Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

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.


Lunar Eclipse, the Moon’s Interior, and the Holy GRAIL

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

By Sami Asmar

Earth's moon

In addition to the awesome views they offer, lunar eclipses have always provided scientific clues about the moon’s shape, location and even surface composition. Although there will continue to be opportunities for observers to examine and reflect on fundamental concepts about the moon, such as its origin and interior structure, more modern tools are aiding these observations.

When it comes to understanding what a moon or a planet is made of remotely — short of touching it or placing seismometers on its surface or probes below the surface — classical physics comes to the rescue. By measuring the magnetic and gravitational forces that are generated on the inside and manifested on the outside of a planet or moon, we can learn volumes about the structure of its interior.

A spacecraft in the proximity of the moon can detect these forces. In the case of gravity, the mass of the moon will pull on the spacecraft due to gravitational attraction. If the spacecraft is transmitting a stable radio signal at the time, its frequency will shift by an amount exactly proportional to the forces pulling on the spacecraft.

This is how we weigh the moon and go further by measuring the detailed distribution of the densities of mountains and valleys as well as features below the moon’s surface. This collection of information is called the gravity field.

In the past, this has lead to the discovery mascons on the moon, or hidden, sub-surface concentrations of mass not obvious in images or topography. If not accounted for, mascons can complicate the navigation of future landed missions. A mission, human or robotic, attempting to land on the moon would need to have a detailed knowledge of the gravity field in order to navigate the landing process safely. If a spacecraft sensed gravitational pull higher than planned, it could jeopardize the mission.

GRAIL spacecraft

The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, scheduled to launch in September, is comprised of twin spacecraft flying in formation with radio links between them to measure the moon’s gravity field globally. This is because a single spacecraft with a link to Earth would be obstructed when the spacecraft goes behind the moon, leaving us with no measurement for nearly half of the moon, since the moon’s far side never faces the Earth. The GRAIL technique may also reveal if the Moon has a core with a fluid layer.

So as you go out to watch the lunar eclipse on the night of Dec. 20, think about how much we’ve learned about the moon so far and what more we can learn through missions like GRAIL. Even at a close distance from Earth, the moon remains a mystery waiting be uncovered.


Planetary Trio Provides a Warm-Up Act for Perseids

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

By Jane Houston Jones

Star chart showing visible planets in August, 2010

Are you eager to see the annual Perseids meteor shower tonight? You’ll have to wait until near midnight to see it, so why not pass the time by viewing Venus, Saturn and Mars right from your doorstep? Step outside for the planetary warm-up act just as soon as the sun sets. (Viewing times will be best over the next week. By August 20, the planets set lower on the horizon and are harder to see.)

All you have to do is look towards the west for bright Venus to appear. Now hold your clenched fist up to the sky, covering Venus. To the right of Venus, about half of a clenched fist away, is a second planet: That’s Saturn! And to the upper left of Venus is another planet: Mars!

That’s not all you’ll be able to see. Look below Venus for the slender crescent moon. If you don’t see the moon, look again on the night of Friday, August 13 — it will be a larger crescent to the left of Venus.

Though the three planets appear together in our line of sight, they are really far apart from each other. Mars is about 300 million kilometers (about 185 million miles) from Earth, while Venus is 112 million kilometers (about 70 million miles) away. Saturn? It’s 1,535 million kilometers (about 954 million miles) from Earth. And finally, the moon is only 363 thousand kilometers (about 225 thousand miles) away. It’s fun to compare the size of the moon and Mars, especially if you received that annual email incorrectly stating that Mars will be as big as the moon this month.


Confessions from Comic-Con

Thursday, July 29th, 2010
Illustration of Whitney Clavin at Comic-Con 2010

Written by Whitney Clavin of JPL’s News Office while attending Comic-Con 2010 in San Diego

I’ve been standing in line next to a green monster for more than an hour. This might sound like a bad situation, but the monster is actually a rather nice human in body paint and stunning, neon-green contact lenses. This is my fourth time at Comic-Con — San Diego’s annual gathering of all things geeky (some people call it “The Nerd Prom”). Lines to get into the various panels are a regular part of the program, especially now that attendance has swelled to well over 100,000. The lines here can actually be kind of fun — people sit down on the carpeted floors, read comics, enjoy all the costumed creatures and superheroes, and chat with like-minded friends.

Standing in line to see one of Comic-Con’s regular heroes — Joss Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and director of the new “Avengers” movie — I discover that a couple of my line companions and I are even more like-minded than I thought. They also work at JPL in Pasadena. One is an engineer working on the next Mars rover, Curiosity (although he didn’t call the rover Curiosity — like many engineers, he’s accustomed to using its original acronym, MSL, which stands for Mars Science Laboratory). The JPL connection doesn’t stop there. My new JPL friends just came from a panel that included Kevin Grazier, who works on NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn — he’s also science advisor for “Battlestar Galactica” and “Eureka.”

It’s no surprise that there’s crossover between science and science-fiction geeks. Many of the astronomers I work with at JPL were inspired to go into astronomy by sci-fi shows like “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek.” Science fiction and superhero stories take us to imagined worlds, while scientists and engineers take us to real worlds that can sometimes be even more surprising and exotic. At Comic-Con, the excitement about what we can do with our minds is more than a buzz, it’s a roar.

Mingling with all of us humans (or people like me who still haven’t figured out a good costume) are robots and creatures from many worlds. I spot bands of Cylons and stormtroopers, Bender the robot from “Futurama,” Sookie Stackhouse from “True Blood,” and many more. Superheroes stride proudly through the crowd, stopping about every two feet to pose for more pictures. There are numerous “Wonder Womans.” I was particularly impressed by one, a gray-haired woman probably in her 60s, who looked fantastic in her star-spangled short shorts and red vinyl boots. And of course there are lots of zombies. (If there’s one thing that became very clear to me this year, it’s that vampires are on their way out and zombies are back in.)

I also chat with several artists and writers, and sit in on a few panels teasing us with upcoming storylines for TV shows. In the end, I am left with the impression that there are still so many stories to tell, so much left to explore. The Comic-Con experience inspires me in the same way that astronomy conferences do. We’re all pushing into the unknown in unique ways. It would be cool, though, if astronomers also dressed up as what inspires them during their conferences. I’d love to come across a globular cluster of human stars parading across the exhibit-hall floor.


Comets and Life On Earth

Monday, August 17th, 2009
Donald Yeomans
Donald Yeomans

With the recent discovery of the amino acid glycine in the comet dust samples returned to Earth by the Stardust spacecraft, it is becoming a bit more clear how life may have originated on Earth. Water is a well-known ingredient in both comets and living organisms, and now it appears that amino acids are also common to comets and living organisms. Amino acids are used to make proteins, which are chains of amino acids, and proteins are vital in maintaining the cell structures of plants and animals.

Amino acids had previously been identified in meteorite samples, and these samples are thought to be the surviving fragments from asteroid collisions with the Earth. So now it appears that both comets and asteroids in the Earth’s neighborhood, the so-called near-Earth objects, delivered some of the building blocks of life to the early Earth.

Asteroid Eros - Mosaic of Northern Hemisphere
Asteroid Eros - Mosaic of Northern Hemisphere. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
› Full image and caption

Impacts of comets and asteroids with the early Earth likely laid down the veneer of carbon-based molecules and water that allowed life to form. Once life did form, subsequent collisions of these near-Earth objects frustrated the evolution of all but the most adaptable species. The dinosaurs checked out some 65 million years ago because of an impact by a six mile-wide comet or asteroid off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula. Fortunately, the small, furry mammalian creatures at the time were far more adaptable and survived this impact event. Thus, present day mammals like us may owe our origin and current position atop Earth’s food chain to these near-Earth objects, one of which took out our dinosaur competitors some 65 million years ago.

Today, most of the attention directed toward near-Earth objects has to do with the potential future threat they can pose to life on Earth. However, the recent Stardust discovery of a cometary amino acid reminds us that, were it not for past impacts by these objects, the Earth may not have received the necessary building blocks of life, and humans may not have evolved to our current preeminent position on Earth. While giving thanks to these near-Earth objects, we still need to make sure we find the potentially hazardous comets and asteroids early enough so we don’t go the way of the dinosaurs.

For more information on near-Earth objects, see: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroidwatch/index.cfm


The Lowdown on Jupiter’s Black Eye

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009
Glenn Orton
Glenn Orton

We’ve had such great feedback and comments to our earlier post about the recent impact at Jupiter that we wanted to give you more details, plus answer some questions. My name is Glenn Orton, a senior research scientist at JPL. My colleague and fellow JPL blogger Leigh Fletcher is on a well-deserved vacation for a bit, and he filled in for me while I was at a conference talking about another aspect of our research and the Jupiter impact last week.

I’ve been on Anthony Wesley’s email list (as I am for many in the amateur astronomy community) for some time, so it wasn’t happenstance that I was aware of his Jupiter observation. Anthony is the Australian-based amateur astronomer who alerted the world to this big impact. When we received news of his discovery, we immediately wanted to verify it with some of the sophisticated telescopes NASA uses. Having actively observed in both the visible and infrared during the Shoemaker-Levy-9 impacts in 1994, I was aware that a quick verification was possible by looking at a wavelength with lots of gaseous absorption, which suppresses light reflected from Jupiter’s deep clouds.

Jupiter
This image shows a large impact shown on the bottom left on Jupiter’s south polar region captured on July 20, 2009, by NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Infrared Telescope Facility

Luck was on our side. Several months before the impact, our JPL team had been awarded observing time on NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. We had the midnight to 6 a.m. shift (from our Pasadena office, which meant we started work at 3 a.m.) so much of our observing time would take place before Jupiter rose over Australian skies. Another piece of luck is that Anthony’s “day job” involves software engineering so he was able to watch the same telescope instrument status and data screens as we were, while we did remote-style observing from the IRTF over the Internet. He would also be doing his own (now *very important*) post-impact observing. Weather was just as “iffy” over Mauna Kea as in Australia, so it was lucky for all of us that we could catch this event.

With Leigh, several JPL summer interns and me huddled at our side-by-side computers at JPL (one with instrument controls and one showing the data), and Anthony online from Australia, we got started. We knew the location of Anthony’s dark spot would be coming over Jupiter’s rising limb (edge) just as our allotted time was beginning. A near-infrared spectrometer was in the center of the telescope from the previous observer. Although it wasn’t our instrument of choice (we wanted images!), it has a very nice guide camera sensitive to the near infrared, so we used it rather than waiting for the 20-40 minute hiatus needed by the telescope operator to move it out of the way and put our preferred instrument in its place. This turned out to be a good decision because the very first image showed us something brighter than anyplace else on the planet — exactly where Anthony’s dark feature was located. For me, this totally clinched the case that this was an impact. Even better was the fact that Anthony was looking on in real time. We e-mailed him what was obvious - he was *definitely* the father of a new impact!

Right after this we collected data that may help us sort out any exotic components of the impactor or of Jupiter’s atmosphere and just how high the particulates have spread. Then we switched instruments to something at much longer wavelengths that told us the temperatures were higher, and that ammonia gas had probably been pushed up from Jupiter’s troposphere (the lower part of the atmosphere) and ejected into its stratosphere (higher up in the atmosphere). We finished up with our preferred (more versatile) near-infrared camera and ended up, pretty tired, at 9 a.m. (this was a midnight to 6 a.m. run in Hawaii, and in California we were three hours ahead). Then we took some of the screen shots we’d been making and used them to submit a press release. Another person had already alerted a clearinghouse for important astronomical bulletins, so that was another thing that was important but that we didn’t need to do.

Now some responses to posts:

Good post from Mike Salway who is another one of the cadre of the world’s talented Jupiter observers. I should note that, in fact, there aren’t all that many of us who track the time evolution of phenomena in the planets in the professional community, either (see the web pages for the International Outer Planet Watch: http://dawn.ucla.edu/IJW/).

Asim. Neither NASA nor JPL is capable of observing everything in the sky. There is a program to search for asteroids whose orbits will intersect the Earth’s, but not at Jupiter. In fact, it’s unlikely this object could have been seen, given that it may have been at most a half kilometer in size. For Shoemaker-Levy 9, we were both lucky and the disruption of the comets left a lot of very shiny material around it which made it easier to see.

Denise. It hit quite a bit further south than the Shoemaker-Levy 9 fragments, almost at 60 deg S latitude.

Patrick, Jim, BobK. I suspect that the only link between this and the SL9 fragments is the voracious appetite of Jupiter, the great gravitational vacuum cleaner in that part of the solar system! SL9 fragments impacted from the south; this was from the east.


All Eyes on Jupiter

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009
Leigh Fletcher
Leigh Fletcher

What an incredible few hours it’s been for astronomers everywhere, as we witness a chance of a lifetime event: evidence of a space rock of some sort slamming into Jupiter. Images taken after the impact show the debris field and aftermath of a gigantic collision that occurred in the southern polar region of the enormous planet.

An extremely dedicated and meticulous team of amateur astronomers observe Jupiter’s changing cloud patterns on a regular basis, and it came as an amazing surprise when Anthony Wesley, near Canberra, Australia, reported his Sunday-morning (July 19, 2009) observations (http://jupiter.samba.org/jupiter-impact.html) of a dark scar that bore all the hallmarks of the Shoemaker Levy 9 impacts at Jupiter in 1994. By an amazing coincidence, I was part of a team that had already been allocated time to observe Jupiter from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Based on Anthony’s discovery, we were crowded around our computers at 3 a.m. PDT (with Anthony observing with us remotely from Australia) as the first near- and mid-infrared images started to come in… it was such an exciting moment, seeing the high altitude particles that had been lofted by the impact (they appear bright in the infrared). Anthony celebrated with us, but then the real work began. We celebrated and then rolled up our sleeves and began an exciting night of observations.

Jupiter
This image shows a large impact shown on the bottom left on Jupiter’s south polar region captured on July 20, 2009, by NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Infrared Telescope Facility

With the assistance of William Golisch at the IRTF, Glenn Orton and I viewed the impacts in as many wavelengths and spectra as we possibly could, as Jupiter rotated and carried the impact scar out of Earth’s view. We used these many views to show evidence for high temperatures at the impact location, and suggestions of ammonia and aerosols that had been carried high into the atmosphere. The observations were repeated again today, Tuesday morning, to track the shape and properties of the site. The scar is extremely large, almost as big as Earth and will continue to grow as Jupiter’s atmospheric winds and jet streams redistribute the material, and then, like Shoemaker-Levy 9, it will begin to fade in the coming weeks and months. Based on comparisons to SL-9, the impactor was likely to be small despite the large aftermath, maybe a few hundreds of metres across. Not only will this tell us a lot about impacts in the outer solar system, and how they contribute to the nature of the planets and icy moons, but they’ll also serve as a probe for the fundamental weather patterns in Jupiter’s high atmosphere.

Amateur observers continue to flood the Internet with new images of the dark spot at approximately 60 degrees south on Jupiter, and so far it looks as though the impact took place sometime in the 24 hours preceding Anthony’s discovery. The debris field now extends out to the west and northwest, with additional high-resolution images from the Keck telescope (Marchis, Wong, Kalas, Fitzgerald and Graham http://keckobservatory.org/index.php/news/jupiters_adds_a_feature/) showing the detailed morphology of the impact region. The hard work continues today, as an international team of planetary astronomers scrambles for time on some of the world’s largest astronomical facilities.

Finally, it’s a shame but perhaps not surprising that we didn’t see the collision, or the impactor itself, given the great distance to Jupiter. Like throwing a rock in a pond, we’re seeing and analyzing the splash that it’s made, and we can’t yet infer many details about the rock itself - the detailed shape of the impact site could help determine the trajectory and energy of the collision. But it certainly made quite a splash, and we hope to learn a lot about Jupiter from this event!

Anthony’s discovery is truly astounding, as it united astronomers in looking again at the gas giant Jupiter. It’s overwhelming and spectacularly exciting to watch this event unfolding before our eyes!

You can follow Leigh on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LeighFletcher


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


Good and Bad Ozone

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009
Chris Boxe
by Chris Boxe
Scientist and Engineer

Oxygen, or O2 on the table of chemical elements, is a vital component for life on Earth. It is the second most abundant gas in Earth’s atmosphere, making up about 21 percent of its volume. On the other hand, its cousin ozone (O3) makes up less than 0.00001 percent. In fact, if all the ozone in Earth’s atmosphere were brought down to the surface, air pressure and temperature conditions would compress ozone into a layer just three millimeters thick, equivalent to two pennies stacked one on top of the other. ! Despite its tiny amount, ozone is also a vital ingredient for life on Earth.

Ozone in fact is vital for life on Earth, but it also has a “bad” side as well - that is, there is both good and bad ozone out there. Good ozone, which accounts for about 91 percent of the ozone in Earth’s atmosphere, is present in the stratosphere, the middle layer in Earth’s atmosphere. This portion of ozone is commonly referred to as the “ozone layer.” The ozone layer absorbs more than 90 percent of the sun’s high-frequency ultraviolet light, which is potentially damaging to life on Earth. Without the ozone layer, this radiation would not be filtered as it reaches the surface of Earth, resulting in detrimental health effects for life on Earth. Among the health effects humans could experience as a result of overexposure to ultraviolet radiation are skin cancers, premature aging of the skin and other skin problems, cataracts and other forms of eye damage, and suppression of our bodies’ immune systems and our skin’s natural defenses.

The troposphere, the part of the atmosphere closest to Earth, contains both good and bad ozone. In the lower troposphere, ozone may serve as an air pollutant since it is a major component of photochemical smog. In the middle troposphere, ozone acts as an atmospheric cleanser, and in the upper troposphere, ozone is a greenhouse gas, which could be bad if concentrations get too high.

artist concept of NASA's Aura spacecraft
The Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer flies aboard NASA’s Aura spacecraft. Image credit: NASA JPL

The Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer, a science instrument onboard NASA’s Aura satellite, is improving our understanding of the good and bad ozone in the troposphere. The spectrometer, which was launched in 2004, provides the first global view of tropospheric ozone and vertical concentrations of ozone, as well as temperature and other important tropospheric features, including carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), water vapor and ammonia (NH3). The instrument has studied the origin and distribution of tropospheric ozone. It has also shed light on how the increasing ozone abundance in the troposphere is affecting air quality on a global scale, as well as ozone’s role in chemical reactions that “clean” the atmosphere, and climate change.

These data are used by scientists to determine the degree to which natural sources, like lightning and plant growth, and human-produced sources, like automobiles, industrial pollution, and biomass burning, contribute to ozone production and chemistry. For example, during summertime in the upper troposphere, where ozone acts as a greenhouse gas, lightning generates much greater amounts of ozone than do human activities, thereby having a big impact on regional pollution. Over the last few years, the spectrometer has obtained global data on ozone and chemicals that participate in ozone formation. The fact that the instrument is able to quantify vertical profiles of ozone improves our understanding of how various reactions taking place at specified heights contribute to ozone chemistry. Similar to ozone, chemicals that participate in its production also exist in tiny amounts. Still, this enables scientists to better understand long-term variations in the quantity, distribution and mixing of many tropospheric gases that have a large impact on climate and air quality.

My role with the instrument is to validate the quality of the most recent ozone measurements, which are taken in a special observation mode, called “stare.” This mode is used to monitor biomass burning events and volcanic activity. I compare measurements taken by an ozonesdone (a lightweight, balloon-borne instrument that measures ozone, air pressure, temperature and humidity as it ascends through the atmosphere) with measurements from the tropospheric spectrometer. We do this so we can demonstrate the accuracy and precision of the instrument’s readings. I am also participating in projects that use the instrument data to better understand the chemistry and transport of pollutants coming from wildfires, such as those that occurred in Australia in December 2006. For the future, I am interested in using the tropospheric spectrometer satellite data for ozone and methane to better quantify the degree to which they contribute to global warming and climate change.


Oceans Up Close - From Space

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009
Jorge Vazquez
by Jorge Vazquez
Oceanographer

Not all oceanographers spend their time out on the seas. As a project scientist for the Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center here at JPL , I study the world’s ocean from my computer, using data from a series of NASA satellites that orbit Earth. These data measure everything from how the ocean changes during an El Nino to how such climatic changes affect local regions like California’s coast.

This kind of precise data was impossible 100 years ago. In fact, scientific and technological advances over the last century have revolutionized the field of oceanography. Today, we gather data both from instruments in the ocean and from satellites in space. These satellite data measure changes in sea surface topography (the ocean surface has changes in elevation, just like the land), ocean surface winds, sea surface temperature and water pressure at the bottom of the ocean. The satellites view the ocean from 700 to 1,300 kilometers (440 to 800 miles) above Earth. Current advanced technologies allow scientists to combine data from different satellites to view ocean conditions in near-real time, only 6 to 12 hours from when the satellite acquires the data. This information can then be sent to researchers and decision makers for use in improving forecasts for hurricanes to the regional and local impacts of ocean phenomena like El Nino and La Nina.

The image shows temperatures off the coast of California in September of 1997 (El Nino).
Image above: Sea surface temperatures in 1997 during El Nino and in 2008, when the waters had returned to more normal conditions.Image credit: NOAA

Examples of satellite data can be seen in these images. The view on the left shows temperatures off the coast of California in September of 1997 (El Nino). On the right, sea surface temperatures from September of 2008 (normal conditions). Notice the warmer temperatures (seen in red) resulting from the 1997-1998 El Nino event. Such temperature changes have direct impacts on local climate and fisheries. These data are leading to a new understanding of how hurricanes get their energy from the ocean. These satellite data also help forecast regional ocean temperatures, which affect local weather.

As technology improves, along with the availability of these data in real time, new opportunities will continue to expand to better understand our planet and its impacts on our lives.


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!