Cosmic Paparazzi: Saturn Storm

Saturn

Saturn Storm - Credit: Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA; Color Composite: Jean-Luc Dauvergne

Explanation: Late last year, a new, remarkably bright storm erupted in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Amateur astronomers first spotted it in early December, with the ringed gas giant rising in planet Earth’s predawn sky. Orbiting Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft was able to record this close-up of the complex disturbance from a distance of 1.8 million kilometers on December 24th. Over time, the storm has evolved, spreading substantially in longitude, and now stretches far around the planet. Saturn’s thin rings are also seen slicing across this space-based view, casting broad shadows on the planet’s southern hemisphere. – NASA Astronomy Picture Of The Day

Follow-Up To Kepler Announcement

Kepler Mission Logo

Kepler Mission logo

As mentioned in the last post, NASA’s Kepler mission made an announcement today, about the confirmation of another exoplanet.

This was a fascinating find, as the planet discovered — Kepler-10b — is only 1.4 times the size of Earth, and probably terrestrial (rocks and metal; not a gas giant) in nature. This discovery marks the smallest exoplanet yet discovered! Not bad, for something 560 light years away.

Remember, Kepler’s goal is to discover “Earth-like” planets, and then determine how many of them might be in a habitable zone. Is Kepler-10b habitable? It would be highly unlikely. The planet orbits its host star, Kepler 10 (see how they do that?), in an orbit that brings it much closer than Mercury is to the Sun; more than 20 times closer. This means Kepler-10b is hot… several thousand degrees hot! On top of that, it has more than 4-and-half times the mass of the Earth. Standing on Kepler-10b would give new meaning to the phrase, “hot and heavy”.

Planet Kepler-10b Transiting Its Host Star (Artist's Depiction)

Planet Kepler-10b Transiting Its Host Star (Artist's Depiction) / Credit: NASA/Kepler Mission/Dana Berry

Another interesting bit of information, is that it’s expected to be tidally locked to Kepler 10. Just as the Moon only shows its one face to Earth, Kepler-10b only shows one face to its star. My imagination quickly conjures up an imagination of a planet habitable on one side, and a scorched realm of hellfire on the other — but the facts probably indicate the entire thing is closer to the latter; a big dense glob of molten material.

So, let’s quickly recap some of the highlights of Kepler’s 9th confirmed exoplanet discovery.

Diameter: 1.4 Earths
Mass: 4.6 Earth mass
Smallest exoplanet ever discovered
Orbital period: .84 days (that thing is screaming around the Kepler 10)
Harbors Life?: Highly improbably (no, not even arsenic-based life!)

Following the announcement, NASA/Kepler held a chat with Kepler Mission expert, Natalie Batalha. It was open to anyone who wanted to join in, and I noticed about 250 participants during the event. There were some great questions and answers, and a full transcript should be up within a couple of days.

I collected a few questions and answers to keep you interested while we wait:

Q: Can Kepler determine anything about the chemical content of a candidate planet’s atmosphere to determine if it would be suitable for life as we know it?

Natalie: Kepler can not probe the atmosphere of the planet, no. However, I fully expect other telescopes and missions to do transmission spectroscopy to see if it has an atmosphere. With transmission spectroscopy, you observe the planet when it is right in front of the star (allowing starlight to stream through its atmosphere) and then you observe it when it is not in front of the star. Then, you compare the two to see what the atmosphere might have done to the starlight.

Q: How do you measure the planet mass, size and the distance to the star? And the planet composition?

Natalie: Mass comes from the Doppler measurements of the wobble of the star as the planet/star orit about their commone center of mass. Radius comes from the amount of dimming of starlight that occurs during transit. The distance can be derived if you know the surface temperature and radius of the star. Together they give the intrinsic brightness. We know how bright the star appears to us. Knowing how right it SHOULD be instrinsically allows us to determine how far away it is — 560 light-years for Kepler-10.

Q: What are the prospects for additional planets in the Kepler 10 star system? Any hints?

Natalie: There is actually already a very compelling signature of another potential planet in this system. There is a transit event that recurs once every 45 days and is suggestive of a planet a bit larger than 2 times the radius of the Earth.

The Kepler Mission is a wonderful tool to unlocking our understanding of planets outside our own solar system. It’s an exciting time to be on the one known planet (so far!) that allows us to enjoy it.

Kepler Planet Discovery Announcement On Monday

Kepler Mission Logo

Kepler Mission logo

NASA’s Kepler mission will be holding a press conference tomorrow, to make an announcement about a “new planet discovery”.

From the Kepler website:

A new planet discovery will be announced Monday Jan. 10 during the ‘Exoplanets & Their Host Stars’ presentation at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in Seattle, Washington.

Natalie Batalha of the NASA Kepler Mission Team will be online answering your questions about this new planet finding on Monday, Jan. 10 from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST / 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. PST. Natalie will be chatting with you live from the conference in Seattle.

The chat can be found at this website.

Painting of the Milky Way, with details of Kepler Mission added - Credit: NASA Kepler and Jon Lomberg


To summarize the mission, Kepler is a space-observatory –launched in 2009 — designed to discover Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. It has a planned mission lifetime of 3.5 years. Kepler measures light from stars, and watches for dimming which could indicate a planet transiting in front of the star. Many of the stars Kepler has observed have been variable stars — stars whose brightness changes naturally, as opposed to anything blocking some of its light. These variable stars are dropped from the target database, and replaced with new candidates.

What types of exoplanets is Kepler looking for specifically? According to the Kepler mission page:

The challenge now is to find terrestrial planets (i.e., those one half to twice the size of the Earth), especially those in the habitable zone of their stars where liquid water and possibly life might exist.

The Kepler Mission, NASA Discovery mission #10, is specifically designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover dozens of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets.

So far, Kepler has found more than 700 planet candidates, which require further data-analysis and ground-based observations to rule out any “false signatures”. Kepler has 8 confirmed planets. These have ranged in mass from 7.7% to more than double the mass of Jupiter. For comparison, Jupiter is 317 times more massive than the Earth — or, Earth is .3% the mass of Jupiter.

So, we wait until tomorrow (or today for many of you) to find out the details of our newly discovered exoplanet friend.

10-Year-Old Girl Discovers Supernova

Supernova Remnant N49

Supernova Remnant N49 in the Large Magellanic Cloud - Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Across the world, many children spent their Christmas vacation sleeping in, making snowmen (and snowwomen), and playing video games.

10-year-old Kathryn Aurora Gray, instead discovered a supernova!

Kathryn was studying images sent to her father at an amateur observatory. To find supernovas, astronomers comb through dozens of past images of star fields and compare them to newer images; specialized software helps indicate potential supernova candidates.

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada confirmed the find (.pdf) on January 3.

Her discovery made her the youngest to accomplish such a feat. Her father set the same record in 1995, when he was 22.

I can only imagine how cool she’s going to be in science class from now on. My kids’ teachers sometimes have to face my kids correcting them when they point out a planet incorrectly (“No, that’s not Jupiter, that’s Venus… My dad pointed it out and we were talking about it this morning!”), but they have yet to pipe up in class and say “Of course I know what a supernova is, I already discovered one!”

It’s quite exciting to see a young student so interested in science, and at such a young age, already carving a name out for herself in the astronomical community.

Congratulations Kathryn! Keep up the good work!

Quadrantids Tonight!

The Quandrantids meteor shower peaks tonight. A nearly New Moon should make for dark skies, depending on cloud coverage.

Normally, you can tell which constellation the shower will appear to radiate from by the name of the shower. e.g. Leonids = Leo, Orionids = Orion, Geminids = Gemeni, etc.

The Quadrantids radiate from Quadrans Muralis, which is no longer considered a constellation. So, where should you look? The constellation Bootes (Arcturus is a bright star in this constellation) would be a good point to consider the radiant. But don’t get too hung up on looking at the radiant point, or you’ll miss many of them. If you were to take pictures of each meteor tonight, and extend the lines they trace across the sky, the radiant is the place where most of those lines would intersect. Polaris (the North Star) would be a good spot to look at; if the skies are clear, that’s where my camera will be pointing.

For more specifics, check out this website.

Happy Observing!

Space Science in 2010

It’s time to start a new year (possibly a new decade, depending on how you want to look at it), but before we do that, let’s take a look back at what 2010 meant for the space sciences.

Let’s talk launches.
As far as lobbing the most things up into space this year, Russia takes the cake. There were 74 space launches in 2010, and close to half of those (31) were undertaken by Russia. The USA and China each had about half as many as Russia; 15. The European Space Agency sent up 6 rockets. Rounding out the remainder were India with 3, Japan with 2, and Israel and South Korea each with 1. Four launches in the world were unsuccessful.

ESA:
The European Space Agency had a successful year. Their Cryosat-2 Earth explorer launched in April (following the failed launch of Cryosat-1 in 2005) is live and collecting data on how Earth’s ice fields are responding to global climate change.

The Planck orbiting observatory released its first all-sky scan data, and the produced image definitely ranks among the top for 2010 and beyond:

Planck all-sky survey

Click for full size. - Source: ESA - Planck

(For the above image labeled with reference points, check this link.)
You’re seeing the microwave sky as seen by Planck, which will continue in 2011 to map out the Cosmic Microwave Background.

ESA’s comet-chaser, Rosetta, performed a fly-by of the asteroid 21 Lutetia.

Closest fly-by of 21 Lutetia

Click for large version - Source: ESA / Rosetta

One of my favorite Rosetta images so far is of 21 Lutetia, but from a bit further away; however, from that distance a special treat comes into view:

21 Lutetia with Saturn in background.

Click to biggify - Source ESA / Rosetta

Saturn! And I can’t help to notice that this is just about what Saturn looks like on Earth through a Galileoscope.

I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of ESA’s contributions to space science in 2010, but we’ll have a chance to get to know what they’re up to over the next year, as we continue to cover Rosetta, Planck, Cryosat, and more!

NASA:
NASA had a big year in 2010. President Obama laid out a new direction for NASA in February, and in April, detailed plans for future space exploration.

“Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” the president said. “And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

I certainly hope to see it too!

NASA launched a new set of eyes to observe the Sun, in the SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory). Of course I have a pretty image to share from SDO:

Solar Eclipse Seen From SDO

Click for large version - Souce: NASA / SDO

This October 2010 image shows a solar eclipse from SDO’s vantage point.

Following last year’s bombing of the Moon (okay, not bombing, but they did punch a pretty nice dent into it with their Centaur impactor, sending a plume of debris 12 miles high after a 5,600 mph impact), NASA’s LCROSS (Lunar Crater Remote Observation and Sensing Satellite) released some new and promising data:

Scientists determined the soil in the moon’s shadowy craters is rich in useful materials, including water in the form of mostly pure ice crystals. Researchers also found the moon is chemically active and has a water cycle. By understanding the processes and environments that determine the delivery of water to the moon, where water ice is, and the active water cycle, future mission planners may be able to better determine which locations will have easily-accessible water. – NASA

Finally, NASA brought us the science (and unncessary hooplah) around some arsenic-munching bacteria. With rampant and irresponsible speculation following NASA’s pre-announcement teaser — “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” — release, many of us anxiously awaited the release of the actual report. Unfortunately, NASA didn’t announce the discovery of alien life. It also didn’t announce that it found life on Earth actively consuming arsenic — although many media reports said otherwise. These bacteria were collected from a lake and brought to a lab where biologists replaced some of its phosphorus with arsenic, to which it apparently managed to continue growing. Simply, all life as we know it uses phosphorus as a backbone of its DNA, so knowing that something could survive and grow with arsenic in place of phosphorus would re-write what we know about how life exists in the universe. However, at the time of this writing, there’s some serious criticism of the findings. Hopefully, it will be ironed out in 2011.

News also came from the Voyager mission, which has been unfolding our understanding of our solar system for more than 30 years. The Voyager 1 spacecraft reached a point on the edge of the solar system, where the solar wind no longer has any outward motion. The wind is no longer in Voyager 1’s sails, yet it continues on. (Expect more on the Voyager mission from this blog, as it’s probably deserves the most credit for getting me interested in space science.)

And that’s just a tiny sampling of what NASA is continuously kicking out.

JAXA
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had a bittersweet year.

Bitter: Their third planetary explorer Planet-C (Akatsuki) failed to insert itself into Venus’ orbit. The mission isn’t lost though, as they’ll get a re-do in six years when the craft re-approaches Venus. I’m sure JAXA will find ways to conduct science with Akatsuki in the meantime.

Sweet: They launched the first space-kite! IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) is the first project to demonstrate interplanetary travel using solar-sail technology. So far, IKAROS is working beautifully and may form as the basis for alternative means of getting around in the galaxy.

Sweet+: JAXA’s Hayabusa craft also completed the legwork on a mission that launched in 2003. The mission was to approach an asteroid, touch-down to collect particle samples, and then return them to Earth for analysis. While the mission ran into a number of complications, ultimately it was a very remarkable feat of engineering and technology. The spacecraft, and samples capsule, returned to Earth in June of 2010; with the spacecraft burning up on re-entry (as planned). In November, JAXA confirmed that most of the particles collected were in fact from the target asteroid, Itokawa. Further analysis is ongoing. The mission is an exciting example of what JAXA is capable of, and I recommend reading a full account of the entire mission.

Roscosmos:
The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), as mentioned before, took the lead on putting things into orbit. Roscosmos had 31 launches, more than the US and China combined. Here’s an explanatory image (a picture is worth a thousand words, ya’know), showing Russia’s space plans in 2010, and reality:

Russian Space Plans and Reality 2010

You'll want to click the image for the large version - RussianSpaceWeb.com

The private sector also began to get involved with spaceflight in a big way in 2010.
SpaceX conducted the first successful launch and recovery of its Dragon capsule in early December 2010; the first time this has been accomplished by a private company.
Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital SpaceShipTwo completed a number of manned glide tests, paving the way for SpaceShipThree, which will be an orbital craft.

While we’ve covered a number of major events in 2010, I’ve actually only scratched the surface. A single blog, let alone a single blog post, simply can’t cover everything that multi-billion dollar budgets, devoted to space sciences from dozens of countries around the globe, accomplish in a given year — and 2010 was a great one!

So to 2010, “Well done!”, and now on to 2011!

The Star-Splitter – Robert Frost

The Star-Splitter
BY ROBERT FROST
Listen, as read by Robert Frost:
(Audio Source: PoetryFoundation.org.)
Orion

“You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion’s having caught me.
Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
These forces are obliged to pay respect to?”
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.

“What do you want with one of those blame things?”
I asked him well beforehand. “Don’t you get one!”

“Don’t call it blamed; there isn’t anything
More blameless in the sense of being less
A weapon in our human fight,” he said.
“I’ll have one if I sell my farm to buy it.”
There where he moved the rocks to plow the ground
And plowed between the rocks he couldn’t move,
Few farms changed hands; so rather than spend years
Trying to sell his farm and then not selling,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And bought the telescope with what it came to.
He had been heard to say by several:
“The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;
The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.
In Littleton it may as well be me.”
After such loose talk it was no surprise
When he did what he did and burned his house down.

Mean laughter went about the town that day
To let him know we weren’t the least imposed on,
And he could wait—we’d see to him tomorrow.
But the first thing next morning we reflected
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.
Our thief, the one who does our stealing from us,
We don’t cut off from coming to church suppers,
But what we miss we go to him and ask for.
He promptly gives it back, that is if still
Uneaten, unworn out, or undisposed of.
It wouldn’t do to be too hard on Brad
About his telescope. Beyond the age
Of being given one for Christmas gift,
He had to take the best way he knew how
To find himself in one. Well, all we said was
He took a strange thing to be roguish over.
Some sympathy was wasted on the house,
A good old-timer dating back along;
But a house isn’t sentient; the house
Didn’t feel anything. And if it did,
Why not regard it as a sacrifice,
And an old-fashioned sacrifice by fire,
Instead of a new-fashioned one at auction?

Out of a house and so out of a farm
At one stroke (of a match), Brad had to turn
To earn a living on the Concord railroad,
As under-ticket-agent at a station
Where his job, when he wasn’t selling tickets,
Was setting out up track and down, not plants
As on a farm, but planets, evening stars
That varied in their hue from red to green.

He got a good glass for six hundred dollars.
His new job gave him leisure for stargazing.
Often he bid me come and have a look
Up the brass barrel, velvet black inside,
At a star quaking in the other end.
I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
That telescope was christened the Star-Splitter,
Because it didn’t do a thing but split
A star in two or three the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It’s a star-splitter if there ever was one,
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
‘Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.

We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?

Total Lunar Eclipse

If you have clear skies, be sure to take the opportunity to view the total lunar eclipse of December 20/21, 2010. My forecast isn’t looking good, but I’m holding out hope that I’ll get a clear view and get some photographs of the event. The following image does a great job of detailing when to look, and what you can expect:
Total Lunar Eclipse of December 2010
*Note, the times listed on this image are for Alaskan time, which is 4 hours earlier than Eastern time.
I got the image from Mr. Eclipse who not only explains what you’re seeing, but provides a wealth of other information, including how to photograph it.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon enters the shadow of Earth. This can only happen during a full moon, but not every full moon coincides with an eclipse. Why? Because the Moon’s orbit is inclined about 5.1° to the Earth. So a lunar eclipse will occur when a full moon also happens to be on the same plane, or 0°, as the Earth.

If you’re plagued by cloudy skies, you can still watch it and participate in a live chat, courtesy of NASA/JPL.

So there you have it, no excuses. If you miss this one and reside in the North America, you won’t have another chance until 2014.

Happy observing!