Surveying the “Fossils of Planet Formation”: The Lucy Mission

In February of 2014, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for mission proposals, one or two of which will have the honor of taking part in Discovery Mission Thirteen. Hoping to focus the next round of exploration efforts to places other than Mars, the five semifinalists (which were announced this past September) include proposed missions to Venus, Near-Earth Objects, and asteroids.

When it comes to asteroid exploration, one of the possible contenders is Lucy – a proposed reconnaissance orbiter that would study Jupiter‘s Trojan Asteroids. In addition to being the first mission of its kind, examining the Trojans Asteroids could also lead to several scientific finds that will help us to better understand the history of the Solar System.

By definition, Trojan are populations of asteroids that share their orbit with other planets or moons, but do not collide with it because they orbit in one of the two Lagrangian points of stability. The most significant population of Trojans in the Solar System are Jupiter’s, with a total of 6,178 having been found as of January 2015. In accordance with astronomical conventions, objects found in this population are named after mythical figures from the Trojan War.

There are two main theories as to where Jupiter’s Trojans came from. The first suggests that they formed in the same part of the Solar System as Jupiter and were caught by the gas giant’s gravity as it accumulated hydrogen and helium from the protoplanetary disk. Since they would have shared the same approximate orbit as the forming gas giant, they would have been caught in its gravity and orbited it ever since.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the Inner Solar System and Jupiter. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The second theory, part of the Nice model, proposes that the Jupiter Trojans were captured about 500-600 million years after the Solar System’s formation. During this period Uranus, Neptune – and to a lesser extent, Saturn – moved outward, whereas Jupiter moved slightly inward. This migration could have destabilized the primordial Kuiper Belt, throwing millions of objects into the inner Solar System, some of which Jupiter then captured.

In either case, the presence of Trojan asteroids around Jupiter can be traced back to the early Solar System. Studying them therefore presents an opportunity to learn more about its history and formation. And if in fact the Trojans are migrant from the Kuiper Belt, it would also be a chance for scientists to learn more about the most distant reaches of the solar system without having to send a mission all the way out there.

The mission would be led by Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, with the Goddard Space Center managing the project. Its targets would most likely include asteroid (3548) Eurybates, (21900) 1999 VQ10, (11351) 1997 TS25, and the binary (617) Patroclus/Menoetius.  It would also visit a main-belt asteroid (1981 EQ5) on the way.

The spacecraft would perform scans of the asteroids and determine their geology, surface features, compositions, masses and densities using a sophisticated suite of remote-sensing and radio instruments. In addition, during it’s proposed 11-year mission, Lucy would also gather information on the asteroids thermal and other physical properties from close range.

Artit's concept of the Trojan asteroids. By sheer number, small bodies dominate our solar system — and NASA's latest Discovery competition. Credit: NASA artist's concept - See more at: http://spacenews.com/small-bodies-dominate-nasas-latest-discovery-competition/#sthash.pOgot1ye.dpuf
Artist’s concept of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids hovering in the foreground in Jupiter’s path, with the “Greeks” at left in the background. Credit: NASA.

The project is named Lucy in honor of one of the most influential human fossils found on Earth. Discovered in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia in 1974, Lucy’s remains – several hundred bone fragments that belonged to a member the hominid species of Australopithecus afarensis – proved to be an extraordinary find that advanced our knowledge of hominid species evolution.

Levison and his team are hoping that a similar find can be made using the probe of the same name. As he and his colleagues describe it, the Lucy mission is aimed at “Surveying the diversity of Trojan asteroids: The fossils of planet formation.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Levinson. “Because the Trojan asteroids are remnants of that primordial material, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. These asteroids are in an area that really is the last population of objects in the solar system to be visited.”

The payload is expected to include three complementary imaging and mapping instruments, including a color imaging and infrared mapping spectrometer, a high-resolution visible imager, and a thermal infrared spectrometer. NASA has also offered an additional $5 to $30 million in funding if mission planners choose to incorporate a laser communications system, a 3D woven heat shield, a Deep Space atomic clock, and/or ion engines.

As one of the semifinalists, the Lucy mission has received $3 million dollars to conduct concept design studies and analyses over the course of the next year. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selections by September 2016. In the end, one or two missions will receive the mission’s budget of $450 million (not including launch vehicle funding or post-launch operations) and will be launched by 2020 at the earliest.

NASA’s Van Allen Probes Spot Impenetrable Radiation Barrier in Space

It’s a well-known fact that Earth’s ozone layer protects us from a great deal of the Sun’s ultra-violet radiation. Were it not for this protective barrier around our planet, chances are our surface would be similar to the rugged and lifeless landscape we observe on Mars.

Beyond this barrier lies another – a series of shields formed by a layer of energetic charged particles that are held in place by the Earth’s magnetic field. Known as the Van Allen radiation belts, this wall prevents the fastest, most energetic electrons from reaching Earth.

And according to new research from NASA’s Van Allen probes, it now appears that these belts may be nearly impenetrable, a finding which could have serious implications for future space exploration and research.

The existence of a belt of charged particles trapped by the Earth’s magnetosphere has been the subject of research since the early 20th century. However, it was not until 1958 that the Explorer 1 and Explorer 3 spacecrafts confirmed the existence of the belt, which would then be mapped out by the Explorer 4, Pioneer 3, and Luna 1 missions.

Two giant belts of radiation surround Earth. The inner belt is dominated by protons and the outer one by electrons. Credit: NASA
Two giant belts of radiation surround Earth. The inner belt is dominated by protons and the outer one by electrons. Credit: NASA

Since that time, scientists have discovered much about this belt, including how it interacts with other fields around our planet to form a nearly-impenetrable barrier to incoming electrons.

This discovery was made using NASA’s Van Allen Probes, launched in August 2012 to study the region. According to the observations made by the probes, this region can wax and wane in response to incoming energy from the sun, sometimes swelling up enough to expose satellites in low-Earth orbit to damaging radiation.

“This barrier for the ultra-fast electrons is a remarkable feature of the belts,” said Dan Baker, a space scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder and first author of the paper. “We’re able to study it for the first time, because we never had such accurate measurements of these high-energy electrons before.”

Understanding what gives the radiation belts their shape and what can affect the way they swell or shrink helps scientists predict the onset of those changes. Such predictions can help scientists protect satellites in the area from the radiation.

In the decades since they were first discovered, scientists have learned that the size of the two belts can change – or merge, or even separate into three belts occasionally. But generally the inner belt stretches from 644 km to 10,000 km (400 – 6,000 mi) above the Earth’s surface while the outer belt stretches from 13,500 t0 58,000 km (8,400 – 36,000 mi).

Artist's rendition of Van Allen Probes A and B in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA
Artist’s rendition of Van Allen Probes A and B in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

Up until now, scientists have wondered why these two these belts have existed separately. Why, they have wondered, is there a fairly empty space between the two that appears to be free of electrons? That is where the newly discovered barrier comes in.

The Van Allen Probes data showed that the inner edge of the outer belt is, in fact, highly pronounced. For the fastest, highest-energy electrons, this edge is a sharp boundary that, under normal circumstances, cannot be penetrated.

“When you look at really energetic electrons, they can only come to within a certain distance from Earth,” said Shri Kanekal, the deputy mission scientist for the Van Allen Probes at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and a co-author on the Nature paper. “This is completely new. We certainly didn’t expect that.”

The team looked at possible causes. They determined that human-generated transmissions were not the cause of the barrier. They also looked at physical causes, asking if the shape of the Earth’s magnetic field could be the cause of the boundary. However, NASA scientists studied and eliminated that possibility and determined that the presence of other space particles appears to be the more likely cause.

A cloud of cold, charged gas around Earth, called the plasmasphere and seen here in purple, interacts with the particles in Earth's radiation belts (shown in grey). Image Credit: NASA/Goddard
A cloud of cold, charged gas around Earth called the plasmasphere (seen here in purple), interacts with the particles in Earth’s radiation belts (shown in grey). Image Credit: NASA/Goddard

The radiation belts are not the only particle structures surrounding Earth. A giant cloud of relatively cool, charged particles called the plasmasphere fills the outermost region of Earth’s atmosphere, beginning at about 600 miles up and extending partially into the outer Van Allen belt. The particles at the outer boundary of the plasmasphere cause particles in the outer radiation belt to scatter, removing them from the belt.

This scattering effect is fairly weak and might not be enough to keep the electrons at the boundary in place, except for a quirk of geometry – the radiation belt electrons move incredibly quickly, but not toward Earth. Instead, they move in giant loops around Earth.

The Van Allen Probes’ data show that in the direction toward Earth, the most energetic electrons have very little motion at all – just a gentle, slow drift that occurs over the course of months. This movement is so slow and weak that it can be rebuffed by the scattering caused by the plasmasphere.

This also helps explain why – under extreme conditions, when an especially strong solar wind or a giant solar eruption such as a coronal mass ejection sends clouds of material into near-Earth space – the electrons from the outer belt can be pushed into the usually-empty slot region between the belts.

“The scattering due to the plasmapause is strong enough to create a wall at the inner edge of the outer Van Allen Belt,” said Baker. “But a strong solar wind event causes the plasmasphere boundary to move inward.”

A massive inflow of matter from the sun can erode the outer plasmasphere, moving its boundaries inward and allowing electrons from the radiation belts the room to move further inward too.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, built and operates the Van Allen Probes for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The mission is the second in NASA’s Living With a Star program, managed by Goddard.

A paper on these results appeared in the Nov. 26, 2014, issue of Nature magazine. And be sure to watch this animated video produced by the Goddard Space Center that explains the Van Allen belt in brief:

Further Reading: NASA

It’s Complicated: Hubble Survey Finds Unexpected Diversity in Dusty Discs Around Nearby Stars

Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have completed the largest and most sensitive visible-light imaging survey of the debris disks surrounding nearby stars. These dusty disks, likely created by collisions between leftover objects from planet formation, were imaged around stars as young as 10 million years old and as mature as more than 1 billion years old.

The research was conducted by astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Center with the help of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory. The survey was led by Glenn Schneider, the results of which appeared in the Oct. 1, 2014, issue of The Astronomical Journal.

“We find that the systems are not simply flat with uniform surfaces,” Schneider said. “These are actually pretty complicated three-dimensional debris systems, often with embedded smaller structures. Some of the substructures could be signposts of unseen planets.”

In addition to learning much about the debris fields that surround neighboring stars, the study presented an opportunity to learn more about the formation of our own Solar System.

“It’s like looking back in time to see the kinds of destructive events that once routinely happened in our solar system after the planets formed,” said Schneider.

Once thought to be flat disks, the study revealed an unexpected diversity and complexity of dusty debris structures surrounding the observed stars. This strongly suggest they are being gravitationally affected by unseen planets orbiting the star.

Alternatively, these effects could result from the stars’ passing through interstellar space. In addition, the researchers discovered that no two “disks” of material surrounding stars were alike.

A circumstellar disk of debris around a matured stellar system may indicate that Earth-like planets lie within. Credit: NASA/JPL
A circumstellar disk of debris around a matured stellar system may indicate that Earth-like planets lie within. Credit: NASA/JPL

The astronomers used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to study 10 previously discovered circumstellar debris systems, plus MP Mus, a mature protoplanetary disk that is comparable in age to the youngest of the debris disks.

Irregularities observed in one ring-like system in particular (around HD 181327) resemble the ejection of a huge spray of debris into the outer part of the system from the recent collision of two bodies.

“This spray of material is fairly distant from its host star — roughly twice the distance that Pluto is from the Sun,” said co-investigator Christopher Stark of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “Catastrophically destroying an object that massive at such a large distance is difficult to explain, and it should be very rare. If we are in fact seeing the recent aftermath of a massive collision, the unseen planetary system may be quite chaotic.”

Another interpretation for the irregularities is that the disk has been mysteriously warped by the star’s passage through interstellar space, directly interacting with unseen interstellar material. “Either way, the answer is exciting,” Schneider said. “Our team is currently analyzing follow-up observations that will help reveal the true cause of the irregularity.”

Over the past few years astronomers have found an incredible diversity in the architecture of exoplanetary systems. For instance, they have found that planets are arranged in orbits that are markedly different than found in our solar system.

A collision between planets could be the reason for the debris field around HD 181327. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A collision between two bodies is one explanation for the ring-like debris system around HD 181327. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We are now seeing a similar diversity in the architecture of accompanying debris systems,” Schneider said. “How are the planets affecting the disks, and how are the disks affecting the planets? There is some sort of interdependence between a planet and the accompanying debris that might affect the evolution of these exoplanetary debris systems.”

From this small sample, the most important message to take away is one of diversity, Schneider said. He added that astronomers really need to understand the internal and external influences on these systems – such as stellar winds and interactions with clouds of interstellar material – and how they are influenced by the mass and age of the parent star, and the abundance of heavier elements needed to build planets.

Though astronomers have found nearly 4,000 exoplanet candidates since 1995, mostly by indirect detection methods, only about two dozen light-scattering, circumstellar debris systems have been imaged over that same time period.

That’s because the disks are typically 100,000 times fainter than (and often very close to) their bright parent stars. The majority have been seen because of Hubble’s ability to perform high-contrast imaging, in which the overwhelming light from the star is blocked to reveal the faint disk that surrounds the star.

The new imaging survey also yields insight into how our solar system formed and evolved 4.6 billion years ago. In particular, the suspected planet collision seen in the disk around HD 181327 may be similar to how the Earth-Moon system formed, as well as the Pluto-Charon system over 4 billion years ago. In those cases, collisions between planet-sized bodies cast debris that then coalesced into a companion moon.

Further Reading: The Hubble Site