Zap! Saturn Moon’s Electron Beam Beaned Cassini Spacecraft From Charged Surface

A false-color view of Saturn's moon Hyperion taken during a Cassini flyby in September 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Ever taken a balloon and rubbed it against your hair? That’s an example of electrostatic charging, which you see as the balloon briefly attracts strands of hair against your head. Turns out a similar process is taking place on Saturn’s moon Hyperion. More astounding, it wasn’t until recently that scientists saw a curious effect on the Cassini spacecraft in 2005.

As the machine whizzed by the small moon, Cassini was blanketed in electrons from Hyperion’s electrostatically charged surface. It’s the first time scientists have seen static electricity in effect on any airless body outside of the Moon.

The charge comes partly from massive Saturn’s magnetic field, which hits Hyperion’s spongy surface constantly with electrons and ions. The Sun also plays a role, sending ultraviolet light that also strikes the moon’s surface. Scientists found out this happens while studying old data on the Cassini spacecraft, when they discovered “something unexpected” during a close flyby of Hyperion in September 2005.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft obtained this unprocessed image of Saturn's moon Hyperion on Aug. 25, 2011. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft obtained this unprocessed image of Saturn’s moon Hyperion on Aug. 25, 2011. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Specifically, the spacecraft — which is still in operation today — was briefly connected through magnetism to Hyperion’s surface, receiving a surge of electrons. Cassini emerged from the encounter unharmed, even though team members estimate that it received the equivalent of a 200-volt shock from the moon. Charging events can hurt spacecraft, making this a valuable thing to know about for future missions.

“Our observations show that this is also an important effect at outer planet moons and that we need to take this into account when studying how these moons interact with their environment,” stated Geraint Jones of Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), University College London. He is a member of the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) team and one of the study’s supervisors.

CAPS is not in operation any more, since the instrument was turned off due to drawing excess current in 2012. But perhaps some of its past data, and observations from other Cassini instruments, can help unveil evidence of charging on other moons.

The tumbling motion of elongated Eros creates a changing brightness. (via
The tumbling motion of elongated Eros creates a changing brightness. (via

Previous research concerning some of Saturn’s moons, and the asteroid Eros, suggests that charged dust can move across the surface and perhaps even be able to sail into space against the force of gravity.

Several other instruments were used to gather data for this analysis, including Cassini’s magnetometer, magnetospheric imaging instrument, and radio and plasma wave science instrument.

You can read more about the research, which was led by Tom Nordheim, an MSSL doctoral candidate, in Geophysical Research Letters.

Source: NASA

Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft

Artist's impression of the asteroid belt. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When you think of the asteroid belt, you probably imagine a region of rock and dust, with asteroids as far as the eye can see.  Such a visual has been popularized in movies, where spaceships must swerve left and right to avoid collisions.  But a similar view is often portrayed in more scientific imagery, such as the artistic rendering above.  Even the first episode of the new Cosmos series portrayed the belt as a dense collection of asteroids. But the reality is very different.  In reality the asteroid belt is less cluttered than often portrayed.  Just how much less might surprise you.

The Sloan digital sky survey (SDSS) has identified more than 100,000 asteroids in the solar system.  Not all of these lie within the asteroid belt, but there are about 80,000 asteroids in the belt larger than a kilometer.  Of course there are asteroids smaller than that, but they are more difficult to detect, so we aren’t exactly sure how many there are.

The pyramid-shaped zodiacal light cone is centered on the same path the sun and planets take across the sky called the ecliptic. This map shows the sky 90 minutes after sunset in early March facing west. Created with Stellarium
The pyramid-shaped zodiacal light cone is centered on the same path the sun and planets take across the sky called the ecliptic. This map shows the sky 90 minutes after sunset in early March facing west. Created with Stellarium

We have a pretty good idea, however, because the observations we have indicate that the size distribution of asteroids follows what is known as a power law distribution. For example, with a power law of 1, for every 100-meter wide asteroid there would be 10 with a diameter of 10 meters and 100 with a diameter of 1 meter. Based upon SDSS observations, asteroids seem to follow a power law of about 2, which means there are likely about 800 trillion asteroids larger than a meter within the belt. That’s a lot of rock. So much that sunlight scattering off the asteroid belt and other dust in the solar system is the source of zodiacal light.

But there is also a lot of volume within the asteroid belt. The belt can be said to occupy a region around the Sun from about 2.2 to 3.2 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun from the Sun (AU), with a thickness of about 1 AU. A bit of math puts that at about 50 trillion trillion cubic kilometers. So even though there are trillions of asteroids, each asteroid has billions of cubic kilometers of space on average. The asteroid belt is hardly something you would consider crowded. It should be emphasized that asteroids in the belt are not evenly distributed. They are clustered into families and groups. But even such clustering is not significant compared to the vast space it occupies.

An actual image from within the asteroid belt, taken from the NEAR probe as it was heading toward Eros (center). Credit: NASA
An actual image from within the asteroid belt, taken from the NEAR probe as it was heading toward Eros (center).
Credit: NASA

You can even do a very rough calculation to get an idea of just how empty the asteroid belt actually is. If we assumed that all the asteroids lay within a single plane, then on average there is 1 asteroid within an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. Within the entire United States there would be about 2000 asteroids, most of them only a meter across. The odds of seeing an asteroid along a cross-country road trip, much less hitting one, would be astoundingly small. So you can see why we don’t worry about space probes hitting an asteroid on their way to the outer solar system.  In fact, to get even close to an asteroid takes a great deal of effort.

Huge Asteroid 324 Bamberga Makes a Return Visit to Earth’s Neighborhood on Friday the 13th

Starry Night

This week offers a fine chance to catch sight of a unique asteroid.

324 Bamberga reaches opposition this week in the constellation Pisces on (friggatriskaidekaphobics take note) Friday the 13th at 7AM EDT/11:00 Universal Time.

About 230 kilometres in size, 324 Bamberga reaches 0.81 astronomical units from the Earth this week. No other asteroid so large gets so close.

Discovered on February 25th, 1892 by Johann Palisa, 324 Bamberga only reaches a favorable opposition once every 22 years.

Shining at magnitude +8.1, 324 Bamberga is also one of the highest numbered asteroids visible with binoculars. Earth-crossing asteroids 433 Eros, which made a close pass last year, and 4179 Toutatis are two of the very few asteroids that possess a larger number designations that can regularly reach +10th magnitude.

Look east in mid-September about an hour after sunset. The inset covers the region that 324 Bamberga is currently traversing in the introductory graphic. (Created by the author using Stellarium).

So, why did it take so long for 324 Bamberga to be uncovered? One factor is its high orbital eccentricity of 0.34. This means that most of the oppositions of the asteroid aren’t favorable. 324 Bamberga orbits the Sun once every 4.395 years and only comes around to an opposition that lands near perihelion once every 22 Earth years. Perihelion this year occurs only 45 days after opposition on October 27th.

The resonance between 324 Bamberga and Earth is nearly five Earth orbits for every one circuit of the Sun for the asteroid and is offset by only 9 days, meaning that the 22 year window to see the asteroid will actually become less favorable in centuries to come. 324 Bamberga made its last favorable appearance on September 15th, 1991 and won’t surpass +10th magnitude again until September 2035.

The orbit of 324 Bamberga. (Created using the JPL Small-Body Database Browser).

Observing asteroids requires patience and the ability to pick out a slowly moving object amidst the starry background. 324 Bamberga spends September west of the circlet of Pisces, drifting two degrees a week, or just over 17’ a day, to cross over into the constellation Pegasus in early October.

324 Bamberga will be moving too slow to pick up any motion in real time, but you can spy it by either sketching the field on successive nights or photographing the region and noting if the asteroid can be seen changing position against the background of fixed stars. Start hunting for 324 Bamberga tonight, as the Full Harvest Moon will be visiting Pisces later next week on the 19th.

Starry Night
A closeup of the path of 324 Bamberga for the week of September 10-17th. Decimal points for comparison stars are omitted. (Created by the author using Starry Night Education software).

324 Bamberga is also unique as the brightest C-type asteroid that is ever visible from Earth. The runner up in this category is asteroid 10 Hygiea, which can shine a full magnitude fainter at opposition.

It’s also remarkable that Palisa actually managed to discover 324 Bamberga while it was at 12th magnitude! Palisa was one of the most prolific visual hunters of asteroids ever, discovering 121 asteroids from 1874 to 1923. He accomplished this feat first with the use of a 6” refractor while based at the Austrian Naval Observatory in Pola (now the Croatian town of Pula) and later using the Vienna observatory’s 27” inch refractor.

The Great Refractor of the University of Vienna used to discover asteroid 324 Bamberga. (Credit: Prof. Franz Kerschbaum, Wikimedia Commons image under an Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).
The Great Refractor of the University of Vienna used to discover asteroid 324 Bamberga. (Credit: Prof. Franz Kerschbaum, Wikimedia Commons image under an Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

324 Bamberga itself takes its name from the town of Bamberg in Bavaria, the site of the 1896 meeting of the Astronomische Gesellschraft.

An occultation of a star by 324 Bamberga on December 8th, 1987 allowed astronomers to pin down its approximate size. Searches have also been carried out during occultations for any possible moons of this asteroid, though thus far, none have been discovered.

It’s interesting to note that 324 Bamberga will also actually occult the star 2UCAC 3361042 tonight in the early morning hours at 8:59-9:10 UT for observers spanning a path from Florida to Oregon. The magnitude drop will, however, be very slight, as the star is actually 3 full magnitudes fainter than the asteroid itself. Dave Gee caught a fine occultation of a 7.4 magnitude star in the constellation Corvus by 324 Bamberga in 2007.

There’s also something special about this time of year and the region that 324 Bamberga is crossing. More visual discoveries of asteroids have been historically made in the month of September than any other calendar month. In fact, 344 of the first 1,940 numbered asteroids were found in September, more than twice the average. Palisa’s own track record bears this out, though 324 Bamberga was discovered in February.

One of the primary reasons for a September surge in discoveries is viewing direction. Astronomers of yore typically hunted for asteroids approaching opposition in the anti-sunward direction, which in September lies in the relatively star poor fields of Pisces.  In December and June —the months with the lowest numbers of visual discoveries at only 75 and 65 for the “first 1,940” respectively —the anti-sunward point lies in the star-rich regions of Sagittarius and Gemini. And by the way, the meteor that exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk on February 15th was sneaking up on the Earth from the sunward direction.

Be sure to catch a glimpse of this unique asteroid through either binoculars or a telescope over the coming weeks. The next chance to observe 324 Bamberga won’t roll around again until September 2035… it’ll be great to compare notes of the 2013 apparition on that far off date!

Asteroid To Make Closest Approach Since 1975

Asteroid 433 Eros, seen by NASA's NEAR spacecraft on Feb. 29, 2000. (NASA/JPL/JHUAPL)


On Tuesday, January 31, asteroid 433 Eros will come closer to Earth than it has in 37 years, traveling across the night sky in the constellations Leo, Sextans and Hydra. At its closest pass of 16.6 million miles (26.7 million km) the relatively bright 21-mile (34-km) -wide asteroid will be visible with even modest backyard telescopes, approaching magnitude 8, possibly even 7. It hasn’t come this close since 1975, and won’t do so again until 2056!

433 Eros is an S-type asteroid, signifying a composition of magnesium silicates and iron. S-types make up about 17 percent of known asteroids and are some of the brightest, with albedos (reflectivity) in the range of 0.10 – 0.22. S-type asteroids are most common in the inner asteroid belt and, as in the case of Eros, can even pass within the orbit of Mars.

Occasionally Eros’ orbit brings it close enough to Earth that it can be spotted with amateur telescopes. 2012 will be one of those times.

Eros was discovered on August 13, 1898, by astronomers Carl Gustav Witt in Berlin and Auguste Charlois in Nice. When Eros’ orbit was calculated it was seen to be an elongated oval that brought it within the orbit of Mars. This allowed for good observations of the bright asteroid, and eventually led to more accurate estimates of the distance from Earth to the Sun.

In February 2000 NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft approached Eros, established orbit and made a soft landing on its surface, the first mission ever to do so. While in orbit NEAR took over 160,000 images of Eros’ surface, identifying over 100,000 craters, a million house-sized boulders (give or take a few) and helped researchers conclude that the cashew-shaped Eros is a solid object rather than a “rubble pile” held together by gravity.

View NEAR images of Eros’ surface.

Studying pristine objects like Eros gives insight into the earliest days of our solar system, and also allows scientists to better understand asteroid compositions… which is invaluable information when deciding how best to avoid any potential future impacts.

Orbit of 433 Eros for Jan. 31, 2012

Although Eros will be making a “close” approach to Earth on Jan. 31/Feb. 1, there is no danger of a collision. It will still remain at a very respectable distance of about 16.6 million miles (26.7 million km), or 0.178 AU. This is over 80 times the distance of the much smaller 2005 YU55, which safely passed within a lunar orbit radius on November 8, 2011.

If you do want to try viewing 433 Eros as it passes, you can find a diagram charting its path from Sky and Telescope here. According to the Sydney Observatory’s website “the coordinates on 31 January (from the BAA 2012 Handbook) are 10 hours 33 minutes 19.0 seconds RA and -4° 48’ 23” declination. On 10 February the RA is 10 hours 20 minutes 27.6 seconds and the declination is -14° 38’ 49 seconds.”

Also there’s an updated chart on Heavens Above showing Eros’ current position.

Eros should remain visible up until Feb. 10.

Thanks to Skyscrapers, Inc., for a report on 433 Eros by Glenn Chaple. Skyscrapers, Inc. is an amateur astronomy society in Rhode Island that operates the Seagrave Observatory, whose centerpiece is a beautiful 8 1/4″ Alvan Clark telescope built in 1878. I saw Halley’s Comet through that telescope in 1986 and have been hooked on astronomy ever since.