No, a Dinosaur Skull Hasn’t Been Found on Mars: Why We See Familiar Looking Objects on the Red Planet

What is up with the fossils on Mars? Found – a dinosaur skull on Mars? Discovered – a rat, squirrel or gerbil on Mars? In background of images from Curiosity, vertebrae from some extinct Martian species? And the human skull, half buried in photos from Opportunity Rover. All the images are made of stone from the ancient past and this is also what is called Pareidolia. They are figments of our imaginations, and driven by our interest to be there – on Mars – and to know that we are not alone. Altogether, they make a multitude of web pages and threads across the internet.

Is she or isn’t she, a face on the red planet Mars? Discovered in the thousands of photos transmitted to Earth by the Viking orbiter in the 1970s, the arrival of Mars Global Surveyor included Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) which revealed details that put to rest the face of Cydonia. Actually, it is alive and well for many. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL- Viking/MGS, GIF – Judy Schmidt)

Rock-hounds and Martian paleontologists, if only amateur or retired, have found a bounty of fascinating rocks nestled among the rocks on Mars. There are impressive web sites dedicated to each’s eureka moment, dissemination among enthusiasts and presentation for discussion.

At left, MSL's Curiosity landed not far from a sight hard to leave - Yellow Knife including sight "John Klein". Inset: this authors speculative thought - mud chips? At right, is Mars enthusiasts' Bone on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL, Wikimedia)
At left, MSL’s Curiosity landed not far from a sight hard to leave – Yellow Knife including sight “John Klein”. Inset: this authors speculative thought – mud chips? At right, is Mars enthusiasts’ Bone on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL, Wikimedia)

NASA scientists have sent the most advanced robotic vehicles to the surface of Mars, to the most fascinating and diverse areas that are presently reachable with our technology and landing skills. The results have been astounding scientifially but also in terms of mysteries and fascination with the strange, alien formations. Some clearly not unlike our own and others that must be fossil remnants from a bygone era – so it seems.

Be sure to explore, through the hyperlinks, many NASA, NASA affiliates’ and third party websites – embedded throughout this article. Also, links to specific websites are listed at the end of the article.

The Dinosaur skull on Mars is actually dated from Martian Sol 297 (June 7, 2013). The imager used to return this and an historic array of landscapes, close-ups and selfies is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). MSL Curiosity includes the NAVCAM, cameras for navigation, HAZCAM, MASTCAM,and MARDI cameras. Together, the array of images is historic and overwhelming raising more questions than answers including speculative and imaginative "discoveries." (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)
The Dinosaur skull on Mars is actually dated from Martian Sol 297 (June 7, 2013). The imager used to return this was the MASTCAM and an historic array of landscapes, close-ups and selfies has been produced by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Other MSL Curiosity cameras are the NAVCAM, cameras for navigation, HAZCAM and MARDI camera. The array of images is historic and overwhelming raising more questions than answers including speculative and imaginative “discoveries.” (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)

The centerpiece of recent interest is the dinosaur skull protruding from the Martian regolith, teeth still embedded, sparkling efferdent white. There are no sockets for these teeth. Dinosaur dentures gave this senior citizen a few extra good years. The jaw line of the skull has no joint or connection point with the skull. So our minds make up the deficits, fill in the blanks and we agree with others and convince ourselves that this is a fossilized skull. Who knows how this animal could have evolved differently.

But evolve it did – within our minds. Referencing online dictionaries [ref], “Pareidolia is the imagined perception of a pattern (or meaning) where it does not actually exist, as in considering the moon to have human features.” I must admit that I do not seek out these “discoveries” on Mars but I enjoy looking at them and there are many scientists at JPL that have the same bent. Mars never fails to deliver and caters to everyone, but when skulls and fossils are seen, it is actually us catering to the everyday images and wishes we hold in our minds.

No one is left out of the imagery returned from the array of NASA's Martian assets in orbit.  Mars exhibits an incredible display of wind swept sand dunes (center photo). (Photo Credits: NASA, Paramount Pictures)
No one is left out of the imagery returned from the array of NASA’s Martian assets in orbit. Mars exhibits an incredible display of wind swept sand dunes (center photo). (Photo Credits: NASA, Paramount Pictures)

The “Rat on Mars” (main figure, top center) is actually quite anatomically complete and hunkered down, having taken its final gasps of air, eons ago, as some cataclysmic event tore the final vestiges of Earth-like atmosphere off the surface. It died where it once roamed and foraged for … nuts and berries? Surprisingly, no nuts have been found. Blueberries – yes – they are plentiful on Mars and could have been an excellent nutritional source for rats; high in iron and possibly like their Earthly counterpart, high in anti-oxidants.

The Blueberries of Mars are actually concretions of iron rich minerals from water - ground or standing pools - created over thousands of years during periodic epochs of wet climates on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL/Cornell)
The Blueberries of Mars are actually concretions of iron rich minerals from water – ground or standing pools – created over thousands of years during periodic epochs of wet climates on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL/Cornell)

The blueberries were popularized by Dr. Steve Squyres, the project scientist of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. Discovered in Eagle crater and across Meridiani Planum, “Blueberries” are spherules of concretions of iron rich minerals from water. It is a prime chapter in the follow-the-water story of Mars. And not far from the definition of Pareidolia, Eagle Crater refers to the incredible set of landing bounces that sent “Oppy” inside its capsule, surrounded by airbags on a hole-in-one landing into that little crater.

When the global dust storm cleared, Mariner 9's fist landfall was the tip of Olympus Mons, 90,000 feet above its base. Two decades later, Mars Global Surveyors laser altimeter data was used to computer generate this image. At left are sand dunes near the north pole were photographed in 2008 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (MROC). The sand dunes challenge scientists' understanding of Mars' geology and meterology while fueling speculation that such features are plants or trees on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)
When the global dust storm cleared, Mariner 9’s first landfall was the tip of Olympus Mons, 90,000 feet above its base. Two decades later, Mars Global Surveyors laser altimeter data was used to computer generate this image(NASA Solar System Exploration page). At left are sand dunes near the north pole photographed in 2008 (APOD) by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera. The sand dunes challenge scientists’ understanding of Mars’ geology and meterology while fueling speculation that such features are plants or trees on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL)

Next, is the face of Mars of the Cydonia region (Images of Cydonia, Mars, NSSDC). As seen in the morphed images, above, the lower resolution Viking orbiter images presented Mars-o-philes clear evidence of a lost civilization. Then, Washington handed NASA several years of scant funding for planetary science, and not until Mars Global Surveyor, was the Face of Cydonia photographed again. The Mars Orbiter Camera from the University of Arizona delivered high resolution images that dismissed the notion of a mountain-sized carving. Nonetheless, this region of Mars is truly fascinating geologically and does not disappoint those in search of past civilizations.

At left, drawings by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli coinciding with Mars' close opposition with Earth in 1877. At right, the drawings of Percival Lowell who built the fine observatory in Flagstaff to support his interest in Mars and the search for a ninth planet. H.G. Wells published his book "War of the Worlds" in 1897. (Image Credits: Wikipedia)
At left, drawings by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli coinciding with Mars’ close opposition with Earth in 1877. At right, the drawings of Percival Lowell who built the fine observatory in Flagstaff to support his interest in Mars and the search for a ninth planet. H.G. Wells published his book “War of the Worlds” in 1897. (Image Credits: Wikipedia)

And long before the face on Mars in Cydonia, there were the canals of Mars. Spotted by the Mars observer Schiaparelli, the astronomer described them as “channels” in his native language of Italian. The translation of the word turned to “Canals” in English which led the World to imagine that an advanced civilization existed on Mars. Imagine if you can for a moment, this world without Internet or TV or radio and even seldom a newspaper to read. When news arrived, people took it verbatim. Canals, civilizations – imagine how imaginations could run with this and all that actually came from it. It turns out that the canals or channels of Mars as seen with the naked eye were optical illusions and a form of Pareidolia.

So, as our imagery from Mars continues to return in ever greater detail and depth, scenes of pareidolia will fall to reason and we are left with understanding. It might seem sterile and clinical but its not. We can continue to enjoy these fascinating rocks – dinosaurs, rats, skulls, human figures – just as we enjoy a good episode of Saturday Night Live. And neither the science or the pareidolia should rob us of our ability to see the shear beauty of Mars, the fourth rock from the Sun.

Having supported Mars Phoenix software development includin the final reviews of the EDL command sequence, I was keen to watch images arrive from the lander. The image was on a office wall entertaining the appearance of a not-so-tasty junk food item on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona, Illustration - T.Reyes)
Having supported Mars Phoenix software development including the final reviews of the EDL command sequence, I was keen to watch images arrive from the lander. The image was on an office wall entertaining the appearance of a not-so-tasty junk food item on Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona, Illustration – T.Reyes)

In the article’s main image, what should not be included is the conglomerate rock on Mars. NASA/JPL scientists and geologists quickly recognized this as another remnant of Martian hydrologics – the flow of water and specifically, the bottom of a stream bed (NASA Rover Finds Old Streambed on Martian Surface). Truly a remarkable discovery and so similar to conglomerate rocks on Earth.

Favorite Images From Mars Rover Curiosity, NASA/JPL

The BeautifulMars Project: Making Mars Speak Human, University of Arizona

MRO HiRISE, High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, University of Arizona

Nine Planets, Mars, general information and links to many other sites

Mars Phoenix Lander, University of Arizona web site

Mind-Blowing Beauty of Mars’ Dunes: HiRISE Photo, Discovery Channel

Two Sources of Mars Anomaly Imagery and Discussion: One, Two

Bizarre Mars: Did Lava Bubbles Wrinkle This Giant Circle?

NASA is puzzled by this “enigmatic landform” caught on camera by one of its Mars orbiters, but looking around the region provides some possible clues. This 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) feature is surrounded by relatively young lava flows, so they suspect that it could be some kind of volcanism in the Athabasca area that created this rippled surface.

“Perhaps lava has intruded underneath this mound and pushed it up from beneath. It looks as if material is missing from the mound, so it is also possible that there was a significant amount of ice in the mound that was driven out by the heat of the lava,” NASA wrote in an update on Thursday (Dec. 4).

“There are an array of features like this in the region that continue to puzzle scientists. We hope that close inspection of this … image, and others around it, will provide some clues regarding its formation.”

The picture was captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a University of Arizona payload which has released a whole slew of intriguing pictures lately. We’ve collected a sample of them below.

These transverse aeolian ridges seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are caused by wind, but scientists are unsure why this image (released in December 2014) shows two wavelengths of ripples. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
These transverse aeolian ridges seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are caused by wind, but scientists are unsure why this image (released in December 2014) shows two wavelengths of ripples. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
This area south of Coprates Chasma is an example of sulfate and clay deposits on Mars, showing water once flowed readily in this region. Why the water evaporated from the Red Planet is one question scientists are hoping to answer with missions such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which took this image (released in December 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
This area south of Coprates Chasma is an example of sulfate and clay deposits on Mars, showing water once flowed readily in this region. Why the water evaporated from the Red Planet is one question scientists are hoping to answer with missions such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which took this image (released in December 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
Arabia Terra, one of the dustiest regions on Mars, is filled with dunes such as this one captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released in December 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Arabia Terra, one of the dustiest regions on Mars, is filled with dunes such as this one captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released in December 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

It’s Complicated: Hubble Survey Finds Unexpected Diversity in Dusty Discs Around Nearby Stars

Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have completed the largest and most sensitive visible-light imaging survey of the debris disks surrounding nearby stars. These dusty disks, likely created by collisions between leftover objects from planet formation, were imaged around stars as young as 10 million years old and as mature as more than 1 billion years old.

The research was conducted by astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Center with the help of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory. The survey was led by Glenn Schneider, the results of which appeared in the Oct. 1, 2014, issue of The Astronomical Journal.

“We find that the systems are not simply flat with uniform surfaces,” Schneider said. “These are actually pretty complicated three-dimensional debris systems, often with embedded smaller structures. Some of the substructures could be signposts of unseen planets.”

In addition to learning much about the debris fields that surround neighboring stars, the study presented an opportunity to learn more about the formation of our own Solar System.

“It’s like looking back in time to see the kinds of destructive events that once routinely happened in our solar system after the planets formed,” said Schneider.

Once thought to be flat disks, the study revealed an unexpected diversity and complexity of dusty debris structures surrounding the observed stars. This strongly suggest they are being gravitationally affected by unseen planets orbiting the star.

Alternatively, these effects could result from the stars’ passing through interstellar space. In addition, the researchers discovered that no two “disks” of material surrounding stars were alike.

A circumstellar disk of debris around a matured stellar system may indicate that Earth-like planets lie within. Credit: NASA/JPL
A circumstellar disk of debris around a matured stellar system may indicate that Earth-like planets lie within. Credit: NASA/JPL

The astronomers used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to study 10 previously discovered circumstellar debris systems, plus MP Mus, a mature protoplanetary disk that is comparable in age to the youngest of the debris disks.

Irregularities observed in one ring-like system in particular (around HD 181327) resemble the ejection of a huge spray of debris into the outer part of the system from the recent collision of two bodies.

“This spray of material is fairly distant from its host star — roughly twice the distance that Pluto is from the Sun,” said co-investigator Christopher Stark of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “Catastrophically destroying an object that massive at such a large distance is difficult to explain, and it should be very rare. If we are in fact seeing the recent aftermath of a massive collision, the unseen planetary system may be quite chaotic.”

Another interpretation for the irregularities is that the disk has been mysteriously warped by the star’s passage through interstellar space, directly interacting with unseen interstellar material. “Either way, the answer is exciting,” Schneider said. “Our team is currently analyzing follow-up observations that will help reveal the true cause of the irregularity.”

Over the past few years astronomers have found an incredible diversity in the architecture of exoplanetary systems. For instance, they have found that planets are arranged in orbits that are markedly different than found in our solar system.

A collision between planets could be the reason for the debris field around HD 181327. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A collision between two bodies is one explanation for the ring-like debris system around HD 181327. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We are now seeing a similar diversity in the architecture of accompanying debris systems,” Schneider said. “How are the planets affecting the disks, and how are the disks affecting the planets? There is some sort of interdependence between a planet and the accompanying debris that might affect the evolution of these exoplanetary debris systems.”

From this small sample, the most important message to take away is one of diversity, Schneider said. He added that astronomers really need to understand the internal and external influences on these systems – such as stellar winds and interactions with clouds of interstellar material – and how they are influenced by the mass and age of the parent star, and the abundance of heavier elements needed to build planets.

Though astronomers have found nearly 4,000 exoplanet candidates since 1995, mostly by indirect detection methods, only about two dozen light-scattering, circumstellar debris systems have been imaged over that same time period.

That’s because the disks are typically 100,000 times fainter than (and often very close to) their bright parent stars. The majority have been seen because of Hubble’s ability to perform high-contrast imaging, in which the overwhelming light from the star is blocked to reveal the faint disk that surrounds the star.

The new imaging survey also yields insight into how our solar system formed and evolved 4.6 billion years ago. In particular, the suspected planet collision seen in the disk around HD 181327 may be similar to how the Earth-Moon system formed, as well as the Pluto-Charon system over 4 billion years ago. In those cases, collisions between planet-sized bodies cast debris that then coalesced into a companion moon.

Further Reading: The Hubble Site

If the Sun Were the Size of a Person, How Big Would an Asteroid Be?

I love anything that attempts to provide a sense of scale about the Solar System (see here and here for even more examples) and this one brings us down past the Sun, planets, and moons all the way to asteroid size — specifically asteroid 101955 Bennu, the target of the upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission.

Created by the OSIRIS-REx “321Science!” team, consisting of communicators, film and graphic arts students, teens, scientists, and engineers, the video shows some relative scales of our planet compared to the Sun, and also the actual size of asteroid Bennu in relation to some familiar human-made structures that we’re familiar with. (My personal take-away from this: Bennu — one of those “half grains of sand” — is a rather small target!)

A NASA New Frontiers mission, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) will launch in Sept. 2016 on a two-year journey to the asteroid 101955 Bennu. Upon arrival OSIRIS-REx will map Bennu’s surface and also measure the Yarkovsky effect, by which asteroids’ trajectories can change over time due to the small force exerted by radiant heat.

Read more: Astronomers Measure Sunlight’s Shove

OSIRIS-REx will also attempt to collect and send back a 60-gram sample of the asteroid’s surface material. Learn more about the OSIRIS-REx mission here and here.

Martian Avalanches And Defrosting Dunes Among New Gorgeous HiRISE Images

As NASA’s missions at the Red Planet age, it’s so important not to take any of the pictures beamed back to Earth for granted.

The latest release of raw images from the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005) is as close as most of us will get to seeing the Red Planet, and each picture captures a planet in action.

Snow, dust and wind are combining to make the incredible images you will see below. These shots, by the way, are close-ups colorized at the source; to see the full raw image, click on each picture you see below.

"Avalanche monitoring at steep chasma boreale headscarp", one of the images released in February 2014 from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
“Avalanche monitoring at steep chasma boreale headscarp”, one of the images released in February 2014 from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
"Avalanche monitoring at steep north polar scarp", one of the images released in February 2014 from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
“Avalanche monitoring at steep north polar scarp”, one of the images released in February 2014 from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
"Dunes with serious slope streaks dubbed tleilax", one of the images released in February 2014 from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. ("Tleilax" is a reference to Dune, a science-fiction book series most famous for the eponymous first one concerning a desert planet.) Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
“Dunes with serious slope streaks dubbed tleilax”, one of the images released in February 2014 from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. (“Tleilax” is a reference to Dune, a science-fiction book series most famous for the eponymous first one concerning a desert planet.) Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
"Cerberus region intracrater dune and ripple changes", one of the images released in February 2014 from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
“Cerberus region intracrater dune and ripple changes”, one of the images released in February 2014 from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This Exoplanet Is Turning Planetary Formation Scenarios Upside Down

What the heck is that giant exoplanet doing so far away from its star? Astronomers are still trying to figure out the curious case of HD 106906 b, a newly found gas giant that orbits at an astounding 650 astronomical units or Earth-sun distances from its host star. For comparison, that’s more than 20 times farther from its star than Neptune is from the sun.

“This system is especially fascinating because no model of either planet or star formation fully explains what we see,” stated Vanessa Bailey, a graduate astronomy student at the University of Arizona who led the research.

HD 106906 b is 11 times the size of Jupiter, throwing conventional planetary formation theory for a loop. Astronomers believe that planets gradually form from clumps of gas and dust that circle around young stars, but that process would take too long for this exoplanet to form — the system is just 13 million years old. (Our own planetary system is about 4.5 billion years old, by comparison.)

The discovery image of HD 106906 b, shown in thermal infrared light from instruments on the Magellan telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The image has been changed to take out light from its very bright host star. The planet orbits more than 20 times farther from its host star than Neptune does from the sun. (AU = astronomical units, or Earth-sun distances). Credit: Vanessa Bailey
The discovery image of HD 106906 b, shown in thermal infrared light from instruments on the Magellan telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The image has been changed to take out light from its very bright host star. The planet orbits more than 20 times farther from its host star than Neptune does from the sun. (AU = astronomical units, or Earth-sun distances). Credit: Vanessa Bailey

Another theory is that if the disc collapses quickly, perhaps it could spawn a huge planet — but it’s improbable that there is enough mass in the system for that to happen. Perhaps, the team says, this system is like a “mini binary star system”, with HD 106906 b being more or less a failed star of some sort. Yet there is at least one problem with that theory as well; the mass ratio of the planet and star is something like 1 to 100, and usually these scenarios occur in ratios of 1 to 10 or less.

“A binary star system can be formed when two adjacent clumps of gas collapse more or less independently to form stars, and these stars are close enough to each other to exert a mutual gravitation attraction and bind them together in an orbit,” Bailey stated.

“It is possible that in the case of the HD 106906 system the star and planet collapsed independently from clumps of gas, but for some reason the planet’s progenitor clump was starved for material and never grew large enough to ignite and become a star.”

Young binarys stars: Image credit: NASA
Young binary stars: Image credit: NASA

Besides puzzling out how HD 106906 b came to be, astronomers are also interested in the system because they can clearly see leftovers or a debris disk from the system’s formation. By studying this system further, astronomers hope to figure out more about how young planets evolve.

At 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius), the planet is most easily visible in infrared. The heat is from when the planet was first coalescing, astronomers said.

The astronomers spotted the planet using the Magellan telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Desert in Chile. It was visible in both the Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO) system and Clio2 thermal infrared camera on the telescope. The planet was confirmed using Hubble Space Telescope images from eight years ago, as well as the FIRE spectrograph on Magellan that revealed more about the planet’s “nature and composition”, a press release stated.

The research paper is now available on the prepublishing site Arxiv and will be published in a future issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: University of Arizona

Skim Across Mars In Virtual Reality With These New Orbital Images

Stop what you’re doing, grab the nearest 3-D glasses (red/blue type) you have available and then pretend you’re hovering above Mars for a while. These are some of the latest images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been cruising above the planet since 2006.

Make sure to click through these pictures to see the full, raw files from the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) web page. HiRISE was the imager that took these pictures. Enjoy!

"Candidate Future Landing Site at Valley North of Jezero Crater", imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
“Candidate Future Landing Site at Valley North of Jezero Crater”, imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
"Fossae Source of Outflows," a picture taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
“Fossae Source of Outflows,” a picture taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
"Floor of East Candor Chasma," a picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
“Floor of East Candor Chasma,” a picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
"Knobs with bright layers in Noctis Labyrinthus", a picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
“Knobs with bright layers in Noctis Labyrinthus”, a picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Clouds of Sand and Iron Swirl in a Failed Star’s Extreme Atmosphere

This artist's conception illustrates the brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026. NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes observed the object to learn more about its turbulent atmosphere. Brown dwarfs are more massive and hotter than planets but lack the mass required to become sizzling stars. Their atmospheres can be similar to the giant planet Jupiter's. Spitzer and Hubble simultaneously observed the object as it rotated every 1.4 hours. The results suggest wind-driven, planet-size clouds. Image credit:

Artist’s concept of brown dwarf  2MASSJ22282889-431026 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The complex weather patterns within the atmosphere of a rapidly-rotating brown dwarf have been mapped in the highest detail ever by researchers using the infrared abilities of NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes… talk about solar wind!

Sometimes referred to as failed stars, brown dwarfs form from condensing gas and dust like regular stars but never manage to gather enough mass to ignite full-on hydrogen fusion in their cores. As a result they more resemble enormous Jupiter-like planets, radiating low levels of heat while possessing bands of wind-driven eddies in their upper atmospheric layers.

Although brown dwarfs are by their nature very dim, and thus difficult to observe in visible wavelengths of light, their heat can be detected by Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope — both of which can “see” just fine in near- and far-infrared, respectively.

Led by researchers from the University of Arizona, a team of astronomers used these orbiting observatories on July 7, 2011 to measure the light curves from a brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026 (2M2228 for short.) What they found was that while 2M2228 exhibited periodic brightening in both near- and far-infrared over the course of its speedy 1.43-hour rotation, the amount and rate of brightening varied between the different wavelengths detected by the two telescopes.

ssc2013-01a_Inline

“With Hubble and Spitzer, we were able to look at different atmospheric layers of a brown dwarf, similar to the way doctors use medical imaging techniques to study the different tissues in your body.”

– Daniel Apai, principal investigator, University of Arizona

This unexpected variance — or phase shift — most likely indicates different layers of cloud material and wind velocities surrounding 2M2228, swirling around the dwarf star in very much the same way as the stormy cloud bands seen on Jupiter or Saturn.

But while the clouds on Jupiter are made of gases like ammonia and methane, the clouds of 2M2228 are made of much more unusual stuff.

ssc2013-01b_Inline“Unlike the water clouds of Earth or the ammonia clouds of Jupiter, clouds on brown dwarfs are composed of hot grains of sand, liquid drops of iron, and other exotic compounds,” said Mark Marley, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and co-author of the paper. “So this large atmospheric disturbance found by Spitzer and Hubble gives a new meaning to the concept of extreme weather.”

While it might seem strange to think about weather on a star, remember that brown dwarfs are much more gas planet-like than “real” stars. Although the temperatures of 1,100–1,600 ºF (600–700 ºC) found on 2M2228 might sound searingly hot, it’s downright chilly compared to even regular stars like our Sun, which has an average temperature of nearly 10,000 ºF (5,600 ºC). Different materials gather at varying layers of its atmosphere, depending on temperature and pressure, and can be penetrated by different wavelengths of infrared light — just like gas giant planets.

“What we see here is evidence for massive, organized cloud systems, perhaps akin to giant versions of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter,” said Adam Showman, a theorist at the University of Arizona involved in the research. “These out-of-sync light variations provide a fingerprint of how the brown dwarf’s weather systems stack up vertically. The data suggest regions on the brown dwarf where the weather is cloudy and rich in silicate vapor deep in the atmosphere coincide with balmier, drier conditions at higher altitudes — and vice versa.”

The team’s results were presented today, January 8, during the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, CA.

Read more on the Spitzer site, and find the team’s paper in PDF form here.

Inset image: the anatomy of a brown dwarf’s atmosphere (NASA/JPL).

First-Ever Image of a Black Hole to be Captured by Earth-Sized Scope

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“Sgr A* is the right object, VLBI is the right technique, and this decade is the right time.”

So states the mission page of the Event Horizon Telescope, an international endeavor that will combine the capabilities of over 50 radio telescopes across the globe to create a single Earth-sized telescope to image the enormous black hole at the center of our galaxy. For the first time, astronomers will “see” one of the most enigmatic objects in the Universe.

And tomorrow, January 18, researchers from around the world will convene in Tucson, AZ to discuss how to make this long-standing astronomical dream a reality.

During a conference organized by Dimitrios Psaltis, associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, and Dan Marrone, an assistant professor of astronomy at the Steward Observatory, astrophysicists, scientists and researchers will gather to coordinate the ultimate goal of the Event Horizon Telescope; that is, an image of Sgr A*’s accretion disk and the “shadow” of its event horizon.

“Nobody has ever taken a picture of a black hole. We are going to do just that.”

– Dimitrios Psaltis, associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory

Sgr A* (pronounced as “Sagittarius A-star”) is a supermassive black hole residing at the center of the Milky Way. It is estimated to contain the equivalent mass of 4 million Suns, packed into an area smaller than the diameter of Mercury’s orbit.

Because of its proximity and estimated mass, Sgr A* presents the largest apparent event horizon size of any black hole candidate in the Universe. Still, its size in the sky is about the same as viewing “a grapefruit on the Moon.”

So what are astronomers expecting to actually “see”?

(Read more: What does a black hole look like?)

A black hole's "shadow", or event horizon. (NASA illustration)

Because black holes by definition are black – that is, invisible in all wavelengths of radiation due to the incredibly powerful gravitational effect on space-time around them – an image of the black hole itself will be impossible. But Sgr A*’s accretion disk should be visible to radio telescopes due to its billion-degree temperatures and powerful radio (as well as submillimeter, near infrared and X-ray) emissions… especially in the area leading up to and just at its event horizon. By imaging the glow of this super-hot disk astronomers hope to define Sgr A*’s Schwarzschild radius – its gravitational “point of no return”.

This is also commonly referred to as its shadow.

The position and existence of Sgr A* has been predicted by physics and inferred by the motions of stars around the galactic nucleus. And just last month a giant gas cloud was identified by researchers with the European Southern Observatory, traveling directly toward Sgr A*’s accretion disk. But, if the EHT project is successful, it will be the first time a black hole will be directly imaged in any shape or form.

“So far, we have indirect evidence that there is a black hole at the center of the Milky Way,” said Dimitrios Psaltis. “But once we see its shadow, there will be no doubt.”

(Read more: Take a trip into our galaxy’s core)

Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham, AZ. (Used with permission from University of Arizona, T. W. Folkers, photographer.)

The ambitious Event Horizon Telescope project will use not just one telescope but rather a combination of over 50 radio telescopes around the world, including the Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona, telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy in California, as well as several radio telescopes in Europe, a 10-meter dish at the South Pole and, if all goes well, the 50-radio-antenna capabilities of the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile. This coordinated group effort will, in effect, turn our entire planet into one enormous dish for collecting radio emissions.

By using long-term observations with Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) at short (230-450 GHz) wavelengths, the EHT team predicts that the goal of imaging a black hole will be achieved within the next decade.

“What is great about the one in the center of the Milky Way is that is big enough and close enough,” said assistant professor Dan Marrone. “There are bigger ones in other galaxies, and there are closer ones, but they’re smaller. Ours is just the right combination of size and distance.”

Read more about the Tucson conference on the University of Arizona’s news site here, and visit the Event Horizon Telescope project site here.

 

More Evidence of Liquid Erosion on Mars?

 

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Terby Crater, a 170-km-wide (100-mile-wide) crater located on the northern edge of the vast Hellas Planitia basin in Mars’ southern hemisphere, is edged by variable-toned layers of sedimentary rock – possibly laid down over millennia of submersion beneath standing water. This image (false-color) from the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a portion of Terby’s northern wall with what clearly looks like liquid-formed gullies slicing through the rock layers, branching from the upper levels into a main channel that flows downward, depositing a fan of material at the wall’s base.

But, looks can be deceiving…

 

Terby Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Dry processes – especially on Mars, where large regions have been bone-dry for many millions of years – can often create the same effects on the landscape as those caused by running water. Windblown Martian sand and repetitive dry landslides can etch rock in much the same way as liquid water, given enough time. But the feature seen above in Terby seem to planetary scientists to be most likely the result of liquid erosion… especially considering that the sedimentary layers themselves seem to contain clay materials, which only form in the presence of liquid water. Is it possible that some water existed beneath Mars’ surface long after the planet’s surface dried out? Or that it’s still there? Only future exploration will tell for sure.

“While formation by liquid water is one of the proposed mechanisms for gully formation on Mars, there are others, such as gravity-driven mass-wasting (like a landslide) that don’t require the presence of liquid water. This is still an open question that scientists are actively pursuing.”

– Nicole Baugh, HiRISE Targeting Specialist

Terby Crater was once on the short list of potential landing sites for the new Mars Science Laboratory (aka Curiosity) rover but has since been removed from consideration. Still, it may one day be visited by a future robotic mission and have its gullies further explored from ground level.

Click here to see the original image on the HiRISE site.

Image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona