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
If you look at your baby photos, you might see hints of the person you are today — a certain look in the eyes, maybe the hint of your future nose or ears. In the same way, scientists examine the universe’s “baby picture” for clues about how it grew into the cosmos we know now. This baby photo is the cosmic microwave background (CMB), a faint glow that permeates the universe in all directions.
In late September, NASA plans to launch a balloon-based astronomical observatory from Fort Sumner, New Mexico, to study the universe’s baby picture. Meet PIPER! The Primordial Inflation Polarization Explorer will fly at the edge of our atmosphere to look for subtle patterns in the CMB.
The CMB is cold. Really, really cold. The average temperature is around minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit. It formed 380,000 years after the big bang, which scientists think happened about 13.8 billion years ago. When it was first discovered, the CMB temperature looked very uniform, but researchers later found there are slight variations like hot and cold spots. The CMB is the oldest light in the universe that we can see. Anything before the CMB is foggy — literally.
Credit: Rob van Hal
Before the CMB, the universe was a fog of hot, dense plasma. (By hot, we’re talking about 500 million degrees F.) That’s so hot that atoms couldn’t exist yet – there was just a soup of electrons and protons. Electrons are great at deflecting light. So, any light that existed in the first few hundred thousand years after the big bang couldn’t travel very far before bouncing off electrons, similar to the way a car’s headlights get diffused in fog.
The light we see in the CMB comes from the recombination era. As it traveled across the universe, through the formation of stars and galaxies, it lost energy. Now we observe it in the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is less energetic than visible light and therefore invisible to our eyes. The first baby photo of the CMB – really, a map of the sky in microwaves – came from our Cosmic Background Explorer, which operated from 1989 to 1993.
Right after the big bang, we’re pretty sure the universe was tiny. Really tiny. Everything we see today would have been stuffed into something smaller than a proton. If the universe started out that small, then it would have followed the rules of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics allows all sorts of strange things to happen. Matter and energy can be “borrowed” from the future then crash back into nothingness. And then cosmic inflation happened and the universe suddenly expanded by a trillion trillion times.
All this chaos creates a sea of gravitational waves. (These are called “primordial” gravitational waves and come from a different source than the gravitational waves you may have heard about from merging neutron stars and black holes.) The signal of the primordial gravitational waves is a bit like white noise, where the signal from merging dead stars is like a whistle you can pick up over the noise.
These gravitational waves filled the baby universe and created distinct patterns, called B-mode polarization, in the CMB light. These patterns have handedness, which means even though they’re mirror images of each other, they’re not symmetrical — like trying to wear a left-hand glove on your right hand. They’re distinct from another kind of polarization called E-mode, which is symmetrical and echoes the distribution of matter in the universe.
That’s where PIPER comes in. PIPER’s two telescopes sit in a hot-tub-sized container of liquid helium, which runs about minus 452 degrees F. It’ll look at 85 percent of the sky and is extremely sensitive, so it will help us learn even more about the early days of the universe. By telling us more about polarization and those primordial gravitational waves, PIPER will help us understand how the early universe grew from that first baby picture.
PIPER’s first launch window in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, is in late September. When it’s getting ready to launch, you’ll be able to watch the balloon being filled on the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility website. Follow NASA Blueshift on Twitter or Facebook for updates about PIPER and when the livestream will be available.
We’re going to talk about some of the amazing new things NICER is showing us about black holes. But first, let’s talk about black holes — how do they work, and where do they come from? There are two important types of black holes we’ll talk about here: stellar and supermassive. Stellar mass black holes are three to dozens of times as massive as our Sun while supermassive black holes can be billions of times as massive!
Stellar black holes begin with a bang — literally! They are one of the possible objects left over after a large star dies in a supernova explosion. Scientists think there are as many as a billion stellar mass black holes in our Milky Way galaxy alone!
Supermassive black holes have remained rather mysterious in comparison. Data suggest that supermassive black holes could be created when multiple black holes merge and make a bigger one. Or that these black holes formed during the early stages of galaxy formation, born when massive clouds of gas collapsed billions of years ago. There is very strong evidence that a supermassive black hole lies at the center of all large galaxies, as in our Milky Way.
Imagine an object 10 times more massive than the Sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City — or cramming a billion trillion people into a car! These two examples give a sense of how incredibly compact and dense black holes can be.
Because so much stuff is squished into such a relatively small volume, a black hole’s gravity is strong enough that nothing — not even light — can escape from it. But if light can’t escape a dark fate when it encounters a black hole, how can we “see” black holes?
Scientists can’t observe black holes directly, because light can’t escape to bring us information about what’s going on inside them. Instead, they detect the presence of black holes indirectly — by looking for their effects on the cosmic objects around them. We see stars orbiting somethingmassive but invisible to our telescopes, or even disappearing entirely!
When a star approaches a black hole’s event horizon — the point of no return — it’s torn apart. A technical term for this is “spaghettification” — we’re not kidding! Cosmic objects that go through the process of spaghettification become vertically stretched and horizontally compressed into thin, long shapes like noodles.
Scientists can also look for accretion disks when searching for black holes. These disks are relatively flat sheets of gas and dust that surround a cosmic object such as a star or black hole. The material in the disk swirls around and around, until it falls into the black hole. And because of the friction created by the constant movement, the material becomes super hot and emits light, including X-rays.
At last — light! Different wavelengths of light coming from accretion disks are something we can see with our instruments. This reveals important information about black holes, even though we can’t see them directly.
So what has NICER helped us learn about black holes? One of the objects this instrument has studied during its time aboard the International Space Station is the ever-so-forgettably-named black hole GRS 1915+105, which lies nearly 36,000 light-years — or 200 million billion miles — away, in the direction of the constellation Aquila.
Scientists have found disk winds — fast streams of gas created by heat or pressure — near this black hole. Disk winds are pretty peculiar, and we still have a lot of questions about them. Where do they come from? And do they change the shape of the accretion disk?
It’s been difficult to answer these questions, but NICER is more sensitive than previous missions designed to return similar science data. Plus NICER often looks at GRS 1915+105 so it can see changes over time.
NICER’s observations of GRS 1915+105 have provided astronomers a prime example of disk wind patterns, allowing scientists to construct models that can help us better understand how accretion disks and their outflows around black holes work.
NICER has also collected data on a stellar mass black hole with another long name — MAXI J1535-571 (we can call it J1535 for short) — adding to information provided by NuSTAR, Chandra, and MAXI. Even though these are all X-ray detectors, their observations tell us something slightly different about J1535, complementing each other’s data!
This rapidly spinning black hole is part of a binary system, slurping material off its partner, a star. A thin halo of hot gas above the disk illuminates the accretion disk and causes it to glow in X-ray light, which reveals still more information about the shape, temperature, and even the chemical content of the disk. And it turns out that J1535’s disk may be warped!
Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI and Artist: John Kagaya (Hoshi No Techou)
NICER primarily studies neutron stars — it’s in the name! These are lighter-weight relatives of black holes that can be formed when stars explode. But NICER is also changing what we know about many types of X-ray sources. Thanks to NICER’s efforts, we are one step closer to a complete picture of black holes. And hey, that’s pretty nice!
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.
Our Spitzer Space Telescope is celebrating 15 years since its launch on August 25, 2003. This remarkable spacecraft has made discoveries its designers never even imagined, including some of the seven Earth-size planets of TRAPPIST-1. Here are some key facts about Spitzer:
1. Spitzer is one of our Great Observatories.
Our Great Observatory Program aimed to explore the universe with four large space telescopes, each specialized in viewing the universe in different wavelengths of light. The other Great Observatories are our Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. By combining data from different kinds of telescopes, scientists can paint a fuller picture of our universe.
2. Spitzer operates in infrared light.
Infrared wavelengths of light, which primarily come from heat radiation, are too long to be seen with human eyes, but are important for exploring space — especially when it comes to getting information about something extremely far away. From turbulent clouds where stars are born to small asteroids close to Earth’s orbit, a wide range of phenomena can be studied in infrared light. Objects too faint or distant for optical telescopes to detect, hidden by dense clouds of space dust, can often be seen with Spitzer. In this way, Spitzer acts as an extension of human vision to explore the universe, near and far.
What’s more, Spitzer doesn’t have to contend with Earth’s atmosphere, daily temperature variations or day-night cycles, unlike ground-based telescopes. With a mirror less than 1 meter in diameter, Spitzer in space is more sensitive than even a 10-meter-diameter telescope on Earth.
3. Spitzer was the first spacecraft to fly in an Earth-trailing orbit.
Rather than circling Earth, as Hubble does, Spitzer orbits the Sun on almost the same path as Earth. But Spitzer moves slower than Earth, so the spacecraft drifts farther away from our planet each year.
This “Earth-trailing orbit” has many advantages. Being farther from Earth than a satellite, it receives less heat from our planet and enjoys a naturally cooler environment. Spitzer also benefits from a wider view of the sky by orbiting the Sun. While its field of view changes throughout the year, at any given time it can see about one-third of the sky. Our Kepler space telescope, famous for finding thousands of exoplanets – planets outside our solar system – also settled in an Earth-trailing orbit six years after Spitzer.
4. Spitzer began in a “cold mission.”
Spitzer has far outlived its initial requirement of 2.5 years. The Spitzer team calls the first 5.5 years “the cold mission” because the spacecraft’s instruments were deliberately cooled down during that time. Liquid helium coolant kept Spitzer’s instruments just a few degrees above absolute zero (which is minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273 degrees Celsius) in this first part of the mission.
5. The “warm mission” was still pretty cold.
Spitzer entered what was called the “warm mission” when the 360 liters of liquid helium coolant that was chilling its instruments ran out in May 2009.
At the “warm” temperature of minus 405 Fahrenheit, two of Spitzer’s instruments – the Infrared Spectrograph (IRS) and Multiband Imaging Photometer (MIPS) – stopped working. But two of the four detector arrays in the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) persisted. These “channels” of the camera have driven Spitzer’s explorations since then.
6. Spitzer wasn’t designed to study exoplanets, but made huge strides in this area.
Exoplanet science was in its infancy in 2003 when Spitzer launched, so the mission’s first scientists and engineers had no idea it could observe planets beyond our solar system. But the telescope’s accurate star-targeting system and the ability to control unwanted changes in temperature have made it a useful tool for studying exoplanets. During the Spitzer mission, engineers have learned how to control the spacecraft’s pointing more precisely to find and characterize exoplanets, too.
Using what’s called the “transit method,” Spitzer can stare at a star and detect periodic dips in brightness that happen when a planet crosses a star’s face. In one of its most remarkable achievements, Spitzer discovered three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and confirmed that the system has seven Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star. Spitzer data also helped scientists determine that all seven planets are rocky, and made these the best-understood exoplanets to date.
Spitzer can also use a technique called microlensing to find planets closer to the center of our galaxy. When a star passes in front of another star, the gravity of the first star can act as a lens, making the light from the more distant star appear brighter. Scientists are using microlensing to look for a blip in that brightening, which could mean that the foreground star has a planet orbiting it. Microlensing could not have been done early in the mission when Spitzer was closer to Earth, but now that the spacecraft is farther away, it has a better chance of measuring these events.
7. Spitzer is a window into the distant past.
The spacecraft has observed and helped discover some of the most distant objects in the universe, helping scientists understand where we came from. Originally, Spitzer’s camera designers had hoped the spacecraft would detect galaxies about 12 billion light-years away. In fact, Spitzer has surpassed that, and can see even farther back in time – almost to the beginning of the universe. In collaboration with Hubble, Spitzer helped characterize the galaxy GN-z11 about 13.4 billion light-years away, whose light has been traveling since 400 million years after the big bang. It is the farthest galaxy known.
8. Spitzer discovered Saturn’s largest ring.
Everyone knows Saturn has distinctive rings, but did you know its largest ring was only discovered in 2009, thanks to Spitzer? Because this outer ring doesn’t reflect much visible light, Earth-based telescopes would have a hard time seeing it. But Spitzer saw the infrared glow from the cool dust in the ring. It begins 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Saturn and extends about 7.4 million miles (12 million kilometers) beyond that.
9. The “Beyond Phase” pushes Spitzer to new limits.
In 2016, Spitzer entered its “Beyond phase,” with a name reflecting how the spacecraft operates beyond its original scope.
As Spitzer floats away from Earth, its increasing distance presents communication challenges. Engineers must point Spitzer’s antenna at higher angles toward the Sun in order to talk to our planet, which exposes the spacecraft to more heat. At the same time, the spacecraft’s solar panels receive less sunlight because they point away from the Sun, putting more stress on the battery.
The team decided to override some autonomous safety systems so Spitzer could continue to operate in this riskier mode. But so far, the Beyond phase is going smoothly.
10. Spitzer paves the way for future infrared telescopes.
Spitzer has identified areas of further study for our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch in 2021. Webb will also explore the universe in infrared light, picking up where Spitzer eventually will leave off. With its enhanced ability to probe planetary atmospheres, Webb may reveal striking new details about exoplanets that Spitzer found. Distant galaxies unveiled by Spitzer together with other telescopes will also be observed in further detail by Webb. The space telescope we are planning after that, WFIRST, will also investigate long-standing mysteries by looking at infrared light. Scientists planning studies with future infrared telescopes will naturally build upon the pioneering legacy of Spitzer.
Read the web version of this week’s “Solar System: 10 Things to Know” article HERE.
Tomorrow, Aug. 11, we’re launching a spacecraft to touch the Sun.
The first chance to launch Parker Solar Probe is 3:33 a.m. EDT on Aug. 11 from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Launch coverage on NASA TV starts at 3 a.m. EDT at nasa.gov/live.
After launch, Parker Solar Probe begins its daring journey to the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, going closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history and facing brutal heat and radiation.
Though Parker Solar Probe weighs a mere 1,400 pounds — pretty light for a spacecraft — it’s launching aboard one of the world’s most powerful rockets, a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy with a third stage added.
Even though you might think the Sun’s massive means things would just fall into it, it’s surprisingly difficult to actually go there.
Any object leaving Earth starts off traveling at about 67,000 miles per
hour, same as Earth — and most of that is in a sideways direction, so
you have to shed most of that sideways speed to make it to the Sun. All
that means that it takes 55 times more launch energy to go to the Sun
than it does to go to Mars. On top of its powerful launch vehicle,
Parker Solar Probe will use seven Venus gravity assists to shed sideways
Even though Parker Solar Probe will lose a lot of sideways speed, it’ll still be going incredibly fast as its orbit draws closer to the Sun throughout its seven-year mission. At its fastest, Parker Solar Probe will travel at 430,000 miles per hour — fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. in one second — setting the record for the fastest spacecraft in history.
But the real challenge was to keep the spacecraft from frying once it got there.
We’ve always wanted to send a mission to the corona, but we literally haven’t had the technology that can protect a spacecraft and its instruments from its scorching heat. Only recent advances have enabled engineers to build a heat shield that will protect the spacecraft on this journey of extremes — a tricky feat that requires withstanding the Sun’s intense radiation on the front and staying cool at the back, so the spacecraft and instruments can work properly.
The 4.5-inches-thick heat shield is built like a sandwich. There’s a
thin layer of carbon material like you might find in your golf clubs or
tennis rackets, carbon foam, and then another thin piece of
carbon-carbon on the back. Even while the Sun-facing side broils at
2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the back of the shield will remain a balmy 85
degrees — just above room temperature. There are so few particles in
this region that it’s a vacuum, so blocking the Sun’s radiation goes a
long way towards keeping the spacecraft cool.
Parker Solar Probe is also our first mission to be named after a living individual: Dr. Eugene Parker, famed solar physicist who in 1958 first predicted the existence of the solar wind.
“Solar wind” is what Dr. Parker dubbed the stream of charged particles that flows constantly from the Sun, bathing Earth and our entire solar system in the Sun’s magnetic fields. Parker Solar Probe’s flight right through the corona allows it to observe the birth of the very solar wind that Dr. Parker predicted, right as it speeds up and over the speed of sound.
The corona is where solar material is heated to millions of degrees and where the most extreme eruptions on the Sun occur, like solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which fling particles out to space at incredible speeds near the speed of light. These explosions can also spark space weather storms near Earth that can endanger satellites and astronauts, disrupt radio communications and, at their most severe, trigger power outages.
Thanks to Parker Solar Probe’s landmark mission, solar scientists will be able to see the objects of their study up close and personal for the very first time.
Up until now, all of our studies of the corona have been remote — that is, taken from a distance, rather than at the mysterious region itself. Scientists have been very creative to glean as much as possible from their remote data, but there’s nothing like actually sending a probe to the corona to see what’s going on.
And scientists aren’t the only ones along for the adventure — Parker Solar Probe holds a microchip carrying the names of more than 1.1 million people who signed up to send their name to the Sun. This summer, these names and 1,400 pounds of science equipment begin their journey to the center of our solar system.
Three months later in November 2018, Parker Solar Probe makes its first close approach to the Sun, and in December, it will send back the data. The corona is one of the last places in the solar system where no spacecraft has visited before; each observation Parker Solar Probe makes is a potential discovery.
Stay tuned — Parker Solar Probe is about to take flight.
Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest, most violent explosions in the universe, but they can be surprisingly tricky to detect. Our eyes can’t see them because they are tuned to just a limited portion of the types of light that exist, but thanks to technology, we can even see the highest-energy form of light in the cosmos — gamma rays.
So how did we discover gamma-ray bursts?
We didn’t actually develop gamma-ray detectors to peer at the universe — we were keeping an eye on our neighbors! During the Cold War, the United States and the former Soviet Union both signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 that stated neither nation would test nuclear weapons in space. Just one week later, the US launched the first Vela satellite to ensure the treaty wasn’t being violated. What they saw instead were gamma-ray events happening out in the cosmos!
Things Going Bump in the Cosmos
Each of these gamma-ray events, dubbed “gamma-ray bursts” or GRBs, lasted such a short time that information was very difficult to gather. For decades their origins, locations and causes remained a cosmic mystery, but in recent years we’ve been able to figure out a lot about GRBs. They come in two flavors: short-duration (less than two seconds) and long-duration (two seconds or more). Short and long bursts seem to be caused by different cosmic events, but the end result is thought to be the birth of a black hole.
Short GRBs are created by binary neutron star mergers. Neutron stars are the superdense leftover cores of really massive stars that have gone supernova. When two of them crash together (long after they’ve gone supernova) the collision releases a spectacular amount of energy before producing a black hole. Astronomers suspect something similar may occur in a merger between a neutron star and an already-existing black hole.
Long GRBs account for most of the bursts we see and can be created when an extremely massive star goes supernova and launches jets of material at nearly the speed of light (though not every supernova will produce a GRB). They can last just a few seconds or several minutes, though some extremely long GRBs have been known to last for hours!
A Gamma-Ray Burst a Day Sends Waves of Light Our Way!
Our Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detects a GRB nearly every day, but there are actually many more happening — we just can’t see them! In a GRB, the gamma rays are shot out in a narrow beam. We have to be lined up just right in order to detect them, because not all bursts are beamed toward us — when we see one it’s because we’re looking right down the barrel of the gamma-ray gun. Scientists estimate that there are at least 50 times more GRBs happening each day than we detect!
So what’s left after a GRB — just a solitary black hole? Since GRBs usually last only a matter of seconds, it’s very difficult to study them in-depth. Fortunately, each one leaves an afterglow that can last for hours or even years in extreme cases. Afterglows are created when the GRB jets run into material surrounding the star. Because that material slows the jets down, we see lower-energy light, like X-rays and radio waves, that can take a while to fade. Afterglows are so important in helping us understand more about GRBs that our Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory was specifically designed to study them!
Last fall, we had the opportunity to learn even more from a gamma-ray burst than usual! From 130 million light-years away, Fermi witnessed a pair of neutron stars collide, creating a spectacular short GRB. What made this burst extra special was the fact that ground-based gravitational wave detectors LIGO and Virgo caught the same event, linking light and gravitational waves to the same source for the first time ever!
For over 10 years now, Fermi has been exploring the gamma-ray universe. Thanks to Fermi, scientists are learning more about the fundamental physics of the cosmos, from dark matter to the nature of space-time and beyond. Discover more about how we’ll be celebrating Fermi’s achievements all year!
To most of us, dust is an annoyance. Something to be cleaned up, washed off or wiped away. But these tiny particles that float about and settle on surfaces play an important role in a variety of processes on Earth and across the solar system. So put away that feather duster for a few moments, as we share with you 10 things to know about dust.
1. “Dust” Doesn’t Mean Dirty, it Means Tiny
Not all of what we call “dust” is made of the same stuff. Dust in your home generally consists of things like particles of sand and soil, pollen, dander (dead skin cells), pet hair, furniture fibers and cosmetics. But in space, dust can refer to any sort of fine particles smaller than a grain of sand. Dust is most commonly bits of rock or carbon-rich, soot-like grains, but in the outer solar system, far from the Sun’s warmth, it’s also common to find tiny grains of ice as well. Galaxies, including our Milky Way, contain giant clouds of fine dust that are light years across – the ingredients for future generations of planetary systems like ours.
2. Some Are Big, Some Are Small (and Big Ones Tend to Fall)
Dust grains come in a range of sizes, which affects their properties. Particles can be extremely tiny, from only a few tens of nanometers (mere billionths of a meter) wide, to nearly a millimeter wide. As you might expect, smaller dust grains are more easily lifted and pushed around, be it by winds or magnetic, electrical and gravitational forces. Even the gentle pressure of sunlight is enough to move smaller dust particles in space. Bigger particles tend to be heavier, and they settle out more easily under the influence of gravity.
For example, on Earth, powerful winds can whip up large amounts of dust into the atmosphere. While the smaller grains can be transported over great distances, the heavier particles generally sink back to the ground near their source. On Saturn’s moon Enceladus, jets of icy dust particles spray hundreds of miles up from the surface; the bigger particles are lofted only a few tens of miles (or kilometers) and fall back to the ground, while the finest particles escape the moon’s gravity and go into orbit around Saturn to create the planet’s E ring.
3. It’s EVERYWHERE
Generally speaking, the space between the planets is pretty empty, but not completely so. Particles cast off by comets and ground up bits of asteroids are found throughout the solar system. Take any volume of space half a mile (1 kilometer) on a side, and you’d average a few micron-sized particles (grains the thickness of a red blood cell).
Dust in the solar system was a lot more abundant in the past. There was a huge amount of it present as the planets began to coalesce out of the disk of material that formed the Sun. In fact, motes of dust gently sticking together were likely some of the earliest seeds of the planet-building process. But where did all that dust come from, originally? Some of it comes from stars like our Sun, which blow off their outer layers in their later years. But lots of it also comes from exploding stars, which blast huge amounts of dust and gas into space when they go boom.
4. From a Certain Point of View
Dust is easier to see from certain viewing angles. Tiny particles scatter light depending on how big their grains are. Larger particles tend to scatter light back in the direction from which it came, while very tiny particles tend to scatter light forward, more or less in the direction it was already going. Because of this property, structures like planetary rings made of the finest dusty particles are best viewed with the Sun illuminating them from behind. For example, Jupiter’s rings were only discovered after the Voyager 1 spacecraft passed by the planet, where it could look back and see them backlit by the Sun. You can see the same effect looking through a dusty windshield at sunset; when you face toward the Sun, the dust becomes much more apparent.
5. Dust Storms Are Common on Mars
Local dust storms occur frequently on Mars, and occasionally grow or merge to form regional systems, particularly during the southern spring and summer, when Mars is closest to the Sun. On rare occasions, regional storms produce a dust haze that encircles the planet and obscures surface features beneath. A few of these events may become truly global storms, such as one in 1971 that greeted the first spacecraft to orbit Mars, our Mariner 9. In mid-2018, a global dust storm enshrouded Mars, hiding much of the Red Planet’s surface from view and threatening the continued operation of our uber long-lived Opportunity rover. We’ve also seen global dust storms in 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007.
Dust storms will likely present challenges for future astronauts on the Red Planet. Although the force of the wind on Mars is not as strong as portrayed in an early scene in the movie “The Martian,” dust lofted during storms could affect electronics and health, as well as the availability of solar energy.
6. Dust From the Sahara Goes Global
Earth’s largest, hottest desert is connected to its largest tropical rain forest by dust. The Sahara Desert is a near-uninterrupted brown band of sand and scrub across the northern third of Africa. The Amazon rain forest is a dense green mass of humid jungle that covers northeast South America. But after strong winds sweep across the Sahara, a dusty cloud rises in the air, stretches between the continents, and ties together the desert and the jungle.
This trans-continental journey of dust is important because of what is in the dust. Specifically, the dust picked up from the Bodélé Depression in Chad – an ancient lake bed where minerals composed of dead microorganisms are loaded with phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant proteins and growth, which the nutrient-poor Amazon rain forest depends on in order to flourish.
7. Rings and Things
The rings of the giant planets contain a variety of different dusty materials. Jupiter’s rings are made of fine rock dust. Saturn’s rings are mostly pure water ice, with a sprinkling of other materials. (Side note about Saturn’s rings: While most of the particles are boulder-sized, there’s also lots of fine dust, and some of the fainter rings are mostly dust with few or no large particles.) Dust in the rings of Uranus and Neptune is made of dark, sooty material, probably rich in carbon.
Over time, dust gets removed from ring systems due to a variety of processes. For example, some of the dust falls into the planet’s atmosphere, while some gets swept up by the planets’ magnetic fields, and other dust settles onto the surfaces of the moons and other ring particles. Larger particles eventually form new moons or get ground down and mixed with incoming material. This means rings can change a lot over time, so understanding how the tiniest ring particles are being moved about has bearing on the history, origins and future of the rings.
8. Moon Dust is Clingy and Might Make You Sick
So, dust is kind of a thing on the Moon. When the Apollo astronauts visited the Moon, they found that lunar dust quickly coated their spacesuits and was difficult to remove. It was quite abrasive, causing wear on their spacesuit fabrics, seals and faceplates. It also clogged mechanisms like the joints in spacesuit limbs, and interfered with fasteners like zippers and Velcro. The astronauts also noted that it had a distinctive, pungent odor, not unlike gunpowder, and it was an eye and lung irritant.
Many of these properties apparently can be explained by the fact that lunar dust particles are quite rough and jagged. While dust particles on Earth get tumbled and ground by the wind into smoother shapes, this sort of weathering doesn’t happen so much on the Moon. The roughness of Moon dust grains makes it very easy for them to cling to surfaces and scratch them up. It also means they’re not the sort of thing you would want to inhale, as their jagged edges could damage delicate tissues in the lung.
9. Dust is What Makes Comets So Pretty
Most comets are basically clods of dust, rock and ice. They spend most of their time far from the Sun, out in the refrigerated depths of the outer solar system, where they’re peacefully dormant. But when their orbits carry them closer to the Sun – that is, roughly inside the orbit of Jupiter – comets wake up. In response to warming temperatures, the ices on and near their surfaces begin to turn into gases, expanding outward and away from the comet, and creating focused jets of material in places. Dust gets carried away by this rapidly expanding gas, creating a fuzzy cloud around the comet’s nucleus called a coma. Some of the dust also is drawn out into a long trail – the comet’s tail.
10. We’re Not the Only Ones Who’re So Dusty
Dust in our solar system is continually replenished by comets whizzing past the Sun and the occasional asteroid collision, and it’s always being moved about, thanks to a variety of factors like the gravity of the planets and even the pressure of sunlight. Some of it even gets ejected from our solar system altogether.
With telescopes, we also observe dusty debris disks around many other stars. As in our own system, the dust in such disks should evolve over time, settling on planetary surfaces or being ejected, and this means the dust must be replenished in those star systems as well. So studying the dust in our planetary environs can tell us about other systems, and vice versa. Grains of dust from other planetary systems also pass through our neighborhood – a few spacecraft have actually captured and analyzed some them – offering us a tangible way to study material from other stars.
Read the full version of ‘Solar System: 10 Things to Know’ article HERE.
Our Parker Solar Probe will get closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has ever gone – it will fly right through the Sun’s corona, part of the Sun’s atmosphere.
This spacecraft is full of cutting-edge technology, from its heat shield down to its guidance and control systems. It also carries four suites of advanced instruments designed to study the Sun in a multitude of ways.
1. Measuring particles
Two of Parker Solar Probe’s instrument suites are focused on measuring particles – electrons and ions – within the corona.
One of these particle-measuring instrument suites is SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons). SWEAP counts the most common particles in the solar wind – the Sun’s constant outflow of material – and measures their properties, like velocity, density and temperature. Gathering this information about solar wind particles will help scientists better understand why the solar wind reaches supersonic speeds and exactly which part of the Sun the particles come from.
One instrument in the SWEAP suite is the Solar Probe Cup. Most of the instruments on Parker Solar Probe stay safe and cool in the shadow of the heat shield, but the Solar Probe Cup is one of the few that sticks out. That’s so it can capture and measure particles streaming straight out from the Sun, and it had to go through some intense testing to get ready for this position in the Sun’s incredibly hot corona.
Credit: Levi Hutmacher/Michigan Engineering
The ISʘIS suite (pronounced EE-sis, and including the symbol for the Sun in its acronym) also measures particles. ISʘIS is short for Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, and this instrument suite measures particles that move faster – and therefore have more energy – than the solar wind.
These measurements will help scientists understand these particles’ lifecycles – where they came from, how they got to be traveling so fast (these particles can reach speeds more than half the speed of light!) and what path they take as they travel away from the Sun and into interplanetary space.
2. Taking pictures – but not of the Sun’s surface.
WISPR (Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe) has the only two cameras on Parker Solar Probe – but they’re not pointed directly at the Sun. Instead, WISPR looks out the side of the spacecraft, in the direction it’s traveling, looking at the space Parker Solar Probe is about to fly through. From that vantage point, WISPR captures images of structures within the corona like coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. CMEs are clouds of solar material that occasionally explode from the Sun at millions of miles per hour. Because this solar material is magnetized, CMEs can trigger geomagnetic storms when they reach Earth – which, in turn, can cause effects like auroras and even, in extreme cases, power outages.
Right now, our observations of events like these come from satellites orbiting near Earth, so WISPR will give us a whole new perspective. And, scientists will be able to combine WISPR’s images with Parker Solar Probe’s direct particle measurements to get a better idea of how these structures change as they travel.
3. Studying electric & magnetic fields
The FIELDS instrument suite is appropriately named: It’s what scientists will use to study the electric and magnetic fields in the corona.
Electric and magnetic fields are key to understanding what happens, not only on the Sun, but throughout space, because they the primary driver accelerating charged particles. In particular, a process called magnetic reconnection – when magnetic field lines explosively realign, sending particles rocketing away at incredible speeds – is thought to drive solar explosions, as well as space weather effects on Earth, like the aurora.
FIELDS measures electric and magnetic field at high time resolution, meaning it takes lots of measurements in a short amount of time, to track these processes and shed some light on the mechanics underlying the Sun’s behavior. FIELDS’ measurements are precisely synced up with those of the SWEAP suite (one of the sets of instruments studying particles) so that scientists can match up the immediate effects that electric and magnetic fields have on the material of the solar wind.
Parker Solar Probe launches summer 2018 on its mission to study the Sun. Keep up with the latest on the mission at nasa.gov/solarprobe or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.