Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thin Air - Cassini Finds Ethereal Atmosphere at Rhea

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has detected a very tenuous atmosphere known as an exosphere, infused with oxygen and carbon dioxide around Saturn's icy moon Rhea. This is the first time a spacecraft has directly captured molecules of an oxygen atmosphere – albeit a very thin one -- at a world other than Earth.

The oxygen appears to arise when Saturn's magnetic field rotates over Rhea. Energetic particles trapped in the planet's magnetic field pepper the moon’s water-ice surface. They cause chemical reactions that decompose the surface and release oxygen. The source of the carbon dioxide is less certain.

Oxygen at Rhea's surface is estimated to be about 5 trillion times less dense than what we have at Earth. But the new results show that surface decomposition could contribute abundant molecules of oxygen, leading to surface densities roughly 100 times greater than the exospheres of either Earth's moon or Mercury. The formation of oxygen and carbon dioxide could possibly drive complex chemistry on the surfaces of many icy bodies in the universe.

"The new results suggest that active, complex chemistry involving oxygen may be quite common throughout the solar system and even our universe," said lead author Ben Teolis, a Cassini team scientist based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "Such chemistry could be a prerequisite for life. All evidence from Cassini indicates that Rhea is too cold and devoid of the liquid water necessary for life as we know it."

Releasing oxygen through surface irradiation could help generate conditions favorable for life at an icy body other than Rhea that has liquid water under the surface, Teolis said. If the oxygen and carbon dioxide from the surface could somehow get transported down to a sub-surface ocean, that would provide a much more hospitable environment for more complex compounds and life to form. Scientists are keen to investigate whether life on icy moons with an ocean is possible, though they have not yet detected it.

The tenuous atmosphere with oxygen and carbon dioxide makes Rhea, Saturn's second largest moon, unique in the Saturnian system. Titan has a thick nitrogen-methane atmosphere, but very little carbon dioxide and oxygen.

"Rhea is turning out to be much more interesting than we had imagined," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The Cassini finding highlights the rich diversity of Saturn’s moons and gives us clues on how they formed and evolved."

Scientists had suspected Rhea could have a thin atmosphere with oxygen and carbon dioxide, based on remote observations of Jupiter's icy moons by NASA's Galileo spacecraft and Hubble Space Telescope. Other Cassini observations detected oxygen escaping from icy Saturn ring particles after ultraviolet bombardment. But Cassini was able to detect oxygen and carbon dioxide in the exosphere directly because of how close it flew to Rhea – 101 kilometers, or 63 miles – and its special suite of instruments.

In the new study, scientists combined data from Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer and the Cassini plasma spectrometer during flybys on Nov. 26, 2005, Aug. 30, 2007, and March 2, 2010. The ion and neutral mass spectrometer "tasted" peak densities of oxygen of around 50 billion molecules per cubic meter (1 billion molecules per cubic foot). It detected peak densities of carbon dioxide of around 20 billion molecules per cubic meter (about 600 million molecules per cubic foot).

The plasma spectrometer saw clear signatures of flowing streams of positive and negative ions, with masses that corresponded to ions of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

"How exactly the carbon dioxide is released is still a puzzle," said co-author Geraint Jones, a Cassini team scientist based at University College London in the U.K. "But with Cassini's diverse suite of instruments observing Rhea from afar, as well as sniffing the gas surrounding it, we hope to solve the puzzle."

The carbon dioxide may be the result of “dry ice” trapped from the primordial solar nebula, as is the case with comets, or it may be due to similar irradiation processes operating on the organic molecules trapped in the water ice of Rhea. The carbon dioxide could also come from carbon-rich materials deposited by tiny meteors that bombarded Rhea's surface.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The ion and neutral mass spectrometer team and the Cassini plasma spectrometer team are based at Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.

For more information about the Cassini mission, visit: and .

Friday, November 26, 2010

Stripes Are Back in Season on Jupiter

New NASA images support findings that one of Jupiter's stripes that "disappeared" last spring is now showing signs of a comeback. These new observations will help scientists better understand the interaction between Jupiter's winds and cloud chemistry.

Earlier this year, amateur astronomers noticed that a longstanding dark-brown stripe, known as the South Equatorial Belt, just south of Jupiter's equator, had turned white. In early November, amateur astronomer Christopher Go of Cebu City, Philippines, saw an unusually bright spot in the white area that was once the dark stripe. This phenomenon piqued the interest of scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and elsewhere.

After follow-up observations in Hawaii with NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility, the W.M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini Observatory telescope, scientists now believe the vanished dark stripe is making a comeback.

First-glimpse images of the re-appearing stripe are online at:

"The reason Jupiter seemed to 'lose' this band - camouflaging itself among the surrounding white bands - is that the usual downwelling winds that are dry and keep the region clear of clouds died down," said Glenn Orton, a research scientist at JPL. "One of the things we were looking for in the infrared was evidence that the darker material emerging to the west of the bright spot was actually the start of clearing in the cloud deck, and that is precisely what we saw."

This white cloud deck is made up of white ammonia ice. When the white clouds float at a higher altitude, they obscure the missing brown material, which floats at a lower altitude. Every few decades or so, the South Equatorial Belt turns completely white for perhaps one to three years, an event that has puzzled scientists for decades. This extreme change in appearance has only been seen with the South Equatorial Belt, making it unique to Jupiter and the entire solar system.

The white band wasn't the only change on the big, gaseous planet. At the same time, Jupiter's Great Red Spot became a darker red color. Orton said the color of the spot - a giant storm on Jupiter that is three times the size of Earth and a century or more old - will likely brighten a bit again as the South Equatorial Belt makes its comeback.

The South Equatorial Belt underwent a slight brightening, known as a "fade," just as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft was flying by on its way to Pluto in 2007. Then there was a rapid "revival" of its usual dark color three to four months later. The last full fade and revival was a double-header event, starting with a fade in 1989, revival in 1990, then another fade and revival in 1993. Similar fades and revivals have been captured visually and photographically back to the early 20th century, and they are likely to be a long-term phenomenon in Jupiter's atmosphere.

Scientists are particularly interested in observing this latest event because it's the first time they've been able to use modern instruments to determine the details of the chemical and dynamical changes of this phenomenon. Observing this event carefully may help to refine the scientific questions to be posed by NASA's Juno spacecraft, due to arrive at Jupiter in 2016, and a larger, proposed mission to orbit Jupiter and explore its satellite Europa after 2020.

The event also signifies another close collaboration between professional and amateur astronomers. The amateurs, located worldwide, are often well equipped with instrumentation and are able to track the rapid developments of planets in the solar system. These amateurs are collaborating with professionals to pursue further studies of the changes that are of great value to scientists and researchers everywhere.

"I was fortunate to catch the outburst," said Christopher Go, referring to the first signs that the band was coming back. "I had a meeting that evening and it went late. I caught the outburst just in time as it was rising. Had I imaged earlier, I would not have caught it," he said. Go, who also conducts in the physics department at the University of San Carlos, Cebu City, Philippines, witnessed the disappearance of the stripe earlier this year, and in 2007 he was the first to catch the stripe's return. "I was able to catch it early this time around because I knew exactly what to look for."

NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages time allocation on the Keck telescope for NASA. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about NASA and agency programs, visit:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tuning an 'Ear' to the Music of Gravitational Waves

A team of scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has brought the world one step closer to "hearing" gravitational waves -- ripples in space and time predicted by Albert Einstein in the early 20th century.

The research, performed in a lab at JPL in Pasadena, Calif., tested a system of lasers that would fly aboard the proposed space mission called Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA. The mission's goal is to detect the subtle, whisper-like signals of gravitational waves, which have yet to be directly observed. This is no easy task, and many challenges lie ahead.

The new JPL tests hit one significant milestone, demonstrating for the first time that noise, or random fluctuations, in LISA's laser beams can be hushed enough to hear the sweet sounds of the elusive waves.

"In order to detect gravitational waves, we have to make extremely precise measurements," said Bill Klipstein, a physicist at JPL. "Our lasers are much noisier than what we want to measure, so we have to remove that noise carefully to get a clear signal; it's a little like listening for a feather to drop in the middle of a heavy rainstorm." Klipstein is a co-author of a paper about the lab tests that appeared in a recent issue of Physical Review Letters.

The JPL team is one of many groups working on LISA, a joint European Space Agency and NASA mission proposal, which, if selected, would launch in 2020 or later. In August of this year, LISA was given a high recommendation by the 2010 U.S. National Research Council decadal report on astronomy and astrophysics.

One of LISA's primary goals is to detect gravitational waves directly. Studies of these cosmic waves began in earnest decades ago when, in 1974, researchers discovered a pair of orbiting dead stars -- a type called pulsars -- that were spiraling closer and closer together due to an unexplainable loss of energy. That energy was later shown to be in the form of gravitational waves. This was the first indirect proof of the waves, and ultimately earned the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics.

LISA is expected to not only "hear" the waves, but also learn more about their sources -- massive objects such as black holes and dead stars, which sing the waves like melodies out to the universe as the objects accelerate through space and time. The mission would be able to detect gravitational waves from massive objects in our Milky Way galaxy as well as distant galaxies, allowing scientists to tune into an entirely new language of our universe.

The proposed mission would amount to a giant triangle of three distinct spacecraft, each connected by laser beams. These spacecraft would fly in formation around the sun, about 20 degrees behind Earth. Each one would hold a cube made of platinum and gold that floats freely in space. As gravitational waves pass by the spacecraft, they would cause the distance between the cubes, or test masses, to change by almost imperceptible amounts -- but enough for LISA's extremely sensitive instruments to be able to detect corresponding changes in the connecting laser beams.

"The gravitational waves will cause the 'corks' to bob around, but just by a tiny bit," said Glenn de Vine, a research scientist and co-author of the recent study at JPL. "My friend once said it's sort of like rubber duckies bouncing around in a bathtub."

The JPL team has spent the last six years working on aspects of this LISA technology, including instruments called phase meters, which are sophisticated laser beam detectors. The latest research accomplishes one of their main goals -- to reduce the laser noise detected by the phase meters by one billion times, or enough to detect the signal of gravitational waves.

The job is like trying to find a proton in a haystack. Gravitational waves would change the distance between two spacecraft -- which are flying at 5 million kilometers (3.1 million miles) apart -- by about a picometer, which is about 100 million times smaller than the width of a human hair. In other words, the spacecraft are 5,000,000,000 meters apart, and LISA would detect changes in that distance on the order of .000000000005 meters!

At the heart of the LISA laser technology is a process known as interferometry, which ultimately reveals if the distances traveled by the laser beams of light, and thus the distance between the three spacecraft, have changed due to gravitational waves. The process is like combining ocean waves -- sometimes they pile up and grow bigger, and sometimes they cancel each other out or diminish in size.

"We can't use a tape measure to get the distances between these spacecraft," said de Vine, "So we use lasers. The wavelengths of the lasers are like our tick marks on a tape measure."

On LISA, the laser light is detected by the phase meters and then sent to the ground, where it is "interfered" via data processing (the process is called time-delay interferometry for this reason -- there's a delay before the interferometry technique is applied). If the interference pattern between the laser beams is the same, then that means the spacecraft haven't moved relative to each other. If the interference pattern changes, then they did. If all other reasons for spacecraft movement have been eliminated, then gravitational waves are the culprit.

That's the basic idea. In reality, there are a host of other factors that make this process more complex. For one thing, the spacecraft don't stay put. They naturally move around for reasons that have nothing to do with gravitational waves. Another challenge is the laser beam noise. How do you know if the spacecraft moved because of gravitational waves, or if noise in the laser is just making it seem as if the spacecraft moved?

This is the question the JPL team recently took to their laboratory, which mimics the LISA system. They introduced random, artificial noise into their lasers and then, through a complicated set of data processing actions, subtracted most of it back out. Their recent success demonstrated that they could see changes in the distances between mock spacecraft on the order of a picometer.

In essence, they hushed the roar of the laser beams, so that LISA, if selected for construction, will be able to hear the universe softly hum a tune of gravitational waves.

Other authors of the paper from JPL are Brent Ware; Kirk McKenzie; Robert E. Spero and Daniel A. Shaddock, who has a joint post with JPL and the Australian National University in Canberra.

LISA is a proposed joint NASA and European Space Agency mission. The NASA portion of the mission is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Some of the key instrumentation studies for the mission are being performed at JPL. The U.S. mission scientist is Tom Prince at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How to See the Best Meteor Showers of the Year: Tools, Tips and 'Save the Dates'

There are several major meteor showers to enjoy every year at various times, with some more active than others. For example, April's Lyrids are expected to produce about 15 meteors an hour at their peak for observers viewing in good conditions. Now, if you put the same observer in the same good conditions during a higher-rate shower like August's Perseids or December's Geminids, that person could witness up to 80 meteors an hour during peak activity.

The 2010 Leonid meteor shower peaks the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 17. While the annual shower has been spectacular in the past, this year's half-full moon will obstruct viewing for most backyard astronomers.

If you're viewing in dark conditions, the best viewing time will be after midnight, in the hours just before dawn. At most, expect to see approximately 15 meteors per hour.

Whether you're watching from a downtown area or the dark countryside, here are some tips to help you enjoy these celestial shows of shooting stars. Those streaks of light are really caused by tiny specks of comet-stuff hitting Earth's atmosphere at very high speed and disintegrating in flashes of light.

First a word about the moon - it is not the meteor watcher's friend. Light reflecting off a bright moon can be just as detrimental to good meteor viewing as those bright lights of the big city. There is nothing you can do except howl at the moon, so you'll have to put up with it or wait until the next favorable shower. However, even though the 2010 Perseids and Geminids share the night sky with the moon, they are still expected to produce more visible meteor activity than other major showers that don't have an interfering moon.

The best thing you can do to maximize the number of meteors you'll see is to get as far away from urban light pollution as possible and find a location with a clear, unclouded view of the night sky. If you enjoy camping, try planning a trip that coincides with dates of one of the meteor showers listed below. Once you get to your viewing location, search for the darkest patch of sky you can find, as meteors can appear anywhere overhead. The meteors will always travel in a path away from the constellation for which the shower is named. This apparent point of origin is called the "radiant." For example, meteors during a Leonid meteor shower will appear to originate from the constellation Leo. (Note: the constellation only serves as a helpful guide in the night's sky. The constellation is not the actual source of the meteors. For an overview of what causes meteor showers click on Meteor Showers: Shooting for Shooting Stars)

Whether viewing from your front porch or a mountaintop, be sure to dress for success. This means clothing appropriate for cold overnight temperatures, which might include mittens or gloves, and blankets. This will enable you to settle in without having to abandon the meteor-watching because your fingers are starting to turn colors.

Next, bring something comfortable on which to sit or lie down. While Mother Nature can put on a magnificent celestial display, meteor showers rarely approach anything on the scale of a July 4th fireworks show. Plan to be patient and watch for at least half an hour. A reclining chair or ground pad will make it far more comfortable to keep your gaze on the night sky.

Lastly, put away the telescope or binoculars. Using either reduces the amount of sky you can see at one time, lowering the odds that you'll see anything but darkness. Instead, let your eyes hang loose and don't look in any one specific spot. Relaxed eyes will quickly zone in on any movement up above, and you'll be able to spot more meteors. Avoid looking at your cell phone or any other light. Both destroy night vision. If you have to look at something on Earth, use a red light. Some flashlights have handy interchangeable filters. If you don't have one of those, you can always paint the clear filter with red fingernail polish.

The meteor showers listed below will provide casual meteor observers with the most bang for their buck. They are the easiest to observe and most active. All these showers are best enjoyed in the hours after midnight. Be sure to also check the "Related Links" box for additional information, and for tools to help you determine how many meteors may be visible from your part of the world.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rocks and Stars with Amy: This Asteroid Inspected by #32

Over the course of the nine months we’ve been operating WISE, we’ve observed over 150,000 asteroids and comets of all different types. We had to pick all of these moving objects out of the hundreds of millions of sources observed all over the sky — so you can imagine that sifting through all those stars and galaxies to find the asteroids is not easy!

We use a lot of techniques to figure out how to distinguish an asteroid from a star or galaxy. Even though just about everything in the universe moves, asteroids are a whole lot closer to us than your average star (and certainly your average galaxy), so they appear to move from place to place in the WISE images over a timescale of minutes, unlike the much more distant stars. It’s almost like watching a pack of cyclists go by in the Tour de France. Also, WISE takes infrared images, which means that cooler objects like asteroids look different than the hotter stars. If you look at the picture below, you can see that the stars appear bright blue, whereas the sole asteroid in the frame appears red. That’s because the asteroid is about room temperature and is therefore much colder than the stars, which are thousands of degrees. Cooler objects will give off more of their light at longer, infrared wavelengths that our WISE telescope sees. We can use both of these unique properties of asteroids — their motion and their bright infrared signatures — to tease them out of the bazillions of stars and galaxies in the WISE images.

Thanks to the efforts of some smart scientists and software engineers, we have a very slick program that automatically searches the images for anything that moves at the longer, infrared wavelengths. With WISE, we take about a dozen or so images of each part of the sky over a couple of days. The system works by throwing out everything that appears again and again in each exposure. What’s left are just the so-called transient sources, the things that don’t stay the same between snapshots. Most of these are cosmic rays — charged particles zooming through space that are either spat out by our sun or burped up from other high-energy processes like supernovae or stars falling into black holes. These cosmic rays hit our detectors, leaving a blip that appears for just a single exposure. Also, really bright objects can leave an after-image on the detectors that can persist for many minutes, just like when you stare at a light bulb and then close your eyes. We have to weed the real asteroid detections out from the cosmic rays and after-images.

The data pipeline is smart enough to catch most of these artifacts and figure out what the real moving objects are. However, if it’s a new asteroid that no one has ever seen before, we have to have a human inspect the set of images and make sure that it’s not just a collection of artifacts that happened to show up at the right place and right time. About 20 percent of the asteroids that we observe appear to be new, and we examine those using a program that we call our quality assurance (QA) system, which lets us rapidly sift through hundreds of candidate asteroids to make sure they’re real. The QA system pops up a set of images of the candidate asteroid, along with a bunch of “before” and “after” images of the same part of the sky. This lets us eliminate any stars that might have been confused for the asteroids. Finally, since the WISE camera takes a picture every 11 seconds, we take a look at the exposures taken immediately before the ones with the candidate asteroid — if the source is really just an after-image persisting after we’ve looked at something bright, it will be there in the previous frame. We’ve had many students — three college students and two very talented high school students — work on asteroid QA. They’ve become real pros at inspecting asteroid candidates!

Meanwhile, the hunt continues — we’re still trekking along through the sky with the two shortest-wavelength infrared bands, now that we’ve run out of the super-cold hydrogen that was keeping two of the four detectors operating. Even though our sensitivity is lower, we’re still observing asteroids and looking for interesting things like nearby brown dwarfs (stars too cold to shine in visible light because they can’t sustain nuclear fusion). Our dedicated team of asteroid inspectors keeps plugging away, keeping the quality of the detections very high so that we leave the best possible legacy when our little telescope’s journey is finally done.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Shedding 'Bent' Light on Dark Matter

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope took advantage of a giant cosmic magnifying glass to create one of the sharpest and most detailed maps of dark matter in the universe. Dark matter is an invisible and unknown substance that makes up the bulk of the universe's mass. Astronomer Dan Coe led the research while working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; he is currently with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.

The astronomers used Hubble to chart the invisible matter in the massive galaxy cluster Abell 1689, located 2.2 billion light-years away. The cluster's gravity, the majority of which comes from dark matter, acts like a cosmic magnifying glass, bending and amplifying the light from distant galaxies behind it. This effect, called gravitational lensing, produces multiple, warped, and greatly magnified images of those galaxies, like the view in a funhouse mirror. By studying the distorted images, astronomers estimated the amount of dark matter within the cluster.

The new dark matter observations may yield new insights into the role of dark energy in the universe's early formative years. A mysterious property of space, dark energy fights against the gravitational pull of dark matter. The new results suggest that galaxy clusters may have formed earlier than expected, before the push of dark energy inhibited their growth. Dark energy pushes galaxies apart from one another by stretching the space between them, suppressing the formation of giant structures called galaxy clusters. One way astronomers can probe this primeval tug-of-war is by mapping the distribution of dark matter in clusters.

Read the full story at .

The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Reflecting Merope

In the well known Pleiades star cluster, starlight is slowly destroying this wandering cloud of gas and dust. The star Merope lies just off the upper left edge of this picture from the Hubble Space Telescope. In the past 100,000 years, part of the cloud has by chance moved so close to this star--only 3,500 times the Earth-Sun distance--that the starlight itself is having a very dramatic effect. Pressure of the star's light significantly repels the dust in the reflection nebula, and smaller dust particles are repelled more strongly. As a result, parts of the dust cloud have become stratified, pointing toward Merope. The closest particles are the most massive and the least affected by the radiation pressure. A longer-term result will be the general destruction of the dust by the energetic starlight.