Herschel Space Telescope Closes Its Eyes on the Universe

Sadly – though as expected – the most powerful far-infrared orbital telescope put in orbit has ended mission. The Herschel space observatory has now run out of liquid helium coolant, ending more than three years of pioneering observations of the cool Universe.

The spacecraft needs to be at temperatures as low as 0.3 Kelvin, or minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit to make its observations, and mission scientists and engineers knew since Herschel’s launch on May 14, 2009 that the 2,300 liters of liquid helium would slowly evaporate away.

The Herschel team sent out a notice that the helium was finally exhausted today, noted at the beginning of the spacecraft’s daily communication session with its ground station in Western Australia. The data showed a clear rise in temperatures measured in all of Herschel’s instruments.

“Herschel has exceeded all expectations, providing us with an incredible treasure trove of data that that will keep astronomers busy for many years to come,” said Alvaro Giménez Cañete, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

The Herschel telescope will be parked indefinitely in a heliocentric orbit, as a way of “disposing” of the spacecraft. It should be stable for 100s of years, but perhaps scientists will figure out another use for it in the future. One original idea for disposing of the spacecraft was to have it impact the Moon, a la the LCROSS mission that slammed into the Moon in 2009, and it would kick up volatiles at one of the lunar poles for observation by another spacecraft, such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. But that idea has been nixed in favor of parking Herschel in a heliocentric orbit.

What has Herschel done in its three years of observations? It has made over 35,000 scientific observations, amassing more than 25,000 hours’ worth of science data from about 600 different observing programs. A further 2,000 hours of calibration observations also contribute to the rich dataset, which is based at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre, near Madrid in Spain.

But there will be more news the future from Herschel’s observations, as scientists comb through the data. The Herschel team said today that the telescope’s data is expected to provide even more discoveries than have been made during the lifetime of the Herschel mission.

“Herschel’s ground-breaking scientific haul is in no little part down to the excellent work done by European industry, institutions and academia in developing, building and operating the observatory and its instruments,” saids Thomas Passvogel, ESA’s Herschel Program Manager.

“Herschel has offered us a new view of the hitherto hidden Universe, pointing us to a previously unseen process of star birth and galaxy formation, and allowing us to trace water through the Universe from molecular clouds to newborn stars and their planet-forming discs and belts of comets,” said Göran Pilbratt, ESA’s Herschel Project Scientist.

Source: ESA

Historic Comet Smashup Brought Water to Jupiter’s Stratosphere

A large comet that peppered Jupiter two decades ago brought water into the giant planet’s atmosphere, according to new research from the Herschel space observatory.

Shoemaker-Levy 9 astounded astronomers worldwide when its 21 fragments hit Jupiter in June 1994. The event was predicted and observatories were trained on Jupiter as the impact occurred. The dark splotches the comet left behind were even visible in small telescopes. But apparently, those weren’t the only effects of the collision.

Herschel’s infrared camera revealed there is two to three times more water in the southern hemisphere of the planet, where the comet slammed into the atmosphere, than in the northern hemisphere. Further, the water is concentrated in high altitudes, around the various sites where Shoemaker-Levy 9 left its mark.

It is possible, researchers acknowledged, that water could have come from interplanetary dust striking Jupiter, almost like a “steady rain.” If this were the case, however, scientists expect the water would be evenly distributed and also would have filtered to lower altitudes. Jupiter’s icy moons were also in the wrong locations, researchers said, to have sent water towards the massive planet.

Internal water rising up was ruled out because it cannot penetrate the “cold trap” between Jupiter’s stratosphere and cloud deck, the researchers added.

“According to our models, as much as 95 percent of the water in the stratosphere is due to the comet impact,” said  Thibault Cavalié of the Astrophysical Laboratory of Bordeaux, in France, who led the research.

Eight impact sites from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 are visible in this 1994 image. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope
Eight impact sites from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 are visible in this 1994 image. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

While researchers have suspected for years that Jupiter’s water came from the comet — ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory saw the water there years ago — these new observations provide more direct evidence of Shoemaker-Levy 9’s effect. The results were published in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Herschel’s find provides more fodder for two missions that are scheduled for Jupiter observations in the coming few years. The first goal for NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which is en route and will arrive in 2016, is to figure out how much water is in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Additionally, ESA’s Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission is expected to launch in 2022. “It will map the distribution of Jupiter’s atmospheric ingredients in even greater detail,” ESA stated.

While ESA did not link the finding to how water came to be on Earth, some researchers believe that it was comets that delivered the liquid on to our planet early in Earth’s history. Others, however, say that it was outgassing from volcanic rocks that added water to the surface.

Conventional theory dictates ice was in our solar system from when it was formed, and today we know that many planets have water in some form. Last year, for example, water ice and organics were spotted at Mercury’s north pole.

Mars appeared to be full of water in the ancient past, as evidenced by a huge, underground trench recently discovered by scientists. There is frozen water at the Martian poles, and both the Curiosity and Spirit/Opportunity rover missions have found evidence of flowing water on the surface in the past.

The outer solar system also has its share of water, including in all four giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) and (in ice form) on various moons. Even some exoplanets have water vapor in their atmospheres.

“All four giant planets in the outer solar system have water in their atmospheres, but there may be four different scenarios for how they got it,” added Cavalié. “For Jupiter, it is clear that Shoemaker-Levy 9 is by far the dominant source, even if other external sources may contribute also.”

Source: European Space Agency

The Brightest Galaxies in the Universe Were Invisible… Until Now

Hubble images of six of the starburst galaxies first found by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory (Keck data shown below each in blue)

Many of the brightest, most actively star-forming galaxies in the Universe were actually undetectable by Earth-based observatories, hidden from view by thick clouds of opaque dust and gas. Thanks to ESA’s Herschel space observatory, which views the Universe in infrared, an enormous amount of these “starburst” galaxies have recently been uncovered, allowing astronomers to measure their distances with the twin telescopes of Hawaii’s W.M. Keck Observatory. What they found is quite surprising: at least 767 previously unknown galaxies, many of them generating new stars at incredible rates.

Although nearly invisible at optical wavelengths these newly-found galaxies shine brightly in far-infrared, making them visible to Herschel, which can peer through even the densest dust clouds. Once astronomers knew where the galaxies are located, they were able to target them with Hubble and, most importantly, the two 10-meter Keck telescopes — the two largest optical telescopes in the world.

By gathering literally hundreds of hours of spectral data on the galaxies with the Keck telescopes, estimates of their distances could be determined as well as their temperatures and how often new stars are born within them.

“While some of the galaxies are nearby, most are very distant; we even found galaxies that are so far that their light has taken 12 billion years to travel here, so we are seeing them when the Universe was only a ninth of its current age,” said Dr. Caitlin Casey, Hubble fellow at the UH Manoa Institute for Astronomy and lead scientist on the survey. “Now that we have a pretty good idea of how important this type of galaxy is in forming huge numbers of stars in the Universe, the next step is to figure out why and how they formed.”

A representation of the distribution of nearly 300 starbursts in one 1.4 x 1.4 degree field of view.

The galaxies, many of them observed as they were during the early stages of their formation, are producing new stars at a rate of 100 to 500 a year — with a mass equivalent of several thousand Suns — hence the moniker “starburst” galaxy. By comparison the Milky Way galaxy only births one or two Sun-mass stars per year.

The reason behind this explosion of star formation in these galaxies is unknown, but it’s thought that collisions between young galaxies may be the cause.

Another possibility is that galaxies had much more gas and dust during the early Universe, allowing for much higher star formation rates than what’s seen today.

“It’s a hotly debated topic that requires details on the shape and rotation of the galaxies before it can be resolved,” said Dr. Casey.

Still, the discovery of these “hidden” galaxies is a major step forward in understanding the evolution of star formation in the Universe.

“Our study confirms the importance of starburst galaxies in the cosmic history of star formation. Models that try to reproduce the formation and evolution of galaxies will have to take these results into account.”

– Dr. Caitlin Casey, Hubble fellow at the UH Manoa Institute for Astronomy

“For the first time, we have been able to measure distances, star formation rates, and temperatures for a brand new set of 767 previously unidentified galaxies,” said Dr. Scott Chapman, a co-author on the studies. “The previous similar survey of distant infrared starbursts only covered 73 galaxies. This is a huge improvement.”

The papers detailing the results were published today online in the Astrophysical Journal.

Sources: W.M. Keck Observatory article and ESA’s news release.

Image credits: ESA–C. Carreau/C. Casey (University of Hawai’i); COSMOS field: ESA/Herschel/SPIRE/HerMES Key Programme; Hubble images: NASA, ESA. Inset image courtesy W. M. Keck Observatory.

Orion Revisited: Astronomers Find New Star Cluster in Front of the Orion Nebula

The well-known star-forming region of the Orion Nebula.  Credit: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope / Coelum (J.-C. Cuillandre & G. Anselmi)

Precise distances are difficult to gauge in space, especially within the relatively local regions of the Galaxy. Stars which appear close together in the night sky may actually be separated by many hundreds or thousands of light-years, and since there’s only a limited amount of space here on Earth with which to determine distances using parallax, astronomers have to come up with other ways to figure out how far objects are, and what exactly is in front of or “behind” what.

Recently, astronomers using the 340-megapixel MegaCam on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) observed the star-forming region of the famous Orion nebula — located only about 1,500 light-years away — and determined that two massive groupings of the nebula’s stars are actually located in front of the cluster as completely separate structures… a finding that may ultimately force astronomers to rethink how the many benchmark stars located there had formed.

Although the Orion nebula is easily visible with the naked eye (as the hazy center “star” in Orion’s three-star sword, hanging perpendicular below his belt) its true nebulous nature wasn’t identified until 1610. As a vast and active star-forming region of bright dust and gas located a mere 1,500 light-years distant, the various stars within the Orion Nebula Cluster (ONC) has given astronomers invaluable benchmarks for research on many aspects of star formation.

[Read more: Astrophoto – Orion’s Bloody Massacre]

Now, CFHT observations of the Orion nebula conducted by Dr. Hervé Bouy of the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) and Centre for Astrobiology (CSIC) and Dr. João Alves of the Institut für Astronomie (University of Vienna) have shown that a massive cluster of stars known as NGC 1980 is actually in front of the nebula, and is an older group of approximately 2,000 stars that is separate from the stars found within the ONC… as well as more massive than once thought.

“It is hard to see how these new observations fit into any existing theoretical model of cluster formation, and that is exciting because it suggests we might be missing something fundamental.”

– Dr. João Alves, Institut für Astronomie, University of Vienna

In addition their observations with CFHT — which were combined with previous observations with ESA’s Herschel and XMM-Newton and NASA’s Spitzer and WISE — have led to the discovery of another smaller cluster, L1641W.

According to the team’s paper, “We find that there is a rich stellar population in front of the Orion A cloud, from B-stars to M-stars, with a distinct 1) spatial distribution; 2) luminosity function; and 3) velocity dispersion from the reddened population inside the Orion A cloud. The spatial distribution of this population peaks strongly around NGC 1980 (iota Ori) and is, in all likelihood, the extended stellar content of this poorly studied cluster.”

The findings show that what has been known as Orion Nebula Cluster is actually a combination of older and newer groups of stars, possibly calling for a “revision of most of the observables in the benchmark ONC region (e.g., ages, age spread, cluster size, mass function, disk frequency, etc.)”

[Read more: Astronomers See Stars Changing Right Before Their Eyes in Orion Nebula]

“We must untangle these two mixed populations, star by star, if we are to understand the region, and star formation in clusters, and even the early stages of planet formation,” according to co-author Dr. Hervé Bouy.

The team’s article “Orion Revisited” was published in the November 2012 Astronomy & Astrophysics journal. Read the CFHT press release here.

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope’s Mauna Kea summit dome in September 2009. Credit: CFHT/Jean-Charles Cuillandre

Inset image: Orion nebula seen in optical – where the molecular cloud is invisible – and infrared, which shows the cloud. Any star detected in the optical in the line of sight over the region highlighted in the right panel must therefore be located in the foreground of the molecular cloud. Credit: J. Alves & H. Bouy.

Herschel Telescope Peers into the Glow of Cygnus X

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In infrared, Cygnus-X is a glowing star nursery, and the Herschel space observatory has captured this beautiful new view showing an extremely active region of big-baby stars. It is located about 4,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan. The image highlights the unique capabilities of Herschel to probe the birth of large stars and their influence on the surrounding interstellar material.

The bright white areas are where large stars have recently formed out of turbulent clouds, especially evident in the chaotic network of filaments seen in the right-hand portion of the image. The dense knots of gas and dust collapse to form new stars; the bubble-like structures are carved by the enormous radiation emitted by these stars.

In the center of the image, fierce radiation and powerful stellar winds from stars undetected at Herschel’s wavelengths have partly cleared and heated interstellar material, which then glows blue. The threads of compact red objects scattered throughout the image shows where future generations of stars will be born.

See larger versions of this image at ESA’s website.

Frantic Comet Massacre Taking Place at Fomalhaut

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There may be some frantic activity going on in the narrow, dusty disk surrounding a nearby star named Fomalhaut. Scientists have been trying to understand the makeup of the disk, and new observations by the Herschel Space Observatory reveals the disk may come from cometary collisions. But in order to create the amount of dust and debris seen around Fomalhaut, there would have to be collisions destroying thousands of icy comets every day.

“I was really surprised,” said Bram Acke, who led a team on the Herschel observations. “To me this was an extremely large number.”

Fomalhaut is a young star, just a few hundred million years old, about 25.1 light years away and twice as massive as the Sun. It is the brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus and one of the brightest stars in our sky, visible in the southern sky in the northern hemisphere in fall and early winter evenings.

Fomalhaut’s toroidal dust belt was discovered in the 1980s by the IRAS satellite. It’s been viewed several times by the Hubble Space Telescope, but Herschel’s new images of the belt show it in much more detail at far-infrared wavelengths than ever before.

The narrow and asymmetrical properties of the disk are thought to be due to the gravity of a possible planet in orbit around the star, but the existence of the planet is still under study.

Hubble's view showing a possible exoplanet Fomalhaut b (NASA/HST)

Acke, from the University of Leuven in Belgium, and his team colleagues analyzed the Herschel observations and found the dust temperatures in the belt to be between –230 and –170 degrees C, and because Fomalhaut is slightly off-center and closer to the southern side of the belt, the southern side is warmer and brighter than the northern side.

Those observations collected starlight scattering off the grains in the belt and showed it to be very faint at Hubble’s visible wavelengths, suggesting that the dust particles are relatively large. But that appears to be incompatible with the temperature of the belt as measured by Herschel in the far-infrared.

While observations with Hubble suggested the grains in the dust disk would be relatively large, the Herschel data show that the dust in the belt has the thermal properties of small solid particles, with sizes of only a few millionths of a meter across. HST observations suggested solid grains more than ten times larger.

To resolve the paradox, Acke and colleagues suggest that the dust grains must be large fluffy aggregates, similar to dust particles released from comets in our own Solar System. These would have both the correct thermal and scattering properties.

However, this leads to another problem.

The bright starlight from Fomalhaut should blow small dust particles out of the belt very rapidly, yet such grains appear to remain abundant there.

So, the only way to explain the contradiction is to resupply the belt through continuous collisions between larger objects in orbit around Fomalhaut, creating new dust.

This isn’t the first time that evidence of cometary collisions have been seen around another star. Last year, astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope detected activity resembling a ‘heavy bombardment’ type of event where icy bodies from the outer solar system are possibly pummeling rocky worlds closer to the star.

At Fomalhaut, however, to sustain the belt, the rate of collisions must be remarkable: each day, the equivalent of either two 10 km-sized comets or 2,000 1 km-sized comets must be completely crushed into small, fluffy dust particles.

In order to keep the collision rate so high, scientists say there must be between 260 billion and 83 trillion comets in the belt, depending on their size. This is not unfathomable, the team says, as our own Solar System has a similar number of comets in its Oort Cloud, which formed from objects scattered from a disc surrounding the Sun when it was as young as Fomalhaut.

“These beautiful Herschel images have provided the crucial information needed to model the nature of the dust belt around Fomalhaut,” said Göran Pilbratt, ESA Herschel Project Scientist.

Source: ESA

New Image Shows Beautiful Violence in Centaurus A

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The mysterious galaxy Centaurus A is a great place to study the extreme processes that occur near super-massive black holes, scientists say, and this beautiful new image from the combined forces of the Herschel Space Observatory and the XMM-Newton x-ray satellite reveals energetic processes going on deep in the galaxy’s core. This beautiful image tells a tale of past violence that occurred here.

The twisted disc of dust near the galaxy’s heart shows strong evidence that Centaurus A underwent a cosmic collision with another galaxy in the distant past. The colliding galaxy was ripped apart to form the warped disc, and the formation of young stars heats the dust to cause the infrared glow.

This multi-wavelength view of Centaurus A shows two massive jets of material streaming from a immense black hole in the center. When observed by radio telescopes, the jets stretch for up to a million light years, though the Herschel and XMM-Newton results focus on the inner regions.

At a distance of around 12 million light years from Earth, Centaurus A is the closest large elliptical galaxy to our own Milky Way.

“Centaurus A is the closest example of a galaxy to us with massive jets from its central black hole,” said Christine Wilson of McMaster University, Canada, who is leading the study of Centaurus A with Herschel. “Observations with Herschel, XMM-Newton and telescopes at many other wavelengths allow us to study their effects on the galaxy and its surroundings.”

Find more information on this image at ESA’s website.

Astronomers See Stars Changing Right Before Their Eyes in Orion Nebula

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A gorgeous new image from the tag team effort of the Herschel and Spitzer Space telescopes shows a rainbow of colors within the Orion nebula. The different colors reflect the different wavelengths of infrared light captured by the two space observatories, and by combining their observations, astronomers can get a more complete picture of star formation. And in fact, astronomers have spotted young stars in the Orion nebula changing right before their eyes, over a span of just a few weeks!

Astronomers with Herschel mapped this region of the sky once a week for six weeks in the late winter and spring of 2011. Notice the necklace of stars strung across the middle of the image? Over just that short amount of time, a discernible change in the stars took place as they appeared to be rapidly heating up and cooling down. The astronomers wondered if the stars were actually maturing from being star embryos, moving towards becoming full-fledged stars.

To monitor for activity in protostars, Herschel’s Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer stared in long infrared wavelengths of light, tracing cold dust particles, while Spitzer took a look at the warmer dust emitting shorter infrared wavelengths. In this data, astronomers noticed that several of the young stars varied in their brightness by more than 20 percent over just a few weeks.

As this twinkling comes from cool material emitting infrared light, the material must be far from the hot center of the young star, likely in the outer disk or surrounding gas envelope. At that distance, it should take years or centuries for material to spiral closer in to the growing starlet, rather than mere weeks.

The astronomers said a couple of scenarios could account for this short span. One possibility is that lumpy filaments of gas funnel from the outer to the central regions of the star, temporarily warming the object as the clumps hit its inner disk. Or, it could be that material occasionally piles up at the inner edge of the disk and casts a shadow on the outer disk.

“Herschel’s exquisite sensitivity opens up new possibilities for astronomers to study star formation, and we are very excited to have witnessed short-term variability in Orion protostars,” said Nicolas Billot, an astronomer at the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM) in Grenada, Spain who is preparing a paper on the findings along with his colleagues. “Follow-up observations with Herschel will help us identify the physical processes responsible for the variability.”

Source: NASA

We Are Stardust… We Are Cold Then

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When we think of stars, we might think of their building blocks as white hot… But that’s not particularly the case.The very “stuff” that creates a sun is cold dust and in this combined image produced by the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions; and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, we’re taking an even more incredible look into the environment which forms stars. This new image peers into the dusty arena of both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds – just two of our galactic neighbors.

Through the infra-red eyes of the Herschel-Spitzer observation, the Large Magellanic Cloud would almost appear to look like a gigantic fireball. Here light-years long bands of dust permeate the galaxy with blazing fields of star formation seen in the center, center-left and top right (the brightest center-left region is called 30 Doradus, or the Tarantula Nebula. The Small Magellanic Cloud is much more disturbed looking. Here we see a huge filament of dust to the left – known as the galaxy’s “wing” – and, to the right, a deep bar of star formation.

This new image shows the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy in infrared light from the Herschel Space Observatory a European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions, and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Image credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI

What makes these images very unique is that they are indicators of temperature within the Magellanic Clouds. The cool, red areas are where star formation has ceased or is at its earliest stages. Warm areas are indicative of new stars blooming to life and heating the dust around them. “Coolest areas and objects appear in red, corresponding to infrared light taken up by Herschel’s Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver at 250 microns, or millionths of a meter. Herschel’s Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer fills out the mid-temperature bands, shown in green, at 100 and 160 microns.” says the research team. “The warmest spots appear in blue, courtesy of 24- and 70-micron data from Spitzer.”

Both the LMC and SMC are the two largest satellite galaxies of the Milky Way and are cataloged as dwarf galaxies. While they are large in their own right, this pair contains fewer essential star-forming elements such as hydrogen and helium – slowing the rate of star growth. Although star formation is generally considered to have reached its apex some 10 billion years ago, some galaxies were left with less basic materials than others.

“Studying these galaxies offers us the best opportunity to study star formation outside of the Milky Way,” said Margaret Meixner, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md., and principal investigator for the mapping project. “Star formation affects the evolution of galaxies, so we hope understanding the story of these stars will answer questions about galactic life cycles.”

Original Story Source: NASA/Herschel News.

Water, Water Everywhere… And A Few Drops For Saturn, Too!

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In 2005, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft gave us an incredible view of Enceladus chuffing out fountains of water vapor and ice. This action creates an enormous halo of gas, dust and ice that surrounds this Saturnian satellite and enables the planet’s E ring. Now Enceladus is once again in the spotlight as the only moon in the Solar System known to significantly contribute to its parent planet’s chemistry.

Earlier this year, ESA announced that its Herschel Space Observatory had observed a huge torus of water vapor around Saturn which apparently originated from Enceladus. It spans approximately 600,000 kilometers across and runs about 60,000 kilometers deep, but more so than its size is what it appears to be doing… adding water to Saturn’s upper atmosphere. Because the vapor isn’t detectable at visible wavelengths, this observation came as revelation for the Herschel scope.

“Herschel is providing dramatic new information about everything from planets in our own solar system to galaxies billions of light-years away,” said Paul Goldsmith, the NASA Herschel project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

While the Herschel infrared observation is new, the indication of a vapor torus around Saturn isn’t. NASA’s Voyager and Hubble missions had given astronomers clues in the past. In 1997, the European Space Agency’s Infrared Space Observatory cited water in Saturn’s atmosphere and two years later NASA’s Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite confirmed it again. But this confirmation only added up to a puzzle. Water found in Saturn’s lower cloud levels couldn’t rise past the colder, upper deck… So where was the water coming from? The answer came in the form of Herschel’s observations and some very astute computer modeling.

“What’s amazing is that the model, which is one iteration in a long line of cloud models, was built without knowledge of the observation.” says Tim Cassidy, a recent post-doctoral researcher at JPL who is now at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder. “Those of us in this small modeling community were using data from Cassini, Voyager and the Hubble telescope, along with established physics. We weren’t expecting such detailed ‘images’ of the torus, and the match between model and data was a wonderful surprise.”

Through these simulations, researchers hypothesized that much of the water in the torus was simply lost to space and some is pulled back by gravity to add material to Saturn’s rings. However, it’s the 3-5% that made it back to Saturn’s atmosphere that’s the most interesting. Just how much water vapor is out there? Thanks to combining information from both Herschel and the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS) instrument aboard the Cassini spacecraft, we’ve learned that about 12,000 kilograms is being ejected from Enceladus every minute. Can you image how much that would add up to in the period of a year… or more?!

“With the Herschel measurements of the torus from 2009 and 2010 and our cloud model, we were able to calculate a source rate for water vapor coming from Enceladus,” said Cassidy. “It agrees very closely with the UVIS finding, which used a completely different method.”

“We can see the water leaving Enceladus and we can detect the end product — atomic oxygen — in the Saturn system,” said Cassini UVIS science team member Candy Hansen, of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz. “It’s very nice with Herschel to track where it goes in the meantime.”

A tiny percentage adds up to some mighty big numbers, and the water molecules from the torus impact Saturn’s atmosphere to a great degree by contributing hydrogen and oxygen.

“When water hangs out in the torus, it is subject to the processes that dissociate water molecules,” said Hansen, “first to hydrogen and hydroxide, and then the hydroxide dissociates into hydrogen and atomic oxygen.” This oxygen is dispersed through the Saturn system. “Cassini discovered atomic oxygen on its approach to Saturn, before it went into orbit insertion. At the time, no one knew where it was coming from. Now we do.”

Very few days go by that we don’t learn something new about the Solar System and its inner workings. Thanks to observations like those done by the Herschel Space Observatory and missions like Cassini-Huygens, we’re able to further understand the dynamics behind the beauty… and how a tiny player can carry a major role.

“The profound effect this little moon Enceladus has on Saturn and its environment is astonishing,” said Hansen.

Original Story Source: JPL News Release.