New Composite Image Of Saturn’s Polar Vortex Mesmerizes

This image of Saturn's southern polar vortex reveals previously unseen detail of the giant storm. Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Atmospheric features on our Solar System’s gas giants dwarf anything similar on Earth. Earth’s atmosphere spawns hurricanes as larger as 1500 km in diameter. But on Saturn, a feature called the southern polar vortex has an eye that is 8,000 km across, or two thirds the diameter of the entire Earth.

A new high-resolution of Saturn’s southern polar vortex captured by the Cassini probe is ten times more detailed than any previous picture, and reveals details that were previously unseen. The image, which is a composite of two images taken by Cassini in July 2008, was captured when the spacecraft was 392,000 km from Saturn, and 56º below the plane of Saturn’s rings. Despite the distance and position, the image still has a resolution of 2 km per pixel.

Previous images of the vortex revealed clouds of immense proportions ringing the edge of the vortex, but showed the vortex itself to be clear. This is similar to a hurricane on Earth, where the eye itself is clear, but is ringed by wall-clouds of towering heights. This new image shows cloud formations within the vortex itself. The vortex is punctuated with wispy white cloud formations, and a smaller vortex at 10:00 within the larger formation.

The clouds inside the vortex are more than just pretty curiosities, of course. They are deep convective structures welling up from deep within Saturn’s atmosphere, and they form their own distinctive ring. This is all the more interesting because the eye of the vortex itself is generally clear, and is considered by scientists to be an area of downwelling.

The convection on display in Saturn’s southern polar vortex is an important clue to understanding how Saturn transfers energy through its atmosphere. On Earth, hurricanes are caused by warm water, and they move across the surface of the ocean as the warm water does.

Saturn, of course, has no liquid ocean, and the vortex is powered by warm atmospheric gases from deeper in Saturn. As they rise and cool they condense into clouds. The vortex also remains stationary, rather than following a warm mass of water. It’s locked into position over Saturn’s south pole.

Cassini’s narrow angle camera captured this new image, using a combination of two spectral filters. One was sensitive to wavelengths of polarized visible light centered at 617 nanometers, and the other to infrared light centered at 750 nanometers.

These two previously released infrared images of Saturn show the entire south polar region with the hurricane-like vortex in the center. The top image shows the polar region in false color, with red, green, and blue depicting the appearance of the pole in three different near-infrared colors (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
These two previously released infrared images of Saturn show the entire south polar region with the hurricane-like vortex in the center. The top image shows the polar region in false color, with red, green, and blue depicting the appearance of the pole in three different near-infrared colors (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Cassini is a joint mission of NASA, the ESA, and the Italian Space Agency. It was launched in 1997, and has had its mission extended to September 2017. Cassini will end its mission in what the team operating Cassini is calling a Grand Finale. This will be a series of deep dives between Saturn and its rings, and will end with the spacecraft plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere.

To see a gallery of Cassini images, go here.

At Universe Today, we’ve written about Saturn’s polar vortices before. Have a look:

Violent Polar Cyclones on Saturn Imaged in Unprecedented Detail by Cassini

Hexagonal Structure at Saturn’s North Pole

What Are The Colors of the Planets?

When we look at beautiful images of the planets of our Solar System, it is important to note that we are looking at is not always accurate. Especially where their appearances are concerned, these representations can sometimes be altered or enhanced. This is a common practice, where filters or color enhancement is employed in order to make sure that the planets and their features are clear and discernible.

So what exactly do the planets of the Solar System look like when we take all the added tricks away? If we were to take pictures of them from space, minus the color enhancement, image touch-ups, and other methods designed to bring out their details, what would their true colors and appearances be? We already know that Earth resembles something of a blue marble, but what about the other ones?

Continue reading “What Are The Colors of the Planets?”

Watch Mercury Transit the Sun in Multiple Wavelengths

On May 9, 2016, Mercury passed directly between the Sun and Earth. No one had a better view of the event than the space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory, as it had a completely unobstructed view of the entire seven-and-a-half-hour event! This composite image, above, of Mercury’s journey across the Sun was created with visible-light images from the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager on SDO, and below is a wonderful video of the transit, as it includes views in several different wavelenths (and also some great soaring music sure to stir your soul).

Mercury transits of the Sun happen about 13 times each century, however the next one will occur in only about three and a half years, on November 11, 2019. But then it’s a long dry spell, as the following one won’t occur until November 13, 2032.

Make sure you check out the great gallery of Mercury transit images from around the world compiled by our David Dickinson.

Winged Telescope Detects Martian Atomic Oxygen

SOFIA in flight, with its telescope exposed. Image: NASA/Jim Ross

Finding atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is very difficult to do, which explains why it’s been 40 years since it was last detected. In the 1970’s, NASA’s Viking and Mariner missions detected Martian atmospheric oxygen, and now, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has detected atomic oxygen in the upper portion of the Martian atmosphere called the mesosphere.

SOFIA is a specially modified Boeing 747 aircraft which carries a 100 inch telescope. It flies at altitudes between 37,000 to 45,000 feet, which puts it above most of the moisture in Earth’s atmosphere. This moisture would otherwise block the infrared radiation that SOFIA “sees.”

“Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure,” said Pamela Marcum, SOFIA project scientist. “To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detect atomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer. SOFIA provides both capabilities.”

A close-up of SOFIA's telescope and primary mirror. Image: NASA/Tom Tschida
A close-up of SOFIA’s telescope and primary mirror. Image: NASA/Tom Tschida

A special detector on board SOFIA, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) allowed researchers to distinguish Martian atmospheric oxygen from Earthly oxygen. SOFIA-GREAT only detected half the amount of oxygen that scientists expected to find, which is probably due to changes and variations in the atmosphere. These results were published in a 2015 paper in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Atomic oxygen has a strong effect on Mars’ atmosphere because it affects how other gases escape the atmosphere. It’s extreme volatility means it bonds with nearby molecules very easily; oxygen will combine with almost all chemical elements, except for the noble gases.

SOFIA is the largest airborne observatory in the world, and is a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center. SOFIA has a 20 year mission timeline. Researchers will continue using SOFIA to study the Martian atmosphere, in order to better understand the variations in oxygen content.

SOFIA is not the only mission with eyes on Mars’ atmosphere. NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) was launched in 2013 to explore the upper atmosphere of Mars, and how it’s affected by the solar wind. It’s thought that Mars’ atmosphere was much thicker in the past, and has been stripped away over time. Atomic oxygen played a role in Mars’ escaping atmosphere in the past, and no doubt will play a role in the future. SOFIA and other missions like MAVEN will hopefully shed some light on Mars’ past and future atmospheres.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster Headed Back to Port: Launch/Landing – Photos/Videos

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: SpaceX
Recovered Falcon 9 first stage after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster that successfully launched a Japanese satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) just 3 days ago and then nailed a safe middle of the night touchdown on a drone ship at sea minutes minutes later, is headed back to port and may arrive overnight or soon thereafter.

The 156 foot tall booster was spotted offshore earlier today while being towed back to her home port at Port Canaveral, Florida.

The SpaceX ASDS drone ship with the recovered Falcon 9 first stage rocket is lurking off Port Canaveral waiting to enter the port until after the cruise ships depart for safety reasons. Pictured above at 7:40 a.m.

The upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 soared to orbit on May 6, roaring to life with 1.5 million pounds of thrust on a mission carrying the JCSAT-14 commercial communications satellite, following an on time liftoff at 1:21 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

To date SpaceX has recovered 3 Falcon 9 first stages. But this was the first one to be recovered from the much more demanding, high velocity trajectory delivering a satellite to GTO.

“First landed booster from a GTO-class mission (final spacecraft altitude will be about 36,000 km),” tweeted SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk.

Musk was clearly ecstatic with the result, since SpaceX officials had been openly doubtful of a successful outcome with the landing.

Barely nine minutes after liftoff the Falcon 9 first stage carried out a propulsive soft landing on an ocean going platform located some 400 miles off the east coast of Florida.

The drone ship was named “Of Course I Still Love You.”

The Falcon 9 landed dead center in the bullseye.

Check out the incredible views herein from SpaceX of the Falcon 9 sailing serenely atop the “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Base of Recovered Falcon 9 first stage with landing legs after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: SpaceX
Base of Recovered Falcon 9 first stage with landing legs after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: SpaceX

Relive the launch through these pair of videos from remote video cameras set at the SpaceX launch pad 40 facility.

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of JCSAT-14 on 5/6/2016 Pad 40 CCAFS. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The commercial SpaceX launch lofted the JCSAT-14 Japanese communications satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) for SKY Perfect JSAT – a leading satellite operator in the Asia – Pacific region.

The landing counts as nother stunning success for Elon Musk’s vision of radically slashing the cost of sending rocket to space by recovering the boosters and eventually reusing them.

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage stands upright after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: SpaceX
Recovered Falcon 9 first stage stands upright after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: SpaceX

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-14 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on May 6, 2016 at 1:21 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-14 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on May 6, 2016 at 1:21 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

Can We Really Get to Alpha Centauri?

In a previous episode, I said that traveling within the Solar System is hard enough, traveling to another star system in our lifetime is downright impossible. Many of you said it was the most depressing episode I’ve ever done .

The distance to Pluto is, on average, about 40 astronomical units. That’s 40 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth. And New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft traveling in the Solar System took about 10 years to make the journey.

The distance to Alpha Centauri is about 277,000 astronomical units away (or 4.4 light-years). That’s about 7,000 times further than Pluto. New Horizons could make the journey, if you were willing to wait about 70,000 years. That’s about twice as long as you’d be willing to wait for Half Life 3.

But my video clearly made an impact on a plucky team of rocket scientists, entrepreneurs and physicists, who have no room in their personal dictionary for the word “impossible”. Challenge accepted, they said to themselves.

In early April, 2016, just 8 months after I said it was probably never going to happen, the billionaire Yuri Milner and famed physicist Stephen Hawking announced a strategy to send a spacecraft to another star within our lifetime. In your face Fraser, they said… in your face.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity's first interstellar voyage. Credit:
Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit:

The project will be called Breakthrough Starshot, and it’s led by Pete Worden, the former director of NASA’s AMES Research Center – the people working on a warp drive.

The team announced that they’re spending $100 million to investigate the technology it’ll take to send a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, making the trip in just 20 years. And by doing so, they might just revolutionize the way spacecraft travel around our own Solar System.

So, what’s the plan? According to their announcement, the team is planning to create teeny tiny lightsail spacecraft, and accelerate them to 20% the speed of light using lasers. Yes, everything’s made better with lasers .

We’ve talked about solar sails in the past, but the gist is that photons of light can impart momentum when they bounce off something. It’s not very much, but if you add a tremendous amount of photons, the impact can be significant. And because those photons are going the speed of light, the maximum speed for the spacecraft, in theory, is just shy of the speed of light (thanks relativity).

You can get those photons from the Sun, but you can also get them from a directed laser beam, designed to fill the sails with photons, without actually melting the spacecraft.

In the past, engineers have talked about solar sails that might be thousands of kilometers across, made of gossamer sheets of reflective fabric. Got that massive, complicated sail in your mind?

Now think smaller. The Starshot spacecraft will measure just a few meters across, with a thickness of just a few atoms. The sail would then pull a microscopic payload of instruments. A tiny chip, capable of gathering data and transmitting information – these are called Starchips. Not even enough room for water bear crew quarters.

A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives.
A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives.

With such a low mass, a powerful laser should be able to accelerate them to 20% the speed of light, almost instantly, making a trip to Alpha Centauri only take about 20 years.

Since each Starshot might only cost a few dollars to make, the company could manufacture thousands and thousands, place them into orbit, and then start bugzapping them off to different stars.

There are, of course, some massive engineering hurdles to overcome.

The first is the density of the interstellar medium. Although it’s almost completely empty in between the stars, there are the occasional dust particles. Normally harmless, the Starshots would be smashing into them at 20% the speed of light, which would be catastrophic.

The second problem is that this is a one-way trip. Once it’s going 20% the speed of light, there’s no way to slow the spacecraft down again (unless the Alpha Centaurans have a braking system in place). Just imagine the motion blur and targeting problems when you’re trying to take photos at relativistic speeds.

The third problem, and this is a big one, is that the miniaturization of the spacecraft means that you can’t have a big transmitter. Communicating across the light years takes a LOT of power. Maybe they’ll connect up into some kind of array and share the power requirement, or use lasers to communicate back. Maybe they’ll relay the data back like a Voltron daisy chain.

Even though the idea of traveling to another star might seem overly ambitious today, this technology actually makes a lot of sense for exploration in our own Solar System. We could bugzap little spacecraft to Venus, Mars, the outer planets and their moons – even deep into the Kuiper Belt and the totally unexplored Oort cloud. We could have this whole Solar System on exploration lockdown in just a few decades.

Even if a mission to Alpha Centauri is currently science fiction, this miniaturization is going to be the way we learn more about the Solar System we live in. Let’s get going!

Will Earth Survive When the Sun Becomes a Red Giant?

Earth scorched by red giant Sun

Since the beginning of human history, people have understood that the Sun is a central part of life as we know it. It’s importance to countless mythological and cosmological systems across the globe is a testament to this. But as our understand of it matured, we came to learn that the Sun was here long before us, and will be here long after we’re gone. Having formed roughly 4.6 bullion years ago, our Sun began its life roughly 40 million years before our Earth had formed.

Since then, the Sun has been in what is known as its Main Sequence, where nuclear fusion in its core causes it to emit energy and light, keeping us here on Earth nourished. This will last for another 4.5 – 5.5 billion years, at which point it will deplete its supply of hydrogen and helium and go through some serious changes. Assuming humanity is still alive and calls Earth home at this time, we may want to consider getting out the way!

The Birth of Our Sun:

The predominant theory on how our Sun and Solar System formed is known as Nebular Theory, which states that the Sun and all the planets began billions of years ago as a giant cloud of molecular gas and dust. Then, approximately 4.57 billion years ago, this cloud experienced gravitational collapse at its center, where anything from a passing star to a shock wave caused by a supernova triggered the process that led to our Sun’s birth.

Basically, this took place after pockets of dust and gas began to collect into denser regions. As these regions pulled in more and more matter, conservation of momentum caused them to begin rotating, while increasing pressure caused them to heat up. Most of the material ended up in a ball at the center while the rest of the matter was flattened out into a large disk that circled around it.

Young stars have a disk of gas and dust around them called a protoplanetary disk. Out of this disk planets are formed, and the presence of water ice in the disc affects where different types of planets form. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Young stars have a disk of gas and dust around them called a protoplanetary disk. Out of this disk planets are formed, and the presence of water ice in the disc affects where different types of planets form. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The ball at the center would eventually form the Sun, while the disk of material would form the planets. The Sun then spent the next 100,000 years as a collapsing protostar before temperature and pressures in the interior ignited fusion at its core. The Sun started as a T Tauri star – a wildly active star that blasted out an intense solar wind. And just a few million years later, it settled down into its current form.

Main Sequence:

For the past 4.57 billion years (give or take a day or two), the Sun has been in the Main Sequence of its life. This is characterized by the process where hydrogen fuel, under tremendous pressure and temperatures in its core, is converted into helium. In addition to changing the properties of its constituent matter, this process also produces a tremendous amount of energy. All told, every second, 600 million tons of matter are converted into neutrinos, solar radiation, and roughly 4 x 1027 Watts of energy.

Naturally, this process cannot last forever since it is dependent on the presence of matter which is being regularly consumed. As time goes on and more hydrogen is converted into helium, the core will continue to shrink, allowing the outer layers of the Sun to move closer to the center and experience a stronger gravitational force.

This will place more pressure on the core, which is resisted by a resulting increase in the rate at which fusion occurs. Basically, this means that as the Sun continues to expend hydrogen in its core, the fusion process speeds up and the output of the Sun increases. At present, this is leading to a 1% increase in luminosity every 100 million years, and a 30% increase over the course of the last 4.5 billion years.

The life cycle of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant on the right after billions of years. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
The life cycle of a Sun-like star, from its birth on the left side of the frame to its evolution into a red giant on the right after billions of years. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Approximately 1.1 billion years from now, the Sun will be 10% brighter than it is today. This increase in luminosity will also mean an increase in heat energy, one which the Earth’s atmosphere will absorb. This will trigger a runaway greenhouse effect that is similar to what turned Venus into the terrible hothouse it is today.

In 3.5 billion years, the Sun will be 40% brighter than it is right now, which will cause the oceans to boil, the ice caps to permanently melt, and all water vapor in the atmosphere to be lost to space. Under these conditions, life as we know it will be unable to survive anywhere on the surface, and planet Earth will be fully transformed into another hot, dry world, just like Venus.

Red Giant Phase:

In 5.4 billion years from now, the Sun will enter what is known as the Red Giant phase of its evolution. This will begin once all hydrogen is exhausted in the core and the inert helium ash that has built up there becomes unstable and collapses under its own weight. This will cause the core to heat up and get denser, causing the Sun to grow in size.

It is calculated that the expanding Sun will grow large enough to encompass the orbit’s of Mercury, Venus, and maybe even Earth. Even if the Earth were to survive being consumed, its new proximity to the the intense heat of this red sun would scorch our planet and make it completely impossible for life to survive. However, astronomers have noted that as the Sun expands, the orbit of the planet’s is likely to change as well.

When the Sun reaches this late stage in its stellar evolution, it will lose a tremendous amount of mass through powerful stellar winds. Basically, as it grows, it loses mass, causing the planets to spiral outwards. So the question is, will the expanding Sun overtake the planets spiraling outwards, or will Earth (and maybe even Venus) escape its grasp?

K.-P Schroder and Robert Cannon Smith are two researchers who have addressed this very question. In a research paper entitled “Distant Future of the Sun and Earth Revisted” which appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, they ran the calculations with the most current models of stellar evolution.

According to Schroder and Smith, when the Sun becomes a red giant star in 7.59 billion years, it will start to lose mass quickly. By the time it reaches its largest radius, 256 times its current size, it will be down to only 67% of its current mass. When the Sun does begin to expand, it will do so quickly, sweeping through the inner Solar System in just 5 million years.

It will then enter its relatively brief (130 million year) helium-burning phase, at which point, it will expand past the orbit of Mercury, and then Venus. By the time it approaches the Earth, it will be losing 4.9 x 1020 tonnes of mass every year (8% the mass of the Earth).

But Will Earth Survive?:

Now this is where things become a bit of a “good news/bad news” situation. The bad news, according to Schroder and Smith, is that the Earth will NOT survive the Sun’s expansion. Even though the Earth could expand to an orbit 50% more distant than where it is today (1.5 AUs), it won’t get the chance. The expanding Sun will engulf the Earth just before it reaches the tip of the red giant phase, and the Sun would still have another 0.25 AU and 500,000 years to grow.

Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer
Artist’s impression of a Red giant star. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer

Once inside the Sun’s atmosphere, the Earth will collide with particles of gas. Its orbit will decay, and it will spiral inward. If the Earth were just a little further from the Sun right now, at 1.15 AU, it would be able to survive the expansion phase. If we could push our planet out to this distance, we’d also be in business. However, such talk is entirely speculative and in the realm of science fiction at the moment.

And now for the good news. Long before our Sun enters it’s Red Giant phase, its habitable zone (as we know it) will be gone. Astronomers estimate that this zone will expand past the Earth’s orbit in about a billion years. The heating Sun will evaporate the Earth’s oceans away, and then solar radiation will blast away the hydrogen from the water. The Earth will never have oceans again, and it will eventually become molten.

Yeah, that’s the good news… sort of. But the upside to this is that we can say with confidence that humanity will be compelled to leave the nest long before it is engulfed by the Sun. And given the fact that we are dealing with timelines that are far beyond anything we can truly deal with, we can’t even be sure that some other cataclysmic event won’t claim us sooner, or that we wont have moved far past our current evolutionary phase.

An interesting side benefit will be how the changing boundaries of our Sun’s habitable zone will change the Solar System as well. While Earth, at a mere 1.5 AUs, will no longer be within the Sun’s habitable zone, much of the outer Solar System will be. This new habitable zone will stretch from 49.4 AU to 71.4 AU – well into the Kuiper Belt – which means the formerly icy worlds will melt, and liquid water will be present beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Perhaps Eris will be our new homeworld, the dwarf planet of Pluto will be the new Venus, and Haumeau, Makemake, and the rest will be the outer “Solar System”. But what is perhaps most fascinating about all of this is how humans are even tempted to ask “will it still be here in the future” in the first place, especially when that future is billions of years from now.

Somehow, the subjects of what came before us, and what will be here when we’re gone, continue to fascinate us. And when dealing with things like our Sun, the Earth, and the known Universe, it becomes downright necessary. Our existence thus far has been a flash in the pan compared to the cosmos, and how long we will endure remains an open question.

We have written many interesting articles on the Sun here at Universe Today. Here’s What Color Is The Sun?, What Kind of Star is the Sun?, How Does The Sun Produce Energy?, and Could We Terraform the Sun?

Astronomy Cast also has some interesting episodes on the subject. Check them out- Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and AllEpisode 108: The Life of the Sun, Episode 238: Solar Activity.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Guide.

SpaceX Maiden Falcon Heavy Launch May Carry Satellite In November

An artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy has 3 engine cores, each one containing 9 Merlin engines. Image: SpaceX

Move over Arianespace and United Launch Alliance. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is set for its maiden launch this November. The long-awaited Falcon Heavy should be able to outperform both the Ariane 5 and the ULA Delta-4 Heavy, at least in some respects.

The payload for the maiden voyage is uncertain so far. According to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s President and CEO, a number of companies have expressed interest in being on the first flight. Shotwell has also said that it might make more sense for SpaceX to completely own their first flight, without the pressure to keep a client happy. But a satellite payload for the first launch hasn’t been ruled out.

Delivering a payload into orbit is what the Falcon Heavy, and its competitors the Ariane5 and the ULA Delta-4 Heavy, are all about. Since one of the main competitive points of the Falcon Heavy is its ability to put larger payloads into geo-stationary orbits, accomplishing that feat on its first flight would be a great coming out party for the Falcon Heavy.

This artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy shows the rocket in flight prior to releasing its two side boosters. Image: SpaceX
This artist’s illustration of the Falcon Heavy shows the rocket in flight prior to releasing its two side boosters. Image: SpaceX

SpaceX has promised that it will make its first Falcon Heavy launch useful. They say that they will use the flight either to demonstrate to its commercial customers the rocket’s capability to deliver a payload to GTO, or to demonstrate to national security interests its ability to meet their needs.

National security satellites require different capabilities from launch vehicles than do commercial communication satellites. Since these spacecraft are top secret, and are used to spy on communications, they need to be placed directly into their GTO, avoiding the lower-altitude transfer orbit of commercial satellites.

The payload for the first launch of the Falcon Heavy is not the only thing in question. There’s some question whether the November launch date can be achieved, since the Falcon Heavy has faced some delays in the past.

The inaugural flight for the big brother to the Falcon 9 was originally set for 2013, but several delays have kept bumping the date. One of the main reasons for this was the state of the Falcon 9. SpaceX was focussed on Falcon 9’s landing capabilities, and put increased manpower into that project, at the expense of the Falcon Heavy. But now that SpaceX has successfully landed the Falcon 9, the company seems poised to meet the November launch date for the Heavy.

One of the main attractions to the Falcon Heavy is its ability to deliver larger payloads to geostationary orbit (GEO). This is the orbit occupied by communications and weather satellites. These types of satellites, and the companies that build and operate them, are an important customer base for SpaceX. SpaceX claims that the Falcon Heavy will be able to place payloads of 22,200 kg (48,940 lbs) to GEO. This trumps the Delta-4 Heavy (14,200 kg/31,350 lbs) and the Ariane5 (max. 10,500 kg/23,100 lbs.)

There’s a catch to these numbers, though. The Falcon Heavy will be able to deliver larger payloads to GEO, but it’ll do it at the expense of reusability. In order to recover the two side-boosters and central core stage for reuse, some fuel has to be held in reserve. Carrying that fuel and using it for recovery, rather than burning it to boost larger payloads, will reduce the payload for GEO to about 8,000 kg (17,637 lbs.) That’s significantly less than the Ariane 5, and the upcoming Ariane 6, which will both compete for customers with the Falcon Heavy.

The Falcon Heavy is essentially four Falcon 9 rockets configured together to create a larger rocket. Three Falcon 9 first stage boosters are combined to generate three times as much thrust at lift-off as a single Falcon 9. Since each Falcon 9 is actually made of 9 separate engines, the Falcon Heavy will actually have 27 separate engines powering its first stage. The second stage is another single Falcon 9 second-stage rocket, consisting of a single Merlin engine, which can be fired multiple times to place payloads in orbit.

The three main boosters for the Falcon Heavy will all be built this summer, with construction of one already underway. Once complete, they will be transported from their construction facility in California to the testing facility in Texas. After that, they will be transported to Cape Canaveral.

Once at Cape Canaveral, the launch preparations will have all of the 27 engines in the first stage fired together in a hold-down firing, which will give SpaceX its first look at how all three main boosters operate together.

Eventually, if everything goes well, the Falcon Heavy will launch from Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral. Pad 39A is the site of the last Shuttle launches, and is now leased from NASA by SpaceX.

The Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket around, once it’s operational. The versatility to deliver huge payloads to orbit, or to keep its costs down by recovering boosters, will make its first flight a huge achievement, whether or not it does deliver a satellite into orbit on its first launch.

Messier 13 (M13) – The Great Hercules Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, in our ongoing tribute to Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the M13 globular cluster, which is often referred to as the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules. Enjoy!

In the 18th century, French astronomer Charles Messier began cataloging all the “nebulous objects” he had come to find while searching the night sky. Having originally mistook these for comets, he compiled a list these objects in the hopes of preventing future astronomers from making the same mistake. In time, the list would include 100 objects, and would come to be known as the Messier Catalog to posterity.

One of these objects is M13 (aka. NGC 6205) a globular cluster located in the Hercules constellation. Located some 25,100 light-years away from Earth, this cluster is made up of 300,000 stars and occupies a region of space that measures 145 light-years in diameter. Given its sheer size and its location, it is often referred to as the “Great Hercules Cluster”.


This 11.65 billion year old formation of stars is one of the most impressive globular clusters in the northern hemisphere. Containing over 300,000 stars packed into a 145 light year sphere, the center of this glorious object is 500 times more concentrated than its outer perimeters. And out of all of those stars there stands one stranger – Barnard 29. This spectral type B2 star is a young, blue star that M13 is believed to have collected during one of its tours around the Milky Way Galaxy.

Other interesting finds include the 15 blue straggler star candidates and 10 other possible that have been spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope. The stars in the blue horizontal branch of M13 appeared to be centrally depleted relative to other stellar types and the blue stragglers in the combined sample are centrally concentrated relative to the older red giant stars.

The heart of Hercules Globular Cluster; Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA
The heart of the M13 Hercules Globular Cluster, viewed with the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/NASA/HST

However, the Stromgren photometry work performed by Frank Grundah (et al.) suggests this is a normal occurrence in evolution. “We also note the existence of what appears to be two separate stellar populations on the horizontal branch of M13. Among other possibilities, it could arise as the result of differences in the extent to which deep mixing occurs in the precursor red giants.”

In their 2002 study, “An aligned stream of low-metallicity clusters in the halo of the Milky Way“, astronomers Yoon and Lee declared:

“One of the long-standing problems in modern astronomy is the curious division of Galactic globular clusters, the “Oosterhoff dichotomy,” according to the properties of their RR Lyrae stars. Here, we find that most of the lowest metallicity clusters, which are essential to an understanding of this phenomenon, display a planar alignment in the outer halo. This alignment, combined with evidence from kinematics and stellar population, indicates a captured origin from a satellite galaxy. We show that, together with the horizontal-branch evolutionary effect, the factor producing the dichotomy could be a small time gap between the cluster-formation epochs in the Milky Way and the satellite. The results oppose the traditional view that the metal-poorest clusters represent the indigenous and oldest population of the Galaxy.”

As to how old M13’s stars are, there is more than one answer. According the work of R. Glebocki (et al), stellar rotation within Messier 13 can also play a role in how the stars age. As they state in their 2000 research study, “Catalog of Projected Rotational Velocities”:

“Much theoretical and observational work about the role that rotation plays in stellar evolution has been done. Angular momentum is one of the fundamental parameters in the process of star formation as well as in early life of a star. A considerable amount of research has been done on the stellar axial rotational velocities. Clusters present unique possibility of determination of age of stars.”

Messier 13 imaged by a DSLR camera. Credit: Rawastrodata at
Messier 13, as imaged by a DSLR camera. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Rawastrodata

History of Observation:

M13 was originally discovered by Edmond Halley in 1714. In his notes, he wrote of the cluster: “This is but a little Patch, but it shews it self to the naked Eye, when the Sky is serene and the Moon absent.”

On June 1st, 1764, Charles Messier officially catalogued the star cluster as item 13. As he described it at the time:

“In the night of June 1 to 2, 1764, I have discovered a nebula in the girdle of Hercules, of which I am sure it doesn’t contain any star; having examined it with a Newtonian telescope of four feet and a half [FL], which magnified 60 times, it is round, beautiful & brilliant, the center brighter than the borders: One perceives it with an ordinary [non-achromatic] refractor of one foot [FL], it may have a diameter of three minutes of arc: It is accompanied by two stars, the one and the other of the ninth magnitude, situated, the one above and the other below the nebula, & little distant. I have determined its position at its passage of the Meridian, and compared with the star Epsilon Herculis; its right ascension has been concluded to be 248d 18′ 48″, and its declination 36d 54′ 44″ north. It is reported in the Philosophical Transactions, no. 347, page 390, that Mr. Halley discovered by hazard that nebula in 1714: it is, he says, almost on a straight line with Zeta and Eta according to Bayer, a bit closer to the star Zeta than to Eta, & when comparing its situation between the stars, its place is rather close to Scorpius 26d 1/2 with 57 degrees Northern [ecliptic] latitude, it is nothing but a small patch; but one sees it well without a telescope when the weather is fine, and if there is no light of the moon.”

Although Sir William Herschel would soon enough resolve it into stars and again by his son and many others, no one described the history of this object more eloquently than Admiral Smyth:

“A large cluster, or rather ball of stars, on the left buttock of Hercules, between Zeta and Eta; the place of which is differentiated from Eta Herculis, from which it lies south, a little westly, and 3deg 1/2 distant. This superb object blazes up in the centre, and has numerous outliers around its attenuated disc. It was accidentally hit upon by Halley, who says, “This is but a little patch, but it shows itself to the naked eye, when the sky is serene, and the moon absent.” The same paper, in describing this as the sixth and last of the nebulae known in 1716, wisely admits, “there are undoubtedly more of these which have not yet come to our knowledge:” ere half a century passed, Messier contributed his 80 or 90 in the Catalogue of 103; and before the close of that century WH [William Herschel] alone had added to the above 6, no fewer than 2500; and his son, in re-examining these, added 520 more! In my own refractor its appearance was something like the annexed diagram; but I agree with Dr. Nichol, that no plate can give a fitting representation of this magnificent cluster. It is indeed truly glorious, and enlarges on the eye by studying gazing. “Perhaps,” adds the Doctor, “no one ever saw it for the first time through a telescope, without uttering a shout of wonder.” This brilliant cluster was discovered by Halley in 1714; and fifty years afterwards it was examined by M. Messier, with his 4-foot Newtonian, under a power of 60, and described as round, beautiful, and brilliant; but, “ferret” as he was in these matters, he adds, “Je me suis assuré qu’elle ne contient aucune étoile.” This is rather startling, since the slightest optical aid enables the eye to resolve it into an extensive and magnificent mass of stars, with the most compressed part densely compacted and wedged together under unknown laws of aggregation. In 1787, Sir William Herschel pronounced it “a most beautiful cluster of stars, exceedingly compressed in the middle, and very rich.” It has been recently viewed in the Earl of Rosse’s new and powerful telescope, when the components were more distinctly separated, and brighter, than had been anticipated; and there were singular fringed appendages to the globular figure, branching out into the surrounding space, so as to form distinct marks among the general outliers.”

And so Messier 13 has been part of our imaginations for many years. And in 1974, a message was sent from Arecibo Observatory designed to communicate the existence of human life to hypothetical extraterrestrials. Known as the “Aricebo Message”, it was expected that this communique had a better chance of finding intelligent life since the odds of it existing within this massive cluster of stars was greater than elsewhere.

Messier 13 location. Image: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
Messier 13, located in the Hercules constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky&Telescope magazine/Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg

Locating Messier 13:

To locate M13, all one needs to know is the “Keystone” asterism of Hercules. While this lopsided rectangle isn’t particularly bright, once you understand where to find it, you’ll be able to spot it even under relatively light-polluted skies. Both Vega (in the constellation of Lyra) and Arcturus (in Bootes) are very bright stars and the keystone is about 1/3 the distance between them.

Once you locate it, always remember that Messier 13 is on the leading western side – no matter what position Hercules may be in. By just generally aiming your binoculars in the center of the two stars on the western side, you can’t miss this big, bright globular cluster. When using a finderscope, aim slightly north of the center point and you’ll easily spot it as well. From a dark sky location, M13 can often be seen unaided as a small, fuzzy spot on the sky.

And here are the quick facts on the Great Hercules Cluster to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 13
Alternative Designations: M13, NGC 6205, the “Great Hercules Cluster”
Object Type: Class V Globular Cluster
Constellation: Hercules
Right Ascension: 16 : 41.7 (h:m)
Declination: +36 : 28 (deg:m)
Distance: 25.1 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 5.8 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 20.0 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

Images of Today’s Transit of Mercury From Around the World

Mercury Transit

(Note: Awesome images are being added as they come in!)

Update: Here’s two more amazing videos of yesterday’s transit of Mercury that have come our way. First: double solar transits featuring Mercury, the International Space Station and a low flying plane right here in the skies of good old planet Earth courtesy of (who else?) Thierry Legault:

And here’s one of the very few sequences we’ve seen of the transit with foreground, captured at sunset by Gadi Eidelheit based in Israel:


And finally, check out this amazing (and mesmerizing) animation of Mercury racing across the Sun, courtesy of the Big Bear Solar Observatory!

It’s not every day you get to see a planet pass in front of the Sun.

But today, skywatchers worldwide got to see just that, as diminutive Mercury passed in front of the disk of the Sun as seen from the Earth. This was the first transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun since November 8th, 2006, and the last one until November 11th, 2019. Continue reading “Images of Today’s Transit of Mercury From Around the World”