News Article | October 15, 2016
The beauty of life diversity is that, to the core, we're all composed of the same matter. Carbon atoms connect to a number of elements that surround the universe, and the creation of substances in space has been the subject of research for many years. Recently, astronomers have gained more information on the creation of molecules, which is a prerequisite of any chemicals that would allow life forms to survive. The Herschel Space Observatory of the European Space Agency has found ultraviolet light from stars to be a key element in the formation of elementary molecules. This discovery dismisses the previous theory that "shock" events that cause turbulence are responsible for molecular creation. The hypothesis stated that events such as exploding supernovae or young stars spitting out material could create large shocks, which create vibrations in the materials they encounter. These vibrations could separate electrons from atoms, turning these into ions, which could then form bonds with other ions and combine to form molecules. However, the study suggests no correlation between molecule formation and the shock events. The scientists analyzed the ingredients composing carbon chemistry in the Orion Nebula, which is the closest star-forming area to Earth creating massive stars. The data from the telescope suggest that the carbon-hydrogen positive ion (CH+) molecules were created by ultraviolet emissions coming from very young stars in the nebula. Compared to our sun, they're dramatically more massive, hotter and, therefore, they emit more ultraviolet light. "On Earth, the sun is the driving source of almost all the life on Earth. Now, we have learned that starlight drives the formation of chemicals that are precursors to chemicals that we need to make life," explained Patrick Morris, researcher at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. The research for molecules began in the 1940s, when CH and CH+ were some of the first molecules ever analyzed in space. During this examination, scientists discovered that CH+ emits light rather than absorbs it, which makes it warmer than the background gas. Because of the amount of energy required for the CH+ molecule to form and its reactive nature, it gets destroyed whenever interacting with the background hydrogen in the molecular cloud. This entire chain of events makes both its high abundance and temperature harder to understand. The question of the abundance of CH+ in molecular clouds has been investigated before. However, Herschel managed to observe an area of electromagnetic spectrum, unlike any other telescope before it. This observational breakthrough allowed it to analyze the entire Orion Nebula, rather than specific stars that are part of it. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | February 15, 2017
NASA is inviting the public to help search for possible undiscovered worlds in the outer reaches of our solar system and in neighboring interstellar space. A new website, called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, lets everyone participate in the search by viewing brief movies made from images captured by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. The movies highlight objects that have gradually moved across the sky. "There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored," said lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Because there's so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed." WISE scanned the entire sky between 2010 and 2011, producing the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available. With the completion of its primary mission, WISE was shut down in 2011. It was then reactivated in 2013 and given a new mission assisting NASA's efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are asteroids and comets on orbits that bring them into the vicinity of Earth's orbit. The mission was renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). The new website uses the data to search for unknown objects in and beyond our own solar system. In 2016, astronomers at Caltech in Pasadena, California, showed that several distant solar system objects possessed orbital features indicating they were affected by the gravity of an as-yet-undetected planet, which the researchers nicknamed "Planet Nine." If Planet Nine -- also known as Planet X -- exists and is as bright as some predictions, it could show up in WISE data. The search also may discover more distant objects like brown dwarfs, sometimes called failed stars, in nearby interstellar space. "Brown dwarfs form like stars but evolve like planets, and the coldest ones are much like Jupiter," said team member Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds." Unlike more distant objects, those in or closer to the solar system appear to move across the sky at different rates. The best way to discover them is through a systematic search of moving objects in WISE images. While parts of this search can be done by computers, machines are often overwhelmed by image artifacts, especially in crowded parts of the sky. These include brightness spikes associated with star images and blurry blobs caused by light scattered inside WISE's instruments. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 relies on human eyes because we easily recognize the important moving objects while ignoring the artifacts. It's a 21st-century version of the technique astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to find Pluto in 1930, a discovery made 87 years ago this week. On the website, people around the world can work their way through millions of "flipbooks," which are brief animations showing how small patches of the sky changed over several years. Moving objects flagged by participants will be prioritized by the science team for follow-up observations by professional astronomers. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that result from the project. "Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it's exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist," said team member Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in analyzing WISE images. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration between NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the internet. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages and operates WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The WISE mission was selected competitively under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, visit: For more information about NASA's WISE mission, visit:
News Article | November 15, 2016
In a first-of-its-kind collaboration, NASA's Spitzer and Swift space telescopes joined forces to observe a microlensing event, when a distant star brightens due to the gravitational field of at least one foreground cosmic object. This technique is useful for finding low-mass bodies orbiting stars, such as planets. In this case, the observations revealed a brown dwarf. Brown dwarfs are thought to be the missing link between planets and stars, with masses up to 80 times that of Jupiter. But their centers are not hot or dense enough to generate energy through nuclear fusion the way stars do. Curiously, scientists have found that, for stars roughly the mass of our sun, less than 1 percent have a brown dwarf orbiting within 3 AU (1 AU is the distance between Earth and the sun). This phenomenon is called the "brown dwarf desert." The newly discovered brown dwarf, which orbits a host star, may inhabit this desert. Spitzer and Swift observed the microlensing event after being tipped off by ground-based microlensing surveys, including the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE). The discovery of this brown dwarf, with the unwieldy name OGLE-2015-BLG-1319, marks the first time two space telescopes have collaborated to observe a microlensing event. "We want to understand how brown dwarfs form around stars, and why there is a gap in where they are found relative to their host stars," said Yossi Shvartzvald, a NASA postdoctoral fellow based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and lead author of a study published in the Astrophysical Journal. "It's possible that the 'desert' is not as dry as we think." In a microlensing event, a background source star serves as a flashlight for the observer. When a massive object passes in front of the background star along the line of sight, the background star brightens because the foreground object deflects and focuses the light from the background source star. Depending on the mass and alignment of the intervening object, the background star can briefly appear thousands of times brighter. One way to understand better the properties of the lensing system is to observe the microlensing event from more than one vantage point. By having multiple telescopes record the brightening of the background star, scientists can take advantage of "parallax," the apparent difference in position of an object as seen from two points in space. When you hold your thumb in front of your nose and close your left eye, then open it and close your right eye, your thumb seems to move in space -- but it stays put with two eyes open. In the context of microlensing, observing the same event from two or more widely separated locations will result in different magnification patterns. "Anytime you have multiple observing locations, such as Earth and one, or in this case, two space telescopes, it's like having multiple eyes to see how far away something is," Shvartzvald said. "From models for how microlensing works, we can then use this to calculate the relationship between the mass of the object and its distance." Spitzer observed the binary system containing the brown dwarf in July 2015, during the last two weeks of the space telescope's microlensing campaign for that year. While Spitzer is over 1 AU away from Earth in an Earth-trailing orbit around the sun, Swift is in a low Earth orbit encircling our planet. Swift also saw the binary system in late June 2015 through microlensing, representing the first time this telescope had observed a microlensing event. But Swift is not far enough away from ground-based telescopes to get a significantly different view of this particular event, so no parallax was measured between the two. This gives scientists insights into the limits of the telescope's capabilities for certain types of objects and distances. "Our simulations suggest that Swift could measure this parallax for nearby, less massive objects, including 'free-floating planets,' which do not orbit stars," Shvartzvald said. By combining data from these space-based and ground-based telescopes, researchers determined that the newly discovered brown dwarf is between 30 and 65 Jupiter masses. They also found that the brown dwarf orbits a K dwarf, a type of star that tends to have about half the mass of the sun. Researchers found two possible distances between the brown dwarf and its host star, based on available data: 0.25 AU and 45 AU. The 0.25 AU distance would put this system in the brown dwarf desert. "In the future, we hope to have more observations of microlensing events from multiple viewing perspectives, allowing us to probe further the characteristics of brown dwarfs and planetary systems," said Geoffrey Bryden, JPL scientist and co-author of the study. JPL 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. NASA's Swift satellite was launched in November 2004 and is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
News Article | December 15, 2016
"We've found the apparent sweet spot in the sizes of cold planets. Contrary to some theoretical predictions, we infer from current detections that the most numerous have masses similar to Neptune, and there doesn't seem to be the expected increase in number at lower masses," said lead scientist Daisuke Suzuki, a post-doctoral researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "We conclude that Neptune-mass planets in these outer orbits are about 10 times more common than Jupiter-mass planets in Jupiter-like orbits." Gravitational microlensing takes advantage of the light-bending effects of massive objects predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity. It occurs when a foreground star, the lens, randomly aligns with a distant background star, the source, as seen from Earth. As the lensing star drifts along in its orbit around the galaxy, the alignment shifts over days to weeks, changing the apparent brightness of the source. The precise pattern of these changes provides astronomers with clues about the nature of the lensing star, including any planets it may host. "We mainly determine the mass ratio of the planet to the host star and their separation," said team member David Bennett, an astrophysicist at Goddard. "For about 40 percent of microlensing planets, we can determine the mass of the host star and therefore the mass of the planet." More than 50 exoplanets have been discovered using microlensing compared to thousands detected by other techniques, such as detecting the motion or dimming of a host star caused by the presence of planets. Because the necessary alignments between stars are rare and occur randomly, astronomers must monitor millions of stars for the tell-tale brightness changes that signal a microlensing event. However, microlensing holds great potential. It can detect planets hundreds of times more distant than most other methods, allowing astronomers to investigate a broad swath of our Milky Way galaxy. The technique can locate exoplanets at smaller masses and greater distances from their host stars, and it's sensitive enough to find planets floating through the galaxy on their own, unbound to stars. NASA's Kepler and K2 missions have been extraordinarily successful in finding planets that dim their host stars, with more than 2,500 confirmed discoveries to date. This technique is sensitive to close-in planets but not more distant ones. Microlensing surveys are complementary, best probing the outer parts of planetary systems with less sensitivity to planets closer to their stars. "Combining microlensing with other techniques provides us with a clearer overall picture of the planetary content of our galaxy," said team member Takahiro Sumi at Osaka University in Japan. From 2007 to 2012, the Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA) group, a collaboration between researchers in Japan and New Zealand, issued 3,300 alerts informing the astronomical community about ongoing microlensing events. Suzuki's team identified 1,474 well-observed microlensing events, with 22 displaying clear planetary signals. This includes four planets that were never previously reported. To study these events in greater detail, the team included data from the other major microlensing project operating over the same period, the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE), as well as additional observations from other projects designed to follow up on MOA and OGLE alerts. From this information, the researchers determined the frequency of planets compared to the mass ratio of the planet and star as well as the distances between them. For a typical planet-hosting star with about 60 percent the sun's mass, the typical microlensing planet is a world between 10 and 40 times Earth's mass. For comparison, Neptune in our own solar system has the equivalent mass of 17 Earths. The results imply that cold Neptune-mass worlds are likely to be the most common types of planets beyond the so-called snow line, the point where water remained frozen during planetary formation. In the solar system, the snow line is thought to have been located at about 2.7 times Earth's mean distance from the sun, placing it in the middle of the main asteroid belt today. A paper detailing the findings was published in The Astrophysical Journal on Dec. 13. "Beyond the snow line, materials that were gaseous closer to the star condense into solid bodies, increasing the amount of material available to start the planet-building process," said Suzuki. "This is where we think planetary formation was most efficient, and it's also the region where microlensing is most sensitive." NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), slated to launch in the mid-2020s, will conduct an extensive microlensing survey. Astronomers expect it will deliver mass and distance determinations of thousands of planets, completing the work begun by Kepler and providing the first galactic census of planetary properties. NASA's Ames Research Center manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. WFIRST is managed at Goddard, with participation by JPL, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, also in Pasadena, and a science team comprising members from U.S. research institutions across the country. More information: "The Exoplanet Mass-ratio Function from the MOA-II Survey: Discovery of a Break and Likely Peak at a Neptune Mass," D. Suzuki et al., 2016 Dec. 20, Astrophysical Journal iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-4357/833/2/145 , Arxiv: arxiv.org/abs/1612.03939
News Article | February 15, 2017
"There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored," said lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Because there's so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed." WISE scanned the entire sky between 2010 and 2011, producing the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available. With the completion of its primary mission, WISE was shut down in 2011. It was then reactivated in 2013 and given a new mission assisting NASA's efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are asteroids and comets on orbits that bring them into the vicinity of Earth's orbit. The mission was renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). The new website uses the data to search for unknown objects in and beyond our own solar system. In 2016, astronomers at Caltech in Pasadena, California, showed that several distant solar system objects possessed orbital features indicating they were affected by the gravity of an as-yet-undetected planet, which the researchers nicknamed "Planet Nine." If Planet Nine—also known as Planet X—exists and is as bright as some predictions, it could show up in WISE data. The search also may discover more distant objects like brown dwarfs, sometimes called failed stars, in nearby interstellar space. "Brown dwarfs form like stars but evolve like planets, and the coldest ones are much like Jupiter," said team member Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds." Unlike more distant objects, those in or closer to the solar system appear to move across the sky at different rates. The best way to discover them is through a systematic search of moving objects in WISE images. While parts of this search can be done by computers, machines are often overwhelmed by image artifacts, especially in crowded parts of the sky. These include brightness spikes associated with star images and blurry blobs caused by light scattered inside WISE's instruments. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 relies on human eyes because we easily recognize the important moving objects while ignoring the artifacts. It's a 21st-century version of the technique astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to find Pluto in 1930, a discovery made 87 years ago this week. On the website, people around the world can work their way through millions of "flipbooks," which are brief animations showing how small patches of the sky changed over several years. Moving objects flagged by participants will be prioritized by the science team for follow-up observations by professional astronomers. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that result from the project. "Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it's exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist," said team member Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in analyzing WISE images. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration between NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the internet. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages and operates WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The WISE mission was selected competitively under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA. Explore further: NEOWISE mission spies one comet, maybe two
News Article | August 12, 2016
Here's a wonderful feature about my favorite constellation and the galaxy's most awesome telescope (at least one of them!) from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Like cosmic ballet dancers, the stars of the Pleiades cluster are spinning. But these celestial dancers are all twirling at different speeds. Astronomers have long wondered what determines the rotation rates of these stars. By watching these stellar dancers, NASA's Kepler space telescope during its K2 mission has helped amass the most complete catalog of rotation periods for stars in a cluster. This information can help astronomers gain insight into where and how planets form around these stars, and how such stars evolve. "We hope that by comparing our results to other star clusters, we will learn more about the relationship between a star’s mass, its age, and even the history of its solar system," said Luisa Rebull, a research scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech in Pasadena, California. She is the lead author of two new papers and a co-author on a third paper about these findings, all being published in the Astronomical Journal. The Pleiades star cluster is one of the closest and most easily seen star clusters, residing just 445 light-years away from Earth, on average. At about 125 million years old, these stars -- known individually as Pleiads -- have reached stellar "young adulthood." In this stage of their lives, the stars are likely spinning the fastest they ever will. As a typical star moves further along into adulthood, it loses some zip due to the copious emission of charged particles known as a stellar wind (in our solar system, we call this the solar wind). The charged particles are carried along the star’s magnetic fields, which overall exerts a braking effect on the rotation rate of the star. Rebull and colleagues sought to delve deeper into these dynamics of stellar spin with Kepler. Given its field of view on the sky, Kepler observed approximately 1,000 stellar members of the Pleiades over the course of 72 days. The telescope measured the rotation rates of more than 750 stars in the Pleiades, including about 500 of the lowest-mass, tiniest, and dimmest cluster members, whose rotations could not previously be detected from ground-based instruments. Kepler measurements of starlight infer the spin rate of a star by picking up small changes in its brightness. These changes result from "starspots" which, like the more-familiar sunspots on our sun, form when magnetic field concentrations prevent the normal release of energy at a star’s surface. The affected regions become cooler than their surroundings and appear dark in comparison. As stars rotate, their starspots come in and out of Kepler’s view, offering a way to determine spin rate. Unlike the tiny, sunspot blemishes on our middle-aged sun, starspots can be gargantuan in stars as young as those in the Pleiades because stellar youth is associated with greater turbulence and magnetic activity. These starspots trigger larger brightness decreases, and make spin rate measurements easier to obtain. During its observations of the Pleiades, a clear pattern emerged in the data: More massive stars tended to rotate slowly, while less massive stars tended to rotate rapidly. The big-and-slow stars' periods ranged from one to as many as 11 Earth-days. Many low-mass stars, however, took less than a day to complete a pirouette. (For comparison, our sedate sun revolves fully just once every 26 days.) The population of slow-rotating stars includes some ranging from a bit larger, hotter and more massive than our sun, down to other stars that are somewhat smaller, cooler and less massive. On the far end, the fast-rotating, fleet-footed, lowest-mass stars possess as little as a tenth of our sun’s mass. "In the 'ballet' of the Pleiades, we see that slow rotators tend to be more massive, whereas the fastest rotators tend to be very light stars," said Rebull. The main source of these differing spin rates is the internal structure of the stars, Rebull and colleagues suggest. Larger stars have a huge core enveloped in a thin layer of stellar material undergoing a process called convection, familiar to us from the circular motion of boiling water. Small stars, on the other hand, consist almost entirely of convective, roiling regions. As stars mature, the braking mechanism from magnetic fields more easily slows the spin rate of the thin, outermost layer of big stars than the comparatively thick, turbulent bulk of small stars. Thanks to the Pleiades’ proximity, researchers think it should be possible to untangle the complex relationships between stars’ spin rates and other stellar properties. Those stellar properties, in turn, can influence the climates and habitability of a star’s hosted exoplanets. For instance, as spinning slows, so too does starspot generation, and the solar storms associated with starspots. Fewer solar storms means less intense, harmful radiation blasting into space and irradiating nearby planets and their potentially emerging biospheres. "The Pleiades star cluster provides an anchor for theoretical models of stellar rotation going both directions, younger and older," said Rebull. "We still have a lot we want to learn about how, when and why stars slow their spin rates and hang up their 'dance shoes,' so to speak." Rebull and colleagues are now analyzing K2 mission data from an older star cluster, Praesepe, popularly known as the Beehive Cluster, to further explore this phenomenon in stellar structure and evolution. "We’re really excited that K2 data of star clusters, such as the Pleiades, have provided astronomers with a bounty of new information and helped advance our knowledge of how stars rotate throughout their lives," said Steve Howell, project scientist for the K2 mission at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The K2 mission’s approach to studying stars employs the Kepler spacecraft's ability to precisely observe miniscule changes in starlight. Kepler’s primary mission ended in 2013, but more exoplanet and astrophysics observations continue with the K2 mission, which began in 2014. Ames 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 operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
News Article | January 26, 2016
Dark matter and dark energy are two of the greatest mysteries of the universe, still perplexing scientists worldwide. Solving these scientific conundrums may require a comprehensive approach in which theories, computations and ground-based observations are complemented by a fleet of spacecraft studying the dark universe. One of the space missions that could be essential to our understanding of these mysteries is European Space Agency's (ESA) Euclid probe, designed to unveil the secrets of dark energy and dark matter by accurately measuring the acceleration of the universe. "Euclid is designed primarily to help us understand the properties of dark energy. However, in doing so, it will utilize the exquisite precision only available to a space-based instrument to make measurements of dark matter over an unprecedented area of the sky. Thus, it will be a real breakthrough in our understanding of both dark matter and dark energy," Ulf Israelsson, NASA Euclid project manager, told Astrowatch.net. The spacecraft is currently in the construction phase after successfully passing its Preliminary Design Review in the Fall of 2015. It will be launched in 2020 on a Soyuz rocket from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. After liftoff it will be sent into orbit around the sun-Earth L2 point located approximately 1.5 million km from our planet. In order to help us understand dark matter and dark energy, Euclid will employ two primary scientific methods. "The first is weak gravitational lensing, whereby the apparent shapes of background galaxies are distorted by foreground dark matter. The second is galaxy clustering, looking at the three-dimensional distribution of galaxies," Jason Rhodes, NASA Euclid Deputy Project Scientist and the U.S. Science Lead for Euclid, told SpaceFlight Insider. The spacecraft will map the shapes, positions and movements of two billion galaxies, delivering astronomers a vast set of important data for further studies. It is expected to produce numerous deep images and spectra over at least half of the entire sky. To achieve its ambitious scientific goals, Euclid will be equipped with two main instruments: the Visible Imaging Instrument (VIS) and the Near Infrared Spectrometer and Photometer (NISP). These large format cameras will be used to characterize the morphometric, photometric and spectroscopic properties of galaxies. "Euclid will have two instruments. The first is the visible imaging instrument. It will use a single, very wide filter to perform photometry of visible light over a 15,000 square degree area on the sky. The second is the Near Infrared Spectrometer and Photometer. This instrument will use NASA-provided near infrared detectors to perform 3-band photometry in near infrared light over the same 15,000 square degrees as well as providing grism spectroscopy in the near infrared over the same area," Israelsson explained. The mission, which will last six years, will survey the sky in 'step-and-stare' mode. In this mode the telescope points to a position on the sky and imaging and spectroscopic measurements are performed on an area of about 0.5 square degrees around this position. The wide survey will cover 15,000 square degrees of extragalactic sky and the deep survey is expected to cover approximately 40 square degrees, consisting of patches of at least 10 square degrees which are about two magnitudes deeper than the wide-survey. NASA made important contributions to this mission including infrared detectors for one instrument and science and data analysis. "NASA is providing near infrared detectors and associated electronics for the NISP instrument. NASA is also developing the Euclid NASA Science Center at IPAC [Infrared Processing and Analysis Center], a node in Euclid's distributed Science Ground Segment that will process the Euclid data. The third contribution is in support of about 70 US scientists who are part of the 1,300 member Euclid Consortium," Rhodes said. Explore further: Euclid mission gets go-ahead to probe Universe's darkest secrets
News Article | April 22, 2016
Astronomers have located a new celestial body named WISEA 1147 and it resides in the TW Hydrae system of stars. This planetary object is approximately 10 million years old and estimated to be roughly five to 10 times the mass of Jupiter, according to the announcement from the University of Toledo. Its classification, though, is a lightweight star called a brown dwarf instead of a planet. NASA adds that its brown dwarf origins are more likely due to the fact that, “planets require at least 10 million years to form, and probably longer to get themselves kicked out of a star system.” Brown dwarfs form in a similar manner to stars but don’t have the mass needed to combine atoms at their cores and emit starlight needed to shine. "We are at the beginning of what will become a hot field – trying to determine the nature of the free-floating population and how many are planets versus brown dwarfs," said co-author Davy Kirkpatrick of NASA's Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, or IPAC, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, in a statement. The research team comprised of astronomers from the University of Toledo, California Institute of Technology, and UCLA discovered WISEA 1147 after sorting through images taken with NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Both tools sense infrared light, which is well suited for finding brown dwarfs since heat signatures light up through infrared images, according to NASA. Ultimately, this discovery will help scientists develop a better understanding of chemical and weather compositions of these exoplanets as well as determining how they form without external factors like a host sun or accompanying planets. The study will be published in The Astrophysics Journal. Establish your company as a technology leader! For more than 50 years, the R&D 100 Awards have showcased new products of technological significance. You can join this exclusive community! Learn more.
News Article | October 26, 2016
The dusty side of the Sword of Orion is illuminated in this striking infrared image from ESA's Hershel Space Observatory. Within the inset image, the emission from ionized carbon atoms (C+) is overlaid in yellow. Life exists in a myriad of wondrous forms, but if you break any organism down to its most basic parts, it's all the same stuff: carbon atoms connected to hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and other elements. But how these fundamental substances are created in space has been a longstanding mystery. Now, astronomers better understand how molecules form that are necessary for building other chemicals essential for life. Thanks to data from the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory, scientists have found that ultraviolet light from stars plays a key role in creating these molecules, rather than "shock" events that create turbulence, as was previously thought. Scientists studied the ingredients of carbon chemistry in the Orion Nebula, the closest star-forming region to Earth that forms massive stars. They mapped the amount, temperature and motions of the carbon-hydrogen molecule (CH, or "methylidyne" to chemists), the carbon-hydrogen positive ion (CH+) and their parent: the carbon ion (C+). An ion is an atom or molecule with an imbalance of protons and electrons, resulting in a net charge. "On Earth, the Sun is the driving source of almost all the life on Earth. Now, we have learned that starlight drives the formation of chemicals that are precursors to chemicals that we need to make life," said Patrick Morris, first author of the paper and researcher at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech in Pasadena. In the early 1940s, CH and CH+ were two of the first three molecules ever discovered in interstellar space. In examining molecular clouds -- assemblies of gas and dust -- in Orion with Herschel, scientists were surprised to find that CH+ is emitting rather than absorbing light, meaning it is warmer than the background gas. The CH+ molecule needs a lot of energy to form and is extremely reactive, so it gets destroyed when it interacts with the background hydrogen in the cloud. Its warm temperature and high abundance are therefore quite mysterious. Why, then, is there so much CH+ in molecular clouds such as the Orion Nebula? Many studies have tried to answer this question before, but their observations were limited because few background stars were available for studying. Herschel probes an area of the electromagnetic spectrum -- the far infrared, associated with cold objects -- that no other space telescope has reached before, so it could take into account the entire Orion Nebula instead of individual stars within. The instrument they used to obtain their data, HIFI, is also extremely sensitive to the motion of the gas clouds. One of the leading theories about the origins of basic hydrocarbons has been that they formed in "shocks," events that create a lot of turbulence, such as exploding supernovae or young stars spitting out material. Areas of molecular clouds that have a lot of turbulence generally create shocks. Like a large wave hitting a boat, shock waves cause vibrations in material they encounter. Those vibrations can knock electrons off atoms, making them ions, which are more likely to combine. But the new study found no correlation between these shocks and CH+ in the Orion Nebula. Herschel data show that these CH+ molecules were more likely created by the ultraviolet emission of very young stars in the Orion Nebula, which, compared to the sun, are hotter, far more massive and emit much more ultraviolet light. When a molecule absorbs a photon of light, it becomes "excited" and has more energy to react with other particles. In the case of a hydrogen molecule, the hydrogen molecule vibrates, rotates faster or both when hit by an ultraviolet photon. It has long been known that the Orion Nebula has a lot of hydrogen gas. When ultraviolet light from large stars heats up the surrounding hydrogen molecules, this creates prime conditions for forming hydrocarbons. As the interstellar hydrogen gets warmer, carbon ions that originally formed in stars begin to react with the molecular hydrogen, creating CH+. Eventually the CH+ captures an electron to form the neutral CH molecule. "This is the initiation of the whole carbon chemistry," said John Pearson, researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and study co-author. "If you want to form anything more complicated, it goes through that pathway." Scientists combined Herschel data with models of molecular formation and found that ultraviolet light is the best explanation for how hydrocarbons form in the Orion Nebula. The findings have implications for the formation of basic hydrocarbons in other galaxies as well. It is known that other galaxies have shocks, but dense regions in which ultraviolet light dominates heating and chemistry may play the key role in creating fundamental hydrocarbon molecules there, too. "It's still a mystery how certain molecules get excited in the cores of galaxies," Pearson said. "Our study is a clue that ultraviolet light from massive stars could be driving the excitation of molecules there, too." Reference: "Herschel/HIFI Spectral Mapping of C+, CH+, and CH in Orion BN/KL: The Prevailing Role of Ultraviolet Irradiation in CH+ Formation," Patrick W. Morris et al., 2016, to appear in the Astrophysical Journal [http://apj.aas.org, preprint: https://arxiv.org/abs/1604.05805]. 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 NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. 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.
News Article | January 20, 2016
This artistic rendering provided by California Institute of Technology shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. Scientists reported Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, they finally have "good evidence" for Planet X, a true ninth planet on the fringes of our solar system. (R. Hurt/Infrared Processing and Analysis Center/Courtesy of California Institute of Technology via AP) More CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The solar system may have a ninth planet after all. This one is 5,000 times bigger than outcast Pluto and billions of miles farther away, say scientists who presented "good evidence" for a long-hypothesized Planet X on Wednesday. The gas giant is thought to be almost as big as its nearest planetary neighbor Neptune, quite possibly with rings and moons. It's so distant that it would take a mind-blowing 10,000 to 20,000 years to circle the sun. Planet 9, as the pair of California Institute of Technology researchers calls it, hasn't been spotted yet. They base their prediction on mathematical and computer modeling, and anticipate its discovery via telescope within five years or less. The two reported their research Wednesday in the Astronomical Journal because they want people to help them look for it. "We could have stayed quiet and quietly spent the next five years searching the skies ourselves and hoping to find it. But I would rather somebody find it sooner, than me find it later," astronomer Mike Brown told The Associated Press. "I want to see it. I want to see what it looks like. I want to understand where it is, and I think this will help." Brown and planetary scientist Konstantin Batygin feel certain about their prediction, which at first seemed unbelievable to even them. "For the first time in more than 150 years, there's good evidence that the planetary census of the solar system is incomplete," Batygin said, referring to Neptune's discovery as Planet 8. Once it's detected, Brown insists there will be no Pluto-style planetary debate. Brown ought to know; he's the so-called Pluto killer who helped lead the charge against Pluto's planetary status in 2006. (Once Planet 9, Pluto is now officially considered a dwarf planet.) "THIS is what we mean when we say the word 'planet,' " Brown said. Brown and Batygin believe it's big — 10 times more massive than Earth — and unlike Pluto, dominates its cosmic neighborhood. Pluto is a gravitational slave to Neptune, they pointed out. Another scientist, Alan Stern, said he's withholding judgment on the planet prediction. He is the principal scientist for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which buzzed Pluto last summer in the first-ever visit from Planet Earth. He still sees Pluto as a real planet — not a second-class dwarf. "This kind of thing comes around every few years. To date, none of those predicts have been borne out by discoveries," Stern said in an email Wednesday. "I'd be very happy if the Brown-Batygin were the exception to the rule, but we'll have to wait and see. Prediction is not discovery." Brown and Batygin shaped their calculation on the fact that six objects in the icy Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone on the far reaches of the solar system, appear to have orbits influenced by only one thing: a real planet. The vast, mysterious Kuiper Belt is home to Pluto as well. Brown actually discovered one of these six objects more than a decade ago, Sedna, a large minor planet. "What we have found is a gravitational signature of Planet 9 lurking in the outskirts of the solar system,' Batygin said. The actual discovery, he noted, will be "era-defining." Added Brown: "We have felt a great disturbance in the force." Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington said Brown and Batygin's effort takes his own findings to "the next level." Two years ago, he and a colleague suggested a possible giant planet. "I find this new work very exciting," Sheppard said in an email. "It makes the distant Super-Earth planet in our solar system much more real. I would say the odds just went from 50 percent to 75 percent that this distant massive planet is real." Depending on where this Planet 9 is in its egg-shaped orbit, a space telescope may be needed to confirm its presence, the researchers said. Or good backyard telescopes may spot it, they noted, if the planet is relatively closer to us in its swing around the sun. It's an estimated 20 billion to 100 billion miles away. The Caltech researchers prefer calling it Planet 9, versus the historical term Planet X. The latter smacks of "aliens and the imminent destruction of the Earth," according to Brown.