Solar System Chatter

A hundred satellites, all talking at once. Here’s the intel.

Universe Hubble’s Headlights for Voyager
The two NASA Voyager spacecraft left the solar system a few years ago as the first human-made objects to travel through interstellar space. The instruments are still collecting data 39 years after launch, and now they’re getting an assist from Hubble Space Telescope. The Earth-orbiting telescope is looking closely at the interstellar material the far-flung spacecraft are moving through, which is being combined with the Voyagers’ up-close measurements. The data is helping astronomers understand how the “complex interstellar ecology” is changing and how the sun continues to affect space farther and farther away. Image: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI). January 6, 2017

Universe Nature’s Particle Accelerator
Astronomers have found an immense natural particle accelerator in space. New views from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, combined with data from several ground telescopes, show an unusual comet-shaped formation happening within a couple of colliding galaxies located about two billion light years away. When astronomers looked in more detail, they determined at least one black hole must be at the origin of the formation, producing a “rotating, tightly-wound magnetic funnel,” according to the press release. Then that jet of particles is accelerated even more due to the shock waves from the galaxy collision. “It’s almost like launching a rocket into low-Earth orbit and then getting shot out of the solar system by a second rocket blast,” said Felipe Andrade-Santos of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The material is not only more energetic than anything that could be created in a particle accelerator on Earth, but also more than nearly any other material observed in the universe. Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. van Weeren et al; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru;. January 5, 2017

Earth Earth’s Auto Temp Control
Part of the atmosphere behaves like a natural thermostat, say scientists studying the aftermath of solar outbursts that hit the Earth. When a coronal mass ejection sends electrically charged plasma into our atmosphere, it heats up and expands. Scientists at Colorado University at Boulder now believe they know how the planet’s atmosphere compensates for the onslaught. Boulder professor Delores Knipp realized what might be happening when looking at data from a major solar storm in 1967: When the CMEs hit the air they create shock waves, which create trace amounts of nitric oxide. Then the team studied 15 years of data from an instrument that undergraduate students at the university built and operated on NASA’s TIMED satellite. They found that the upper layers of air can suddenly heat up by as much as 750 degrees Fahrenheit, but the sudden presence of the nitric oxide has a supercooling effect—lowering the air temperature by as much as 930 degrees. Now we know one more way the Earth keeps our home habitable. Image: NASA. December 14, 2016

Universe Otherworldly Weather
For the first time, scientists have observed weather patterns on a gas giant exoplanet—and they’re as exotic as you might hope. A team at the University of Warwick Astrophysics Group in the United Kingdom has been using NASA’s Kepler telescope to observe HAT-P-7b, the name for an exoplanet discovered in 2008 that’s 1,000 light years away and 16 times the size of Earth. They were able to determine that the planet is swarmed with powerful winds by observing how a bright spot of reflected light moved across the surface, like watching the movements of Jupiter’s great storm. The winds on the planet likely form “catastrophic storms,” but even more fascinating is that the clouds seem to be made up of a mineral called corundum, the same which forms rubies and sapphires. Furthermore, the tidally-locked planet is a sweltering 4600 degrees Fahrenheit on the day side, all making for a stunning but ultimately uninhabitable world. Image: University of Warwick. December 12, 2016

Planets Cassini Goes Ring Diving
Ahead of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft’s plunge into Saturn next April, its team has sent it on a new path to collect as much data as possible about the planet and its rings before the mission ends. This phase, which began on November 30, includes 20 week-long orbits, so it's just grazing the outside of the outer ring structure as it passes. Cassini has sent down its first images from these passes, including a series of shots of the hexagonal structure at Saturn’s north poleImage: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute. December 6, 2016

Earth Your World in High Def
Commercial satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe just released the first photo from WorldView-4, which was launched November 11. The company boasts that the Lockheed Martin-built satellite has the highest resolution of any commercial satellite, resolving detail down to 30 centimeters. The image, which we’ve abused here by posting in low-res (you can see the original here), is of Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo, Japan, which was built for the 1964 Olympics and will be used again for the 2020 Games. DigitalGlobe markets its imagery for mapping, security, and humanitarian response purposes, but also collects its own set of images for its ongoing 16-year time-lapse image library.  Image: DigitalGlobe / WorldView-4. December 2, 2016

Planets A New Camera at Mars
Although the lander half of the ExoMars mission didn’t make it, the European Space Agency is very pleased so far with the Trace Gas Orbiter, which sent back its first images of the Mars surface this week. The orbiter is going to take another year to get into its final orbit, but that doesn’t mean mission scientists can’t get its instruments up and running. The image at right is from the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System, or CaSSIS, showing a crater a bit smaller than a mile wide that’s on the rim of a much more massive crater at about 23 feet per pixel, taken as the orbiter did a low pass just 155 miles altitude. The camera is able to take short exposures extremely rapidly (one of the pictures it sent down this week took an exposure lasting 700 microseconds every 150 millisecond). Eventually, scientists at the Astronomical Observatory of Padova in Italy will be able to take CaSSIS data and create stereo images, with which they can make 3D reconstructions of Martian features. Image: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE. November 29, 2016

Earth GOES is Up
Weather forecasting is about to take a big leap forward after the successful launch of NOAA’s GOES-R satellite. It’s the first of four satellites in the next generation upgrade for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite series (the first one was launched in 1974). The satellite will reach its final orbit in a couple of weeks, when it will be renamed GOES-16, and spend the next year testing its six instruments that will collected data significantly faster and in more detail than any previous incarnation. Scientists will have access to the first lightning-mapper in geostationary orbit and improved space weather sensors. GOES-16 will also be connected with a constellation of satellites that can detect distress signals from boats and aircraft. Image: NASA. November 19, 2016

Planets New Moons for Uranus?
Voyager 2 is the mission that keeps on giving. Scientists at the University of Idaho think they’ve discovered two moons orbiting Uranus that have never been seen before. They noticed patterns in the waves of the planet’s rings that indicate an object creating a disruption. The two moons, which haven’t been observed yet, only hypothesized from the math, would be tiny: two to nine miles in diameter. Scientists have always wondered why Uranus’ thin ring structure doesn’t spread out more, and already know that two of the planet’s 27 known moons act as “shepherds” to the Epsilon ring. If these two new moons exist, they may help add to the explanation of the planet’s dynamics if they act as shepherds to other parts of the ring system. Image: NASA/Erich Karkoschka (Univ. Arizona). October 21, 2016

Planets Mars in Ultraviolet
The MAVEN spacecraft, which has been orbiting around Mars since 2014, recently sent back ultraviolet images of the entire globe. By studying the UV light, scientists can now detect the dynamic wind behavior at high altitudes on Mars, how the ozone concentrations change over the course of a year, and how clouds form around the planet’s four largest volcanoes, which can help explain energy distribution in the atmosphere as the seasons change. The volcano Olympus Mons appears in the dark spot near the top of the image at right, with a dot of white clouds in the center, at its peak. The three other volcanoes appear in the diagonal line, and their cloud cover often merges into a formation thousands of miles long. Click through here to watch a video that stitches together the global UV images from MAVEN. Image: NASA/MAVEN/University of Colorado. October 17, 2016