I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.
Asteroid 2014 JO25, discovered in 2014 by the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona, was in the spotlight today (April 19) when it flew by Earth at just four times the distance of the Moon. Today’s encounter is the closest the object has come to the Earth in 400 years and will be its closest approach for at least the next 500 years.
Lots of asteroids zip by our planet, and new ones are discovered every week. What makes 2014 JO25 different it’s one of nearly 1,800 PHAs (Potentially Hazardous Asteroids) that are big enough and occasionally pass close enough to Earth to be of concern. PHAs have diameters of at least 100-150 meters (330-490 feet) and pass less than 0.05 a.u (7.5 million km / 4.6 million miles) from our planet. Good thing for earthlings, no known PHA is predicted to impact Earth for at least the next 100 years.
Most of these Earth-approachers are on the small side, only a few to a few dozen meters (yards) across. 2014 JO25 was originally estimated at ~2,000 feet wide, but thanks to radar observations made the past couple days, we now know it’s nearly twice that size. Radar images of asteroid were made early this morning with NASA’s 230-foot (70-meter) radio antenna at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California. They reveal a peanut-shaped asteroid that rotates about once every 5 hours and show details as small as 25 feet.
NASA radar images and animation of asteroid 2015 JO25
The larger of the two lobes is about 2,000 feet (620 meters) across, making the total length closer to 4,000 feet. That’s similar in size (though not as long) as the Rock of Gibraltar that stands at the southwestern tip of Europe at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula.
“The asteroid has a contact binary structure — two lobes connected by a neck-like region,” said Shantanu Naidu, a scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who led the Goldstone observations. “The images show flat facets, concavities and angular topography.” Contact binaries form when two separate asteroids come close enough together to touch and meld as one.
Radar observations of the asteroid have also been underway at the National Science Foundation’s Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico with more observations coming today through the 21st which may show even finer details. The technique of pinging asteroids with radio waves and eking out information based on the returning echoes has been used to observe hundreds of asteroids.
When these relics from the early solar system pass relatively close to Earth, astronomers can glean their sizes, shapes, rotation, surface features, and roughness, as well as determine their orbits with precision.
Because of 2014 JO25’s relatively large size and proximity, it’s bright enough to spot in a small telescope this evening. It will shine around magnitude +10.9 from North America tonight as it travels south-southwest across the dim constellation Coma Berenices behind the tail of Leo the Lion. A good map and 3-inch or larger telescope should show it.
Use the maps at this link to help you find and track the asteroid tonight. The key to spotting it is to allow time to identify and get familiar with the star field the asteroid will pass through 10 to 15 minutes in advance — then lay in wait for the moving object. Don’t be surprised if 2014 JO25 deviates a little from the predicted path depending on your location and late changes to its orbit, so keep watch not only on the path but around it, too. Good luck!
Earth doesn’t have a corner on auroras. Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have their own distinctive versions. Jupiter’s are massive and powerful; Martian auroras patchy and weak.
Auroras are caused by streams of charged particles like electrons that originate with solar winds and in the case of Jupiter, volcanic gases spewed by the moon Io. Whether solar particles or volcanic sulfur, the material gets caught in powerful magnetic fields surrounding a planet and channeled into the upper atmosphere. There, the particles interact with atmospheric gases such as oxygen or nitrogen and spectacular bursts of light result. With Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus excited hydrogen is responsible for the show.
Auroras on Earth, Jupiter and Saturn have been well-studied but not so on the ice-giant planet Uranus. In 2011, the Hubble Space Telescope took the first-ever image of the auroras on Uranus. Then in 2012 and 2014 a team from the Paris Observatory took a second look at the auroras in ultraviolet light using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) installed on Hubble.
Two powerful bursts of solar wind traveling from the sun to Uranus stoked the most intense auroras ever observed on the planet in those years. By watching the auroras over time, the team discovered that these powerful shimmering regions rotate with the planet. They also re-discovered Uranus’ long-lost magnetic poles, which were lost shortly after their discovery by Voyager 2 in 1986 due to uncertainties in measurements and the fact that the planet’s surface is practically featureless. Imagine trying to find the north and south poles of a cue ball. Yeah, something like that.
In both photos, the auroras look like glowing dots or patchy spots. Because Uranus’ magnetic field is inclined 59° to its spin axis (remember, this is the planet that rotates on its side!) , the auroral spots appear far from the planet’s north and south geographic poles. They almost look random but of course they’re not. In 2011, the spots lie close to the planet’s north magnetic pole, and in 2012 and 2014, near the south magnetic pole — just like auroras on Earth.
An auroral display can last for hours here on the home planet, but in the case of the 2011 Uranian lights, they pulsed for just minutes before fading away.
Want to know more? Read the team’s findings in detail here.
My attention was focused on beaded water on a poplar leaf. How gemmy and bursting with the morning’s sunlight. I moved closer, removed my glasses and noticed that each drop magnified a little patch of veins that thread and support the leaf.
Focusing the camera lens, I wondered how long it took the drops’ light to reach my eye. Since I was only about six inches away and light travels at 186,000 miles per second or 11.8 inches every billionth of a second (one nanosecond), the travel time amounted to 0.5 nanoseconds. Darn close to simultaneous by human standards but practically forever for positronium hydride, an exotic molecule made of a positron, electron and hydrogen atom. The average lifetime of a PsH molecule is just 0.5 nanoseconds.
In our everyday life, the light from familiar faces, roadside signs and the waiter whose attention you’re trying to get reaches our eyes in nanoseconds. But if you happen to look up to see the tiny dark shape of a high-flying airplane trailed by the plume of its contrail, the light takes about 35,000 nanoseconds or 35 microseconds to travel the distance. Still not much to piddle about.
The space station orbits the Earth in outer space some 250 miles overhead. During an overhead pass, light from the orbiting science lab fires up your retinas 1.3 milliseconds later. In comparison, a blink of the eye lasts about 300 milliseconds (1/3 of a second) or 230 times longer!
Light time finally becomes more tangible when we look at the Moon, a wistful 1.3 light seconds away at its average distance of 240,000 miles. To feel how long this is, stare at the Moon at the next opportunity and count out loud: one one thousand one. Retroreflecting devices placed on the lunar surface by the Apollo astronauts are still used by astronomers to determine the moon’s precise distance. They beam a laser at the mirrors and time the round trip.
Of the eight planets, Venus comes closest to Earth, and it does so during inferior conjunction, which coincidentally occurred on March 25. On that date only 26.1 million miles separated the two planets, a distance amounting to 140 seconds or 2.3 minutes — about the time it takes to boil water for tea. Mars, another close-approaching planet, currently stands on nearly the opposite side of the Sun from Earth.
With a current distance of 205 million miles, a radio or TV signal, which are both forms of light, broadcast to the Red Planet would take 18.4 minutes to arrive. Now we can see why engineers pre-program a landing sequence into a Mars’ probe’s computer to safely land it on the planet’s surface. Any command – or change in commands – we might send from Earth would arrive too late. Once a lander settles on the planet and sends back telemetry to communicate its condition, mission control personnel must bite their fingernails for many minutes waiting for light to limp back and bring word.
Before we speed off to more distant planets, let’s consider what would happen if the Sun had a catastrophic malfunction and suddenly ceased to shine. No worries. At least not for 8.3 minutes, the time it takes for light, or the lack of it, to bring the bad news.
Light from Jupiter takes 37 minutes to reach Earth; Pluto and Charon are so remote that a signal from the “double planet” requires 4.6 hours to get here. That’s more than a half-day of work on the job, and we’ve only made it to the Kuiper Belt.
Let’s press on to the nearest star(s), the Alpha Centauri system. If 4.6 hours of light time seemed a long time to wait, how about 4.3 years? If you think hard, you might remember what you were up to just before New Year’s Eve in 2012. About that time, the light arriving tonight from Alpha Centauri left that star and began its earthward journey. To look at the star then is to peer back in time to late 2012.
But we barely scrape the surface. Let’s take the Summer Triangle, a figure that will soon come to dominate the eastern sky along with the beautiful summer Milky Way that appears to flow through it. Altair, the southernmost apex of the triangle is nearby, just 16.7 light years from Earth; Vega, the brightest a bit further at 25 and Deneb an incredible 3,200 light years away.
We can relate to the first two stars because the light we see on a given evening isn’t that “old.” Most of us can conjure up an image of our lives and the state of world affairs 16 and 25 years ago. But Deneb is exceptional. Photons departed this distant supergiant (3,200 light years) around the year 1200 B.C. during the Trojan War at the dawn of the Iron Age. That’s some look-back time!
One of the most distant naked eye stars is Rho Cassiopeiae, yellow variable some 450 times the size of the Sun located 8,200 light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. Right now, the star is near maximum and easy to see at nightfall in the northwestern sky. Its light whisks us back to the end of the last great ice age at a time and the first cave drawings, more than 4,000 years before the first Egyptian pyramid would be built.
On and on it goes: the nearest large galaxy, Andromeda, lies 2.5 million light years from us and for many is the faintest, most distant object visible with the naked eye. To think that looking at the galaxy takes us back to the time our distant ancestors first used simple tools. Light may be the fastest thing in the universe, but these travel times hint at the true enormity of space.
Let’s go a little further. On November 16, 1974 a digital message was beamed from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to the rich star cluster M13 in Hercules 25,000 light years away. The message was created by Dr. Frank Drake, then professor of astronomy at Cornell, and contained basic information about humanity, including our numbering system, our location in the solar system and the composition of DNA, the molecule of life. It consisted of 1,679 binary bits representing ones and zeroes and was our first deliberate communication sent to extraterrestrials. Today the missive is 42 light years away, just barely out the door.
Let’s end our time machine travels with the most distant object we’ve seen in the universe, a galaxy named GN-z11 in Ursa Major. We see it as it was just 400 million years after the Big Bang (13.4 billion years ago) which translates to a proper distance from Earth of 32 billion light years. The light astronomers captured on their digital sensors left the object before there was an Earth, a Solar System or even a Milky Way galaxy!
Thanks to light’s finite speed we can’t help but always see things as they were. You might wonder if there’s any way to see something right now without waiting for the light to get here? There’s just one way, and that’s to be light itself.
From the perspective of a photon or light particle, which travels at the speed of light, distance and time completely fall away. Everything happens instantaneously and travel time to anywhere, everywhere is zero seconds. In essence, the whole universe becomes a point. Crazy and paradoxical as this sounds, the theory of relativity allows it because an object traveling at the speed of light experiences infinite time dilation and infinite space contraction.
Just something to think about the next time you meet another’s eyes in conversation. Or look up at the stars.
March has been a busy month for planet and comet watchers. Lots of action. Venus, the planet that’s captured our attention at dusk in the west for months, is in inferior conjunction with the Sun today. Watch for it to rise before the Sun in the eastern sky at dawn in about a week.
As Venus flees the evening scene, steadfast Mars and a new planet, Mercury keep things lively. For northern hemisphere skywatchers, this is Mercury’s best dusk apparition of the year. If you’d like to make its acquaintance, this week and next are best. And it’s so easy! Just find a spot with a wide open view of the western horizon, bring a pair of binoculars for backup and wait for a clear evening.
Plan to watch starting about 40 minutes after sundown. From most locations, Mercury will appear about 10° or one fist held at arm’s length above the horizon a little bit north of due west. Shining around magnitude +0, it will be the only “star” in that part of the sky. Mars is nearby but much fainter at magnitude +1.5. You’ll have to wait at least an hour after sunset to spot it.
Have a telescope? Check out the planet using a magnification around 50x or higher. You’ll see that it looks like a Mini-Me version of the Moon. Mercury is brightest when closest to full. Over the next few weeks, it will wane to a crescent while increasing in apparent size.
If you like planets, don’t forget the combo of Jupiter and Spica at the opposite end of the sky. Jupiter climbs out of bed and over the southeastern horizon about 9 p.m. local time in late March, but to see it and Spica, Virgo’s brightest star, give it an hour and look again at 10 p.m. or later. Quite the duo!
You’re not afraid of getting up with the first robins are you? If you set your alarm to a half hour or so before the first hint of dawn’s light and find a location with an open view of the southeastern horizon, you might be first in your neighborhood to spot Terry Lovejoy’s brand new comet. His sixth, the Australian amateur discovered C/2017 E4 Lovejoyon the morning of March 10th in the constellation Sagittarius at about 12th magnitude.
The comet has rapidly brightened since then and is now a small, moderately condensed fuzzball of magnitude +9, bright enough to spot in a 6-inch or larger telescope. Some observers have even picked it up in large binoculars. Lovejoy’s comet should brighten by at least another magnitude in the coming weeks, putting it within 10 x 50 binocular range.
Good news. E4 Lovejoy is moving north rapidly and is now visible about a dozen degrees high in Aquarius just before the start of dawn. I’ll be out the next clear morning, eyepiece to eye, to welcome this new fuzzball from beyond Neptune to my front yard. The map above shows the eastern sky near dawn and a general location of the comet. Use the more detailed map below to pinpoint it in your binoculars and telescope.
Spring brings with it a new spirit and the opportunity to get out at night free of the bite of mosquitos or cold. Clear skies!
When your ordinary citizen learns there’s a supermassive black hole with a mass of 4 million suns sucking on its teeth in the center of the Milky Way galaxy, they might kindly ask exactly how astronomers know this. A perfectly legitimate question. You can tell them that the laws of physics guarantee their existence or that people have been thinking about black holes since 1783. That year, English clergyman John Michell proposed the idea of “dark stars” so massive and gravitationally powerful they could imprison their own light.
Michell wasn’t making wild assumptions but taking the idea of gravity to a logical conclusion. Of course, he had no way to prove his assertion. But we do. Astronomers now routinely find bot stellar mass black holes — remnants of the collapse of gas-guzzling supergiant stars — and the supermassive variety in the cores of galaxies that result from multiple black hole mergers over grand intervals of time.
Some of the galactic variety contain hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses, all of it so to speak “flushed down the toilet” and unavailable to fashion new planets and stars. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking has shown that black holes evaporate over time, returning their energy to the knowable universe from whence they came, though no evidence of the process has yet been found.
So how do we really know a massive, dark object broods at the center of our sparkling Milky Way? Astronomers use radio, X-ray and infrared telescopes to peer into its starry heart and see gas clouds and stars whirling about the center at high rates of speed. Based on those speeds they can calculate the mass of what’s doing the pulling.
In the case of the galaxy M87 located 53.5 million light years away in the Virgo Cluster, those speeds tell us that something with a mass of 3.6 billion suns is concentrated in a space smaller than our Solar System. Oh, and it emits no light! Nothing fits the evidence better than a black hole because nothing that massive can exist in so small a space without collapsing in upon itself to form a black hole. It’s just physics, something that Mr. Scott on Star Trek regularly reminded a panicky Captain Kirk.
So it is with the Milky Way, only our black hole amounts to a piddling 4 million-solar-mass light thief confined within a spherical volume of space some 27 million miles in diameter or just shy of Mercury’s perihelion distance from the Sun. This monster hole resides at the location of Sagittarius A* (pronounced A- star), a bright, compact radio source at galactic center about 26,000 light years away.
Video showing a 14-year-long time lapse of stars orbiting Sgr A*
The time-lapse movie, compiled over 14 years, shows the orbits of several dozen stars within the light year of space centered on Sgr A*. We can clearly see the star moving under the influence of a massive unseen body — the putative supermassive black hole. No observations of Sgr A* in visible light are possible because of multiple veils of interstellar dust that lie across our line of sight. They quench its light to the tune of 25 magnitudes.
Merging black holes (the process look oddly biological!). Credit: SXS
How do these things grow so big in the first place? There are a couple of ideas, but astronomers don’t honestly know for sure. Massive gas clouds around early in the galaxy’s history could have collapsed to form multiple supergiants that evolved into black holes which later then coalesced into one big hole. Or collisions among stars in massive, compact star clusters could have built up stellar giants that evolved into black holes. Later, the clusters sank to the center of the galaxy and merged into a single supermassive black hole.
Whichever you chose, merging of smaller holes may explain its origin.
On a clear spring morning before dawn, you can step out to face the constellation Sagittarius low in the southern sky. When you do, you’re also facing in the direction of our galaxy’s supermassive black hole. Although you cannot see it, does it not still exert a certain tug on your imagination?
Besides Earth, Saturn may be the only other planet where you can order rings with a side of ravioli. Closeup photos taken by the Cassini probe of the the planet’s second-innermost moon, Pan, on March 7 reveal remarkable new details that have us grasping at food analogies in a feeble attempt to describe its unique appearance.
The two-part structure of the moon is immediately obvious: a core body with a thin, wavy ridge encircling its equator. How does such a bizarre object form in the first place? There’s good reason to believe that Pan was once part of a larger satellite that broke up near Saturn long ago. Much of the material flattened out to form Saturn’s rings while large shards like Pan and another ravioli lookalike, Atlas, orbited within or near the rings, sweeping up ring particles about their middles. Tellingly, the ridges are about as thick as the vertical distances each satellite travels in its orbit about the planet.
Today, Pan orbits within and clears the narrow Encke Gap in Saturn’s outer A-ring of debris. It also helps create and shape the narrow ringlets that appear in the gap It’s lookalike cousin Atlas orbits just outside the A-ring.
Moons embedded in rings can have profound effects on that material from clearing gaps to creating new temporary ringlets and raising vertical waves of material that rise above and below the ring plane. All these effects are produced by gravity, which gives even small objects like Pan dominion over surprisingly vast regions.
Researcher Dr. Mary Bourke from Trinity College Dublin have discovered a patch of land in an ancient valley in Mars’ Lucaya Crater that appears to have held water in the not-too-distant past, making it a prime target to search for past life forms on the Red Planet. Signs of water past and present pop up everywhere on Mars from now-dry, wriggly riverbeds snaking across arid plains to water ice exposed at the poles during the Martian summer.
On Earth, Bourke had done previous studies of dunes in the Namib Desert near Walvis Bay, Namibia and noted “arctuate striations” — crusty arcs of sand cemented by water and minerals — on the surfaces of migrating sand dunes using photos taken by satellite. She subsequently assembled a team to check them out on the ground and discovered that the striations resulted when dune materials had been chemically cemented by salts left behind by evaporating groundwater.
“On Earth, desert dune fields are periodically flooded by water in areas of fluctuating groundwater, and where lakes, rivers and coasts are found in proximity,” said Bourke. These periodic floods leave tell-tale patterns behind them.” Once the material had been cemented, it hardens and remains behind as the dunes continue to migrate downwind.
Next, Bourke and colleague Prof. Heather Viles, from the University of Oxford, examined close up images of Mars taken with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and experienced a flash of insight: “You can imagine our excitement when we scanned satellite images of an area on Mars and saw this same patterned calling card, suggesting that water had been present in the relatively recent past.”
Bourke examined similar arcuate striations exposed on the surface between dunes, indications of fluctuating levels of salty groundwater during a time when dunes were actively migrating down the valley.
So where did the water come from to create the striations in the crater valley? Bourke and Viles propose that water may have been released by the impact that formed Lucaya Crater especially if the target area was rich in ice.
Extreme temperatures during the impact would have vaporized water but also possibly melted other ice to flow for a time as liquid water. Alternatively, the impact may have jump-started hydrothermal activity as hot springs-style underground flows.
Flowing water would have created the valley and saturated the soils there with salty water. In dry periods, erosion from the wind would have picked away the water-eroded sands to create the striking pattern of repeating dunes we see to this day.
Carbonate rocks, which require liquid water to form are dissolved by the same, have been detected in the valley using spectroscopy and could have served as the cement to solidify sands between the moving dunes. That in concert with alternating dry and wet periods would create the striations seen in the MRO photos.
“These findings are hugely significant,” said Bourke. “Firstly, the Martian sand dunes show evidence that water may have been active near Mars’ equator — potentially in the not-too-distant past. And secondly, this location is now a potential geological target for detecting past life forms on the Red Planet, which is important to those involved in selecting sites for future missions.”
Comets hide their central engines well. From Earth, we see a bright, fuzzy coma and a tail or two. But the nucleus, the source of all the hubbub, remains deeply camouflaged by dust, at best appearing like a blurry star.
To see one up close, you need to send a spacecraft right into the comet’s coma and risk getting. Or you can do the job much more cheaply by bouncing radio waves off the nucleus and studying the returning echoes to create a shadowy image.
Although crude compared to optical photos of moons and planets, radar images reveal much about an asteroid including surface details like mountains, craters, shape and rotation rate. They’re also far superior to what optical telescopes can resolve when it comes to asteroids, which, as their name implies, appear star-like or nearly so in even large professional telescopes.
On Feb. 11, green-glowing comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, made an unusually close pass of Earth, zipping just 7.7 million miles away. Astronomers made the most of the encounter by pressing the huge 1,000-foot-wide (305 meters) Arecibo radio dish into service to image the comet’s nucleus during and after closest approach.
“The Arecibo Observatory planetary radar system can pierce through the comet’s coma and allows us to study the surface properties, size, shape, rotation, and geology of the comet nucleus”, said Dr. Patrick Taylor, USRA Scientist and Group Lead for Planetary Radar at Arecibo.
Does the shape ring a bell? Remember Rubber Ducky? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the comet’s heart resembles the twin-lobed comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko orbited by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. Using the dish, astronomers have seen bright regions and structures on the comet; they also discovered that the nucleus is a little larger than expected with a diameter of 0.8 mile (1.3 km) and rotates about once every 7.6 hours. Go to bed at 10 and wake up at 6 and the comet will have made one complete turn.
Radio observations of 45P/H-M-P will continue through Feb. 17. Right now, the comet is happily back in the evening sky and still visible with 10×50 or larger binoculars around 10-11 p.m. local time in the east. I spotted it low in Bootes last night about 15 minutes before moonrise under excellent, dark sky conditions. It looked like a faint, smoky ball nearly as big as the full moon or about 30 arc minutes across.
This week, the pale green blob (the green’s from fluorescing carbon), vaults upward from Bootes, crosses Canes Venatici and zooms into Coma Berenices. For maps to help you track and find it night by night, please click here. I suggest larger binoculars 50mm and up or a 6-inch or larger telescope. Be sure to use low power — the comet’s so big, you need a wide field of view to get dark sky around it in order to see it more clearly.
Very few comets pass near Earth compared to the number of asteroids that routinely do. That’s one reason 45P is only the seventh imaged using radar; rarely are we treated to such detailed views!
To radar imager Lance Benner at JPL in Pasadena, asteroid 2017 BQ6 resembles the polygonal dice used in Dungeons and Dragons. But my eyes see something closer to a stepping stone or paver you’d use to build a walkway. However you picture it, this asteroid is more angular than most imaged by radar.
It flew harmlessly by Earth on Feb. 7 at 1:36 a.m. EST (6:36 UT) at about 6.6 times the distance between Earth and the moon or some about 1.6 million miles. Based on 2017 BQ6’s brightness, astronomers estimate the hurtling boulder about 660 feet (200 meters) across. The recent flyby made for a perfect opportunity to bounce radio waves off the object, harvest their echoes and build an image of giant space boulder no one had ever seen close up before.
“The radar images show relatively sharp corners, flat regions, concavities, and small bright spots that may be boulders,” said Lance Benner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who leads the agency’s asteroid radar research program. “Asteroid 2017 BQ6 reminds me of the dice used when playing Dungeons and Dragons.”
Radar has been used to observe hundreds of asteroids. Even through very large telescopes, 2017 BQ6 would have appeared exactly like a star, but the radar technique reveals shape, size, rotation, roughness and even surface features.
To create the images, Benner conducted a controlled experiment on the asteroid, transmitting a signal with well-known characteristics to the object and then, by comparing the echo to the transmission, deduced its properties. According to NASA’s Asteroid Radar Research site, measuring how the echo power spreads out over time along with changes in its frequency caused by the Doppler Effect (object approaching or receding from Earth), provide the data to construct two-dimensional images with resolutions finer than 33 feet (10 meters) if the echoes are strong enough.
In late October 2016, the number of known near-Earth asteroids topped 15,000 with new discoveries averaging about 30 a week. A near-Earth asteroid is defined as a rocky body that approaches within approximately 1.3 times Earth’s average distance to the Sun. This distance then brings the asteroid within roughly 30 million miles (50 million km) of Earth’s orbit. To date, astronomers have already discovered more than 90% of the estimated number of the large near-Earth objects or those larger than 0.6 miles (1 km). It’s estimated that more than a million NEAs smaller than 330 feet (100 meters) lurk in the void. Time to get crackin’.
In the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the sequel to Stanley’s Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, black Monoliths multiply, converge and transform Jupiter into a new star. We next hear astronaut David Bowman’s disembodied voice with this message: “All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing there.” The newborn sun warms Europa, transforming the icy landscape into a primeval jungle. At the end, a single Monolith appears in the swamp, waiting once again to direct the evolution of intelligent life forms.
Stay away from Europa? No way. It’s just too fascinating a place with its jigsaw-puzzle ice sheets, crisscross valleys, miles of ice on top and a warm, salty ocean below. The movie was prescient — if you’re going to search for life elsewhere in the solar system, Europa’s one of the best candidates.
While we’ve sent spacecraft to photograph and study the icy moon during orbital flybys, no lander has yet to touch the surface. That may change soon. In early 2016, in response to a congressional directive, NASA’s Planetary Science Division began a pre-Phase A study to assess the science value and engineering design of a future Europa lander mission. In June 2016, NASA convened a 21-member team of scientists for the Science Definition Team (SDT). The team put together set of science objectives and measurements for the mission concept and submitted the report to NASA on Feb. 7.
The report lists three science goals for the mission. The primary goal is to search for evidence of life on Europa. The other goals are to determine the habitability of Europa by directly analyzing material from the surface, and to characterize the surface and subsurface to support future robotic exploration of Europa and its ocean.
The evidence is quite strong that Europa, with a diameter of 1,945 miles — slightly smaller than Earth’s moon — has a global saltwater ocean beneath its icy crust. This ocean has at least twice as much water as Earth’s oceans. Two things make Europa’s ocean unique and give the moon a greater chance of supporting microbial life compared to say, Ganymede and Enceladus, which also hold water reservoirs beneath their crusts.
One: the ocean is relatively close to the surface, just 10-15 miles below the moon’s icy shell. Radiation from Jupiter (high-speed electrons and protons) bombards ice, sulfur and salts on the surface to create compounds that could trickle down into warmer regions and used by living things for growth and metabolism.
Two: While recent discoveries have shown that many bodies in the solar system either have subsurface oceans now, or may have in the past, Europa is one of only two places where the ocean appears to be in contact with a rocky seafloor (the other being Saturn’s moon Enceladus). This rare circumstance makes Europa one of the highest priority targets in the search for present-day life beyond Earth.
On Earth, chemical interactions between life and lifeless rock in deep oceans and within the outer crust provide the energy needed to power and sustain microbial life. For all we know, deep sea volcanoes belch essential elements into the salty waters spawned by the constant flexing and heating of the moon as it orbits Jupiter every 85 hours.
The SDT was tasked with developing a life-detection strategy, a first for a NASA mission since the Mars Viking mission era more than four decades ago. The report makes recommendations on the number and type of science instruments that would be required to confirm if signs of life are present in samples collected from the icy moon’s surface.
The team also worked closely with engineers to design a system capable of landing on a surface about which very little is known. Given that Europa has no atmosphere, the team developed a concept that could deliver its science payload to the icy surface without the benefit of technologies like a heat shield or parachutes.
The concept lander is separate from the solar-powered Europa multiple flyby mission, now in development for launch in the early 2020s. The spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter after a multi-year journey, orbiting the gas giant every two weeks for a series of 45 close flybys of Europa. The multiple flyby mission will investigate Europa’s habitability by mapping its composition, determining the characteristics of the ocean and ice shell, and increasing our understanding of its geology. The mission also will lay the foundation for a future landing by performing detailed reconnaissance using its powerful cameras.
We can’t help but be excited by the prospects of life-seeking missions to Europa. Sometimes wonderful things come in small packages.