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A small, faint star relatively close by is home to seven Earth-size planets with conditions that could be right for liquid water and maybe even life.

The discovery sets a record for both the most Earth-size planets and the most potentially habitable planets ever discovered around a single star.

The strange planetary system is quite compact, with all of these worlds orbiting their star closer than Mercury orbits the sun, according to a newly published report in Nature.

“If you were on the surface of one of these planets, you would see the other ones as we see the moon, or a bit smaller,” says Michaël Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liège in Belgium. “The view would be very impressive.”

Astronomers Find 7 Earth-Size Planets Around A Nearby Star

Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Neptune’s blue-green atmosphere is shown in greater detail than ever before by the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it rapidly approaches its encounter with the giant planet.

This color image, produced from a distance of about 16 million kilometers, shows several complex and puzzling atmospheric features.

The Great Dark Spot (GDS) seen at the center is about 13,000 km by 6,600 km in size – as large along its longer dimension as the Earth.

The bright, wispy “cirrus-type” clouds seen hovering in the vicinity of the GDS are higher in altitude than the dark material of unknown origin which defines its boundaries.

A thin veil often fills part of the GDS interior, as seen on the image.
The bright cloud at the southern (lower) edge of the GDS measures about 1,000 km in its north-south extent.

The small, bright cloud below the GDS, dubbed the “scooter,” rotates faster than the GDS, gaining about 30 degrees eastward (toward the right) in longitude every rotation.

Bright streaks of cloud at the latitude of the GDS, the small clouds overlying it, and a dimly visible dark protrusion at its western end are examples of dynamic weather patterns on Neptune, which can change significantly on time scales of one rotation (about 18 hours).

Swirling bands of light and dark clouds on Jupiter are seen in this image made by citizen scientists using data from our Juno spacecraft. Each of the alternating light and dark atmospheric bands in this image is wider than Earth, and each rages around Jupiter at hundreds of miles (km) per hour. The lighter areas are regions where gas is rising, and the darker bands are regions where gas is sinking. This image was acquired on May 19, 2017 from about 20,800 miles (33,400km) above Jupiter’s cloud tops.

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Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt /Seán Doran

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Some 40 light-years from Earth, a planet called TRAPPIST-1e offers a heart-stopping view: brilliant objects in a red sky, looming like larger and smaller versions of our own moon. But these are no moons. They are other Earth-sized planets in a spectacular planetary system outside our own. These seven rocky worlds huddle around their small, dim, red star, like a family around a campfire. Any of them could harbor liquid water, but the planet shown here, fourth from the TRAPPIST-1 star, is in the habitable zone, the area around the star where liquid water is most likely to be detected. This system was revealed by the TRansiting Planets and PlanetIsmals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The planets are also excellent targets for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Take a planet-hopping excursion through the TRAPPIST-1 system.

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NEW MYSTERIES SURROUND NEW HORIZONS’ NEXT FLYBY TARGET

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft doesn’t zoom past its next science target until New Year’s Day 2019, but the Kuiper Belt object, known as 2014 MU69, is already revealing surprises.

Scientists have been sifting through data gathered from observing the object’s quick pass in front of a star – an astronomical event known as an occultation – on June 3. More than 50 mission team members and collaborators set up telescopes across South Africa and Argentina, along a predicted track of the narrow shadow of MU69 that the occultation would create on Earth’s surface, aiming to catch a two-second glimpse of the object’s shadow as it raced across the Earth. Accomplishing the observations of that occultation was made possible with the help of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Gaia, a space observatory of the European Space Agency (ESA).

Combined, the pre-positioned mobile telescopes captured more than 100,000 images of the occultation star that can be used to assess the environment around this Kuiper Belt object (KBO). While MU69 itself eluded direct detection, the June 3 data provided valuable and unexpected insights that have already helped New Horizons.

“These data show that MU69 might not be as dark or as large as some expected,” said occultation team leader Marc Buie, a New Horizons science team member from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

Initial estimates of MU69’s diameter, based primarily on data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope since the KBO’s discovery in 2014, fall in the 12-25-mile (20-40-kilometer) range – though data from this summer’s ground-based occultation observations might imply it’s at or even below the smallest sizes expected before the June 3 occultation.

Besides MU69’s size, the readings offer details on other aspects of the Kuiper Belt object.

“These results are telling us something really interesting,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI. “The fact that we accomplished the occultation observations from every planned observing site but didn’t detect the object itself likely means that either MU69 is highly reflective and smaller than some expected, or it may be a binary or even a swarm of smaller bodies left from the time when the planets in our solar system formed.”

More data are on the way, with additional occultations of MU69 occurring on July 10 and July 17. On July 10, NASA’s airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will use its powerful 100-inch (2.5-meter) telescope to probe the space around MU69 for debris that might present a hazard to New Horizons as it flies by in 18 months.

On July 17, the Hubble Space Telescope also will check for debris around MU69, while team members set up another ground-based “fence line” of small mobile telescopes along the predicted ground track of the occultation shadow in southern Argentina to try to better constrain, or even determine, the size of MU69.

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Cassini’s last images

Top to bottom:

  • Lone Propeller 

This view of Saturn’s A ring features a lone “propeller” – one of many such features created by small moonlets embedded in the rings as they attempt, unsuccessfully, to open gaps in the ring material. 

  • Daphnis’ Final Appearance

This image of Saturn’s outer A ring features the small moon Daphnis and the waves it raises in the edges of the Keeler Gap. The image was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 13, 2017. It is among the last images Cassini sent back to Earth.

  • Saturn: Before the Plunge

This image of Saturn’s northern hemisphere was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 13, 2017.

  • Finale Ringscape

This image of Saturn’s rings was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 13, 2017.


Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Dark Spot and Jovian ‘Galaxy’ - This enhanced-color image of a mysterious dark spot on Jupiter seems to reveal a Jovian “galaxy” of swirling storms. Juno acquired this JunoCam image on Feb. 2, 2017, at an altitude of 9,000 miles (14,500 kilometers) above the giant planet’s cloud tops. This publicly selected target was simply titled “Dark Spot.” In ground-based images it was difficult to tell that it is a dark storm. Citizen scientist Roman Tkachenko enhanced the color to bring out the rich detail in the storm and surrounding clouds. Just south of the dark storm is a bright, oval-shaped storm with high, bright, white clouds, reminiscent of a swirling galaxy. As a final touch, he rotated the image 90 degrees, turning the picture into a work of art.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Roman Tkachenko

Calm lakes on Titan could mean smooth landing for future space probes

The lakes of liquid methane on Saturn’s moon, Titan, are perfect for paddling but not for surfing. New research led by The University of Texas at Austin has found that most waves on Titan’s lakes reach only about 1 centimeter high, a finding that indicates a serene environment that could be good news for future probes sent to the surface of that moon.

“There’s a lot of interest in one day sending probes to the lakes, and when that’s done, you want to have a safe landing, and you don’t want a lot of wind,” said lead author Cyril Grima, a research associate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG). “Our study shows that because the waves aren’t very high, the winds are likely low.”

The research was published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters on June 29. Collaborators include researchers at Cornell University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. UTIG is a research unit of the UT Jackson School of Geosciences.

Titan is the largest moon of Saturn and one of the locations in the solar system that is thought to possess the ingredients for life. In photos taken by the Cassini orbiter, a NASA probe, it appears as a smooth brown orb because of its thick atmosphere clouded with gaseous nitrogen and hydrocarbons. However, radar images from the same probe show that it has a surface crust made of water ice and drenched in liquid hydrocarbons. On Titan, methane and ethane fall from the sky as rain, fill deep lakes that dot the surface, and are possibly spewed into the air by icy volcanoes called cryovolcanoes.

“The atmosphere of Titan is very complex, and it does synthesize complex organic molecules–the bricks of life,” Grima said. “It may act as a laboratory of sorts, where you can see how basic molecules can be transformed into more complex molecules that could eventually lead to life.”

On top of that, it’s also thought to have an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust.

As a graduate student at the Université Grenoble Alpes in France, and then a postdoctoral fellow at UTIG, Grima developed a technique for measuring surface roughness in minute detail from radar data. Called radar statistical reconnaissance, the technique has been used to measure the snow density and its surface roughness in Antarctica and the Arctic, and to assist the landing site selection of NASA’s Mars lander InSight, which is scheduled to launch next year. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory suggested he apply the technique to measuring Titan’s waves.

The research zeroes in on the three largest lakes in Titan’s northern hemisphere: Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare and Punga Mare. Kraken Mare, the largest of the three, is estimated to be larger than the Caspian Sea. By analyzing radar data collected by Cassini during Titan’s early summer season, Grima and his team found that waves across these lakes are diminutive, reaching only about 1 centimeter high and 20 centimeters long.

“Cyril’s work is an independent measure of sea roughness and helps to constrain the size and nature of any wind waves,” said co-author Alex Hayes, an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University. “From the results, it looks like we are right near the threshold for wave generation, where patches of the sea are smooth and patches are rough.”

The results call into question the early summer’s classification as the beginning of the Titan’s windy season, Grima said, because high winds probably would have made for larger waves.

Information on Titan’s climate is essential for sending a probe safely to the surface. Although there are no formal plans for a mission, Grima says that there are plenty of concepts being developed by researchers around the world. The study indicates that if a future mission lands in early summer, there’s a good chance that it is in for a smooth landing.

This image shows Jupiter’s south pole, as seen by NASA’s Juno spacecraft from an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers). The oval features are cyclones, up to 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) in diameter. Multiple images taken with the JunoCam instrument on three separate orbits were combined to show all areas in daylight, enhanced color, and stereographic projection.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

NASA SELECTS MISSION TO STUDY THE CHURNING CHAOS IN OUR MILKY WAY & BEYOND

NASA has selected a science mission that will measure emissions from the interstellar medium, which is the cosmic material found between stars. This data will help scientists determine the life cycle of interstellar gas in our Milky Way galaxy, witness the formation and destruction of star-forming clouds, and understand the dynamics and gas flow in the vicinity of the center of our galaxy.

The Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) mission, led by principal investigator of the University of Arizona, Christopher Walker, will fly an ultralong-duration balloon (ULDB) carrying a telescope with carbon, oxygen and nitrogen emission line detectors. This unique combination of data will provide the spectral and spatial resolution information needed for Walker and his team to untangle the complexities of the interstellar medium, and map out large sections of the plane of our Milky Way galaxy and the nearby galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.

“GUSTO will provide the first complete study of all phases of the stellar life cycle, from the formation of molecular clouds, through star birth and evolution, to the formation of gas clouds and the re-initiation of the cycle,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director in the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “NASA has a great history of launching observatories in the Astrophysics Explorers Program with new and unique observational capabilities. GUSTO continues that tradition.”

The mission is targeted for launch in 2021 from McMurdo, Antarctica, and is expected to stay in the air between 100 to 170 days, depending on weather conditions. It will cost approximately $40 million, including the balloon launch funding and the cost of post-launch operations and data analysis.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, is providing the mission operations, and the balloon platform where the instruments are mounted, known as the gondola. The University of Arizona in Tucson will provide the GUSTO telescope and instrument, which will incorporate detector technologies from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Arizona State University in Tempe, and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program requested proposals for mission of opportunity investigations in September 2014. A panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers reviewed two mission of opportunity concept studies selected from the eight proposals submitted at that time, and NASA has determined that GUSTO has the best potential for excellent science return with a feasible development plan.



Illusions in the Cosmic Clouds: Pareidolia is the psychological phenomenon where people see recognizable shapes in clouds, rock formations, or otherwise unrelated objects or data. There are many examples of this phenomenon on Earth and in space.

When an image from NASAs Chandra X-ray Observatory of PSR B1509-58 a spinning neutron star surrounded by a cloud of energetic particles was released in 2009, it quickly gained attention because many saw a hand-like structure in the X-ray emission.

In a new image of the system, X-rays from Chandra in gold are seen along with infrared data from NASAs Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope in red, green and blue. Pareidolia may strike again as some people report seeing a shape of a face in WISEs infrared data. What do you see?

NASAs Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, also took a picture of the neutron star nebula in 2014, using higher-energy X-rays than Chandra.

PSR B1509-58 is about 17,000 light-years from Earth.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the WISE mission for NASA. NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandras science and flight operations.

Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

This week, we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the moment our Mars Science Laboratory mission landed the Curiosity rover in Gale Crater. 

In fact, this summer brings several red letter days in Red Planet exploration. Here are 10 things to know about the anniversary of the Curiosity landing—plus some other arrivals at Mars you may not know about.

This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at a drilled sample site called “Okoruso,” on the “Naukluft Plateau” of lower Mount Sharp. The scene combines multiple images taken with the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on May 11, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS

1. Seven Minutes of Terror 

For Curiosity, landing on Mars meant slowing from about 13,000 MPH (21,000 KPH) to a full stop in just seven minutes. Engineers came up with an innovative–and bold–plan to make this happen, but no one could be 100% certain it would work. In this video, some of the Curiosity engineers who designed the entry, descent and landing system for the mission talk candidly about the challenges of Curiosity’s final moments before touchdown in August 2012.

2. Sweet Success 

Relive the tension, and the celebration, of the night Curiosity landed on Mars. You can also simulate the entire landing process in 3-D on your own computer using NASA’s free Eyes on the Solar System app.

3. Echoes of Ancient Waters 

What has Curiosity discovered during its roving so far? The key takeaway: the stark deserts of Gale Crater were once home to lakes and streams of liquid water, a place where life could potentially have thrived. Learn more about the mission’s scientific findings.

4. Pretty as a Postcard

Sometimes science can be beautiful, as pictures from Mars prove. You can peruse some of Curiosity’s best shots. What’s more, you can see the very latest images—often on the same day they’re downlinked from Mars.

5. Take It for a Spin

Have you ever wanted to try driving a Mars rover yourself? You can (virtually anyway). Try the Experience Curiosity app right in your web browser.

6. Mars Trekking 

Maybe someday you’ll be able to take a day hike across the Martian landscape. You can at least plan your route right now, using NASA’s Mars Trek site. This interactive mapping tool lets you explore important Red Planet locations using actual terrain imagery from orbiting satellites. You can even retrace the real locations on Mars where the fictional astronaut Mark Watney traveled in “The Martian.”

7. A First Time for Everything

Curiosity stands (well, rolls) on the shoulders of giants. Several NASA missions blazed the trail for the current crop of robotic explorers. The first was Mariner 4, which is also celebrating an anniversary this summer. Mariner 4 was the first spacecraft to return photos of another planet from deep space when it flew by Mars on July 15, 1965. Mariner engineers were so impatient to see the first pictures it sent back, that they hand-colored a printout of raw numeric data sent by the spacecraft, in order to construct one of the first color images of Mars.

8. Pathfinders and Panoramas 

Another important pathfinder on Mars was…Mars Pathfinder. This mission just marked its 20th anniversary. To commemorate the first successful Mars rover, NASA created a new 360-degree VR panorama of its landing site you can view right in your browser.

9. One Small Step for a Robot

The first spacecraft to make a successful landing on Mars was Viking 1, which touched down in the Chryse Planitia region on July 20, 1976. It worked for more than six years, performing the first Martian soil analysis using its robotic arm and an onbaord biological laboratory. While it found no conclusive evidence of life, Viking 1 did help us understand Mars as a planet with volcanic soil, a thin, dry carbon dioxide atmosphere and striking evidence for ancient river beds and vast flooding.

10. Mars Explorers Needed 

There is much more to come. The next Mars lander, InSight, is slated for launch next year. Ride along with NASA’s ongoing adventures on the Red Planet at: mars.nasa.gov/mars-exploration/

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