Archive for March, 2012

Alien vs. Editor: A Pigment of Your Imagination?

Friday, March 30th, 2012

By Steve Edberg

Alien vs. Editor is a forum for questions and answers about extrasolar planets and NASA’s search for life beyond our solar system. Leave your questions for author Steve Edberg and read more on the PlanetQuest website.

Fantasy alien landscape
Where would blue-skinned aliens exist?

Joel asked: If you were to find aliens next to the sun, why would they be blue?

The only blue aliens I’m aware of lived on a moon called Pandora in a popular movie released in 2009. The foundation of your question is the more general question of why we observe a wide variety of colors “used” by life on Earth. Those colors are “used” by their organisms in many different ways. And there are a variety of mechanisms that generate the colors.

The colors of plants and animals have a variety of goals. For plants, the green of their leaves comes from the chlorophyll that absorbs violet-blue and yellow-orange-red light for photosynthesis. Some plants (like Japanese plum) have additional pigments for protection from ultraviolet light and appear dark red. Flowers have colors specifically to attract pollinators, but the colors the pollinators see may not be the colors we see.

Animals have colors to camouflage themselves and attract mates. Some plant and animal coloring is designed to warn off predators. The red eye you see in flash pictures of your friends is a reflection of their eyes’ retinas. Photographs of dogs show their retinas reflect greenish light. Is retinal color related to color vision? Most humans have color vision and dogs are color blind.

The colors we see around us are generated by different mechanisms, which can reflect (pun intended) on its use by an organism. The color of a pigment depends on the colors it absorbs and those it reflects. Chlorophyll is a green pigment, and hair and skin colors result from pigments as well.

polar bear
Polar bear fur only looks white.

Polar bears’ black skin pigmentation helps keep them warm. The bears’ white fur only looks white in bulk. Individual hair follicles are actually transparent, so that they carry sunlight down from the “top” of the fur coat to the bear’s skin, where all the colors of sunlight (you’ve seen them in a rainbow made by differential refraction, another mechanism!) are absorbed by the black skin, helping to keep the polar bear warm. The fiber optics we use to transfer data over the internet or between components in your home entertainment system carry light in the same way.

The iridescent color of bird feathers is produced by another mechanism, the same one that makes detergent bubbles and thin slicks of oil on water show colors. The structure of feathers and thickness of detergent and oil layers permits waves of light to “interfere” with each other. You’ve seen wave interference in a quiet pool or pond when you throw two small objects into the water and the circular waves move out from each impact point. When the waves cross over each other, their height is greater where the peaks combine and flat where a peak and a valley combine.

A similar thing happens with light waves in iridescent materials. In the feathers, waves of a particular color are reflected and combined before they are shunted out of the feather, while the other colors are absorbed by a black pigment. The colors come from the spacing of tiny reflectors, called lamellae, in the feathers: change the spacing and the color coming from the feather is different. In detergent bubbles and oil slicks, change the layer’s thickness and you change the color seen.

So where might we expect blue-skinned aliens? My answer is on an exoplanet orbiting a cool, red star. Why? Because the alien probably wants to absorb as much stellar energy as it can from its star, and blue pigments absorb red light. It would be well-camouflaged in the blue vegetation trying to absorb as much energy from the red sun as it could.


All Eyes on Asteroid Vesta

Friday, March 30th, 2012

By Marc Rayman

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft investigates its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Layered young crater as imaged by NASA's Dawn spacecraft
This image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows a young crater on Vesta that is 9 miles (15 kilometers) in diameter. Layering is visible in the crater walls, as are large boulders that were thrown out in the material ejected from the impact. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA |
› Full image and caption

Dear Dawnscoverers,

On March 29, Vesta spent the 205th anniversary of its discovery by treating Dawn to more spectacular vistas, as it does so often these days. When Heinrich Wilhelm Matthäus Olbers first spotted Vesta, he could hardly have imagined that the power of the noble human spirit for adventure and the insatiable hunger for knowledge would propel a ship from Earth to that mysterious point of light among the stars. And yet today our spacecraft is conducting a detailed and richly rewarding exploration of the world that Olbers found.

Dawn is continuing its intensive low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) campaign, scrutinizing the protoplanet 210 kilometers (130 miles) beneath it with all instruments. The primary objectives of the craft’s work here are to measure the atomic composition and the interior distribution of mass in this geologically complex world. In addition, this low orbit provides the best vantage point for high resolution pictures and visible and infrared spectra to reveal the nature of the minerals on the surface.

Ever since it left its home planet behind in September 2007, the robotic adventurer has pursued its own independent course through the solar system. As Earth and its orbiting retinue (including the moon and many artificial satellites) followed their repetitive annual loop around the sun, Dawn used its ion propulsion system to spiral outward to rendezvous with Vesta in July 2011. When the gigantic asteroid’s gravity gently took hold of the visiting craft, the two began traveling together around the sun, taking the same route Vesta has since long before humans gazed in wonder at the nighttime sky.

As we have discussed before, the speed of an object in orbit, whether around Earth, the sun, the Milky Way (either my cat or the galaxy of the same name) or anything else, decreases as its orbital altitude increases. Farther from the sun than Earth is, and hence bound to it by a weaker gravitational grip, Vesta moves at a more leisurely pace, taking more than 3.6 years per revolution. When Dawn travels to the more remote Ceres, it will orbit the sun even more slowly, eventually matching Ceres’ rate of 4.6 years for each loop.

Just as the hour hand and minute hand of a clock occasionally are near each other and at other times are on opposite sides of the clock face, Earth and Dawn sometimes are relatively close and other times are much farther apart. Now their orbits are taking them to opposite sides of the sun, and the distance is staggering. They have been on opposite sides of the sun twice before (albeit not as far apart as this time), in November 2008 and November 2010. We used both occasions to explain more about the nature of the alignment as well as to contemplate the profundity of such grand adventures.

On April 18, Dawn will attain its greatest separation yet from Earth, nearly 520 million kilometers (323 million miles) or more than 3.47 astronomical units (AU). Well beyond Mars, fewer than a dozen spacecraft have ever operated so far from Earth. Those interested in the history of space exploration (such as your correspondent) will enumerate them, but what should be more rewarding is marveling at the extent of humanity’s reach. At this extraordinary range, Dawn will be nearly 1,400 times farther than the average distance to the moon (and 1,300 times farther than the greatest distance attained by Apollo astronauts 42 years ago). The deep-space ship will be well over one million times farther from Earth than the International Space Station and Tiangong-1.

Vesta does not orbit the sun in the same plane that Earth does. Indeed, a significant part of the challenge in matching Dawn’s orbit to Vesta’s was tipping the plane of its orbit from Earth’s, where it began its journey, to Vesta’s, where it is now. As a result, when they are on opposite sides of the sun this time, Dawn will not appear to go directly behind the sun but rather will pass a little south of it. In addition, because the orbits are not perfectly circular, the greatest separation does not quite coincide with the time that Dawn and the sun appear to be most closely aligned. The angular separation will be at its minimum of less than five degrees (about 10 times the angular size of the sun itself) on April 9, but the sun and Dawn appear to be within ten degrees of each other from March 23 until April 27. For our human readers, that small angle is comparable to the width of your palm at arm’s length, providing a handy way to find the approximate position of the spacecraft in the sky. Earth’s robotic ambassador to the cosmos began east of the salient celestial signpost and progresses slowly to the west over the course of those five weeks. Readers are encouraged to step outside and join your correspondent in raising a saluting hand to the sun, Dawn, and what we jointly accomplish in our efforts to gain a perspective on our place in the universe.

For those awestruck observers who lack the requisite superhuman visual acuity to discern the faraway spacecraft amidst the dazzling light of the sun, this alignment provides a convenient occasion to reflect once again upon missions deep into space. Formed at the dawn of the solar system, Vesta, arguably the smallest of the terrestrial planets, has waited mostly in patient inconspicuousness for a visit from the largest terrestrial planet. For the entire history of life on Earth, the inhabitants remained confined to the world on which they have lived. Yet finally, one of the millions upon millions of species, inspired by the splendor of the universe, applied its extraordinary talents and collective knowledge to overcome the limitations of planetary life and strove to venture outward. Dawn is the product of creatures fortunate enough to be able to combine their powerful curiosity about the workings of the cosmos with their impressive abilities to explore, investigate and ultimately understand. While its builders remain in the vicinity of the planet upon which they evolved, their emissary now is passing on the far side of the sun! This is the same sun that is more than 100 times the diameter of Earth and a third of a million times its mass. This is the same sun that has been the unchallenged master of our solar system for more than 4.5 billion years. This is the same sun that has shone down on Earth throughout that time and has been the ultimate source of so much of the heat, light and other energy upon which the planet’s residents have been so dependent. This is the same sun that has so influenced human expression in art, literature, mythology and religion for uncounted millennia. This is the same sun that has motivated scientific studies for centuries. This is the same sun that is our signpost in the Milky Way galaxy. And humans have a spacecraft on the far side of it. We may be humbled by our own insignificance in the universe, yet we still undertake the most valiant adventures in our attempts to comprehend its majesty.

Dawn is 210 kilometers (130 miles) from Vesta. It is also 3.45 AU (516 million kilometers or 321 million miles) from Earth, or 1,290 times as far as the moon and 3.45 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 57 minutes to make the round trip.


Highs and Lows of Exploring the Giant Asteroid

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

By Marc Rayman

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft investigates its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft soaring over the giant asteroid Vesta.
This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn’s framing cameras. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech |
› Full image and caption

Dear Ups and Dawns,

Dawn is continuing its exploits at Vesta, performing detailed studies of the colossal asteroid from its low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). The robotic ambassador is operating extremely well on behalf of the creatures it represents on a distant planet. On this second intercalary day of its ambitious adventure, the spacecraft is doing exactly what it was designed to do: exploring a previously uncharted alien world.

Although we usually describe LAMO as being at an average altitude of 210 kilometers (130 miles), that does not mean it is at a constant altitude. As we saw on the fourth anniversary of Dawn’s departure from Earth, there are two reasons the spacecraft’s height changes. One is that the elevation of the surface itself changes, so if the probe flew in a perfect circle around Vesta, its altitude would vary according to the topography. Like the planet from which Dawn embarked upon its deep space journey in 2007 (and even some of the residents there), Vesta is broadest near its equator, and that is where the ground generally reaches its greatest distance from the center. In addition, the ancient surface, battered over billions of years in the rough and tumble of the asteroid belt, displays remarkable variations in shape. The giant Rheasilvia basin is a scar from an extraordinary impact that excavated a region encompassing the south pole more than 500 kilometers (over 300 miles) in diameter. This immense gouge has left that part of Vesta at a much lower elevation than elsewhere. In the center of the enormous depression is the second tallest mountain known in the solar system, soaring to well over twice the height of Mt. Everest. The vertical range from the highest locations near the equator to the bottoms of the deepest craters within Rheasilvia is more than 60 kilometers (37 miles). So as Dawn loops around in just over four hours, the surface underneath it rises and falls dramatically.

The second reason is that the orbit itself is not exactly a circle. Let’s ignore for a moment the effect of the topography and focus solely on the shape of the craft’s path around Vesta. As Vesta rotates and Dawn revolves, the gravitational forces acting on the orbiter are always changing because of the irregular distribution of material inside the geologically complex protoplanet. This effect occurred at the higher altitudes as well, but it was much less pronounced there. Now that the adventurer is deep in the gravity field, the peaks and valleys of its own motion are magnified.

Navigators were very careful in choosing the parameters for LAMO, recognizing that the orbital waters were turbulent. Nevertheless, their mapping of the gravitational currents proved quite accurate, and the spacecraft has followed the planned course quite well. The lengthy and relatively technical discussions in the two previous logs described why the ship drifts off a little, but operators occasionally nudge it back with the ion propulsion system.

Orbits usually are best described by ellipses, like flattened circles. Now Vesta’s bumpy gravity field does not allow perfectly smooth, regular orbits at low altitude. Moreover, the variations in the strength of the gravitational attraction transform the orbits. Sometimes, the difference between the high point of a loop and the low point is less than 16 kilometers (10 miles). As the changing forces reshape the orbit, the ellipse gets more exaggerated, with the low points going lower and the high points going higher. The differences within one revolution grow to be more than 75 kilometers (47 miles). Thanks to the ingenious design of the orbital trajectory however, those same forces then will gradually attenuate the profile, causing it to become more round again. This pattern repeats every 11.5 days in LAMO. It is almost as if the orbit breathes slowly, its envelope expanding and contracting.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal