Life on Nearby Exoplanet Barnard's Star B Might Be Possible, According to Astronomers

iStock.com/PavelSmilyk
iStock.com/PavelSmilyk

Despite contradictory statements from UFO eyewitnesses, we have yet to confirm the presence of intelligent life beyond Earth. But astronomers continue to flirt with that hope. The most recent speculation comes from Barnard’s Star, the second-closest star system to Earth, which is circled by a frozen super-Earth dubbed Barnard's Star b. While its surface might be as cold as -274°F, there may just be potential for life.

According to CNET, the chilly Barnard's Star b—located 6 light years away from Earth—could still be hospitable to living organisms. Astrophysicists at Villanova University speculate the planet could have a hot liquid-iron core that produces geothermal energy. That warmth might support primitive life under the icy surface. A similar situation could possibly occur on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, where tidal heating might allow for subsurface oceans containing living things.

Barnard's Star b has a mass just over three times that of Earth. The conclusions about potential life were drawn by Villanova researchers from 15 years of photometry examination of the solar system [PDF].

“The most significant aspect of the discovery of Barnard’s star b is that the two nearest star systems to the Sun are now known to host planets,” Scott Engle, a Villanova astrophysicist, said in a statement. “This supports previous studies based on Kepler Mission data, inferring that planets can be very common throughout the galaxy, even numbering in the tens of billions. Also, Barnard’s Star is about twice as old as the Sun—about 9 billion years old compared to 4.6 billion years for the Sun. The universe has been producing Earth-size planets far longer than we, or even the Sun itself, have existed.”

Scientists hope to learn more about the potential for life on Barnard's Star b as new, more powerful telescopes are put into use. NASA’s delayed James Webb Space Telescope could be one such solution. Its 21-foot mirror—three times the size of the Hubble—is set to open in 2021.

[h/t CNET]

New British Coin Featuring a Black Hole Honors Stephen Hawking

The Royal Mint
The Royal Mint

It has been one year since Stephen Hawking’s death, but the theoretical physicist’s life and legacy live on in both time and space. In an effort to immortalize the late scientist, Hawking’s words were beamed toward the nearest black hole last June, and now, he has his very own coin in the UK.

As New Scientist reports, The Royal Mint has created a 50-pence coin featuring a drawing representing a black hole, Stephen Hawking’s name, and an equation he co-created with Jacob Bekenstein to describe the entropy of a black hole. Though Hawking wasn't the first scientist to predict the existence of black holes, he devised mathematical theorems (like the one on the coin) that lent credence to their existence in the universe. He was also the first person to discover that black holes weren’t entirely black because they emit radiation, and are therefore capable of evaporating and disappearing.

Edwina Ellis, who designed the collector's coin, said she was inspired by a lecture Hawking gave in Chile in 2008. “Hawking, at his playful best, invites the audience to contemplate peering into a black hole before diving in,” Ellis said in a statement. “I wanted to fit a big black hole on the tiny coin and wish he was still here chortling at the thought.”

A different Stephen Hawking coin
The Royal Mint

The Royal Mint says the Hawking coin is the first in a new series that celebrates British innovation in science. The coins come in gold proof, silver proof, silver proof piedfort, and “brilliant uncirculated,” and they’re being sold on The Royal Mint’s website (although most are currently sold out). In recent years, UK coins have also commemorated Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

[h/t New Scientist]

First Person on Mars Will Likely be a Woman, Says NASA Boss

NASA astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann at an event in August 2018
NASA astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann at an event in August 2018
Bill Ingalls, NASA via Getty Images

In what is sure to be one giant leap for humankind, the head of NASA has announced that the first astronaut to set foot on Mars is “likely to be” female. As CNN reports, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine made the comment while appearing as a guest on a recent episode of Science Friday, a science and technology radio show.

At one point in the conversation, Bridenstine fielded a question from Grab Your Wallet Alliance co-founder Shannon Coulter, who asked in a tweet whether a woman would be involved in the next Moon landing, which could occur in 2028, if NASA gets its wish.

“The answer is absolutely,” Bridenstine answered. “In fact, it’s likely to be a woman—the first next person on the Moon. It’s also true that the first person on Mars is likely to be a woman.”

It is too early to tell which female astronauts might be eligible for the Mars mission, which is tentatively scheduled for the 2030s. However, Bridenstine said the space agency is committed to having a “broad and diverse set of talent.” Currently, 34 percent of active NASA astronauts are women. While the gender gap has not yet been closed, it’s still a significant change from 1978, when six women (including Sally Ride) became the first American female astronauts. In addition, women comprised half of the 2013 astronaut class and five of 12 astronauts in the 2017 class, as well as half of the most recent class of flight directors.

The first all-female spacewalk will take place on March 29, rounding out National Women’s History Month. Astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch will be assisted by flight directors Mary Lawrence and Kristen Facciol on the ground during the roughly seven-hour spacewalk. These events typically involve making repairs to the International Space Station—a job that has traditionally been undertaken by men.

[h/t CNN]

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