February 2011

edge of the Sun

When a rather large M 3.6 class flare occurred near the edge of the Sun on Feb. 24, 2011, it blew out a gorgeous, waving mass of erupting plasma that swirled and twisted for 90 minutes. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the event in extreme ultraviolet light. Because SDO images are high definition, the team was able to zoom in on the flare and still see exquisite details. And using a cadence of a frame taken every 24 seconds, the sense of motion is, by all appearances, seamless.

They nicknamed it the "Little Balloon That Could." Launched in December of 2010 from McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the research balloon was a test run and it bobbed lower every day like it had some kind of leak. But every day for five days it rose back up in the sky to some 112,000 feet in the air.

Down on Earth, physicist Robyn Millan was cheering it on, hoping the test launch would bode well for the success of her grand idea: launches in 2013 and 2014 of 20 such balloons to float in the circular wind patterns above the South Pole. Each balloon will help track electrons from space that get swept up in Earth's magnetic field and slide down into our atmosphere. Such electrons are an integral part of the turbulent magnetic space weather system that extends from the sun to Earth.

A professor at Dartmouth College, Millan is the principal investigator for a project called BARREL, or Balloon Array for RBSP Relativistic Electron Losses. Millan's proposal will work hand in hand with NASA's Radiation Belt Space Probes (RBSP) mission, two NASA spacecraft due to launch in 2012 to study a mysterious part of Earth's magnetic environs called the Van Allen radiation belts. The radiation belts are made up of two regions, each one a gigantic donut of protons and electrons that surrounds Earth.

The two RBSP spacecraft"We're both looking at the loss of particles from the radiation belts," says Millan. "RBSP sits in space near the equatorial plane and looks at the particles along magnetic field lines there. These particles come into our atmosphere – following magnetic field lines to their base at the Poles – and produce X-rays. BARREL measures those X-rays. Together we can combine measurements of the same set of particles."

Figuring out what causes this rain of electrons will do more than simply improve understanding of the physics behind what drives such high-energy particles. The charged particles within the radiation belts can damage sensitive electronics on spacecraft like those used for global positioning systems and communications, and can injure humans in space. (The electrons don't make it all the way to Earth, so pose no danger to those of us on the ground.) Experiments like BARREL and RBSP help us understand the processes and mitigate those risks.

Millan began working on balloons during her graduate work at University of California, Berkeley, where she studied physics. She worked on a balloon called MAXIS that focused on electron precipitation from the magnetosphere into the ionosphere. "Then," she says, "We got this idea. They launch these huge payloads in Antarctica, but before that they send up smaller test balloons to make sure conditions are right for the big launch. And we thought – what if you could put instruments on those? So we took our payload, and miniaturized it."

She and her team, which includes scientists and students at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and University of Washington, set about making payloads that weigh only 50 pounds for balloons that are some 90 feet in diameter. That still sounds fairly big unless you know that the typical balloons launched in Antarctica are the size of a football field and carry payloads of some 3,000 pounds. The team received funding from the National Science Foundation to fly a total of six small balloons in 2005, and shortly thereafter she learned that NASA had put out a call for experiments to support RBSP.

David Sibeck, the project scientist for RBSP at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., recalls that Millan's project proposal was well-tailored to RBSP's goals. "One of RBSP's main challenges will be to differentiate between the hordes of theories that try to explain why the belts wax and wane over time," Sibeck says. "The RBSP spacecraft will be equipped to distinguish between different options, but Millan's balloons have an advantage in one specific area: they can measure particles that break out of the belts and make it all the way to Earth's atmosphere."

The first test of BARREL -- funded by NASA and also supported by NSF's Office of Polar Programs that supports logistics of all research in Antarctica -- began in December of 2008. The final one began this past winter, when Millan left New Hampshire for Antarctica on Nov. 15. She arrived in McMurdo Station – after a transfer in Christ Church, New Zealand and a day lost due to crossing the date line – on Nov. 19. This flight needed to test travel and ease of launch capabilities as much as anything else, so Millan's team had shipped all the balloons ready to fly. Once in Antarctica, she and her colleague, Brett Anderson, a Dartmouth graduate student, got to work unpacking.

"It was great," she says. "We just had to pull them out of the box and turn them on. We mounted their solar panels and with just two people we were able to get things ready really fast, which isn't always the easiest thing to do when in Antarctica."

One reason to do such electron research at the Poles is that Earth's magnetic field lines touch down there. But equally important for this campaign are the slowly circling wind patterns that set up each summer. The BARREL project will release another balloon every 1-2 days and each should fall into line, consistently buoyed by the winds along the same circular path.

This past December – which is, of course, the summer in Antarctica – it took longer than normal for those winds, known as circumpolar winds, to set up. So when the first balloon was launched – a process spearheaded by the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility -- it floated straight North towards Tasmania. This was the balloon that came to be known as The Little Balloon That Could, says Millan: "Perhaps it had a very small hole, but it didn't quite make it as high as it was supposed to – some 120,000 feet. It only ever got to 112,000 feet, but it maintained that height doggedly and even sent back some interesting data as it flew through an X-ray aurora.” A second balloon did hit the right wind current, successfully transmitting data. (The second balloon did, however, have to be cut down a little early due to an overheated battery.)

So now the BARREL team will begin work on preparing the real show – two campaigns of 20 balloons each that will be launched during the 2012 to 2014 time frame.

"Her balloons will work in conjunction with RBSP," says Sibeck. "She can let us know if they're seeing particles and RBSP can look for the events that might be scattering them out of the radiation belts down to Earth." In addition, since each balloon is meant to stay aloft for 10 days, they will cover a huge area in the sky. When RBSP spots an interesting phenomenon, BARREL can give feedback over a large area as to where the particles went. The team will be able to see how big that region is and measure the total amount of particles that get kicked out of the belts – and thus determine how big of an effect different phenomena have. "That's something we would have more trouble doing with the spacecraft," says Sibeck.

Once each balloon is launched it moves slowly by floating in the wind. Those on the ground cannot control it, other than the single command to terminate the mission. A small explosive detonates and cuts the cable to the payload, which then floats down to the ground on a parachute. This was the fate of the two test balloons in December 2010, though they were particularly sorry to cut down the Little Balloon That Could. "We really wanted to see how far it would go," says Millan. "But it was so far north that we were getting close to Australian air space and we had to cut it down."

So the team declared the test a success, packed up their gear and began the long trip home to New Hampshire to oversee the building of 45 more payloads.

Comet Tempel

Mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., have begun receiving the first of 72 anticipated images of comet Tempel 1 taken by NASA's Stardust spacecraft.

The first six, most distant approach images are available at http://www.nasa.gov/stardust and http://www.jpl.nasa.gov. Additional images, including those from closest approach, are being downlinked in chronological order and will be available later in the day.

A news conference will be held at 12:30 p.m. PST (3:30 p.m. EST) to allow scientists more time to analyze the data and images.

Stardust-NExT is a low-cost mission that expands on the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages Stardust-NExT for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. Joe Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., is the mission's principal investigator. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

North American nebula

Stars at all stages of development, from dusty little tots to young adults, are on display in a new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

This cosmic community is called the North American nebula. In visible light, the region resembles the North American continent, with the most striking resemblance being the Gulf of Mexico. But in Spitzer's infrared view, the continent disappears. Instead, a swirling landscape of dust and young stars comes into view.

"One of the things that makes me so excited about this image is how different it is from the visible image, and how much more we can see in the infrared than in the visible," said Luisa Rebull of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. Rebull is lead author of a paper about the observations, accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. "The Spitzer image reveals a wealth of detail about the dust and the young stars here."

Rebull and her team have identified more than 2,000 new, candidate young stars in the region. There were only about 200 known before. Because young stars grow up surrounded by blankets of dust, they are hidden in visible-light images. Spitzer's infrared detectors pick up the glow of the dusty, buried stars.

North American Nebula in Different LightsA star is born inside a collapsing ball of gas and dust. As the material collapses inward, it flattens out into a disk that spins around together with the forming star like a spinning top. Jets of gas shoot perpendicularly away from the disk, above and below it. As the star ages, planets are thought to form out of the disk -- material clumps together, ultimately growing into mature planets. Eventually, most of the dust dissipates, aside from a tenuous ring similar to the one in our solar system, referred to as Zodiacal dust.

The new Spitzer image reveals all the stages of a star's young life, from the early years when it is swaddled in dust to early adulthood, when it has become a young parent to a family of developing planets. Sprightly "toddler" stars with jets can also be identified in Spitzer's view.

"This is a really busy area to image, with stars everywhere, from the North American complex itself, as well as in front of and behind the region," said Rebull. "We refer to the stars that are not associated with the region as contamination. With Spitzer, we can easily sort this contamination out and clearly distinguish between the young stars in the complex and the older ones that are unrelated."

an nebula still has a mystery surrounding it, involving its power source. Nobody has been able to identify the group of massive stars that is thought to be dominating the nebula. The Spitzer image, like images from other telescopes, hints that the missing stars are lurking behind the Gulf of Mexico portion of the nebula. This is evident from the illumination pattern of the nebula, especially when viewed with the detector on Spitzer that picks up 24-micron infrared light. That light appears to be coming from behind the Gulf of Mexico's dark tangle of clouds, in the same way that sunlight creeps out from behind a rain cloud.

The nebula's distance from Earth is also a mystery. Current estimates put it at about 1,800 light-years from Earth. Spitzer will refine this number by finding more stellar members of the North American complex.

The Spitzer observations were made before it ran out of the liquid coolant needed to chill its longer-wavelength instruments. Currently, Spitzer's two shortest-wavelength channels (3.6 and 4.5 microns) are still working. The composite image shows light from both the infrared array camera and multiband imaging processor. Infrared light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns is color-coded blue; 8.0-micron light is green; and 24-micron light is red.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Spitzer.

Stardust Celebrates Twelve Years With Rocket Burn

NASA's Stardust spacecraft marked its 12th anniversary in space on Monday, Feb. 7, with a rocket burn to further refine its path toward a Feb. 14 date with a comet.

The half-minute trajectory correction maneuver, which adjusts the spacecraft's flight path, began at about 1 p.m. PST (4 p.m. EST) on Monday, Feb. 7. The 30-second-long firing of the spacecraft's rockets consumed about 69 grams (2.4 ounces) of fuel and changed the spacecraft's speed by 0.56 meters per second (1.3 mph).

NASA's plan for the Stardust-NExT mission is to fly the spacecraft to a point in space about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from comet Tempel 1 at the time of its closest approach. During the encounter, the spacecraft will take images of the surface of comet Tempel 1 to observe what changes have occurred since a NASA spacecraft last visited. (NASA's Deep Impact flew by Tempel 1 in July 2005).

Along with the high-resolution images of the comet's surface, Stardust-NExT will also measure the composition, size distribution and flux of dust emitted into the coma, and provide important new information about how comets evolve.

Stardust was launched on Feb. 7, 1999. This current Stardust-NExT target is a bonus mission for the comet chaser, which flew past comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned particles from its coma to Earth.

While its sample return capsule parachuted to Earth in January 2006, mission controllers were placing the still-viable spacecraft on a path that would allow NASA the opportunity to re-use the already-proven flight system if a target of opportunity presented itself. In January 2007, NASA re-christened the mission "Stardust-NExT" (New Exploration of Tempel), and the Stardust team began a four-and-a-half year journey for the spacecraft to comet Tempel 1. The spacecraft has traveled more than 3.5 billion miles since launch.

Sun based on high resolution STEREO data

On Feb. 6th, NASA's twin STEREO probes moved into position on opposite sides of the sun, and they are now beaming back uninterrupted images of the entire star—front and back.

"For the first time ever, we can watch solar activity in its full 3-dimensional glory," says Angelos Vourlidas, a member of the STEREO science team at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC.

NASA released a 'first light' 3D movie on, naturally, Super Bowl Sunday:

"This is a big moment in solar physics," says Vourlidas. "STEREO has revealed the sun as it really is--a sphere of hot plasma and intricately woven magnetic fields."

Each STEREO probe photographs half of the star and beams the images to Earth. Researchers combine the two views to create a sphere. These aren't just regular pictures, however. STEREO's telescopes are tuned to four wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet radiation selected to trace key aspects of solar activity such as flares, tsunamis and magnetic filaments. Nothing escapes their attention.

"With data like these, we can fly around the sun to see what's happening over the horizon—without ever leaving our desks," says STEREO program scientist Lika Guhathakurta at NASA headquarters. "I expect great advances in theoretical solar physics and space weather forecasting."

Consider the following: In the past, an active sunspot could emerge on the far side of the sun completely hidden from Earth. Then, the sun's rotation could turn that region toward our planet, spitting flares and clouds of plasma, with little warning.

"Not anymore," says Bill Murtagh, a senior forecaster at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. "Farside active regions can no longer take us by surprise. Thanks to STEREO, we know they're coming."

STEREO surrounding the sunNOAA is already using 3D STEREO models of CMEs (billion-ton clouds of plasma ejected by the sun) to improve space weather forecasts for airlines, power companies, satellite operators, and other customers. The full sun view should improve those forecasts even more.

The forecasting benefits aren't limited to Earth.

"With this nice global model, we can now track solar storms heading toward other planets, too," points out Guhathakurta. "This is important for NASA missions to Mercury, Mars, asteroids … you name it."

NASA has been building toward this moment since Oct. 2006 when the STEREO probes left Earth, split up, and headed for positions on opposite sides of the sun (movie). Feb. 6, 2011, was the date of "opposition"—i.e., when STEREO-A and -B were 180 degrees apart, each looking down on a different hemisphere. NASA's Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory is also monitoring the sun 24/7. Working together, the STEREO-SDO fleet should be able to image the entire globe for the next 8 years.

The new view could reveal connections previously overlooked. For instance, researchers have long suspected that solar activity can "go global," with eruptions on opposite sides of the sun triggering and feeding off of one another. Now they can actually study the phenomenon. The Great Eruption of August 2010 engulfed about 2/3rd of the stellar surface with dozens of mutually interacting flares, shock waves, and reverberating filaments. Much of the action was hidden from Earth, but plainly visible to the STEREO-SDO fleet.

"There are many fundamental puzzles underlying solar activity," says Vourlidas. "By monitoring the whole sun, we can find missing pieces."

Researchers say these first-look whole sun images are just a hint of what's to come. Movies with even higher resolution and more action will be released in the days and weeks ahead as more data are processed. Stay tuned!

Jupiter Europa Orbiter

With input from scientists around the world, American and European scientists working on the potential next new mission to the Jupiter system have articulated their joint vision for the Europa Jupiter System Mission. The mission is a proposed partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency. The scientists on the joint NASA-ESA definition team agreed that the overarching science theme for the Europa Jupiter System Mission will be "the emergence of habitable worlds around gas giants."

The proposed Europa Jupiter System Mission would provide orbiters around two of Jupiter's moons: a NASA orbiter around Europa called the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, and an ESA orbiter around Ganymede called the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter.

"We've reached hands across the Atlantic to define a mission to Jupiter's water worlds," said Bob Pappalardo, the pre-project scientist for the proposed Jupiter Europa Orbiter, who is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The Europa Jupiter System Mission will create a leap in scientific knowledge about the moons of Jupiter and their potential to harbor life."

The new reports integrate goals that were being separately developed by NASA and ESA working groups into one unified strategy.

The ESA report is being presented to the European public and science community this week, and the NASA report was published online in December. The NASA report is available at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/opag .

The proposed mission singles out the icy moons Europa and Ganymede as special worlds that can lead to a broader understanding of the Jovian system and of the possibility of life in our solar system and beyond. They are natural laboratories for analyzing the nature, evolution and potential habitability of icy worlds, because they are believed to present two different kinds of sub-surface oceans.

The Jupiter Europa Orbiter would characterize the relatively thin ice shell above Europa's ocean, the extent of that ocean, the materials composing its internal layers, and the way surface features such as ridges and "freckles" formed. It will also identify candidate sites for potential future landers. Instruments that might be on board could include a laser altimeter, an ice-penetrating radar, spectrometers that can obtain data in visible, infrared and ultraviolet radiation, and cameras with narrow- and wide-angle capabilities. The actual instruments to fly would be selected through a NASA competitive call for proposals.

Ganymede is thought to have a thicker ice shell, with its interior ocean sandwiched between ice above and below. ESA's Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter would investigate this different kind of internal structure. The Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter would also study the intrinsic magnetic field that makes Ganymede unique among all the solar system's known moons. This orbiter, whose instruments would also be chosen through a competitive process, could include a laser altimeter, spectrometers and cameras, plus additional fields-and-particles instruments

The two orbiters would also study other large Jovian moons, Io and Callisto, with an eye towards exploring the Jupiter system as an archetype for other gas giant planets.

NASA and ESA officials gave the Europa Jupiter System Mission proposal priority status for continued study in 2009, agreeing that it was the most technically feasible of the outer solar system flagship missions under consideration.

Over the next few months, NASA officials will be analyzing the joint strategy and awaiting the outcome of the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies. That survey will serve as a roadmap for new NASA planetary missions for the decade beginning 2013.

Seasonal Changes in Northern Mars Dune Field

Sand dunes in a vast area of northern Mars long thought to be frozen in time are changing with both sudden and gradual motions, according to research using images from a NASA orbiter.

These dune fields cover an area the size of Texas in a band around the planet at the edge of Mars' north polar cap. The new findings suggest they are among the most active landscapes on Mars. However, few changes in these dark-toned dunes had been detected before a campaign of repeated imaging by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reached Mars five years ago next month.

Scientists had considered the dunes to be fairly static, shaped long ago when winds on the planet's surface were much stronger than those seen today, said HiRISE Deputy Principal Investigator Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz. Several sets of before-and-after images from HiRISE over a period covering two Martian years -- four Earth years -- tell a different story.

"The numbers and scale of the changes have been really surprising," said Hansen.

A report by Hansen and co-authors in this week's edition of the journal Science identifies the seasonal coming and going of carbon-dioxide ice as one agent of change, and stronger-than-expected wind gusts as another.

A seasonal layer of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, blankets the region in winter and changes directly back to gaseous form in the spring.

"This gas flow destabilizes the sand on Mars sand dunes, causing sand avalanches and creating new alcoves, gullies and sand aprons on Martian dunes," she said. "The level of erosion in just one Mars year was really astonishing. In some places, hundreds of cubic yards of sand have avalanched down the face of the dunes."

Wind drives other changes. Especially surprising was the discovery that scars of past sand avalanches could be partially erased by wind in just one Mars year. Models of Mars' atmosphere do not predict wind speeds adequate to lift sand grains, and data from Mars landers show high winds are rare.

"Perhaps polar weather is more conducive to high wind speeds," Hansen said.

In all, modifications were seen in about 40 percent of these far-northern monitoring sites over the two-Mars-year period of the study.

Related HiRISE research previously identified gully-cutting activity in smaller fields of sand dunes covered by seasonal carbon-dioxide ice in Mars' southern hemisphere. A report four months ago showed that those changes coincided with the time of year when ice builds up.

"The role of the carbon-dioxide ice is getting clearer," said Serina Diniega of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead author of the earlier report and a co-author of the new report. "In the south, we saw before-and-after changes and connected the timing with the carbon-dioxide ice. In the north, we're seeing more of the process of the seasonal changes and adding more evidence linking the changes with the carbon dioxide."

Researchers are using HiRISE to repeatedly photograph dunes at all latitudes, to understand winds in the current climate on Mars. Dunes at latitudes lower than the reach of the seasonal carbon-dioxide ice do not show new gullies. Hansen said, "It's becoming clear that there are very active processes on Mars associated with the seasonal polar caps."

The new findings contribute to efforts to understand what features and landscapes on Mars can be explained by current processes, and which require different environmental conditions.

"Understanding how Mars is changing today is a key first step to understanding basic planetary processes and how Mars changed over time," said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson, a co-author of both reports. "There's lots of current activity in areas covered by seasonal carbon-dioxide frost, a process we don't see on Earth. It's important to understand the current effects of this unfamiliar process so we don't falsely associate them with different conditions in the past."

The University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory operates the HiRISE camera, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the orbiter.

NASA/Tim Pyle

Scientists using NASA's Kepler, a space telescope, recently discovered six planets made of a mix of rock and gases orbiting a single sun-like star, known as Kepler-11, which is located approximately 2,000 light years from Earth.

"The Kepler-11 planetary system is amazing," said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist and a Kepler science team member at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "It’s amazingly compact, it’s amazingly flat, there’s an amazingly large number of big planets orbiting close to their star - we didn’t know such systems could even exist."

In other words, Kepler-11 has the fullest, most compact planetary system yet discovered beyond our own.

"Few stars are known to have more than one transiting planet, and Kepler-11 is the first known star to have more than three," said Lissauer. "So we know that systems like this are not common. There’s certainly far fewer than one percent of stars that have systems like Kepler-11. But whether it’s one in a thousand, one in ten thousand or one in a million, that we don’t know, because we only have observed one of them."

All of the planets orbiting Kepler-11, a yellow dwarf star, are larger than Earth, with the largest ones being comparable in size to Uranus and Neptune. The innermost planet, Kepler-11b, is ten times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun. Moving outwards, the other planets are Kepler-11c, Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e, Kepler-11f, and the outermost planet, Kepler-11g, which is twice as close to its star than Earth is to the sun.

"The five inner planets are all closer to their star than any planet is to our sun and the sixth planet is still fairly close," said Lissauer.

If placed in our solar system, Kepler-11g would orbit between Mercury and Venus, and the other five planets would orbit between Mercury and our sun. The orbits of the five inner planets in the Kepler-11 planetary system are much closer together than any of the planets in our solar system. The inner five exoplanets have orbital periods between 10 and 47 days around the dwarf star, while Kepler-11g has a period of 118 days.

"By measuring the sizes and masses of the five inner planets, we have determined they are among the smallest confirmed exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system," said Lissauer. "These planets are mixtures of rock and gases, possibly including water. The rocky material accounts for most of the planets' mass, while the gas takes up most of their volume."

According to Lissauer, Kepler-11 is a remarkable planetary system whose architecture and dynamics provide clues about its formation. The planets Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e and Kepler-11f have a significant amount of light gas, which Lissauer says indicates that at least these three planets formed early in the history of the planetary system, within a few million years.

A planetary system is born when a molecular cloud core collapses to form a star. At this time, disks of gas and dust in which planets form, called protoplanetary disks, surround the star. Protoplanetary disks can be seen around most stars that are less than a million years old, but few stars more than five million years old have them. This leads scientists to theorize that planets which contain significant amounts of gas form relatively quickly in order to obtain gases before the disk disperses.

The Kepler spacecraft will continue to return science data about the new Kepler-11 planetary system for the remainder of its mission. The more transits Kepler sees, the better scientists can estimate the sizes and masses of planets.

"These data will enable us to calculate more precise estimates of the planet sizes and masses, and could allow us to detect more planets orbiting the Kepler-11 star," said Lissauer. "Perhaps we could find a seventh planet in the system, either because of its transits or from the gravitational tugs it exerts on the six planets that we already see. We’re going to learn a fantastic amount about the diversity of planets out there, around stars within our galaxy."

A space observatory, Kepler looks for the data signatures of planets by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when planets cross in front of, or transit, them. The size of the planet can be derived from the change in the star's brightness. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet's orbital period.

The Kepler science team is using ground-based telescopes, as well as the Spitzer Space Telescope, to perform follow-up observations on planetary candidates and other objects of interest found by the spacecraft. The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which of the candidates can be identified as planets.

Kepler will continue conducting science operations until at least November 2012, searching for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is predicted to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet.

"Kepler can only see 1/400 of the sky," said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and the mission’s science principal investigator. "Kepler can find only a small fraction of the planets around the stars it looks at because the orbits aren’t aligned properly. If you account for those two factors, our results indicate there must be millions of planets orbiting the stars that surround our sun."

Kepler is NASA's tenth Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo., was responsible for developing the Kepler flight system, and along with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, is supporting mission operations. Ground observations necessary to confirm the discoveries were conducted at the Keck I in Hawaii; Hobby-Ebberly and Harlan J. Smith 2.7m in Texas; Hale and Shane in California; WIYN, MMT and Tillinghast in Arizona, and the Nordic Optical in the Canary Islands, Spain.

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