Welcome to Jupiter – NASA’s Juno Achieves Orbit around ‘King of the Planets’

Illustration of NASA's Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Lockheed Martin built the Juno spacecraft for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Lockheed Martin built the Juno spacecraft for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

Welcome to Jupiter! NASA’s Juno spacecraft is orbiting Jupiter at this moment!

“NASA did it again!” pronounced an elated Scott Bolton, investigator of Juno from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, to loud cheers and applause from the overflow crowd of mission scientists and media gathered at the post orbit media briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

After a nearly five year journey covering 1.7-billion-miles (2.8-billion-kilometers) across our solar system, NASA’s basketball court-sized Juno orbiter achieved orbit around Jupiter, the ‘King of the Planets’ late Monday night, July 4, in a gift to all Americans on our 240th Independence Day and a gift to science to elucidate our origins.

“We are in orbit and now the fun begins, the science,” said Bolton at the briefing. “We just did the hardest thing NASA’s ever done! That’s my claim. I am so happy … and proud of this team.”

And the science is all about peering far beneath the well known banded cloud tops for the first time to investigate Jupiter’s deep interior with a suite of nine instruments, and discover the mysteries of its genesis and evolution and the implications for how we came to be.

“The deep interior of Jupiter is nearly unknown. That’s what we are trying to learn about. The origin of us.”

Solar powered Juno successfully entered a polar elliptical orbit around Jupiter after completing a must-do 35-minute-long firing of the main engine known as Jupiter Orbital Insertion or JOI.

The spacecraft approached Jupiter over its north pole, affording an unprecedented perspective on the Jovian system – “which looks like a mini solar system” – as it flew through the giant planets intense radiation belts in ‘autopilot’ mode.

“The mission team did great. The spacecraft did great. We are looking great. It’s a great day,” Bolton gushes.

Engineers tracking the telemetry received confirmation that the JOI burn was completed as planned at 8:53 p.m. PDT (11:53 p.m. EDT) Monday, July 4.

Juno is only the second probe from Earth to orbit Jupiter and the first solar powered probe to the outer planets. The gas giant is two and a half times more massive than all of the other planets combined.

“Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America’s birthday another reason to cheer — Juno is at Jupiter,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden in a statement.

“And what is more American than a NASA mission going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before? With Juno, we will investigate the unknowns of Jupiter’s massive radiation belts to delve deep into not only the planet’s interior, but into how Jupiter was born and how our entire solar system evolved.”

Artists concept NASA's Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016 nearly five years after launch.   Credit: NASA
Artists concept NASA’s Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016 nearly five years after launch. Credit: NASA

The do-or-die burn of Juno’s 645-Newton Leros-1b main engine started at 8:18 p.m. PDT (11:18 p.m. EDT), which had the effect of decreasing the spacecraft’s velocity by 1,212 miles per hour (542 meters per second) and allowing Juno to be captured in orbit around Jupiter. There were no second chances.

All of the science instruments were turned off on June 30 to keep the focus on the nail-biting insertion maneuver and preserve battery power, said Bolton.

“So tonight through tones Juno sang to us. And it was a song of perfection. After a 1.7 billion mile journey we hit tour burn targets within one second,” Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from JPL, gleefully reported at the briefing.

“That’s how good our team is! And that’s how well our Juno spacecraft performed tonight.”

To accomplish the burn, the spacecraft first had to adjust it’s attitude to point the engine in the required direction to slow the spacecraft and then simultaneously also had the effect that the life giving solar panels were pointing away from the sun. It the only time during the entire mission at Jupiter that the solar panels were in darkness and not producing energy.

The spacecraft’s rotation rate was also spun up from 2 to 5 revolutions per minute (RPM) to help stabilize it during JOI. Juno is spin stabilized to maintain pointing.

After the burn was complete, Juno was spun down and adjusted to point to the sun before it ran out of battery power.

We have to get the blood flowing through Juno’s veins, Bolton emphasized.

It is equipped with 18,698 individual solar cells over 60 square meters of surface on the solar arrays to provide energy. Juno is spinning like a windmill through space with its 3 giant solar arrays. It is about 540 million miles (869 million kilometers) from Earth.

Juno mission briefing on  July 5, 2016 at JPL after the successful JOI orbit insertion on July 4.  Credit: Roland Keller/rkeusa.blogspot.com
Juno mission briefing on July 5, 2016 at JPL after the successful JOI orbit insertion on July 4. Credit: Roland Keller/rkeusa.blogspot.com

Signals traveling at the speed of light take 48 minutes to reach Earth, said Nybakken.

So the main engine burn, which was fully automated, was already over for some 13 minutes before the first indications of the outcome reach Earth via a series of Doppler signals and tones.

“Tonight, 540 million miles away, Juno performed a precisely choreographed dance at blazing speeds with the largest, most intense planet in our solar system,” said Guy Beutelschies, director of Interplanetary Missions at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

“Since launch, Juno has operated exceptionally well, and the flawless orbit insertion is a testament to everyone working on Juno and their focus on getting this amazing spacecraft to its destination. NASA now has a science laboratory orbiting Jupiter.”

“The spacecraft is now pointed back at the sun and the antenna back at Earth. The spacecraft performed well and did everything it needed to do,” he reported at the briefing.

“We are looking forward to getting all that science data to Scott and the team.”

“Juno is also the farthest mission to rely on solar power. And although they provide only 1/25th the power at Earth, they still provide over 500 watts of power at Jupiter,” said Nybakken.

Initially the spacecraft enters a long, looping polar orbit lasting about 53 days. That highly elliptical orbit will be trimmed to 14 days for the regular science orbits.

The orbits are designed to minimize contact with Jupiter’s extremely intense radiation belts. The nine science instruments are shielded inside a ½ thick vault built of Titanium to protect them from the utterly deadly radiation of some 20,000,000 rads.

During a 20 month long science mission – entailing 37 orbits lasting 14 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 3000 miles of the turbulent cloud tops and collect unprecedented new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s origin and evolution.

But the length and number of the science orbits has changed since the mission was launched almost 5 years ago in 2011.

Originally Juno was planned to last about one year with an orbital profile involving 33 orbits of 11 days each.

I asked the team to explain the details of how and why the change from 11 to 14 days orbits and increasing the total number of orbits to 37 from 33, especially in light of the extremely harsh radiation hazards?

“The original plan of 33 orbits of 11 days was an example but there were other periods that would work,” Bolton told Universe Today.

“What we really cared about was dropping down over the poles and capturing each longitude, and laying a map or net around Jupiter.”

“Also, during the Earth flyby we went into safe mode. And as we looked at that it was a hiccup by the spacecraft but it actually behaved as it should have.”

“So we said well if that happened at Jupiter we would like to be able to recover and not lose an orbit. So we started to look at the timeline of how long it took to recover, and did we want to add a couple of days to the orbit for conservatism – to ensure the science mission.”

“So it made sense to add 3 days. It didn’t change the science and it made the probability of success even greater. So that was the basis of the change.”

“We also evaluated the radiation. And it wasn’t much different. Juno is designed to take data at a very low risk. The radiation slowly accumulates at the start. As you get to the later part of the mission, it gets a faster and faster accumulation.”

“So we still retained that conservatism as well and the overall radiation dose was pretty much the same,” Bolton explained.

“The radiation we accumulate is not just the more time you spend the more radiation,” Steve Levin, Juno Project Scientist at JPL, told Universe Today.

“Each time we come in close to the planet we get a dose of radiation. Then the spacecraft is out far from Jupiter and is relatively free from that radiation until we come in close again.”

“So just changing from 11 to 14 day orbits does not mean we get more radiation because you are there longer.”

“It’s really the number of times we come in close to Jupiter that determines how much radiation we are getting.”

Juno is the fastest spacecraft ever to arrive at Jupiter and was moving at over 165,000 mph relative to Earth and 130,000 mph relative to Jupiter at the moment of JOI.

Juno’s principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter.

“With its suite of nine science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras. The mission also will let us take a giant step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the solar system. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter also can provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars,” according to a NASA description.

The $1.1 Billion Juno was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters and built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). That same Atlas V 551 version just launched MUOS-5 for the US Navy on June 24.

The Juno spacecraft was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin in Denver.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V liftoff with NASA’s Juno to Jupiter orbiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance Atlas V liftoff with NASA’s Juno to Jupiter orbiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The last NASA spacecraft to orbit Jupiter was Galileo in 1995. It explored the Jovian system until 2003.

Bolton also released new views of Jupiter taken by JunoCam – the on board public outreach camera that snapped a final gorgeous view of the Jovian system showing Jupiter and its four largest moons, dancing around the largest planet in our solar system.

The newly released color image was taken on June 29, 2016, at a distance of 3.3 million miles (5.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter – just before the probe went into autopilot mode.

This is the final view taken by the JunoCam instrument on NASA's Juno spacecraft before Juno's instruments were powered down in preparation for orbit insertion. Juno obtained this color view on June 29, 2016, at a distance of 3.3 million miles (5.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter.  See timelapse movie below.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This is the final view taken by the JunoCam instrument on NASA’s Juno spacecraft before Juno’s instruments were powered down in preparation for orbit insertion. Juno obtained this color view on June 29, 2016, at a distance of 3.3 million miles (5.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter. See timelapse movie below. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

It shows a dramatic view of the clouds bands of Jupiter, dominating a spectacular scene that includes the giant planet’s four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Scott Bolton and NASA also released this spectacular new time-lapse JunoCam movie at today’s briefing showing Juno’s approach to Jupiter and the Galilean Moons.

Watch and be mesmerized -“for humanity, our first real glimpse of celestial harmonic motion” says Bolton.

Video caption: NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured a unique time-lapse movie of the Galilean satellites in motion about Jupiter. The movie begins on June 12th with Juno 10 million miles from Jupiter, and ends on June 29th, 3 million miles distant. The innermost moon is volcanic Io; next in line is the ice-crusted ocean world Europa, followed by massive Ganymede, and finally, heavily cratered Callisto. Galileo observed these moons change position with respect to Jupiter over the course of a few nights. From this observation he realized that the moons were orbiting mighty Jupiter, a truth that forever changed humanity’s understanding of our place in the cosmos. Earth was not the center of the Universe. For the first time in history, we look upon these moons as they orbit Jupiter and share in Galileo’s revelation. This is the motion of nature’s harmony. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Along the 5 year journey to Jupiter, Juno made a return trip to Earth on Oct. 9, 2013 for a flyby gravity assist speed boost that enabled the trek to the Jovian system.

During the Earth flyby (EFB), the science team observed Earth using most of Juno’s nine science instruments including, JunoCam, since the slingshot also served as an important dress rehearsal and key test of the spacecraft’s instruments, systems and flight operations teams.

The JunoCam images will be made publicly available to see and process.

During the Earth flyby, Junocam snapped some striking images of Earth as it sped over Argentina, South America and the South Atlantic Ocean and came within 347 miles (560 kilometers) of the surface.

For example a dazzling portrait of our Home Planet high over the South American coastline and the Atlantic Ocean gives a hint of what’s to come from Jupiter’s cloud tops. See our colorized Junocam mosaic of land, sea and swirling clouds, created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo

This colorized composite shows more than half of Earth’s disk over the coast of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean as the Juno probe slingshotted by on Oct. 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted acceleration to Jupiter. The mosaic was assembled from raw images taken by the Junocam imager. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
This colorized composite shows more than half of Earth’s disk over the coast of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean as the Juno probe slingshotted by on Oct. 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted acceleration to Jupiter. The mosaic was assembled from raw images taken by the Junocam imager. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at JPL illustrates how Juno will enter orbit around Jupiter during Juno mission briefing on July 4, 2016 at JPL. Credit: Roland Keller/rkeusa.blogspot.com
Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at JPL illustrates how Juno will enter orbit around Jupiter during Juno mission briefing on July 4, 2016 at JPL. Credit: Roland Keller/rkeusa.blogspot.com

How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present to our guide to terraforming Jupiter’s Moons. Much like terraforming the inner Solar System, it might be feasible someday. But should we?

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall how in his novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (or the movie adaptation called 2010: The Year We Make Contact), an alien species turned Jupiter into a new star. In so doing, Jupiter’s moon Europa was permanently terraformed, as its icy surface melted, an atmosphere formed, and all the life living in the moon’s oceans began to emerge and thrive on the surface.

As we explained in a previous video (“Could Jupiter Become a Star“) turning Jupiter into a star is not exactly doable (not yet, anyway). However, there are several proposals on how we could go about transforming some of Jupiter’s moons in order to make them habitable by human beings. In short, it is possible that humans could terraform one of more of the Jovians to make it suitable for full-scale human settlement someday.

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?”

Astronomy Cast Ep. 398 – Seeing Things: Emitting, Reflecting, Ionizing Light Sources

Astronomers gather electromagnetic radiation with the telescopes: mostly visible light. But sometimes they’ve got to be clever about where they look for these elusive photons. Light can get emitted, absorbed, reflected, and each method tells astronomers a little more about what they’re looking at.
Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 398 – Seeing Things: Emitting, Reflecting, Ionizing Light Sources”

Are Martian Dust Storms Dangerous?

Just how dangerous are the terrifying dust storms that swarm Mars?

Brave explorers trek across the red dunes of Mars when a dangerous dust storm blows in. In moments, our astronauts are blasted by gale force winds and driving sand, reducing visibility to zero. The brave heroes stumble desperately through the driving onslaught, searching in vain for shelter from the catastrophic conditions. One is blown into a ravine, or right to the edge of the cliff, requiring a dramatic rescue and likely a terrible terrible sacrifice and important parting words showing the true mettle of our heroes.

“Tell my Asuka… printed body pillow… I loved her…”

Will they make it? Why the heck would anyone land on that dusty irradiated death trap? Actually, a better question might be “Why do writers lean so hard on this trope?”. I’m looking at you Andy Weir.

Martian dust storms don’t just come from the fevered imagination of the same sci-fi writer who gave us a lush Venusian jungle, Saturnalian lava flats and Moon floor cheese. These dust storms are all too real and they drive at serious windspeeds.

NASA’s Viking landers clocked them at 100 km/h during dust storm season. Which is a thing on Mars. The landers sheltered enough from the big storms that they probably didn’t experience the greatest winds they’re capable of.

Scientists have seen evidence that sand is shifted around on the surface of Mars, and the regolith requires high wind speeds to pick it up and shove it around. Dust devils spin up across the surface, and rotate at hurricane speeds.

When the wind is above 65 km/h, it’s fast enough to pick up dust particles and carry them into the atmosphere encasing the planet in a huge, swirling, shroud. Freaked out yet? Is this dangerous? It sure sounds dangerous.

Apologies to all the fearmongering sci-fi writers, but actually, it’s not that dangerous. Here’s why.

First off, you’re not on Mars. It’s a book. Second, it’s a totally different experience on Earth. Here when you feel the wind blasting you in the face, or watch it dismantle a house during a tornado, it’s the momentum of the air particles hammering into it.

An illustration of a dust storm on Mars. Credit: Brian Grimm and Nilton Renno
An illustration of a dust storm on Mars. Credit: Brian Grimm and Nilton Renno

That momentum comes from air particle density and their velocity. Sadly, the density of the atmosphere on Mars is a delicate 1% of what we’re used to. It’s got the velocity, but it just doesn’t have the density.

It’s the difference between getting hit by a garden hose and a firehose with the same nozzle speed. One would gets you soaked, the other can push you down the street and give you bruises.

To feel a slight breeze on Mars similar to Earth, you multiply the wind speed by 10. So, if the wind was going about 15 km/h here, you’d need to be hit by winds going about 150 km/h there to have the same experience.

It’s not impossible for winds to go that fast on Mars, but that’s still not enough wind to fly a kite. To get it off the ground your mission buddy holds the kite, and you run around in the dumb Martian sand like a try-hard ass.

It would fly for a second and then crash down. You’d wonder why you even brought a kite to Mars in the first place because it’s NEVER windy enough.

Boo hoo. Your Mars kite doesn’t work. Good news! You’re on Mars!
Bad news. It was a one way trip. Good news! A wizard has made you immortal!
Bad news. The wizard has brought to life the entire fictional cast of the Twilight series and they’re also there and immortal. Have fun brooding with your new dorky friends, FOR ETERNITY.

What I’m saying is you could stand on the red planet restaurant patio and laugh at anything the weather system could throw at you. That is unless, you’re solar powered.

Opportunity Rover. Credit: NASA
Opportunity Rover. Credit: NASA

Mars gets regular dust storms. From time to time, they can get truly global. In 2001, a storm picked up enough dust to shroud the entire planet in a red haze. Temperatures went up as dust helped trap heat in the atmosphere. This storm lasted for 3 months before temperatures cooled, and the dust settled back down again.

During a storm in 2007, dust blocked 99% of the light reaching the solar panels of the Opportunity rover. This severely decreased the energy it had to power its instruments, and most importantly, the heaters. Ultimately, it was possible that the cold could kill the rover, if the dust hadn’t subsided quickly enough.

If you happen to see a movie or read a book about an astronaut on Mars dealing with a dangerous dust storm, don’t worry. They’ll be fine, the wind won’t shred them to pieces. Instead, focus on unbreathably thin atmosphere, the bone chilling cold, or the constant deadly radiation.

That and where’s their food come from again? Well, now you know dust storms aren’t a big issue. Want to travel to Mars? Tell us in the comments below.

If you haven’t checked it out yet, go read “The Martian”. Jay and I loved the pants off it and we can’t wait to see the film version.

How Bad Can Solar Storms Get?

Our Sun regularly pelts the Earth with all kinds of radiation and charged particles. Just how bad can these solar storms get?

In today’s episode, we’re going to remind you how looking outside of the snow globe can inspire your next existential crisis.

You guys remember the Sun right? Look how happy that little fella is. The Sun is our friend! Life started because of the Sun! Oooh, look, the Sun has a baby face! It’s a beautiful, ball of warmth and goodness, lighting up our skies and bringing happiness into our hearts.

It’s a round yellow circle in crayon. Very stable and firmly edged. Occasionally drawn with a orange lion’s mane for coronal effects. Nothing to be afraid, right?

Wake up sheeple. It’s time to pull back the curtain of the marketing world, big crayon fridge art and the children’s television conspiracy of our brightly glowing neighborhood monstrosity. That thing is more dangerous than you can ever imagine.

You know the Sun is a nuclear reaction right next door. Like it’s right there. RIGHT THERE! It’s a mass of incandescent gas, with a boiling bubbling surface of super-heated hydrogen. It’s filled with a deep yellow rage, expressed every few days by lashing out millions of kilometers into space with fiery death tendrils and blasts of super radiation.

The magnetic field lines on the Sun snap and reconnect, releasing a massive amount of radiation and creating solar flares. Solar plasma constrained in the magnetic loop is instantly released, smashed together and potentially generating x-ray radiation.

“Big deal. I get x-rayed all the time.” you might think. We the mighty humans have mastered the X-ray spectrum! Not so fast puny mortal. Just a single x-ray class flare can blast out more juice than 100 billion nuclear explosions.

 In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO
In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

Then it’s just a quick 8 minute trip to your house, where the radiation hits us with no warning. Solar flares can lead to coronal mass ejections, and they can happen other times too, where huge bubbles of gas are ejected from the Sun and blasted into space. This cosmic goo can take a few hours to get to us, and are also excellent set-ups for nocturnal emission and dutch oven jokes.

Astronomers measure the impact of a solar storm on the Earth using a parameter called DST, or “disturbance storm time”. We measure the amount that the Earth’s protective magnetosphere flexes during a solar storm event. The bigger the negative number, the worse it is.

If we can see an aurora, a geomagnetic storms in the high altitudes, it measures about -50 nanoteslas. The worst storm in the modern era, the one that overloaded our power grid in 1989, measured about -600 nanoteslas.

The most potent solar storm we have on record was so powerful that people saw the Northern Lights as far south as Cuba. Telegraph lines sparked with electricity and telegraph towers caught on fire. This was in 1859 and was clearly named by Syfy’s steampunk division. This was known as the Carrington Event, and estimated in the -800 to -1750 nanotesla range.

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day - a
A spectacular green and red aurora photographed early this morning March 17, 2015, from Donnelly Creek, Alaska. Credit: Sebastian Saarloos

So, how powerful do these things need to be to cook out our meat parts? The good news is contrary to my earlier fear mongering, the most powerful flare our Sun can generate is harmless to life on Earth.

Don’t let your guard down, the Sun is still horribly dangerous. It’ll bake us alive faster than you can say “Hansel und Gretel”. Assuming you can drag that phrase out over a billion years. As far as flares go, and so long as we stay right here, we’ll be fine. We might even see a nice aurora in the sky.

For those of you who use technology on a regular basis, you might not be so lucky. Powerful solar storms can overload power grids and fry satellites. If the Carrington Event happened now, we’d have a lot of power go out, and a small orbital scrapyard of dead satellites.

Astronauts outside the Earth, perhaps bouncing around on the Moon, or traveling to Mars would be in a universe of trouble without a good method of shielding.

The solar flares that the Sun can produce is minuscule compared to other stars out there. In 2014, NASA’s Swift satellite witnessed a flare that generated more than 10,000 times more energy than the most powerful solar flare ever seen.

Solar flare on the surface of the Sun. Image credit: NASA
Solar flare on the surface of the Sun. Image credit: NASA

For a brief moment, the surface of the red dwarf star DG Canum Venaticorum lit up hotter than 200 million degrees Celsius. That’s 12 times hotter than the center of the Sun. A blast that powerful would have scoured all life from the face of the Earth. Except the future colony of tardigrade descendants. Remember, the water bears are always watching.

Young red dwarf stars are renowned for these powerful flares, and this is one of the reasons astronomers think they’re not great candidates for life. It would be hard to survive blast after blast of radiation from these unruly stars. Alternately, planets around these stars are could be living terrariums inspired by the Gamma World RPG.

Breathe easy and don’t worry. Perhaps the Sun is our friend, and it truly does have our best interests at heart.

It’s not a big fan of our technology, though, and it’s ready to battle alongside us when the robot revolution begins. Oh, also, wear sunscreen, as the Sun’s brand of love isn’t all that different from Doctor Manhattan.

Have you ever seen an aurora display? Tell us a cool story in the comments below.

Weekly Space Hangout – May 8, 2015: Emily Rice & Brian Levine from Astronomy on Tap

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: Emily Rice & Brian Levine from Astronomy on Tap

Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Charles Black (@charlesblack / sen.com/charles-black)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – May 8, 2015: Emily Rice & Brian Levine from Astronomy on Tap”

How Do Black Holes Evaporate?

Nothing lasts forever, not even black holes. According to Stephen Hawking, black holes will evaporate over vast periods of time. But how, exactly, does this happen?

The actor Stephen Hawking is best known for his cameo appearances in Futurama and Star Trek, you might surprised to learn that he’s also a theoretical astrophysicist. Is there anything that guy can’t do?

One of the most fascinating theories he came up with is that black holes, the Universe’s swiffer, can actually evaporate over vast periods of time.

Quantum theory suggests there are virtual particles popping in and out of existence all the time. When this happens, a particle and its antiparticle appear, and then they recombine and disappear again.

When this takes place near an event horizon, strange things can happen. Instead of the two particles existing for a moment and then annihilating each other, one particle can fall into the black hole, and the other particle can fly off into space. Over vast periods of time, the theory says that this trickle of escaping particles causes the black hole to evaporate.

Wait, if these virtual particles are falling into the black hole, shouldn’t that make it grow more massive? How does that cause it to evaporate? If I add pebbles to a rock pile, doesn’t my rock pile just get bigger?

It comes down to perspective. From an outside observer watching the black hole’s event horizon, it appears as if there’s a glow of radiation coming from the black hole. If that was all that was happening, it would violate the law of thermodynamics, as energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Since the black hole is now emitting energy, it needs to have given up a little bit of its mass to provide it.

Let’s try another way to think about this. A black hole has a temperature. The more massive it is, the lower its temperature, although it’s still not zero.

From now and until far off into the future, the temperature of the largest black holes will be colder than the background temperature of the Universe itself. Light from the cosmic microwave background radiation will fall in, increasing its mass.

Viewed in visible light, Markarian 739 resembles a smiling face.  Inside are two supermassive black holes, separated by about 11,000 light-years. The galaxy is 425 million light-years away from Earth. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey
Viewed in visible light, Markarian 739 resembles a smiling face. Inside are two supermassive black holes, separated by about 11,000 light-years. The galaxy is 425 million light-years away from Earth. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Now, fast forward to when the background temperature of the Universe drops below even the coolest black holes. Then they’ll slowly radiate heat away, which must come from the black hole converting its mass into energy.

The rate that this happens depends on the mass. For stellar mass black holes, it might take 10^67 years to evaporate completely.

For the big daddy supermassive ones at the cores of galaxies, you’re looking at 10^100. That’s a one, followed by 100 zero years. That’s huge number, but just like any gigantic and finite number, it’s still less than infinity. So over an incomprehensible amount of time, even the longest living objects in the Universe – our mighty black holes – will fade away into energy.

One last thing, the Large Hadron Collider might be capable of generating microscopic black holes, which would last for a fraction of a second and disappear in a burst of Hawking radiation. If they find them, then Hawking might want to the acting on hold and focus on physics.

The LHC. Image Credit: CERN
The LHC. Image Credit: CERN

Nothing is eternal, not even black holes. Over the longest time frames we’re pretty sure they’ll evaporate away into nothing. The only way to find out is to sit back and watch, well maybe it’s not the only way.

Does the idea of these celestial nightmares evaporating fill you with existential sadness? Feel free to share your thoughts with others in the comments below.

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How Can Black Holes Shine?

We hear that black holes absorb all the light that falls into them. And yet, we hear of black holes shining so brightly we can see them halfway across the Universe. What’s going on? Which is it?

I remember back to a classic episode of the Guide to Space, where I provided an extremely fascinating and concise explanation for what a quasar is. Don’t recall that episode? Well, it was super. Just super. Alright slackers, let’s recap.

Quasars are the brightest objects in the Universe, visible across billions of light years. Likely blanching life from everything in the path of the radiation beam from its lighthouse of death. They occur when a supermassive black hole is actively feeding on material, pouring out a mountain of radiation. Black holes, of course, are regions of space with such intense gravity where nothing, not even light itself, can escape.

But wait, not so fast “recap” Fraser Cain. I call shenanigans. If black holes absorb all the radiation that falls into them, how can they be bright?

You, Fraser Cain of days of yore, cannot have it both ways. It’s either a vortex of total destruction gobbling all the matter and light that fall into them OR alternately light can escape, which still sounds good. I mean, it could be WHERE NO STUFF CAN ESCAPE, except light.

If you’ll admit that you of the past was wrong, we’ll put you in the temporal cone of shame and move on with the episode. Right? Right? Wrong.

Let’s review. Black holes are freaky complicated beasts, with many layers. And I don’t mean that in some abstract Choprian “many connections on many different levels”. They’re a gobstopper from a Sam Neill Event Horizon style hellscape. Let’s take a look at the anatomy of a black hole, and everything should fall into place, including the terror.

At the very heart of the black hole is the singularity. This is the region of compressed matter that used to be a star, or in the case of a supermassive black hole, millions or billions of times the mass of a star. Astronomers have no idea what the singularity looks like or behaves, because our understanding of physics completely breaks down, along with the rest of our brains.

Illustration of Cygnus X-1, another stellar-mass black hole located 6070 ly away. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)
Illustration of Cygnus X-1, another stellar-mass black hole located 6070 ly away. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

It’s possible that the singularity is a sphere of exotic matter, or maybe it’s constantly compressing down into an infinitely small size. It could also be a pork pie. We’ll never know, because nothing goes fast enough to escape from a black hole, not even light.

Maybe you’d need to be going 10 times the speed of light to escape. Or maybe a trillion times the speed of light. Which makes it easy; as far as we can tell, nothing can go faster than the speed of light, and so nothing is escaping.

As you get further from the singularity, the force of gravity decreases. Initially, it’ll still requires that you go faster than light. You’ll finally reach a very specific point where the escape velocity is exactly the speed of light. This is the event horizon, and it’s a different distance from the singularity with every black hole. That’s the line. Within the event horizon, the light is doomed, outside the event horizon, it can escape. This is the hard candy shell surrounding the chocolately unimaginable nightmare of physics.

So when see bright black holes, like a quasar, we’re not actually seeing light coming from inside the black hole itself or reflected of its surface. What we’re seeing is the material that’s piling up just outside the event horizon. For all its voracious hunger, a black hole’s gravitational eyes are much bigger than its stomach, and it can only feed so quickly. Excess stuff piles up around the black hole’s face and forms a vast disk of material, just like me at a Pizza Hut’s $5 all you can eat buffet. This pizza heats up until it’s like the core of a star, and starts blasting out radiation into space.

A WFPC2 image of a spiral-shaped disk of hot gas in the core of active galaxy M87. HST measurements show the disk is rotating so rapidly it contains a massive black hole at its hub.
A WFPC2 image of a spiral-shaped disk of hot gas in the core of active galaxy M87. HST measurements show the disk is rotating so rapidly it contains a massive black hole at its hub.

Everything I’ve said is for non-spinning black holes, by the way. Physicists will always make this point with great emphasis. Stay your angry comments astrophysicists, for I have said the magic stone-cutter appeasement code-word, “Non-rotating”.

Of course, black holes do rotate, and can rotate at nearly the speed of light. And this rotation changes the nature of the black hole’s event horizon in ways that make difficult math even harder. All this spinning generates powerful magnetic fields around the black hole, which focuses jets of material that blast out for hundreds of thousands of light-years. When we see these bright quasars, we’re staring right at these jets with our delicate little eyeballs.

So how can we see light coming from black holes when black holes absorb all light? It’s not coming from black holes. It’s coming from the super-heated region of junk all around the black hole. And still, anything that falls through the event horizon, whether it be light, junk, you, me or Grumpy Cat it will never been seen again.

What’s your favorite sci-fi black hole? Tell us in the comments below.

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What Is A Wolf-Rayet Star?

Wolf-Rayet stars represent a final burst of activity before a huge star begins to die. These stars, which are at least 20 times more massive than the Sun, “live fast and die hard”, according to NASA.

Their endstate is more famous; it’s when they explode as supernova and seed the universe with cosmic elements that they get the most attention. But looking at how the star gets to that explosive stage is also important.

When you look at a star like the Sun, what you are seeing is a delicate equilibrium of the star’s gravity pulling stuff in, and nuclear fusion inside pushing pressure out. When the forces are about equal, you get a stable mass of fusing elements. For planets like ours lucky enough to live near a stable star, this period can go on for billions upon billions of years.

Being near a massive star is like playing with fire, however. They grow up quickly and thus die earlier in their lives than the Sun. And in the case of a Wolf-Rayet star, it’s run out of lighter elements to fuse inside its core. The Sun is happily churning hydrogen into helium, but Wolf-Rayets are ploughing through elements such as oxygen to try to keep equilibrium.

The core of a red or blue supergiant moments before exploding as a supernova looks like an onion with multiple elements "burning" through the fusion process to create the heat to stay the force of gravity. Fusion stops at iron. With no energy pouring from the central core to keep the other elements cooking, the star collapses and the rebounding shock wave tears it apart. Credit: Wikimedia
The core of a red or blue supergiant moments before exploding as a supernova looks like an onion with multiple elements “burning” through the fusion process to create the heat to stay the force of gravity. Fusion stops at iron. With no energy pouring from the central core to keep the other elements cooking, the star collapses and the rebounding shock wave tears it apart. Credit: Wikimedia

Because these elements have more atoms per unit, this creates more energy — specifically, heat and radiation, NASA says. The star begins to blow out winds reaching 2.2 million to 5.4 million miles per hour (3.6 million to 9 million kilometers per hour). Over time, the winds strip away the outer layers of the Wolf-Rayet. This eliminates much of its mass, while at the same time freeing its elements to be used elsewhere in the Universe.

Eventually, the star runs out of elements to fuse (the process can go no further than iron). When the fusion stops, the pressure inside the star ceases and there’s nothing to stop gravity from pushing in. Big stars explode as supernova. Bigger ones see their gravity warped so much that not even light can escape, creating a black hole.

We still have a lot to learn about stellar evolution, but a few studies over the years have provided insights. In 2004, for example, NASA issued reassuring news saying these stars don’t “die alone.” Most of them have a stellar companion, according to Hubble Space Telescope observations.

A composite image with Chandra data (purple) showing a "point-like source" beside the remains of a supernova, suggesting a companion star may have survived the explosion. Hydrogen is shown in optical light (yellow and cyan) from the Magellanic Cloud Emission Line Survey and there is also optical data available from the Digitized Sky Survey (white). Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Seward et al; Optical: NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS
A composite image with Chandra data (purple) showing a “point-like source” beside the remains of a supernova, suggesting a companion star may have survived the explosion. Hydrogen is shown in optical light (yellow and cyan) from the Magellanic Cloud Emission Line Survey and there is also optical data available from the Digitized Sky Survey (white). Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Seward et al; Optical: NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS

While at first glance this appears as just a simple observation, cosmologists said that it could help us figure out how these stars get so big and bright. For example: Maybe the bigger star (the one that turns into a Wolf-Rayet) feeds off its companion over time, gathering mass until it becomes stupendously big. With more fuel, the big stars burn out faster. Other things the smaller star could influence could be the bigger star’s rotation or orbit.

Here’s a few other facts about Wolf-Rayets, courtesy of astronomer David Darling:

  • Their names come from two French astronomers, Charles Wolf and Georges Rayet, who discovered the first known star of this kind in 1867.
  • Wolf-Rayets come in two flavours: WN (emission lines of helium and nitrogen) and WC (carbon, oxygen and hydrogen).
  • Stars like our Sun evolve into more massive red giants as they run out of hydrogen to burn in the core. When these stars begin to shed their outer layers, they behave somewhat similarly to Wolf-Rayets. So they’re called “Wolf-Rayet type stars”, although they’re not exactly the same thing.

We have written many articles about stars here on Universe Today. Here’s an article about a binary pair of Wolf-Rayet stars, and the good news that WR 104 won’t kill us all. We have recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars. Here are two that you might find helpful: Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From, and Episode 13: Where Do Stars Go When they Die?