Hubble Sees Intense Auroras on Uranus

This is a composite image of Uranus by Voyager 2 and two different observations made by Hubble — one for the ring and one for the auroras. These auroras occurred in the planet’s southern latitudes near the planet’s south magnetic pole. Like Jupiter and Saturn, hydrogen atoms excited by blasts of the solar wind are the cause for the glowing white patches seen in both photos. Credit: NASA/ESA

Earth doesn’t have a corner on auroras. Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have their own distinctive versions. Jupiter’s are massive and powerful; Martian auroras patchy and weak.

Auroras are caused by streams of charged particles like electrons that originate with solar winds and in the case of Jupiter, volcanic gases spewed by the moon Io. Whether solar particles or volcanic sulfur, the material gets caught in powerful magnetic fields surrounding a planet and channeled into the upper atmosphere. There, the particles interact with atmospheric gases such as oxygen or nitrogen and spectacular bursts of light result. With Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus excited hydrogen is responsible for the show.

These composite images show Uranian auroras, which scientists caught glimpses of through the Hubble in 2011. In the left image, you can clearly see how the aurora stands high above the planet’s denser atmosphere. These photos combine Hubble pictures made in UV and visible light by Hubble with photos of Uranus’ disk from the Voyager 2 and a third image of the rings from the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii and Chile. The auroras are located close to the planet’s north magnetic pole, making these northern lights.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Lamy (Observatory of Paris, CNRS, CNES)

Auroras on Earth, Jupiter and Saturn have been well-studied but not so on the ice-giant planet Uranus. In 2011, the Hubble Space Telescope took the first-ever image of the auroras on Uranus. Then in 2012 and 2014 a team from the Paris Observatory took a second look at the auroras in ultraviolet light using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) installed on Hubble.

From left: Auroras on Earth (southern auroral oval is seen over Antarctica), Jupiter and Saturn. In each case, the rings of permanent aurora are centered on their planets’ magnetic poles which aren’t too far from the geographic poles, unlike topsy-turvy Uranus. Credit: NASA

Two powerful bursts of solar wind traveling from the sun to Uranus stoked the most intense auroras ever observed on the planet in those years. By watching the auroras over time, the team discovered that these powerful shimmering regions rotate with the planet. They also re-discovered Uranus’ long-lost magnetic poles, which were lost shortly after their discovery by Voyager 2 in 1986 due to uncertainties in measurements and the fact that the planet’s surface is practically featureless. Imagine trying to find the north and south poles of a cue ball. Yeah, something like that.

In both photos, the auroras look like glowing dots or patchy spots. Because Uranus’ magnetic field is inclined 59° to its spin axis (remember, this is the planet that rotates on its side!) , the auroral spots appear far from the planet’s north and south geographic poles. They almost look random but of course they’re not. In 2011, the spots lie close to the planet’s north magnetic pole, and in 2012 and 2014, near the south magnetic pole — just like auroras on Earth.

An auroral display can last for hours here on the home planet, but in the case of the 2011 Uranian lights, they pulsed for just minutes before fading away.

Want to know more? Read the team’s findings in detail here.

A Family Of Stars Torn Apart

The stunning, shaped clouds of gas in the Orion Nebula make it beautiful, but also make it difficult to see inside of. This image of the Orion Nebula was captured by the Hubble Telescope. Image: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (STScI/ESA) and The Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

It sometimes doesn’t take much to tear a family apart. A Christmas dinner gone wrong can do that. But for a family of stars to be torn apart, something really huge has to happen.

The dramatic break-up of a family of stars played itself out in the Orion Nebula, about 600 years ago. The Orion Nebula is one of the most studied objects in our galaxy. It’s an active star forming region, where much of the star birth is concealed behind clouds of dust. Advances in infrared and radio astronomy have allowed us to peer into the Nebula, and to watch a stellar drama unfolding.

This three-frame illustration shows how a grouping of stars can break apart, flinging the members into space. Panel 1: members of a multiple-star system orbiting each other. Panel 2: two of the stars move closer together in their orbits. Panel 3: the closely orbiting stars eventually either merge or form a tight binary. This event releases enough gravitational energy to propel all of the stars in the system outward, as shown in the third panel.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI)

Over the last few decades, observations showed the two of the stars in our young family travelling off in different directions. In fact, they were travelling in opposite directions, and moving at very high speeds. Much higher than stars normally travel at. What caused it?

Astronomers were able to piece the story together by re-tracing the positions of both stars back 540 years. All those centuries ago, around the same time that it was dawning on humanity that Earth revolved around the Sun instead of the other way around, both of the speeding stars were in the same location. This suggested that the two were part of a star system that had broken up for some reason. But their combined energy didn’t add up.

Now, the Hubble has provided another clue to the whole story, by spotting a third runaway star. They traced the third star’s path back 540 years and found that it originated in the same location as the others. That location? An area near the center of the Orion Nebula called the Kleinmann-Low Nebula.

This composite image of the Kleinmann-Low Nebula, part of the Orion Nebula complex, is composed of several pointings of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in optical and near-infrared light. Infrared light allows to peer through the dust of the nebula and to see the stars therein. The revealed stars are shown with a bright red colour in the image. With this image, showing the central region of the Orion Nebula, scientists were looking for rogue planets and brown dwarfs. As side-effect they found a fast-moving runaway star. By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57169218

The team behind these new results, led by Kevin Luhman of Penn State University, will release their findings in the March 20, 2017 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“The new Hubble observations provide very strong evidence that the three stars were ejected from a multiple-star system,” said Luhman. “Astronomers had previously found a few other examples of fast-moving stars that trace back to multiple-star systems, and therefore were likely ejected. But these three stars are the youngest examples of such ejected stars. They’re probably only a few hundred thousand years old. In fact, based on infrared images, the stars are still young enough to have disks of material leftover from their formation.”

Young stars have a disk of gas and dust around them called a protoplanetary disk. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The Orion Nebula could be surrounded by additional fledging stars that were ejected from it in the past and are now streaming away into space.” – Lead Researcher Kevin Luhman, Penn State University.

The three stars are travelling about 30 times faster than most of the Nebula’s other stellar inhabitants. Theory has predicted the phenomenon of these breakups in regions where newborn stars are crowded together. These gravitational back-and-forths are inevitable. “But we haven’t observed many examples, especially in very young clusters,” Luhman said. “The Orion Nebula could be surrounded by additional fledging stars that were ejected from it in the past and are now streaming away into space.”

The key to this mystery is the recently discovered third star. But this star, the so-called “source x”, was discovered by accident. Luhman is part of a team using the Hubble to hunt for free-floating planets in the Orion Nebula. A comparison of Hubble infrared images from 2015 with images from 1998 showed that source x had changed its position. This indicated that the star was moving at a speed of about 130,000 miles per hour.

The image by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows a grouping of young stars, called the Trapezium Cluster (center). The box just above the Trapezium Cluster outlines the location of the three stars. A close-up of the stars is top right. The birthplace of the multi-star system is marked “initial position.” Two of the stars — labeled BN, and “I,” for source I — were discovered decades ago. Source I is embedded in thick dust and cannot be seen. The third star, “x,” for source x, was recently discovered to have moved noticeably between 1998 and 2015, as shown in the inset image at bottom right.
Credits: NASA, ESA, K. Luhman (Penn State University), and M. Robberto (STScI)

Luhmann then re-traced source x’s path and it led to the same position as the other 3 runaway stars 540 years ago: the Kleinmann-Low Nebula.

According to Luhmann, the three stars were most likely ejected from their system due to gravitational fluctuations that should be common in a high-population area of newly-born stars. Two of the stars can come very close together, either forming a tight binary system or even merging. That throws the gravitational parameters of the system out of whack, and other stars can be ejected. The ejection of those stars can also cause fingers of matter to flow out of the system.

As we get more powerful telescopes operating in the infrared, we should be able to clarify exactly what happens in areas of intense star formation like the Orion Nebula and its embedded Kleinmann-Low Nebula. The James Webb Space Telescope should advance our understanding greatly. If that’s the case, then not only will the details of star birth and formation become much clearer, but so will the break up of young families of stars.

Dream Chaser Spacecraft May Be Used For Hubble Repair Mission

The final servicing mission to the venerable Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was in 2009. The shuttle Atlantis completed that mission (STS-125,) and several components were repaired and replaced, including the installation of improved batteries. The HST is expected to function until 2030 – 2040. With the retiring of the shuttle program in 2011, it looked like the Hubble mission was destined to play itself out.

But now there’s talk of another servicing mission to the Hubble, to be performed by the Dream Chaser Space System.

A view of the Hubble Space Telescope from inside space shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-125 in 2009, the final repair mission. Credit: NASA

The Hubble was originally deployed by the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990. It was serviced by crew aboard the shuttles 5 times on 5 different shuttle missions. Unlike the other observatories in NASA’s Great Observatories, the Hubble was designed to be serviced during its lifetime.

Those servicing missions, which took place in 1993, 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2009, were complex missions which required coordination between the Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, and the Goddard Space Flight Center. Grasping Hubble with the robotic Canadarm and placing it inside the shuttle bay was a methodical process. So was the repair and replacement of components, and the testing of components once Hubble was removed from the cargo bay. Though complicated, these missions were ultimately successful, and the Hubble is still operating.

The robotic Canadarm during STS-72, as Space Shuttle Endeavour mission in 1996. Image: By NASA – https://archive.org/details/STS072-722-041, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29803999

A future servicing mission to the Hubble would be a sort of insurance policy in case there are problems with NASA’s new flagship telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST.) The JWST is due to be launched in 2018, and its capabilities greatly exceed those of the Hubble. But the James Webb’s destination is LaGrange Point 2 (L2), a stable point in space about 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) from Earth. It will enter a halo orbit around L2, which makes a repair mission difficult. Though deployment problems with the JWST could be corrected by visiting spacecraft, the Telescope itself is not designed to be repaired like the Hubble is.

Since the JWST is risky, both in terms of its position in space and its unproven deployment method, some type of insurance policy may be needed to ensure NASA has a powerful telescope operating in space. But without Space Shuttles to visit the Hubble and extend its life, a different vehicle would have to be tasked with any potential future servicing missions. Enter the Dream Chaser Space System (DCSS).

The Dream Chaser Space System is like a smaller Space Shuttle. It can carry seven people into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Like the Shuttles, it then returns to Earth and lands horizontally on an airstrip. The DCSS, however, does not have a cargo bay or a robotic arm. If it were used for a Hubble repair mission, all repairs would likely have to be done during spacewalks. The DCSS is designed as a cargo and crew resupply ship for the International Space System. The much larger shuttles were designed with the Hubble in mind, as well as other tasks, like building and servicing the ISS and recovering satellites from orbit.

The DCSS is built by Sierra Nevada Corporation. It will be launched on an Atlas V rocket, and will return to Earth by gliding, where it can land on any commercial runway. The DCSS has its own reaction control system for manoeuvering in space. Like other commercial space ventures, the development of the DCSS has been partly funded by NASA.

The primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope is unfolded once it's in space. If it fails to deploy properly, NASA may need to use the Dream Chaser to keep the Hubble Telescope operating instead. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn
The primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

The James Webb has a complex deployment. It will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket, where it will be folded up in order to fit. The primary mirror on the JWST is made up of 18 segments which must unfold in three sections for the telescope to function. The telescope’s sun shield, which keeps the JWST cool, must also unfold after being deployed. Earlier in the mission, the Webb’s solar array and antennae need to be deployed.

This video shows the deployment of the JWST. It reminds one of a giant insect going through metamorphosis.

If either the mirror, the sunshield, or any of the other unfolding mechanisms fail, then a costly and problematic mission will have to be planned to correct the deployment. If some other crucial part of the telescope fails, then it probably can’t be repaired. NASA needs everything to go well.

People have been waiting for the JWST for a long time. It’s had kind of a tortured path to get this far. We all have our fingers crossed that the mission succeeds. But if there are problems, it may be up to the Hubble to keep doing what it’s always done: provide the kinds of science and stunning images that excites scientists and the rest of us about the Universe.

Weekly Space Hangout – Sept 23, 2016: Dr. Frank Timmes and Online Astronomy Education

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guests:
Dr. Frank Timmes is an astrophysicist at Arizona State University and will be discussing online astronomy education and the Global Freshman Academy. His interests include the universe’s evolving composition and its implications for life in the universe. Dr. Timmes’ current area of research is nuclear astrophysics and the creation of the periodic table.

Guests:

Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg)
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)

Their stories this week:

New bill targets serial harasses

Tiangong-1 to crash next year

The Final Days of Rosetta

Microlensing circumbinary planet detected

Repeat of Voyager’s “impossible” cloud

We are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

Hubble’s Surprising Find On Europa To Be Announced By NASA Monday

Europa as imaged by the Galileo spacecraft. Europa is a prime target in the search for life because of its sub-surface ocean. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

NASA will make a “surprising” announcement about Jupiter’s moon Europa on Monday, Sept. 26th, at 2:00 PM EDT. They haven’t said much, other than there is “surprising evidence of activity that may be related to the presence of a subsurface ocean on Europa.” Europa is a prime target for the search for life because of its subsurface ocean.

The new evidence is from a “unique Europa observing campaign” aimed at the icy moon. The Hubble Space Telescope captured the images in these new findings, so maybe we’ll be treated to some more of the beautiful images that we’re accustomed to seeing from the Hubble.

Images from NASA's Galileo spacecraft show the intricate detail of Europa's icy surface. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ SETI Institute
Images from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft show the intricate detail of Europa’s icy surface. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ SETI Institute

We always welcome beautiful images, of course. But the real interest in Europa lies in its suitability for harboring life. Europa has a frozen surface, but underneath that ice there is probably an ocean. The frozen surface is thought to be about 10 – 30 km thick, and the ocean may be about 100 km (62 miles) thick. That’s a lot of water, perhaps double what Earth has, and that water is probably salty.

Back in 2012, the Hubble captured evidence of plumes of water vapor escaping from Europa’s south pole. Hubble didn’t directly image the water vapor, but it “spectroscopically detected auroral emissions from oxygen and hydrogen” according to a NASA news release at the time.

This artist's illustration shows what plumes of water vapour might look like being ejected from Europa's south pole. Image: NASA, ESA, L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute, USA/University of Cologne, Germany) and M. Kornmesser.
This artist’s illustration shows what plumes of water vapour might look like being ejected from Europa’s south pole. Image: NASA, ESA, L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute, USA/University of Cologne, Germany) and M. Kornmesser.

There are other lines of evidence that support the existence of a sub-surface ocean on Europa. But there are a lot of questions. Will the frozen top layer be several tens of kilometres thick, or only a few hundred meters thick? Will the sub-surface ocean be warm, liquid water? Or will it be frozen too, but warmer than the surface ice and still convective?

Two models of the interior of Europa. Image: NASA/JPL.
Two models of the interior of Europa. Image: NASA/JPL.

Hopefully, new evidence from the Hubble will answer these questions definitively. Stay tuned to Monday’s teleconference to find out what NASA has to tell us.

These are the scientists who will be involved in the teleconference:

  • Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • William Sparks, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore
  • Britney Schmidt, assistant professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta
  • Jennifer Wiseman, senior Hubble project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

The NASA website will stream audio from the teleconference.

More About Europa:

Hubble Captures The Sharpest Image Of A Disintegrating Comet Ever

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals the ancient Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami disintegrating as it approaches the sun. The observations represent one of the sharpest views of an icy comet breaking apart. The comet debris consists of a cluster of building-size chunks near the center of the image. They form a 3,000-mile-long trail, larger than the width of the continental U.S. The fragments are drifting away from the comet at a leisurely pace, roughly the walking speed of an adult. The main nucleus of Comet 332P is the bright object at lower left. It measures 1,600 feet across, about the length of five football fields. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)
This Hubble Space Telescope image reveals the ancient Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami disintegrating as it approaches the sun. The comet debris consists of a cluster of building-size chunks near the center of the image. They form a trail larger than the width of the continental U.S. The fragments are drifting away from the comet at a leisurely pace of just a few miles an hour. The main nucleus of Comet 332P is the bright object at lower left. It measures 1,600 feet across, about the length of five football fields. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

Breaking up isn’t hard to do if you’re a comet. They’re fragile creatures subject to splitting, cracking and vaporizing when heated by the Sun and yanked on by its powerful gravitational pull.

Recently, the Hubble Space Telescope captured one of the sharpest, most detailed observations of a comet breaking apart, which occurred 67 million miles from Earth. In a series of images taken over a three-day span in January 2016, Hubble revealed 25 building-size blocks made of a mixture of ice and dust that are drifting away from the main nucleus of the periodic comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami at a leisurely pace, about the walking speed of an adult.

332P on UT 2016 January 26, 27 and 28, showing fragments measured in this work. The images are displayed consecutively as an animated gif in order to show the motion of the fragments relative to the parent nucleus (visible as the bright object to the lower left). The actual motions are very slow, of order 1 m/s, and show a fan-like divergence from the parent. Notice that some of the fragments also change in brightness and even shape from day to day. We think this is due to continuing outgassing, rotation and breakup of the fragments.
This animation shows the movement of individual comet fragments relative to the parent nucleus, the bright object at lower left, on January 26, 27 and 28 UT. The true motions are very slow, on the order of several miles an hour, and show a fan-like divergence from the parent. Look closely and you’ll see that some of the fragments change in brightness and even shape from day to day. Researcher David Jewitt thinks this is due to continuing outgassing, rotation and breakup of the fragments. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

The observations suggest that the comet may be spinning so fast that material is ejected from its surface. The resulting debris is now scattered along a 3,000-mile-long trail, larger than the width of the continental U.S. Much the same happens with small asteroids, when sunlight absorbed unequally across an asteroid’s surface spins up its rotation rate, either causing it to fall apart or fling hunks of itself into space.

Being made of loosely bound frothy ice, comets may be even more volatile compared to the dense rocky composition of many asteroids. The research team suggests that sunlight heated up the comet, causing jets of gas and dust to erupt from its surface. We see this all the time in comets in dramatic images taken by the Rosetta spacecraft of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Because the nucleus is so small, these jets act like rocket engines, spinning up the comet’s rotation. The faster spin rate loosened chunks of material, which are drifting off into space.

Comet 168P-Hergenrother was imaged by the Gemini telescope on Nov. 2, 2012 at about 6 a.m. UTC. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini
Comet 168P/Hergenrother was photographed by the Gemini telescope on Nov. 2, 2012 and shows three fragments that broke away from the nucleus streaming from the coma down the tail. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini

“We know that comets sometimes disintegrate, but we don’t know much about why or how they come apart,” explained lead researcher David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles. “The trouble is that it happens quickly and without warning, and so we don’t have much chance to get useful data. With Hubble’s fantastic resolution, not only do we see really tiny, faint bits of the comet, but we can watch them change from day to day. And that has allowed us to make the best measurements ever obtained on such an object.”

In the animation you can see the comet splinters brighten and fade as icy patches on their surfaces rotate in and out of sunlight. Their shapes even change! Being made of ice and crumbly as a peanut butter cookie, they continue to break apart to spawn a host of smaller cometary bits. The icy relics comprise about 4% of the parent comet and range in size from roughly 65 feet wide to 200 feet wide (20-60 meters). They are moving away from each other at a few miles per hour.

Crack on 67P - a sign of a coming breakup?
The European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe photographed this big crack in the neck region of the double-lobed comer 67P. It’s several feet wide and about 700 feet long. Could it be an indicator that the comet will break into two in the future? Credit: ESA/Rosetta

Comet 332P was slightly beyond the orbit of Mars when Hubble spotted the breakup. The surviving bright nucleus completes a rotation every 2-4 hours, about four times as fast as Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (a.k.a. “Rosetta’s Comet”). Standing on its surface you’d see the sun rise and set in about an hour, akin to how frequently astronauts aboard the International Space Station see sunsets and sunrises orbiting at over 17,000 mph.

Don’t jump for joy though. Since the comet’s just 1,600 feet (488 meters) across, its gravitational powers are too meek to allow visitors the freedom of hopping about lest they find themselves hovering helplessly in space above the icy nucleus.

This illustration shows one possible explanation for the disintegration of asteroid P/2013 R3. It is likely that over the past 4.5 billion years the asteroid was fractured by collisions with other asteroids. The effects of sunlight will have caused the asteroid to slowly increase its rotation rate until the loosely bound fragments drifted apart due to centrifugal forces. Dust drifting off the pieces makes the comet-looking tails. This process may be common for small bodies in the asteroid belt.
This illustration shows one possible explanation for the disintegration of asteroids and comets. The effects of sunlight can cause an asteroid to slowly increase its rotation rate until the loosely bound fragments drift apart due to centrifugal forces. In the case of comets, jets of vaporizing ice have a rocket-like effect that can spin up a nucleus to speeds fast enough for the comet to eject pieces of itself. Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA), and A. Feild (STScI)

Comet 332P was discovered in November 2010, after it surged in brightness and was spotted by two Japanese amateur astronomers, Kaoru Ikeya and Shigeki Murakami. Based on the Hubble data, the team calculated that the comet probably began shedding material between October and December 2015. From the rapid changes seen in the shards over the three days captured in the animation, they probably won’t be around for long.


Spectacular breakup of Comet 73P in 2006

More changes may be in the works. Hubble’s sharp vision also spied a chunk of material close to the comet, which may be the first salvo of another outburst. The remnant from still another flare-up, which may have occurred in 2012, is also visible. The fragment may be as large as Comet 332P, suggesting the comet split in two.

“In the past, astronomers thought that comets die when they are warmed by sunlight, causing their ices to simply vaporize away,” Jewitt said. “Either nothing would be left over or there would be a dead hulk of material where an active comet used to be. But it’s starting to look like fragmentation may be more important. In Comet 332P we may be seeing a comet fragmenting itself into oblivion.”


During its closest approach to the Sun on November 28, 2013, Comet ISON’s nucleus broke apart and soon vaporized away, leaving little more than a ghostly head and fading tail.

Astronomers using the Hubble and other telescopes have seen breakups before, most notably in April 2006 when 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, which crumbled into more than 60 pieces.  Unlike 332P, the comet wasn’t observed long enough to track the evolution of the fragments, but the images are spectacular!

The researchers estimate that Comet 332P contains enough mass to endure another 25 outbursts. “If the comet has an episode every six years, the equivalent of one orbit around the sun, then it will be gone in 150 years,” Jewitt said. “It’s the blink of an eye, astronomically speaking. The trip to the inner Solar System has doomed it.”

332P on UT 2016 January 26, 27 and 28, showing fragments measured in this work. The images are displayed consecutively as an animated gif in order to show the motion of the fragments relative to the parent nucleus (visible as the bright object to the lower left). The actual motions are very slow, of order 1 m/s, and show a fan-like divergence from the parent. Notice that some of the fragments also change in brightness and even shape from day to day. We think this is due to continuing outgassing, rotation and breakup of the fragments.NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)
This annotated image shows the fragments measured by Jewitt and team and their direction of movement. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

332P/Ikeya-Murakami hails from the Kuiper Belt, a vast swarm of icy asteroids and comets beyond Neptune. Leftover building blocks from early Solar System and stuck in a deep freeze in the Kuiper Belt, you’d think they’d be left alone to live their solitary, chilly lives but no. After nearly 4.5 billion years in this icy deep freeze, chaotic gravitational perturbations from Neptune kicked Comet 332P out of the Kuiper Belt.

As the comet traveled across the solar system, it was deflected by the planets, like a ball bouncing around in a pinball machine, until Jupiter’s gravity set its current orbit. Jewitt estimates that a comet from the Kuiper Belt gets tossed into the inner solar system every 40 to 100 years.

I wish I could tell you to grab your scope for a look, but 332P is currently fainter than 15th magnitude and located in Libra low in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Hopefully, we’ll see more images in the coming weeks and months as Jewitt and the team continue to follow the evolution of its icy scraps.

Hubble Images Three Debris Disks Around G-type Stars

An image of the circum-stellar disk around HD 207129. The three circled objects are background objects and part of the disk. Image: Hubble Space Telescope, Glenn Schneider et al 2016.

A team using the Hubble Space Telescope has imaged circumstellar disk structures (CDSs) around three stars similar to our Sun. The stars are all G-type solar analogs, and the disks themselves share similarities with our Solar System’s own Kuiper Belt. Studying these CDSs will help us better understand their ring-like structure, and the formation of solar systems.

The team behind the study was led by Glenn Schneider of the Seward Observatory at the University of Arizona. They used the Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to capture the images. The stars in the study are HD 207917, HD 207129, and HD 202628.

Theoretical models of circumstellar disk dynamics suggest the presence of CDSs. Direct observation confirms their presence, though not many of these disks are within observational range. These new deep images of three solar analog CDSs are important. Studying the structure of these rings should lead to a better understanding of the formation of solar systems themselves.

A is the observed image of HD 207917. B is the best-fit debris ring model of the same star. Image: Hubble, G. Schneider et. al. 2016.
A is the observed image of HD 207917. B is the best-fit debris ring model of the same star. Image: Hubble, G. Schneider et. al. 2016.

Debris disks like these are separate from protoplanetary disks. Protoplanetary disks are a mixture of both gas and dust which exist around younger stars. They are the source material out of which planetesimals form. Those planetesimals then become planets.

Protoplanetary disks are much shorter-lived than CDSs. Whatever material is left over after planet formation is typically expelled from the host solar system by the star’s radiation pressure.

In circumstellar debris disks like the ones imaged in this study, the solar system is older, and the planets have already formed. CDSs like these have lasted this long by replenishing themselves. Collisions between larger bodies in the solar system create more debris. The resulting debris is continually ground down to smaller sizes by repeated collisions.

This process requires gravitational perturbation, either from planets in the system, or by binary stars. In fact, the presence of a CDSs is a strong hint that the solar system contains terrestrial planets.

A circumstellar disk of debris around a mature stellar system could indicate the presence of Earth-like planets. Credit: NASA/JPL
A circumstellar disk of debris around a mature stellar system could indicate the presence of Earth-like planets. Credit: NASA/JPL

The three disks in this study were viewed at intermediate inclinations. They scatter starlight, and are more easily observed than edge-on disks. Each of the three circumstellar disk structures possess “ring-like components that are more massive analogs of our solar system’s Edgeworth–Kuiper Belt,” according to the study.

The study authors expect that the images of these three disk structures will be studied in more detail, both by themselves and by others in future research. They also say that the James Webb Space Telescope will be a powerful tool for examining CDSs.

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

Two Nearby Potentially Habitable Planets Are Rocky Worlds

When Hubble first observed the atmospheric conditions of an extrasolar planet in 2000, it opened up that entire field of study. Now, Hubble has conducted the first preliminary study of the atmospheres of Earth-sized, relatively nearby worlds and found “indications that increase the chances of habitability on two exoplanets,” say the researchers.

The planets, TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, were discovered earlier this year and are approximately 40 light-years away. At the time of their discovery, it was unknown if the worlds were gas planets or rocky worlds, but Hubble’s most recent observations suggest that both planets have compact atmospheres, similar to those of rocky planets such as Earth, Venus, and Mars instead of thick, puffy atmospheres, similar to that of the gas planets like Jupiter.

“Now we can say that these planets are rocky. Now the question is, what kind of atmosphere do they have?” said Julien de Wit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who led a team of scientists to observe the planets in near-infrared light using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. “The plausible scenarios include something like Venus, with high, thick clouds and an atmosphere dominated by carbon dioxide, or an Earth-like atmosphere dominated by nitrogen and oxygen, or even something like Mars with a depleted atmosphere. The next step is to try to disentangle all these possible scenarios that exist for these terrestrial planets.”

Structure of the TRAPPIST-1 exosystem. The green is the star's habitable zone. Credit: Planetary Habitability Lab.
Structure of the TRAPPIST-1 exosystem. The green is the star’s habitable zone. Credit: Planetary Habitability Lab.

The exoplanets were originally discovered by the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla observatory in Chile, which, like the Kepler telescope, looks for planetary transits (TRAPPIST stands for Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) observing dips in a star’s light from planets passing in front of it from Earth’s point of view.

The star, TRAPPIST-1, is an ultracool dwarf star and is very small and dim. TRAPPIST-1b completes an orbit around the star in just 1.5 days and TRAPPIST-1c in 2.4 days, and the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth is to the sun. Both are tidally locked, where one side of these worlds might be hellish and uninhabitable, but conditions might permit a limited region of habitability on the other side. And because of the star’s faintness, researchers think that TRAPPIST-1c may be within the star’s habitable zone, where moderate temperatures could allow for liquid water to pool.

“A rocky surface is a great start for a habitable planet, but any life on the TRAPPIST-1 planets is likely to have a much harder time than life on Earth,” said Joanna Barstow, an astrophysicist at University College London, who was not involved with the research. “Of course, our ideas of habitability are very narrow because we only have one planet to look at so far, and life might well surprise us by flourishing in what we think of as unlikely conditions.”

The researchers used spectroscopy to decode the light and reveal clues to the chemical makeup of the planets’ atmospheres. While the content of the atmospheres is unknown and are scheduled for more observations, the low concentration of hydrogen and helium has scientists excited about the implications.

The team realized a rare double transit was going to take place, when the two planets would almost simultaneously pass in front of their star, but they only knew two weeks in advance. They took a chance, and taking advantage of Hubble’s ability to do observations on short notice, they wrote up a proposal in a day.

“We thought, maybe we could see if people at Hubble would give us time to do this observation, so we wrote the proposal in less than 24 hours, sent it out, and it was reviewed immediately,” de Wit said. “Now for the first time we have spectroscopic observations of a double transit, which allows us to get insight on the atmosphere of both planets at the same time.”

Using Hubble, the team recorded a combined transmission spectrum of TRAPPIST-1b and c, meaning that as first one planet then the other crossed in front of the star, they were able to measure the changes in wavelength as the amount of starlight dipped with each transit.

“The data turned out to be pristine, absolutely perfect, and the observations were the best that we could have expected,” de Wit says. “The force was certainly with us.”

“These initial Hubble observations are a promising first step in learning more about these nearby worlds, whether they could be rocky like Earth, and whether they could sustain life,” says Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is an exciting time for NASA and exoplanet research.”

The team’s paper was published in Nature.

Sources: MIT, NASA

The Hubble Constant Just Got Constantier

A team of astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found that the current rate of expansion of the Universe could be almost 10 percent faster than previously thought. Image: NASA, ESA, A. Feild (STScI), and A. Riess (STScI/JHU)

Just when we think we understand the Universe pretty well, along come some astronomers to upend everything. In this case, something essential to everything we know and see has been turned on its head: the expansion rate of the Universe itself, aka the Hubble Constant.

A team of astronomers using the Hubble telescope has determined that the rate of expansion is between five and nine percent faster than previously measured. The Hubble Constant is not some curiousity that can be shelved until the next advances in measurement. It is part and parcel of the very nature of everything in existence.

“This surprising finding may be an important clue to understanding those mysterious parts of the universe that make up 95 percent of everything and don’t emit light, such as dark energy, dark matter, and dark radiation,” said study leader and Nobel Laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute and The Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore, Maryland.

But before we get into the consequences of this study, let’s back up a bit and look at how the Hubble Constant is measured.

Measuring the expansion rate of the Universe is a tricky business. Using the image at the top, it works like this:

  1. Within the Milky Way, the Hubble telescope is used to measure the distance to Cepheid variables, a type of pulsating star. Parallax is used to do this, and parallax is a basic tool of geometry, which is also used in surveying. Astronomers know what the true brightness of Cepheids are, so comparing that to their apparent brightness from Earth gives an accurate measurement of the distance between the star and us. Their rate of pulsation also fine tunes the distance calculation. Cepheid variables are sometimes called “cosmic yardsticks” for this reason.
  2. Then astronomers turn their sights on other nearby galaxies which contain not only Cepheid variables, but also Type 1a supernova, another well-understood type of star. These supernovae, which are of course exploding stars, are another reliable yardstick for astronomers. The distance to these galaxies is obtained by using the Cepheids to measure the true brightness of the supernovae.
  3. Next, astronomers point the Hubble at galaxies that are even further away. These ones are so distant, that any Cepheids in those galaxies cannot be seen. But Type 1a supernovae are so bright that they can be seen, even at these enormous distances. Then, astronomers compare the true and apparent brightnesses of the supernovae to measure out to the distance where the expansion of the Universe can be seen. The light from the distant supernovae is “red-shifted”, or stretched, by the expansion of space. When the measured distance is compared with the red-shift of the light, it yields a measurement of the rate of the expansion of the Universe.
  4. Take a deep breath and read all that again.

The great part of all of this is that we have an even more accurate measurement of the rate of expansion of the Universe. The uncertainty in the measurement is down to 2.4%. The challenging part is that this rate of expansion of the modern Universe doesn’t jive with the measurement from the early Universe.

The rate of expansion of the early Universe is obtained from the left over radiation from the Big Bang. When that cosmic afterglow is measured by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and the ESA’s Planck satellite, it yields a smaller rate of expansion. So the two don’t line up. It’s like building a bridge, where construction starts at both ends and should line up by the time you get to the middle. (Caveat: I have no idea if bridges are built like that.)

This Hubble Telescope image shows one of the galaxies used in the study. It contains two types of stars used to measure distances between galaxies. The red circles are pulsing Cepheid variable stars, and the blue X is a Type 1a supernova. Image: NASA, ESA, and A. Riess (STScI/JHU)
This Hubble Telescope image shows one of the galaxies used in the study. It contains two types of stars used to measure distances between galaxies. The red circles are pulsing Cepheid variable stars, and the blue X is a Type 1a supernova. Image: NASA, ESA, and A. Riess (STScI/JHU)

“You start at two ends, and you expect to meet in the middle if all of your drawings are right and your measurements are right,” Riess said. “But now the ends are not quite meeting in the middle and we want to know why.”

“If we know the initial amounts of stuff in the universe, such as dark energy and dark matter, and we have the physics correct, then you can go from a measurement at the time shortly after the big bang and use that understanding to predict how fast the universe should be expanding today,” said Riess. “However, if this discrepancy holds up, it appears we may not have the right understanding, and it changes how big the Hubble constant should be today.”

Why it doesn’t all add up is the fun, and maybe maddening, part of this.

What we call Dark Energy is the force that drives the expansion of the Universe. Is Dark Energy growing stronger? Or how about Dark Matter, which comprises most of the mass in the Universe. We know we don’t know much about it. Maybe we know even less than that, and its nature is changing over time.

“We know so little about the dark parts of the universe, it’s important to measure how they push and pull on space over cosmic history,” said Lucas Macri of Texas A&M University in College Station, a key collaborator on the study.

The team is still working with the Hubble to reduce the uncertainty in measurements of the rate of expansion. Instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope might help to refine the measurement even more, and help address this compelling issue.