Pluto: Evidence for a Liquid Internal Ocean

What accounts for Pluto’s interesting landscape? As we accumulate more and more data from New Horizons, we’re seeing a wide range of geologic activity on the surface, most of it involving such volatile ices as nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. But look at the troughs and scarps — some of them hundreds of kilometers long and several kilometers deep — and you’re seeing what are thought to be extensional faults. These are faults associated with the stretching of the dwarf planet’s crust, and in the New Horizons imagery, they appear geologically young.

We could look toward tidal interactions with Charon for an answer to what is driving tectonic activity on Pluto, but the Pluto/Charon system has reached what a new paper on the matter calls “the end point of its tidal evolution,” with the two objects locked into a synchronous state that makes the prospect unlikely. But changes in the ice shell are another matter, and as Noah Hammond (Brown University) and his fellow researchers are learning, the sinuous faults on Pluto’s surface provide evidence for a subsurface ocean that remains liquid today, though one that is probably in the process of re-freezing.


Image: The New Horizons spacecraft spied extensional faults on Pluto, a sign that the dwarf planet has undergone a global expansion possibly due to the slow freezing of a subsurface ocean. A new analysis by Brown University scientists bolsters that idea, and suggests that ocean is likely still there today. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

What Hammond, a Brown graduate student, produced with colleagues Edgar Parmentier (also at Brown) and Amy Barr (Planetary Science Institute) was a model of thermal evolution that could be fed New Horizons’ data on Pluto’s diameter and density to study its interior. The energy to melt Pluto’s internal ice could have come from radioactive elements within its core, producing an ocean that would, in the frigid conditions of the Kuiper Belt, gradually begin to refreeze. An ocean that was frozen or in the process of freezing would produce the kind of extensional tectonics we see on Pluto today, assuming it were made up of normal water ice.

But different forms of ice are the crux of the argument. For low temperatures and high pressure deep within Pluto would, in a solidly frozen ocean, produce not normal ice (Ice Ih, or ice phase one) but a rhombohedral crystalline form of ice with a highly ordered structure called Ice II. The compact structure of Ice II creates a frozen ocean of smaller volume — Ice II is 25 percent more dense than normal ice — and results in contraction rather than expansion.

We have a good deal of New Horizons imagery, but find no evidence on Pluto’s surface of such global contraction — no compressional tectonic features — leading Hammond’s team to conclude that Ice II has not formed, and that the ocean is therefore not completely frozen.

Critical to the argument is the thickness of the dwarf planet’s ice shell, because Ice II should form only if the shell is 260 kilometers thick or more. Anything less produces an ocean that can freeze without forming Ice II, and hence a frozen ocean that does not cause contraction. But the authors’ thermal model, adjusting the physical properties of both the silicate core and the ice shell, produces a shell that is closer to 300 kilometers thick. Moreover:

…the influence of volatile ices such as nitrogen and methane may be more effective at insulating the ocean than shown in our model. We assume volatiles are concentrated in the top 10 km of Pluto’s ice shell, but if methane clathrates are abundant in the entire ice shell, its thermal conductivity may be significantly reduced…, increasing the likelihood that the ocean will survive. We find that if the ice shell has a constant thermal conductivity of 3 W/m/K, a subsurface ocean survives even if the thermal conductivity of the core is high. The likelihood of ocean survival further increases when considering that as the ocean begins to freeze, impurities are excluded from the ice shell and ammonia and salt concentrations in the ocean will increase, further reducing the melting temperature.

A still liquid ocean gradually re-freezing within Pluto would generate continuing global expansion, producing extensional tectonic activity and young surface features. What we do not see are the kind of compressional tectonic features that would indicate the formation of Ice II. The paper’s conclusion, then, is that there are two possibilities: Either Pluto has an ocean today or it has an ice shell thinner than 260 kilometers. The latter could imply a frozen ocean (Ice Ih), but we still have to account for Pluto’s geologically young faults. A search of New Horizons data for evidence of current extensional tectonics is perhaps the best way to proceed.

Phase changes in ice can, according to this work, produce tectonic changes on the surface even for objects at the edge of the Solar System where energy is sparse. If this kind of tectonic activity can occur on Pluto, it should be possible on other Kuiper Belt objects, suggestive of continuing activity and perhaps a huge inventory of water in icy moons and KBOs.

The paper is Hammond, Barr and Parmentier, “Recent Tectonic Activity on Pluto Driven by Phase Changes in the Ice Shell,” in press at Geophysical Research Letters (abstract / preprint).


Young Exoplanet Highlights Migration Theories

If our Solar System had a ‘hot Jupiter’ that migrated inward after Mars, Earth and Venus had formed, would any of the terrestrial planets have survived? It’s a question worth pondering given how many hot Jupiters we’ve turned up, raising the question of how these planets form in the first place. One possibility is formation in situ, close to the parent star. But there is also an argument for migration, with planets forming in cooler regions further out in the system and migrating inward as a result of interactions with the protoplanetary disk or other planets.

Perhaps the planet known as K2-33b can help us with some of this. It is no more than 11 million years old, in an orbit that creates a transit every 5.4 days. With follow-up observations by the MEarth arrays on Mount Hopkins (AZ) and at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, researchers led by Andrew Mann (University of Texas at Austin) have been able to determine that K2-33b is a Neptune-class world some five times the size of Earth, orbiting at a distance of about 8 million kilometers. The host is an M-class star several million years old.

“Young stars tend to be very blotchy, with starspots that can mimic a transiting planet. Our observations ruled out stellar activity and proved that the Kepler signal came from a bona fide planet,” says Elisabeth Newton of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), co-author of a study slated to appear in the Astronomical Journal. “We were also able to measure the planet’s size and orbit more accurately.”

High resolution imaging using the Keck II instrument and Doppler spectroscopy at McDonald Observatory in Texas also confirmed the planetary nature of the detection. Two teams went to work independently on this world, the second led by Trevor David (Caltech), using data from the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to validate the planet. The hope of both is that K2-33b will help us understand planet formation, particularly since the parent star still retains portions of its disk material, a fact confirmed by the Spitzer instrument. Caltech’s David comments:

“Astronomers know that star formation has just completed in this region, called Upper Scorpius, and roughly a quarter of the stars still have bright protoplanetary disks. The remainder of stars in the region do not have such disks, so we reasoned that planet formation must be nearly complete for these stars, and that there would be a good chance of finding young exoplanets around them.”


Image: K2-33b, shown in this illustration, is one of the youngest exoplanets detected to date and makes a complete orbit around its star in about five days. These two characteristics combined provide new directions for planet-formation theories. K2-33b could have formed on a farther out orbit and quickly migrated inward. Alternatively, it could have formed in situ. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt.

Given K2-33b’s proximity to its star, migration would have occurred early indeed, or else the planet is an indication that giant planets actually form this close to their host. Mann’s team points to these possibilities and sketches a course of future research. From the paper, which is to appear in The Astronomical Journal:

The upper limit on K2-33b’s age provided by its ?11 Myr stellar host suggests that it either migrated inwards via disk migration or formed in-situ, as planet-star and planet-planet interactions work on much longer timescales… This discovery makes it unlikely that such long-term dynamical interactions are responsible for all close-in planets. However, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the dominant migration or formation mechanism for close-in planets given the sample size and incomplete understanding of our transit-search pipeline’s completeness.

That’s a telling point, for selection effects may be at work here — K2-33b may have an atypical history that made its detection easier for a planet of this age. To learn more, we need to widen the search:

A full search of all young clusters and stellar associations surveyed by the K2 mission, with proper treatment of detection completeness is underway. This, along with improved statistics provided by the TESS and PLATO missions, will provide an estimate of the planet occurrence rate as a function of time. Trends (or a lack of trends) in this occurrence rate could set constraints on planetary migration timescales.

Publishing in Nature, Trevor David’s team takes note of K2-33b’s peculiarities, which could indeed point to the planet being an outlier:

Interestingly, large planets are rarely found close to mature low-mass stars; fewer than 1% of M-dwarfs host Neptune-sized planets with orbital periods of < 10 days, while ? 20% host Earth-sized planets in the same period range. This may be a hint that K2-33b is still contracting, losing atmosphere, or undergoing radial migration. Future observations may test these hypotheses, and potentially reveal where in the protoplanetary disk the planet formed.

What we do have indisputable evidence for is that a large planet can be found at a small orbital distance not long after the dissipation of the system’s nebular gas. Given the short timescales available here, the paper argues, tidal circularization of an eccentric planet or planet-planet or planet-star interactions cannot explain K2-33b’s current orbit. Formation in place or migration from within the gas disk remain as possibilities. We have a lot of work ahead to figure out just how unusual this planet is, and whether or not it is still in the process of adjusting its orbit.

The papers are Mann et al., “Zodiacal Exoplanets in Time (ZEIT) III: A short-period planet orbiting a pre-main-sequence star in the Upper Scorpius OB Association,” accepted at The Astronomical Journal (preprint); and David et al., “A Neptune-sized transiting planet closely orbiting a 5–10-million-year-old star,” Nature, published online 20 June 2016 (abstract).


Toward Gravitational Wave Astronomy

The second detection of gravitational waves by the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) instruments reminds us how much we gain when we move beyond the visible light observations that for so many millennia determined what people thought of the universe. In the electromagnetic spectrum, it took data at long radio wavelengths to show us the leftover radiation from the Big Bang, and we’ve used radio ever since to study everything from quasars and supernovae to interesting molecules in interstellar space. Infrared helps us penetrate dust clouds and see not only into star-forming areas but the galactic center.

So much is learned by taking advantage of the enormous width of the electromagnetic spectrum, wide enough that, as Gregory Benford points out, visible light is a mere one octave on a keyboard fifteen meters wide. Ultraviolet tells us about the gaseous halo around the Milky Way and shows us active galaxies and quasars while helping us analyze interstellar gas and dust. X-rays and gamma rays deepen our understanding of black holes and matter moving at extremely high velocities, tuning up our knowledge of supernovae.

And now gravitational waves are taking us off the keyboard entirely. We’re at the dawn of gravitational wave astronomy, using distortions of spacetime itself to learn about the merging of black holes. The new detection from the LIGO team came on 26 December of last year, making the case that if we have found two black hole mergers in three months, such events must be relatively common in the universe. The work was announced at the recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego and published in Physical Review Letters.


Image: Simulation of the motion of two black holes just before merging, and the gravitational waves they produce. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics.

At a confidence level of 99.99999%, the GW151226 detection shows us a pair of black holes merging as they lose energy in the form of gravitational waves. The first detection, on 14 September 2015, involved black holes of 29 and 36 solar masses respectively. The second event involves black holes between 8 and 14 times as massive as the Sun, revealed to us in a signal that lasted about one second. Researchers believe the event took place about 1.4 billion light years from the Earth. A third possible detection came in October of 2015 but was at a much lower degree of certainty. It too is discussed in the Physical Review Letters paper.

As to GW151226 itself, we learn that the data are consistent with previous theory (public data are available here). From the Abbott et al. discovery paper:

Binary black hole formation has been predicted through a range of different channels involving either isolated binaries or dynamical processes in dense stellar systems. At present all types of formation channels predict binary black hole merger rates and black hole masses consistent with the observational constraints from GW150914. Both classical isolated binary evolution through the common envelope phase and dynamical formation are also consistent with GW151226, whose formation time and time delay to merger cannot be determined from the merger observation. Given our current understanding of massive-star evolution, the measured black hole masses are also consistent with any metallicity for the stellar progenitors and a broad range of progenitor masses.

Unlike electromagnetic waves, gravitational waves have the intriguing property that they propagate unperturbed once they have been created, which places the remote corners of the universe into our field of ‘view,’ as Asimina Arvanitaki (Stanford University) and Andrew Geraci (University of Nevada, Reno) pointed out in a 2013 paper that looked at ways to enhance gravitational wave detection. As our sensitivity to such signals increases, we should be able to move from black holes to neutron stars and supernovae, and perhaps the merger of binary stars, as events that can be examined by these techniques.

Two gravitational wave detectors are online in the United States (in Louisiana and Washington state) and one in Italy (the European Gravitational Observatory near Pisa), with Japan’s Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector expected to become available in 2018 (I don’t know what the gravitational wave equivalent of ‘first light’ is, but maybe we should dream one up). India is working on a GW detector of its own. Five detectors will make locating the source of gravitational waves more accurate. Meanwhile, ESA’s LISA Pathfinder spacecraft (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) is testing technologies that the upcoming eLISA (Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) will be using upon its planned launch in the 2030s.

The papers are Abbott et al., “GW151226: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a 22-Solar-Mass Binary Black Hole Coalescence,” Physical Review Letters 116, 241103 (2016) (abstract); Barausse et al., “Theory-Agnostic Constraints on Black-Hole Dipole Radiation with Multiband Gravitational-Wave Astrophysics,” Physical Review Letters 116, 241104 (2016) (preprint). The Arvanitaki and Geraci paper is, “Detecting high-frequency gravitational waves with optically-levitated sensors,” Physical Review Letters 110, 071105 (2013) (abstract).


FU Orionis: Implications of Sudden Brightening for Planet Formation

I would like to thank the many Centauri Dreams readers who contributed to the successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a year’s worth of study of KIC 8462852. As I write, there is less than an hour to go, but we have already gone well over the needed $100,000 mark. Congratulations to Tabitha Boyajian, and thanks for all the work she and her colleagues have put into this effort. Now we have a year of observations ahead using the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network. The long-term observations will be crucial because we don’t know what to expect in terms of sudden dimming in this star’s light curve.

What a pleasure it is to write for this audience. Readers here have played a large role in pushing this project over the top, and we’ll follow the work on KIC 8462852 closely in coming days. Meanwhile, have a look at Penn State’s Jason Wright discussing ‘Tabby’s Star.’

Speaking of Unusual Stars…

If KIC 8462852 is a star that some believe is becoming less bright over time (the controversy between Bradley Schaefer and Michael Hippke is well documented here), FU Orionis is the opposite, a star whose notable brightening in 1936 is the most extreme such event we have seen around a star of Sun-like size. This is intriguing stuff, because we seem to be looking at a solar system in its infancy, undergoing a process that our own Sun may have experienced on the way toward the formation of the planets in our system. If so, this stellar activity would have changed the chemistry in the surrounding disk, with implications for how planets form.

The 1936 brightening event took FU Orionis, some 1500 light years away in the constellation Orion, from an apparent visual magnitude of 16.5 to 9.6, and the star is now around magnitude 9, with visible light observations showing a slow fade in progress. Stars like this — V1057 Signi is another — are young pre-main sequence stars in a class named after FU Orionis and nicknamed FUors. All exhibit extreme changes in magnitude and spectral type, evidently caused by the star consuming inner disk materials in a sudden feeding spree.

Joel Green (Space Telescope Science Institute) and colleagues wondered when FU Orionis might return to pre-1936 brightness levels, and what effect such brightening events could have on early system formation. The team used infrared data from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and checked it against Spitzer Space Telescope data from 2004. Green presented the results, showing the star’s behavior over the twelve-year interval, at the just concluded meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego.


Image: This artist’s concept illustrates how the brightness of outbursting star FU Orionis has been slowly fading since its initial flare-up in 1936. The star is pictured with the disk of material that surrounds it. Researchers found that it has dimmed by about 13 percent at short infrared wavelengths from 2004 (left) to 2016 (right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The brightening of FU Orionis observed in 1936 was the result of the infant star devouring gas and dust from its surrounding disk, a three-month process that caused it to become 100 times brighter in short order, heating the disk to temperatures up to 7000 K. It’s clear from the most recent study that the star continues to ingest disk material. According to this JPL news release, it has consumed the equivalent of 18 Jupiters in the eighty years since the first outburst.

Even so, the SOFIA measurements confirm that the total amount of visible and infrared light from FU Orionis has decreased by about 13 percent during the twelve years since the Spitzer data were taken. The dimming is occurring at short infrared wavelengths only, an indication that about 13 percent of the hottest disk material has disappeared even as cooler materials have remained intact. Says Green:

“A decrease in the hottest gas means that the star is eating the innermost part of the disk, but the rest of the disk has essentially not changed in the last 12 years. This result is consistent with computer models, but for the first time we are able to confirm the theory with observations… The material falling into the star is like water from a hose that’s slowly being pinched off. Eventually the water will stop.”

Based on this work, we could expect FU Orionis to return to 1936 brightness levels within the next several hundred years. Still unanswered is the question of what set off the rampant activity in the first place. The fact that a protoplanetary disk can experience such sudden activity is striking. Green’s team believes that a similar event in the early Sun’s history could explain why materials close to the Sun have a different composition than those farther out, accounting for the different abundances of certain elements on Mars than on the Earth. The brightening would have had a much larger effect on the inner disk than on more distant materials.

The presentation is Green, “The Evolution of FU Orionis Disks,” American Astronomical Society, AAS Meeting #228, id.#308.05 (abstract).


Stéphane Dumas (1970 – 2016)


The interstellar community is a small one, and reporting the loss of one of our number is not easy. SETI researcher Stéphane Dumas, who had been working with Claudio Maccone on the application of the Karhunen-Loève transform (KLT) for SETI observations, has died unexpectedly at his home in Quebec. I remember a wonderful conversation with Stéphane at one of the 100 Year Starship meetings in Houston, where we got into a spirited exchange about interstellar propulsion. It was, alas, the only time I spent with the man, but he was also active on the advisory board for Jon Lomberg’s One Earth Message project, and so we interacted electronically. Below is a video of Stéphane and Claudio Maccone presenting the latest work in mathematical SETI. You’ll find Stéphane’s talk at about 34:56 on the counter.