Rosetta’s Comet Keeps On Jetting Even After the Sun Goes Down

67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko certainly isn’t a comet that dreads sundown. Images acquired by the OSIRIS instrument aboard ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft in April 2015 reveal that some of the comet’s dust jets keep on firing even after the Sun has “set” across those regions. This shows that, as the comet continues to approach its August perihelion date, it’s now receiving enough solar radiation to warm deeper subsurface materials.

“Only recently have we begun to observe dust jets persisting even after sunset,” said OSIRIS Principal Investigator Holger Sierks from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

The image above was captured by OSIRIS on April 25 and shows active jets near the center, originating from shadowed areas on the comet’s smaller “head” lobe. The region is called Ma’at – see maps of 67P’s regions here and here.

(Also it looks kind of like an overexposed image of a giant angry lemming. But that’s pareidolia for you.)

Detail of the active jets. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Detail of the active jets. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

It’s thought that the comet has now come close enough to the Sun – 220.8 million kilometers, at the time of this writing – that it can store heat below its surface… enough to keep the sublimation process going within buried volatiles well after it rotates out of direct solar illumination.

Read more: What Are Comets Made Of?

Comet 67P and Rosetta (and Philae too!) will come within 185.9 million km of the Sun during perihelion on Aug. 13, 2015 before heading back out into the Solar System. Find out where they are now.

Source: ESA’s Rosetta blog

This Video About Solar Superstorms is Narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch and It Looks Awesome.

What’s better than a full 180-degree digital theater experience that takes you into the heart of our Sun to see how solar storms form? Why, all of that accompanied by a rumbling narration by Benedict Cumberbatch, of course.

The video above is a trailer for “Solar Superstorms,” a digital planetarium presentation distributed by Fulldome Film Society and co-produced by Spitz Creative Media, NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Lab, and Thomas Lucas Productions. It uses the monster Blue Waters supercomputers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois to visualize the complex processes occurring in, on, and around the Sun. It might look a little weird in the flat 2D format above, but I can only imagine what it will be like to see it from inside a digital dome (and have the disembodied voice of Smaug/Sherlock/Khan thundering through the room!)

The film itself is still in production so I couldn’t find an official release date. But keep an eye out for it at your nearest planetarium and visit the catalog page for other films from the same distributor.

You can find a database of fulldome theaters and digital planetariums around the world here.

Video credit: Spitz Creative Media

Cassini to Perform Its Final Flyby of Hyperion

On Sunday, May 31, the Cassini spacecraft will perform its last close pass of Hyperion, Saturn’s curiously spongelike moon. At approximately 9:36 a.m. EDT (13:36 UTC) it will zip past Hyperion at a distance of about 21,000 miles (34,000 km) – not its closest approach ever but considerably closer (by 17,500 miles/28,160 km) than it was when the image above was acquired.*

This will be Cassini’s last visit of Hyperion. It will make several flybys of other moons within Saturn’s equatorial plane over the course of 2015 before shifting to a more inclined orbit in preparation of the end phase of its mission and its operating life in 2017.

At 255 x 163 x 137 miles (410 x 262 x 220 km) in diameter, Hyperion is the largest of Saturn’s irregularly-shaped moons. Researchers suspect it’s the remnant of a larger body that was blown apart by an impact. Hyperion’s craters appear to have a “punched-in” look rather than having been excavated, and have no visible ejecta or secondary craters nearby.

Impactors tend to make craters by compressing the surface material, rather than blasting it out. (NASA/JPL/SSI. Edit by J. Major.)
Impacts on Hyperion tend to “punch in” the surface material, rather than blasting it out. (NASA/JPL/SSI. Edit by J. Major.)

Hyperion orbits Saturn in an eccentric orbit at a distance of over 920,000 miles (1.48 million km)…that’s almost four times the distance our Moon is from us! This distance – as well as constant gravitational nudges from Titan – prevents Hyperion from becoming tidally locked with Saturn like nearly all of its other moons are. In fact its rotation is more of haphazard tumble than a stately spin, making targeted observations of any particular regions on its surface virtually impossible.

Images from the May 31 flyby are expected to arrive on Earth 24 to 48 hours later.

As small as it is Hyperion is Saturn’s eighth-largest moon, although it appears to be very porous and has a density half that of water. Read more about Hyperion here and see more images of it from Cassini here and here.

Source: NASA

*Cassini did come within 310 miles (500 km) of Hyperion on Sept. 26, 2005, but the images to make up the view above were acquired during approach.

UPDATE June 1, 2015: the raw images from Cassini’s flyby have arrived on Earth, check out a few below. (Looks like Cassini ended up with the same side of Hyperion again!)

Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. (Minor editing by J. Major.)
Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. (Minor editing by J. Major.)
Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.
Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.
Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. (Minor editing by J. Major.)
Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. (Minor editing by J. Major.)

Hubble Captures a Collision in a Black Hole’s “Death Star” Beam

Even the Empire’s planet-blasting battle station has nothing compared to the immense energy being fired from the heart of NGC 3862, a supermassive black hole-harboring elliptical galaxy located 300 million light-years away.

And while jets of high-energy plasma coming from active galactic nuclei have been imaged before, for the first time activity within a jet has been observed in optical wavelengths, revealing a quite “forceful” collision of ejected material at near light speeds.

Using archived image data acquired by Hubble in 1994, 1996, and 2002 combined with new high-resolution images acquired in 2014, Eileen Meyer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland identified movement in visible clumps of plasma within the jet emitted from the nucleus of NGC 3862 (aka 3C 264). One of the outwardly-moving larger clumps could be seen gaining on a slower, smaller one in front of it and the two eventually collide, creating a shockwave that brightens the resulting merged mass dramatically.

Such a collision has never been witnessed before, and certainly not thousands of light-years out from the central supermassive black hole.

Close-up image of the jet as seen in 2014. Credit:  NASA, ESA, and E. Meyer (STScI).
Close-up image of the jet as seen in 2014. Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Meyer (STScI).

“Something like this has never been seen before in an extragalactic jet,” Meyer said. “This will allow us a very rare opportunity to see how the kinetic energy of the collision is dissipated into radiation.”

Jets like this are created when infalling material around an active (that is, “feeding”) supermassive black hole gets caught up in its powerful spinning and twisting magnetic fields. This accelerates the material even further and, rather than permitting it to descend down past the black hole’s event horizon, results in it getting shot out into space at velocities close to the speed of light.

Read more: Black Hole Jets May Be Molded by Magnetism

When material approaches the black hole in even amounts the jets are fairly consistent. But if the inflow is uneven, the jets can consist of clumps or knots traveling outward at different speeds.

Because of the motion of the galaxy itself related to our own, the speed of the clumps can appear to actually move faster than the speed of light, especially when – as seen in NGC 3862 – a large clump has already paved the way within the jet. In reality the light speed limit has not been broken, but the apparent superluminal motion so far from the SMBH indicates that the material was ejected extremely energetically.

It’s expected that the combined clusters of material will continue to brighten over the next several decades.

You can see a video of the observations below, and watch a Google+ Hangout with Hubble team members about these observations here.

Source: Hubble news center

Rosetta’s View of a Comet’s “Great Divide”

The latest image to be revealed of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comes from October 27, 2014, before the Philae lander even departed for its surface. Above we get a view of a dramatically-shadowed cliff separating two regions on 67P, the high, smooth plateaus of Babi and the boulder-strewn, slumped valley of Aten. Both are located on the larger lobe of the comet, while parts of the Ma’at region on the smaller “head” lobe can be seen in the distance at upper left. (You can see a regional map of comet 67P here.)

The image scale is about 75 cm (2.4 feet) per pixel and the entire image spans 770 meters across – about half a mile. Based on that, the cliff is easily over 190 meters (630 feet) high!

Here's a diagram of the image above in context with the entire comet. (ESA)
Here’s a diagram of the image above in context with the entire comet. (ESA)

It’s thought that the morphological differences in the Babi and Aten regions – in both texture and altitude – are the result of a massive loss of material from Aten at some point in the comet’s history. According to the entry on the Rosetta blog, the entire volume of the Aten “scoop” is equivalent to about 50 Great Pyramids of Giza… a fitting analogy considering the choice to name features on 67P with an ancient Egyptian theme.

See Comet 67P’s Enormous “Cheops” Boulder

The image above is one of a slew of NavCam images that will be released at the end of the month on ESA’s Archive Browser, captured by Rosetta after establishing orbit around 67P.

Source: ESA’s Rosetta blog

NavCam image of 67P/C-G acquired on May 12, 2015. The elongated depression at the center of the illuminated region is Aten. ( ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)
NavCam image of 67P/C-G acquired on May 12, 2015. The elongated depression at the center of the illuminated region is Aten. ( ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

Watch an Enormous “Plasma Snake” Erupt from the Sun

Over the course of April 28–29 a gigantic filament, briefly suspended above the surface* of the Sun, broke off and created an enormous snakelike eruption of plasma that extended millions of miles out into space. The event was both powerful and beautiful, another demonstration of the incredible energy and activity of our home star…and it was all captured on camera by two of our finest Sun-watching spacecraft.

Watch a video of the event below.

Made from data acquired by both NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the joint ESA/NASA SOHO spacecraft, the video was compiled by astronomer and sungrazing comet specialist Karl Battams. It shows views of the huge filament before and after detaching from the Sun, and gives a sense of the enormous scale of the event.

At one point the plasma eruption spanned a distance over 33 times farther than the Moon is from Earth!

Filaments are long channels of solar material contained by magnetic fields that have risen up from within the Sun. They are relatively cooler than the visible face of the Sun behind them so they appear dark when silhouetted against it; when seen rising from the Sun’s limb they look bright and are called prominences.

When the magnetic field lines break apart, much of the material contained within the filaments gets flung out into space (a.k.a. a CME) while some gets pulled back down into the Sun. These events are fairly common but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular!

Also read: Watch the Sun Split Apart

This same particularly long filament has also been featured as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), in a photo captured on April 27 by Göran Strand.

For more solar news follow Karl Battams on Twitter.

Image credits: ESA/NASA/SOHO & SDO/NASA and the AIA science team.

*The Sun, being a mass of incandescent gas, doesn’t have a “surface” like rocky planets do so in this case we’re referring to its photosphere and chromosphere.

The End is Near: NASA’s MESSENGER Now Running on Fumes

For more than four years NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft has been orbiting our solar system’s innermost planet Mercury, mapping its surface and investigating its unique geology and planetary history in unprecedented detail. But the spacecraft has run out of the fuel needed to maintain its extremely elliptical – and now quite low-altitude – orbit, and the Sun will soon set on the mission when MESSENGER makes its fatal final dive into the planet’s surface at the end of the month.

On April 30 MESSENGER will impact Mercury, falling down to its Sun-baked surface and colliding at a velocity of 3.9 kilometers per second, or about 8,700 mph. The 508-kilogram spacecraft will create a new crater on Mercury about 16 meters across.

The impact is estimated to occur at 19:25 UTC, which will be 3:25 p.m. at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, where the MESSENGER operations team is located. Because the spacecraft will be on the opposite side of Mercury as seen from Earth the impact site will not be in view.

Postcards from the (Inner) Edge: MESSENGER Images of Mercury

MESSENGER captures image of curious "hollows" around a crater peak
MESSENGER image of “hollows” around a crater’s central peak – one of the many unique discoveries the mission made about Mercury. Read more here.

But while it’s always sad to lose a dutiful robotic explorer like MESSENGER, its end is bittersweet; the mission has been more than successful, answering many of our long-standing questions about Mercury and revealing features of the planet that nobody even knew existed. The data MESSENGER has returned to Earth – over ten terabytes of it – will be used by planetary scientists for decades in their research on the formation of Mercury as well as the Solar System as a whole.

“For the first time in history we now have real knowledge about the planet Mercury that shows it to be a fascinating world as part of our diverse solar system,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “While spacecraft operations will end, we are celebrating MESSENGER as more than a successful mission. It’s the beginning of a longer journey to analyze the data that reveals all the scientific mysteries of Mercury.”

View the top ten science discoveries from MESSENGER here.

On April 6 MESSENGER used up the last vestiges of the liquid hydrazine propellant in its tanks, which it needed to make course corrections to maintain its orbit. But the tanks also hold gaseous helium as a pressurizer, and system engineers figured out how to release that gas through the complex hydrazine nozzles and keep MESSENGER in orbit for a few more weeks.

Earth and the Moon imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft on Oct. 8, 2014
Earth and the Moon imaged by MESSENGER on Oct. 8, 2014. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

On April 24, though, even those traces of helium will be exhausted after a sixth and final orbit correction maneuver. From that point on MESSENGER will be coasting – out of fuel, out of fumes, and out of time.

“Following this last maneuver, we will finally declare MESSENGER out of propellant, as this maneuver will deplete nearly all of our remaining helium gas,” said Mission Systems Engineer Daniel O’Shaughnessy. “At that point, the spacecraft will no longer be capable of fighting the downward push of the Sun’s gravity.

“After studying the planet intently for more than four years, MESSENGER’s final act will be to leave an indelible mark on Mercury, as the spacecraft heads down to an inevitable surface impact.”

Read more: Five Mercury Secrets Revealed by MESSENGER

But MESSENGER scientists and engineers can be proud of the spacecraft that they built, which has proven itself more than capable of operating in the inherently challenging environment so close to our Sun.

“MESSENGER had to survive heating from the Sun, heating from the dayside of Mercury, and the harsh radiation environment in the inner heliosphere, and the clearest demonstration that our innovative engineers were up to the task has been the spacecraft’s longevity in one of the toughest neighborhoods in our Solar System,” said MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon. “Moreover, all of the instruments that we selected nearly two decades ago have proven their worth and have yielded an amazing series of discoveries about the innermost planet.”

True color image of Mercury (MESSENGER)
True-color image of Mercury made from MESSENGER data. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

The MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft launched on August 3, 2004, and traveled over six and a half years before entering orbit about Mercury on March 18, 2011 – the first spacecraft ever to do so. Learn more about the mission’s many discoveries here.

The video below was released in 2013 to commemorate MESSENGER’s second year in orbit and highlights some of the missions important achievements.

Source: NASA and JHUAPL

Are you an educator? Check out some teaching materials and shareables on the MESSENGER community page here.

This Mountain on Mars Is Leaking

As the midsummer Sun beats down on the southern mountains of Mars, bringing daytime temperatures soaring up to a balmy 25ºC (77ºF), some of their slopes become darkened with long, rusty stains that may be the result of water seeping out from just below the surface.

The image above, captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Feb. 20, shows mountain peaks within the 150-km (93-mile) -wide Hale Crater. Made from data acquired in visible and near infrared wavelengths the long stains are very evident, running down steep slopes below the rocky cliffs.

These dark lines, called recurring slope lineae (RSL) by planetary scientists, are some of the best visual evidence we have of liquid water existing on Mars today – although if RSL are the result of water it’s nothing you’d want to fill your astro-canteen with; based on the first appearances of these features in early Martian spring any water responsible for them would have to be extremely high in salt content.

According to HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen “[t]he RSL in Hale have an unusually “reddish” color compared to most RSL, perhaps due to oxidized iron compounds, like rust.”

See a full image scan of the region here, and watch an animation of RSL evolution (in another location) over the course of a Martian season here.

Perspective view of Hale crater made from data acquired by ESA's Mars Express. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
Perspective view of Hale crater made from data acquired by ESA’s Mars Express. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
Channels in the southeastern ejecta of Hale crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University. (Source.)
THEMIS image of channels in the southeastern ejecta of Hale crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University. (Source.)

Hale Crater itself is likely no stranger to liquid water. Its geology strongly suggests the presence of water at the time of its formation at least 3.5 billion years ago in the form of subsurface ice (with more potentially supplied by its cosmic progenitor) that was melted en masse at the time of impact. Today carved channels and gullies branch within and around the Hale region, evidence of enormous amounts of water that must have flowed from the site after the crater was created. (Source.)

The crater is named after George Ellery Hale, an astronomer from Chicago who determined in 1908 that sunspots are the result of magnetic activity.

Read more on the University of Arizona’s HiRISE site here.

Sources: NASA, HiRISE and Alfred McEwen

UPDATE April 13: Conditions for subsurface salt water (i.e., brine) have also been found to exist in Gale Crater based on data acquired by the Curiosity rover. Gale was not thought to be in a location conducive to brine formation, but if it is then it would further strengthen the case for such salt water deposits in places where RSL have been observed. Read more here.

No, a Giant Asteroid Isn’t Going to “Skim” Earth on Friday

There are ways to report on occasional close approaches by near-Earth objects (NEOs) that convey the respectful awareness of their presences and the fact that our planet shares its neighborhood with many other objects, large and small… and that sometimes their paths around the Sun bring them unnervingly close to our own.

Then there’s just straight-up over-sensationalism intended to drum up page views by scaring the heck out of people, regardless of facts.

Apparently this is what’s happened regarding the upcoming close approach by NEO 2014 YB35. An asteroid of considerable (but definitely not unprecedented) size – estimated 440-990 meters in diameter, or around a third of a mile across – YB35 will pass by Earth on Friday, March 27, coming as close as 11.7 times the distance between Earth and the Moon at 06:20 UTC.

11.7 lunar distances. That’s 4.5 million kilometers, or almost 2.8 million miles. Cosmically close, sure, but far from “skimming”…and certainly with no danger of an impact or any of the nasty effects that would be a result thereof. None. Zero. Zilch. NASA isn’t concerned, and you shouldn’t be either.

I typically wouldn’t even bother writing up something like this, except that I have been seeing posts shared among acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter that refer to sensationalist articles portraying the event as a frightening near-miss by an apocalyptic object. I won’t link to those articles here but in short they focus heavily on the destructive nature of an object the size of YB35 were it to hit Earth and how it would wipe out “all species” of life on our planet wholesale, and how YB35 is “on course” with Earth’s orbit.

The problem I have is that these statements, although technically not false in themselves, are not being used to demonstrate the potential danger of large-scale cosmic impact events but rather to frighten and alarm people about this particular pass. Which is not any way to responsibly inform the public about impacts, asteroids, and what we can or should be doing to mitigate these dangers.

Orbital diagram of 2014 YB35 for March 27, 2015. Via JPL's Small-Body Database.
Orbital diagram of 2014 YB35 for March 27, 2015. Via JPL’s Small-Body Database.

First observed through the Catalina Sky Survey in Dec. 2014, YB35 is a good-sized asteroid. It will come relatively close to Earth on Friday but more than plenty far enough away to not pose any danger or have any physical effects on Earth in any way (similar to the close pass of the smaller asteroid 2014 UR116 in December.) YB35 will actually make slightly closer passes in March 2033 and in 2128, but still at similar distances.

YB35 is, for all intents and purposes, one of the many potentially-hazardous* asteroids that won’t hit us, and NASA is well aware of nearly all of the NEOs in its size range thanks in no small part to space observatories like NEOWISE and various ground-based survey projects around the world. They will observe this event for the increased information on YB35 that can be gathered, but they are not “on alert” and the astronomers certainly aren’t “terrified.”

Should we take this as a reminder that large asteroids are out there and we should be as diligent as we can about identifying them? Yes, certainly. Should we support missions that would help spot and track near-Earth objects as well as those that would provide a way to potentially deflect any large incoming ones? Of course. Should we drop to our knees and cry “why?!” or sleep in our backyard bunkers tonight surrounded by bottled water and cans of beans? Not at all.

So don’t believe the hype, don’t go max out your credit cards, and please don’t sleep in your bunker. Pass it on.

Want to learn more about NEOs and close approaches? Visit JPL’s Near-Earth Object Program page here. Also, watch a fascinating animation showing the discovery rate of asteroids in the Solar System from 1980-2011 by Scott Manley below.

*Note: Potentially-hazardous asteroids (PHAs) are those larger than 150m whose orbits could cross Earth’s in the future, not necessarily that they will or that Earth will be sharing the same place when and if they do.

As It Turns Out, We Really Are All Starstuff

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars,” Carl Sagan famously said in his 1980 series Cosmos. “We are made of starstuff.”

And even today, observations with NASA’s airborne SOFIA observatory are supporting this statement. Measurements taken of the dusty leftovers from an ancient supernova located near the center our galaxy – aka SNR Sagittarius A East – show enough “starstuff” to build our entire planet many thousands of times over.

“Our observations reveal a particular cloud produced by a supernova explosion 10,000 years ago contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earths,” said research leader Ryan Lau of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York – the same school, by the way, where Carl Sagan taught astronomy and space science.

Composite image of SNR Sgr A East showing infrared SOFIA data outlined in white against X-ray and radio observations. (NASA/CXO/Herschel/VLA/Lau et al.)
Composite image of SNR Sgr A East showing infrared SOFIA data outlined in white against X-ray and radio observations. (NASA/CXO/Herschel/VLA/Lau et al.)

While it’s long been known that supernovae expel enormous amounts of stellar material into space, it wasn’t understood if clouds of large-scale dust could withstand the immense shockwave forces of the explosion.

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy 747SP aircraft flies over Southern California's high desert during a test flight in 2010. Credit: NASA/Jim Ross
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft (Credit: NASA/Jim Ross)

These observations, made with the joint NASA/DLR-developed Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument, provide key “missing-link” evidence that dust clouds do in fact survive intact, spreading outward into interstellar space to seed the formation of new systems.

Interstellar dust plays a vital role in the evolution of galaxies and the formation of new stars and protoplanetary discs – the orbiting “pancakes” of material around stars from which planets (and eventually everything on them) form.

The findings may also answer the question of why young galaxies observed in the distant universe possess so much dust; it’s likely the result of frequent supernova explosions from massive early-generation stars.

Read more in a NASA news release here.

Source: NASA, Cornell, and Caltech 

“We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)