Cassini Data Has Revealed a Towering Hexagonal Storm at Saturn’s Northern Pole

A new study based on data from the Cassini mission is revealing something surprising in the atmosphere of Saturn. We’ve known about the storm at the gas giant’s north pole for decades, but now it appears that this massive hexagonal storm could be a towering behemoth hundreds of kilometers in height that has its base deep in Saturn’s atmosphere.

This grey-scale image of Saturn’s northern polar vortex was captured by the Cassini spacecraft. This image was captured from a distance of about 1.2 million km. A portion of Saturn’s rings are barely visible in the top right. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Continue reading “Cassini Data Has Revealed a Towering Hexagonal Storm at Saturn’s Northern Pole”

That New Kind of Aurora Called “Steve”? Turns Out, it Isn’t an Aurora at All

Since time immemorial, people living in the Arctic Circle or the southern tip of Chile have looked up at the night sky and been dazzled by the sight of the auroras. Known as the Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south (the “Northern Lights” and “Southern Lights”, respectively) these dazzling displays are the result of interactions in the ionosphere between charged solar particles and the Earth’s magnetic field.

However, in recent decades, amateur photographers began capturing photos of what appeared to be a new type of aurora – known as STEVE. In 2016, it was brought to the attention of scientists, who began trying to explain what accounted for the strange ribbons of purple and white light in the night sky. According to a new study, STEVE is not an aurora at all, but an entirely new celestial phenomenon.

The study recently appeared in the Geophysical Research Letters under the title “On the Origin of STEVE: Particle Precipitation or Ionospheric Skyglow?“. The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the Department of Physics and Astronomy from the University of Calgary, which was led by Beatriz Gallardo-Lacourt (a postdoctoral associate), and included Yukitoshi Nishimura – an assistant researcher of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of California.

STEVE, as imaged by Dave Markel in the skies above northern Canada. Copyright: davemarkelphoto

STEVE first became known to scientists thanks to the efforts of the Alberta Aurora Chasers (AAC), who occasionally noticed these bright, thin streams of white and purple light running from east to west in the night sky when photographing the aurora. Unlike auroras, which are visible whenever viewing conditions are right, STEVE was only visible a few times a year and could only be seen at high latitudes.

Initially, the photographers thought the light ribbons were the result of excited protons, but these fall outside the range of wavelengths that normal cameras can see and require special equipment to image. The AAC eventually named the light ribbons “Steve” – a reference to the 2006 film Over the Hedge. By 2016, Steve was brought to the attention of scientists, who turned the name into a backronym for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

For their study, the research team analyzed a STEVE event that took place on March 28th, 2008, to see if it was produced in a similar fashion to an aurora. To this end, they considered previous research that was conducted using satellites and ground-based observatories, which included the first study on STEVE (published in March of 2018) conducted by a team of NASA-led scientists (of which Gallardo-Lacourt was a co-author).

This study indicated the presence of a stream of fast-moving ions and super-hot electrons passing through the ionosphere where STEVE was observed. While the research team suspected the two were connected, they could not conclusively state that the ions and electrons were responsible for producing it. Building on this, Gallardo-Lacourt and her colleagues analyzed the STEVE event that took place in March of 2008.

Rays of aurora borealis reach 60 miles and higher over the Pacific Northwest on Jan. 20, 2016 in this photo taken by astronauts Scott Kelly and Tim Peake from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

They began by using images from ground-based cameras that record auroras over North America, which they then combined with data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s (NOAA) Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite 17 (POES-17). This satellite, which can measure the precipitation of charged particles into the ionosphere, was passing directly over the ground-based cameras during the STEVE event.

What they found was that the POES-17 satellite detected no charged particles raining down on the ionosphere during the event. This means that STEVE is not likely to be caused by the same mechanism as an aurora, and is therefore an entirely new type of optical phenomenon – which the team refer to as “skyglow”. As Gallardo-Lacourt explained in an AGU press release:

“Our main conclusion is that STEVE is not an aurora. So right now, we know very little about it. And that’s the cool thing, because this has been known by photographers for decades. But for the scientists, it’s completely unknown.”

Looking ahead, Galladro-Lacourt and her colleagues seek to test the conclusions of the NASA-led study. In short, they want to find out whether the streams of fast ions and hot electrons that were detected in the ionosphere are responsible for STEVE, or if the light is being produced higher up in the atmosphere. One thing is for certain though; for aurora chasers, evening sky-watching has become more interesting!

Further Reading: AGU

Spinning Heat Shield Concept Could Provide a Lightweight Way to Survive Atmospheric Re-entry

One of the more challenging aspects of space exploration and spacecraft design is planning for re-entry. Even in the case of thinly-atmosphered planets like Mars, entering a planet’s atmosphere is known to cause a great deal of heat and friction. For this reason, spacecraft have always been equipped with heat shields to absorb this energy and ensure that the spacecraft do not crash or burn up during re-entry.

Unfortunately, current spacecraft must rely on huge inflatable or mechanically deployed shields, which are often heavy and complicated to use. To address this, a PhD student from the University of Manchester has developed a prototype for a heat shield that would rely on centrifugal forces to stiffen flexible, lightweight materials. This prototype, which is the first of its kind, could reduce the cost of space travel and facilitate future missions to Mars.

The concept was proposed by Rui Wu, a PhD student from Manchester’s School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE). He was joined by Peter C.E. Roberts and Carl Driver – a Senior Lecturer in Spacecraft Engineering and a Lecturer at MACE, respectively – and Constantinos Soutis of The University of Manchester Aerospace Research Institute.

The CubeSat-sized prototype heat shield designed by the University of Manchester team. Credit: University of Manchester

To put it simply, planets with atmospheres allow spacecraft to utilize aerodynamic drag to slow down in preparation for landing. This process creates a tremendous amount of heat. In the case of Earth’s atmosphere, temperatures of 10,000 °C (18,000 °F) are generated and the air around the spacecraft can turn into plasma. For this reason, spacecraft require a front-end mounted heat shield that can tolerate extreme heat and is aerodynamic in shape.

When deploying to Mars, the circumstances are somewhat different, but the challenge remains the same. While the Martian atmosphere is less than 1% that of Earth’s – with an average surface pressure of 0.636 kPa compared to Earth’s 101.325 kPa – spacecraft still require heat shields to avoid burnup and carry heavy loads. Wu’s design potentially solves both of these issues.

The prototype’s design, which consists of a skirt-shaped shield designed to spin, seeks to create a heat shield that can accommodate the needs of current and future space missions. As Wu explained:

“Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage… Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage.”

Wu and his colleagues described their concept in a recent study that appeared in the journal Arca Astronautica (titled “Flexible heat shields deployed by centrifugal force“). The design consists of an advanced, flexible material that has a high temperature tolerance and allows for easy-folding and storage aboard a spacecraft. The material becomes rigid as the shield applies centrifugal force, which is accomplished by rotating upon entry.

Wu and his team performing the drop test of their heat shield prototype. Credit: University of Manchester

So far, Wu and his team have conducted a drop test with the prototype from an altitude of 100 m (328 ft) using a balloon (the video of which is posted below). They also conducted a structural dynamic analysis that confirmed that the heat shield is capable of automatically engaging in a sufficient spin rate (6 revolutions per second) when deployed from altitudes of higher than 30 km (18.64 mi) – which coincides with the Earth’s stratosphere.

The team also conducted a thermal analysis that indicated that the heat shield could reduce front end temperatures by 100 K (100 °C; 212 °F) on a CubeSat-sized vehicle without the need for thermal insulation around the shield itself (unlike inflatable structures). The design is also self-regulating, meaning that it does not rely on additional machinery, reducing the weight of a spacecraft even further.

And unlike conventional designs, their prototype is scalable for use aboard smaller spacecraft like CubeSats. By being equipped with such a shield, CubeSats could be recovered after they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, effectively becoming reusable. This is all in keeping with current efforts to make space exploration and research cost-effective, in part through the development of reusable and retrievable parts. As Wu explained:

“More and more research is being conducted in space, but this is usually very expensive and the equipment has to share a ride with other vehicles. Since this prototype is lightweight and flexible enough for use on smaller satellites, research could be made easier and cheaper. The heat shield would also help save cost in recovery missions, as its high induced drag reduces the amount of fuel burned upon re-entry.”

When it comes time for heavier spacecraft to be deployed to Mars, which will likely involve crewed missions, it is entirely possible that the heat shields that ensure they make it safely to the surface are composed of lightweight, flexible materials that spin to become rigid. In the meantime, this design could enable lightweight and compact entry systems for smaller spacecraft, making CubeSat research that much more affordable.

Such is the nature of modern space exploration, which is all about cutting costs and making space more accessible. And be sure to check out this video from the team’s drop test as well, courtesy of Rui Wui and the MACE team:

Further Reading: University of Manchester, Acta Astronica

Wow, Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung is Making a Mess. Here’s the View From Space!

NASA’s Earth Observatory is a vital part of the space agency’s mission to advance our understanding of Earth, its climate, and the ways in which it is similar and different from the other Solar Planets. For decades, the EO has been monitoring Earth from space in order to map it’s surface, track it’s weather patterns, measure changes in our environment, and monitor major geological events.

For instance, Mount Sinabung – a stratovolcano located on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia – became sporadically active in 2010 after centuries of being dormant. But on February 19th, 2018, it erupted violently, spewing ash at least 5 to 7 kilometers (16,000 to 23,000 feet) into the air over Indonesia. Just a few hours later, Terra and other NASA Earth Observatory satellites captured the eruption from orbit.

The images were taken with Terra’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), which recorded a natural-color image of the eruption at 11:10 am local time (04:10 Universal Time). This was just hours after the eruption began and managed to illustrate what was being reported by sources on the ground. According to multiple reports from the Associated Press, the scene was one of carnage.

Mount Sinabung on September 13th, 2010, after it became sporatically-active again. Credit: Kenrick95/Wikipedia Commons

According to eye-witness accounts, the erupting lava dome obliterated a chunk of the peak as it erupted. This was followed by plumes of hot gas and ash riding down the volcano’s summit and spreading out in a 5-kilometer (3 mile) diameter. Ash falls were widespread, covering entire villages in the area and leading to airline pilots being issued the highest of alerts for the region.

In fact, ash falls were recorded as far as away as the town of Lhokseumawe – located some 260 km (160 mi) to the north. To address the threat to public health, the Indonesian government advised people to stay indoors due to poor air quality, and officials were dispatched to Sumatra to hand out face masks. Due to its composition and its particulate nature, volcanic ash is a severe health hazard.

On the one hand, it contains sulfur dioxide (SO²), which can irritate the human nose and throat when inhaled. The gas also reacts with water vapor in the atmosphere to produce acid rain, causing damage to vegetation and drinking water. It can also react with other gases in the atmosphere to form aerosol particles that can create thick hazes and even lead to global cooling.

These levels were recorded by the Suomi-NPP satellite using its Ozone Mapper Profiler Suite (OMPS). The image below shows what SO² concentrations were like at 1:20 p.m. local time (06:20 Universal Time) on February 19th, several hours after the eruption. The maximum concentrations of SO² reached 140 Dobson Units in the immediate vicinity of the mountain.

Map showing concentrations of sulfur dioxide (SO²) due to the eruption of Mount Sinabung on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Credit: NASA/EO

Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist, was on hand to witness the event. As he explained in an article for Discovery Magazine:

“On February 19, 2018, the volcano decided to change its tune and unleashed a massive explosion that potentially reached at least 23,000 and possibly to up 55,000 feet (~16.5 kilometers), making it the largest eruption since the volcano became active again in 2013.”

Klemetti also cited a report that was recently filed by the Darwin Volcanic Ash Advisory Center – part of the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology. According to this report, the ash will drift to the west and fall into the Indian Ocean, rather than continuing to rain down on Sumatra. Other sensors on NASA satellites have also been monitoring Mount Sinabung since its erupted.

This includes the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO), an environmental satellite operated jointly by NASA and France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES). Data from this satellite indicated that some debris and gas released by the eruption has risen as high as 15 to 18 km (mi) into the atmosphere.

In addition, data from the Aura satellite‘s Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) recently indicated rising levels of SO² around Sinabung, which could mean that fresh magma is approaching the surface. As Erik Klemetti concluded:

“This could just be a one-off blast from the volcano and it will return to its previous level of activity, but it is startling to say the least. Sinabung is still a massive humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands of people unable to return to their homes for years. Some towns have even been rebuilt further from the volcano as it has shown no signs of ending this eruptive period.”

Be sure to check out this video of the eruption, courtesy of New Zealand Volcanologist Dr. Janine Krippner:

Further Reading: NASA Earth Observatory

The Solar Eclipse Caused a Bow Wave in Earth’s Atmosphere

This graphic shows atmospheric bow waves forming during the August 2017 eclipse over the continental United States. Image: Shunrong Zhang/Haystack Observatory

It’s long been predicted that a solar eclipse would cause a bow wave in Earth’s ionosphere. The August 2017 eclipse—called the “Great American Eclipse” because it crossed the continental US— gave scientists a chance to test that prediction. Scientists at MIT’s Haystack Observatory used more than 2,000 GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) receivers across the continental US to observe this type of bow wave for the first time.

The Great American Eclipse took 90 minutes to cross the US, with totality lasting only a few minutes at any location. As the Moon’s shadow moved across the US at supersonic speeds, it created a rapid temperature drop. After moving on, the temperature rose again. This rapid heating and cooling is what caused the ionospheric bow wave.

The bow wave itself is made up of fluctuations in the electron content of the ionosphere. The GNSS receivers collect very accurate data on the TEC (Total Electron Content) of the ionosphere. This animation shows the bow wave of electron content moving across the US.

The details of this bow wave were published in a paper by Shun-Rong Zhang and colleagues at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, and colleagues at the University of Tromso in Norway. In their paper, they explain it like this: “The eclipse shadow has a supersonic motion which [generates] atmospheric bow waves, similar to a fast-moving river boat, with waves starting in the lower atmosphere and propagating into the ionosphere. Eclipse passage generated clear ionospheric bow waves in electron content disturbances emanating from totality primarily over central/eastern United States. Study of wave characteristics reveals complex interconnections between the sun, moon, and Earth’s neutral atmosphere and ionosphere.”

The ionosphere stretches from about 50 km to 1000 km in altitude during the day. It swells as radiation from the Sun reaches Earth, and subsides at night. Its size is always fluctuating during the day. It’s called the ionosphere because it’s the region where charged particles created by solar radiation reside. The ionosphere is also where auroras occur. But more importantly, it’s where radio waves propagate.

The ionosphere surrounds the Earth, extending from about 80 km to 650 km. Image Credit:  NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Duberstein
The ionosphere surrounds the Earth, extending from about 80 km to 650 km. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Duberstein

The ionosphere plays an important role in the modern world. It allows radio waves to travel over the horizon, and also affects satellite communications. This image shows some of the complex ways our communications systems interact with the ionosphere.

This graphic shows some of the effects that the ionosphere has on communications. Image: National Institute of Information and Communications Technology
This graphic shows some of the effects that the ionosphere has on communications. Image: National Institute of Information and Communications Technology

There’s a lot going on in the ionosphere. There are different types of waves and disturbances besides the bow wave. A better understanding of the ionosphere is important in our modern world, and the August eclipse gave scientists a chance not only to observe the bow wave, but also to study the ionosphere in greater detail.

The GNSS data used to observe the bow wave was key in another study as well. This one was also published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, and was led by Anthea Coster of the Haystack Observatory. The data from the network of GNSS was used to detect the Total Electron Content (TEC) and the differential TEC. They then analyzed that data for a couple things during the passage of the eclipse: the latitudinal and longitudinal response of the TEC, and the presence of any Travelling Ionospheric Disturbances (TID) to the TEC.

Predictions showed a 35% reduction in TEC, but the team was surprised to find a reduction of up to 60%. They were also surprised to find structures of increased TEC over the Rocky Mountains, though that was never predicted. These structures are probably linked to atmospheric waves created in the lower atmosphere by the Rocky Mountains during the solar eclipse, but their exact nature needs to be investigated.

This image of GNSS data shows the positive Travelling Ionospheric Disturbance (TID) structure in the center of the primary TEC depleted region. The triangles mark cities in or near the Rocky Mountains. Image: Coster et. al.
This image of GNSS data shows the positive Travelling Ionospheric Disturbance (TID) structure in the center of the primary TEC depleted region. The triangles mark cities in or near the Rocky Mountains. Image: Coster et. al.

“… a giant active celestial experiment provided by the sun and moon.” – Phil Erickson, assistant director at Haystack Observatory.

“Since the first days of radio communications more than 100 years ago, eclipses have been known to have large and sometimes unanticipated effects on the ionized part of Earth’s atmosphere and the signals that pass through it,” says Phil Erickson, assistant director at Haystack and lead for the atmospheric and geospace sciences group. “These new results from Haystack-led studies are an excellent example of how much still remains to be learned about our atmosphere and its complex interactions through observing one of nature’s most spectacular sights — a giant active celestial experiment provided by the sun and moon. The power of modern observing methods, including radio remote sensors distributed widely across the United States, was key to revealing these new and fascinating features.”

The Great American Eclipse has come and gone, but the detailed data gathered during that 90 minute “celestial experiment” will be examined by scientists for some time.

The Ozone Hole is Definitely Recovering

The ozone layer is a integral part of what makes Earth habitable. This region of the stratosphere is responsible for absorbing the majority of the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation, thus ensuring terrestrial organisms are not irradiated. Since the 1970s, scientists became aware of a steady decline in this layer around the southern polar region, along with and a major seasonal decrease. This latter phenomena, known as the “ozone hole”, has been a major concern for decades.

Attempts to remedy this situation have focused on cutting the use of industrial chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These efforts culminated with the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which called for the complete phasing out of ozone-depleting substances (ODSs). And according to recent study by a team of NASA scientists, the ozone hole is showing signs of significant recovery as a result.

The study, titled “Decline in Antarctic Ozone Depletion and Lower Stratospheric Chlorine Determined From Aura Microwave Limb Sounder Observations“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters. The study was led by Susan E Strahan and co-authored by Anne R. Douglass, two research scientists with NASA Goddard’s Atmospheric Chemistry and Dynamics Laboratory.

Artist’s impression of the Aura satellite. Credit: NASA

For the sake of their study, the team consulted data from NASA’s Aura satellite, which has been monitoring the southern polar region since 2005. Having launched in 2004, the purpose of the Aura satellite was to conduct measurements of ozone, aerosols and key gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. And according to the readings it has gathered since 2005, the reductions in the use of CFCs has led to a 20% decrease in ozone depletion.

Simply put, CFCs are long-lived chemical compounds that are made up of carbon, chlorine, and fluorine. Since the latter half of the 20th century, they have been used in a number of industrial applications such as refrigeration (as Freon), in chemical aerosols (as propellants), and as solvents. Eventually, these chemicals rise into the stratosphere where they become subject to UV radiation and are broken down into chlorine atoms.

These chlorine atoms play havoc with the ozone layer, where they catalyze to form oxygen gas (O²). This activity begins around July during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, when the Sun’s rays cause an increase in the catalyzing of CFC-derived chlorine and bromine atoms in the atmosphere. By September (i.e. spring in the southern hemisphere), the activity peaks, resulting on the “ozone hole” that scientists first noted in 1985.

In the past, statistical analysis studies have indicated that ozone depletion has increased since. However, this study – which was the first to use measurements of the chemical composition inside the ozone hole – indicated that ozone depletion is decreasing. What’s more, it indicated that the decrease is caused by the decline in CFC use.

As Susan Strahan explained in a recent NASA press release, “We see very clearly that chlorine from CFCs is going down in the ozone hole, and that less ozone depletion is occurring because of it.” To determine how ozone and other chemicals in the atmosphere have changed from year to year, scientists have relied on data from the Aura satellite’s Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS).

Unlike other instruments that rely on sunlight to obtain spectra from atmospheric gases, this instrument measures these gases respective microwave emissions. As a result, it can measure trace gases over Antarctica during a key time of the year – when the southern hemisphere is experiencing winter and weather in the stratosphere is calm and temperatures are low and stable.

The change in ozone levels from the beginning to the end of Southern Hemisphere’s winter (early July to mid-September) was computed daily using MLS measurements every year from 2005 to 2016. While these measurements indicated a decrease in ozone loss, Strahan and Douglass wanted to be certain reductions in the use of CFCs was what was responsible.

This they did by looking for telltale signs of hydrochloric acid in the MLS data, which chlorine will form by reacting with methane (but only when all available ozone is depleted). As Strahan explained:

“During this period, Antarctic temperatures are always very low, so the rate of ozone destruction depends mostly on how much chlorine there is. This is when we want to measure ozone loss… By around mid-October, all the chlorine compounds are conveniently converted into one gas, so by measuring hydrochloric acid we have a good measurement of the total chlorine.”

Images from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite showing ozone fluctuations between 2010 and 2011. Credit: NASA/Rob Simmon

Another hint came in the form of nitrous oxide levels, another long-lived gas that behaves just like CFCs in much of the stratosphere – but which is not in decline like CFCs. If CFCs in the stratosphere were decreasing, it would mean that less chlorine would be present compared to nitrous oxide. By comparing MLS measurements of hydrochloric acid and nitrous oxide each year, they determined that chlorine levels were declining by about 0.8 percent per year.

As Strahan indicated, this added up to a 20% decrease from 2005 to 2016, which was consistent with what they expected. “This is very close to what our model predicts we should see for this amount of chlorine decline,” she said. “This gives us confidence that the decrease in ozone depletion through mid-September shown by MLS data is due to declining levels of chlorine coming from CFCs. But we’re not yet seeing a clear decrease in the size of the ozone hole because that’s controlled mainly by temperature after mid-September, which varies a lot from year to year.”

This process of recovery is expected to continue as CFCs gradually leave the atmosphere, though scientists anticipate that a complete recovery will take decades. This is very good news considering that the ozone hole was discovered only about three decades ago, and ozone levels began to stabilize about a decade later. Still, as Douglass explained, a full recovery is not likely to take place until the latter half of this century:

“CFCs have lifetimes from 50 to 100 years, so they linger in the atmosphere for a very long time. As far as the ozone hole being gone, we’re looking at 2060 or 2080. And even then there might still be a small hole.”

The Montreal Protocol is often touted as an example of effective international climate action, and for good reason. The Protocol was struck thirteen years after the scientific consensus on ozone depletion was reached, and just two years after the rather alarming discovery of the ozone hole. And in the years that followed, the signatories remained committed to their goals and achieved target reductions.

In the future, it is hoped that similar action can be achieved on climate change, which has been subject to delays and resistance for many years now. But as the case of the ozone hole demonstrates, international action can address a problem before it is too late.

Further Reading: NASA

Mysterious Flashes Coming From Earth That Puzzled Carl Sagan Finally Have An Explanation

Sun glints off atmospheric ice crystals (circled in red) in this view captured by NASA's EPIC instrument on NOAA's DISCOVR satellite. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Back in 1993, Carl Sagan encountered a puzzle. The Galileo spacecraft spotted flashes coming from Earth, and nobody could figure out what they were. They called them ‘specular reflections’ and they appeared over ocean areas but not over land.

The images were taken by the Galileo space probe during one of its gravitational-assist flybys of Earth. Galileo was on its way to Jupiter, and its cameras were turned back to look at Earth from a distance of about 2 million km. This was all part of an experiment aimed at finding life on other worlds. What would a living world look like from a distance? Why not use Earth as an example?

Fast-forward to 2015, when the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVER) spacecraft. DSCOVER’s job is to orbit Earth a million miles away and to warn us of dangerous space weather. NASA has a powerful instrument on DSCOVER called the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC.)

Every hour, EPIC takes images of the sunlit side of Earth, and these images can be viewed on the EPIC website. (Check it out, it’s super cool.) People began to notice the same flashes Sagan saw, hundreds of them in one year. Scientists in charge of EPIC started noticing them, too.

One of the scientists is Alexander Marshak, DSCOVR deputy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. At first, he noticed them only over ocean areas, the same as Sagan did 25 years ago. Only after Marshak began investigating them did he realize that Sagan had seen them too.

Back in 1993, Sagan and his colleagues wrote a paper discussing the results from Galileo’s examination of Earth. This is what they said about the reflections they noticed: “Large expanses of blue ocean and apparent coastlines are present, and close examination of the images shows a region of [mirror-like] reflection in ocean but not on land.”

Marshak surmised that there could be a simple explanation for the flashes. Sunlight hits a smooth part of an ocean or lake, and reflects directly back to the sensor, like taking a flash-picture in a mirror. Was it really that much of a mystery?

When Marshak and his colleagues took another look at the Galileo images showing the flashes, they found something that Sagan missed back in 1993: The flashes appeared over land masses as well. And when they looked at the EPIC images, they found flashes over land masses. So a simple explanation like light reflecting off the oceans was no longer in play.

“We found quite a few very bright flashes over land as well.” – Alexander Marshak, DSCOVR Deputy Project Scientist

“We found quite a few very bright flashes over land as well,” he said. “When I first saw it I thought maybe there was some water there, or a lake the sun reflects off of. But the glint is pretty big, so it wasn’t that.”

But something was causing the flashes, something reflective. Marshak and his colleagues, Tamas Varnai of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Alexander Kostinski of Michigan Technological University, thought of other ways that water could cause the flashes.

The primary candidate was ice particles high in Earth’s atmosphere. High-altitude cirrus clouds contain tiny ice platelets that are horizontally aligned almost perfectly. The trio of scientists did some experiments to find the cause of the flashes, and published their results in a new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters.

“Lightning doesn’t care about the sun and EPIC’s location.” – Alexander Marshak, DSCOVR Deputy Project Scientist

As their study details, they first catalogued all of the reflective glints that EPIC found over land; 866 of them in a 14 month period from June 2015 to August 2016. If these flashes were caused by reflection, then they would only appear on locations on the globe where the angle between the Sun and Earth matched the angle between the DSCOVER spacecraft and Earth. As the catalogued the 866 glints, they found that the angle did match.

This ruled out something like lightning as the cause of the flashes. But as they continued their work plotting the angles, they came to another conclusion: the flashes were sunlight reflecting off of horizontal ice crystals in the atmosphere. Other instruments on DSCOVR confirmed that the reflections were coming from high in the atmosphere, rather than from somewhere on the surface.

“The source of the flashes is definitely not on the ground. It’s definitely ice, and most likely solar reflection off of horizontally oriented particles.” -Alexander Marshak, DSCOVR Deputy Project Scientist

Mystery solved. But as is often the case with science, answering one question leads to a couple other questions. Could detecting these glints be used in the study of exoplanets somehow? But that’s one for the space science community to answer.

As for Marshak, he’s an Earth scientist. He’s investigating how common these horizontal ice particles are, and what effect they have on sunlight. If that impact is measurable, then it could be included in climate modelling to try to understand how Earth retains and sheds heat.

Sources:

Juno Captures a Stunning Jovian ‘Pearl’

Damian Peach reprocessed one of the latest images taken by Juno's JunoCam during its 3rd close flyby of the planet on Dec. 11. The photo highlights two large 'pearls' or storms in Jupiter's atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS
Astro-imager Damian Peach reprocessed one of the latest images taken by Juno’s JunoCam during its 3rd close flyby of the planet on Dec. 11. The photo highlights one of the large ‘pearls’ (right) that forms a string of  storms in Jupiter’s atmosphere. A smaller isolated storm is seen at left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Jupiter looks beautiful in pearls! This image, taken by the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft, highlights one of the eight massive storms that from a distance form a ‘string of pearls’ on Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere. They’re counterclockwise rotating storms that appear as white ovals in the gas giant’s southern hemisphere. The larger pearl in the photo above is roughly half the size of Earth. Since 1986, these white ovals have varied in number from six to nine with eight currently visible.

Four more 'pearls' in the string of eight photographed on Dec. 10, 2016. They show up well in photos but require good seeing and at least and 8-inch telescope to see. Credit: Christopher Go
Four more ‘pearls’ photographed on Dec. 10, 2016 in the planet’s South Temperate Belt below the Great Red Spot. The moon Ganymede is at left. The show up well in photos but require good seeing and at least and 8-inch telescope to see visually. Credit: Christopher Go

The photos were taken during Sunday’s close flyby. At the time of closest approach — called perijove — Juno streaked about 2,580 miles (4,150 km) above the gas giant’s roiling, psychedelic cloud tops traveling about 129,000 mph or nearly 60 km per second relative to the planet. Seven of Juno’s eight science instruments collected data during the flyby. At the time the photos were taken, the spacecraft was about 15,300 miles (24,600 km) from the planet.

This is the original image sent by JunoCam on Dec. 11 and shows the 8th of the eight oval or 'pearls'in Jupiter's roiling atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS
This is the original image sent by JunoCam on Dec. 11 and features the eighth in a string of large storms in the planet’s southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

JunoCam is a color, visible-light camera designed to capture remarkable pictures of Jupiter’s poles and cloud tops. As Juno’s eyes, it will provide a wide view, helping to provide context for the spacecraft’s other instruments. JunoCam was included on the spacecraft specifically for purposes of public engagement; although its images will be helpful to the science team, it is not considered one of the mission’s science instruments.

4-frame animation spans 24 Jovian days, or about 10 Earth days. The passage of time is accelerated by a factor of 600,000. Credit: NASA
4-frame animation spans 24 Jovian days, or about 10 Earth days. The passage of time is accelerated by a factor of 600,000. Some of the ovals are visible as well as a variety of jets – west to east and east to west. Credit: NASA

The crazy swirls of clouds we see in the photos are composed of ammonia ice crystals organized into a dozen or so bands parallel to the equator called belts (the darker ones) and zones. The border of each is bounded by a powerful wind flow called a jet, resembling Earth’s jet streams, which alternate direction from one band to the next.

Zones are colder and mark latitudes where material is upwelling from below. Ammonia ice is thought to give the zones their lighter color. Belts in contrast indicate sinking material; their color is a bit mysterious and may be due to the presence of hydrocarbons — molecules that are made from hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen as well as exotic sulfur and phosphorus compounds.

Use this guide to help you better understand Jupiter's arrangement of belts and zones, many of which are visible in amateur telescopes. Credit: NASA/JPL/Wikipedia
Use this guide to help you better understand Jupiter’s arrangement of belts and zones, many of which are visible in amateur telescopes. Credit: NASA/JPL/Wikipedia

The pearls or storms form in windy Jovian atmosphere and can last many decades. Some eventually dissipate while others merge to form even larger storms. Unlike hurricanes, which fall apart when they blow inland from the ocean, there’s no “land” on Jupiter, so storms that get started there just keep on going. The biggest, the Great Red Spot, has been hanging around causing trouble and delight (for telescopic observers) for at least 350 years.

Juno’s next perijove pass will happen on Feb. 2, 2017.

We Land on Mars in Just 2 days!


Watch how Schiaparelli will land on Mars. Touchdown will occur at 10:48 a.m. EDT (14:48 GMT) Wednesday Oct. 19.

Cross your fingers for good weather on the Red Planet on October 19. That’s the day the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander pops open its parachute, fires nine, liquid-fueled thrusters and descends to the surface of Mars. Assuming fair weather, the lander should settle down safely on the wide-open plains of Meridiani Planum near the Martian equator northwest of NASA’s Opportunity rover. The region is rich in hematite, an iron-rich mineral associated with hot springs here on Earth.

On 19 October 2016, the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module, known as Schiaparelli, will land on Mars in a region known as Meridiani Planum. The landing sites of the seven rovers and landers that have reached the surface of Mars and successfully operated there are indicated on this map. The background image is a shaded relief map of Mars, based on data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) instrument, on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.
On Wednesday, October 19, the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, will land on Mars in Meridiani Planum not far from the Opportunity rover. The map shows the seven rovers and landers that have reached the surface of Mars and successfully operated there. The background image is a shaded relief map of Mars created using data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.

The 8-foot-wide probe will be released three days earlier from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and coast toward Mars before entering its atmosphere at 13,000 mph (21,000 km/hr). During the 6-minute-long descent, Schiaparelli will decelerate gradually using the atmosphere to brake its speed, a technique called aerobraking. Not only is Meridiani Planum flat, it’s low, which means the atmosphere is thick enough to allow Schiaparelli’s heat shield to reduce its speed sufficiently so the chute can be safely deployed. The final firing of its thrusters will ensure a soft and controlled landing.

Artist's impression depicting the separation of the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter, and heading for Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist’s impression showing Schiaparelli separating from the Trace Gas Orbiter and heading for Mars. The lander is named for late 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who created a detailed telescopic map of Mars. The orbiter will sniff out potentially biological gases such as methane in Mars’ atmosphere and track its sources and seasonal variations. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

The lander is one-half of the ExoMars 2016 mission, a joint venture between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos. The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will fire its thrusters to place itself in orbit about the Red Planet the same day Schiparelli lands. Its job is to inventory the atmosphere in search of organic molecules, methane in particular. Plumes of methane, which may be biological or geological (or both) in origin, have recently been detected at several locations on Mars including Syrtis Major, the planet’s most prominent dark marking. The orbiter will hopefully pinpoint the source(s) as well as study seasonal changes in locations and concentrations.

This image, taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft, shows what appears to be a dust-covered frozen sea near the Martian equator. It shows a flat plain, part of the Elysium Planitia, that is covered with irregular blocky shapes. They look just like the rafts of fragmented sea ice that lie off the coast of Antarctica on Earth. Raised levels of methane were detected here by ESA's Mars Express orbiter. Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
This image, taken by ESA’s Express spacecraft, shows what appears to be a dust-covered frozen sea near the Martian equator. Located in Elysium Planitia, the flat plain is covered with irregular blocky shapes. They look just like the rafts of fragmented sea ice that lie off the coast of Antarctica on Earth. Raised levels of methane were detected here by ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Methane (CH4) has long been associated with life here on Earth. More than 90% of the colorless, odorless gas is produced by living organisms, primarily bacteria. Sunlight breaks methane down into other gases over a span of about 300 years. Because the gas relatively short-lived, seeing it on Mars implies an active, current source. There may be several:

  • Long-extinct bacteria that released methane that became trapped in ice or minerals in the upper crust. Changing temperature and pressure could stress the ice and release that ancient gas into today’s atmosphere.
  • Bacteria that are actively producing methane to this day.
  • Abiological sources. Iron can combine with oxygen in terrestrial hot springs and volcanoes to create methane. This gas can also become trapped in solid forms of water or ‘cages’ called clathrate hydrates that can preserve it for a long time. Olivine, a common mineral on Earth and Mars, can react with water under the right conditions to form another mineral called serpentine. When altered by heat, water and pressure, such in environments such as hydrothermal springs, serpentine can produce methane.

Will it turn out to be burping bacteria or mineral processes? Let’s hope TGO can point the way.

This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it: microbes (left) under the surface that release the gas into the atmosphere, weathering of rock (right) and stored methane ice called a clathrate. Ultraviolet light can work on surface materials to produce methane as well as break it apart into other molecules (formaldehyde and methanol) to produce carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan
This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it: microbes (left) under the surface that release the gas into the atmosphere, weathering of rock (right) and stored methane ice called a clathrate. Ultraviolet light can work on surface materials to produce methane as well as break it apart into other molecules (formaldehyde and methanol) to produce carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan

The Trace Gas Orbiter will also use the Martian atmosphere to slow its speed and trim its orbital loop into a 248-mile-high (400 km) circle suitable for science observations. But don’t expect much in the way of scientific results right away; aerobraking maneuvers will take about a year, so TGO’s job of teasing out atmospheric ingredients won’t begin until December 2017. The study runs for 5 years.

The orbiter will also examine Martian water vapor, nitrogen oxides and other organics with far greater accuracy than any previous probe as well as monitor seasonal changes in the atmosphere’s composition and temperature. And get this — its instruments can map subsurface hydrogen, a key ingredient in both water and methane, down to a depth of a meter (39.4 inches) with greater resolution compared to previous studies. Who knows? We may discover hidden ice deposits or methane sinks that could influence where future rovers will land. Additional missions to Mars are already on the docket, including ExoMars 2020. More about that in a minute.

Schiaparelli, the
This artist’s view shows Schiaparelli, the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, using its thrusters to make a soft landing on Mars on October 19 at 10:48 a.m. EDT (14:48 GMT). Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

While TGO’s mission will require years, the lander is expected to survive for only four Martian days (called ‘sols’) by using the excess energy capacity of its batteries. A set of scientific sensors will measure wind speed and direction, humidity, pressure and electric fields on the surface. A descent camera will take pictures of the landing site on the way down; we’ll should see those photos the very next day. Data and imagery from the lander will be transmitted to ESA’s Mars Express and a NASA Relay Orbiter, then relayed to Earth.


This animation shows the paths of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander on Oct. 19 when they arrive at Mars.

If you’re wondering why the lander’s mission is so brief, it’s because Schiaparelli is essentially a test vehicle. Its primary purpose is to test technologies for landing on Mars including the special materials used for protection against the heat of entry, a parachute system, a Doppler radar device for measuring altitude and liquid-fueled braking thrusters.

Martian dust storms can be cause for concern during any landing attempt. Since it’s now autumn in the planet’s northern hemisphere, a time when storms are common, there’s been some finger-nail biting of late. The good news is that storms of recent weeks have calmed and Mars has entered a welcome quiet spell.

To watch events unfold in real time, check out ESA’s live stream channel, Facebook page and Twitter updates. The announcement of the separation of the lander from the orbiter will be made around 11 a.m. Eastern Time (15:00 GMT) Sunday October 16.  Live coverage of the Trace Gas Orbiter arrival and Schiaparelli landing on Mars runs from 9-11:15 a.m. Eastern (13:00-15:15 GMT) on Wednesday October 19. Photos taken by Schiaparelli’s descent camera will be available starting at 4 a.m. Eastern (8:00 GMT) on October 20. More details here. We’ll also keep you updated on Universe Today.

The ExoMars 2016 mission will pave the way for a rover mission to the Red Planet in 2020. Credit: ESA
The ExoMars 2016 mission will pave the way for a rover mission to the Red Planet in 2020. Credit: ESA

Everything we learn during the current mission will be applied to planning and executing the next —  ExoMars 2020, slated to launch in 2020. That venture will send a rover to the surface to search and chemically test for signs of life, present or past.  It will collect samples with a drill at various depths and analyze the fines for bio-molecules. Getting down deep is important because the planet’s thin atmosphere lets through harsh UV light from the sun, sterilizing the surface.

Are you ready for adventure? See you on Mars (vicariously)!

The Lowdown on September’s Harvest Moon

The Full Moon of August 18, 2016 - the “Sturgeon Moon” - rising amid cloud over a wheatfield. This is a 5-exposure stack blended with luminosity masks, and shot with the Canon 60Da and 135mm telephoto.
The Full Moon of August 18, 2016 rises amid cloud over a wheat field. Friday night will see the rising of the annual Harvest Moon. Credit: Alan Dyer

It’s that wonderful time of year again when the Harvest Moon teeters on the horizon at sunset. You can watch the big orange globe rise on Friday (Sept. 16) from your home or favorite open vista just as soon as the Sun goes down. Despite being one of the most common sky events, a Full Moon rise still touches our hearts and minds every time. No matter how long I live, there will never be enough of them.

Friday night's Harvest Moon rises around sunset in the faint constellation Pisces the fish. Two fists above and left of the Moon, look for the four stars that outline the massive asterism of Pegasus the flying horse. Stellarium
Friday night’s Harvest Moon rises around sunset in the faint constellation Pisces the fish. Watch for it to come up almost due east around the time of sunset. Once the sky gets dark, look two fists above and left of the Moon for the four stars that outline the spacious asterism of Pegasus the flying horse. Stellarium

To see a moonrise, the most important information you need is the time the moon pops up for your city, which you’ll find by using this Moonrise and Moonset calculator. Once you know when our neighborly night light rises, pre-arrange a spot you can walk or drive to 10-15 minutes beforehand. The waiting is fun. Who will see it first? I’ll often expect to see the Moon at a certain point along the horizon then be surprised it’s over there.

A photographer finds just the right spot in Duluth along Lake Superior to photograph the Full Moon rise. The flattened shape of the Moon is caused by the layer of denser air closer to the horizon refracting or bending the bottom half of the Moon more strongly than the thinner air n
A photographer finds just the right spot in Duluth along Lake Superior to photograph a rising Full Moon. The flattened shape of the Moon is caused by the layer of denser air closer to the horizon refracting or bending the bottom half of the Moon more strongly than the thinner air along the top limb. In effect, refraction “lifts” the bottom half of the Moon upward into the top to give it a squashed appearance. Once the Moon rises high enough so we see it through much thinner (less dense) air, refraction becomes negligible and the Moon assumes its more familiar circular shape.  Credit: Bob King

Depending on how low to the horizon you can see, it’s possible, especially over water, to catch the first glimpse of lunar limb breaching the horizon. This still can be a tricky feat because the Moon is pale, and when it rises, shows little contrast against the still-bright sky. Since the Moon moves about one outstretched fist to the east (left in the northern hemisphere) each night, if you wait until one night after full phase, the Moon will rise in a much darker sky and appear in more dramatic contrast against the sky background.

As the Moon rises, we peer through hundreds of miles of the lower atmosphere, where the air is densest and dustiest. Aerosols scatter much of the blues and greens in moonlight away, leaving orange and red. Turbulence and varying air densities along the line of sight can create all manner of distortions of the lunar disk. This photo sequence showing an extraordinary moonset was taken from the shores of Garrison Lake in Port Orford, Oregon. The camera was facing west; looking across the lake, beyond the narrow foredune and out toward the Pacific Ocean. A very clear atmosphere enabled me to watch the Moon set all the way down to the horizon. The distortion that occurred as it descended was quite remarkable -- the Moon's shape was changing as fast as I could snap a picture.  Credit: Randy Scholten
This photo sequence showing an extraordinary moonset taken from the shores of Garrison Lake in Port Orford, Oregon. “The distortion that occurred as it descended was quite remarkable — the Moon’s shape was changing as fast as I could snap a picture,” said photographer Randy Scholten. As the Moon rises, we peer through hundreds of miles of the lower atmosphere, where the air is densest and dustiest. Aerosols scatter much of the blues and greens in moonlight away, leaving orange and red. Turbulence and varying air densities along the line of sight can create all manner of distortions of the lunar disk. Credit: Randy Scholten

Look closely at the rising Moon with both naked eye and binoculars and you might just see a bit of atmospheric sorcery at work. Refraction, illustrated the icy moonrise image above, is the big one. It creates the squashed Moon shape. But more subtle things are happening that depend on how turbulent or calm the air is along your line of sight to our satellite.

Clouds add their own beauty and mystery to the rising Moon. Credit: Bob King
Clouds add their own beauty and mystery to the rising Moon. Credit: Bob King

Rippling waves “sizzling” around the lunar circumference can be striking in binoculars though the effect is quite subtle with the naked eye. Much easier to see without any optical aid are the weird shapes the Moon can assume depending upon the state of the atmosphere. It can looked stretched out like a hot air balloon, choppy with a step-like outline around its bottom or top, square, split into two moons or even resemble a “mushroom cloud”.

If you make a point to watch moonrises regularly, you’ll become acquainted as much with Earth’s atmosphere as with the alien beauty of our sole satellite.

This Full Moon is special in at least two ways. First, it will undergo a penumbral eclipse for skywatchers across eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Observers there should watch a dusky gray shading over the upper or northern half of the Moon around the time of maximum eclipse. The link will take you to Dave Dickinson’s excellent article that appeared earlier here at Universe Today.

The angle of the moon’s path to the horizon makes all the difference in moonrise times. At full phase in spring, the path tilts steeply southward, delaying successive moonrises by over an hour. In September, the moon’s path is nearly parallel to the horizon with successive moonrises just 20+ minutes apart. Times are shown for the Duluth, Minn. region. Illustration: Bob King
The angle of the moon’s path to the horizon makes all the difference in moonrise times. At full phase in spring, the path tilts steeply southward, delaying successive moonrises by over an hour. In September, the moon’s path is nearly parallel to the horizon with successive moonrises just 20+ minutes apart. Times shown are for illustration only  — so you can see the dramatic different in rise times — and don’t refer necessarily to Friday night’s moonrise. Illustration: Bob King

In the northern hemisphere, September’s Full Moon is named the Harvest Moon, defined as the Full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox, which occurs at 9:21 a.m. CDT (14:21 UT) on the 22nd. Normally, the Moon rises on average about 50 minutes later each night as it moves eastward along its orbit. But at Harvest Moon, successive moonrises are separated by a half-hour or less as viewed from mid-northern latitudes. The short gap of time between between bright risings gave farmers in the days before electricity extra light to harvest their crops, hence the name.

Use your imagination and you can see any of several figures in the Full Moon composed of contrasting maria and highlands.
Use your imagination and you can see any of several figures in the Full Moon composed of contrasting maria and highlands.

Why the faster-than-usual moonrises? Every September, the Full Moon’s nightly travels occur at a shallow angle to the horizon; as the moon scoots eastward, it’s also moving northward this time of year as shown in the illustration above. The northern and eastward motions combine to make the Moon’s path nearly level to the horizon. For several nights in a row, it only takes a half-hour for the Earth’s rotation to carry the Moon up from below the horizon. In spring, the angle is steep because the Moon is then moving quickly southward along or near the ecliptic, the path it takes around the sky.  Rising times can exceed an hour.

As you gaze at the Moon over the next several nights, take in the contrast between its ancient crust, called the lunar highlands, and the darker seas (also known as maria, pronounced MAH-ree-uh). The crust appears white because it’s rich in calcium and aluminum, while the maria are slightly more recent basaltic lava flows rich in iron, which lends them a darker tone. Thanks to these two different types of terrain it’s easy to picture a male or female face or rabbit or anything your imagination desires.

Happy moongazing!