Our moon may someday become a small planet, say researchers — a 'ploonet'

She may not be ours forever.

Our moon may someday become a small planet, say researchers — a 'ploonet'
Photo credit: Tom White / Getty Images
  • A new study suggests that the moons of gas-giant exoplanets may break away into their own orbits, called "ploonets."
  • Planet + moon = ploonet.
  • As the gas giants move inward toward their suns, the orbits of their moons are often disrupted, according to new computer models.

While exoplanets appear to be plentiful outside our solar system, the moons that we might expect to be orbiting them are another story. Indeed, last spring it looked like astronomers had finally found one — it was dubbed Neptmoon because of its great size — but that finding now appears less certain.

In light of this quandary, a new paper, published on June 27, looks at what might be happening to "exomoons" that orbit large gas-giant planets migrating inward toward their stars, such as our own Jupiter seems to have done.

The researchers — astrophysicist Mario Sucerquia and colleagues — hypothesize that these satellites break free of their tidal connection to their "parent" planets as they move nearer to their sun. The paper suggests that, at this point, they're not quite moons anymore — or planets — but "ploonets."

What's more, our own moon, the researchers say, may meet a similar fate one day, even though Earth isn't a gas giant. Warns Sucerquia:

"Earth's tidal strength is gradually pushing the moon away from us at a rate of about 3 centimeters a year. Therefore, the moon is indeed a potential ploonet once it reaches an unstable orbit."

Image source: JPL/BigThink

The research in the new paper is grounded on the manner in which large gas giants have been observed to slowly move inward through their solar systems toward their respective suns. It suggests that, as such a body draws close to the star, its moon's orbit — affected at that juncture by both the gravitational pull of the planet and the host star — experiences an increase in energy, which becomes unstable. This, eventually, releases the moon from the gravitational bonds of its parent parent.

Further, the paper's conclusions are based on a series of computer simulations that researchers conducted regarding what would happen to a moon orbiting a migrating gas giant. What was discovered?

The models found that 44 percent of the moons would meet their demise by being pulled into their planets (this could explain some of the planetary rings that have been observed). The system's star would seize and destroy another 6 percent. Significant amount of exomoons, however, — about 48 percent of them — would split off from their planets and begin orbiting their star as "ploonets." Around 2 percent would be blown out of their solar system altogether.

This would certainly explain why we haven't definitively found any evidence of exomoons yet.

A new study says it's okay to eat red meat. An immediate uproar follows.

Even before publication, health agencies were asking the journal not to publish the research.

Photo by Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Surprising Science
  • A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found little correlation between red meat consumption and health problems.
  • A number of organizations immediately contested the evidence, claiming it to be based on an irrelevant system of analysis.
  • Beef and dairy production is one of the leading drivers of climate change, forcing humans to weigh personal health against the environment.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

UFOs: US intelligence report finds no aliens but plenty of unidentified flying objects

A new government report describes 144 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena.

Photo by Albert Antony on Unsplash
Surprising Science

On June 25, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated report on UFOs to Congress.

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