JWST Follows Neon Signs Toward New Thinking on Planet Formation

This artist's illustration shows the young star SZ Chamaeleontis (SZ Cha). SZ Cha is surrounded by a protoplanetary disk of gas and dust. Planets may form in the disk, but they're running out of time. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)

Everyone knows that the James Webb Space Telescope is a ground-breaking infrared space telescope that’s helping us better understand the cosmos. The JWST’s discerning infrared eyes are deepening our understanding of everything from exoplanets to primitive galaxies to the birth of stars.

But it’s not the first ground-breaking infrared space telescope we’ve launched. There was IRAS, then ISO, then the Spitzer Space Telescope. The Spitzer is the JWST’s most recent infrared predecessor, and the JWST is observing one of the same targets that the Spitzer did, taking note of some puzzling changes.

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X-Rays Are Coming From The Dark Side of Venus

On June 5th, 2012, the NASA/JAXA Hinode mission captured these stunning views of the transit of Venus. Credit: JAXA/NASA/Lockheed Martin

Venus and Mercury have been observed transiting the Sun many times over the past few centuries. When these planets are seen passing between the Sun and the Earth, opportunities exist for some great viewing, not to mention serious research. And whereas Mercury makes transits with greater frequency (three times since 2000), a transit of Venus is something of a rare treat.

In June of 2012, Venus made its most recent transit – an event which will not happen again until 2117. Luckily, during this latest event, scientists made some very interesting observations which revealed X-ray and ultraviolet emissions coming from the dark side of Venus. This finding could tell us much about Venus’ magnetic environment, and also help in the study of exoplanets as well.

For the sake of their study (titled “X-raying the Dark Side of Venus“) the team of scientists – led by Masoud Afshari of the University of Palermo and the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) – examined data obtained by the x-ray telescope aboard the Hinode (Solar-B) mission, which had been used to observe the Sun and Venus during the 2012 transit.

Artist's impression of the Hinode (Solar-B) spacecraft in orbit. Credit: NASA/GSFC/C. Meaney
Artist’s impression of the Hinode (Solar-B) spacecraft in orbit. Credit: NASA/GSFC/C. Meaney

In a previous study, scientists from the University of Palermo used this data to get truly accurate estimates of Venus’ diameter in the X-ray band. What they observed was that in the visible, UV, and soft X-ray bands, Venus’ optical radius (taking into account its atmosphere) was 80 km larger than its solid body radius. But when observing it in the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) and soft X-ray band, the radius increased by another 70 km.

To determine the cause of this, Afshari and his team combined updated information from Hinode’s x-ray telescope with data obtained by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly on the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). From this, they concluded that the EUV and X-ray emissions were not the result of a fault within the telescope, and were in fact coming from the dark side of Venus itself.

They also compared the data to observations made by the Chandra X-ray Observatory of Venus in 2001 and again in 2006-7m which showed similar emissions coming from the sunlit side of Venus. In all cases, it seemed clear that Venus had unexplained source of non-visible light coming from its atmosphere, a phenomena which could not be chalked up to scattering caused by the instruments themselves.

Comparing all these observations, the team came up with an interesting conclusion. As they state in their study:

“The effect we are observing could be due to scattering or re-emission occurring in the shadow or wake of Venus. One possibility is due to the very long magnetotail of Venus, ablated by the solar wind and known to reach Earth’s orbit… The emission we observe would be the reemitted radiation integrated along the magnetotail.”

On June 5-6 2012, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, collected images of one of the rarest predictable solar events: the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. This event happens in pairs eight years apart that are separated from each other by 105 or 121 years. The last transit was in 2004 and the next will not happen until 2117. Credit: NASA/SDO, AIA
Collected images of Venus 2012 transit of the Sun, taken in June of 2012 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). Credit: NASA/SDO, AIA

In other words, they postulate that the radiation observed emanating from Venus could be due to solar radiation interacting with Venus’ magnetic field and being scattered along its tail. This would explain why from various studies, the radiation appeared to be coming from Venus’ itself, thus extending and adding optical thickness to its atmosphere.

If true, this finding would not only help us to learn more about Venus’ magnetic environment and assist our exploration of the planet, it would also improve our understanding of exoplanets. For example, many Jupiter-sized planets have been observed orbiting close to their suns (i.e. “Hot Jupiters“). By studying their tails, astronomers may come to learn much about these planets’ magnetic fields (and whether or not they have one).

Afshari and his colleagues hope to conduct future studies to learn more about this phenomenon. And as more exoplanet-hunting missions (like TESS and the James Webb Telescope) get underway, these newfound observations of Venus will likely be put to good use – determining the magnetic environment of distant planets.

Further Reading: The Astronomical Journal

After Loss of Lunar Orbiter, India Looks to Mars Mission

India Moon Mission
Artist concept of Chandrayaan-1 orbiting the moon. Credit: ISRO

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


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.