gemini north telescope

Solar System: Things to Know This Week

Jupiter, we’ve got quite the photoshoot planned for you. Today, our Juno spacecraft is flying directly over the Great Red Spot, kicking off the first-ever close-up study of this iconic storm and passing by at an altitude of only 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers). In honor of this historic event, below are 10 things to know about the planet’s most famous feature.

1. A Storm That Puts Others to Shame

The Great Red Spot is a gigantic, high-pressure, ancient storm at Jupiter’s southern hemisphere that’s one of the longest lasting in the solar system. It’s so large, about 1.3 Earths could fit inside of it. And you can bet you’ll get swept away—the storm’s tumultuous winds peak at about 400 mph.

2. How Old Is It? 

The Great Red Spot has been swirling wildly over Jupiter’s skies for the past 150 years—maybe even much longer. While people saw a big spot on Jupiter when they started stargazing through telescopes in the 1600s, it’s still unclear whether they were looking at a different storm. Today, scientists know the Great Red Spot has been there for a while, but they still struggle to learn what causes its swirl of reddish hues.

3. Time for That Close-Up 

Juno will fly over the Great Red Spot about 12 minutes after the spacecraft makes the closest approach to Jupiter of its current orbit at 6:55 p.m. on July 10, PDT (9:55 p.m. on July 10, EDT; 1:55 a.m. on July 11, Universal Time). Juno entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016.

4. Oh, So Mysterious 

Understanding the Great Red Spot is not easy, and it’s mostly Jupiter’s fault. The planet a thousand times as big as Earth and consists mostly of gas. A liquid ocean of hydrogen surrounds its core, and the atmosphere consists mostly of hydrogen and helium. That translates into no solid ground (like we have on Earth) to weaken storms. Also, Jupiter’s clouds make it hard to gather clear observations of its lower atmosphere. 

This false-color image of Jupiter was taken on May 18, 2017, with a mid-infrared filter centered at a wavelength of 8.8 microns, at the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, in collaboration with observations of Jupiter by NASA’s Juno mission. Credit: NAOJ/NASA/JPL-Caltech

5. Help From Hawaii 

To assist Juno’s investigation of the giant planet’s atmosphere, Earth-based telescopes lent their helpful eyes. On May 18, 2017, the Gemini North telescope and the Subaru Telescope—both located on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea peak—simultaneously examined Jupiter in very high resolutions at different wavelengths. These latest observations helped provide information about the Great Red Spot’s atmospheric dynamics at different depths and at other regions of Jupiter.

6. Curious Observations 

Observations from Subaru showed the Great Red Spot “had a cold and cloudy interior increasing toward its center, with a periphery that was warmer and clearer,” said Juno science team member Glenn Orton of our Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “A region to its northwest was unusually turbulent and chaotic, with bands that were cold and cloudy, alternating with bands that were warm and clear.”

This composite, false-color infrared image of Jupiter reveals haze particles over a range of altitudes, as seen in reflected sunlight. It was taken using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii on May 18, 2017, in collaboration with observations of Jupiter by our Juno mission. Credits: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NASA/JPL-Caltech

7. Hot in Here 

Scientists were stumped by a particular question: Why were the temperatures in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere comparable to those found at Earth, even though Jupiter is more than five times the distance from the sun? If the sun isn’t the heat source, then what is? Turns out, the storm in the Great Red Spot produces two kinds of turbulent energy waves that collide and heat the upper atmosphere. Gravity waves are much like how a guitar string moves when plucked, while acoustic waves are compressions of the air (sound waves). Heating in the upper atmosphere 500 miles (800 kilometers) above the Great Red Spot is thought to be caused by a combination of these two wave types “crashing,” like ocean waves on a beach.

8. Color Theory 

Scientists don’t know exactly how the Great Red Spot’s rich colors formed. Studies predict Jupiter’s upper atmosphere has clouds consisting of ammonia, ammonium hydrosulfide, and water, but it’s still unclear how or even whether these chemicals react. “We’re talking about something that only makes up a really tiny portion of the atmosphere,” said Amy Simon, an expert in planetary atmospheres at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “That’s what makes it so hard to figure out exactly what makes the colors that we see.” Over at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, researchers concluded that the ruddy color is likely a product of simple chemicals being broken apart by sunlight in the planet’s upper atmosphere. “Our models suggest most of the Great Red Spot is actually pretty bland in color, beneath the upper cloud layer of reddish material,” said Kevin Baines, a Cassini scientist at JPL.

9. Been There, Haven’t Seen That 

In January and February 1979, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft zoomed toward Jupiter, capturing images of the Great Red Spot during its approach. Still, we’ve never been as close as we’re about to get during Juno’s flyover on July 10.

10. Simply Beautiful 

This image of a crescent Jupiter and the iconic Great Red Spot was created by a citizen scientist, Roman Tkachenko, using data from Juno’s JunoCam instrument. JunoCam’s raw images are available here for the public to peruse and enhance.Want to learn more? Read our full list of the 10 things to know this week about the solar system HERE.

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EARTH-BASED VIEWS OF JUPITER TO ENHANCE JUNO FLYBY

Telescopes in Hawaii have obtained new images of Jupiter and its Great Red Spot, which will assist the first-ever close-up study of the Great Red Spot, planned for July 10. On that date, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will fly directly over the giant planet’s most famous feature at an altitude of only about 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers).

Throughout the Juno mission, numerous observations of Jupiter by Earth-based telescopes have been acquired in coordination with the mission, to help Juno investigate the giant planet’s atmosphere. On May 18, 2017, the Gemini North telescope and the Subaru Telescope, both on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea peak, simultaneously examined Jupiter in very high resolution at different wavelengths. These latest observations supplement others earlier this year in providing information about atmospheric dynamics at different depths at the Great Red Spot and other regions of Jupiter.

The Great Red Spot is a swirling storm, centuries old and wider than the diameter of Earth. Juno will use multiple instruments to study this feature when it flies over it about 12 minutes after the spacecraft makes the closest approach to Jupiter of its current orbit at 6:55 p.m. on July 10, PDT (9:55 p.m. on July 10, EDT; 1:55 a.m. on July 11, Universal Time). Juno entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016.

“Observations with Earth’s most powerful telescopes enhance the spacecraft’s planned observations by providing three types of additional context,” said Juno science team member Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “We get spatial context from seeing the whole planet. We extend and fill in our temporal context from seeing features over a span of time. And we supplement with wavelengths not available from Juno. The combination of Earth-based and spacecraft observations is a powerful one-two punch in exploring Jupiter.”

Orton collaborated with researchers at Gemini; Subaru; the University of California, Berkeley; Tohoku University, Japan; and elsewhere in planning the recent observations.

The observers used Gemini North on May 18 to examine Jupiter through special near-infrared filters. The filters exploit specific colors of light that can penetrate the upper atmosphere and clouds of Jupiter, revealing mixtures of methane and hydrogen in the planet’s atmosphere. These observations showed a long, fine-structured wave extending off the eastern side of the Great Red Spot.

On the same night, researchers used Subaru’s Cooled Mid-Infrared Camera and Spectrometer (COMICS), with filters sensitive to temperatures at different layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere. These mid-infrared observations showed the Great Red Spot “had a cold and cloudy interior increasing toward its center, with a periphery that was warmer and clearer,” Orton said. “A region to its northwest was unusually turbulent and chaotic, with bands that were cold and cloudy, alternating with bands that were warm and clear.”

TOP VIEW….This video shows Jupiter as revealed by a powerful telescope and a mid-infrared filter sensitive to the giant planet’s tropospheric temperatures and cloud thickness. It combines observations made on Jan. 14, 2017, using the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.
The filter used admits infrared light centered on a wavelength of 8.8 microns. The video includes interpolated frames for smoother apparent motion. The instrument used to take this image is Cooled Mid-Infrared Camera and Spectrometer (COMICS) of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Subaru Telescope on the Maunakea volcano.


CENTRE VIEW….This composite, false-color infrared image of Jupiter reveals haze particles over a range of altitudes, as seen in reflected sunlight. It was taken using the Gemini North Telescope’s Near-InfraRed Imager (NIRI) on May 18, 2017, in collaboration with the investigation of Jupiter by NASA’s Juno mission. Juno completed its sixth close approach to Jupiter a few hours after this observation.
The multiple filters corresponding to each color used in the image cover wavelengths between 1.69 microns and 2.275 microns. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (GRS) appears as the brightest (white) region at these wavelengths, which are primarily sensitive to high-altitude clouds and hazes near and above the top of Jupiter’s convective region.
The GRS is one of the highest-altitude features in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Narrow spiral streaks that appear to lead into it or out of it from surrounding regions probably represent atmospheric features being stretched by the intense winds within the GRS, such as the hook-like structure on its western edge (left side). Some are being swept off its eastern edge (right side) and into an extensive wave-like flow pattern, and there is even a trace of flow from its northern edge.
Other features near the GRS include the dark block and dark oval to the south and the north of the eastern flow pattern, respectively, indicating a lower density of cloud and haze particles in those locations. Both are long-lived cyclonic circulations, rotating clockwise – in the opposite direction as the counterclockwise rotation of the GRS.
A prominent wave pattern is evident north of the equator, along with two bright ovals, which are anticyclones that appeared in January 2017. Both the wave pattern and the ovals may be associated with an impressive upsurge in stormy activity that has been observed in these latitudes this year. Another bright anticyclonic oval is seen further north. The Juno spacecraft may pass over these ovals, as well as the Great Red Spot, during its close approach to Jupiter on July 10, 2017, Pacific Time (July 11, Universal Time).
High hazes are evident over both polar regions with much spatial structure not previously been seen quite so clearly in ground-based images
The filters used for observations combined into this image admit infrared light centered on the following infrared wavelengths (and presented here in these colors): 1.69 microns (blue), 2.045 microns (cyan), 2.169 microns (green), 2.124 microns (yellow), and 2.275 microns (red).
The Gemini North Telescope is on Maunakea, Hawaii. The Gemini Observatory is a partnership of the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.


LOWER VIEW….This false-color image of Jupiter was taken on May 18, 2017, with a mid-infrared filter centered at a wavelength of 8.8 microns, at the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, in collaboration with observations of Jupiter by NASA’s Juno mission.
The selected wavelength is sensitive to Jupiter’s tropospheric temperatures and the thickness of a cloud near the condensation level of ammonia gas. The Great Red Spot appears distinctively at the lower center of the planet as a cold region with a thick cloud layer. It is surrounded by a warm and relatively clear periphery. To its northwest is a turbulent and chaotic region where bands of gas that is warm and dry alternate with bands of gas that is cold and moist.
This image, taken a few hours before Juno’s sixth close approach to Jupiter, shows the detailed atmospheric structure of the Great Red Spot and its surroundings that the Juno mission will encounter on its seventh closest approach to Jupiter on July 10, 2017, Pacific Time (July 11, Universal Time).
The instrument used to take this image is Cooled Mid-Infrared Camera and Spectrometer (COMICS) of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Subaru Telescope on Hawaii’s Maunakea peak.

NGC 3310: A Starburst Spiral Galaxy : The party is still going on in spiral galaxy NGC 3310. Roughly 100 million years ago, NGC 3310 likely collided with a smaller galaxy causing the large spiral galaxy to light up with a tremendous burst of star formation. The changing gravity during the collision created density waves that compressed existing clouds of gas and triggered the star-forming party. The featured image from the Gemini North Telescope shows the galaxy in great detail, color-coded so that pink highlights gas while white and blue highlight stars. Some of the star clusters in the galaxy are quite young, indicating that starburst galaxies may remain in star-burst mode for quite some time. NGC 3310 spans about 50,000 light years, lies about 50 million light years away, and is visible with a small telescope towards the constellation of Ursa Major. via NASA

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ASTRONOMERS FIND EVIDENCE OF WATER CLOUDS
IN FIRST SPECTRUM OF COLDEST BROWN DWARF

Since its detection in 2014, the brown dwarf known as WISE 0855 has fascinated astronomers. Only 7.2 light-years from Earth, it is the coldest known object outside of our solar system and is just barely visible at infrared wavelengths with the largest ground-based telescopes.

Now, a team led by astronomers at UC Santa Cruz has succeeded in obtaining an infrared spectrum of WISE 0855 using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, providing the first details of the object’s composition and chemistry. Among the findings is strong evidence for the existence of clouds of water or water ice, the first such clouds detected outside of our solar system.

“We would expect an object that cold to have water clouds, and this is the best evidence that it does,” said Andrew Skemer, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. Skemer is first author of a paper on the new findings to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters and currently available online.

A brown dwarf is essentially a failed star, having formed the way stars do through the gravitational collapse of a cloud of gas and dust, but without gaining enough mass to spark the nuclear fusion reactions that make stars shine. With about five times the mass of Jupiter, WISE 0855 resembles that gas giant planet in many respects. Its temperature is about 250 degrees Kelvin, or minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, making it nearly as cold as Jupiter, which is 130 degrees Kelvin.

“WISE 0855 is our first opportunity to study an extrasolar planetary-mass object that is nearly as cold as our own gas giants,” Skemer said.

Previous observations of the brown dwarf, published in 2014, provided tentative indications of water clouds based on very limited photometric data. Skemer, a coauthor of the earlier paper, said obtaining a spectrum (which separates the light from an object into its component wavelengths) is the only way to detect an object’s molecular composition.

WISE 0855 is too faint for conventional spectroscopy at optical or near-infrared wavelengths, but thermal emission from the deep atmosphere at wavelengths in a narrow window around 5 microns offered an opportunity where spectroscopy would be “challenging but not impossible,” he said.

The team used the Gemini-North telescope in Hawaii and the Gemini Near Infrared Spectrograph to observe WISE 0855 over 13 nights for a total of about 14 hours.

“It’s five times fainter than any other object detected with ground-based spectroscopy at this wavelength,” Skemer said. “Now that we have a spectrum, we can really start thinking about what’s going on in this object. Our spectrum shows that WISE 0855 is dominated by water vapor and clouds, with an overall appearance that is strikingly similar to Jupiter.”

The researchers developed atmospheric models of the equilibrium chemistry for a brown dwarf at 250 degrees Kelvin and calculated the resulting spectra under different assumptions, including cloudy and cloud-free models. The models predicted a spectrum dominated by features resulting from water vapor, and the cloudy model yielded the best fit to the features in the spectrum of WISE 0855.

Comparing the brown dwarf to Jupiter, the team found that their spectra are strikingly similar with respect to water absorption features. One significant difference is the abundance of phosphine in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Phosphine forms in the hot interior of the planet and reacts to form other compounds in the cooler outer atmosphere, so its appearance in the spectrum is evidence of turbulent mixing in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The absence of a strong phosphine signal in the spectrum of WISE 0855 implies that it has a less turbulent atmosphere.

“The spectrum allows us to investigate dynamical and chemical properties that have long been studied in Jupiter’s atmosphere, but this time on an extrasolar world,” Skemer said.

Polar Ring Galaxy NGC 660 : NGC 660 is featured in this cosmic snapshot, a sharp composite of broad and narrow band filter image data from the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea. Over 20 million light-years away and swimming within the boundaries of the constellation Pisces, NGC 660’s peculiar appearance marks it as a polar ring galaxy. A rare galaxy type, polar ring galaxies have a substantial population of stars, gas, and dust orbiting in rings nearly perpendicular to the plane of the galactic disk. The bizarre-looking configuration could have been caused by the chance capture of material from a passing galaxy by a disk galaxy, with the captured debris eventually strung out in a rotating ring. The violent gravitational interaction would account for the myriad pinkish star forming regions scattered along NGC 660’s ring. The polar ring component can also be used to explore the shape of the galaxy’s otherwise unseen dark matter halo by calculating the dark matter’s gravitational influence on the rotation of the ring and disk. Broader than the disk, NGC 660’s ring spans over 50,000 light-years. via NASA

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The party is still going on in spiral galaxy NGC 3310. Roughly 100 million years ago, NGC 3310 likely collided with a smaller galaxy causing the large spiral galaxy to light up with a tremendous burst of star formation. The changing gravity during the collision created density waves that compressed existing clouds of gas and triggered the star-forming party. The featured image from the Gemini North Telescope shows the galaxy in great detail, color-coded so that pink highlights gas while white and blue highlight stars. Some of the star clusters in the galaxy are quite young, indicating that starburst galaxies may remain in star-burst mode for quite some time. NGC 3310 spans about 50,000 light years, lies about 50 million light years away, and is visible with a small telescope towards the constellation of Ursa Major.

Object Names: NGC 3310

Image Type: Astronomical

Credit: AAO ITSO Office, Gemini Obs. / AURA Y T. A. Rector (U. Alaska Anchorage)

Time And Space

The sleeping giant NGC 4889 harbors a dark secret

The placid appearance of NGC 4889 can fool the unsuspecting observer. But the elliptical galaxy, pictured in this new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, harbours a dark secret. At its heart lurks one of the most massive black holes ever discovered.

Located about 300 million light-years away in the Coma Cluster, the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 4889, the brightest and largest galaxy in this image, is home to a record-breaking supermassive black hole. Twenty-one billion times the mass of the Sun, this black hole has an event horizon – the surface at which even light cannot escape its gravitational grasp – with a diameter of approximately 130 billion kilometres. This is about 15 times the diameter of Neptune’s orbit from the Sun. By comparison, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, is believed to have a mass about four million times that of the Sun and an event horizon just one fifth the orbit of Mercury.

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