NASA Space Place – Partnering to Solve Saturn’s Mysteries

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in December, 2012.

By Diane K. Fisher

2013february2_spaceplaceFrom December 2010 through mid-summer 2011, a giant storm raged in Saturn‘s northern hemisphere. It was clearly visible not only to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, but also astronomers here on Earth—even those watching from their back yards. The storm came as a surprise, since it was about 10 years earlier in Saturn’s seasonal cycle than expected from observations of similar storms in the past. Saturn’s year is about 30 Earth years. Saturn is tilted on its axis (about 27° to Earth’s 23°), causing it to have seasons as Earth does.

But even more surprising than the unseasonal storm was the related event that followed.

First, a giant bubble of very warm material broke through the clouds in the region of the now-abated storm, suddenly raising the temperature of Saturn’s stratosphere over 150 °F. Accompanying this enormous “burp” was a sudden increase in ethylene gas. It took Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer instrument to detect it.

According to Dr. Scott Edgington, Deputy Project Scientist for Cassini, “Ethylene [C2H4] is normally present in only very low concentrations in Saturn’s atmosphere and has been very difficult to detect. Although it is a transitional product of the thermochemical processes that normally occur in Saturn’s atmosphere, the concentrations detected concurrent with the big ‘burp’ were 100 times what we would expect.”

So what was going on?

Chemical reaction rates vary greatly with the energy available for the process. Saturn’s seasonal changes are exaggerated due to the effect of the rings acting as venetian blinds, throwing the northern hemisphere into shade during winter. So when the Sun again reaches the northern hemisphere, the photochemical reactions that take place in the atmosphere can speed up quickly. If not for its rings, Saturn’s seasons would vary as predictably as Earth’s.

But there may be another cycle going on besides the seasonal one. Computer models are based on expected reaction rates for the temperatures and pressures in Saturn’s atmosphere, explains Edgington. However, it is very difficult to validate those models here on Earth. Setting up a lab to replicate conditions on Saturn is not easy!

Also contributing to the apparent mystery is the fact that haze on Saturn often obscures the view of storms below. Only once in a while do storms punch through the hazes. Astronomers may have previously missed large storms, thus failing to notice any non-seasonal patterns.

As for atmospheric events that are visible to Earth-bound telescopes, Edgington is particularly grateful for non-professional astronomers. While these astronomers are free to watch a planet continuously over long periods and record their finding in photographs, Cassini and its several science instruments must be shared with other scientists. Observation time on Cassini is planned more than six months in advance, making it difficult to immediately train it on the unexpected. That’s where the volunteer astronomers come in, keeping a continuous watch on the changes taking place on Saturn.

Edgington says, “Astronomy is one of those fields of study where amateurs can contribute as much as professionals.”

Go to saturn.jpl.nasa.gov to read about the latest Cassini discoveries. For kids, The space Place has lots of ways to explore Saturn at spaceplace.nasa.gov/search/cassini.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Caption: This false-colored Cassini image of Saturn was taken in near-infrared light on January 12, 2011. Red and orange show clouds deep in the atmosphere. Yellow and green are intermediate clouds. White and blue are high clouds and haze. The rings appear as a thin, blue horizontal line.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/

Kopernik Winter Star Party – This Saturday, February 23rd

The Kopernik Astronomical Society is hosting its 2013 Winter Star Party this coming Saturday (Feb. 23) from 6:00 p.m. to as late as people are likely to observe from the best equipped society observatory in CNY. A few with CNYO will be there for an evening of lectures, twizzlers, and what we hope will be clear skies. Directions to Kopernik (which also hosts year-long Friday Night observing sessions from March to November) are provided below:


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Event details are reproduced below. But see the Kopernik website for all of the event information!

Winter Star Party

Featuring NASA Scientist Michelle Thaller!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

6:00 PM – Members-Only Reception (light refreshments provided)

KOSC Members are invited to attend this informal reception to meet other members, get some early views through the telescopes (weather permitting), and kick off the Winter Star Party!

6:30 PM – Doors Open to the Public

Enjoy telescope observing (if clear) or tours (if cloudy). Take a tour through part of our galaxy with GeoWall, our special 3D projection system. Kids get to make and take home their own miniature Jupiter model.

7:00 PM – Comet Preview 2013

Roy Williams, KOSC – Enjoy a short presentation about two comets heading this way and learn how to get ready to observe these rare heavenly sights. See a comet made right in front of your eyes!

7:30 PM – Mikolaj Kopernik Birthday Celebration

Polish astronomer and mathematician Mikolaj Kopernik, known in English as Nicolaus Copernicus, was born February 19, 1473. Help us celebrate his 540th birthday with cake and special Polish desserts.

8:00 PM – Things That Go Bump in the Dark

Dr. Michelle Thaller, NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center – Astronomers think that everything we see in the universe makes up less than 4% of what actually is in the universe. How could this be? Is regular matter really such a small part of the universe? Newly discovered dark matter and dark energy are seriously mysterious things, however, experts are getting better at detecting and mapping both. What they are finding out is astonishing. These dark matter maps raise questions about the entire history of the universe, including how galaxies, stars, and planets formed in the first place. Dark energy may determine the fate of all matter, dark or otherwise, that exists.

Come find out about these things that go bump in the dark!

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Click on the image for the event PDF

NASA Space Place – A Cosmic Tease: Trials Of The Herschel Space Telescope Science Teams

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in October, 2012.

By Dr. Marc J. Kuchner

2013february2_spaceplaceVast fields of marble-sized chunks of ice and rock spun slowly in the darkness this week, and I sat in the back of a grey conference room with white plastic tables spread with papers and laptops. I was sitting in on a meeting of an international team of astronomers gathered to analyze data from the Herschel Infrared Observatory. This telescope, sometimes just called Herschel, orbits the Sun about a million miles from the Earth.

The meeting began with dinner at Karl’s house. Karl charred chorizo on the backyard grill while the airplanes dribbled into Dulles airport. Our colleagues arrived, jetlagged and yawning, from Germany, Sweden, and Spain, and we sat on Karl’s couches catching up on the latest gossip. The unemployment level in Spain is about twenty percent, so research funding there is hard to come by these days. That’s not nice to hear. But it cheered us up to be with old friends.

The meeting commenced the next morning, as the vast fields of ice and rock continued to spin—shards glinting in the starlight. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t exist at all.

You see, this team is looking at a series of images of stars taken by a device called a bolometer that is blind to ordinary starlight. Instead, the bolometer inside Herschel senses infrared light, a kind of light that we would probably refer to as heat if we could feel it. But the idea of pointing the bolometer at the stars was not to collect ordinary starlight. It was to measure heat coming from the vicinity of these stars, like an infrared security camera, in case there was something else to be found lurking nearby.

And lo and behold, for a handful of stars, the bolometer measurements were off the charts! Maybe something was orbiting these stars. From the details of the bolometer readings—which channels lit up and so on—you would guess that this stuff took the form of majestic fields or rings of icy and rocky particles. It would be a new kind of disk, a discovery worth writing home to Madrid about.

There are several teams of astronomers analyzing data from the Herschel Space Telescope. They call themselves by oddly inappropriate sounding acronyms: GASPS, DUNES, DEBRIS. For the time being, the scientists on these teams are the only ones with access to the Herschel data. But in January, all the data these teams are working on will suddenly be released to the public. So they are all under pressure to finish their work by then. The team whose meeting I was sitting in on would like to publish a paper about the new disks by then.

But it’s not so simple. The stars that this team had measured were relatively nearby as stars go, less than a few hundred light years. But the universe is big, and full of galaxies of all kinds—a sea of galaxies starting from maybe a hundred thousand light years away, and stretching on and on. Maybe one of those background galaxies was lined up with each of the stars that had lit up the bolometer—fooling us into thinking they were seeing disks around these stars.

The team argued and paced, and then broke for lunch. We marched to the cafeteria through the rain. Meanwhile, vast fields of marble-sized chunks of ice and rock spun slowly in the darkness. Or maybe they didn’t.

What else did Herschel recently uncover? Find out at spaceplace.nasa.gov/comet-ocean.

Dr. Marc J. Kuchner is an astrophysicist at the Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA’s Astrophysics Division works on big questions about the origin and evolution of the universe, galaxies, and planetary systems. Explore more at www.science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/.

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Caption: Samuel Pierpoint Langley, who developed the bolometer in 1878. His instrument detects a broad range of infrared wavelengths, sensitive to differences in temperature of one hundred-thousandth of a degree Celsius (0.00001 C). In 1961, Frank Low developed the germanium bolometer, which is hundreds of times more sensitive than previous detectors and capable of detecting far-infrared radiation.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/