It’s been said many times that the most Earthlike world in our solar system is not a planet at all, but rather Saturn’s moon Titan. At first it may not seem obvious why; being only a bit larger than the planet Mercury and coated in a thick opaque atmosphere containing methane and hydrocarbons, Titan sure doesn’t look like our home planet. But once it’s realized that this is the only moon known to even have a substantial atmosphere, and that atmosphere creates a hydrologic cycle on its surface that mimics Earth’s – complete with weather, rain, and gully-carving streams that feed liquid methane into enormous lakes – the similarities become more evident. Which, of course, is precisely why Titan continues to hold such fascination for scientists.
Now, researchers have identified yet another similarity between Saturn’s hazy moon and our own planet: Titan’s energy budget is in equilibrium, making it much more like Earth than the gas giant it orbits.
A team of researchers led by Liming Li of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston in Texas has completed the first-ever investigation of the energy balance of Titan, using data acquired by telescopes and the Cassini spacecraft from 2004 to 2010.
Energy balance (or “budget”) refers to the radiation a planet or moon receives from the Sun versus what it puts out. Saturn, Jupiter and Neptune emit more energy than they receive, which indicates an internal energy source. Earth radiates about the same amount as it receives, so it is said to be in equilibrium… similar to what is now shown to be the case for Titan.
The energy absorption and reflection rates of a planet’s – or moon’s! – atmosphere are important clues to the state of its climate and weather. Different balances of energy or changes in those balances can indicate climate change – global cooling or global warming, for instance.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Titan is a balmy world. At nearly 300 degrees below zero (F) it has an environment that even the most extreme Earth-based life would find inhospitable. Although Titan’s atmosphere is ten times thicker than Earth’s its composition is very different, permitting easy passage of infrared radiation (a.k.a. “heat”) and thus exhibits an “anti-greenhouse” effect, unlike Earth or, on the opposite end of the scale, Venus.
Still, some stable process is in place on Saturn’s moon that allows for distribution of solar energy across its surface, within its atmosphere and back out into space. With results due in from Cassini from a flyby on Jan. 2, perhaps there will soon be even more clues as to what that may be.
The team’s report was published in the AGU’s Geophysical Research Letters on December 15, 2011. Li, L., et al. (2011), The global energy balance of Titan, Geophys. Res. Lett., 38, L23201, doi:10.1029/2011GL050053.
Take a good close look at the Moon today and consider this; Two new Moon’s just reached orbit.
NASA is ringing in the New Year with a double dose of champagne toasts celebrating the back to back triumphal insertions of a pair of tiny probes into tandem lunar orbits this weekend that seek to unravel the hidden mysteries lurking deep inside the Moon and figure out how the inner solar system formed eons ago.
“Now we have them both in orbit. What a great feeling!!!!” NASA manager Jim Green told Universe Today just minutes after the thruster firing was done. Green is NASA’s Director of Planetary Science and witnessed the events inside Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Ca.
“It’s the best New Year’s ever!!” Green gushed with glee.
The new lunar arrivals of GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B capped a perfect year for NASA’s Planetary Science research in 2011.
“Cheers in JPL mission control as everything is looking good for GRAIL-B. It’s going to be a great 2012!!” JPL tweeted shortly after confirming the burn successfully placed GRAIL-B into the desired elliptical orbit.
After years of hard work, GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber of MIT told Universe Today that she was very “relieved”, soon after hearing the good news at JPL Mission Control.
“Since GRAIL was originally selected I’ve believed this day would come,” Zuber told me shortly after the GRAIL-B engine firing was declared a success on New Year’s Day.
“But it’s difficult to convey just how relieved I am right now. Time for the Science Team to start their engines !”
At 2:43 p.m. PST (5:43 p.m. EST) on New Year’s Day, the main thruster aboard GRAIL-B automatically commenced firing to slow down the spacecraft’s approach speed by about 430 MPH (691 kph) and allow it to be captured into orbit by the Moon’s gravity. The preprogrammed maneuver lasted about 39 minutes and was nearly identical to the GRAIL-A firing 25 hours earlier.
The hydrazine fueled main thrusters placed the dynamic spacecraft duo into near-polar, highly elliptical orbits.
Over the next two months, engineers will trim the orbits of both spacecraft to a near-polar, near-circular formation flying orientation. Their altitudes will be lowered to about 34 miles (55 kilometers) and the orbital periods trimmed from their initial 11.5 hour duration to about two hours.
The science phase begins in March 2012. For 82 days, the mirror image GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B probes will be flying in tandem with an average separation of about 200 kilometers as the Moon rotates beneath.
“GRAIL is a Journey to the Center of the Moon,” Zuber explained at a media briefing. “It will use exceedingly precise measurements of gravity to reveal what the inside of the Moon is like.”
As one satellite follows the other, in the same orbit, they will perform high precision range-rate measurements to precisely measure the changing distance between each other to within 1 micron, the width of a red blood cell, using a Ka-band instrument.
When the first satellite goes over a higher mass concentration, or higher gravity, it will speed up slightly. And that will increase the distance. Then as the second satellite goes over, that distance will close again.
The data returned will be translated into gravitational field maps of the Moon that will help unravel information about the makeup of the Moon’s mysterious core and interior composition. GRAIL will gather three complete gravity maps over the three month mission.
“There have been many missions that have gone to the Moon, orbited the Moon, landed on the Moon, brought back samples of the Moon,” said Zuber. “But the missing piece of the puzzle in trying to understand the Moon is what the deep interior is like.”
“Is there a core? How did the core form? How did the interior convect? What are the impact basins on the near-side flooded with magma and give us this Man-in-the-Moon shape whereas the back side of the Moon doesn’t have any of this? These are all mysteries that despite the fact we’ve studied the Moon before, we don’t understand how that has happened. GRAIL is a mission that is going to tell us that.”
“We think the answer is locked in the interior,” Zuber elaborated.
How will the twins be oriented in orbit to gather the data ?
“The probes will be pointed at one another to make the highly precise measurements,” said GRAIL co-investigator Sami Asmar of JPL to Universe Today. “The concept has heritage from the US/German GRACE earth orbiting satellites which mapped Earth’s gravity field. GRACE required the use of GPS satellites for exactly knowing the position, but there is no GPS at the Moon. So GRAIL was altered to compensate for no GPS at the Moon.”
GRAIL will map the gravity field by 100 to 1000 times better than ever before.
“We will learn more about the interior of the Moon with GRAIL than all previous lunar missions combined,” says Ed Weiler, the recently retired NASA Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.
The GRAIL twins blasted off from Florida mounted side by side atop a Delta II booster on September 10, 2011 and took a circuitous 3.5 month low energy path to the Moon to minimize the overall costs.
So when you next look at the sky tonight and in the coming weeks just imagine those mirror image GRAIL twins circling about seeeking to determine how we all came to be !
It’s another new year and time to remember to write new dates again. While it might take a few weeks to remember to do it right first time, Johns Hopkins Scholars say our traditional calendar needs a major overhaul. By utilizing computer programs and mathematical formulas, Richard Conn Henry, an astrophysicist in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and Steve H. Hanke, an applied economist in the Whiting School of Engineering, have devised a new calendar where each year is identical to the year before it… and the year after.
Dubbed the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar, there would be no problem remembering dates. For example, if your birthday was Thursday, May 10, it would remain Thursday, May 10 throughout eternity. Can you fathom holidays always being on the same day of the week? Or a weekend date always remaining the same? All the same… Always.
“Our plan offers a stable calendar that is absolutely identical from year to year and which allows the permanent, rational planning of annual activities, from school to work holidays,” says Henry, who is also director of the Maryland Space Grant Consortium. “Think about how much time and effort are expended each year in redesigning the calendar of every single organization in the world and it becomes obvious that our calendar would make life much simpler and would have noteworthy benefits.”
Of course, it would seem rational to have certain dated functions, such as work holidays, religious holidays and even birthdays fall on the same date each year. However, according to Hanke, an expert in international economics, the monetary benefits would be the real motivation behind such a change… ones that should motivate the consumer.
“Our calendar would simplify financial calculations and eliminate what we call the ‘rip off’ factor,” explains Hanke. “Determining how much interest accrues on mortgages, bonds, forward rate agreements, swaps and others, day counts are required. Our current calendar is full of anomalies that have led to the establishment of a wide range of conventions that attempt to simplify interest calculations. Our proposed permanent calendar has a predictable 91-day quarterly pattern of two months of 30 days and a third month of 31 days, which does away with the need for artificial day count conventions.”
But is the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar a true progression over various forms of permanent calendars that have been proposed before? “Attempts at reform have failed in the past because all of the major ones have involved breaking the seven-day cycle of the week, which is not acceptable to many people because it violates the Fourth Commandment about keeping the Sabbath Day,” Henry explains. “Our version never breaks that cycle.”
Sure, the current Gregorian calendar has been working for 430 years now. What’s the point in change? It, too, was an alteration to a calendar put forth in 46 BC by Julius Caesar to stay in sync with the changing seasons. The real problem is we humans just have to deal with a celestial calendar in which a true year is 365.2422 days long. The new calendar simply proposes we add an extra week every so often to make up for the fragmented days. But personally, I can’t see where this is any different than the concept we are already working under! If we’re adding an extra week every five or six years at the end of December, is that really any different than the few months that sport an extra day…. or leap year for that matter?
Yeah. Well, they don’t want to stop there, either. They are also in favor of doing away with world time zones by fully adopting GMT. “One time throughout the world, one date throughout the world,” they write, in a January 2012 Global Asia article about their proposals. “Business meetings, sports schedules and school calendars would be identical every year. Today’s cacophony of time zones, daylight savings times and calendar fluctuations, year after year, would be over. The economy – that’s all of us – would receive a permanent ‘harmonization’ dividend.”
Is it really harmony or just another way of putting us in neat, little boxes? Maybe we humans like our confusion. Maybe if it’s not broke, we don’t need to fix it. For those of us who practice astronomy, we already use both GMT and (in some circumstances) a Julian calendar as well. Do we really need to standardize everything? We’ve tried with money and we’ve tried with measurements. What’s next? We should all be born the same sex with exactly the same features so we can standardize the human population, too? Think of all the money that could be saved from the fashion industry alone! Then we’d need to have exactly the same tastes. That would make it ever so much easier to standardize food. No need to be wasting perfectly good dishes because one liked it and one didn’t. Maybe we all need the same sense of humor, that way we could just tell standard jokes. Perhaps we could all find exactly the same set of tones agreeable, so one song would do us all. Of course, it’s just my opinion, but…
Now that the old year has drawn to a close, it’s traditional to take stock. And why not think big and take stock of everything there is?
Let’s base our inventory on energy. And as Einstein taught us that energy and mass are equivalent, that means automatically taking stock of all the mass that’s in the universe, as well – including all the different forms of matter we might be interested in.
Of course, since the universe might well be infinite in size, we can’t simply add up all the energy. What we’ll do instead is look at fractions: How much of the energy in the universe is in the form of planets? How much is in the form of stars? How much is plasma, or dark matter, or dark energy?
These fractions will have changed a lot over time, of course. Around 13.7 billion years ago, in the Big Bang phase, there would have been no stars at all. And the number of, say, neutron stars or stellar black holes will have grown continuously as more and more massive stars have ended their lives, producing these kinds of stellar remnants. For this chart, following Fukugita and Peebles, we’ll look at the present era. What is the current distribution of energy in the universe? Unsurprisingly, the values given in that article come with different uncertainties – after all, the authors are extrapolating to a pretty grand scale! The details can be found in Fukugita & Peebles’ article; for us, their most important conclusion is that the observational data and their theoretical bases are now indeed firm enough for an approximate, but differentiated and consistent picture of the cosmic inventory to emerge.
Let’s start with what’s closest to our own home. How much of the energy (equivalently, mass) is in the form of planets? As it turns out: not a lot. Based on extrapolations from what data we have about exoplanets (that is, planets orbiting stars other than the sun), just one part-per-million (1 ppm) of all energy is in the form of planets; in scientific notation: 10-6. Let’s take “1 ppm” as the basic unit for our first chart, and represent it by a small light-green square. (Fractions of 1 ppm will be represented by partially filled such squares.) Here is the first box (of three), listing planets and other contributions of about the same order of magnitude:
So what else is in that box? Other forms of condensed matter, mainly cosmic dust, account for 2.5 ppm, according to rough extrapolations based on observations within our home galaxy, the Milky Way. Among other things, this is the raw material for future planets!
For the next contribution, a jump in scale. To the best of our knowledge, pretty much every galaxy contains a supermassive black hole (SMBH) in its central region. Masses for these SMBHs vary between a hundred thousand times the mass of our Sun and several billion solar masses. Matter falling into such a black hole (and getting caught up, intermittently, in super-hot accretion disks swirling around the SMBHs) is responsible for some of the brightest phenomena in the universe: active galaxies, including ultra high-powered quasars. The contribution of matter caught up in SMBHs to our energy inventory is rather modest, though: about 4 ppm; possibly a bit more.
Who else is playing in the same league? The sum total of all electromagnetic radiation produced by stars and by active galaxies (to name the two most important sources) over the course of the last billions of years, to name one: 2 ppm. Also, neutrinos produced during supernova explosions (at the end of the life of massive stars), or in the formation of white dwarfs (remnants of lower-mass stars like our Sun), or simply as part of the ordinary fusion processes that power ordinary stars: 3.2 ppm all in all.
Then, there’s binding energy: If two components are bound together, you will need to invest energy in order to separate them. That’s why binding energy is negative – it’s an energy deficit you will need to overcome to pry the system’s components apart. Nuclear binding energy, from stars fusing together light elements to form heavier ones, accounts for -6.3 ppm in the present universe – and the total gravitational binding energy accumulated as stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters, other gravitationally bound objects and the large-scale structure of the universe have formed over the past 14 or so billion years, for an even larger -13.4 ppm. All in all, the negative contributions from binding energy more than cancel out all the positive contributions by planets, radiation, neutrinos etc. we’ve listed so far.
Which brings us to the next level. In order to visualize larger contributions, we need a change scale. In box 2, one square will represent a fraction of 1/20,000 or 0.00005. Put differently: Fifty of the little squares in the first box correspond to a single square in the second box:
So here, without further ado, is box 2 (including, in the upper right corner, a scale model of the first box):
Now we are in the realm of stars and related objects. By measuring the luminosity of galaxies, and using standard relations between the masses and luminosity of stars (“mass-to-light-ratio”), you can get a first estimate for the total mass (equivalently: energy) contained in stars. You’ll also need to use the empirical relation (“initial mass function”) for how this mass is distributed, though: How many massive stars should there be? How many lower-mass stars? Since different stars have different lifetimes (live massively, die young), this gives estimates for how many stars out there are still in the prime of life (“main sequence stars”) and how many have already died, leaving white dwarfs (from low-mass stars), neutron stars (from more massive stars) or stellar black holes (from even more massive stars) behind. The mass distribution also provides you with an estimate of how much mass there is in substellar objects such as brown dwarfs – objects which never had sufficient mass to make it to stardom in the first place.
Let’s start small with the neutron stars at 0.00005 (1 square, at our current scale) and the stellar black holes (0.00007). Interestingly, those are outweighed by brown dwarfs which, individually, have much less mass, but of which there are, apparently, really a lot (0.00014; this is typical of stellar mass distribution – lots of low-mass stars, much fewer massive ones.) Next come white dwarfs as the remnants of lower-mass stars like our Sun (0.00036). And then, much more than all the remnants or substellar objects combined, ordinary, main sequence stars like our Sun and its higher-mass and (mostly) lower-mass brethren (0.00205).
Interestingly enough, in this box, stars and related objects contribute about as much mass (or energy) as more undifferentiated types of matter: molecular gas (mostly hydrogen molecules, at 0.00016), hydrogen and helium atoms (HI and HeI, 0.00062) and, most notably, the plasma that fills the void between galaxies in large clusters (0.0018) add up to a whopping 0.00258. Stars, brown dwarfs and remnants add up to 0.00267.
Further contributions with about the same order of magnitude are survivors from our universe’s most distant past: The cosmic background radiation (CMB), remnant of the extremely hot radiation interacting with equally hot plasma in the big bang phase, contributes 0.00005; the lesser-known cosmic neutrino background, another remnant of that early equilibrium, contributes a remarkable 0.0013. The binding energy from the first primordial fusion events (formation of light elements within those famous “first three minutes”) gives another contribution in this range: -0.00008.
While, in the previous box, the matter we love, know and need was not dominant, it at least made a dent. This changes when we move on to box 3. In this box, one square corresponds to 0.005. In other words: 100 squares from box 2 add up to a single square in box 3:
Box 3 is the last box of our chart. Again, a scale model of box 2 is added for comparison: All that’s in box 2 corresponds to one-square-and-a-bit in box 3.
The first new contribution: warm intergalactic plasma. Its presence is deduced from the overall amount of ordinary matter (which follows from measurements of the cosmic background radiation, combined with data from surveys and measurements of the abundances of light elements) as compared with the ordinary matter that has actually been detected (as plasma, stars, e.g.). From models of large-scale structure formation, it follows that this missing matter should come in the shape (non-shape?) of a diffuse plasma, which isn’t dense (or hot) enough to allow for direct detection. This cosmic filler substance amounts to 0.04, or 85% of ordinary matter, showing just how much of a fringe phenomena those astronomical objects we usually hear and read about really are.
The final two (dominant) contributions come as no surprise for anyone keeping up with basic cosmology: dark matter at 23% is, according to simulations, the backbone of cosmic large-scale structure, with ordinary matter no more than icing on the cake. Last but not least, there’s dark energy with its contribution of 72%, responsible both for the cosmos’ accelerated expansion and for the 2011 physics Nobel Prize.
Minority inhabitants of a part-per-million type of object made of non-standard cosmic matter – that’s us. But at the same time, we are a species, that, its cosmic fringe position notwithstanding, has made remarkable strides in unravelling the big picture – including the cosmic inventory represented in this chart.
Here is the full chart for you to download: the PNG version (1200×900 px, 233 kB) or the lovingly hand-crafted SVG version (29 kB).
The chart “The Cosmic Energy Inventory” is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0. In short: You’re free to use it non-commercially; you must add the proper credit line “Markus Pössel [www.haus-der-astronomie.de]”; if you adapt the work, the result must be available under this or a similar license.
Technical notes: As is common in astrophysics, Fukugita and Peebles give densities as fractions of the so-called critical density; in the usual cosmological models, that density, evaluated at any given time (in this case: the present), is critical for determining the geometry of the universe. Using very precise measurements of the cosmic background radiation, we know that the average density of the universe is indistinguishable from the critical density. For simplicity’s sake, I’m skipping this detour in the main text and quoting all of F & P’s numbers as “fractions of the universe’s total energy (density)”.
For the supermassive black hole contributions, I’ve neglected the fraction ?n in F & P’s article; that’s why I’m quoting a lower limit only. The real number could theoretically be twice the quoted value; it’s apparently more likely to be close to the value given here, though. For my gravitational binding energy, I’ve added F & P’s primeval gravitational binding energy (no. 4 in their list) and their binding energy from dissipative gravitational settling (no. 5).
The fact that the content of box 3 adds up not quite to 1, but to 0.997, is an artefact of rounding not quite consistently when going from box 2 to box 3. I wanted to keep the sum of all that’s in box 2 at the precision level of that box.
It has been said that the atmosphere on Titan is so dense that a person could strap a pair of wings on their back and soar through its skies.
It’s a pretty fascinating thought. And Titan – Saturn’s largest moon – is a pretty fascinating place. After all, it’s the only other body in our solar system (besides Earth, of course) that has that type of atmosphere and evidence of liquid on its surface.
“As far as its scientific interest, Titan is the most interesting target in the Solar System,” Dr. Jason W. Barnes of the University of Idaho told Universe Today.
That’s why Barnes and a team of 30 scientists and engineers created an unmanned mission concept to explore Titan called AVIATR (Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance). The plan, which primarily consists of a 120 kg plane soaring through the natural satellite’s atmosphere, was published online late last month.
The goal of the plane concept – which according to Barnes can serve as a standalone mission or as part of a larger Titan-focused exploration program – is to study the moon’s geography (its mountains, dunes, lakes and seas), as well as its atmosphere (the wind, haze, clouds and rain. Did you know that Titan is the only other place is our solar system where it rains?)
AVIATR is composed of three vehicles: one for space travel, one for entry and descent into Titan, and a plane to fly through the atmosphere. AVIATR, estimated to cost $715 million, would not prevent other missions from occurring on Titan, Barnes said. Instead, it would supplement the science being done by other projects.
“The science that AVIATR could do complements the science that can be accomplished from both orbiting and landed platforms,” the article stated.
Unfortunately, it seems like the plane concept won’t be happening anytime soon.
That’s because Titan didn’t make the National Research Council’s “Decadal Survey” – a prioritization of future planetary missions. (Read more about the survey in this Universe Today post.)
“Titan was deferred to another decade,” Barnes said.
But, he hopes to continue to build support for AVIATR so that it can get onto the next decadal survey in 2020. “We certainly had a lot of interest from people. We are breaking the paradigm that a balloon was the right way to go to Titan,” Barnes said.
So, why send an unmanned plane to study Titan’s atmosphere?
“Titan is the best place to fly an airplane in the whole solar system. We can go when and where we want,” Barnes said, adding that when compared to Earth, there’s four times more air and seven times less gravity on Titan. “A balloon is stuck in the wind.”
According to the article:
“A balloon entrained in primarily zonal winds near the equator would have no mechanism by which to travel to the polar regions to observe lakes and shoreline processes. Even if it were possible to get there, it is not clear that it would be desirable to send a balloon to the poles where Titan’s most violent meteorological activity takes place. AVIATR is both able to fly to the poles and is sufficiently robust to survive there.”
There’s also this issue: A shortage of plutonium-238.
“The radioactive decay of plutonium-238 provides the heat that powers RTGs, which can power spacecraft where there is insufficient sunlight for solar panels to operate. NASA is presently investing in a new type of RTG, called the ASRG,” the article stated. “A traditional hot-air balloon will not work on Titan with an ASRG owing to its lower heat production. In contrast, the AVIATR mission is specifically enabled by the use of ASRGs. The power density (in Watts per kilogram) and longevity of the ASRG allow an electrically-powered aircraft to fly on Titan.”
A plane could also find potential landing spots for future exploration. And, “since we are flying, we fly west the whole time so we can stay on the day side of Titan,” Barnes said.
That daylight would also help AVIATR collect photographic data during its travels and, according to Barnes, when it’s time to downlink that information, the plane would conserve energy by gliding through the air.
“And in doing so, we can also sample of bunch of altitude ranges,” Barnes said. “We are sampling the whole time.”
The plan seems interesting enough, but it’ll be quite a while before any data from the prospective mission would be coming back to Earth. If the plan is accepted (the earliest being 2020), the project would still have to be built, then once completed it would take 7 1/2 years to reach Titan. Once there, the mission would take about a nominal Earth year to study.
“I now realize that it’s a career-long project,” Barnes said to Universe Today. “The plan at this point is to keep this in the forefront of people’s minds and take whatever new ideas that people suggest and try to improve its prospect for selection.
To view the complete proposal, published in Experimental Astronomy, go here.
The first of the 2012 meteor showers – The Quadrantids – peaks on the night of the 3rd and 4th of January.
The Quadrantid meteor shower is one of the major annual meteor showers and often performs well under ideal observing conditions.
The Quadrantids can be quite impressive with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of up to 120 meteors per hour at their peak (under perfect conditions) and can sometimes produce rates of 60 to 200 meteors per hour. The peak is quite narrow lasting only a few hours, with activity either side of the peak sometimes being weak, but well worth observing.
Due to a waxing gibbous Moon, the best time to look is after midnight and through the early hours, plenty of time for us to see the peak build up to 07:20 UT on the 4th, but the Quadrantids are active from December 28th through January 12th so we should have plenty of chances to spot some shooting stars.
The radiant of the Quadrantids (where the meteors radiate from) is in the constellation of Boötes, however many people are misled in thinking they need to look at the radiant to see the meteors – this is not true. Meteors will come from the radiant, but will appear anywhere in the whole sky at random. You can trace the meteors (shooting stars) path back to the radiant to confirm if it is a meteor from the meteor shower.
You don’t need a telescope or binoculars to watch meteor showers, just your eyes. To enjoy a meteor shower and spot as many meteors as possible, you need to try and place yourself away from bright lights and make yourself comfortable. Meteor showers are best observed if you use a reclining garden chair or something similar so you can keep your gaze on the sky as long as possible. This will give you the best results.
For more information on how to observe and enjoy the Quadrantid meteor shower, visit meteorwatch.org
And if you’re interested in looking back, here’s an archive to all the past Carnivals of Space. If you’ve got a space-related blog, you should really join the carnival. Just email an entry to [email protected], and the next host will link to it. It will help get awareness out there about your writing, help you meet others in the space community – and community is what blogging is all about. And if you really want to help out, sign up to be a host. Send and email to the above address.
Cheers erupted after the first of NASA’s twin $496 Million Moon Mapping probes entered orbit on New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31) upon completion of the 40 minute main engine burn essential for insertion into lunar orbit. The small GRAIL spacecraft will map the lunar interior with unprecedented precision to deduce the Moon’s hidden interior composition.
“Engines stopped. It’s in a great initial orbit!!!! ”
NASA’s Jim Green told Universe Today, just moments after verification of a successful engine burn and injection of the GRAIL-A spacecraft into an initial eliptical orbit. Green is the Director of Planetary Science at NASA HQ and was stationed inside Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Ca (see photos below).
“Pop the bubbly & toast the moon! NASA’s GRAIL-A spacecraft is in lunar orbit,” NASA tweeted shortly after verifying the critical firing was done. “Burn complete! GRAIL-A is now orbiting the moon and awaiting the arrival of its twin GRAIL-B on New Year’s Day.”
The firing of the hydrazine fueled thruster was concluded at 5 PM EST (2 PM PST) today, Dec. 31, 2011 and was the capstone to a stupendous year for science at NASA.
“2011 was definitely the best year ever for NASA Planetary Science,” Green told me today. “2011 was the “Year of the Solar System”.
“GRAIL-A is in a highly elliptical polar orbit that takes about 11.5 hours to complete.”
“We see about the first eight to ten minutes of the start of the burn as it heads towards the Moon’s southern hemisphere, continues as GRAIL goes behind the moon and the burn ends about eight minutes or so after it exits and reappears over the north polar region.”
“So we watch the beginning of the burn and the end of the burn via the Deep Space Network (DSN). The same thing will be repeated about 25 hours later with GRAIL-B on New Year’s Day [Jan 1, 2012],” Green explained.
The orbit is approximately 56-miles (90-kilometers) by 5,197-miles (8,363-kilometers around the moon. The probe barreled towards the moon at 4400 MPH and skimmed to within about 68 miles over the South Pole.
“My resolution for the new year is to unlock lunar mysteries and understand how the moon, Earth and other rocky planets evolved,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Now, with GRAIL-A successfully placed in orbit around the moon, we are one step closer to achieving that goal.”
Zuber witnessed the events in Mission Control along with JPL Director Charles Elachi (see photos).
The mirror twin, known as GRAIL-B, was less than 30,000 miles (48,000 km) from the moon as GRAIL A achieved orbit and closing at a rate of 896 mph (1,442 kph). GRAIL-B’s insertion burn is slated to begin on New Year’s Day at 2:05 p.m. PST (5:05 p.m. EST) and will last about 39 minutes.
GRAIL-B is about 25 hours behind GRAIL-A, allowing the teams enough time to rest and prepare, said David Lehman, GRAIL project manager at JPL.
“With GRAIL-A in lunar orbit we are halfway home,” said Lehman. “Tomorrow may be New Year’s everywhere else, but it’s another work day around the moon and here at JPL for the GRAIL team.”
Engineers will then gradually lower the tandem flying satellites into a near-polar near-circular orbital altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers) with an average separation of about 200 km. The 82 day science phase will begin in March 2012.
“GRAIL will globally map the moon’s gravity field to high precision to deduce information about the interior structure, density and composition of the lunar interior. We’ll evaluate whether there even is a solid or liquid core or a mixture and advance the understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon and the solar system,” explained GRAIL co-investigator Sami Asmar to Universe Today. Asmar is from JPL.
New names for the dynamic duo may be announced on New Year’s Day. Zuber said that the winning names of a student essay contest drew more than 1000 entries.
The GRAIL team is making a major public outreach effort to involve school kids in the mission and inspire them to study science. Each spacecraft carries 4 MoonKAM cameras. Middle school students will help select the targets.
“Over 2100 Middle schools have already signed up to participate in the MoonKAM project,” Zuber told reporters.
“We’ve had a great response to the MoonKAM project and we’re still accepting applications.”
MoonKAM is sponsored by Dr. Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut. The first images are expected after the science mission begins in March 2012.
The GRAIL twins blasted off from Florida on September 10, 2011 for a 3.5 month low energy path to the moon so a smaller booster rocket could be used to cut costs.
A year ago, 2011 was proclaimed as the “Year of the Solar System” by NASA’s Planetary Science division. And what a year of excitement it was indeed for the planetary science community, amateur astronomers and the general public alike !
NASA successfully delivered astounding results on all fronts – On the Story of How We Came to Be.
“2011 was definitely the best year ever for NASA Planetary Science!” said Jim Green in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Green is the Director of Planetary Science for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ. “The Search for Life is a significant priority for NASA.”
This past year was without doubt simply breathtaking in scope in terms of new missions, new discoveries and extraordinary technical achievements. The comprehensive list of celestial targets investigated in 2011 spanned virtually every type of object in our solar system – from the innermost planet to the outermost reaches nearly touching interplanetary space.
There was even a stunningly evocative picture showing “All of Humanity” – especially appropriate now in this Holiday season !
Three brand new missions were launched and ongoing missions orbited a planet and an asteroid and flew past a comet.
“NASA has never had the pace of so many planetary launches in such a short time,” said Green.
And three missions here were awarded ‘Best of 2011’ for innovation !
Here’s the Top NASA Planetary Science Stories of 2011 – ‘The Year of the Solar System’ – in chronological order
1. Stardust-NExT Fly By of Comet Tempel 1
Starting from the first moments of 2011 at the dawn of Jan. 1, hopes were already running high for planetary scientists and engineers busily engaged in setting up a romantic celestial date in space between a volatile icy comet and an aging, thrusting probe on Valentine’s Day.
The comet chasing Stardust-Next spacecraft successfully zoomed past Comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14 at 10.9 km/sec (24,000 MPH) after flying over 6 Billion kilometers (3.5 Billion mi).
The craft approached within 178 km (111mi) and snapped 72 astonishingly detailed high resolution science images over barely 8 minutes. It also fulfilled the teams highest hopes by photographing the human-made crater created on Tempel 1 in 2005 by a cosmic collision with a penetrator hurled by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft. The probe previously flew by Comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned cometary coma particles to Earth in 2006
Tempel 1 is the first comet to be visited by two spaceships from Earth and provided the first-ever opportunity to compare observations on two successive passages around the Sun.
Don Brownlee, the original Principal Investigator, summarized the results for Universe Today; “A great bonus of the mission was the ability to flyby two comets and take images and measurements. The wonderfully successful flyby of Comet Tempel 1 was a great cap to the 12 year mission and provided a great deal of new information to study the diversity among comets.”
“The new images of Tempel showed features that form a link between seemingly disparate surface features of the 4 comets imaged by spacecraft. Combining data on the same comet from the Deep Impact and Stardust missions has provided important new insights in to how comet surfaces evolve over time and how they release gas and dust into space”.
2. MESSENGER at Mercury
On March 18, the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging, or MESSENGER, spacecraft became the first spacecraft inserted into orbit around Mercury, the innermost planet.
So far MESSENGER has completed 1 solar day – 176 Earth days- circling above Mercury. The probe has collected a treasure trove of new data from the seven instruments onboard yielding a scientific bonanza; these include global imagery of most of the surface, measurements of the planet’s surface chemical composition, topographic evidence for significant amounts of water ice, magnetic field and interactions with the solar wind.
“MESSENGER discovered that Mercury has an enormous core, larger than Earth’s. We are trying to understand why that is and why Mercury’s density is similar to Earth’s,” Jim Green explained to Universe Today.
“The primary mission lasts 2 solar days, equivalent to 4 Mercury years.”
“NASA has granted a 1 year mission extension, for a total of 8 Mercury years. This will allow the team to understand the environment at Mercury during Solar Maximum for the first time. All prior spacecraft observations were closer to solar minimum,” said Green.
MESSENGER was launched in 2004 and the goal is to produce the first global scientific observations of Mercury and piece together the puzzle of how Mercury fits in with the origin and evolution of our solar system.
NASA’s Mariner 10 was the only previous robotic probe to explore Mercury, during three flyby’s back in the mid-1970’s early in the space age.
3. Dawn Asteroid Orbiter
The Dawn spacecraft achieved orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta in July 2011 after a four year interplanetary cruise and began transmitting the history making first ever close-up observations of the mysteriously diverse and alien world that is nothing short of a ‘Space Spectacular’.
“We do not have a good analog to Vesta anywhere else in the Solar System,” Chris Russell said to Universe Today. Russell, from UCLA, is the scientific Principal Investigator for Dawn.
Before Dawn, Vesta was just another fuzzy blob in the most powerful telescopes. Dawn has completely unveiled Vesta as a remarkably dichotomous, heavily battered and pockmarked world that’s littered with thousands of craters, mountains and landslides and ringed by mystifying grooves and troughs. It will unlock details about the elemental abundances, chemical composition and interior structure of this marvelously intriguing body.
Cataclysmic collisions eons ago excavated Vesta so it lacks a south pole. Dawn discovered that what unexpectedly remains is an enormous mountain some 16 miles (25 kilometers) high, twice the height of Mt. Everest.
Dawn is now about midway through its 1 year mission at Vesta which ends in July 2012 with a departure for Ceres, the largest asteroid. So far the framing cameras have snapped more than 10,000 never-before-seen images.
“What can be more exciting than to explore an alien world that until recently was virtually unknown!. ” Dr. Marc Rayman said to Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
“Dawn is NASA at its best: ambitious, exciting, innovative, and productive.”
4. Juno Jupiter Orbiter
The solar powered Juno spacecraft was launched on Aug. 5 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, to embark on a five year, 2.8 billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mi) trek to Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet. It was the first of three NASA planetary science liftoffs scheduled in 2011.
Juno’s goal is to map to the depths of the planets interior and elucidate the ingredients of Jupiter’s genesis hidden deep inside. These measurements will help answer how Jupiter’s birth and evolution applies to the formation of the other eight planets.
The 4 ton spacecraft will arrive at the gas giant in July 2016 and fire its braking rockets to go into a polar orbit and circle the planet 33 times over about one year.
The suite of nine instruments will scan the gas giant to find out more about the planets origins, interior structure and atmosphere, measure the amount of water and ammonia, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and search for the existence of a solid planetary core.
“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”
5. Opportunity reaches Endeavour Crater on Mars
The long lived Opportunity rover finally arrived at the rim of the vast 14 mile (22 kilometer) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields – a feat once thought unimaginable. All told, Opportunity has driven more than 34 km ( 21 mi) since landing on the Red Planet way back in 2004 for a mere 90 sol mission.
In November, the rover discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars in the form of a water related mineral vein at a spot dubbed “Homestake” along an eroded ridge of Endeavour’s rim.
Read my story about the Homestake discovery here, along with our panoramic mosaic showing the location – created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo and published by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec. 2011.
Watch for my upcoming story detailing Opportunity’s accomplishments in 2011.
6. GRAIL Moon Mappers
The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL mission is comprised of twin spacecraft tasked to map the moon’s gravity and study the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core.
The dynamic duo lifted off from Cape Canaveral on September 10, 2011 atop the last Delta II rocket that will likely soar to space from Florida. After a three month voyage of more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) since blastoff, the two mirror image GRAIL spacecraft dubbed Grail-A and GRAIL-B are sailing on a trajectory placing them on a course over the Moon’s south pole on New Year’s weekend.
Each spacecraft will fire the braking rockets for about 40 minutes for insertion into Lunar Orbit about 25 hours apart on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Engineers will then gradually lower the satellites to a near-polar near-circular orbital altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers).
The spacecraft will fly in tandem and the 82 day science phase will begin in March 2012.
“GRAIL is a Journey to the Center of the Moon”, says Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “GRAIL will rewrite the book on the formation of the moon and the beginning of us.”
“By globally mapping the moon’s gravity field to high precision scientists can deduce information about the interior structure, density and composition of the lunar interior. We’ll evaluate whether there even is a solid or liquid core or a mixture and advance the understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon and the solar system,” explained co-investigator Sami Asmar to Universe Today. Asmar is from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
7. Curiosity Mars Rover
The Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover soared skywards on Nov. 26, the last of 2011’s three planetary science missions. Curiosity is the newest, largest and most technologically sophisticated robotic surveyor that NASA has ever assembled.
“MSL packs the most bang for the buck yet sent to Mars.” John Grotzinger, the Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist of the California Institute of Technology, told Universe Today.
The three meter long robot is the first astrobiology mission since the Viking landers in the 1970’s and specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars – the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System.
Video caption: Action packed animation depicts sequences of Curiosity departing Earth, the nail biting terror of the never before used entry, descent and landing on the Martian surface and then looking for signs of life at Gale Crater during her minimum two year expedition across hitherto unseen and unexplored Martian landscapes, mountains and craters. Credit: NASA
Curiosity will gather and analyze samples of Martian dirt in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.
NASA is targeting Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the 154 km (96 mile) wide Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. The crater exhibits exposures of phyllosilicates and other minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life and is dominated by a towering 3 mile (5 km) high mountain.
“10 science instruments are all aimed at a mountain whose stratigraphic layering records the major breakpoints in the history of Mars’ environments over likely hundreds of millions of years, including those that may have been habitable for life,” Grotzinger told me.
This past year Ken was incredibly fortunate to witness the ongoing efforts of many of these magnificent endeavors.
According to Wikipedia, a Journal Club is a group of individuals who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in the scientific literature. Since this is Universe Today if we occasionally stray into critically evaluating each other’s critical evaluations, that’s OK too.
And of course, the first rule of Journal Club is… don’t talk about Journal Club. So, without further ado – today’s journal article is about a new addition to the Standard Model of fundamental particles.
The good folk at the CERN Large Hadron Collider finished off 2011 with some vague murmurings about the Higgs Boson – which might have been kind-of sort-of discovered in the data already, but due to the degree of statistical noise around it, no-one’s willing to call it really found yet.
Since there is probably a Nobel prize in it – this seems like a good decision. It is likely that a one-way-or-the-other conclusion will be possible around this time next year – either because collisions to be run over 2012 reveal some critical new data, or because someone sifting through the mountain of data already produced will finally nail it.
But in the meantime, they did find something in 2011. There is a confirmed Observation of a new chi_b state in radiative transitions to Upsilon(1S) and Upsilon(2S) at the ATLAS experiment – or, in a nutshell… we hit Bottomonium.
In the lexicon of sub-atomic particle physics, the term Quarkonium is used to describe a particle whose constituents comprise a quark and its own anti-quark. So for example you can have Charmonium (a charm quark and a charm anti-quark) and you can have Bottomonium (a bottom quark and a bottom anti-quark).
The new Chi b (3P) particle has been reported as a boson – which is technically correct, since it has integer spin, while fermions (hadrons and leptons) have half spins. But it’s not an elementary boson like photons, gluons or the (theoretical) Higgs – it’s a composite boson composed of quarks. So, it is perhaps less confusing to consider it a meson (which is a bosonic hadron). Like other mesons, Chi b (3P) is a hadron that would not be commonly found in nature. It just appears briefly in particle accelerator collisions before it decays.
So comments? Has the significance of this new finding been muted because the discoverers thought it would just prompt a lot of bottom jokes? Is Chi_b (3P) the ‘Claytons Higgs’ (the boson you have when you’re not having a Higgs?). Want to suggest an article for the next edition of Journal Club?