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.”

February asteroids: A hit and a miss!

NASA Statement, 2/15/2013

New information provided by a worldwide network of sensors has allowed scientists to refine their estimates for the size of the object that entered that atmosphere and disintegrated in the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia, at 7:20:26 p.m. PST, or 10:20:26 p.m. EST on Feb. 14 (3:20:26 UTC on Feb. 15).

The estimated size of the object, prior to entering Earth’s atmosphere, has been revised upward from 49 feet (15 meters) to 55 feet (17 meters), and its estimated mass has increased from 7,000 to 10,000 tons. Also, the estimate for energy released during the event has increased by 30 kilotons to nearly 500 kilotons of energy released. These new estimates were generated using new data that had been collected by five additional infrasound stations located around the world – the first recording of the event being in Alaska, over 6,500 kilometers away from Chelyabinsk. The infrasound data indicates that the event, from atmospheric entry to the meteor’s airborne disintegration took 32.5 seconds. The calculations using the infrasound data were performed by Peter Brown at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

“We would expect an event of this magnitude to occur once every 100 years on average,” said Paul Chodas of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “When you have a fireball of this size we would expect a large number of meteorites to reach the surface and in this case there were probably some large ones.”

The trajectory of the Russia meteor was significantly different than the trajectory of the asteroid 2012 DA14, which hours later made its flyby of Earth, making it a completely unrelated object. The Russia meteor is the largest reported since 1908, when a meteor hit Tunguska, Siberia.


Asteroid is just passin’ through

Tuesday, Nov. 8 at about 6:28 PM, a space rock a little over 1,300 feet in diameter will pass within about 202,000 miles of Earth. It will not hit our home planet nor will it have any other effect on us; it’s just passin’ through. Designated 2005 YU55, it is a potentially hazardous asteroid because of its size and near-Earth orbit. It was discovered on December 28, 2005 by Robert S. McMillan at Steward Observatory, Kitt Peak, Ariz.

Spotting chart for asteroid 2005 YU55 in November 2011. WikiPedia
Spotting chart for asteroid 2005 YU55 in November 2011. Source: Wikipedia

The main reason the flyby is known to the public is that this large asteroid will be closer to us than is our own Moon and that’s a neat science headline. When good-sized asteroids come close to Earth, news of the event has different effects in different quarters.

Amongst astronomers asteroid fly-bys offer an excellent opportunity to study small “worlds” usually too far away to see clearly with telescopes. NASA and other agencies are already scanning the space rock with high-powered radar systems in an effort to learn more about the object. The data can be used to learn something about the texture and composition of the object and a bit about its history. The asteroid’s orbit will also be highly refined through tracking by observers from around the world allowing improved prediction of its future movements.

Amongst conspiracy and doomsday fanatics, the close passage is another opportunity to spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) through pseudoscience and false prophesy. The Web is abuzz with gloom, doom, and gobs of misinformation already. What will they be saying Wednesday morning after 2005 YU55 has floated clean by Earth and left us unscathed? Those folks do have rich imaginations.

Here are some facts about our visitor from space and asteroids in general:

  • The word asteroid literally means “star-like object.”
  • Asteroids come in sizes ranging from small stones to a body about 3,300 feet in diameter: Ceres, the largest known object of that type.
  • The last time a space rock as large as 2005 YU55 came as close to Earth was in 1976, although astronomers did not know about the flyby at the time. The next known approach of an asteroid this size will be in 2028.
  • Asteroid 2005 YU55 will pass through the constellations Aquila and Pegasus glowing like an 11th magnitude star (very dim) when closest, not visible to the unaided eye. You’d need a good-sized telescope and clear dark skies to see the tiny star-like object.
  • This asteroid orbits the Sun, roughly as close as Venus to as far away as Mars. Along the way it crosses Earth’s orbital path, one factor that makes it potentially hazardous.
  • Large asteroids pass closer to Earth than the Moon about every five years; smaller ones pass close more frequently and often enter Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Asteroids nearly the size of a house collide with Earth about once a year with no harmful effects to us — they ordinarily explode in the upper atmosphere and the fragments burn up.
  • Though a good-sized ball of rock, 2005 YU55 does not have enough mass to have any gravitational effect on Earth.
  • Asteroid close-encounters do not cause earthquakes, high tides, or any other geological or weather events.
  • Asteroids are cataloged, their orbits calculated, and the objects tracked regularly both for scientific study and planetary protection ends. Those data are publicly available and often incorporated into home astronomy software.
  • The approach of asteroids cannot be kept secret. They are “out there” and potentially visible to all who care to look. Any truly dangerous situation would quickly be confirmed by scientific authorities from around the world.

Asteroids are but one small part of our fascinating solar system. Enjoy the real adventure and wonder of our corner of the universe that is yours through astronomy!

Dawn: First close-up image of asteroid Vesta

Photo: Image of asteroid Vesta as recorded by the DAWN spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Asteroid Vesta as imaged by the Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has returned the first close-up image after beginning its orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta. On Friday, July 15, Dawn became the first probe to enter orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The image taken for navigation purposes shows Vesta in greater detail than ever before. When Vesta captured Dawn into its orbit, there were approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) between the spacecraft and asteroid. Engineers estimate the orbit capture took place at 10 p.m. PDT Friday, July 15 (1 a.m. EDT Saturday, July 16).

Vesta is 330 miles (530 kilometers) in diameter and the second most massive object in the asteroid belt. Ground- and space-based telescopes have obtained images of Vesta for about two centuries, but they have not been able to see much detail on its surface. “We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system,” said Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell from the University of California, Los Angeles. “This region of space has been ignored for far too long. So far, the images received to date reveal a complex surface that seems to have preserved some of the earliest events in Vesta’s history, as well as logging the onslaught that Vesta has suffered in the intervening eons.”

Vesta is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth. Vesta and its new NASA neighbor, Dawn, are currently approximately 117 million miles (188 million kilometers) away from Earth. The Dawn team will begin gathering science data in August. Observations will provide unprecedented data to help scientists understand the earliest chapter of our solar system. The data also will help pave the way for future human space missions.

After traveling nearly four years and 1.7 billion miles (2.8 billion kilometers), Dawn also accomplished the largest propulsive acceleration of any spacecraft, with a change in velocity of more than 4.2 miles per second (6.7 kilometers per second), due to its ion engines. The engines expel ions to create thrust and provide higher spacecraft speeds than any other technology currently available. “Dawn slipped gently into orbit with the same grace it has displayed during its years of ion thrusting through interplanetary space,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “It is fantastically exciting that we will begin providing humankind its first detailed views of one of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system.”

Although orbit capture is complete, the approach phase will continue for about three weeks. During approach, the Dawn team will continue a search for possible moons around the asteroid; obtain more images for navigation; observe Vesta’s physical properties; and obtain calibration data.