The discovery of over 4000 planets (4,171 confirmed and counting!) beyond our Solar System has revolutionized the field of astronomy. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of all these discoveries is how it has shaken up theories about how our Solar System formed. In the past, astronomers thought that the eight planets (or nine, or over one hundred, depending on your point of view) formed where they are currently located.
However, the discovery of gas giants that orbit close to their stars (aka. “Hot Jupiters”) has confounded this thinking. But according to a recent NASA-supported study, the recent discovery of a young gas giant could offer clues as to how Jupiter-like planets form and whether or not they migrate. This discovery was made possible thanks to the Spitzer Space Telescope, which continues to reveal things about our Universe even in retirement.
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope may be retired, but the things it witnessed during its sixteen and a half year mission will be the subject of study for many years to come. For instance, Spitzer is the only telescope to witness something truly astounding occurring at the center of the distant galaxy OJ 287: a supermassive black hole (SMBH) orbited by another black hole that regularly passes through its accretion disk.
Whenever this happens, it causes a flash that is brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined. Using Spitzer‘s observations, an international team of astronomers was able to finally create a model that accurately predicts the timing of these flashes and the orbit of the smaller black hole. In addition to demonstrating General Relativity in action, their findings also provide validation to Stephen Hawking‘s “no-hair theorem.”
On Jan. 30th, 2020, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was retired after sixteen years of faithful service. As one of the four NASA Great Observatories – alongside Hubble, Chandra, and Compton space telescopes – Spitzer was dedicated to studying the Universe in infrared light. In so doing, it provided new insights into our Universe and enabled the study of objects and phenomena that would otherwise be impossible.
For instance, Spitzer was the first telescope to see light from an exoplanet and made important discoveries about comets, stars, and distant galaxies. It is therefore fitting that mission scientists decided to spend the last five days before the telescope was to be decommissioned capturing breathtaking images of the California Nebula, which were stitched into a mosaic and recently released to the public.
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has reached the end of its life. Its mission was to study objects in the infrared, and it excelled at that since it was launched in 2003. But every mission has an end, and on January 30th 2020, Spitzer shut down.
The field of exoplanet research continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Thanks to missions like the Kepler Space Telescope, over four-thousand planets have been discovered beyond our Solar System, with more being confirmed all the time. Thanks to these discoveries and all that we’ve learned from them, the focus has begun to transition from the process of discovery to characterization.
For instance, a group of astronomers was able to image the surface of a planet orbiting a red dwarf star for the first time. Using data from the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, the team was able to provide a rare glimpse at the conditions on the planet’s surface. And while those conditions were rather inhospitable – akin to something like Hades, but with less air to breathe – this represents a major breakthrough in the study of exoplanets.
The super-Earth 55 Cancri e (aka. Janssen) is somewhat famous, as exoplanet go. Originally discovered in 2004, this world was one of the few whose discovery predated the Kepler mission. By 2016, it was also the first exoplanet to have its atmosphere successfully characterized. Over the years, several studies have been conducted on this planet that revealed some rather interesting things about its composition and structure.
For example, scientists believed at one time that 55 Cancri e was a “diamond planet“, whereas more recent work based on data from the Spitzer Space Telescope concluded that its surface was covered in lakes of hot lava. However, a new study conducted by scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory indicates that despite its intense surface heat, 55 Cancri e has an atmosphere that is comparable to Earth’s, only much hotter!
The study, titled “A Case for an Atmosphere on Super-Earth 55 Cancri e“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. Led by Isabel Angelo (a physics major with UC Berkeley) with the assistance of Renyu Hu – a astronomer and Hubble Fellow with JPL and Caltech – the pair conducted a more detailed analysis of the Spitzer data to determine the likelihood and composition of an atmosphere around 55 Cancri e.
Previous studies of the planet noted that this super-Earth (which is twice as large as our planet), orbits very close to its star. As a result, it has a very short orbital period of about 17 hours and 40 minutes and is tidally locked (with one side constantly facing towards the star). Between June and July of 2013, Spitzer observed 55 Cancri e and obtained temperature data using its special infrared camera.
Initially, the temperature data was seen as being an indication that large deposits of lava existed on the surface. However, after re-analyzing this data and combining it with a new model previously develop by Hu, the team began to doubt this explanation. According to their findings, the planet must have a thick atmosphere, since lava lakes exposed to space would create hots spots of high temperatures.
What’s more, they also noted that the temperature differences between the day and night side were not as significant as previously thought – another indication of an atmosphere. By comparing changes in the planet’s brightness to energy flow models, the team concluded that an atmosphere with volatile materials was the best explanation for the high temperatures. As Renyu Hu explained in a recent NASA press statement:
“If there is lava on this planet, it would need to cover the entire surface. But the lava would be hidden from our view by the thick atmosphere. Scientists have been debating whether this planet has an atmosphere like Earth and Venus, or just a rocky core and no atmosphere, like Mercury. The case for an atmosphere is now stronger than ever.”
Using Hu’s improved model of how heat would flow throughout the planet and radiate back into space, they found that temperatures on the day side would average about 2573 K (2,300 °C; 4,200 °F). Meanwhile, temperatures on the “cold” side would average about 1573 – 1673 K (1,300 – 1,400 °C; 2,400 – to 2,600 °F). If the planet had no atmosphere, the differences in temperature would be far more extreme.
As for the composition of this atmosphere, Angelo and Hu revealed that it is likely similar to Earth’s – containing nitrogen, water and even oxygen. While much hotter, the atmospheric density also appeared to be similar to that of Earth, which suggests the planet is most likely rocky (aka. terrestrial) in composition. On the downside, the temperatures are far too hot for the surface to maintain liquid water, which makes habitability a non-starter.
Ultimately, this study was made possible thanks to Hu’s development of a method that makes the study exoplanet atmospheres and surfaces easier. Angelo, who led the study, worked on it as part of her internship with JPL and adapted Hu’s model to 55 Cancri e. Previously, this model had only been applied to mass gas giants that orbit close to their respective suns (aka. “Hot Jupiters”).
Naturally, there are unresolved questions that this study helps to raise, such as how 55 Cancri e has avoided losing its atmosphere to space. Given how close the planet orbits to its star, and the fact that it’s tidally locked, it would be subject to intense amounts of radiation. Further studies may help to reveal how this is the case, and will help advance our understanding of large, rocky planets.
The application of this model to a Super-Earth is the perfect example of how exoplanet research has been evolving in recent years. Initially, scientists were restricted to studying gas giants that orbit close to their stars (as well as their respective atmospheres) since these are the easiest to spot and characterize. But thanks to improvements in instrumentation and methods, the range of planets we are capable of studying is growing.
Images of the Crab Nebula are always a treat because it has such intriguing and varied structure. Also, just knowing that this stellar explosion was witnessed and recorded by people on Earth more than 900 years ago (with the supernova visible to the naked eye for about two years) gives this nebula added fascination.
A new image just might be the biggest Crab Nebula treat ever, as five different observatories combined forces to create an incredibly detailed view, with stunning details of the nebula’s interior region.
Data from the five telescopes span nearly the entire breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves seen by the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to the powerful X-ray glow as seen by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory. And, in between that range of wavelengths, the Hubble Space Telescope’s crisp visible-light view, and the infrared perspective of the Spitzer Space Telescope.
The Crab is 6,500 light-years from Earth and spans about 10 light-years in diameter. The supernova that created it was first witnessed in 1054 A. D. At its center is a super-dense neutron star that is as massive as the Sun but with only the size of a small town. This pulsar rotates every 33 milliseconds, shooting out spinning lighthouse-like beams of radio waves and light. The pulsar can be seen as the bright dot at the center of the image.
Scientists say the nebula’s intricate shape is caused by a complex interplay of the pulsar, a fast-moving wind of particles coming from the pulsar, and material originally ejected by the supernova explosion and by the star itself before the explosion.
For this new image, the VLA, Hubble, and Chandra observations all were made at nearly the same time in November of 2012. A team of scientists led by Gloria Dubner of the Institute of Astronomy and Physics (IAFE), the National Council of Scientific Research (CONICET), and the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina then made a thorough analysis of the newly revealed details in a quest to gain new insights into the complex physics of the object. They are reporting their findings in the Astrophysical Journal (see the pre-print here).
About the central region, the team writes, “The new HST NIR [near infrared] image of the central region shows the well-known elliptical torus around the pulsar, composed of a series of concentric narrow features of variable intensity and width… The comparison of the radio and the X-ray emission distributions in the central region suggests the existence of a double-jet system from the pulsar, one detected in X-rays and the other in radio. None of them starts at the pulsar itself but in its environs.”
“Comparing these new images, made at different wavelengths, is providing us with a wealth of new detail about the Crab Nebula. Though the Crab has been studied extensively for years, we still have much to learn about it,” Dubner said.
In an encouraging find for habitability researchers, astronomers have detected molecules on the smallest planet ever — a Neptune-sized planet about 120 light-years from Earth. The team behind the discovery says this means the dream of understanding the atmospheres on planets even closer to size of Earth is getting closer.
“The work we are doing now is important for future studies of super-Earths and even smaller planets, because we want to be able to pick out in advance the planets with clear atmospheres that will let us detect molecules,” stated co-author Heather Knutson, of the California Institute of Technology.
This particular world is not life-friendly as we understand it, however. Called HAT-P-11b, it’s not only a gas giant but also a planet that orbits extremely close to its star — making one circle every five days. And unusually among planets of its size that were previously probed by astronomers, it appears to have clear skies.
The team examined the world using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, looking at the planet as it passed across the face of its star. The team compared the signature of elements observed when the planet was in front of the star and when it was not, and discovered telltale signs of water vapor in its atmosphere.
While other planets outside our solar system are known to have water vapor, the ones previously examined are much larger. Jupiter-sized planets are much easier to examine not only because they are larger, but their atmospheres puff up more (making them more visible from Earth.)
To confirm the water vapor was not a false signal from sunspots on the parent star (which also can contain it), the team used the Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes to confirm the information. (Kepler’s single field of view around the constellation Cygnus, which it had been peering at for about four years, happily included the zone where HAT-P-11b was orbiting.) The infrared information from Spitzer and the visible-light data from Kepler both showed the sunspots were too hot for water vapor.
Further, the discovery shows there were no clouds in the way of the observations — a first for planets of that size. The team also hopes that super-Earths could have clear skies, allowing astronomers to analyze their atmospheres.
“When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say ‘clear skies’ to mean good luck,” stated lead author Jonathan Fraine, of the University of Maryland, College Park. “In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That’s lucky for us because it means clouds didn’t block our view of water molecules.”
After NASA recommended in May that Spitzer space telescope officials send in a revised budget or face possible termination of operations, in a turnaround, the agency’s science mission directorate has now agreed to extend the mission for another two years.
The news broke on Twitter yesterday when the NASA Spitzer account shared the news. An update posted on its website said the decision is “subject to the availability of Congressional appropriations in FY [fiscal year] 2015”, but added that there will soon be a call out for observing time in that period.
Previously, NASA informed Spitzer officials that due to “constrained budget conditions” that their initial request to extend operations past fiscal 2015 was not approved, in line with recommendations from the NASA senior astrophysics review. While the mission was not terminated at that time, officials were asked to “respond with a request for a budget augmentation to conduct continued operations with reduced operations costs.”
The mission was being reviewed at the same time as other astrophysics missions, such as the Kepler planet-hunting space telescope that was asking for (and received) a new mission that would allow it to do useful science despite two busted reaction wheels, or pointing devices. The review said Spitzer was the most expensive of the missions reviewed, and that the telescope’s abilities were “significantly reduced” after it ran out of coolant in 2009.
In an update on the Spitzer website, officials shared more details but did not say if the budget had been reformulated in response to NASA’s suggestion.
We are very happy to report that Spitzer operations have been extended by the NASA Science Mission Directorate for two more years! The letter of direction states: “The Science Mission Directorate has made the decision to extend Spitzer operations for the next two years. The Spitzer observatory is an important resource for on-going infrared observations for research programs across the Science Mission Directorate, and, subject to the availability of Congressional appropriations in FY 2015, it will be continued. Both the Astrophysics and the Planetary Science Divisions have requested observing time commitments for FY 2015, and both Divisions have committed funding to support their observations.” We are working hard to get a call for observing proposals issued by the end of July. And thank you to all the people at NASA Headquarters and in the community that have worked so hard to support science with Spitzer.
Brazilian astronomers have discovered some 300+ star clusters that were largely overlooked owing to sizable obscuration by dust. The astronomers, from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, used data obtained by NASA’s WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer) space telescope to detect the clusters.
“WISE is a powerful tool to probe … young clusters throughout the Galaxy”, remarked the group. The clusters discovered were previously overlooked because the constituent stars are deeply embedded in their parent molecular cloud, and are encompassed by dust. Stars and star clusters can emerge from such environments.
The group added that, “The present catalog of new clusters will certainly become a major source for future studies of star cluster formation.” Indeed, WISE is well-suited to identify new stars and their host clusters because infrared radiation is less sensitive to dust obscuration. The infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum is sampled by WISE.
Historically, new star clusters were often identified while inspecting photographic plates imaged at (or near) visible wavelengths (i.e., the same wavelengths sampled by the eye). Young embedded clusters were consequently under-sampled since the amount of obscuration by dust is wavelength dependent. As indicated in the figure above, the infrared observations penetrate the dust by comparison to optical observations.
The latest generation of infrared survey telescopes (e.g., Spitzer and WISE) are thus excellent instruments for detecting clusters embedded in their parent cloud, or hidden from detection because of dust lying along the sight-line. The team notes that, “The Galaxy appears to contain 100000 open clusters, but only some 2000 have established astrophysical parameters.” It is hoped that continued investigations using WISE and Spitzer will help astronomers minimize that gap.