vendredi 16 septembre 2016

Hubble Finds a Lenticular Galaxy Standing Out in the Crowd

NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

Sept. 16, 2016

A lone source shines out brightly from the dark expanse of deep space, glowing softly against a picturesque backdrop of distant stars and colorful galaxies.

Captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), this scene shows PGC 83677, a lenticular galaxy — a galaxy type that sits between the more familiar elliptical and spiral varieties.

It reveals both the relatively calm outskirts and intriguing core of PGC 83677. Here, studies have uncovered signs of a monstrous black hole that is spewing out high-energy X-rays and ultraviolet light.

Hubble and the sunrise over Earth

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Image, Video, Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble; acknowledgements: Judy Schmidt (Geckzilla)/Text credit: ESA (European Space Agency)/NASA/Rob Garner.

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Vega Releases Five Satellites in Complex Mission

Arianespace - Flight VV07 Mission poster.

16 September 2016

Vega lifts off

Arianespace launched a Vega rocket on a complex mission early this morning that demonstrated the flexibility of its upper stage and multisatellite carrier.

In its first six flights, Vega delivered a wide range of satellites into very different orbits, demonstrating its flexibility.

Liftoff of the Vega mission with SkySats-4 to -7 and PerúSAT-1

Liftoff of the seventh mission from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana came at 01:43 GMT on 16 September (03:43 CEST; 22:43 local time on 15 September).

Four SkySat microsatellites for Terra Bella, with a total mass at liftoff of 440 kg, were released into their target orbit about 40 minutes into the mission.


This was followed about 62 minutes later by the release of the 430 kg PeruSAT-1, Peru’s first Earth observation satellite.

SkySats-4 to -7

Vega is a 30 m-high, four-stage vehicle designed to accommodate small scientific and Earth observation payloads of 300–2500 kg depending on the orbit and altitude.

Related link:

ESA's Vega rocket:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: European Space Agency (ESA)/Arianespace.

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jeudi 15 septembre 2016

China Launches Second Space Station Tiangong 2

CASC - China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation logo.

Sept. 15, 2016

Tiangong-2 lifts off on a Long March 2F-T2 rocket from the Jiuquan

China has launchedat 1404 GMT (10:04 a.m. EDT; 10:04 p.m. Beijing time) Thursday  its second space station in a sign of the growing sophistication of its military-backed program that intends to send a mission to Mars in the coming years.

The Tiangong 2 was carried into space on Thursday night atop a Long March 7 rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China.

Plans call for the launch next month of the Shenzhou 11 spaceship with two astronauts to dock with the station and remain on board for a month. The station, whose name means "Heavenly Palace," is considered a stepping stone to a mission to Mars by the end of the decade.

Tiangong-2 launch review: China launches space lab into orbit

The Tiangong 2 module will be used for "testing systems and processes for mid-term space stays and refueling," and will house experiments in medicine and various space-related technologies.

China's first space station, Tiangong 1, was launched in September 2011 and officially went out of service earlier this year after having docked with three visiting spacecraft.

China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after Russia and the U.S. to do so, and has since staged a spacewalk and landed its Yutu rover on the moon. Administrators suggest a manned landing on the moon may also be in the program's future.

China was prevented from participating in the International Space Station, mainly due to U.S. concerns over the security risks of involving the increasingly assertive Chinese military in the multinational effort.

Artist's rendering of the Tiangong 2 module

A source of enormous national pride, China's space program plans a total of 20 missions this year at a time when the U.S. and other countries' programs are seeking new roles.

China is also developing the Long March 5 heavier-lift rocket needed to launch other components of the Tiangong 2 and other massive payloads.

China plans to land a rover on Mars by 2020, attempting to recreate the success of the U.S. Viking 1 mission that landed a rover on the planet four decades ago.

For more information about China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), Vsist:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: CASC/CCTV News/ News.


Cassini Begins Epic Final Year at Saturn

NASA - Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn & Titan patch.

Sept. 15, 2016

Image above: Since NASA's Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet's appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn's northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

After more than 12 years studying Saturn, its rings and moons, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has entered the final year of its epic voyage. The conclusion of the historic scientific odyssey is planned for September 2017, but not before the spacecraft completes a daring two-part endgame.

Beginning on November 30, Cassini's orbit will send the spacecraft just past the outer edge of the main rings. These orbits, a series of 20, are called the F-ring orbits. During these weekly orbits, Cassini will approach to within 4,850 miles (7,800 kilometers) of the center of the narrow F ring, with its peculiar kinked and braided structure.

"During the F-ring orbits we expect to see the rings, along with the small moons and other structures embedded in them, as never before," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "The last time we got this close to the rings was during arrival at Saturn in 2004, and we saw only their backlit side. Now we have dozens of opportunities to examine their structure at extremely high resolution on both sides."

The Last Act: A Grand Finale

Cassini's final phase -- called the Grand Finale -- begins in earnest in April 2017. A close flyby of Saturn's giant moon Titan will reshape the spacecraft's orbit so that it passes through the gap between Saturn and the rings – an unexplored space only about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) wide. The spacecraft is expected to make 22 plunges through this gap, beginning with its first dive on April 27.

Four Days at Saturn

Video above: NASA's Cassini spacecraft stared at Saturn for nearly 44 hours in April 2016 to obtain this movie showing four Saturn days. Cassini will begin a series of dives between the planet and its rings in April 2017, building toward a dramatic end of mission -- a final plunge into the planet, six months later. Video Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

During the Grand Finale, Cassini will make the closest-ever observations of Saturn, mapping the planet's magnetic and gravity fields with exquisite precision and returning ultra-close views of the atmosphere. Scientists also hope to gain new insights into Saturn's interior structure, the precise length of a Saturn day, and the total mass of the rings -- which may finally help settle the question of their age. The spacecraft will also directly analyze dust-sized particles in the main rings and sample the outer reaches of Saturn's atmosphere -- both first-time measurements for the mission.

"It's like getting a whole new mission," said Spilker. "The scientific value of the F ring and Grand Finale orbits is so compelling that you could imagine a whole mission to Saturn designed around what we're about to do."

Getting Into Saturn, Literally

Since the beginning of 2016, mission engineers have been tweaking Cassini's orbital path around Saturn to position the spacecraft for the mission's final phase. They have sent the spacecraft on a series of flybys past Titan that are progressively raising the tilt of Cassini's orbit with respect to Saturn's equator and rings. This particular orientation enables the spacecraft to leap over the rings with a single (and final) Titan flyby in April, to begin the Grand Finale.

"We've used Titan's gravity throughout the mission to sling Cassini around the Saturn system," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. "Now Titan is coming through for us once again, providing a way for Cassini to get into these completely unexplored regions so close to the planet."

The Grand Finale will come to a dramatic end on Sept. 15, 2017, as Cassini dives into Saturn's atmosphere, returning data about the planet's chemical composition until its signal is lost. Friction with the atmosphere will cause the spacecraft to burn up like a meteor soon afterward.

To celebrate the beginning of the final year and the adventure ahead, the Cassini team is releasing a new movie of the rotating planet, along with a color mosaic, both taken from high above Saturn's northern hemisphere. The movie covers 44 hours, or just over four Saturn rotations.

Image above: The Cassini spacecraft has logged impressive numbers in the 12 years since it arrived at Saturn on July 1, 2004. This infographic offers a snapshot of just a few of the mission's big numbers on Sept. 15, 2016, as it heads into a final year of science at Saturn. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

‘A Truly Thrilling Ride’

"This is the sort of view Cassini will have as the spacecraft repeatedly climbs high above Saturn's northern latitudes before plunging past the outer -- and later the inner -- edges of the rings," said Spilker.

And so, although the mission's end is approaching -- with a "Cassini Final Plunge" clock already counting down in JPL mission control -- an extremely important phase of the mission is still to come.

"We may be counting down, but no one should count Cassini out yet," said Curt Niebur, Cassini program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The journey ahead is going to be a truly thrilling ride."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

More information about Cassini:

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/JPL/Preston Dyches.

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Arctic Sea Ice Annual Minimum Ties Second Lowest on Record

NASA - Operation IceBridge Mission patch.

Sept. 15, 2016

Arctic sea ice appeared to have reached its annual lowest extent on Sept. 10, NASA and the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder reported today.

An analysis of satellite data showed that at 1.60 million square miles (4.14 million square kilometers), the 2016 Arctic sea ice minimum extent is effectively tied with 2007 for the second lowest yearly minimum in the satellite record. Since satellites began monitoring sea ice in 1978, researchers have observed a steep decline in the average extent of Arctic sea ice for every month of the year.

Sea Ice Minimum 2016

Video above: In this animation, the Earth rotates slowly as the Arctic sea ice advances over time from March 24, 2016, to Sept. 10, 2016, when the sea ice reached its annual minimum extent. The 2016 Arctic minimum sea ice extent is the second lowest minimum extent on the satellite record. Video Credits: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio/C. Starr.

The sea ice cover of the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas helps regulate the planet’s temperature, influences the circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, and impacts Arctic communities and ecosystems. Arctic sea ice shrinks every year during the spring and summer until it reaches its minimum yearly extent. Sea ice regrows during the frigid fall and winter months, when the sun is below the horizon in the Arctic.

This summer, the melt of Arctic sea ice surprised scientists by changing pace several times. The melt season began with a record low yearly maximum extent in March and a rapid ice loss through May. But in June and July, low atmospheric pressures and cloudy skies slowed down the melt. Then, after two large storms went across the Arctic basin in August, sea ice melt picked up speed through early September.

“It’s pretty remarkable that this year’s sea ice minimum extent ended up the second lowest, after how the melt progressed in June and July,” said Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “June and July are usually key months for melt because that’s when you have 24 hours a day of sunlight – and this year we lost melt momentum during those two months.”

Image above: The 2016 Arctic sea ice summertime minimum, reached on Sept. 10, is 911,000 square miles below the 1981-2010 average minimum sea ice extent, shown here as a gold line. Image Credits: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio/C. Starr.

But in August, two very strong cyclones crossed the Arctic Ocean along the Siberian coast. These storms didn’t have as much of an immediate impact on the sea ice as the great cyclone of 2012, but in late August and early September there was “a pretty fast ice loss in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas that might be a delayed effect from the storms,” Meier said.

Meier also said that decades ago, the melt season would slow down by the middle of August, when the sun starts setting in the Arctic.

“In the past, we had this remaining sea ice pack that was mostly thick, old ice. But now everything is more jumbled up, which makes it less resistant to melt, so even late in the season you can get weather conditions that give it a final kick,” Meier said.

Image above: These three figures show sea-ice-extent rankings by year for each month, from January­ through December, over the period spanning from 1979 to 2015, for the Arctic (top), Antarctic (middle) and globally (bottom). In total, 444 months of average sea ice extent are represented in each graph. The darkest blue-colored squares represent a month where sea ice hit a record low extent compared to the previous months on record, while the lighest-colored squares stand for a month where sea ice extent hit a record high. Image Credits: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens.

Arctic sea ice cover has not fared well during other months of the year either. A recently published study that ranked 37 years of monthly sea ice extents in the Arctic and Antarctic found that there has not been a record high in Arctic sea ice extents in any month since 1986. During that same time period, there have been 75 new record lows.

“When you think of the temperature records, it’s common to hear the statement that even when temperatures are increasing, you do expect a record cold here or there every once in a while,” said Claire Parkinson, main author of the study and a senior climate scientist at Goddard. “To think that in this record of Arctic sea ice that goes back to the late 1970s, since 1986 there hasn’t been a single record high in any month of the year, and yet, over that same period, there have been 75 record lows. It’s just an incredible contrast.”

“It is definitely not just September that’s losing sea ice. The record makes it clear that the ice is not rebounding to where it used to be, even in the midst of the winter,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson’s analysis, which spans from 1979 to 2015 found that in the Antarctic, where the trends are toward more rather than less sea ice, there have only been six record monthly record lows after 1986, and 45 record highs.

“The Antarctic numbers are pretty amazing, except when you compare them with the Arctic’s, which are much more amazing,” Parkinson said.

Related links:



NSIDC analysis post:

Press release link:

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA’s Earth Science News Team, by Maria-José Viñas/Karl Hille.


OSIRIS-REx Mission Status Report – Sept. 15

NASA - OSIRIS-REx Mission patch.

Sept. 15, 2016

One week post-launch, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft remains healthy and is on track for its two-year journey to the asteroid Bennu.  As of noon EDT Thursday, the spacecraft was approximately 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) from Earth, traveling at approximately 12,300 miles per hour (19,800 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth.  All of the spacecraft’s subsystems are operating as expected.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is designed to rendezvous with, study, and return a sample of Bennu to Earth. This sample of a primitive asteroid will help scientists understand the formation of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago.

Image above: This is the first image from the OSIRIS-REx star tracker taken on Monday, Sept. 12. Similar to the way early sailors used the stars to navigate, the star tracker on OSIRIS-REx takes images of the stars and compares them to an on-board catalogue, which then tells the spacecraft navigation systems its attitude, or which way it is pointing. Image Credit: NASA.

After liftoff at 7:05 p.m. EDT on Sept. 8, the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket performed flawlessly and positioned the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft exactly where the mission’s navigation team expected it to be. By 1:30 p.m. EDT on Sept. 9, approximately 18 1/2 hours after launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft had crossed the orbital path of the moon at 240,000 miles (386,500 kilometers). By that evening, the spacecraft transitioned from launch operations into its outbound cruise phase. 

On Sept. 12, OSIRIS-REx took its first image from it star tracker navigational camera, proving the system is functioning properly.  The star tracker takes images of the stars and compares them to an on-board catalog, which then tells the spacecraft navigation systems its attitude, or which way it is pointing. 

Next week, the engineers controlling the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will conduct checkouts of the science instruments on board the spacecraft.

Image above: Artist's view of OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer) over Bennu. Image Credit: NASA.

Goddard Space Flight Center provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the agency’s New Frontiers Program for its Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, by Nancy Neal-Jones/Karl Hille/University of Arizona/Erin Morton.


Hubble Takes Close-up Look at Disintegrating Comet

NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

Sept. 15, 2016

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured one of the sharpest, most detailed observations of a comet breaking apart, which occurred 67 million miles from Earth.

In a series of images taken over a three-day span in January 2016, Hubble revealed 25 building-size blocks made of a mixture of ice and dust that are drifting away from the comet at a leisurely pace, about the walking speed of an adult.

The observations suggest that the roughly 4.5-billion-year-old comet, named 332P/Ikeya-Murakami, or Comet 332P, may be spinning so fast that material is ejected from its surface. The resulting debris is now scattered along a 3,000-mile-long trail, larger than the width of the continental U.S.

These observations provide insight into the volatile behavior of comets as they approach the sun and begin to vaporize, unleashing dynamical forces. Comet 332P was 150 million miles from the sun, slightly beyond the orbit of Mars, when Hubble spotted the breakup.

Animation above: This animation, made from a sequence of Hubble Space Telescope images, shows the slow migration of building-size fragments of Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami over a three-day period in January 2016. The pieces broke off of the main nucleus in late 2015 as the icy, ancient comet approached the sun in its orbit. Image Credits: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA).

“We know that comets sometimes disintegrate, but we don’t know much about why or how they come apart,” explained lead researcher David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles. “The trouble is that it happens quickly and without warning, and so we don’t have much chance to get useful data. With Hubble’s fantastic resolution, not only do we see really tiny, faint bits of the comet, but we can watch them change from day to day. And that has allowed us to make the best measurements ever obtained on such an object.”

The three-day observations reveal that the comet shards brighten and dim as icy patches on their surfaces rotate into and out of sunlight. Their shapes change, too, as they break apart. The icy relics comprise about 4 percent of the parent comet and range in size from roughly 65 feet wide to 200 feet wide. They are moving away from each other at a few miles per hour.

The Hubble images show that the parent comet also changes brightness cyclically, completing a rotation every two to four hours. A visitor to the comet would see the sun rise and set in as little as an hour. The comet is also much smaller than astronomers thought, measuring only 1,600 feet across, about the length of five football fields.

Comet 332P was discovered in November 2010, after it surged in brightness and was spotted by two Japanese amateur astronomers, Kaoru Ikeya and Shigeki Murakami.

Based on the Hubble data, the research team suggests that sunlight heated up the comet, causing jets of gas and dust to erupt from its surface. Because the nucleus is so small, these jets act like rocket engines, spinning up the comet’s rotation. The faster spin rate loosened chunks of material, which are drifting off into space.

The research team calculated that the comet probably shed material over several months, between October and December 2015. Jewitt suggests that even some of the ejected pieces have themselves fallen to bits in a kind of cascading fragmentation. “Our analysis shows that the smaller fragments are not as abundant as one might expect based on the number of bigger chunks,” he said. “This is suggestive that they’re being depleted even in the few months since they were launched from the primary body. We think these little guys have a short lifetime.”

Hubble’s sharp vision also spied a chunk of material close to the comet, which may be the first salvo of another outburst. The remnant from still another flare-up, which may have occurred in 2012, is also visible. The fragment may be as large as Comet 332P, suggesting the comet split in two. But the icy remnant wasn’t spotted until Dec. 31, 2015, by the Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) telescope in Hawaii, in work supported by the Near-Earth Object Observations program in NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. That discovery prompted Jewitt and colleagues to request Hubble time to look at the comet in detail. Around the same time, astronomers around the world began to notice a cloudy patch of material near the comet – which Hubble later resolved into the 25 pieces.

“In the past, astronomers thought that comets die when they are warmed by sunlight, causing their ices to simply vaporize away,” Jewitt said. “Either nothing would be left over or there would be a dead hulk of material where an active comet used to be. But it’s starting to look like fragmentation may be more important. In Comet 332P we may be seeing a comet fragmenting itself into oblivion.”

Image above: This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals the ancient Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami disintegrating as it approaches the sun. The comet debris consists of a cluster of building-size chunks (center) that form a 3,000-mile-long trail. The fragments are drifting away from the comet. The main nucleus of Comet 332P is the bright object at lower left. This observation was made on Jan. 27, 2016, with Hubble's Wide Field Camera. Image Credits: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA).

“Hubble’s best previous glimpse at a fragmenting comet came during Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) observations of 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (73P) in April 2006,” said collaborator Harold Weaver of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “In those observations, Hubble witnessed a comet with more than 60 named pieces. The Hubble images showed unprecedented detail of 73P’s breakup, but the comet wasn’t observed long enough to document the evolution of the fragments over time, unlike the case of 332P.”

The researchers estimate that Comet 332P contains enough mass to endure another 25 outbursts. “If the comet has an episode every six years, the equivalent of one orbit around the sun, then it will be gone in 150 years,” Jewitt said. “It’s the blink of an eye, astronomically speaking. The trip to the inner solar system has doomed it.”

The icy visitor hails from the Kuiper belt, a vast swarm of objects at the outskirts of our solar system. These icy relics are the leftover building blocks from our solar system’s construction. After nearly 4.5 billion years in this icy deep freeze, chaotic gravitational perturbations from Neptune kicked Comet 332P out of the Kuiper belt.

Hubble orbiting Earth

As the comet traveled across the solar system, it was deflected by the planets, like a ball bouncing around in a pinball machine, until Jupiter’s gravity set its current orbit. Jewitt estimates that a comet from the Kuiper belt gets tossed into the inner solar system every 40 to 100 years.

The results will appear in the Sept. 15, 2016, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

For images and more information about Comet 332P and Hubble, visit:

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Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Felicia Chou/Rob Garner/Space Telescope Science Institute/Donna Weaver/Ray Villard/University of California/David Jewitt/Video: European Space Agency (ESA).


Studies Find Echoes of Black Holes Eating Stars

NASA - WISE Mission patch.

Sept. 15, 2016

Supermassive black holes, with their immense gravitational pull, are notoriously good at clearing out their immediate surroundings by eating nearby objects. When a star passes within a certain distance of a black hole, the stellar material gets stretched and compressed -- or "spaghettified" -- as the black hole swallows it.

Image above: This illustration shows a glowing stream of material from a star as it is being devoured by a supermassive black hole in a tidal disruption flare. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A black hole destroying a star, an event astronomers call "stellar tidal disruption," releases an enormous amount of energy, brightening the surroundings in an event called a flare. In recent years, a few dozen such flares have been discovered, but they are not well understood.

Astronomers now have new insights into tidal disruption flares, thanks to data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Two new studies characterize tidal disruption flares by studying how surrounding dust absorbs and re-emits their light, like echoes. This approach allowed scientists to measure the energy of flares from stellar tidal disruption events more precisely than ever before.

"This is the first time we have clearly seen the infrared light echoes from multiple tidal disruption events," said Sjoert van Velzen, postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and lead author of a study finding three such events, to be published in the Astrophysical Journal. A fourth potential light echo based on WISE data has been reported by an independent study led by Ning Jiang, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Science and Technology of China.

Flares from black holes eating stars contain high-energy radiation, including ultraviolet and X-ray light. Such flares destroy any dust that hangs out around a black hole. But at a certain distance from a black hole, dust can survive because the flare's radiation that reaches it is not as intense.

After the surviving dust is heated by a flare, it gives off infrared radiation. WISE measures this infrared emission from the dust near a black hole, which gives clues about tidal disruption flares and the nature of the dust itself. Infrared wavelengths of light are longer than visible light and cannot be seen with the naked eye. The WISE spacecraft, which maps the entire sky every six months, allowed the variation in infrared emission from the dust to be measured.

Astronomers used a technique called "photo-reverberation" or "light echoes" to characterize the dust. This method relies on measuring the delay between the original optical light flare and the subsequent infrared light variation, when the flare reaches the dust surrounding the black hole. This time delay is then used to determine the distance between the black hole and the dust.

Van Velzen's study looked at five possible tidal disruption events, and saw the light echo effect in three of them. Jiang's group saw it in an additional event called ASASSN-14li.

Measuring the infrared glow of dust heated by these flares allows astronomers to make estimates of the location of dust that encircles the black hole at the center of a galaxy.

"Our study confirms that the dust is there, and that we can use it to determine how much energy was generated in the destruction of the star," said Varoujan Gorjian, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and co-author of the paper led by van Valzen.

Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) renamed NEOWISE. Image Credit: NASA

Researchers found that the infrared emission from dust heated by a flare causes an infrared signal that can be detected for up to a year after the flare is at its most luminous. The results are consistent with the black hole having a patchy, spherical web of dust located a few trillion miles (half a light-year) from the black hole itself.

"The black hole has destroyed everything between itself and this dust shell," van Velzen said. "It's as though the black hole has cleaned its room by throwing flames."

JPL manages and operates WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was put into hibernation mode in 2011, after it scanned the entire sky twice, thereby completing its main objectives. In September 2013, WISE was reactivated, renamed NEOWISE and assigned a new mission to assist NASA's efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.

For more information on WISE, visit:

Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/JPL/Elizabeth Landau.


Some Ancient Mars Lakes Came Long After Others

NASA - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) logo.

Sept. 15, 2016

Lakes and snowmelt-fed streams on Mars formed much later than previously thought possible, according to new findings using data primarily from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Image above: Valleys much younger than well-known ancient valley networks on Mars are evident near the informally named "Heart Lake" on Mars. This map presents color-coded topographical information overlaid onto a photo mosaic. Lower elevations are indicated with white and purple; higher elevations, yellow. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU.

The recently discovered lakes and streams appeared roughly a billion years after a well-documented, earlier era of wet conditions on ancient Mars. These results provide insight into the climate history of the Red Planet and suggest the surface conditions at this later time may also have been suitable for microbial life.

"We discovered valleys that carried water into lake basins," said Sharon Wilson of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. "Several lake basins filled and overflowed, indicating there was a considerable amount of water on the landscape during this time."

Wilson and colleagues found evidence of these features in Mars' northern Arabia Terra region by analyzing images from the Context Camera and High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and additional data from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and the European Space Agency's Mars Express.

"One of the lakes in this region was comparable in volume to Lake Tahoe," Wilson said, referring to a California-Nevada lake that holds about 45 cubic miles (188 cubic kilometers) of water. "This particular Martian lake was fed by an inlet valley on its southern edge and overflowed along its northern margin, carrying water downstream into a very large, water-filled basin we nicknamed 'Heart Lake.'"

Image above: This map of an area within the Arabia Terra region on Mars shows where hydrologic modeling predicts locations of depressions that would have been lakes (black), overlaid with a map of the preserved valleys (blue lines, with width exaggerated for recognition) that would have been streams. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Smithsonian.

The chain of lakes and valleys that are part of the Heart Lake valley system extends about 90 miles (about 150 kilometers). Researchers calculate Heart Lake held about 670 cubic miles of water (2,790 cubic kilometers), more than in Lake Ontario of North America's Great Lakes.

Wilson and co-authors of the report in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Planets, map the extent of stream-flow in "fresh shallow valleys" and their associated former lakes. They suggest that the runoff that formed the valleys may have been seasonal.

To bracket the time period when the fresh shallow valleys in Arabia Terra formed, scientists started with age estimates for 22 impact craters in the area. They assessed whether or not the valleys carved into the blankets of surrounding debris ejected from the craters, as an indicator of whether the valleys are older or younger than the craters. They concluded that this fairly wet period on Mars likely occurred between two and three billion years ago, long after it is generally thought that most of Mars' original atmosphere had been lost and most of the remaining water on the planet had frozen.

The characteristics of the valleys support the interpretation that the climate was cold: "The rate at which water flowed through these valleys is consistent with runoff from melting snow," Wilson said, "These weren't rushing rivers. They have simple drainage patterns and did not form deep or complex systems like the ancient valley networks from early Mars."

Image above: Streamlined forms in this Martian valley resulted from the outflow of a lake hundreds of millions years more recently than an era of Martian lakes previously confirmed. This image from the Context Camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter covers an area in Arabia Terra about 8 miles wide. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

They note that similar valleys occur elsewhere on Mars between about 35 and 42 degrees latitude, both north and south of the equator. The similar appearance and widespread nature of these fresh, shallow valleys on Mars suggest they formed on a global scale rather than a local or regional scale.

"A key goal for Mars exploration is to understand when and where liquid water was present in sufficient volume to alter the Martian surface and perhaps provide habitable environments," said Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project Scientist Rich Zurek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "This paper presents evidence for episodes of water modifying the surface on early Mars for possibly several hundred million years later than previously thought, with some implication that the water was emplaced by snow, not rain."

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The findings will likely prompt more studies to understand how conditions warmed enough on the frozen planet to allow an interval with flowing water. One possibility could be an extreme change in the planet's tilt, with more direct illumination of polar ice.

Wilson's co-authors are Alan Howard of the University of Virginia; Jeffrey Moore of the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California; and John Grant of the Smithsonian.

NASA's Mars orbiter missions are advancing understanding about the Red Planet that serves in preparation for human-crew missions to Mars beginning in the 2030s. For more about NASA's Journey to Mars, visit:

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Dwayne Brown/Laurie Cantillo/ Tony Greicius/JPL/Guy Webster.

Best regards,

Starving Black Hole Returns Brilliant Galaxy to the Shadows

ESO - European Southern Observatory logo.

15 September 2016

The active galaxy Markarian 1018

The mystery of a rare change in the behaviour of a supermassive black hole at the centre of a distant galaxy has been solved by an international team of astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope along with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. It seems that the black hole has fallen on hard times and is no longer being fed enough fuel to make its surroundings shine.

Many galaxies are found to have an extremely bright core powered by a supermassive black hole. These cores make “active galaxies” some of the brightest objects in the Universe. They are thought to shine so brightly because hot material is glowing fiercely as it falls into the black hole, a process known as accretion. This brilliant light can vary hugely between different active galaxies, so astronomers classify them into several types based on the properties of the light they emit [1].

The sky around the active galaxy Markarian 1018

Some of these galaxies have been observed to change dramatically over the course of only 10 years; a blink of an eye in astronomical terms. However, the active galaxy in this new study, Markarian 1018 stands out by having changed type a second time, reverting back to its initial classification within the last five years. A handful of galaxies have been observed to make this full-cycle change, but never before has one been studied in such detail.

The discovery of Markarian 1018’s fickle nature was a chance by-product of the Close AGN Reference Survey (CARS), a collaborative project between ESO and other organisations to gather information on 40 nearby galaxies with active cores. Routine observations of Markarian 1018 with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope revealed the surprising change in the light output of the galaxy.

“We were stunned to see such a rare and dramatic change in Markarian 1018”, said Rebecca McElroy, lead author of the discovery paper and a PhD student at the University of Sydney and the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).

The location of the galaxy Markarian 1018 in the constellation of Cetus

The chance observation of the galaxy so soon after it began to fade was an unexpected opportunity to learn what makes these galaxies tick, as Bernd Husemann, CARS project leader and lead author of one of two papers associated with the discovery, explained: “We were lucky that we detected the event just 3-4 years after the decline started so we could begin monitoring campaigns to study details of the accretion physics of active galaxies that cannot be studied otherwise.”

The research team made the most of this opportunity, making it their first priority to pinpoint the process causing Markarian 1018’s brightness to change so wildly. This could have been caused by any one of a number of astrophysical events, but they could rule out the black hole pulling in and consuming a single star [2] and cast doubt on the possibility of obscuration by intervening gas [3]. But the true mechanism responsible for Markarian 1018’s surprising variation remained a mystery after the first round of observations.

However, the team were able to gather extra data after they were awarded observing time to use the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. With the new data from this suite of instruments they were able to solve the mystery — the black hole was slowly fading because it was being starved of accretion material.

Zooming in on the unusual active galaxy Markarian 1018

“It’s possible that this starvation is because the inflow of fuel is being disrupted”, said Rebecca McElroy. “An intriguing possibility is that this could be due to interactions with a second supermassive black hole”. Such a black hole binary system is a distinct possibility in Markarian 1018, as the galaxy is the product of a major merger of two galaxies — each of which likely contained a supermassive black hole in its centre.

Research continues into the mechanisms at work in active galaxies such as Markarian 1018 that change their appearance. “The team had to work fast to determine what was causing Markarian 1018’s return to the shadows,” comments Bernd Husemann. “Ongoing monitoring campaigns with ESO telescopes and other facilities will allow us to explore the exciting world of starving black holes and changing active galaxies in more detail.”


[1] The brightest of the active galaxies are quasars, where the brilliant nucleus outshines the rest of the galaxy. Another, less extreme, class are known as Seyfert galaxies. Originally a method was developed that used brightness and the emission spectrum — the plot of the strength of radiation emitted at different wavelength — to distinguish between just two types of Seyfert galaxies, Type 1 and Type 2, but extra classifications such as Type 1.9 Seyferts have since been introduced.

[2] Such a tidal disruption event occurs when a star strays too close to a supermassive black hole and is torn apart by the extreme gravitational tidal force. This results in a sharp rise in the brightness of the central region that slowly declines over a period of years. The observed brightness variations of Markarian 1018 were found not to match the profile of such an event.

[3] Gas obscuration can affect the classification of an active galaxy by blocking the line of sight, drifting in front of the galaxy’s bright core like fog in front of a car’s headlights, and dimming the light passing through. This also affects the spectrum of galaxy, perhaps changing its classification.

More information:

This research was presented in two papers entitled “Mrk 1018 returns to the shadows after 30 years as a Seyfert 1”, and “What is causing Mrk 1018’s return to the shadows after 30 years?”, both to appear as Letters in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The team is composed of B. Husemann (ESO, Garching, Germany), T. Urrutia (Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany), G. R. Tremblay (Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, New Haven, USA), M. Krumpe (Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany), J. Dexter (Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik, Garching, Germany), V. N. Bennert (Physics Department, California Polytechnic State University, USA), G. Busch (I. Physikalisches Institut, Universität zu Köln, Germany), F. Combes (LERMA, Observatoire de Paris, France), S. M. Croom (Sydney Institute for Astronomy, Sydney, Australia & ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics), T. A. Davis (School of Physics & Astronomy, Cardiff University, UK), A. Eckart (I. Physikalisches Institut Universität zu Köln, Germany; Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn, Germany), R. E. McElroy (Sydney Institute for Astronomy, Sydney, Australia & ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics), M. Pérez-Torres (Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Granada, Spain), M. Powell (Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, New Haven, USA) and J. Scharwächter (Gemini Observatory, Northern Operations Center, Hawaii, 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 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. 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 a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


Research paper 1:

Research paper 2:

Photos of the VLT:

CARS Survey:

Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE):

ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT):

ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO):

NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope:

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Images, Text, Credits: ESO/CARS survey/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin//IAU and Sky & Telescope/Video: ESO/A. Fujii/Digitized Sky Survey 2/CARS survey.

Best regards,

NASA Sees Tropical Storm Meranti Make Landfall in China

NASA - CloudSat & Calipso Satellites Mission patch / NASA & NOAA - Suomi NPP Satellite Mission logo.

Sept. 15, 2016

Meranti (was 16W - Northwestern Pacific Ocean)

Once a Super Typhoon, Meranti made landfall in southeastern China late on Sept. 14 as NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite passed overhead from space. Previously, NASA's CloudSat satellite provided a sideways look at the storm when it was near its peak.

Image above: CloudSat analyzed Typhoon Meranti on Sept. 13 at 1:12 a.m. EDT (0512 UTC) as the storm was approaching Taiwan. CloudSat found cloud top heights averaging around 16 km with heavy rainfall (deep red and pink colors). Areas of green and blue denote smaller ice and water particle sizes typically located at top of the system (in the anvil area). Image Credits: Natalie Tourville/Colorado State University.

NASA's CloudSat satellite passed over Typhoon Meranti on Sept.13 at 1:12 a.m. EDT (512 UTC) as the storm was approaching Taiwan. The system contained sustained winds of 160 knots with a minimum pressure of 898 millibars designating this system as a ’Super Typhoon.’

CloudSat found cloud top heights averaging around 16 km with heavy rainfall. CloudSat also saw areas of smaller ice and water particle sizes typically located at top of the system in the anvil area.

On Sept. 15 at 12:35 a.m. EDT (04:35 UTC) NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite flew over Tropical Storm Meranti as it was making landfall in southeastern China. The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument aboard NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite captured a visible image of the storm that showed most of the storm had already blanketed southeastern China with clouds and rain.

Image above: On Sept. 15 at 12:35 a.m. EDT (04:35 UTC) NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite captured an image of Tropical Storm Meranti as it was making landfall in southeastern China. Image Credits: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response/NOAA.

The final warning on the storm was issued on Sept. 14 at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 UTC) from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC). At that time, Meranti was making landfall in southeastern China near Xiamen in Fujian Province. At the time of landfall, Meranti's maximum sustained winds were near 145 mph (126 knots/233 kph), making it a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

JTWC expects Meranti's winds to drop to 40 mph (35 knots/64.2 kph) during the day on Sept. 15 and weaken to 23 mph (20 knots/37 kph)3by Sept. 16 as it curves to the north over land.

Related links:

NASA's CloudSat satellite:

NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Rob Gutro.


mercredi 14 septembre 2016

Pluto ‘Paints’ its Largest Moon Red

NASA - New Horizons Mission logo.

Sept. 14, 2016

Image above: NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution, enhanced color view of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft's Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC); the colors are processed to best highlight the variation of surface properties across Charon. Scientists have learned that reddish material in the north (top) polar region – informally named Mordor Macula – is chemically processed methane that escaped from Pluto’s atmosphere onto Charon. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across; this image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers). Image Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

In June 2015, when the cameras on NASA’s approaching New Horizons spacecraft first spotted the large reddish polar region on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, mission scientists knew two things: they’d never seen anything like it elsewhere in our solar system, and they couldn’t wait to get the story behind it.

Over the past year, after analyzing the images and other data that New Horizons has sent back from its historic July 2015 flight through the Pluto system, the scientists think they’ve solved the mystery. As they detail this week in the international scientific journal Nature, Charon’s polar coloring comes from Pluto itself – as methane gas that escapes from Pluto’s atmosphere and becomes “trapped” by the moon’s gravity and freezes to the cold, icy surface at Charon’s pole. This is followed by chemical processing by ultraviolet light from the sun that transforms the methane into heavier hydrocarbons and eventually into reddish organic materials called tholins.

Who would have thought that Pluto is a graffiti artist, spray-painting its companion with a reddish stain that covers an area the size of New Mexico?

--Will Grundy, New Horizons co-investigator, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.

"Who would have thought that Pluto is a graffiti artist, spray-painting its companion with a reddish stain that covers an area the size of New Mexico?" asked Will Grundy, a New Horizons co-investigator from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and lead author of the paper. "Every time we explore, we find surprises. Nature is amazingly inventive in using the basic laws of physics and chemistry to create spectacular landscapes."

The team combined analyses from detailed Charon images obtained by New Horizons with computer models of how ice evolves on Charon’s poles. Mission scientists had previously speculated that methane from Pluto’s atmosphere was trapped in Charon’s north pole and slowly converted into the reddish material, but had no models to support that theory.

The New Horizons team dug into the data to determine whether conditions on the Texas-sized moon (with a diameter of 753 miles or 1,212 kilometers) could allow the capture and processing of methane gas. The models using Pluto and Charon’s 248-year orbit around the sun show some extreme weather at Charon’s poles, where 100 years of continuous sunlight alternate with another century of continuous darkness. Surface temperatures during these long winters dip to -430 Fahrenheit (-257 Celsius), cold enough to freeze methane gas into a solid.

“The methane molecules bounce around on Charon's surface until they either escape back into space or land on the cold pole, where they freeze solid, forming a thin coating of methane ice that lasts until sunlight comes back in the spring,” Grundy said. But while the methane ice quickly sublimates away, the heavier hydrocarbons created from it remain on the surface.

The models also suggested that in Charon’s springtime the returning sunlight triggers conversion of the frozen methane back into gas. But while the methane ice quickly sublimates away, the heavier hydrocarbons created from this evaporative process remain on the surface.

Sunlight further irradiates those leftovers into reddish material – called tholins – that has slowly accumulated on Charon’s poles over millions of years. New Horizons’ observations of Charon’s other pole, currently in winter darkness – and seen by New Horizons only by light reflecting from Pluto, or “Pluto-shine” – confirmed that the same activity was occurring at both poles.

“This study solves one of the greatest mysteries we found on Charon, Pluto’s giant moon,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, and a study co-author. “And it opens up the possibility that other small planets in the Kuiper Belt with moons may create similar, or even more extensive ‘atmospheric transfer’ features on their moons.”

For more information about New Horizons, visit:

Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Bill Keeter.


X-ray Detection Sheds New Light on Pluto

NASA - Chandra X-ray Observatory logo.

Sept. 14, 2016

Scientists using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory have made the first detections of X-rays from Pluto. These observations offer new insight into the space environment surrounding the largest and best-known object in the solar system’s outermost regions.

While NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was speeding toward and beyond Pluto, Chandra was aimed several times on the dwarf planet and its moons, gathering data on Pluto that the missions could compare after the flyby. Each time Chandra pointed at Pluto – four times in all, from February 2014 through August 2015 – it detected low-energy X-rays from the small planet.

The first detection of Pluto in X-rays has been made using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Image above: The first detection of Pluto in X-rays has been made using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in conjunction with observations from NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft.
Image Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/JHUAPL/R.McNutt et al; Optical: NASA/JHUAPL.

Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, a ring or belt containing a vast population of small bodies orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune.  The Kuiper belt extends from the orbit of Neptune, at 30 times the distance of Earth from the Sun, to about 50 times the Earth-Sun distance.  Pluto’s orbit ranges over the same span as the overall Kupier Belt.

"We've just detected, for the first time, X-rays coming from an object in our Kuiper Belt, and learned that Pluto is interacting with the solar wind in an unexpected and energetic fashion,” said Carey Lisse, an astrophysicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, who led the Chandra observation team with APL colleague and New Horizons Co-Investigator Ralph McNutt. “We can expect other large Kuiper Belt objects to be doing the same."

The team recently published its findings online in the journal Icarus. The report details what Lisse says was a somewhat surprising detection given that Pluto – being cold, rocky and without a magnetic field – has no natural mechanism for emitting X-rays. But Lisse, having also led the team that made the first X-ray detections from a comet two decades ago, knew the interaction between the gases surrounding such planetary bodies and the solar wind – the constant streams of charged particles from the sun that speed throughout the solar system ­– can create X-rays.

New Horizons scientists were particularly interested in learning more about the interaction between the gases in Pluto’s atmosphere and the solar wind. The spacecraft itself carries an instrument designed to measure that activity up-close – the aptly named Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) – and scientists are using that data to craft a picture of Pluto that contains a very mild, close-in bowshock, where the solar wind first “meets” Pluto (similar to a shock wave that forms ahead of a supersonic aircraft) and a small wake or tail behind the planet.

The immediate mystery is that Chandra’s readings on the brightness of the X-rays are much higher than expected from the solar wind interacting with Pluto’s atmosphere.

“Before our observations, scientists thought it was highly unlikely that we’d detect X-rays from Pluto, causing a strong debate as to whether Chandra should observe it at all,” said co-author Scott Wolk, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. “Prior to Pluto, the most distant solar system body with detected X-ray emission was Saturn's rings and disk."

The Chandra detection is especially surprising since New Horizons discovered Pluto’s atmosphere was much more stable than the rapidly escaping, “comet-like” atmosphere that many scientists expected before the spacecraft flew past in July 2015. In fact, New Horizons found that Pluto’s interaction with the solar wind is much more like the interaction of the solar wind with Mars, than with a comet. However, although Pluto is releasing enough gas from its atmosphere to make the observed X-rays, in simple models for the intensity of the solar wind at the distance of Pluto, there isn't enough solar wind flowing directly at Pluto to make them.

Lisse and his colleagues – who also include SWAP co-investigators David McComas from Princeton University and Heather Elliott from Southwest Research Institute – suggest several possibilities for the enhanced X-ray emission from Pluto.  These include a much wider and longer tail of gases trailing Pluto than New Horizons detected using its SWAP instrument. Other possibilities are that interplanetary magnetic fields are focusing more particles than expected from the solar wind into the region around Pluto, or the low density of the solar wind in the outer solar system at the distance of Pluto could allow for the formation of a doughnut, or torus, of neutral gas centered around Pluto's orbit.

That the Chandra measurements don’t quite match up with New Horizons up-close observations is the benefit – and beauty – of an opportunity like the New Horizons flyby. “When you have a chance at a once in a lifetime flyby like New Horizons at Pluto, you want to point every piece of glass – every telescope on and around Earth – at the target,” McNutt says. “The measurements come together and give you a much more complete picture you couldn’t get at any other time, from anywhere else.”

New Horizons has an opportunity to test these findings and shed even more light on this distant region – billions of miles from Earth – as part of its recently approved extended mission to survey the Kuiper Belt and encounter another smaller Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019. It is unlikely to be feasible to detect X-rays from MU69, but Chandra might detect X-rays from other larger and closer objects that New Horizons will observe as it flies through the Kuiper Belt towards MU69.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra's science and flight operations.

Read More from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory:

For more Chandra images, multimedia and related materials, visit:

Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center/Molly Porter/Chandra X-ray Center/Megan Watzke/Lee Mohon.


Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet

NASA - Kepler Mission patch.

Sept. 14, 2016

When it comes to exoplanets, astronomers have realized that they only know the properties of the planets they discover as well as they know the properties of the stars being orbited. For a planet's size, precisely characterizing the host star can mean the difference in our understanding of whether a distant world is small like Earth or huge like Jupiter.

For astronomers to determine the size of an exoplanet—planets outside the solar system—depends critically on knowing not only the radius of its host star but also whether that star is single or has a close companion. Consider that about half of the stars in the sky are not one but two stars orbiting around each other, this makes knowing the binary property of a star paramount.

Artist's view of TRAPPIST-1. Image Credit: NASA

One particularly interesting and relatively nearby star, named TRAPPIST-1, recently caught the attention of a team of researchers. They wanted to determine if TRAPPIST-1, which is home to three small, potentially rocky planets—one of which orbits in the temperate habitable zone where liquid water might pool on the surface—was a single star like the sun, or if it had a companion star. If TRAPPIST-1 did have a companion star, the discovered planets will have larger sizes, possibly large enough to be ice giants similar to Neptune.

If an exoplanet orbits a star in a binary system but astronomers believe the starlight captured by the telescope is from a single star, the real radius of the planet will be larger than measured. The difference in the measured size of the exoplanet can be small ranging from 10 percent to more than a factor of two in size, depending on the brightness of the companion star in the system.

To confirm or deny the single star nature of TRAPPIST-1, Steve Howell, senior research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, led an investigation of the star. Using a specially designed camera, called the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument or DSSI, Howell and his team measured the rapid disturbances in the light emitted by the star caused by the Earth’s atmosphere and corrected for them. The resultant high-resolution image revealed that the light coming from the TRAPPIST-1 system is from a single star.

With the confirmation that no other companion star resides in the vicinity of TRAPPIST-1, the research team's result validates not only that transiting planets are responsible for the periodic dips seen in the star’s brightness but that they are indeed Earth-size and may likely to be rocky worlds.

"Knowing that a terrestrial-size potentially rocky planet orbits in the habitable zone of a star only 40 light-years from the Earth is an awesome finding," said Howell. “The TRAPPIST-1 system will continue to be studied in great detail as these transiting exoplanets offer one of the best chances to characterize the atmosphere of an alien world."

Mounted on the 8-meter Gemini Observatory South telescope in Chile, the DSSI provided astronomers with the highest resolution images available today from a single ground-based telescope. The nearness of TRAPPIST-1 allowed astronomers to peer deep into the system, looking closer than Mercury's orbit to our sun.

The paper the result is based on is published in the September 13th issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Interest in the recently-discovered TRAPPIST-1 with its three Earth-size planets is high. Astronomically speaking, at 40 light-years from Earth, the system is a hop, skip and a jump away. The star itself is a dim M-type star, which, relative to most stars, is very small and cool, but making transit detection of small planets easier.

Further detailed measurement of the planetary transits seen in TRAPPIST-1 will begin later this year when NASA's Kepler space telescope in its K2 mission will precisely monitor minute changes in the light emitted from the star for a period of about 75 days.

The space-based observations from the Kepler spacecraft will provide extremely precise measurements of the planet transit shapes allowing for more refined radius and orbital period determination. Noting variations in the mid-time of the transit events can also help astronomers determine the planet masses. Additionally, the new observations will be searched for more transiting planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Speckle interferometry, the imaging technique used by the DSSI, is a powerful asset in the astronomer's toolkit as it provides a unique capability to characterize the environment around distant stars. The technique provides ultra high-resolution images by taking multiple extremely short (40-60 millisecond) exposures of a star to capture fine detail in the received light and “freeze” the turbulence caused by Earth’s atmosphere.

By combining the many thousands of exposures and using mathematical techniques to remove the momentary distortions caused by Earth’s atmosphere, the final result provides a resolution equal to the theoretical limit of what the 8-meter Gemini telescope would produce if no atmosphere were present.

Image above: The four-panel graphic illustrates the difference of measured starlight when seen through a ground-based telescope with (top left corner) and without the blurring effects caused by Earth's atmosphere. The technique to neutralize Earth's atmospheric blur is called speckle interferometry. All four images are shown at the same scale. Image Credits: Gemini Observatory/AURA and NASA/Ames/W. Stenzel.

Howell and his team at NASA Ames are currently undertaking the construction of two new speckle interferometric instruments. One of the new instruments will be delivered this fall to the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope located at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside of Tucson, Arizona, where it will be used by the NN_EXPLORE guest observer research program. The other is being developed for the Gemini Observatory North telescope located on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

NASA Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Related link:

NN_EXPLORE guest observer research program:

To learn more about the result from the Gemini Observatory, visit:

For more information on the Kepler and the K2 mission, visit:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center/Michele Johnson.