'Super-Earth' Exoplanet Could Potentially Support Life (And It Also Has a Neighbor)

University of Montreal
University of Montreal

A mysterious exoplanet that astronomers have dubbed K2-18b might be a “super-Earth” that could potentially harbor extraterrestrial life, Phys.org reports. Adding to scientists’ excitement, they’ve recently discovered that this distant body is orbited by yet another Earth-like planet, called K2-18c. The findings were recently published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics [PDF].

Discovered in 2015, K2-18b orbits a red-dwarf star named K2-18 in the constellation Leo (about 111 light years from Earth), as does its more recently located counterpart. While both planets have masses similar to Earth, K2-18c probably can’t support life—it’s too close to the star and therefore too hot. K2-18b, on the other hand, is situated in perfect range from K2-18 to have liquid surface water, which all organisms need to live. 

Astronomers discovered the exoplanets using the European Southern Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. The data they collected also allowed them to calculate the mass and density of K2-18b. According to preliminary findings, the exoplanet is either rocky with an Earth-like gaseous atmosphere, or watery and covered in ice. Further research with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which launches in spring 2019, will help astronomers determine K2-18b’s true nature.

In addition to revealing K2-18b’s mass, HARPS data also revealed the presence of K2-18c. Discovering an additional exoplanet was still “lucky and equally exciting," even if it probably couldn't support life, said lead author Ryan Cloutier, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto Scarborough's Center for Planet Science, according to a news release.

[h/t Phys.org]

The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend

iStock/Kazushi_Inagaki
iStock/Kazushi_Inagaki

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

The shower is expected to peak overnight from Sunday, October 21, to Monday, October 22, when you can plan to see 15 to 20 super-fast meteors per hour. The best time for viewing is between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., when Orion appears completely above the horizon. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

There's a chance that the Moon might interfere with the meteors' visibility, according to Space.com. Leading up to its full state on October 24, the Moon will be in a waxing gibbous phase, becoming larger and brighter in the sky as the Orionids speed past Earth. Limiting light pollution where you can—such as by avoiding city lights—will help.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be another meteor shower, the Leonids, in November, and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

A version of this story appeared in 2017.

How the Hubble Space Telescope Helped the Fight Against Breast Cancer

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

The beauty of scientific research is that scientists never really know where a particular development might lead. Research on Gila monster venom has led to the invention of medication that helps manage type 2 diabetes, and enzymes discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park are now widely used for DNA replication, a technique used by forensic scientists to analyze crime scenes.

The same rule of thumb applies to NASA scientists, whose work has found dozens of applications outside of space exploration—especially in medicine.

Take the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, the Hubble has graced us with stunning, intimate photographs of our solar system. But it wasn't always that way—when the telescope was launched, the first images beamed back to earth were awfully fuzzy. The image processing techniques NASA created to solve this problem not only sharpened Hubble's photos, but also had an unexpected benefit: Making mammograms more accurate.

As NASA reports, "When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble's initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment."

That's because the Hubble Space Telescope contains a technology called Charge-Coupled Devices, or CCDs, which are basically electron-trapping gizmos capable of digitizing beams of light. Today, CCDs allow "doctors to analyze the tissue by stereotactic biopsy, which requires a needle rather than surgery," NASA says [PDF]. Back in 1994, NASA predicted that this advancement could reduce national health care costs by approximately $1 billion every year.

And that's just one of the tools NASA has developed that's now being used to fight breast cancer. When cancer researcher Dr. Susan Love was having trouble studying breast ducts—where breast cancer often originates—she turned to research coming out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As Rosalie Chan reports for the Daily Beast, the Jet Propulsion Lab has dedicated vast resources to avoiding the spread of earthly contaminants in space, and its research has included the development of a genomic sequencing technology that is "clean and able to analyze microscopic levels of biomass." As Dr. Love discovered, the same technology is a fantastic way to test for cancer-linked microorganisms in breast duct tissue.

A second technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector, or QWIP—enables humans to see invisible infrared light in a spectrum of colors, helping scientists discover caves on Mars and study volcanic emissions here on Earth. But it's also useful at the doctor's office: A QWIP medical sensor can detect tiny changes in the breast's blood flow—a sign of cancer—extremely early.

And as any doctor will tell you, that's huge: The earlier cancer is detected, the greater a person's chance of survival.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER