Water vapor detected on Ceres

Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Dwarf planet Ceres is located in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Observations by ESA’s Herschel space observatory between 2011 and 2013 find that the dwarf planet has a thin water-vapour atmosphere. It is the first unambiguous detection of water vapour around an object in the asteroid belt.
Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Scientists using the Herschel space observatory have made the first definitive detection of water vapor on the largest and roundest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres.

Plumes of water vapor are thought to shoot up periodically from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly. Ceres is classified as a dwarf planet, a solar system body bigger than an asteroid and smaller than a planet.

Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission with important NASA contributions.
“This is the first time water vapor has been unequivocally detected on Ceres or any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere,” said Michael Küppers of ESA in Spain, lead author of a paper in the journal Nature.

The results come at the right time for NASA’s Dawn mission, which is on its way to Ceres now after spending more than a year orbiting the large asteroid Vesta. Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in the spring of 2015, where it will take the closest look ever at its surface.

“We’ve got a spacecraft on the way to Ceres, so we don’t have to wait long before getting more context on this intriguing result, right from the source itself,” said Carol Raymond, the deputy principal investigator for Dawn at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “Dawn will map the geology and chemistry of the surface in high-resolution, revealing the processes that drive the outgassing activity.”

For the last century, Ceres was known as the largest asteroid in our solar system. But in 2006, the International Astronomical Union, the governing organization responsible for naming planetary objects, reclassified Ceres as a dwarf planet because of its large size. It is roughly 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter. When it first was spotted in 1801, astronomers thought it was a planet orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Later, other cosmic bodies with similar orbits were found, marking the discovery of our solar system’s main belt of asteroids.

Scientists believe Ceres contains rock in its interior with a thick mantle of ice that, if melted, would amount to more fresh water than is present on all of Earth. The materials making up Ceres likely date from the first few million years of our solar system’s existence and accumulated before the planets formed.

Until now, ice had been theorized to exist on Ceres but had not been detected conclusively. It took Herschel’s far-infrared vision to see, finally, a clear spectral signature of the water vapor. But Herschel did not see water vapor every time it looked. While the telescope spied water vapor four different times, on one occasion there was no signature.

Here is what scientists think is happening: when Ceres swings through the part of its orbit that is closer to the sun, a portion of its icy surface becomes warm enough to cause water vapor to escape in plumes at a rate of about 6 kilograms (13 pounds) per second. When Ceres is in the colder part of its orbit, no water escapes.

The strength of the signal also varied over hours, weeks and months, because of the water vapor plumes rotating in and out of Herschel’s views as the object spun on its axis. This enabled the scientists to localize the source of water to two darker spots on the surface of Ceres, previously seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes. The dark spots might be more likely to outgas because dark material warms faster than light material. When the Dawn spacecraft arrives at Ceres, it will be able to investigate these features.

The results are somewhat unexpected because comets, the icier cousins of asteroids, are known typically to sprout jets and plumes, while objects in the asteroid belt are not.
“The lines are becoming more and more blurred between comets and asteroids,” said Seungwon Lee of JPL, who helped with the water vapor models along with Paul von Allmen, also of JPL. “We knew before about main belt asteroids that show comet-like activity, but this is the first detection of water vapor in an asteroid-like object.”

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Cluster galaxies to be subject of January 13 meeting lecture

The first club meeting of the New Year will take place this coming Monday (January 13), 7:30 PM, at the Rocky River Nature Center.

As usual, our speaker’s lecture will come first at 7:30. We will welcome Dr. Chris Mihos, professor of astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, who will discuss “The Violent Lives of Cluster Galaxies.”

The business portion of the meeting will take place following the lecture and a brief intermission.

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Busy 2013 for CAA educational outreach

CAA President Bill Murmann recently reported on the club’s efforts in programming activity to the membership.

“Thanks to our members,” Murmann wrote, “we have done a great job meeting this goal in 2013. During this year, we have presented a total of 25 public programs that include:

  • 13 programs for the Cleveland MetroParks.
  • 6 programs for the Medina County Park District
  • 4 programs for the Cuyahoga County Public Library System
  • 1 program for the State of Ohio at Findley State Park
  • 1 program for the Avon Public School System

“In addition, thanks to Jay Reynolds and Suzie Dills we have made great strides this year in improving our club observatory at Letha House Park. If our plans work out, we possibly may have three working telescopes in our observatory in 2014.

“Our success has been made possible through the help of our members who have been generous in giving their time, their experience, and the use of their telescopes for our programs. Many thanks to all!”

He concluded, “Best wishes for the New Year!”

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Saturn: rings, moons, Earth, and more

Photo: Planet Saturn, backlit. On July 19, 2013, in an event celebrated the world over, NASA's Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn's shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings -- and, in the background, our home planet, Earth. With the sun's powerful and potentially damaging rays eclipsed by Saturn itself, Cassini's onboard cameras were able to take advantage of this unique viewing geometry. They acquired a panoramic mosaic of the Saturn system that allows scientists to see details in the rings and throughout the system as they are backlit by the sun. This mosaic is special as it marks the third time our home planet was imaged from the outer solar system; the second time it was imaged by Cassini from Saturn's orbit; and the first time ever that inhabitants of Earth were made aware in advance that their photo would be taken from such a great distance.  With both Cassini's wide-angle and narrow-angle cameras aimed at Saturn, Cassini was able to capture 323 images in just over four hours. This final mosaic uses 141 of those wide-angle images. Images taken using the red, green and blue spectral filters of the wide-angle camera were combined and mosaicked together to create this natural-color view. A brightened version with contrast and color enhanced (Figure 1), a version with just the planets annotated (Figure 2), and an annotated version (Figure 3) are shown above.  This image spans about 404,880 miles (651,591 kilometers) across.  The outermost ring shown here is Saturn's E ring, the core of which is situated about 149,000 miles (240,000 kilometers) from Saturn. The geysers erupting from the south polar terrain of the moon Enceladus supply the fine icy particles that comprise the E ring; diffraction by sunlight gives the ring its blue color. Enceladus (313 miles, or 504 kilometers, across) and the extended plume formed by its jets are visible, embedded in the E ring on the left side of the mosaic.  At the 12 o'clock position and a bit inward from the E ring lies the barely discernible ring created by the tiny, Cassini-discovered moon, Pallene (3 miles, or 4 kilometers, across). (For more on structures like Pallene's ring, see PIA08328). The next narrow and easily seen ring inward is the G ring. Interior to the G ring, near the 11 o'clock position, one can barely see the more diffuse ring created by the co-orbital moons, Janus (111 miles, or 179 kilometers, across) and Epimetheus (70 miles, or 113 kilometers, across). Farther inward, we see the very bright F ring closely encircling the main rings of Saturn.  Following the outermost E ring counter-clockwise from Enceladus, the moon Tethys (662 miles, or 1,066 kilometers, across) appears as a large yellow orb just outside of the E ring. Tethys is positioned on the illuminated side of Saturn; its icy surface is shining brightly from yellow sunlight reflected by Saturn. Continuing to about the 2 o'clock position is a dark pixel just outside of the G ring; this dark pixel is Saturn's Death Star moon, Mimas (246 miles, or 396 kilometers, across). Mimas appears, upon close inspection, as a very thin crescent because Cassini is looking mostly at its non-illuminated face.  The moons Prometheus, Pandora, Janus and Epimetheus are also visible in the mosaic near Saturn's bright narrow F ring. Prometheus (53 miles, or 86 kilometers, across) is visible as a faint black dot just inside the F ring and at the 9 o'clock position. On the opposite side of the rings, just outside the F ring, Pandora (50 miles, or 81 kilometers, across) can be seen as a bright white dot. Pandora and Prometheus are shepherd moons and gravitational interactions between the ring and the moons keep the F ring narrowly confined. At the 11 o'clock position in between the F ring and the G ring, Janus (111 miles, or 179 kilometers, across) appears as a faint black dot. Janus and Prometheus are dark for the same reason Mimas is mostly dark: we are looking at their non-illuminated sides in this mosaic. Midway between the F ring and the G ring, at about the 8 o'clock position, is a single bright pixel, Epimetheus. Looking more closely at Enceladus, Mimas and Tethys, especially in the brightened version of the mosaic, one can see these moons casting shadows through the E ring like a telephone pole might cast a shadow through a fog.  In the non-brightened version of the mosaic, one can see bright clumps of ring material orbiting within the Encke gap near the outer edge of the main rings and immediately to the lower left of the globe of Saturn. Also, in the dark B ring within the main rings, at the 9 o'clock position, one can see the faint outlines of two spoke features, first sighted by NASA's Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s and extensively studied by Cassini.  Finally, in the lower right of the mosaic, in between the bright blue E ring and the faint but defined G ring, is the pale blue dot of our planet, Earth. Look closely and you can see the moon protruding from the Earth's lower right. (For a higher resolution view of the Earth and moon taken during this campaign, see PIA14949.) Earth's twin, Venus, appears as a bright white dot in the upper left quadrant of the mosaic, also between the G and E rings. Mars also appears as a faint red dot embedded in the outer edge of the E ring, above and to the left of Venus.  For ease of visibility, Earth, Venus, Mars, Enceladus, Epimetheus and Pandora were all brightened by a factor of eight and a half relative to Saturn. Tethys was brightened by a factor of four. In total, 809 background stars are visible and were brightened by a factor ranging from six, for the brightest stars, to 16, for the faintest. The faint outer rings (from the G ring to the E ring) were also brightened relative to the already bright main rings by factors ranging from two to eight, with the lower-phase-angle (and therefore fainter) regions of these rings brightened the most. The brightened version of the mosaic was further brightened and contrast-enhanced all over to accommodate print applications and a wide range of computer-screen viewing conditions.  Some ring features -- such as full rings traced out by tiny moons -- do not appear in this version of the mosaic because they require extreme computer enhancement, which would adversely affect the rest of the mosaic. This version was processed for balance and beauty.  This view looks toward the unlit side of the rings from about 17 degrees below the ring plane. Cassini was approximately 746,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Saturn when the images in this mosaic were taken. Image scale on Saturn is about 45 miles (72 kilometers) per pixel.  This mosaic was made from pictures taken over a span of more than four hours while the planets, moons and stars were all moving relative to Cassini. Thus, due to spacecraft motion, these objects in the locations shown here were not in these specific places over the entire duration of the imaging campaign. Note also that Venus appears far from Earth, as does Mars, because they were on the opposite side of the sun from Earth.   Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

July 2013 Image: Backlit Saturn with Other Worlds

On July 19, 2013 NASA’s Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn’s shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings — and, in the background, our home planet, Earth. Wait, there’s more!

With the sun’s powerful and potentially damaging rays eclipsed by Saturn itself, Cassini’s onboard cameras were able to take advantage of this unique viewing geometry. They acquired a panoramic mosaic of the Saturn system that allows scientists to see details in the rings and throughout the system as they are backlit by the sun. This mosaic is special as it marks the third time our home planet was imaged from the outer solar system; the second time it was imaged by Cassini from Saturn’s orbit; and the first time ever that inhabitants of Earth were made aware in advance that their photo would be taken from such a great distance.

With both Cassini’s wide-angle and narrow-angle cameras aimed at Saturn, Cassini was able to capture 323 images in just over four hours. This final mosaic uses 141 of those wide-angle images. Images taken using the red, green and blue spectral filters of the wide-angle camera were combined and mosaicked together to create this natural-color view. An annotated version is shown here:

Photo: Backlit Saturn, with labels. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Labeled Version of Backlit Image of Saturn. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

This image spans about 404,880 miles (651,591 kilometers) across.

The outermost ring shown here is Saturn’s E ring, the core of which is situated about 149,000 miles (240,000 kilometers) from Saturn. The geysers erupting from the south polar terrain of the moon Enceladus supply the fine icy particles that comprise the E ring; diffraction by sunlight gives the ring its blue color. Enceladus (313 miles, or 504 kilometers, across) and the extended plume formed by its jets are visible, embedded in the E ring on the left side of the mosaic.

At the 12 o’clock position and a bit inward from the E ring lies the barely discernible ring created by the tiny, Cassini-discovered moon, Pallene (3 miles, or 4 kilometers, across). The next narrow and easily seen ring inward is the G ring. Interior to the G ring, near the 11 o’clock position, one can barely see the more diffuse ring created by the co-orbital moons, Janus (111 miles, or 179 kilometers, across) and Epimetheus (70 miles, or 113 kilometers, across). Farther inward, we see the very bright F ring closely encircling the main rings of Saturn.

Following the outermost E ring counter-clockwise from Enceladus, the moon Tethys (662 miles, or 1,066 kilometers, across) appears as a large yellow orb just outside of the E ring. Tethys is positioned on the illuminated side of Saturn; its icy surface is shining brightly from yellow sunlight reflected by Saturn. Continuing to about the 2 o’clock position is a dark pixel just outside of the G ring; this dark pixel is Saturn’s Death Star moon, Mimas (246 miles, or 396 kilometers, across). Mimas appears, upon close inspection, as a very thin crescent because Cassini is looking mostly at its non-illuminated face.

The moons Prometheus, Pandora, Janus and Epimetheus are also visible in the mosaic near Saturn’s bright narrow F ring. Prometheus (53 miles, or 86 kilometers, across) is visible as a faint black dot just inside the F ring and at the 9 o’clock position. On the opposite side of the rings, just outside the F ring, Pandora (50 miles, or 81 kilometers, across) can be seen as a bright white dot. Pandora and Prometheus are shepherd moons and gravitational interactions between the ring and the moons keep the F ring narrowly confined. At the 11 o’clock position in between the F ring and the G ring, Janus (111 miles, or 179 kilometers, across) appears as a faint black dot. Janus and Prometheus are dark for the same reason Mimas is mostly dark: we are looking at their non-illuminated sides in this mosaic. Midway between the F ring and the G ring, at about the 8 o’clock position, is a single bright pixel, Epimetheus. Looking more closely at Enceladus, Mimas and Tethys, especially in the brightened version of the mosaic, one can see these moons casting shadows through the E ring like a telephone pole might cast a shadow through a fog.

In the non-brightened version of the mosaic, one can see bright clumps of ring material orbiting within the Encke gap near the outer edge of the main rings and immediately to the lower left of the globe of Saturn. Also, in the dark B ring within the main rings, at the 9 o’clock position, one can see the faint outlines of two spoke features, first sighted by NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s and extensively studied by Cassini.

Finally, in the lower right of the mosaic, in between the bright blue E ring and the faint but defined G ring, is the pale blue dot of our planet, Earth. Look closely and you can see the moon protruding from the Earth’s lower right. Earth’s twin, Venus, appears as a bright white dot in the upper left quadrant of the mosaic, also between the G and E rings. Mars also appears as a faint red dot embedded in the outer edge of the E ring, above and to the left of Venus.

For ease of visibility, Earth, Venus, Mars, Enceladus, Epimetheus and Pandora were all brightened by a factor of eight and a half relative to Saturn. Tethys was brightened by a factor of four. In total, 809 background stars are visible and were brightened by a factor ranging from six, for the brightest stars, to 16, for the faintest. The faint outer rings (from the G ring to the E ring) were also brightened relative to the already bright main rings by factors ranging from two to eight, with the lower-phase-angle (and therefore fainter) regions of these rings brightened the most. The brightened version of the mosaic was further brightened and contrast-enhanced all over to accommodate print applications and a wide range of computer-screen viewing conditions.

Some ring features — such as full rings traced out by tiny moons — do not appear in this version of the mosaic because they require extreme computer enhancement, which would adversely affect the rest of the mosaic. This version was processed for balance and beauty.

This view looks toward the unlit side of the rings from about 17 degrees below the ring plane. Cassini was approximately 746,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Saturn when the images in this mosaic were taken. Image scale on Saturn is about 45 miles (72 kilometers) per pixel.

This mosaic was made from pictures taken over a span of more than four hours while the planets, moons and stars were all moving relative to Cassini. Thus, due to spacecraft motion, these objects in the locations shown here were not in these specific places over the entire duration of the imaging campaign. Note also that Venus appears far from Earth, as does Mars, because they were on the opposite side of the sun from Earth.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

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Crucial data gained from Chelyabinsk meteor fall

News from NASA….

A team of NASA and international scientists for the first time have gathered a detailed understanding of the effects on Earth from a small asteroid impact.

The unprecedented data obtained as the result of the airburst of a meteoroid over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on Feb. 15, has revolutionized scientists’ understanding of this natural phenomenon.

The Chelyabinsk incident was well observed by citizen cameras and other assets. This factor provided a unique opportunity for researchers to calibrate the event, with implications for the study of near-Earth objects (NEOs) and the development of hazard mitigation strategies for planetary defense. Scientists from nine countries now have established a new benchmark for future asteroid impact modeling.

“Our goal was to understand all circumstances that resulted in the shock wave,” said meteor expert Peter Jenniskens, co-lead author of a report published in the journal Science.

Jenniskens, a meteor astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute, participated in a field study led by Olga Popova of the Institute for Dynamics of Geospheres of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow in the weeks following the event.

“It was important that we followed up with the many citizens who had firsthand accounts of the event and recorded incredible video while the experience was still fresh in their minds,” said Popova.

By calibrating the video images from the position of the stars in the night sky, Jenniskens and Popova calculated the impact speed of the meteor at 42,500 mph (19 kilometers per second). As the meteor penetrated through the atmosphere, it fragmented into pieces, peaking at 19 miles (30 kilometers) above the surface. At that point the superheated meteor appeared brighter than the sun, even for people 62 miles (100 kilometers) away.

Because of the extreme heat, many pieces of the meteor vaporized before reaching Earth. Scientists believe that between 9,000 to 13,000 pounds (4,000 to 6,000 kilograms) of meteorites fell to the ground. This amount included one fragment weighing approximately 1,400 pounds (650 kilograms). This fragment was recovered from Lake Chebarkul on Oct. 16 by professional divers guided by Ural Federal University researchers in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

NASA researchers participating in the 59-member consortium study suspect the abundance of shock fractures in the rock contributed its breakup in the upper atmosphere. Meteorites made available by Chelyabinsk State University researchers were analyzed to learn about the origin of the shock veins and their physical properties. Shock veins are caused by asteroid collisions. When asteroid collide with each other, heat generated by the impact causes iron and nickel components of the objects to melt. These melts cool into thin masses, forming metal veins – shock veins – in the objects.

“One of these meteorites broke along one of these shock veins when we pressed on it during our analysis,” said Derek Sears, a meteoriticist at Ames.

Mike Zolensky, a cosmochemist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, may have found why these shock veins (or shock fractures), were so frail. They contained layers of small iron grains just inside the vein, which had precipitated out of the glassy material when it cooled.

“There are cases where impact melt increases a meteorite’s mechanical strength, but Chelyabinsk was weakened by it,” said Zolensky.

The impact that created the shock veins may have occurred as long ago as 4.4 billion years. This would have been 115 million years after the formation of the solar system, according to the research team, who found the meteorites had experienced a significant impact event at that time.

“Events that long ago affected how the Chelyabinsk meteoroid broke up in the atmosphere, influencing the damaging shockwave,” said Jenniskens.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program sponsors research to better understand the origin and nature of NEOs. These essential studies are needed to inform our approach to preparing for the potential discovery and deflection of an object on a collision course with the Earth.

NASA’s recently announced asteroid initiative includes the first mission to capture and relocate an asteroid, as well as a grand challenge to find and characterize all asteroid threats to human population. It represents an unprecedented technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and technological capabilities that will help protect our home planet.

Aside from representing a potential threat, the study of asteroids and comets represent a valuable opportunity to learn more about the origins of our solar system, the source of water on the Earth, and even the origin of organic molecules that lead to the development of life.

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Astounding view from Medina

Photo: Herbig-Haro Region of Pelican Nebula. Image by Joe Golias, all rights reserved.

Herbig-Haro 555 by Joe Golias

Joe Golias is a long-time member of the CAA and owner of Astrozap, maker of telescope dew shields and other accessories. Golias is also an accomplished astro-imager who has shared with us many beautiful pictures of galaxies, star clusters, and nebulas. His most recent image is quite astounding in its detail, beauty, and technique: an area if the “Pelican Nebula” (IC5070) called the Herbig-Haro 555. Here’s Golias’ description of his imaging process:

“I wanted to share one of my first attempts at narrowband imaging.  My target was an area found in the Pelican Nebula IC5070 called the Herbig-Haro 555 region.

Image details:

  • Telescope: Takahashi TOA 150 working at F/7
  • Camera: SBIG STT 8300 Pro
  • Guiding: Custom Zapahashi guide scope with SBIG ST4
  • Mount: Losmandy G11
  • Total exposure: 15 hours, three nights through HA, OIII, SII filters. 20 minute subs each channel.
  • Location: Granger Township, Medina, Ohio.
  • Sky conditions: Waxing Gibbous Moon

This was my first attempt to do any type of “real” imaging from my backyard.” Golias usually images from a personal dark-sky site in Central Ohio.

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Not viewable from Earth

Photo: Image of Saturn from above a polar region.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

Saturn from Above

High Above Saturn: This portrait, looking down on Saturn and its rings, was created from images obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10, 2013. It is a view we can never see from Earth. The picture was made by amateur image processor and Cassini fan Gordan Ugarkovic. This image has not been geometrically corrected for shifts in the spacecraft perspective and still has some camera artifacts.The mosaic was created from 12 image footprints with red, blue and green filters from Cassini’s imaging science subsystem. Ugarkovic used full color sets for 11 of the footprints and red and blue images for one footprint.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

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