Our Sun constantly emits plasma which moves out in all directions at very high speeds and fills the entire solar system. The complex interaction between the Sun’s plasma atmosphere and its magnetic field gives rise to a wide range of fascinating and spectacular phenomena. The fluctuation of the sun’s magnetic fields can cause a large portion of the outer atmosphere to expand rapidly, spewing a tremendous amount of particles into space. These large eruptions of magnetized plasma are called coronal mass ejections. CMEs are the most spectacular and potentially harmful manifestations of solar activity. Some of these eruptive events accelerate particles to very high energies, high enough to penetrate a space suit or the hull of a spacecraft and can cause severe disturbances in the geospace environment when they encounter Earth’s magnetic field. However, only about 1% of the CMEs produce strong SEP (solar energetic particles) events. 

Credit: NASA/SDO/Duberstein

Propylene on Titan

With a thick atmosphere, clouds, a rain cycle and giant lakes, Saturn’s large moon Titan is a surprisingly Earthlike place. But unlike on Earth, Titan’s surface is far too cold for liquid water - instead, Titan’s clouds, rain, and lakes consist of liquid hydrocarbons like methane and ethane (which exist as gases here on Earth). When these hydrocarbons evaporate and encounter ultraviolet radiation in Titan’s upper atmosphere, some of the molecules are broken apart and reassembled into longer hydrocarbons like ethylene and propane.

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft first revealed the presence of several species of atmospheric hydrocarbons when it flew by Titan in 1980, but one molecule was curiously missing - propylene, the main ingredient in plastic number 5. Now, thanks to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, scientists have detected propylene on Titan for the first time, solving a long-standing mystery about the solar system’s most Earthlike moon.

NASA PlanetaryScientist Conor Nixon explains his discovery of propylene on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Scientists have known about the presence of atmospheric hydrocarbons on Titan since Voyager 1 flew by in 1980, but one molecule, propylene, was curiously missing. Now, thanks to new data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, propylene has been detected for the first time on Titan.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

As Seen by STEREO-A: The Carrington-Class CME of 2012

STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) is a solar observation mission, it consists of two space-based observatories - one ahead of Earth in its orbit (STEREO-A), the other trailing behind (STEREO-B). The two nearly identical spacecraft were launched in 2006 into orbits around the Sun that cause them to respectively pull farther ahead of and fall gradually behind the Earth. This enables stereoscopic imaging of the Sun and solar phenomena, such as coronal mass ejections.

STEREO-A, at a position along Earth’s orbit where it has an unobstructed view of the far side of the Sun, could clearly observe possibly the most powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) of solar cyle 24 on July 23, 2012. The flare erupted in the lower right quadrant of the solar disk from a large active region. The material launched into space in a direction towards STEREO-A. This created the ring-like ‘halo’ CME visible in the STEREO-A coronagraph, COR-2 (blue circular image). As the CME expanded beyond the field of view of the COR-2 imager, the high energy particles reached STEREO-A, and caused the snow-like noise in the image. Researchers have been analyzing the data ever since, and they have concluded that the storm was one of the strongest in recorded history. It might have been stronger than the Carrington Event itself.

The solar storm of 1859, also known as the Carrington Event, was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm in 1859 during solar cycle 10. A solar flare or coronal mass ejection hit Earth’s magnetosphere and induced the largest known solar storm, which was observed and recorded by Richard C. Carrington. The intense geomagnetic storm caused global telegraph lines to spark, setting fire to some telegraph offices and disabling the ‘Victorian Internet.” A similar storm today could have a catastrophic effect on modern power grids and telecommunication networks.

Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Animations of Saturn’s aurorae

Earth isn’t the only planet in the solar system with spectacular light shows. Both Jupiter and Saturn have magnetic fields much stronger than Earth’s. Auroras also have been observed on the surfaces of Venus, Mars and even on moons (e.g. Io, Europa, and Ganymede). The auroras on Saturn are created when solar wind particles are channeled into the planet’s magnetic field toward its poles, where they interact with electrically charged gas (plasma) in the upper atmosphere and emit light. Aurora features on Saturn can also be caused by electromagnetic waves generated when its moons move through the plasma that fills the planet’s magnetosphere.  The main source is the small moon Enceladus, which ejects water vapor from the geysers on its south pole, a portion of which is ionized. The interaction between Saturn’s magnetosphere and the solar wind generates bright oval aurorae around the planet’s poles observed in visible, infrared and ultraviolet light. The aurorae of Saturn are highly variable. Their location and brightness strongly depends on the Solar wind pressure: the aurorae become brighter and move closer to the poles when the Solar wind pressure increases.

Credit: ESA/Hubble (M. Kornmesser & L. Calçada)

Stereoscopic View of the Lunar Surface

Apollo 11 carried a number of cameras for collecting data and recording various aspects of the mission, including a 35-mm surface close-up stereoscopic camera. It was designed for the highest possible resolution of a 3-inch square area with a flash illumination and fixed distance. Photography was accomplished by holding the camera on a walking stick against the object to be photographed. The camera was powered by four nickel-cadmium batteries that operated the motor-drive mechanism and an electronic flash strobe light.

There are many details seen in these pictures that were not known previously or that could not be seen with similar definition by astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin in their careful inspection of the lunar surface. The photographs taken on the mission with the close-up stereoscopic camera are of outstanding quality and show in detail the nature of the lunar surface material. From the photographs, information can be derived about the small-scale lunar surface geologic features and about processes occurring on the surface.

Image Credit: John Lloyd/NASA

July 20, 1969: One Giant Leap For Mankind

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin descending the ladder and stepping onto the Moon.  Neil Armstrong's “one small step” onto the lunar surface was actually a 3-foot jump down off the lunar module’s ladder to the ground.

Credit: NASA

July 20, 1969: One Giant Leap For Mankind

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin descending the ladder and stepping onto the Moon.  Neil Armstrong's “one small step” onto the lunar surface was actually a 3-foot jump down off the lunar module’s ladder to the ground.

Credit: NASA

Fundamental Studies in Droplet Combustion and FLame EXtinguishment in Microgravity (FLEX-2)

The Flame Extinguishment - 2 (FLEX-2) experiment is the second experiment to fly on the ISS which uses small droplets of fuel to study the special spherical characteristics of burning fuel droplets in space. The FLEX-2 experiment studies how quickly fuel burns, the conditions required for soot to form, and how mixtures of fuels evaporate before burning. Understanding how fuels burn in microgravity could improve the efficiency of fuel mixtures used for interplanetary missions by reducing cost and weight. It could also lead to improved safety measures for manned spacecraft.

  • More information: here

Credit: Reid Wiseman/NASA

(Source: youtube.com)

Titan’s Atmosphere

Titan is the largest moon of Saturn. It is the only natural satellite known to have a dense atmosphere, and the only object other than Earth for which clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found

Titan is primarily composed of water ice and rocky material. Much as with Venus prior to the Space Age, the dense, opaque atmosphere prevented understanding of Titan’s surface until new information accumulated with the arrival of the Cassini–Huygens mission in 2004, including the discovery of liquid hydrocarbon lakes in Titan’s polar regions.

The atmosphere is largely nitrogen; minor components lead to the formation of methane and ethane clouds and nitrogen-rich organic smog. Titan’s lower gravity means that its atmosphere is far more extended than Earth’s and about 1.19 times as massive. It supports opaque haze layers that block most visible light from the Sun and other sources and renders Titan’s surface features obscure. Atmospheric methane creates a greenhouse effect on Titan’s surface, without which Titan would be far colder. Conversely, haze in Titan’s atmosphere contributes to an anti-greenhouse effect by reflecting sunlight back into space, cancelling a portion of the greenhouse effect warming and making its surface significantly colder than its upper atmosphere.

Titan’s clouds, probably composed of methane, ethane or other simple organics, are scattered and variable, punctuating the overall haze.The findings of the Huygens probe indicate that Titan’s atmosphere periodically rains liquid methane and other organic compounds onto its surface. Clouds typically cover 1% of Titan’s disk, though outburst events have been observed in which the cloud cover rapidly expands to as much as 8%. One hypothesis asserts that the southern clouds are formed when heightened levels of sunlight during the southern summer generate uplift in the atmosphere, resulting in convection. This explanation is complicated by the fact that cloud formation has been observed not only after the southern summer solstice but also during mid-spring.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s Rings and Enceladus

Saturn’s most distinctive feature is the thousands of rings that orbit the planet. Despite the fact that the rings look like continuous hoops of matter encircling the giant planet, each ring is actually made of tiny individual particles. Saturn’s rings consist largely of water ice mixed with smaller amounts of dust and rocky matter. Data from the Cassini spacecraft indicate that the environment around the rings is like an atmosphere, composed principally of molecular oxygen.

The ring system is divided into 5 major components: the G, F, A, B, and C rings, listed from outside to inside (but in reality, these major divisions are subdivided into thousands of individual ringlets). The F and G rings are thin and difficult to see, while the A, B, and C rings are broad and easily visible. The large gap between the A ring and and the B ring is called the Cassini division. One of Saturn’s moons, namely; Enceladus is the source of Saturn’s E-ring. The moon’s geyser-like jets create a gigantic halo of ice, dust, and gas that helps feed Saturn’s E ring.

Enceladus has a profound effect on Saturn and its environment. It’s the only moon in our solar system known to substantially influence the chemical composition of its parent planet. The whole magnetic environment of Saturn is weighed down by the material spewing from Enceladus, which becomes plasma — a gas of electrically charged particles.  This plasma, which creates a donut-shaped cloud around Saturn, is then snatched by Saturn’s A-ring, which acts like a giant sponge where the plasma is absorbed. 

Credit: , NASA/JPL/SSI

The Saturn V rocket launches Apollo 11 on its historic journey to the Moon on 16 July, 1969.

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) from Mark Gray on Vimeo.

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) from Mark Gray on Vimeo.

The Cassini spacecraft’s narrow angle camera captured Saturn’s moon Rhea as it gradually slipped into the planet’s shadow – an event known as “ingress”. 
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft’s narrow angle camera captured Saturn’s moon Rhea as it gradually slipped into the planet’s shadow – an event known as “ingress”.

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Wolf-Rayet Star 124: Stellar Wind Machine

Resembling an aerial fireworks explosion, this dramatic picture of the energetic star WR124 reveals it is surrounded by hot clumps of gas being ejected into space at speeds of over 100,000 miles per hour. Also remarkable are vast arcs of glowing gas around the star, which are resolved into filamentary, chaotic substructures, yet with no overall global shell structure.
The massive, hot central star is known as a Wolf-Rayet star. This extremely rare and short-lived class of super-hot star (in this case 50,000 degrees Kelvin) is going through a violent, transitional phase characterized by the fierce ejection of mass. The blobs may result from the furious stellar wind that does not flow smoothly into space but has instabilities which make it clumpy.The surrounding nebula is estimated to be no older than 10,000 years, which means that it is so young it has not yet slammed into the gasses comprising the surrounding interstellar medium.

Image Credit:  Hubble Legacy Archive, NASA, ESA - Processing & Licence: Judy Schmidt

Wolf-Rayet Star 124: Stellar Wind Machine

Resembling an aerial fireworks explosion, this dramatic picture of the energetic star WR124 reveals it is surrounded by hot clumps of gas being ejected into space at speeds of over 100,000 miles per hour. Also remarkable are vast arcs of glowing gas around the star, which are resolved into filamentary, chaotic substructures, yet with no overall global shell structure.

The massive, hot central star is known as a Wolf-Rayet star. This extremely rare and short-lived class of super-hot star (in this case 50,000 degrees Kelvin) is going through a violent, transitional phase characterized by the fierce ejection of mass. The blobs may result from the furious stellar wind that does not flow smoothly into space but has instabilities which make it clumpy.The surrounding nebula is estimated to be no older than 10,000 years, which means that it is so young it has not yet slammed into the gasses comprising the surrounding interstellar medium.

Image Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, NASA, ESA - Processing & Licence: Judy Schmidt

Extreme Ultraviolet Images of the Sun

Explanation of the colors used for SOHO extreme ultraviolet images of the Sun (that is, at wavelengths much shorter than “normal” ultraviolet wavelengths). Such radiation is also sometimes referred to as “soft” X-rays, since the boundary between X-rays and UV is rather arbitrarily set at about 100 Ångstroms.
All the images shown above were taken at wavelengths ten times shorter than the shortest visible wavelengths, imaging photons with ten times more energy than the most energetic visible photons. Since in the visible spectrum, shorter wavelengths correspond to blue and green light, and longer wavelengths to yellow, orange and red light, the shorter wavelength images are arbitrarily colored blue or green, and the longer wavelength images are colored amber or red.
The atoms (or, more accurately, since the atoms are missing one or more electrons, the ions) responsible for the wavelengths involved are indicated by Roman numerals which are one unit greater than the number of missing electrons. Hence, He II means helium ions which are missing one electron, and Fe XV means iron atoms which are missing fourteen electrons. The He II image looks different from the others, because it shows radiation from moderately hot helium atoms in the chromosphere; while the highly ionized iron atoms responsible for the other emissions are located in the lower corona.

Credit: SOHO - EIT Consortium, ESA, NASA, Courtney Seligman

Extreme Ultraviolet Images of the Sun

Explanation of the colors used for SOHO extreme ultraviolet images of the Sun (that is, at wavelengths much shorter than “normal” ultraviolet wavelengths). Such radiation is also sometimes referred to as “soft” X-rays, since the boundary between X-rays and UV is rather arbitrarily set at about 100 Ångstroms.

All the images shown above were taken at wavelengths ten times shorter than the shortest visible wavelengths, imaging photons with ten times more energy than the most energetic visible photons. Since in the visible spectrum, shorter wavelengths correspond to blue and green light, and longer wavelengths to yellow, orange and red light, the shorter wavelength images are arbitrarily colored blue or green, and the longer wavelength images are colored amber or red.

The atoms (or, more accurately, since the atoms are missing one or more electrons, the ions) responsible for the wavelengths involved are indicated by Roman numerals which are one unit greater than the number of missing electrons. Hence, He II means helium ions which are missing one electron, and Fe XV means iron atoms which are missing fourteen electrons. The He II image looks different from the others, because it shows radiation from moderately hot helium atoms in the chromosphere; while the highly ionized iron atoms responsible for the other emissions are located in the lower corona.

Credit: SOHO - EIT Consortium, ESA, NASA, Courtney Seligman

Cassini Celebrates 10 Years Exploring Saturn

It has been a decade since a robotic traveler from Earth first soared over rings of ice and fired its engine to fall forever into the embrace of Saturn. On June 30, the Cassini mission will celebrate 10 years of exploring the planet, its rings and moons.

  • More information about Cassini is available here & here

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech