Humankind is going through a rough and uncertain time. The previous year’s scientific achievements showed that nothing could stop us from doing research, inventing new technology, and being curious to understand the working of the universe. Here are some of the great discoveries and scientific achievements in January 2021. I have also provided links to the concerned research papers/press release for your reference.

To know about the top scientific achievements in 2020, read this article.

An old super Earth

The year started with a significant discovery in planetary science. Astronomers using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer on the Keck I telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory found three planets orbiting a star that is 10 billion years old. One of the planets, named TOI-561b, is a super Earth that orbits its parent star every 12 hours. The star system lies about 280 light years away.

Scientists determine the age of stars by analyzing their chemical composition. Of all the elements in the periodic table, only three were created soon after the big bang: Hydrogen, helium, and a trace amount of lithium. From these elements, the first generation of stars formed. Heavier elements such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, silicon, etc., were formed in these stars’ cores. The first generation stars enriched the interstellar medium with heavy elements when they exploded as a supernova. The second generation of stars formed from this enriched interstellar medium, and unlike their ancestors, they already had heavier elements, although in small quantities.

January 2021 discoveries - Super Earth TOI-561b
TOI-561b is one of the most exciting discoveries in January 2021

The percentage of heavier elements in this star shows it formed about 10 billion years ago. The super Earth orbiting the star has the same density as Earth – 5.5 gm/cm3, consistent with a rocky composition. TOI-561b has a mass and a radius of 3.2 and 1.45 times that of the Earth. It is one of the oldest rocky planets discovered by astronomers.

Being so close to its parent star, TOI-561b has an average surface temperature of over 1,727 degrees Celsius (2,000 degrees Kelvin) — much too toasty to host life as we know it today, though it may once have been possible. The discovery is reported in a paper in the Astronomical Journal.

Gravitinos and primordial black holes

Astrophysicists are aware of two ways by which a black hole can form. One is when a massive star collapses at the end of its life, and the other is when two neutron stars merge. These two scenarios lead to the formation of a stellar-mass black hole. There is another class of black holes called the primordial black holes that might have formed soon after the big bang. According to a recent theory, gravitinos could have formed these primordial black holes.

A 10-Billion-Year Old Super-Earth, A Sextuple Star System, And Other Exciting Discoveries In January. 1

You may be wondering, what are gravitinos. In physics, there are two types of particles: Fermions having half-integral spin (1/2, 3/2, 5/2…) and bosons having an integral spin (1,2,3…). Electron, muon, neutrino, etc., are examples of fermions. Photon, Higgs, gluon, W, and Z are bosons. There’s a principle called supersymmetry (SUSY) that establishes a relationship between bosons and fermions. According to SUSY, every particle from one family has a partner from another family. For example, if an electron is a fermion with a half-integral spin, there must be a boson (called selectron), the supersymmetric partner of the electron with an integral spin.

Similarly, there must be a superpartner of graviton – the hypothetical force carrier of gravity. That superpartner is known as gravitino. Before we go ahead, it must be noted that graviton is not a part of the standard model of physics. Each of the four fundamental forces of nature has a carrier particle, except gravitational force. Also, no supersymmetric particle has ever been observed in any experiment.

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However, particle physicists say that gravitino must have existed in the early universe when the temperature and energy were sufficiently high. These particles must have attracted each other to quickly form microscopic black holes, which became large enough to overcome Hawking radiation. They might have been the seeds of the massive black holes known to exist today. The pre-print of the research paper can be found here.

NASA mission extensions

NASA has extended the mission exploration of two of its iconic space missions: Juno and InSight.

The Juno spacecraft, launched on August 5, 2011, has been exploring Jupiter since 2016. The Juno spacecraft and its mission team have made discoveries about Jupiter’s interior structure, magnetic field, and magnetosphere. They have found its atmospheric dynamics to be far more complex than scientists previously thought.

NASA has given Juno the ticket to go around the gas giant for another five and a half years, till September 2025. According to NASA, the mission will continue key observations of Jupiter and expand its investigations to the larger Jovian system, including Jupiter’s rings and large moons, with targeted observations and close flybys planned of the moons Ganymede, Europa, and Io.

Mission extension Juno and NASA

The InSight mission has been extended for two years, running through December 2022. According to NASA, InSight’s spacecraft and the team deployed and operated its highly sensitive seismometer to expand our understanding of Mars’ crust and mantle. Searching for and identifying Marsquakes, the mission team collected data clearly demonstrating the Red Planet’s robust tectonic activity and enhanced our knowledge of the planet’s atmospheric dynamics, magnetic field, and interior structure.

InSight’s extended mission will focus on producing a long-duration, high-quality seismic dataset. Continued operation of its weather station and the burial of the seismic tether using the spacecraft’s Instrument Deployment Arm (IDA) will contribute to this seismic dataset’s quality. The extended mission may continue deployment (at low priority) of the spacecraft’s Heat Probe and Physical Properties instrument (HP3), which remains close to the surface.

No phosphine on Venus?

In September last year, a team of researchers claimed to have detected phosphine on Venus. Phosphine is a toxic gas comprising three atoms of hydrogen and one atom of phosphorus. According to the researchers, the discovery of phosphine could indicate the existence of life on Venus. Since then, several researchers have challenged their report, and now, the original claim has received a fresh blow from two new research papers.

A 10-Billion-Year Old Super-Earth, A Sextuple Star System, And Other Exciting Discoveries In January. 2

“What we bring to the table is a comprehensive look, another way of explaining this data that isn’t phosphine,” says Victoria Meadows, an astrobiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who helped to lead the latest studies. According to Nature, in one study, Meadows and her colleagues analyzed data from one of the telescopes used to make the phosphine claim — and could not detect the gas’s spectral signature. In another study, they concluded that what the original team thought was phosphine is actually sulfur dioxide (SO2), a gas that is common on Venus and is not a sign of possible life.

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Still, the case isn’t closed yet. The new studies argue against the presence of phosphine, but can’t entirely rule it out. “There’s enough wiggle room there,” says Meadows.

The fastest magnetar

Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have detected the fastest spinning magnetar about 21,000 light years away. The magnetar could the youngest one too.

Magnetars are neutron stars with incredible magnetic fields. The magnetic field of a magnetar can be of the order of 100 trillion T. Such objects are unlikely to support the life of the planets around them. With such a high magnetic field, if a magnetar enters halfway between the Earth and the Moon, it can destroy all the information from the Earth’s credit cards.

Also known as J1818.0-1607, the magnetar was first spotted in March 2020. According to astronomers, it formed roughly 500 years ago and could be the youngest known magnetar. The dead star spins once in 1.4 seconds. This is really, really fast! This work was accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. 

A sextuple star system

Astronomers have discovered a sextuply-eclipsing sextuple star system. Quite a lot to digest, I know!

In our solar system, we have a star, the Sun, around which all the planets move. But that’s not the case with most of the stars in the universe. Many stars are in binary systems: two stars orbiting a common barycenter. Even triple star systems are common. But, astronomers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have found a sextuple star system using exoplanet-hunting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

January 2021 discoveries -Sextuple star system
Credits: NASA

The system has been named TYC 7037-89-1. It comprises three pairs of stars, as shown above. According to the researchers, the stars in the inner A and C systems orbit each other every 1.6 and 1.3 days, respectively. The two pairs in this “inner quadruple system” orbit each other every four years. The two stars in pair B circle each other every 8.2 days, together orbiting around the inner systems every 2,000 years.

Titan’s lake

Before disintegrating in the atmosphere of Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft left us with huge amounts of data. Three years after the end of Cassini, scientists have found that the largest lake on Saturn’s moon Titan could be 1,000 feet deep. Back in 2014, preliminary data from this flyby suggested that Kraken Mare was at least 115 feet (35 meters) deep but extend farther; the newly released results show the lake is nearly 10 times deeper than that early estimate.

Data on Kraken Mare was collected during Cassini’s 104th flyby of Titan on Aug. 21, 2014. Engineers are working on a submarine concept that, if funded and approved by NASA, could launch in the 2030s to plumb Titan’s lakes.

Also Watch: Top Astronomical Events in February 2021

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