Astronomers discover watery cloud-covered atmosphere around Neptune-sized exoplanet

Astronomers have identified a watery atmosphere containing clouds around an exoplanet first discovered in 2010.

The planet, HAT-P-26b, orbits a moderately bright dwarf star named GSC 0320-01027, and is a similar mass to Neptune. While such exoplanets have been discovered in large numbers – astronomers have discovered several thousand exoplanets to date – knowledge about what atmospheres they may or may not have remains relatively scarce.

As a result, the discovery of an atmosphere containing water around this otherwise unremarkable exoplanet is highly significant.

Not only does it allow astronomers to infer the proportion of certain elements in the atmosphere, but it also helps to further the understanding of how atmospheres vary across exoplanets of different sizes and allow researchers to hone their models for how planets form.

The atmosphere was in part discovered using observations made using the Hubble Space Telescope. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency

The atmosphere was discovered by a team of astronomers led by Hannah R Wakeford using six separate observations. Four were made recently using the Hubble Space Telescope, while two were previously made using the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The researchers were able to use the observations not only to determine that the planet has water in its atmosphere, but how much is present. This in turn allowed them to calculate the atmosphere’s metallicity: the proportion of elements in the atmosphere that are heavier than both hydrogen and helium.

In the case of HAT-P-26b, this number was lower than had been expected, based on what is known about other similarly-sized planets such Neptune and Uranus.

It is thought that the reason for this is that this exoplanet acquired an atmosphere later than usual, when it was reaching the end stages of it formation. This is because this low metallicity suggests the planet has not experienced any major impacts from debris such asteroids since its atmosphere formed.

Despite being considered ‘Neptune-sized’ the planet has a number of significant differences to Neptune/ Image courtesy of NASA

The discovery, which is detailed in a paper published today in the journal Science, is significant for the understanding Neptune-sized planets, both in our own solar system and beyond, which are highly abundant.

“Neptune-sized worlds are among the most common planets in our galaxy and frequently exist in orbital periods very different from that of our own Solar System ice giants,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Atmospheric studies using transmission spectroscopy can be used to constrain their formation and evolution.”

Despite having a mass similar to Neptune, HAT-P-26b has a number of other differences to the Solar System’s eighth planet. It is, for example, almost twice the size of Neptune, despite being considered ‘Neptune-sized’ but has an orbit of just 4.23 days.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.