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Timeline of the approach and departure phases — surrounding close approach on July 14, 2015 — of the New Horizons Pluto encounter.
Image Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Begins First Stages of Pluto Encounter

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently began its long-awaited, historic encounter with Pluto. The spacecraft is entering the first of several approach phases that culminate July 14 with the first close-up flyby of the dwarf planet, 4.67 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) from Earth.

“NASA first mission to distant Pluto will also be humankind’s first close up view of this cold, unexplored world in our solar system,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “The New Horizons team worked very hard to prepare for this first phase, and they did it flawlessly.”

The fastest spacecraft when it was launched, New Horizons lifted off in January 2006. It awoke from its final hibernation period last month after a voyage of more than 3 billion miles, and will soon pass close to Pluto, inside the orbits of its five known moons. In preparation for the close encounter, the mission’s science, engineering and spacecraft operations teams configured the piano-sized probe for distant observations of the Pluto system that start Sunday, Jan. 25 with a long-range photo shoot.

 

 

Timeline of the approach and departure phases — surrounding close approach on July 14, 2015 — of the New Horizons Pluto encounter. Image Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI
Timeline of the approach and departure phases — surrounding close approach on July 14, 2015 — of the New Horizons Pluto encounter.
Image Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

The images captured by New Horizons’ telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) will give mission scientists a continually improving look at the dynamics of Pluto’s moons. The images also will play a critical role in navigating the spacecraft as it covers the remaining 135 million miles (220 million kilometers) to Pluto.

“We’ve completed the longest journey any spacecraft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

LORRI will take hundreds of pictures of Pluto over the next few months to refine current estimates of the distance between the spacecraft and the dwarf planet. Though the Pluto system will resemble little more than bright dots in the camera’s view until May, mission navigators will use the data to design course-correction maneuvers to aim the spacecraft toward its target point this summer. The first such maneuver could occur as early as March.

“We need to refine our knowledge of where Pluto will be when New Horizons flies past it,” said Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “The flyby timing also has to be exact, because the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point the science instruments are based on precisely knowing the time we pass Pluto – which these images will help us determine.”

The “optical navigation” campaign that begins this month marks the first time pictures from New Horizons will be used to help pinpoint Pluto’s location.

Throughout the first approach phase, which runs until spring, New Horizons will conduct a significant amount of additional science. Spacecraft instruments will gather continuous data on the interplanetary environment where the planetary system orbits, including measurements of the high-energy particles streaming from the sun and dust-particle concentrations in the inner reaches of the Kuiper Belt. In addition to Pluto, this area, the unexplored outer region of the solar system, potentially includes thousands of similar icy, rocky small planets.

More intensive studies of Pluto begin in the spring, when the cameras and spectrometers aboard New Horizons will be able to provide image resolutions higher than the most powerful telescopes on Earth. Eventually, the spacecraft will obtain images good enough to map Pluto and its moons more accurately than achieved by previous planetary reconnaissance missions.

APL manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), headquartered in San Antonio, 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, Alabama. APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft.

For more information about the New Horizons mission, visit:

www.nasa.gov/newhorizons

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/INAF/P.Tozzi, et al; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru and ESO/VLT; Infrared: ESA/Herschel

NASA’s Chandra Weighs Most Massive Galaxy Cluster in Distant Universe

Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have made the first determination of the mass and other properties of a very young, distant galaxy cluster.

The Chandra study shows that the galaxy cluster, seen at the comparatively young age of about 800 million years, is the most massive known cluster with that age or younger. As the largest gravitationally- bound structures known, galaxy clusters can act as crucial gauges for how the Universe itself has evolved over time.

The galaxy cluster was originally discovered using ESA’s XMM-Newton observatory and is located about 9.6 billion light years from Earth. Astronomers used X-ray data from Chandra that, when combined with scientific models, provides an accurate weight of the cluster, which comes in at a whopping 400 trillion times the mass of the Sun. Scientists believe the cluster formed about 3.3 billion years after the Big Bang.

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/INAF/P.Tozzi, et al; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru and ESO/VLT; Infrared: ESA/Herschel
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/INAF/P.Tozzi, et al; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru and ESO/VLT; Infrared: ESA/Herschel

The cluster is officially named XDCP J0044.0-2033, but the researchers have nicknamed it “Gioiello”, which is Italian for “jewel”. They chose this name because an image of the cluster contains many sparkling colors from the hot, X-ray emitting gas and various star-forming galaxies within the cluster. Also, the research team met to discuss the Chandra data for the first time at Villa il Gioiello, a 15th century villa near the Observatory of Arcetri, which was the last residence of prominent Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei.

“Finding this enormous galaxy cluster at this early epoch means that there could be more out there,” said Paolo Tozzi of the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Florence, Italy, who led the new study. “This kind of information could have an impact on our understanding of how the large scale structure of the Universe formed and evolved.”

Previously, astronomers had found an enormous galaxy cluster, known as “El Gordo,” at a distance of 7 billion light years away and a few other large, distant clusters. According to the best current model for how the Universe evolved, there is a low chance of finding clusters as massive as the Gioiello Cluster and El Gordo. The new findings suggest that there might be problems with the theory, and are enticing astronomers to look for other distant and massive clusters.

“The hint that there might be problems with the standard model of cosmology is interesting,” said co-author James Jee of the University of California in Davis, “but we need bigger and deeper samples of clusters before we can tell if there’s a real problem.”

The Chandra observation of the Gioiello Cluster lasted over 4 days and is the deepest X-ray observation yet made on a cluster beyond a distance of about 8 billion light years.

“Unlike the galaxy clusters that are close to us, this cluster still has lots of stars forming within its galaxies,” said co-author Joana Santos, also from INAF in Florence. “This gives us a unique window into what galaxy clusters are like when they are very young.”

 

In the past, astronomers have reported finding several galaxy cluster candidates that are located more than 9.5 billion light years away. However, some of these objects turned out to be protoclusters, that is, precursors to fully developed galaxy clusters.

The researchers also note that there are hints of uneven structure in the hot gas. These may be large clumps that could have been caused by collisions and mergers with smaller clusters of galaxies and provides clues to how the cluster became so hefty at its early age. The authors expect that the cluster is still young enough to be undergoing many such interactions.

A paper describing these results will appear in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal and is available online. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

An interactive image, a podcast, and a video about these findings are available at:
http://chandra.si.edu

For Chandra images, multimedia and related materials, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/chandra

 

Source: Chandra X-Ray Observatory

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

Artist’s impression of exocomets around Beta Pictoris. Credit: ESO

Two Families of Comets Found Around Nearby Star

Two Families of Comets Found Around Nearby Star


The HARPS instrument at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile has been used to make the most complete census of comets around another star ever created. A French team of astronomers has studied nearly 500 individual comets orbiting the star Beta Pictoris and has discovered that they belong to two distinct families of exocomets: old exocomets that have made multiple passages near the star, and younger exocomets that probably came from the recent breakup of one or more larger objects. The new results will appear in the journal Nature on 23 October 2014.

Beta Pictoris is a young star located about 63 light-years from the Sun. It is only about 20 million years old and is surrounded by a huge disc of material — a very active young planetary system where gas and dust are produced by the evaporation of comets and the collisions of asteroids.

Artist’s impression of exocomets around Beta Pictoris. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of exocomets around Beta Pictoris. Credit: ESO

Flavien Kiefer (IAP/CNRS/UPMC), lead author of the new study sets the scene: “Beta Pictoris is a very exciting target! The detailed observations of its exocomets give us clues to help understand what processes occur in this kind of young planetary system.”

For almost 30 years astronomers have seen subtle changes in the light from Beta Pictoris that were thought to be caused by the passage of comets in front of the star itself. Comets are small bodies of a few kilometres in size, but they are rich in ices, which evaporate when they approach their star, producing gigantic tails of gas and dust that can absorb some of the light passing through them. The dim light from the exocomets is swamped by the light of the brilliant star so they cannot be imaged directly from Earth.

To study the Beta Pictoris exocomets, the team analysed more than 1000 observations obtained between 2003 and 2011 with the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

The researchers selected a sample of 493 different exocomets. Some exocomets were observed several times and for a few hours. Careful analysis provided measurements of the speed and the size of the gas clouds. Some of the orbital properties of each of these exocomets, such as the shape and the orientation of the orbit and the distance to the star, could also be deduced.

This analysis of several hundreds of exocomets in a single exo-planetary system is unique. It revealed the presence of two distinct families of exocomets: one family of old exocomets whose orbits are controlled by a massive planet [1], and another family, probably arising from the recent breakdown of one or a few bigger objects. Different families of comets also exist in the Solar System.

The exocomets of the first family have a variety of orbits and show a rather weak activity with low production rates of gas and dust. This suggests that these comets have exhausted their supplies of ices during their multiple passages close to Beta Pictoris [2].

The exocomets of the second family are much more active and are also on nearly identical orbits [3]. This suggests that the members of the second family all arise from the same origin: probably the breakdown of a larger object whose fragments are on an orbit grazing the star Beta Pictoris.

Flavien Kiefer concludes: “For the first time a statistical study has determined the physics and orbits for a large number of exocomets. This work provides a remarkable look at the mechanisms that were at work in the Solar System just after its formation 4.5 billion years ago.”

Notes

[1] A giant planet, Beta Pictoris b, has also been discovered in orbit at about a billion kilometres from the star and studied using high resolution images obtained with adaptive optics.

[2] Moreover, the orbits of these comets (eccentricity and orientation) are exactly as predicted for comets trapped inorbital resonance with a massive planet. The properties of the comets of the first family show that this planet in resonance must be at about 700 million kilometres from the star  — close to where the planet Beta Pictoris b was discovered.

[3] This makes them similar to the comets of the Kreutz family in the Solar System, or the fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which impacted Jupiter in July 1994.

Source: ESO

ROSETTA TO DEPLOY LANDER ON 12 NOVEMBER:ESA

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission will deploy its lander, Philae, to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November.

Philae’s landing site, currently known as Site J, is located on the smaller of the comet’s two ‘lobes’, with a backup site on the larger lobe. The sites were selected just six weeks after Rosetta arrived at the comet on 6 August, following its 10-year journey through the Solar System.

In that time, the Rosetta mission has been conducting an unprecedented scientific analysis of the comet, a remnant of the Solar System’s 4.6 billion-year history. The latest results from Rosetta will be presented on the occasion of the landing, during dedicated press briefings.

The main focus to date has been to survey 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in order to prepare for the first ever attempt to soft-land on a comet.

Site J was chosen unanimously over four other candidate sites as the primary landing site because the majority of terrain within a square kilometre area has slopes of less than 30º relative to the local vertical and because there are relatively few large boulders. The area also receives sufficient daily illumination to recharge Philae and continue surface science operations beyond the initial 64-hour battery-powered phase.

Over the last two weeks, the flight dynamics and operations teams at ESA have been making a detailed analysis of flight trajectories and timings for Rosetta to deliver the lander at the earliest possible opportunity.

Two robust landing scenarios have been identified, one for the primary site and one for the backup. Both anticipate separation and landing on 12 November.

For the primary landing scenario, targeting Site J, Rosetta will release Philae at 08:35 GMT/09:35 CET at a distance of 22.5 km from the centre of the comet, landing about seven hours later. The one-way signal travel time between Rosetta and Earth on 12 November is 28 minutes 20 seconds, meaning that confirmation of the landing will arrive at Earth ground stations at around 16:00 GMT/17:00 CET.

If a decision is made to use the backup Site C, separation will occur at 13:04 GMT/14:04 CET, 12.5 km from the centre of the comet. Landing will occur about four hours later, with confirmation on Earth at around 17:30 GMT/18:30 CET. The timings are subject to uncertainties of several minutes.

Final confirmation of the primary landing site and its landing scenario will be made on 14 October after a formal Lander Operations Readiness Review, which will include the results of additional high-resolution analysis of the landing sites conducted in the meantime. Should the backup site be chosen at this stage, landing can still occur on 12 November.

A competition for the public to name the primary landing site will also be announced during the week of 14 October.

The Rosetta orbiter will continue to study the comet and its environment using its 11 science instruments as they orbit the Sun together. The comet is on an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. Rosetta will accompany the comet for more than a year as they swing around the Sun and back to the outer Solar System again.

The analyses made by the Rosetta orbiter will be complemented by the in situ measurements performedby Philae’s 10 instruments.

An invitation to media with an outline of the programme for the 12 November event will be issued soon.

More about Rosetta

Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its Member States and NASA. Rosetta’s Philae lander is provided by a consortium led by DLR, MPS, CNES, and ASI. Rosetta is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet. It is escorting the comet as they orbit the Sun, and will deploy a lander.

Comets are time capsules containing primitive material left over from the epoch when the Sun and its planets formed. By studying the gas, dust and structure of the nucleus and organic materials associated with the comet, via both remote and in situ observations, the Rosetta mission should become the key to unlocking the history and evolution of our Solar System, as well as answering questions regarding the origin of Earth’s water and perhaps even life.

Learn more about Rosetta at: http:// www.esa.int/rosetta

Source: ESA

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

ALMA Finds Double Star with Weird and Wild Planet-forming Discs

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have found wildly misaligned planet-forming gas discs around the two young stars in the binary system HK Tauri. These new ALMA observations provide the clearest picture ever of protoplanetary discs in a double star. The new result also helps to explain why so many exoplanets — unlike the planets in the Solar System — came to have strange, eccentric or inclined orbits. The results will appear in the journal Nature on 31 July 2014.

Unlike our solitary Sun, most stars form in binary pairs — two stars that are in orbit around each other. Binary stars are very common, but they pose a number of questions, including how and where planets form in such complex environments.

ALMA has now given us the best view yet of a binary star system sporting protoplanetary discs  — and we find that the discs are mutually misaligned!” said Eric Jensen, an astronomer at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, USA.

The two stars in the HK Tauri system, which is located about 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Taurus (The Bull), are less than five million years old and separated by about 58 billion kilometres — this is 13 times the distance of Neptune from the Sun.

The fainter star, HK Tauri B, is surrounded by an edge-on protoplanetary disc that blocks the starlight. Because the glare of the star is suppressed, astronomers can easily get a good view of the disc by observing in visible light, or at near-infrared wavelengths.

Artist’s impression of the discs around the young stars HK Tauri A and B. Credit ESO
Artist’s impression of the discs around the young stars HK Tauri A and B. Credit ESO

The companion star, HK Tauri A, also has a disc, but in this case it does not block out the starlight. As a result the disc cannot be seen in visible light because its faint glow is swamped by the dazzling brightness of the star. But it does shine brightly in millimetre-wavelength light, which ALMA can readily detect.

Using ALMA, the team were not only able to see the disc around HK Tauri A, but they could also measure its rotation for the first time. This clearer picture enabled the astronomers to calculate that the two discs are out of alignment with each other by at least 60 degrees. So rather than being in the same plane as the orbits of the two stars at least one of the discs must be significantly misaligned.

This clear misalignment has given us a remarkable look at a young binary star system,” said Rachel Akeson of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in the USA. “Although there have been earlier observations indicating that this type of misaligned system existed, the new ALMA observations of HK Tauri show much more clearly what is really going on in one of these systems.

Stars and planets form out of vast clouds of dust and gas. As material in these clouds contracts under gravity, it begins to rotate until most of the dust and gas falls into a flattened protoplanetary disc swirling around a growing central protostar.

But in a binary system like HK Tauri things are much more complex. When the orbits of the stars and the protoplanetary discs are not roughly in the same plane any planets that may be forming can end up in highly eccentric and tilted orbits [1].

Our results show that the necessary conditions exist to modify planetary orbits and that these conditions are present at the time of planet formation, apparently due to the formation process of a binary star system,” noted Jensen. “We can’t rule other theories out, but we can certainly rule in that a second star will do the job.

Since ALMA can see the otherwise invisible dust and gas of protoplanetary discs, it allowed for never-before-seen views of this young binary system. “Because we’re seeing this in the early stages of formation with the protoplanetary discs still in place, we can see better how things are oriented,” explained Akeson.

Looking forward, the researchers want to determine if this type of system is typical or not. They note that this is a remarkable individual case, but additional surveys are needed to determine if this sort of arrangement is common throughout our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

Jensen concludes: “Although understanding this mechanism is a big step forward, it can’t explain all of the weird orbits of extrasolar planets — there just aren’t enough binary companions for this to be the whole answer. So that’s an interesting puzzle still to solve, too!

Notes

[1] If the two stars and their discs are not all in the same plane, the gravitational pull of one star will perturb the other disc, making it wobble or precess, and vice versa. A planet forming in one of these discs will also be perturbed by the other star, which will tilt and deform its orbit.

More information

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which is managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

This research was presented in a paper entitled “Misaligned Protoplanetary Disks in a Young Binary Star System”, by Eric Jensen and Rachel Akeson, to appear in the 31 July 2014 issue of the journal Nature.

The team is composed of Eric L. N. Jensen (Dept. of Physics & Astronomy, Swarthmore College, USA) and Rachel Akeson (NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, IPAC/Caltech, Pasadena, USA).

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning the 39-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Source: ESO