future. The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s. It will have a deformable mirror that should have the capability to image smaller planets like Earth.
“This is many orders of magnitude better than we can do on ground-based telescopes, because on a space telescope you’re much more stable,” Gerard said. “On the Hubble Space Telescope now we can’t reach this sort of contrast because there is no deformable mirror.”
Since Gerard gave the talk NASA announced an independent review of WFIRST that could change its timeline and instrumentation.