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July 2019: To The Moon and Buck(yballs)

July 2019

To The Moon and Buck(yballs). In the show this time, we talk to Jess Wade about her work within public engagement with science, Fiona Porter rounds up the latest news, and we find out what we can see in the July night sky from Ian Morison, Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske.

The News

This month in the news: planets in progress, mystery molecules, and oceans under ice.

First up, the rare sight of a pair of planets in development has been spotted by the Very Large Telescope. The two planets are in orbit around a star called PDS 70, which is about 370 light years away from us, and are named PDS 70 b — which orbits its parent at about the distance Uranus orbits our sun — and PDS 70 c — which orbits at about the distance Neptune does. Both of these planets are fairly large, weighing in at multiple times the mass of Jupiter.

What's especially interesting about this system is that it's very young — so young that the star is still surrounded by a cloud of protoplanetary dust. This is a disk of rocky and gaseous material that surrounds its host star, where material can gradually clump together over time to form a larger structure until its own gravitational pull has drawn in all the matter around it and it becomes a planet. Planets can be identified by looking for gaps in a protoplanetary disk, but on this occasion, both the young planets and the missing material they’ve collected are visible.

This is a rewarding observation for two reasons. First, it provides good evidence that our theories about how planets form around stars are correct — previously, young planets and gaps in the protoplanetary disk had been observed separately, but it's not very common to see both at once. As well as this, because this system is still very young, it gives us something to watch in the future to further our understanding of how planetary systems develop. The paper about this discovery can be found here.

Next, to a rather smaller kind of observation, with charged Buckyballs being observed in the interstellar medium for the first time. Buckminsterfullerene is a type of molecule where sixty carbon atoms are bound together into a football-like sphere — that's a soccer ball, for anyone listening in North America — hence their shorter name of Buckyballs. They can be found here on Earth rarely within rocks, but are more commonly spotted in soot or deliberately created in labs.

Buckyballs have been spotted in space before, orbiting other stars within a cloud of particles like those that make up protoplanetary disks. However, the interstellar medium — the space between stars, which has very limited amounts of matter present — was previously thought to be too hostile an environment for complex molecules like Buckminsterfullerene to survive.

Spectroscopic observations using the Hubble Space Telescope have recently proven otherwise, though, with the signature wavelengths of ionised Buckyballs identified within our galaxy. This significantly increases the size of the largest known molecules in the interstellar medium from twelve atoms up to sixty, and suggests that other mystery molecules out there might also be made of large numbers of carbon atoms — exciting news for astrochemists.

Finally, a molecule has been found on Europa that I won’t need to explain — salt! Europa, Jupiter's icy Galilean moon, is known to have a vast ocean under its frozen surface, and it seems that it might be more like Earth's oceans than expected. Sodium chloride (commonly known as table salt) has been detected on Europa's surface in "chaos regions", which are areas where the surface has been disrupted relatively recently, suggesting they must have come from the ocean beneath.

Meanwhile, NASA has just confirmed funding for the Dragonfly mission, which will explore Saturn's moon Titan — another moon with an ocean hidden under an icy surface. Dragonfly will use a small nuclear-powered drone to explore Titan's landscape and investigate one of its unique features, its atmosphere; unlike other moons, Titan’s atmosphere is even denser than Earth's! Dragonfly is hoped to launch in 2026, and land on Titan in 2034.

These two moons are of particular interest as they are some of the best candidates for life within our solar system beyond Earth, although if there is any, we're more likely to see microbes than anything else. Nonetheless, both are giving us new insight to the structure of some of the largest moons in our system.

Interview with Jess Wade

Dr Jess Wade (Imperial College London, @jesswade) talks to us about her (non-astronomy!) research, and work within public engagement with science. She describes her approach to science engagement, and how she is writing hundreds of Wikipedia articles highlighting women and other groups underrepresented in science. We discuss how representation issues (from which astronomy is not immune!) impact on science, and how to go about tackling them. (Note: this interview was conducted over Skype, so the audio quality is slightly muffled.)

Since recording this interview, Dr Wade has been awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) in the 2019 Birthday Honours for services to gender diversity in science. The Jodcast would like to wish huge congratulations to a very deserving recipient!

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the Northern Hemisphere night sky during July 2019.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske from the Carter Science Centre in New Zealand speaks about the Southern Hemisphere night sky during July 2019.

Odds and Ends

The Millimetron Space Observatory is a new observatory being built by the Russian Federal Space Program. The telescope is a 10 meter telescope that will operate at wavelengths from 20 microns to 17 mm, which is a very broad range of wavelengths. At infrared wavelengths, the telescope will have better sensitivities and be able to image objects at finer details than older infrared telescopes, so it will be able to create much sharper images of infrared emission from interstellar dust as well as various ionized elements such as carbon. Among other things, this could allow the telescope to image individual star forming regions in nearby galaxies, to resolve gravitational lenses of distant galaxies, or to directly image individual exoplanets. At millimetre wavelengths, the telescope could act as part of an interferometer linked with other telescopes on Earth such as ALMA, which could allow it to image other black holes the way the Event Horizon Telescope imaged the black hole in M87.

Hongying was planned to attend the next generation VLA conference happened at 25th June, in Charlotteville, Virginia, US, but she failed in getting the VISA on time, because she was required to submit her CV to support herself without any previous notification. Currently, her complementary documents are still under administrative assessment. She shares her experiences in applying the VISA to the audience.

Show Credits

News:Fiona Porter
Interview:Jess Wade and Emma Alexander
Night sky:Ian Morison, Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske
Presenters:George Bendo, Hongying Chen, and Ruoyu Zhu
Editors:George Bendo, Michael Wright, Lizzy Lee, and Ben Shaw
Segment Voice:Mike Peel
Website:Fiona Porter and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Fiona Porter
Cover art:NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching a site on Saturn's moon Titan. CREDIT: NASA/JHU-APL

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