NASA Releases the 2014 “Tough Choices” Budget Proposal

NASA has released their budget proposal for 2014 and, as rumored, it includes funding for the preliminary work to begin a mission to capture an asteroid and bring it to lunar orbit. This is part of President Obama’s $3.77 trillion spending plan for the US budget, and the Fiscal Year 2014 request for NASA totals $17.7 billion. This is $50 million less than the request for 2013, and NASA said they had to make some “tough choices” in putting the proposal together. The new proposal appears to hit the Planetary Science program especially hard (no new missions to the outer planets or moons, it appears), but does include money for Plutonium-238 production and additional funding for asteroid detection. But both those enterprises now rest solely with the Planetary Science budget.

“This budget focuses on an ambitious new mission to expand America’s capabilities in space, steady progress on new space and aeronautic technologies, continued success with commercial space partnerships, and far-reaching science programs to help us understand Earth and the universe in which we live,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden in a statement. “It keeps us competitive, opens the door to new destinations and vastly increases our knowledge. Our drive to make new discoveries and dare new frontiers continues to improve life for people everywhere and raise the bar of human achievement.”

This certainly is not the final numbers of what NASA could receive. For example, for the FY 2013 budget request, NASA asked for $17.711 billion, but with cuts and sequestration, the final number about $16.6 billion.

The proposed budget for 2014 includes funding for NASA’s ongoing human spaceflight program at the ISS as well as the continuation of building the Space Launch System rocket and Orion deep-space capsule. NASA expected un-crewed test flight planned for as early as 2017 and a crewed flight as early as 2021.

It also continues funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (expected to launch in 2018), but cuts the funding for planetary science – one of NASA’s most successful areas – by $272 million. However, it does include $100 million earmarked for the asteroid detection program, which was added to the Planetary Science budget. It also includes funding for another Mars rover very similar to Curiosity, expected to be launched in 2020.

In an interesting move, the budget proposes consolidating the NASA education and outreach programs with the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and the Smithsonian Institution. STEM outreach is another of NASA’s success stories, but it appears some of NASA’s education budget is going to other agencies as part of government-wide STEM restructuring.

Graph from NASA's 2014 Budget Request.
Graph from NASA’s 2014 Budget Request.

This video provides some of the highlights, but below is more information:

Here are the highlights of the 2014 budget proposal for NASA:

  • While making tough choices, NASA says this budget reinforces the agency’s current balanced portfolio of aeronautics and space technology development, Earth and space science, the development of rockets and capsules to carry explorers deeper into space, and the use of innovative commercial partnerships for crew and cargo transport to the International Space Station.
  • Includes funding needed to develop a Commercial Crew capability, with the intent of supporting a new industry that regains the capability to send American astronauts into space from U.S. soil and ends the need to pay foreign providers to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station.
  • Increases investment in space technologies, such as advanced in-space propulsion and space propellant storage, which are necessary to increase America’s capabilities in space, bring the cost of space exploration down, and pave the way for other Federal Government and commercial space activities.
  • Fully funds the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, two key elements for pushing the boundaries of human space exploration. This funding level will enable a flight test of Orion in 2014 and the Space Launch System in 2017.
  • Keeps development of the James Webb SpaceTelescope, the more powerful successor to the Hubble SpaceTelescope, on track for a 2018 launch.
  • Provides over $1.8 billion for Earth Science to revamp the Landsat program, develop climate sensors for the Joint Polar Satellite System, and conduct numerous other satellite and research efforts.
  • Begins work on a mission to rendezvous with—and then move—a small asteroid. Astronauts would later visit the asteroid and return samples to Earth, achieving one of the agency’s major goals in a more cost-effective manner.

Of the asteroid mission Bolden said, “This mission represents an unprecedented technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and technological capabilities and help protect our home planet. This asteroid initiative brings together the best of NASA’s science, technology and human exploration efforts to achieve the president’s goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025. We will use existing capabilities such as the Orion crew capsule and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and develop new technologies like solar electric propulsion and laser communications — all critical components of deep space exploration.”

  • Continues the agency’s important role in the Nation’s aeronautics research and development portfolio, including a new initiative to make lighter composite materials more easily useable in aviation.
  • Funds research on the International Space Station, while identifying efficiencies in operations and space flight support.
  • Consolidates $47.5 million of small science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs from across NASA into larger programs at other agencies to achieve the best return on investment, while attaining tangible Government-wide STEM education goals. The Budget preserves $67.5 million for the Space Grant and Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment programs at NASA, as well as key minority-serving education programs, and refocuses an additional $26.8 million from other NASA education and outreach programs to facilitate the wider application of its best education assets in close coordination with the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Read the full 2014 Budget Proposal here,
, and find additional info and links here.

Rain is Falling from Saturn’s Rings

This artist's concept illustrates how charged water particles flow into the Saturnian atmosphere from the planet's rings, causing a reduction in atmospheric brightness. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/University of Leicester

Astronomers have known for years there was water in Saturn’s upper atmosphere, but they weren’t sure exactly where it was coming from. New observations have found water is raining down on Saturn, and it is coming from the planet’s rings.

“Saturn is the first planet to show significant interaction between its atmosphere and ring system,” said James O’Donoghue, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Leicester and author of a new paper published in the journal Nature. “The main effect of ring rain is that it acts to ‘quench’ the ionosphere of Saturn, severely reducing the electron densities in regions in which it falls.”

Using the Keck Observatory, O’Donoghue and a team of researchers found charged water particles falling from the planet’s rings into Saturn’s atmosphere. They also found the extent of the ring-rain is far greater, and falls across larger areas of the planet, than previously thought. The work reveals the rain influences the composition and temperature structure of parts of Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

O’Donoghue said the ring’s effect on electron densities is important because it explains why, for many decades, observations have shown electron densities to be unusually low at some latitudes at Saturn.

“It turns out a major driver of Saturn’s ionospheric environment and climate across vast reaches of the planet are ring particles located 120,000 miles [200,000 kilometers] overhead,” said Kevin Baines, a co-author on the paper, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The ring particles affect which species of particles are in this part of the atmospheric temperature.”

In the early 1980s, images from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft showed two to three dark bands on Saturn and scientists theorized that water could have been showering down into those bands from the rings. Then astronomers using ESA’s Infrared Observatory discovered the presence of trace amounts of water in Saturn’s atmosphere back in 1997, but couldn’t really find an explanation for why it was there and how it got there.

Then in 2011 observations with the Herschel space observatory determined water ice from geysers on Enceladus formed a giant ring of water vapor around Saturn.

But the bands seen by Voyager were not seen again until 2011 as well, when the team observed the planet with Keck Observatory’s NIRSPEC, a near-infrared spectrograph that combines broad wavelength coverage with high spectral resolution, allowing the observers to clearly see subtle emissions from the bright parts of Saturn.

The ring rain’s effect occurs in Saturn’s ionosphere (Earth has a similar ionosphere), where charged particles are produced when the otherwise neutral atmosphere is exposed to a flow of energetic particles or solar radiation. When the scientists tracked the pattern of emissions of a particular hydrogen molecule consisting of three hydrogen atoms (rather than the usual two), they expected to see a uniform planet-wide infrared glow.

What they observed instead was a series of light and dark bands with a pattern mimicking the planet’s rings. Saturn’s magnetic field “maps” the water-rich rings and the water-free gaps between rings onto the planet’s atmosphere.

They surmised that charged water particles from the planet’s rings were being drawn towards the planet by Saturn’s magnetic field and neutralizing the glowing triatomic hydrogen ions. This leaves large “shadows” in what would otherwise be a planet-wide infrared glow. These shadows cover 30 to 43 percent of the planet’s upper atmosphere surface from around 25 to 55 degrees latitude. This is a significantly larger area than suggested by the Voyager images.

Both Earth and Jupiter have a very uniformly glowing equatorial region. Scientists expected this pattern at Saturn, too, but they instead saw dramatic differences at different latitudes.

“Where Jupiter is glowing evenly across its equatorial regions, Saturn has dark bands where the water is falling in, darkening the ionosphere,” said Tom Stallard, one of the paper’s co-authors at Leicester. “We’re now also trying to investigate these features with an instrument on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. If we’re successful, Cassini may allow us to view in more detail the way that water is removing ionized particles, such as any changes in the altitude or effects that come with the time of day.”

Sources: Keck Observatory
, Nature.

Comet PANSTARRS … Going … Going … Not Gone Yet!

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS on the evening of April 9, 2013 from Austria. Dust released when the sun vaporizes the comet's ice is pushed back by the pressure of sunlight to form the tail. Click to enlarge. Credit: Michael Jaeger

It’s falling out of the news but Comet PANSTARRS still lives! You can still see it in a clear sky near you with nothing more than a pair of binoculars. And thanks to guidance from the bright zigzag of Cassiopeia, it’s easier than ever to find. Would that we had had this star group to point up comet-ward in March when PANSTARRS was brightest!

The comet marches along through Cassiopeia the Queen in April. The map shows the sky facing northwest about 90 minutes after sunset. Comet positions are shown every 5 nights. Stellarium
The comet marches along through Cassiopeia the Queen in April. The map shows the evening sky facing northwest about 90 minutes after sunset. Comet positions are shown every 5 nights. Stellarium

Start looking about 75-90 minutes after sunset or the same amount of time before sunrise. Yes, the comet is visible now at both dusk and dawn. Currently it shines at about 4.5-5 magnitude and might still be faintly visible with the naked from a very dark sky location. In 35-50mm binoculars it will look like a faint, fuzzy streak of light with a brighter head. Telescopes still give a wonderful view of the bright nucleus and shapely tail.

While the northern U.S., Canada and Europe have good views of PANSTARRS at both dusk and dawn, sky watchers in the southern U.S. have their best views at dawn. This map shows the sky facing northeast about 90 minutes before sunrise. Stellarium
While the northern U.S., Canada and Europe have good views of PANSTARRS at both dusk and dawn, sky watchers in the southern U.S. have their best views at dawn. This map shows the sky at the start of dawn facing northeast about 90 minutes before sunrise. Stellarium

The other night a student who helps run our local planetarium described it as looking like a “real comet” through the telescope, the way textbook and online photos had led him to anticipate. Binoculars or telescope will show a misty, plume-like tail, but wide-field, time-exposure photography reveals the comet’s unbelievably broad fan of dust.

Comet PANSTARRS moves along a steeply tilted orbit that takes it far above and below the plane of the planets. Right now it’s high above Earth’s north pole and we see its tail broadside. The comet takes about 106,000 years to complete an orbit around the sun. Credit: NASA/JPL/Bob King
Comet PANSTARRS moves along a steeply tilted orbit that takes it far above and below the plane of the planets. Right now it’s high above Earth’s north pole and we see its tail broadside. The comet takes about 106,000 years to complete an orbit around the sun. Credit: NASA/JPL/Bob King

The reason for this unusual appearance has much to do with perspective. PANSTARRS is sailing back into deep space directly above the plane of the planets. With the tail blown back by the pressure of sunlight, we look up and across a distance of more than 125 million miles (201 million km) to see it spread like a deck of cards across the constellation Cassiopeia.

Comet PANSTARRS a week ago when it passed near the Andromeda Galaxy (at left). Details: 300mm f/2.8, ISO 800 and 90-second exposure. Credit: Bob King
Comet PANSTARRS a week ago when it passed near the Andromeda Galaxy (at left). Details: 300mm f/2.8, ISO 800 and 90-second exposure. Credit: Bob King

In the northern U.S., Cassiopeia is higher up in both morning and evening skies and easy to spot. Once you’ve found its familiar shape, focus your binoculars on the brightest star nearest the comet, and slowly work your way in its direction. Skywatchers in the northern U.S., Canada and Europe are favored because Cassiopeia is a northern constellation and higher up in the sky at both dusk and dawn. Observers in the southern U.S. will get their best views around the start of dawn.

New Exoplanet-Hunting Mission to launch in 2017

Artist's rendition of TESS in space. (Credit: MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics Research).

Move over Kepler. NASA has recently green-lighted two new missions as part of its Astrophysics Explorer Program.

These come as the result of four proposals submitted in 2012. The most anticipated and high profile mission is TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

Slated for launch in 2017, TESS will search for exoplanets via the transit method, looking for faint tell-tale dips in brightness as the unseen planet passes in front of its host star. This is the same method currently employed by Kepler, launched in 2009. Unlike Kepler, which stares continuously at a single segment of the sky along the galactic plane in the direction of the constellations Cygnus, Hercules, and Lyra, TESS will be the first dedicated all-sky exoplanet hunting satellite.

The mission will be a partnership of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, Orbital Sciences Corporation, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI).

TESS will launch onboard an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket released from the fuselage of a Lockheed L-1011 aircraft, the same system that deployed IBEX in 2008 & NuSTAR in 2012. NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) will also launch using a Pegasus XL rocket this summer in June.

An Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket attached to the fuselage of an L1011 for the launch of IBEX. (Credit: NASA).
An Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket attached to the fuselage of an L1011 for the launch of IBEX. (Credit: NASA).

“TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission. It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth,” said George Riker, a senior researcher from MKI.

TESS will utilize four wide angle telescopes to get the job done. The effective size of the detectors onboard is 192 megapixels. TESS is slated for a two year mission. Unlike Kepler, which sits in an Earth-trailing heliocentric  orbit, TESS will be in an elliptical path in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

TESS will examine approximately 2 million stars brighter than 12th magnitude including 1,000 of the nearest red dwarfs. Not only will TESS expand the growing catalog of exoplanets, but it is also expected to find planets with longer orbital periods.

One dilemma with the transit method is that it favors the discovery of planets with short orbital periods, which are much more likely to be seen transiting their host star from a given vantage point in space.

TESS will also serve as a logical progression from Kepler to later proposed exoplanet search platforms. TESS will also discover candidates for further scrutiny by as the James Webb Space Telescope to be launched in 2018 and the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrometer based at La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Artist's conception of NICER on the exterior of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA).
Artist’s conception of NICER on the exterior of the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA).

Also on the board for launch in 2017 is NICER, the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer to be placed on the exterior of the International Space Station. NICER will employ an array 56 telescopes which will collect and study X-rays from neutron stars. NICER will specialize in the study of a particular sub-class of neutron star known as millisecond pulsars. The X-ray telescopes are in a configuration utilizing a set of nested glass shells looking like the layers of an onion.

Observing pulsars in the X-ray range of the spectrum will offer scientists tremendous insight into their inner workings and structure. The International Space Station offers a unique vantage point to do this sort of science. Like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02), the power requirements of NICER dictate that it cannot be a free-flying satellite. X-Ray astronomy must also be done above the hindering effects of the Earth’s atmosphere.

NICER will be deployed as an exterior payload aboard an ISS ExPRESS Logistics Carrier. These are unpressurized platforms used for experiments that must be directly exposed to space.

Another fascinating project working in tandem with NICER is SEXTANT, the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing And Navigation Technology. This project seeks to test the precision of millisecond pulsars for interplanetary navigation.

“They (pulsars) are extremely reliable celestial clocks and can provide high-precision timing just like the atomic signals supplied through the 26-satellite military operated Global Positioning System (GPS),” said NASA Goddard scientist Zaven Arzoumanian. The chief difficulty with relying on this system for interplanetary journeys is that the signal gets progressively weaker the farther you travel from the Earth.

“Pulsars, on the other hand, are accessible in virtually every conceivable flight regime, from LEO to interplanetary and deepest space,” said NICER/SEXTANT principle investigator Keith Gendreau.

Both NICER and TESS follow the long legacy of NASA’s Astrophysics Explorer Program, which can be traced all the way back to the launch Explorer 1. This was the very first U.S. satellite launched in 1958. Explorer 1 discovered the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth.

(from left) William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun hold aloft a mock up of Explorer 1 shortly after launch. (Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech.
(From left) William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun hold aloft a mock up of Explorer 1 shortly after launch. (Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech).

“The Explorer Program has a long and stellar history of deploying truly innovative missions to study some of the most exciting questions in space science,” stated NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld. “With these missions, we will learn about the most extreme states of matter by studying neutron stars and we will identify many nearby star systems with rocky planets in the habitable zones for further study by telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope.”

Of course, Grunsfeld is referring to planets orbiting red dwarf stars, which will be targeted by TESS. These are expected have a habitable zone much closer to their primary star than our own Sun. It has even been suggested by MIT scientists that the first exoplanets visited by humans on some far off date might be initially discovered by TESS. The spacecraft may also discover future targets for follow up spectroscopic analysis, the best chance of discovering alien life on an exoplanet in the next 50 years. One can imagine the excitement that a positive detection of a chemical exclusive to life as we know it such as chlorophyll in the spectra of a far of world would generate. More ominously, detection of such synthetic elements as plutonium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet might suggest we found them… but alas, too late.

But on a happier note, it’ll be exciting times for space exploration to see both projects get underway. Perhaps human explorers will indeed one day visit the worlds discovered by TESS… and use navigation techniques pioneered by SEXTANT to do it!


Looking Into The Green Eye Of Planetary Nebula IC 1295

This intriguing picture from ESO’s Very Large Telescope shows the glowing green planetary nebula IC 1295 surrounding a dim and dying star. It is located about 3300 light-years away in the constellation of Scutum (The Shield). This is the most detailed picture of this object ever taken. Credit: ESO

Located on Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, the ESO’s Very Large Telescope was busy using the FORS instrument (FOcal Reducer Spectrograph) to achieve one of the most detailed observations ever taken off a lonely, green planetary nebula – IC 1295. Exposures taken through three different filters which enhanced blue light, visible green light, and red light were melded together to make this 3300 light year distant object come alive.

Located in the constellation of Scutum, this jewel in the “Shield” is a miniscule star that’s at the end of its life. Much like our Sun will eventually become, this white dwarf star is softly shedding its outer layers, like an unfolding flower in space. It will continue this process for a few tens of thousands of years, before it ends, but until then IC 1295 will remain something of an enigma.

“The range of shapes observed up to today has been reproduced by many theoretical works using arguments such as density enhancements, magnetic fields, and binary central systems. Despite this, no complete agreement between models and properties of a given morphological group has been achieved. One of the main reasons for this is selection criteria and completeness of studied samples.” say researchers at Georgia State University. “The samples are usually limited by available images in few bands such as Ha, [NII] and [OIII]. Of course they are also limited by distance, since the further away the object is, the harder it is to resolve its structure. Even with the modern telescopes, obtaining a truly complete sample is far from being achieved.”

Why is this common deep space object like IC 1295 such a mystery? Blame it on its structure. It is comprised of multiple shells.- gaseous layers which once were the star’s atmosphere. As the star aged, its core became unstable and it erupted in unexpected releases of energy – like expansive blisters breaking open. These waves of gas are then illuminated by the ancient star’s ultraviolet radiation, causing it to glow. Each chemical acts as a pigment, resulting in different colors. In the case of IC 1295, the verdant shades are the product of ionised oxygen.

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This video sequence starts with a broad panorama of the Milky Way and closes in on the small constellation of Scutum (The Shield), home to many star clusters. The final detailed view shows the strange green planetary nebula IC 1295 in a new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope. This faint object lies close to the brighter globular star cluster NGC 6712. Credit: ESO/Nick Risinger ( Kimball. Music: movetwo

However, green isn’t the only color you see here. At the heart of this planetary nebula beats a bright, blue-white stellar core. Over the course of billions of years, it will gently cool – becoming a very faint, white dwarf. It’s just all part of the process. Stars similar to the Sun, and up to eight times as large, are all theorized to form planetary nebulae as they extinguish. How long does a planetary nebula last? According to astronomers, it’s a process that could be around 8 to 10 thousand years.

“Athough planetary nebulae (PNe) have been discovered for over 200 years, it was not until 30 years ago that we arrived at a basic understanding of their origin and evolution.” says Sun Kwok of the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Even today, with observations covering the entire electromagnetic spectrum from radio to X-ray, there are still many unanswered questions on their structure and morphology.”

Original Story Source: ESO Photo Release.

Win a Copy of ‘Moon Hoax’

What if — somehow — historical records were changed to show the Apollo 11 mission never happened? In Moon Hoax, a new and entertaining historical fiction novel, author Paul Gillebaard re-writes history with a tale of high tech subterfuge and deceit played out on the world’s stage. You can read our full review of this book here, or find out more about the book at the author’s website.

This giveaway is now closed. Thanks for your interest!

But how would you like to win a copy of this exciting novel? Universe Today has three copies to give away!

In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Monday, April 14, 2013. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing.

We’re only going to use these email addresses for Universe Today giveaways/contests and announcements. We won’t be using them for any other purpose, and we definitely won’t be selling the addresses to anyone else. Once you’re on the giveaway notification list, you’ll be able to unsubscribe any time you like.

Book Review: Moon Hoax

Apollo 11, a spaceflight forever cemented in history books, signifies the moment when humans first walked on the Moon. Since that historical day, the US has been the only nation to set foot on the Moon.

But what do you do if someone says this event wasn’t real? Conspiracy theorists have always been on the fringe saying the Moon landing was an elaborate hoax, a clever story fabricated in great detail by our government or space agency. But what if — somehow — historical records were changed to show the Apollo 11 mission never happened? In Moon Hoax, a new and entertaining historical fiction novel, author Paul Gillebaard re-writes history with a tale of high-tech subterfuge and deceit played out on the world’s stage.

Currently in 2013, the USA is certainly not the only space faring nation. With the retirement of the shuttle program, we can’t even launch our own astronauts into space. Other countries have a core of trained astronauts and collaboration between nations has become a key mode of operation. Teamwork has become a necessity. The International Space Station circling high above our heads is inspiring proof of countries working together in space research. What if one country wants all of the glory for themselves? What if they have engineered a way to change the face and records of space travel as we know it?

Find out how to win a copy of this book!

Moon Hoax weaves the tale of a rising and formidable superpower country trying to take away our historical facts and show them as false. One of the most populated countries on Earth wants the world to think the United States of America lied and has been lying to them for over 40 years: the twelve amazing American moonwalkers never were. Not only do the antagonists want to rewrite the history books, but they want to stake their claim on the Moon and launch themselves into the annals of space and world supremacy status.

Twisting the truth into an extremely plausible lie is a challenge. Moan Hoax will consistently have you reacting with a range of emotions from dismay and frustration to determination in seeing the truth prevail. It’s a race to prove to the world that the history books are factual versus the changing tide of a public dissuasion campaign. The author, Paul Gillebaard, has substantial space knowledge and an engineering background. This first time author adds a writing flair to make the reader question history’s validity on an enjoyable, entertaining ride.

Find out more about the book at Gillebaard’s website.

Carbon Impacts Planetary Atmospheric Formation

Early on, Mars had giant active volcanoes, which would have released significant methane. Because of methane’s high greenhouse potential, even a thin atmosphere might have supported liquid water. Credit: NASA

It might be common, but carbon could have a huge impact in the formation and evolution of a planet’s atmosphere. As it moves from the interior to the surface, carbon’s role is important. According to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, if Mars let go of its majority of carbon supply as methane, it probably would have been temperate enough to caused liquid water to form. Just how captive carbon escapes via iron-rich magma is offering us vital clues as to the role it plays in “early atmospheric evolution on Mars and other terrestrial bodies”.

While the atmosphere of a planet is its outer layer, it has its beginnings far below. During the formation of a planet, the mantle – a layer between a planet’s core and upper crust – latches on to subsurface carbon when it melts to create magma. When the viscous magma rises upwards to the surface, the pressure lessens and the captive carbon is released as gas. As an example, Earth’s captive carbon is encapsulated in magma as carbonate and its released gas is carbon dioxide. As we are aware, carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas” which enables our planet to absorb heat from the Sun. However, the release process for captive carbon on other planets – and its subsequent greenhouse effects – isn’t well understood..

“We know carbon goes from the solid mantle to the liquid magma, from liquid to gas and then out,” said Alberto Saal, professor of geological sciences at Brown and one of the study’s authors. “We want to understand how the different carbon species that are formed in the conditions that are relevant to the planet affect the transfer.”

Thanks to the new study, which also included researchers from Northwestern University and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, we’re able to take a closer look at the release processes for other terrestrial mantles, such as those found on the Moon, Mars and similar bodies. Here the captive carbon in the magma is formed as iron carbonyl – then escapes as methane and carbon monoxide. Like carbon dioxide, both of these gases have a huge potential as greenhouse.

The team, along with Malcolm Rutherford from Brown, Steven Jacobsen from Northwestern and Erik Hauri from the Carnegie Institution, came to some significant conclusions about the early volcanic history of Mars. If it followed the captive carbon theory, it might have very well released enough methane gas to have kept the Red Planet warm and cozy. However, it didn’t happen in an “Earth-like” manner. Here our mantel supports a condition known as “oxygen fugacity” – the volume of free oxygen available to react with other elements. While we have a high rate, bodies like early Mars and the Moon are poor in comparison.

Now the real science part comes into play. In order to discover how a lower oxygen fugacity impacts “carbon transfer”, the researchers experimented with volcanic basalt which closely match those located on both Mars and the Moon. Through various pressures, temperatures and oxygen fugacities, the volcanic rock was melted and studied with a spectrometer. This allowed the scientists to determine just how much carbon was absorbed and what form it took. Their findings? At low oxygen fugacities, captive carbon took the form of iron carbonyl and at low pressure the iron carbonyl released as carbon monoxide and methane.

“We found that you can dissolve in the magma more carbon at low oxygen fugacity than what was previously thought,” said Diane Wetzel, a Brown graduate student and the study’s lead author. “That plays a big role in the degassing of planetary interiors and in how that will then affect the evolution of atmospheres in different planetary bodies.”

As we know, Mars has a history of volcanism and studies such as this mean that large quantities of methane must have once been released via carbon transfer. Could this have triggered a greenhouse effect? It’s entirely possible. After all, methane in a early atmosphere may very well have supported conditions warm enough to have allowed liquid water to form on the surface.

Maybe even enough to pool…

Original Story Source: Brown University News Release.

Experience a Virtual Reality Aurora

This is awesome. Astrophotographer Göran Strand took his 30 gigabytes of image data of the incredible aurora he shot on March 17 (which we shared here) and re-tooled everything to fit into an interactive virtual reality-type video where the viewer can move and pan around in any direction. You can watch below, or click here to see the full screen version and be transported to a small town in northern Sweden called Östersund.

Strand said he was almost obsessed with creating this virtual reality version to try and share the experience.

“Hopefully this means that I finally can close the case on the auroras from March 17,” he told Universe Today via email. “As you might understand, these amazing auroras had a big impact on me and I really want to show how wonderful it was.”

Here’s the virtual reality version. Use the arrow keys on your computer to move the view around in any direction:

Here’s the orignal video that Strand created:

Golden Spike Still Needs Your Help to Get to the Moon

Concept of a Golden Spike Co. lunar lander

Last December the Golden Spike Company announced its plans to enable private-sector lunar exploration missions which would be feasible, profitable, and possible — even without government funding. Comprised of veteran space program executives, managers, and engineers, Golden Spike intends to stand on the shoulders of current space technology to develop lunar transportation systems that can be used by agencies and private interests worldwide to get humans back to the Moon… but they still need your help getting the word out.

“We’re running an Indiegogo campaign as an experiment in public outreach and interest in human lunar expeditions,” Golden Spike CEO and planetary scientist Alan Stern explained to Universe Today in an email.

Recently Golden Spike started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo with the goal of raising $240,000 for international outreach (that’s a dollar for every mile to the Moon!) but, with only 16 10 days left in the campaign, only $9,400 $12,134 has been contributed.* While dollar-for-mile that’s still farther than any humans have traveled into space since Apollo, it’s unfortunately quite short of their goal.

CEO and famed planetary scientist Alan Stern blames himself.

“Simply put, we didn’t put the right people and resources on this Indiegogo campaign,” Stern wrote in an announcement on the Indiegogo site on April 9.

But despite the small amount of time remaining, he’s not giving up.

“We’re going to take advantage of the press of time left — just 16 days — to reach out to the broader public about people they can be a part of a historic new era of human lunar exploration,” Stern writes.

“To do that, you’ll be seeing Golden Spike in the press quite a bit more the next two weeks.”

And he’s asking for your continued help to not just contribute, but also to get the word out.

“Speak to friends and colleagues. Message on sites like Twitter and Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn. Send emails. Heck, put up signs and hand out flyers! We’re in the final phases of this campaign, ask people to join in. Let them know why you joined. Tell them their participation will make a huge difference… If we do this right, we can succeed.”

While contributions to the Golden Spike campaign won’t be used to launch rockets or build Moon bases, they will be used to reach out to potential international partners and show them that people are indeed interested in getting people back to the Moon… proven by the fact that they’ll even put some of their own money into the venture.

Small donations, large donations… each contribution no matter the size shows that people will invest in a future of lunar exploration. Put some “skin in the game,” if you will.

Click here to contribute to the Golden Spike campaign. And even if you can’t contribute financially, help get the word out. Share this article, tell people about the campaign, let them know that our future on the Moon doesn’t have to rely on fickle government funding or be subject to catastrophic budget cuts.

We got there before, we can get there again. The Moon awaits.

“Make the point that 40-plus years of waiting for governments to do this for us showed that the people who want humans to explore the Moon have to take personal action if we want it.”

– Alan Stern, planetary scientist and Golden Spike Company CEO

Read more about the Golden Spike Company mission here.

PS: Be sure to email [email protected] when you donate to the campaign and let them know your name, city, and state, and who referred you to donate (in this case, Universe Today.) They’re giving prizes for the top US state, top country, and top referrals!

(*Article updated on April 15.)