First Detection of Water Clouds Outside Our Solar System

Brown dwarfs – those not-quite-a-planet and not-quite-a-star objects – are intriguing oddities that are too low in mass to burn hydrogen, but are more massive than planets. They only emit a faint amount of light, so they are hard to detect, making scientists unsure of how many of them might be out there in our galaxy.

But astronomers have been keeping an eye one particular brown dwarf known called WISE 0855. Just 7.2 light-years from Earth, it is the coldest known object outside of our Solar System and is just barely visible at infrared wavelengths. But with some crafty spectroscopic observing techniques, astronomers have now determined this object has some exciting characteristics: its atmosphere is full of clouds of water vapor. This is the first time water clouds have been detected outside of our Solar System.

“It’s five times fainter than any other object detected with ground-based spectroscopy at this wavelength,” said Andrew Skemer, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and the first author on a paper on WISE 0855 published in Astrophysical Journal Letters (paper is available on arXiv here). “Now that we have a spectrum, we can really start thinking about what’s going on in this object. Our spectrum shows that WISE 0855 is dominated by water vapor and clouds, with an overall appearance that is strikingly similar to Jupiter.”

This brown dwarf’s full name is WISE J085510.83-071442.5, but we’re among friends, so it’s W0855 for short. It has about five times the mass of Jupiter and is the coldest brown dwarf ever detected, with an average temperature of about 250 degrees Kelvin, or minus 10 degrees F, minus 20 C. That makes it nearly as cold as Jupiter, which is 130 degrees Kelvin.

“WISE 0855 is our first opportunity to study an extrasolar planetary-mass object that is nearly as cold as our own gas giants,” Skemer said.

Skemer and his team used the Gemini-North telescope in Hawaii and the Gemini Near Infrared Spectrograph to observe WISE 0855 over 13 nights for a total of about 14 hours. Skemer was part of a team that studied this object in 2014 found tentative indications of water clouds based on very limited photometric data. Skemer said obtaining a spectrum (which separates the light from an object into its component wavelengths) was the only way to detect this object’s molecular composition.

A video about the 2014 discovery and study of WISE 0855:

WISE 0855 is too faint for conventional spectroscopy at optical or near-infrared wavelengths, but the team took up a challenge and looked at the thermal emissions from the object at wavelengths in a narrow window around 5 microns.

“I think everyone on the research team really believed that we were dreaming to think we could obtain a spectrum of this brown dwarf because its thermal glow is so feeble,” said Skemer. WISE 0855, is so cool and faint that many astronomers thought it would be years before a spectrum could be obtained. “I thought we’d have to wait until the James Webb Space Telescope was operating to do this,” Skemer said.

This spectroscopic view provided a glimpse into the environment of WISE 0855’s atmosphere. With the data in hand, the researchers then developed atmospheric models of the equilibrium chemistry for a brown dwarf at 250 degrees Kelvin and calculated the resulting spectra under different assumptions, including cloudy and cloud-free models. The models predicted a spectrum dominated by features resulting from water vapor, and the cloudy model yielded the best fit to the features in the spectrum of WISE 0855.

While the spectra of this object are strikingly similar to Jupiter, WISE 0855 appears to have a less turbulent atmosphere.

“The spectrum allows us to investigate dynamical and chemical properties that have long been studied in Jupiter’s atmosphere, but this time on an extrasolar world,” Skemer said.

The scientists say WISE 0855 looks more similar to Jupiter than any exoplanet yet discovered, which is especially intriguing since the Juno mission has just begun its exploration at the giant world. Jupiter, along with the other gas planets in our Solar System, all have clouds and storms, although Jupiter’s clouds are mainly made of ammonia with lower level clouds perhaps containing water. One of Juno’s goals is to determine the global water abundance at Jupiter.

Sources: UC Santa Cruz, Gemini

Clouds Seen On Pluto For First Time

Recent images sent by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the streaky patch at right. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR
Recent images sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the hazy streak right of center. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

I think we were all blown away when the New Horizons spacecraft looked back at Pluto’s dark side and returned the first photos of a surprisingly complex, layered atmosphere. Colorless nitrogen along with a small percentage of methane make up Pluto’s air. Layers of haze are likely created when the two gases react in sunlight to form tiny, soot-like particles called tholins. These can ultimately grow large enough to settle toward the surface and coat and color Pluto’s icy exterior.

Close up of the back side of Pluto taken by New Horizons shows multiple layers of haze in its mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Credit:
Close up of the back side of Pluto taken by New Horizons shows multiple layers of haze in its mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Now it seems Pluto’s atmosphere is capable of doing even more — making clouds! In an e-mail exchange with New Scientist, Lowell Observatory astronomer Will Grundy discusses the possibility that streaks and small condensations within the hazes might be individual clouds. Grundy also tracked a feature as it passed over different parts of the Plutonian landscape below, strongly suggesting a cloud.  If confirmed, they’d be the first-ever clouds seen on the dwarf planet, and a sign this small 1,473-mile-wide (2,370 km) orb possesses an even more complex atmosphere than imagined.

Faint arrows along Pluto's limb point to possible clouds in a low altitude haze layer. More distinct possible clouds are arrowed at left. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR
Faint arrows along Pluto’s limb point to possible clouds in a low altitude haze layer. More distinct possible clouds are arrowed at left. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto's tenuous but distended atmosphere.
15 minutes after its closest approach, New Horizons snapped this image of the smooth expanse of Sputnik Planum (right) flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Given the onion-like layers of haze and potential clouds, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprise that it snows on Pluto. The New Horizons team announced the discovery this week of a chain of exotic snowcapped mountains stretching across the dark expanse of the informally named Cthulhu Regio. Cthulhu, pronounced kuh-THU-lu and named for a character in American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s books, stretches nearly halfway around Pluto’s equator, starting from the west of the vast nitrogen ice plain, Sputnik Planum. At 1,850 miles (3,000 km) long and 450 miles (750 km) wide, Cthulhu is a bit larger than the state of Alaska. But ever so much colder!

A section of Cthulhu Regio boasts peaks covered in methane frost or snow.
The upper slopes of Cthulhu’s highest peaks are coated with a bright material that contrasts sharply with the dark red color of the surrounding plains. Scientists think it’s methane ice condensed from Pluto’s atmosphere. The far right panel shows the distribution of methane ice on the surface. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Cthulhu’s red color probably comes from a covering of dark tholins formed when methane interacts with sunlight. But new close-up images reveal that the region’s highest mountains appear coated with a much brighter material. Scientists think it’s methane, condensed as ice onto the peaks from Pluto’s atmosphere.

“That this material coats only the upper slopes of the peaks suggests methane ice may act like water in Earth’s atmosphere, condensing as frost at high altitude,” said John Stansberry, a New Horizons science team member.

Compositional data from the New Horizon’s Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), shown in the right panel in the image above, shows that the location of the bright ice on the mountain peaks correlates almost exactly with the distribution of methane ice, shown in false color as purple.

New Horizons still has plenty of images stored on its hard drive, so we’re likely to see more clouds, frosty peaks and gosh-knows-what-else as the probe speeds ever deeper into space while returning daily postcards from its historic encounter.

What are Those Colorful, Crazy Clouds in the Sky??

My Twitter feed exploded on June 25 with reports of colorful, crazy-looking clouds, sundogs, Sun halos and more. The above image from Nathanial Burton-Bradford is just an example of the type of atmospheric effect called a circumhorizontal arc. These are sometimes referred to as “fire rainbows” but of course are not rainbows, and fire plays no role.

This is an optical phenomenon from sunlight hitting ice crystals in high cirrus clouds. It is actually a rather rare occurrence, but it happens most often during the daytime in summer when the Sun is high in the sky. This creates a rainbow-type effect directly in the ice crystal-filled clouds.

See more examples below.

Wispy clouds and a circumhorizontal arc over Italy. Credit and copyright: Elisabetta Bonora.
Wispy clouds and a circumhorizontal arc over Italy. Credit and copyright: Elisabetta Bonora.
Circumhorizontal Arc over the UK on June 25, 2014. Credit and copyright: Sculptor Lil on Flickr.
Circumhorizontal Arc over the UK on June 25, 2014. Credit and copyright: Sculptor Lil on Flickr.

You can find out more about circumhorizontal arcs from this article from Amusing Planet.

Mountains Soar Above the Appalachians in this Dramatic NASA Photo

Except these are mountains made of water, not rock! Taken from an altitude of 65,000 feet, the image above shows enormous storm cells swirling high over the mountains of western North Carolina on May 23, 2014. It was captured from one of NASA’s high-altitide ER-2 aircraft during a field research flight as part of the Integrated Precipitation and Hydrology Experiment (IPHEx) campaign.

The photo was NASA’s Image of the Day for June 19, 2014.

Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite (NASA/Britt Griswold)
Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite (NASA/Britt Griswold)

For six weeks the IPHEx campaign team from NASA, NOAA, and Duke University set up ground stations and flew ER-2 missions over the southeastern U.S., collecting data on weather and rainfall that will be used to supplement and calibrate data gathered by the GPM Core Observatory launched in February.

By the time its role in IPHEx was completed on June 16, the Lockheed ER-2 aircraft had flown more than 95 hours during 18 flights over North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. Its high-altitude capabilities allow researchers to safely fly above storm systems, taking measurements like a satellite would.

Learn more about the ER-2 flights here, and read more about the IPHEx campaign on Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering site here.

Source: NASA

NASA's ER-2 at the Armstrong Flight Research Center's Building 703 in Palmdale, CA (NASA / Tom Tschida)
NASA’s ER-2 at the Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Building 703 in Palmdale, CA (NASA/Tom Tschida)

Earth’s Highest Clouds Shine at the “Top of the Orbit”

Looking for a new desktop background? This might do nicely: a photo of noctilucent “night-shining” clouds seen above a midnight Sun over Alaska, taken from the ISS as it passed over the Aleutian Islands just after midnight local time on Sunday, August 4.

When this photo was taken Space Station was at the “top of the orbit” — 51.6 ºN, the northernmost latitude that it reaches during its travels around the planet.

According to the NASA Earth Observatory site, “some astronauts say these wispy, iridescent clouds are the most beautiful phenomena they see from orbit.” So just what are they? Read on…

Found about 83 km (51 miles) up, noctilucent clouds (also called polar mesospheric clouds, or PMCs) are the highest cloud formations in Earth’s atmosphere. They form when there is just enough water vapor present to freeze into ice crystals. The icy clouds are illuminated by the Sun when it’s just below the horizon, after darkness has fallen or just before sunrise, giving them their eponymous property.

NLCs seen in the southern hemisphere in Jan. 2010 (NASA)
NLCs seen in the southern hemisphere in Jan. 2010 (NASA)

Noctilucent clouds have also been associated with rocket launches, space shuttle re-entries, and meteoroids, due to the added injection of water vapor and upper-atmospheric disturbances associated with each. Also, for some reason this year the clouds appeared a week early.

Read more: Noctilucent Clouds — Electric Blue Visitors from the Twilight Zone

Some data suggest that these clouds are becoming brighter and appearing at lower latitudes, perhaps as an effect of global warming putting more greenhouse gases like methane into the atmosphere.

“When methane makes its way into the upper atmosphere, it is oxidized by a complex series of reactions to form water vapor,” said James Russell, the principal investigator of NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) project and a professor at Hampton University. “This extra water vapor is then available to grow ice crystals for NLCs.”

A comparison of noctilucent cloud formation from 2012 and 2013 has been compiled using data from the AIM spacecraft. You can see the sequence here.

And for an incredible motion sequence of noctilucent clouds — taken from down on the ground — check out the time-lapse video below by Maciej Winiarczyk, coincidentally made at around the same time as the ISS photo above:

(The video was featured as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) for August 19, 2013.)

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

New Desktop Image Alert: The Moon Over Earth

If you’re like me, you don’t change your computer’s desktop background nearly often enough… especially not considering all the fantastic space images that get released on an almost daily basis. But this picture, shared a couple of weeks ago by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on their Flickr stream, really should inspire you to fix that. (I know it did for me!)

Captured by an Expedition 28 crew member aboard the International Space Station, this beautiful image shows a crescent-lit Moon seen through the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

As it circles the globe, the ISS travels an equivalent distance to the Moon and back in about a day, making an excellent platform for viewing the Earth and its atmosphere. This photo shows the limb of Earth near the bottom transitioning into the orange-colored troposphere, the lowest and most dense portion of the Earth’s atmosphere. The troposphere ends abruptly at the tropopause, which appears in the image as the sharp boundary between the orange- and blue- colored atmosphere. Silvery-blue noctilucent clouds extend far above the Earth’s troposphere.

Expedition 28 began on May 23, 2011, with a crew consisting of Andrey Borisenko, Ron Garan, Alexander Samokutyaev, Sergei Volkov, Mike Fossum, and Satoshi Furukawa.

Image credit: NASA (Source)

 

Venus’ Winds Are Mysteriously Speeding Up

High-altitude winds on neighboring Venus have long been known to be quite speedy, whipping sulfuric-acid-laden clouds around the superheated planet at speeds well over 300 km/h (180 mph). And after over six years collecting data from orbit, ESA’s Venus Express has found that the winds there are steadily getting faster… and scientists really don’t know why.

Cloud structures in Venus' atmosphere, seen by Venus Express' Ultraviolet, Visible and Near-Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIRTIS) in 2007 (ESA)
Cloud structures in Venus’ atmosphere, seen by Venus Express’ Ultraviolet, Visible and Near-Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIRTIS) in 2007 (ESA)

By tracking the movements of distinct features in Venus’ cloud tops at an altitude of 70 km (43 miles) over a period of six years — which is 10 of Venus’ years — scientists have been able to monitor patterns in long-term global wind speeds.

What two separate studies have found is a rising trend in high-altitude wind speeds in a broad swath south of Venus’ equator, from around 300 km/h when Venus Express first entered orbit in 2006 to 400 km/h (250 mph) in 2012. That’s nearly double the wind speeds found in a category 4 hurricane here on Earth!

“This is an enormous increase in the already high wind speeds known in the atmosphere. Such a large variation has never before been observed on Venus, and we do not yet understand why this occurred,” said Igor Khatuntsev from the Space Research Institute in Moscow and lead author of a paper to be published in the journal Icarus.

Long-term studies based on tracking the motions of several hundred thousand cloud features, indicated here with arrows and ovals, reveal that the average wind speeds on Venus have increased from roughly 300 km/h to 400 km/h over the first six years of the mission. (Khatuntsev et al.)
Long-term studies based on tracking the motions of several hundred thousand cloud features, indicated here with arrows and ovals, reveal that the average wind speeds on Venus have increased from roughly 300 km/h to 400 km/h over the first six years of the mission. (Khatuntsev et al.)

A complementary Japanese-led study used a different tracking method to determine cloud motions, which arrived at similar results… as well as found other wind variations at lower altitudes in Venus’ southern hemisphere.

“Our analysis of cloud motions at low latitudes in the southern hemisphere showed that over the six years of study the velocity of the winds changed by up 70 km/h over a time scale of 255 Earth days – slightly longer than a year on Venus,” said Toru Kouyama from Japan’s Information Technology Research Institute. (Their results are to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.)

Both teams also identified daily wind speed variations on Venus, along with shifting wave patterns that suggest “upwelling motions in the morning at low latitudes and downwelling flow in the afternoon.” (via Cloud level winds from the Venus Express Monitoring Camera imaging, Khatuntsev et al.)

A day on Venus is longer than its year, as the planet takes 243 Earth days to complete a single rotation on its axis. Its atmosphere spins around it much more quickly than its surface rotates — a curious feature known as super-rotation.

“The atmospheric super-rotation of Venus is one of the great unexplained mysteries of the Solar System,” said ESA’s Venus Express Project Scientist Håkan Svedhem. “These results add more mystery to it, as Venus Express continues to surprise us with its ongoing observations of this dynamic, changing planet.”

Read more here on ESA’s Venus Express page.

An Early Start for Noctilucent Clouds

The season for noctilucent “night-shining” clouds is arriving in the northern hemisphere, when wispy, glowing tendrils of high-altitude ice crystals may be seen around the upper latitudes, shining long after the Sun has set. Found about 83 km (51 miles) up, noctilucent clouds (also called polar mesospheric clouds) are the highest cloud formations in the atmosphere. They’ve been associated with rocket launches and space shuttle re-entries and are now thought to also be associated with meteor activity… and for some reason, this year they showed up a week early.


Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) form between 76 to 85 kilometers (47 to 53 miles) above Earth’s surface when there is just enough water vapor to freeze into ice crystals. The icy clouds are illuminated by the Sun when it is just below the horizon, after darkness has fallen, giving them their night-shining properties. This year NASA’s AIM spacecraft, which is orbiting Earth on a mission to study high-altitude ice, started seeing noctilucent clouds on May 13th.

AIM map of noctilucent clouds over the north pole on June 8 (Credit: LASP/University of Colorado)
AIM map of noctilucent clouds over the north pole on June 8
(Credit: LASP/University of Colorado)

“The 2013 season is remarkable because it started in the northern hemisphere a week earlier than any other season that AIM has observed,” reports Cora Randall of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. “This is quite possibly earlier than ever before.”

The early start is extra-puzzling because of the solar cycle. Researchers have long known that NLCs tend to peak during solar minimum and bottom-out during solar maximum — a fairly strong anti-correlation. “If anything, we would have expected a later start this year because the solar cycle is near its maximum,” Randall says. “So much for expectations.”

Read more on the NASA AIM page here, and watch the [email protected] video below for the full story. (Also, check out some very nice NLC photos taken last week in the UK by Stuart Atkinson at Cumbrian Sky.)

Source: NASA

Astrophoto: Paint the Sky with Clouds

Here’s a great – and beautiful! – example of what you can do with image stacking. Manoj Kesavan, an avid astrophotographer based at Massey University, New Zealand shot 300 images during 45 minutes at sunset (6:45 pm to 7.30 pm local time) from Palmerston North, New Zealand. “It’s a stack of 300 images, which means virtually putting all 300 photos on top of each other,” Kesavan explained via email. “So the cloud formation, movement and the transformation of sky color from blue to purple to red are captured on one single final image. And the saturation has been pumped up during the post processing.”

Kesavan said he shot this as part of an upcoming timelapse, using a Canon 7D using SIgma 10-20mm at 10mm, iso 100 & f8.

It’s a beautiful result and we look forward to seeing the timelapse! See more of Kesavan’s photography at his Facebook page or Flickr stream.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Weird Cloud ‘Coils’ Captured by Earth-Observing Satellite

These are some of the strangest looking clouds I’ve seen from the fleet of Earth-observing satellites. These coil-like or bow-wave-shaped clouds were created by the clouds passing over the Prince Edward Islands, in the south Indian Ocean. It was taken by the Terra satellite with the MODIS instrument (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) on March 26, 2013.

Update: Vitaliy Egorov from the Russian website allmars.net has sent us an animation of these coil clouds as seen by the Russian satellite Elektro-L:

Animation is made up of 17 frames made satellite “Electro-L” from 12:30 to 20:30 GMT March 26, 2013 at 1 frame per 30 minutes. Photo: Roscosmos / NTSOMZ / Electro-L / allmars.net.

The images are taken from a different angle than the Terra satellite. You can see more at Egorov’s website.

NASA says MODIS is playing a vital role in the development of validated, global, interactive Earth system models able to predict global change accurately enough to assist policy makers in making sound decisions concerning the protection of our environment.