Friday, September 28, 2007

A Hole in Mars Close Up

Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA

In a close-up from the HiRISE instrument onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, this mysterious dark pit, about 150 meters across, lies on the north slope of ancient martian volcano Arsia Mons.

Lacking raised rims and other impact crater characteristics, this pit and others like it were originally identified in visible light and infrared images from the Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.

While the visible light images showed only darkness within, infrared thermal signatures indicated that the openings penetrated deep under the martian surface and perhaps were skylights to underground caverns.

In this later image, the pit wall is partially illuminated by sunlight and seen to be nearly vertical, though the bottom, at least 78 meters below, is still not visible. The dark martian pits are thought to be related to collapse pits in the lava flow, similar to Hawaiian volcano pit craters.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

SOHO's new catch: its first officially periodic comet

Credits: ESA/ NASA/ SOHO

The location of the comet P/2007 R5 (SOHO) is indicated in all three panels in the picture. The panels show pictures of observations taken with SOHO’s Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph Experiment (LASCO). The comet has a small orbit, taking four years to once circle the Sun.
For the first time, LASCO has found a rare type of comet called a periodic comet (which flies by the Sun at regular intervals). While many SOHO comets are believed to be periodic, this is the first one that has been conclusively proven and officially declared as such.

The comet faded as quickly as it brightened, and soon became too faint for SOHO's instruments to see it. Estimates show that P/2007 R5 (SOHO) is probably only 100-200 metres in diameter. Given how small and faint this object is, and how close it still is to the Sun, it is an extremely difficult target for observers on Earth to pick out in the sky.

Radio Occultation: Unraveling Saturn's Rings

Credit: NASA/JPL

Specially designed Cassini orbits place Earth and Cassini on opposite sides of Saturn's rings, a geometry known as occultation. Cassini conducted the first radio occultation observation of Saturn's rings on May 3, 2005.

Three simultaneous radio signals of 0.94, 3.6, and 13 centimeter wavelength (Ka-, X-, and S-bands) were sent from Cassini through the rings to Earth. The observed change of each signal as Cassini moved behind the rings provided a profile of the distribution of ring material as a function of distance from Saturn, or an optical depth profile.

This simulated image was constructed from the measured optical depth profiles. It depicts the observed ring structure at about 10 kilometers (6 miles) in resolution. Color is used to represent information about ring particle sizes in different regions based on the measured effects of the three radio signals.

Purple color indicates regions where there is a lack of particles of size less than 5 centimeters (about 2 inches). Green and blue shades indicate regions where there are particles smaller than 5 centimeters (2 inches) and 1 centimeter (less than one third of one inch). The saturated broad white band near the middle of ring B is the densest region of ring B, over which two of the three radio signals were blocked at 10-kilometer (6-mile) resolution, preventing accurate color representation over this band. From other evidence in the radio observations, all ring regions appear to be populated by a broad range particle size distribution that extends to boulder sizes (several to many meters across).

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radio science team is based at JPL.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Hubble Captures Stars Going Out in Style

Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (SRScI/AURA)

The colorful, intricate shapes in these NASA Hubble Space Telescope images reveal how the glowing gas ejected by dying Sun-like stars evolves dramatically over time.

These gaseous clouds, called planetary nebulae, are created when stars in the last stages of life cast off their outer layers of material into space. Ultraviolet light from the remnant star makes the material glow. Planetary nebulae last for only 10,000 years, a fleeting episode in the 10-billion-year lifespan of Sun-like stars.

The name planetary nebula has nothing to do with planets. They got their name because their round shapes resembled planets when seen through the small telescopes of the eighteenth century.

The Hubble images show the evolution of planetary nebulae, revealing how they expand in size and change temperature over time. A young planetary nebula, such as He 2-47, at top, left, for example, is small and is dominated by relatively cool, glowing nitrogen gas. In the Hubble images, the red, green, and blue colors represent light emitted by nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, respectively.

Over thousands of years, the clouds of gas expand away and the nebulae become larger. Energetic ultraviolet light from the star penetrates more deeply into the gas, causing the hydrogen and oxygen to glow more prominently, as seen near the center of NGC 5315. In the older nebulae, such as IC 4593, at bottom, left, and NGC 5307, at bottom, right, hydrogen and oxygen appear more extended in these regions, and red knots of nitrogen are still visible.

These four nebulae all lie in our Milky Way Galaxy. Their distances from Earth are all roughly the same, about 7,000 light-years. The snapshots were taken with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 in February 2007. Like snowflakes, planetary nebulae show a wide variety of shapes, indicative of the complex processes that occur at the end of stellar life.

He 2-47, at top, left, is dubbed the "starfish" because of its shape. The six lobes of gas and dust, which resemble the legs of a starfish, suggest that He 2-47 puffed off material at least three times in three different directions. Each time, the star fired off a narrow pair of opposite jets of gas. He 2-47 is in the southern constellation Carina.

NGC 5315, the chaotic-looking nebula at top, right, reveals an x-shaped structure. This shape suggests that the star ejected material in two different outbursts in two distinct directions. Each outburst unleashed a pair of diametrically opposed outflows. NGC 5315 lies in the southern constellation Circinus.

IC 4593, at bottom, left, is in the northern constellation Hercules.

NGC 5307, at bottom, right, displays a spiral pattern, which may have been caused by the dying star wobbling as it expelled jets of gas in different directions. NGC 5307 resides in the southern constellation Centaurus.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes Find "Lego-Block" Galaxies in Early Universe

Credit: NASA, ESAl, and N. Pirzkal (STScI/ESA)

In this image of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, several objects are identified as the faintest, most compact galaxies ever observed in the distant universe. They are so far away that we see them as they looked less than one billion years after the Big Bang. Blazing with the brilliance of millions of stars, each of the newly discovered galaxies is a hundred to a thousand times smaller than our Milky Way Galaxy.

The bottom row of pictures shows several of these clumps (distance expressed in redshift value). Three of the galaxies appear to be slightly disrupted. Rather than being shaped like rounded blobs, they appear stretched into tadpole-like shapes. This is a sign that they may be interacting and merging with neighboring galaxies to form larger structures.

The detection required joint observations between Hubble and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Blue light seen by Hubble shows the presence of young stars. The absence of infrared light from Spitzer observations conclusively shows that these are truly young galaxies without an earlier generation of stars.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Children of Saturn

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Two moons on opposite sides of the rings slide past each other in this stately portrait of Saturn.

Dione (1,126 kilometers, or 700 miles across), on the far side of Saturn, appears above the rings. Tethys (1,071 kilometers, or 665 miles across) poses directly in front of the ringplane.

This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from less than a degree above the ringplane. The silhouette of the rings overlay the subtle texture of Saturn's atmosphere.

The image was taken in visible green light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on July 29, 2007. The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 3.2 million kilometers (2 million miles) from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 32 degrees. Image scale is 188 kilometers (117 miles) per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.