Auroras at Jupiter’s poles act independently

Researchers take advantage of rare opportunity to observe polar regions through Juno mission and space telescopes.

Auroras in Jupiter’s north and south polar regions act independently of one another, according to observations conducted by a study team using the European Space Agency’s (ESA) X-MM-Newton telescope and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Researchers at University College in London and at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics led a study of high-energy X-ray auroras at both of Jupiter’s poles and were surprised to learn that unlike auroras on the poles of other planets, those at Jupiter’s poles do not mirror one another but pulse independently.

Activities of Earth’s north and south pole auroras mirror one another. Saturn does not appear to experience any X-ray auroras.

X-ray pulses at Jupiter’s south pole occur regularly every 11 minutes while those at its north pole are chaotic, with unpredictable increases and decreases in brightness.

“We didn’t expect to see Jupiter’s X-ray hot spots pulsing independently, as we thought their activity would be coordinated through the planet’s magnetic field,” explained study lead author William Dunn of both UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the UK and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“We need to study this further to develop ideas for how Jupiter produces its X-ray aurora, and NASA’s Juno mission is really important for this.”

The researchers observed Jupiter using both space observatories in May and June of 2016 and in March 2007 to map the planet’s X-ray emissions and identify X-ray hot spots at its poles.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in 2016, does not have a science instrument capable of detecting X-rays; however, it is collecting other data at the polar regions that scientists hope to combine with the X-MM and Chandra data to better understand the planet’s auroras.

Scientists are fortunate that Juno is studying both of Jupiter’s poles at the same time, making it possible for them to compare activity at the poles with the giant planet’s complex magnetic interactions, emphasized study co-author Graziella Banduardi-Raymont of UCL Space and Climate Physics.

“If we can start to connect the X-ray signatures with the physical processes that produce them, then we can use those signatures to understand other bodies across the universe, such as brown dwarfs, exoplanets, or maybe even neutron stars,” Dunn stated.

One theory the researchers hope to test as they observe Jupiter’s polar activity over the next two years is that the northern and southern auroras form separately as a result of interactions between the planet’s magnetic field and the solar wind.

A paper discussing the findings has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.


Parker Solar probe will explore the sun

NASA’s specially designed mission probe will explore the sun’s atmosphere.

In a mission that will launch in early August, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will explore the sun’s atmosphere. The name of the first mission to the sun is Corona.

The Launch window will open on August 6 between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. EST and will end on August 19. The Probe is about the size of an automobile; this is good because they need a powerful rocket to escape Earth’s orbit, change direction and reach the sun.

They chose this two-week period because the Probe will depend on Venus to help it achieve an orbit around the Sun. It will encounter Venus for the first time six weeks after the launch.

The encounter will help slow down the probe, similar to pulling on a handbrake. This will orient it and keep it on a path to the Sun.

“During summer, Earth and the other planets in our solar system are in the most favorable alignment to allow us to get close to the Sun,” said Yanping Guo from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Now, a human cannot make the journey, so NASA is sending the 10-foot-high probe.

It will end up closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history and will have to withstand radiation and heat unlike any spacecraft has experienced. The specially designed mission will answer questions that scientists have not been able to answer before.


‘Blood moon’ century’s longest eclipse, amazes viewers

The “blood moon” captivated viewers around the world in the century’s longest eclipse.

On Friday, the longest “blood moon” eclipse amazed skygazers around the world. Not only that, the event coincided with Mars’ closest approach in 15 years, making for a unique celestial spectacle.

“Until today I thought Mars, Jupiter and the other planets were in the imagination of scientists,” said Purity Sailepo of Maasai community southwest of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. “But now I’ve seen it I can believe it and I want to be an astronomer to tell other people.”

Unlike solar eclipses, viewers did not need to wear protective gear. The unique period of a complete eclipse is also known as “totality,” when the moon appears to be its darkest. It lasted for six hours and 14 minutes from 1714 to 2328 GMT.

“I hope this eclipse will bring us happiness and peace,” said Karima, 46, as she stared at the sky.

However, monsoon rainstorms hid the event from some observers. Not only that, but an overcast sky left some people watching from beaches and cliffs in the English county of Dorset with nothing to look at.

“It’s disappointing,” said Tish Adams, 67. “I took a few photos but there was nothing but a streak of pink in the sky.”

Interestingly, NASA called out some social media hoaxers that said Mars would look as big as the moon during the eclipse.

“If that were true, we’d be in big trouble given the gravitational pulls on Earth, Mars, and our moon!” the agency said.

Blue meteorite crystals reveal Sun’s ‘terrible twos’

A new study examines ancient blue meteorite crystals to shed light on the Sun’s highly active early years.

Although our Sun’s beginnings are shrouded in mystery, a new study that examines ancient blue meteorite crystals sheds light on the rowdy start of the Milky Way’s giant star.

“The Sun was very active in its early life—it had more eruptions and gave off a more intense stream of charged particles. I think of my son, he’s three, he’s very active too,” said Philipp Heck from University of Chicago and co-author of the study.

“Almost nothing in the Solar System is old enough to really confirm the early Sun’s activity, but these minerals from meteorites in the Field Museum’s collections are old enough,” he added. “They’re probably the first minerals that formed in the Solar System.”

The team examined the crystals using a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer in Switzerland to determine their chemical make-up. And in cobination with a laser, the team was able to melt a tiny grain of hibonite crystal in the meteorite, which in turn released the neon and helium trapped inside.

“We got a surprisingly large signal, clearly showing the presence of helium and neon—it was amazing,” said lead author Levke Kööp.

The new study is evidence that the Milky Way’s oldest materials went through an irradiation phase that younger materials were able to avoid.

“We think that this means that a major change occurred in the nascent Solar System after the hibonites had formed—perhaps the Sun’s activity decreased, or maybe later-formed materials were unable to travel to the disk regions in which irradiation was possible,” Kööp said.

“What I think is exciting is that this tells us about conditions in the earliest Solar System, and finally confirms a long-standing suspicion,” Heck added. “If we understand the past better, we’ll gain a better understanding of the physics and chemistry of our natural world.”

The findings were published in Nature Astronomy.

Scientists say they ‘can’t rule out’ alien life on Jupiter after new discovery

The discovery of water in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot suggests the possibility of alien life.

A team of researchers just discovered water clouds in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Following the discovery, scientists say they “can’t rule out” alien life on the planet.

“Water may play a critical role in Jupiter’s dynamic weather patterns, so this will help advance our understanding of what makes the planet’s atmosphere so turbulent,” said astrophysicist Máté Ádámkovics.

However, Ádámkovics cautions that the presence of water on Jupiter doesn’t mean it is a precursor to life.

“And, finally, where there’s the potential for liquid water, the possibility of life cannot be completely ruled out,” he said. “So, though it appears very unlikely, life on Jupiter is not beyond the range of our imaginations.”

The team hopes to eventually learn just how much water is on the planet and the role it plays.

“Water may play a critical role in Jupiter’s dynamic weather patterns, so this will help advance our understanding of what makes the planet’s atmosphere so turbulent,” Ádámkovics said.

The research team made the discovery using specially designed software to analyze data obtained from Jupiter.

“When I initially began, I started by running the data through. The code was already written and I was just plugging in new data sets and generating output files,” said researcher Rachel Conway.  “But then I began fixing errors and learning more about what was actually going on. I’m interested in everything and anything that’s out there, so learning more about what we don’t know is always cool.”

The findings were published in the Astronomical Journal.

Watery exoplanets are more common than we thought, but not very accommodating

A new study suggests that watery exoplanets might be more common than we thought, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are habitable.

New research suggests that watery planets outside of the Milky Way might be more common than we thought, comprising approximately 35 percent of exoplanets that are two to four times the size of the Earth. The finding stems from data gained from the Kepler Space Telescope and Gaia mission that suggest that plenty of planet masses are half water, compared to the 0.02 percent water that Earth contains.

Water is a necessary ingredient for extraterrestrial life and a basic component of biology, which is why it is so high on the list of exoplanet properties that astrobiologists look for when searching for life on other planets.

The new study found that over 4,000 candidate or confirmed exoplanets are 1.5 to 2.5 times the radius of the Earth. But when the team attempted to model the insides of these Earthlike planets, they found something interesting.

“We have looked at how mass relates to radius, and developed a model which might explain the relationship,” says Li Zeng, who led the research team. “The model indicates that those exoplanets which have a radius of around x1.5 Earth radius tend to be rocky planets (of typically x5 the mass of the Earth), while those with a radius of x2.5 Earth radius (with a mass around x10 that of the Earth) are probably water worlds.”

This means that roughly 35 percent of exoplanets larger than Earth are water worlds. However, most of these environments are more akin to pressure cookers than ideal places for life.

“This is water, but not as commonly found here on Earth,” Zeng said. “Their surface temperature is expected to be in the 200 to 500 degree Celsius (392º to 932º F) range. Their surface may be shrouded in a water-vapor-dominated atmosphere, with a liquid water layer underneath. Moving deeper, one would expect to find this water transforms into high-pressure ices before we reaching the solid rocky core. The beauty of the model is that it explains just how composition relates to the known facts about these planets.

“Our data indicate that about 35 percent of all known exoplanets which are bigger than Earth should be water-rich. These water worlds likely formed in similar ways to the giant planet cores (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune), which we find in our own solar system. The newly-launched TESS mission will find many more of them, with the help of ground-based spectroscopic follow-up. The next generation space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, will hopefully characterize the atmosphere of some of them. This is an exciting time for those interested in these remote worlds.”

The findings were presented at the Goldschmidt Conference.

Mystery of Jupiter’s strange colored bands finally solved

A new study sheds light on the cause of Jupiter’s unique colored bands.

Thanks to data from NASA’s Juno probe, scientists believe that they have finally discovered why Jupiter’s distinctive colored bands act the way that they do. In particular, the team found that the colorful ammonia clouds that create the bands (which are visible even from modest Earth telescopes) only go about 3,000 kilometers before they terminate.

“Scientists have long debated how deep the jet streams reach beneath the surfaces of Jupiter and other gas giants, and why they do not appear in the sun’s interior,” said lead researcher Navid Constantinou of the Australian National University.

The new paper by Constantinou and his partner Jeffrey Parker suggests a new theory for this phenomenon.

“Scientists understand that at about 3,000 km below Jupiter’s clouds, the pressure is so high that electrons can get loose from the molecules of hydrogen and helium and start to move around freely, creating electric and magnetic fields,” Constantinou said.

The team created a mathematical model to predict the location that aligns with a magnetic field strength high enough to terminate the jet streams.

The team hopes that by studying Jupiter, we can continue to learn more about Earth’s climate. Just like Jupiter,  our planet also has jet streams that influence its weather. But unlike the simple travel patterns of Jupiter, Earth’s jet streams are slowed and obstructed by mountains and continents.

“By studying Jupiter, not only do we unravel the mysteries in the interior of the gas giant, but we can also use Jupiter as a laboratory for studying how atmospheric flows work in general,” Parker said.

The findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Rogue planet discovered beyond our solar system

A new study examines a strange rogue planet beyond the Milky Way.

A new study examines a strange rogue planet that is roaming the Milky Way approximately 20 light-years from the sun. The unique nomadic world also has a strong magnetic field that is about 4 million times stronger than the Earth’s.

The team made the observations using the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), marking the first time that scientists have measured the magnetic field of a planetary-mass object outside of our solar system.

The strange object is called SIMP J01365663+0933473 and was first discovered in 2016, when researchers thought it was a brown dwarf star.

“This object is right at the boundary between a planet and a brown dwarf, or ‘failed star,’ and is giving us some surprises that can potentially help us understand magnetic processes on both stars and planets,” Melodie Kao, who led the new study on SIMP, in a press release.

And from here on out, astronomers are hopeful that SIMP will help them continue learning about the universe.

“This particular object is exciting because studying its magnetic dynamo mechanisms can give us new insights on how the same type of mechanisms can operate in extrasolar planets,” Kao said. “We think these mechanisms can work not only in brown dwarfs, but also in both gas giant and terrestrial planets.”

Ultimately, SIMP will help astronomers grasp how magnetic fields are created in exoplanets.

“Detecting SIMP J01365663+0933473 with the VLA through its auroral radio emission also means that we may have a new way of detecting exoplanets, including the elusive rogue ones not orbiting a parent star,” said co-author Gregg Hallinan of Caltech.

The findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Scientists explores what would happen if Earth was made of blueberries

A new study explores what would happen if the Earth spontaneously transformed into blueberries.

A computational neuroscientist named Anders Sandberg wrote a paper that aims to answer a unique question: “What if the entire Earth was instantaneously replaced with an equal volume of closely packed, but uncompressed blueberries?”

Although the paper has yet to be peer reviewed, Sandberg makes a crucial assumption that our planet would turn into a “big, thick-skinned highbush blueberries” as opposed to “wild, thin-skinned blueberries.”

Apparently, the bigger blueberries would have more space between them, and this space would be filled with air. And following Earth’s spontaneous transformation into these big blueberries, Sandberg believes the air would begin to do some interesting things.

“To a person standing on the surface of the Earth when it turns into blueberries, the first effect would be a drastic reduction of gravity,” he wrote.

While this soft, low-gravity blueberry surface sounds fun, the air trapped between the berries would make its way to the Earth’s surface as the pile collapsed into itself under gravitational pressure, throwing bubbles from the surface and into space.

Sandberg says that these bubbles, in combination with the Earth’s collapsing core, would create “the worst earthquake ever.”

“And it keeps on going until everything has fallen [towards the center of the planet] 715 km [444 miles],” he added. “While this is going on, everything heats up drastically [by about 143 degrees along the Celsius scale or 258 degrees along the Fahrenheit scale, thanks to the gravitational energy release] until the entire environment is boiling jam and steam. The result is a world that has a steam atmosphere covering an ocean of jam on top of warm blueberry granita.”

Finally, that “granita” would be a high-temperature blueberry ice core that becomes compressed into a solid by extreme pressure.

The findings were published on pre-print server

NASA sheds light on icy Greenland’s heated past

A new study uses thermal mapping to examine Greenland’s heated geologic past.

A NASA scientist mapped the heat that is escaping from underneath the Greenland Ice Sheet, shedding light on the dynamics that shape and dominate terrestrial planets.

The study was headed by Yasmina M. Martos, who gathered information on gravity, magnetic fields, and geology that to provide clues to the distribution and amount of heat that lies underneath part of Greenland.

The heat map she created revealed a thermal track underneath Greenland, a portion of the North American continent, and shows its movement throughout history.

“I don’t think there is any other place on Earth where a plume history has been recorded by a piece of continent that hasn’t been affected by it at the surface,” Martos said. “But it’s there, so we can use thermal heat to understand the history of the region.”

By tracking these geodynamics, scientists can better understand the evolution of planets such as Earth. Not only that, the information feeds sea-level-change models on our planet by aiding in the prediction of behavior ice. This is important for land that is buried below ice and difficult to reach. And research suggests that over 80 percent of Greenland is covered by ice.

“We would expect Greenland to have a more uniform signal of geothermal heat flow in its interior, but that’s not the case,” Martos said.

Her modeling tools will help scientists shed light on the effect that below-surface heat exerts on things like breakage or melt at the base of glaciers and ice sheets on Earth. Not only that, it could help in the study of other rocky planets in the Milky Way.