The Path that MASCOT Took Across Asteroid Ryugu During its 17 Hours of Life

MASCOT's path across the surface of asteroid Ryugu. The path was recreated using data from the robot and from the mother probe Hayabusa2. Hayabusa2's shadow is visible at the bottim right. Image Credit: DLR/JAXA

The tiny hopping-robot MASCOT completed its 17 hour mission on the asteroid Ryugu in early October. Now the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has released an image of MASCOT’s path across the asteroid. Surprised by what MASCOT found on the surface, they’ve named the landing spot “Alice’s Wonderland.”
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Even Ganymede is Showing Tectonic Activity. We’re Going to Need Another Icy Moon Orbiter

Jupiter's moon Ganymede, the largest moon in the Solar System, seen orbiting Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System. This image was taken by the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Ganymede was shaped by pronounced periods of tectonic activity in the past, according to a new paper. It’s no longer active and its surface is more-or-less frozen in place now. But this discovery opens the door to better planning for future missions to Jupiter’s other frozen moon Europa. Unlike Ganymede, Europa is still tectonically active, and understanding past geological activity on Ganymede helps us understand present-day Europa.

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New Dwarf Planet Found in the Outskirts of the Solar System, Giving Astronomers More Ammunition to Search for Evidence of Planet 9

"The Goblin", or dwarf planet 2015 TG387 shown in comparison to our Solar System's other planets. Image: Illustration by Roberto Molar Candanosa and Scott Sheppard, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science.

Astronomers have found a new dwarf planet way out beyond Pluto that never gets closer than 65 AUs to the Sun. It’s nicknamed “The Goblin” which is much more interesting than its science name, 2015 TG387. The Goblin’s orbit is consistent with the much-talked-about but yet-to-be-proven Planet 9.

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Astronomers are Tracking the Interstellar Asteroid ‘Oumuamua to its Home System

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine the asteroid’s origin, what it encountered in interstellar space, its true nature (is it a comet or an asteroid?), and whether or not it is an alien spacecraft (it’s not).

In all this time, the question of  ‘Oumuamua’s origin has remained unanswered. Beyond theorizing that it came from the direction of the Lyra Constellation, possibly from the Vega system, there have been no definitive answers. Luckily, an international team led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) have tracked ‘Oumuamua and narrowed down its point of origin to four possible star systems.

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Cosmic Watch Review: A Unique Perspective on the Night Sky

A view along the Solar System, using Cosmic Watch.

Watching the heavens on a nightly, or even casual basis? The web and modern technology has certainly altered the landscape of modern astronomy, (mostly) for the better. Once, we all huddled around cardboard planispheres, illuminated by red flashlights; now, it’s now a common sight to see illuminated smartphone apps accompanying telescopes at star parties, all waving skyward with virtual planetarium programs guiding users around the night sky.

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It Might Not be Planet 9 Causing Disruptions in the Kuiper Belt, Just the Collective Gravity of Everything Out There

In January of 2016, astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin published the first evidence that there might be another planet in our Solar System. Known as “Planet 9” (or “Planet X”, to those who contest the controversial 2006 Resolution by the IAU), this hypothetical body was believed to orbit at an extreme distance from our Sun, as evidenced by the fact that certain Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) all seem to be pointing in the same direction.

Since that time, other lines of evidence have emerged that have bolstered the existence of Planet 9/Planet X. However, a team of researchers from CU Boulder recently proposed an alternative explanation. According to their research, it could be interactions between Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) themselves that might explain the strange dynamics of “detached objects” at the edge of the Solar System.

The researchers presented their findings at the 232nd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which ran from June 3-7 in Denver, Colorado. The presentation took place on June 4th during a press conference titled “Minor Planets, Dwarf Planets & Exoplanets”. The research was led Jacob Fleisig, an undergraduate studying astrophysics at CU Boulder, and included Ann-Marie Madigan and Alexander Zderic – an assistant professor and a graduate student at CU Boulder, respectively.

Artist’s conception of Sedna, a dwarf planet in the Solar System that only gets within 76 astronomical units (AUs) of our Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the sake of their study, the team focused on icy bodies like Sedna, a minor planet that orbits the Sun at a distance ranging from 76 AU at perihelion to 936 AU at aphelion. Along with a handful of other objects at this distance, such as Eris, Sedna appears to be separated from the rest of the Solar System – something which astronomers have struggled to explain ever since it was discovered.

Sedna was also discovered by Michael Brown who, along with Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory and David Rabinowitz of Yale University, spotted it on November 14th, 2003, while conducting a survey of the Kuiper Belt. In addition to orbiting our Sun with a period of over 11,000 years, this minor planet and other detached objects has a huge, elliptical orbit.

What’s more, this orbit does not take them Sedna or these other objects anywhere near to Neptune or any other gas giant. Unlike Pluto and other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), it is therefore a mystery how they achieved their current orbits. The possible existence of a as-yet-undiscovered planet (Planet 9/Planet X), which would be about 10 times the size of Earth, is one hypothetical explanation.

After years of searching for this planet and attempting to determine where its orbit would take it, astronomers have yet to find Planet 9/Planet X. However, as Prof. Madigan explained in a recent CU Boulder press release, there is another possible explanation for the gravitational weirdness going on out there:

“There are so many of these bodies out there. What does their collective gravity do? We can solve a lot of these problems by just taking into account that question… Once you get further away from Neptune, things don’t make any sense, which is really exciting.”

While Madigan and her team did not originally set out to find another explanation for the orbits of “detached objects”, they ended up pursuing the possibility thanks to Jacob Fleisig’s computer modelling. While developing simulations to explore the dynamics of the detached objects, he noticed something very interesting about the region of space they occupy.

Having calculated the orbits of icy objects beyond Neptune, Fleisig and the rest of the team noticed that different objects behave much like the different hands on a clock. Whereas asteroids move like the minute hand (relatively fast and in tandem), larger objects like Sedna move more slowly like the hour hand. Eventually, the hands intersect.  As Fleisig explained:

“You see a pileup of the orbits of smaller objects to one side of the sun. These orbits crash into the bigger body, and what happens is those interactions will change its orbit from an oval shape to a more circular shape.”

What Fleisig’s computer model showed was that Sedna’s orbit goes from normal to detached as a result of those small-scale interactions. It also showed that the larger the detached object, the farther it gets away from the Sun – something which agrees with previous research and observations. In addition to explaining why Sedna and similar bodies behave the way they do, these findings may provide clues to another major event in Earth’s history.

Artistic rendition of the Chicxulub impactor striking ancient Earth, which is believed to have caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Credit: NASA

This would be what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Astronomers have understood for a long time that the dynamics of the outer Solar System often end up sending comets towards the inner Solar System on a predictable timescale. This is the result of icy objects interacting with each other, which causes their orbits to tighten and widen in a repeating cycle.

And while the team is not able to say that this pattern was responsible for the impact that caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (which resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago), it is a fascinating possibility. In the meantime, the research has shown just how fascinating the outer Solar System is, and how much remains to be learned about it.

“The picture we draw of the outer solar system in textbooks may have to change,” said Madigan. “There’s a lot more stuff out there than we once thought, which is really cool.”

The research was made possible thanks to the support of the NASA Solar System Workings and the Rocky Mountain Advanced Computing Consortium Summit Supercomputer.

Further Reading: University of Colorado Boulder

The Giant Planets in the Solar System Stunted the Growth of Mars

For centuries, astronomers and scientists have sought to understand how our Solar System came to be. Since that time, two theories have become commonly-accepted that explain how it formed and evolved over time. These are the Nebular Hypothesis and the Nice Model, respectively. Whereas the former contends that the Sun and planets formed from a large cloud of dust and gas, the latter maintains the giant planets have migrated since their formation.

This is what has led to the Solar System as we know it today. However, an enduring mystery about these theories is how Mars came to be the way it is. Why, for example, is it significantly smaller than Earth and inhospitable to life as we know it when all indications show that it should be comparable in size? According to a new study by an international team of scientists, the migration of the giant planets could have been what made the difference.

For over a decade, astronomers have been operating under the assumption that shortly after the formation of the Solar System, the gas and ice giants of the outer Solar System (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) began to migrate outward. This is the substance of the Nice Model, which asserts that this migration had a profound effect on the evolution of the Solar System and the formation of the terrestrial planets.

This model – named for the location of the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur (in Nice, France), where it was initially developed – began as an evolutionary model that helped explain the observed distributions of small objects like comets and asteroids. As Matt Clement, a graduate student in the HL Dodge Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Oklahoma and the lead author on the paper, explained to Universe Today via email:

“In the model, the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) originally formed much closer to the Sun.  In order to reach their current orbital locations, the entire solar system undergoes a period of orbital instability.  During this unstable period, the size and the shape of the giant planet’s orbits change rapidly.”

For the sake of their study, which was recently published in the scientific journal Icarus under the title “Mars Growth Stunted by an Early Giant Planet Instability“, the team expanded on the Nice Model. Through a series of dynamical simulations, they attempted to show how, during the early Solar System, the growth of Mars was halted thanks to the orbital instabilities of the giant planets.

The purpose of their study was also to address a flaw in the Nice Model, which is how the terrestrial planets could have survived a serious shake up of the Solar System. In the original version of the Nice Model, the instability of the giant planets occurred a few hundred million years after the planets formed, which coincided with the Late Heavy Bombardment – when the inner Solar System was bombarded by a disproportionately large number of asteroids.

This period is evidenced by spike in the Moon’s cratering record, which was inferred from an abundance of samples from the Apollo missions with similar geological dates. As Clement explained:

“A problem with this is that it is difficult for the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) to survive the violent instability without being ejected out of the solar system or colliding with one another. Now that we have better, high resolution images of lunar craters and more accurate methods for dating the Apollo samples, the evidence for a spike in lunar cratering rates is diminishing. Our study investigated whether moving the instability earlier, while the inner terrestrial planets were still forming, could help them survive the instability, and also explain why Mars is so small relative to the Earth.”

Clement was joined by Nathan A. Kaib, a OU astrophysics professor, as well as Sean N. Raymond of the University of Bordeaux and Kevin J. Walsh from the Southwest Research Institute. Together, they used the computing resources of the OU Supercomputing Center for Education and Research (OSCER) and the Blue Waters supercomputing project to perform 800 dynamical simulations of the Nice model to determine how it would impact Mars.

These simulations incorporated recent geological evidence from Mars and Earth that indicate that Mars’ formation period was about 1/10th that of Earth’s. This has led to the theory that Mars was left behind as a “stranded planetary embryo” during the formation of the Sun’s inner planets. As Prof. Kaib explained to Universe Today via email, this study was therefore intended to test how Mars emerged from planetary formation as a planetary embryo:

“We simulated the “giant impact phase” of terrestrial planet formation (the final stage of the formation process). At the beginning of this phase, the inner Solar System (0.5-4 AU) consists of a disk of about 100 moon-to-mars-sized planetary embryos embedded in a sea of much smaller, more numerous rocky planetesimals. Over the course of 100-200 million years the bodies making up this system collide and merge into a handful (typically 2-5) rocky planetary mass bodies. Normally, these types of simple initial conditions build planets on Mars-like orbits that are about 10x more massive than Mars. However, when the terrestrial planet formation process is interrupted by the Nice model instability, many of the planet building blocks near the Mars region are lost or tossed into the Sun. This limits the growth of Mars-like planets and produces a closer match to our actual inner solar system.”

Size comparison between Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA

What they found was that this revised timeline explained the disparity between Mars and Earth. In short, Mars and Earth vary considerably in size, mass and density because the giant planets became unstable very early in the Solar System’s history. In the end, this is what allowed Earth to become the only life-bearing terrestrial planet in the Solar System, and for Mars to become the cold, desiccated and thinly-atmosphered place that it is today.

As Prof. Kaib explained, this is not the only model for explaining the disparity between Earth and Mars, but the evidence all fits:

“Without this instability, Mars likely would have had a mass closer to Earth’s and would be a very different, perhaps more Earth-like, planet compared to what it is today,” he said. “I should also say that this is not the only mechanism capable of explaining the low mass of Mars. However, we already know that the Nice model does an excellent job of reproducing many features of the outer Solar System, and if it occurs at the right time in the Solar System’s history it also ends up explaining our inner Solar System.”

This study could also have drastic implications when it comes to the study of extra-solar systems. At present, our models for how planets form and evolve are based on what we have been able to learn from our own Solar System. Hence, by learning more about how gas giants and terrestrial planets grew and assumed their current orbits, scientists will be able to create more comprehensive models of how life-bearing planets could merge around other stars.

It certainly would help narrow the search for “Earth-like” planets and (dare we dream?) planets that support life.

Further Reading: University of Oklahoma, Icarus

This Meteorite is One of the Few Remnants from a Lost Planet that was Destroyed Long Ago

What if our Solar System had another generation of planets that formed before, or alongside, the planets we have today? A new study published in Nature Communications on April 17th 2018 presents evidence that says that’s what happened. The first-generation planets, or planet, would have been destroyed during collisions in the earlier days of the Solar System and much of the debris swept up in the formation of new bodies.

This is not a new theory, but a new study brings new evidence to support it.

The evidence is in the form of a meteorite that crashed into Sudan’s Nubian Desert in 2008. The meteorite is known as 2008 TC3, or the Almahata Sitta meteorite. Inside the meteorite are tiny crystals called nanodiamonds that, according to this study, could only have formed in the high-pressure conditions within the growth of a planet. This contrasts previous thinking around these meteorites which suggests they formed as a result of powerful shockwaves created in collisions between parent bodies.

“We demonstrate that these large diamonds cannot be the result of a shock but rather of growth that has taken place within a planet.” – study co-author Philippe Gillet

Models of planetary formation show that terrestrial planets are formed by the accretion of smaller bodies into larger and larger bodies. Follow the process long enough, and you end up with planets like Earth. The smaller bodies that join together are typically between the size of the Moon and Mars. But evidence of these smaller bodies is hard to find.

One type of unique and rare meteorite, called a ureilite, could provide the evidence to back up the models, and that’s what fell to Earth in the Nubian Desert in 2008. Ureilites are thought to be the remnants of a lost planet that was formed in the first 10 million years of the Solar System, and then was destroyed in a collision.

Ureilites are different than other stony meteorites. They have a higher component of carbon than other meteorites, mostly in the form of the aforementioned nanodiamonds. Researchers from Switzerland, France and Germany examined the diamonds inside 2008 TC3 and determined that they probably formed in a small proto-planet about 4.55 billion years ago.

Philippe Gillet, one of the study’s co-authors, had this to say in an interview with Associated Press: “We demonstrate that these large diamonds cannot be the result of a shock but rather of growth that has taken place within a planet.”

According to the research presented in this paper, these nanodiamonds were formed under pressures of 200,000 bar (2.9 million psi). This means the mystery parent-planet would have to have been as big as Mercury, or even Mars.

The key to the study is the size of the nanodiamonds. The team’s results show the presence of diamond crystals as large as 100 micrometers. Though the nanodiamonds have since been segmented by a process called graphitization, the team is confident that these larger crystals are there. And they could only have been formed by static high-pressure growth in the interior of a planet. A collision shock wave couldn’t have done it.

This is what’s called a High-Angle Annular Dark-Field (HAADF) Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy (STEM) image. The image on the left shows diamond segments with similar crystal orientations. The image on the right is a magnification of the green square area. The orange lines highlight the inclusion trails, which match between the diamond segments. But those same trails are absent from the intersecting graphite. Image: Farhang Nabiei, Philippe Gillet, et. al.

But the parent body of the ureilite meteorite in the study would have to have been subject to collisions, otherwise where is it? In the case of this meteorite, a collision and resulting shock wave still played a role.

The study goes on to say that a collision took place some time after the parent body’s formation. And this collision would have produced the shock wave that caused the graphitization of the nanodiamonds.

The key evidence is in what are called High-Angle Annular Dark-Field (HAADF) Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy (STEM) images, as seen above. The image is two images in one, with the one on the right being a magnification of a part of the image on the left. On the left, dotted yellow lines indicate areas of diamond crystals separate from areas of graphite. On the right is a magnification of the green square.

The inclusion trails are what’s important here. On the right, the inclusion trails are highlighted with the orange lines. They clearly indicate inclusion lines that match between adjacent diamond segments. But the inclusion lines aren’t present in the intervening graphite. In the study, the researchers say this is “undeniable morphological evidence that the inclusions existed in diamond before these were broken into smaller pieces by graphitization.”

To summarize, this supports the idea that a small planet between the size of Mercury and Mars was formed in the first 10 million years of the Solar System. Inside that body, large nanodiamonds were formed by high-pressure growth. Eventually, that parent body was involved in a collision, which produced a shock wave. The shock wave then caused the graphitization of the nanodiamonds.

It’s an intriguing piece of evidence, and fits with what we know about the formation and evolution of our Solar System.

Sources:

New Saturn Storm Emerging?

Saturn Storm
Saturn Storm
The tell-tale white notch of a new storm system emerging on Saturn on April 1st. Image credit and copyright: Damian Peach.

Are you following the planets this season? The planetary action is about to heat up, as Jupiter, Saturn and Mars all head towards fine oppositions over the next few months.

Spying the Storms of Saturn

Astrophotographer Damian Peach raised the alarm on Twitter this past week of a possible bright storm emerging of the planet Saturn. The spot was noticeable even with the naked eye and in the raw video Peach captured, a sure sign that the storm was a biggie.

Though outbursts of clusters of white spots on the surface of Saturn aren’t uncommon, it’s rare to see one emerge at such a high latitude. The storm had faded considerably the next observing session Peach performed on April 5th, though observers should remain vigilant.

Saturn Storm 2
A storm subsiding? The followup view a few days later on April 5th. Image credit and copyright: Damian Peach.

It’s sad to think: Cassini and our eyes in the outer solar system are no more… and the situation will probably remain this way for some years to come. Juno also wraps up its mission at Jupiter (pending extension) this year, and New Horizons visits its final destination Ultima Thule (neé 2014 MU69) on New Year’s Day 2019, though it’ll likely continue to chronicle its journey through the outer realms of the solar system, much like the Voyager 1, 2 and Pioneer 10, 11 missions, also bound to orbit the galaxy, mute testaments to human civilization. But even though proposals for Europa Clipper, a nuclear-powered quad-copter for Saturn’s moon Titan, and a Uranus and/or Neptune Orbiter are all on the drawing board, the “gap decade” of outer solar system exploration will indeed come to pass and soon.

saturn storm
Catching a storm on Saturn, Cassini style. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

But dedicated amateur astronomers continue to monitor the outer solar system for changes. This month sees Saturn rising around 1:30 AM local and transiting highest to the south for northern hemisphere observers at 6:00 AM local, just before sunrise. Saturn crosses the constellation Sagittarius in 2018, bottoming out at its most southerly point this year for its 29 year path around the Sun. Saturn currently shines at +0.4 magnitude, extending 40” across (including rings) as it heads towards a fine opposition on June 27th. After opposition, Saturn formally crosses into the dusk sky. The amazing rings are an automatic draw, but last week’s storm admonishes us not to forget to check out the saffron-colored disk of Saturn itself as well. For example, I’ve always wondered: why didn’t we see the hexagon before? It’s right there festooning the northern hemisphere cap, plain as day in modern amateur images… to be sure, we’re in a modern renaissance of planetary astrophotography today, what with image stacking and processing, but surely eagle-eyed observers of yore could’ve easily picked this feature out.

And the view is changing as well, as Saturn’s rings reached a maximum tilt in respect to our line of sight of 27 degrees in 2017, and now head back towards edge-on again in 2025. And be sure to check out Saturn’s retinue of moons, half a dozen of which are easily visible in a telescope at even low power.

Finally, here’s another elemental mystery poised by Saturn related to the current storm, one that Cassini sought to solve in its final days: how fast does Saturn rotate, exactly? The usual rough guesstimate quoted is usually around 10.5 hours, but we’ve yet to pin down this fundamental value with any degree of precession.

One thing’s definitely for sure: we need to go back. In the meantime, we can enjoy the early morning views of the most glorious of the planets in our Solar System.