nasa science

Neutron star smash-up shows us first light alongside a gravity wave

For the first time ever we’ve detected light from a gravitational wave event, after two incredibly dense neutron stars smashed together, an exciting discovery that  helps scientists understand some of the most violent and powerful collisions in the universe. 

Neutron stars are the crushed remnants of massive stars which exploded as supernovas. What used to be the core lingers behind as the smallest and densest stars in our universe, a ball just a few miles across but containing more mass than our Sun. Just one teaspoon’s worth of neutron star would weigh a billion tonnes. 

Earlier this month the Nobel prize in Physics was awarded for the first detections of gravity waves, ripples through spacetime. But those waves were caused by black holes merging and so no light, or electromagnetic radiation, was observed because famously light can’t escape black holes. 

Astrophysicists believed that when two neutron stars collided there would be visible light alongside gravity waves, as predicted from Einstein’s theories. But until they saw it happen, no-one knew for sure. 

On August 17 2017 this all changed. 

Not only were were gravity waves picked up from a galaxy 130 million light years away, but so were range of light-based measurements from the merger of two neutron stars as they smashed together.  

These included a burst of gamma rays, light from a type of radioactive explosion called a kilo-nova and, later, X-rays from the gamma ray burst afterglow. 

Thousands of scientists around the world have been working furiously ever since to present the initial findings, published today. 

Together these measurements confirm a host of theoretical predictions, and will greatly advance our understanding of what exactly goes on when these incredible events occur, such as the conditions in which some of the heaviest elements including gold and platinum, are formed.

In one sense the we’ve been lucky to capture all this data in such rich detail because we could have been waiting decades for a neutron star merger close enough to Earth to be detected. But, on the other hand, scientists have been working for decades to get to the point where we have good enough equipment to be able to make the most of it. It’s a case of chance meeting preparation, and it’s paid of for the scientific community. 


Animation & image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab

GIF: NASA/CXC/E. Troja

September 15

This one is technically not yet history, because at the time of posting, the little craft has about half an hour left to go.  That said, let’s proceed.

In 2017, NASA’s Cassini space probe ended its twenty-year mission at Saturn.  After a nearly-seven-year-long journey there, it orbited the ringed planet for 13 years and just over two months, gathering copious amounts of information about the planet, said rings, and many of its moons.  It landed an ESA probe called Huygens on Titan, the first-ever soft landing in the outer Solar System.  It discovered lakes, seas, and rivers of methane on Titan, geysers of water erupting from Enceladus (and passed within 50 miles of that moon’s surface), and found gigantic, raging hurricanes at both of Saturn’s poles.  

And the images it returned are beautiful enough to make you weep.

On this day in 2017, with the fuel for Cassini’s directional thrusters running low, the probe was de-orbited into the Saturnian atmosphere to prevent any possibility of any contamination of possible biotic environments on Titan or Enceladus.  The remaining thruster fuel was used to keep the radio dish pointed towards Earth so the probe could transmit information about the upper atmosphere of Saturn while it was burning up due to atmospheric friction.

This is us at our best.  We spent no small amount of money on a nuclear-powered robot, launched it into space, sent it a billion miles away, and worked with it for two decades just to learn about another planet.  And when the repeatedly-extended missions were through, we made the little craft sacrifice itself like a samurai, performing its duty as long as it could while it became a shooting star in the Saturnian sky.

Rhea occulting Saturn

Water geysers on Enceladus

Strange Iapetus

Look at this gorgeousness

A gigantic motherfucking storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere

Tethys

This image is from the surface of a moon of a planet at least 746 million miles away.  Sweet lord

Mimas

Vertical structures in the rings.  Holy shit

Titan and Dione occulting Saturn, rings visible

Little Daphnis making gravitational ripples in the rings

That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s all of us that ever lived.

Saturn, backlit

A polar vortex on the gas giant

Icy Enceladus

(All images from NASA/JPL)

Everything You Need to Know About the Aug. 21 Eclipse

On Aug. 21, all of North America will experience a solar eclipse.

If skies are clear, eclipse-watchers will be able to see a partial solar eclipse over several hours, and some people – within the narrow path of totality – will see a total solar eclipse for a few moments.

How to Watch

It’s never safe to look at the Sun, and an eclipse is no exception. During a partial eclipse (or on any regular day) you must use special solar filters or an indirect viewing method to watch the Sun.

If you have solar viewing glasses, check to make sure they’re safe and undamaged before using them to look at the Sun. Make sure you put them on before looking up at the Sun, and look away before removing them. Eclipse glasses can be used over your regular eyeglasses, but they should never be used when looking through telescopes, binoculars, camera viewfinders, or any other optical device.

If you don’t have eclipse glasses, you can still watch the eclipse indirectly! You can make a pinhole projector out of a box, or use any other object with tiny holes – like a piece of cardstock with a hole, or your outstretched, interlaced fingers – to project an image of the partially eclipsed Sun onto the ground.

Of course, if it’s cloudy (or you’d just rather stay inside), you can watch the whole thing online with us at nasa.gov/eclipselive. Tune in starting at noon ET.

If you’re in the path of totality, there will be a few brief moments when it is safe to look directly at the eclipse. Only once the Moon has completely covered the Sun and there is no light shining through is it safe to look at the eclipse. Make sure you put your eclipse glasses back on or return to indirect viewing before the first flash of sunlight appears around the Moon’s edge.

Why do eclipses happen?

A solar eclipse happens when the Moon passes directly between the Sun and Earth, casting its shadow down on Earth’s surface. The path of totality – where the Moon completely covers the Sun – is traced out by the Moon’s inner shadow, the umbra. People within the Moon’s outer shadow, the penumbra, can see a partial eclipse.

The Moon’s orbit around Earth is tilted by about five degrees, meaning that its shadow usually doesn’t fall on Earth. Only when the Moon lines up exactly between the Sun and Earth do we see an eclipse.

Though the Sun is about 400 times wider than the Moon, it is also about 400 times farther away, making their apparent sizes match up almost exactly. This is what allows the Moon to block out the Sun’s bright face, while revealing the comparatively faint, pearly-white corona.

The Science of Eclipses

Eclipses are a beautiful sight to see, and they’re also helpful for our scientists, so we’re funding eleven ground-based science investigations to learn more about the Sun and Earth.

Total solar eclipses reveal the innermost regions of the Sun’s atmosphere, the corona. Though it’s thought to house the processes that kick-start much of the space weather that can influence Earth, as well as heating the whole corona to extraordinarily high temperatures, we can’t study this region at any other time. This is because coronagraphs – the instruments we use to study the Sun’s atmosphere by creating artificial eclipses – must cover up much of the corona, as well as the Sun’s face in order to produce clear images.

Eclipses also give us the chance to study Earth’s atmosphere under uncommon conditions: the sudden loss of solar radiation from within the Moon’s shadow. We’ll be studying the responses of both Earth’s ionosphere – the region of charged particles in the upper atmosphere – and the lower atmosphere.

Learn all about the Aug. 21 eclipse at eclipse2017.nasa.gov, and follow @NASASun on Twitter and NASA Sun Science on Facebook for more. Watch the eclipse through the eyes of NASA at nasa.gov/eclipselive starting at 12 PM ET on Aug. 21. 

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Eclipse Across America

August 21, 2017, the United States experienced a solar eclipse! 

An eclipse occurs when the Moon temporarily blocks the light from the Sun. Within the narrow, 60- to 70-mile-wide band stretching from Oregon to South Carolina called the path of totality, the Moon completely blocked out the Sun’s face; elsewhere in North America, the Moon covered only a part of the star, leaving a crescent-shaped Sun visible in the sky.

During this exciting event, we were collecting your images and reactions online. 

Here are a few images of this celestial event…take a look:

This composite image, made from 4 frames, shows the International Space Station, with a crew of six onboard, as it transits the Sun at roughly five miles per second during a partial solar eclipse from, Northern Cascades National Park in Washington. Onboard as part of Expedition 52 are: NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson, Jack Fischer, and Randy Bresnik; Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Sergey Ryazanskiy; and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Paolo Nespoli.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Bailey’s Beads effect is seen as the moon makes its final move over the sun during the total solar eclipse on Monday, August 21, 2017 above Madras, Oregon.

Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

This image from one of our Twitter followers shows the eclipse through tree leaves as crescent shaped shadows from Seattle, WA.

Credit: Logan Johnson

“The eclipse in the palm of my hand”. The eclipse is seen here through an indirect method, known as a pinhole projector, by one of our followers on social media from Arlington, TX.

Credit: Mark Schnyder

Through the lens on a pair of solar filter glasses, a social media follower captures the partial eclipse from Norridgewock, ME.

Credit: Mikayla Chase

While most of us watched the eclipse from Earth, six humans had the opportunity to view the event from 250 miles above on the International Space Station. European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Paolo Nespoli captured this image of the Moon’s shadow crossing America.

Credit: Paolo Nespoli

This composite image shows the progression of a partial solar eclipse over Ross Lake, in Northern Cascades National Park, Washington. The beautiful series of the partially eclipsed sun shows the full spectrum of the event. 

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In this video captured at 1,500 frames per second with a high-speed camera, the International Space Station, with a crew of six onboard, is seen in silhouette as it transits the sun at roughly five miles per second during a partial solar eclipse, Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 near Banner, Wyoming.

Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

To see more images from our NASA photographers, visit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasahqphoto/albums/72157685363271303

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Cassini Spacecraft: Top Discoveries

Our Cassini spacecraft has been exploring Saturn, its stunning rings and its strange and beautiful moons for more than a decade.

Having expended almost every bit of the rocket propellant it carried to Saturn, operators are deliberately plunging Cassini into the planet to ensure Saturn’s moons will remain pristine for future exploration – in particular, the ice-covered, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, but also Titan, with its intriguing pre-biotic chemistry.

Let’s take a look back at some of Cassini’s top discoveries:  

Titan

Under its shroud of haze, Saturn’s planet-sized moon Titan hides dunes, mountains of water ice and rivers and seas of liquid methane. Of the hundreds of moons in our solar system, Titan is the only one with a dense atmosphere and large liquid reservoirs on its surface, making it in some ways more like a terrestrial planet.

Both Earth and Titan have nitrogen-dominated atmospheres – over 95% nitrogen in Titan’s case. However, unlike Earth, Titan has very little oxygen; the rest of the atmosphere is mostly methane and traced amounts of other gases, including ethane.

There are three large seas, all located close to the moon’s north pole, surrounded by numerous smaller lakes in the northern hemisphere. Just one large lake has been found in the southern hemisphere.

Enceladus

The moon Enceladus conceals a global ocean of salty liquid water beneath its icy surface. Some of that water even shoots out into space, creating an immense plume!

For decades, scientists didn’t know why Enceladus was the brightest world in the solar system, or how it related to Saturn’s E ring. Cassini found that both the fresh coating on its surface, and icy material in the E ring originate from vents connected to a global subsurface saltwater ocean that might host hydrothermal vents.

With its global ocean, unique chemistry and internal heat, Enceladus has become a promising lead in our search for worlds where life could exist.

Iapetus

Saturn’s two-toned moon Iapetus gets its odd coloring from reddish dust in its orbital path that is swept up and lands on the leading face of the moon.

The most unique, and perhaps most remarkable feature discovered on Iapetus in Cassini images is a topographic ridge that coincides almost exactly with the geographic equator. The physical origin of the ridge has yet to be explained…

It is not yet year whether the ridge is a mountain belt that has folded upward, or an extensional crack in the surface through which material from inside Iapetus erupted onto the surface and accumulated locally.

Saturn’s Rings

Saturn’s rings are made of countless particles of ice and dust, which Saturn’s moons push and tug, creating gaps and waves.

Scientists have never before studied the size, temperature, composition and distribution of Saturn’s rings from Saturn obit. Cassini has captured extraordinary ring-moon interactions, observed the lowest ring-temperature ever recorded at Saturn, discovered that the moon Enceladus is the source for Saturn’s E ring, and viewed the rings at equinox when sunlight strikes the rings edge-on, revealing never-before-seen ring features and details.

Cassini also studied features in Saturn’s rings called “spokes,” which can be longer than the diameter of Earth. Scientists think they’re made of thin icy particles that are lifted by an electrostatic charge and only last a few hours.  

Auroras

The powerful magnetic field that permeates Saturn is strange because it lines up with the planet’s poles. But just like Earth’s field, it all creates shimmering auroras.

Auroras on Saturn occur in a process similar to Earth’s northern and southern lights. Particles from the solar wind are channeled by Saturn’s magnetic field toward the planet’s poles, where they interact with electrically charged gas (plasma) in the upper atmosphere and emit light.  

Turbulent Atmosphere

Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere churns with immense storms and a striking, six-sided jet stream near its north pole.

Saturn’s north and south poles are also each beautifully (and violently) decorated by a colossal swirling storm. Cassini got an up-close look at the north polar storm and scientists found that the storm’s eye was about 50 times wider than an Earth hurricane’s eye.

Unlike the Earth hurricanes that are driven by warm ocean waters, Saturn’s polar vortexes aren’t actually hurricanes. They’re hurricane-like though, and even contain lightning. Cassini’s instruments have ‘heard’ lightning ever since entering Saturn orbit in 2004, in the form of radio waves. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Cassini’s cameras captured images of Saturnian lighting for the first time.

Cassini scientists assembled a short video of it, the first video of lightning discharging on a planet other than Earth.

Cassini’s adventure will end soon because it’s almost out of fuel. So to avoid possibly ever contaminating moons like Enceladus or Titan, on Sept. 15 it will intentionally dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.

The spacecraft is expected to lose radio contact with Earth within about one to two minutes after beginning its decent into Saturn’s upper atmosphere. But on the way down, before contact is lost, eight of Cassini’s 12 science instruments will be operating! More details on the spacecraft’s final decent can be found HERE.

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Katherine Johnson (b. 1918) is a physicist and mathematician who has made crucial contributions to several NASA missions, assuring their success with her highly accurate calculations. She worked with NASA for several decades, and helped advance the rights of both African-Americans and women.

She initially worked as a human computer, and later as an aerospace technologist. She calculated trajectories for missions such as the 1961 Mercury mission or the 1969 Apollo 11 flight. She was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.