Hubble Looks at Sedna

Image credit: Hubble
Astronomers poring over 35 NASA Hubble Space Telescope images of the solar system’s farthest known object, unofficially named Sedna, are surprised that the object does not appear to have a companion moon of any substantial size.

This unexpected result might offer new clues to the origin and evolution of objects on the far edge of the solar system.

When Sedna’s existence was announced on March 15, its discoverer, Mike Brown of Caltech, was so convinced it had a satellite that an artist’s concept of Sedna released to the media included a hypothetical moon.

Brown’s prediction was based on the fact that Sedna appears to have a very slow rotation that could best be explained by the gravitational tug of a companion object. Almost all other solitary bodies in the solar system complete a spin in a matter of hours.

“I’m completely baffled at the absence of a moon,” says Brown. “This is outside the realm of expectation and makes Sedna even more interesting. But I simply don’t know what it means.”

Immediately following the announcement of the discovery of Sedna, astronomers turned the Hubble Space Telescope toward the new planetoid to search for the expected companion moon. The space-based platform provides the resolving power needed to make such precision measurements in visible light. “Sedna’s image isn’t stable enough in ground-based telescopes,” says Brown.

Surprisingly, the Hubble images taken March 16 with the new Advanced Camera for Surveys only show the single object Sedna, along with a faint, very distant background star in the same field of view.

“Despite HST’s crisp view (equivalent to trying to see a soccer ball 900 miles away), it still cannot resolve the disk of mysterious Sedna,” says Brown. This would place an upper limit in the object’s size of being approximately three-quarters the diameter of Pluto, or about 1,000 miles across.

But Brown predicted that a satellite would pop up as a companion “dot” in Hubble’s precise view. The object is not there, though there is a very small chance it might have been behind Sedna or transiting in front of it, so that it could not be seen separately from Sedna itself in the Hubble images.

Brown based this prediction on his earlier observations of apparent periodic changes in light reflecting from Sedna’s mottled surface. The resulting light curve gives a long rotation period exceeding 20 days (but not greater than 50 days). If true, Sedna would be the slowest rotating object in the solar system after Mercury and Venus, whose slow rotation rates are due to the tidal influence of the Sun.

One easy way out of this dilemma is the possibility that the rotation period is not as slow as the astronomers thought. But even with a careful reanalysis the team remains convinced that the period is correct. Brown admits, “I’m completely lost for an explanation as to why the object rotates so slowly.”

Small bodies like asteroids and comets typically complete one rotation in a matter of hours. Pluto’s rotation has been slowed to a relatively leisurely six-day period because Pluto is tidally locked to the revolution period of its satellite Charon. Hubble easily resolves Pluto and Charon as two separate bodies. NASA’s forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope will provide a platform for further high-resolution studies of the infrared light from such distant, cold bodies in our solar system.

The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA), for NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Original Source: Hubble News Release

Best Image Ever Taken of Titan’s Surface

Image credit: ESO
Titan, the largest Saturnian moon and the second largest moon of the solar system (only Jupiter’s Ganymede is slightly larger), is the only satellite known with a substantial atmosphere. It is composed mainly of nitrogen (like that of the Earth) and also contains significant amounts of methane. Opaque orange hazes and clouds of complex organic molecules effectively shield the solid surface from view, cf. e.g. the Voyager images.

Recent spectroscopic and radar observations suggest that there are huge surface reservoirs of liquid hydrocarbonates and a methane-based meteorological cycle similar to Earth’s hydrological cycle. This makes Titan the only known object with rainfall and potential surface oceans other than the Earth and thus a tantalizing research object for the study of pre-biotic chemistry and the origin of life on Earth.

The Huygens probe launched from the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission will enter Titan’s atmosphere in early 2005 to make measurements of the physical and chemical conditions, hopefully surviving the descent to document the surface as well.

Coordinated ground-based observations will provide essential support for the scientific return of the Cassini-Huygens encounter. However, only 8-10 m class telescopes with adaptive optics imaging systems or space-borne instruments can achieve sufficient image sharpness to attain a useful level of detail.

The new map of a large part of Titan’s surface, shown in PR Photo 11a/04, represents an important contribution in this direction.

A question of atmospheric windows
The first intriguing views of Titan’s surface were obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in the 1990’s. From the ground, images were obtained in 2001-2 with the Keck II and Gemini North telescopes and more recently with the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT), cf. ESO PR Photos 08a-c/04. All of these observations were made through a single narrow-band filter at a time.

The wavelengths used for such observations are critical for the amount of surface detail captured on the images. Optimally, one would look for a spectral band in which the atmosphere is completely transparent; a number of such “windows” are known to exist. But although the above observations were made in wavebands roughly matching atmospheric windows and do show surface features, they also include the light from different atmospheric layers. In a sense, they therefore correspond to viewing Titan’s surface through a somewhat opaque screen or, more poetically, the sight by an ancient sailor, catching for the first time a glimpse of an unknown continent through the coastal haze.

One narrow “window” is available in the near-infrared spectral region near wavelength 1.575 ?m. In February 2004, an international research team [1] working at the ESO VLT at the Paranal Observatory (Chile) obtained images of Titan’s surface through this spectral window with unprecedented spatial resolution and with the lowest contamination of atmospheric condensates to date.

They accomplished this during six nights (February 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8, 2004) at the time of the commissioning phase of a novel high-contrast imaging mode for the NACO adaptive optics instrument on the 8.2-m VLT YEPUN telescope, using the Simultaneous Differential Imager (SDI) [2]. This novel optical device provides four simultaneous high-resolution images (PR Photo 11b/04) at three wavelengths around a near-infrared atmospheric methane absorption feature.

The main application of the SDI is high-contrast imaging for the search for substellar companions with methane in their atmosphere, e.g. brown dwarfs and giant exoplanets, near other stars. However, as the present photos demonstrate, it is also superbly suited for Titan imaging.

Simultaneous Views of Titan’s Surface and Atmosphere
Titan is tidally-locked to Saturn, and hence always presents the same face towards the planet. To image all sides of Titan (from the Earth) therefore requires observations during almost one entire orbital period, 16 days. Still, the present week-long observing campaign enabled the team to map approximately three-quarters of the surface of Titan.

A new map of the surface of Titan (in cylindrical projection and covering most, but not all of the area imaged during these observations) was created. For this, the simultaneous “atmospheric” images (at waveband 1.625 ?m) were “subtracted” from the “surface” images (1.575 and 1.600 ?m) in order to remove any residual atmospheric features present in the latter. The ability to subtract simultaneous images is unique to the SDI camera [2].

This truly unique map shows the fraction of sunlight reflected from the surface – bright areas reflect more light than the darker ones. The amount of reflection (in astronomical terms: the “albedo”) depends on the composition and structure of the surface layer and it is not possible with this single-wavelength (“monochromatic”) map alone to elucidate the true nature of those features.

Nevertheless, recent radar observations with the Arecibo antenna have provided evidence for liquid surfaces on Titan, and the low-reflection areas could indicate the locations of those suspected reservoirs of liquid hydrocarbonates. They also provide a possible source for the replenishment of methane that is continuously lost in the atmosphere because of decomposition by the sunlight.

Presumably, the bright, highly reflective regions are ice-covered highlands.

Provisional names of the new features
A comparison with an earlier NACO image obtained through another filter is useful. It demonstrates the importance of employing a filter that precisely fits the atmospheric window and hence the gain of clarity with the present observations. It also provides independent confirmation of the reality of the gross features, since the observations are separated by 15 months in time.

Over the range of longitudes which have been mapped during the present observations (PR Photo 11a/04), it is obvious that the southern hemisphere of Titan is dominated by a single bright region centered at approximately 15? longitude. (Note that this is not the so-called “bright feature” seen in the HST images at longitude 80? – 130?, an area that was not covered during the present observations).

The equatorial area displays the above mentioned, well-defined dark (low-reflection) structures. In order to facilitate their identification, the team decided to give these dark features provisional names – official names will be assigned at a later moment by the Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union (IAU WGPSN). From left to right, the SDI team [1] has referred to these features informally as: the “lying H”, the “dog” chasing a “ball”, and the “dragon’s head”.

Original Source: ESO News Release

What’s Next for the Rovers?

Image credit: NASA/JPL
As both rovers approach their third month resident on Mars, the mission planners have returned to Earth time. Both rover teams look to make rapid progress toward distant hills, with a possible second September extension continuing with any remaining mission science.

JPL Mars Program Office Head, Dr. Firouz Naderi, indicated that with this week’s first mission extension, even more may be planned. Currently slated for September 13 as the next mission milestone, such an ambitious science schedule would give the rovers 250 Sols on the planet’s surface. “This is all bonus science,” said Naderi. “After the solar conjunction (alignment between Mars, Earth and the Sun) around September 13th, we would probably propose to NASA for a second extension.” During a solar conjunction, explained Naderi, the Sun blocks line-of-sight views between the Earth tracking and martian surface operations for seven to ten days. “The Sun gets in the way,” said Naderi, explaining that during the lead-up to September 13th, both rovers will be given a deserved weeklong respite, followed by what many hope will be further healthy science operations to follow.

For the rest of 2004, the engineering and science team will look to stretch more life out of their six-wheeled laboratories. The primary constraints on further operations will be thermal, power, and dust accumulation from seasonal change and road weathering. Mission manager, Matt Wallace, explained previously that both rovers were healthy: “We try to keep our finger on the pulse of vehicle health, looking for signals or markers of subtle changes and trends. Except for environmental changes (power, thermal, optical opacity and dust accumulation), there is no wear and tear on subsystems.”

At Gusev crater, the extended Spirit mission will look to traverse towards Columbia Hills. At Meridiani Planum, the extended Opportunity mission will rack up long drives across the flat plains towards Endurance Crater. At full speed, the rovers can clock from 50 to 100 meters per Sol.

Naderi noted that the switch of mission personnel back to Earth time has been a welcome transition. For future missions, he said, the consensus for long-term operations will likely move away from following Mars’ sunrise and sunset times. One problem other than the late and early on-site shifts at JPL has been the inability to sleep at consistent times because the approximately 39 minute longer martian day continues always to push and rotate schedules. Dr. Ray Arvidson, deputy Principal Investigator and Washington University, St. Louis professor of geology, compared the hectic three months on Mars time to jetlag when a transatlantic traveler returns from Europe. “It takes three to four days to get back to Earth time,” said Arvidson.

One other benefit, according to Arvidson, is that since mission science is planned for Spirit and Opportunity on opposite sides of Mars, now that both teams work on the same clock, they will be able to simplify coordination and strategic science targets. There are people on the other rover tream, said Arvidson, “who I haven’t seen for three months except in the parking lot.”

Spirit’s mission manager for surface operations, Jennifer Trosper, noted that on her first day back on Earth time (last Monday), she was pleased not to come into work at 1 A.M. But as she was getting ready for bed that night proved to be exactly when she was called back to JPL–to troubleshoot why the Spirit rover had not responded to a ‘beep’ signal sent from Earth around midnight.

Trosper said that new flight software will be a major priority for the coming days. She explained that while there were risks associated with any commands that change the rovers’ state, the software has been thoroughly pre-tested. The first upload of flight software was not loaded until only one month before launch. The critical descent and landing software was not loaded on the spacecraft until nearly three months after launch, while the probe was well on its way to Mars.

In detail, Trosper noted, their plan will feature first the transfer of software command files for six hours a day over 4 days of direct communication from Earth to the high-gain antenna on both rovers. “When we get all the files on-board, then we build the flight software (locally on the rovers). When that is complete, the rovers go to sleep for 15 minutes, waking up with a new system.” The Spirit rover was the first to encounter file overloads after 18 days of file storage, and at one point could not send any data to Earth except that its system clock had shifted to the year 2053. Later changes in software succeeded in rejoining the rovers with JPL’s command center.

Arvidson highlighted a few near-term science objectives as further investigation on Spirit continues to calibrate the dusty martian skies. By pointing the rover’s panoramic camera towards the sky, while overhead satellites look down, scientist hope to remove the masking influence of dust. Spirit completed these coordinated observations with the thermal emission spectrometer instrument on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. The observations involved miniature thermal emission spectrometer pre-flight, simultaneous, and post-flight sky and ground measurements. Spirit also collected a panoramic camera opacity observation.

Opportunity continues to surprise scientists as it found another outcrop similar to what was first seen in its landing hole at Eagle Crater. But this time, the outcrop is on the edge of a trough in the middle of the plains. “This outcrop looks texturally like Eagle Crater,” and current plans are to spend several days probing what appears to be bedrock. Bedrock is of interest if it has preserved a layered timeline of rock deposit. Since this deposit also has ripples, scientists hope to discover whether its chemistry “speaks to water,” said Arvidson. “The trough is probably a fracture, we don’t know how young?”

While there is a “strong desire to get another 100 meter drive, to get to Endurance Crater,” said Arvidson, “the hope is to spend a few Sols here.”

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Desert Soil Will Teach How to Search for Life on Mars

Image credit: UC Berkeley
The same cutting-edge technology that speeded sequencing of the human genome could, by the end of the decade, tell us once and for all whether life ever existed on Mars, according to a University of California, Berkeley, chemist.

Richard Mathies, UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and developer of the first capillary electrophoresis arrays and new energy transfer fluorescent dye labels – both used in today’s DNA sequencers – is at work on an instrument that would use these technologies to probe Mars dust for evidence of life-based amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

Graduate student Alison Skelley at the Rock Garden, one of the sites in Chile’s Atacama desert where researchers sampled soil for amino acids in preparation for sending an instrument to Mars to look for signs of life. The ruins of the city of Yunguy are in the background. (Photo courtesy Richard Mathies lab/UC Berkeley)

With two development grants from NASA totaling nearly $2.4 million, he and team members from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology and UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography hope to build a Mars Organic Analyzer to fly aboard NASA’s roving, robotic Mars Science Laboratory mission and/or the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission, both scheduled for launch in 2009. The ExoMars proposal is in collaboration with Pascale Ehrenfreund, associate professor of astrochemistry at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands.

The Mars Organic Analyzer, dubbed MOA, looks not only for the chemical signature of amino acids, but tests for a critical characteristic of life-based amino acids: They’re all left handed. Amino acids can be made by physical processes in space – they’re often found in meteorites – but they’re about equally left- and right-handed. If amino acids on Mars have a preference for left-handed over right-handed amino acids, or vice versa, they could only have come from some life form on the planet, Mathies said.

“We feel that measuring homochirality – a prevalence of one type of handedness over another – would be absolute proof of life,” said Mathies, a UC Berkeley member of the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3) . “That’s why we focused on this type of experiment. If we go to Mars and find amino acids but don’t measure their chirality, we’re going to feel very foolish. Our instrument can do it.”

The MOA is one of a variety of instruments under development with NASA funding to look for the presence of organic molecules on Mars, with final proposals for the 2009 mission due in mid-July. Mathies and colleagues Jeffrey Bada of Scripps and Frank Grunthaner of JPL, who plan to submit the only proposal that tests for amino acid handedness, have put the analyzer to the test and shown that it works. The details of their proposal are now on the Web at

In February, Grunthaner and UC Berkeley graduate student Alison Skelley traveled to the Atacama desert of Chile to see if the amino acid detector – called the Mars Organic Detector, or MOD – could find amino acids in the driest region of the planet. The MOD easily succeeded. However, because the second half of the experiment – the “lab-on-a-chip” that tests for amino acid handedness – had not yet been married to the MOD, the researchers brought the samples back to UC Berkeley for that part of the test. Skelley has now successfully finished these experiments demonstrating the compatibility of the lab-on-a-chip system with the MOD.

“If you can’t detect life in the Yungay region of the Atacama Desert, you have no business going to Mars,” Mathies said, referring to the desert region in Chile where the crew stayed and conducted some of their tests.

Mathies, who 12 years ago developed the first capillary array electrophoresis separators marketed by Amersham Biosciences in their fast DNA sequencers, is confident that his group’s improvements to the technology utilized in the genome project will feed perfectly into the Mars exploration projects.

“With the kind of microfluidic technology we’ve developed and our capability to make arrays of in situ analyzers that conduct very simple experiments relatively inexpensively, we don’t need to have people on Mars to perform valuable analyses,” he said. “So far, we’ve shown this system can detect life in a fingerprint, and that we can do a complete analysis in the field. We’re really excited about the future possibilities.”

Bada, a marine chemist, is the exobiologist on the team, having developed nearly a dozen years ago a novel way to test for amino acids, amines (the degradation products of amino acids) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, organic compounds common in the universe. That experiment, MOD, was selected for a 2003 mission to Mars that was scrapped when the Mars Polar Lander crashed in 1999.

Since then, Bada has teamed with Mathies to develop a more ambitious instrument that combines an improved MOD with the new technology for identifying and testing the chirality of the amino acids detected.

The ultimate goal is to find proof of life on Mars. The Viking landers in the 1970s unsuccessfully tested for organic molecules on Mars, but their sensitivity was so low that they would have failed to detect life even if there were a million bacteria per gram of soil, Bada said. Now that the NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity have almost certainly shown that standing water once existed on the surface, the aim is to find organic molecules.

Bada’s MOD is designed to heat Martian soil samples and, in the low pressures at the surface, vaporize any organic molecules that may be present. The vapor then condenses onto a cold finger, a trap cooled to Mars’ ambient nighttime temperature, approximately 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The cold finger is coated with fluorescamine dye tracers that bind only to amino acids, so that any fluorescent signal indicates that amino acids or amines are present.

“Right now, we are able to detect one trillionth of a gram of amino acids in a gram of soil, which is a million times better than Viking,” Bada said.
The added capillary electrophoresis system sips the condensed fluid off the cold finger and siphons it to a lab-on-a-chip with built-in pumps and valves that route the fluid past chemicals that help identify the amino acids and check for handedness or chirality.

“MOD is a first stage interrogation where the sample is examined for the presence of any fluorescent species including amino acids,” Skelley said. “Then, the capillary electrophoresis instrument does the second stage analysis, where we actually resolve those different species and can tell what they are. The two instruments are designed to complement and build on one another.”

“Rich has taken this experiment into the next dimension. We really have a system that works,” Bada said. “When I started thinking about tests for chirality and first talked to Rich, we had conceptual ideas, but nothing that was actually functioning. He has taken it to the point where we have an honest-to-God portable instrument.”

Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, can exist in two mirror-image forms, designated L (levo) for left-handed and D (dextro) for right-handed. All proteins on Earth are composed of amino acids of the L type, allowing a chain of them to fold up nicely into a compact protein.

As Mathies describes it, the test for chirality takes advantage of the fact that left-handed amino acids fit more snugly into a left-handed chemical “mitt” and right-handed amino acids into a right-handed mitt. If both left- and right-handed amino acids travel down a thin capillary tube lined with left-handed mitts, the left-handed ones will travel more slowly because they slip into the mitts along the way. It’s like a left-handed politician working a crowd, he said. She’ll move more slowly the more left-handed people in the crowd, because those are the only people she will shake hands with. In this case, the left-handed mitt is a chemical called cyclodextrin.

Different amino acids – there are 20 different kinds used by humans – also travel down the tube at different rates, which allows partial identification of those present.

“After amino acids are detected by MOD, the labeled amino acid solution is pumped down into microfluidics and crudely separated by charge,” Mathies said. “The mobility of the amino acids tells us something about charge and size and, when cyclodextrins are present, whether we have a racemic mixture, that is, an equal amount of left- and right-handed amino acids. If we do, the amino acids could be non-biological. But if we see a chiral excess, we know the amino acids have to be biological in origin.”

The state-of-the-art chip designed and built by Skelley consists of channels etched by photolithographic techniques and a microfluidic pumping system sandwiched into a four-layer disk four inches in diameter, with the layers connected by drilled channels. The tiny microfabricated valves and pumps are created from two glass layers with a flexible polymer (PDMS or polydimethylsiloxane) membrane in between, moved up and down using a pressure or vacuum source. UC Berkeley physical chemist James Scherer, who designed the capillary electrophoresis instrument, also developed a sensitive fluorescence detector that quickly reads the pattern on the chip.

One of the team’s current NASA grants is for development of a next-generation Microfabricated Organic Laboratory, or MOL, to fly to Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa or perhaps a comet and conduct even more elaborate chemical tests in search of a more complete set of organic molecules, including nucleic acids, the structural units of DNA. For now, however, the goal is an instrument ready by 2009 to go beyond the current experiments aboard the Mars 2003 rovers and look for amino acids.

“You have to remember, so far we have not detected any organic material on Mars, so that would be a tremendous step forward,” Bada said. “In the hunt for life, there are two requirements: water and organic compounds. With the recent findings of the Mars rovers that suggests that water is present, the remaining unknown is organic compounds. That’s why we are focusing on this.

“The Mars Organic Analyzer is a very powerful experiment, and our great hope is to find not only amino acids, but amino acids that look like they could come from some sort of living entity.”

Original Source: Berkeley News Release

Spitzer Reveals Hidden Massive Stars

Image credit: NASA/JPL
Hidden behind a curtain of dusty darkness lurks one of the most violent pockets of star birth in our galaxy. Called DR21, this stellar nursery is so draped in cosmic dust that it appears invisible to the human eye.

By seeing in the infrared, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has pulled this veil aside, revealing a fireworks-like display of massive stars. The biggest of these stars is estimated to be 100,000 times as bright as our own Sun.

The new image is available online at and

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Dr. William Reach, an investigator for the latest observations and an astronomer at the Spitzer Science Center, located at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. “The massive stars are ripping the cloud of gas and dust around them to shreds.” The principal investigator is Dr. Anthony Marston, a former Spitzer astronomer now at the European Space Research and Technology Centre, the Netherlands.

Located about 10,000 light-years away in the Cygnus constellation of our Milky Way galaxy, DR21 is a turbulent nest of giant newborn stars. The region is buried in so much space dust that no visible light escapes it. Previous images taken with radio and near-infrared bands of light reveal a powerful jet emanating from a huge, nebulous cloud. But these views are just the tip of the iceberg.

Spitzer’s highly sensitive infrared detectors were able to see past the obscuring dust to the stars behind. The new false-color image spans a vast expanse of space, with DR21 at the top center. Within DR21, a dense knot of massive stars can be seen surrounded by a wispy cloud of gas and dust. Red filaments containing organic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons stretch horizontally and vertically across this cloud. A green jet of gas shoots downward past the bulge of stars and represents fast-moving, hot gas being ejected from the region’s biggest star.

Below DR21 are distinct pockets of star formation, never captured in full detail before. The large swirling cloud to the lower left is thought to be a stellar nursery like DR21’s, but with smaller stars. A bubble possibly formed by a past generation of stars is visible within the lower rim of this cloud.

The new view testifies to the ability of massive newborn stars to destroy the cloud that blankets them. Astronomers plan to use these observations to determine precisely how such an energetic event occurs.

Launched on August 25, 2003, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Spitzer Space Telescope is the fourth of NASA?s Great Observatories, a program that also includes the Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and Chandra X-ray Observatory.

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center. JPL is a division of Caltech. Spitzer’s infrared array camera, used to capture the new image of DR21, was built by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The development of the camera was led by Dr. Giovanni Fazio of Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, Mass.

Additional information about the Spitzer Space Telescope is available at

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Book Review: Moon Observer’s Guide

The Moon is a substantial satellite almost half the size of the planet Mars. As fortune would have it only one side of the Moon’s surface ever shows toward Earth. However the Moon is believed to be about 4.6 billion years old and thus it has had ample time to aggregate a fascinating landscape, especially as there is minimal weathering or plate tectonics. Using the typical unaided eye the Moon is seen as a large disc with varying brightness across its surface. However with binoculars or telescopes the surface jumps into bright relief and then fine shadows and patterns tell an amazing story that can be just as exciting as Mars.

The story of the Moon includes many great characters. Tycho and Copernicus are great rayed craters dominating the scene. Mare Imbrium and Mare Tranquillitatis provide a smooth, gentle supporting backdrop for smaller understudies. To see any of these in great detail wait for the Moon’s terminus to highlight their features. The terminus is where the sunlight striking the Moon’s surface fades into the shadows of space. As the light and the surface are at an oblique angle the features have strong shadows, making them stand out and enabling estimates of their height and shape. To accommodate this, the guidebook provides charts of the terminus for each day of the lunar’s 29 days cycle. Each chart is oriented in a North-South reference as seen from a small telescope thus making a perfect reference. Extensive adjoining text gives an appropriate description together with some conjectures about formation. All in all the Moon’s story is varied, gently paced and continually varying.

To compliment these charts there are further notes on the Moon relevant to the space enthusiast. Aides to observing are covered in some detail, these being binoculars and telescopes. The Moon’s presumed formation theory and geology add a nice temporal factor. Stellar events such as libations, occultations, ecliptics and eclipses round out this guide for observing the Moon.

I like the Moon Observer’s Guide. It provides an economical and extensive resource for observing Earth’s satellite. For the astronomy addict it may become quickly trivial but for an introduction it is an invaluable aid.

Buy this book and others from

Review by Mark Mortimer.

8.4 Metre Mirror Installed on Huge Binoculars

Image credit: UA
The University of Arizona today announced that the first 8.4-meter (27-foot) primary mirror for the world?s most powerful telescope, the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), has successfully been installed in the telescope structure at Arizona?s Mount Graham International Observatory (MGIO).

The 18-ton mirror made its 150-mile journey from Tucson to the top of Mount Graham near Safford, Ariz., in October 2003. Now the mirror has been installed in the telescope, and technicians are testing intricate mirror support system hardware and software in preparation for telescope “first light.” First light, or when the mirror collects its first celestial light, is expected later this year.

The deeply parabolic mirror was cast and figured at the University of Arizona?s renowned Steward Observatory Mirror Lab and is the first of two identical giant mirrors that will make up the LBT. The mirrors are much larger and lighter than conventional solid-glass mirrors used in the past. Both together are valued at $22 million.

Each LBT mirror is a “honeycomb” structure made out of borosilicate glass that was melted, molded, and spun into shape in a specially designed rotating oven. Once cast, the first mirror was polished to near perfection using the Mirror Lab’s innovative “stressed-lap” technique. The mirror surface matches the desired shape to within a millionth of an inch over its entire surface. The Mirror Lab is currently polishing the second primary mirror.

After the first mirror was moved to the telescope structure late last year, engineers spent more than two months testing and perfecting mirror installation procedures using a dummy mirror in the actual mirror “cell,” or mirror support structure. The mirror was then installed in the cell and, in precise operations that required maneuvering the mirror and cell through a hatchway between building floors with only inches to spare, LBT workers lifted the mirror onto the telescope structure. The telescope is housed in an innovative 16-story rotating enclosure.

John M. Hill, LBT Project director, said, ?This is a huge step in what has been a very long and challenging process and would not have been possible without the support of a great team. From construction of our unique telescope structure to the implementation of this massive mirror, every step has involved great minds using cutting-edge technology. The remarkable success we have had so far is a tribute to the creative efforts of our team members.?

Work on the $100 million LBT project began with construction of the telescope building in 1996 and will be completed in 2005. The project is entirely funded by the LBT Corp., an international consortium of scientific and academic institutions. When the LBT is fully operational, it will be the world?s most technologically advanced optical telescope, creating images expected to be nearly 10 times sharper than images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Peter A. Strittmatter, president of the LBT Corp., said, ?The twin mirrors of the LBT will have the light gathering capabilities of an 11.8 meter (39-foot) conventional telescope. This is an exciting time for everyone who has been involved in this pioneering effort. The LBT will provide unprecedented views of our universe, including for the first time, the ability to image planets far beyond our solar system. I believe this is the first of the next generation of extremely large telescopes and will signal the beginning of a new golden era in this type of space exploration.?

The LBT project is managed by the LBT Corp., a partnership that includes the University of Arizona; Ohio State University; the Research Corp.; the LBTB, a German consortium of astronomical research institutes; and the INAF, the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics. The LBT Corp. was established in 1992 to undertake the construction and operation of the LBT.

Original Source: UA News Release

Humans on Mars by 2011?

The Associated Press is reporting that a private group of Russian space experts announced plans to send 6 humans to Mars by 2011 – for a cost of only $3.5 billion. An official from the Central Research Institute for Machine Building said it would carry out the mission with funding by Aerospace Systems, and would be completely private. The program envisions six cosmonauts traveling to Mars and exploring it for several months before returning to Earth – the total journey would take three years. The mission costs would be low because it would use existing spacecraft. The Russian Space Agency has no involvement with this mission, and dismissed it as nonsense.

Rover Mission Extended

Image credit: NASA/JPL
NASA has approved an extended mission for the Mars Exploration Rovers, handing them up to five months of overtime assignments as they finish their three-month prime mission.

The first of the two rovers, Spirit, met the success criteria set for its prime mission. Spirit gained check marks in the final two boxes on April 3 and 5, when it exceeded 600 meters (1,969 feet) of total drive distance and completed 90 martian operational days after landing.

Opportunity landed three weeks after Spirit. It will complete the two-rover checklist of required feats when it finishes a 90th martian day of operations April 26. Each martian day, or “sol,” lasts about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day.

“Given the rovers’ tremendous success, the project submitted a proposal for extending the mission, and we have approved it,” said Orlando Figueroa, Mars Exploration Program director at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

The mission extension provides $15 million for operating the rovers through September. The extension more than doubles exploration for less than a two percent additional investment, if the rovers remain in working condition. The extended mission has seven new goals for extending the science and engineering accomplishments of the prime mission.

“Once Opportunity finishes its 91st sol, everything we get from the rovers after that is a bonus,” said Dr. Firouz Naderi, manager of Mars exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., where the rovers were built and are controlled. “Even though the extended mission is approved to September, and the rovers could last even longer, they also might stop in their tracks next week or next month. They are operating under extremely harsh conditions. However, while Spirit is past its ‘warranty,’ we look forward to continued discoveries by both rovers in the months ahead.” JPL’s Jennifer Trosper, Spirit mission manager, said even when a memory-management problem on the rover caused trouble for two weeks, she had confidence the rover and the operations team could get through the crisis and reach the 90-sol benchmark. “We never felt it was over, but certainly when we were getting absolutely no data from the spacecraft and were trying to figure out what happened, we were worried,” she said.

Trosper was less confident about Spirit’s prospects for reaching the criterion of 600 meters by sol 91, given the challenging terrain of the landing area within Gusev Crater. On sol 89 Spirit accomplished that goal and set a short-lived record for martian driving, with a single-sol distance of 50.2 meters (165 feet) that pushed the odometer total to 617 meters (2,024 feet). Two days later, Opportunity shattered that mark with a 100-meter (328-foot) drive.

Beyond the quantifiable criteria, such as using all research tools at both landing sites and investigating at least eight locations, the rovers have returned remarkable science results. The most dramatic have been Opportunity’s findings of evidence of a shallow body of salty water in the past in the Mars Meridiani Planum region.

“We’re going to continue exploring and try to understand the water story at Gusev,” said JPL’s Dr. Mark Adler, deputy mission manager for Spirit. Spirit is in pursuit of geological evidence for an ancient lake thought to have once filled Gusev Crater.

Reaching “Columbia Hills,” which could hold geological clues to that water story, is one of seven objectives for Spirit’s extended mission. Opportunity has a parallel one, to seek geologic context for the outcrop in the “Eagle” crater by reaching other outcrops in the “Endurance” crater and perhaps elsewhere. Other science objectives are to continue atmospheric studies at both sites to encompass more of Mars’ seasonal cycle, and to calibrate and validate data from Mars orbiters for additional types of rocks and soils examined on the ground.

Three new engineering objectives are to traverse more than a kilometer (0.62 mile) to demonstrate mobility technologies; to characterize solar-array performance over long durations of dust deposition at both landing sites; and to demonstrate long-term operation of two mobile science robots on a distant planet. During the past two weeks, rover teams at JPL have switched from Mars-clock schedules to Earth-clock schedules designed to be less stressful and more sustainable over a longer period.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. Images and additional information about the project are available from JPL at and from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., at .

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

New Asteroid Impact Simulator Available

Image credit: US Department of Energy
Next time an asteroid or comet is on a collision course with Earth you can go to a web site to find out if you have time to finish lunch or need to jump in the car and DRIVE.

University of Arizona scientists are launching an easy-to-use, web-based program that tells you how the collision will affect your spot on the globe by calculating several environmental consequences of its impact.

Starting today, the program is online at .

You type in your distance from the predicted impact site, the size and type of projectile (e.g. ice, rock, or iron) and other information. Then the Earth Impact Effects Program calculates impact energies and crater size. It next summarizes thermal radiation, seismic shaking, ejecta deposition (where all that flying stuff will land), and air-blast effects in language that non-scientists understand.

For those who want to know how all these calculations are made, the web page will include “a description of our algorithm, with citations to the scientific sources used,” said Robert Marcus, a UA undergraduate in the UA/NASA Space Grant Program. He discussed the project recently at the 35th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference meeting in Houston, Texas.

Marcus developed the web site in collaboration with planetary sciences Regents? Professor H. Jay Melosh and research associate Gareth Collins of UA?s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Melosh is a leading expert on impact cratering and one of the first scientists reporters call when rumors of big, Earth-smashing objects begin to circulate.

Reporters and scientists both want to know the same thing: how much damage a particular collision would wrack on communities near the impact site.

The web site is valuable for scientists because they don’t have to spend time digging up the equations and data needed to calculate the effects, Melosh said. Similarly, it makes the information available to reporters and other non-scientists who don’t know how to make the calculations.

“It seemed to us that this is something we could automate, if we could find some very capable person to help us construct the website,” Melosh said.

That person turned out to be Marcus, who is majoring in computer engineering and physics. He applied to work on the project as a paid intern through the UA/NASA Space Grant Program.

Marcus built the web-based program around four environmental effects. In order of their occurrence, they are:

1) Thermal radiation. An expanding fireball of searing vapor occurs at impact. The program calculates how this fireball will expand, when maximum radiation will occur, and how much of the fireball will be seen above the horizon.

The researchers based their radiation calculations on information found in “The Effect of Nuclear Weapons.” This 1977 book, by the U.S. Defense Department and U.S. Department of Energy, details “considerable research into what different degrees of thermal radiation from blasts will do,” Melosh noted.

“We determine at a given distance what type of damage the radiation causes,” Marcus said. “We have descriptions like when grass will ignite, when plywood or newspaper will ignite, when humans will suffer 2nd or 3rd degree burns.”

2) Seismic shaking. The impact generates seismic waves that travel far from the impact site. The program uses California earthquake data and computes a Richter scale magnitude for the impact. Accompanying text describes shaking intensity at the specified distance from the impact site using a modified Mercalli scale This is a set of 12 descriptions ranging from “general destruction” to “only mildly felt.”

Now suppose the dinosaurs had this program 65 million years ago. They could have used it to determine the environmental consequences of the 15-kilometer-diameter asteroid that smashed into Earth, forming the Chicxulub Crater.

The program would have told them to expect seismic shaking of magnitude 10.2 on the Richter scale. They also would have found (supposing that the continents were lined up as they are now) that the ground would be shaking so violently 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away in Houston that dinosaurs living there would have trouble walking, or even standing up.

If the Chicxulub Crater-impact occurred today, glass in Houston would break. Masonry and plaster would crack. Trees and bushes would shake, ponds would form waves and become turbid with mud, sand and gravel banks would cave in, and bells in Houston schools and churches would ring from ground shaking.

3) Ejecta deposition. The team used a complicated ballistics travel-time equation to calculate when and where debris blown out of the impact crater would rain back down on Earth. Then they used data gathered from experimental explosions and measurements of craters on the moon to calculate how deep the ejecta blanket would be at and beyond the impact-crater rim.

They also determined how big the ejecta particles would be at different distances from impact, based on observations that Melosh and UA?s Christian J. Schaller published earlier when they analyzed ejecta on Venus.

OK, back to the dinosaurs. Houston would have been covered by an 80.8-centimeter- (32-inch-) thick blanket of debris, with particles averaging 2.8 mm (about 1/8th inch) in size. They would have arrived 8 minutes and 15 seconds after impact (meaning they got there at more than 4,000 mph).

4) Air blast. Impacts also produce a shock wave in the atmosphere that, by definition, moves faster than the speed of sound. The shock wave creates intense air pressure and severe winds, but decays to the speed of sound while it?s still close to the fireball, Melosh noted. “We translate that decreasing pressure in terms of decibels ? from ear-and-lung-rupturing sound, to being as loud as heavy traffic, to being only as loud as a whisper.”

The program calculates maximum pressures and wind velocities based on test results from pre-1960s nuclear blasts. Researchers at those blasts erected brick structures at the Nevada Test Site to study blast wave effects on buildings. The UA team used that information to describe damage in terms of buildings and bridges collapsing, cars bowled over by wind, or forests being blown down.

Dinosaurs living in Houston would have heard the Chicxulub impact as loud as heavy traffic and basked in 30 mph winds.

Original Source: UA News Release