New Technique Finds Water in Exoplanet Atmospheres

As more and more exoplanets are identified and confirmed by various observational methods, the still-elusive “holy grail” is the discovery of a truly Earthlike world… one of the hallmarks of which is the presence of liquid water. And while it’s true that water has been identified in the thick atmospheres of “hot Jupiter” exoplanets before, a new technique has now been used to spot its spectral signature in yet another giant world outside our solar system — potentially paving the way for even more such discoveries.

Researchers from Caltech, Penn State University, the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of Arizona, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have teamed up in an NSF-funded project to develop a new way to identify the presence of water in exoplanet atmospheres.

Previous methods relied on specific instances such as when the exoplanets — at this point all “hot Jupiters,” gaseous planets that orbit closely to their host stars — were in the process of transiting their stars as viewed from Earth.

This, unfortunately, is not the case for many extrasolar planets… especially ones that were not (or will not be) discovered by the transiting method used by observatories like Kepler.

Watch: Kepler’s Universe: More Planets in Our Galaxy Than Stars

So the researchers turned to another method of detecting exoplanets: radial velocity, or RV. This technique uses visible light to watch the motion of a star for the ever-so-slight wobble created by the gravitational “tug” of an orbiting planet. Doppler shifts in the star’s light indicate motion one way or another, similar to how the Doppler effect raises and lowers the pitch of a car’s horn as it passes by.

The two Keck 10-meter domes atop Mauna Kea. (Rick Peterson/WMKO)
The two Keck 10-meter domes atop Mauna Kea. (Rick Peterson/WMKO)

But instead of using visible wavelengths, the team dove into the infrared spectrum and, using the Near Infrared Echelle Spectrograph (NIRSPEC) at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, determined the orbit of the relatively nearby hot Jupiter tau Boötis b… and in the process used its spectroscopy to identify water molecules in its sky.

“The information we get from the spectrograph is like listening to an orchestra performance; you hear all of the music together, but if you listen carefully, you can pick out a trumpet or a violin or a cello, and you know that those instruments are present,” said Alexandra Lockwood, graduate student at Caltech and first author of the study. “With the telescope, you see all of the light together, but the spectrograph allows you to pick out different pieces; like this wavelength of light means that there is sodium, or this one means that there’s water.”

Previous observations of tau Boötis b with the VLT in Chile had identified carbon monoxide as well as cooler high-altitude temperatures in its atmosphere.

Now, with this proven IR RV technique, the atmospheres of exoplanets that don’t happen to cross in front of their stars from our point of view can also be scrutinized for the presence of water, as well as other interesting compounds.

“We now are applying our effective new infrared technique to several other non-transiting planets orbiting stars near the Sun,” said Chad Bender, a research associate in the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and a co-author of the paper. “These planets are much closer to us than the nearest transiting planets, but largely have been ignored by astronomers because directly measuring their atmospheres with previously existing techniques was difficult or impossible.”

Once the next generation of high-powered telescopes are up and running — like the James Webb Space Telescope, slated to launch in 2018 — even smaller and more distant exoplanets can be observed with the IR method… perhaps helping to make the groundbreaking discovery of a planet like ours.

“While the current state of the technique cannot detect earthlike planets around stars like the Sun, with Keck it should soon be possible to study the atmospheres of the so-called ‘super-Earth’ planets being discovered around nearby low-mass stars, many of which do not transit,” said Caltech professor of cosmochemistry and planetary sciences Geoffrey Blake. “Future telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will enable us to examine much cooler planets that are more distant from their host stars and where liquid water is more likely to exist.”

The findings are described in a paper published in the February 24, 2014 online version of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Read more in this Caltech news article by Jessica Stoller-Conrad.

Sources: Caltech and EurekAlert press releases.

Deadly Monster Winter Storm Batters US Eastern Seaboard – More Snow and Ice on the Way!

This visible image of the winter storm over the U.S. south and East Coast was taken by NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite on Feb. 13 at 1455 UTC/9:45 a.m. EST. Snow covered ground can be seen over the Great Lakes region and Ohio Valley. Image Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project
Story updated[/caption]

A deadly monster storm is battering virtually the entire US Eastern seaboard today, Thursday, Feb. 13, as it moves from the Southeast to the Northeast and into the New England states, wreaking havoc and causing miserable weather conditions for over 100 million Americas.

This afternoon, NASA and NOAA published a new image taken by a GOES satellite that showed the extent of the clouds associated with the massive winter storm over the US East Coast – see above and below.

Blizzard, white out and slippery conditions have already caused more than 18 deaths.

The killer storm has brought relentless waves of snow, sleet and ice over the past two days covering a vast swath stretching from inland to coastal areas as it moved up from the southern to northern states.

More than a foot of snow has already fallen in many areas today stretching from the Mid-Atlantic into the entire Northeast region.

Several states have declared states of emergency.

This is the season’s 12th snow storm. In many Northeast localities, the accumulated snowfall totals are three times the normal average. As a result many municipalities are running out of road salt.

And to add insult to injury, much more icy snow is falling overnight into Friday on top of the massive existing mounds and piles of frozen ice and snow that’s accumulated over the past few weeks of subfreezing temperatures.

There are also predictions for patches of “thunder snow” — which is a snow storm mixed with thunder and lightning!

Full disk image of the winter storm over the U.S. south and East Coast was taken by NOAA's GOES-13 satellite on Feb. 13 at 1455 UTC/9:45 a.m. EST. Credit:  NASA/NOAA GOES Project
Full disk image of the winter storm over the U.S. south and East Coast was taken by NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite on Feb. 13 at 1455 UTC/9:45 a.m. EST. Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

Incredibly, another round of snow is forecast for Saturday.

Much of the I-95 corridor where I also live has been especially hard hit.

The image above was created from data captured by NOAA’s GOES-East satellite today, Feb. 13 at 1455 UTC/9:45 a.m. EST by a team from the NASA/NOAA’s GOES Project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“The clouds and fallen snow data from NOAA’s GOES-East satellite were overlaid on a true-color image of land and ocean created by data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer or MODIS instrument that flies aboard NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites,” said NASA in a statement.

An eight months pregnant 36 year old women was tragically killed in New York City accident today by a snowplow. Thank God the unborn baby was saved and delivered by cesarean section.

The storm has caused thousands of traffic accidents and several deaths.

Video Caption: This animation of NOAA’s GOES satellite data shows the progression of the major winter storm in the U.S. south from Feb. 10 at 1815 UTC/1:15 p.m. EST to Feb. 12 to 1845 UTC/1:45 p.m. EST. Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project, Dennis Chesters

Hundreds of thousands of customers have lost power due to fallen tree limbs on exposed power lines, mostly in the southeast. In recent days, hundreds of thousands of us here in the Northeast lost power after a severe ice storm.

Mountains of snow inundate the Northeast. Credit: Mark Usciak
Mountains of snow inundate the Northeast. Credit: Mark Usciak

Most of those affected were left with no heat in subfreezing temperatures. It’s definitely no fun when you can see you exhaled breath – indoors.

Many school districts were closed today. But not in NYC where the new Mayor Bill DeBlasio kept schools open, and faced a hail of criticism – including from NBC News weatherman Al Roker.

Over 6500 airplane flights have been cancelled, stranding over a half million people.

So after days of shoveling, even more is on tap for the morning. Be careful, pace yourself and don’t overdo it – as several people died from heart attacks digging out the heavy slushy mess


Here is this evenings forecast (Feb 13) from the National Weather Service (NWS):

STORM SUMMARY NUMBER 09 FOR SOUTHERN PLAINS TO EAST COAST WINTER STORM
NWS WEATHER PREDICTION CENTER COLLEGE PARK MD – – 1000 PM EST THU FEB 13 2014

…LOW PRESSURE CENTER HAS MOVED OFF THE NEW JERSEY COAST AND IS
RAPIDLY INTENSIFYING…HEAVY SNOW BANDS IMPACTING INTERIOR
NORTHEAST AND I 95 CORRIDOR…WINDS INCREASING ACROSS THE AFFECTED
REGION…

WINTER STORM WARNINGS AND WINTER WEATHER ADVISORIES ARE IN EFFECT
FOR THE NORTHERN MID ATLANTIC AND NORTHEAST….

FOR A DETAILED GRAPHICAL DEPICTION OF THE LATEST
WATCHES…WARNINGS AND ADVISORIES…PLEASE SEE WWW.WEATHER.GOV

AT 900 PM EST…THE MAIN CENTER OF A RAPIDLY INTENSIFYING LOW
PRESSURE SYSTEM WITH ESTIMATED CENTRAL PRESSURE OF 986 MB…29.12
INCHES…WAS LOCATED JUST EAST OF THE SOUTHERN NEW JERSEY COAST.
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR AND SURFACE OBSERVATIONS
INDICATED THAT OVER THE PAST FEW HOURS…A BAND OF HEAVY SNOW WAS
IMPACTING CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA ACROSS NORTHERN NEW ENGLAND TO
NORTHERN MAINE. MEANWHILE…ANOTHER BAND OF MODERATE TO HEAVY
SNOW WAS LOCATED ALONG THE I 95 CORRIDOR FROM WASHINGTON DC TO NEW YORK CITY. EAST OF I 95 THE PRECIPITATION TYPE IS MAINLY RAIN…BUT A CHANGEOVER BACK TO SNOW IS EXPECTED.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Recent ice and snow storms caused hundreds of thousands to lose power and heat in the Northeast. Credit: Ken Kremer
Recent ice and snow storms caused hundreds of thousands to lose power and heat in the Northeast in subfreezing temperatures. Credit: Ken Kremer
Mountains of snow inundate the Northeast. Credit: Mark Usciak
Mountains of snow inundate the Northeast. Credit: Mark Usciak

India’s MOM Mars Probe Images Earth’s Children Prior to Nail Biting Red Planet Insertion

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – MOM is looking at you, kid!

And if the spectacular new image of billions of Earth’s children captured by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is any indication (see above), then we can expect absolutely gorgeous scenes of the Red Planet once the groundbreaking probe arrives there in September 2014.

But despite all that’s been accomplished so far, the space drama is still in its infant stages – because MOM still needs to ignite her thrusters this weekend in order to achieve escape velocity, wave good bye to Earth forever and eventually say hello to Mars!

The picture – snapped from Earth orbit – is focused on the Indian subcontinent, the probes origin.

MOM has captured the imagination of space enthusiasts worldwide.

And she’s the pride of all India – as the country’s first ever interplanetary space mission.

During testing of the MOM probes payloads – while it’s still flying in a highly elliptical orbit around our Home Planet – engineers from India’s space agency turned the crafts camera homewards to capture the “First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera,” according to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

The beautiful image was taken on Nov. 20 at around 1350 hrs (IST) from a height of almost 70,000 km above earth and has a spatial resolution of 3.5 km, said ISRO.

The image also gives a rather good approximation of what MOM’s color camera will actually see from apoapsis after reaching the Red Planet since the probe will enter a similarly highly elliptical orbit around Mars – ranging in altitude from 366 kilometers (km) x 80,000 kilometers (km).

MOM has just passed by its penultimate perigee.  With this, the final orbit of MOM around Earth begins! Credit: ISRO
MOM has just passed by its penultimate perigee. With this, the final orbit of MOM around Earth begins! Credit: ISRO

Following a 10 month interplanetary cruise, MOM is due to arrive in the vicinity of Mars on September 24, 2014 to study the Red Planets’ atmosphere.

At that time, the 440 Newton liquid fueled main engine must fire precisely as planned during the absolutely essential Mars orbital insertion burn to place the probe into orbit about Mars.

But before MOM can accomplish anything at Mars, she must first successfully fire her main engine – to complete the crucial departure from Earth and Trans Mars Insertion (TMI) scheduled for this Saturday!

MOM’s picture perfect Nov. 5 liftoff atop India’s highly reliable four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C25 from the ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota, precisely injected the spacecraft into an initial elliptical Earth parking orbit of 247 x 23556 kilometers with an inclination of 19.2 degrees.

Since then the engine has fired 6 times to gradually raise the spacecrafts apogee.

The most recent orbit raising maneuver occurred at 01:27 hrs (IST) on Nov 16, 2013 with a burn time of 243.5 seconds increased the apogee from 118,642 km to 192,874 km.

The nail-biting final main engine burn of 1351 seconds is set for this weekend on Dec. 1. It will place MOM on a precise interplanetary trajectory to the Red Planet.

Graphic of MOM approaching its penultimate perigee pass on Nov 26. Credit: ISRO
Graphic of MOM approaching its penultimate perigee pass on Nov 26. Credit: ISRO

If all continues to goes well, India will join an elite club of only four who have launched probes that successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

The low cost $69 Million MOM mission is the first of two new Mars orbiter science probes from Earth that flawlessly blasted off for the Red Planet this November.

Half a world away, NASA’s $671 Million MAVEN orbiter launched as scheduled on Nov. 18 – from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Both MAVEN and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere, unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state of today.

The MAVEN and MOM science teams will “work together” to unlock the secrets of Mars atmosphere and climate history, MAVEN’s top scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky told Universe Today.

Clouds on the ground !  The sky seems inverted for a moment ! Blastoff of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) on Nov. 5, 2013 from the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota. Credit: ISRO
Clouds on the ground ! The sky seems inverted for a moment ! Blastoff of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) on Nov. 5, 2013 from the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota. Credit: ISRO

Stay tuned here for continuing MOM and MAVEN news and Ken’s MAVEN and SpaceX Falcon 9 launch reports from on site at the Kennedy Space Center press center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about MOM, MAVEN, Mars rovers, SpaceX, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Nov 28: “SpaceX launch, MAVEN & MOM Mars Launches and Curiosity Explores Mars, Orion and NASA’s Future”, Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN, MOM and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM

NASA’s LADEE Probe Starts Science Study of Thin Lunar Atmosphere and Dusty Mystery

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) has descended to its planned low altitude orbit and begun capturing science data on its ground breaking mission to study the Moon’s ultra tenuous atmosphere and dust using a spacecraft based on a revolutionary new design aimed at speeding development and cutting costs.

LADEE set sail for Earth’s nearest neighbor during a spectacular night time launch atop the maiden flight of an Air Force Minotaur V rocket on Sept. 6 from NASA’s Wallops Island launch facility on Virginia’s Eastern shore.

The flawless launch thrilled spectators up and down virtually the entire US East coast region and yielded many memorable snapshots.

Following a month long voyage and three and a half long looping orbits of the Earth, LADEE successfully fired its main engine for 4 minutes and 12 seconds on Oct. 6 and successfully entered lunar orbit, Dawn McIntosh, LADEE deputy project manager at NASA Ames Research Center, told Universe Today in an exclusive interview.

A series of engine firings over the past month gradually circularized and lowered LADEE into its final science orbit around our Moon while engineers checked out the spacecraft during the commissioning phase of the mission.

The do or die initial Lunar Orbit Insertion burn (LOI-1) allowed LADEE to be captured into a highly elliptical, equatorial lunar orbit, said McIntosh.

Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Two additional LOI burns on Oct. 6 and Oct 9 lowered LADEE to an approximately 4 hour orbit with a periapsis altitude of 234 Kilometers (km) and apoapsis altitude of 250 km” McIntosh told me.

The trio of LOI main engine firings used up most of LADEE’s precious on board fuel.

“LADEE launched with 134.5 kilograms (kg) of fuel. Post LOI-3, 80% of our fuel has been consumed,” said McIntosh.

“Additional orbit-lowering maneuvers with the orbital control system (OCS) and reaction control system (RCS) of approximately 40 seconds were used to get LADEE into the science orbit.

The spacecraft finally entered its planned two hour science orbit around the moon’s equator on Nov. 20.

Its flying at an extremely low altitude ranging from merely eight to 37 miles (12-60 kilometers) above the moon’s surface.

By circling in this very low altitude equatorial orbit, the washing machine sized probe will make frequent passes crossing from lunar day to lunar night enabling it to precisely measure changes and processes occurring within the moon’s tenuous atmosphere while simultaneously sniffing for uplifted lunar dust in the lunar sky.

The remaining fuel will be used to maintain LADEE’s orbit during the approximately 100 day long science mission. The mission length is dictated by the residual fuel available for thruster firings.

LADEE Science Instrument locations
LADEE Science Instrument locations

The purpose of LADEE is to collect data that will inform scientists in unprecedented detail about the ultra thin lunar atmosphere, environmental influences on lunar dust and conditions near the surface. In turn this will lead to a better understanding of other planetary bodies in our solar system and beyond.

“A thorough understanding of the characteristics of our lunar neighbor will help researchers understand other small bodies in the solar system, such as asteroids, Mercury, and the moons of outer planets,” said Sarah Noble, LADEE program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

By studying the raised dust, scientists also hope to solve a 40 year old mystery – Why did the Apollo astronauts and early unmanned landers see a glow of rays and streamers at the moon’s horizon stretching high into the lunar sky.

The $280 million probe is built on a revolutionary ‘modular common spacecraft bus’, or body, that could dramatically cut the cost of exploring space and also be utilized on space probes to explore a wide variety of inviting targets in the solar system.

“LADEE is the first in a new class of interplanetary exploration missions,” NASA Ames Director Worden told Universe Today. “It will study the pristine moon to study significant questions.”

“This is probably our last best chance to study the pristine Moon before there is a lot of human activity there changing things.”

LADEE_Poster_01

The 844 pound (383 kg) robot explorer was assembled at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and is a cooperative project with NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland.

LADEE arrived at the Moon last month in the midst of the US government shutdown – which negatively impacted a host of other NASA missions. Only a ‘skeleton crew’ was available.

“All burns went super well,” Worden told me. And he is extremely proud of the entire team of “dedicated” professional men and women who made it possible during the shutdown.

“It says a lot about our people’s dedication and capability when a skeleton crew’ can get a new spacecraft into lunar orbit and fully commissioned in the face of a shutdown!” Worden said to Universe Today.

Now the real science begins for LADEE and the team.

Stay tuned here for continuing LADEE news

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Nov 22-25: “SpaceX launch, MAVEN Mars Launch and Curiosity Explores Mars, Orion and NASA’s Future”, Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM

Super-Typhoon Haiyan Causes Catastrophic Death & Destruction – Space Images from NASA, ISRO, Roscosmos & ISS

Super Typhoon Haiyan over the Philippines on November 9, 2013 as imaged from Earth orbit by NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg aboard the International Space Station.Category 5 killer storm Haiyan stretches across the entire photo from about 250 miles (400 kilometer) altitude. Credit: NASA/Karen Nyberg
See more Super Typhoon Haiyan imagery and video below
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NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MARYLAND – Super Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the island nation of the Philippines, Friday, Nov. 8, with maximum sustained winds estimated at exceeding 195 MPH (315 kilometer per hour) by the U.S. Navy Joint Typhoon Warning Center – leaving an enormous region of catastrophic death and destruction in its terrible wake.

The Red Cross estimates over 1200 deaths so far. The final toll could be significantly higher. Local media reports today say bodies of men, women and children are now washing on shore.

The enormous scale of Super Typhoon Haiyan can be vividly seen in space imagery captured by NASA, ISRO and Russian satellites – as well as astronaut Karen Nyberg flying overhead on board the International Space Station (ISS); collected here.

As Super-Typhoon Haiyan moved over the central Philippines on Nov. 8 at 05:10 UTC/12:10 a.m. EDT, the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's Aqua satellite captured this visible image.   Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team
As Super-Typhoon Haiyan moved over the central Philippines on Nov. 8 at 05:10 UTC/12:10 a.m. EDT, the MODIS instrument aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this visible image. Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

Super Typhoon Haiyan is reported to be the largest and most powerful storm ever to make landfall in recorded human history.

Haiyan is classified as a Category 5 monster storm on the U.S. Saffir-Simpson scale.

It struck the central Philippines municipality of Guiuan at the southern tip of the province of Eastern Samar early Friday morning Nov. 8 at 20:45 UTC (4:45 am local time).

As Haiyan hit the central Philippines, NASA says wind gusts exceeded 235 mph (379 kilometers per hour).

The high resolution imagery and precise measurements provided by the worlds constellation of Earth observing space satellites (including NASA, Roscosmos, ISRO, ESA, JAXA) are absolutely essential to tracking killer storms and providing significant advance warning to evacuate residents in affected areas to help minimize the death toll and damage.

More than 800,000 people were evacuated. The storm surge caused waves exceeding 30 feet (10 meters), mudslides and flash flooding.

NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite captured visible, microwave and infrared data on the storm just as it was crossing the island of Leyte in the central Philippines, reports NASA – see image below.

NASA's TRMM satellite data on Nov. 8 at 00:19 UTC showed Haiyan had a well-defined eye surrounded by a symmetric area of moderate rain (green ring with a blue center) with several rainbands wrapping in from the south (green arcs) while crossing the island of Leyte in the central Philippines.  Credit:  NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce
NASA’s TRMM satellite data on Nov. 8 at 00:19 UTC showed Haiyan had a well-defined eye surrounded by a symmetric area of moderate rain (green ring with a blue center) with several rainbands wrapping in from the south (green arcs) while crossing the island of Leyte in the central Philippines. Credit: NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce

TRMM data from rain rates are measured by the TRMM Precipitation Radar (PR) and TRMM Microwave Imager (TMI) and combined with infrared (IR) data from the TRMM Visible Infrared Scanner (VIRS) by science teams working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Coincidentally NASA Goddard has just completed assembly of the next generation weather satellite Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory that replaces TRMM – and where I inspected the GPM satellite inside the Goddard clean room on Friday.

“GPM is a direct follow-up to NASA’s currently orbiting TRMM satellite,” Art Azarbarzin, GPM project manager, told Universe Today during my exclusive clean room inspection of the huge GPM satellite.

NASA’s next generation Global Precipation Managemnet Measurement (GPM) observatory inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. GPM is slated to launch In February 2014 and will provide global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours - as a direct follow-up to NASA’s currently orbiting TRMM satellite; reaching the end of its usable lifetime. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s next generation Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. GPM is slated to launch In February 2014 and will provide global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours – as a direct follow-up to NASA’s currently orbiting TRMM satellite; reaching the end of its usable lifetime.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“TRMM is reaching the end of its usable lifetime. GPM launches in February 2014 and we hope it has some overlap with observations from TRMM.”

“The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory will provide high resolution global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours,” Dalia Kirschbaum, GPM research scientist, told me at Goddard.

GPM is equipped with advanced, higher resolution radar instruments. It is vital to continuing the TRMM measurements and will help provide improved forecasts and advance warning of extreme super storms like Hurricane Sandy and Super Typhoon Haiyan, Azarbarzin and Kirschbaum explained.

Video Caption: Super Typhoon Haiyan imaged on Nov 6 – 8, 2013 by the Russian Elektro-L satellite operating in geostationary orbit. Credit: Roscosmos via Vitaliy Egorov

The full magnitude of Haiyan’s destruction is just starting to be assessed as rescue teams reach the devastated areas where winds wantonly ripped apart homes, farms, factories, buildings and structures of every imaginable type vital to everyday human existence.

Typhoon Haiyan is moving westward and is expected to forcefully strike central Vietnam in a day or two. Mass evacuations are underway at this time

Ken Kremer

SuperTyphoon Haiyan imaged by the Russian Elektro-L satellite operating in geostationary orbit. Credit: Roscosmos via Vitaliy Egorov
Super Typhoon Haiyan imaged by the Russian Elektro-L satellite operating in geostationary orbit. Credit: Roscosmos via Vitaliy Egorov
Super Typhoon Haiyan's ocean surface winds were measured by the OSCAT radar scatterometer on the Indian Space Research Organization's (ISRO) OceanSAT-2 satellite at 5:30 p.m. PST on Nov. 6. The colors indicate wind speed and arrows indicate wind direction. Credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech
Super Typhoon Haiyan’s ocean surface winds were measured by the OSCAT radar scatterometer on the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) OceanSAT-2 satellite at 5:30 p.m. PST on Nov. 6. The colors indicate wind speed and arrows indicate wind direction. Credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Juno Careening to Earth for Critical Flyby Boost and Cool Movie Making on Oct. 9 – Watch SLOOH Live

Trajectory Map of Juno’s Earth Flyby on Oct. 9, 2013
The Earth gravity assist is required to accelerate Juno’s arrival at Jupiter on July 4, 2016 and will capture an unprecedented movie of the Earth/Moon system. Credit: NASA/JPL
Details on how to watch via Slooh – see below [/caption]

NASA’s solar powered Jupiter-bound Juno orbiter is careening towards Earth for an absolutely critical gravity assisted fly by speed boost while capturing an unprecedented movie view of the Earth/Moon system – on its ultimate quest to unveiling Jupiter’s genesis!

“Juno will flyby Earth on October 9 to get a gravity boost and increase its speed in orbit around the Sun so that it can reach Jupiter on July 4, 2016,” Juno chief scientist Dr. Scott Bolton told Universe Today in an exclusive new Juno mission update – as the clock is ticking to zero hour. “The closest approach is over South Africa.”

All this ‘high frontier’ action comes amidst the utterly chaotic US government partial shutdown, that threatened the launch of the MAVEN Mars orbiter, has halted activity on many other NASA projects and stopped public announcements of the safe arrival of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Oct. 6, Juno’s flyby and virtually everything else related to NASA!

Bolton confirmed that the shutdown fortunately hasn’t altered or killed Juno’s flyby objectives. And ops teams at prime contractor Lockheed Martin have rehearsed and all set.

And some more good news is that Slooh will track the Juno Earth Flyby “LIVE” – for those hoping to follow along. Complete details below!

“The shutdown hasn’t affected our operations or plans, Bolton told me. Bolton is Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio, Texas.

“Juno is 100% healthy.”

“But NASA is unable to participate in our public affairs and press activities,” Bolton elaborated.

NASA’s Juno Jupiter-bound space probe will fly by Earth for essential speed boost on Oct 9, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Juno Jupiter-bound space probe will fly by Earth for essential speed boost on Oct 9, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL

97% of NASA’s employees are furloughed – including public affairs – due to the legal requirements of the shutdown!

Credit: NASA/JPL
Credit: NASA/JPL
Juno will also capture an unprecedented new movie of the Earth/Moon system.

A full up science investigation of our Home Planet by Juno is planned, that will also serve as a key test of the spacecraft and its bevy of state of the art instruments.

“During the earth flyby we have most of our instruments on and will obtain a unique movie of the Earth Moon system on our approach.

“We will also calibrate instuments and measure earth’s magnetosphere, obtain closeup images of the Earth and the Moon in UV [ultraviolet] and IR [infrared],” Bolton explained to Universe Today.

The flyby will accelerate the spacecraft’s velocity by 16,330 mph.

Where is the best view of Juno’s flyby, I asked?

“The closest approach is over South Africa and is about 500 kilometers [350 miles],” Bolton replied.

The time of closest approach is 3:21 p.m. EDT (12:21 PDT / 19:21 UTC) on Oct. 9, 2013

Watch this mission produced video about Juno and the Earth flyby:

Video caption: On Oct. 9, 2013, NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft is making a quick pass to get a gravity boost from the mother planet. Dr. Scott Bolton of Southwest Research Institute® is the Juno mission principal investigator, leading an international science team seeking to answer some fundamental questions about the gas giant and, in turn, about the processes that led to formation of our solar system.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft blasted off atop an Atlas V rocket two years ago from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Aug. 5, 2011 to begin a 2.8 billion kilometer science trek to discover the genesis of Jupiter hidden deep inside the planet’s interior.

Juno is on a 5 year and 1.7 Billion mile (2.8 Billion km) trek to the largest planet in our solar system. When it arrives at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, Juno will become the first polar orbiting spacecraft at the gas giant.

Juno’s flight track above Earth during Oct. 9, 2013 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL
Juno’s flight track above Earth during Oct. 9, 2013 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL

During a one year science mission – entailing 33 orbits lasting 11 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 3000 miles of the turbulent cloud tops and collect unprecedented new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s genesis and evolution.

The goal is to find out more about the planets origins, interior structure and atmosphere, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and investigate the existence of a solid planetary core

Why does Juno need a speed boost from Earth?

“A direct mission to Jupiter would have required about 50 percent more fuel than we loaded,” said Tim Gasparrini, Juno program manager for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in a statement.

“Had we not chosen to do the flyby, the mission would have required a bigger launch vehicle, a larger spacecraft and would have been more expensive.”

Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Viewers near Cape Town, South Africa will have the best opportunity to view the spacecraft traveling across the sky.

Juno itself will most likely not be visible to the unaided eye, but binoculars or a small telescope with a wide field should provide an opportunity to view, according to a Slooh statement.

Slooh will track Juno live on October 9th, 2013.

Check here for international starting times: http://goo.gl/7ducFs – and for the Slooh broadcast hosted by Paul Cox.

Viewers can view the event live on Slooh.com using their computer or mobile device, or by downloading the free Slooh iPad app in the iTunes store. Questions can be asked during the broadcast via Twitter by using the hashtag #nasajuno -says Slooh.

Amidst the government shutdown, Juno prime contractor Lockheed Martin is working diligently to ensure the mission success.

Because there are NO 2nd chances!

“The team is 100 percent focused on executing the Earth flyby successfully,” said Gasparrini.

“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at possible off-nominal conditions. In the presence of a fault, the spacecraft will stay healthy and will perform as planned.”

Stay tuned here for continuing Juno, LADEE, MAVEN and more up-to-date NASA news.

And be sure to check back here for my post-flyby update.

What’s not at all clear is whether Juno will detect any signs of ‘intelligent life’ in Washington D.C.!

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Juno, LADEE, MAVEN, Curiosity, Mars rovers, Cygnus, Antares, SpaceX, Orion, the Gov’t shutdown and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Oct 8: “NASA’s Historic LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”& “Curiosity, MAVEN, Juno and Orion updates”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Curiosity Rover Finds No Methane On Mars. What’s Happening?

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover can’t find any sign of methane on the red planet, but the agency emphasized that methane would be only one indicator of possible life. There could be others.

“It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes, but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism,” stated Michael Meyer, NASA’s lead scientist for Mars exploration. “As we know, there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don’t generate methane.”

Curiosity (which can look for habitable conditions, but not life itself) sniffed the atmosphere six times for methane between October 2012 and June 2013. It didn’t see any sign of the molecule, which has been detected in other parts of Mars. The instrument being used, the tunable laser spectrometer, would be able to detect minute concentrations. Scientists today estimate methane on Mars must be 1.3 parts per billion at the most, which is only one-sixth as much as earlier estimates.

The results are intriguing given that other teams have spotted methane on Mars as far back as 1999. The Mars Global Surveyor, which was working for more than 10 years, charted the evolution of Martian methane over three years, for example. NASA Earth-bound observations using spectroscopic measurements reported even greater amounts in the Martian atmosphere in 2009, based on observations in 2003 and 2006.

This image shows concentrations of Methane discovered on Mars in 2009, from an Earth-based observatory. Credit: NASA
This image shows concentrations of Methane reported on Mars in 2009, from an Earth-based observatory. Credit: NASA

On Thursday, NASA pointed out that reports of the highest concentrations of Mars methane came from Earth-based observatories, which seems to imply that they think peering through Earth’s atmosphere may have distorted the measurements. Some Earthly measurements indicated local regions with methane as high as 45 parts per billion.

“There’s no known way for methane to disappear quickly from the atmosphere,” stated Sushil Atreya, a professor of atmospheric and space science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

“Methane is persistent. It would last for hundreds of years in the Martian atmosphere. Without a way to take it out of the atmosphere quicker, our measurements indicate there cannot be much methane being put into the atmosphere by any mechanism, whether biology, geology, or by ultraviolet degradation of organics delivered by the fall of meteorites or interplanetary dust particles.”

Researchers estimate only 10 to 20 tons per year of methane enter the atmosphere of Mars, which is 50 million times less than what occurs on Earth. You can read more details in the paper in Science Express.

What do you think is happening? Leave your ideas in the comments.

Source: NASA

The September Equinox: ‘Tis the Season to Spy the Zodiacal Light

This week leading up to the September equinox offers you a fine chance to catch an elusive phenomenon in the pre-dawn sky.

We’re talking about the zodiacal light, the ghostly pyramid-shaped luminescence that heralds the approach of dawn. Zodiacal light can also be seen in the post-dusk sky, extending from the western horizon along the ecliptic.

September is a great time for northern hemisphere observers to try and sight this glow in the early dawn. This is because the ecliptic is currently at a high and favorable angle, pitching the zodiacal band out of the atmospheric murk low to the horizon. For southern hemisphere observers, September provides the best time to hunt for the zodiacal light after dusk. In March, the situation is reversed, with dusk being the best for northern hemisphere observers and dawn providing the best opportunity to catch this elusive phenomenon for southern observers.

The clash of the zodiacal light and the plane of our galaxy. (Credit: Cory Schmitz, used with permission).
The clash of the zodiacal light and the plane of our galaxy. (Credit: Cory Schmitz, used with permission).

Cory Schmitz’s recent outstanding photos taken from the Nevada desert brought to mind just how ephemeral a glimpse of the zodiacal light can be. The glow was a frequent sight for us from dark sky sites just outside of Tucson, Arizona—but a rarity now that we reside on the light-polluted east coast of the U.S.

In order to see the zodiacal light, you’ll need to start watching before astronomical twilight—the start of which is defined as when the rising Sun reaches 18 degrees below the local horizon—and observe from as dark a site as possible under a moonless sky.

The Bortle dark sky scale lists the zodiacal light as glimpse-able under Class 4 suburban-to-rural transition skies. Under a Class 3 rural sky, the zodiacal light may extend up to 60 degrees above the horizon, and under truly dark—and these days, almost mythical—Class 1 and 2 skies, the true nature of the zodiacal band extending across the ecliptic can become apparent.  The appearance and extent of the zodiacal light makes a great gauge of the sky conditions at that favorite secret dark sky site.

The source of the zodiacal light is tiny dust particles about 10 to 300 micrometres in size scattered across the plane of the solar system. The source of the material has long been debated, with the usual suspects cited as micrometeoroid collisions and cometary dust. A 2010 paper by Peter Jenniskens and David Nesvorny in the Astrophysical Journal cites the fragmentation of Jupiter-class comets. Their model satisfactorily explains the source of about 85% of the material. Dust in the zodiacal cloud must be periodically replenished, as the material is slowly spiraling inward via what is known as the Poynting-Robertson effect. None other than Brian May of the rock group Queen wrote his PhD thesis on Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.

But even if you can’t see the zodiacal light, you still just might be able to catch it. Photographing the zodiacal light is similar to catching the band of the Milky Way. In fact, you can see the two crossing paths in Cory’s images, as the bright winter lanes of the Orion Spur are visible piercing the constellation of the same name. Cory used a 14mm lens at f/3.2 for the darker image with a 20 second exposure at ISO 6400 and a 24mm lens at f/2.8 with a 15 second exposure at ISO 3200 for the brighter shot.

The orientation of the ecliptic & the zodiacal band as seen from latitude 30 deg north in September, about 1 hour before sunrise. (Created by the author in Stellarium).
The orientation of the ecliptic & the zodiacal band as seen from latitude 30 deg north in September, about 1 hour before sunrise. (Created by the author in Stellarium).

Under a truly dark site, the zodiacal light can compete with the Milky Way in brightness. The early Arab astronomers referred to it as the false dawn. In recent times, we’ve heard tales of urbanites mistaking the Milky Way for the glow of a fire on the horizon during blackouts, and we wouldn’t be surprised if the zodiacal light could evoke the same. We’ve often heard our friends who’ve deployed to Afghanistan remark how truly dark the skies are there, as military bases must often operate with night vision goggles in total darkness to avoid drawing sniper fire.

Another even tougher but related phenomenon to spot is known as the gegenschein. This counter glow sits at the anti-sunward point where said particles are approaching 100% illumination. This time of year, this point lies off in the constellation Pisces, well away from the star-cluttered galactic plane. OK, we’ve never seen it, either. A quick search of the web reveals more blurry pics of guys in ape suits purporting to be Bigfoot than good pictures of the gegenschein. Spotting this elusive glow is the hallmark of truly dark skies. The anti-sunward point and the gegenschein rides highest near local midnight.

And speaking of which, the September equinox occurs this weekend on the 22nd at 4:44 PM EDT/20:44 Universal Time. This marks the beginning of Fall for the northern hemisphere and the start of summer for the southern.

The Full Harvest Moon also occurs later this week, being the closest Full Moon to the equinox occurring on September 19th at 7:13AM EDT/11:13 UT. Said Moon will rise only ~30 minutes apart on successive evenings for mid-northern latitude observers, owing to the shallow angle of the ecliptic. Unfortunately, the Moon will then move into the morning sky, drowning out those attempts to spy the zodiacal light until late September.

Be sure to get out there on these coming mornings and check out the zodiacal light, and send in those pics in to Universe Today!

Earth’s Highest Clouds Shine at the “Top of the Orbit”

Looking for a new desktop background? This might do nicely: a photo of noctilucent “night-shining” clouds seen above a midnight Sun over Alaska, taken from the ISS as it passed over the Aleutian Islands just after midnight local time on Sunday, August 4.

When this photo was taken Space Station was at the “top of the orbit” — 51.6 ºN, the northernmost latitude that it reaches during its travels around the planet.

According to the NASA Earth Observatory site, “some astronauts say these wispy, iridescent clouds are the most beautiful phenomena they see from orbit.” So just what are they? Read on…

Found about 83 km (51 miles) up, noctilucent clouds (also called polar mesospheric clouds, or PMCs) are the highest cloud formations in Earth’s atmosphere. They form when there is just enough water vapor present to freeze into ice crystals. The icy clouds are illuminated by the Sun when it’s just below the horizon, after darkness has fallen or just before sunrise, giving them their eponymous property.

NLCs seen in the southern hemisphere in Jan. 2010 (NASA)
NLCs seen in the southern hemisphere in Jan. 2010 (NASA)

Noctilucent clouds have also been associated with rocket launches, space shuttle re-entries, and meteoroids, due to the added injection of water vapor and upper-atmospheric disturbances associated with each. Also, for some reason this year the clouds appeared a week early.

Read more: Noctilucent Clouds — Electric Blue Visitors from the Twilight Zone

Some data suggest that these clouds are becoming brighter and appearing at lower latitudes, perhaps as an effect of global warming putting more greenhouse gases like methane into the atmosphere.

“When methane makes its way into the upper atmosphere, it is oxidized by a complex series of reactions to form water vapor,” said James Russell, the principal investigator of NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) project and a professor at Hampton University. “This extra water vapor is then available to grow ice crystals for NLCs.”

A comparison of noctilucent cloud formation from 2012 and 2013 has been compiled using data from the AIM spacecraft. You can see the sequence here.

And for an incredible motion sequence of noctilucent clouds — taken from down on the ground — check out the time-lapse video below by Maciej Winiarczyk, coincidentally made at around the same time as the ISS photo above:

(The video was featured as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) for August 19, 2013.)

Source: NASA Earth Observatory