Category Archives: Cool Stuff

This Week At NASA

An especially good episode this week. Very interesting bit on the atmosphere of the Jupiter moon Io, the sulfur dioxide atmosphere freezes onto the moons surface during the period where Jupiter shades the moon and then is restored as the shading goes away.


How About Black Holes?


From Chandra and NuStar:
The blue dots in this field of galaxies, known as the COSMOS field, show galaxies that contain supermassive black holes emitting high-energy X-rays. The black holes were detected by NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Array, or NuSTAR, which spotted 32 such black holes in this field and has observed hundreds across the whole sky so far.

The other colored dots are galaxies that host black holes emitting lower-energy X-rays, and were spotted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra data show X-rays with energies between 0.5 to 7 kiloelectron volts, while NuSTAR data show X-rays between 8 to 24 kiloelectron volts.

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NuSTAR was developed in partnership with the Danish Technical University and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Virginia. NuSTAR’s mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, and the official data archive is at NASA’s High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center. ASI provides the mission’s ground station and a mirror archive. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

Image and caption: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Planet 9 Update


We have some updated information on the planet the “numbers” say exists.  Mainly it helps explain why the Sun has an obliquity of six degrees.

Obliquity?  What is obliquity?  Easy, think of it is  just a fancy word for “tilt”.  Earth has an obliquity of a bit more than 23 degrees, it is that tilt that gives us our seasons.

Hat tip to SpaceRef for this synopsis of a paper submitted for publication (by Elizabeth Bailey, Konstantin Batygin, Michael E. Brown):

The six-degree obliquity of the sun suggests that either an asymmetry was present in the solar system’s formation environment, or an external torque has misaligned the angular momentum vectors of the sun and the planets.

However, the exact origin of this obliquity remains an open question. Batygin & Brown (2016) have recently shown that the physical alignment of distant Kuiper Belt orbits can be explained by a 5-20 Earth-mass planet on a distant, eccentric, and inclined orbit, with an approximate perihelion distance of ~250 AU.

Using an analytic model for secular interactions between Planet Nine and the remaining giant planets, here we show that a planet with similar parameters can naturally generate the observed obliquity as well as the specific pole position of the sun’s spin axis, from a nearly aligned initial state.

Thus, Planet Nine offers a testable explanation for the otherwise mysterious spin-orbit misalignment of the solar system.

Elizabeth Bailey, Konstantin Batygin, Michael E. Brown
(Submitted on 14 Jul 2016 (this version), latest version 20 Jul 2016 (v2))

Image: artist concept by NASA via SpaceRef

Quasars Help Navigating to Mars


How is ESA going to navigate to Mars?  By using quasars of course.

Very cool!!! The inset is explained below BTW.

Image and caption below: Copyright Estrack / ESA/D. Pazos – Quasar P1514-24 inset image: Rami Rekola, Univerity of Turku, 2001

From ESA:

  • In order to precisely deliver the Schiaparelli landing demonstrator module to the martian surface and then insert ExoMars/TGO into orbit around the Red Planet, it’s necessary to pin down the spacecraft’s location to within just a few hundred metres at a distance of more than 150 million km.To achieve this amazing level of accuracy, ESA experts are making use of ‘quasars’ – the most luminous objects in the Universe – as ‘calibrators’ in a technique known as Delta-Differential One-Way Ranging, or delta-DOR.Until recently, quasars were only poorly understood. These objects can emit 1000 times the energy of our entire Milky Way galaxy from a volume that it not much bigger than our Solar System, making them fearfully powerful.
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WT1190F is a ‘real-world’ example of how NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office along with contributers around the world is keeping an eye on what is sharing our space.

Video by Science@NASA

Parachute Testing



I must confess, every time I see one of these parachute tests I quickly start wondering how that anchor point is constructed. I know, technically it’s not difficult, I just seem to have this need to know what the force at the base of the column is. Some day I will gather the data and do an estimate – and yes I say that every time. I forget quickly.

Check out what the parachute must do and be amazed at what the parachute must do.

From ESA:

This is a test version of the parachute that will slow the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing module as they plummet through the martian atmosphere on 19 October.

When the module is about 11 km from the surface, descending at about 1700 km/h, the parachute will be deployed by a mortar. The parachute will slow the module to about 200 km/h by 1.2 km above the surface, at which stage it will be jettisoned.

The parachute is a ‘disc-gap-band’ type, as used for the ESA Huygens probe descent to Titan and for all NASA planetary entries so far.

The canopy, with a normal diameter of 12 m, is made from nylon fabric and the lines are made from Kevlar, a very strong synthetic material.

Tests of how the parachute will inflate at supersonic speeds were carried out with a smaller model in a supersonic wind tunnel in the NASA Glenn Research Center.

The full-scale qualification model, pictured here, was used to test the pyrotechnic mortar deployment and the strength of the parachute in the world’s largest wind tunnel, operated by the US Air Force at the National Full-Scale Aerodynamic Complex in the Ames Research Center, California.

The tower is needed to place the mortar – the horizontal tube at the top of the tower – at the centre of the wind tunnel for testing.

Schiaparelli was launched on 14 March with the Trace Gas Orbiter on a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan.

Image: USAF Arnold Engineering Development Complex

Neptune Has a New Spot


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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