A Big Surprise from Rosetta

ESA – Scientists analysing the final telemetry sent by Rosetta immediately before it shut down on the surface of the comet last year have reconstructed one last image of its touchdown site.After more than 12 years in space, and two years following Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as they orbited the Sun, Rosetta’s historic mission concluded on 30 September with the spacecraft descending onto the comet in a region hosting several ancient pits.

It returned a wealth of detailed images and scientific data on the comet’s gas, dust and plasma as it drew closer to the surface.

But there was one last surprise in store for the camera team, who managed to reconstruct the final telemetry packets into a sharp image.

“The last complete image transmitted from Rosetta was the final one that we saw arriving back on Earth in one piece moments before the touchdown at Sais,” says Holger Sierks, principal investigator for the OSIRIS camera at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany.

“Later, we found a few telemetry packets on our server and thought, wow, that could be another image.”

During operations, images were split into telemetry packets aboard Rosetta before they were transmitted to Earth. In the case of the last images taken before touchdown, the image data, corresponding to 23 048 bytes per image, were split into six packets.

For the very last image the transmission was interrupted after three full packets were received, with 12 228 bytes received in total, or just over half of a complete image. This was not recognised as an image by the automatic processing software, but the engineers in Göttingen could make sense of these data fragments to reconstruct the image.

MUSE and the Saturn Nebula

ESO — The Saturn Nebula is located approximately 5000 light years away in the constellation of Aquarius (The Water Bearer). Its name derives from its odd shape, which resembles everyone’s favourite ringed planet seen edge-on.

But in fact, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. The Saturn Nebula was originally a low-mass star, which expanded into a red giant at the end of its life and began to shed its outer layers. This material was blown out by strong stellar winds and energised by ultraviolet radiation from the hot stellar core left behind, creating a circumstellar nebula of dust and brightly-coloured hot gas. At the heart of the Saturn Nebula lies the doomed star, visible in this image, which is in the process of becoming a white dwarf [1].

In order to better understand how planetary nebulae are moulded into such odd shapes, an international team of astronomers led by Jeremy Walsh from ESO used the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) to peer inside the dusty veils of the Saturn Nebula. MUSE is an instrument installed on one of the four Unit Telescopes of the Very Large Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. It is so powerful because it doesn’t just create an image, but also gathers information about the spectrum — or range of colours — of the light from the object at each point in the image.

The team used MUSE to produce the first detailed optical maps of the gas and dust distributed throughout a planetary nebula [2]. The resulting image of the Saturn Nebula reveals many intricate structures, including an elliptical inner shell, an outer shell, and a halo. It also shows two previously imaged streams extending from either end of the nebula’s long axis, ending in bright ansae (Latin for “handles”).

Intriguingly, the team also found a wave-like feature in the dust, which is not yet fully understood. Dust is distributed throughout the nebula, but there is a significant drop in the amount of dust at the rim of the inner shell, where it seems that it is being destroyed. There are several potential mechanisms for this destruction. The inner shell is essentially an expanding shock wave, so it may be smashing into the dust grains and obliterating them, or producing an extra heating effect that evaporates the dust.

Mapping the gas and dust structures within planetary nebulae will aid in understanding their role in the lives and deaths of low mass stars, and it will also help astronomers understand how planetary nebulae acquire their strange and complex shapes.

But MUSE’s capabilities extend far beyond planetary nebulae. This sensitive instrument can also study the formation of stars and galaxies in the early Universe, as well as map the dark matter distribution in galaxy clusters in the nearby Universe. MUSE has also created the first 3D map of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula (eso1518) and imaged a spectacular cosmic crash in a nearby galaxy (eso1437).

[1] Planetary nebulae are generally short-lived; the Saturn Nebula will last only a few tens of thousands of years before expanding and cooling to such an extent that it becomes invisible to us. The central star will then fade as it becomes a hot white dwarf.

[2] The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has previously provided a spectacular image of the Saturn Nebula — but, unlike MUSE, it cannot reveal the spectrum at each point over the whole nebula.

Image: ESO

Pluto’s Super Frost

Probably not many people (including me) gave much thought about an active environment on the Plutonian system, you know Pluto, Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. Thanks to New Horizons and other missions like it, we are rewriting text books.

NASA – These jagged geological ridges are found at the highest altitudes on Pluto’s surface, near its equator, and can soar many hundreds of feet into the sky – as high as a New York City skyscraper. They are one of the most puzzling feature types on Pluto, and it now appears the blades are related to Pluto’s complex climate and geological history.

A team led by New Horizons team member Jeffrey Moore, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, has determined that formation of the bladed terrain begins with methane freezing out of the atmosphere at extreme altitudes on Pluto, in the same way frost freezes on the ground on Earth, or even in your freezer.

“When we realized that bladed terrain consists of tall deposits of methane ice, we asked ourselves why it forms all of these ridges, as opposed to just being big blobs of ice on the ground,” said Moore. “It turns out that Pluto undergoes climate variation and sometimes, when Pluto is a little warmer, the methane ice begins to basically ‘evaporate’ away.”
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Crescent of Enceladus

Cassini may be gone, but the legacy lives on.

NASA – The brightly lit limb of a crescent Enceladus looks ethereal against the blackness of space. The rest of the moon, lit by light reflected from Saturn, presents a ghostly appearance.

Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) is back-lit in this image, as is apparent by the thin crescent. However, the Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft (or phase) angle, at 141 degrees, is too low to make the moon’s famous plumes easily visible.

This view looks toward the Saturn-facing hemisphere of Enceladus. North on Enceladus is up. The above image is a composite of images taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on March 29, 2017 using filters that allow infrared, green, and ultraviolet light. The image filter centered on 930 nm (IR) was is red in this image, the image filter centered on the green is green, and the image filter centered on 338 nm (UV) is blue.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 110,000 miles (180,000 kilometers) from Enceladus. Image scale is 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) per pixel.

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on Sept. 15, 2017.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NGC 6753 From Hubble

Galaxy NGC 6753, imaged here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, is a whirl of color — the bursts of blue throughout the spiral arms are regions filled with young stars glowing brightly in ultraviolet light, while redder areas are filled with older stars emitting in the cooler near-infrared.

But there is more in this galaxy than meets the Hubble eye. At 150 million light-years from Earth, astronomers highlighted NGC 6753 as one of only two known spiral galaxies that were both massive enough and close enough to permit detailed observations of their coronas. Galactic coronas are huge, invisible regions of hot gas that surround a galaxy’s visible bulk, forming a spheroidal shape. Coronas are so hot that they can be detected by their X-ray emission, far beyond the optical radius of the galaxy. Because they are so wispy, these coronas are extremely difficult to detect.

Galactic coronas are an example of telltale signs astronomers seek to help them determine how galaxies form. Despite the advances made in past decades, the process of galaxy formation remains an open question in astronomy. Various theories have been suggested, but since galaxies come in all shapes and sizes — including elliptical, spiral, and irregular — no single theory has so far been able to satisfactorily explain the origins of all the galaxies we see throughout the Universe.

For more information about Hubble, visit: www.nasa.gov/hubble

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Text credit: European Space Agency

NROL-42 Launch – Replay

Early this morning the US launched a satellite, NROL-42, from Vandenberg Air Force Base aboard an Atlas V rocket.

The satellite and what it does is classified so is not public. What was public was the launch time. I’m not one for looking at the comments in most videos, but from the ones I did see, a few people were wondering what was gong on.


Arecibo Observatory Damage

The Arecibo Observatory was damaged, along with the rest of Puerto Rico, by Hurricane Maria.

The National Geographic is reporting everyone is safe and that’s excellent! Initial reports indicated significant damage including:

“Because of the storm, a 96-foot line feed antenna—which helps focus, receive, and transmit radio waves—broke in half and fell about 500 feet into the huge dish below, puncturing it in several places, says Pennsylvania State University’s Jim Breakall, who talked with Vazquez.

A fixture of the observatory since 1966, that line feed weighs about ten thousand pounds and is easily visible in images of the telescope as the pointy thing hanging off the platform. It was once used to detect mountains on the surface of Venus, and it is still crucial for studies of the part of Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere, says former observatory director Frank Drake, who is also my dad.”

Read the National Geographic release by Nadia Drake, it’s very good and we appreciate the news.

Video: News – Around The World

September Equinox is Here!

Today is the September Equinox, that point where the the plane of Earths center of the Sun. Spring in the southern hemisphere and Autumn in the north.

Equinox time is 20:02 UT / 16:02 ET.

I’m not a big fan of the September Equinox. Shorter and colder days ahead.

Slingshot Day is Here

And so is the September Equinox!

Today OSIRIS-REx will fly to around 11,000 miles / 17,702 km to the Earth at 16:50 UT / 12:50 ET and will get a gravity assist to slingshot it to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.

Hubble Sees a Binary Asteroid

It’s an asteroid pair and also classified as a main belt comet. Very nice work!

NASA — Hubble was used to image the asteroid, designated 300163 (2006 VW139), in September 2016 just before the asteroid made its closest approach to the Sun. Hubble’s crisp images revealed that it was actually not one, but two asteroids of almost the same mass and size, orbiting each other at a distance of 60 miles.

Asteroid 300163 (2006 VW139) was discovered by Spacewatch in November 2006 and then the possible cometary activity was seen in November 2011 by Pan-STARRS. Both Spacewatch and Pan-STARRS are asteroid survey projects of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program. After the Pan-STARRS observations it was also given a comet designation of 288P. This makes the object the first known binary asteroid that is also classified as a main-belt comet.

The more recent Hubble observations revealed ongoing activity in the binary system. “We detected strong indications for the sublimation of water ice due to the increased solar heating — similar to how the tail of a comet is created,” explained team leader Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany.

The combined features of the binary asteroid — wide separation, near-equal component size, high eccentricity orbit, and comet-like activity — also make it unique among the few known binary asteroids that have a wide separation. Understanding its origin and evolution may provide new insights into the early days of the solar system. Main-belt comets may help to answer how water came to a bone-dry Earth billions of years ago.

The team estimates that 2006 VW139/288P has existed as a binary system only for about 5,000 years. The most probable formation scenario is a breakup due to fast rotation. After that, the two fragments may have been moved further apart by the effects of ice sublimation, which would give a tiny push to an asteroid in one direction as water molecules are ejected in the other direction.

The fact that 2006 VW139/288P is so different from all other known binary asteroids raises some questions about how common such systems are in the asteroid belt. “We need more theoretical and observational work, as well as more objects similar to this object, to find an answer to this question,” concluded Agarwal.

The research is presented in a paper, to be published in the journal Nature this week.

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.

For additional images, visit: http://hubblesite.org/news_release/news/2017-32

Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. DePasquale and Z. Levay (STScI)