An Occult Occurrence: Saturn’s Moon Iapetus Blocks a Background Star

It’s a cosmic cover-up! No, don’t put your tinfoil* hats on, this isn’t a conspiracy — it’s just Saturn’s moon Iapetus drifting in front of the bright star Gamma Orionis (aka Bellatrix) captured on Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on August 10, 2013.

Such an event is called an occultation, a term used in astronomy whenever light from one object is blocked by another — specifically when something visually larger moves in front of something apparently smaller. (The word occult means to hide or conceal… nothing mystical implied!)

The animation above was assembled from 19 raw images publicly available on the JPL Cassini mission site, stacked in Photoshop and exported as a gif. They’ve been rotated 90º from the originals but otherwise they’re right from Cassini’s camera.

Iapetus, seen above as just a thin crescent, is best known for its two-toned appearance. One half of the 914-mile-wide moon is bright and icy, the other coated with a layer of dark reddish material, giving it a real “yin-yang” appearance. (Ok, I guess that’s a little mystical. But purely coincidental.)

The Tao of Iapetus (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
The Tao of Iapetus (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

It’s thought that the dark material originates from a more distant moon, Phoebe, which is being pelted by micrometeorites and shedding its surface out into orbit around Saturn, which eventually gets scooped up by the backwards-orbiting Iapetus.

The difference in albedo affects how Iapetus absorbs solar radiation too, causing the water ice beneath the darker material to evaporate over the course of its 79-Earth-day rotation and migrate around its surface, creating a sort of positive feedback loop.

While neat to look at, occultations are important to science because they provide a way to briefly peer into a world’s atmosphere (or in a small moon’s case, exosphere). Watching how light behaves as it passes behind the limb of a planet or moon lets researchers learn details of the air around it — however tenuous — pretty much for free… no probes or flybys needed!

The occulted star above is Bellatrix, the 1.6-magnitude star that marks Orion’s left shoulder.

Iapetus orbits Saturn at the considerable distance of 2,212,889 miles (3,561,300 km). Learn more about Iapetus here, and as always you can find more fantastic Cassini images from Carolyn Porco’s team at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado at the CICLOPS site here.


*Do they still make foil out of tin any more? 

Earth-Passing Asteroid is “An Entirely New Beast”

On the last day of May 2013 asteroid 1998 QE2 passed relatively closely by our planet, coming within 6 million kilometers… about 15 times the distance to the Moon. While there was never any chance of an impact by the 3 km-wide asteroid and its surprise 750 meter satellite, astronomers didn’t miss out on the chance to observe the visiting duo as they soared past as it was a prime opportunity to learn more about two unfamiliar members of the Solar System.

By bouncing radar waves off 1998 QE2 from the giant dish at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, researchers were able to construct visible images of the asteroid and its ocean-liner-sized moon, as well as obtain spectrum data from NASA’s infrared telescope in Hawaii. What they discovered was quite surprising: QE2 is nothing like any asteroid ever seen near Earth.

The Arecibo radar observatory in Puerto Rico (Image courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF)
The 305-meter dish at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (Image courtesy of the NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF)

Both Arecibo Observatory and NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California are unique among telescopes on Earth for their ability to resolve features on asteroids when optical telescopes on the ground merely see them as simple points of light. Sensitive radio receivers collect radio signals reflected from the asteroids, and computers turn the radio echoes into images that show features such as craters and, in 1998 QE2’s case, a small orbiting moon.

QE2’s moon appears brighter than the asteroid as it is rotating more slowly; thus its Doppler echoes compress along the Doppler axis of the image and appear stronger.

Of the asteroids that come close to Earth approximately one out of six have moons. Dr. Patrick Taylor, a USRA research astronomer at Arecibo, remarked that “QE2’s moon is roughly one-quarter the size of the main asteroid,” which itself is a lumpy, battered world.

Dr. Taylor also noted that our own Moon is a quarter the size of Earth.

QE2’s moon will help scientists determine the mass of the main asteroid and what minerals make up the asteroid-moon system. “Being able to determine its mass from the moon helps us understand better the asteroid’s material,” said Dr. Ellen Howell, a USRA research astronomer at Arecibo Observatory who took both radar images of the asteroid at Arecibo and optical and infrared images using the Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. While the optical images do not show detail of the asteroid’s surface, like the radar images do, instead they allow for measurements of what it is made of.

“What makes this asteroid so interesting, aside from being an excellent target for radar imaging,” Howell said, “is the color and small moon.”

Radar images of asteroid 1998 QE2 (bottom) and its satellite (top) on June 6.
Radar images of asteroid 1998 QE2 and its satellite (top) on June 6. (Arecibo Observatory/NASA/Ellen Howell)

“Asteroid QE2 is dark, red, and primitive – that is, it hasn’t been heated or melted as much as other asteroids,” continued Howell. “QE2 is nothing like any asteroid we’ve visited with a spacecraft, or plan to, or that we have meteorites from. It’s an entirely new beast in the menagerie of asteroids near Earth.”

Spectrum of 1998 QE2 taken May 30 at the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea was “red sloped and linear,” indicating a primitive composition not matching any meteorites currently in their collection.

For more radar images of 1998 QE2, visit the Arecibo planetary radar page here.

Source: Universities Space Research Association press release.

Bottoms Up! It’s a Year of Lunar Libration From Down Under

Do you live in the southern hemisphere? Are you tired of all those views of the Moon that favor celestial north as up? Well here’s a video just for you from the good folks at the GSFC Scientific Visualization Center — it shows the full 2013 year of lunar phases and libration as seen from Earth’s southern half using data gathered by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Because what’s so great about north, anyway?)

Each frame represents one hour. Side graphs indicate the Moon’s orbit position, sub-Earth and subsolar points, and distance from the Earth at true scale. Awesome! Um, I mean… bonzer!

And what’s up with all that wobbling around? Find out more below:

The Moon always keeps the same face to us, but not exactly the same face. Because of the tilt and shape of its orbit, we see the Moon from slightly different angles over the course of a month. When a month is compressed into 24 seconds, as it is in this animation, our changing view of the Moon makes it look like it’s wobbling. This wobble is called libration.

The word comes from the Latin for “balance scale” and refers to the way such a scale tips up and down on alternating sides.

The Moon is subject to other motions as well. It appears to roll back and forth around the sub-Earth point (the location on the Moon’s surface where the Earth appears directly overhead, at the zenith.) The roll angle is given by the position angle of the axis, which is the angle of the Moon’s north pole relative to celestial north. The Moon also approaches and recedes from us, appearing to grow and shrink. The two extremes, called perigee (near) and apogee (far), differ by more than 10%.

Read more and see the current phase of the Moon (bottom up) on the GSFC Dial-a-Moon page here.

Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

The Story of Earth (in 2 Minutes and 20 Seconds)

How old is the Earth, how long did it take for life to appear, and how long would it take for your hair to grow to the Moon? Find out in this video from MinuteEarth (a new project by MinutePhysics’ Henry Reich):

(Because you always wanted to know how long it would take for your hair to grow to the Moon — admit it.)

And be sure to check out MinuteEarth’s newest video Why Are Leaves Green? Part 1 and Part 2.

How Long is a Day on Mercury?

1/3 the distance from the Sun than Earth, it should be no surprise that a day on Mercury is a real scorcher with temperatures soaring over 400 ºC. But in addition to its solar proximity it also has an extremely slow rotation: a single day on Mercury is 58.6 Earth days long… and you thought your Mondays lasted forever!

To be even more precise, for every 2 Mercury years, 3 Mercury days pass — a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, caused by the planet’s varying elliptical orbit. (This also makes for some interesting motions of the Sun in Mercury’s sky.)

To illustrate this, UK’s The Open University has published a new video in their 60 Second Adventures in Astronomy series… check it out above (and see more of their excellent and amusing animations here.)

Video: The Open University. Narrated by David Mitchell.

The Rings on the Planet Go ‘Round and ‘Round…

Raw wide-angle Cassini image of Saturn’s rings (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Recently I posted an image of two of Saturn’s shepherd moons, Pandora and Prometheus, captured by Cassini in a face-off across the spindly F ring. Now here’s a much wider-angle view of the gas giant’s rings, seen by Cassini  two days later on December 20, and the same two moons can still be seen staring each other down… two tiny points of light visible across the wavering line of the F ring at lower center.

This is just one raw image in a series of 56 that Cassini captured on the 20th, and I’ve combined them together to make a GIF animation — click below to watch:

Animation of Saturn’s rings made from raw images acquired by Cassini on Dec. 20, 2012 (NASA/JPL/SSI. Animation by J. Major)

In the animation you can see Pandora and Prometheus promenade around Saturn (detail at right) as well as a “spoke” of light material moving within the inner dark edge of the A ring. Also many clumps are visible in the thin F ring — caused by embedded moonlets and the gravitational influence of the shepherd moons.

Saturn’s enormous shadow engulfs the entire ring system at the top of the scene.

Cassini was moving relative to Saturn while these images were captured so some background stars make brief appearances, as well as a couple of pixel flares and a cosmic ray hit. These are common in Cassini images.

See more news and images from the Cassini mission here.


Pale Blue Dot: an Animated Contemplation

Every now and then, someone takes Carl Sagan’s wonderful reading of his iconic “Pale Blue Dot” narrative and turns it into an animated presentation, usually combining images and video footage of space exploration and Earthly vistas to create something undeniably spellbinding (Sagan’s narratives do have a tendency to have that effect!) Artist Adam Winnik went a slightly different route, however, creating an illustrated animation to go along with Sagan’s reading for his thesis project in 2011. The result is no less poignant… check it out above.

See more of Adam’s work on his website here.

Video: Adam Winnik. Music: Hans Zimmer “You’re So Cool”

Unraveling the Secrets of Type Ia Supernovae: a New Two-Minute Thesis

The folks over at PHD Comics have put together a new video in their Two-Minute Thesis series, this one featuring Ph.D candidate Or Graur of the University of Tel Aviv and the American Museum of Natural History discussing the secret lives — and deaths — of astronomers’ “standard candles” of universal distance, Type Ia supernovae.

Judging distances across intergalactic space isn’t easy, so in order to figure out how far away galaxies are astronomers have learned to use the light from Type Ia supernovae, which flare up with the brilliance of 5 billion Suns… and rather precisely so.

Type Ia supernovae are thought to be created from a pairing of two stars: one super-dense white dwarf which draws in material from a binary companion until a critical mass — about 40% more mass than the Sun – is reached. The overpacked white dwarf suddenly undergoes a rapid series of thermonuclear reactions and explodes in an incredibly bright outburst of material and energy.

But exactly what sorts of stellar pairs lead to Type Ia supernovae and how frequently they occur aren’t known, and that’s what Ph.D candidate Or Graur is aiming to learn more about.

Read more: A New Species of Type Ia Supernova?

“We don’t really know what kind of star it is that leads to these explosions, which is kind of embarrassing,” says Graur. “The companion star could be a regular star like our Sun, a red giant or supergiant, or another white dwarf.”

Because stars age at certain rates, by looking deeper into space with the Hubble and Subaru telescopes Graur hopes to determine how often and when in the Universe’s history Type Ia supernovae occur, and thus figure out what types of stars are most likely responsible.

“My rate measurements favor a second white dwarf as the binary companion,” Graur says, “but the issue is far from settled.”

Watch the video for the full story, and visit PHD TV and PHD Comics for more great science illustrations.

Video: PHDComics. Animation: Jorge Cham. Series Producer: Meg Rosenburg. Inset image: merging white dwarfs causing a Type Ia supernova. (NASA/CXC/M Weiss)

Incredible Video of Sandy’s Swirling Progression

Just released, this mesmerizing animation was created by Kevin Ward from images acquired by NOAA’s GOES-O/14 satellite. It shows the progression of Hurricane Sandy, currently a Category 1 hurricane off the coast of the eastern U.S. that’s poised to make a devastating impact when its heavy rains, winds and storm surges strike the shores of many major metropolitan coastal areas — including New York City and Washington, D.C.

Nearly 12 hours of time are compressed into 30 seconds, revealing the evolution of Sandy as it churned over the Atlantic on Sunday, October 28.

 From NASA’s Earth Observatory’s YouTube page:
This time-lapse animation shows Hurricane Sandy from the vantage point of geostationary orbit—35,800 km (22,300 miles) above the Earth. The animation shows Sandy on October 28, 2012, from 7:15 to 6:26 EDT. Light from the changing angles of the sun highlight the structure of the clouds. The images were collected by NOAA’s GOES-14 satellite. The “super rapid scan” images — one every minute from 7:15 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. EDT — reveal details of the storm’s motion.

Launched by NASA as GOES-O on June 27, 2009, GOES-14 is now under control by the NOAA, keeping an eye on the mid-Atlantic region from a geostationary position approximately 22,300 miles (35,800 km) above the Earth.

Sandy is expected to bring up to 10 inches of rain into New York, with a surge possible over 6 feet above high tide and wind gusts in excess of 75 mph. Once the hurricane moves inland there could be millions left without electricity. States of emergency have already been declared in many areas within Sandy’s projected path.

Read: Hurricane Sandy Barreling to Eastern Seaboard, Menacing Millions

Currently Sandy is off the coast of North Carolina (at the time of this writing, 34.5 N / 70.5 W) moving northeast at 14 mph (22  km/h) with a low pressure of 950 mb… that’s as low or lower than some of the most powerful storms to hit the eastern U.S. over the past century, including the “perfect storm” of 1991 (a low system which also struck at Halloween) and the deadly 1938 “Great Hurricane”, which devastated coastal regions all across southern New England.

Stay up to date on Hurricane Sandy’s progress on the NOAA page here, with the latest public advisories being posted here.

NASA animation by Kevin Ward, using images from NOAA and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies.