NASA’s SDO Spots a Lunar Transit

On Oct. 19, 2017, the Moon photobombed NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, when it crossed the spacecraft’s view of the Sun, treating us to these shadowy images. The lunar transit lasted about 45 minutes, between 3:41 and 4:25 p.m. EDT, with the Moon covering about 26 percent of the Sun at the peak of its journey. The Moon’s shadow obstructs SDO’s otherwise constant view of the Sun, and the shadow’s edge is sharp and distinct, since the Moon has no atmosphere which would distort sunlight.

SDO captured these images in a wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light that shows solar material heated to more than 10 million degrees Fahrenheit. This kind of light is invisible to human eyes, but colorized here in green.

New NASA Study Improves Search For Habitable Worlds

New NASA research is helping to refine our understanding of candidate planets beyond our solar system that might support life.

“Using a model that more realistically simulates atmospheric conditions, we discovered a new process that controls the habitability of exoplanets and will guide us in identifying candidates for further study,” said Yuka Fujii of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), New York, New York and the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan, lead author of a paper on the research published in the Astrophysical Journal Oct. 17.

Previous models simulated atmospheric conditions along one dimension, the vertical. Like some other recent habitability studies, the new research used a model that calculates conditions in all three dimensions, allowing the team to simulate the circulation of the atmosphere and the special features of that circulation, which one-dimensional models cannot do. The new work will help astronomers allocate scarce observing time to the most promising candidates for habitability.

Liquid water is necessary for life as we know it, so the surface of an alien world (e.g. an exoplanet) is considered potentially habitable if its temperature allows liquid water to be present for sufficient time (billions of years) to allow life to thrive. If the exoplanet is too far from its parent star, it will be too cold, and its oceans will freeze. If the exoplanet is too close, light from the star will be too intense, and its oceans will eventually evaporate and be lost to space. This happens when water vapor rises to a layer in the upper atmosphere called the stratosphere and gets broken into its elemental components (hydrogen and oxygen) by ultraviolet light from the star. The extremely light hydrogen atoms can then escape to space. Planets in the process of losing their oceans this way are said to have entered a “moist greenhouse” state because of their humid stratospheres.

In order for water vapor to rise to the stratosphere, previous models predicted that long-term surface temperatures had to be greater than anything experienced on Earth – over 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66 degrees Celsius). These temperatures would power intense convective storms; however, it turns out that these storms aren’t the reason water reaches the stratosphere for slowly rotating planets entering a moist greenhouse state.

“We found an important role for the type of radiation a star emits and the effect it has on the atmospheric circulation of an exoplanet in making the moist greenhouse state,” said Fujii. For exoplanets orbiting close to their parent stars, a star’s gravity will be strong enough to slow a planet’s rotation. This may cause it to become tidally locked, with one side always facing the star – giving it eternal day – and one side always facing away -giving it eternal night.

When this happens, thick clouds form on the dayside of the planet and act like a sun umbrella to shield the surface from much of the starlight. While this could keep the planet cool and prevent water vapor from rising, the team found that the amount of near-Infrared radiation (NIR) from a star could provide the heat needed to cause a planet to enter the moist greenhouse state. NIR is a type of light invisible to the human eye. Water as vapor in air and water droplets or ice crystals in clouds strongly absorbs NIR light, warming the air. As the air warms, it rises, carrying the water up into the stratosphere where it creates the moist greenhouse.

This process is especially relevant for planets around low-mass stars that are cooler and much dimmer than the Sun. To be habitable, planets must be much closer to these stars than our Earth is to the Sun. At such close range, these planets likely experience strong tides from their star, making them rotate slowly. Also, the cooler a star is, the more NIR it emits. The new model demonstrated that since these stars emit the bulk of their light at NIR wavelengths, a moist greenhouse state will result even in conditions comparable to or somewhat warmer than Earth’s tropics. For exoplanets closer to their stars, the team found that the NIR-driven process increased moisture in the stratosphere gradually. So, it’s possible, contrary to old model predictions, that an exoplanet closer to its parent star could remain habitable.

This is an important observation for astronomers searching for habitable worlds, since low-mass stars are the most common in the galaxy. Their sheer numbers increase the odds that a habitable world may be found among them, and their small size increases the chance to detect planetary signals.

The new work will help astronomers screen the most promising candidates in the search for planets that could support life. “As long as we know the temperature of the star, we can estimate whether planets close to their stars have the potential to be in the moist greenhouse state,” said Anthony Del Genio of GISS, a co-author of the paper. “Current technology will be pushed to the limit to detect small amounts of water vapor in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state.”

In this study, researchers assumed a planet with an atmosphere like Earth, but entirely covered by oceans. These assumptions allowed the team to clearly see how changing the orbital distance and type of stellar radiation affected the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere. In the future, the team plans to vary planetary characteristics such as gravity, size, atmospheric composition, and surface pressure to see how they affect water vapor circulation and habitability.

Dawn Mission Extended At Ceres

NASA has authorized a second extension of the Dawn mission at Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. During this extension, the spacecraft will descend to lower altitudes than ever before at the dwarf planet, which it has been orbiting since March 2015. The spacecraft will continue at Ceres for the remainder of its science investigation and will remain in a stable orbit indefinitely after its hydrazine fuel runs out.

The Dawn flight team is studying ways to maneuver Dawn into a new elliptical orbit, which may take the spacecraft to less than 120 miles (200 kilometers) from the surface of Ceres at closest approach. Previously, Dawn’s lowest altitude was 240 miles (385 kilometers).

A priority of the second Ceres mission extension is collecting data with Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, which measures the number and energy of gamma rays and neutrons. This information is important for understanding the composition of Ceres’ uppermost layer and how much ice it contains.

The spacecraft also will take visible-light images of Ceres’ surface geology with its camera, as well as measurements of Ceres’ mineralogy with its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer.

The extended mission at Ceres additionally allows Dawn to be in orbit while the dwarf planet goes through perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun, which will occur in April 2018. At closer proximity to the Sun, more ice on Ceres’ surface may turn to water vapor, which may in turn contribute to the weak transient atmosphere detected by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory before Dawn’s arrival. Building on Dawn’s findings, the team has hypothesized that water vapor may be produced in part from energetic particles from the Sun interacting with ice in Ceres’ shallow surface.Scientists will combine data from ground-based observatories with Dawn’s observations to further study these phenomena as Ceres approaches perihelion.

The Dawn team is currently refining its plans for this next and final chapter of the mission. Because of its commitment to protect Ceres from Earthly contamination, Dawn will not land or crash into Ceres. Instead, it will carry out as much science as it can in its final planned orbit, where it will stay even after it can no longer communicate with Earth. Mission planners estimate the spacecraft can continue operating until the second half of 2018.

Dawn is the only mission ever to orbit two extraterrestrial targets. It orbited giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months from 2011 to 2012, then continued on to Ceres, where it has been in orbit since March 2015.

MAVEN Mission Finds Mars Has A Twisted Tail

Mars has an invisible magnetic “tail” that is twisted by interaction with the solar wind, according to new research using data from NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft is in orbit around Mars gathering data on how the Red Planet lost much of its atmosphere and water, transforming from a world that could have supported life billions of years ago into a cold and inhospitable place today. The process that creates the twisted tail could also allow some of Mars’ already thin atmosphere to escape to space, according to the research team.

“We found that Mars’ magnetic tail, or magnetotail, is unique in the solar system,” said Gina DiBraccio of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s not like the magnetotail found at Venus, a planet with no magnetic field of its own, nor is it like Earth’s, which is surrounded by its own internally generated magnetic field. Instead, it is a hybrid between the two.” DiBraccio is project scientist for MAVEN and is presenting this research at a press briefing Thursday, Oct. 19 at 12:15pm MDT during the 49th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in Provo, Utah.

The team found that a process called “magnetic reconnection” must have a big role in creating the Martian magnetotail because, if reconnection were occurring, it would put the twist in the tail.

“Our model predicted that magnetic reconnection will cause the Martian magnetotail to twist 45 degrees from what’s expected based on the direction of the magnetic field carried by the solar wind,” said DiBraccio. “When we compared those predictions to MAVEN data on the directions of the Martian and solar wind magnetic fields, they were in very good agreement.”

Mars lost its global magnetic field billions of years ago and now just has remnant “fossil” magnetic fields embedded in certain regions of its surface. According to the new work, Mars’ magnetotail is formed when magnetic fields carried by the solar wind join with the magnetic fields embedded in the Martian surface in a process called magnetic reconnection. The solar wind is a stream of electrically conducting gas continuously blowing from the Sun’s surface into space at about one million miles (1.6 million kilometers) per hour. It carries magnetic fields from the Sun with it. If the solar wind field happens to be oriented in the opposite direction to a field in the Martian surface, the two fields join together in magnetic reconnection.

The magnetic reconnection process also might propel some of Mars’ atmosphere into space. Mars’ upper atmosphere has electrically charged particles (ions). Ions respond to electric and magnetic forces and flow along magnetic field lines. Since the Martian magnetotail is formed by linking surface magnetic fields to solar wind fields, ions in the Martian upper atmosphere have a pathway to space if they flow down the magnetotail. Like a stretched rubber band suddenly snapping to a new shape, magnetic reconnection also releases energy, which could actively propel ions in the Martian atmosphere down the magnetotail into space.

Since Mars has a patchwork of surface magnetic fields, scientists had suspected that the Martian magnetotail would be a complex hybrid between that of a planet with no magnetic field at all and that found behind a planet with a global magnetic field. Extensive MAVEN data on the Martian magnetic field allowed the team to be the first to confirm this. MAVEN’s orbit continually changes its orientation with respect to the Sun, allowing measurements to be made covering all of the regions surrounding Mars and building up a map of the magnetotail and its interaction with the solar wind.

Magnetic fields are invisible but their direction and strength can be measured by the magnetometer instrument on MAVEN, which the team used to make the observations. They plan to examine data from other instruments on MAVEN to see if escaping particles map to the same regions where they see reconnected magnetic fields to confirm that reconnection is contributing to Martian atmospheric loss and determine how significant it is. They also will gather more magnetometer data over the next few years to see how the various surface magnetic fields affect the tail as Mars rotates. This rotation, coupled with an ever-changing solar wind magnetic field, creates an extremely dynamic Martian magnetotail. “Mars is really complicated but really interesting at the same time,” said DiBraccio.

New Zealand Hit By ‘Big’ 5.4 Magnitude Earthquake, Causing Landslides

New Zealand’s South Island has been struck by a “big” 5.4 magnitude earthquake, causing landslides.

The quake struck near the town of Kaikoura on Sunday, at a depth of 13km, causing strong shaking.

No casualties were reported after the earthquake struck.

“Looks like that was a bit of a rattle. Hope everyone who felt that is doing ok,” tweeted the New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management.

Residents and tourists were shaken but unhurt by the quake, which was followed by number of lighter aftershocks.

Hotel manager Ross James said it was “a big one”.

He told the New Zealand Herald: “It certainly felt like a [magnitude] five… It was short and sharp. It was very, very sharp, quick and then it was over.

“There are people here from China who only just arrived but they took it extremely well – they said ‘We’ve got earthquakes in China as well’ so they’re all happy.”

Another Kaikoura hotel employee, named Warren, told Stuff: “We’ve got eight rooms full – all bar one couple are from overseas and they weren’t sure what it was all about.

Samples Brought Back From Asteroid Reveal ‘Rubble Pile’ Had A Violent Past

Curtin University planetary scientists have shed some light on the evolution of asteroids, which may help prevent future collisions of an incoming ‘rubble pile’ asteroid with Earth.

The scientists studied two incredibly small particles brought back to Earth from the asteroid Itokawa, after they were collected in 2005 from the surface of the 500 metre-wide asteroid, by the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft.

The capsule and its precious cargo returned to Earth in 2010, landing near Woomera, Australia with only about 1500 asteroid dust particles on board – most of them much smaller than the width of a human hair.

The Geology-published research, “Collisional history of asteroid Itokawa,” used the Argon-Argon dating technique to investigate when impact crater events happened on Itokawa, offering a glimpse into the asteroid’s impact history.

Lead author of the study, Associate Professor Fred Jourdan from the Department of Applied Geology within the Curtin WA School of Mines, explained Itokawa was no ordinary asteroid, with fly-by pictures taken by Hayabusa prior to sampling in 2005 showing it had a peanut-like shape and resembled a rubble pile of boulders and dust more than solid rock.

“In fact, analyses by Japanese scientists revealed the asteroid had a violent past. Prior to being a rubble pile, Itokawa was part of a much larger asteroid that was destroyed by a collision with another asteroid. Our job was to try to find out when that collision happened,” Dr. Jourdan said.

Dr. Jourdan explained that the analyses were not without challenges, due to the extremely small size of the particles.

“Using our noble gas mass spectrometer at Curtin University, a revolutionary new machine that we customised for extra-terrestrial samples, we were able to measure tiny amounts of gas and analyse these fragments from Itokawa,” Dr. Jourdan said.

“The impact-shocked particle indicated a small-scale collision that occurred 2.1 billion years ago, whereas the other non-shocked particle preserves a very old age, similar to the formation age of the solar system itself.”
According to these results and a series of models, the scientists concluded that asteroids do not always break up due to a single cataclysmic impact. Instead, they can internally fragment due to the medium-sized collisions that constantly batter large asteroids until they shatter from impact.

“The final impact could be seen as ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’,” Dr. Jourdan said.

“Our results tell us that Itokawa was already broken and re-assembled as a rubble pile about 2.1 billion years ago, showing that ‘rubble pile’ asteroids can survive a much longer time in this state than researchers previously thought.

“This is due to their cushion-like nature and the abundance of dust in between the boulders.”

He continued to explain these research results are not only important to understand how our solar system works, but can inform us on the best way to prevent any future collisions of an incoming ‘rubble pile’ asteroid with Earth.

Due to the success of the team’s study, they have been awarded four new particles from Itokawa, and will now look for more information to be unlocked from this asteroid.

Manager of the Curtin Argon-Argon Laboratory Ms Celia Mayers said the team plans to work on samples from the Hayabusa 2 mission, which is on its way to Asteroid Ryugu, and is anticipated to bring back samples in 2020.

“We also recently set up a collaboration with China that plans to bring back samples from the moon in a few years,” Ms Mayers said.

Dr. Jourdan and his colleagues at Curtin University conducted their research at the John de Laeter Centre.

New Research Supports Extraterrestrial Phosphorous Critical to Creation of Life on Earth

It is one of the great ironies of biochemistry: life on Earth could not have begun without water; yet water stymies some chemical reactions necessary for life itself. Researchers report today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they have found a novel, even poetic solution to the so-called “water problem”.

The water problem relates primarily to the element phosphorous, which is attached to a variety of life’s molecules through a process called phosphorylation. “You and I are alive because of phosphorus and phosphorylation,” said Richard Zare, a professor of chemistry and one of the paper’s senior authors. “You can’t have life without phosphorous.”

Phosphorous is a necessary ingredient in many molecules critical for life, including our DNA, it’s relative RNA and in the molecule that makes up our body’s energy storage system, called ATP. But ordinarily water gets in the way of producing those chemicals. Modern life has evolved ways of sidestepping that problem in the form of enzymes that help phosphorylation along. But how primitive components of these molecules formed before the workarounds evolved remains a controversial and at times slightly oddball subject. Among the proposed solutions are highly reactive forms of extraterrestrial phosphorous and heating powered by naturally occurring nuclear reactions.

Microdroplets solve the phosphorylation problem in a relatively elegant way, in large part because they have geometry on their side. It turns out that water is mostly a problem when the phosphate is floating around inside a pool of water or a primitive ocean, rather than on its surface.

Microdroplets are mostly surface. They perfectly optimize the need for life to form in and around water, but with enough surface area for phosphorylation and other reactions to occur.

In fact, the large amount of surface area provided by microdroplets is already known to be a great place for chemistry. Previous experiments suggest microdroplets can increase reaction rates for other processes by a thousand or even a million times, depending on the details of the reaction being studied.

Spontaneous molecules

Microdroplets seemed like a possible solution to the water problem. But to show that they really work, Zare and his colleagues sprayed tiny droplets of water, laced with phosphorous and other chemicals, into a chamber where the resulting compounds could be analyzed. They found several phosphate-containing molecules occurred spontaneously on these lab-made microdroplets without any catalyst to get them started. Those molecules included sugar phosphates, which are a step in how our cells create energy, and one of the molecules that make up RNA, a DNA relative that primitive organisms use to carry their genetic code. Both reactions are rare at best in larger volumes of water.

That observation, joined with the fact that microdroplets are ubiquitous – from clouds in the sky to the mist created by a crashing ocean wave – suggests that they could have played a role in fostering life on Earth. In the future, Zare hopes to look for phosphates that make up proteins and other molecules.

Even if he can produce those compounds, however, Zare does not believe he and his colleagues will have found the one true solution to the origin of life. “I don’t think we’re going to understand exactly how life began on Earth,” said Zare, who is also the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science. Essentially, he said, that is because no one can go back in time to watch what happened as life emerged and there is no good fossil record for the formation of biomolecules. “But we could understand some of the possibilities,” he added.