Tag Archives: atmosphere

This artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young planet Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres.

Credit:
ESO/M. Kornmesser

Real Martians: How to Protect Astronauts from Space Radiation on Mars

On Aug. 7, 1972, in the heart of the Apollo era, an enormous solar flare exploded from the sun’s atmosphere. Along with a gigantic burst of light in nearly all wavelengths, this event accelerated a wave of energetic particles. Mostly protons, with a few electrons and heavier elements mixed in, this wash of quick-moving particles would have been dangerous to anyone outside Earth’s protective magnetic bubble. Luckily, the Apollo 16 crew had returned to Earth just five months earlier, narrowly escaping this powerful event.

In the early days of human space flight, scientists were only just beginning to understand how events on the sun could affect space, and in turn how that radiation could affect humans and technology. Today, as a result of extensive space radiation research, we have a much better understanding of our space environment, its effects, and the best ways to protect astronauts—all crucial parts of NASA’s mission to send humans to Mars.

“The Martian” film highlights the radiation dangers that could occur on a round trip to Mars. While the mission in the film is fictional, NASA has already started working on the technology to enable an actual trip to Mars in the 2030s. In the film, the astronauts’ habitat on Mars shields them from radiation, and indeed, radiation shielding will be a crucial technology for the voyage. From better shielding to advanced biomedical countermeasures, NASA currently studies how to protect astronauts and electronics from radiation – efforts that will have to be incorporated into every aspect of Mars mission planning, from spacecraft and habitat design to spacewalk protocols.

This artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young planet Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
This artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young planet Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres.
Credit:
ESO/M. Kornmesser

“The space radiation environment will be a critical consideration for everything in the astronauts’ daily lives, both on the journeys between Earth and Mars and on the surface,” said Ruthan Lewis, an architect and engineer with the human spaceflight program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “You’re constantly being bombarded by some amount of radiation.”

Radiation, at its most basic, is simply waves or sub-atomic particles that transports energy to another entity – whether it is an astronaut or spacecraft component. The main concern in space is particle radiation. Energetic particles can be dangerous to humans because they pass right through the skin, depositing energy and damaging cells or DNA along the way. This damage can mean an increased risk for cancer later in life or, at its worst, acute radiation sickness during the mission if the dose of energetic particles is large enough.

Fortunately for us, Earth’s natural protections block all but the most energetic of these particles from reaching the surface. A huge magnetic bubble, called the magnetosphere, which deflects the vast majority of these particles, protects our planet. And our atmosphere subsequently absorbs the majority of particles that do make it through this bubble. Importantly, since the International Space Station (ISS) is in low-Earth orbit within the magnetosphere, it also provides a large measure of protection for our astronauts.

“We have instruments that measure the radiation environment inside the ISS, where the crew are, and even outside the station,” said Kerry Lee, a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

This ISS crew monitoring also includes tracking of the short-term and lifetime radiation doses for each astronaut to assess the risk for radiation-related diseases. Although NASA has conservative radiation limits greater than allowed radiation workers on Earth, the astronauts are able to stay well under NASA’s limit while living and working on the ISS, within Earth’s magnetosphere.

But a journey to Mars requires astronauts to move out much further, beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetic bubble.

“There’s a lot of good science to be done on Mars, but a trip to interplanetary space carries more radiation risk than working in low-Earth orbit,” said Jonathan Pellish, a space radiation engineer at Goddard.

A human mission to Mars means sending astronauts into interplanetary space for a minimum of a year, even with a very short stay on the Red Planet. Nearly all of that time, they will be outside the magnetosphere, exposed to the harsh radiation environment of space. Mars has no global magnetic field to deflect energetic particles, and its atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, so they’ll get only minimal protection even on the surface of Mars.

 

Throughout the entire trip, astronauts must be protected from two sources of radiation. The first comes from the sun, which regularly releases a steady stream of solar particles, as well as occasional larger bursts in the wake of giant explosions, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, on the sun. These energetic particles are almost all protons, and, though the sun releases an unfathomably large number of them, the proton energy is low enough that they can almost all be physically shielded by the structure of the spacecraft.

 

Since solar activity strongly contributes to the deep-space radiation environment, a better understanding of the sun’s modulation of this radiation environment will allow mission planners to make better decisions for a future Mars mission. NASA currently operates a fleet of spacecraft studying the sun and the space environment throughout the solar system. Observations from this area of research, known as heliophysics, help us better understand the origin of solar eruptions and what effects these events have on the overall space radiation environment.

 

“If we know precisely what’s going on, we don’t have to be as conservative with our estimates, which gives us more flexibility when planning the mission,” said Pellish.

 

The second source of energetic particles is harder to shield. These particles come from galactic cosmic rays, often known as GCRs. They’re particles accelerated to near the speed of light that shoot into our solar system from other stars in the Milky Way or even other galaxies. Like solar particles, galactic cosmic rays are mostly protons. However, some of them are heavier elements, ranging from helium up to the heaviest elements. These more energetic particles can knock apart atoms in the material they strike, such as in the astronaut, the metal walls of a spacecraft, habitat, or vehicle, causing sub-atomic particles to shower into the structure. This secondary radiation, as it is known, can reach a dangerous level.

 

There are two ways to shield from these higher-energy particles and their secondary radiation: use a lot more mass of traditional spacecraft materials, or use more efficient shielding materials.

 

The sheer volume of material surrounding a structure would absorb the energetic particles and their associated secondary particle radiation before they could reach the astronauts. However, using sheer bulk to protect astronauts would be prohibitively expensive, since more mass means more fuel required to launch.

 

Using materials that shield more efficiently would cut down on weight and cost, but finding the right material takes research and ingenuity. NASA is currently investigating a handful of possibilities that could be used in anything from the spacecraft to the Martian habitat to space suits.

 

“The best way to stop particle radiation is by running that energetic particle into something that’s a similar size,” said Pellish. “Otherwise, it can be like you’re bouncing a tricycle off a tractor-trailer.”

 

Because protons and neutrons are similar in size, one element blocks both extremely well—hydrogen, which most commonly exists as just a single proton and an electron. Conveniently, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and makes up substantial parts of some common compounds, such as water and plastics like polyethylene. Engineers could take advantage of already-required mass by processing the astronauts’ trash into plastic-filled tiles used to bolster radiation protection. Water, already required for the crew, could be stored strategically to create a kind of radiation storm shelter in the spacecraft or habitat. However, this strategy comes with some challenges—the crew would need to use the water and then replace it with recycled water from the advanced life support systems.

 

Polyethylene, the same plastic commonly found in water bottles and grocery bags, also has potential as a candidate for radiation shielding. It is very high in hydrogen and fairly cheap to produce—however, it’s not strong enough to build a large structure, especially a spacecraft, which goes through high heat and strong forces during launch. And adding polyethylene to a metal structure would add quite a bit of mass, meaning that more fuel would be required for launch.

 

“We’ve made progress on reducing and shielding against these energetic particles, but we’re still working on finding a material that is a good shield and can act as the primary structure of the spacecraft,” said Sheila Thibeault, a materials researcher at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

 

One material in development at NASA has the potential to do both jobs: Hydrogenated boron nitride nanotubes—known as hydrogenated BNNTs—are tiny, nanotubes made of carbon, boron, and nitrogen, with hydrogen interspersed throughout the empty spaces left in between the tubes. Boron is also an excellent absorber secondary neutrons, making hydrogenated BNNTs an ideal shielding material.

“This material is really strong—even at high heat—meaning that it’s great for structure,” said Thibeault.

Remarkably, researchers have successfully made yarn out of BNNTs, so it’s flexible enough to be woven into the fabric of space suits, providing astronauts with significant radiation protection even while they’re performing spacewalks in transit or out on the harsh Martian surface. Though hydrogenated BNNTs are still in development and testing, they have the potential to be one of our key structural and shielding materials in spacecraft, habitats, vehicles, and space suits that will be used on Mars.

Physical shields aren’t the only option for stopping particle radiation from reaching astronauts: Scientists are also exploring the possibility of building force fields. Force fields aren’t just the realm of science fiction: Just like Earth’s magnetic field protects us from energetic particles, a relatively small, localized electric or magnetic field would—if strong enough and in the right configuration—create a protective bubble around a spacecraft or habitat. Currently, these fields would take a prohibitive amount of power and structural material to create on a large scale, so more work is needed for them to be feasible.

The risk of health effects can also be reduced in operational ways, such as having a special area of the spacecraft or Mars habitat that could be a radiation storm shelter; preparing spacewalk and research protocols to minimize time outside the more heavily-shielded spacecraft or habitat; and ensuring that astronauts can quickly return indoors in the event of a radiation storm.

Radiation risk mitigation can also be approached from the human body level. Though far off, a medication that would counteract some or all of the health effects of radiation exposure would make it much easier to plan for a safe journey to Mars and back.

“Ultimately, the solution to radiation will have to be a combination of things,” said Pellish. “Some of the solutions are technology we have already, like hydrogen-rich materials, but some of it will necessarily be cutting edge concepts that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

This artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young planet Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres.

Credit:
ESO/M. Kornmesser

UAE’s Al-Amal Mars Mission: A Great Initiative with Even Greater Intent

The mission will be launched in 2020 and the landing is expected to be in 2021
 By Syed Faisal ur Rahman


Recently UAE has announced details of its mission to Mars named ‘Al-Amal’. Amal is an Arabic word and name meaning ‘hope’ or ‘aspiration’ and the program truly represents the desires of many in Arab or even the whole Muslim world to contribute something big in humanity’s endeavors to explore the universe.

There was a time when Muslim and especially Arab astronomers used to contribute or even lead in many areas of science. From algebra to astronomy and medicine, we can find a lot of literature in history highlighting the contribution of Muslim scientists and engineers.

If you look at the star charts and astronomy catalogues, you will find many Arabic names of celestial objects and that’s because some of the early discoveries in astronomy were made by Muslim scientists in a time when Europe was going through dark ages.

Unfortunately, Muslims lost their way into darkness 7-8 centuries ago and the intellectual leadership was taken over by people who pushed us away from the path of learning physical sciences, reasoning and exploring the uncharted territories. According to the details provided by Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center MBRSC, the mission will be launched in 2020 and the landing is expected to be in 2021. The mission will not only cover the entire Martian atmosphere for the first time but will also acquire critical data which will help in understanding climate and atmosphere on our own planet “Earth”.

The data from the probe will also help in learning more about Exo-planets and so will also help in finding prospects of life beyond Earth. Sheikh Mohammad of UAE rightly said “The Emirates Mars Mission will be a great contribution to human knowledge, a milestone for Arab civilization, and a real investment for future generations.” It is a good thing that after USA, Europe and Russia, Asian countries like India, China, Japan and now UAE are also excelling in space sector.

It will be good if Pakistan can also accelerate its space program and have put more focus on the civilian aspects of space technology. A right path for us will be to bring more scientists into our decision making structure and like India, make science and technology collaboration, especially in civilian or academic areas, as an important part of our foreign policy goals. Currently, our foreign policy goals mainly revolve around security, energy and aid related issues. We need to be pro-active if we want to be among the successful nations of the world.

In the end, I would like to wish best of luck to our brothers and sisters in UAE for their great initiative and hope that their mission will contribute greatly towards humanity’s goal of exploring worlds beyond our own.


The article is also published in Daily Times Pakistan.

This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse).  In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2.

Credit:
ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

First Exoplanet Visible Light Spectrum

New technique paints promising picture for future


Astronomers using the HARPS planet-hunting machine at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile have made the first-ever direct detection of the spectrum of visible light reflected off an exoplanet. These observations also revealed new properties of this famous object, the first exoplanet ever discovered around a normal star: 51 Pegasi b. The result promises an exciting future for this technique, particularly with the advent of next generation instruments, such as ESPRESSO, on the VLT, and future telescopes, such as the E-ELT.

The exoplanet 51 Pegasi b [1] lies some 50 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pegasus. It was discovered in 1995 and will forever be remembered as the first confirmed exoplanet to be found orbiting an ordinary star like the Sun [2]. It is also regarded as the archetypal hot Jupiter — a class of planets now known to be relatively commonplace, which are similar in size and mass to Jupiter, but orbit much closer to their parent stars.

Since that landmark discovery, more than 1900 exoplanets in 1200 planetary systems have been confirmed, but, in the year of the twentieth anniversary of its discovery, 51 Pegasi b returns to the ring once more to provide another advance in exoplanet studies.

The team that made this new detection was led by Jorge Martins from the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA) and the Universidade do Porto, Portugal, who is currently a PhD student at ESO in Chile. They used the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse).  In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2
This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse). In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2.
Credit:
ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

Currently, the most widely used method to examine an exoplanet’s atmosphere is to observe the host star’s spectrum as it is filtered through the planet’s atmosphere during transit — a technique known as transmission spectroscopy. An alternative approach is to observe the system when the star passes in front of the planet, which primarily provides information about the exoplanet’s temperature.

The new technique does not depend on finding a planetary transit, and so can potentially be used to study many more exoplanets. It allows the planetary spectrum to be directly detected in visible light, which means that different characteristics of the planet that are inaccessible to other techniques can be inferred.

The host star’s spectrum is used as a template to guide a search for a similar signature of light that is expected to be reflected off the planet as it describes its orbit. This is an exceedingly difficult task as planets are incredibly dim in comparison to their dazzling parent stars.

The signal from the planet is also easily swamped by other tiny effects and sources of noise [3]. In the face of such adversity, the success of the technique when applied to the HARPS data collected on 51 Pegasi b provides an extremely valuable proof of concept.

Jorge Martins explains: “This type of detection technique is of great scientific importance, as it allows us to measure the planet’s real mass and orbital inclination, which is essential to more fully understand the system. It also allows us to estimate the planet’s reflectivity, or albedo, which can be used to infer the composition of both the planet’s surface and atmosphere.”

51 Pegasi b was found to have a mass about half that of Jupiter’s and an orbit with an inclination of about nine degrees to the direction to the Earth [4]. The planet also seems to be larger than Jupiter in diameter and to be highly reflective. These are typical properties for a hot Jupiter that is very close to its parent star and exposed to intense starlight.

HARPS was essential to the team’s work, but the fact that the result was obtained using the ESO 3.6-metre telescope, which has a limited range of application with this technique, is exciting news for astronomers. Existing equipment like this will be surpassed by much more advanced instruments on larger telescopes, such as ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the future European Extremely Large Telescope [5].

“We are now eagerly awaiting first light of the ESPRESSO spectrograph on the VLT so that we can do more detailed studies of this and other planetary systems,” concludes Nuno Santos, of the IA and Universidade do Porto, who is a co-author of the new paper.

Notes
[1] Both 51 Pegasi b and its host star 51 Pegasi are among the objects available for public naming in the IAU’s NameExoWorlds contest.

[2] Two earlier planetary objects were detected orbiting in the extreme environment of a pulsar.

[3] The challenge is similar to trying to study the faint glimmer reflected off a tiny insect flying around a distant and brilliant light.

[4] This means that the planet’s orbit is close to being edge on as seen from Earth, although this is not close enough for transits to take place.

[5] ESPRESSO on the VLT, and later even more powerful instruments on much larger telescopes such as the E-ELT, will allow for a significant increase in precision and collecting power, aiding the detection of smaller exoplanets, while providing an increase in detail in the data for planets similar to 51 Pegasi b.

Source: ESO

This artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young planet Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres.

Credit:
ESO/M. Kornmesser

Mars, the Red Planet once had more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean

Researchers, from ESO, NASA and Keck, who are studying Mars’ atmosphere have provided some exciting results regarding the history of water on the red planet.


 

A primitive ocean on Mars held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean, and covered a greater portion of the planet’s surface than the Atlantic Ocean does on Earth, according to new results published today. An international team of scientists used ESO’s Very Large Telescope, along with instruments at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, to monitor the atmosphere of the planet and map out the properties of the water in different parts of Mars’s atmosphere over a six-year period. These new maps are the first of their kind. The results appear online in the journal Science today.

About four billion years ago, the young planet would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres.

Our study provides a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had, by determining how much water was lost to space,” said Geronimo Villanueva, a scientist working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, USA, and lead author of the new paper. “With this work, we can better understand the history of water on Mars.

This artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young planet Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
This artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young planet Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres.
Credit:
ESO/M. Kornmesser

The new estimate is based on detailed observations of two slightly different forms of water in Mars’s atmosphere. One is the familiar form of water, made with two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, H2O. The other is HDO, or semi-heavy water, a naturally occurring variation in which one hydrogen atom is replaced by a heavier form, called deuterium.

As the deuterated form is heavier than normal water, it is less easily lost into space through evaporation. So, the greater the water loss from the planet, the greater the ratio of HDO to H2O in the water that remains [1].

The researchers distinguished the chemical signatures of the two types of water using ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, along with instruments at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii [2]. By comparing the ratio of HDO to H2O, scientists can measure by how much the fraction of HDO has increased and thus determine how much water has escaped into space. This in turn allows the amount of water on Mars at earlier times to be estimated.

In the study, the team mapped the distribution of H2O and HDO repeatedly over nearly six Earth years — equal to about three Mars years — producing global snapshots of each, as well as their ratio. The maps reveal seasonal changes and microclimates, even though modern Mars is essentially a desert.

Ulli Kaeufl of ESO, who was responsible for building one of the instruments used in this study and is a co-author of the new paper, adds: “I am again overwhelmed by how much power there is in remote sensing on other planets using astronomical telescopes: we found an ancient ocean more than 100 million kilometres away!” 

The team was especially interested in regions near the north and south poles, because the polar ice caps are the planet’s largest known reservoir of water. The water stored there is thought to document the evolution of Mars’s water from the wet Noachian period, which ended about 3.7 billion years ago, to the present.

The new results show that atmospheric water in the near-polar region was enriched in HDO by a factor of seven relative to Earth’s ocean water, implying that water in Mars’s permanent ice caps is enriched eight-fold. Mars must have lost a volume of water 6.5 times larger than the present polar caps to provide such a high level of enrichment. The volume of Mars’s early ocean must have been at least 20 million cubic kilometres.

Based on the surface of Mars today, a likely location for this water would be the Northern Plains, which have long been considered a good candidate because of their low-lying ground. An ancient ocean there would have covered 19% of the planet’s surface — by comparison, the Atlantic Ocean occupies 17% of the Earth’s surface.

With Mars losing that much water, the planet was very likely wet for a longer period of time than previously thought, suggesting the planet might have been habitable for longer,” said Michael Mumma, a senior scientist at Goddard and the second author on the paper.

It is possible that Mars once had even more water, some of which may have been deposited below the surface. Because the new maps reveal microclimates and changes in the atmospheric water content over time, they may also prove to be useful in the continuing search for underground water.

Notes

[1] In oceans on Earth there are about 3200 molecules of H2O for each HDO molecule.

[2] Although probes on the Martian surface and orbiting the planet can provide much more detailed in situmeasurements, they are not suitable for monitoring the properties of the whole Martian atmosphere. This is best done using infrared spectrographs on large telescopes back on Earth.

Source: ESO


 

Losing air |New study finds a barrage of small impacts likely erased much of the Earth’s primordial atmosphere.

By Jennifer  Chu


CAMBRIDGE, MA — Today’s atmosphere likely bears little trace of its primordial self: Geochemical evidence suggests that Earth’s atmosphere may have been completely obliterated at least twice since its formation more than 4 billion years ago. However, it’s unclear what interplanetary forces could have driven such a dramatic loss.

Now researchers at MIT, Hebrew University, and Caltech have landed on a likely scenario: A relentless blitz of small space rocks, or planetesimals, may have bombarded Earth around the time the moon was formed, kicking up clouds of gas with enough force to permanently eject small portions of the atmosphere into space.

Tens of thousands of such small impacts, the researchers calculate, could efficiently jettison Earth’s entire primordial atmosphere. Such impacts may have also blasted other planets, and even peeled away the atmospheres of Venus and Mars.

In fact, the researchers found that small planetesimals may be much more effective than giant impactors in driving atmospheric loss. Based on their calculations, it would take a giant impact — almost as massive as the Earth slamming into itself — to disperse most of the atmosphere. But taken together, many small impacts would have the same effect, at a tiny fraction of the mass.

Hilke Schlichting, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says understanding the drivers of Earth’s ancient atmosphere may help scientists to identify the early planetary conditions that encouraged life to form.

“[This finding] sets a very different initial condition for what the early Earth’s atmosphere was most likely like,” Schlichting says. “It gives us a new starting point for trying to understand what was the composition of the atmosphere, and what were the conditions for developing life.”

Schlichting and her colleagues have published their results in the journal Icarus.

Efficient ejection

The group examined how much atmosphere was retained and lost following impacts with giant, Mars-sized and larger bodies and with smaller impactors measuring 25 kilometers or less — space rocks equivalent to those whizzing around the asteroid belt today.

The team performed numerical analyses, calculating the force generated by a given impacting mass at a certain velocity, and the resulting loss of atmospheric gases. A collision with an impactor as massive as Mars, the researchers found, would generate a shockwave through the Earth’s interior, setting off significant ground motion — similar to simultaneous giant earthquakes around the planet — whose force would ripple out into the atmosphere, a process that could potentially eject a significant fraction, if not all, of the planet’s atmosphere.

However, if such a giant collision occurred, it should also melt everything within the planet, turning its interior into a homogenous slurry. Given the diversity of noble gases like helium-3 deep inside the Earth today, the researchers concluded that it is unlikely that such a giant, core-melting impact occurred.

Instead, the team calculated the effects of much smaller impactors on Earth’s atmosphere. Such space rocks, upon impact, would generate an explosion of sorts, releasing a plume of debris and gas. The largest of these impactors would be forceful enough to eject all gas from the atmosphere immediately above the impact’s tangent plane — the line perpendicular to the impactor’s trajectory. Only a fraction of this atmosphere would be lost following smaller impacts.

To completely eject all of Earth’s atmosphere, the team estimated, the planet would need to have been bombarded by tens of thousands of small impactors — a scenario that likely did occur 4.5 billion years ago, during a time when the moon was formed. This period was one of galactic chaos, as hundreds of thousands of space rocks whirled around the solar system, frequently colliding to form the planets, the moon, and other bodies.

“For sure, we did have all these smaller impactors back then,” Schlichting says. “One small impact cannot get rid of most of the atmosphere, but collectively, they’re much more efficient than giant impacts, and could easily eject all the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Runaway effect

However, Schlichting realized that the sum effect of small impacts may be too efficient at driving atmospheric loss. Other scientists have measured the atmospheric composition of Earth compared with Venus and Mars. These measurements have revealed that while each planetary atmosphere has similar patterns of noble gas abundance, the budget for Venus is similar to that of chondrites — stony meteorites that are primordial leftovers of the early solar system. Compared with Venus, Earth’s noble gas budget has been depleted 100-fold.

Schlichting realized that if both planets were exposed to the same blitz of small impactors, Venus’ atmosphere should have been similarly depleted. She and her colleagues went back over the small-impactor scenario, examining the effects of atmospheric loss in more detail, to try and account for the difference between the two planets’ atmospheres.

Based on further calculations, the team identified an interesting effect: Once half a planet’s atmosphere has been lost, it becomes much easier for small impactors to eject the rest of the gas. The researchers calculated that Venus’ atmosphere would only have to start out slightly more massive than Earth’s in order for small impactors to erode the first half of the Earth’s atmosphere, while keeping Venus’ intact. From that point, Schlichting describes the phenomenon as a “runaway process — once you manage to get rid of the first half, the second half is even easier.”

Time zero

During the course of the group’s research, an inevitable question arose: What eventually replaced Earth’s atmosphere? Upon further calculations, Schlichting and her team found the same impactors that ejected gas also may have introduced new gases, or volatiles.

“When an impact happens, it melts the planetesimal, and its volatiles can go into the atmosphere,” Schlichting says. “They not only can deplete, but replenish part of the atmosphere.”

The group calculated the amount of volatiles that may be released by a rock of a given composition and mass, and found that a significant portion of the atmosphere may have been replenished by the impact of tens of thousands of space rocks.

“Our numbers are realistic, given what we know about the volatile content of the different rocks we have,” Schlichting notes.

Going forward, Schlichting hopes to examine more closely the conditions underlying Earth’s early formation, including the interplay between the release of volatiles from small impactors and from Earth’s ancient magma ocean.

“We want to connect these geophysical processes to determine what was the most likely composition of the atmosphere at time zero, when the Earth just formed, and hopefully identify conditions for the evolution of life,” Schlichting says.

Source: MIT News Office

The DC-8 airborne laboratory is one of several NASA aircraft that will fly in support of five new investigations into how different aspects of the interconnected Earth system influence climate change.
Image Credit: NASA

NASA Airborne Campaigns Tackle Climate Questions from Africa to Arctic

Five new NASA airborne field campaigns will take to the skies starting in 2015 to investigate how long-range air pollution, warming ocean waters, and fires in Africa affect our climate.

These studies into several incompletely understood Earth system processes were competitively-selected as part of NASA’s Earth Venture-class projects. Each project is funded at a total cost of no more than $30 million over five years. This funding includes initial development, field campaigns and analysis of data.

This is NASA’s second series of Earth Venture suborbital investigations — regularly solicited, quick-turnaround projects recommended by the National Research Council in 2007. The first series of five projects was selected in 2010.

“These new investigations address a variety of key scientific questions critical to advancing our understanding of how Earth works,” said Jack Kaye, associate director for research in NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington. “These innovative airborne experiments will let us probe inside processes and locations in unprecedented detail that complements what we can do with our fleet of Earth-observing satellites.”

The DC-8 airborne laboratory is one of several NASA aircraft that will fly in support of five new investigations into how different aspects of the interconnected Earth system influence climate change. Image Credit: NASA
The DC-8 airborne laboratory is one of several NASA aircraft that will fly in support of five new investigations into how different aspects of the interconnected Earth system influence climate change.
Image Credit: NASA

The five selected Earth Venture investigations are:

  • Atmospheric chemistry and air pollution – Steven Wofsy of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will lead the Atmospheric Tomography project to study the impact of human-produced air pollution on certain greenhouse gases. Airborne instruments will look at how atmospheric chemistry is transformed by various air pollutants and at the impact on methane and ozone which affect climate. Flights aboard NASA’s DC-8 will originate from the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, fly north to the western Arctic, south to the South Pacific, east to the Atlantic, north to Greenland, and return to California across central North America.
  • Ecosystem changes in a warming ocean – Michael Behrenfeld of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, will lead the North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study, which seeks to improve predictions of how ocean ecosystems would change with ocean warming. The mission will study the annual life cycle of phytoplankton and the impact small airborne particles derived from marine organisms have on climate in the North Atlantic. The large annual phytoplankton bloom in this region may influence the Earth’s energy budget. Research flights by NASA’s C-130 aircraft from Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia, will be coordinated with a University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) research vessel. UNOLS, located at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography in Narragansett, Rhode Island, is an organization of 62 academic institutions and national laboratories involved in oceanographic research.
  • Greenhouse gas sources – Kenneth Davis of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, will lead the Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America project to quantify the sources of regional carbon dioxide, methane and other gases, and document how weather systems transport these gases in the atmosphere. The research goal is to improve identification and predictions of carbon dioxide and methane sources and sinks using spaceborne, airborne and ground-based data over the eastern United States. Research flights will use NASA’s C-130 from Wallops and the UC-12 from Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
  • African fires and Atlantic clouds – Jens Redemann of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, will lead the Observations of Aerosols above Clouds and their Interactions project to probe how smoke particles from massive biomass burning in Africa influences cloud cover over the Atlantic. Particles from this seasonal burning that are lofted into the mid-troposphere and transported westward over the southeast Atlantic interact with permanent stratocumulus “climate radiators,” which are critical to the regional and global climate system. NASA aircraft, including a Wallops P-3 and an Armstrong ER-2, will be used to conduct the investigation flying out of Walvis Bay, Namibia.
  • Melting Greenland glaciers – Josh Willis of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will lead the Oceans Melting Greenland mission to investigate the role of warmer saltier Atlantic subsurface waters in Greenland glacier melting. The study will help pave the way for improved estimates of future sea level rise by observing changes in glacier melting where ice contacts seawater. Measurements of the ocean bottom as well as seawater properties around Greenland will be taken from ships and the air using several aircraft including a NASA S-3 from Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and Gulfstream III from Armstrong.

Seven NASA centers, 25 educational institutions, three U.S. government agencies and two industry partners are involved in these Earth Venture projects. The five investigations were selected from 33 proposals.

Earth Venture investigations are part of NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder program managed at Langley for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The missions in this program provide an innovative approach to address Earth science research with periodic windows of opportunity to accommodate new scientific priorities.

NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, sea, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and surface-based observation campaigns. With this information and computer analysis tools, NASA studies Earth’s interconnected systems to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/earthrightnow

Source: NASA

Time to Wake Up: Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, currently en route to Pluto. Operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are preparing to “wake” the spacecraft from electronic hibernation on Dec. 6, when the probe will be more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

New Horizons Set to Wake Up for Pluto Encounter

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft comes out of hibernation for the last time on Dec. 6. Between now and then, while the Pluto-bound probe enjoys three more weeks of electronic slumber, work on Earth is well under way to prepare the spacecraft for a six-month encounter with the dwarf planet that begins in January.

“New Horizons is healthy and cruising quietly through deep space – nearly three billion miles from home – but its rest is nearly over,” says Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. “It’s time for New Horizons to wake up, get to work, and start making history.”

Since launching in January 2006, New Horizons has spent 1,873 days in hibernation – about two-thirds of its flight time – spread over 18 separate hibernation periods from mid-2007 to late 2014 that ranged from 36 days to 202 days long.

In hibernation mode much of the spacecraft is unpowered; the onboard flight computer monitors system health and broadcasts a weekly beacon-status tone back to Earth. On average, operators woke New Horizons just over twice each year to check out critical systems, calibrate instruments, gather science data, rehearse Pluto-encounter activities and perform course corrections when necessary.

New Horizons pioneered routine cruise-flight hibernation for NASA. Not only has hibernation reduced wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, it lowered operations costs and freed up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions.

Ready to Go

Next month’s wake-up call was preprogrammed into New Horizons’ on-board computer in August, commanding it come out of hibernation at 3 p.m. EST on Dec. 6. About 90 minutes later New Horizons will transmit word to Earth that it’s in “active” mode; those signals, even traveling at light speed, will need four hours and 25 minutes to reach home. Confirmation should reach the mission operations team at APL around 9:30 p.m. EST. At the time New Horizons will be more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth, and just 162 million miles – less than twice the distance between Earth and the sun – from Pluto.

Time to Wake Up: Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, currently en route to Pluto. Operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are preparing to “wake” the spacecraft from electronic hibernation on Dec. 6, when the probe will be more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
Time to Wake Up: Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, currently en route to Pluto. Operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are preparing to “wake” the spacecraft from electronic hibernation on Dec. 6, when the probe will be more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

After several days of collecting navigation-tracking data, downloading and analyzing the cruise science and spacecraft housekeeping data stored on New Horizons’ digital recorders, the mission team will begin activities that include conducting final tests on the spacecraft’s science instruments and operating systems, and building and testing the computer-command sequences that will guide New Horizons through its flight to and reconnaissance of the Pluto system. Tops on the mission’s science list are characterizing the global geology and topography of Pluto and its large moon Charon, mapping their surface compositions and temperatures, examining Pluto’s atmospheric composition and structure, studying Pluto’s smaller moons and searching for new moons and rings.

New Horizons’ seven-instrument science payload, developed under direction of Southwest Research Institute, includes advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact multicolor camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers, a space-dust detector (designed and built by students at the University of Colorado) and two radio science experiments. The entire spacecraft, drawing electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt light bulbs.

Distant observations of the Pluto system begin Jan. 15 and will continue until late July 2015; closest approach to Pluto is July 14.

“We’ve worked years to prepare for this moment,” says Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at APL. “New Horizons might have spent most of its cruise time across nearly three billion miles of space sleeping, but our team has done anything but, conducting a flawless flight past Jupiter just a year after launch, putting the spacecraft through annual workouts, plotting out each step of the Pluto flyby and even practicing the entire Pluto encounter on the spacecraft. We are ready to go.”

“The final hibernation wake up Dec. 6 signifies the end of an historic cruise across the entirety of our planetary system,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “We are almost on Pluto’s doorstep!”

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is the principal investigator and leads the mission; SwRI leads the science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft.

Source: JHUAPL

MAVEN Completes Commissioning And Begins Its Primary Science Mission

The MAVEN spacecraft completed its commissioning activities on November 16 and has formally begun its one-year primary science mission.  The start of science is actually a “soft start”, in that the instruments started making science measurements beginning almost as soon as we were in orbit, and some instrument calibration activities will be continuing throughout the mission.

Spacecraft commissioning, in what the MAVEN team called its “transition phase”, included adjusting the orbit to get into its science orbit, deploying the booms that hold a number of the instruments away from the spacecraft, ejecting the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) instrument cover, turning on and checking out each of the science instruments, and carrying out calibration activities for both the spacecraft and the instruments.  This period also included the close approach of Comet Siding Spring, which whizzed by Mars at a distance of only ~135,000 km on October 19.

During this transition phase, we were able to get some early science observations.  We made observations from MAVEN’s initial 35-hour capture orbit immediately after the large Mars Orbit Insertion maneuver on Sept. 21.  From this capture orbit, which took the spacecraft to much higher altitudes than our science-mapping orbit will, we used the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument to observe the extended clouds of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen surrounding the planet.  These “coronae” extend out to more than ten planetary radii, and this orbit allowed us to make measurements of the clouds’ spatial extent to higher altitudes than we can during the primary mission.  We also took time off from commissioning to observe the comet and to take before and after observations of the Mars atmosphere to look for changes.  IUVS and NGIMS observations both revealed a tremendous quantity of metal ions that came from cometary dust that entered the atmosphere.  Their presence was unexpected, in that the nominal models of the paths taken by dust grains, calculated prior to the comet passage, indicated that no dust would make it all the way to Mars.  We’re certainly glad that we took precautions to protect us from dust during the encounter!

During science mapping, the spacecraft will carry out regular observations of the Martian upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and solar-wind interactions.  MAVEN will observe from an elliptical orbit that gets as low as about 150 km above the surface and as high as 6000 km.  The nine science instruments will observe the energy from the Sun that hits Mars, the response of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere, and the way that the interactions lead to loss of gas from the top of the atmosphere to space.  Our goal is to understand the processes by which escape to space occurs, and to learn enough to be able to extrapolate backwards in time and determine the total amount of gas lost to space over time.  This will help us understand why the Martian climate changed over time, from an early warmer and wetter environment to the cold, dry planet we see today.

From the observations made both during the cruise to Mars and during the transition phase, we know that our instruments are working well.  The spacecraft also is operating smoothly, with very few “hiccups” so far.  The science team is ready to go!  Of course, standing behind the science team are literally hundreds of engineers who designed, built, tested, and integrated together the spacecraft and the science instruments, and who operate the spacecraft daily (and, when called upon, even in the middle of the night).  The MAVEN team consists of researchers at the University of Colorado, NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, University of California at Berkeley, Lockheed Martin, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as colleagues at numerous other institutions who participated in developing the flight hardware and in doing the science analysis.  Space exploration is a “team sport”, and the success of the whole team allows us to do our science.

With the formal start of our science mission, we’re on track to be able to carry out our full mission as planned, and the science team is looking forward to an incredibly exciting year!

Bruce JakoskyMAVEN Principal Investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

Source: NASA

This is a temperature map of the "hot Jupiter" class exoplanet WASP 43b. The white-colored region on the daytime side is 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The nighttime side temperatures drop to under 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA

NASA’s Hubble Maps the Temperature and Water Vapor on an Extreme Exoplanet

A team of scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has made the most detailed global map yet of the glow from a turbulent planet outside our solar system, revealing its secrets of air temperatures and water vapor.

Hubble observations show the exoplanet, called WASP-43b, is no place to call home. It is a world of extremes, where seething winds howl at the speed of sound from a 3,000-degree-Fahrenheit “day” side, hot enough to melt steel, to a pitch-black “night” side with plunging temperatures below 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is a temperature map of the "hot Jupiter" class exoplanet WASP 43b. The white-colored region on the daytime side is 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The nighttime side temperatures drop to under 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Image Credit: NASA/ESA
This is a temperature map of the “hot Jupiter” class exoplanet WASP 43b. The white-colored region on the daytime side is 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The nighttime side temperatures drop to under 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA

Astronomers have mapped the temperatures at different layers of the planet’s atmosphere and traced the amount and distribution of water vapor. The findings have ramifications for the understanding of atmospheric dynamics and how giant planets like Jupiter are formed.

“These measurements have opened the door for a new kinds of ways to compare the properties of different types of planets,” said team leader Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago.

First discovered in 2011, WASP-43b is located 260 light-years away. The planet is too distant to be photographed, but because its orbit is observed edge-on to Earth, astronomers detected it by observing regular dips in the light of its parent star as the planet passes in front of it.

“Our observations are the first of their kind in terms of providing a two-dimensional map on the longitude and altitude of the planet’s thermal structure that can be used to constrain atmospheric circulation and dynamical models for hot exoplanets,” said team member Kevin Stevenson of the University of Chicago.

As a hot ball of predominantly hydrogen gas, there are no surface features on the planet, such as oceans or continents that can be used to track its rotation. Only the severe temperature difference between the day and night sides can be used by a remote observer to mark the passage of a day on this world.

The planet is about the same size as Jupiter, but is nearly twice as dense. The planet is so close to its orange dwarf host star that it completes an orbit in just 19 hours. The planet also is gravitationally locked so that it keeps one hemisphere facing the star, just as our moon keeps one face toward Earth.

This was the first time astronomers were able to observe three complete rotations of any planet, which occurred during a span of four days. Scientists combined two previous methods of analyzing exoplanets in an unprecedented technique to study the atmosphere of WASP-43b. They used spectroscopy, dividing the planet’s light into its component colors, to determine the amount of water and the temperatures of the atmosphere. By observing the planet’s rotation, the astronomers also were able to precisely measure how the water is distributed at different longitudes.

Because there is no planet with these tortured conditions in our solar system, characterizing the atmosphere of such a bizarre world provides a unique laboratory for better understanding planet formation and planetary physics.

“The planet is so hot that all the water in its atmosphere is vaporized, rather than condensed into icy clouds like on Jupiter,” said team member Laura Kreidberg of the University of Chicago.

The amount of water in the giant planets of our solar system is poorly known because water that has precipitated out of the upper atmospheres of cool gas giant planets like Jupiter is locked away as ice. But so-called “hot Jupiters,” gas giants that have high surface temperatures because they orbit very close to their stars, water is in a vapor that can be readily traced.

“Water is thought to play an important role in the formation of giant planets, since comet-like bodies bombard young planets, delivering most of the water and other molecules that we can observe,” said Jonathan Fortney, a member of the team from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In order to understand how giant planets form astronomers want to know how enriched they are in different elements. The team found that WASP-43b has about the same amount of water as we would expect for an object with the same chemical composition as our sun, shedding light on the fundamentals about how the planet formed. The team next aims to make water-abundance measurements for different planets.

The results are presented in two new papers, one published online in Science Express Thursday and the other published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on Sept. 12.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

For images and more information about Hubble, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

Source: NASA

A plot of the transmission spectrum for exoplanet HAT-P-11b, with data from NASA's Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer observatories combined. The results show a robust detection of water absorption in the Hubble data. Transmission spectra of selected atmospheric models are plotted for comparison.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

NASA Telescopes Find Clear Skies and Water Vapor on Exoplanet

Astronomers using data from three of NASA’s space telescopes — Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler — have discovered clear skies and steamy water vapor on a gaseous planet outside our solar system. The planet is about the size of Neptune, making it the smallest planet from which molecules of any kind have been detected.

A plot of the transmission spectrum for exoplanet HAT-P-11b, with data from NASA's Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer observatories combined. The results show a robust detection of water absorption in the Hubble data. Transmission spectra of selected atmospheric models are plotted for comparison. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI
A plot of the transmission spectrum for exoplanet HAT-P-11b, with data from NASA’s Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer observatories combined. The results show a robust detection of water absorption in the Hubble data. Transmission spectra of selected atmospheric models are plotted for comparison.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

“This discovery is a significant milepost on the road to eventually analyzing the atmospheric composition of smaller, rocky planets more like Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Such achievements are only possible today with the combined capabilities of these unique and powerful observatories.”
Clouds in a planet’s atmosphere can block the view to underlying molecules that reveal information about the planet’s composition and history. Finding clear skies on a Neptune-size planet is a good sign that smaller planets might have similarly good visibility.
“When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say ‘clear skies’ to mean good luck,” said Jonathan Fraine of the University of Maryland, College Park, lead author of a new study appearing in Nature. “In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That’s lucky for us because it means clouds didn’t block our view of water molecules.”
The planet, HAT-P-11b, is categorized as an exo-Neptune — a Neptune-sized planet that orbits the star HAT-P-11. It is located 120 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. This planet orbits closer to its star than does our Neptune, making one lap roughly every five days. It is a warm world thought to have a rocky core and gaseous atmosphere. Not much else was known about the composition of the planet, or other exo-Neptunes like it, until now.
Part of the challenge in analyzing the atmospheres of planets like this is their size. Larger Jupiter-like planets are easier to see because of their impressive girth and relatively inflated atmospheres. In fact, researchers already have detected water vapor in the atmospheres of those planets. The handful of smaller planets observed previously had proved more difficult to probe partially because they all appeared to be cloudy.
In the new study, astronomers set out to look at the atmosphere of HAT-P-11b, not knowing if its weather would call for clouds. They used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, and a technique called transmission spectroscopy, in which a planet is observed as it crosses in front of its parent star. Starlight filters through the rim of the planet’s atmosphere; if molecules like water vapor are present, they absorb some of the starlight, leaving distinct signatures in the light that reaches our telescopes.
Using this strategy, Hubble was able to detect water vapor in HAT-P-11b. But before the team could celebrate clear skies on the exo-Neptune, they had to show that starspots — cooler “freckles” on the face of stars — were not the real sources of water vapor. Cool starspots on the parent star can contain water vapor that might erroneously appear to be from the planet.
The team turned to Kepler and Spitzer. Kepler had been observing one patch of sky for years, and HAT-P-11b happens to lie in the field. Those visible-light data were combined with targeted Spitzer observations taken at infrared wavelengths. By comparing these observations, the astronomers figured out that the starspots were too hot to have any steam. It was at that point the team could celebrate detecting water vapor on a world unlike any in our solar system. This discovery indicates the planet did not have clouds blocking the view, a hopeful sign that more cloudless planets can be located and analyzed in the future.
“We think that exo-Neptunes may have diverse compositions, which reflect their formation histories,” said study co-author Heather Knutson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Now with data like these, we can begin to piece together a narrative for the origin of these distant worlds.”
The results from all three telescopes demonstrate that HAT-P-11b is blanketed in water vapor, hydrogen gas and likely other yet-to-be-identified molecules. Theorists will be drawing up new models to explain the planet’s makeup and origins.
“We are working our way down the line, from hot Jupiters to exo-Neptunes,” said Drake Deming, a co-author of the study also from University of Maryland. “We want to expand our knowledge to a diverse range of exoplanets.”
The astronomers plan to examine more exo-Neptunes in the future, and hope to apply the same method to super-Earths — massive, rocky cousins to our home world with up to 10 times the mass. Although our solar system doesn’t have a super-Earth, NASA’s Kepler mission is finding them in droves around other stars. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, will search super-Earths for signs of water vapor and other molecules; however, finding signs of oceans and potentially habitable worlds is likely a ways off.
“The work we are doing now is important for future studies of super-Earths and even smaller planets, because we want to be able to pick out in advance the planets with clear atmospheres that will let us detect molecules,” said Knutson.
Once again, astronomers will be crossing their fingers for clear skies.

Source: NASA