The world’s largest airborne telescope, SOFIA, has peered into the core of the Milky Way and captured a crisp image of the region. With its ability to see in the infrared, SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) is able to observe the center of the Milky Way, a region dominated by dense clouds of gas and dust that block visible light. Those dense clouds are the stuff that stars are born from, and this latest image is part of the effort to understand how massive stars form.Continue reading “This is the Core of the Milky Way, Seen in Infrared, Revealing Features Normally Hidden by Gas and Dust”
The field of exoplanet research continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Thanks to missions like the Kepler Space Telescope, over four-thousand
For instance, a group of astronomers was able to image the surface of a planet orbiting a red dwarf star for the first time. Using data from the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, the team was able to provide a rare glimpse at the conditions on the planet’s surface. And while those conditions were rather inhospitable – akin to something like Hades, but with less air to breathe – this represents a major breakthrough in the study of exoplanets.Continue reading “Astronomers Image the Atmosphere of a Red Dwarf Planet for the First Time. Spoiler Alert, it’s a Terrible Place to Live”
Ever since the project was first conceived, scientists have been eagerly awaiting the day that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will take to space. As the planned successor to Hubble, the JWST will use its powerful infrared imaging capabilities to study some of the most distant objects in the Universe (such as the formation of the first galaxies) and study extra-solar planets around nearby stars.
However, there has been a lot of speculation and talk about which targets will be the JWST’s first. Thankfully, following the recommendation of the Time Allocation Committee and a thorough technical review, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) recently announced that it has selected thirteen science “early release” programs, which the JWST will spend its first five months in service studying.
As part of the JWST Director’s Discretionary Early Release Science Program (DD-ERS), these thirteen targets were chosen by a rigorous peer-review process. This consisted of 253 investigators from 18 counties and 106 scientific institutions choosing from over 100 proposals. Each program has been allocated 500 hours of observing time, once the 6-month commissioning period has ended.
As Ken Sembach, the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), said in an ESA press statement:
“We were impressed by the high quality of the proposals received. These programmes will not only generate great science, but will also be a unique resource for demonstrating the investigative capabilities of this extraordinary observatory to the worldwide scientific community… We want the research community to be as scientifically productive as possible, as early as possible, which is why I am so pleased to be able to dedicate nearly 500 hours of director’s discretionary time to these early release science observations.”
Each program will rely on the JWST’s suite of four scientific instruments, which have been contributed by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). These include the the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) developed by the ESA, as well as the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) developed by NASA and the STScI, and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) developed by the CSA.
The thirteen programs selected include “Through the looking GLASS“, which will rely on the astronomical community’s experience using Hubble to conduct slitless spectroscopy and previous surveys to gather data on galaxy formation and the intergalactic medium, from the earliest epochs of the Universe to the present day. The Principal Investigator (PI) for this program is Tommaso Treu of the University of California Los Angeles.
Another is the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) program, which will conduct overlapping observations to create a coordinated extragalactic survey. This survey is intended to let astronomers see the first visible light of the Universe (ca. 240,000 to 300,000 years after the Big Bang), as well as information from the Reionization Epoch (ca. 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang) and the period when the first galaxies formed. The PI for this program is Steven Finkelstein of the University of Texas at Austin.
Then there’s the Transiting Exoplanet Community Early Release Science Program, which will build on the work of the Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler space telescopes by conducting exoplanet surveys. Like its predecessors, this will consist of monitoring stars for periodic dips in brightness that are caused by planets passing between them and the observer (aka. Transit Photometry).
However, compared to earlier missions, the JWST will be able to study transiting planets in unprecedented detail, which is anticipated to reveal volumes about their respective atmospheric compositions, structures and dynamics. This program, for which the PI is Imke de Pater from the University of California Berkeley, is therefore expected to revolutionize our understanding of planets, planet formation, and the origins of life.
Also focused on the study of exoplanets is the High Contrast Imaging of Exoplanets and Extraplanetary Systems program, which will focus on directly imaged planets and circumstellar debris disks. Once again, the goal is to use the JWST’s enhanced capabilities to provide detailed analyses on the atmospheric structure and compositions of exoplanets, as well as the cloud particle properties of debris disks.
But of course, not all the programs are dedicated to the study of things beyond our Solar System, as is demonstrated by the program that will focus on Jupiter and the Jovian System. Adding to the research performed by the Galileo and Juno missions, the JWST will use its suite of instruments to characterize and produce maps of Jupiter’s cloud layers, winds, composition, auroral activity, and temperature structure.
This program will also focus on some of Jupiter’s largest moons (aka. the “Galilean Moons”) and the planet’s ring structure. Data obtained by the JWST will be used to produce maps of Io’s atmosphere and volcanic surface, Ganymede’s tenuous atmosphere, provide constrains on these moons thermal and atmospheric structure, and search for plumes on their surfaces. As Alvaro Giménez, the ESA Director of Science, proclaimed:
“It is exciting to see the engagement of the astronomical community in designing and proposing what will be the first scientific programs for the James Webb Space Telescope. Webb will revolutionize our understanding of the Universe and the results that will come out from these early observations will mark the beginning of a thrilling new adventure in astronomy.”
During its mission, which will last for a minimum of five years (barring extensions), the JWST will also address many other key topics in modern astronomy, probing the Universe beyond the limits of what Hubble has been capable of seeing. It will also build on observations made by Hubble, examining galaxies whose light has been stretched into infrared wavelengths by the expansion of space.
Beyond looking farther back in time to chart cosmic evolution, Webb will also examine the Supermassive Black Holes (SMBH) that lie at the centers of most massive galaxies – for the purpose of obtaining accurate mass estimates. Last, but not least, Webbwill focus on the birth of new stars and their planets, initially focusing on Jupiter-sized worlds and then shifting focus to study smaller super-Earths.
John C. Mather, the Senior Project Scientist for the JWST and a Senior Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, also expressed enthusiasm for the selected programs. “I’m thrilled to see the list of astronomers’ most fascinating targets for the Webb telescope, and extremely eager to see the results,” he said. “We fully expect to be surprised by what we find.”
For years, astronomers and researchers have been eagerly awaiting the day when the JWST begins gathering and releasing its first observations. With so many possibilities and so much waiting to be discovered, the telescope’s deployment (which is scheduled for 2019) is an event that can’t come soon enough!
We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.
In this series we’ll look at 6 of the world’s Super Telescopes:
- The Giant Magellan Telescope
- The Overwhelmingly Large Telescope
- The 30 Meter Telescope
- The European Extremely Large Telescope
- The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope
- The James Webb Space Telescope
- The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope“>James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, or the Webb) may be the most eagerly anticipated of the Super Telescopes. Maybe because it has endured a tortured path on its way to being built. Or maybe because it’s different than the other Super Telescopes, what with it being 1.5 million km (1 million miles) away from Earth once it’s operating.
If you’ve been following the drama behind the Webb, you’ll know that cost overruns almost caused it to be cancelled. That would’ve been a real shame.
The JWST has been brewing since 1996, but has suffered some bumps along the road. That road and its bumps have been discussed elsewhere, so what follows is a brief rundown.
Initial estimates for the JWST were a $1.6 billion price tag and a launch date of 2011. But the costs ballooned, and there were other problems. This caused the House of Representatives in the US to move to cancel the project in 2011. However, later that same year, US Congress reversed the cancellation. Eventually, the final cost of the Webb came to $8.8 billion, with a launch date set for October, 2018. That means the JWST’s first light will be much sooner than the other Super Telescopes.
The Webb was envisioned as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in operation since 1990. But the Hubble is in Low Earth Orbit, and has a primary mirror of 2.4 meters. The JWST will be located in orbit at the LaGrange 2 point, and its primary mirror will be 6.5 meters. The Hubble observes in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared spectra, while the Webb will observe in long-wavelength (orange-red) visible light, through near-infrared to the mid-infrared. This has some important implications for the science yielded by the Webb.
The Webb’s Instruments
The James Webb is built around four instruments:
- The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam)
- The Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec)
- The Mid-Infrared Instrument(MIRI)
- The Fine Guidance Sensor/ Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS)
The NIRCam is Webb’s primary imager. It will observe the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies, the population of stars in nearby galaxies, Kuiper Belt Objects, and young stars in the Milky Way. NIRCam is equipped with coronagraphs, which block out the light from bright objects in order to observe dimmer objects nearby.
NIRSpec will operate in a range from 0 to 5 microns. Its spectrograph will split the light into a spectrum. The resulting spectrum tells us about an objects, temperature, mass, and chemical composition. NIRSpec will observe 100 objects at once.
MIRI is a camera and a spectrograph. It will see the redshifted light of distant galaxies, newly forming stars, objects in the Kuiper Belt, and faint comets. MIRI’s camera will provide wide-field, broadband imaging that will rank up there with the astonishing images that Hubble has given us a steady diet of. The spectrograph will provide physical details of the distant objects it will observe.
The Fine Guidance Sensor part of FGS/NIRISS will give the Webb the precision required to yield high-quality images. NIRISS is a specialized instrument operating in three modes. It will investigate first light detection, exoplanet detection and characterization, and exoplanet transit spectroscopy.
The over-arching goal of the JWST, along with many other telescopes, is to understand the Universe and our origins. The Webb will investigate four broad themes:
- First Light and Re-ionization: In the early stages of the Universe, there was no light. The Universe was opaque. Eventually, as it cooled, photons were able to travel more freely. Then, probably hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, the first light sources formed: stars. But we don’t know when, or what types of stars.
- How Galaxies Assemble: We’re accustomed to seeing stunning images of the grand spiral galaxies that exist in the Universe today. But galaxies weren’t always like that. Early galaxies were often small and clumpy. How did they form into the shapes we see today?
- The Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems: The Webb’s keen eye will peer straight through clouds of dust that ‘scopes like the Hubble can’t see through. Those clouds of dust are where stars are forming, and their protoplanetary systems. What we see there will tell us a lot about the formation of our own Solar System, as well as shedding light on many other questions.
- Planets and the Origins of Life: We now know that exoplanets are common. We’ve found thousands of them orbiting all types of stars. But we still know very little about them, like how common atmospheres are, and if the building blocks of life are common.
These are all obviously fascinating topics. But in our current times, one of them stands out among the others: Planets and the Origins of Life.
The recent discovery the TRAPPIST 1 system has people excited about possibly discovering life in another solar system. TRAPPIST 1 has 7 terrestrial planets, and 3 of them are in the habitable zone. It was huge news in February 2017. The buzz is still palpable, and people are eagerly awaiting more news about the system. That’s where the JWST comes in.
One big question around the TRAPPIST system is “Do the planets have atmospheres?” The Webb can help us answer this.
The NIRSpec instrument on JWST will be able to detect any atmospheres around the planets. Maybe more importantly, it will be able to investigate the atmospheres, and tell us about their composition. We will know if the atmospheres, if they exist, contain greenhouse gases. The Webb may also detect chemicals like ozone and methane, which are biosignatures and can tell us if life might be present on those planets.
You could say that if the James Webb were able to detect atmospheres on the TRAPPIST 1 planets, and confirm the existence of biosignature chemicals there, it will have done its job already. Even if it stopped working after that. That’s probably far-fetched. But still, the possibility is there.
Launch and Deployment
The science that the JWST will provide is extremely intriguing. But we’re not there yet. There’s still the matter of JWST’s launch, and it’s tricky deployment.
The JWST’s primary mirror is much larger than the Hubble’s. It’s 6.5 meters in diameter, versus 2.4 meters for the Hubble. The Hubble was no problem launching, despite being as large as a school bus. It was placed inside a space shuttle, and deployed by the Canadarm in low earth orbit. That won’t work for the James Webb.
The Webb has to be launched aboard a rocket to be sent on its way to L2, it’s eventual home. And in order to be launched aboard its rocket, it has to fit into a cargo space in the rocket’s nose. That means it has to be folded up.
The mirror, which is made up of 18 segments, is folded into three inside the rocket, and unfolded on its way to L2. The antennae and the solar cells also need to unfold.
Unlike the Hubble, the Webb needs to be kept extremely cool to do its work. It has a cryo-cooler to help with that, but it also has an enormous sunshade. This sunshade is five layers, and very large.
We need all of these components to deploy for the Webb to do its thing. And nothing like this has been tried before.
The Webb’s launch is only 7 months away. That’s really close, considering the project almost got cancelled. There’s a cornucopia of science to be done once it’s working.
But we’re not there yet, and we’ll have to go through the nerve-wracking launch and deployment before we can really get excited.
Imagine, if you will, that the Universe was once a much dirtier place than it is today. Imagine also that what we see around us, a relatively clean and unobscured Universe, is the result of billions of years of stars behaving like giant celestial Roombas, cleaning up the space around them in preparation for our arrival. According to a set of recently published catalogues, which detail the latest findings from the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory, this description is actually quite fitting.
These catalogues represents the work of an international team of over 100 astronomers who have spent the past seven years analyzing the infrared images taken by the Herschel Astrophysical Terahertz Large Area Survey (Herschel-ATLAS). Presented earlier this week at the National Astronomy Meeting in Nottingham, this catalogue revealed that 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the Universe looked much different than it does today.
In order to put this research into context, it is important to understand the important of infrared astronomy. Prior to the deployment of missions like Herschel (which was launched in 2009), astronomers were unable to see a good portion of the light emitted by stars and galaxies. With roughly half of this light being absorbed by interstellar dust grains, research into the birth and lives of galaxies was difficult.
But thanks to surveys like Herschel ATLAS – as well NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) – astronomers have been able to account for this missing energy. And what they have seen (especially from this latest survey) has been quite remarkable, presenting a Universe that is far denser than previously expected.
Professor Haley Gomez of Cardiff University presented this catalogue during the third day of the National Astronomy Meeting (which ran from June 27th to July 1st). As she told Universe Today via email:
“The Herschel survey is the largest one of the sky in these special infrared light. Because of this we see rare objects that we might not see in a smaller patch of sky, but also we now see hundreds of thousands of dusty galaxies, compared to the few hundred we saw in previous telescopes. So this is a massive improvement in terms of knowing what kinds of galaxies there are. Some of these are so covered in dust we might never had seen them using visible light telescopes. Because of the unprecedented large area we have with this Herschel survey, we see a huge variety in the type of objects too, from nearby dusty star forming clouds, to nearby dusty galaxies like Andromeda, to galaxies that shone their infrared light more than 12 billion years ago. We can also use this survey to understand the structure of galaxies in the universe – the so-called cosmic web in a way we’ve never been able to do in the far infrared.”
The images they showed gave all those present a glimpse of the unseen stars and galaxies that have existed over the last 12 billion years of cosmic history. In sum, over half-a-million far-infrared sources have been spotted by the Herschel-ATLAS survey. Many of these sources were galaxies that are nearby and similar to our own, and which are detectable using using conventional telescopes.
The others were much more distant, their light taking billions of years to reach us, and were obscured by concentrations of cosmic dust. The most distant of these galaxies were roughly 12 billion light-years away, which means that they appeared as they would have 12 billion years ago.
Ergo, astronomers now know that 12 billion years ago (i.e. shortly after the Big Bang)., stars and galaxies were much dustier than they are now. They further concluded that the evolution of our galaxies since shortly after the Big Bang has essentially been a major clean-up effort, as stars gradually absorbed the dust that obscured their light, thus making it the more “visible” place it is today.
The data released by the survey includes several maps and additional files which were described in an article produced by Dr. Elisabetta Valiante and a research team from Cardiff University – titled “The Herschel-ATLAS Data Release 1 Paper I: Maps, Catalogues and Number Counts“. As Dr. Valiante told Universe Today via email:
“Gas and dust are the main components of stars: they collapse to form stars and they are ejected at the end of stars’ life. The interesting thing that has been discovered thanks to the Herschel data is that the two phenomena are not in equilibrium. We knew this was true 10 billion years ago, but we expected, according to the current models, that some equilibrium was reached at more recent times. Instead, the amount of dust in galaxies 5 billion years ago was much larger than the amount we see in galaxies today: this was unexpected.”
Until recently, such a survey would have been impossible due to the fact that many of these infrared sources would have been invisible to astronomers. The reason for this, which was revealed by the survey, was that these galaxies were so dusty that they would have been virtually impossible to detect with conventional optics. What’s more, their light would have been gravitationally magnified by intervening galaxies.
The huge size of the survey has also meant that changes that have occurred in galaxies – relatively recent in cosmic history – can be studied for the first time. For instance, the survey showed that even only one billion years in the past, a small fraction of the age of the universe, galaxies were forming stars at a faster rate and contained more dust than they do today.
Dr. Nathan Bourne – from the University of Edinburgh – is the lead author of another other paper describing the catalogues. As he told Universe Today via email:
“We can think of galaxies as big recycling machines. When they form, they accrete gas (mostly hydrogen and helium, with traces of lithium and a couple of other elements) from the universe around them, and they turn it into stars. As time goes on, the stars pump this gas back out into the galaxy, into the interstellar medium. Due to the nuclear processes within the stars, the gas is now enriched by heavy elements (what we call metals, though they include both metals and non-metals), and some of these form microscopic solid particles of dust, as a sort of by-product.
“But there are still stars forming, and the next generations of stars recycle this interstellar material, and now that it contains heavy elements and dust, things are a bit different, and planets can also form around the new stars, from accumulations of this heavy material. So, if you look at the big picture, when the first galaxies started forming within the first billion years after the Big Bang, they began using up the gas around them, and then while they are active they fill their interstellar medium up with gas and dust, but by the end of a galaxy’s lifecycle, it has used up all this gas and dust, and you could say that it has cleaned itself.”
The catalogues and maps of the hidden universe are a triumph for the Herschel team. Despite the fact that the last information obtained by the Herschel observatory was back in 2013, the maps and catalogues produced from its years of service have become vital to astronomers. In addition to showing the Universe’s hidden energy, they are also laying the groundwork for future research.
“Now we need to explain why there is dust where we did not expect to find it.” said Valiante. “And to explain this, we need to change our theories about how the Universe evolves. Our data poses a challenge we have accepted, but we haven’t overcome it yet!”
“[W]e understand a lot more about how galaxies evolve,” added Bourne, “about when most of the stars formed, what happens to the gas and dust as galaxies evolve, and how rapidly the star-forming activity in the Universe as a whole has faded in the latter half of the Universe’s history. It’s fair to say that this understanding comes from having a whole suite of different types of instruments studying different aspects of galaxies in complementary ways, but Herschel has certainly contributed a major part of that effort and will have a lasting legacy.”
Ensuring Herschel’s lasting legacy is one of the main aims of the Herschel Extragalactic Project (HELP) program, which is overseen by the EU Research Executive Agency. Other projects they oversee include the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey (HerMES), which also released survey data late last month. All of this has left a lasting mark on the field of astronomy, despite the fact that Herschel is no longer in operation. As Professor Gomez said of the Herschel Observatory’s enduring contributions:
“The Herschel Space Observatory stopped taking data in 2013, yet our understanding of the dusty universe is really only just starting with the release of large surveys and galaxy catalogues in recent months. Ultimately, once astronomers have gone through all the valuable data, Herschel will have provided a view of the infrared universe covering 1000 square degrees of the sky.”
The implications of these findings are also likely to have a far-reaching effect, ranging from cosmology and astronomy, to perhaps shedding some light on that tricky Fermi paradox. Could it be intelligent life that emerged billions of years ago didn’t venture to other star systems because they couldn’t see them? Just a thought…
This past Monday (June 27th), the National Astronomy Meeting – which is hosted by the Royal Astronomy Society – kicked off at the University of Nottingham in the UK. As one of the largest professional conferences in Europe (with over 500 scientists in attendance), this annual meeting is an opportunity for astronomers and scientists from a variety of fields to present that latest in their research.
And of the many presentations made so far, one of the most exciting came from a research team from the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy, which presented the latest near-infrared images obtained by the Ultra Deep Survey (UDS). In addition to being a spectacular series of pictures, they also happened to be the deepest view of the Universe to date.
The UDS survey, which began in 2005, is one of the five projects that make up the UKIRT’s Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS). For the sake of their survey, the UDS team relies on the Wide Field Camera (WFCAM) on the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. At 3.8-metres in diameter, the UKIRT is the world’s second largest telescope dedicated to infrared astronomy.
As Professor Omar Almaini, the head of the University of Nottingham research team, explained to Universe Today via email:
“The UDS is by far the deepest near-infrared survey over such a large, contiguous area (0.8 sq degrees). There is only one other similar survey, which is known as UltraVISTA. It covers a larger area (1.5 sq degree) but is not quite so deep. Together the UDS and UltraVISTA should revolutionize studies of the high-redshift Universe over the next few years.”
Ultimately, the goal of UDS is shed light on how and when galaxies form, and to chart their evolution over the course of the last 13 billion years (roughly 820 million years after the Big Bang). For over a decade, the UDS has been observing the same patch of sky repeatedly, relying on optical and infrared imaging to ensure that the light of distant objects (which is redshifted due to the profound distances involved) can be captured.
“Stars emit most of their radiation at optical wavelengths, which is redshifted to the near-infrared at high redshift,” said Almaini. “Near-infrared surveys therefore provide the least biased census of galaxies in the early Universe and the best measurements of the stellar mass. Deep optical surveys will only detect galaxies that are bright in the rest-frame ultraviolet, so they are biased against galaxies that are obscured by dust, or those that have stopped forming stars.”
In total, the project has accumulated more than 1000 hours of exposure time, detecting over two hundred and fifty thousand galaxies – several hundred of which were observed within the first billion years after the Big Bang. The final images, which were released yesterday and presented at the National Astronomy Meeting, showed an area four times the size of the full Moon, and at an unprecedented depth.
Data previously released by the UDS project has already led to several scientific advances. These include studies of the earliest galaxies in the Universe after the Big Bang, measurements on the build-up of galaxies over time, and studies of the large-scale distribution of galaxies to measure the influence of dark matter.
With this latest release, many more are anticipated, with astronomers around the world spending the next few years studying the early stages of galaxy formation and evolution. As Almaini put it:
“With the UDS (and UltraVISTA) we now have the ability to study large samples of galaxies in the distant Universe, rather than just a handful. With thousands of galaxies at each epoch we can perform detailed comparisons of the evolving galaxy populations, and we can also study their large-scale structure to understand how they trace the underlying cosmic web of dark matter. With large samples we can also look for rare but important populations, such as those in transition.”
“A key aim is to understand why many massive galaxies abruptly stop forming stars around 10 billion years ago, and also how they transform from disk-like systems into elliptical galaxies. We have recently identified a few hundred examples of galaxies in the process of transformation at early times, which we are actively studying to understand what is driving the rapid changes.”
Along with the subject of galaxy surveys and large scale structure, “galaxy formation and evolution” and “galaxy surveys and large scale structure” were two of the 2016 National Astronomy Meeting’s main themes. Naturally, the UDS release fit neatly into both categories. The others themes included the Sun, stars and planetary science, gravitational waves, modified gravity, archeoastronomy, astrochemistry, and education and outreach.
The Meeting will run until tomorrow (Friday, July 1st), and also included a presentations on the latest infrared images of Jupiter, which were taken by the ESO in preparation for the Juno spacecraft’s arrival on July 4th.
Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society
Launching back in 2011, NASA’s Juno mission has spent the past five years traversing the gulf that lies between Earth and Jupiter. When it arrives (in just a few days time!), it will be the second long-term mission to the gas giant in history. And in the process, it will obtain information about its composition, weather patterns, magnetic and gravitational fields, and history of formation.
With just days to go before this historic rendezvous takes place, the European Southern Observatory is taking the opportunity to release some spectacular infrared images of Jupiter. Taken with the Very Large Telescope (VLT), these images are part of a campaign to create high-resolutions maps of the planet, and provide a preview of the work that Juno will be doing in the coming months.
Using the VTL Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared (VISIR) instrument, the ESO team – led by Dr. Leigh Fletcher of the University of Leicester – hopes that their efforts to map the planet will improve our understanding of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Naturally, with the upcoming arrival of Juno, some may wonder if these efforts are necessary.
After all, ground-based telescopes like the VLT are forced to contend with limitations that space-based probes are not. These include interference from our constantly-shifting atmosphere, not to mention the distances between Earth and the object in question. But in truth, the Juno mission and ground-based campaigns like these are often highly complimentary.
For one, in the past few months, while Juno was nearing in on its destination, Jupiter’s atmosphere has undergone some significant shifts. Mapping these is important to Juno‘s upcoming arrival, at which point it will be attempting to peer beneath Jupiter’s thick clouds to discern what is going on beneath. In short, the more we know about Jupiter’s shifting atmosphere, the easier it will be to interpret the Juno data.
As Dr. Fletcher described the significance of his team’s efforts:
“These maps will help set the scene for what Juno will witness in the coming months. Observations at different wavelengths across the infrared spectrum allow us to piece together a three-dimensional picture of how energy and material are transported upwards through the atmosphere.”
Like all ground-based efforts, the ESO campaign – which has involved the use of several telescopes based in Hawaii and Chile, as well as contributions from amateur astronomers around the world – faced some serious challenges (like the aforementioned interference). However, the team used a technique known as “lucky imaging” to take the breathtaking snapshots of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere.
What this comes down to is taking many sequences of images with very short exposures, thus producing thousands of individual frames. The lucky frames, those where the image are least affected by the atmosphere’s turbulence, are then selected while the rest discarded. These selected frames are aligned and combined to produce final pictures, like the one shown above.
In addition to providing information that would be of use to the Juno mission, the ESO’s campaign has value that extends beyond the space-based mission. As Glenn Orton, the leader of ESO’s ground-based campaign, explained, observations like these are valuable because they help to advance our understanding of planets as a whole, and provide opportunities for astronomers from all over the world to collaborate.
“The combined efforts of an international team of amateur and professional astronomers have provided us with an incredibly rich dataset over the past eight months,” he said. “Together with the new results from Juno, the VISIR dataset in particular will allow researchers to characterize Jupiter’s global thermal structure, cloud cover and distribution of gaseous species.”
The Juno probe will be arriving at Jupiter this coming Monday, July 4th. Once there, it will spend the next two years orbiting the gas giant, sending information back to Earth that will help to advance our understanding of not only Jupiter, but the history of the Solar System as well.
Further Reading: ESO
In 2010, a small, bright white storm emerged on Saturn’s northern hemisphere. This storm grew until it wrapped around the planet in curly cloud structures, creating a colossal atmospheric disturbance that endured into the early part of 2012, becoming the largest storm seen on the planet since 1990. Being in orbit around the ringed planet, the Cassini spacecraft had a front row seat to watch the disturbance unfold, allowing planetary scientists an unprecedented look at this monster storm. While the storm was visible even to amateur astronomers on Earth, much of its activity took place beyond the reach of visible-light cameras and telescopes, astronomers say. Not only did huge “beacons” of hot air chase each other around the planet, but infrared observations show a giant oval vortex is still persisting as a side effect from the storm.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen anything like it on any planet in the Solar System,” said Leigh Fletcher from the University of Oxford, UK, lead author of a paper describing the unprecedented storm. “It’s extremely unusual, as we can only see the vortex at infrared wavelengths – we can’t tell that it is there simply by looking at the cloud cover.”
Fletcher and her team also used ground-based observations with the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory in Chile, and NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
As the visible storm erupted in the roiling cloud deck of Saturn’s troposphere, waves of energy rippled hundreds of kilometers upwards, depositing their energy as the two vast ‘beacons’ of hot air in the stratosphere.
Data from Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS) instrument revealed the storm’s powerful discharge sent the temperature in Saturn’s stratosphere soaring 65 degrees C (150 degrees Fahrenheit, 83 kelvins) above normal.
Researchers described in a complimentary paper that will be published in the Nov. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal this as a “belch” of energy, as they observed a huge increase in the amount of ethylene gas in Saturn’s atmosphere, the origin of which is a mystery. Ethylene, an odorless, colorless gas, isn’t typically observed on Saturn. On Earth, it is created by natural and man-made sources.
Researchers are still is exploring the origin of the ethylene, but they have ruled out a large reservoir deep in the atmosphere.
“We’ve really never been able to see ethylene on Saturn before, so this was a complete surprise,” said Goddard’s Michael Flasar, the CIRS team lead.
The beacons were expected to cool down and dissipate, but by late April 2011 – by which time bright cloud material had encircled the entire planet – the hot spots had merged to create an enormous vortex that for a brief period exceeded even the size of Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot.
The forceful storm generated unprecedented spikes in temperature and increased amounts of ethylene. In these two sets of measurements taken by Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer, yellow represents the highest temperatures. Each strip maps a single molecule (top: methane, bottom: ethylene), with temperature measurements taken in the northern hemisphere, all the way around the planet. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC
Although comparisons to Jupiter’s Red Spot have been made to this storm, Saturn’s storm was much higher in the atmosphere while Jupiter’s vortex is embedded deep down in the turbulent ‘weather zone’, Fletcher said.
Also, Jupiter’s famous vortex has raged for at least 300 years. But after traversing the planet once every 120 days since May 2011, Saturn’s large beacon is cooling and shrinking. Scientists expect it to fade away completely by the end of 2013.
The question now remains as to whether Saturn’s storm-generating energy has been sapped or if there will be a repeat performance, the team said.
The outburst already caught observers by surprise by arriving during the planet’s northern hemisphere spring, years ahead of the predictably stormy summer season.
“The beauty is that Cassini will be operating until the Saturn system reaches its summer solstice in 2017, so if there is another global event like this, we’ll be there to see it,” says ESA’s Cassini project scientist Nicolas Altobelli.
The world’s largest optical/infrared telescope has been given the initial go-ahead to be built. Called the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) this long-proposed new ground-based telescope will have a 40-meter main mirror and observe the universe in visible and infrared light, making direct images of exoplanets, perhaps find Earth-sized and even Earth-like worlds, and study the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.
“This is an excellent outcome and a great day for ESO. We can now move forward on schedule with this giant project,” said the ESO Director General, Tim de Zeeuw.
At a meeting in Garching, France this week, the ESO (European Southern Observatory) Council approved the E-ELT program, with 6 out of 10 countries giving firm approval and four gave “ad referendum” approval, meaning that they needed an official green light from their governments. With that approval, officials are hopeful the E-ELT could start operations by the early 2020’s.
The new super-large eye on the sky will be built at Cerro Armazones in northern Chile, close to ESO’s Paranal Observatory.
The cost is expected to be $1.35 billion USD (1.083-billion-euro)
“World-leading projects of this kind inspire us all and are hugely effective in bringing young people into careers in science and technology,” said David Southwood, president of the Royal Astronomical Society.
This type of telescope has been on the priority list for astronomy by scientists around the world.
The E-ELT will gather 100 million times more light than the human eye, eight million times more than Galileo’s telescope which saw the four biggest moons of Jupiter four centuries ago, and 26 times more than a single VLT telescope.
“The E-ELT will tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time, and aim for a number of notable firsts, including tracking down Earth-like planets around other stars in the ‘habitable zones’ where life could exist — one of the Holy Grails of modern observational astronomy,” the ESO said.
ESO said that early contracts for the project have already been placed. Shortly before the Council meeting, a contract was signed to begin a detailed design study for the very challenging M4 adaptive mirror of the telescope. This is one of the longest lead-time items in the whole E-ELT program, and an early start was essential.
Detailed design work for the route of the road to the summit of Cerro Armazones, where the E-ELT will be sited, is also in progress and some of the civil works are expected to begin this year. These include preparation of the access road to the summit of Cerro Armazones as well as the leveling of the summit itself.
One of the most remarkable observatories in the world does its work not on a mountaintop, not in space, but 45,000 feet high on a Boeing 747. Nick Howes took a look around this unique airliner as it made its first landing in Europe.
SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) came from an idea first mooted in the mid-1980s. Imagine, said scientists, using a Boeing 747 to carry a large telescope into the stratosphere where absorption of infrared light by atmospheric water molecules is dramatically reduced, even in comparison with the highest ground-based observatories. By 1996 that idea had taken a step closer to reality when the SOFIA project was formally agreed between NASA (who fund 80 percent of the cost of the 330 million dollar mission, an amount comparable to a single modest space mission) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR, who fund the other 20 percent). Research and development began in earnest using a highly modified Boeing 747SP named the ‘Clipper Lindburgh’ after the famous American pilot, and where the ‘SP’ stands for ‘Special Performance’.
Maiden test flights were flown in 2007, with SOFIA operating out of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Airforce Base in the Rogers Dry Lake in California – a nice, dry location that helps with the instrumentation and aircraft operationally.
As the plane paid a visit to the European Space Agency’s astronaut training centre in Cologne, Germany, I was given a rare opportunity to look around this magnificent aircraft as part of a European Space ‘Tweetup’ (a Twitter meeting). What was immediately noticeable was the plane’s shorter length to the ones you usually fly on, which enables the aircraft to stay in the air for longer, a crucial aspect for its most important passenger, the 2.7-metre SOFIA telescope. Its Hubble Space Telescope-sized primary mirror is aluminium coated and bounces light to a 0.4-metre secondary, all in an open cage framework that literally pokes out of the side of the aircraft.
As we have seen, the rationale for placing a multi-tonne telescope on an aircraft is that by doing so it is possible to escape most of the absorption effects of our atmosphere. Observations in infrared are largely impossible for ground-based instruments at or near sea-level and only partially possibly even on high mountaintops. Water vapour in our troposphere (the lower layer of the atmosphere) absorbs so much of the infrared light that traditionally the only way to beat this was to send up a spacecraft. SOFIA can fill a niche by doing nearly the same job but at far less risk and with a far longer life-span. The aircraft has sophisticated infrared monitoring cameras to check its own output,and water vapour monitoring to measure what little absorption is occurring.
The 2.7-metre mirror (although actually only 2.5-metres is really used in practice,) uses a glass ceramic composite that is highly thermally tolerant, which is vital given the harsh conditions that the aircraft puts the isolated telescope through. If one imagines the difficulty amateur astronomers have some nights with telescope stability in blustery conditions, spare a thought for SOFIA, whose huge f/19.9 Cassegrain reflecting telescope has to deal with an open door to the
800 kilometres per hour (500 miles per hour) winds .Nominally some operations will occur at 39,000 feet (approximately 11,880 metres) rather than the possible ceiling of 45,000 feet (13,700 metres), because while the higher altitude provides slightly better conditions in terms of lack of absorption (still above 99 percent of the water vapour that causes most of the problems), the extra fuel needed means that observation times are reduced significantly, making the 39,000
feet altitude operationally better in some instances to collect more data. The aircraft uses a cleverly designed air intake system to funnel and channel the airflow and turbulence away from the open telescope window, and speaking to the pilots and scientists, they all agreed that there was no effect caused by any output from the aircraft engines as well.
The cameras and electronics on all infrared observatories have to be maintained at very low temperatures to avoid thermal noise from them spilling into the image, but SOFIA has an ace up its sleeve. Unlike a space mission (with the exception of the servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope that each cost $1.5 billion including the price of launching a space shuttle), SOFIA has the advantage of being able to replace or repair instruments or replenish its coolant, allowing an estimated life-span of at least 20 years, far longer than any space-based infrared mission that runs out of coolant after a few years.
Meanwhile the telescope and its cradle are a feat of engineering. The telescope is pretty much fixed in azimuth, with only a three-degree play to compensate for the aircraft, but it doesn’t need to move in that direction as the aircraft, piloted by some of NASA’s finest, performs that duty for it. It can work between a 20–60 degree altitude range during science operations. It’s all been engineered to tolerances that make the jaw drop. The bearing sphere, for example, is polished to an accuracy of less than ten microns, and the laser gyros provide angular increments of 0.0008 arcseconds. Isolated from the main aircraft by a series of pressurised rubber bumpers, which are altitude compensated, the telescope is almost completely free from the main bulk of the 747, which houses the computers and racks that not only operate the telescope but provide the base station for any observational scientists flying with the plane.
PI in the Sky
The Principle Investigator station is located around the mid-point of the aircraft, several metres from the telescope but enclosed within the plane (exposed to the air at 45,000 feet, the crew and scientists would otherwise be instantly killed). Here, for ten or more hours at a time, scientists can gather data once the door opens and the telescope is pointing at the target of choice, with the pilots following a precise flight path to maintain both the instrument pointing accuracy and also to best avoid the possibility of turbulence. Whilst ground-based telescopes can respond quickly to events such as a new supernova, SOFIA is more regimented in its science operations and, with proposal cycles over six months to a year, one has to plan quite accurately how best to observe an object.
Forecasting the future
Science operations started in 2010 with FORCAST (Faint Object Infrared Camera for Sofia Telescope) and continued into 2011 with the GREAT (German Receiver for Astronomy at Teraherz Frequencies) instrument. FORCAST is a mid/far infrared instrument working with two cameras between at five and forty microns (in tandem they can work between 10–25 microns) with a 3.2 arcminute field-of-view. It saw first light on Jupiter and the galaxy Messier 82, but will be working on imaging the galactic centre, star formation in spiral and active galaxies and also looking at molecular clouds, one of its primary science goals enabling scientists to accurately determine dust temperatures and more detail on the morphology of star forming regions down to less than three-arcsecond resolution (depending on the wavelength the instrument works at). Alongside this, FORCAST is also able to perform grism (i.e. a grating prism) spectroscopy, to get more detailed information on the composition of objects under view. There is no adaptive optics system, but it doesn’t need one for the types of operations it’s doing.
FORCAST and GREAT are just two of the ‘basic’ science operation instruments, which also include Echelle spectrographs, far infrared spectrometers and high resolution wideband cameras, but already the science team are working on new instruments for the next phase of operations. Instrumentation switch over, whilst complex, is relatively quick (comparable to the time it takes to switch instruments on larger ground observatories), and can be achieved in readiness for observations, which the plane aims to do up to 160 times per year. And whilst there were no firm plans to build a sister ship for SOFIA, there have been discussions among scientists to put a larger telescope on an Airbus A380.
With a planned science ambassador programme involving teachers flying on the aircraft to do research, SOFIA’s public profile is going to grow. The science output and possibilities from instruments that are constantly evolving, serviceable and improvable every time it lands is immeasurable in comparison to space missions. Journalists had only recently been afforded the opportunity to visit this remarkable aircraft, and it was a privilege and honour to be one of the first people to see it up close. To that end I wish to thank ESA and NASA for the invitation and chance to see something so unique.