What’s the Universe Made Of?

By Bill Andrews | January 6, 2017 10:55 am
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Minerals that are likely to occur at different depths of Kepler 102 and Kepler 407. (Credit: Robin Dienel, Carnegie DTM)

How much of you lies among the stars? How are the elements that make up life distributed among stars and planets? As trippy as the questions seem, astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) announced today at the 229th meeting of the American Astronomical Society that they knew the answers — or, at least, were starting to learn them.

SDSS, “the energizer bunny of sky surveys,” according to spokesperson Karen Masters, is a massive data collection project that’s been going on for 17 fruitful years. By analyzing and breaking down a star’s light, astronomers can determine the elements within. Do that with enough stars, and you can start to map out the distribution of elements throughout our galaxy. That’s just what the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) project did, looking at more than 150,000 stars in the process, using infrared light to peer through the dust that blocks visible light waves.

Of particular importance are the elements necessary for life, nicknamed CHNOPS for carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. APOGEE found a definite pattern, with the greatest abundance of each of these lying closer to the Milky Way’s center. Since the stars there are typically older, it means more of life’s elements came to be in the inner part of the galaxy earlier than in the outer parts. Does this mean there’s a greater chance for life in the center, since it’s been possible for longer there?

The presenter, Sten Hasselquist of New Mexico State University, said that he doesn’t want to speculate about what it means for life, “but it is very interesting.” As much as the reporters tried to get more out of him (“I don’t want you walking out of here writing that we found life!”), the farthest Hasselquist would go was, “The longer timescale is tantalizing.”

One of the other presenters quipped, “There is a reason why they put the Star Wars capital toward the center of the galaxy,” presumably referring to the Republic/Imperial capital world of Coruscant.

Worlds Apart

But of course stars are only half the story for possible life; what about actual planets for it to live on? Astronomers have a few ways to figure out what individual planets are made of — making inferences from the world’s mass and size, trying to catch a glimpse of its atmosphere to break it down spectroscopically — but the most reliable method might just be by studying its host star.

Johanna Teske of the Carnegie Institution for Science described a new study that plugs the SDSS’ latest observations of stars into a model that figures out what kind of planets would form around them. Since stars and their planets ultimately coalesce from the same clouds of gas and dust, it makes sense that a star’s makeup would shed light on the worlds it keeps in tow; while it would provide only a rough guess at a planet’s makeup, the model did reproduce Earth’s makeup well enough to give the researchers confidence.

What does it matter what particular elements make up a world?

In order to find a world with truly Earth-like conditions, and not just a similar mass and size, composition can make all the difference. Life as we know it formed on a geologically active world with plate tectonics and other features that helped make life possible; we don’t know exactly what it takes for life to arise and thrive, but since our only example is Earth, it makes sense to find as close an analog as possible.

In particular, Teske shared the findings for the planet-having stars Kepler 102 and Kepler 407. (The model doesn’t aim to recreate any planet in particular, but rather what a typical planet around those individual stars might be made of.) Even though Kepler 407 is almost identical in mass to the sun, it would likely produce a stiffer planet with no tectonics. Kepler 102, despite being slightly dimmer than the sun, was made of the right enough stuff to make one of its planets more likely to be truly Earth-like.

The goal, Teske said, is to use these models to help astronomers “hone in” on the best targets for next generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope to study up close, the better to find life someday.

But for now, just to be clear (and make Hasselquist happy), Earth remains the only world of its kind, and the only place to produce life. Perhaps, though, that’s just a matter of time.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Science has no idea what drove universal lithium-7 abundance (arXiv:1505.01076) and these guys are selling interstellar real estate. It’s grantology.

  • OWilson

    What is the Universe made of?

    Most of us reading this right now are in a room. If you take the 1,000 or so cubic feet in front of you, and examine it, what do you have?

    Large “objects” separated by “space”, just like the Universe itself.

    But there is actually no such thing as a solid object, or empty space.

    Atoms are composed of what we call “particles” for convenience, but really they are just vibrations, fields, and waves of energy.

    Take the the one cubic foot in front of you. It is densely packed with this vibrating energy and contains an infinite amount of electromagnetic energy and fields from domestic local and interstellar sources. Even empty space is producing and annihilating virtual particles.

    That cubic foot of “empty” space in front of you is really a thick soup of churning, restless energy.

    In 1887 scientists (Michaelson/Morley) in a famous experiment, thought they had finally buried the medieval concept of a background “ether” against which all matter moved, and energy was transmitted.

    Only to resurrect it again, in the Twentieth Century.

    There is no peace from the constant bombardment of this electromagnetic energy, some think it can cause cancer and such.

    But it also allows us to perceive it as a comfortable living room, or a sky full of stars.

    • Erik Bosma

      Which begs the question; what exactly is energy?

      • OWilson

        I could answer that question in two ways, either in my normal voice, or in kind of a high pitched nasal twine :)

        It is rare to hear such a question nowadays, because we all know what energy does, it does work of course. Likewise we know what life does, it evolves of course.

        Today’s TV scientists get paid to tell the great unwashed what is going on in the universe. So an answer from Bill Nye ‘The science guy’ like ‘I have no friggin idea’, is not a useful career advancer. He’s likely to go on about what happened exactly happened at one trillionth, of a trillionth, of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

        Only the truly great scientists will admit that they don’t know the answers to the basic questions, What, How and Why. Last century they thought about it so much, that while they never came up with the actual answers, they did give us the spin offs of their deliberations, like relativity, and the quantum physics Standard Model.

        These and many other basic questions like What is nothing? What is infinity? Are there other dimensions? are at their root, questions about concepts beyond human understanding, although they can be reduced to mathematical equations.

        So, the answer to your question, is, I have no friggin idea, (but neither does Bill Nye, the Science Guy, or his buddy Neil deGrasse Tyson! :)

        • Erik Bosma

          Thanks OW… it’s nice to know that there are more of us who know how ignorant we actually are. Wasn’t it the Oracle at Delphi that proclaimed Socrates the wisest of all because he possesses special knowledge not had by
          others. The knowledge that he recognizes the extent of his own ignorance and his own
          lack of knowledge while others think they know everything but do not dare to admit that they are as ignorant as they really are. I got banned from some sites because I answered some questions basically with different forms of “Who knows?” But then where’s the money in that?

          • OWilson

            The good news is that it is a “miracle” in the literal sense of the word, something from nothing, so our children will be free to speculate on Big Bangs, or Grand Designers.

            The danger is always from those who are “certain” beyond any shadow of doubt, and who appeal to “authority” to enforce their own particular beliefs.

            When they turn out to be wrong, all hell can break loose! :)

          • Erik Bosma

            Yeah, if only they didn’t appeal to authority in the form of millions upon millions of dollars in grants.

  • Erik Bosma

    First they suck us in with a catchy headline, “What is the Universe Made Of?” Immediately I start thinking about a new discovery or the scrapping of an old beloved theory but I get neither. Instead I get a catch acronym about a few elements that most of us have been aware of since shortly after we began our interest in Cosmology. Big deal. The other thing I found a bit contradictory was the claim made that most of these ‘life’ ingredients were found to be in the centres of galaxies where the ancient stars hang out. Well, we all know that old stars haven’t really had the chance to create a lot of ‘metals’ yet. Yes, this gives them more time to create life but many of their ‘women’ are barren. While the stars in the arms are usually formed from the remains of older stars it makes me think that the outer stars would be more conducive to life, even if they’re a few millions of years younger, since they’re an extra generation older and therefore contain a higher ratio of metals. (Remember that the life spans of these older stars was probably quite short since so many were also quite large.) Am I missing something?

  • Tom Aaron

    This article is not addressing the issue. The ‘stuff’of planets is largely irrelevent to the make up of the Universe. Its like asking what is the oceans are made of and then saying ‘aluminum’ because of a crashed airplane. Heavy atoms are less of a ratio of the stuff of the Universe than crashed airplanes are to the water in the ocean.

  • Glenn

    If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into. If all “stuff” was created by the Big Bang, new “stuff” is just rearranging old “stuff”. If you keep shuffling the deck and drawing a card, eventually you get an ace of spades. Is that what life is all about – chance?

    • OWilson

      Current thinking is tainted by a relic of religion. The basic answers from religion were not to question god, but eventually it was OK to play around in a laboratory to figure out how god’s creation worked.

      That’s what Galileo, Newton and Darwin did. Tread lightly.

      We have a legacy in science, where the big questions cannot be answered, so we might as well be pragmatic and just concentrate on the mechanics of how it works.

      That’s where the money is.

      But the Big Bangers and the Creationists/Grand designers, both insist they are right and have a tendency to preach to each other about things they know nothing about! :)

      • Glenn

        Thanks. For us common people the big questions sometimes are more interesting. Frank Close – Nothing – seems like a theoretical physicist who has an interest in the big question. I’m enjoying trying to watch for anything new in combing general relativity and quantum mechanics.

        • OWilson

          You may have to wait a while!

          Today’s liberal education and grant programs do not produce independent thinkers like Einstein, Bohr, Pauli, Fermi, Shroedinger, Born, Planck, Curie, Fermi, Feynman, Pavlov, Dirac, Heisenberg, Rutherford, Fleming, Penrose, Rubbia, Gell-Mann and Weinberg

          What you have is Bill Nye the Science Guy, Al Gore (Nobel Laureate) Neil DeGrassi, David Suzuki, and James Hansen.

          • Glenn

            How about Bob Dylan and Barack Obama? They are also Nobel Laureates. Where does Hawking fit in as an independent thinker. Are all these independent thinkers in your list white males?

          • OWilson

            Never read about an interesting scientific theory by Dylan or Obama :)

            Dylan is simply your greatest living poet,

            Hawking is a TV celebrity scientist and darling of the MSM like Carl Sagan.

            I wasn’t aware that my list was all white, I don’t look at folks that way. They are actually a talented mix of immigrants and foreigners :)

            (Besides Madame Curie would accuse you of sexism for assuming she was a man, because she was included in a list of the greatest scientists)

            I detect a little sexism and racism in your remarks.

            Not healthy!

          • Glenn

            I’m working on it.
            Does nature abhor a vacuum?
            Do you ever wonder how molecules become conscious?
            Can physics answer all questions or is there a need for metaphysics?

          • OWilson

            The Creator, (or the Big Banger) gave us all a brain to figure these things out for ourselves.

            It’s a noble pursuit :)

          • Glenn

            I apologize for getting so far off the topic what’s the universe made of but as an existentialist I am responsible for my actions.
            Now, God (Creator or big banger) given “smarts”‘ is that the brain or is intelligence something more than neurons? Maybe just mass action or equipotentiality. Nature or nurture? No intelligence chromosome, not even for g factor. Interesting flashback. No chromosome for race either. But there is for sex. I can say I feel like one sex but have the chromosome makeup for the other sex. Doing the same for race might be more legitimate but right now in this day and age isn’t quit as popular. I now feel vindicated for suggestion of racism. One has to be aware of projection, attributing ones own thoughts onto someone else. Did you happen to see an article saying the most important scientific article ever written was by Nash on game theory. I guess The Origin Of Species was a book not an article

          • OWilson

            In the world there are more Creationists than Big Bangers, so trusting the majority view (also known as conventional wisdom, or the consensus) is not always a sure bet.

            Likewise nature vs nurture has it’s own set of cheerleaders. Nature causes new born chicks to panic when a silhouette of a hawk is passed accross the cage in a forward motion but but not when it is moved backwards. Something to do with the shape of the wings.

            Likewise nurture allows you to streetproof your kids, but to some, that is intolerant “profiling”.

            Speaking of bets, are you familiar with Nate Silver?

            He was the darling of the MSM. He was always right! Until he was wrong!

            Game theory is somewhat akin to spy versus spy. It itself can be gamed. One can manipulate the outcome by just doing the opposite of you natural inclination.

            Much like our dance here! :)

            Cheers!

          • Glenn

            Aha. Conventional wisdom or the consensus like when the world was reported to be flat or the earth was the center of the universe, or global warming.

            Nate a statistician who analyzes baseball and elections. Possibly is spreading himself too thin and should stick with baseball.
            Isn’t the most abundant element in the universe hydrogen? But what about dark matter. Does dark matter form elements?

            .

          • OWilson

            “dark matter’, and its cousin “dark energy” is treated as a “discovery”.

            Somebody will be getting a Nobel anytime soon.

            But in reality it is just a human construct, a kludge, totally contrived to explain the counter intuitive motions of the galaxies as they spin, and are accelerating into your great “nothing”.

            And, of course to allow our TV scientists to explain it all in great detail to the great unwashed.

            (I think this is where we came in?)

          • Glenn

            Let’s try another.
            Redshift. Things are moving away, wavelengths getting longer. Of course we are not the center, but is the edges of the universe expanding? What is filling the space as the area within the expanding edges increases?

          • OWilson

            If Bill Nye tells us the universe is 14.5b years old, and NASA sez when we look in any direction we are looking at the very edge of the universe, that puts us bang in the middle.

            But they say wherever we are in the universe we see ourselves in the middle of it all so the poor suckers on the edge of expansion should not believe their own eyes.

            And then the furthest galaxies are supposed to be rushing away so fast they “are approaching the speed of light”

            But when we look at them through Hubble, nothing is blinking out, as they should be as they move away ever faster. They just sit there apparently motionless.

            They say it is space itself that is expanding but they also say atoms are universally finite in size according to restrictions of the E.M. and Weak Forces.

            If that were true I’d be expanding and getting transparent as I sit here.

            Either the BIg Bang is wrong, or the doppler effect is not as simple as we assume. There could be other causes for reddening wavelengths

          • Glenn

            But if I’m sitting across from you, is the space between us expanding? Or is just space in certain locations expanding. On a previous comment you talked about space and what is space. Oh it’s just nothing or is it something? Something from nothing. What would Newton say?

          • OWilson

            It’s unfortunate that my answer to your questions, and all the questions perhaps that ever have been asked about these issues, was, in the sage wisdom of our erstwhile moderator, too unnerving to release to the public at large. :)

            Cheers!

          • Glenn

            If the space inside the universe edges is expanding is the space outside the universe edges contracting? Is there stuff in the space of the expanding universe? Does this mean that new stuff is being created as the universe expands.Looking forward to guru OWilson answer. Thanks.

          • OWilson

            I respect the views of our ertswhile moderator, who has his own reasons for censoring my last answer.

            Off topic? or maybe just boring :)

            Thanks for the conversation!

          • Glenn

            If this moderator is censoring is there another platform or haste la vista?

  • Glenn

    Don’t worry or is it do worry whatever. I’ll keep it to myself wherever that is, do selves all hang out together somewhere somehow are they conglomerates of atoms lurking in the prefrontal cortex. Anyway I won’t let the cat out of the bag – what is that suppose to mean anyway-Lewis Carroll’s chesire was my favorite or maybe it was the Cat in The hat, or maybe even Felix. Ever wonder what “they” mean by tangential speech or loosening of associations just read the above. But then that’s dealing with a whole other universe the inside one. Hum. Maybe folks who focus on the outside universe are afraid of looking at the inside one.

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