Ancient Dust Falling onto Mar’s Atmosphere from Oort Cloud Comet Contains Metal Ions

Artist’s concept of Comet Siding Spring approaching Mars, shown with NASA’s orbiters preparing to make science observations of this unique encounter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s concept of Comet Siding Spring approaching Mars, shown with NASA’s orbiters preparing to make science observations of this unique encounter.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Comet Siding Spring sprinkles ancient metallic dust onto Mars atmosphere 

Space news (November 23, 2014) Comet Siding Spring seeds Mars with ancient metallic dust –

NASA and European space scientists recently observed a large comet flying past a planet for the first time. On October 19, 2014, three spacecraft, two American and one European, observed and gathered data as Comet Siding Spring flew past Mars. You can watch a YouTube video here of the artists rendering of the flyby.

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring arrived from a very distant region of the solar system called the Oort Cloud. At around 2:27 p.m. EDT, this traveler from the outer regions of the solar system was only about 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) from the Red Planet. It was at this time the comet was observed by three spacecraft as it deposited ancient debris on its atmosphere. This is the first direct measurement of dust from an Oort Cloud comet and an opportunity scientists and astronomers have been waiting for.

Five images of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring taken within a 35-minute period as it passed near Mars on Oct. 19, 2014, provide information about the size of the comet's nucleus. These observations by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest that the nucleus is smaller than 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) across.
Five images of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring taken within a 35-minute period as it passed near Mars on Oct. 19, 2014, provide information about the size of the comet’s nucleus. These observations by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest that the nucleus is smaller than 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) across.

Oort Cloud comets are thought to be leftover material from the birth of the solar system. Space scientists have an opportunity to test the present theory on the evolution of the solar system and possibly life on Earth. Theories persist that the ingredients of life could have been deposited on Mars in the distant past and then this life traveled to Earth and took root. The data collected during this encounter between Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring and Mars could help determine if this is possible.

Space scientists gathered information on the comet’s nucleus and the effects of the comet’s passage on the Martian atmosphere. The data was collected using NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft, in conjunction with radar instruments on the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Mars Express.

These three plots are spectrograms showing the intensity of radar echo in the Martian far-northern ionosphere at three different times on Oct. 19 and 20, 2014. The middle plot reveals effects attributed to dust from a comet that passed near Mars that day. The data are from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS), an instrument on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter.
These three plots are spectrograms showing the intensity of radar echo in the Martian
far-northern ionosphere at three different times on Oct. 19 and 20, 2014. The middle plot reveals effects attributed to dust from a comet that passed near Mars that day. The data are from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS), an instrument on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.

Data collected indicates comet debris containing sodium, iron and magnesium metal ions, along with at least five others, fell on the atmosphere of Mars as the comet flew past the planet. Readings indicate this added a temporary layer of strong metal ions to the ionosphere of Mars. Planetary and atmospheric space scientists are now studying whether this could have resulted in the development of a similar layer in the atmosphere of a primordial Earth. They also want to take a look at the possibility the sprinkling of comet dust in the atmosphere of Mars could have long-term consequences for the planet.

“This historic event allowed us to observe the details of this fast-moving Oort Cloud comet in a way never before possible using our existing Mars missions,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Observing the effects on Mars of the comet’s dust slamming into the upper atmosphere makes me very happy that we decided to put our spacecraft on the other side of Mars at the peak of the dust tail passage and out of harm’s way.”

NASA and European space scientists will now continue to monitor Mar’s atmosphere after the passage of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring for continued and additional effects and developments. They also hope to get further opportunities in the future to observe Oort Cloud comets flying past planets within the solar system.

For more information on MAVEN, MRO or any of NASA’s missions to Mars go here.

You can learn more about the Mars Express spacecraft here.

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Cassini Spies Bright Features in Kraken Mare Possibly Related to “Magic Island” Observed in Ligeia Mare

Space scientists think could be floating debris or waves on the seas of Saturn’s moon Titan 

Cassini radar data reveal the depth of a liquid methane/ethane sea on Saturn's moon Titan near the mouth of a large, flooded river valley. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell
Cassini radar data reveal the depth of a liquid methane/ethane sea on Saturn’s moon Titan near the mouth of a large, flooded river valley. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

Space news (November 18, 2014) – Sailing over Titan’s moons – 

Cassini sailed over Saturn’s moon Titan on August 21, 2014, to take a first look at the depths near the opening of a huge river valley along the eastern shore of Titan’s largest sea Kraken Mare. NASA space scientists collected data along a 120-mile shore-to-shore track of the hydrocarbon sea. One part of this track collected altimetry data along a 25-mile section indicating sea depths in this region of 66 to 115 feet (20 – 35 meters). This involves Cassini’s radar bouncing a beam off the bottom of Kraken Mare to determine an estimate of the depth in the region.

During this 25-mile section of the 120-mile track across Kraken Mare Cassini’s radar and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) detected bright features in the sea space scientists think could be similar to another bright, mystery feature previously observed in another of Titan’s seas, Ligeia Mare, researchers have called “Magic Island”. Detecting the features using both instruments gives scientists a better look and idea of the identity of these enigmatic features.

Space scientists at this time think these unknown features observed by Cassini’s instruments could be waves, floating debris or something else entirely. Unfortunately, it may be awhile before we know anything more about the bright features observed in Kraken Mare since this is the last chance for the spacecraft to observed the region.

Cassini will fly by Titan once again in January 2015, to take a closer look at the original feature spied in Ligeia Mare. At this time they’ll also attempt to measure the sea depth of Punga Mare, the only large sea in Titan’s far north Cassini hasn’t observed.

You can find more information on Cassini and its mission to observe the seas of Saturn’s moon Titan here.

For more information on NASA and its space mission go here.

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Thousands of Years Ago Ancient Peruvians Used 13 Towers Spread Along the Horizon to Mark the Rising and Setting of the Sun Through the Year

The rise of the sun between Tower 1 and Cerro Mucho Malo at the June solstice, 2003, viewed from the western solar observaotry. The sunrise positionInserting image... at the solstice has shifted to the right approximately 0.3° from year 300 BC.  Credit: Ivan Ghezzi
The rise of the sun between Tower 1 and Cerro Mucho Malo at the June solstice, 2003, viewed from the western solar observatory. The sunrise positionInserting image… at the solstice has shifted to the right approximately 0.3° from year 300 BC.
Credit: Ivan Ghezzi

Observations of the number of days between the rising and setting of the sun from tower to tower allowed ancient astronomers to create a solar calendar  

Chanquillo is considered the oldest solar observatory so far discovered in the Americas
Chanquillo is considered the oldest solar observatory so far discovered in the Americas

Ancient space astronomy – 

2,300 years ago (fourth century B.C.) ancient Peruvian astronomers living along the coast near the Casma-Sechin Oasis built a solar observatory used to mark the rising and setting of the sun. Called the Chankillo archaeological site, it consists of 13 towers spanning 980 feet (300 meters) north to south along a low rising horizon, which form an ancient observatory archaeoastronomers believe was used to track the rising and falling Sun. By timing the days it took the sun to travel between towers, the solar year could be broken into periods, scientists believe, forming a sort of solar calendar used for ceremonial and cultural purposes.  

Archaeologists believe ceremonies and cultural events were held in buildings close to this ancient solar observatory. They found pottery, shells and stone carvings at the end of the 131-ft corridor in the building west of the towers, possibly left by commoners participating in solar observing ceremonies and cultural events. They also found a pair of inset staircases leading upward to each tower summit, suggesting the area was well traveled. 

Chankillo is arguably the oldest solar calendar that can be identified as such with confidence within the Americas,” said lead study author Ivan Ghezzi from Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru. 

“Many indigenous American sites have been found to contain one or a few putative solar orientations,” Ghezzi said. “Chankillo, in contrast, provides a complete set of horizon markers and two unique and indisputable observation points.” 

Around 230 meters (750 feet) to the west and east of the north and south running line of 13 towers astronomers discovered possible observation points. They also discovered that seen from these positions the 980-foot span of the 13 towers closely matches the position of the rising and falling Sun through the year. 

“For example,” said Professor Ruggles, “If you stood at the western observing point, you would see the Sun coming up in the morning, but where it would appear along the span of towers would depend on the time of the year.” 

“So, on the summer solstice, which is in December in Peru, you would see the Sun just right of the right-most tower; for the winter solstice, in June, you would see the Sun rise to the left of the left-most tower; and in-between, the Sun would move up and down the horizon.” 

“This means ancient Peruvians could have regulated a calendar, he said, “by keeping track of the number of days it took for the Sun to move from tower to tower.” 

Archaeoastronomers have found similar solar observing sites in South America built by the Incan empire between 1100 and 1530 A.D. This ancient observatory predates the Incas by 1700 years and it’s massive in size and sophisticated for its time. It also highlights the importance of observing the Sun in the daily lives and cultural of ancient Peruvians and is a testament to the scientific knowledge and will of ancient Peruvian builders and astronomers.  

“Chankillo was built approximately 1,700 years before the Incas began their expansion,” Ghezzi said. “Now we know these practices are quite a bit older and were highly developed by Chankillo’s time. 

Some archaeologists think more work needs to be done

If archaeologists and archaeoastronomers are correct. Possibly as early as 600 BCE, ancient Peruvian astronomers used the Chankillo site to track the rising and setting of the sun through the solar year. As a calendar to determine moments to hold important ceremonial and cultural events. The oldest solar calendar discovered to this date in South America.

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NASA Telescopes Detecting Clear Skies and Steamy Water Vapor on Neptune-size Exoplanet

A Neptune-size planet with a clear atmosphere is shown crossing in front of its star in this artist's depiction. Such crossings, or transits, are observed by telescopes like NASA's Hubble and Spitzer to glean information about planets' atmospheres.
A Neptune-size planet with a clear atmosphere is shown crossing in front of its star in this artist’s depiction. Such crossings, or transits, are observed by telescopes like NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer to glean information about planets’ atmospheres Image Credit NASA

Is a sign smaller exoplanets could have similar or more hospitable environments

Space news (November 07, 2014) 120 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus –

NASA space scientists using the Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes detected clear skies and steamy water vapor on exoplanet HAT-P-11b. This is the first detection of molecules on an exoplanet the size of Neptune or smaller. It’s also a sign smaller exoplanets have similar or more hospitable environments.  

Scientists were excited to discover clear skies on a relatively small planet, about the size of Neptune, using the combined power of NASA's Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Space scientists were excited to discover clear skies on a relatively small planet, about the size of Neptune, using the combined power of NASA’s Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler space telescopes.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

How did space scientists detect clear skies and steamy vapor on a planet 120 light-years away in the Constellation Cygnus? Astronomers used the Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes to observe HAT-P-11b as it passed in front of its parent star in relation to Earth. By analyzing the starlight passing through the atmosphere of the exoplanet, space scientists determined the specific molecules making it up. 

This scientific technique is called Transmission Spectroscopy and it was particularly effective in the case of HAT-P-11b because of this Neptune-size exoplanet (exo-Neptune), unlike previous ones detected, has no clouds in the atmosphere to block the starlight from coming through, which allowed for the detection of water vapor molecules.  

A plot of the transmission spectrum for exoplanet HAT-P-11b, with data from NASA's Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer observatories combined. The results show a robust detection of water absorption in the Hubble data. Transmission spectra of selected atmospheric models are plotted for comparison. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI
A plot of the transmission spectrum for exoplanet HAT-P-11b, with data from NASA’s Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer space observatories combined. The results show a robust detection of water absorption in the Hubble data. Transmission spectra of selected atmospheric models are plotted for comparison.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

“This discovery is a significant milepost on the road to eventually analyzing the atmospheric composition of smaller, rocky planets more like Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Such achievements are only possible today with the combined capabilities of these unique and powerful observatories.” 

“When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say ‘clear skies’ to mean good luck,” said Jonathan Fraine of the University of Maryland, College Park, lead author of a new study appearing in Nature. “In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That’s lucky for us because it means clouds didn’t block our view of water molecules.” 

“We think that exo-Neptunes may have diverse compositions, which reflect their formation histories,” said study co-author Heather Knutson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Now with data like these, we can begin to piece together a narrative for the origin of these distant worlds.” 

“We are working our way down the line, from hot Jupiters to exo-Neptunes,” said Drake Deming, a co-author of the study also from the University of Maryland. “We want to expand our knowledge to a diverse range of exoplanets.” 

NASA space scientists will now use the Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes to begin looking at more exoplanets the size of HAT-P-11b for clear skies and water vapor. They’ll also hope to use Transmission Spectroscopy to detect smaller exoplanets, more like our home planet, called super-Earths orbiting distant stars. Once the James Webb Space Telescope comes online in 2018, they’ll begin looking at any super-Earths detected for signs of water vapor and other molecules. 

Find more on the Hubble Space Telescope here

More information on the Spitzer Space Telescope can be found here

Look here for more on the Kepler Space Telescope. 

Go here for more information on NASA and the exoplanets discovered.

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Astronomers Use to Think Red Dwarf Stars Only Exhibited Major Stellar Flares for a Period of a Day Maximum

Until NASA’s Swift Gamma-ray Burst Space Observatory detected a sequence of seven stellar flares over 10,000 times more powerful than the biggest ever recorded erupting from a red dwarf star in the binary system DG CVn 

DG CVn, a binary consisting of two red dwarf stars shown here in an artist's rendering, unleashed a series of powerful flares seen by NASA's Swift. At its peak, the initial flare was brighter in X-rays than the combined light from both stars at all wavelengths under typical conditions. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger
DG CVn, a binary consisting of two red dwarf stars shown here in an artist’s rendering, unleashed a series of powerful flares seen by NASA’s Swift. At its peak, the initial flare was brighter in X-rays than the combined light from both stars at all wavelengths under typical conditions.
Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger

Space news ( Oct. 30, 2014) – astrophysics: gamma-ray bursts; seven of the most intense, powerful gamma-ray bursts ever detected –

NASA space scientists operating NASA’s Swift Gamma-ray Burst Space Observatory detected a sequence of seven of the most intense, powerful, and long-lasting stellar flares ever seen at 5:07 p.m EDT on April 23, 2014. You can watch a video of the event here. They believe the gamma-rays detected are from stellar flares erupting from the surface of one of a pair of red dwarf stars 60 light-years away in the binary star system DG Canum Venaticorum (DG CVn). They are currently scratching their heads and rethinking theories on the intensity, power, and length of time of major stellar flaring episodes exhibited by red dwarf stars.

“For about three minutes after the BAT trigger, the superflare’s X-ray brightness was greater than the combined luminosity of both stars at all wavelengths under normal conditions,” noted Goddard’s Adam Kowalski, who is leading a detailed study on the event. “Flares this large from red dwarfs are exceedingly rare.”

“We used to think major flaring episodes from red dwarfs lasted no more than a day, but Swift detected at least seven powerful eruptions over a period of about two weeks,” said Stephen Drake, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who gave a presentation on the “superflare” at the August meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s High Energy Astrophysics Division. “This was a very complex event.”

At peak power and intensity, space scientist Rachael Osten of the Space Telescope Institute and Stephen Drake of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center indicate this sequence of stellar flares reached 360 million degrees Fahrenheit (200 million Celsius), which is over 12 times hotter than the center of our own sun. Currently, they’re trying to figure out which of the pair of red dwarf stars is the source of the sequence of seven stellar flares they observed.

Space scientists indicate the problem is the pair of red dwarf suns in this binary star system are only about three times the distance apart as the average distance of Earth from the sun. This is too close for instruments to determine which red dwarf star is the culprit in this case.

“This system is poorly studied because it wasn’t on our watch list of stars capable of producing large flares,” said Rachel Osten, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and a deputy project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, now under construction. “We had no idea DG CVn had this in it.”

What’s next?

NASA space scientists will now turn their attention to stars within 100 light-years of DG DVn. The majority of these suns are middle-aged, like our own sun, but there are over a thousand young red dwarf stars drifting through this region of space. Studying red dwarf suns of the same age as DG CVn (around 30 million years) will allow the best opportunity to observe similar stellar flares as the seven seen recently. They also plan to keep an eye on DG CVn using the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Explorer in case it unleashes similar stellar flares in the future.

For more information on the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Explorer visit.

You can find more information on NASA and red dwarf stars here.

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