Tag Archives: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA Space Place – The Fizzy Seas of Titan

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 May, 2017.

By Marcus Woo

2013february2_spaceplaceWith clouds, rain, seas, lakes and a nitrogen-filled atmosphere, Saturn’s moon Titan appears to be one of the worlds most similar to Earth in the solar system. But it’s still alien; its seas and lakes are full not of water but liquid methane and ethane.

At the temperatures and pressures found on Titan’s surface, methane can evaporate and fall back down as rain, just like water on Earth. The methane rain flows into rivers and channels, filling lakes and seas.

Nitrogen makes up a larger portion of the atmosphere on Titan than on Earth. The gas also dissolves in methane, just like carbon dioxide in soda. And similar to when you shake an open soda bottle, disturbing a Titan lake can make the nitrogen bubble out.

But now it turns out the seas and lakes might be fizzier than previously thought. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently experimented with dissolved nitrogen in mixtures of liquid methane and ethane under a variety of temperatures and pressures that would exist on Titan. They measured how different conditions would trigger nitrogen bubbles. A fizzy lake, they found, would be a common sight.

On Titan, the liquid methane always contains dissolved nitrogen. So when it rains, a methane-nitrogen solution pours into the seas and lakes, either directly from rain or via stream runoff. But if the lake also contains some ethane—which doesn’t dissolve nitrogen as well as methane does—mixing the liquids will force some of the nitrogen out of solution, and the lake will effervesce.

“It will be a big frothy mess,” says Michael Malaska of JPL. “It’s neat because it makes Earth look really boring by comparison.”

Bubbles could also arise from a lake that contains more ethane than methane. The two will normally mix, but a less-dense layer of methane with dissolved nitrogen—from a gentle rain, for example–could settle on top of an ethane layer.

In this case, any disturbance—even a breeze—could mix the methane with dissolved nitrogen and the ethane below. The nitrogen would become less soluble and bubbles of gas would fizz out.

Heat, the researchers found, can also cause nitrogen to bubble out of solution while cold will coax more nitrogen to dissolve. As the seasons and climate change on Titan, the seas and lakes will inhale and exhale nitrogen.

But such warmth-induced bubbles could pose a challenge for future sea-faring spacecraft, which will have an energy source, and thus heat. “You may have this spacecraft sitting there, and it’s just going to be fizzing the whole time,” Malaska says. “That may actually be a problem for stability control or sampling.”

Bubbles might also explain the so-called magic islands discovered by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in the last few years. Radar images revealed island-like features that appear and disappear over time. Scientists still aren’t sure what the islands are, but nitrogen bubbles seem increasingly likely.

To know for sure, though, there will have to be a new mission. Cassini is entering its final phase, having finished its last flyby of Titan on April 21. Scientists are already sketching out potential spacecraft—maybe a buoy or even a submarine—to explore Titan’s seas, bubbles and all.

To teach kids about the extreme conditions on Titan and other planets and moons, visit the NASA Space Place: spaceplace.nasa.gov/planet-weather/

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

Caption: Radar images from Cassini showed a strange island-like feature in one of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas that appeared to change over time. One possible explanation for this “magic island” is bubbles. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

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 – What It’s Like On A TRAPPIST-1 Planet

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 March, 2017.

By Marcus Woo

2013february2_spaceplaceWith seven Earth-sized planets that could harbor liquid water on their rocky, solid surfaces, the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system might feel familiar. Yet the system, recently studied by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, is unmistakably alien: compact enough to fit inside Mercury’s orbit, and surrounds an ultra-cool dwarf star—not much bigger than Jupiter and much cooler than the sun.

If you stood on one of these worlds, the sky overhead would look quite different from our own. Depending on which planet you’re on, the star would appear several times bigger than the sun. You would feel its warmth, but because it shines stronger in the infrared, it would appear disproportionately dim.

“It would be a sort of an orangish-salmon color—basically close to the color of a low-wattage light bulb,” says Robert Hurt, a visualization scientist for Caltech/IPAC, a NASA partner. Due to the lack of blue light from the star, the sky would be bathed in a pastel, orange hue.

But that’s only if you’re on the light side of the planet. Because the worlds are so close to their star, they’re tidally locked so that the same side faces the star at all times, like how the Man on the Moon always watches Earth. If you’re on the planet’s dark side, you’d be enveloped in perpetual darkness—maybe a good thing if you’re an avid stargazer.

If you’re on some of the farther planets, though, the dark side might be too cold to survive. But on some of the inner planets, the dark side may be the only comfortable place, as the light side might be inhospitably hot.

On any of the middle planets, the light side would offer a dramatic view of the inner planets as crescents, appearing even bigger than the moon on closest approach. The planets only take a few days to orbit TRAPPIST-1, so from most planets, you can enjoy eclipses multiple times a week (they’d be more like transits, though, since they wouldn’t cover the whole star).

Looking away from the star on the dark side, you would see the outer-most planets in their full illuminated glory. They would be so close—only a few times the Earth-moon distance—that you could see continents, clouds, and other surface features.

The constellations in the background would appear as if someone had bumped into them, jostling the stars—a perspective skewed by the 40-light-years between TRAPPIST-1 and Earth. Orion’s belt is no longer aligned. One of his shoulders is lowered.

And, with the help of binoculars, you might even spot the sun as an inconspicuous yellow star: far, faint, but familiar.

Want to teach kids about exoplanets? Go to the NASA Space Place and see our video called, “Searching for other planets like ours”: spaceplace.nasa.gov/exoplanet-snap/

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

Caption: This artist’s concept allows us to imagine what it would be like to stand on the surface of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f, located in the TRAPPIST-1 system in the constellation Aquarius. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (IPAC)

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 – Comet Campaign: Amateurs Wanted

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 January, 2017.

By Marcus Woo

2013february2_spaceplaceIn a cosmic coincidence, three comets will soon be approaching Earth—and astronomers want you to help study them. This global campaign, which will begin at the end of January when the first comet is bright enough, will enlist amateur astronomers to help researchers continuously monitor how the comets change over time and, ultimately, learn what these ancient ice chunks reveal about the origins of the solar system.

Over the last few years, spacecraft like NASA’s Deep Impact/EPOXI or ESA’s Rosetta (of which NASA played a part) discovered that comets are more dynamic than anyone realized. The missions found that dust and gas burst from a comet’s nucleus every few days or weeks—fleeting phenomena that would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the constant and nearby observations. But space missions are expensive, so for three upcoming cometary visits, researchers are instead recruiting the combined efforts of telescopes from around the world.

“This is a way that we hope can get the same sorts of observations: by harnessing the power of the masses from various amateurs,” says Matthew Knight, an astronomer at the University of Maryland.

By observing the gas and dust in the coma (the comet’s atmosphere of gas and dust), and tracking outbursts, amateurs will help professional researchers measure the properties of the comet’s nucleus, such as its composition, rotation speed, and how well it holds together.

The observations may also help NASA scout out future destinations. The three targets are so-called Jupiter family comets, with relatively short periods just over five years—and orbits that are accessible to spacecraft. “The better understood a comet is,” Knight says, “the better NASA can plan for a mission and figure out what the environment is going to be like, and what specifications the spacecraft will need to ensure that it will be successful.”

The first comet to arrive is 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák, whose prime window runs from the end of January to the end of July. Comet 45P/Honda–Mrkos–Pajdušáková will be most visible between mid-February and mid-March. The third target, comet 46P/Wirtanen won’t arrive until 2018.

Still, the opportunity to observe three relatively bright comets within roughly 18 months is rare. “We’re talking 20 or more years since we’ve had anything remotely resembling this,” Knight says. “Telescope technology and our knowledge of comets are just totally different now than the last time any of these were good for observing.”

For more information about how to participate in the campaign, visit www.psi.edu/41P45P46P.

Want to teach kids about the anatomy of a comet? Go to the NASA Space Place and use Comet on a Stick activity! spaceplace.nasa.gov/comet-stick/

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

Caption: An orbit diagram of comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak on February 8, 2017—a day that falls during the comet’s prime visibility window. The planets orbits are white curves and the comet’s orbit is a blue curve. The brighter lines indicate the portion of the orbit that is above the ecliptic plane defined by Earth’s orbital plane and the darker portions are below the ecliptic plane. This image was created with the Orbit Viewer applet, provided by the Osamu Ajiki (AstroArts) and modified by Ron Baalke (Solar System Dynamics group, JPL). ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb.cgi?orb=1;sstr=41P

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!