Tuesday, August 26, 2014

New Evidence that We Live in a Space Bubble

Many people enjoy talking about their neighborhood, and how well they've come to know it. But do you know much about the "neighborhood" that our Sun and its planets hang out in? New evidence from an instrument launched aboard a NASA rocket has confirmed that our cosmic neighborhood really is a big bubble.

We have known for some time that our solar system sits inside a region which is emptier than the typical neighborhood in the Milky Way Galaxy. This "Local Bubble" (as it is called) is about 300 light years across, meaning light would take 300 years to cross it. Our diagram shows the bubble and some of the bright stars that are located in it. (The stars that looked brightest to our ancestors are the ones that wound up getting names. Many of the names we use today are Arabic translations of ancient Greek names.)

The Sun is actually located in a region that has a bit more loose gas and dust that the bubble. We call our slightly denser region the "local fluff." You can see the local fluff and other slightly denser regions inside the big bubble in yellow on our picture.

But what made this bigger bubble that we sit inside? Our best idea was that the violent explosions of giant stars ("supernovae") carved out this emptier region perhaps 10 or 20 million years or so ago. Some astronomers were not convinced of the exploding-stars origin of our bubble and thought that we might be fooled by some ways that our Sun's wind (the flow of atomic particles boiling off our star's surface) is interacting with the material in the fluff.

A new instrument, which looked for x-rays that come from collisions of atoms in deep space, was launched in 2012 aboard a rocket and got to spend five minutes above the Earth's atmosphere, where cosmic x-rays can be monitored. The data collected from those five minutes (!) was enough for the astronomers to confirm that the violence of exploding stars was the major contributor to the signs of the local bubble.

The exploding stars were not close enough to the Sun and the Earth to hurt life on our planet significantly -- after all, life on Earth thrived earlier than 10 million years ago and still thrives today. But it's clearer and clearer to astronomers that exploding stars have a lot to do with the geography and chemical makeup of our Galaxy. They not only made the bubble we find ourselves in, but we also know that it is the death of these stars that recycles the elements they get to make in their hot centers. This enriches the neighborhood with atoms like carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen -- the chemical building blocks of life as we know it. (Just about every atom of calcium in your bones, for example, was actually once inside a star that later exploded.)

By the way, our cosmic bubble is by no means unique. Other bubbles have been discovered near and far, blown by countless other star explosions over the 13 billion-year history of the Milky Way Galaxy.

For more technical details about this research, see the nice Science@NASA newsletter at: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/26aug_localbubble/

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Clouds Moving Across a Lake on Saturn's Moon Titan

Recently released images from the Cassini probe in the Saturn system show fresh clouds moving slowly above a giant lake on Saturn's moon Titan.  The lake itself is not water, but probably liquid methane and ethane (methane is what we call natural gas on Earth and ethane is an ingredient in fuel).

Now you might say, big deal, so there are clouds on top of a lake. I can see that anytime on Earth.  But the big difference is that the temperature on this distant moon is so cold, that water there is always frozen harder than rock.  So lakes, rivers, rain drops, and clouds can only form from substances that can stay liquid and gas at very cold temperatures.  Methane plays the same role on Titan that water plays on Earth -- it can be solid ice, flowing liquid, and gas in the atmosphere.  The clouds we see are condensations of droplets of methane. (As always, click on the picture to see it bigger.)

Even just having the images is a real tribute to our technology.  When we first got close-up images of Titan from space missions that flew by, its surface was not visible.  The entire giant moon is covered with a thick haze.  Light cannot make it through such haze (as people in Los Angeles on bad air days know all too well :-)), so we equipped the Cassini spacecraft with special instruments that can "see" infrared (heat rays) and radar -- waves that do get through the thick atmosphere of Titan.

The lake above which we see the new clouds is called Ligeia Mare (the Ligeian Sea), the second largest known body of liquid outside the Earth.  It's so big that if you walked around it, you'd walk 1240 miles.  Winds on Titan are pushing the clouds over the lake at speeds of about 7 to 10 miles per hour.

A large storm in 2010 cleared the atmosphere of Titan of most clouds, and astronomers who follow the weather on this distant moon have been waiting for the summer cloud patterns in Titan's northern hemisphere to return.

NASA's imaging wizards even put together a little movie of the cloud motions, which you can see at: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/archive/PIA18420.gif

The movie is not going to win any Oscars, but as you watch the few frames with different amounts of detail showing, remind yourself that you are watching images taken 900 million miles from Earth by a fragile spacecraft that has been orbiting through the Saturn system for almost 10 years.

By the way, if you want to see the shape of Lake Ligeia, see the image below, taken with radar, that shows it especially well:

Sunday, August 10, 2014

An Eclipse of the Sun from Mars

Our Moon is not the only astronomical body that can eclipse the Sun. In August of last year, the cameras aboard the Curiosity rover on Mars caught one of the little moons of Mars, Phobos, making an eclipse.

In the photo, you can see Phobos go across the face of the Sun. Note that the moon's shape is that of a potato (not a sphere).

Phobos is really a small moon (we believe it's an asteroid that Mars captured long ago) -- it is only about 16 miles wide in its longest dimension. The reason it covers so much of the Sun in the picture is that it orbits very close to Mars. It's only 3700 miles above the surface of the red planet.  (Compare that to the 240,000-mile distance of our own Moon!)

If you stood on the surface of Mars, Phobos would be a dim light in the night sky, rising in the west and setting in the east, and taking about 4 hours to go from horizon to horizon. (In other words, Phobos orbits Mars faster than Mars spins or rotates!)

The three black and white images of Phobos crossing the Sun were taken on Aug. 21, 2013 three seconds apart. Not a bad feat of photography by the team running the rover on its mission in Gale crater!

If you want to see Phobos better, below is a remarkable close-up photo of the little moon, taken with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, and photo processed to make the color differences more intense:

I was reminded of eclipses because I've just come back from an astronomy meeting where we discussed another August eclipse. In August 2017, our Moon will eclipse the Sun completely. The total eclipse will be visible in only one country -- the United States -- and in a band only 150 miles or so wide. Everyone else in North America will see a "partial eclipse" -- a nice bite taken out of the Sun. We estimate that 500 million people will be able to see the partial eclipse. This could become one of the most dramatic opportunities and challenges for astronomy education in our time. But we'll talk more about that in future blog posts, as the time gets closer.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Close-up View of a Comet

Today the Rosetta spacecraft closed in on Comet 67P (the P stands for periodic comet, meaning it comes around again and again every six and a half years. ) It's also known as Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (C-G). Look at the amazing image our cameras sent back, taken from a distance of only 177 miles.

The comet and the spacecraft are currently still about half way between the orbit of Jupiter and the orbit of Mars.  In this exciting rendezvous, Rosetta will match course with the icy comet and then stay with it as it gets closer and closer to the Sun and its ice begins to "sublimate" (turn from ice directly to a vapor in the vacuum of space.) 

We hope to stay with the comet for a year, as it goes inward and then swings back outward again, watching the Sun's light and heat playing with the comet all the while. In November, part of Rosetta will actually land on the icy surface of Comet 67P.

But for now, just enjoy the weird and wonderful image.   The comet's shape is definitely not symmetrical.  Is it two ice pieces that stuck together in an ancient collision?  Have past encounters with the Sun's heat resulted in this odd shape?

The comet is 2.5 miles wide, and you can see details as small as 17 feet (5.3 meters) across on our picture.   Can you see the individual "boulders" or "ice rocks" sitting on the comet's surface?

If you'll pardon the expression, what a cool picture!

By the way, click on the photo to see it bigger and with more detail.