Clouds Seen On Pluto For First Time

Recent images sent by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the streaky patch at right. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR
Recent images sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the hazy streak right of center. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

I think we were all blown away when the New Horizons spacecraft looked back at Pluto’s dark side and returned the first photos of a surprisingly complex, layered atmosphere. Colorless nitrogen along with a small percentage of methane make up Pluto’s air. Layers of haze are likely created when the two gases react in sunlight to form tiny, soot-like particles called tholins. These can ultimately grow large enough to settle toward the surface and coat and color Pluto’s icy exterior.

Close up of the back side of Pluto taken by New Horizons shows multiple layers of haze in its mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Credit:
Close up of the back side of Pluto taken by New Horizons shows multiple layers of haze in its mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Now it seems Pluto’s atmosphere is capable of doing even more — making clouds! In an e-mail exchange with New Scientist, Lowell Observatory astronomer Will Grundy discusses the possibility that streaks and small condensations within the hazes might be individual clouds. Grundy also tracked a feature as it passed over different parts of the Plutonian landscape below, strongly suggesting a cloud.  If confirmed, they’d be the first-ever clouds seen on the dwarf planet, and a sign this small 1,473-mile-wide (2,370 km) orb possesses an even more complex atmosphere than imagined.

Faint arrows along Pluto's limb point to possible clouds in a low altitude haze layer. More distinct possible clouds are arrowed at left. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR
Faint arrows along Pluto’s limb point to possible clouds in a low altitude haze layer. More distinct possible clouds are arrowed at left. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto's tenuous but distended atmosphere.
15 minutes after its closest approach, New Horizons snapped this image of the smooth expanse of Sputnik Planum (right) flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Given the onion-like layers of haze and potential clouds, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprise that it snows on Pluto. The New Horizons team announced the discovery this week of a chain of exotic snowcapped mountains stretching across the dark expanse of the informally named Cthulhu Regio. Cthulhu, pronounced kuh-THU-lu and named for a character in American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s books, stretches nearly halfway around Pluto’s equator, starting from the west of the vast nitrogen ice plain, Sputnik Planum. At 1,850 miles (3,000 km) long and 450 miles (750 km) wide, Cthulhu is a bit larger than the state of Alaska. But ever so much colder!

A section of Cthulhu Regio boasts peaks covered in methane frost or snow.
The upper slopes of Cthulhu’s highest peaks are coated with a bright material that contrasts sharply with the dark red color of the surrounding plains. Scientists think it’s methane ice condensed from Pluto’s atmosphere. The far right panel shows the distribution of methane ice on the surface. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Cthulhu’s red color probably comes from a covering of dark tholins formed when methane interacts with sunlight. But new close-up images reveal that the region’s highest mountains appear coated with a much brighter material. Scientists think it’s methane, condensed as ice onto the peaks from Pluto’s atmosphere.

“That this material coats only the upper slopes of the peaks suggests methane ice may act like water in Earth’s atmosphere, condensing as frost at high altitude,” said John Stansberry, a New Horizons science team member.

Compositional data from the New Horizon’s Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), shown in the right panel in the image above, shows that the location of the bright ice on the mountain peaks correlates almost exactly with the distribution of methane ice, shown in false color as purple.

New Horizons still has plenty of images stored on its hard drive, so we’re likely to see more clouds, frosty peaks and gosh-knows-what-else as the probe speeds ever deeper into space while returning daily postcards from its historic encounter.

Eclipse By Fire! Smoky Haze Pervades Night Sky, Darkens Moon

Did you see the Moon last night? I walked outside at 10:30 p.m. and was stunned to see a dark, burnt-orange Full Moon as if September’s eclipse had arrived a month early. Why? Heavy smoke from forest fires in Washington, California and Montana has now spread to cover nearly half the country in a smoky pall, soaking up starlight and muting the moonlight.

If this is what global warming has in store for us, skywatchers will soon have to take a forecast of “clear skies” with a huge grain of salt.

The Pacific Northwest is abundantly dotted with wildfires in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.This natural-color satellite image was made using the Aqua satellite on August 25, 2015. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS’s thermal bands, are outlined in red. Credit: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team
The Pacific Northwest is abundantly dotted with wildfires in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana in this Aqua satellite image taken on August 25, 2015. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS’s thermal bands, are outlined in red. Smoke from the fires has been drifting east, blanketing Midwestern skies and blotting out the stars at night. Credit: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team

By day, the sky appears the palest of blues. By night, the stars are few if any, and the Moon appears faint, the color of fire and strangely remote. Despite last night’s clear skies, only the star Vega managed to penetrate the gloom. I never saw my shadow even at midnight when the Moon had climbed high into the southern sky.

Last night's Full Moon seen through an 8-inch telescope. The colors are true. Credit: Bob King
Last night’s Full Moon seen through an 8-inch telescope at 11:30 p.m. The colors are true. Credit: Bob King

We’ve seen this smoke before. Back in July, Canadian forest fires wafted south and west and covered much of the northern half of the U.S., giving us red suns in the middle of the afternoon and leaving only enough stars to count with two hands at night. On the bright side, the Moon is fascinating to observe. I set up the telescope last night and spend a half hour watching this unexpected “eclipse”; sunsets appear positively atomic. The size of the smoke particles is just right for filtering out or scattering away blues, greens and even yellow from white light. Vivid reds, pinks and oranges remain to tint anything bright enough to penetrate the haze.

GOES-8 satellite view of the central U.S. taken at 8:15 a.m. CDT August 30, 2015 show a veil of grayish forest fire smoke covering much of the Midwest with clearer conditions to the southeast. The red line is the approximate border between the two. Credit: NOAA
GOES-8 satellite view of the central U.S. taken at 8:15 a.m. CDT August 30, 2015 show a veil of grayish forest fire smoke covering much of the Midwest with clearer conditions to the southeast. The red line is the approximate border between the two. Credit: NOAA

But smoke can cause harm, too. Forest fire smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and soot. On especially smoky days, you can even smell the odor of burning trees in the air at ground level. Some may suffer from burning eyes, asthma or bronchitis on especially smoky days even a thousand miles from the source fires.

Wide-angle view of last night's melon Moon. Notice that the smoke is thicker along the horizontal left and right of the Moon. Above, at a higher elevation, we see through less smoke, so the moonlit sky is a little brighter there. No stars are visible. Credit: Bob King
Wide-angle view of last night’s Moon. Notice that the smoke is thicker along the horizontal – left and right of the Moon. Above, at a higher elevation, we see through less smoke, so the moonlit sky is a bit brighter there. No stars are visible. Credit: Bob King

On clear, blue-sky days, I’ve watched the smoke creep in from the west. It begins a light haze and slowly covers the entire sky in a matter of several hours, often showing a banded structure in the direction of the Sun. A little smoke is OK for observing, but once it’s thick enough to redden the Moon even hours after moonrise, you can forget about using your telescope for stargazing. Sometimes, a passing thunderstorm and cold front clears the sky again. Sometimes not.

The only cures for fire soot are good old-fashioned rain and the colder weather that arrives with fall. In the meantime, many of us will spend our evenings reading about the stars instead of looking at them.

River of Fire Smoke Darkens Sun and Moon

My eyes are burning. The morning Sun, already 40° high, glares a lemony-orange. It’s meteorologically clear, but the sky looks like paste. What’s going on here?

Forest fires! Many in the Midwest, northern mountain states and Canadian provinces have been living under a dome of high altitude smoke the past few days reflected in the ruddy midday Sun and bloody midnight Moon.

On June 29, 2015 NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of a river of smoke pouring across the Canadian provinces and central U.S. from hundreds of wildfires (seen at upper left) in western Canada. The difference in color between clouds true clouds and smoke is obvious. Credit: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC
On June 29, 2015 NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of a river of smoke pouring across the Canadian provinces and central U.S. from hundreds of wildfires (seen at upper left) in western Canada. The difference in color between clouds true clouds and smoke is obvious. Credit: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

Fires raging in the forests of northern Alberta and Saskatchewan have poured tremendous amounts of smoke into the atmosphere. Favorable winds have channeled the fumes into a brownish river of haze flowing south and east across Canada and into the northern third of the U.S. If an orange Sun glares overheard at midday, you’ve got smoke. Sometimes you can smell it, but often you can’t because it’s at an altitude of 1.2 – 3 miles (2-5 km).

The Moon sits at lower right with the star Vega visible at the top of the frame in this 30-second time exposure made last night (July 2) under the pall of forest fire smoke. Credit: Bob King
The Moon sits at lower right with the star Vega visible at the top of the frame in this 30-second time exposure made last night (July 2) under the pall of forest fire smoke. Credit: Bob King

But the visual effects are dramatic. Last night, the nearly full Moon looked so red and subdued, it could easily have been mistaken for a total lunar eclipse. I’ve never seen a darker, more remote-looking Moon. Yes, remote. Without its customary glare, our satellite looked shrunken as if untethered from Earth and drifting away into the deep.

And nevermind about the stars. Try as I might, I could only make out zero magnitude Vega last night. The camera and a time exposure did a little better but not much.

This image taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument aboard the Terra satellite on June 30, 2015.  Residents of the states affected by the smoke will notice much more vivid sunsets during the time the smoke is in the air.  The size of the smoke particles is just right for filtering out other colors meaning that red, pink and orange colors can be seen more vividly in the sky. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team. Caption: NASA/Goddard, Lynn Jenner
This image was taken by the Terra satellite on June 30, 2015. Residents of the states affected by the smoke will notice much more vivid sunsets during the time the smoke is in the air. The size of the smoke particles is just right for filtering out other colors meaning that red, pink and orange colors can be seen more vividly in the sky. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team. Caption: NASA/Goddard, Lynn Jenner

These days of deep red suns in the middle of the day fiery moons at night are an occasional occurrence across Canada and the northern half of the U.S. during the summer. Our previous bout with fire haze happened in early June as a result of massive wildfires in the Northwest Territories and northern Alberta. A change in wind direction and thorough atmospheric-cleaning by thunderstorms returned our blue skies days later.

Using a prism, we can take white light and spread it apart into its component colors. Credit: NASA
Using a prism, we can take white light and spread it apart into its component colors. Credit: NASA

While the downsides of fire haze range from poor air quality to starless nights, the upside is a more colorful Sun and Moon.

Back in grade school we all learned that white light is made up of every color of the rainbow. On a sunny day, air molecules, which are exceedingly tiny, scatter away the blue light coming from the Sun and color the sky blue. Around sunset and sunrise, when the Sun’s light passes through the lowest, thickest, haziest part of the atmosphere, greens and yellows are also scattered away, leaving an orange or red Sun.

Fire smoke adds billions of smoke particles to the atmosphere which scatter away purples, blues, greens and yellows to turn an otherwise white Sun into a blood red version smack in the middle of the day.

A ring-billed gull is silhouetted against a yellow sky and orange sun early Monday afternoon. Smoke from forest fires across Canada’s Northwest Territories and northern Alberta drifted over the region and colored the the sun orange long before sunset. Credit: Bob King
A ring-billed gull is silhouetted against a yellow sky and orange Sun  in Duluth, Minn. a few weeks back during the previous series of smoky days.This photo was taken around 3 p.m. local time. Credit: Bob King

Keep an eye on the color of the blue sky and watch for red suns at midday. Forest fires are becoming more common and widespread due to climate change. If you’ve never seen this eerie phenomenon, you may soon. For more satellite images of forest fires, check out NASA’s Fires and Smoke site.

I’ve often wondered what it would look like if Earth orbited a red dwarf star instead of the Sun. These smoky days give us a taste.

Titan Has a Fancy Collar

As high summer slowly but steadily approaches on Saturn, Cassini is opening a window to the seasonal changes that occur not only on the ringed planet but also its moons. Here we can see a dark band developing around Titan’s north polar latitudes, a “fancy collar” made visible in ultraviolet wavelengths.

Polar collars have previously been seen by both Hubble and Voyager 2, and in fact a southern version was observed by HST 5 years after the planet’s 1995 equinox.

This summer collar is thought to be part of a seasonal process, related to the migration of upper-level haze material within Titan’s atmosphere.

Source: CICLOPS (Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for OPerationS)

Cassini Discovers Titan’s Glowing Atmosphere

A pair of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft show Titan glowing in the dark.

Titan never ceases to amaze. Saturn’s largest moon, it’s wrapped in a complex, multi-layered nitrogen-and-methane atmosphere ten times thicker than Earth’s. It has seasons and weather, as evidenced by the occasional formation of large bright clouds and, more recently, an area of open-cell convection forming over its south pole. Titan even boasts the distinction of being the only other world in the Solar System besides Earth with large amounts of liquid existing on its surface, although there in the form of exotic methane lakes and streams.

We have NASA’s Cassini spacecraft to thank for these discoveries, and now there’s one more for the ceaseless explorer to add to its list: Titan glows in the dark.

Seen above in two versions of the same calibrated raw image, acquired by Cassini on May 7, 2009, Titan hovers in front of a background field of stars which appear as blurred streaks due to the 560 seconds (about 9 1/2 minutes) exposure time and the relative motion of the spacecraft.

The image on the left shows Titan in visible light, receiving reflected sunlight off Saturn itself — “Saturnshine” — while the moon was on the ringed planet’s night side. The image on the right was processed to exclude this reflected light… and yet it still shines. (E pur si candeo?)

Read: Titan’s Surface “the Consistency of Soft, Damp Sand”

The hazy moon’s dim glow — measuring only around a millionth of a watt — comes from not only the top of its atmosphere (which was expected) but also from much deeper within, at altitudes of 300 km (190 miles).

The glow is created by chemical reactions within Titan’s atmosphere, sparked by interactions with charged particles from the Sun and Saturn’s magnetic field.

“It turns out that Titan glows in the dark – though very dimly,” said Robert West, the lead author of a recent study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and a Cassini imaging team scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s a little like a neon sign, where electrons generated by electrical power bang into neon atoms and cause them to glow. Here we’re looking at light emitted when charged particles bang into nitrogen molecules in Titan’s atmosphere.”

The light is analogous to the airglow seen in Earth’s atmosphere, often photographed by astronauts aboard the ISS.

Still, even taking known sources of external radiation into account, Titan is glowing from within with an as-yet-unexplained light. More energetic cosmic rays may be to blame, penetrating deeper into the moon’s atmosphere, or there could be unexpected chemical reactions or phenomena at work — a little Titanic lightning, perhaps?

“This is exciting because we’ve never seen this at Titan before,” West said. “It tells us that we don’t know all there is to know about Titan and makes it even more mysterious.”

Read more on the Cassini mission page here, and see more images from Cassini on the CICLOPS imaging center site.

Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute. Inset image: Titan’s atmosphere and upper-level hydrocarbon haze, seen in June 2012. Color composite by J. Major.

Pictures From T-86: Cassini’s Latest Flyby of Titan

On September 26-27 Cassini executed its latest flyby of Titan, T-86, coming within 594 miles (956 km) of the cloud-covered moon in order to measure the effects of the Sun’s energy on its dense atmosphere and determine its variations at different altitudes.

The image above was captured as Cassini approached Titan from its night side, traveling about 13,000 mph (5.9 km/s). It’s a color-composite made from three separate raw images acquired in red, green and blue visible light filters.

Titan’s upper-level hydrocarbon haze is easily visible as a blue-green “shell” above its orange-colored clouds.

Cassini captured this image as it approached Titan’s sunlit limb, grabbing a better view of the upper haze. Some banding can be seen in its highest reaches.

The haze is the result of UV light from the Sun breaking down nitrogen and methane in Titan’s atmosphere, forming hydrocarbons that rise up and collect at altitudes of 300-400 kilometers. The sea-green coloration is a denser photochemical layer that extends upwards from about 200 km altitude.

In this image, made from data acquired on Sept. 27, Titan’s south polar vortex can be made out just within the southern terminator. The vortex is a relatively new feature in Titan’s atmosphere, first spotted earlier this year. It’s thought that it’s a region of open-cell convection forming above the moon’s pole, a result of the approach of winter to Titan’s southern half.

Read: Cassini Spots Surprising Swirls Above Titan’s South Pole

This T-86 flyby was was one of a handful of opportunities to profile Titan’s ionosphere from the outermost edge of Titan’s atmosphere. In addition Cassini was able to look for any changes to Ligeia Mare, a methane lake last observed in spring of 2007.

Now that Titan has been under scrutiny for a full year of Saturn’s seasons — which lasts 29.7 Earth-years — astronomers now know that varying amounts of solar radiation can drastically change situations both within Saturn’s atmosphere and on its surface.

“As with Earth, conditions on Titan change with its seasons. We can see differences in atmospheric temperatures, chemical composition and circulation patterns, especially at the poles,” said Dr. Athena Coustenis from the Paris-Meudon Observatory in France. “For example, hydrocarbon lakes form around the north polar region during winter due to colder temperatures and condensation. Also, a haze layer surrounding Titan at the northern pole is significantly reduced during the equinox because of the atmospheric circulation patterns. This is all very surprising because we didn’t expect to find any such rapid changes, especially in the deeper layers of the atmosphere.”

“It’s amazing to think that the Sun still dominates over other energy sources even as far out as Titan, over 1.5 billion kilometres from us.”
– Dr. Athena Coustenis, Paris-Meudon Observatory

The image above, acquired on Sept. 28, was added to this post on Oct. 1. It was taken from a distance of  649,825 miles (1,045,792 kilometers.)

Cassini’s next targeted approach to Titan — T-87 — will occur on November 13.

Get more news from the Cassini mission here.

Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. All color composites by Jason Major. Images have not been validated or calibrated by the SSI team.

 

(Do you love the Cassini mission as much as we do? Vote on your favorite Cassini “Shining Moment” here, in honor of the 15th anniversary of Cassini’s launch on October 15! Amazing to think it’s already been 15 years — 8 of those in orbit around Saturn!)

Surprising Swirls Above Titan’s South Pole

Thanks to Cassini’s new vantage point granted by its inclined orbit researchers have gotten a new look at the south pole of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. What they’ve recently discovered is a swirling vortex of gas forming over the moon’s pole, likely the result of the approach of winter on Titan’s southern hemisphere.

What we’re seeing here is thought to be an open cell convection process in Titan’s upper atmosphere. In open cells, air sinks in the center of the cell and rises at the edge, forming clouds at cell edges. However, because the scientists can’t see the layer underneath the layer visible in these new images, they don’t know what other mechanisms may be at work.

A stable atmospheric event that’s found here on Earth as well, open cell convection can be compared to the action of boiling water.

Titan has already been seen to have a thicker area of high-altitude haze over its north pole, and as autumn progresses toward winter in Titan’s south during the course of Saturn’s 29.7-year-long orbit this may very well be the beginnings of a southern polar hood.

An animation of this southern vortex can be found here.

“We suspect that this maelstrom, clearly forming now over the south pole and spinning more than forty times faster than the moon’s solid body, may be a harbinger of what will ultimately become a south polar hood as autumn there turns to winter.  Of course, only time will tell.”

– Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader

Discoveries like this are prime examples of why it was so important for Cassini to have an extended, long-duration mission around Saturn, so that seasonal changes in the planet and moons could be closely observed. New seasons bring new surprises!

The southern vortex structure was also captured in raw images acquired by Cassini on June 28. A color-composite made from three of those raw images is below (the vortex can be seen at center just right of the terminator):

You can find more images from Cassini on the CICLOPS Imaging Team site.

Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Bottom RGB composite by Jason Major.

On the Edge of Titan

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Here’s a quick look at one of my favorite cosmic photo subjects – the varying layers of atmosphere that enshroud Saturn’s enormous moon Titan. The image above is a color-composite made from three raw images acquired by Cassini during its latest flyby.

On June 7 Cassini approached Titan within 596 miles (959 km) and imaged portions of the moon’s northwest quadrant with its radar instrument, as well as conducted further investigations of areas near the equator where surface changes were detected in 2010.

The image here was assembled from three raw images captured in red, green and blue visible light channels. It reveals some structure in the upper hydrocarbon haze layers that extend upwards above the moon’s opaque orange clouds — reaching 400-500 km in altitude, Titan’s atmosphere is ten times thicker than Earth’s!

The June 6 flyby was the second in a series of passes that will take Cassini into a more inclined orbit, where it will reside for the next three years as it investigates Saturn’s polar regions and obtains better views of its ring system.

Read more about the flyby here.

Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Composite by J. Major.

A New Angle on Titan

Here’s a great shot of Titan and Saturn acquired by Cassini on May 6, 2012 just after a pass by the haze-covered moon. It’s a color-composite made from images taken in Cassini’s red, green and blue color channels, and the resulting image was color adjusted a bit to appear more “Saturny”.

UPDATE 7/2/12: The image above is featured in today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)… check it out here.

Cassini also made some closer passes of Titan on May 6, taking images within about 710,000 km. After recent passes of Encealdus and Dione, Cassini buzzed past Titan in preparation of a targeted flyby on May 22, after which it will head up and out out of the “moonplane” in order to get a better view of Saturn’s rings and upper latitudes.

After that, Cassini won’t be playing amongst the moons again for three years, so images like this will be a rarity for a while.

Another image of Titan, closer-in and set against Saturn’s rings and clouds, shows the fine, transparent structure of the moon’s upper atmospheric haze layers:

Created by the breakdown of methane in Titan’s opaque atmosphere by UV radiation, the haze is composed of complex hydrocarbons that extend outwards up to ten times the thickness of Earth’s atmosphere!

(The RGB layers weren’t available for this particular view, so there’s no color version of it.)

Check out previous images from Cassini’s flyby of Dione and Enceladus, and follow along with the Cassini mission on the JPL site here.

Top image: Color-composite image of Titan and Saturn (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major) Bottom image: Titan in blue wavelength against Saturn (NASA/JPL/SSI)