Astronomers surprised by the discovery of a monster planet that should not exist

A ‘monster’ planet, which according to classic theories of planet formation shouldn’t exist, has been discovered orbiting a distant star.

Presented in a paper, by astronomers from the University of Warwick, the planet NGTS-1b is a gas giant, which because of its size and temperature has been dubbed ‘hot Jupiter’.

However, its existence challenges theories of planet formation that state planets of this size cannot be formed around such a small star.

NGTS-1b ‘s host star has a radius and mass that amounts to half of our sun.

The gap between NGTS-1b and its parent star is just 3% of the distance between Earth and the Sun, which means the planet completes an orbit every 2.6 days, so a year on NGTS-1b lasts just two and a half Earth-days.

“Despite being a monster of a planet, NGTS-1b was difficult to find because its parent star is so small and faint,” said professor Peter Wheatley from the University of Warwick. “Small stars like this red M-dwarf are actually the most common in the Universe, so it is possible that there are many of these giant planets waiting to found.”

Images courtesy of University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

The researchers discovered NGTS-1b by continually monitoring patches of the night sky over many months, and detecting red light from the star with innovative red-sensitive cameras.

They noticed dips in the light from the star every 2.6 days, implying that a planet was orbiting and periodically blocking the starlight.

Using this data, the astronomers then tracked the planet’s orbit and calculated the size, position and mass of NGTS-1b by measuring the radial velocity of the star. In other words, the team measured how much the star ‘wobbles’ due to the gravitational tug from NGTS-1b.

“The discovery of NGTS-1b was a complete surprise to us – such massive planets were not thought to exist around such small stars – importantly, our challenge now is to find out how common these types of planets are in the Galaxy, and with the new Next-Generation Transit Survey facility we are well-placed to do just that,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Daniel Bayliss.

NGTS-1b is the first planet to be spotted by The Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) which employs an array of 12 telescopes to scour the sky.

NGTS is situated at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in the heart of the Atacama Desert, Chile, but is one of very few facilities to be run by external parties – UK Universities Warwick, Leicester, Cambridge, and Queen’s University Belfast are involved, together with Observatoire de Genève, DLR Berlin and Universidad de Chile.

“Having worked for almost a decade to develop the NGTS telescope array, it is thrilling to see it picking out new and unexpected types of planets. I’m looking forward to seeing what other kinds of exciting new planets we can turn up,” said NGTS’s leader, professor Peter Wheatley.

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.