Nearby Supernovas Showered Earth With Iron

We all know that we are “made of star-stuff,” with all of the elements necessary for the formation of planets and even life itself having originated inside generations of massive stars, which over billions of years have blasted their creations out into the galaxy at the explosive ends of their lives. Supernovas are some of the most powerful and energetic events in the known Universe, and when a dying star finally explodes you wouldn’t want to be anywhere nearby—fresh elements are nice and all but the energy and radiation from a supernova would roast any planets within tens if not hundreds of light-years in all directions. Luckily for us we’re not in an unsafe range of any supernovas in the foreseeable future, but there was a time geologically not very long ago that these stellar explosions are thought to have occurred in nearby space… and scientists have recently found the “smoking gun” evidence at the bottom of the ocean.

Two independent teams of “deep-sea astronomers”—one led by Dieter Breitschwerdt from the Berlin Institute of Technology and the other by Anton Wallner from the Australian National University—have investigated sediment samples taken from the floors of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. The sediments were found to contain relatively high levels of iron-60, an unstable isotope specifically created during supernovas.

The Local Bubble is a 300-light-year long region that was carved out of the interstellar medium by supernovas (Source: Science@NASA)
The Local Bubble is a 300-light-year long region that was carved out of the interstellar medium by supernovas (Source: [email protected])

Watch: How Quickly Does a Supernova Happen?

The teams found that the ages of the iron-60 concentrations (the determination of which was recently perfected by Wallner) centered around two time periods, 1.7 to 3.2 million years ago and 6.5 to 8.7 million years ago. Based on this and the fact that our Solar System currently resides within a peanut-shaped region virtually empty of interstellar gas known as the Local Bubble, the researchers are confident that this provides further evidence that supernovas exploded within a mere 330 light-years of Earth, sending their elemental fallout our way.

“This research essentially proves that certain events happened in the not-too-distant past,” said Adrian Melott, an astrophysicist and professor at the University of Kansas who was not directly involved with the research but published his take on the findings in a letter in Nature. (Source)

The researchers think that two supernova events in particular were responsible for nearly half of the iron-60 concentrations now observed. These are thought to have taken place among a a nearby group of stars known as the Scorpius–Centaurus Association, some 2.3 and 1.5 million years ago. At those same time frames Earth was entering a phase of repeated global glaciation, the end of the last of which led to the rise of modern human civilization.

While supernovas of those sizes and distances wouldn’t have been a direct danger to life here on Earth, could they have played a part in changing the climate?

Read more: Could a Faraway Supernova Threaten Earth?

“Our local research group is working on figuring out what the effects were likely to have been,” Melott said. “We really don’t know. The events weren’t close enough to cause a big mass extinction or severe effects, but not so far away that we can ignore them either. We’re trying to decide if we should expect to have seen any effects on the ground on the Earth.”

Regardless of the correlation, if any, between ice ages and supernovas, it’s important to learn how these events do affect Earth and realize that they may have played an important and perhaps overlooked role in the history of life on our planet.

“Over the past 500 million years there must have been supernovae very nearby with disastrous consequences,” said Melott. “There have been a lot of mass extinctions, but at this point we don’t have enough information to tease out the role of supernovae in them.”

You can find the teams’ papers in Nature here and here.

Sources: IOP PhysicsWorld and the University of Kansas

 

UPDATE 4/14/16: The presence of iron-60 from the same time periods as those mentioned above has also been found on the Moon by research teams in Germany and the U.S. Read more here.

Mysterious Pull On Cassini Probe May Help Find Planet Nine

Artist's impression of Planet Nine, blocking out the Milky Way. The Sun is in the distance, with the orbit of Neptune shown as a ring. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

Finding a ninth planet in our Solar System this late in the game would be fascinating. It would also be somewhat of a surprise, considering our observational capabilities. But new evidence, in the form of small perturbations in the orbit of the Cassini probe, points to the existence of an as-yet undetected planet in our solar system.

Back in January, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, two planetary scientists from the California Institute of Technology, presented evidence supporting the existence of a ninth planet. Their paper showed that some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) display unexpected behaviour. It appears that 6 KBOs are affected by their relationship to a large object, but the KBOs in question are too distant from the known gas giants for them to be responsible. They think that a large, distant planet, in the distant reaches of our Solar System, could be responsible for the unexpected orbital clustering of these KBOs.

The calculated orbit of Planet Nine. Credit: Nature/K. Batygin and M. E. Brown Astronom. J. 151, 22 (2016
The calculated orbit of Planet Nine. Credit: Nature/K. Batygin and M. E. Brown Astronom. J. 151, 22 (2016)

Now, the Ninth Planet idea is gaining steam, and another team of researchers have presented evidence that small perturbations in the orbit of the Cassini spacecraft are caused by the new planet. Agnès Fienga at the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France, and her colleagues, have been working on a detailed model of the Solar System for over a decade. They plugged the hypothetical orbit and size of Planet Nine into their model, to see if it fit.

Planet Nine is calculated to be about 4 times as large as Earth, and 10 times as massive. It’s orbit takes between 10,000 and 20,000 years. A planet that large can only be hiding in so many places, and those places are a long way from Earth. Fienga found a potential home for Planet Nine, some 600 astronomical units (AU) from here. That much mass at that location could account for the perturbations in Cassini’s orbit.

There’s more good news when it comes to Planet Nine. By happy accident, it’s predicted location in the sky is towards the constellation Cetus, in the southern hemisphere. This means that it is in the view of the Dark Energy Survey, a southern hemisphere project that is studying the acceleration of the universe. The Dark Energy Survey is not designed to search for planetary objects, but it has successfully found at least one icy object.

There are other ways that the existence of Planet Nine could be confirmed. If it’s as large as thought, then it will radiate enough internal heat to be detected by instruments designed to study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). There is also an enormous amount of data from multiple experiments and observations done over the years that might contain an inadvertent clue. But looking through it is an enormous task.

As for Brown and Batygin, who initially proposed the existence of Planet Nine based on the behaviour of KBOs, they are already proposing a more specific hunt for the elusive planet. They have asked for a substantial amount of observing time at the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, in order to examine closely the location that Fienga’s solar system model predicts Planet Nine to be at.

For a more detailed look at Batygin’s and Brown’s work analyzing KBOs, read Matt Williams’ article here.

How Long Does It Take to Get to Jupiter?

We’re always talking about Pluto, or Saturn or Mars. But nobody ever seems to talk about Jupiter any more. Why is that? I mean, it’s the largest planet in the Solar System. 318 times the mass of the Earth has got to count for something, right? Right?

 Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach

Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach

Jupiter is one of the most important places in the Solar System. The planet itself is impressive; with ancient cyclonic storms larger than the Earth, or a magnetosphere so powerful it defies comprehension.

One of the most compelling reasons to visit Jupiter is because of its moons. Europa, Callisto and Ganymede might all contain vast oceans of liquid water underneath icy shells. And as you probably know, wherever we find liquid water on Earth, we find life.

And so, the icy moons of Jupiter are probably the best place to look for life in the entire Solar System.

And yet, as I record this video in early 2016, there are no spacecraft at Jupiter or its moons. In fact, there haven’t been any there for years. The last spacecraft to visit Jupiter was NASA’s New Horizons in 2007. Mars is buzzing with orbiters and rovers, we just got close up pictures of Pluto! and yet we haven’t seen Jupiter close up in almost 10 years. What’s going on?

Part of the problem is that Jupiter is really far away, and it takes a long time to get there.

How long? Let’s take a look at all the spacecraft that have ever made this journey.

The first spacecraft to ever cross the gulf from the Earth to Jupiter was NASA’s Pioneer 10. It launched on March 3, 1972 and reached on December 3, 1973. That’s a total of 640 days of flight time.

But Pioneer 10 was just flying by, on its way to explore the outer Solar System. It came within 130,000 km of the planet, took the first close up pictures ever taken of Jupiter, and then continued on into deep space for another 11 years before NASA lost contact.

Pioneer 11 took off a year later, and arrived a year later. It made the journey in 606 days, making a much closer flyby, getting within 21,000 kilometers of Jupiter, and visiting Saturn too.

Next came the Voyager spacecraft. Voyager 1 took only 546 days, arriving on March 5, 1979, and Voyager 2 took 688 days.

So, if you’re going to do a flyby, you’ll need about 550-650 days to make the journey.

But if you actually want to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter, you’ll need to take a much slower journey. The only spacecraft to ever stick around Jupiter was NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which launched on October 18, 1989.

Instead of taking the direct path to Jupiter, it made two gravitational assisting flybys of Earth and one of Venus to pick up speed, finally arriving at Jupiter on December 8, 1995. That’s a total of 2,242 days.

So why did Galileo take so much longer to get to Jupiter? It’s because you need to be going slow enough that when you reach Jupiter, you can actually enter orbit around the planet, and not just speed on past.

And now, after this long period of Jupiterlessness, we’re about to have another spacecraft arrive at the massive planet and go into orbit. NASA’s Juno spacecraft was launched back on August 5, 2011 and it’s been buzzing around the inner Solar System, building up the velocity to make the journey to Jupiter.

 NASA's Juno spacecraft launched on August 6, 2011 and should arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Credit: NASA / JPL

NASA’s Juno spacecraft launched on August 6, 2011 and should arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Credit: NASA / JPL

It did a flyby of Earth back in 2013, and if everything goes well, Juno will make its orbital insertion into the Jovian system on July 4, 2016. Total flight time: 1,795 days.

Once again, we’ll have a spacecraft observing Jupiter and its moon.s

This is just the beginning. There are several more missions to Jupiter in the works. The European Space Agency will be launching the Jupiter Icy Moons Mission in 2022, which will take nearly 8 years to reach Jupiter by 2030.

NASA’s Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission [Editor’s note: formerly known as the Europa Clipper] will probably launch in the same timeframe, and spend its time orbiting Europa, trying to get a better understand the environment on Europa. It probably won’t be able to detect any life down there, beneath the ice, but it’ll figure out exactly where the ocean starts.

So, how long does it take to get to Jupiter? Around 600 days if you want to just do a flyby and aren’t planning to stick around, or about 2,000 days if you want to actually get into orbit.

New Horizons Snaps Amazing 3-D View of Pluto’s Mysterious ‘Bladed’ Terrain

The amazing stereo view of a broad area informally named Tartarus Dorsa combines two images from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) taken about 14 minutes apart on July 14, 2015. The first was taken when New Horizons was 16,000 miles (25,000 kilometers) away from Pluto, the second when the spacecraft was 10,000 miles (about 17,000 kilometers) away.   Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The amazing stereo view of a broad area informally named Tartarus Dorsa combines two images from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) taken about 14 minutes apart on July 14, 2015. The first was taken when New Horizons was 16,000 miles (25,000 kilometers) away from Pluto, the second when the spacecraft was 10,000 miles (about 17,000 kilometers) away. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It’s time to whip out your 3-D glasses to enjoy and scrutinize the remarkable detail of spectacular terrain revealed in a new high resolution stereo image of Pluto – King of the Kuiper Belt! – taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

The amazing new stereo Plutonian image focuses on an area dominated by a mysterious feature that geologists call ‘bladed’ terrain – seen above – and its unlike anything seen elsewhere in our solar system.

Its located in a broad region of rough highlands informally known as Tartarus Dorsa – situated to the east of the Pluto’s huge heart shaped feature called Tombaugh Regio. The best resolution is approximately 1,000 feet (310 meters).

The stereo view combines a pair of images captured by New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) science instruments. They were taken about 14 minutes apart on during history making first ever flyby of the Pluto planetary system on July 14, 2015.

The first was taken when New Horizons was 16,000 miles (25,000 kilometers) away from Pluto, the second when the spacecraft was 10,000 miles (about 17,000 kilometers) away.

The blades align from north to south, typically reach up to about 550 yards (500 meters) high and are spaced about 2-4 miles (3-5 kilometers). Thus they are among the planets steepest features. They are “perched on a much broader set of rounded ridges that are separated by flat valley floors,” according to descriptions from the New Horizons science team.

This color image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015, and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).   Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
This color image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015, and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Mission scientists have also noted that the bladed terrain has the texture of “snakeskin” owing to their “scaly raised relief.”

In the companion global image from NASA (below), the bladed terrain is outlined in red and shown to extend quite far to the east of Tombaugh Regio.

The composite image was taken on July 13, 2015, the day before the closest approach flyby, when the probe was farther away thus shows lower resolution. It combines a pair of images from two of the science instruments – a Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) color scan and an image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).

This global view of Pluto combines a Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) color scan and an image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), both obtained on July 13, 2015 – the day before New Horizons’ closest approach. The red outline marks the large area of mysterious, bladed terrain extending from the eastern section of the large feature informally named Tombaugh Regio.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This global view of Pluto combines a Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) color scan and an image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), both obtained on July 13, 2015 – the day before New Horizons’ closest approach. The red outline marks the large area of mysterious, bladed terrain extending from the eastern section of the large feature informally named Tombaugh Regio.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The MVIC scan was taken from a range of 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers), at a resolution of 20 miles (32 kilometers) per pixel. The corresponding LORRI image was obtained from roughly the same range, but has a higher spatial resolution of 5 miles (8 kilometers) per pixel, say officials.

Scientists have developed several possible theories about the origins of the bladed terrain, including erosion from evaporating ices or deposition of methane ices.

Measurements from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument reveal that that this region “is composed of methane (CH4) ice with a smattering of water,” reports New Horizons researcher Orkan Umurhan.

He speculates that “the material making up the bladed terrain is a methane clathrate. A clathrate is a structure in which a primary molecular species (say water, or H2O) forms a crystalline ‘cage’ to contain a guest molecule (methane or CH4, for example).”

But the question of whether that methane ice is strong enough to maintain the steep walled snakeskin features, will take much more research to determine a conclusive answer.

Umurhan suggests that more research could help determine if the “methane clathrates in the icy moons of the outer solar system and also in the Kuiper Belt were formed way back before the solar system formed – i.e., within the protosolar nebula – potentially making them probably some of the oldest materials in our solar system.”

Pluto continues to amaze and surprise us as the data streams back to eagerly waiting scientists on Earth over many more months to come – followed by years and decades of painstaking analysis.

This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

During New Horizons flyby on July 14, 2015, it discovered that Pluto is the biggest object in the outer solar system and thus the ‘King of the Kuiper Belt.”

The Kuiper Belt comprises the third and outermost region of worlds in our solar system.

Pluto is the last planet in our solar system to be visited in the initial reconnaissance of planets by spacecraft from Earth since the dawn of the Space Age.

New Horizons remains on target to fly by a second Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) on Jan. 1, 2019 – tentatively named PT1, for Potential Target 1. It is much smaller than Pluto and was recently selected based on images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

Gender Generates Biological Challenges For Long Duration Spaceflight

Astronaut Bruce McCandless untethered above the Earth on Feb. 12, 1984. (NASA)

Men and women look exactly the same when ensconced in a space suit. But female physiology is different from male physiology in significant ways. And those differences create challenges when those bodies have to endure long duration spaceflight, such as during proposed missions to Mars.

Some of the effects of spending a long time in space are well-known, and affect both genders. Exposure to microgravity creates most of these effects. With less gravity acting on the body, the spine lengthens, causing aches and pains. Lowered gravity also causes bone loss, as the skeletal system loses important minerals like nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorous. And the muscles atrophy, since they aren’t used as much.

Microgravity makes the body sense that it is carrying too much fluid in the chest and head, and the body tries to eliminate it. Astronauts feel less thirst, and over time the body’s fluid level decreases. With less fluid, the heart doesn’t have to work as hard. The heart’s a muscle, so it atrophies much like other muscles. The fluid level causes other changes too. Fluid accumulates in the face, causing “Puffy Face Syndrome.”

But some problems are specific to gender, and Gregor Reid, PhD, and Camilla Urbaniak, PhD Candidate at the Shulich School of Medicine and Dentistry are focusing on one fascinating and important area: the human microbiome. Female and male microbiomes are different, and they are affected by microgravity, and other aspects of space travel, in different ways.

The human microbiome is the trillions of microorganisms living on the human body and in the gut. They are important for digestion and nutrition, and also for the immune system. A healthy human being requires a healthy microbiome. If you’ve ever travelled to another part of the world, and had stomach problems from the food there, those can be caused by changes in your microbiome.

Research on astronauts shows that spending time in space changes different aspects of the microbe population in a human being. Some of these changes cause health complications when the microbes responsible for digestion and immunity are affected. Reid says that the microbe has to be understood as its own organ, and we need a better understanding of how to keep that organ healthy. Keeping the microbiome healthy will keep the astronaut healthy, and reduce the risk of disease.

After conducting a literature review, the two researchers suggested that astronauts should incorporate probiotics and fermented foods into their diet to boost the health of their microbiome. They think that astronauts should have access to probiotic bacteria that they can prepare food with. Urbaniak acknowledges that female astronauts don’t want to be limited to shorter duration space flights, and using probiotics to manipulate the microbiome of female astronauts will allow them to withstand longer voyages.

Reid and Urbaniak also highlight some other problems facing women in long distance space voyages. If a female astronaut is diagnosed with breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or a urinary tract infection during an extended journey in space, any treatment involving antibiotics would be problematic. The antibiotics themselves may work less effectively due to changes in the microbiome.

Research on male astronauts has already shown a decrease in beneficial microorganism in the gut, and in the nasal and oral pathways. Those decreases were noted in both long and short duration stays in space. The research also shows an increase in harmful microorganisms such as E. coli. and staphylococcus. But so far, the same research hasn’t been done on female astronauts.

It’s well understood that women and men have different microbial profiles, and that their microbiomes are different. But there’s a lot we still don’t know about the specifics. This is an important area of research for NASA. According to Urbaniak, though, previous studies of the human microbiome and its response to space travel have focused on male astronauts, not female astronauts. Reid and Urbaniak are hopeful that their work will start a conversation that results in a greater understanding of the effects of space travel on women.

Did the Sun Steal Planet Nine?

Artist's impression of Planet Nine, blocking out the Milky Way. The Sun is in the distance, with the orbit of Neptune shown as a ring. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

One of the biggest new mysteries in our Solar System is the purported presence of a large and distant “Planet Nine,” traveling around the Sun in a twenty-thousand-year orbit far beyond Pluto. Although this far-flung world’s existence has yet to actually be confirmed (or even directly detected) some scientists are suggesting it might have originally been an exoplanet around a neighboring star, pilfered by our Sun during its impudent adolescence.

Continue reading “Did the Sun Steal Planet Nine?”

Ten Interesting Facts About Jupiter

Jupiter was appropriately named after the king of the gods. It’s massive, has a powerful magnetic field, and more moons that any planet in the Solar System. Though it has been known to astronomers since ancient times, the invention of the telescope and the advent of modern astronomy has taught us so much about this gas giant.

In short, there are countless interesting facts about this gas giant that many people just don’t know about. And we here at Universe Today have taken the liberty of compiling a list of ten particularly interesting ones that we think will fascinate and surprise you. Think you know everything about Jupiter? Think again!

Continue reading “Ten Interesting Facts About Jupiter”

Opportunity Discovers Dust Devil, Explores Steepest Slopes on Mars

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

A “beautiful dust devil” was just discovered today, April 1, on the Red Planet by NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover as she is simultaneously exploring water altered rock outcrops at the steepest slopes ever targeted during her 13 year long expedition across the Martian surface. Opportunity is searching for minerals formed in ancient flows of water that will provide critical insight into establishing whether life ever existed on the fourth rock from the sun.

“Yes a beautiful dust devil on the floor of Endeavour Crater,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, confirmed to Universe Today. Spied from where “Opportunity is located on the southwest part of Knudsen Ridge” in Marathon Valley.

The new dust devil – a mini tornado like feature – is seen scooting across the ever fascinating Martian landscape in our new photo mosaic illustrating the steep walled terrain inside Marathon Valley and overlooking the crater floor as Opportunity makes wheel tracks at the current worksite on a crest at Knudsen Ridge. The colorized navcam camera mosaic combines raw images taken today on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. They are associated with prior periods of solar array cleansing power boosts that contributed decisively to her longevity.

“Oppy’s best friend is on its way!”

Spotting dust devils has been relatively rare for Opportunity since landing on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004.

“There are 7 candidates, 6 of which are likely or certain,” Mark Lemmon, rover science team member from Texas A & M University, told Universe Today. “Most were seen in, on the rim of, or adjacent to Endeavour.”

Starting in late January, scientists commanded the golf cart sized Opportunity to drive up the steepest slopes ever attempted by any Mars rover in order to reach rock outcrops where she can conduct breakthrough science investigations on smectite (phyllosilicate) clay mineral bearing rocks yielding clues to Mars watery past.

“We are beginning an imaging and contact science campaign in an area where CRISM spectra show evidence for deep absorptions associated with Fe [Iron], Mg [Magnesium] smectites,” Arvidson explained.

A shadow and tracks of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into "Marathon Valley." The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A shadow and tracks of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into “Marathon Valley.” The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is especially exciting to researchers because the phyllosilicate clay mineral rocks formed under water wet, non-acidic conditions that are more conducive to the formation of Martian life forms – billions of years ago when the planet was far warmer and wetter.

“We have been in the smectite [phyllosilicate clay mineral] zone for months, ever since we entered Marathon Valley.”

The smectites were discovered via extensive, specially targeted Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.

So the ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley became a top priority science destination after they were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals based on the CRISM data.

“Marathon Valley is unlike anything we have ever seen. Looks like a mining zone!”

At this moment, the rover is driving to an alternative rock outcrop located on the southwest area of the Knudsen Ridge hilltops after trying three times to get within reach of the clay minerals by extending her instrument laden robotic arm.

NASA’s Opportunity rover images current worksite at Knudsen Ridge on Sol 4228 where the robot is grinding into rock targets inside Marathon Valley during 12th Anniversary of touchdown on Mars in Jan. 2016.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover images current worksite at Knudsen Ridge on Sol 4228 where the robot is grinding into rock targets inside Marathon Valley during 12th Anniversary of touchdown on Mars in Jan. 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the rover kept slipping on the steep walled slopes – tilted as much as 32 degrees – while repeatedly attempting close approaches to the intended target. Ultimately she came within 3 inches of the surface science target ‘Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse’ – named after a member of the Corps of Discovery.

In fact despite rotating her wheels enough to push uphill about 66 feet (20 meters) if there had been no slippage, engineers discerned from telemetry that slippage was so great that “the vehicle progressed only about 3.5 inches (9 centimeters). This was the third attempt to reach the target and came up a few inches short,” said NASA.

“The rover team reached a tough decision to skip that target and move on.”

So they backed Opportunity downhill about 27 feet (8.2 meters), then drove about 200 feet (about 60 meters) generally southwestward and uphill, toward the next target area.

NASA officials noted that “the previous record for the steepest slope ever driven by any Mars rover was accomplished while Opportunity was approaching “Burns Cliff” about nine months after the mission’s January 2004 landing on Mars.”

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long. It cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east – the same direction in which Opportunity is currently driving downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim. See our route map below showing the context of the rovers over dozen year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011.

NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past.  Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past. Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Why are the dust devils a big deal?

Offering more than just a pretty view, the dust devils actually have been associated with springtime Martian winds that clear away the dust obscuring the robots life giving solar panels.

“Opportunity is largely in winter mode sitting on a hill side getting maximum power. But it is in a better power status than in many past winters,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, told Universe Today exclusively.

“I think I know the reason. As one looks across the vistas of Mars in this mosaic Oppys best friend is on its way.”

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover. Even I have a smile on my face when I see what’s coming.”

12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4332 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 - to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4332 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As of today, Sol 4332, Apr. 1, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 209,200 images and traversed over 26.53 miles (42.69 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

The power output from solar array energy production has climbed to 576 watt-hours, now just past the depths of southern hemisphere Martian winter.

Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the basal layers at the base of Mount Sharp.

This March 21, 2016, image from the navigation camera on NASA's Mars rover Opportunity shows streaks of dust or sand on the vehicle's rear solar panel after a series of drives during which the rover was pointed steeply uphill. The tilt and jostling of the drives affected material on the rover deck.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This March 21, 2016, image from the navigation camera on NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity shows streaks of dust or sand on the vehicle’s rear solar panel after a series of drives during which the rover was pointed steeply uphill. The tilt and jostling of the drives affected material on the rover deck. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

A shadow and tracks of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, colorized hazcam camera image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into "Marathon Valley." The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A shadow and tracks of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, colorized hazcam camera image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into “Marathon Valley.” The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Is Planet X Linked to Mass Extinctions?

Artist's impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune's orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. The sky view and appearance are based on the conjectures of its co-proposer, Mike Brown.
Artist’s impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune’s orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. The sky view and appearance are based on the conjectures of its co-proposer, Mike Brown. Credit: Tom Ruen with background from the Milky Way, an ESO image.

Planet Nine, the massive orb proposed to explain the clustered orbits of a half dozen remote Kuiper Belt asteroids, may have a darker side. Periodic mass extinctions on Earth, as indicated in the global fossil record, could be linked to the hypothetical planet according to research published by Daniel Whitmire, a retired professor of astrophysics and faculty member of the University of Arkansas Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Artist's impression of a major impact event: A collision between Earth and an asteroid a few kilometres in diameter would release as much energy as several million nuclear weapons detonating.
Artist’s impression of  a collision between Earth and and a comet or asteroid a few kilometers in diameter would release as much energy as several million nuclear weapons detonating and set off a mass extinction event.

Planet Nine is estimated to be 10 times more massive than Earth and currently orbiting about 1,000 times farther away from the Sun. Astronomers have been searching for a potential large planet — for years called “Planet X” — that might be implicated in a handful of major mass extinctions over the past 500 million years. During those times, between 50 and more than 90% of species on Earth perished in a geological heartbeat. The worst, dubbed the Permian-Triassic event or the Great Dying, occurred 250 million years ago and saw the disappearance of more than 90% of the planet’s life in a geological heartbeat.

Whitmire and his colleague, John Matese, first published research on the connection between Planet X and mass extinctions in the journal Nature in 1985 while working as astrophysicists at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. They proposed that perturbations from a 10th planet (Pluto was considered a planet back then) could fling a shower of comets from the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune in Earth’s direction every 28 million years in sync with recorded mass extinctions.

Two other ideas also proposed at the time they wrote their paper — a sister star to the Sun and vertical oscillations of the Sun as it orbits the galaxy — have since been ruled out because the timing is inconsistent with the extinction record. Only Planet X remained as a viable theory, and it’s now gaining renewed attention.


Neil deGrasse Tyson explains precession and Mercury’s orbit

Whitmire and Matese proposed that as Planet X orbits the Sun, its tilted orbit slowly rotates, causing the location of its perihelion (closest point to the Sun) to slowly precess or shift position along its orbit instead of remaining in the same place. Every planet precesses, so no surprises here.

This artwork shows a rocky planet being bombarded by comets. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s conception shows a rocky planet being bombarded by comets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But location can make a huge difference. The team proposed that Planet X’s slow orbital gyration directs it into the Kuiper Belt approximately every 27 million years, knocking comets into the inner Solar System. The dislodged comets not only smash into the Earth, they also vaporize and break apart in the inner Solar System as they get nearer to the Sun, reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth. Add it up, and you have a recipe for cyclic destruction.

One thing to keep in mind is that their research led them to conclude that Planet X was only 5 times as massive as Earth and 100 times farther from the Sun. This doesn’t jive with the size and mass particulars for Planet Nine inferred by researchers Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown at Caltech earlier this year, but until someone tracks the real planet down, there’s room for argument.

Comet and asteroid showers are often cited as possible bad guys in extinction episodes. And why not? We have hard evidence of the asteroid impact that sealed the dinosaurs’s fate 65 million years ago and have seen some six impacts at Jupiter since 1994. It’s cosmic billiards out there folks, and the game’s not over.

Do We Live in a Special Part of the Universe?

We’ve already talked about how you’re living at the center of the Universe. Now, I’m not going to say that the whole Universe revolves around you… but we both know it does. So does this mean that there’s something special about where we live? This is a reasonable line of thinking, and it was how modern science got its start. The first astronomers assumed that the Sun, Moon, planets and stars orbited around the Earth. That the Earth was a very special and unique place, distinct from the rest of the Universe. But as astronomers started puzzling out the nature of the laws of physics, they realized that the Earth wasn’t as special as they thought. In fact, the laws of nature that govern the forces on Earth are the same everywhere in the Universe. As Isaac Newton untangled the laws of gravity here on Earth, he realized it must be the same forces that caused the Moon to go around the Earth, and the planets to go around the Sun. That the light from the Sun is the same phenomenon as the light from other stars.

 ESO’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile. Credit: Iztok Bon?ina / ESO
ESO’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile. Credit: Iztok Bon?ina / ESO

When astronomers consider the Universe at the largest scales, they assume that it’s homogeneous, and isotropic. Technical words, I know, so here’s what they mean. When astronomers say the Universe is homogeneous, this means that observers in any part of the Universe will see roughly the same view as observers in any other part. There might be local differences, like our mostly harmless planet Earth, orbiting the future course of an interstellar bypass. Or a desert planet with two suns, or a swampy world in the Dagobah system. At the smallest scales, they’ll be different. But as you move to larger and larger scales, it’s all just planets, stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters and black holes. And if you unfocus your eyes, it all looks pretty much the same. Isotropic means that the Universe looks the same in every direction. If you were floating alone in the cosmic void, you could look left, right, up, down out to the edge of the observable Universe and see galaxies, galaxy clusters and eventually the cosmic microwave background radiation in all directions. Every direction looks the same. This is know as the cosmological principle, and it’s one of the foundations of astronomy, because it means that we have a chance at understanding the physical laws of the Universe. If the Universe wasn’t homogeneous and isotropic, then it would mean that the physical laws as we understand them are impossible to comprehend. Just over the cosmological horizon, the force of gravity might act in reverse, the speed of light might be slower than walking speed, and unicorns could be real. That could be true, but we have to assume it’s not. And our current observations, at least to a sphere 13.8 billion light years around us in all directions, confirm this.

The Hubble Telescope's view of Omega Centauri. Credit: NASA / ESA / The Hubble SM4 ERO Team
The Hubble Telescope’s view of Omega Centauri. Credit: NASA / ESA / The Hubble SM4 ERO Team

While we don’t live in a special place in the Universe, we do live in a special time in the Universe. In the distant future, billions or even trillions of years from now, galaxies will be flying away from us so quickly that their light will never reach us. The cosmic background microwave radiation will be redshifted so far that it’s completely undetectable. Future astronomers will have no idea that there was ever a greater cosmology beyond the Milky Way itself. The evidence of the Big Bang and the ongoing expansion of the Universe will be lost forever. If we didn’t happen to live when we do now, within billions of years of the beginning of the Universe, we’d never know the truth. We can’t feel special about our place in the Universe, it’s probably the same wherever you go. But we can feel special about our time in the Universe. Future astronomers will never understand the cosmology and history of the cosmos the way we do now.