One year ago, on Sept. 15, 2017, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft ended
its epic exploration of Saturn with a planned dive into the planet’s
atmosphere–sending back new science to the last second. The spacecraft is
gone, but the science continues. Here are 10 reasons why Cassini mattered…
Cassini and ESA (European Space Agency)’s Huygens probe expanded our understanding of the
kinds of worlds where life might exist.
2. A (Little) Like Home
At Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, Cassini and Huygens showed us one of the most Earth-like worlds we’ve
ever encountered, with weather, climate and geology that provide new ways to
understand our home planet.
3. A Time Machine (In a Sense)
Cassini gave us a portal to see the physical processes that likely
shaped the development of our solar system, as well as planetary systems around
4. The Long Run
The length of Cassini’s mission enabled us to observe weather and
seasonal changes over nearly half of a Saturn year, improving our understanding
of similar processes at Earth, and potentially those at planets around other
5. Big Science in Small Places
Cassini revealed Saturn’s moons to be unique worlds with their own
stories to tell.
Cassini showed us the complexity of Saturn’s rings and the
dramatic processes operating within them.
7. Pure Exploration
Some of Cassini’s best discoveries were serendipitous. What
Cassini found at Saturn prompted scientists to rethink their understanding of
the solar system.
8. The Right Tools for the Job
Cassini represented a staggering achievement of human and
technical complexity, finding innovative ways to use the spacecraft and its
instruments, and paving the way for future missions to explore our solar
9. Jewel of the Solar System
Cassini revealed the beauty of Saturn, its rings and moons,
inspiring our sense of wonder and enriching our sense of place in the cosmos.
This spectacular image, the first released
using all four of TESS’ cameras, shows the satellite’s full field of view. It
captures parts of a dozen constellations, from Capricornus
(the Sea Goat) to Pictor
(the Painter’s Easel) — though it might be hard to find familiar constellations
among all these stars! The image even includes the Large and Small Magellanic
Clouds, our galaxy’s two largest companion galaxies.
The science community calls this image “first
light,” but don’t let that fool you — TESS has been seeing light since it
launched in April. A first light image like this is released to show off the
first science-quality image taken after a mission starts collecting science
data, highlighting a spacecraft’s capabilities.
After nearly a month in space, the satellite
passed about 5,000 miles from the Moon, whose gravity gave it the boost it needed to get into a special orbit
that will keep it stable and maximize its view of the sky.
During those first few weeks, we also got a
sneak peek of the sky through one of TESS’s four cameras. This test image
captured over 200,000 stars in just two seconds! The spacecraft was pointed
toward the constellation Centaurus when it snapped this picture. The bright
Centauri is visible at the lower left edge, and the edge
of the Coalsack
Nebula is in the right upper corner.
After settling into orbit, scientists ran a
number of checks on TESS, including testing its ability to collect a set of
stable images over a prolonged period of time. TESS not only proved its ability
to perform this task, it also got a surprise! A comet named C/2018 N1 passed through TESS’s cameras
for about 17 hours in July.
The images show a treasure
trove of cosmic curiosities. There are some stars whose
brightness changes over time and asteroids visible as small moving white dots.
You can even see an arc of stray light from Mars, which is located outside the
image, moving across the screen.
Now that TESS has settled into orbit and has
been thoroughly tested, it’s digging into its main mission of finding planets around other stars.
How will it spot something as tiny and faint as a planet trillions of miles
away? The trick is to look at the star!
So far, most
of the exoplanets we’ve found were detected by looking
for tiny dips in the brightness of their host stars. These dips are caused by
the planet passing between us and its star – an event called a transit. Over
its first two years, TESS will stare at 200,000 of the nearest and brightest stars
in the sky to look for transits to identify stars with planets.
TESS will be building on the legacy of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which also used
transits to find exoplanets. TESS’s target stars are about 10 times closer than
Kepler’s, so they’ll tend to be brighter. Because they’re closer and brighter,
TESS’s target stars will be ideal candidates for follow-up studies with current
and future observatories.
TESS is challenging over 200,000 of our
stellar neighbors to a staring contest! Who knows what new amazing planets
After traveling for two years and billions of kilometers from Earth, the OSIRIS-REx probe is only a few months away from its destination: the intriguing asteroid Bennu. When it arrives in December, OSIRIS-REx will embark on a nearly two-year investigation of this clump of rock, mapping its terrain and finding a safe and fruitful site from which to collect a sample.
The spacecraft will briefly touch Bennu’s surface around July 2020 to collect at least 60 grams (equal to about 30 sugar packets) of dirt and rocks. It might collect as much as 2,000 grams, which would be the largest sample by far gathered from a space object since the Apollo Moon landings. The spacecraft will then pack the sample into a capsule and travel back to Earth, dropping the capsule into Utah’s west desert in 2023, where scientists will be waiting to collect it.
This years-long quest for knowledge thrusts Bennu into the center of one of the most ambitious space missions ever attempted. But the humble rock is but one of about 780,000 known asteroids in our solar system. So why did scientists pick Bennu for this momentous investigation? Here are 10 reasons:
1. It’s close to Earth
Unlike most other asteroids that circle the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Bennu’s orbit is close in proximity to Earth’s, even crossing it. The asteroid makes its closest approach to Earth every 6 years. It also circles the Sun nearly in the same plane as Earth, which made it somewhat easier to achieve the high-energy task of launching the spacecraft out of Earth’s plane and into Bennu’s. Still, the launch required considerable power, so OSIRIS-REx used Earth’s gravity to boost itself into Bennu’s orbital plane when it passed our planet in September 2017.
2.It’s the right size
Asteroids spin on their axes just like Earth does. Small ones, with diameters of 200 meters or less, often spin very fast, up to a few revolutions per minute. This rapid spinning makes it difficult for a spacecraft to match an asteroid’s velocity in order to touch down and collect samples. Even worse, the quick spinning has flung loose rocks and soil, material known as “regolith” — the stuff OSIRIS-REx is looking to collect — off the surfaces of small asteroids. Bennu’s size, in contrast, makes it approachable and rich in regolith. It has a diameter of 492 meters, which is a bit larger than the height of the Empire State Building in New York City, and rotating once every 4.3 hours.
3. It’s really old
Bennu is a leftover fragment from the tumultuous formation of the solar system. Some of the mineral fragments inside Bennu could be older than the solar system. These microscopic grains of dust could be the same ones that spewed from dying stars and eventually coalesced to make the Sun and its planets nearly 4.6 billion years ago. But pieces of asteroids, called meteorites, have been falling to Earth’s surface since the planet formed. So why don’t scientists just study those old space rocks? Because astronomers can’t tell (with very few exceptions) what kind of objects these meteorites came from, which is important context. Furthermore, these stones, that survive the violent, fiery decent to our planet’s surface, get contaminated when they land in the dirt, sand, or snow. Some even get hammered by the elements, like rain and snow, for hundreds or thousands of years. Such events change the chemistry of meteorites, obscuring their ancient records.
4.It’s well preserved
Bennu, on the other hand, is a time capsule from the early solar system, having been preserved in the vacuum of space. Although scientists think it broke off a larger asteroid in the asteroid belt in a catastrophic collision between about 1 and 2 billion years ago, and hurtled through space until it got locked into an orbit near Earth’s, they don’t expect that these events significantly altered it.
5. It might contain clues to the origin of life
Analyzing a sample from Bennu will help planetary scientists better understand the role asteroids may have played in delivering life-forming compounds to Earth. We know from having studied Bennu through Earth- and space-based telescopes that it is a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang. Bennu is likely rich in organic molecules, which are made of chains of carbon bonded with atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and other elements in a chemical recipe that makes all known living things. Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid.
6. It contains valuable materials
Besides teaching us about our cosmic past, exploring Bennu close-up will help humans plan for the future. Asteroids are rich in natural resources, such as iron and aluminum, and precious metals, such as platinum. For this reason, some companies, and even countries, are building technologies that will one day allow us to extract those materials. More importantly, asteroids like Bennu are key to future, deep-space travel. If humans can learn how to extract the abundant hydrogen and oxygen from the water locked up in an asteroid’s minerals, they could make rocket fuel. Thus, asteroids could one day serve as fuel stations for robotic or human missions to Mars and beyond. Learning how to maneuver around an object like Bennu, and about its chemical and physical properties, will help future prospectors.
7. It will help us better understand other asteroids
Astronomers have studied Bennu from Earth since it was discovered in 1999. As a result, they think they know a lot about the asteroid’s physical and chemical properties. Their knowledge is based not only on looking at the asteroid, but also studying meteorites found on Earth, and filling in gaps in observable knowledge with predictions derived from theoretical models. Thanks to the detailed information that will be gleaned from OSIRIS-REx, scientists now will be able to check whether their predictions about Bennu are correct. This work will help verify or refine telescopic observations and models that attempt to reveal the nature of other asteroids in our solar system.
8. It will help us better understand a quirky solar force …
Astronomers have calculated that Bennu’s orbit has drifted about 280 meters (0.18 miles) per year toward the Sun since it was discovered. This could be because of a phenomenon called the Yarkovsky effect, a process whereby sunlight warms one side of a small, dark asteroid and then radiates as heat off the asteroid as it rotates. The heat energy thrusts an asteroid either away from the Sun, if it has a prograde spin like Earth, which means it spins in the same direction as its orbit, or toward the Sun in the case of Bennu, which spins in the opposite direction of its orbit. OSIRIS-REx will measure the Yarkovsky effect from close-up to help scientists predict the movement of Bennu and other asteroids. Already, measurements of how this force impacted Bennu over time have revealed that it likely pushed it to our corner of the solar system from the asteroid belt.
9. … and to keep asteroids at bay
One reason scientists are eager to predict the directions asteroids are drifting is to know when they’re coming too-close-for-comfort to Earth. By taking the Yarkovsky effect into account, they’ve estimated that Bennu could pass closer to Earth than the Moon is in 2135, and possibly even closer between 2175 and 2195. Although Bennu is unlikely to hit Earth at that time, our descendants can use the data from OSIRIS-REx to determine how best to deflect any threatening asteroids that are found, perhaps even by using the Yarkovsky effect to their advantage.
10. It’s a gift that will keep on giving
Samples of Bennu will return to Earth on September 24, 2023. OSIRIS-REx scientists will study a quarter of the regolith. The rest will be made available to scientists around the globe, and also saved for those not yet born, using techniques not yet invented, to answer questions not yet asked.
Read the web version of this week’s “Solar System: 10 Things to Know” article HERE.
Tonight, Australians, Africans, Europeans, Asians and South Americans will have the opportunity to see the longest lunar eclipse of the century. Sorry North America.
Lunar eclipses occur about 2-4 times per year, when the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow. In order to see a lunar eclipse, you must be on the night side of the Earth, facing the Moon, when the Earth passes in between the Moon and the Sun. Need help visualizing this? Here you go:
What’s the difference between a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse?
An easy way to remember the difference between a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse is that the word ‘eclipse’ refers to the object that is being obscured. During a solar eclipse, the Moon blocks the Sun from view. During a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow obscures the Moon.
Why does the Moon turn red?
You may have heard the term ‘Blood Moon’ for a lunar eclipse. When the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, it turns red. This happens for the exact same reason that our sunrises and sunsets here on Earth are brilliant shades of pinks and oranges. During a lunar eclipse, the only light reaching the Moon passes through the Earth’s atmosphere. The bluer, shorter wavelength light scatters and the longer wavelength red light passes through and makes it to the Moon.
What science can we learn from a lunar eclipse?
“During a lunar eclipse, the temperature swing is so dramatic that it’s as if the surface of the Moon goes from being in an oven to being in a freezer in just a few hours,” said Noah Petro, project scientist for our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The Diviner team from LRO measures temperature changes on the Moon through their instrument on the spacecraft as well as through a thermal camera on Earth. How quickly or slowly the lunar surface loses heat helps scientists determine characteristics of lunar material, including its composition and physical properties.
When is the next lunar eclipse?
North Americans, don’t worry. If skies are clear, you can see the next lunar eclipse on January 21, 2019. The eclipse will be visible to North Americans, South Americans, and most of Africa and Europe.
Webb is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2021. It will spy the first luminous objects that formed in the universe and shed light on how galaxies evolve, how stars and planetary systems are born and how life could form on other planets.
1. Why is the mirror segmented?
The James Webb Space Telescope has a 6.5-meter (21.3-foot) diameter mirror, made from 18 individual segments. Webb needs to have an unfolding mirror because the mirror is so large that it otherwise cannot fit in the launch shroud of currently available rockets.
The mirror has to be large in order to see the faint light from the first star-forming regions and to see very small details at infrared wavelengths.
Designing, building and operating a mirror that unfolds is one of the major technological developments of Webb. Unfolding mirrors will be necessary for future missions requiring even larger mirrors, and will find application in other scientific, civil and military space missions.
2. Why are the mirrors hexagonal?
In short, the hexagonal shape allows a segmented mirror to be constructed with very small gaps, so the segments combine to form a roughly circular shape and need only three variations in size. If we had circular segments, there would be gaps between them.
Finally, we want a roughly circular overall mirror shape because that focuses the light into the most symmetric and compact region on the detectors.
An oval mirror, for example, would give images that are elongated in one direction. A square mirror would send a lot of the light out of the central region.
3. Is there a danger from micrometeoroids?
A micrometeoroid is a particle smaller than a grain of sand. Most never reach Earth’s surface because they are vaporized by the intense heat generated by the friction of passing through the atmosphere. In space, no blanket of atmosphere protects a spacecraft or a spacewalker.
Webb will be a million miles away from the Earth orbiting what we call the second Lagrange point (L2). Unlike in low Earth orbit, there is not much space debris out there that could damage the exposed mirror.
But we do expect Webb to get impacted by these very tiny micrometeoroids for the duration of the mission, and Webb is designed to accommodate for them.
All of Webb’s systems are designed to survive micrometeoroid impacts.
4. Why does the sunshield have five layers?
Webb has a giant, tennis-court sized sunshield, made of five, very thin layers of an insulating film called Kapton.
Why five? One big, thick sunshield would conduct the heat from the bottom to the top more than would a shield with five layers separated by vacuum. With five layers to the sunshield, each successive one is cooler than the one below.
The heat radiates out from between the layers, and the vacuum between the layers is a very good insulator. From studies done early in the mission development five layers were found to provide sufficient cooling. More layers would provide additional cooling, but would also mean more mass and complexity. We settled on five because it gives us enough cooling with some “margin” or a safety factor, and six or more wouldn’t return any additional benefits.
Fun fact: You could nearly boil water on the hot side of the sunshield, and it is frigid enough on the cold side to freeze nitrogen!
5. What kind of telescope is Webb?
Webb is a reflecting telescope that uses three curved mirrors. Technically, it’s called a three-mirror anastigmat.
6. What happens after launch? How long until there will be data?
In the first hour: About 30 minutes after liftoff, Webb will separate from the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Shortly after this, we will talk with Webb from the ground to make sure everything is okay after its trip to space.
In the first day: About 10.5 hours after launch, Webb will pass the Moon’s orbit, nearly a quarter of the way to Lagrange Point 2 (L2).
In the first week: We begin the major deployment of Webb. This includes unfolding the sunshield and tensioning the individual membranes, deploying the secondary mirror, and deploying the primary mirror.
In the first month: As the telescope cools in the shade of the sunshield, we turn on the warm electronics and initialize the flight software. As the telescope cools to near its operating temperature, parts of it are warmed with electronic heaters. This prevents condensation as residual water trapped within some of the materials making up the observatory escapes into space.
The first NIRCam image, which will be an out-of-focus image of a crowded star field, will be used to identify each mirror segment with its image of a star in the camera. We will also focus the secondary mirror.
In the third month: We will align the primary mirror segments so that they can work together as a single optical surface. We will also turn on and operate Webb’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), a camera and spectrograph that views a wide spectrum of infrared light. By the end of the third month, we will be able to take the first science-quality images. Also by this time, Webb will complete its journey to its L2 orbit position.
In the fourth through the sixth month: We will complete the optimization of the telescope. We will test and calibrate all of the science instruments.
After six months: Webb will begin its science mission and start to conduct routine science operations.
7. Why not assemble it in orbit?
Various scenarios were studied, and assembling in orbit was determined to be unfeasible.
We examined the possibility of in-orbit assembly for Webb. The International Space Station does not have the capability to assemble precision optical structures. Additionally, space debris that resides around the space station could have damaged or contaminated Webb’s optics. Webb’s deployment happens far above low Earth orbit and the debris that is found there.
Finally, if the space station were used as a stopping point for the observatory, we would have needed a second rocket to launch it to its final destination at L2. The observatory would have to be designed with much more mass to withstand this “second launch,” leaving less mass for the mirrors and science instruments.
8. Who is James Webb?
This telescope is named after James E. Webb (1906–1992), our second administrator. Webb is best known for leading Apollo, a series of lunar exploration programs that landed the first humans on the Moon.
However, he also initiated a vigorous space science program that was responsible for more than 75 launches during his tenure, including America’s first interplanetary explorers.
Looking for some more in-depth FAQs? You can find them HERE.
But wait — what is multimessenger astronomy? And why is it a big deal?
People learn about different objects through their senses: sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell. Similarly, multimessenger astronomy allows us to study the same astronomical object or event through a variety of “messengers,” which include light of all wavelengths, cosmic ray particles, gravitational waves, and neutrinos — speedy tiny particles that weigh almost nothing and rarely interact with anything. By receiving and combining different pieces of information from these different messengers, we can learn much more about these objects and events than we would from just one.
Lights, Detector, Action!
Much of what we know about the universe comes just from different wavelengths of light. We study the rotations of galaxies through radio waves and visible light, investigate the eating habits of black holes through X-rays and gamma rays, and peer into dusty star-forming regions through infrared light.
Fermi has also advanced our understanding of blazars, which are galaxies with supermassive black holes at their centers. Black holes are famous for drawing material into them. But with blazars, some material near the black hole shoots outward in a pair of fast-moving jets. With blazars, one of those jets points directly at us!
Multimessenger Astronomy is Cool
Today’s announcement combines another pair of messengers. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory lies a mile under the ice in Antarctica and uses the ice itself to detect neutrinos. When IceCube caught a super-high-energy neutrino and traced its origin to a specific area of the sky, they alerted the astronomical community.
Fermi completes a scan of the entire sky about every three hours, monitoring thousands of blazars among all the bright gamma-ray sources it sees. For months it had observed a blazar producing more gamma rays than usual. Flaring is a common characteristic in blazars, so this did not attract special attention. But when the alert from IceCube came through about a neutrino coming from that same patch of sky, and the Fermi data were analyzed, this flare became a big deal!
IceCube, Fermi, and followup observations all link this neutrino to a blazar called TXS 0506+056. This event connects a neutrino to a supermassive black hole for the very first time.
Why is this such a big deal? And why haven’t we done it before? Detecting a neutrino is hard since it doesn’t interact easily with matter and can travel unaffected great distances through the universe. Neutrinos are passing through you right now and you can’t even feel a thing!
The neat thing about this discovery — and multimessenger astronomy in general — is how much more we can learn by combining observations. This blazar/neutrino connection, for example, tells us that it was protons being accelerated by the blazar’s jet. Our study of blazars, neutrinos, and other objects and events in the universe will continue with many more exciting multimessenger discoveries to come in the future.
We detected organic molecules at the harsh surface of Mars! And what’s important about this is we now have a lot more certainty that there’s organic molecules preserved at the surface of Mars. We didn’t know that before.
One of the discoveries is we found organic molecules just beneath the surface of Mars in 3 billion-year-old sedimentary rocks.
Second, we’ve found seasonal variations in methane levels in the atmosphere over 3 Mars years (nearly 6 Earth years). These two discoveries increase the chances that the record of habitability and potential life has been preserved on the Red Planet despite extremely harsh conditions on the surface.
Both discoveries were made by our chem lab that rides aboard the Curiosity rover on Mars.
Here’s an image from when we installed the SAM lab on the rover. SAM stands for “Sample Analysis at Mars” and SAM did two things on Mars for this discovery.
One – it tested Martian rocks. After the arm selects a sample of pulverized rock, it heats up that sample and sends that gas into the chamber, where the electron stream breaks up the chemicals so they can be analyzed.
What SAM found are fragments of large organic molecules preserved in ancient rocks which we think come from the bottom of an ancient Martian lake. These organic molecules are made up of carbon and hydrogen, and can include other elements like nitrogen and oxygen. That’s a possible indicator of ancient life…although non-biological processes can make organic molecules, too.
The other action SAM did was ‘sniff’ the air.
When it did that, it detected methane in the air. And for the first time, we saw a repeatable pattern of methane in the Martian atmosphere. The methane peaked in the warm, summer months, and then dropped in the cooler, winter months.
On Earth, 90 percent of methane is produced by biology, so we have to consider the possibility that Martian methane could be produced by life under the surface. But it also could be produced by non-biological sources. Right now, we don’t know, so we need to keep studying the Mars!
One of our upcoming Martian missions is the InSight lander. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a Mars lander designed to give the Red Planet its first thorough checkup since it formed 4.5 billion years ago. It is the first outer space robotic explorer to study in-depth the “inner space” of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core.
Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that our Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.
Read the full release on today’s announcement HERE.
A cluster of newborn stars herald their birth in this interstellar picture obtained with our Spitzer Space Telescope. These bright young stars are found in a rosebud-shaped (and rose-colored) nebulosity. The star cluster and its associated nebula are located at a distance of 3300 light-years in the constellation Cepheus.
A recent census of the cluster reveals the presence of 130 young stars. The stars formed from a massive cloud of gas and dust that contains enough raw materials to create a thousand Sun-like stars. In a process that astronomers still poorly understand, fragments of this molecular cloud became so cold and dense that they collapsed into stars. Most stars in our Milky Way galaxy are thought to form in such clusters.
The Spitzer Space Telescope image was obtained with an infrared array camera that is sensitive to invisible infrared light at wavelengths that are about ten times longer than visible light. In this four-color composite, emission at 3.6 microns is depicted in blue, 4.5 microns in green, 5.8 microns in orange, and 8.0 microns in red. The image covers a region that is about one quarter the size of the full moon.
As in any nursery, mayhem reigns. Within the astronomically brief period of a million years, the stars have managed to blow a large, irregular bubble in the molecular cloud that once enveloped them like a cocoon. The rosy pink hue is produced by glowing dust grains on the surface of the bubble being heated by the intense light from the embedded young stars. Upon absorbing ultraviolet and visible-light photons produced by the stars, the surrounding dust grains are heated and re-emit the energy at the longer infrared wavelengths observed by Spitzer. The reddish colors trace the distribution of molecular material thought to be rich in hydrocarbons.
The cold molecular cloud outside the bubble is mostly invisible in these images. However, three very young stars near the center of the image are sending jets of supersonic gas into the cloud. The impact of these jets heats molecules of carbon monoxide in the cloud, producing the intricate green nebulosity that forms the stem of the rosebud.
Not all stars are formed in clusters. Away from the main nebula and its young cluster are two smaller nebulae, to the left and bottom of the central ‘rosebud,’each containing a stellar nursery with only a few young stars.
Astronomers believe that our own Sun may have formed billions of years ago in a cluster similar to this one. Once the radiation from new cluster stars destroys the surrounding placental material, the stars begin to slowly drift apart.
Invisible to the eye, a vast network of magnetic energy and particles surround our planet — a dynamic system that influences our satellites and technology. The more we understand the way those particles move, the more we can protect our spacecraft and astronauts both near Earth and as we explore deeper into the solar system.
Earth’s magnetic field creates a protective bubble that shields us from highly energetic particles that stream in both from the Sun and interstellar space. As this solar wind bathes our planet, Earth’s magnetic field lines get stretched. Like elastic bands, they eventually release energy by snapping and flinging particles in their path to supersonic speeds.
That burst of energy is generated by magnetic reconnection. It’s pervasive throughout the universe — it happens on the Sun, in the space near Earth and even near black holes.
Scientists have observed this phenomenon many times in Earth’s vast magnetic environment, the magnetosphere. Now, a new study of data from our MMS mission caught the process occurring in a new and unexpected region of near-Earth space. For the first time, magnetic reconnection was seen in the magnetosheath — the boundary between our magnetosphere and the solar wind that flows throughout the solar system and one of the most turbulent regions in near-Earth space.
The four identical MMS spacecraft — flying through this region in a tight pyramid formation — saw the event in 3D. The arrows in the data visualization below show the hundreds of observations MMS took to measure the changes in particle motion and the magnetic field.
The data show that this event is unlike the magnetic reconnection we’ve observed before. If we think of these magnetic field lines as elastic bands, the ones in this region are much smaller and stretchier than elsewhere in near-Earth space — meaning that this process accelerates particles 40 times faster than typical magnetic reconnection near Earth. In short, MMS spotted a completely new magnetic process that is much faster than what we’ve seen before.
What’s more, this observation holds clues to what’s happening at smaller spatial scales, where turbulence takes over the process of mixing and accelerating particles. Turbulence in space moves in random ways and creates vortices, much like when you mix milk into coffee. The process by which turbulence energizes particles in space is still a big area of research, and linking this new discovery to turbulence research may give insights into how magnetic energy powers particle jets in space.
Here are 5 ways our tech improves life here on Earth…
1. Eyes in the Sky Spot Fires on the Ground
Our Earth observing satellites enable conservation groups to spot and monitor fires across vast rainforests, helping them protect our planet on Earth Day and every day.
2. Helping Tractors Drive Themselves
There has been a lot of talk about self-driving cars, but farmers have already been making good use of self-driving tractors for more than a decade – due in part to a partnership between John Deere and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Growing food sustainably requires smart technology – our GPS correction algorithms help self-driving tractors steer with precision, cutting down on water and fertilizer waste.
3. Turning Smartphones into Satellites
On Earth Day (and every day), we get nonstop “Earth selfies” thanks to Planet Labs’ small satellites, inspired by smartphones and created by a team at our Ames Research Center. The high res imagery helps conservation efforts worldwide.
4. Early Flood Warnings
Monsoons, perhaps the least understood and most erratic weather pattern in the United States, bring rain vital to agriculture and ecosystems, but also threaten lives and property. Severe flash-flooding is common. Roads are washed out. Miles away from the cloudburst, dry gulches become raging torrents in seconds. The storms are often accompanied by driving winds, hail and barrages of lightning.
Around the world, agriculture is by far the biggest user of freshwater. Thanks in part to infrared imagery from Landsat, operated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), we can now map, in real time, how much water a field is using, helping conserve that precious resource.
We use the vantage point of space to understand and explore our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. Our observations of Earth’s complex natural environment are critical to understanding how our planet’s natural resources and climate are changing now and could change in the future.