Blue Marble 2012: The Arctic Edition

This latest portrait of Earth from NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite puts the icy Arctic in the center, showing the ice and clouds that cover our planet’s northern pole. The image you see here was created from data acquired during fifteen orbits of Earth.

In January of this year Suomi NPP images of Earth were used to create an amazing “Blue Marble” image that spread like wildfire across the internet, becoming one of the latest “definitive” images of our planet. Subsequent images have been released by the team at Goddard Space Flight Center, each revealing a different perspective of Earth.

See a full-sized version of the image above here.

NASA launched the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (or NPP) on October 28, 2011 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. On Jan. 24, NPP was renamed Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, or Suomi NPP, in honor of the late Verner E. Suomi. It’s the first satellite designed to collect data to improve short-term weather forecasts and increase understanding of long-term climate change.

Suomi NPP orbits the Earth about 14 times each day and observes nearly the entire surface of the planet.

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Suomi NPP

 

Is This The Last Image From Envisat?

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The European Space Agency’s venerable Envisat satellite may have sent back its final image, according to recent news from the Agency.

On April 8, ESA lost communication with the Earth-observation satellite, preventing reception of data as it passed over the Kiruna station in Sweden. Although it’s been confirmed that the satellite is still in orbit, the recovery team has not been able to re-establish contact.

The image above, showing part of the Iberian peninsula, was from the last data to be received from Envisat before it fell silent.

Radar image of Envisat. (Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques.)

Launched in March 2002, Envisat has been helping researchers examine our planet for over ten years — five years longer than its original mission duration. It has completed more than 50,000 orbits and returned thousands of images, as well as a wealth of data about the land, oceans and atmosphere.

Envisat data was instrumental in over 4,000 projects from 70 countries.

Germany’s Tracking and Imaging Radar captured an image of the satellite, revealing that it is still intact and in a stable orbit. Still, all attempts at recovery have so far been unsuccessful.

A contingency agreement with the Canadian Space Agency on Radarsat will be activated to fulfill user requirements if Envisat cannot be brought back online.

Read the official release on the ESA site here.

Underwater Neutrino Detector Will Be Second-Largest Structure Ever Built

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The hunt for elusive neutrinos will soon get its largest and most powerful tool yet: the enormous KM3NeT telescope, currently under development by a consortium of 40 institutions from ten European countries. Once completed KM3NeT will be the second-largest structure ever made by humans, after the Great Wall of China, and taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai… but submerged beneath 3,200 feet of ocean!

KM3NeT – so named because it will encompass an area of several cubic kilometers – will be composed of lengths of cable holding optical modules on the ends of long arms. These modules will stare at the sea floor beneath the Mediterranean in an attempt to detect the impacts of neutrinos traveling down from deep space.

Successfully spotting neutrinos – subatomic particles that don’t interact with “normal” matter very much at all, nor have magnetic charges – will help researchers to determine which direction they originated from. That in turn will help them pinpoint distant sources of powerful radiation, like quasars and gamma-ray bursts. Only neutrinos could make it this far and this long after such events since they can pass basically unimpeded across vast cosmic distances.

“The only high energy particles that can come from very distant sources are neutrinos,” said Giorgio Riccobene, a physicist and staff researcher at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics. “So by looking at them, we can probe the far and violent universe.”

Each Digital Optical Module (DOM) is a standalone sensor module with 31 3-inch PMTs in a 17-inch glass sphere.

In effect, by looking down beneath the sea KM3NeT will allow scientists to peer outward into the Universe, deep into space as well as far back in time.

The optical modules dispersed along the KM3NeT array will be able to identify the light given off by muons when neutrinos pass into the sea floor. The entire structure would have thousands of the modules (which resemble large versions of the hovering training spheres used by Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.)

In addition to searching for neutrinos passing through Earth, KM3NeT will also look toward the galactic center and search for the presence of neutrinos there, which would help confirm the purported existence of dark matter.

Read more about the KM3NeT project here, and check out a detailed article on the telescope and neutrinos on Popsci.com.

Height of the KM3NeT telescope structure compared to well-known buildings

Images property of KM3NeT Consortium 

After Loss of Lunar Orbiter, India Looks to Mars Mission

India Moon Mission

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After giving up on re-establishing contact with the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman G. Madhavan Nair announced the space agency hopes to launch its first mission to Mars sometime between 2013 and 2015. Nair said the termination of Chandrayaan-1, although sad, is not a setback and India will move ahead with its plans for the Chandrayaan-2 mission to land an unmanned rover on the moon’s surface to prospect for chemicals, and in four to six years launch a robotic mission to Mars.


“We have given a call for proposal to different scientific communities,” Nair told reporters. “Depending on the type of experiments they propose, we will be able to plan the mission. The mission is at conceptual stage and will be taken up after Chandrayaan-2.”

On the decision to quickly pull the plug on Chandrayaan-1, Nair said, “There was no possibility of retrieving it. (But) it was a great success. We could collect a large volume of data, including more than 70,000 images of the moon. In that sense, 95 percent of the objective was completed.”

Contact with Chandrayaan-1 may have been lost because its antenna rotated out of direct contact with Earth, ISRO officials said. Earlier this year, the spacecraft lost both its primary and back-up star sensors, which use the positions of stars to orient the spacecraft.

The loss of Chandrayaan-1 comes less than a week after the spacecraft’s orbit was adjusted to team up with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter for a Bi-static radar experiment. During the maneuver, Chandrayaan-1 fired its radar beam into Erlanger Crater on the moon’s north pole. Both spacecraft listened for echoes that might indicate the presence of water ice – a precious resource for future lunar explorers. The results of that experiment have not yet been released.

Chandrayaan-1 craft was designed to orbit the moon for two years, but lasted 315 days. It will take about 1,000 days until it crashes to the lunar surface and is being tracked by the U.S. and Russia, ISRO said.

The Chandrayaan I had 11 payloads, including a terrain-mapping camera designed to create a three-dimensional atlas of the moon. It is also carrying mapping instruments for the European Space Agency, radiation-measuring equipment for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and two devices for NASA, including the radar instrument to assess mineral composition and look for ice deposits. India launched its first rocket in 1963 and first satellite in 1975. The country’s satellite program is one of the largest communication systems in the world.

Sources: New Scientist, Xinhuanet

Hinode Discovers the Sun’s Hidden Sparkle

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Blinking spots of intense light are being observed all over the lower atmosphere of the Sun. Not just in the active regions, but in polar regions, quiet regions, sunspots, coronal holes and loops. These small explosions fire elegant jets of hot solar matter into space, generating X-rays as they go. Although X-ray jets are known to have existed for many years, the Japanese Hinode observatory is seeing these small flares with unprecedented clarity, showing us that X-ray jets may yet hold the answers to some of the most puzzling questions about the Sun and its hot corona.

Although a comparatively small mission (weighing 875 kg and operating just three instruments), Hinode is showing the world some stunning high resolution pictures of our nearest star. In Earth orbit and kitted out with an optical telescope (the Solar Optical Telescope, SOT), Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer (EIS) and an X-Ray Telescope (XRT), the light emitted from the Sun can be split into its component optical, ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths. This in itself is not new, but never before has mankind been able to view the Sun in such detail.

It is widely believed that the violent, churning solar surface may be the root cause of accelerating the solar wind (blasting hot solar particles into space at a mind-blowing 1.6 million kilometers per hour) and heating the million plus degree solar atmosphere. But the small-scale processes close to the Sun driving the whole system are only just beginning to come into focus.

Up until now, small-scale turbulent processes have been impossible to observe. Generally, any feature below 1000 km in size has remained undetected. Much like trying to follow a golf ball in flight from 200 meters away, it is very difficult (try it!). Compare this with Hinode, the same golf ball can be resolved by the SOT instrument from nearly 2000 km away. That’s one powerful telescope!

The limit of observable solar features has now been lifted. The SOT can resolve the fine structure of the solar surface to 180 km, this is an obvious improvement. Also, the EIS and XRT can capture images very quickly, one per second. The SOT can produce hi-res pictures every 5 minutes. Therefore, fast, explosive events such as flares can be tracked easier.

Putting this new technology to the test, a team led by Jonathan Cirtain, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama, has unveiled new results from research with the XRT instrument. X-ray jets in the highly dynamic chromosphere and lower corona appear to occur with greater regularity than previously thought.

X-ray jets are very important to solar physicists. As magnetic field lines are forced together, snap, and form new configurations, vast quantities of heat and light are generated in the form of a “microflare”. Although these are small events on a solar scale, they still generate huge amounts of energy, heating solar plasma to over 2 million Kelvin, create spurts of X-ray emitting plasma jets and generate waves. This is all very interesting, but why are jets so important?

The solar atmosphere (or corona) is hot. In fact, very hot. Actually, it is too hot. What I’m trying to say is that measurements of coronal particles tell us the atmosphere of the Sun is actually hotter than the Suns surface. Traditional thinking would suggest that this is wrong; all sorts of physical laws would be violated. The air around a light bulb isn’t hotter than the bulb itself, the heat from an object will decrease the further away you measure the temperature (obvious really). If you’re cold, you don’t move away from the fire, you get closer to it!

The Sun is different. Through interactions near the surface of the Sun between plasma and magnetic flux (a field known as “magnetohydrodynamics” – magneto = magnetic, hydro = fluid, dynamics = motion: “magnetic-fluid-motion” in plain English, or “MHD” for short), MHD waves are able to propagate and heat up the plasma. The MHD waves under scrutiny are known as “Alfvén wavesâ€? (named after Hannes Alfvén, 1908-1995, the plasma physics supremo) which, theoretically, carry enough energy from the Sun to heat the solar corona hotter than the solar surface. The one thing that has dogged the solar community for the last half a century is: how are Alfvén waves produced? Solar flares have always been a candidate as a source, but observation suggested that there wasn’t enough flares to generate enough waves. But now, with advanced optics used by Hinode, many small-scale events appear to be common… bringing us back to our X-ray jets…

Previously, only the largest X-ray jets have been observed, putting this phenomenon at the bottom of the priority list. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center group has now turned this idea on its head by observing hundreds of jet events each and every day:

“We now see that jets happen all the time, as often as 240 times a day. They appear at all latitudes, within coronal holes, inside sunspot groups, out in the middle of nowhere–in short, wherever we look on the sun we find these jets. They are a major form of solar activity” – Jonathan Cirtain, Marshall Space Flight Center.

So, this little solar probe has very quickly changed our views on solar physics. Launched on September 23, 2006, by a consortium of countries including Japan, USA and Europe, Hinode has already revolutionized our thinking about how the Sun works. Not only looking deep into the chaotic processes in the solar chromosphere, it is also finding new sources where Alfvén waves may be generated. Jets are now confirmed as common events that occur all over the Sun. Could they provide the corona with enough Alfvén waves to heat the Sun’s corona more than the Sun itself? I don’t know. But what I do know is, the sight of solar jets flashing to life in these movies is awesome, especially as you see the jet launch into space from the original flash. This is also a very good time to be seeing this amazing phenomenon, as Jonathan Cirtain points out the site of solar jets reminds him of “the twinkle of Christmas lights, randomly oriented. It’s very pretty”. Even the Sun is getting festive.