How to Measure a Hot Jupiter

An international team of astronomers has figured out a way to determine details of an exoplanet’s atmosphere from 50 light-years away… even though the planet doesn’t transit the face of its star as seen from Earth.

Tau Boötis b is a “hot Jupiter” type of exoplanet, 6 times more massive than Jupiter. It was the first planet to be identified orbiting its parent star, Tau Boötis, located 50 light-years away. It’s also one of the first exoplanets we’ve known about, discovered in 1996 via the radial velocity method — that is, Tau Boötis b exerts a slight tug on its star, shifting its position enough to be detectable from Earth. But the exoplanet doesn’t pass in front of its star like some others do, which until now made measurements of its atmosphere impossible.

Today, an international team of scientists working with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile have announced the success of a “clever new trick” of examining such non-transiting exoplanet atmospheres. By gathering high-quality infrared observations of the Tau Boötis system with the VLT’s CRIRES instrument the researchers were able to differentiate the radiation coming from the planet versus that emitted by its star, allowing the velocity and mass of Tau Boötis b to be determined.

“Thanks to the high quality observations provided by the VLT and CRIRES we were able to study the spectrum of the system in much more detail than has been possible before,” said Ignas Snellen with Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, co-author of the research paper. “Only about 0.01% of the light we see comes from the planet, and the rest from the star, so this was not easy.”

Using this technique, the researchers determined that Tau Boötis b’s thick atmosphere contains carbon monoxide and, curiously, exhibits cooler temperatures at higher altitudes — the opposite of what’s been found on other hot Jupiter exoplanets.

“Maybe one day we may even find evidence for biological activity on Earth-like planets in this way.”

– Ignas Snellen, Leiden Observatory, the Netherlands

In addition to atmospheric details, the team was also able to use the new method to determine Tau Boötis b’s mass and orbital angle — 44 degrees, another detail not previously identifiable.

“The new technique also means that we can now study the atmospheres of exoplanets that don’t transit their stars, as well as measuring their masses accurately, which was impossible before,” said Snellen. “This is a big step forward.

“Maybe one day we may even find evidence for biological activity on Earth-like planets in this way.”

This research was presented in a paper “The signature of orbital motion from the dayside of the planet Tau Boötis b”, to appear in the journal Nature on June 28, 2012.

Read more on the ESO release here.

Added 6/27: The team’s paper can be found on arXiv here.

Top image: artist’s impression of the exoplanet Tau Boötis b. (ESO/L. Calçada). Side image: ESO’s VLT telescopes at the Paranal Observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert. (Iztok Boncina/ESO)

Astronomers Take “Baby Picture” of an Incredibly Distant Galaxy

False-color image of galaxy LAEJ095950.99+021219.1 (Credit: James Rhoads/ASU)


Astronomers from Arizona State University have grabbed an image of a dim, distant galaxy, seeing it as it looked only 800 million years after the birth of the Universe. Visible above as a green blob in the center of a false-color image acquired with the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the galaxy is seen in its infancy and, at 13 billion light-years away, is one of the ten most distant objects ever discovered.

The galaxy, designated LAEJ095950.99+021219.1, was detected by light emitted by ionized hydrogen using the Magellan Telescopes’ IMACS (Inamori-Magellan Areal Camera & Spectrograph) instrument, built at the Carnegie Institute in Washington. In order to even find such a remote object — whose existence had already been suspected — the team had to use a special narrow-band filter on the IMACS instrument designed to isolate specific wavelengths of light.

“Young galaxies must be observed at infrared wavelengths and this is not easy to do using ground-based telescopes, since the Earth’s atmosphere itself glows and large detectors are hard to make,” said team leader Sangeeta Malhotra, an associate professor at ASU who helped develop the technique.

“As time goes by, these small blobs which are forming stars, they’ll dance around each other, merge with each other and form bigger and bigger galaxies. Somewhere halfway through the age of the universe they start looking like the galaxies we see today – and not before.”

– Sangeeta Malhotra, ASU professor 

LAEJ095950.99+021219.1 is seen at a redshift of 7, putting it farther away than any other objects previously discovered using the narrow-band technique.

(What is redshift? Watch “How To Measure The Universe” here.)

“We have used this search to find hundreds of objects at somewhat smaller distances. We have found several hundred galaxies at redshift 4.5, several at redshift 6.5, and now at redshift 7 we have found one,” said James Rhoads, associate professor at ASU and research team leader.

“This image is like a baby picture of this galaxy, taken when the universe was only 5 percent of its current age. Studying these very early galaxies is important because it helps us understand how galaxies form and grow.”

So why does LAEJ095950.99+021219.1 not look much like the galaxies we’re used to seeing in images?

Malhotra explains: “Somewhere halfway through the age of the universe they start looking like the galaxies we see today – and not before. Why, how, when, where that happens is a fairly active area of research.”

The team’s NSF-funded research was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. Read more on Phys.Org News here.

Spitzer Spots Two Galaxies in One

Infrared imaging of the Sombrero Galaxy (M104) reveals both elliptical and disk structures.


The Sombrero galaxy has a split personalty, according to recent observations by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared imaging has revealed a hazy elliptical halo of stars enveloping a dual-structured inner disk; before this, the Sombrero galaxy was thought to be only disk-shaped.

Spitzer’s heat-seeking abilities reveal both stars and dust within the Sombrero galaxy, also known as Messier 104 and NGC 4594. The starlight detected at 3.5 and 4.6 microns is represented in blue-green while the dust imaged at 8.0 microns is shown in red.

In addition, Spitzer discerned that the flat disk within the galaxy is made up of two sections — an inner disk composed almost entirely of stars with no dust, and an outer ring containing both dust and stars.

The galaxy’s dual personality couldn’t be so clearly seen in previous visible-light images.

Hubble image of M104. (NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team STScl/AURA)

“The Sombrero is more complex than previously thought,” said Dimitri Gadotti of the European Southern Observatory in Chile and lead author of the report. “The only way to understand all we know about this galaxy is to think of it as two galaxies, one inside the other.”

Although it might seem that the Sombrero is the result of a collision between two separate galaxies, that’s actually not thought to be the case. Such an event would have destroyed the disk structure that’s seen today; instead, it’s thought that the Sombrero accumulated a lot of extra gas billions of years ago when the Universe was populated with large clouds of gas and dust. The extra gas fell into orbit around the galaxy, eventually spinning into a flattened disk and forming new stars.

This is one of the first galaxies to be seen with such a dual structure — even though M104 has been known about since the mid-1700s.

“Spitzer is helping to unravel secrets behind an object that has been imaged thousands of times,” said Sean Carey of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at CalTech. “It is intriguing Spitzer can read the fossil record of events that occurred billions of years ago within this beautiful and archetypal galaxy.”

At a magnitude of +8, the Sombrero galaxy is just beyond the limit of naked-eye visibility but can be seen with small telescopes (4-inch/100 mm or larger). It is 28 million light-years away and can be found in the night sky located 11.5° west of Spica and 5.5° northeast of Eta Corvi.

Read more on the NASA press release here.


Keck Observatory Fires Up MOSFIRE

The MOSFIRE instrument's "first light" image of The Antennae galaxies, acquired on April 4 2012.


Last week, on April 4, 2012, the W.M. Keck Observatory’s brand-new MOSFIRE instrument opened its infrared-sensing eyes to the Universe for the first time, capturing the image above of a pair of interacting galaxies known as The Antennae. Once fully commissioned and scientific observations begin, MOSFIRE will greatly enhance the imaging abilities of “the world’s most productive ground-based observatory.”

Installed into the Keck I observatory, MOSFIRE — which stands for Multi-Object Spectrometer For Infra-Red Exploration — is able to gather light in infrared wavelengths. This realm of electromagnetic radiation lies just beyond red on the visible spectrum (the “rainbow” of light that our eyes are sensitive to) and is created by anything that emits heat. By “seeing” in infrared, MOSFIRE can peer through clouds of otherwise opaque dust and gas to observe what lies beyond — such as the enormous black hole that resides at the center of our galaxy.

MOSFIRE can also resolve some of the most distant objects in the Universe, in effect looking back in time toward the period “only” a half-billion years after the Big Bang. Because light from that far back has been so strongly shifted into the infrared due to the accelerated expansion of the Universe (a process called redshift) only instruments like MOSFIRE can detect it.

The instrument itself must be kept at a chilly -243ºF (-153ºC) in order to not contaminate observations with its own heat.

(Watch the installation of the MOSFIRE instrument here.)

Astronomers also plan to use MOSFIRE to search for brown dwarfs — relatively cool objects that never really gained enough mass to ignite fusion in their cores. Difficult to image even in infrared, it’s suspected that our own galaxy is teeming with them.

The impressive new instrument has the ability to survey up to 46 objects at once and then do a quick-change to new targets in just minutes, as opposed to the one to two days it can typically take other telescopes!

Unprocessed image of M82 taken with MOSFIRE on April 5, 2012. (W. M. Keck Observatory)

Images taken on the nights of April 4 and 5 are just the beginning of what promises to be a new heat-seeking era for the Mauna Kea-based observatory!

“The MOSFIRE project team members at Keck Observatory, Caltech, UCLA, and UC Santa Cruz are to be congratulated, as are the observatory operations staff who worked hard to get MOSFIRE integrated into the Keck I telescope and infrastructure,” says Bob Goodrich, Keck Observatory Observing Support Manager. “A lot of people have put in long hours getting ready for this momentous First Light.”

The two Keck 10-meter domes atop Mauna Kea. (Rick Peterson/WMKO)

Read more on the Keck press release here.

The W. M. Keck Observatory operates two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The spectrometer was made possible through funding provided by the National Science Foundation and astronomy benefactors Gordon and Betty Moore.

VISTA View Is Chock Full Of Galaxies

Mosaic of infrared survey images from ESO's VISTA reveal over 200,000 distant galaxies. (ESO/UltraVISTA team. Acknowledgement: TERAPIX/CNRS/INSU/CASU.)


See all those tiny points of light in this image? Most of them aren’t stars; they’re entire galaxies, seen by the European Southern Observatory’s VISTA survey telescope located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile.

This is a combination of over 6000 images taken with a total exposure time of 55 hours, and is the widest deep view of the sky ever taken in infrared light.

The galaxies in this VISTA image are only visible in infrared light because they are very far away. The ever-increasing expansion rate of the Universe shifts the light coming from the most distant objects (like early galaxies) out of visible wavelengths and into the infrared spectrum.

(See a full-size version — large 253 mb file.)

ESO’s VISTA (Visual and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) telescope is the world’s largest and most powerful infrared observatory, and has the ability to peer deep into the Universe to reveal these incredibly distant, incredibly ancient structures.

By studying such faraway objects astronomers can better understand how the structures of galaxies and galactic clusters evolved throughout time.

The region seen in this deep view is an otherwise “unremarkable” and apparently empty section of sky located in the constellation Sextans.

Read more on the ESO website here.

The VISTA telescope in its dome at sunset. Its primary mirror is 4.1 meters wide. G. Hüdepohl/ESO.


Beneath the Surface: Seeing Jupiter’s Hidden Storms

Juno will repeatedly dive between the planet and its intense belts of charged particle radiation, coming only 5,000 kilometers (about 3,000 miles) from the cloud tops at closest approach. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Launched on August 5, 2011, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter in 2016 to study its magnetic field and atmosphere. Using its suite of science instruments Juno will peer inside the gas giant’s thick clouds, revealing hidden structures and powerful storms. To help people visualize what it means to see the invisible, JPL’s visual strategist Dan Goods created the exhibit above, titled Beneath the Surface. It’s an installation of lights, sound and fog effects that dramatically recreates what Juno will experience as it orbits Jupiter. By using their cell phone cameras, viewers can see lightning “storms” hidden beneath upper, opaque layers of “atmosphere”… in much the same way Juno will.

Goods explains: “Humans are only able to see a little, tiny sliver of what there is available in light. There’s gamma rays, microwaves, ultraviolet and infrared light also, and infrared is close enough to the visible part of the spectrum that cell phone cameras can pick it up. Cell phones normally produce more grainy photos at night because they don’t try to cut out the infrared light the way higher-end digital cameras do so in this case, the cell phone cameras are an advantage.” (Via the Pasadena Weekly.)

I had a chance to meet Dan Goods during a Tweetup event for the Juno launch at Kennedy Space Center. He’d brought a table that had magnetic elements set beneath a flat black surface, and by passing a handheld magnet over the table you could “detect” the different magnetic fields… in some cases rather strongly, even though they were all obviously invisible. It was an ingenious way that Juno’s abilities could be demonstrated in a “hands-on” manner.

Watch my video of the Juno launch from the KSC press site.


Beneath the Surface takes that kind of demonstration to an entirely new level.

“I love to work with the world of things that are right in front of you but you just can’t see,” Goods said. “With Juno, there’s all this structure just under the surface of Jupiter, but humans can develop tools that help us understand things we’d never have seen before.”

The exhibit was installed at the Pasadena Museum of California Art until January 8. It will now travel to science museums around the country.

Video: watch how the exhibit was constructed.

Juno’s primary goal is to improve our understanding of Jupiter’s formation and evolution. The spacecraft will spend a year investigating the planet’s origins, interior structure, deep atmosphere and magnetosphere. Juno’s study of Jupiter will help us to understand the history of our own solar system and provide new insight into how planetary systems form and develop in our galaxy and beyond.

Explore the Juno mission more at

“Pluto-Killer” Sets Sights on Neptune

Infrared image of Neptune from Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Credit: Mike Brown/CalTech


The confessed (and remorseless) “Pluto Killer” Mike Brown has turned his gaze – and the 10-meter telescope at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii – on Neptune, our solar system’s furthest “official” planet. But no worries for Neptune – Mike isn’t after its planetary status… he’s taken some beautiful infrared images instead!

Normally only visible as a featureless blue speck in telescopes, Brown’s image of Neptune — along with its largest moon Triton —  shows the icy gas giant in infrared light, glowing bright red and orange.

Neptune and Triton in infrared. Credit: Mike Brown/CalTech.

Brown’s initial intention was not just to get some pretty pictures of planets. The target of the imaging mission was Triton and to learn more about the placement of its methane, nitrogen and seasonal frosts, and this sort of research required infrared imaging. Of course, Neptune turned out to be quite photogenic itself.

“The big difference is doing the imaging in the infrared where methane absorbs most of the photons,” said Brown. “So the bright places are high clouds where the sunlight reflects off of them before it had a chance to pass through much of the atmosphere. Dark is clear atmosphere full of methane absorption.

“I just thought it was so spectacular that I should post it.”

No argument here, Mike!

Neptune, now officially the outermost planet in our solar system, is the fourth largest planet and boasts the highest wind speeds yet discovered — 1,250 mph winds scream around its frigid skies! Like the other gas giants Neptune has a system of rings, although nowhere near as extravagant as Saturn’s. It has 13 known moons, of which Triton is the largest.

With its retrograde orbit, Triton is believed to be a captured Kuiper Belt Object now in orbit around Neptune. Kuiper Belt Objects are Mike Brown’s specialty, as he is the astronomer most well-known for beginning the whole process that got Pluto demoted from the official planet list back in 2006.

Read more on here.


Jason Major is a graphic designer, photo enthusiast and space blogger. Visit his website Lights in the Dark and follow him on Twitter @JPMajor or on Facebook for the most up-to-date astronomy awesomeness!

Studying Saturn’s Super Storm

Three views of Saturn's northern storm. ESO/University of Oxford/L. N. Fletcher/T. Barry


First seen by amateur astronomers back in December, the powerful seasonal storm that has since bloomed into a planet-wrapping swath of churning clouds has gotten some scrutiny by Cassini and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope array situated high in the Chilean desert.

The image above shows three views of Saturn acquired on January 19: one by amateur astronomer Trevor Barry taken in visible light and the next two by the VLT’s infrared VISIR instrument – one taken in wavelengths sensitive to lower atmospheric structures one sensitive to higher-altitude features. 

Cassini image showing dredged-up ammonia crystals in the storm. NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona.

While the storm band can be clearly distinguished in the visible-light image, it’s the infrared images that really intrigue scientists. Bright areas can be seen along the path of the storm, especially in the higher-altitude image, marking large areas of upwelling warmer air that have risen from deep within Saturn’s atmosphere.

Normally relatively stable, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits powerful storms like this only when moving into its warmer summer season about every 29 years. This is only the sixth such storm documented since 1876, and the first to be studied both in thermal infrared and by orbiting spacecraft.

The initial vortex of the storm was about 5,000 km (3,000 miles) wide and took researchers and astronomers by surprise with its strength, size and scale.

“This disturbance in the northern hemisphere of Saturn has created a gigantic, violent and complex eruption of bright cloud material, which has spread to encircle the entire planet… nothing on Earth comes close to this powerful storm.”

– Leigh Fletcher, lead author and Cassini team scientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

The origins of Saturn’s storm may be similar to those of a thunderstorm here on Earth; warm, moist air rises into the cooler atmosphere as a convective plume, generating thick clouds and turbulent winds. On Saturn this mass of warmer air punched through the stratosphere, interacting with the circulating winds and creating temperature variations that further affect atmospheric movement.

The temperature variations show up in the infrared images as bright “stratospheric beacons”. Such features have never been seen before, so researchers are not yet sure if they are commonly found in these kinds of seasonal storms.

“We were lucky to have an observing run scheduled for early in 2011, which ESO allowed us to bring forward so that we could observe the storm as soon as possible. It was another stroke of luck that Cassini’s CIRS instrument could also observe the storm at the same time, so we had imaging from VLT and spectroscopy of Cassini to compare. We are continuing to observe this once-in-a-generation event.”

– Leigh Fletcher

A separate analysis using Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer confirmed the storm is very violent, dredging up larger atmospheric particles and churning up ammonia from deep in the atmosphere. Other Cassini scientists are studying the evolving storm and a more extensive picture will emerge soon.

Read the NASA article here, or the news release from ESO here.


The leading edge of Saturn's storm in visible RGB color from Cassini raw image data taken on February 25, 2011. (The scale size of Earth is at upper left.) NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute. Edited by J. Major.

WISE Mission Completes All-sky Infrared Survey

This view of the Pleiades star cluster is a composite of hundreds of WISE images, a tiny fraction of all those collected to complete the full-sky survey. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA


If you take a lot of digital pictures, you’re probably familiar with the frustration of keeping track of dozens of files, and always running out of hard drive space to store them. Well, the scientists and engineers on NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission have no pity for you. Their spacecraft just finished photographing the entire sky in exquisite detail: a total of 1.3 million photos.

“The eyes of WISE have not blinked since launch,” said William Irace, the mission’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Both our telescope and spacecraft have performed flawlessly and have imaged every corner of our universe, just as we planned.”

WISE surveys the sky in strips as it orbits the earth. It takes six months of constant observing to map the entire sky. By pointing at every part of the sky, astronomical surveys deliver excellent data covering both well-known objects and those that have never been seen before.

“WISE is filling in the blanks on the infrared properties of everything in the universe from nearby asteroids to distant quasars,” said Peter Eisenhardt of JPL, project scientist for WISE. “But the most exciting discoveries may well be objects we haven’t yet imagined exist.”

One example of a well-known object seen in new light by WISE is the Pleiades cluster: a group of young blue stars shrouded by dust that the cluster is currently passing through. In WISE’s false-color infrared vision, the hot stars look blue but the cooler dust clouds give off longer wavelengths of infrared light, causing them to glow in shades of yellow and green.

The WISE survey is particularly significant because such a wide range of objects in the universe are visible in infrared light. Giant molecular clouds glow in infrared light, as do brown dwarfs – objects that are bigger than planets but smaller than true stars. WISE can also see ultra-bright, extremely distant galaxies whose visible light has been stretched into the infrared by the expansion of the universe during its multi-billion-year journey.

The recently completed WISE survey also observed 100,000 asteroids in our solar system, many of which had never been seen before. 90 of the newly discovered asteroids are near-earth objects, whose orbits cross our own, making them potentially dangerous but also potential targets for future mission.

You might think that 1.3 million pictures would be plenty, but WISE will keep mapping the sky for another three months, covering half of the sky again and allowing astronomers to search for changes. The mission will end when the spacecraft’s solid hydrogen coolant finally runs out and the infrared detectors warm up (they don’t work as well when they are warm enough to emit the same wavelengths of infrared light that they are meant to detect).

But even as the telescope warms up, the astronomers on the WISE team will just be getting warmed up too. With nearly two million images, they will be busy making new discoveries for years to come.

Radiation from the Sun

Extreme Ultraviolet Sun
Extreme Ultraviolet Sun

[/caption]Radiation from the Sun, which is more popularly known as sunlight, is a mixture of electromagnetic waves ranging from infrared (IR) to ultraviolet rays (UV). It of course includes visible light, which is in between IR and UV in the electromagnetic spectrum.

All electromagnetic waves (EM) travel at a speed of approximately 3.0 x 10 8 m/s in vacuum. Although space is not a perfect vacuum, as it is really composed of low-density particles, EM waves, neutrinos, and magnetic fields, it can certainly be approximated as such.

Now, since the average distance between the Earth and the Sun over one Earth orbit is one AU (about 150,000,000,000 m), then it will take about 8 minutes for radiation from the Sun to get to Earth.

Actually, the Sun does not only produce IR, visible light, and UV. Fusion in the core actually gives off high energy gamma rays. However, as the gamma ray photons make their arduous journey to the surface of the Sun, they are continuously absorbed by the solar plasma and re-emitted to lower frequencies. By the time they get to the surface, their frequencies are mostly only within the IR/visible light/UV spectrum.

During solar flares, the Sun also emits X-rays. X-ray radiation from the Sun was first observed by T. Burnight during a V-2 rocket flight. This was later confirmed by Japan’s Yohkoh, a satellite launched in 1991.

When electromagnetic radiation from the Sun strikes the Earth’s atmosphere, some of it is absorbed while the rest proceed to the Earth’s surface. In particular, UV is absorbed by the ozone layer and re-emitted as heat, eventually heating up the stratosphere. Some of this heat is re-radiated to outer space while some is sent to the Earth’s surface.

In the meantime, the electromagnetic radiation that wasn’t absorbed by the atmosphere proceeds to the Earth’s surface and heats it up. Some of this heat stays there while the rest is re-emitted. Upon reaching the atmosphere, part of it gets absorbed and part of it passes through. Naturally, the ones that get absorbed add to the heat already there.

The presence of greenhouse gases make the atmosphere absorb more heat, reducing the fraction of outbound EM waves that pass through. Known as the greenhouse effect, this is the reason why heat can build up some more.

The Earth is not the only planet that experiences the greenhouse effect. Read about the greenhouse effect taking place in Venus here in Universe Today. We’ve also got an interesting article that talks about a real greenhouse on the Moon by 2014.

Here’s a simplified explanation of the greenhouse effect on the EPA’s website. There’s also NASA’s Climate Change page.

Relax and listen to some interesting episodes at Astronomy Cast. Want to know more aboutUltraviolet Astronomy? How different is it from Optical Astronomy?

NASA Science: The Electromagnetic Spectrum
NASA Earth Observatory