Tag Archives: Ethan Siegel

NASA Space Place – NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) To Monitor Earth As Never Before

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 April, 2017.

By Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceLater this year, an ambitious new Earth-monitoring satellite will launch into a polar orbit around our planet. The new satellite—called JPSS-1—is a collaboration between NASA and NOAA. It is part of a mission called the Joint Polar Satellite System, or JPSS.

At a destination altitude of only 824 km, it will complete an orbit around Earth in just 101 minutes, collecting extraordinarily high-resolution imagery of our surface, oceans and atmosphere. It will obtain full-planet coverage every 12 hours using five separate, independent instruments. This approach enables near-continuous monitoring of a huge variety of weather and climate phenomena.

JPSS-1 will improve the prediction of severe weather events and will help advance early warning systems. It will also be indispensable for long-term climate monitoring, as it will track global rainfall, drought conditions and ocean properties. 

The five independent instruments on board are the main assets of this mission:

* The Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS) will detail the atmosphere’s 3D structure, measuring water vapor and temperature in over 1,000 infrared spectral channels. It will enable accurate weather forecasting up to seven days in advance of any major weather events.

* The Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) adds 22 microwave channels to CrIS’s measurements, improving temperature and moisture readings.

* Taking visible and infrared images of Earth’s surface at 750 meter resolution, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument will enable monitoring of weather patterns, fires, sea temperatures, light pollution, and ocean color observations at unprecedented resolutions.

* The Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS) will measure how ozone concentration varies with altitude and in time over every location on Earth’s surface. This can help us understand how UV light penetrates the various layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

* The Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant System (CERES) instrument will quantify the effect of clouds on Earth’s energy balance, measuring solar reflectance and Earth’s radiance. It will greatly reduce one of the largest sources of uncertainty in climate modeling.

The information from this satellite will be important for emergency responders, airline pilots, cargo ships, farmers and coastal residents, and many others. Long and short term weather monitoring will be greatly enhanced by JPSS-1 and the rest of the upcoming satellites in the JPSS system.

Want to teach kids about polar and geostationary orbits? Go to the NASA Space Place: spaceplace.nasa.gov/geo-orbits/

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

Caption: Ball and Raytheon technicians integrate the VIIRS Optical and Electrical Modules onto the JPSS-1 spacecraft in 2015. The spacecraft will be ready for launch later this year. Image Credit: Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.

About NASA Space Place

With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov (facebook|twitter) to explore space and Earth science!

NASA Space Place – One Incredible Galaxy Cluster Yields Two Types Of Gravitational Lenses

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 September, 2016.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceThere is this great idea that if you look hard enough and long enough at any region of space, your line of sight will eventually run into a luminous object: a star, a galaxy or a cluster of galaxies. In reality, the universe is finite in age, so this isn’t quite the case. There are objects that emit light from the past 13.7 billion years—99 percent of the age of the universe—but none before that. Even in theory, there are no stars or galaxies to see beyond that time, as light is limited by the amount of time it has to travel. But with the advent of large, powerful space telescopes that can collect data for the equivalent of millions of seconds of observing time, in both visible light and infrared wavelengths, we can see nearly to the edge of all that’s accessible to us.

The most massive compact, bound structures in the universe are galaxy clusters that are hundreds or even thousands of times the mass of the Milky Way. One of them, Abell S1063, was the target of a recent set of Hubble Space Telescope observations as part of the Frontier Fields program. While the Advanced Camera for Surveys instrument imaged the cluster, another instrument, the Wide Field Camera 3, used an optical trick to image a parallel field, offset by just a few arc minutes. Then the technique was reversed, giving us an unprecedentedly deep view of two closely aligned fields simultaneously, with wavelengths ranging from 435 to 1600 nanometers.

With a huge, towering galaxy cluster in one field and no comparably massive objects in the other, the effects of both weak and strong gravitational lensing are readily apparent. The galaxy cluster—over 100 trillion times the mass of our sun—warps the fabric of space. This causes background light to bend around it, converging on our eyes another four billion light years away. From behind the cluster, the light from distant galaxies is stretched, magnified, distorted, and bent into arcs and multiple images: a classic example of strong gravitational lensing. But in a subtler fashion, the less optimally aligned galaxies are distorted as well; they are stretched into elliptical shapes along concentric circles surrounding the cluster.

A visual inspection yields more of these tangential alignments than radial ones in the cluster field, while the parallel field exhibits no such shape distortion. This effect, known as weak gravitational lensing, is a very powerful technique for obtaining galaxy cluster masses independent of any other conditions. In this serendipitous image, both types of lensing can be discerned by the naked eye. When the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018, gravitational lensing may well empower us to see all the way back to the very first stars and galaxies.

If you’re interested in teaching kids about how these large telescopes “see,” be sure to see our article on this topic at the NASA Space Place: spaceplace.nasa.gov/telescope-mirrors/en/

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: Galaxy cluster Abell S1063 (left) as imaged with the Hubble Space Telescope as part of the Frontier Fields program. The distorted images of the background galaxies are a consequence of the warped space dues to Einstein’s general relativity; the parallel field (right) shows no such effects. Image credit: NASA, ESA and Jennifer Lotz (STScI)

About NASA Space Place

With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov (facebook|twitter) to explore space and Earth science!

NASA Space Place – Our Solar System Is Almost Normal, But Not Quite

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 November, 2015.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceIt was just over 20 years ago that the very first exoplanet was found and confirmed to be orbiting a star not so different from our own sun. Fast forward to the present day, and the stellar wobble method, wherein the gravitational tug of a planet perturbs a star’s motion, has been surpassed in success by the transit method, wherein a planet transits across the disk of its parent star, blocking a portion of its light in a periodic fashion. Thanks to these methods and NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, we’ve identified many thousands of candidate planets, with nearly 2,000 of them having been confirmed, and their masses and densities measured.

The gas giants found in our solar system actually turn out to be remarkably typical: Jupiter-mass planets are very common, with less-massive and more-massive giants both extremely common. Saturn—the least dense world in our solar system—is actually of a fairly typical density for a gas giant world. It turns out that there are many planets out there with Saturn’s density or less. The rocky worlds are a little harder to quantify, because our methods and missions are much better at finding higher-mass planets than low-mass ones. Nevertheless, the lowest mass planets found are comparable to Earth and Venus, and range from just as dense to slightly less dense. We also find that we fall right into the middle of the “bell curve” for how old planetary systems are: we’re definitely typical in that regard.

But there are a few big surprises, which is to say there are three major ways our solar system is an outlier among the planets we’ve observed:

• All our solar system’s planets are significantly farther out than the average distance for exoplanets around their stars. More than half of the planets we’ve discovered are closer to their star than Mercury is to ours, which might be a selection effect (closer planets are easier to find), but it might indicate a way our star is unusual: being devoid of very close-in planets.

• All eight of our solar system’s planets’ orbits are highly circular, with even the eccentric Mars and Mercury only having a few percent deviation from a perfect circle. But most exoplanets have significant eccentricities, which could indicate something unusual about us.

• And finally, one of the most common classes of exoplanet—a super-Earth or mini-Neptune, with 1.5-to-10 times the mass of Earth—is completely missing from our solar system.

Until we develop the technology to probe for lower-mass planets at even greater distances around other star systems, we won’t truly know for certain how unusual we really are!

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: NASA / Kepler Dan Fabricky (L), of a selection of the known Kepler exoplanets; Rebecca G. Martin and Mario Livio (2015) ApJ 810, 105 (R), of 287 confirmed exoplanets relative to our eight solar system planets.

About NASA Space Place

With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov (facebook|twitter) to explore space and Earth science!