An asteroid 1.5 km across is no joke. Even a much smaller one, about the size of a house, can explode with more power than the first nuclear weapons. When an asteroid is greater than 1 km in diameter, astronomers call them “planet-killers.” The impact energy released from a planet-killer striking Earth would be devastating, so knowing where these asteroids are and where they’re headed is critically important.
Our defensive capability against asteroid strikes is in its infancy, so advance notice of asteroids that could cross Earth’s orbit is critical. We’ll need time to prepare.
In August 2013, the Dark Energy Survey (DES) began its six-year mission to map thousands of galaxies, supernovae, and patterns in the cosmic structure. This international collaborative effort is dedicated to investigating the mysterious phenomenon known as Dark Energy. This theoretical force counter-acts gravity and accounts for 70% of the Universe’s energy-mass density. Their primary instrument in this mission is the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam), mounted on the Victor M. Blanco 5-meter (16.4 ft) telescope at the Cerro Tlelolo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
Between 2013 and 2019, the DECam took over one million exposures of the southern night sky and photographed around 2.5 billion astronomical objects – including galaxies, galaxy clusters, stars, comets, asteroids, dwarf planets, and supernovae. For our viewing pleasure, the Dark Energy Survey recently released fifteen spectacular images taken by the DECam during the six-year campaign. These images showcase the capabilities of the DECam, the types of objects it observed, and the sheer beauty of the Universe!
The Magellanic Clouds are two of our closest neighbours, in galactic terms. The pair of irregular dwarf galaxies were drawn into the Milky Way’s orbit in the distant past, and we’ve been looking up at them since the dawn of humanity. Some of our ancestors even gathered pigments and created images of them in petroglyphs and cave paintings.
Following in the footsteps of those ancient artists, astronomers recently used the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) to capture an in-depth portrait of the pair of galaxies.
Like other spiral galaxies, the Milky Way has a bulging sphere of stars in its center. It’s called “The Bulge,” and it’s roughly 10,000 light-years in radius. Astronomers have debated the bulge’s origins, with some research showing that multiple episodes of star formation created it.
But a new survey with the NOIRLab’s Dark Energy Camera suggests that one single epic burst of star formation created the bulge over 10 billion years ago.
Hey Pluto, Sedna, Haumea, Makemake Et al.: You’ve got company!
While searching for distant galaxies and supernovae, the Dark Energy Survey’s powerful 570-megapixel digital camera spotted a few other moving “dots” in its field of view. Turns out, the DES has found more than 100 previously unknown trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), minor planets located in Kuiper Belt of our Solar System.
A new paper describes how the researchers connected the moving dots to find the new TNOs, and also says this new approach could help look for the hypothetical Planet Nine and other undiscovered worlds.
Guess you never know what you’ll find once you start looking!
The gas giant Jupiter, which was named in honor of the king of the gods in the Roman pantheon, has always lived up to its name. In addition to being the largest planet in the Solar System – with two and a half times the mass of all the other planets combined – it also has an incredibly powerful magnetic field and the most intense storms of any planet in the Solar System.
What’s more, it is home to some of the largest moons in the Solar System (known as the Galilean Moons), and has more known moons than any other planet. And thanks to a recent survey led by Scott S. Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution of Science, twelve more moons have been discovered. This brings the total number of known moons around Jupiter to 79, and could provide new insight into the history of the Solar System.
The team was led by Scott S. Sheppard and included Dave Tholen (University of Hawaii) and Chad Trujillo (Northern Arizona University). It was this same team that first suggested the existence of a massive planet in the outer reaches of the Solar System (Planet 9 or Planet X) in 2014, based on the unusual behavior of certain populations of extreme Trans-Neptunian Objects (eTNOs).
Curiously enough, it was while Sheppard and his colleagues were hunting for this elusive planet that they spotted the first of these new moons in 2017. As Sheppard explained in a recent Carnegie press release:
“Jupiter just happened to be in the sky near the search fields where we were looking for extremely distant Solar System objects, so we were serendipitously able to look for new moons around Jupiter while at the same time looking for planets at the fringes of our Solar System.”
The orbits of the newly-discovered moons were then calculated by Gareth Williams of the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (MPC), based on the team’s observations. “It takes several observations to confirm an object actually orbits around Jupiter,” he said. “So, the whole process took a year.”
As you can see from the image above, two of the newly-discovered moons (indicated in blue) are part of the inner group that have prograde orbits (i.e. they orbit in the same direction as the planet’s rotation). They complete a single orbit in a little less than a year, and have similar orbital distances and angles of inclination. This is a possible indication that these moons are fragments of a larger moon that was broken apart, possibly due to a collision.
Nine of the new moons (indicated in red) are part of the distant outer group that have retrograde orbits, meaning they orbit in the opposite direction of Jupiter’s rotation. These moons take about two years to complete a single orbit of Jupiter and are grouped into three orbital groups that have similar distances and inclination. As such, they are also thought to be remnants of three larger moons that broke apart due to past collisions.
The team observed one other moon that does not fit into either group, and is unlike any known moon orbiting Jupiter. This “oddball moon” is more distant and more inclined than the prograde moons and takes about one and a half years to orbit Jupiter, which means its orbit crosses the outer retrograde moons. Because of this, head-on collisions are much more likely to occur with the retrograde moons, which are orbiting in the opposite direction.
The orbit of this oddball moon was also confirmed by Bob Jacobson and Marina Brozovic at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2017. This was motivated in part to ensure that the moon would not be lost before it arrived at the predicted location in its orbit during the recovery observations made in 2018. As Sheppard explained,
“Our other discovery is a real oddball and has an orbit like no other known Jovian moon. It’s also likely Jupiter’s smallest known moon, being less than one kilometer in diameter…This is an unstable situation. Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust.”
Here too, the team thinks that this moon could be the remains of a once-larger moon; in this case, one that had a prograde orbit that formed some of the retrograde moons through past collisions. The oddball moon already has a suggested name for it – Valetudo, after the Jupiter’s great-granddaughter, the goddess of health and hygiene in the Roman pantheon.
In addition to adding to Jupiter’s overall moon count, the study of what shaped these moon’s orbital histories could teach scientists a great deal about the earliest period of the Solar System. For instance, the fact that the smallest moons in Jupiter’s various orbital groups (prograde, retrograde) are still abundant suggests that the collisions that created them occurred after the era of planet formation.
According to the Nebular Hypothesis of Solar System formation, the Sun was still surrounded by a rotating protoplanetary disk at this time – i.e. the gas and dust from which the planets formed. Because of their sizes – 1 to 3 km – these moons would have been more influenced by surrounding gas and dust, which would have placed a drag on their orbits and caused them to fall inwards towards Jupiter.
The fact that these moons still exist shows that they likely formed after this gas and dust dissipated. In this respect, these moons are much like time capsules or geological records, preserving pieces of Jupiter’s (and the Solar Systems) history of formation and evolution.
Zoomed-in image from the Dark Energy Camera of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365, about 60 million light-years from Earth. (Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)
The ongoing search for dark energy now has a new set of eyes: the Dark Energy Camera, mounted on the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco telescope at the National Science Foundation’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. The culmination of eight years of planning and engineering, the phone-booth-sized 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera has now gathered its very first images, capturing light from cosmic structures tens of millions of light-years away.
Eventually the program’s survey will help astronomers uncover the secrets of dark energy — the enigmatic force suspected to be behind the ongoing and curiously accelerating expansion of the Universe.
Zoomed-in image from the Dark Energy Camera of the Fornax cluster
“The Dark Energy Survey will help us understand why the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing due to gravity,” said Brenna Flaugher, project manager and scientist at Fermilab.
The most powerful instrument of its kind, the Dark Energy Camera will be used to create highly-detailed color images of a full 1/8th of the night sky — about 5,000 square degrees — surveying thousands of supernovae, galactic clusters and literally hundreds of millions of galaxies, peering as far away as 8 billion light-years.
The survey will attempt to measure the effects of dark energy on large-scale cosmic structures, as well as identify its gravitational lensing effects on light from distant galaxies. The images seen here, acquired on September 12, 2012, are just the beginning… the Dark Energy Survey is expected to begin actual scientific investigations this December.
Full Dark Energy Camera composite image of the Small Magellanic Cloud
“The achievement of first light through the Dark Energy Camera begins a significant new era in our exploration of the cosmic frontier,” said James Siegrist, associate director of science for high energy physics with the U.S. Department of Energy. “The results of this survey will bring us closer to understanding the mystery of dark energy, and what it means for the universe.”
Images: Dark Energy Survey Collaboration. Inset image: the 4-meter Blanco Telescope dome at CTIO (NOAO)
The Dark Energy Survey is supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy; the National Science Foundation; funding agencies in the United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil, Germany and Switzerland; and the participating DES institutions.