Archive for the ‘Universe’ Category

Mariner 4 Taught Us to See

Friday, August 30th, 2013
The first 'image' of Mars from NASA's Mariner 4
Mission team members for NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft, incredibly anxious to see the first up-close photograph of Mars, devised a way to see the image before it made its way to Earth by color-coding binary code on strips of ticker tape. The resulting collage became known as “the first image of Mars.” Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In today’s universe, it seems unimaginable that a planetary spacecraft would leave the comfort of its terrestrial perch without some kind of imaging system on board. But in the early 1960s, as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was reveling in the success of its first planetary mission to Venus and setting its sights on Mars — a destination whose challenges would unfurl themselves much more readily than they had with Venus — for some scientists, the question of camera or none was still just that, a question.

Bud Schurmeier, project manager for NASA’s Ranger missions, a few years ago recalled, “There were a lot of scientists who said, ‘Pictures, that’s not science. That’s just public information.’ Over the years, that attitude has changed so markedly, and so much information has been obtained just from the photographs.”

The recent passing of former JPL Director and career-long planetary imaging advocate Bruce C. Murray, 81, is a reminder of how different our understanding of the planets — and our appreciation of them — would be without space-based cameras.

This truth was evident as early as 1965, when NASA’s Mariner 4, carrying an imaging system designed by a young Murray and his colleagues, arrived at Mars. It marked the world’s first encounter with the Red Planet, a remarkable achievement in itself. But for an anxious press, public and mission team, the Holy Grail lay in catching that first glimpse of Mars up-close.

It was a waiting game that was too much for some. For everyone, in fact:

This is a clip from the JPL-produced film The Changing Face of Mars about the laboratory’s early attempts to explore the Red Planet. Credit: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

What resulted became known as “The first image of Mars.” And in many ways it symbolizes — more than any of the actual 22 photographs captured by Mariner 4 — how significant this opportunity to truly “see” Mars had been.

Now, nearly 50 years after Mariner 4’s arrival at Mars, imaging systems are an integral piece of our quest to understand the planets and the universe beyond, playing key roles in scientific investigations, spacecraft navigation and public support for missions. It’s because of that first image that we can now look at that red dot in the night sky and picture what has become our new reality of Mars:

Curiosity's first billion pixel panorama
This image is a portion of a billion-pixel panorama from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity that combines 900 images taken by the rover from Oct. 5 through Nov. 16, 2012 from its “Rocknest” site on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
› Explore the full panorama

Rocks and Stars with Amy: This Year I Saw the Universe

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

By Amy Mainzer

Rocks and Stars with Amy

With WISE, I roamed the skies — seeing everything from the closest asteroids to the most distant galaxies. When I was a kid, maybe 6 or 7, I remember reading the encyclopedia about Andromeda, Mars and Jupiter. After that, I spent a lot of my free time (and a fair amount of gym class) wishing that I could be “out there” exploring the stars, imagining what it must be like to get close to a black hole or the lonely, cold surface of a moon. Fast-forwarding several decades, I’ve just spent a tremendously satisfying and delightful year using some of our most sophisticated technology to see “out there” for real. It’s pretty cool when your childhood dreams come true!

Today, the operations team sent the command to kill the survey sequence and put WISE into a deep sleep. While I’m sad to see the survey stop, the real voyage of discovery is just getting started as we unpack the treasures that our spacecraft beamed back to us. Although I’m going to miss waking up to see a new slew of pictures fresh from outer space, what I’ve looked at so far is only a tiny fraction of the millions of images we’ve garnered. My colleagues and I are working nonstop now to begin the decades-long process of interpreting the data. But I can already say for certain that we’re learning that the universe is a weirder, more wonderful place than any science fiction I’ve ever read. If I could go back in time to when I was kid, I’d tell myself not to worry and to hang in there through the tough parts — it was all worth it.

A cast of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people have worked on WISE and deserve far more credit than they get. The scientists will swoop in and write papers, but all those results are squarely due to the brilliance, stubborn persistence and imagination of the technicians, managers, engineers of all stripes (experts in everything from the optical properties of strange materials to the orbital perturbations of the planets), and administrative staff who make sure we get home safely from our travels. Although we may not be able to fly people around the galaxy yet, one thing Star Trek got right is the spirit of camaraderie and teamwork that makes projects like WISE go. For the opportunity to explore the universe with such fine friends and teammates, I am truly grateful.


Rocks and Stars with Amy: This Asteroid Inspected by #32

Monday, November 15th, 2010

By Amy Mainzer

Rocks and Stars with Amy

Over the course of the nine months we’ve been operating WISE, we’ve observed over 150,000 asteroids and comets of all different types. We had to pick all of these moving objects out of the hundreds of millions of sources observed all over the sky — so you can imagine that sifting through all those stars and galaxies to find the asteroids is not easy!

We use a lot of techniques to figure out how to distinguish an asteroid from a star or galaxy. Even though just about everything in the universe moves, asteroids are a whole lot closer to us than your average star (and certainly your average galaxy), so they appear to move from place to place in the WISE images over a timescale of minutes, unlike the much more distant stars. It’s almost like watching a pack of cyclists go by in the Tour de France. Also, WISE takes infrared images, which means that cooler objects like asteroids look different than the hotter stars. If you look at the picture below, you can see that the stars appear bright blue, whereas the sole asteroid in the frame appears red. That’s because the asteroid is about room temperature and is therefore much colder than the stars, which are thousands of degrees. Cooler objects will give off more of their light at longer, infrared wavelengths that our WISE telescope sees. We can use both of these unique properties of asteroids — their motion and their bright infrared signatures — to tease them out of the bazillions of stars and galaxies in the WISE images.

Image of the first near-Earth asteroid discovered by WISE
The first near-Earth asteroid discovered by WISE (red dot) stands out from the stars (blue dots). The asteroid is much cooler than the stars, so it emits more of its light at the longer, infrared wavelengths WISE uses. This makes it appear redder than the stars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA |   › Full image and caption

 
Thanks to the efforts of some smart scientists and software engineers, we have a very slick program that automatically searches the images for anything that moves at the longer, infrared wavelengths. With WISE, we take about a dozen or so images of each part of the sky over a couple of days. The system works by throwing out everything that appears again and again in each exposure. What’s left are just the so-called transient sources, the things that don’t stay the same between snapshots. Most of these are cosmic rays — charged particles zooming through space that are either spat out by our sun or burped up from other high-energy processes like supernovae or stars falling into black holes. These cosmic rays hit our detectors, leaving a blip that appears for just a single exposure. Also, really bright objects can leave an after-image on the detectors that can persist for many minutes, just like when you stare at a light bulb and then close your eyes. We have to weed the real asteroid detections out from the cosmic rays and after-images.

The data pipeline is smart enough to catch most of these artifacts and figure out what the real moving objects are. However, if it’s a new asteroid that no one has ever seen before, we have to have a human inspect the set of images and make sure that it’s not just a collection of artifacts that happened to show up at the right place and right time. About 20 percent of the asteroids that we observe appear to be new, and we examine those using a program that we call our quality assurance (QA) system, which lets us rapidly sift through hundreds of candidate asteroids to make sure they’re real. The QA system pops up a set of images of the candidate asteroid, along with a bunch of “before” and “after” images of the same part of the sky. This lets us eliminate any stars that might have been confused for the asteroids. Finally, since the WISE camera takes a picture every 11 seconds, we take a look at the exposures taken immediately before the ones with the candidate asteroid — if the source is really just an after-image persisting after we’ve looked at something bright, it will be there in the previous frame. We’ve had many students — three college students and two very talented high school students — work on asteroid QA. They’ve become real pros at inspecting asteroid candidates!

This is a screenshot from the WISE moving-object quality assurance system, which helps weed out false asteroid candidates.
This is a screenshot from the WISE moving-object quality assurance system, which helps weed out false asteroid candidates. The top two rows show an asteroid candidate detected in 16 different WISE snapshots, at two different infrared wavelengths. The lower rows show the same patch of sky at different times — they let the astronomers make sure that stars or galaxies haven’t been confused for the asteroid. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

 
Meanwhile, the hunt continues — we’re still trekking along through the sky with the two shortest-wavelength infrared bands, now that we’ve run out of the super-cold hydrogen that was keeping two of the four detectors operating. Even though our sensitivity is lower, we’re still observing asteroids and looking for interesting things like nearby brown dwarfs (stars too cold to shine in visible light because they can’t sustain nuclear fusion). Our dedicated team of asteroid inspectors keeps plugging away, keeping the quality of the detections very high so that we leave the best possible legacy when our little telescope’s journey is finally done.


Rocks and Stars with Amy: Milestones

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010
Rocks and Stars with Amy
By Amy Mainzer

It’s hard to believe that we’ve just crossed the six-month mark on WISE — seems like just yesterday when we were all up at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Santa Barbara, shivering in the cold at night while watching the countdown clock. But the time is flying (literally!) as WISE whips by over our heads. We’re analyzing data ferociously now, trying to get the images and the data ready for the public release next May. Even though the mission’s lifetime is short, we’ve gotten into a semblance of a routine. We receive and process images of stars, galaxies and other objects taken by the spacecraft every day, and we’re running our asteroid-hunting routine on Mondays and Thursdays. We’ve got a small army (well, okay, three — but they do the work of a small army!) of extremely talented students who are helping us verify and validate the asteroid detections, as well as hunt for new comets in the data. Plus, there is an unseen, yet powerful, cadre of observers out there all over the world following up our observations.

asteroids and comets detected by WISEThis plot shows asteroids and comets observed by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ULCA/JHU   |   ›See related video

And so it’s come to pass that we’ve achieved some milestones. We completed our first survey of the entire sky on July 17 — and we just discovered our 100th new near-Earth object! That’s out of the approximately 25,000 new asteroids we’ve discovered in total so far; most of these hang out in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter and never get anywhere near Earth’s orbit. These new discoveries will allow us to conduct an accurate census of both the near-Earth and main belt asteroid populations. We’re really busy chewing on the data right now and calculating what it all means.

Because it’s so short, this mission reminds me a little bit of what the first days of college felt like — a tidal wave of new ideas, new sights and new thoughts. The pace of learning has been incredibly quick, whether I’m trying to get up to speed on asteroid evolution theories or tinkering with the software we use to write papers.

Speaking of papers, we’re in the process of preparing to submit several to science journals; in fact, I’ve already submitted one. The gold standard of science, of course, is the peer-review process. We submit our paper to a journal, and the scientific editor assigns another scientist who is an expert in the field but not involved in the project (and who usually remains anonymous) to read it and offer comments. The referee’s job is to “kick the tires,” so to speak, and ask tough questions about the work to make sure it’s sound. We get a chance to respond, and the referee gets a chance to respond to our responses, and then when everybody’s convinced the results are right, the paper is accepted and can be published. So stay tuned — we should have some of the first papers done soon telling us what these milestones mean for asteroid science.

› Read more from “Rocks and Stars with Amy”


Rocks and Stars with Amy: The Golden Ticket

Friday, January 29th, 2010

By Amy Mainzer

Rocks and Stars with Amy

We have discovered our first new near-Earth asteroid with WISE. Our first “golden ticket” is now known as 2010 AB78. It’s an asteroid that is roughly 1 kilometer [about .6 miles] in diameter, so it’s fairly large. The most interesting thing about it so far is that we thought we knew of about 85 percent of all the asteroids 1 kilometer and larger, so finding a big one like this is a little unusual. Of course, unlike Charlie and his chocolate bars, finding the golden ticket wasn’t a matter of luck, but a meticulous search process more like a busy assembly line.

Near-Earth objects are asteroids and comets with orbits that get close to Earth’s orbit. That doesn’t mean they are going to hit the Earth, of course. It’s sort of like driving on a busy street; just because there are a lot of cars zipping by on either side of you, it doesn’t necessarily mean your car is going to hit one. The cars would have to be at the same place at the same time for that to happen. So even though the paths each car has traveled might get close, there is no collision.

WISE finds asteroids by using a sophisticated piece of software called the WISE Moving Object Processing System, or WMOPS. When we first get a set of images from WISE, we have software that automatically searches the images for all the sources in them, be they stars, galaxies or asteroids. The software records their positions and how bright they are. WMOPS goes into that source list and figures out which sources are moving compared to the fixed stars and galaxies in each frame. Then, it figures out which sources are actually the same object — just observed at different times. So it’s a pretty smart piece of code. The whole system has to be highly automated, since when the WISE survey is done, the source catalog will contain several hundred million sources! You can imagine that trying to sort through all of these to find individual objects would be very challenging without a nifty program like WMOPS.

Our newest addition to the approximately 6,600 near-Earth Asteroids that are currently known is shown in this new image:

artist's concept of the WISE space telescope
The red dot at the center of this image is the first near-Earth asteroid discovered by NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE — an all-sky mapping infrared mission designed to see all sorts of cosmic objects. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
› Full image and caption

2010 AB78 shows up like a glowing red ember at the center of the image, because it’s glowing brightly in infrared light with a wavelength of 12 microns, which is about 20 times redder than your eye can see. The stars appear blue, because they’re much hotter, and they emit proportionally less of their energy at these long wavelengths. The color that the asteroids appear to WISE is an important feature we use to distinguish them from other stars and galaxies, in addition to their motion.

With this first asteroid discovery, we are flexing our muscles in preparation for the heavy lifting we’re about to start.


Rocks and Stars with Amy: It’s Time to Go

Friday, December 11th, 2009

By Amy Mainzer

Rocks and Stars with Amy

Now that we are just days from launch (wow!), the team is making final decisions and preparations. We’ve just held our Flight Readiness Review, at which the final commitment to launch was made by NASA, the United Launch Alliance (the rocket folks) and the WISE project. It turns out that fueling our Delta II rocket’s second stage engine is an irreversible process — once we fuel the second stage, we have 34 days to launch the rocket. If we don’t launch within 34 days of fueling it, we have to replace the second stage completely — and that would mean taking WISE off the rocket. So we needed to be really sure that we were “go for launch” before we decided to fuel up the second stage. That is now done, and we are in the process of putting the final finishing touches on cooling down our solid hydrogen tanks.

These last few weeks and days before launch require a lot of flexibility of the team, since the schedule can change on a dime. There are about a million things having nothing to do with the launch vehicle or the spacecraft that can delay a launch — winds, too much fog, too many clouds, lightning and even something as mundane as a fishing boat or aircraft straying into the “keepout” zone that’s established around the launch site. You would think that the prospect of running into a giant, 330,000-pound rocket loaded with fuel would be enough to make people move out of the way, but sometimes they don’t seem to get the message! Any of these items is enough to scrub a launch attempt.

But that’s why we’ve built in the ability to make two consecutive launch attempts with WISE, separated by 24 hours. We get two tries. After that, our tank full of frozen hydrogen starts to warm up too much, and it takes two days for us to cool it back down. To keep the tank of frozen hydrogen a frosty 7 degrees above absolute zero (minus 447 Fahrenheit), we circulate an even colder refrigerant, liquid helium, around the outside of the tank. But the process of re-cooling takes two days; we have to hook all the hoses back up, cool everything down, then disconnect the hoses again before the next launch attempt.

So we have to be flexible. We’ve all put our lives on hold for the duration, since we have to be ready for anything that happens. Meanwhile, I’ve frantically tried to take care of stuff like cleaning the house and laying in supplies, because once WISE launches, things will go into overdrive. Needless to say, our families have all been very patient with us!


Rocks and Stars with Amy: Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Into Space We Go

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

By Amy Mainzer

Rocks and Stars with Amy

With WISE a mere month away from liftoff, it’s probably a little late to be asking why we need to send it into space. But it’s worth taking the time to explain why we go to all the trouble of sending something up on a rocket. While it’s really cool to go into space, we’re not just sending WISE up there for the fun of it. In this case, there’s no other reasonable way to accomplish the mission’s science goals: surveying the entire sky in infrared, finding the nearest star to our sun, and finding the most luminous galaxy in the universe. We can’t do this from the ground.

artist concept of WISEIt turns out that the main culprit that drives us into space and into an orbit more than 500 kilometers (about 360 miles) above the Earth’s surface is our atmosphere. As wonderful as our atmosphere is for life on Earth, it wreaks havoc on astronomical images in many ways. For one, shifting pockets of warm and cool air drifting above a telescope — or a human observer– cause stars to twinkle. While pretty, this twinkling makes it difficult to get a good measurement of a star’s true brightness (or, in astronomical terms, its “photometry”). The twinkling also reduces the telescope’s sensitivity and resolution by enlarging the images it produces, making them blurrier and less sharp. This is true for all kinds of telescopes not just infrared ones.

Secondly, the atmosphere acts like a sponge at many wavelengths, soaking up light from the stars so that it never reaches the ground at all. Everybody’s seen a rainbow at one time or another, and that range of colors — from violet to red — spans the maximum range of wavelengths that our eyes can see. But that is only a small fraction of the entire spectrum of light that’s really out there in the universe. Our sun puts out most of its radiation in visible light, and most of that visible light makes it through our atmosphere to the ground. However, our atmosphere is only partially transparent to infrared wavelengths. Filled with water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane, our atmosphere absorbs almost all infrared light, so most of the infrared light emitted by distant stars, asteroids, and planets doesn’t make it to observers on the ground. These molecules grab infrared light and trap it, preventing it from passing through the atmosphere (which is why they are called greenhouse gases). To see anything at all in most infrared colors, we have to get entirely above the Earth’s atmosphere.

The final problem posed by our atmosphere for infrared astronomers is that it — and the Earth itself — is warm. Infrared light is characteristically emitted by room-temperature objects. Objects like you and I glow brightly in infrared light, and so does the Earth and its atmosphere. If you could see in infrared light, the night sky would look as bright as daylight! So when we’re trying to detect the faint heat signatures of distant astronomical objects, a glowing, warm atmosphere is almost impossible to see through. This is why we must cool the WISE telescope to a mere 12 degrees above absolute zero (minus 438 Fahrenheit). Being in space with a cold telescope makes such a huge difference that the relatively modest-size WISE telescope, which is 40 centimeters (16 inches) in diameter, is equivalent in sensitivity to literally thousands of 8-meter (26-foot) telescopes on the ground. That small WISE telescope packs a punch.

So with that cleared up, we’re just about ready to put WISE into the nose cone and crane it up onto the Delta II rocket that’s waiting for us on the launch pad. Let’s go see some stars!


Five ‘Holy Grails’ of Distant Solar Systems

Thursday, June 11th, 2009
Angelle Tanner
Angelle Tanner

Angelle Tanner, a post-doctoral scholar at JPL and Caltech, studies planets in distant solar systems, called extrasolar planets. The golden prize in this field is to find a planet similar to Earth - the only planet we know that harbors life. While more than 350 extrasolar planets have been detected, most are gas planets, with no solid surface. Many are located in orbits closer to their parent star than Mercury is to the sun. In other words, not very similar to Earth.

Here’s Tanner’s short list of what she and her colleagues would love to find in another planet - the elements that might enable life on another world. With the powerful tools scientists have now and with new technology and missions coming soon, the odds are going up for finding an Earth-like planet, if one is out there.

Tanner’s top five “holy grails” of extrasolar planet research are hoped-for findings that she predicts will happen within the next 15 years.

1. First planet that weighs the same as Earth

Artist’s concept of an extraolar planet.
Artist’s concept of an extraolar planet.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Although most planets discovered have been giant gas planets with no surface, a handful of rocky planets, called super-earths, have also been detected. Super-earths are akin to Earth in their rocky make-up, but with a mass up to 10 times that of Earth.

There is no reason these planets could not host an atmosphere or even life as we know it. The discovery of a true Earth clone – Earth-like in size and make-up — could happen within a year or two. NASA’s recently launched Kepler mission has the ability to find planets as small as Earth.

2. First Earth-sized planet in the ‘habitable zone’

The so-called habitable zone is the area around a star where a rocky planet could have the right temperature to have liquid water on its surface. In our solar system, Earth sits in the habitable zone. Venus sits just inside the habitable zone and is too hot while Mars is just outside and too cold. Finding an Earth-sized planet is this geographically desirable location is the next big step in extrasolar research. One super-earth has already been detected near to its parent star’s habitable zone and it is only a matter of time — using existing technologies –- before a planet is found in this friendly environment. Ground-based telescopes and NASA’s Kepler mission are searching stars within a few hundred light years of Earth right now.

3. First atmosphere on a rocky planet

A planet’s atmosphere, along with other factors, helps determine whether a planet could sustain life. For the past few years, astronomers have studied the atmospheres of Jupiter-like, extrasolar planets. These gas giant planets have hydrogen-rich atmospheres inhospitable to life as we know it. However, many of the techniques developed for studying gas giants could be used to study the atmospheres of super-earths. This would mark an important step in beginning to understand the environment of rocky planets.

4. First hint of habitability and life

Once astronomers have enough Earth-sized planet atmospheres to study, they will be looking for biosignatures – indicators in a planet’s atmosphere that the planet might be hospitable to or even support life. Some of the molecules they will be looking for include water vapor, methane, ozone and carbon dioxide. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2014, will provide scientists with the sophisticated instruments needed for these potential observations on super-earths orbiting small stars. Assuredly, astrobiologists will be studying such data for years to come since potential life may, or may not be, in a form we expect. Keeping an open mind is critical.

5. The unexpected

The final grail — the unexpected. The history of science is marked with findings that were never predicted. As in all fields of science and exploration, it’s what we don’t know that will be the most exciting.

For more information about extrasolar planets, visit planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov


Almost There

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009
Tracy Drain
by Tracy Drain
Systems Engineer

The Kepler mission, which will look for Earth-like planets, is nearing its scheduled March 6 launch date.

At our flight readiness review on February 4th, our deputy principal investigator, David Koch, took a few minutes to talk about the history of Johannes Kepler, the project’s namesake. Koch recapped Kepler’s tremendous contributions to the realm of astronomy 400 years ago, and reminded us all why our mission is so appropriately named for that great scientist. He also touched on the more recent history of the mission, reminding us how our science principal investigator, William Borucki, wrote his first paper on the possibility of detecting planets using the transit method back in the ’80s, and then in 1992 first proposed the mission that would later become Kepler. While I already knew most of those details, there was something special about hearing them again during that milestone review just one month away from launch. It gave a deeper, richer context to what we were all doing and made me even more excited about seeing this mission succeed. (If you are reading this David, thanks so much for doing that!)

Now here we are, less than a week away from launch. The entire team has been working so hard these last several weeks. The assembly, test and launch operations team has run the final major checkouts on the spacecraft at the Kennedy Space (I don’t think it’s Spaceflight) Center in Florida, and the spacecraft is now all buttoned up on top of the Delta II launch vehicle.

 Workers attach the two-part payload fairing over the Kepler spacecraft in preparation for launch.
Image above: Workers attach the two-part payload fairing over the Kepler spacecraft in preparation for launch. The cover, designed to jettison shortly after launch, protects the spacecraft from the friction and turbulence as it speeds through the atmosphere during launch. Image credit: NASA

The operations team has completed the final, full-up operational readiness test to rehearse the launch and early operations period. We’ve also completed the last pre-launch ground segment integration test and the commissioning operational readiness tests, which together validated the tools and procedures that we will use during that roughly two months of checkout after launch. We’re now in the home stretch: signing off the last few test reports, closing out the final action items — dotting and crossing those proverbial i’s and t’s.

And so we are nearly ready to go. In just a few days I will head off to Boulder, Colo., where I will join the part of the team located at the mission operations center to support launch and commissioning operations. We’re gearing up for an exciting campaign; I can hardly wait for this new phase to begin!


How We See Dark Matter

Monday, February 2nd, 2009
Dan Coe
by Dan Coe
Astronomer

Planets, stars, buildings, cars, you and I, we are all made of the same basic stuff - atoms, the building blocks of matter. The late Carl Sagan famously said “we are star stuff,” as the heavy elements in our bodies were all forged in supernovas, the explosions of dying stars. In a real scientific sense, we are one with everything we see in the night sky.

We have since learned that everything we see is awash in another kind of matter, a “dark” matter, made of particles yet to be discovered. Dark matter is all around us, but we cannot see it. Some estimate that a billion dark matter particles whiz through your body every second, but you cannot feel them. We now believe that the universe contains five times more dark matter than ordinary matter. While we all may be made of star stuff, we find that the universe is mostly made of something very different.

Why do we believe that dark matter exists? How can we study something that we cannot see or even feel? And how can we unravel the universe’s greatest mystery - what is this dark matter?

The idea of dark matter was born at Caltech in 1933. (Just three years later, JPL would be born there as the “rocket boys” began their first launch experiments.) In observations of a nearby cluster of galaxies named the Coma cluster, Fritz Zwicky calculated that the collective mass of the galaxies was not nearly enough to hold them together in their orbits. He postulated that some other form of matter was present but undetected to account for this “missing mass.” Later, in the 1970’s and ’80’s, Vera Rubin similarly found that the arms of spiral galaxies should fly off their cores as they are orbiting much too quickly.

galaxy cluster
In this Hubble image, the galaxy cluster Abell 2218 reveals its dark matter by lensing background galaxies into giant arcs. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

Today dark matter is a widely accepted theory, which explains many of our observations. My colleagues and I at JPL are among those working to reveal and map out dark matter structures. Dark matter is invisible. But astronomers can “see” it in a way and you can too, if you know what to look for! For instance, if you have a wineglass on a table and you look through the glass, the images behind it are distorted. So too when we look through a dense clump of dark matter, we see distorted and even multiple images of galaxies more distant. Matter bends space according to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and light follows these bends to produce the distorted images. By studying these “lensed” images, we can reconstruct the shape of the lens, or in our case, the amount and distribution of dark matter in our gravitational lens.

Our observations of dark matter in outer space force particle physicists to revise their theories to explain what we see. Hopefully through their efforts, physicists will soon produce dark matter in the lab, catch and identify a small fraction of that which passes through us, and ultimately explain the relationship between dark matter and “star stuff.”


Rocks and Stars with Amy: Sizing Up Near-Earth Asteroids

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

By Amy Mainzer

Rocks and Stars with Amy

Asteroids. The word conjures images of pitted rocks zooming through space, the cratered surfaces of planets and moons, and for some, memories of a primitive video game. Just how hazardous are these nearest neighbors of ours? We think that one contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs, giving rise to the age of mammals. How likely is this to happen again?

The Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE) mission, an infrared telescope launching in about a year, will observe hundreds of near-Earth asteroids, offering unique insights into this question. The risk posed by hazardous asteroids is critically dependent on how many there are of different sizes. We know that there are more small asteroids than large ones, but how many more, and what are they made of?

asteroidAsteroids reflect sunlight (about half of which is the visible light that humans see), but the sun also warms them up, making them glow brightly in infrared light. The problem with observing asteroids in visible light alone is that it is difficult to distinguish between asteroids that are small and highly reflective, or large and dark. Both types of objects, when seen as distant points of light, can appear equally bright in visible light. However, by using infrared light to observe asteroids, we obtain a much more accurate measurement of their size. This is because the infrared light given off by most asteroids doesn’t depend strongly on reflectivity.

WISE will give us a much more accurate understanding of how many near-Earth asteroids there are of different sizes, allowing astronomers to better assess the hazard posed by asteroids. The danger posed by a near-Earth asteroid depends not only on its size, but also on its composition. An asteroid made of dense metals is more dangerous than one of the same size made mostly of less dense silicates. By combining infrared and visible measurements, we can determine how reflective the asteroids are, which gives us some indication of their composition.


From the Edge

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008
Ed Stone
by Ed Stone
Voyager Project Scientist

Winds of charged particles race outwards from the sun at 300,000 miles per hour. They are so faint that, here on the outer edge of the solar system, they would be undetectable if it were not for the very sensitive instruments carried by spacecraft.

From this distant, dark void, the sun is 100 times farther away than it is from Earth. Even so, our star is a million times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star seen from Earth. All around is a near-perfect vacuum, with only the most capable of instruments able to detect an ambient magnetic field that is 200,000 times weaker than the field back on Earth. To top off the loneliness factor, nothing from Earth has ever journeyed this far from home.

This remote zone is the domain now for Voyager 1 and 2.After 31 years of exploration, the twin spacecraft are the elder statesmen of space exploration, robotic envoys in the most distant reaches of our solar system. Voyager 1 is now 107 times farther from the sun than Earth is; Voyager 2 is 87 times farther. It takes about 15 hours for a signal leaving Earth to reach Voyager 1. (By contrast, it takes a little more than 20 minutes for a signal to go to Mars, even when the red planet is farthest from Earth.)

Voyager
This artist’s rendering depicts NASAs Voyager 2 spacecraft as it studies the outer limits of the heliosphere - a magnetic ‘bubble’ around the solar system that is created by the solar wind.

The twin spacecraft do not rest on the laurels of their discoveries at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune - the planets they flew by between 1977 and 1989. In fact, their findings at our solar system’s edge are changing scientists’ theories about what happens “way out there” and how interstellar space affects our solar system.

The Voyagers have shown that the heliosphere - the sun’s protective bubble surrounding our solar system — is not smooth and symmetric, as was originally thought. The robotic team discovered that this bubble is being pushed in and deformed by the pressure from the interstellar magnetic field outside our solar system. Another surprise came when the spacecraft passed an important milestone near the edge of the solar system, called the termination shock. The energy released from the sudden slowing of the sun’s supersonic wind had an unexpected outcome - it was absorbed not by the wind itself, but by ionized atoms that had come from outside our solar system. And inevitably, as theories are shattered in the wind, more questions arise. There are cosmic rays we know come from this distant region, for example, but their origin is yet to be found and explained.

After all this time, Voyager’s discoveries continue to do what they have always done - take us to new places we have never been, and shed light on the how our solar system interacts and interconnects with the surrounding regions of the Milky Way.

Both Voyagers have enough power to run until 2025. Voyager 1 will probably cross into interstellar space by about 2015. At that moment, Voyager 1 will become Earth’s first interstellar spacecraft, leaving the sun behind as it enters the interstellar wind produced by the supernova explosions of other stars.

Until their final transmissions — hopefully many years in the future — the Voyagers still have a long way to go and lots to tell us.


Looking for Earths Far From Home - by Tracy Drain

Monday, August 4th, 2008
What is Kepler?
photometer lowered into spacecraft
The photometer is lowered into the spacecraft in this picture. › Larger image

Kepler is a mission that is designed to find Earth-sized planets outside our solar system. Specifically, it will look for these rocky planets in the “habitable zone” near their stars — meaning at a distance where liquid water could exist on the surface.

Kepler will accomplish this by monitoring a large set of stars (approximately 100,000) and looking for the signature dip in brightness that indicates that a planet has crossed between the spacecraft and the star. The instrument that detects this dip is called a photometer — literally, a “light meter.” It is basically a large telescope that funnels the light from the stars onto a CCD array (similar to the ones used in digital cameras).

By surveying such a large number of stars using this “transit” method, Kepler will be able to determine the frequency of Earth-sized (and larger) planets around a wide variety of stars.

What do I think is cool about this mission?

I love the fact that the Kepler approach - looking for the dips in stellar brightness that occur when a planet passes between the photometer and a star - is so straightforward. It is such a wonderfully simple way to look for planets! Of course in practice, there are plenty of complicating factors that make this a challenging mission to execute. The change in brightness that we are looking for is very small (on the order of 0.01 percent). To make sure we can detect that, we have to carefully control noise in the system - things like electronic noise from reading out the CCDs, smear from tiny motions of the spacecraft, etc. These and other aspects of the mission have provided plenty of challenges to keep things interesting for the design team.

One of my favorite things about the Kepler mission is that the patch of sky we will be surveying is near a particular group of highly recognizable constellations. The stars Kepler will look at are in the area of what is known as the Summer Triangle, a group of constellations - Aquila, Cygnus and Lyra - that are overhead at midnight when viewed from northern latitudes in the summer months. When the scientist team starts identifying planets in our field of view, anyone will be able to go outside, point towards the Summer Triangle and say “they’ve just discovered a planet over there.” To me, there is something about that which will make the discoveries that much more personal.

photometer lowered into spacecraft
This image shows the Milky Way region of the sky where the Kepler photometer will be pointing. Image credit: Carter Roberts, Eastbay Astronomical Society, Oakland, Calif. › Larger image

I am also a huge sci-fi fan and I have always been particularly fascinated by books and movies about how humans might some day colonize other worlds in the galaxy. I think it is fantastic to get to work on a mission that will be looking for planets outside our solar system that are Earth-sized and in a range around their stars that could be habitable; places where such colonization could one day take place… I can’t wait to see what we find!

What do I do?

I am a member of the Project System Engineering Team at JPL. This team is responsible for a wide variety of tasks on Kepler, aimed at ensuring the project meets the driving scientific and technological objectives. This often involves checking that the interfaces between the different elements of the project work smoothly. For example, one of our responsibilities is to conduct end-to-end tests of the mission’s information system. In this test, we check to make sure that the right commands are being generated to collect data, data is collected using spacecraft hardware, and then the data flows correctly through the ground data system. This lets us verify that the entire data flow chain functions as it should before we launch.

My particular focus has been ensuring that we work out all of the details associated with executing each of the mission phases (the launch phase, the on-orbit checkout period that we call the commissioning phase, and the main data-gathering portion of the mission, which is the science phase). I work closely with my colleagues at NASA Ames, Ball Aerospace and JPL to identify and resolve open issues associated with planning for, testing and eventually executing the activities associated with these phases.

What is happening on the project right now?

This animation shows how Kepler will work.

The project is in what is known as the Assembly, Test and Launch Operations phase. Right now, the assembled spacecraft and instrument (known collectively as the flight system) is in the middle of the environmental testing campaign at Ball. This involves many hours of running the flight system and monitoring its performance while exposing it to the types of temperatures, pressures and other conditions that it will see in space. The system that will collect and distribute the data is undergoing integrated testing as well, with teams of people working to push test data through all of the various ground interfaces. The operations team — the people who will be responsible for generating and testing commands, monitoring the health and safety of the spacecraft and ensuring that data is collected from it by the Deep Space Network — are undergoing training and getting ready for upcoming mission phase rehearsals that we call “operational readiness tests.” Even though we are still several months away from launch, it is a very busy time on the project!

Who is involved?

The principle investigator and the science office that will lead the scientific data analysis are at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. The spacecraft and photometer were built at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, Colo. The mission operations center is located at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The mission is managed here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.


Rocks and Stars with Amy: An Infrared Glimpse of What’s to Come

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

By Amy Mainzer

Rocks and Stars with Amy

Almost everyone has had the frustrating experience of getting lost. To avoid this problem, the savvy traveler carries a map. Similarly, astronomers need maps of the sky to know where to look, allowing us to make the best use of precious time on large telescopes. A map of the entire sky also helps scientists find the most rare and unusual types of objects, such as the nearest star to our sun and the most luminous galaxies in the universe. Our team (lead by our principal investigator, Dr. Ned Wright of UCLA) is building a new space telescope called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer that will make a map of the entire sky at four infrared wavelengths. Infrared is a type of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength about ten or more times longer than that of visible light; humans perceive it as heat.

Why do we want to map the sky in the infrared? Three reasons: First, since infrared is heat, we can use it to search for the faint heat generated by some of the coldest objects in the universe, such as dusty planetary debris discs around other stars, asteroids and ultra-cold brown dwarfs, which straddle the boundary between planets and stars. Second, we can use it to look for very distant (and therefore very old) objects, such as galaxies that formed only a billion years after the Big Bang. Since light is redshifted by the expansion of the universe, the most distant quasars and galaxies will have their visible light shifted into infrared wavelengths. And finally, infrared light has the remarkable property of passing through dust. Just as firefighters use infrared goggles to find people through the smoke in burning buildings, astronomers can use infrared to peer through dense, dusty clouds to see things like newborn stars, or the dust-enshrouded cores of galaxies.


An Infrared Glimpse of What’s to Come - by Amy Mainzer

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

The image on the left shows a picture of the constellation Orion taken in the visible light that humans see.
On the left, a picture of the constellation Orion taken in the visible light that humans see. On the right, an infrared view of Orion reveals a swirling mass of glowing gas and newly formed stars, which are invisible to the human eye.› Larger image

Almost everyone has had the frustrating experience of getting lost. To avoid this problem, the savvy traveler carries a map. Similarly, astronomers need maps of the sky to know where to look, allowing us to make the best use of precious time on large telescopes. A map of the entire sky also helps scientists find the most rare and unusual types of objects, such as the nearest star to our sun and the most luminous galaxies in the universe. Our team (lead by our principal investigator, Dr. Ned Wright of UCLA) is building a new space telescope called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer that will make a map of the entire sky at four infrared wavelengths. Infrared is a type of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength about ten or more times longer than that of visible light; humans perceive it as heat.

Why do we want to map the sky in the infrared? Three reasons: First, since infrared is heat, we can use it to search for the faint heat generated by some of the coldest objects in the universe, such as dusty planetary debris discs around other stars, asteroids and ultra-cold brown dwarfs, which straddle the boundary between planets and stars. Second, we can use it to look for very distant (and therefore very old) objects, such as galaxies that formed only a billion years after the Big Bang. Since light is redshifted by the expansion of the universe, the most distant quasars and galaxies will have their visible light shifted into infrared wavelengths. And finally, infrared light has the remarkable property of passing through dust. Just as firefighters use infrared goggles to find people through the smoke in burning buildings, astronomers can use infrared to peer through dense, dusty clouds to see things like newborn stars, or the dust-enshrouded cores of galaxies.


This animation shows the Sombrero galaxy, first in visible
light and then in infrared. The infrared view shows a bright,
smooth ring of dust circling the galaxy, and stars that are
hidden by dust in the visible-light view.
› Full caption

So how does one go about building an infrared space telescope? And why does it need to be in space in the first place? Since infrared is heat, you can imagine that trying to observe the faint heat signatures of distant astronomical sources from our nice warm Earth would be very difficult. A colleague of mine compares ground-based infrared astronomy to observing in visible light during the middle of the day, using a telescope made out of fluorescent light bulbs! Putting your infrared telescope in the deep freeze of space, well away from the warmth of Earth, improves its sensitivity by orders of magnitude over a much larger ground-based infrared telescope.

On the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer project, our team is in the middle of one of the most exciting phases of building a spacecraft — we’re assembling and testing the payload. Right now, the major pieces of the observatory have been designed and manufactured, and we’re in the process of integrating all these pieces together. The payload is elegantly simple. It has only one moving part — a small scan mirror designed to “freeze-frame” the sky for each approximately 10 second exposure as the spacecraft slowly scans. After six months, we will have imaged the entire sky. The telescope is flying the latest generation of megapixel infrared detector arrays, along with an off-axis telescope that gives us the wide field of view that we need to cover the whole sky so quickly. In the next few months, we’ll be setting the focus on our telescope, characterizing our detector arrays, and verifying the thermal performance of our cryostat. The observatory’s cryostat is essentially a giant thermos containing the cryogenic solid hydrogen that we use to keep our telescope and detectors at their operating temperatures near absolute zero.

telescope
Engineers install the telescope optics into the observatory’s
cryostat. The top dome of the cryostat can be seen in the
foreground. This cover will be ejected approximately two
weeks after launch, allowing the observatory an unfettered
view of the sky. Image courtesy of Space Dynamics
Lab/Utah State University. › Larger image

We are also in the midst of making detailed plans for verifying that the spacecraft is working properly once we launch. This is called the “in-orbit checkout” phase. For this mission, checkout is fast — only 30 days! The checkout commences right after our November 2009 launch, when we wake the spacecraft up and begin switching on its various subsystems: Power generation and distribution, communications, attitude control and momentum management, and the main computer system. We’ll also power on the payload electronics and detectors. Next, we will begin the calibration observations that we need to start the survey, such as verifying the telescope’s image quality and the way our detector arrays respond to light. Once these steps are completed, we’ll be ready to extend our gaze across the universe using the observatory’s infrared eyes.

The great thing about the mission’s all-sky dataset is that it will be accessible to everyone in the entire world via a Web interface. So you will literally be able to access some of the coldest, most distant and dustiest parts of the universe from the comfort of your couch. Stay tuned to explore the universe with us!