In August of 2017, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected waves that were believed to be caused by a neutron star merger. This “kilonova” event, known as GW170817, was the first astronomical event to be detected in both gravitational and electromagnetic waves – including visible light, gamma rays, X-rays, and radio waves.
In the months that followed the merger, orbiting and ground-based telescopes around the world have observed GW170817 to see what has resulted from it. According to a new study by an international team of astronomers, the merger produced a narrow jet of material that made its way into interstellar space at velocities approaching the speed of light.
Human beings have known for quite some time that our behavior has a significant influence on our planet. In fact, during the 20th century, humanity’s impact on the natural environment and climate has become so profound that some geologists began to refer to the modern era as the “Anthropocene”. In this age, human agency is the most deterministic force on the planet.
But according to a comprehensive new study by an Anglo-American team of researchers, human beings might be shaping the near-space environment as well. According to the study, radio communications, EM radiation from nuclear testing and other human actions have led to the creation of a barrier around Earth that is shielding it against high-energy space radiation.
The study, which was published in the journal Space Science Reviews under the title “Anthropogenic Space Weather“, was conducted by a team of scientists from the US and Imperial College, London. Led by Dr. Tamas Gombosi, a professor at the University of Michigan and the director at the Center for Space Modelling, the team reviewed the impact anthropogenic processes have on Earth’s near-space environment.
These processes include VLF and radio-frequency (RF) radio communications, which began in earnest during the 19th century and grew considerably during the 20th century. Things became more intense during the 1960s when the United States and the Soviet Union began conducting high-altitude nuclear tests, which resulted in massive electromagnetic pulses (EMP) in Earth’s atmosphere.
To top it off, the creation of large-scale power grids has also had an impact on the near-space environment. As they state in their study:
“The permanent existence, and growth, of power grids and of VLF transmitters around the globe means that it is unlikely that Earth’s present-day space environment is entirely “natural” – that is, that the environment today is the environment that existed at the onset of the 19th century. This can be concluded even though there continue to exist major uncertainties as to the nature of the physical processes that operate under the influence of both the natural environment and the anthropogenically-produced waves.”
The existence of radiation belts (or “toroids”) around Earth has been a well-known fact since the late 1950s. These belts were found to be the result of charged particles coming from the Sun (i.e. “solar wind”) that were captured by and held around Earth by it’s magnetic field. They were named Van Allen Radiation Belts after their discover, the American space scientist James Van Allen.
The extent of these belts, their energy distribution and particle makeup has been the subject of multiple space missions since then. Similarly, studies began to be mounted around the same time to discover how human-generated charged particles, which would interact with Earth’s magnetic fields once they reached near-space, could contribute to artificial radiation belts.
However, it has been with the deployment of orbital missions like the Van Allen Probes (formerly the Radiation Belt Storm Probes) that scientists have been truly able to study these belts. In addition to the aforementioned Van Allen Belts, they have also taken note of the VLF bubble that radio transmissions have surrounded Earth with. As Phil Erickson, the assistant director at the MIT Haystack Observatory, said in a NASA press release:
“A number of experiments and observations have figured out that, under the right conditions, radio communications signals in the VLF frequency range can in fact affect the properties of the high-energy radiation environment around the Earth.”
One thing that the probes have noticed was the interesting way that the outward extent of the VLF bubble corresponds almost exactly to the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts. What’s more, comparisons between the modern extent of the radiations belts from the Van Allen Probe data shows that the inner boundary is much farther away than it appeared to be during the 1960s (when VLF transmissions were lower).
What this could mean is that the VLF bubble we humans have been creating for over a century and half has been removing excess radiation from the near-Earth environment. This could be good news for us, since the effects of charged particles on electronics and human health is well-documented. And during periods of intense space weather – aka. solar flares – the effects can be downright devastating.
Given the opportunity for further study, we may find ways to predictably and reliably use VLF transmissions to make the near-Earth environment more human and electronics-friendly. And with companies like SpaceX planning on bringing internet access to the world through broadband internet-providing satellites, and even larger plans for the commercialization of Near-Earth Orbit, anything that can mitigate the risk posed by radiation is welcome.
And be sure to check this video that illustrates the Van Allen Probes findings, courtesy of NASA:
One of the defining characteristics of the New Space era is partnerships. Whether it is between the private and public sector, different space agencies, or different institutions across the world, collaboration has become the cornerstone to success. Consider the recent agreement between the Netherlands Space Office (NSO) and the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) that was announced earlier this week.
In an agreement made possible by the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in 2015 between the Netherlands and China, a Dutch-built radio antenna will travel to the Moon aboard the Chinese Chang’e 4 satellite, which is scheduled to launch in 2018. Once the lunar exploration mission reaches the Moon, it will deposit the radio antenna on the far side, where it will begin to provide scientists with fascinating new views of the Universe.
Essentially, radio astronomy involves the study of celestial objects – ranging from stars and galaxies to pulsars, quasars, masers and the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – at radio frequencies. Using radio antennas, radio telescopes, and radio interferometers, this method allows for the study of objects that might otherwise be invisible or hidden in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
One drawback of radio astronomy is the potential for interference. Since only certain wavelengths can pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, and local radio wave sources can throw off readings, radio antennas are usually located in remote areas of the world. A good example of this is the Very-Long Baseline Array (VLBA) located across the US, and the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) under construction in Australia and South Africa.
One other solution is to place radio antennas in space, where they will not be subject to interference or local radio sources. The antenna being produced by Radbound, ASTRON and ISIS is being delivered to the far side of the Moon for just this reason. As the latest space-based radio antenna to be deployed, it will be able to search the cosmos in ways Earth-based arrays cannot, looking for vital clues to the origins of the universe.
As Heino Falke – a professor of Astroparticle Physics and Radio Astronomy at Radboud – explained in a University press release, the deployment of this radio antenna on the far side of the Moon will be an historic achievement:
“Radio astronomers study the universe using radio waves, light coming from stars and planets, for example, which is not visible with the naked eye. We can receive almost all celestial radio wave frequencies here on Earth. We cannot detect radio waves below 30 MHz, however, as these are blocked by our atmosphere. It is these frequencies in particular that contain information about the early universe, which is why we want to measure them.”
As it stands, very little is known about this part of the electromagnetic spectrum. As a result, the Dutch radio antenna could be the first to provide information on the development of the earliest structures in the Universe. It is also the first instrument to be sent into space as part of a Chinese space mission.
Alongside Heino Falcke, Marc Klein Wolt – the director of the Radboud Radio Lab – is one of the scientific advisors for the project. For years, he and Falcke have been working towards the deployment of this radio antenna, and have high hopes for the project. As Professor Wolt said about the scientific package he is helping to create:
“The instrument we are developing will be a precursor to a future radio telescope in space. We will ultimately need such a facility to map the early universe and to provide information on the development of the earliest structures in it, like stars and galaxies.”
Together with engineers from ASTRON and ISIS, the Dutch team has accumulated a great deal of expertise from their years working on other radio astronomy projects, which includes experience working on the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) and the development of the Square Kilometre Array, all of which is being put to work on this new project.
Other tasks that this antenna will perform include monitoring space for solar storms, which are known to have a significant impact on telecommunications here on Earth. With a radio antenna on the far side of the Moon, astronomers will be able to better predict such events and prepare for them in advance.
Another benefit will be the ability to measure strong radio pulses from gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, which will help us to learn more about their rotational speed. Combined with the recent ESO efforts to map Jupiter at IR frequencies, and the data that is already arriving from the Juno mission, this data is likely to lead to some major breakthroughs in our understanding of this mysterious planet.
Last, but certainly not least, the Dutch team wants to create the first map of the early Universe using low-frequency radio data. This map is expected to take shape after two years, once the Moon has completed a few full rotations around the Earth and computer analysis can be completed.
It is also expected that such a map will provide scientists with additional evidence that confirms the Standard Model of Big Bang cosmology (aka. the Lambda CDM model). As with other projects currently in the works, the results are likely to be exciting and groundbreaking!
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is easily one of the most iconic images in our Solar System, next to Saturn’s rings. The Great Red Spot and the cloud bands that surround it are easily seen with a backyard telescope. But much of what goes on behind the scenes on Jupiter has remained hidden.
When the Juno spacecraft arrives at Jupiter in about a month from now, we will be gifted some spectacular images from the cameras aboard that craft. To whet our appetites until then, astronomers using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico have created a detailed radio map of the gas giant. By using the ‘scope to peer 100 km past the cloud tops, the team has brought into view a mostly unexplored region of Jupiter’s atmosphere.
The team of researchers from UC Berkeley used the updated capabilities of the VLA to do this work. The VLA had its sensitivity improved by a factor of ten. “These Jupiter maps really show the power of the upgrades to the VLA,” said Bryan Butler, a member of the team and staff astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico.
In the video below, two overlaid maps alternate back and forth. One is optical and the other is a radio image. Together, the two show some of the atmospheric activity that takes place under the cloud tops.
The team measured Jupiter’s radio emissions in wavelengths that pass through clouds. That allowed them to see 100 km (60 miles) deep into the atmosphere. This allowed them to not only determine the quantity and depth of ammonia in the atmosphere, but also to learn something about how Jupiter‘s internal heat source drives global circulation and cloud formation.
“We in essence created a three-dimensional picture of ammonia gas in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which reveals upward and downward motions within the turbulent atmosphere,” said principal author Imke de Pater, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy.
These results will also help shed light on how other gas giants behave. Not just for Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, but for all the gas giant exoplanets that have been discovered. de Pater said that the map bears a striking resemblance to visible-light images taken by amateur astronomers and the Hubble Space Telescope.
In the radio map, ammonia-rich gases are shown rising and forming into the upper cloud layers. The clouds are easily seen from Earth-bound telescopes. Ammonia-poor air is also shown sinking into the planet’s atmosphere. Hotspots, which appear bright in radio and thermal images of Jupiter, are regions of less ammonia that encircle the planet north of the equator. In between those hotspots, rich upwellings deliver ammonia from deeper in the atmosphere.
“With radio, we can peer through the clouds and see that those hotspots are interleaved with plumes of ammonia rising from deep in the planet, tracing the vertical undulations of an equatorial wave system,” said UC Berkeley research astronomer Michael Wong. Very nice.
“We now see high ammonia levels like those detected by Galileo from over 100 kilometers deep, where the pressure is about eight times Earth’s atmospheric pressure, all the way up to the cloud condensation levels,” de Pater said.
This is fascinating stuff, and not just because it’s visually stunning. What this team is doing with the improved VLA dovetails nicely with what Juno will be doing when it gets set up in its orbit around Jupiter. One of Juno’s aims is to use microwaves to measure the water content in the atmosphere, in the same way that the VLA was used to measure ammonia.
In fact, the team will be pointing the VLA at Jupiter again, at the same time as Juno is detecting water. “Maps like ours can help put their data into the bigger picture of what’s happening in Jupiter’s atmosphere,” de Pater said.
The team was able to model the atmosphere by observing it over the entire frequency range between 4 and 18 gigahertz (1.7 – 7 centimeter wavelength), which enabled them to carefully model the atmosphere, according to David DeBoer, a research astronomer with UC Berkeley’s Radio Astronomy Laboratory.
“We now see fine structure in the 12 to 18 gigahertz band, much like we see in the visible, especially near the Great Red Spot, where we see a lot of little curly features,” Wong said. “Those trace really complex upwelling and downwelling motions there.”
The detailed observations the team obtained also help resolve a discrepancy in ammonia measurements in Jupiter’s atmosphere. In 1995, the Galileo probe measured ammonia at 4.5 times greater than the Sun, when it plunged through the atmosphere. VLA measurements prior to 2004 showed much less ammonia than that.
Study co-author Robert Sault, of the University of Melbourne in Australia, explained how this latest imaging solved that mystery. ““Jupiter’s rotation once every 10 hours usually blurs radio maps, because these maps take many hours to observe. But we have developed a technique to prevent this and so avoid confusing together the upwelling and downwelling ammonia flows, which had led to the earlier underestimate.”
Overall, it’s exciting times for studying Jupiter. The Juno mission promises to be as full of surprises as New Horizons was (we hope.)
Universe Today has covered the Juno mission, including an interview with the Principal Investigator, Scott Bolton.
The team’s paper is published in the journal Science, here.