Hubble Reveals Curious Auroras on Uranus


Astronomers have finally succeeded in capturing the first Earth-based images of the curious and fleeting auroras of Uranus using the Hubble Space Telescope, careful planning… and no small amount of luck.

Unlike Earthly auroras, whose long-lived curtains of glowing green, red and purple have been the subject of countless stunning photos over the past months, Uranus’ auroras are relatively dim and short-lived, lasting only several minutes at most. They were first witnessed on Uranus by Voyager 2 in 1986, but never by any Earth-based telescopes until November of 2011. Using Hubble, an international team of astronomers led by Laurent Lamy from the Observatoire de Paris in Meudon, France spotted two instances of auroras on the distant planet… once on November 16 and again on the 29th.

Two instances of Uranian aurora imaged in Nov. 2011. (L. Lamy)

Auroras are known to be created by a planet’s magnetosphere, which on Earth is aligned closely with the rotational axis — which is why auroras are seen nearest the polar latitudes. But Uranus’ magnetic field is quite offset from its rotational axis, which in turn is tipped nearly 98 degrees relative to its orbital path. In other words, Uranus travels around the Sun rolling on its side! And with a 60-degree difference between its magnetic and rotational axis, nothing on Uranus seems to point quite where it should. This — along with its 2.5-billion-mile (4 billion km) distance — makes for a “very poorly known” magnetic field.

“This planet was only investigated in detail once, during the Voyager flyby, dating from 1986. Since then, we’ve had no opportunities to get new observations of this very unusual magnetosphere,” said Laurent Lamy, lead author of the team’s paper Earth-based detection of Uranus’ aurorae.

Rather than rings of bright emissions, as witnessed on Earth as well as Saturn and Jupiter, the Uranian auroras appeared as bright spots of activity on the planet’s daytime side — most likely a result of Uranus’ peculiar orientation, as well as its seasonal alignment.

It’s not yet known what may be happening on Uranus’ night side, which is out of view of Hubble.

When Voyager 2 passed by Uranus in 1986 the planet was tipped such that its rotational axis was aimed toward the Sun. This meant that its magnetic axis —  offset by 60 degrees — was angled enough to encounter the solar wind in much the same way that Earth’s does. This created nightside auroras similar to Earth’s that Voyager saw.

By 2011, however, Uranus — which has an 84-year-long orbit — was near equinox and as a result its magnetic axis was nearly perpendicular with its orbital plane, aiming each end directly into the solar wind once a day. This makes for very different kinds of auroras than what was seen by Voyager; in fact, there’s really nothing else like it that astronomers know of.

“This configuration is unique in the solar system,” said Lamy.

Further investigations of Uranus’ auroras and magnetic field can offer insight into the dynamics of Earth’s own magnetosphere and how it interacts with the solar wind, which in turn affects our increasingly technological society.

The team’s paper will be published Saturday in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Read the release from the AGU here.

Multi-Planet Systems Common in Kepler Findings



Of the 1235 planetary candidates that NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found so far, 408 reside in multiple-planet systems – a growing trend that indicates planets do, in fact,  like company.

The systems observed also seem to behave quite differently than our own solar system. In particular many are flatter than ours; that is, the planets orbit their stars in more or less the same exact plane. This, of course, is what allows Kepler to see them in the first place… the planets have to transit their stars perpendicular to Kepler’s point of view in order for it to detect the oh-so-subtle change in brightness that indicates the likely presence of a planet. In our solar system there’s a variation in the orbital plane of some planets up to 7º – enough of a difference that an alien Kepler-esque telescope might very well not be able to spot all eight planets.

The reason for this relative placidity in exoplanet orbits may be due to the lack of gas giants like Jupiter in these systems. So far, all the multiple-planet systems found have planets smaller than Neptune. Without the massive gravitational influence of a Jupiter-sized world to shake things up, these exosystems likely experience a much calmer environment – gravitationally speaking, of course.

“Most likely, if our solar system didn’t have large planets like Jupiter and Saturn to have stirred things up with their gravitational disturbances, it would be just as flat. Systems with smaller planets probably had a much more sedate history.”

– David Latham, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, MA

Slide showing Kepler multi-planet systems (blue dots). Credit: David Latham.

Systems containing large gas giants have also been found but they are not as flat as those without, and many smaller worlds are indeed out there… “probably including a lot of them comparable in size to Earth,” said planet-hunter Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley.

While multiple-planet systems were expected, the scientists on the Kepler team were surprised by the amount that have been discovered.

“We didn’t anticipate that we would find so many multiple-transit systems. We thought we might see two or three. Instead, we found more than 100,” said Latham.

A total of 171 multiple-planet systems have been found so far… with many more to come, no doubt!

Announced yesterday at the American Astronomical Society conference in Boston, these findings are the result of only the first four months of Kepler’s observations. There will be another news release next summer but in the meantime the team wants time to extensively research the data.

“We don’t want to get premature information out. There’s still a lot of analysis that needs to be done.”

– Kepler principal investigator William Borucki

Read more on the Kepler mission site, or on Science NOW.

Lone Planets “More Common Than Stars”


We happen to live in a solar system where everything seems to be tucked neatly in place. Sun, planets, moons, asteroids, comets… all turning and traveling through space in relatively neat and orderly fashions. But that may not always be the case; sometimes planets can get kicked out of their solar systems entirely, banished to roam interstellar space without a sun of their own. And these “orphan planets” may be much more numerous than once thought.

Researchers in a joint Japan-New Zealand study surveyed microlensing events near the central part of our galaxy during 2006 and 2007 and identified up to 10 Jupiter-sized orphan worlds between 10,000 and 20,000 light-years away. Based on the number of planets identified and the area studied they estimate that there could literally be hundreds of billions of these lone planets roaming our galaxy….literally twice as many planets as there are stars.

“Although free-floating planets have been predicted, they finally have been detected, holding major implications for planetary formation and evolution models.”

– Mario Perez, exoplanet program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

From the NASA release:

Previous observations spotted a handful of free-floating, planet-like objects within star-forming clusters, with masses three times that of Jupiter. But scientists suspect the gaseous bodies form more like stars than planets. These small, dim orbs, called brown dwarfs, grow from collapsing balls of gas and dust, but lack the mass to ignite their nuclear fuel and shine with starlight. It is thought the smallest brown dwarfs are approximately the size of large planets.

On the other hand, it is likely that some planets are ejected from their early, turbulent solar systems, due to close gravitational encounters with other planets or stars. Without a star to circle, these planets would move through the galaxy as our sun and other stars do, in stable orbits around the galaxy’s center. The discovery of 10 free-floating Jupiters supports the ejection scenario, though it’s possible both mechanisms are at play.

“If free-floating planets formed like stars, then we would have expected to see only one or two of them in our survey instead of 10. Our results suggest that planetary systems often become unstable, with planets being kicked out from their places of birth.”

– David Bennett, a NASA and National Science Foundation-funded co-author of the study from the University of Notre Dame.

The study wasn’t able to resolve planets smaller than Saturn but it’s believed there are likely many more smaller, Earth-sized worlds than large Jupiter-sized ones.

Read the full NASA news release here.

The study, led by Takahiro Sumi from Osaka University in Japan, appears in the May 19 issue of the journal Nature.

Dawn Planetary Delights

During the month of May, four bright Planets will grace the morning sky just before dawn.

The planets Venus, Jupiter, Mercury and Mars will be involved in a series of conjunctions (close together) and will finally be joined by the thin crescent moon at the end of the month.

Twice during May some of the planets will converge to form a trio, where 3 planets will fit in an imaginary circle roughly 5 degrees across.

On the 11th Mercury, Venus and Jupiter will be within 2.5 degrees of each other, forming a very tight trio and on the 21st another trio will be formed by Mercury, Venus and Mars.

Dawn Planets 21st May Credit: Adrian West

On the 29th, 30th, and 31st, the waning crescent moon will arrive, moving past Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury stretched out in a line across the eastern sky.

Dawn 29th May. Credit: Adrian West

Unfortunately, these gatherings will be a challenge especially for observers in high latitudes, as the ecliptic in May is very shallow and low to the horizon. But if all you need is a challenge to get you out observing, then here’s your chance!

Venus and Jupiter should be easy objects to see, but Mercury and Mars will be very difficult, along with the crescent moon due to the onset of daylight.

Be careful as you will be viewing objects close to the sun. Never ever look at the sun with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope as this will permanently damage your eyes or blind you. Viewing the sun can only be done with specialist solar telescopes and equipment.

Clyde Tombaugh’s Ten Special Commandments for Planet Hunters


Back in 1989, amateur astronomer Toney Burkhart found out that Clyde Tombaugh was going to be giving a talk in San Francisco, just a short distance from Burkhart’s home. Trouble was, he found out only about 10 minutes before the presentation was going to start, so he rushed over and arrived just in time to hear Tombaugh’s talk, where he told amusing stories of how he found Pluto, and what he went through with night after night in a cold observatory taking photographs and comparing the glass plates, looking for a planet in the outer solar system. Then Tombaugh shared read his version of the Ten Commandments, called, “Ten Special Commandments for a Would-Be Planet Hunter.”

Afterward, the posters of the Commandments were being sold as a fund raising event.

“Clyde was going around the country to raise money for scholarships for young people to study planetary science,” Burkhart told Universe Today. “There were a lot of people there in the lobby buying posters autographed by Clyde Tombaugh and I wanted one very much.”

However, when Burkhart went to purchase one, he discovered that in his haste to leave his home, he had forgotten his billfold.

“I waited until everything was over and thought that I would at least go over and say hi to Clyde and tell him how much I thought of his hard work and to shake his hand, at least,” Burkhart said, and Tombaugh was more than happy to chat with an fellow astronomy enthusiast.

“While I was chatting with Clyde, I told him that I wish I brought money to buy one of the posters. He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Well, that’s alright.’” And I said no, I really would have bought one if I had not ran out of the house and forgot my billfold. He was holding his notes and I asked him, what are you going to do with those notes, throw them away?”

Burkhart said Tombaugh smiled and replied that he couldn’t give away his notes, as he had more talks to give, but said he could mail them to Burkhart after his tour was over.

Burkhart offered to send Tombaugh a check later, or at least pay for postage, but Tombaugh looked at him and said, “No, that’s OK, I see you are really into astronomy and it would be my pleasure to give it you.”

Grateful, Burkhart asked if Tombaugh could autograph it, not for Burkhart but for his son Jason. Tombaugh took Burkhart’s address, and true to his word, about a month later Burkhart received Tombaugh’s personal version of the Commandments, with corrections made in pen, (the corrections were made by Tombaugh’s wife, Patricia, Burkhart said) along with his autograph. “I have them in safekeeping to leave to my son to have and hopefully give them to his kids,” Burkhart said.

Here are the the Ten Special Commandments for a Would-Be Planet Hunter, according to Clyde Tombaugh

1. Behold the heavens and the great vastness thereof, for a planet could be anywhere therein.

2. Thou shalt dedicate thy whole being to the search project with infinite patience and perseverance.

3. Though shalt set no other work before thee for the search shall keep thee busy enough.

4. Though shalt take the plates at opposition time lest thou be deceived by asteroids near their stationary positions.

5. Though shalt duplicate the plate of a pair at the same hour angle lest refraction distortions overtake thee.

6. Thou shalt give adequate overlap of adjacent plate regions lest the planet play hide and seek with thee.

7. Thou must not become ill in the dark of the moon lest thou fall behind the opposition point.

8. Thou shalt have no dates except at full moon when long exposure plates cannot be taken at the telescope.

9. Many false planets shall appear before thee, hundreds of them, and thou shalt check every one with a third plate.

10. Thou shalt not engage in any dissipation, that thy years may be many for thou shalt need them to finish the job!

Clyde W. Tombaugh
14 March 1989

Burkhart shared the scan of Tombaugh’s notes on his Facebook page.

h/t to Charles Bell.

How Big Is Neptune

Are There Oceans on Neptune


There are many ways to determine ‘how big is Neptune’. It has an equatorial radius 24,764 km, a polar radius of 24,341 km, and a surface area of 7.6408×10,sup>9km2. It has a volume of 6.254×1013km3, a mass of 1.0243×1026kg, and a mean density of 1.638 g/cm3. Now that you know most of the planet’s critical digits, here is a little information about its make up.

Neptune is the eighth and farthest planet from the Sun. It is the fourth-largest planet by diameter and the third-largest by mass. Neptune’s mass is 17 times that of the Earth. On average, Neptune orbits the Sun at a distance of 30.1 astronomical units. It was discovered on September 23, 1846. Neptune was the first planet found by mathematical prediction rather than direct observation. Alexis Bouvard deduced its existence from gravitational perturbations in the orbit of Uranus. The planet was later observed by Johann Galle. Its largest moon, Triton, was observed a short time later.

Neptune’s atmosphere is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium along with traces of hydrocarbons and nitrogen. It also contains a high proportion of ices like: water, ammonia, and methane. Astronomers occasionally categorize Neptune as an ice giant. The interior of Neptune, like that of Uranus, is primarily composed of ices and rock. Traces of methane in the outermost regions in part account for the planet’s blue appearance. Neptune’s atmosphere is notable for its active and visible weather patterns. When Voyager 2 flew by the planet’s southern hemisphere possessed a Great Dark Spot. These weather patterns are driven by the strongest sustained winds of any planet in the Solar System, with recorded wind speeds as high as 2,100 km/h.Because of its great distance from the Sun, Neptune’s outer atmosphere is one of the coldest places in the Solar System, with temperatures at its cloud tops approaching ?218°C. Temperatures at the planet’s center are approximately 5,000°C.

Neptune has a planetary ring system. The rings may consist of ice particles coated with silicates or carbon-based material, which gives them a reddish hue. The three main rings are the narrow Adams Ring, 63,000 km from the center of Neptune, the Le Verrier Ring, at 53,000 km, and the broader, fainter Galle Ring, at 42,000 km. A faint outward extension to the Le Verrier Ring has been named Lassell; it is bounded at its outer edge by the Arago Ring at 57,000 km. Not only is the planet large, but it has many interesting features as well.

We have written many articles about Neptune for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the color of Neptune, and here are some pictures of Neptune.

If you’d like more information on Neptune, take a look at Hubblesite’s News Releases about Neptune, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Neptune.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Neptune. Listen here, Episode 63: Neptune.

Source: NASA

The Other End of the Planetary Scale


The definition of a “planet” is one that has seen a great deal of contention. The ad-hoc redefinition has caused much grief for lovers of the demoted Pluto. Yet little attention is paid to the other end of the planetary scale, namely, where the cutoff between a star and a planet lies. The general consensus is that an object capable of supporting deuterium (a form of hydrogen that has a neutron in the nucleus and can undergo fusion at lower temperatures) fusion, is a brown dwarf while, anything below that is a planet. This limit has been estimated to be around 13 Jupiter masses, but while this line in the sand may seem clear initially, a new paper explores the difficulty in pinning down this discriminating factor. For many years, brown dwarfs were mythical creatures. Their low temperatures, even while undergoing deuterium fusion, made them difficult to detect. While many candidates were proposed as brown dwarfs, all failed the discriminating test of having lithium present in their spectrum (which is destroyed by the temperatures of traditional hydrogen fusion). This changed in 1995 when the first object of suitable mass was discovered when the 670.8 nm lithium line was discovered in a star of suitable mass.

Since then, the number of identified brown dwarfs has increased significantly and astronomers have discovered that the lower mass range of purported brown dwarfs seems to overlap with that of massive planets. This includes objects such as CoRoT-3b, a brown dwarf with approximately 22 Jovian masses, which exists in the terminological limbo.

The paper, led by David Speigel of Princeton, investigated a wide range of initial conditions for objects near the deuterium burning limit. Among the variables included, the team considered the initial fraction of helium, deuterium, and “metals” (everything higher than helium on the periodic table). Their simulations revealed that just how much of the deuterium burned, and how fast, was highly dependent on the starting conditions. Objects starting with higher helium concentration required less mass to burn a given amount of deuterium. Similarly, the higher the initial deuterium fraction, the more readily it fused. The differences in required mass were not subtle either. They varied by as much as two Jovian masses, extending as low as a mere 11 times the mass of Jupiter, well below the generally accepted limit.

The authors suggest that because of the inherent confusion in the mass limits, that such a definition may not be the “most useful delineation between planets and brown dwarfs.” As such, they recommend astronomers take extra care in their classifications and realize that a new definition may be necessary. One possible definition could involve considerations of the formation history of objects in the questionable mass range; Objects that formed in disks, around other stars would be considered planets, where objects that formed from gravitational collapse independently of the object they orbit, would be considered  brown dwarfs. In the mean time, objects such as CoRoT-3b, will continue to have their taxonomic categorization debated.

Clockwork Planets


While the Perseid meteor shower has been putting on quite a show, there’s an awesome “no telescope needed” eye-catching apparition that only requires a clear western skyline. If you haven’t been watching the planets – Mercury, Saturn, Venus and Mars – line up like clockwork, then don’t despair. You have a few more days yet!

While the uniformed all-too-often see “signs of bad portent” in a planetary alignment, the rest of us know this is a perfectly normal function of our solar system called a conjunction. This is a simple positional alignment as seen (usually from Earth’s viewpoint) from any given vantage point. The world isn’t going to end, the oceans aren’t going to rise… and Mars is darn-sure not going to be the size of the Moon. All alignments of at least two celestial bodies are merely coincidental and we even have a grand name for what’s happening – an appulse.

When planets are involved, their near appearance usually happens in the same right ascension. They really aren’t any closer to each other than what their orbital path dictates – it just appears that way. In the same respect, there is also conjunction in ecliptical longitude. But, if the planet nearer the Earth should happen to pass in front of another planet during a conjunction it’s called a syzygy!

One thing is for sure… You don’t have to be a syzy-genius to simply enjoy the show and the predictable movements of our solar system. Just find an open western skyline and watch as twilight deepens. Tonight the Moon will be directly south of Venus and over the next couple of days the planetary alignment will gradually separate as brilliant Venus seems to hold its position, while Mars, Saturn and Mercury drift north. Enjoy the show! Because just like the yearly Mars/Moon Myth?

It happens like clockwork…

Many, many thanks to the incredible Shevill Mathers for providing us with this breathtaking photo. (Do you know just how hard it is to get a shot like that without over or under exposing? I dare you to try it…) Every fox has a silver lining!

Length of Year on Mercury

The length of year on Mercury is 87.969 days. In other words, it takes almost 88 Earth days for Mercury to complete one orbit around the Sun. Mercury completes just over 4 orbits for each year on Earth.

Mercury has the most eccentric of all the orbits of the planets. Its distance from the Sun varies between 46 million and 70 million kilometers. This means that the speed of its orbit varies dramatically depending on the point of its orbit. If you could stand on the surface of Mercury and watch the Sun, you would see the Sun rise in the morning go part way up in to the sky and then go backwards in the sky, and set again. And then it would rise again and this time it would go across the sky and set. Four days before the fastest point of its orbit around the Sun, Mercury’s orbital speed matches its rotational velocity so that the Sun appears to stop in the sky. Then it’s orbiting faster than it’s rotating for about 8 days and so the Sun appears to move backwards.

We’ve written several articles about the length of years for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the years of all the planets, and here’s an article about how long a year is on Mars.

If you’d like more info on Mercury, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide, and here’s a link to NASA’s MESSENGER Misson Page.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about Mercury. Listen here, Episode 49: Mercury.

Tenth Planet: The Next World in the Solar System

Tenth planet? Artists concept of the view from Eris with Dysnomia in the background, looking back towards the distant sun. Credit: Robert Hurt (IPAC)

Before 1930, there were 8 planets in the Solar System. And then with the discovery of Pluto in 1930, the total number of planets rose to 9. Although astronomers kept searching for more planets, it wasn’t until 2005 that an object larger than Pluto was found orbiting in the distant Solar System. This new object was known as Eris, and many considered it to be a tenth planet; but it actually created a controversy that ended up with Pluto being kicked out of the planet club and becoming a dwarf planet. There really is no 10th planet, in fact, we don’t even have a ninth planet any more.

Discovery of Eris

Eris, originally named 2003 ub 313 was discovered by Palomar observatory researcher Mike Brown; Mike has been behind many of the trans-Neptunian discoveries in the last decade. Mike and his team discovered Eris by systematically scanning the sky for objects moving at the right speed in the right object to be in the outer Solar System.

Further observations of Eris showed that it was actually larger than Pluto by a significant amount; it measured 2,500 km across, compared to Pluto’s 2,300 km diameter. And it orbited at a distance of 67 astronomical units, compared to Pluto’s 39 AU (1 AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun).

Tenth Planet, Dwarf Planet

Because there was now a larger object than Pluto found orbiting the Sun, astronomers needed to decide whether this would be come the tenth planet. At a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in 2006, astronomers decided to redefine their classification of a planet. And these new rules excluded Eris. Instead of becoming the tenth planet, Eris became a dwarf planet; the same fate as Pluto.

We’ve written many articles about Eris for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how Eris is changing, and here’s an article about how Xena was renamed to Eris.

If you’d like more info on Eris, check out NASA’s page on Eris.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast that explains why Pluto isn’t a planet any more. Listen here, Episode 1: Pluto’s Planetary Identity Crisis.