Using images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered never-before-seen structures within a dusty disc surrounding a nearby star. The fast-moving wave-like features in the disc of the star AU Microscopii are unlike anything ever observed, or even predicted, before now. The origin and nature of these features present a new mystery for astronomers to explore. The results are published in the journal Nature on 8 October 2015.
AU Microscopii, or AU Mic for short, is a young, nearby star surrounded by a large disc of dust . Studies of such debris discs can provide valuable clues about how planets, which form from these discs, are created.
Astronomers have been searching AU Mic’s disc for any signs of clumpy or warped features, as such signs might give away the location of possible planets. And in 2014 they used the more powerful high-contrast imaging capabilities of ESO’s newly installed SPHERE instrument, mounted on the Very Large Telescope for their search — and discovered something very unusual.
“Our observations have shown something unexpected,” explains Anthony Boccaletti, LESIA (Observatoire de Paris/CNRS/UPMC/Paris-Diderot), France, and lead author on the paper. “The images from SPHERE show a set of unexplained features in the disc which have an arch-like, or wave-like, structure, unlike anything that has ever been observed before.”
Five wave-like arches at different distances from the star show up in the new images, reminiscent of ripples in water. After spotting the features in the SPHERE data the team turned to earlier images of the disc taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in 2010 and 2011 to see whether the features were also visible in these . They were not only able to identify the features on the earlier Hubble images — but they also discovered that they had changed over time. It turns out that these ripples are moving — and very fast!
“We reprocessed images from the Hubble data and ended up with enough information to track the movement of these strange features over a four-year period,” explains team member Christian Thalmann (ETH Zürich, Switzerland). “By doing this, we found that the arches are racing away from the star at speeds of up to about 40 000 kilometres/hour!”
The features further away from the star seem to be moving faster than those closer to it. At least three of the features are moving so fast that they could well be escaping from the gravitational attraction of the star. Such high speeds rule out the possibility that these are conventional disc features caused by objects — like planets — disturbing material in the disc while orbiting the star. There must have been something else involved to speed up the ripples and make them move so quickly, meaning that they are a sign of something truly unusual .
“Everything about this find was pretty surprising!” comments co-author Carol Grady of Eureka Scientific, USA. “And because nothing like this has been observed or predicted in theory we can only hypothesise when it comes to what we are seeing and how it came about.”
The team cannot say for sure what caused these mysterious ripples around the star. But they have considered and ruled out a series of phenomena as explanations, including the collision of two massive and rare asteroid-like objects releasing large quantities of dust, and spiral waves triggered by instabilities in the system’s gravity.
But other ideas that they have considered look more promising.
“One explanation for the strange structure links them to the star’s flares. AU Mic is a star with high flaring activity — it often lets off huge and sudden bursts of energy from on or near its surface,” explains co-author Glenn Schneider of Steward Observatory, USA. “One of these flares could perhaps have triggered something on one of the planets — if there are planets — like a violent stripping of material which could now be propagating through the disc, propelled by the flare’s force.”
“It is very satisfying that SPHERE has proved to be very capable at studying discs like this in its first year of operation,” adds Jean-Luc Beuzit, who is both a co-author of the new study and also led the development of SPHERE itself.
The team plans to continue to observe the AU Mic system with SPHERE and other facilities, including ALMA, to try to understand what is happening. But, for now, these curious features remain an unsolved mystery.
 AU Microscopii lies just 32 light-years away from Earth. The disc essentially comprises asteroids that have collided with such vigour that they have been ground to dust.
 The data were gathered by Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS).
 The edge-on view of the disc complicates the interpretation of its three-dimensional structure.
This research was presented in a paper entitled “Fast-Moving Structures in the Debris Disk Around AU Microscopii”, to appear in the journal Nature on 8 October 2015.
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.
“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.”
Observations of 74 Earth-sized planets around distant stars may narrow field of habitable candidates.
By Jennifer Chu
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Viewed from above, our solar system’s planetary orbits around the sun resemble rings around a bulls-eye. Each planet, including Earth, keeps to a roughly circular path, always maintaining the same distance from the sun.
For decades, astronomers have wondered whether the solar system’s circular orbits might be a rarity in our universe. Now a new analysis suggests that such orbital regularity is instead the norm, at least for systems with planets as small as Earth.
In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers from MIT and Aarhus University in Denmark report that 74 exoplanets, located hundreds of light-years away, orbit their respective stars in circular patterns, much like the planets of our solar system.
These 74 exoplanets, which orbit 28 stars, are about the size of Earth, and their circular trajectories stand in stark contrast to those of more massive exoplanets, some of which come extremely close to their stars before hurtling far out in highly eccentric, elongated orbits.
“Twenty years ago, we only knew about our solar system, and everything was circular and so everyone expected circular orbits everywhere,” says Vincent Van Eylen, a visiting graduate student in MIT’s Department of Physics. “Then we started finding giant exoplanets, and we found suddenly a whole range of eccentricities, so there was an open question about whether this would also hold for smaller planets. We find that for small planets, circular is probably the norm.”
Ultimately, Van Eylen says that’s good news in the search for life elsewhere. Among other requirements, for a planet to be habitable, it would have to be about the size of Earth — small and compact enough to be made of rock, not gas. If a small planet also maintained a circular orbit, it would be even more hospitable to life, as it would support a stable climate year-round. (In contrast, a planet with a more eccentric orbit might experience dramatic swings in climate as it orbited close in, then far out from its star.)
“If eccentric orbits are common for habitable planets, that would be quite a worry for life, because they would have such a large range of climate properties,” Van Eylen says. “But what we find is, probably we don’t have to worry too much because circular cases are fairly common.”
In the past, researchers have calculated the orbital eccentricities of large, “gas giant” exoplanets using radial velocity — a technique that measures a star’s movement. As a planet orbits a star, its gravitational force will tug on the star, causing it to move in a pattern that reflects the planet’s orbit. However, the technique is most successful for larger planets, as they exert enough gravitational pull to influence their stars.
Researchers commonly find smaller planets by using a transit-detecting method, in which they study the light given off by a star, in search of dips in starlight that signify when a planet crosses, or “transits,” in front of that star, momentarily diminishing its light. Ordinarily, this method only illuminates a planet’s existence, not its orbit. But Van Eylen and his colleague Simon Albrecht, of Aarhus University, devised a way to glean orbital information from stellar transit data.
They first reasoned that if they knew the mass and radius of a planet’s star, they could calculate how long a planet would take to orbit that star, if its orbit were circular. The mass and radius of a star determines its gravitational pull, which in turn influences how fast a planet travels around the star.
By calculating a planet’s orbital velocity in a circular orbit, they could then estimate a transit’s duration — how long a planet would take to cross in front of a star. If the calculated transit matched an actual transit, the researchers reasoned that the planet’s orbit must be circular. If the transit were longer or shorter, the orbit must be more elongated, or eccentric.
Not so eccentric
To obtain actual transit data, the team looked through data collected over the past four years by NASA’s Kepler telescope — a space observatory that surveys a slice of the sky in search of habitable planets. The telescope has monitored the brightness of over 145,000 stars, only a fraction of which have been characterized in any detail.
The team chose to concentrate on 28 stars for which mass and radius have previously been measured, using asteroseismology — a technique that measures stellar pulsations, which reflect a star’s mass and radius.
These 28 stars host multiplanet systems — 74 exoplanets in all. The researchers obtained Kepler data for each exoplanet, looking not only for the occurrence of transits, but also their duration. Given the mass and radius of the host stars, the team calculated each planet’s transit duration if its orbit were circular, then compared the estimated transit durations with actual transit durations from Kepler data.
Across the board, Van Eylen and Albrecht found the calculated and actual transit durations matched, suggesting that all 74 exoplanets maintain circular, not eccentric, orbits.
“We found that most of them matched pretty closely, which means they’re pretty close to being circular,” Van Eylen says. “We are very certain that if very high eccentricities were common, we would’ve seen that, which we don’t.”
Van Eylen says the orbital results for these smaller planets may eventually help to explain why larger planets have more extreme orbits.
“We want to understand why some exoplanets have extremely eccentric orbits, while in other cases, such as the solar system, planets orbit mostly circularly,” Van Eylen says. “This is one of the first times we’ve reliably measured the eccentricities of small planets, and it’s exciting to see they are different from the giant planets, but similar to the solar system.”
This research was funded in part by the European Research Council.
Researchers detect features around Chiron that may signal rings, jets, or a shell of dust.
By Jennifer Chu
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – There are only five bodies in our solar system that are known to bear rings. The most obvious is the planet Saturn; to a lesser extent, rings of gas and dust also encircle Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. The fifth member of this haloed group is Chariklo, one of a class of minor planets called centaurs: small, rocky bodies that possess qualities of both asteroids and comets.
Scientists only recently detected Chariklo’s ring system — a surprising finding, as it had been thought that centaurs are relatively dormant. Now scientists at MIT and elsewhere have detected a possible ring system around a second centaur, Chiron.
In November 2011, the group observed a stellar occultation in which Chiron passed in front of a bright star, briefly blocking its light. The researchers analyzed the star’s light emissions, and the momentary shadow created by Chiron, and identified optical features that suggest the centaur may possess a circulating disk of debris. The team believes the features may signify a ring system, a circular shell of gas and dust, or symmetric jets of material shooting out from the centaur’s surface.
“It’s interesting, because Chiron is a centaur — part of that middle section of the solar system, between Jupiter and Pluto, where we originally weren’t thinking things would be active, but it’s turning out things are quite active,” says Amanda Bosh, a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.
Bosh and her colleagues at MIT — Jessica Ruprecht, Michael Person, and Amanda Gulbis — have published their results in the journal Icarus.
Catching a shadow
Chiron, discovered in 1977, was the first planetary body categorized as a centaur, after the mythological Greek creature — a hybrid of man and beast. Like their mythological counterparts, centaurs are hybrids, embodying traits of both asteroids and comets. Today, scientists estimate there are more than 44,000 centaurs in the solar system, concentrated mainly in a band between the orbits of Jupiter and Pluto.
While most centaurs are thought to be dormant, scientists have seen glimmers of activity from Chiron. Starting in the late 1980s, astronomers observed patterns of brightening from the centaur, as well as activity similar to that of a streaking comet.
In 1993 and 1994, James Elliot, then a professor of planetary astronomy and physics at MIT, observed a stellar occultation of Chiron and made the first estimates of its size. Elliot also observed features in the optical data that looked like jets of water and dust spewing from the centaur’s surface.
Now MIT researchers — some of them former members of Elliot’s group — have obtained more precise observations of Chiron, using two large telescopes in Hawaii: NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility, on Mauna Kea, and the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, at Haleakala.
In 2010, the team started to chart the orbits of Chiron and nearby stars in order to pinpoint exactly when the centaur might pass across a star bright enough to detect. The researchers determined that such a stellar occultation would occur on Nov. 29, 2011, and reserved time on the two large telescopes in hopes of catching Chiron’s shadow.
“There’s an aspect of serendipity to these observations,” Bosh says. “We need a certain amount of luck, waiting for Chiron to pass in front of a star that is bright enough. Chiron itself is small enough that the event is very short; if you blink, you might miss it.”
The team observed the stellar occultation remotely, from MIT’s Building 54. The entire event lasted just a few minutes, and the telescopes recorded the fading light as Chiron cast its shadow over the telescopes.
Rings around a theory
The group analyzed the resulting light, and detected something unexpected. A simple body, with no surrounding material, would create a straightforward pattern, blocking the star’s light entirely. But the researchers observed symmetrical, sharp features near the start and end of the stellar occultation — a sign that material such as dust might be blocking a fraction of the starlight.
The researchers observed two such features, each about 300 kilometers from the center of the centaur. Judging from the optical data, the features are 3 and 7 kilometers wide, respectively. The features are similar to what Elliot observed in the 1990s.
In light of these new observations, the researchers say that Chiron may still possess symmetrical jets of gas and dust, as Elliot first proposed. However, other interpretations may be equally valid, including the “intriguing possibility,” Bosh says, of a shell or ring of gas and dust.
Ruprecht, who is a researcher at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, says it is possible to imagine a scenario in which centaurs may form rings: For example, when a body breaks up, the resulting debris can be captured gravitationally around another body, such as Chiron. Rings can also be leftover material from the formation of Chiron itself.
“Another possibility involves the history of Chiron’s distance from the sun,” Ruprecht says. “Centaurs may have started further out in the solar system and, through gravitational interactions with giant planets, have had their orbits perturbed closer in to the sun. The frozen material that would have been stable out past Pluto is becoming less stable closer in, and can turn into gases that spray dust and material off the surface of a body. ”
An independent group has since combined the MIT group’s occultation data with other light data, and has concluded that the features around Chiron most likely represent a ring system. However, Ruprecht says that researchers will have to observe more stellar occultations of Chiron to truly determine which interpretation — rings, shell, or jets — is the correct one.
“If we want to make a strong case for rings around Chiron, we’ll need observations by multiple observers, distributed over a few hundred kilometers, so that we can map the ring geometry,” Ruprecht says. “But that alone doesn’t tell us if the rings are a temporary feature of Chiron, or a more permanent one. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Nevertheless, Bosh says the possibility of a second ringed centaur in the solar system is an enticing one.
“Until Chariklo’s rings were found, it was commonly believed that these smaller bodies don’t have ring systems,” Bosh says. “If Chiron has a ring system, it will show it’s more common than previously thought.”
This research was funded in part by NASA and the National Research Foundation of South Africa.
Radar astronomy is a bit different from radio astronomy as in radar astronomy active observations are performed means a signal is sent from Earth which bounces back from an object and then this signal is analyzed to obtain images or other relevant information. In case of radio astronomy we perform passive observations and no signal is sent from earth and only signals from various sources are received to perform analysis. Radar astronomy is more suitable for nearby celestial objects as sending and receiving the bounced back signal in reasonable time is impossible for objects many light years away.
From earthbound optical telescopes, the surface of Venus is shrouded beneath thick clouds made mostly of carbon dioxide. To penetrate this veil, probes like NASA’s Magellan spacecraft use radar to reveal remarkable features of this planet, like mountains, craters, and volcanoes.
Recently, by combining the highly sensitive receiving capabilities of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and the powerful radar transmitter at the NSF’s Arecibo Observatory, astronomers were able to make remarkably detailed images of the surface of this planet without ever leaving Earth.
The radar signals from Arecibo passed through both our planet’s atmosphere and the atmosphere of Venus, where they hit the surface and bounced back to be received by the GBT in a process known as bistatic radar.
This capability is essential to study not only the surface as it appears now, but also to monitor it for changes. By comparing images taken at different periods in time, scientists hope to eventually detect signs of active volcanism or other dynamic geologic processes that could reveal clues to Venus’s geologic history and subsurface conditions.
High-resolution radar images of Venus were first obtained by Arecibo in 1988 and most recently by Arecibo and GBT in 2012, with additional coverage in the early 2000s by Lynn Carter of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The first of those observations was an early science commissioning experiment for the GBT.
“It is painstaking to compare radar images to search for evidence of change, but the work is ongoing. In the meantime, combining images from this and an earlier observing period is yielding a wealth of insight about other processes that alter the surface of Venus,” said Bruce Campbell, Senior Scientist with the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. A paper discussing the comparison between these two observations was accepted for publication in the journal Icarus.
The 100-meter Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. Its location in the National Radio Quiet Zone and the West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zone protects the incredibly sensitive telescope from unwanted radio interference, enabling it to perform unique observations.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.
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.”
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 .
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 . 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.
 In oceans on Earth there are about 3200 molecules of H2O for each HDO molecule.
 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.
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.
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.
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High-energy jets powered by supermassive black holes can blast away a galaxy’s star-forming fuel — resulting in so-called “red and dead” galaxies: those brimming with ancient red stars yet little or no hydrogen gas available to create new ones.
Now astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered that black holes don’t have to be nearly so powerful to shut down star formation. By observing the dust and gas at the center NGC 1266, a nearby lenticular galaxy with a relatively modest central black hole, the astronomers have detected a “perfect storm” of turbulence that is squelching star formation in a region that would otherwise be an ideal star factory.
This turbulence is stirred up by jets from the galaxy’s central black hole slamming into an incredibly dense envelope of gas. This dense region, which may be the result of a recent merger with another smaller galaxy, blocks nearly 98 percent of material propelled by the jets from escaping the galactic center.
“Like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, the molecules in these jets meet so much resistance when they hit the surrounding dense gas that they are almost completely stopped in their tracks,” said Katherine Alatalo, an astronomer with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author on a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal. This energetic collision produces powerful turbulence in the surrounding gas, disrupting the first critical stage of star formation. “So what we see is the most intense suppression of star formation ever observed,” noted Alatalo.
Previous observations of NGC 1266 revealed a broad outflow of gas from the galactic center traveling up to 400 kilometers per second. Alatalo and her colleagues estimate that this outflow is as forceful as the simultaneous supernova explosion of 10,000 stars. The jets, though powerful enough to stir the gas, are not powerful enough to give it the velocity it needs to escape from the system.
“Another way of looking at it is that the jets are injecting turbulence into the gas, preventing it from settling down, collapsing, and forming stars,” said National Radio Astronomy Observatory astronomer and co-author Mark Lacy.
The region observed by ALMA contains about 400 million times the mass of our Sun in star-forming gas, which is 100 times more than is found in giant star-forming molecular clouds in our own Milky Way. Normally, gas this concentrated should be producing stars at a rate at least 50 times faster than the astronomers observed in this galaxy.
Previously, astronomers believed that only extremely powerful quasars and radio galaxies contained black holes that were powerful enough to serve as a star-forming “on/off” switch.
“The usual assumption in the past has been that the jets needed to be powerful enough to eject the gas from the galaxy completely in order to be effective at stopping start formation,” said Lacy.
To make this discovery, the astronomers first pinpointed the location of the far-infrared light being emitted by the galaxy. Normally, this light is associated with star formation and enables astronomers to detect regions where new stars are forming. In the case of NGC 1266, however, this light was coming from an extremely confined region of the galaxy. “This very small area was almost too small for the infrared light to be coming from star formation,” noted Alatalo.
With ALMA’s exquisite sensitivity and resolution, and along with observations from CARMA (the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy), the astronomers were then able to trace the location of the very dense molecular gas at the galactic center. They found that the gas is surrounding this compact source of the far-infrared light.
Under normal conditions, gas this dense would be forming stars at a very high rate. The dust embedded within this gas would then be heated by young stars and seen as a bright and extended source of infrared light. The small size and faintness of the infrared source in this galaxy suggests that NGC 1266 is instead choking on its own fuel, seemingly in defiance of the rules of star formation.
The astronomers also speculate that there is a feedback mechanism at work in this region. Eventually, the black hole will calm down and the turbulence will subside so star-formation can begin anew. With this renewed star formation, however, comes greater motion in the dense gas, which then falls in on the black hole and reestablishes the jets, shutting down star formation once again.
NGC 1266 is located approximately 100 million light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. Leticular galaxies are spiral galaxies, like our own Milky Way, but they have little interstellar gas available to form new stars.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).
ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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