Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Uranus


Chemical disequilibrium in planetary atmospheres has been proposed as a generalized method for detecting life on exoplanets through remote spectroscopy. Among solar system planets with substantial atmospheres, the modern Earth has the largest thermodynamic chemical disequilibrium due to the presence of life. However, how this disequilibrium changed over time and, in particular, the biogenic disequilibria maintained in the anoxic Archean or less oxic Proterozoic eons are unknown. We calculate the atmosphere-ocean disequilibrium in the Precambrian using conservative proxy- and model-based estimates of early atmospheric and oceanic compositions. We omit crustal solids because subsurface composition is not detectable on exoplanets, unlike above-surface volatiles. We find that (i) disequilibrium increased through time in step with the rise of oxygen; (ii) both the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic may have had remotely detectable biogenic disequilibria due to the coexistence of O2, N2, and liquid water; and (iii) the Archean had a biogenic disequilibrium caused by the coexistence of N2, CH4, CO2, and liquid water, which, for an exoplanet twin, may be remotely detectable. On the basis of this disequilibrium, we argue that the simultaneous detection of abundant CH4 and CO2 in a habitable exoplanet’s atmosphere is a potential biosignature. Specifically, we show that methane mixing ratios greater than 10-3 are potentially biogenic, whereas those exceeding 10-2 are likely biogenic due to the difficulty in maintaining large abiotic methane fluxes to support high methane levels in anoxic atmospheres. Biogenicity would be strengthened by the absence of abundant CO, which should not coexist in a biological scenario.

Concepts: Water, Solar System, Planet, Mars, Atmosphere, Neptune, Uranus, Proterozoic


None of the approximately 750,000 known asteroids and comets is thought to have originated outside our Solar System, but formation models suggest that orbital migration of the giant planets ejected a large fraction of the original planetesimals into interstellar space(1). The predicted interstellar number density(2) of icy interstellar objects of 2.4 × 10(-4) au(-3) suggested that these should have been detected by surveys, yet hitherto none had been seen. Many decades of asteroid and comet characterization have yielded formation models that explain the mass distribution, chemical abundances and planetary configuration of today’s Solar System, but until now there has been no way to tell if our Solar System is typical. Here we report observations and subsequent analysis of 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua) that demonstrate the extrasolar trajectory of 'Oumuamua. Our observations reveal the object to be asteroidal, with no hint of cometary activity despite an approach within 0.25 au of the Sun. Spectroscopic measurements show that the object’s surface is consistent with comets or organic-rich asteroid surfaces found in our own Solar System. Light-curve observations indicate that the object has an extreme oblong shape, with a 10:1 axis ratio and a mean radius of 102±4 m, assuming an albedo of 0.04. Very few objects in our Solar System have such an extreme light curve. The presence of 'Oumuamua suggests that previous estimates of the density of interstellar objects were pessimistically low. Imminent upgrades to contemporary asteroid survey instruments and improved data processing techniques are likely to produce more interstellar objects in the upcoming years.

Concepts: Sun, Solar System, Planet, Mercury, Jupiter, Uranus, Asteroid, Comet


The presence, formation, and migration of giant planets fundamentally shape planetary systems. However, the timing of the formation and migration of giant planets in our solar system remains largely unconstrained. Simulating planetary accretion, we find that giant planet migration produces a relatively short-lived spike in impact velocities lasting ~0.5 My. These high-impact velocities are required to vaporize a significant fraction of Fe,Ni metal and silicates and produce the CB (Bencubbin-like) metal-rich carbonaceous chondrites, a unique class of meteorites that were created in an impact vapor-melt plume ~5 My after the first solar system solids. This indicates that the region where the CB chondrites formed was dynamically excited at this early time by the direct interference of the giant planets. Furthermore, this suggests that the formation of the giant planet cores was protracted and the solar nebula persisted until ~5 My.

Concepts: Solar System, Planet, Mars, Star, Neptune, Uranus, Gas giant, Extrasolar planet


The composition of the neutral gas comas of most comets is dominated by H2O, CO and CO2, typically comprising as much as 95 per cent of the total gas density. In addition, cometary comas have been found to contain a rich array of other molecules, including sulfuric compounds and complex hydrocarbons. Molecular oxygen (O2), however, despite its detection on other icy bodies such as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, has remained undetected in cometary comas. Here we report in situ measurement of O2 in the coma of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, with local abundances ranging from one per cent to ten per cent relative to H2O and with a mean value of 3.80 ± 0.85 per cent. Our observations indicate that the O2/H2O ratio is isotropic in the coma and does not change systematically with heliocentric distance. This suggests that primordial O2 was incorporated into the nucleus during the comet’s formation, which is unexpected given the low upper limits from remote sensing observations. Current Solar System formation models do not predict conditions that would allow this to occur.

Concepts: Oxygen, Sun, Solar System, Planet, Moon, Jupiter, Uranus, Comet


Hitherto, rings have been found exclusively around the four giant planets in the Solar System. Rings are natural laboratories in which to study dynamical processes analogous to those that take place during the formation of planetary systems and galaxies. Their presence also tells us about the origin and evolution of the body they encircle. Here we report observations of a multichord stellar occultation that revealed the presence of a ring system around (10199) Chariklo, which is a Centaur-that is, one of a class of small objects orbiting primarily between Jupiter and Neptune-with an equivalent radius of 124  9 kilometres (ref. 2). There are two dense rings, with respective widths of about 7 and 3 kilometres, optical depths of 0.4 and 0.06, and orbital radii of 391 and 405 kilometres. The present orientation of the ring is consistent with an edge-on geometry in 2008, which provides a simple explanation for the dimming of the Chariklo system between 1997 and 2008, and for the gradual disappearance of ice and other absorption features in its spectrum over the same period. This implies that the rings are partly composed of water ice. They may be the remnants of a debris disk, possibly confined by embedded, kilometre-sized satellites.

Concepts: Solar System, Planet, Star, Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn, Uranus, Extrasolar planet


Haumea-one of the four known trans-Neptunian dwarf planets-is a very elongated and rapidly rotating body. In contrast to other dwarf planets, its size, shape, albedo and density are not well constrained. The Centaur Chariklo was the first body other than a giant planet known to have a ring system, and the Centaur Chiron was later found to possess something similar to Chariklo’s rings. Here we report observations from multiple Earth-based observatories of Haumea passing in front of a distant star (a multi-chord stellar occultation). Secondary events observed around the main body of Haumea are consistent with the presence of a ring with an opacity of 0.5, width of 70 kilometres and radius of about 2,287 kilometres. The ring is coplanar with both Haumea’s equator and the orbit of its satellite Hi'iaka. The radius of the ring places it close to the 3:1 mean-motion resonance with Haumea’s spin period-that is, Haumea rotates three times on its axis in the time that a ring particle completes one revolution. The occultation by the main body provides an instantaneous elliptical projected shape with axes of about 1,704 kilometres and 1,138 kilometres. Combined with rotational light curves, the occultation constrains the three-dimensional orientation of Haumea and its triaxial shape, which is inconsistent with a homogeneous body in hydrostatic equilibrium. Haumea’s largest axis is at least 2,322 kilometres, larger than previously thought, implying an upper limit for its density of 1,885 kilograms per cubic metre and a geometric albedo of 0.51, both smaller than previous estimates. In addition, this estimate of the density of Haumea is closer to that of Pluto than are previous estimates, in line with expectations. No global nitrogen- or methane-dominated atmosphere was detected.

Concepts: Solar System, Planet, Mars, Dwarf planet, Neptune, Uranus, Pluto, Natural satellite


Long before women were allowed to become Fellows of the Royal Society, or obtain university degrees, one woman managed to get her voice heard, her discovery verified and her achievement celebrated. That woman was Caroline Herschel, who, as this paper will discuss, managed to find ways to fit comet discoveries into her domestic life, and present them in ways that were socially acceptable. Caroline lived in a time when strict rules dictated how women (and men) should behave and present themselves and their work. Caroline understood these rules, and used them carefully as she announced each discovery, starting with this comet which she found in 1786. Caroline discovered her comets at a time when astronomers were mainly concerned with position, identifying where things were and how they were moving. Since her discoveries, research has moved on, as astronomers, using techniques from other fields, and most recently sending experiments into space, have learned more about what comets are and what they can tell us about our solar system. Caroline’s paper marks one small, early step in this much bigger journey to understand comets. This commentary was written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Concepts: Sun, Solar System, Planet, Moon, Uranus, Gottfried Leibniz, Asteroid, Royal Society


Long-duration observations of Neptune’s brightness at two visible wavelengths provide a disk-averaged estimate of its atmospheric aerosol. Brightness variations were previously associated with the 11-year solar cycle, through solar-modulated mechanisms linked with either ultraviolet or galactic cosmic ray (GCR) effects on atmospheric particles. Here, we use a recently extended brightness data set (1972-2014), with physically realistic modelling to show, rather than alternatives, ultraviolet and GCR are likely to be modulating Neptune’s atmosphere in combination. The importance of GCR is further supported by the response of Neptune’s atmosphere to an intermittent 1.5- to 1.9-year periodicity, which occurred preferentially in GCR (not ultraviolet) during the mid-1980s. This periodicity was detected both at Earth, and in GCR measured by Voyager 2, then near Neptune. A similar coincident variability in Neptune’s brightness suggests nucleation onto GCR ions. Both GCR and ultraviolet mechanisms may occur more rapidly than the subsequent atmospheric particle transport.

Concepts: Sun, Planet, Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn, Uranus, Pluto, Voyager 2


Saturn has an intense and broad eastward equatorial jet with a complex three-dimensional structure mixed with time variability. The equatorial region experiences strong seasonal insolation variations enhanced by ring shadowing, and three of the six known giant planetary-scale storms have developed in it. These factors make Saturn’s equator a natural laboratory to test models of jets in giant planets. Here we report on a bright equatorial atmospheric feature imaged in 2015 that moved steadily at a high speed of 450 ms(-1) not measured since 1980-1981 with other equatorial clouds moving within an ample range of velocities. Radiative transfer models show that these motions occur at three altitude levels within the upper haze and clouds. We find that the peak of the jet (latitudes 10° N to 10° S) suffers intense vertical shears reaching +2.5 ms(-1) km(-1), two orders of magnitude higher than meridional shears, and temporal variability above 1 bar altitude level.

Concepts: Earth, Planet, Atmosphere, Jupiter, Equator, Saturn, Uranus, Gas giant


The gravity harmonics of a fluid, rotating planet can be decomposed into static components arising from solid-body rotation and dynamic components arising from flows. In the absence of internal dynamics, the gravity field is axially and hemispherically symmetric and is dominated by even zonal gravity harmonics J2nthat are approximately proportional to qn, where q is the ratio between centrifugal acceleration and gravity at the planet’s equator. Any asymmetry in the gravity field is attributed to differential rotation and deep atmospheric flows. The odd harmonics, J3, J5, J7, J9and higher, are a measure of the depth of the winds in the different zones of the atmosphere. Here we report measurements of Jupiter’s gravity harmonics (both even and odd) through precise Doppler tracking of the Juno spacecraft in its polar orbit around Jupiter. We find a north-south asymmetry, which is a signature of atmospheric and interior flows. Analysis of the harmonics, described in two accompanying papers, provides the vertical profile of the winds and precise constraints for the depth of Jupiter’s dynamical atmosphere.

Concepts: Earth, Planet, Mars, Mercury, Atmosphere, Jupiter, Uranus, Gas giant