Astronomy

Would being ejected from the Milky Way Galaxy have any major impact on life on Earth?

Would being ejected from the Milky Way Galaxy have any major impact on life on Earth?


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I was reading about the impending collision of our galaxy with the Andromeda galaxy, and learned that there is a small possibility that our solar system could be ejected during the collision.

Assuming that orbits within our solar system remain unchanged (it is ejected as a whole), would floating in intergalactic space cause any significant changes in the living conditions on earth?


I can think of two ways this benefits life.

  • Less chance of a passing star disrupting our Oort Cloud and sending deadly comets crashing into the Earth.
  • Less chance of nearby supernova destroying our ozone layer.

On the other hand, if our Solar System passes near a relativistic jet emanating from the central black hole of a galaxy, Earth will get hit with high speed particles that will disrupt the magnetosphere and ozone layer. Definitely not good for any life on Earth at that time.

Getting ejected from the galaxy also means there is less chance of future humans exploring the galaxy by hopping to nearby stars. We'd only have our solar system to explore and colonize. There would not be another star system within a hundred thousand light years.


The Solar System moving through intergalactic space would have no impact on life. However, in order for the sun to be ejected out of the Galaxy, a very close encounter with a stellar mass object would be necessary. That would likely have a huge negative impact on life on earth, at a minimum perturbing many objects in the Oort Cloud into the inner solar syste. At the other end of the spectrum, the orbit of earth could be significantly altered or the earth could even be ejected from the solar system, depending on the geometry of the encounter.


10 Facts About Andromeda - The Nearest Galaxy To Milky Way

Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy that is approximately 2.5 million light years from Earth. This galaxy is the nearest major g.

Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy that is approximately 2.5 million light years from Earth. This galaxy is the nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way. This name is derived from the area of the sky in which it appears i.e. the constellation of Andromeda, which was named after the mythological princess Andromeda.

Andromeda, according to the Greek mythology was the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, the king and queen of North African kingdom Aethiopia. She has been very popular in art since classical times.

Andromeda galaxy is also known as Messier 31, M31 and NGC 224. In older texts, it has also been referred to as the Great Andromeda Nebula.

1. Andromeda Contains Twice The Number Of Stars Than Milky Way

There are one trillion stars in Andromeda. This is twice the number of stars estimated in the Milky Way (200-400 billion). These observations were made by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2006. Moreover, the mass of Andromeda galaxy is estimated to be 1.5×10 12 solar masses while Milky Way has 8.5×10 11 solar masses according to the estimations. (Solar mass (M) is the standard unit of measurement in astronomy for the mass of stars, clusters and galaxies. It does not take dark matter into account.)

2. It Was Once Categorized As Nebula

Before the true facts of universe were realized, what is known to be the rim of Milky Galaxy today was thought to be the edge of space. Andromeda galaxy was considered to be a mere collection of stars and cosmic dust clouds. It was originally called the Great Andromeda nebula. In 1864, William Huggins noted that Andromeda spectrum differed from gaseous nebula. Its spectra display a continuum of frequencies that are superimposed with dark absorption lines which help in the identification of chemical composition of an object.

3. Dozens Of Black Holes Lie Here

The centre of M31 is a home to 26 known black holes. Some more have been picked out by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. There is also a massive black hole in its center just like the Milky Way. There is a possibility of two other holes possibly orbiting as binary, having an approximate mass of 140 million times to that of Sun.

4. On Its Way To Collide With Milky Way

When most of the universe is accelerating away from our galaxy, Andromeda galaxy is approaching towards Milky Way at a speed of 100 kilometers per second. That means, in approximately 4.5 billion years, the Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way. There will be a galactic smash-up between the two galaxies.

The reason behind this direct collision is the tangential velocity of Andromeda galaxy which is relatively much smaller than the approaching velocity. The likely outcome of this collision will be a merger of both the galaxies to form a giant elliptical galaxy or even a large disc galaxy. The impact of this collision on Earth and the Solar System is not known yet. There is also a minute chance of Solar system being ejected from the Milky Way or joining the Andromeda Galaxy before the collision.

5. Amateur Observation

Andromeda Galaxy can be seen with naked eye. Even with some light pollution, the galaxy is bright enough to be spotted without any device. Autumn is the best season for seeing the galaxy. In the Northern Hemisphere, during the nights, when the galaxy reaches zenith from mid altitudes, they can be clearly visible for almost whole night.

From the Southern Hemisphere, it is the spring season for best visibility. With the help of binoculars, some larger structures and the two brightest satellite galaxies, M32 and M110 can also be seen. Amateur telescope can also reveal Andromeda’s disk, NGC 206 (the large star cloud), dark dust lanes and some brightest globular clusters.

6. Largest Galaxy In The Local Group

Andromeda Galaxy is the largest galaxy in the local group. Local Group is a galaxy group that comprises of more than 54 galaxies. Milky Way is also a part of this group. The Local Group covers a diameter of 10 megalight-years. The gravitational center of Local Group is located somewhere between Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy. The three largest members of this group (in descending order) are Andromeda Galaxy, Milky Way and Triangulum Galaxy.

7. Satellites

Andromeda Galaxy consists of satellite galaxies just like the Milky Way. There are 14 known dwarf galaxies and the best known and most readily observed satellite galaxies are M32 and M110. M32 underwent a close encounter with M31 in the past according to the current evidences. Scientists also estimate that M32 may have been a larger galaxy once that got its stellar disk removed by M31. This led to a sharp increase in formation of stars in core region which lasted until relatively recent past.

M110 had also interacted with Andromeda Galaxy. Astronomers found a stream of metal rich stars in the halo of Andromeda which appeared to be stripped from these satellite galaxies. M110 also contains a dusty lane which indicates a recent or ongoing star formation.

2006 brought another discovery that nine satellite galaxies lying on a plane that intersect the core of Andromeda Galaxy are not arranged randomly, as opposite to the expectation. This can imply that the satellites have a common tidal origin.

8. First Supernova To Be Detected Outside The Milky Way

Supernova is a stellar explosion that radiates as much energy as the Sun or any ordinary star. It makes the entire galaxy shine. S Andromedae was the first supernova to be detected outside the Milky Way in 1885. It is the only supernova ever recorded in that galaxy.

It was observed on August 20, 1885 at Dorpat Observatory in Estonia by Albrecht Hartwig. Between August 17 and 20, the supernova reached a magnitude of six but it faded to sixteen by February 1890. In that period, Andromeda was considered only a nearby object so it was thought to be an unrelated event and much less luminous. It was thus named as Nova 1885.

9. Bright Center In The Galaxy

Using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005, astronomers discovered that the center of Andromeda Galaxy is comprised of old red stars in an elliptical ring and smaller and brighter young blue stars in a denser disk. This was around 200 million years old. They surrounded the super-massive black hole located at the center of the galaxy which measured 140 million solar masses.

10. Andromeda Has Double Nucleus

Andromeda or M31 is known for its dense and compact star cluster in the center. When viewed with a larger telescope, there is a visual impression of a star embedded in the more diffuse surrounding bulge. The inner nucleus of Andromeda Galaxy was imaged with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1991. It consists of two concentrations separated by 1.5 parsecs.

The brighter one, which is offset from the center of galaxy, is designated as P1 while the dimmer one, P2 is at the true center of the galaxy and consists of a black hole which measured 3–5 × 10 7 M in 1993 and 1.1–2.3 × 10 8 M in 2005.


Galaxy mergers could limit star formation

This artist's impression of ID2299 shows the galaxy, the product of a galactic collision, and some of its gas being ejected by a "tidal tail" as a result of the merger. New observations made with ALMA, in which ESO is a partner, have captured the earliest stages of this ejection, before the gas reached the very large scales depicted in this artist's impression. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Astronomers have looked nine billion years into the past to find evidence that galaxy mergers in the early universe could shut down star formation and affect galaxy growth.

New research led by Durham University, UK, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA)-Saclay and the University of Paris-Saclay, shows that a huge amount of star-forming gas was ejected into the intergalactic medium by the coming together of two galaxies.

The researchers say that this event, together with a large amount of star formation in the nuclear regions of the galaxy, would eventually deprive the merged galaxy—called ID2299—of fuel for new stars. This would stop star formation for several hundred million years, effectively halting the galaxy's development.

Astronomers observe many massive, dead galaxies containing very old stars in the nearby Universe and don't exactly know how these galaxies have been formed.

Simulations suggest that winds generated by active black holes as they feed, or those created by intense star formation, are responsible for such deaths by expelling the gas from galaxies.

Now the Durham-led study offers galaxy mergers as another way of shutting down star formation and altering galaxy growth.

Observational features of winds and "tidal tails" caused by the gravitational interaction between galaxies in such mergers can be very similar, so the researchers suggest that some past results where galactic winds have been seen as the cause of halting star formation might need to be re-evaluated.

A simulated collision between two gas-rich galaxies. Part of the gas is ejected in large tails and as the galaxies get closer they merge to form a single system. Credit: Jeremy Fensch, et al

The findings are published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Lead author Dr. Annagrazia Puglisi, in Durham University's Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, said: "We don't yet know what the exact processes are behind the switching off of star formation in massive galaxies.

"Feedback driven winds from star formation or active black holes are thought to be the main responsible for expelling the gas and quenching the growth of massive galaxies.

"Our research provides compelling evidence that the gas being flung from ID2299 is likely to have been tidally ejected because of the merger between two gas rich spiral galaxies. The gravitational interaction between two galaxies can thus provide sufficient angular momentum to kick out part of the gas into the galaxy surroundings.

"This suggests that mergers are also capable of altering the future evolution of a galaxy by limiting its ability to form stars over millions of years and deserve more investigation when thinking about the factors that limit galaxy growth."

Due to the amount of time it takes the light from ID2299 to reach Earth the researchers were able to see the galaxy as it would have appeared nine billion years ago when it was in the late stages of its merger.

This is a time when the universe was only 4.5 billion years old and was in its most active, "young adult" phase if compared to a human life.

Map of the cold molecular gas from the galaxy ID2299 taken using the European Southern Observatory's Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope. Credit: A Puglisi et al

Using the European Southern Observatory's Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope, in northern Chile, the researchers saw it was ejecting about half of its total gas reservoir into the galaxy surroundings.

Researchers were able to rule out star formation and the galaxy's active black hole as the reason for this ejection by comparing their measurements to previous studies and simulations and by measuring the physical properties of the escaped gas.

The rate at which the gas is being expelled from ID2299 is too high to have been caused by the energy created by a black hole or starburst as seen in previous studies, while simulations suggest that no black holes can kick out as much cold gas from a galaxy.

The excitation of the escaped gas is also not compatible with a wind generated by a black hole or the birth of new stars.

Co-author Dr. Emanuele Daddi, from CEA-Saclay said: "This galaxy is witnessing a truly extreme event.

"It is probably caught during an important physical phase for galaxy evolution that occurs within a relatively short time window. We had to look at over 100 galaxies with ALMA to find it."

Fellow co-author Dr. Jeremy Fensch, of the Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon, added: "Studying this single case unveiled the possibility that this type of event might not be unusual at all and that many galaxies suffered from this 'gravitational gas removal', including misinterpreted past observations.

"This might have huge consequences on our understanding of what actually shapes the evolution of galaxies."


Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy is colliding with Milky Way

Don't look now but our galaxy is being invaded by the Sagittarius Dwarf. Even worse, our Milky Way is on a collision course with the Andromeda galaxy, and there is nothing we can do about it.

There isn't much reason to panic - our crash with Andromeda isn't due for another four or five billion years. And while the Sagittarius Dwarf is already here, it seems to be having surprisingly little impact.

Delegates were told yesterday about colliding galaxies. These may sound like cataclysmic events and big things can and do smash into one another, but most galaxies have a lot of open space and individual stars tend to glide past one another.

"You could sleep through the whole thing," suggested Dr Mark Dickinson of Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute. "The evidence seems to be the merger rate was higher early in the history of the universe than now."

In fact we are already in collision with a small galaxy, the Sagittarius Dwarf. With its tens of millions of stars it is 10,000 times smaller than our Milky Way. Dr Rosemary Wyse, also of Johns Hopkins, explained that the Dwarf orbits through our galaxy once every billion years or so and is currently embedded near the "bulge" at the centre of the Milky Way.

"The Sagittarius Dwarf is already interacting strongly with the Milky Way," she stated. Its presence was only discovered by accident in 1994 so it can't be that big a deal. Colliding galaxies clearly have astronomers stirred up, however, and they are using new earth telescopes and the Hubble space telescope to scan the skies.

"You have to understand what happens when galaxies collide if you want to understand how galaxies function," said Dr Bradley Whitmore of the Space Telescope Institute. He searches for the "fossil record" of earlier smashes to assess what is going to happen when the Milky Way does its head-to-head with Andromeda.

"We don't have to worry about stars hitting each other," Dr Chris Mihos suggested helpfully, but adding all the same, "We might be expelled from the galaxy in a tidal tail." These are the telltale jets of material spewed out that show when two galaxies have toughed it out.

Being ejected out into the cosmos mightn't be such a bad thing, he believes. We live on the outskirts of the Milky Way, well away from its urban centre. Things tend to get hot - and dangerous - in the middle during collisions, with new star formation and a remaking of the old. Thank God for the suburbs.


Hotspots in an active galactic nucleus

An image taken at radio wavelengths of the dramatic jets of charged particles being ejected from the nucleus of the galaxy Cygnus-A. Newly obtained radio images were able to resolve hotspots in the jets at the places where they impact the surrounding medium. The conventional thinking is that the bulk of the radiation in such hotspots is produced by shocks, but the new results found that some other processes, perhaps absorption, must be involved. Credit: NRAO/AU

The nucleus of a so-called "active" galaxy contains a massive black hole that is vigorously accreting material. As a result, the nucleus often ejects bipolar jets of rapidly moving charged particles that radiate brightly at many wavelengths, in particular radio wavelengths. Active galaxies display a range of dramatically different properties, and the ones that are bright in the radio can beam as much as one trillion solar luminosities of radiation into space at those wavelengths.

The intense emission arises from the hot environment of the black hole because electrons, moving at close to the speed of light in an environment of strong magnetic fields, radiate in the radio. The directed particle jets eventually collide with the ambient medium and convert much of their bulk energy of motion into shocks. The points of termination in the jet flow are seen as very hot spots, bright and compact structures. The hotspots can reverse the flow the jets back towards the black hole, and thereby generate additional turbulence and random motions. The characteristic temperature of a hot spot (or more accurately, the spectral dependence of the brightness versus wavelength) reveals the nature of the physical processes at work. Most known active radio galaxies have hotspots whose spectral dependence conforms well with the idea of termination shocks and reverse flows, but some very luminous radio galaxies do not conform.

The radio galaxy Cygnus A is the nearest and most powerful example of a double radio galaxy and as such is an archetype of this class. It is also one of the first objects discovered whose hotspots did not seem to conform with the conventional picture, and for decades astronomers have debated the possible reasons. The limited ability of long wavelength (low frequency) radio telescopes to resolve the small sizes of the hotspots was one complicating factor. CfA astronomers Reinout van Weeren and Gianni Bernardi (now at SKA South Africa) were part of a large team who used the Low Frequency Array ("LOFAR") radio telescope to obtain high spatial resolution images of the hotspots in Cygnus A. Their results provide the first direct evidence that the spectral shape difference previously inferred is real. The scientists are presenting a detailed analysis in a separate paper, but in this paper the basic results indicate that some other process besides shock activity must be involved the team suggests absorption of the radiation by intervening local material could be part of the final picture.


Ancient Black Hole Speeds Through Galaxy

Astronomers using the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio telescope have found an ancient black hole speeding through the Sun’s Galactic neighborhood, devouring a small companion star as the pair travels in an eccentric orbit looping to the outer reaches of our Milky Way Galaxy. The scientists believe the black hole is the remnant of a massive star that lived out its brief life billions of years ago and later was gravitationally kicked from its home star cluster to wander the Galaxy with its companion.

“This discovery is the first step toward filling in a missing chapter in the history of our Galaxy,” said Felix Mirabel, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Astronomy and Space Physics of Argentina and French Atomic Energy Commission. “We believe that hundreds of thousands of very massive stars formed early in the history of our Galaxy, but this is the first black hole remnant of one of those huge primeval stars that we’ve found.”

“This also is the first time that a black hole’s motion through space has been measured,” Mirabel added. A black hole is a dense concentration of mass with a gravitational pull so strong that not even light can escape it. The research is reported in the Sept. 13 issue of the scientific journal Nature.

The object is called XTE J1118+480 and was discovered by the Rossi X-Ray satellite on March 29, 2000. Later observations with optical and radio telescopes showed that it is about 6,000 light-years from Earth and that it is a “microquasar” in which material sucked by the black hole from its companion star forms a hot, spinning disk that spits out “jets” of subatomic particles that emit radio waves.

Most of the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy are within a thin disk, called the plane of the Galaxy. However, there also are globular clusters, each containing hundreds of thousands of the oldest stars in the Galaxy which orbit the Galaxy’s center in paths that take them far from the Galaxy’s plane. XTE J1118+480 orbits the Galaxy’s center in a path similar to those of the globular clusters, moving at 145 kilometers per second (90 miles per second) relative to the Earth.

How did it get into such an orbit? “There are two possibilities: either it formed in the Galaxy’s plane and was somehow kicked out of the plane or it formed in a globular cluster and was kicked out of the cluster,” said Vivek Dhawan, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, New Mexico.

A massive star ends its life by exploding as a supernova, leaving either a neutron star or a black hole as a remnant. Some neutron stars show rapid motion, thought to result from a sideways “kick” during the supernova explosion. “This black hole has much more mass — about seven times the mass of our Sun — than any neutron star,” said Dhawan. “To accelerate it to its present speed would require a kick from the supernova that we consider improbable,” Dhawan added.

“We think it’s more likely that it was gravitationally ejected from the globular cluster,” Dhawan said. Simulations of the gravitational interactions in globular clusters have shown that the black holes resulting from the collapse of the most massive stars should eventually be ejected from the cluster.

“The star that preceded this black hole probably formed in a globular cluster even before our Galaxy’s disk was formed,” Mirabel said. “What we’re doing here is the astronomical equivalent of archaeology, seeing traces of the intense burst of star formation that took place during an early stage of our Galaxy’s development.”

The black hole has consumed so much of its companion star that the inner layers of the smaller star — only about one-third the mass of the Sun — now are exposed. The scientists believe the black hole captured the companion before being ejected from the globular cluster, as if it were grabbing a snack for the road.

“Because this microquasar happened to be relatively close to the Earth, we were able to track its motion with the VLBA even though it’s normally faint,” said Mirabel. “Now, we want to find more of these ancient black holes. There must be hundreds of thousands swirling around in our Galaxy.”

The astronomers used the VLBA to observe XTE J1118+480 in May and July of 2000, using the VLBA’s great resolving power, or ability to see fine detail, to precisely measure the object’s movement against the backdrop of more-distant celestial bodies. The VLBA observations were made at radio frequencies of 8.4 and 15.4 GHz.

In addition, they found that the object appears in optical images made for the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS) taken 43 years apart. The POSS images were digitized to allow for rapid search and analysis by the Space Telescope Science Institute. The data from both the radio and optical images allowed the astronomers to calculate the object’s orbital path around the Galactic center.

“With the VLBA, we could start observing soon after this object was discovered and get extremely precise information on its position. Then, we were able to use the digitized data from the Palomar surveys to extend backward the time span of our information. This is a great example of applying multiple tools of modern astronomy — telescopes covering different wavelengths and digital databases — to a single problem,” said Dhawan.

In addition to Mirabel and Dhawan, the research was performed by Roberto Mignani of the European Southern Observatory Irapuan Rodrigues, who is a fellow of the Brazilian National Research Council at the French Atomic Energy Commission and Fabrizia Guglielmetti of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD.


The Eternal Trap

"Go. We have a go for launch. 3. 2. 1. Lift off, we have lift off" Earth command said, the rough static filled voice barely piercing through the loud roar of the traditional rocket engines. After several minutes of high G, we found ourselves weightless and slowly drifting farther and farther away from what we used to call home. A day of travel brought us far enough from Earth to begin our real journey.

"Earth command, this is Captain Davis. We are about to engage phase 2 engines. We leave you this one last message as we venture into the great beyond. Fair well to those of you we know, and hello to all future generations we will see on the other side." I spoke into the small communications microphone.

With that, orders were given, the large crew was strapped in, and we began initiating our secondary thrusters. A high pitched whining informed us that the engines were getting up to speed, and a gradual acceleration could be seen through the command center windows. Dilation of space was an odd phenomenon to behold distant white stars shifting to blue then violet then black, occasionally Flickering through the colors of the rainbow.

Several hours of high acceleration were followed by a few of low acceleration to allow for the crew to perform various studies, maintenance checks, and personal business. A cycle that was repeated for several weeks until low acceleration was acceptable to keep mission schedule.

It was over a year into our journey, beyond the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy, when the ship shuddered and the ship's alarms began blaring. The diagnostics were clear, navigational charts has missed something, something we couldn't have known was there. Now, we're stuck beyond help, an eternal trap into infinity.

As a man's last moments tick by, you cannot help but wonder what goes through their mind. Does their life flash before their eyes? Do their children flood every last thought? Are deeds and mistakes the conscious of a dying man? For better or worse, I will never know.

Immortality is not an ability given to me, rather a mistake that was stumbled upon. This is no gift nor curse, but an anamolous artifact of science a wicked loophole in an impossible reality. This is not something any of us signed up for.

As part of the first research expedition to the Andromeda Galaxy, we were to ride in a piece of experimental hardware an engine capable of theoretically reaching relativistic speeds strapped to a ship capable of theoretically taking extreme energy impacts. My crewmembers and myself are getting first hand experience of the true capabilities of this craft.

I remember first laying eyes on this massive vessel. It had strange asymmetries like a piece of abstract art, made of some substance I assume to be classified in nature. The ambient light hitting the hull reflected a red that almost hurt to look at. The shadowed sections of the ship were strange, the blackest black I've ever seen, and I'm no stranger to the void. Now, looking out the port window, the material is giving off a blazing purple, and appears to shifting slowly toward black. The crew has had many discussions speculating on the origin and structure of the material, a conversation none seem to care about now.

A ship's year into this journey, a hundred thousand of light years from the rest of man, the crew was performing excellently, focused, prepared, conscientious. Now we flounder while waiting for eternity to pass. The designers of this ship likely put hundreds of thousands of hours into it, but each bellowing metalic creak puts us further on edge. We know the ship should be able to take the impact of almost anything, though we are wholly skeptical it was designed for a collision with a blackhole.

As this occurrence has never been experienced by man, I simply hope someone finds this message and makes use of it. For us, it is too late.

We believe the origin of our predicament stems from an intermediate black hole being ejected from its celestial neighborhood, putting it on a near collision course with us. Getting locked into a descending orbit, we found our engine incapable of accelerating us to escape velocity our physicist confirmed these suspicions. We've set our ship to maximum acceleration for the chance a gravitational ripple allows us to reach effective escape velocity, hopes are not high among the crew. Over the last day we've become accustomed to the ship occasionally quaking, likely from the ship's resonant frequency matched with the gravitational waves we are undoubtedly passing through. I can only guess how many times we've hit the same waves as we've circled the black hole. We are seeing our own ship ahead as light bends, distorting around the blackness.

Have you ever seen a wheel spinning fast? Remember how it spins so quickly that it appears to be stopped, or even rotating backwards? Looking out the opposite side window into the vast emptiness of space appears similar to that, as if we are slowly orbiting the black hole. I look out and see the blue shifted Andromeda Galaxy, a faint dot far in the distance. Suspiciously, it seems to be getting larger. It could just be my imagination, hard to tell.

"Computer, analyze Andromeda proximity" I command

"1.3469. 1.3468. . cannot resolve distance. Resolve using predictive methods?" The computer responds

Ship's computer whirs before answering. "Resolving. approaching Andromeda at 3e 10 * c."

"Recalculate using fixed position and predictive time dilation effects" I state, now slightly annoyed with the quantity of commands required to get the answer I need.

"One moment" The computer states before that same whirring sound. "Error. Unable to calculate. Exceeding input parameters."

An unpleasant answer I had hoped wouldn't be the case. I hesitate before asking the next query, not sure if I want an answer. "Approximate earth time"

"Approximately. 244 million CE."

Several in the command center gasp, as this news could only mean one thing: It appears time dilation is more severe here that we previously approximated, and accelerating as we fall inward has further exacerbated this effect. The announcement sent several of the crew into deep sobs. No one can fathom what this implies for our future. The plan to get to Andromeda, spend several years acquiring information, and return. We anticipated a total mission of 25 years, and approximately 6 million earth years. We can prepare for things to be different, humanity to have evolved, and massive progress to be made or lost. We cannot prepare for massive changes on a scale that is beyond comprehensible if they are encountered. We cannot prepare for the remnants of creatures we know as human to vanish, replaced with ancestors that could take any form, creatures that would call us gods or aliens, or ants. We most certainly cannot prepare for a civilization that has likely advanced beyond the boundaries of this universe. This assumes life even still exists on our blue and green marble.

I don't cry, as I had joined this mission for the adventure of a life time. I hold hopes that we may still escape, the quaking of the ship becomes more frequent with each passing minute, a sign gravity is not constant and escape closer than before.

The flight psychologist has been making rounds, informing everyone they can speak with him if they need to. After he's finished, I pull him aside and tell him that he may speak to me if he needs. He seems less disturbed by our situation that I am, putting up the same facade he wears during his sessions. Pulling him into a tight embrace, I feel him relax followed by a few deep heaves. We've know eachother for several years now and I consider us close friends. Friendship may be the only thing that gets us through this situation.

"Thank you" he says, pulling away and wiping his eyes, now slightly glimmering and reddened. We both turn and walk down the corridors, away from the command center.

The ship shudders, buckling one of my knees. "Jesus" I explain, before straits ing up and continuing on. I follow the flight psychologist for a minute before turning into the lab.

One of our engineers was frantically scambling through papers, writing gibberish on a note book. She doesn't notice me until I make my presence aware. Talking complex mathematics, she speaks about how little time we have, noting that we might be able to escape our predicament. Lost in her ramblings, I nod at what ever approval she requested this should help her cope with the reality we found ourselves in. Conveniently, another engineer entered the room at that moment, and they both rush out together without wasting another moment another harsh shuddering of the ship wishing them luck on their quest.

I make my way to the last place on the ship people congrate, a long walk down a mostly silent corridor. but the ever more frequent shuddering almost knocked me off my feet. Grasping the wall to prevent myself from falling, I hear a rough, wet slapping from just beyond carnal cries and lewd grunting identifying the location of our doctor and mechanic. Even upon death, some of us find ourselves but simple creatures, though this coupling had been building since shortly after launch. Checking in on them now would likely be problematic I strip myself from the wall and carry onward.

The mess hall was packed, yet silent.

One by one, I spoke with each person present, the soft speak being the only noise resonating across the metalic hull. Finishing the short speech with the last person in the mess, i leave it once again silent, quieter than before. Heading back toward the command center was even more discomforting than entering the mess, deafening hollow steps ringing loud in a dying ship.

Approaching command was daunting, the sounds of the mechanic and doctor no longer present, nothing but thoughts of time with every step. A step takes less than a second ship time and thousands of years Earth time. Each and every stride, hundreds of generations of human ancestors live and die.

Stripping me from my thoughts, I hear a soft commotion stretching halfway down the brightly lit hall. Quickening my pace, I reach command to discover the source of the chaos. The navigation and enforcement officer barrage Dr. Phang with questions. The confusion in her responses clearly indicating the officers proding was unhelpful.

My arrival brings a sudden hush to the command center.

"What's going on here?" I strain my voice to overcome another harsh shuddering.

The navigation officer began to explain engineering arrived a few moments ago and took the mechanic to the engine room. Engineering simply stated I gave approval for engine modification, of which I now recall.

". and by increasing our velocity we may have a way out. We will loose lots of time, but it can be done. We need to flood the engine with SQZ, then replace the rods. Captain, do I have your approval?"

Sirens now sound across the ship once more.

"Engine compromised, take immediate action" An emergency response voice demanded of its crew.

Engineering spoke out over the intercom "Alright everyone, you've got 30 second, we're getting out of this pit. Hold on, buckle up. This is going to be a bumpy ride." Hanging up with a sharp click

Those words stun the command center to unmoving silence, the alarm deafening all of us. Without many options, I start issuing orders.

"You heard the lass, get a seat and secure yourself!" I shout. Picking up the intercom I repeat the same phrase and pray the others on the ship batten themselves down.

The siren wails continuously as we wait for extreme acceleration. I hear navigation officer whispered under her breath "3. 2. 1."

A loud bang rang through the ship, followed by a short jolt of acceleration, and the whining sound of of engines winding down.

I grab the intercom. "Engineering, What the f. "

Cutting me off, the engine wind up to a screaming pitch, smothering the sirens. After several minutes, on the verge of fainting, the engines wind down to their original gentle humm.

After a moment, not wanting any additional surprises pulled on me, I grab the intercom mic again. "Did it work?" Followed by a silent pause. "Engineering, did it work?" My voice strained.

Dealing another major blow to the moral of the ship, we wander to the port to see a shifting sky. Andromeda now fast approaching, what ever they did worsened our position, and we can do nothing except watch as all of existence rushes toward its death.

Once a far off small dot, our destination ironically came rushing toward us. Bright lights I assume to be stars zip past, and as if to torment us our lightless captor was ejected from the chaos to give us a brilliant view of the ongoing collision.

Dust in a whirl pool, the galaxies danced, twisting and morphing into a new shape. It twinkled with the birth and death of stars, growing dimmer and redder with each second. The engineer who derived this insane plot arrived in the command center with the mechanic to watch as what seemed to be the last of the stars winked out of existence.

"Computer, identify stars" I command.

"One local star located. Displaying"

Flickering weakly, a dull white light emanates from the star as it seems to grasp for life, fight against the oppressive void. Hours pass, or so it feels like they do as we watch the last light die. And with its vanishing, I feel something inside me change.

"Computer, identify stars" I command again

"Extensive search" I command, needing there to be something. Anything.

A familiar whirring followed by several seemingly unused lights flashing ledding us to the unsettlingly response.

"Check again!" I demand, pleading with fate to give us an impossibility.

There is a new whirring and beeping, leading to the same response.

The last glimmer of the universe is gone. Along with its death so went that spark I hold inside. I sit down on the hard floor, holding my knees close to my chest and weep, the tears carrying the last bit of humanity I have left.

I now take the days as they come, trying to discuss with the crew a path forward. Everyone has resigned to either solitude to process the gravity of our situation or hedonism to give our remaining pointless years some level of meaning. I have taken to the former, staring out the port to see something, anything.

Occasionally my mind plays tricks on me and I see splotches, or tendrils, or eyes staring back into my own. With no orientational reference and the ship quakes having ended shortly after the last star vanished, we don't know if we're still orbiting the black hole, if we've been ejected from its grasp, or have passed its event horizon. All fates no one aboard anticipated on launch.

When we boarded this ship, we knew it would be the last time we saw our family. We knew humanity may evolve into strange humanoids, and the humanity we returned to would not be what we knew. Accepting the facts of a changing universe was difficult. Watching all existence come to an end, where we are the last living beings, no words can describe this hollow sensation. Staring out into the void, true endless nothingness, I cannot help but wonder what is more empty. The expanse outside of this strange contraption, or the vacancy now residing inside myself.


Starburst to star bust: Light shed on mystery of missing massive galaxies

New observations from the ALMA telescope in Chile have given astronomers the best view yet of how vigorous star formation can blast gas out of a galaxy and starve future generations of stars of the fuel they need to form and grow. The dramatic images show enormous outflows of molecular gas ejected by star-forming regions in the nearby Sculptor Galaxy. These new results help to explain the strange paucity of very massive galaxies in the Universe.

The study is published in the journal Nature on July 25, 2013.

Galaxies -- systems like our own Milky Way that contain up to hundreds of billions of stars -- are the basic building blocks of the cosmos. One ambitious goal of contemporary astronomy is to understand the ways in which galaxies grow and evolve, a key question being star formation: what determines the number of new stars that will form in a galaxy?

The Sculptor Galaxy, also known as NGC 253, is a spiral galaxy located in the southern constellation of Sculptor. At a distance of around 11.5 million light-years from our Solar System it is one of our closer intergalactic neighbours, and one of the closest starburst galaxies [1] visible from the southern hemisphere. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) astronomers have discovered billowing columns of cold, dense gas fleeing from the centre of the galactic disc.

"With ALMA's superb resolution and sensitivity, we can clearly see for the first time massive concentrations of cold gas being jettisoned by expanding shells of intense pressure created by young stars," said Alberto Bolatto of the University of Maryland, USA lead author of the paper. "The amount of gas we measure gives us very good evidence that some growing galaxies spew out more gas than they take in. We may be seeing a present-day example of a very common occurrence in the early Universe."

These results may help to explain why astronomers have found surprisingly few high-mass galaxies throughout the cosmos. Computer models show that older, redder galaxies should have considerably more mass and a larger number of stars than we currently observe. It seems that the galactic winds or outflow of gas are so strong that they deprive the galaxy of the fuel for the formation of the next generation of stars [2].

"These features trace an arc that is almost perfectly aligned with the edges of the previously observed hot, ionised gas outflow," noted Fabian Walter, a lead investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, and a co-author of the paper. "We can now see the step-by-step progression of starburst to outflow."

The researchers determined that vast quantities of molecular gas -- nearly ten times the mass of our Sun each year and possibly much more -- were being ejected from the galaxy at velocities between 150 000 and almost 1 000 000 kilometres per hour [3]. The total amount of gas ejected would add up to more gas than actually went into forming the galaxy's stars in the same time. At this rate, the galaxy could run out of gas in as few as 60 million years.

"For me, this is a prime example of how new instruments shape the future of astronomy. We have been studying the starburst region of NGC 253 and other nearby starburst galaxies for almost ten years. But before ALMA, we had no chance to see such details," says Walter. The study used an early configuration of ALMA with only 16 antennas. "It's exciting to think what the complete ALMA with 66 antennas will show for this kind of outflow!" Walter adds.

More studies with the full ALMA array will help determine the ultimate fate of the gas carried away by the wind, which will reveal whether the starburst-driven winds are recycling or truly removing star forming material.

[1] Starburst galaxies are producing stars at an exceptionally high rate. As NGC 253 is one of the closest such extreme objects it is an ideal target to study the effect of such growth frenzy on the galaxy hosting it.

[2] Previous observations had shown hotter, but much less dense, gas streaming away from NGC 253's star-forming regions, but alone this would have little, if any, impact on the fate of the galaxy and its ability to form future generations of stars. This new ALMA data show the much more dense molecular gas getting its initial "kick" from the formation of new stars and then being swept along with the thin, hot gas on its way to the galactic halo.

[3] Although the velocities are high, they may not be high enough for the gas to be ejected from the galaxy. It would get trapped in the galactic halo for many millions of years, and could eventually rain back on the disk, causing new episodes of star formation.


Earth Impact Plumes Seed Life Through the Galaxy

Since it formed about 4.5 billion years ago, our planet has suffered catastrophic collisions with other space bodies, which sometimes led to extinction events here. However, it could be that the same instances led to the spreading of basic lifeforms to other celestial bodies in our solar system.

In a new study published online in the journal arXiv, investigators analyze the probabilities of Earth's ejecta plumes reaching other planets and moons. They say that the debris may have even reached points beyond the orbits of Jupiter, the fifth planet form the Sun.

What makes this discovery interesting is the fact that basic microorganisms such as microbes and bacteria can travel inside such ejecta objects, able to withstand the harsh conditions of outer space.

Investigations conducted over the past decade or so have demonstrated that lifeforms can survive being ejected to space in a violent cosmic collision, traveling for millions of years inside their lifeboats, and then surviving atmospheric reentry on another body.

Once there, life uses its built-in ability to adapt, which functions extremely well regardless of the environment it comes across. On Earth, microorganisms live anywhere from 3 kilometers below the ices of Antarctica and miles beneath the Earth's crust to volcanic crater and near hydrothermal vents.

Given this resiliency, it may not be such a stretch to assume that life was carried by ejecta plumes generated when Earth was impacted by massive asteroids. According to experts, the most probable scenario is where the microbes reached Venus or the Moon.

The reason why this is the most likely scenario is because the Sun's gravity would have pulled on the ejecta plumes towards the inner solar system. However, it is not entirely impossible for some material to have made its way towards Mars, Jupiter, or even beyond.

The recent investigation, led by Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico astronomer Mauricio Reyes-Ruiz, represents that largest, most comprehensive simulation of Earth eject plume behaviors.

Their computer model shows that two orders of magnitude more particles reach Mars than what was originally calculated. Interestingly, at high and very high ejection speeds, test particles are more likely to make their way to Jupiter rather than Mars, Technology Review reports.

Another remarkable finding was that many particles make their way out of the solar system entirely. What this implies is that lifeforms originating on our planet may now be on their way to colonize other worlds as we speak.


Observing galactic 'blow out': Stellar growth spurts stunt future growth

This image shows a 3D volume rendering of the IRAM observation of SDSSJ0905+57, revealing the detection of carbon monoxide. The bright ‘head’ shows gas associated with the dense, compact star-forming nucleus. The ‘tail’ (colour coded in velocity red=high velocity) shows gas in a high velocity outflow, up to 1000 km/s, highlighting molecular gas being ejected from the galaxy by stellar feedback. Credit: J. Geach & R. Crain

(Phys.org)—For the first time, an international team of astronomers, led by Dr James Geach from the University of Hertfordshire, has revealed the dramatic 'blow out' phase of galactic evolution.

The astronomers have discovered dense gas being blasted out of a compact galaxy (called SDSS J0905+57) at speeds of up to two million miles per hour. The gas is being driven to distances of tens of thousands of light years by the intense pressure exerted on it by the radiation of stars that are forming rapidly at the galaxy's centre. This is having a major impact on the evolution of the galaxy.

The team used the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM) Plateau de Bure Interferometer, a radio telescope based in the French Alps. By detecting the molecule carbon monoxide, they were able to infer the amount of hydrogen gas present. Stars are born from clouds of hydrogen, so by removing this gas the galaxy can rapidly shut down its star formation. There is enough gas in the outflowing material to form the equivalent of over a billion Suns.

Dr Geach, who is funded by the Royal Society, explained: "This discovery highlights the serendipity of scientific research. Originally we were simply trying to measure the amount of dense gas in SDSS J0905+57. What we found was something surprising – a large fraction of the gas is being blasted out of the galaxy by the concentration of stars forming at the galaxy's centre.

"We are witnessing the aggressive termination of star formation, and the mechanism by which this is happening is an important new clue in our understanding of the evolution of galaxies."

Outflows of warm, ionized gas from galaxies are well known, but the team's observation of large amounts of cold, dense gas being violently removed from the central regions of the galaxy and far into space is a new discovery. Previously it was not known whether the stars alone could drive out gas in this way. Instead, it was thought that energy associated with a growing central black hole would be required, but this is known not to be happening in SDSS J0905+57. This result provides important new insights into how the growth of stars is regulated in galaxies.


Meanwhile, in a galaxy not so far, far away.

The fantasy creations of the "Star Wars" universe are strikingly similar to real planets in our own Milky Way galaxy.

The fantasy creations of the "Star Wars" universe are strikingly similar to real planets in our own Milky Way galaxy. A super Earth in deep freeze? Think ice-planet "Hoth." And that distant world with double sunsets can't help but summon thoughts of sandy "Tatooine."

No indications of life have yet been detected on any of the nearly 2,000 scientifically confirmed exoplanets, so we don't know if any of them are inhabited by Wookiees or mynocks, or play host to exotic alien bar scenes (or even bacteria, for that matter).

Still, a quick spin around the real exoplanet universe offers tantalizing similarities to several Star Wars counterparts.

The most recently revealed exoplanet possessing Earth-like properties, Kepler-452b, might make a good stand-in for Coruscant -- the high-tech world seen in several Star Wars films whose surface is encased in a single, globe-spanning city. Kepler-452b belongs to a star system 1.5 billion years older than Earth's. That would give any technologically adept species more than a billion-year jump ahead of us. The denizens of Coruscant not only have an entirely engineered planetary surface, but an engineered climate as well. On Kepler-452b, conditions are growing markedly warmer as its star's energy output increases, a symptom of advanced age. If this planet (which is 1.6 times the size of Earth) were truly Earth-like, and if technological life forms were present, some climate engineering might be needed there as well.

Mining the atmospheres of giant gas planets is a staple of science fiction. NASA, too, has examined the question, and found that gases such as helium-3 and hydrogen could be extracted from the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune. Gas giants of all stripes populate the real exoplanet universe in "The Empire Strikes Back," a gas giant called Bespin is home to a "Cloud City" actively involved in atmospheric mining. The toadstool-shaped city provides apparent refuge for a fleeing Princess Leia and company -- at least until Darth Vader wreaks his usual havoc.

Many of the gas giants found so far by instruments such as NASA's Kepler Space Telescope are so-called "hot Jupiters" -- star-hugging behemoths far too thoroughly barbecued to be proper sites for floating cities. One recent discovery, however, shows that gas "exogiants" can orbit their stars at distances remarkably similar to those in our solar system. An international astronomical team discovered a twin of our own Jupiter, orbiting its star at about the same distance as Jupiter is from the sun. The star, HIP 11915, is about the same age and composition as our sun, raising the possibility that its entire planetary system might be similar to ours. This not-so-hot Jupiter, about 186 light-years away from Earth, was detected using the 11.8-foot (3.6-meter) telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Bespin's atmospheric layers include a band of breathable air, ideal for floating cities. In our galaxy, emerging technology allows us to read out the components of real exoplanet atmospheres -- including gas giants (though so far none show signs of habitable layers). And tasting the atmospheres of smaller, rocky, potentially habitable exoplanets soon could be within reach. Astronomers using K2, the second planet-finding mission of the Kepler space telescope, recently detected three such planets orbiting a nearby dwarf star. The starlight shining through the atmospheres of these planets could reveal their composition in future observations.

The planet Mustafar, scene of an epic duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in "Revenge of the Sith," has a number of exoplanet counterparts. These molten, lava-covered worlds, such as Kepler-10b and Kepler-78b, are rocky planets in Earth's size range whose surfaces could well be perpetual infernos. Kepler-78b, roughly 20 percent larger than Earth, weighs in at twice Earth's mass a comparable density means it could be composed of rock and iron. That might make it, like Mustafar, suitable for mining, although its extremely tight orbit around its sun-like star, along with scorching temperatures, provides an unlikely arena for industrial operations -- or for fencing with lightsabers.

Kepler-10b isn't much more pleasant. The first rocky world discovered using the Kepler telescope, it also hugs its sun, some 20 times closer than Mercury orbits ours. A balmy day on Kepler-10b means daytime highs of more than 2,500 Fahrenheit (1,371 Celsius), even hotter than lava flowing on Earth. The surface, free of any kind of atmosphere, might be boiling with iron and silicates.

At 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (1,982 Celsius), however, CoRoT-7b has Kepler-10b beat. This well-grilled planet, discovered in 2010 with France's CoRoT satellite, lies some 480 light-years away, and has a diameter 70 percent larger than Earth's, with nearly five times the mass. Possibly the boiled-down remnant of a Saturn-sized planet, its orbit is so tight that its star looms much larger in its sky than our sun appears to us, keeping its sun-facing surface molten.

The planet OGLE-2005-BLG-390, nicknamed "Hoth," is a cold super-Earth that might be a failed Jupiter. Unable to grow large enough, it had to settle for a mass five times that of Earth and a surface locked in the deepest of deep freezes, with a surface temperature estimated at minus 364 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 220 Celsius). That most likely means no "Hoth"-style tauntauns to ride, or even formidably fanged abominable snowmen (aka "wampas"). Astronomers used an extraordinary planet-finding technique known as microlensing to find this world in 2005, one of the early demonstrations of this technique's ability to reveal exoplanets. In microlensing, backlight from a distant star is used to reveal planets around a star closer to us.

The planet lies toward the heart of the Milky Way, where a greater density of stars makes microlensing events more likely. The one-time event revealing the distant Hoth was captured by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, or OGLE, and confirmed by other instruments.

We won't have to travel 20,000 light years, however, to visit icy worlds. Saturn's smoggy moon, Titan, where the Cassini spacecraft's Huygens probe landed in 2005, is pocked with methane lakes and socked in permanently with thick, hydrocarbon haze. The freeze is so deep that water ice is no different from rock. Another Saturn moon, Enceladus, looks like a snowball but harbors a subsurface ocean much like Jupiter's moon Europa, another ice ball with a likely ocean underneath. That ocean would be warmed by tidal flexing as the little moon orbits Jupiter.

Sunset? Make it a double

Luke Skywalker's home planet, Tatooine, is said to possess a harsh, desert environment, swept by sandstorms as it roasts under the glare of twin suns. Real exoplanets in the thrall of two or more suns are even harsher. Kepler-16b was the Kepler telescope's first discovery of a planet in a "circumbinary" orbit -- circling both stars, as opposed to just one, in a double-star system. This planet, however, is likely cold, about the size of Saturn, and gaseous, though partly composed of rock. It lies outside its two stars' "habitable zone," where liquid water could exist. And its stars are cooler than our sun, and probably render the planet lifeless. Of course, we could look on the bright side (so to speak). When the discovery was announced in 2011, Bill Borucki, the now-retired NASA principal investigator for Kepler at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, said finding the new planet might actually broaden the prospects for life in our galaxy. About half of all stars belong to binary systems, so the fact that planets form around these, as well as around single stars, can only increase the odds.

A more recently announced exoplanet, Kepler-453b, is also a circumbinary and a gas giant, though its orbit within its star's habitable zone means any moons it might have could be hospitable to life. It was the tenth circumbinary planet discovered using the Kepler telescope.

Kepler-22b, analog to the Star Wars planet Kamino (birthplace of the army of clone soldiers)), is a super-Earth that could be covered in a super ocean. Watery, storm-drenched Kamino makes its appearance in "Attack of the Clones."

The jury is still out on Kepler-22b's true nature at 2.4 times Earth's radius, it might even be gaseous. But if the ocean world idea turns out to be right, we can envision a physically plausible Kamino-like planet, with the help of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. An ocean world tipped on its side -- a bit like our solar system's ice giant, Uranus -- turns out to be comfortably habitable based on recent computer modeling. Researchers found that an exoplanet in Earth's size range, at a comparable distance from its sun and covered in water, could have an average surface temperature of about 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Celsius). Because of its radical tilt, its north and south poles would be alternately bathed in sunlight and darkness, for half a year each, as the planet circled its star.

Scientists previously thought such a planet would seesaw between boiling and freezing, rendering it uninhabitable. But the MIT scientists' three-dimensional model showed that the planet, even with a relatively shallow ocean of about 160 feet (50 meters), would absorb heat during its odd polar summer and release it in winter. That would keep the overall climate mild and spring-like year round.

The shallow depth, by the way, would be ideal for Kamino-style ocean platforms, allowing construction of covered cities at the ocean surface, where armies of clones could march and drill in peace.

Fly me to the exomoon

Endor, the forested realm of the Ewoks, orbits a gas giant and was introduced in "Return of the Jedi." Detection of exomoons -- that is, moons circling distant planets -- is still in its infancy for scientists here on Earth. A possible exomoon was observed in 2014 via microlensing. It will remain forever unconfirmed, however, since each microlensing event can be seen only once. If the exomoon is real, it orbits a rogue planet, unattached to a star and wandering freely through space. The planet might have hung on to its moon after somehow being ejected during the early history of a forgotten planetary system. A team of Japanese, New Zealand, and American astronomers analyzed data gathered in 2011 with telescopes in New Zealand and Tasmania, and suggested the possible exomoon. They said a small star accompanied by a large planet also could have caused the same lensing effect.

More exomoons might soon be popping out from the depths of space. The Harvard-based Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler, or HEK, has begun to scour data from Kepler for signs of them. In early 2015, the researchers examined about 60 Kepler planets and determined that existing technology is sufficient to capture evidence of exomoons.

The hunt could have powerful implications in the search for life beyond Earth. If exomoons are shown to be potentially habitable, it would open another avenue for biology habitable moons might even outnumber habitable planets. Could they have bustling ecosystems, with life forms even more exotic than Endor's living teddy bears, swinging between trees Tarzan-style? Stay tuned.

Breaking up is hard to do

In "A New Hope," Princess Leia's home planet, Alderaan, is blown to smithereens by the Empire's Death Star as she watches in horror. Real exoplanets also can experience extreme destruction. A white dwarf star was caught in the act of devouring the last bits of a small planet in 2015, observed with the help of NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. White dwarfs are super-dense stellar remnants about the size of Earth, but with gravity more than 10,000 times that of our sun's surface. Tidal forces could rip a planet caught in its pull to shreds.

Observers thought at first they were seeing a black hole in the act of feeding inside a star cluster on the Milky Way's rim. X-ray observations, however, matched theoretical models of a planet being torn apart by a white dwarf.

A similar observation of a closer white dwarf was made by K2 in 2014. In this case, a tiny rocky object, probably an asteroid, was being vaporized into little more than a dusty ring as it whipped around the star every 4.5 hours.

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope also picked up signs of debris from a likely asteroid collision in 2014. But rather than a sign of planetary destruction, the colliding asteroids could be part of a construction site. This young star -- about 1,200 light years away and only 35 million years old -- is surrounded by a ring of dust where such collisions are frequent. The smashed and broken bits fuse into larger and larger agglomerations, eventually forming full-sized planets.

Our own solar system might once have looked very similar, if anyone was watching.

NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope for NASA.



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