Decreasing Earthshine Could Be Tied to Global Warming

Image credit: BBSO
Scientists who monitor Earth’s reflectance by measuring the moon’s “earthshine” have observed unexpectedly large climate fluctuations during the past two decades. By combining eight years of earthshine data with nearly twenty years of partially overlapping satellite cloud data, they have found a gradual decline in Earth’s reflectance that became sharper in the last part of the 1990s, perhaps associated with the accelerated global warming in recent years. Surprisingly, the declining reflectance reversed completely in the past three years. Such changes, which are not understood, seem to be a natural variability of Earth’s clouds.

The May 28, 2004, issue of the journal Science examines the phenomenon in an article, “Changes in Earth’s Reflectance Over the Past Two Decades,” written by Enric Palle, Philip R. Goode, Pilar Montaes Rodriguez, and Steven E. Koonin. Goode is distinguished professor of physics at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Palle and Monta=F1es Rodr=EDguez are postdoctoral associates at that institution, and Koonin is professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. The observations were conducted at the Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) in California, which NJIT has operated since 1997 with Goode as its director. The National Aeronautics Space Administration funded these observations.

The team has revived and modernized an old method of determining Earth’s reflectance, or albedo, by observing earthshine, sunlight reflected by the Earth that can be seen as a ghostly glow of the moon’s “dark side”-or the portion of the lunar disk not lit by the sun. As Koonin realized some 14 years ago, such observations can be a powerful tool for long-term climate monitoring. “The cloudier the Earth, the brighter the earthshine, and changing cloud cover is an important element of changing climate,” he said.

Precision earthshine observations to determine global reflectivity have been under way at BBSO since 1994, with regular observations commencing in late 1997.

“Using a phenomenon first explained by Leonardo DaVinci, we can precisely measure global climate change and find a surprising story of clouds. Our method has the advantage of being very precise because the bright lunar crescent serves as a standard against which to monitor earthshine, and light reflected by large portions of Earth can be observed simultaneously,” said Goode. “It is also inexpensive, requiring only a small telescope and a relatively simple electronic detector.”

By using a combination of earthshine observations and satellite data on cloud cover, the earthshine team has determined the following:

Earth’s average albedo is not constant from one year to the next; it also changes over decadal timescales. The computer models currently used to study the climate system do not show such large decadal-scale variability of the albedo.

The annual average albedo declined very gradually from 1985 to 1995, and then declined sharply in 1995 and 1996. These observed declines are broadly consistent with previously known satellite measures of cloud amount.

The low albedo during 1997-2001 increased solar heating of the globe at a rate more than twice that expected from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This “dimming” of Earth, as it would be seen from space, is perhaps connected with the recent accelerated increase in mean global surface temperatures.

2001-2003 saw a reversal of the albedo to pre-1995 values; this “brightening” of the Earth is most likely attributable to the effect of increased cloud cover and thickness.

These large variations, which are comparable to those in the earth’s infrared (heat) radiation observed in the tropics by satellites, comprise a large influence on Earth’s radiation budget.

“Our results are only part of the story, since the Earth’s surface temperature is determined by a balance between sunlight that warms the planet and heat radiated back into space, which cools the planet,” said Palle. “This depends upon many factors in addition to albedo, such as the amount of greenhouse gases (water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane) present in the atmosphere. But these new data emphasize that clouds must be properly accounted for and illustrate that we still lack the detailed understanding of our climate system necessary to model future changes with confidence.”

Goode says the earthshine observations will continue for the next decade. “These will be important for monitoring ongoing changes in Earth’s climate system. It will also be essential to correlate our results with satellite data as they become available, particularly for the most recent years, to form a consistent description of the changing albedo. Earthshine observations through an 11-year solar cycle will also be important to assessing hypothesized influences of solar activity on climate.”

Monta=F1es Rodr=EDguez says that to carry out future observations, the team is working to establish a global network of observing stations. “These would allow continuous monitoring of the albedo during much of each lunar month and would also compensate for local weather conditions that sometimes prevent observations from a given site.”

BBSO observations are currently being supplemented with others from the Crimea in the Ukraine, and there will soon be observations from Yunnan in China, as well. A further improvement will be to fully automate the current manual observations. A prototype robotic telescope is being constructed and the team is seeking funds to construct, calibrate, and deploy a network of eight around the globe.

“Even as the scientific community acknowledges the likelihood of human impacts on climate, it must better document and understand climate changes,” said Koonin. “Our ongoing earthshine measurements will be an important part of that process.”

Original Source: Caltech News Release

Smart 1 Reaches its 250th Orbit

Image credit: ESA
ESA’s SMART-1 spacecraft has just made its 250th orbit, in good health and with all functions performing nominally.

Starting on 24 February 2004, operation of the electric propulsion system (‘ion engine’) was resumed. The engine is being turned on at the lowest point of every orbit for about 1.5 hours.

The spacecraft then entered a ‘season’ of long eclipses, due to the alignment of the Sun and Earth.

This was not necessarily a problem except that, due to a combination of factors (the position of the shadow of Earth, the inclination of spacecraft orbit and its orbital velocity), the spacecraft travelled at its slowest through a relatively large full shadow (umbra) region.

When the spacecraft is in the umbra it cannot receive light on its solar panels to produce power.

The eclipse season is now over, with the last eclipse on 21 March. The longest period of darkness was on 13 March, lasting for 2 hours and 15 minutes. This tested the power system and, in particular the batteries, to the limit but the spacecraft performed excellently.

ESA’s flight control team and the power specialists watched the spacecraft behaviour carefully during this period, but the power and the thermal control systems were able to cope with ‘long night’ without problem. Now SMART-1 can restart its journey to the Moon.

Original Source: ESA News Release

There Might Not Be Ice at the Moon’s Pole

Image credit: Cornell University

At the South Pole of the Moon, there is a region that is always in the shadow of craters which scientists have long believed could have deposits of water ice. Despite the fact that ice was detected by two spacecraft that orbited the moon, a new survey of the area by the giant Arecibo radio observatory has failed to find any surface deposits of ice. This doesn’t mean that the ice isn’t there, but it might be trapped in a large area under the surface, like lunar permafrost. Arecibo is a good instrument for detecting ice because it gives a very specific echo signature in the radio spectrum.

Despite evidence from two space probes in the 1990s, radar astronomers say they can find no signs of thick ice at the moon’s poles. If there is water at the lunar poles, the researchers say, it is widely scattered and permanently frozen inside the dust layers, something akin to terrestrial permafrost.

Using the 70-centimeter (cm)-wavelength radar system at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, the research group sent signals deeper into the lunar polar surface — more than five meters (about 5.5 yards) — than ever before at this spatial resolution. “If there is ice at the poles, the only way left to test it is to go there directly and melt a small volume around the dust and look for water with a mass spectrometer,” says Bruce Campbell of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian Institution.

Campbell is the lead author of an article, “Long-Wavelength Radar Probing of the Lunar Poles,” in the Nov. 13, 2003, issue of the journal Nature . His collaborators on the latest radar probe of the moon were Donald Campbell, professor of astronomy at Cornell University; J.F. Chandler of Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; and Alice Hine, Mike Nolan and Phil Perillat of the Arecibo Observatory, which is managed by the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center at Cornell for the NSF.

Suggestions of lunar ice first came in 1996 when radio data from the Clementine spacecraft gave some indications of the presence of ice on the wall of a crater at the moon’s south pole. Then, neutron spectrometer data from the Lunar Prospector spacecraft, launched in 1998, indicated the presence of hydrogen, and by inference, water, at a depth of about a meter at the lunar poles. But radar probes by the 12-cm-wavelength radar at Arecibo showed no evidence of thick ice at depths of up to a meter. “Lunar Prospector had found significant concentrations of hydrogen at the lunar poles equivalent to water ice at concentrations of a few percent of the lunar soil,” says Donald Campbell. “There have been suggestions that it may be in the form of thick deposits of ice at some depth, but this new data from Arecibo makes that unlikely.”

Says Bruce Campbell, “There are no places that we have looked at with any of these wavelengths where you see that kind of signature.”

The Nature paper notes that if ice does exist at the lunar poles it would be considerably different from “the thick, coherent layers of ice observed in shadowed craters on Mercury,” found in Arecibo radar imaging. “On Mercury what you see are quite thick deposits on the order of a meter or more buried by, at most, a shallow layer of dust. That’s the scenario we were trying to nail down for the moon,” says Bruce Campbell. The difference between Mercury and the moon, the researchers say, could be due to the lower average rate of comets striking the lunar surface, to recent comet impacts on Mercury or to a more rapid loss of ice on the moon.

What makes the lunar poles good cold traps for water is a temperature of minus 173 degrees Celsius (minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit). The limb of the sun rises only about two degrees above the horizon at the lunar poles so that sunlight never penetrates into deep craters, and a person standing on the crater floor would never see the sun. The Arecibo radar probed the floors of two craters in permanent shadow at the lunar south pole, Shoemaker and Faustini, and, at the north pole, the floors of Hermite and several small craters within the large crater Peary. In contrast, Clementine focused on the sloping walls of Shackleton crater, whose floor can’t be “seen” from Earth. “There is a debate on how to interpret data from a rough, tilted surface,” says Bruce Campbell.

The Arecibo radar probe is a particularly good detector of thick ice because it takes advantage of a phenomenon known as “coherent backscatter.” Radar waves can travel long distances without being absorbed in ice at temperatures well below freezing. Reflections from irregularities inside the ice produce a very strong radar echo. In contrast, lunar soil is much more absorptive and does not give as strong a radar echo.

Original Source: Cornell News Release

Brightest Full Moon this Year


Image credit: NASA
The full moon on February 27 is going to be the brightest one of 2002. The moon’s orbit isn’t a perfect circle; over the course of its 28-day trip around the Earth, its distance varies from 406,700 km to 356,400. And today’s full moon happens to coincide with the closest point of that orbit, making it 20% brighter than an average full moon.

A pale ray of light shines through the bedroom window. In the distance, something howls. Eyes open. The clock ticks, it’s 2 a.m.. You’re wide awake — roused by a bright full Moon.

Don’t be surprised if this soon happens to you. The Moon will become full on Feb. 27th. It happens every 29.5 days, yet this full Moon is special: It’s the biggest and brightest of the year.

“Not all full Moons are alike,” says astronomy professor George Lebo. “Sometimes pollution or volcanic ash shades them with interesting colors. Sometimes haloes form around them — a result of ice crystals in the air.”

“This full Moon is unique in another way,” he says. “It will be closer to Earth than usual.”

Right: The apparent size of the Moon at perigee (top) and apogee (bottom).

“The moon’s orbit around our planet is not a perfect circle,” Lebo explains. “It’s an ellipse.” At one end of the ellipse (called apogee) the Moon lies 406,700 km from Earth. At the other end (called perigee) the Moon is only 356,400 km away — a difference of 50 thousand km!

When the Moon is full on Feb. 27th it will be near perigee — close to Earth. As a result the Moon will appear 9% wider than normal and shine 20% brighter.

The extra moonlight is caused, in part, by the Moon’s nearness to Earth. But that’s not all. The Sun is closer to Earth, too. Lebo explains: “Every year during northern winter, Earth is about 1.6% closer to the Sun than normal. (Like the Moon’s orbit around Earth, Earth’s orbit around the Sun is elliptical. Our closest approach to the Sun is called perihelion.) The Moon reflects sunlight, so the Moon is brighter during that time.”

This effect should not to be confused with the famous “Moon Illusion” — a trick of the eye that makes Moons rising near the horizon appear swollen. The nearby full Moon this week really will be bigger and brighter.

Below: The brightness of full Moons in 2002 relative to that of an average full Moon. In Feb., for example, the Moon will be 20% brighter than average; in Aug. it will be 12% dimmer. These values take into account the varying distances of the Moon from Earth and of the Earth from the Sun.

The first three full Moons of 2002 are all brighter-than-average. All three happen when the Moon is near perigee, and when Earth is relatively close to the Sun. Full Moons later this year will be smaller and dimmer by comparison. For example, August’s full Moon — an “apogee Moon” — will be about one-third dimmer than February’s.

But will anyone notice the difference?

“The human eye can easily discern a 20 or 30% difference in the brightness of two similar light sources,” says eye doctor Stuart Hiroyasu. By that reckoning, a sky watcher could tell the difference between a bright perigee Moon and a dimmer apogee Moon. But the two Moons would have to be side by side to effect the comparison — not likely except in a science fiction movie!

Below: Our Moon’s appearance changes nightly. This time-lapse sequence (Credit: Ant?nio Cidad?o) shows what our Moon looks like during a lunation, a complete lunar cycle. [more]

Even the dimmest full Moons are very bright, notes Lebo. They outshine Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, by twenty-five thousand times. They cast shadows, and provide enough light to read by. “There’s really no such thing as a faint full Moon. It’s all relative.”

Nevertheless, some sky watchers will sense that this Moon has something “extra” — particularly northerners. Many northern landscapes in February remain covered with snow. Snow reflects about two-thirds of the light that hits it, while bare ground reflects only about 15%. A snowy moonlit landscape always seems remarkably bright.

Perigee, perihelion, snowy terrain — they all add up to a big dose of Moonlight. Can you tell the difference? There’s only one way to find out: Go outside and look!

Original Source: NASA Science Story

Moon Could Still Have Molten Interior

Astronomers have calculated that the Moon, pulled by the gravity of the Earth and the Sun, may bulge as much as 10 centimetres over the course of its 27 day journey around our planet. The bulging could be caused by a molten slush surrounding the Moon’s core. The measurements were gathered by firing a laser pulse from the Earth to the Moon, and it measures the round-trip distance to an accuracy of 2 centimetres.