Phobos and Deimos: Captured Asteroids or Cut From Ancient Mars?

Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to

What Astrochemistry is Telling Us

This image shows the Rho Ophiuchi region of star formation where methyl isocyanate was detected.  The insert shows the molecular structure of this chemical, an important precursor for life’s chemical building blocks. ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/L. Calçada

Sometimes lost in the discussion of exoplanets and habitability is where the potential building blocks of life might come from and how they got there.

Yes, hydrogen and water and methane and carbon and nitrogen have been found in abundance around the cosmos, but how about the larger and more esoteric compounds needed for life to emerge?  The precursor compounds to amino acids and nucleobases, for instance. Are they formed in space, too.

Some have indeed been identified around young stars or in star-formation regions, but much of what we know about complex molecules in space comes via meteorites and comets.

The Philae lander, for instance, identified 16 organic compounds on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet in 2015, including four never-before detected on comets. Some of these compounds play a key role in the prebiotic synthesis of amino acids, sugars and nucleobases — the ingredients for life.

Now an additional and significant precursor compound has been detected around sun-like stars in the very early stage of their formation.  The chemical is methyl isocyanate, and it is an important building block of life.

The detection was made by two teams at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope, high in the Chilean desert.  The researchers described their detection as the first one of this prebiotic molecule around a solar-type protostar, the type from which our solar system evolved.

“We are particularly excited about the result because these protostars are very similar to the Sun at the beginning of its lifetime, with the sort of conditions that are well suited for Earth-sized planets to form,” said Rafael Martín-Doménech of the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid and Víctor M. Rivilla of the Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri in Florence. They were lead authors of one of the two papers published on the subject by the Royal Astronomical Society.

“By finding prebiotic molecules in this study, we may now have another piece of the puzzle in understanding how life came about on our planet.”

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is a partnership between nations in Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is the largest ground-based astronomical observatory in existence, and it is located on one of the driest spots on Earth. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

The precursor compound was detected around IRAS 16293-2422, a triple protostar system consisting of a binary star (A1/A2) separated by a distance 47 times the distance from Earth to our Sun.  The far removed third star (B) is 750 times that Earth-Sun distance. IRAS 16293-2422 is around 400 light-years away in a large star-forming region called Rho Ophiuchi in the constellation of Ophiuchus.

Of paramount importance to the researchers is the finding that all of three IRAS stars have masses similar to that of the sun.  And all three were found to have the methyl isocyanate around them.

What’s more, astronomers using the ALMA array found also glycolaldehyde — a simple form of sugar — in the gas surrounding the same stars in 2012.

This discovery was the first time that a sugar had been found in space around a solar-type star in the region where a planet-forming disk is expected to arise — roughly corresponding to the distance between the Sun and Uranus.

Both the discovery of the sugar, and now of the methyl isocyanate,  place these chemical building blocks of life in the right place and at the right time to become part of planets that might be forming around the stars.

Earth and the other planets form from the material left over after the formation of the their host star. So studying solar-type protostars can therefore open a window to the past for astronomers and allow them to observe conditions similar to those that led to the formation of our solar system over 4.5 billion years ago.

Authors Niels Ligterink of Leiden Observatory and Audrey Coutens of University college of London had this to say about the discoveries:  “This star system seems to keep on giving!  Following the discovery of sugars, we’ve now found methyl isocyanate.

This family of organic molecules is involved in the synthesis of peptides  and amino acids which, in the form of proteins, are the biological basis for life as we know it.”

Ironically, while the compound can be an important precursor for life, it is also a very toxic substance.  Indeed, it was the main cause of death following the Bhopal industrial accident  in 1984.

In astrochemistry, a complex organic molecule is defined as consisting of six or more atoms, where at least one of the atoms is carbon. Methyl isocyanate contains carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the chemical configuration CH3NCO. Artist rendering by L. Calçada.

As described in a European Southern Observatory release about the papers, “ALMA’s capabilities allowed both teams to observe the molecule at several different and characteristic wavelengths across the radio spectrum. They found the unique chemical fingerprints located in the warm, dense inner regions of the cocoon of dust and gas surrounding young stars in their earliest stages of evolution.

“Each team identified and isolated the signatures of the complex organic molecule methyl isocyanate. They then followed this up with computer chemical modeling and laboratory experiments to refine their understanding of the molecule’s origin.”

Having some of the chemical ingredients and precursor ingredients of life present as planets are formed certainly doesn’t mean that life necessarily emerged there.  The same is true if those ingredients are delivered right to the planet surface via meteorite, comet or interstellar dust.

But as scientists work to put together an understanding of how life started on Earth and whether it might exist elsewhere, having some of the same important-for-life compounds present here and in areas where exoplanets form is intriguing for sure.

Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to

Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak: Exoplanets Gave The Origin of Life Field a Huge Boost

Jack Szostak, Nobel laureate and pioneering researcher in the origin-of-life field, was the featured speaker at a workshop this week at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo.  One goal of his Harvard lab is to answer this once seemingly impossible question:  was the origin of life on Earth essentially straight-forward and “easy,” or was it enormously “hard” and consequently rare in the universe. (Nerissa Escanlar)

Sometimes tectonic shifts in scientific disciplines occur because of discoveries and advances in the field.  But sometimes they occur for reasons entirely outside the field itself.  Such appears to be case with origins-of-life studies.

Nobel laureate Jack Szostak was recently in Tokyo to participate in a workshop at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology on “Reconstructing the Phenomenon of Life To Retrace the Emergence of Life.”

The talks were technical and often cutting-edge, but the backstory that Szostak tells of why he and so many other top scientists are now in the origins of life field was especially intriguing and illuminating in terms of how science progresses.

Those ground-shifting discoveries did not involve traditional origin-of-life questions of chemical transformations and pathways.  They involved exoplanets.

“Because of the discovery of all those exoplanets, astronomy has been transformed along with many other fields,” Szostak said after the workshop.

“We now know there’s a large range of planetary environments out there, and that has stimulated a huge amount of interest in where else in the universe might there be life.  Is it just here?  We know for sure that lots of environments could support life and we also would like to know:  do they?

“This has stimulated much more laboratory-based work to try to address the origins question.  What’s really important is for us to know whether the transition from chemistry to biology is easy and can happen frequently and anywhere, or are there one or many difficult steps that make life potentially very rare?”

In other words, the explosion in exoplanet science has led directly to an invigorated scientific effort to better understand that road from a pre-biotic Earth to a biological Earth — with chemistry that allows compounds to replicate, to change, to surround themselves in cell walls, and to grow ever more complex.

With today’s increased pace of research, Szostak said, the chances of finding some solid answers have been growing.  In fact, he’s quite optimistic that an answer will ultimately be forthcoming to the question of how life began on Earth.

“The field is making real progress in understanding the pathway from pre-biotic chemistry to the earliest life,” Szostak told.  “We think this is a difficult but solvable problem.”

And any solution would inevitably shed light on both the potential make-up and prevalence of extraterrestrial life.

This artist’s concept depicts select planetary discoveries made by NASA’s Kepler space telescope.  With more than 4,000 confirmed exoplanets and estimates now that there are billions upon billions more, the question of whether some are inhabited has taken on a new urgency requiring the expertise of scientists from a wide range of fields.
(NASA/W. Stenzel)

Whether it’s ultimately solvable or not, that pathway from non-life to life would appear to be nothing if not winding and complex.  And since it involves trying to understand something that happened some 4 billion years ago, the field has had its share of fits and starts.

It is no trivial fact that probably the biggest advance in modern origin-of-life science — the renown Miller-Urey experiment that produced important-for-life amino acids out of a sparked test tube filled with  gases then believed to be prevalent on early Earth — took place more than 60 years ago.

Much has changed since then, including an understanding that the gases used by Miller and Urey most likely did not reflect the early Earth atmosphere.  But no breakthrough has been so dramatic and paradigm shifting since Miller-Urey.  Scientists have toiled instead in the challenging terrain of how and why a vast array of chemicals associated with life just might be the ones crucial to the enterprise.

But what’s new, Szostak said, is that the chemicals central to the pathway are much better understood today. So, too, are the mechanisms that help turn non-living compounds into self-replicating complex compounds, the process through which protective yet fragile cell walls can be formed, and the earliest dynamics involved in the essential task of collecting energy for a self-replicating chemical system to survive.

The simple protocells that may have enabled life to develop four billion years ago consist of only genetic material surrounded by a fatty acid membrane. This pared down version of a cell—which has not yet been completely recreated in a laboratory—is thought to have been able to grow, replicate, and evolve. (Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

This search for a pathway is a major international undertaking; a collective effort involving many labs where obstacles to understanding the origin-of-life process are being overcome one by one.

Here’s an example from Szostak:  The early RNA replicators needed the element magnesium to do their copying.  Yet magnesium destroyed the cell membranes needed to protect the RNA.

A possible solution was to find potential acids to bond with magnesium and protect the membranes, while still allowing the element to be available for RNA chemistry.  His team found that citric acid, or citrate, worked well when added to the cells.  Problem solved, in the lab at least.

The Szostak lab at Harvard University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has focused on creating “protocells” that are engineered by researchers yet can help explain how origin-of-life processes may have taken place on the early Earth.

Their focus, Szostak said, is on “what happens when we have the right molecules and how do they get together to form a cell that can grow and divide.”

It remains a work in progress, but Szostak said much has been accomplished. Protocells have been engineered with the ability to replicate, to divide, to metabolize food for energy and to form and maintain a protective membrane.

The perhaps ultimate goal is to develop a protocell with with the potential for Darwinian evolution.  Were that to be achieved, then an essentially full system would have been created.

How did something alive emerge from a non-living world? It’s a question as old as humanity and seems to pose more questions with every answer.  But Szostak (and some others) are convinced that the problem will in time prove to be solvable. Here blue-green algae in Morning Glory Pool, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Just as the discovery of a menagerie of exoplanets jump-started the origin of life field, it also changed forever its way of doing business.

No longer was the field the singular realm of chemists, but began to take in geochemists, planetary scientists, evolutionary biologists, atmospheric scientists and even astronomers (one of whom works in Szostak’s lab.)

“A lot of labs are focused on different points in the process,” he said.  “And because origins are now viewed as a process, that means you need to know how planets are formed and what happens on the planetary surface and in the atmospheres when they’re young.

“Then there’s the question of essential volatiles (such as nitrogen, water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen, methane and sulfur dioxide); when do they come in and are they too much or not enough.”

These were definitely not issues of importance to Stanley Miller and Harold Urey when they sought to make building blocks of life from some common gases and an electrical charge.

But seeing the origin of life question as a long pathway as opposed to a singular event leaves some researchers cold.   With so many steps needed, and with the precisely right catalysts and purified compounds often essential to allow the next step take place, they argue that these pathways produced in a chemistry lab are unlikely to have anything to do with what actually happened on Earth.

Szostak disagrees, strongly.  “That just not true.  The laws of chemistry haven’t changed since early Earth, and what we’re trying to understand is the fundamental chemistry of these compounds associated with life so we can work out plausible pathways.”

If and when a plausible chemical pathway is established, Szostak said,  it would then be time to turn the scientific process around and see if there is a possible model for the presence of the needed pathway ingredients on early Earth.

And that involves the knowledge of geochemists, researchers expert in photochemistry and planetary scientists who have insight into what conditions were like at a particular time.

Szostak and David Deamer, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, at the ELSI origins workshop.  Deamer supports the view that life on Earth may well have begun in and around hydrothermal springs on land.  That’s where essential compounds could concentrate, where energy was present and organic compounds on interstellar dust could have landed, as they do today. (Nerissa Escanlar)

Given the work that Szostak, his group and others have done to understand possible pathways that lead from simple starting materials to life, the inevitable question is whether there was but one pathway or many.

Szostak is of the school that there may well have been numerous pathways that resulted in life, although only one seems to have won out.  He bases his view, in part at least, on a common experience in his lab.  He and his colleagues can bang their collective heads together for what seems forever on a hard problem only to later find there was not one or two but potentially many answers to it.

An intriguing implication of this “many pathways” hypothesis is that it would seemingly increase the possibility of life starting beyond Earth.  The underlying logic of Szostak’s approach is to find how chemicals can interact to form life-like and then more complex living systems within particular environments.  And those varied environments could be on early Earth or on a planet or moon far away.

“All of this looked very, very hard at the start, trying to identify the pathways that could lead to life.  And sure, there are gaps remaining in our understanding.  But we’ve solved a lot of problems and the remaining big problems are a rather small number.  So I’m optimistic we’ll find the way.”

“And when we get discouraged about our progress I think, you know, life did get started here.  And actually it must quite simple.  We’re just not smart enough to see the answer right away.

“But in the end it generally turns out to be simple and you wonder 20 years later, why didn’t we think of that before?”

Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to

Getting Real About the Oxygen Biosignature

Oxygen, which makes up about 21 percent of the Earth atmosphere, has been embraced as the best biosignature for life on faraway exoplanets. New research shows that detecting distant life via the oxygen biosignature is not so straight-forward, though it probably remains the best show we have. (NASA)

I remember the first time I heard about the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and how could and would let us know whether life was present below.

The key was oxygen or its light-modified form, ozone.  Because both oxygen and ozone molecules bond so quickly with other molecules — think rust or iron oxide on Mars, silicon dioxide in the Earth’s crust — it was said that oxygen could only be present in large and detectable quantities if there was a steady and massive source of free oxygen on the planet.

On Earth, this of course is the work of photosynthesizers such as planets, algae and cyanobacteria, which produce oxygen as a byproduct.  No other abiotic, or non-biological, ways were known at the time to produce substantial amounts of atmospheric oxygen, so it seemed that an oxygen signal from afar would be a pretty sure sign of life.

But with the fast growth of the field of exoplanet atmospheres and the very real possibility of having technology available in the years ahead that could measure the components of those atmospheres, scientists have been busy modelling exoplanet formations, chemistry and their atmospheres.

One important goal has been to search for non-biological ways to produce large enough amounts of atmospheric oxygen that might fool us into thinking that life has been found below.

And in recent years, scientists have succeeded in poking holes in the atmospheric oxygen-means-life scenario.

Oxygen bonds quickly with many other molecules. That means has to be resupplied regularly to be present as O2 in an atmosphere . On Earth, O is mostly a product of biology, but elsewhere it might be result of non-biological processes. Here is an image of oxygen bubbles in water.

Especially researchers at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) have come up with numerous ways that exoplanets atmospheres can be filled (and constantly refilled) with oxygen that was never part of plant or algal or bacteria photo-chemistry.

In other words, they found potential false positives for atmospheric oxygen as a biosignature, to the dismay of many exoplanet scientists.

In part because she and her own team were involved in some of these oxygen false-positive papers, VPL director Victoria Meadows set out to review, analyze and come to some conclusions about what had become the oxygen-biosignature problem.

The lengthy paper (originally planned for 6 pages but ultimately 34 pages because research from so many disciplines was coming in) was published last month in the journal Astrobiology.  It seeks to both warn researchers about the possibilities of biosignature false-positives based on oxygen detection, and then it assures them that there are ways around the obstacles.

“There was this view in the community that oxygen could only be formed by photosynthesis, and that no other process could make O2,”  Meadows told me.  “It was a little simplistic.  We now see the rich complexity of what we are looking at, and are thinking about the evolutionary paths of these planets.


Artist’s impression of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b, which orbits the red dwarf star GJ 1132.  Earlier this year, astronomers managed to detect the atmosphere of this Earth-sized planet and have determined that water and methane are likely prevalent in the atmosphere.  (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy)

“What I see is a maturing of the field.  We have models that show plausible ways for oxygen to be produced without biology, but that doesn’t mean that oxygen is no longer an important biosignature.

“It is very important.  But it has to be seen and understood in the larger context of what else is happening on the planet and its host star.”

Before moving forward, perhaps we should look back a bit at the history of oxygen on Earth.

For substantial parts of our planet’s history there was only minimal oxygen in the atmosphere, and life survived in an anaerobic environment.  When exactly oxygen went from a small percentage of the atmosphere to 21 percent of the atmosphere is contested, but there is broader agreement about the source of the O2 in the atmosphere.  The source was photosynthesis, most importantly coming from cyanobacteria in the oceans.

As far back as four billion years ago, photosynthesis occurred on Earth based on the capturing of the energy of near infrared light by sulfur-rich organisms, but it did not involve the release of oxygen as a byproduct.

A chart showing the percentage rise in oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere over the past 3.8 billion years. The great oxidation event occurred some 2.3 billion years ago, but it took more than a billion additional years for the build-up to have much effect on the composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

Then came the the rise of cyanobacteria in the ocean and their production of oxygen.  With their significantly expanded ability to use photosynthesis, this bacterium was able to generate up to 16 times more energy than its counterparts, which allowed it to out-compete and explode in reproduction.

It took hundreds of millions of years more, but that steady increase in the cyanobacteria population led to what is called the “Great Oxidation Event” of some 2.3 billion years ago, when oxygen levels began to really climb in Earth’s atmosphere.  They did level off and remained well below current levels for another billion years, but then shot up in the past billion years.

As Meadows (and others) point out, this means that life existed on Earth for at least two billion years years without producing a detectable oxygen biosignature.  It’s perhaps the ultimate false negative.

But as biosignatures go, oxygen offers a lot.  Because it bonds so readily with other elements and compounds, it remains unbonded or “free” O2 only if it is being constantly produced.  On Earth, the mode of production is overwhelmingly photosynthesis and biology.  What’s more, phototrophs — organism that manufacture their own food from inorganic substances using light for energy — often produce reflections and seasonally dependent biosignatures that can serve as secondary confirmations of biology as the source for abundant Oin an atmosphere.

So in a general way, it makes perfect sense to think that O in the atmosphere of an exoplanet would signify the presence of photosynthesis and life.

Victoria “Vikki” Meadows is the director of the Virtual Planetary Institute at the University of Washington, which has been an important engine for NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI) since 2001.  Among its many lines of research, her group focuses on the Earth as a template for understanding exoplanets, and so Meadows is holding up a rock here as a whimsical nod to that approach.  (University of Washington.)

The problem arises because other worlds out there orbiting stars very different than our own can have quite different chemical and physical dynamics and evolutionary histories, with results at odds with our world.

For instance, when it comes to the non-biological production of substantial amounts of oxygen that could collect in the atmosphere, the dynamics involved could include the following:

Perhaps the trickiest false positive involves the possible non-biological release of O2 via the photolysis of water — the breaking apart of H2O molecules by light.  On Earth, the water vapor in the atmosphere condenses into liquids after reaching a certain height and related temperature, and ultimately falls back down to the surface.  How and why that happens is related to the presence of large amounts of nitrogen in our atmosphere.

But what if an exoplanet atmosphere doesn’t have a lot of an element like nitrogen that allows the water to condense?  Then the water would rise into the stratosphere, where it would be subject to intense UV light,. The molecule would be split, and an H atom would fly off into space — leaving behind large amounts of oxygen that had nothing to do with life.  This conclusion was reached by Robin Wordsworth and Raymond Pierrehumbert of the University of Chicago and was published by the The Astrophysical Journal.

Another recently proposed mechanism to generate high levels of abiotic oxygen, first described by Rodrigo Luger and Rory Barnes of Meadow’s VPL team, focuses on the effects of the super-luminous phase of young stars on any rocky planets that might be orbiting them.

Small-mass M dwarfs in particular can burn much brighter when they are young, exposing potential planets around those stars to very high levels of radiation for as long as one billion years.

Modeling suggests that during this super-luminous phase a terrestrial planet that forms within what will become the main sequence habitable zone around an M dwarf star may lose up to several Earth ocean equivalents of water due to evaporation and hydrodynamic escape, and this can lead to generation of large amounts of abiotic O via the same H2O photolysis process.

Red dwarf, or M stars, are the most common in the cosmos.  They start off with a long period of extremely high luminosity and radiation before evolving into low-energy cool (and red) stars.  While a mature red dwarf star might have habitable zone planets that appear today to have characteristics conducive to life,  exoplanet modelers have determined that many of those red dwarf stars may well have lost their oceans during their early  long exposure to intense radiation. This is an artist rendering of three exoplanets around a red dwarf star. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Non-biological oxygen can also build up on an exoplanet, according to a number of researchers, if the host star sends out a higher proportion of far ultraviolet light than near ultraviolet.  The dynamics of photo-chemistry are such, they argue, that the excess far ultraviolet radiation would split CO2 to an extent that O2 would build up in the atmosphere.

There are other potential scenarios that would produce an oxygen false positive, and almost all of them involve radiation from the host star driving chemistry in the planet’s atmosphere, with the planetary environment then allowing O2 to build up.  While some of these false positive mechanisms can produce enough oxygen to make a big impact on their planets, some may not produce enough to even be seen by telescopes currently being planned.

As Meadows tells it, it was Shawn Domagal-Goldman of NASA Goddard and VPL who first brought the issue of oxygen false-positives to her attention. It was back in 2010 after he found an anomaly in his photo-chemical code results regarding atmospheric oxygen and exoplanets, and followed it. Since that initial finding, several other VPL researchers discovered new ways to produce O2 without life, and often while undertaking research focused on a different scientific goal.

Six years later, when she was writing up a VPL annual report, it jumped out that the group (and others) had found quite a few potential oxygen false positives — a significant development in the field of biosignature detection and interpretation.  That’s when she decided that an analysis and summary of the findings would be useful and important for the exoplanet community.  “Never let it be said that administrative tasks can’t lead to inspiration!” she wrote to me.

While Meadows does not downplay the new challenges to defining oxygen and ozone as credible biosignatures, she does say that these new understandings can be worked around.

Some of that involves targeting planets and stars for observation that don’t have the characteristics known to produce abiotic oxygen.  Some involves finding signatures of this abiotic oxygen that can be identified and then used to discard potential false positives.  And perhaps most telling, the detection of methane alongside free oxygen in an exoplanet atmosphere would be considered a powerful signature of life.

The Virtual Planetary Laboratory investigates the potential habitability of extrasolar planets. The research will help in predicting the habitability of discovered bodies like the Earth-size planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 and the planet orbiting our closest neighbor, Proxima Centauri. (NASA)

The official goal of Meadows’ VPL is to wrestle with this question: “How would we determine if an extrasolar planet were able to support life or had life on it already?”

This has led her to a highly interdisciplinary approach, bringing together fifty researchers from twenty institutions.  In addition to its leading role in the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the VPL is also part of a broad NASA initiative to bring together scientists from different locales and disciplines to work on issues and problems of exoplanet research — the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or NExSS.

Given this background and these approaches, it is hardly surprising that Meadows would be among the first to see the oxygen-false positive issue in both scientific and collective terms.

“I wanted the community to have some place to go to when thinking about Ofalse positives,” she said. “We’re learning now about the complexity and richness of exoplanets, and this is essential for preparing to do the best job possible {in terms of looking for signs of life on exoplanets} when we get better and better observations to work with.”

“This story needed to be told now. Forewarned is forearmed.”


Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to

Elegant Image of Icy Disk Around The Young Fomalhaut System

Composite image of the Fomalhaut star system. The ALMA data, shown in orange, reveal the distant and eccentric debris disk in never-before-seen detail. The central dot is the unresolved emission from the star, which is about twice the mass of our sun. Optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope is in blue; the dark region was a blocked by an internal coronagraph which filtered out the otherwise overwhelming light of the central star.  ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), M. MacGregor; NASA/ESA Hubble, P. Kalas; B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

An international team of astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has made the first complete millimeter-wavelength image of the ring of dusty debris surrounding the young star Fomalhaut. This well-defined band of rubble and gas is likely the result of comets smashing together near the outer edges of a planetary system 25 light-years from Earth.

Earlier ALMA observations of Fomalhaut — taken in 2012 when the telescope was still under construction – revealed only about one half of the debris disk. Though this first image was merely a test of ALMA’s initial capabilities, it nonetheless provided tantalizing hints about the nature and possible origin of the disk.

The new ALMA observations offer a complete view of this glowing band of debris and also suggest that there are chemical similarities between its icy contents and comets in our own solar system.

“ALMA has given us this staggeringly clear image of a fully formed debris disk,” said Meredith MacGregor, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and lead author on one of two papers accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal describing these observations.

“We can finally see the well-defined shape of the disk, which may tell us a great deal about the underlying planetary system responsible for its highly distinctive appearance.”

Fomalhaut is a relatively nearby star system with harbors of the first planets to be directly imaged by a space telescope.  In all, about 20 star systems have exoplanets that have been imaged directly.

The entire Formalhaut system is approximately 440 million years old, or about one-tenth the age of our solar system.

The Hubble images were taken with the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph in 2010 and 2012. This false-color composite image, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, reveals the orbital motion of the planet Fomalhaut b. Based on these observations, astronomers calculated that the planet is in a 2,000-year-long, highly elliptical orbit. The planet will appear to cross a vast belt of debris around the star roughly 20 years from now.  NASA, ESA, and P. Kalas (University of California, Berkeley and SETI Institute)

As revealed in the new ALMA image, a brilliant band of icy dust about 2 billion kilometers wide has formed approximately 20 billion kilometers from the star.

Debris disks are common features around young stars and represent a very dynamic and chaotic period in the history of a solar system. Astronomers believe they are formed by the ongoing collisions of comets and other planetesimals in the outer reaches of a recently formed planetary system. The leftover debris from these collisions absorbs light from its central star and reradiates that energy as a faint millimeter-wavelength glow that can be studied with ALMA.

Using the new ALMA data and detailed computer modeling, the researchers were able to calculate the precise location, width, and geometry of the disk. These parameters confirm that such a narrow ring is likely produced through the gravitational influence of planets in the system, noted MacGregor.

Paul Kalas, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, has been principal investigator for the campaign to directly image the Formalhaut system, with its three stars, at least one planet large debris disk. (U.C., Berkeley)

The new ALMA observations are also the first to definitively show “apocenter glow,” a phenomenon predicted in a 2016 paper by Margaret Pan, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who is also a co-author on the new ALMA papers.

Like all objects with elongated orbits, the dusty material in the Fomalhaut disk travels more slowly when it is farthest from the star. As the dust slows down, it piles up, forming denser concentrations in the more distant portions of the disk. These dense regions can be seen by ALMA as brighter millimeter-wavelength emission.

Using the same ALMA data, but focusing on distinct millimeter-wavelength signals naturally emitted by molecules in space, the researchers also detected enormous stores of carbon monoxide gas in precisely the same location as the debris disk.

“These data allowed us to determine that the relative abundance of carbon monoxide plus carbon dioxide around Fomalhaut is about the same as found in comets in our own solar system,” said Luca Matrà with the University of Cambridge, UK, and lead author on the team’s second paper. “This chemical kinship may indicate a similarity in comet formation conditions between the outer reaches of this system and our own.”

ALMA image of the debris disk in the Fomalhaut star system. The ring is approximately 20 billion kilometers from the central star and about 2 billion kilometers wide. The yellow dot is the central star, about twice the mass of our sun.

Matrà and his colleagues believe this gas is either released from continuous comet collisions or the result of a single, large impact between super-comets hundreds of times more massive than Hale-Bopp.

The presence of this well-defined debris disk around Fomalhaut, along with its curiously familiar chemistry, may indicate that this system is undergoing its own version of the Late Heavy Bombardment.  In our solar system, that was a period approximately 4 billion years ago when the Earth and other planets were routinely struck by asteroids and comets left over from the formation of our solar system.

“Twenty years ago, the best millimeter-wavelength telescopes gave the first fuzzy maps of sand grains orbiting Fomalhaut. Now with ALMA’s full capabilities the entire ring of material has been imaged,” concluded Paul Kalas, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley and principal investigator on these observations. “One day we hope to detect the planets that influence the orbits of these grains.”

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan, in cooperation with the Republic of Chile.


This article is based on a release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, with some modifications and additions.


Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

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