Category Archives: Space Telescope

Kepler Retires

After more than nine-years the Kepler spacecraft is out of fuel and has been retired. What a mission it was too, click the graphic NASA put together and view some the the accomplishments including more than 2,600 new planets found.

NASA: After nine years in deep space collecting data that indicate our sky to be filled with billions of hidden planets – more planets even than stars – NASA’s Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel needed for further science operations. NASA has decided to retire the spacecraft within its current, safe orbit, away from Earth. Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 planet discoveries from outside our solar system, many of which could be promising places for life.

“As NASA’s first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm. Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.”

Kepler has opened our eyes to the diversity of planets that exist in our galaxy. The most recent analysis of Kepler’s discoveries concludes that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars. That means they’re located at distances from their parent stars where liquid water – a vital ingredient to life as we know it – might pool on the planet surface.

The most common size of planet Kepler found doesn’t exist in our solar system – a world between the size of Earth and Neptune – and we have much to learn about these planets. Kepler also found nature often produces jam-packed planetary systems, in some cases with so many planets orbiting close to their parent stars that our own inner solar system looks sparse by comparison.

“When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago we didn’t know of a single planet outside our solar system,” said the Kepler mission’s founding principal investigator, William Borucki, now retired from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Now that we know planets are everywhere, Kepler has set us on a new course that’s full of promise for future generations to explore our galaxy.”

Launched on March 6, 2009, the Kepler space telescope combined cutting-edge techniques in measuring stellar brightness with the largest digital camera outfitted for outer space observations at that time. Originally positioned to stare continuously at 150,000 stars in one star-studded patch of the sky in the constellation Cygnus, Kepler took the first survey of planets in our galaxy and became the agency’s first mission to detect Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of their stars.

“The Kepler mission was based on a very innovative design. It was an extremely clever approach to doing this kind of science,” said Leslie Livesay, director for astronomy and physics at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who served as Kepler project manager during mission development. “There were definitely challenges, but Kepler had an extremely talented team of scientists and engineers who overcame them.”

Four years into the mission, after the primary mission objectives had been met, mechanical failures temporarily halted observations. The mission team was able to devise a fix, switching the spacecraft’s field of view roughly every three months. This enabled an extended mission for the spacecraft, dubbed K2, which lasted as long as the first mission and bumped Kepler’s count of surveyed stars up to more than 500,000.

The observation of so many stars has allowed scientists to better understand stellar behaviors and properties, which is critical information in studying the planets that orbit them. New research into stars with Kepler data also is furthering other areas of astronomy, such as the history of our Milky Way galaxy and the beginning stages of exploding stars called supernovae that are used to study how fast the universe is expanding. The data from the extended mission were also made available to the public and science community immediately, allowing discoveries to be made at an incredible pace and setting a high bar for other missions. Scientists are expected to spend a decade or more in search of new discoveries in the treasure trove of data Kepler provided.

“We know the spacecraft’s retirement isn’t the end of Kepler’s discoveries,” said Jessie Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “I’m excited about the diverse discoveries that are yet to come from our data and how future missions will build upon Kepler’s results.”

Before retiring the spacecraft, scientists pushed Kepler to its full potential, successfully completing multiple observation campaigns and downloading valuable science data even after initial warnings of low fuel. The latest data, from Campaign 19, will complement the data from NASA’s newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, launched in April. TESS builds on Kepler’s foundation with fresh batches of data in its search of planets orbiting some 200,000 of the brightest and nearest stars to the Earth, worlds that can later be explored for signs of life by missions, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, Colorado, operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

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What now for Kepler? Glad you asked:

Spitzer Views the Remains of HBH3

HBH-3 is all that remains after a supernova explosion. Here’a a link to the full sized image at NASA.

Original caption from NASA: Thin, red veins of energized gas mark the location of the supernova remnant HBH 3 in this image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The puffy, white feature in the image is a portion of the star forming regions W3, W4 and W5. Infrared wavelengths of 3.6 microns have been mapped to blue, and 4.5 microns to red. The white color of the star-forming region is a combination of both wavelengths, while the HBH 3 filaments radiate only at the longer 4.5 micron wavelength.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena, California. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/IPAC

Merging Neutron Stars

Next?

NASA: Launched nearly 15 years ago on August 25, 2003, the Spitzer Space Telescope is the final mission in NASA’s Great Observatories Program – a family of four space-based observatories, each observing the universe in a different kind of light. The other missions in the program include the visible-light Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Over the years, Spitzer, which makes observations in the infrared spectrum, has made a plethora of discoveries, including this detection of the faint afterglow of the explosive merger of two neutron stars in the galaxy NGC 4993 on September 29, 2017. The event, labeled GW170817, was initially detected nearly simultaneously in gravitational waves and gamma rays, but subsequent observations by many dozens of telescopes have monitored its afterglow across the entire spectrum of light. Spitzer’s observation came late in the game, just over six weeks after the event was first seen, but this played an important role in helping astronomers understand how many of the heaviest elements in the periodic table are created in explosive neutron star mergers.

The telescope was named after Lyman Spitzer, Jr. (1914-1997), one of the 20th century’s great astrophysicists, who made major contributions in the areas of stellar dynamics, plasma physics, thermonuclear fusion, and space astronomy. He was laos the first person to propose the idea of placing a large telescope in space and was instrumental in the development of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Penguin and Egg

These collaborative efforts and always great. By the way, what I was able to see of the eclipse was awesome! My pictures came out awful, I need a new camera.

Back to Arp 142, this from NASA: This image of distant interacting galaxies, known collectively as Arp 142, bears an uncanny resemblance to a penguin guarding an egg. Data from NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have been combined to show these dramatic galaxies in light that spans the visible and infrared parts of the spectrum.

This dramatic pairing shows two galaxies that couldn’t look more different as their mutual gravitational attraction slowly drags them closer together.

The “penguin” part of the pair, NGC 2336, was probably once a relatively normal-looking spiral galaxy, flattened like a pancake with smoothly symmetric spiral arms. Rich with newly-formed hot stars, seen in visible light from Hubble as bluish filaments, its shape has now been twisted and distorted as it responds to the gravitational tugs of its neighbor. Strands of gas mixed with dust stand out as red filaments detected at longer wavelengths of infrared light seen by Spitzer.

The “egg” of the pair, NGC 2937, by contrast, is nearly featureless. The distinctly different greenish glow of starlight tells the story of a population of much older stars. The absence of glowing red dust features informs us that it has long since lost its reservoir of gas and dust from which new stars can form. While this galaxy is certainly reacting to the presence of its neighbor, its smooth distribution of stars obscures any obvious distortions of its shape.

Eventually these two galaxies will merge to form a single object, with their two populations of stars, gas and dust intermingling. This kind of merger was likely a significant step in the history of most large galaxies we see around us in the nearby universe, including our own Milky Way.

At a distance of about 23 million light-years, these two galaxies are roughly 10 times farther away than our nearest major galactic neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. The blue streak at the top of the image is an unrelated background galaxy that is farther away than Arp 142.

Combining light from across the visible and infrared spectrums helps astronomers piece together the complex story of the life cycles of galaxies. While this image required data from both the Spitzer and Hubble telescopes to cover this range of light, NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will be able to see all of these wavelengths of light, and with dramatically better clarity.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

The Crab Nebula

The video above combines views of the Crab Nebula from five observatories: the Very Large Array, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, the XMM-Newton Observatory, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The telescopes cover a nice chunk of the the electromagnetic spectrum to build up the final image.

The product of the telescopes:

I really like the Chandra contribution, here is a look at the very center which I isolated and enlarged:

Before we get to the original caption I should mention the Crab Nebula is the very first entry in Charles Messiers famous catalog and thus has the entry of M-1. Check out the SEDS page for an excellent presentation of the history of observations.

The original caption (and thanks to the Space Telescope Science Institute:

In the summer of the year 1054 AD, Chinese astronomers saw a new “guest star,” that appeared six times brighter than Venus. So bright in fact, it could be seen during the daytime for several months.

This “guest star” was forgotten about until 700 years later with the advent of telescopes. Astronomers saw a tentacle-like nebula in the place of the vanished star and called it the Crab Nebula. Today we know it as the expanding gaseous remnant from a star that self-detonated as a supernova, briefly shining as brightly as 400 million suns. The explosion took place 6,500 light-years away. If the blast had instead happened 50 light-years away it would have irradiated Earth, wiping out most life forms.

In the late 1960s astronomers discovered the crushed heart of the doomed star, an ultra-dense neutron star that is a dynamo of intense magnetic field and radiation energizing the nebula. Astronomers therefore need to study the Crab Nebula across a broad range of electromagnetic radiation, from X-rays to radio waves.

This image combines data from five different telescopes: the VLA (radio) in red; Spitzer Space Telescope (infrared) in yellow; Hubble Space Telescope (visible) in green; XMM-Newton (ultraviolet) in blue; and Chandra X-ray Observatory (X-ray) in purple.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

Here Comes Another Comet

Hot on the heels of 45P/Honda, here comes C/2016 U1 NEOWISE and it might be visible with binoculars by next week – maybe.  2016 U1 NEOWISE is a telescope target right now and even a modest telescope should see it.

But wait, there’s more!  We may have another possible comet called 2016 WF9 coming too; “possible” being the key-word because we just don’t know for sure.

neowisecomet2

Here’s the story from NASA:
NASA’s NEOWISE mission has recently discovered some celestial objects traveling through our neighborhood, including one on the blurry line between asteroid and comet. Another–definitely a comet–might be seen with binoculars through next week.

An object called 2016 WF9 was detected by the NEOWISE project on Nov. 27, 2016. It’s in an orbit that takes it on a scenic tour of our solar system. At its farthest distance from the sun, it approaches Jupiter’s orbit. Over the course of 4.9 Earth-years, it travels inward, passing under the main asteroid belt and the orbit of Mars until it swings just inside Earth’s own orbit. After that, it heads back toward the outer solar system. Objects in these types of orbits have multiple possible origins; it might once have been a comet, or it could have strayed from a population of dark objects in the main asteroid belt.

2016 WF9 will approach Earth’s orbit on Feb. 25, 2017. At a distance of nearly 32 million miles (51 million kilometers) from Earth, this pass will not bring it particularly close. The trajectory of 2016 WF9 is well understood, and the object is not a threat to Earth for the foreseeable future.

A different object, discovered by NEOWISE a month earlier, is more clearly a comet, releasing dust as it nears the sun. This comet, C/2016 U1 NEOWISE, “has a good chance of becoming visible through a good pair of binoculars, although we can’t be sure because a comet’s brightness is notoriously unpredictable,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

As seen from the northern hemisphere during the first week of 2017, comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will be in the southeastern sky shortly before dawn. It is moving farther south each day and it will reach its closest point to the sun, inside the orbit of Mercury, on Jan. 14, before heading back out to the outer reaches of the solar system for an orbit lasting thousands of years. While it will be visible to skywatchers at Earth, it is not considered a threat to our planet either.

NEOWISE is the asteroid-and-comet-hunting portion of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. After discovering more than 34,000 asteroids during its original mission, NEOWISE was brought out of hibernation in December of 2013 to find and learn more about asteroids and comets that could pose an impact hazard to Earth. If 2016 WF9 turns out to be a comet, it would be the 10th discovered since reactivation. If it turns out to be an asteroid, it would be the 100th discovered since reactivation.

What NEOWISE scientists do know is that 2016 WF9 is relatively large: roughly 0.3 to 0.6 mile (0.5 to 1 kilometer) across.

It is also rather dark, reflecting only a few percent of the light that falls on its surface. This body resembles a comet in its reflectivity and orbit, but appears to lack the characteristic dust and gas cloud that defines a comet.

“2016 WF9 could have cometary origins,” said Deputy Principal Investigator James “Gerbs” Bauer at JPL. “This object illustrates that the boundary between asteroids and comets is a blurry one; perhaps over time this object has lost the majority of the volatiles that linger on or just under its surface.”

Near-Earth objects (NEOs) absorb most of the light that falls on them and re-emit that energy at infrared wavelengths. This enables NEOWISE’s infrared detectors to study both dark and light-colored NEOs with nearly equal clarity and sensitivity.

“These are quite dark objects,” said NEOWISE team member Joseph Masiero, “Think of new asphalt on streets; these objects would look like charcoal, or in some cases are even darker than that.”

NEOWISE data have been used to measure the size of each near-Earth object it observes. Thirty-one asteroids that NEOWISE has discovered pass within about 20 lunar distances from Earth’s orbit, and 19 are more than 460 feet (140 meters) in size but reflect less than 10 percent of the sunlight that falls on them.

A Galactic “Winter Wonderland”

hubblewinter

This space telescope collaboration (see below) was the NASA Image of the Day.  It kind of reminded me of the holiday lights so evident around the neighborhood.

Here’s the NASA description:

Although there are no seasons in space, this cosmic vista invokes thoughts of a frosty winter landscape. It is, in fact, a region called NGC 6357 where radiation from hot, young stars is energizing the cooler gas in the cloud that surrounds them.

This composite image contains X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the ROSAT telescope (purple), infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope (orange), and optical data from the SuperCosmos Sky Survey (blue) made by the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope.

Located in our galaxy about 5,500 light years from Earth, NGC 6357 is actually a “cluster of clusters,” containing at least three clusters of young stars, including many hot, massive, luminous stars. The X-rays from Chandra and ROSAT reveal hundreds of point sources, which are the young stars in NGC 6357, as well as diffuse X-ray emission from hot gas. There are bubbles, or cavities, that have been created by radiation and material blowing away from the surfaces of massive stars, plus supernova explosions.

Astronomers call NGC 6357 and other objects like it “HII” (pronounced “H-two”) regions. An HII region is created when the radiation from hot, young stars strips away the electrons from neutral hydrogen atoms in the surrounding gas to form clouds of ionized hydrogen, which is denoted scientifically as “HII”.

Researchers use Chandra to study NGC 6357 and similar objects because young stars are bright in X-rays. Also, X-rays can penetrate the shrouds of gas and dust surrounding these infant stars, allowing astronomers to see details of star birth that would be otherwise missed.

A recent paper on Chandra observations of NGC 6357 by Leisa Townsley of Pennsylvania State University appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series and is available online. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/L. Townsley et al; Optical: UKIRT; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Little Friend

cygx3

NASA’s caption:

A snapshot of the life cycle of stars has been captured where a stellar nursery is reflecting X-rays from a source powered by an object at the endpoint of its evolution. This discovery, described in our latest press release, provides a new way to study how stars form.

cygx3-labels

This composite image shows X-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (white) and radio data from the Smithsonian’s Submillimeter Array (red and blue). The X-ray data reveal a bright X-ray source to the right known as Cygnus X-3, a system containing either a black hole or neutron star (a.k.a. a compact source) left behind after the death of a massive star. Within that bright source, the compact object is pulling material away from a massive companion star. Astronomers call such systems “X-ray binaries.”

In 2003, astronomers presented results using Chandra’s high-resolution vision in X-rays to identify a mysterious source of X-ray emission located very close to Cygnus X-3 on the sky (smaller white object to the upper left). The separation of these two sources is equivalent to the width of a penny about 800 feet away. A decade later, astronomers reported the new source is a cloud of gas and dust.  In astronomical terms, this cloud is rather small – about 0.7 light years in diameter or under the distance between the Sun and Pluto’s orbit.

Astronomers realized that this nearby cloud was acting as a mirror, reflecting some of the X-rays generated by Cygnus X-3 towards Earth. They nicknamed this object the “Little Friend” due to its close proximity to Cygnus X-3 on the sky and because it also demonstrated the same 4.8-hour variability in X-rays seen in the X-ray binary.

To determine the nature of the Little Friend, more information was needed. The researchers used the Submillimeter Array (SMA), a series of eight radio dishes atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, to discover the presence of molecules of carbon monoxide. This is an important clue that helped confirm previous suggestions that the Little Friend is a Bok globule, small, dense, very cold clouds where stars can form. The SMA data also reveal the presence of a jet or outflow within the Little Friend, an indication that a star has started to form inside. The blue portion shows a jet moving towards us and the red portion shows a jet moving away from us.

These results were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, and the paper is also available online. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/M.McCollough et al, Radio: ASIAA/SAO/SMA

Hershel Looks at Orion

hershelcarbon

Click the image for the annotated version.

Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech

The original caption:

The dusty side of the Sword of Orion is illuminated in this striking infrared image from the European Space Agency’s Hershel Space Observatory.

This immense nebula is the closest large region of star formation, situated about 1,500 light years away in the constellation of Orion. The parts that are easily observed in visible light, known alternatively as the Orion Nebula or Messier 42, correspond to the light blue regions. This is the glow from the warmest dust, illuminated by clusters of hot stars that have only recently been born in this chaotic region.

The red spine of material running from corner to corner reveals colder, denser filaments of dust and gas that are scattered throughout the Orion nebula. In visible light this would be a dark, opaque feature, hiding the reservoir of material from which stars have recently formed and will continue to form in the future.

Herschel data from the PACS instrument observations, at wavelengths of 100 and 160 microns, is displayed in blue and green, respectively, while SPIRE 250-micron data is shown in red.

Within the inset image, the emission from ionized carbon atoms (C+), overlaid in yellow, was isolated and mapped out from spectrographic data obtained by the HIFI instrument. A version without the inset is also available.

Herschel is a European Space Agency mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. While the observatory stopped making science observations in April 2013, after running out of liquid coolant as expected, scientists continue to analyze its data. NASA’s Herschel Project Office is based at JPL. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel’s three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of IPAC, supports the U.S. astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.