Category Archives: Cool Stuff

Neptune Has a New Spot

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Neptune has a new spot and thanks to Hubble we can see it. Click the image for the larger version.

From Hubble (via NASA):
New images obtained on May 16, 2016, by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope confirm the presence of a dark vortex in the atmosphere of Neptune. Though similar features were seen during the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune in 1989 and by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994, this vortex is the first one observed on Neptune in the 21st century.

The discovery was announced on May 17, 2016, in a Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) electronic telegram by University of California at Berkeley research astronomer Mike Wong, who led the team that analyzed the Hubble data.

Neptune’s dark vortices are high-pressure systems and are usually accompanied by bright “companion clouds,” which are also now visible on the distant planet. The bright clouds form when the flow of ambient air is perturbed and diverted upward over the dark vortex, causing gases to likely freeze into methane ice crystals.

“Dark vortices coast through the atmosphere like huge, lens-shaped gaseous mountains,” Wong said. “And the companion clouds are similar to so-called orographic clouds that appear as pancake-shaped features lingering over mountains on Earth.”

Beginning in July 2015, bright clouds were again seen on Neptune by several observers, from amateurs to astronomers at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Astronomers suspected that these clouds might be bright companion clouds following an unseen dark vortex. Neptune’s dark vortices are typically only seen at blue wavelengths, and only Hubble has the high resolution required for seeing them on distant Neptune.

In September 2015, the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program, a long-term Hubble Space Telescope project that annually captures global maps of the outer planets, revealed a dark spot close to the location of the bright clouds, which had been tracked from the ground. By viewing the vortex a second time, the new Hubble images confirm that OPAL really detected a long-lived feature. The new data enabled the team to create a higher-quality map of the vortex and its surroundings.

Neptune’s dark vortices have exhibited surprising diversity over the years, in terms of size, shape, and stability (they meander in latitude, and sometimes speed up or slow down). They also come and go on much shorter timescales compared to similar anticyclones seen on Jupiter; large storms on Jupiter evolve over decades.

Planetary astronomers hope to better understand how dark vortices originate, what controls their drifts and oscillations, how they interact with the environment, and how they eventually dissipate, according to UC Berkeley doctoral student Joshua Tollefson, who was recently awarded a prestigious NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship to study Neptune’s atmosphere. Measuring the evolution of the new dark vortex will extend knowledge of both the dark vortices themselves, as well as the structure and dynamics of the surrounding atmosphere.
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World Atlas of Artificial Brightness

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Light pollution is a topic that has been talked about for a number of years and some progress has been made but there is a long way to go. Some communities have used new lighting designs to direct light to where it is needed and away from the sky, more needs to be done.
From SpaceRef :

The Milky Way, the brilliant river of stars that has dominated the night sky and human imaginations since time immemorial, is but a faded memory to one third of humanity and 80 percent of Americans.

A new global atlas of light pollution has been produced by Italian and American scientists, including Chris Elvidge of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information and Kimberly Baugh of NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

“We’ve got whole generations of people in the United States who have never seen the Milky Way,” said Elvidge. “It’s a big part of our connection to the cosmos ­ and it’s been lost.”

Light pollution is most extensive in countries like Singapore, Italy and South Korea, while Canada and Australia retain the darkest skies. In Western Europe, only small areas of night sky remain relatively undiminished, mainly in Scotland, Sweden and Norway. Despite the vast open spaces of the American west, almost half of the U.S. experiences light-­polluted nights.

Light pollution does more than rob humans of the opportunity to ponder the night sky. Unnatural light can confuse or expose wildlife like insects, birds and sea turtles, with often fatal consequences.

The atlas takes advantage of low­light imaging now available from the NOAA/NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellit, calibrated by thousands of ground observations. The brighter the area in this interactive map (at right), the harder it is to see stars and constellations in the night sky.

For more information about the study, see http://goo.gl/gWeZvs

To read the study in its entirety, go to http://goo.gl/dDsmju

Extraordinary Supernova Explained?

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Type 1a supernovae are considered to be sort of a standard reference because they all detonate at the same point in their evolution.

There are problems with the standard reference because sometimes there are extraordinary examples that are much brighter than they should be. Now we may have an explanation for theses extraordinary examples thanks to a Japan OISTER collaboration:

Image around SN 2012dn obtained by the Kanata Telescope at Higashi-Hiroshima Observatory. SN 2012dn is seen near the center of this figure. The host galaxy ESO 462-G016 is seen on the left side of SN 2012dn. The distance to this galaxy is known to be 130 mega-light-years. Because the supernova is a point source, the expansion cannot be measured, but the evolutions of the brightness and color are obtained.

Using data obtained through the Optical and Infrared Synergetic Telescopes for Education and Research (OISTER) in Japan, Masayuki Yamanaka, a Taro Hirao Foundation Researcher at Konan University, demonstrated that the origin of extraordinary supernovae can be explained by the ‘accretion scenario.’ The researchers discovered an anomalously strong infrared emission from ‘the extraordinary supernova’ SN 2012dn, which has never been observed in other Type Ia supernovae to date. Through detailed analysis, the researchers concluded that the infrared emission comes from the material ejected from the progenitor system.

Read the paper by Taro Hirao Foundation Researcher Masayuki Yamanaka and his colleagues.

Image: Higashi-Hiroshima Observatory

Noctilucent Clouds from the ISS

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Noctilucent clouds are beautiful and strange at the same time. You can indeed see them from the ground and are a welcome site.

This image was taken on 29 May 2016 by Tim Peake aboard the ISS:

The NASA Image of the Day caption:

Expedition 47 Flight Engineer Tim Peake of the European Space Agency photographed rare, high-altitude noctilucent or “night shining” clouds from the International Space Station on May 29, 2016.

Polar mesospheric clouds — also known as noctilucent clouds – form between 76 to 85 kilometers (47 to 53 miles) above the Earth’s surface, near the boundary of the mesosphere and thermosphere, a region known as the mesopause. At these altitudes, water vapor can freeze into clouds of ice crystals. When the sun is below the horizon and the ground is in darkness, these high clouds may still be illuminated, lending them their ethereal, “night shining” qualities.

In the late spring and summer, unusual clouds form high in the atmosphere above the polar regions of the world. As the lower atmosphere warms, the upper atmosphere gets cooler, and ice crystals form on meteor dust and other particles high in the sky. The result is noctilucent or “night-shining” clouds — electric blue wisps that grow on the edge of space. Polar mesospheric clouds can be observed from both the Earth’s surface and in orbit by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Image Credit: ESA/NASA

The Transit of the ISS

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This is a remarkable image! I have tried on numerous occasions to get an image of the International Space Station as it passes over the disk of the Sun, something always goes wrong. It is a VERY difficult endeavor with so many variables.

Then there is a master at the craft of astrophotography:  Thierry Legault. Not only did he capture the ISS, he did it during the transit of Mercury!

This from ESA (be sure to watch the video linked below):

On 9 May Mercury passed in front of the Sun as seen from Earth. These transits of Mercury occur only around 13 times every century, so astronomers all over Earth were eager to capture the event.

For astrophotographer Thierry Legault, capturing Mercury and the Sun alone was not enough, however – he wanted the International Space Station in the frame as well.

To catch the Station passing across the Sun, you need to set up your equipment within a ground track less than 3 km wide. For Thierry, this meant flying to the USA from his home near Paris, France.

On 9 May there were three possible areas to capture the Station and Mercury at the same time against the solar disc: Quebec, Canada, the Great Lakes and Florida, USA.

Choosing the right spot took considerable effort, says Thierry: “Canada had bad weather predicted and around Florida I couldn’t find a suitably quiet but public place, so I went to the suburbs of Philadelphia.”

With 45 kg of equipment, Thierry flew to New York and drove two hours to Philadelphia to scout the best spot. Even then, all the preparations and intercontinental travel could have been for nothing because the Station crosses the Sun in less than a second and any clouds could have ruined the shot.

“I was very lucky: 10 minutes after I took the photos, clouds covered the sky,” says a relieved Thierry.

“Adrenaline flows in the moments before the Station flies by – it is a one-shot chance. I cannot ask the space agencies to turn around so I can try again. Anything can happen.”

The hard work and luck paid off. The image here includes frames superimposed on each other to show the Station’s path. Mercury appears as a black dot at bottom-centre of the Sun.

For Thierry, the preparation and the hunt for the perfect shot is the best part.

“Astrophotography is my hobby that I spend many hours on, but even without a camera I encourage everybody to look up at the night sky. The International Space Station can be seen quite often and there are many more things to see. It is just a case of looking up at the right time.”

Watch a video of the pass, including another moment with an aircraft flying by. 

Visit Thierry’s homepage here: http://www.astrophoto.fr/

Image and caption: Thierry Legault and ESA

Europa

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The Jovian moon Europa might have an Earthlike chemical balance in the ocean thought to be under the surface of ice.  This enhanced image was produced by the Galileo spacecraft.

We will be learning much more about Jupiter and probably the environment it creates for its moons beginning in just over a month with the arrival of the Juno spacecraft.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ SETI Institute

From NASA:

A new NASA study modeling conditions in the ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa suggests that the necessary balance of chemical energy for life could exist there, even if the moon lacks volcanic hydrothermal activity.

Europa is strongly believed to hide a deep ocean of salty liquid water beneath its icy shell. Whether the Jovian moon has the raw materials and chemical energy in the right proportions to support biology is a topic of intense scientific interest. The answer may hinge on whether Europa has environments where chemicals are matched in the right proportions to power biological processes. Life on Earth exploits such niches.

In a new study, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, compared Europa’s potential for producing hydrogen and oxygen with that of Earth, through processes that do not directly involve volcanism. The balance of these two elements is a key indicator of the energy available for life. The study found that the amounts would be comparable in scale; on both worlds, oxygen production is about 10 times higher than hydrogen production.

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Super Pressure Balloon

Balloon launch! This one from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, at 11:35 a.m. Tuesday, May 17, (7:35 p.m. EDT Monday, May 16) on a potentially record-breaking, around-the-world test flight.

As the balloon travels around the Earth, it may be visible from the ground, particularly at sunrise and sunset, to those who live in the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes, such as Argentina and South Africa. Anyone may track the progress of the flight, which includes a map showing the balloon’s real-time location, at:
http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/newzealand/wanaka.htm

MMS Mission Returns Data

We are starting to get data back from the MMS mission.

MMS is made of four identical spacecraft that launched in March 2015. They fly in a pyramid formation to create a full 3-dimensional map of any phenomena it observes. On October 16, 2015, the spacecraft traveled straight through a magnetic reconnection event at the boundary where Earth’s magnetic field bumps up against the sun’s magnetic field.

After more than 4,000 trips though the magnetic boundaries around Earth gathering information about the way the magnetic fields and particles move a surprising result resulted. At the moment of interconnection between the sun’s magnetic field lines and those of Earth the crescents turned abruptly so that the electrons flowed along the field lines. By watching these electron tracers, MMS made the first observation of the predicted breaking and interconnection of magnetic fields in space.

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Genna Duberstein

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