NASA’s Planning on Visiting the Water Worlds of the Solar System and Beyond

Next stop the ocean worlds of Enceladus and Europa

This illustration shows Cassini diving through the Enceladus plume in 2015. New ocean world discoveries from Cassini and Hubble will help inform future exploration and the broader search for life beyond Earth.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Space news (planetary science: water worlds of the solar system; Enceladus and Europa) – planets and moons around the solar system and exoplanets across the universe covered with water

This graphic illustrates how scientists on NASA’s Cassini mission think water interacts with rock at the bottom of the ocean of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, producing hydrogen gas (H2).
The Cassini spacecraft detected the hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy material spraying from Enceladus during its deepest and last dive through the plume on Oct. 28, 2015. Cassini also sampled the plume’s composition during previous flybys, earlier in the mission. From these observations, scientists have determined that nearly 98 percent of the gas in the plume is water vapor, about 1 percent is hydrogen, and the rest is a mixture of other molecules including carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia.
The graphic shows water from the ocean circulating through the seafloor, where it is heated and interacts chemically with the rock. This warm water, laden with minerals and dissolved gasses (including hydrogen and possibly methane) then pours into the ocean creating chimney-like vents.
The hydrogen measurements were made using Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer, or INMS, instrument, which sniffs gasses to determine their composition.
The finding is an independent line of evidence that hydrothermal activity is taking place in the Enceladus ocean. Previous results from Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer instrument, published in March 2015, suggested hot water is interacting with rock beneath the ocean; the new findings support that conclusion and indicate that the rock is reduced in its geochemistry. With the discovery of hydrogen gas, scientists can now conclude that there is a source of chemical free energy in Enceladus’ ocean.
The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer was designed and built by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; the team is based at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio.
For more information about the Cassini mission, visit http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov.
Image Credit: NASA.

The solar system’s awash in water! NASA missions have provided verifiable facts showing ocean worlds and moons exist in our solar system and beyond, other than Earth. Planetary bodies where water is locked in a frozen embrace and even flowing beneath miles of ice. Liquid water exobiologists are keen to explore for life forms they would love to meet and get to know a little better during the next phase of the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Watch this YouTube video on NASA’s search for life on the ocean worlds of the solar system.

Best Evidence Yet for Reoccurring Water Vapor Plumes Erupting from Jupiter’s Moon
When Galileo discovered Jupiter’s moon Europa in 1610, along with three other satellites whirling around the giant planet, he could have barely imagined it was such a world of wonder.
This revelation didn’t happen until 1979 when NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 flew by Jupiter and found evidence that Europa’s interior, encapsulated under a crust of ice, has been kept warm over billions of years. The warmer temperature is due to gravitational tidal forces that flex the moon’s interior — like squeezing a rubber ball — keeping it warm. At the time, one mission scientist even speculated that the Voyagers might catch a snapshot of geysers on Europa.
Such activity turned out to be so elusive that astronomers had to wait over three decades for the peering eye of Hubble to monitor the moon for signs of venting activity. A newly discovered plume seen towering 62 miles above the surface in 2016 is at precisely the same location as a similar plume seen on the moon two years earlier by Hubble. These observations bolster evidence that the plumes are a real phenomenon, flaring up intermittently in the same region on the satellite.
The location of the plumes corresponds to the position of an unusually warm spot on the moon’s icy crust, as measured in the late 1990s by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Researchers speculate that this might be circumstantial evidence for material venting from the moon’s subsurface. The material could be associated with the global ocean that is believed to be present beneath the frozen crust. The plumes offer an opportunity to sample what might be in the ocean, in the search for life on that distant moon. Credits: NASA/JPL

Papers published by the journal Science and written by Cassini mission scientists and researchers working with the Hubble Space Telescope indicate hydrogen gas believed pouring from the subsurface ocean of Enceladus could potentially provide chemical energy life could use to survive and evolve. Watch this YouTube video called “NASA: Ingredients for Life at Saturn’s moon Enceladus“, it shows the proof scientists used to come to these conclusions. Their work provides new insights concerning possible oceans of water on moons of Jupiter and Saturn and other ocean moons in the solar system and beyond. 

Best Evidence Yet for Reoccurring Water Vapor Plumes Erupting from Jupiter’s Moon
When Galileo discovered Jupiter’s moon Europa in 1610, along with three other satellites whirling around the giant planet, he could have barely imagined it was such a world of wonder.
This revelation didn’t happen until 1979 when NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 flew by Jupiter and found evidence that Europa’s interior, encapsulated under a crust of ice, has been kept warm over billions of years. The warmer temperature is due to gravitational tidal forces that flex the moon’s interior — like squeezing a rubber ball — keeping it warm. At the time, one mission scientist even speculated that the Voyagers might catch a snapshot of geysers on Europa.
Such activity turned out to be so elusive that astronomers had to wait over three decades for the peering eye of Hubble to monitor the moon for signs of venting activity. A newly discovered plume seen towering 62 miles above the surface in 2016 is at precisely the same location as a similar plume seen on the moon two years earlier by Hubble. These observations bolster evidence that the plumes are a real phenomenon, flaring up intermittently in the same region on the satellite.
The location of the plumes corresponds to the position of an unusually warm spot on the moon’s icy crust, as measured in the late 1990s by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Researchers speculate that this might be circumstantial evidence for material venting from the moon’s subsurface. The material could be associated with the global ocean that is believed to be present beneath the frozen crust. The plumes offer an opportunity to sample what might be in the ocean, in the search for life on that distant moon. Credits: NASA/JPL

“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. ”These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA’s science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not.”

Portrait of Thomas Zurbuchen taken on Monday, October 17, 2016, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

Researchers believe they have found evidence indicating hydrogen gas could be pouring out of hydrothermal vents on the floor of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and into these oceans of water. Any microbes existing in these distant waters could use this gas as a form of chemical energy to operate biological processes. By combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide dissolved in this ocean of water in a chemical reaction called methanogenesis, geochemists think methane could be produced which could act as the basis of a tree of life similar to the one observed on Earth. 

Dramatic plumes, both large and small, spray water ice and vapor from many locations along the famed “tiger stripes” near the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The tiger stripes are four prominent, approximately 84-mile- (135-kilometer-) long fractures that cross the moon’s south polar terrain.
This two-image mosaic is one of the highest resolution views acquired by Cassini during its imaging survey of the geyser basin capping the southern hemisphere of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It clearly shows the curvilinear arrangement of geysers, erupting from the fractures. .From left to right, the fractures are Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus.
As a result of this survey, 101 geysers were discovered: 100 have been located on one of the tiger stripes (PIA17188), and the three-dimensional configurations of 98 of these geysers have also been determined (PIA17186). The source location of the remaining geyser could not be definitively established. These results, together with those of other Cassini instruments, now strongly suggest that the geysers have their origins in the sea known to exist beneath the ice underlying the south polar terrain.
These findings from the imaging survey, of which the two images composing this mosaic are a part, were presented in a paper by Porco, DiNino, and Nimmo and published in the online version of the Astronomical Journal in July 2014: http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/0004-6256/148/3/45.
A companion paper, by Nimmo et al., is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/0004-6256/148/3/46.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini. The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org.
Photojournal notes: This image has been rotated 180 degrees from its original orientation published on February 2, 2010.
Image Credit:
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

On Earth, this process is thought to be at the root of the tree of life, and could even be essential, critical to the origin of life on our little blue dot. Life existing on our planet requires three main ingredients, liquid water, a source of energy for metabolic processes, and specific chemical ingredients to develop and continue to thrive. This study shows Enceladus could have the right ingredients for life to exist, but planetary scientists and exobiologists are looking for evidence of the presence of sulfur and phosphorus. 

This set of images from NASA’s Cassini mission shows how the gravitational pull of Saturn affects the amount of spray coming from jets at the active moon Enceladus. Enceladus has the most spray when it is farthest away from Saturn in its orbit (inset image on the left) and the least spray when it is closest to Saturn (inset image on the right).
Water ice and organic particles gush out of fissures known as “tiger stripes” at Enceladus’ south pole. Scientists think the fissures are squeezed shut when the moon is feeling the greatest force of Saturn’s gravity. They theorize the reduction of that gravity allows the fissures to open and release the spray. Enceladus’ orbit is slightly closer to Saturn on one side than the other. A simplified version of that orbit is shown as a white oval.
Scientists correlate the brightness of the Enceladus plume to the amount of solid material being ejected because the fine grains of water ice in the plume are very bright when lit from behind. Between the dimmest and brightest images, they detected a change of about three to four times in brightness, approximately the same as moving from a dim hallway to a brightly lit office.
This analysis is the first clear finding that shows the jets at Enceladus vary in a predictable manner. The background image is a mosaic made from data obtained by Cassini’s imaging science subsystem in 2006. The inset image on the left was obtained on Oct. 1, 2011. The inset image on the right was obtained on Jan. 30, 2011.
A related image, PIA17039, shows just the Enceladus images. The Saturn system mosaic was created from data obtained by Cassini’s imaging cameras in 2006.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, DC. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer was built by JPL, with a major contribution by the Italian Space Agency. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer science team is based at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/.
Image Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Cornell/SSI

Previous data shows the rocky core of this moon is similar to meteorites containing these two elements, so they’re thought to be chemically similar in nature, and scientists are looking for the same chemical ingredients of life found on Earth, primarily carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and of course hydrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur.

Linda Spilker
Cassini Project Scientist. Credits: NASA

“Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

This illustration shows NASA’s Cassini spacecraft about to make one of its dives between Saturn and its innermost rings as part of the mission’s grand finale.
Cassini will make 22 orbits that swoop between the rings and the planet before ending its mission on Sept. 15, 2017, with a final plunge into Saturn. The mission team hopes to gain powerful insights into the planet’s internal structure and the origins of the rings, obtain the first-ever sampling of Saturn’s atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings, and capture the closest-ever views of Saturn’s clouds and inner rings.
During its time at Saturn, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean that showed indications of hydrothermal activity within the icy moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on its moon Titan.
The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini detected hydrogen in plumes of gas and frozen matter spewing from Enceladus during the spacecraft’s deepest pass over its surface on October 28, 2015. This combined with previous data obtained by Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) during earlier flybys around 2005, helped scientists determine that nearly 98 percent of the material spraying from the surface of the moon is water. The remaining two percent is thought to be around 1 percent hydrogen with some carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia and assorted unknown molecules in the mix. 

Cassini has shown us two independent detections of possible water spewing from the surface of Enceladus. NASA and its partners are currently looking over proposals to send spacecraft to determine if there is an ocean of water beneath its surface by taking a sample. The Europa Life Finder (ELF) is the proposal NASA’s seriously looking at undertaking at this point, but reports indicate a few other proposals are also being discussed. We’ll provide additional information on other proposals as they’re released to media outlets.

“Although we can’t detect life, we’ve found that there’s a food source there for it. It would be like a candy store for microbes,” said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study.

Two different observations of possible plumes of water spraying from the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus provides proof hydrothermal activity is occurring beneath. Geophysicists believe hot water is combining chemically with rock and other matter at the bottom of an ocean of water underneath its icy surface to produce hydrogen gas. Hydrogen gas exobiologists think could be used as energy, food of a sort, to sustain life forms exobiologists want to meet and learn more about. A meeting that would change our place in the cosmos, the way we think about the universe, and reality.

Looking for an interplanetary vacation destination? Consider a visit to Europa, one of the Solar System’s most tantalizing moons. Ice-covered Europa follows an elliptical path in its 85-hour orbit around our ruling gas giant Jupiter. Heat generated from strong tidal flexing by Jupiter’s gravity keeps Europa’s salty subsurface ocean liquid all year round. That also means even in the absence of sunlight Europa has energy that could support simple life forms. Unfortunately, it is currently not possible to make reservations at restaurants on Europa, where you might enjoy a dish of the local extreme shrimp. But you can always choose another destination from Visions of the Future.

Astronomers and researchers working with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2016 reported on an observation of a possible plume erupting from the icy surface of Europa in the same general location Hubble observed a possible plume in 2014. This location also corresponds to the unusually warm region with cracks in the icy surface observed by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft back in the 1990s. This provides evidence this phenomenon could be periodic, intermittent in this region of the moon. Mission planners are looking at this region as a possible location to obtain a sample of water erupting from a possible ocean of water beneath its icy surface. Watch this video on Europa.

Estimates of the size of this most recently observed plume indicate it rose about 62 miles (~100 kilometers) from the surface of Europa, while the plume in 2014 only reached a height of around 30 miles (50 kilometers). 

William Sparks
Space Telescope Science Institute. Credits: Space Science Institute/NASA/JPL

“The plumes on Enceladus are associated with hotter regions, so after Hubble imaged this new plume-like feature on Europa, we looked at that location on the Galileo thermal map. We discovered that Europa’s plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly,” said William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Sparks led the Hubble plume studies in both 2014 and 2016.

One interesting thought’s the plumes and the hot spot is somehow linked. If this is the case, it could mean the vented water’s falling onto the surface of the moon, which would change the structure and chemistry of the surface grains and allow them to retain heat longer than the surrounding region. This location would be a great place to search for the ingredients of life and a possible entry point into an ocean of water beneath.

NASA’s Europa Clipper mission is being designed to fly by the icy Jovian moon multiple times and investigate whether it possesses the ingredients necessary for life.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

These observations by the Hubble Space Telescope and future looks enable future space missions to Europa and other ocean worlds in the solar system. Specifically, laying the groundwork for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which is set for a launch sometime in the 2020s. 

James Green: Director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters. Credits: NASA

“If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them,” said Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science, at NASA Headquarters.

NASA has indicated they’re looking to identify a possible site with persistent, intermittent plume activity as a target location for a mission to Europa to explore using its powerful suite of science instruments. Another team’s currently at work on a powerful ultraviolet camera to add to the Europa Clipper that would offer data similar to that provided by the Hubble Space Telescope, while some members of the Cassini team are working on a very sensitive, next generation INMS instrument to put on the spacecraft. 

Water’s the story of life on Earth! Science has shown it played and plays the main part in the birth, evolution, and sustenance of life on Earth. 

NASA’s planning on taking the human journey to the beginning of space and time to the ocean worlds of the solar system during the decades ahead. To search for the ingredients of life and even possibly simple one-celled life forms, of an unknown type. We plan on going along for the ride to have a look for ourselves and we hope to see your name on the ship manifest. We’ll save a seat for you.

Join the human journey to the beginning of space and time by taking part in NASA’s Backyard Worlds: Planet 9. Participants take part in the search for hidden worlds between Neptune and Proxima Centauri.

NASA’s and FEMA are currently tracking the progress of a 300 to 800 ft asteroid they think has around a 2 percent chance of hitting the Earth around September 20, 2020.

Planetary scientists searching the Red Planet for signs of past and present water believe they have found evidence indicating Mars once was a lot wetter and a possible location for the evolution of life.

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Planetary Scientists Suggest Three Landing Sites for Mars 2020

One of the oldest regions of the Red Planet discovered, an ancient Martian lake, or the site of an ancient hot spring first explored by NASA’s Spirit rover

mars2020_landingsites_gusevjezerosyrtis
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover’s expected to land at one of the three sites noted on this image of the Red Planet. Credits: NASA

Space news (The Journey to Mars: Mars 2020; possible landing sites) – Northeast Syrtis: Jerero crater; or Columbia Hills, on the Red Planet –

Planetary scientists and other scientists attending the third landing site workshop hosted by NASA in order to determine the best place for its Mars 2020 rover to land recommend three places. NASA’s been using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to search for suitable sites since about 2006 and to help in the identification, study, and verification of possible future landing sites for coming manned missions during most recent history. Data and observations provided by the MRO also helped participants narrow down the choices to three during the workshop.

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Dr. Matt Golombek, just one of the rocket geniuses working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credits: NASA/JPL

“From the point of view of evaluating potential landing sites, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the perfect spacecraft for getting all the information needed,” said the workshop’s co-chair, Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “You just can’t overstate the importance of MRO for landing-site selection.”

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Leslie Tamppari, another genius working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credits: NASA/JPL

“Missions on the surface of Mars give you the close-up view, but what you see depends on where you land. MRO searches the globe for the best sites,” said MRO Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari of JPL.

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NASA’s Jet Propulsion is famous for employing the experience, skills, and knowledge of geniuses, but this is getting to be ridiculous. Credits: NASA/JPL

“Whether it is looking at the surface, the subsurface or the atmosphere of the planet, MRO has viewed Mars from orbit with unprecedented spatial resolution, and that produces huge volumes of data,” said MRO Project Scientist Rich Zurek of JPL.“These data are a treasure trove for the whole Mars scientific community to study as we seek to answer a broad range of questions about the evolving habitability, geology, and climate of Mars.”

The Journey to the Red Planet

The human journey to the beginning of space and time will be making a stop on Mars sometime in the 2030s if everything goes as planned with NASA’s Journey to Mars. Mars 2020 is expected to launch aboard the Atlas V 541 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida around July 2020. After a journey of millions of miles across the solar system to the Red Planet, the Mars 2020 rover will land at one of three possible sites.

Northeast Syrtis

mro_hirise_syrtis_major_esp_015942_1980-br2
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover could be landing here to look for evidence one-celled life flourished in water accumulated on the surface of the Red Planet. Credits: NASA/MRO/HIRISE

Images of the first possible landing site in the Northeast part of Syrtis Major show Early Noachian bedrock planetary scientists would like to have a closer look at for signs of possible life. An excellent place for study and exploration of the past of the Red Planet, scientists are currently studying whether it’s safe for Mars 2020 to land. There could be too many boulders or even steep slopes unidentified in the initial analysis of images of this region making landing problematic at best. There’s also always the possibility of something we haven’t thought of. If the site is safe, it will be considered for the final choice, and possibly even for the rovers planned by Europe and NASA sometime around 2018.

This part of the Red Planet was once warmed by volcanoes, so planetary scientists want to look for ancient hot springs and even surface ice melt where liquid water could have flowed. Liquid water’s one of the catalysts-of-life planetary scientists look for in the search for extraterrestrial life. The layered terrain of Northeast Syrtis could hold a record of ancient simple life forms that existed on Mars during its early history. At the very least it should tell us more about interactions between water and minerals over successive parts of the Red Planet when it was young. This site we should definitely take a look at.

Jezero Crater

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NASA scientists plan on using instruments on the Mars 2020 rover to look into the possibility simple, one-celled life could have evolved and flourished in the water of a lake they think existed on the surface of the Red Planet in this region. Credits: NASA/MRO/HIRISE

Rewind time 3.5 billion years in Jezero crater, to when river channels spilled over the crater wall and formed a lake. Planetary scientists see evidence water from this lake carried clay minerals from the lake bed after this body of water dried up. Scientists want to explore the crater for signs microbial life once lived here during events such as this when Jezero crater was a little wetter. For the remains of ancient life in the lakebed sediments.

Columbia Hills, Mars

mars_spirit_rover_gusev_crater_longhorn_rock_pia06770-br2
Scientists think simple, one-celled life could have developed and flourished in the waters of a shallow lake they believe formed here billions of years ago. Credits: NASA/MRO/HIRISE

After additional study planetary scientists and geochemists agree mineral springs once bubbled up from the rocks of Columbia Hills in Gusev crater on the Red Planet. Originally, the Spirit rover found no clear signs water flowed over or existed in the rocks of this region of Mars, but the discovery hot springs once existed here has scientists thinking a shallow lake may have once formed for a time. Warm, inviting waters microbial life could have evolved in, exobiologists are keen to examine soils and lakebed sediments of Gusev crater for their remains.

The Final Landing Site of the Mars 2020 rover

 

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NASA’s shortlisted the possible landing sites to the three regions seen in the slideshow above. Credits: NASA/MRO/HIRISE

 

Possible landing sites of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover may change as the mission goes forward, the science mission and even engineering considerations of achieving their goals could change as they learn more. Ultimately, NASA will decide on a landing site with geology indicating a wetter past that also meets all criteria. Stay tuned to the human journey to the beginning of space and time during the months and years ahead to learn more. 

Learn about NASA’s desire to find private firms and individuals to form space technology partnerships with.

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Learn more about NASA’s Journey to Mars.

Learn more about NASA’s contributions to the human journey to the beginning of space and time here.

Discover the Mars 2020 rover.

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NASA Engineers Test Prototype Robotic Asteroid Capture System 

In order to better understand intricate operations and detailed planning needed to capture multi-ton boulder from asteroid surface

A prototype of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) robotic capture module system is tested with a mock asteroid boulder in its clutches at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The robotic portion of ARM is targeted for launch in 2021. Located in the center’s Robotic Operations Center, the mockup helps engineers understand the intricate operations required to collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid’s surface. The hardware involved here includes three space frame legs with foot pads, two seven degrees of freedom arms that have with microspine gripper “hands” to grasp onto the boulder. NASA and students from West Virginia University built the asteroid mockup from rock, styrofoam, plywood and an aluminum endoskeleton. The mock boulder arrived in four pieces and was assembled inside the ROC to help visualize the engagement between the prototype system and a potential capture target. Inside the ROC, engineers can use industrial robots, a motion-based platform, and customized algorithms to create simulations of space operations for robotic spacecraft. The ROC also allows engineers to simulate robotic satellite servicing operations, fine tuning systems and controllers and optimizing performance factors for future missions when a robotic spacecraft might be deployed to repair or refuel a satellite in orbit. Image Credit: NASA
A prototype of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) robotic capture module system is tested with a mock asteroid boulder in its clutches at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The robotic portion of ARM is targeted for launch in 2021.
Located in the center’s Robotic Operations Center, the mockup helps engineers understand the intricate operations required to collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid’s surface. The hardware involved here includes three space frame legs with footpads, two seven degrees of freedom arms that have with microspine gripper “hands” to grasp onto the boulder.
NASA and students from West Virginia University built the asteroid mockup from rock, styrofoam, plywood and an aluminum endoskeleton. The mock boulder arrived in four pieces and was assembled inside the ROC to help visualize the engagement between the prototype system and a potential capture target.
Inside the ROC, engineers can use industrial robots, a motion-based platform, and customized algorithms to create simulations of space operations for robotic spacecraft. The ROC also allows engineers to simulate robotic satellite-servicing operations, fine-tuning systems and controllers and optimizing performance factors for future missions when a robotic spacecraft might be deployed to repair or refuel a satellite in orbit.
Image Credit: NASA

Space news (Asteroid Redirect Mission: testing of prototype of robotic capture module system) – The Robotic Operations Center of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA's Asteroid Redirect Missions. Credits: NASA/Goddard
A new report provides expert findings from a special action team on how elements of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) can address decadal science objectives and help close Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) for future human missions in deep space. Credits: NASA/Goddard

Inside the Robotic Operations Center (ROC) of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center engineers are at work preparing the robotic section of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The most recent work involved testing a prototype of the asteroid capture system with a mock boulder built by NASA and students from West Virginia University. This work will help engineers learn more about the intricate operations needed to capture a multi-ton boulder from the surface of an asteroid. The robotic section of ARM is targeted for a 2021 launch window.

The capability built into the ROC allows engineers to create a simulation of the capture of a boulder from the surface of an asteroid. Here they can also simulate servicing of the satellite, fine tuning of systems and controllers, and even optimize all performance factors for future repairs and refueling. An important capability when building spacecraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars and even more. One that saves money and time.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission is expected to offer benefits that should teach us more about operating in space and enable future space missions. You can read a report here on some of the expected benefits.

The report reflects the findings of a two-month study conducted by members of the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG). It explains many of ARM’s potential contributions to the future of the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

“This report is an important step in identifying ways that ARM will be more scientifically relevant as we continue mission formulation for the robotic and the crew segments,” said Gates. “We’re currently in the process of selecting hosted instruments and payloads for the robotic segment, and hope to receive an updated analysis from the SBAG after we announce those selections in spring 2017.”

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Learn more about NASA’s contributions to the human journey to the beginning of space and time here.

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The Death of the Sun 

Will leave behind a hot, shining corpse called a white dwarf

This image of NGC 2440 shows the colourful
This image of NGC 2440 shows the colourful “last hurrah” of a star like our Sun. The star is ending its life by casting off its outer layers of gas, which formed a cocoon around the star’s remaining core. Ultraviolet light from the dying star makes the material glow. The burned-out star, called a white dwarf, is the white dot in the centre. Credits: NASA/Hubble

Space news (astrophysics: the death of a Sun-like star; planetary nebula NGC 2440) – 4,000 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Puppis, watching the stunning, colorful last moments of a star like our own Sun –

Death is not extinguishing the light: it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come (quote by Rabindranath Tagore)

NGC 2440 is another planetary nebula ejected by a dying star, but it has a much more chaotic structure than NGC 2346. The central star of NGC 2440 is one of the hottest known, with a surface temperature near 200,000 degrees Celsius. The complex structure of the surrounding nebula suggests to some astronomers that there have been periodic oppositely directed outflows from the central star, somewhat similar to that in NGC2346, but in the case of NGC 2440 these outflows have been episodic, and in different directions during each episode. The nebula is also rich in clouds of dust, some of which form long, dark streaks pointing away fromthe central star. In addition to the bright nebula, which glows becauseof fluorescence due to ultraviolet radiation from the hot star, NGC 2440 is surrounded by a much larger cloud of cooler gas which is invisible in ordinary light but can be detected with infrared telescopes. NGC 2440 lies about 4,000 light-years from Earth in thedirection of the constellation Puppis. The Hubble Heritage team made this image from observations of NGC 2440acquired by Howard Bond (STScI) and Robin Ciardullo (Penn State). Credit: NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI).
NGC 2440 is a planetary nebula ejected by a dying star, with a little bit of extra character thrown in for visual entertainment. The central star of NGC 2440 has a surface temperature of around 200,000 degrees Celsius and chaotic nature suggesting periodic oppositely flowing outbursts, similar to the process seen in NGC 2346. In the case of this planetary nebula, however,  the outflows were periodic, and in different directions during each period. The Hubble Heritage team made this image from observations of NGC 2440 acquired by Howard Bond (STScI) and Robin Ciardullo (Penn State).
Credit: NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI).

Around 5 billion years in the future, give or take a hundred million, our Sun’s expected to send last hurrahs to the cosmos as seen here in this Hubble Telescope image of planetary nebula NGC 2440. Casting off its outer layers of gas forming a cocoon around the burned-out remains called a white dwarf, it will glow as ultraviolet light it emits strikes the material surrounding it. The Milky Way galaxy’s sprinkled with similar stellar objects astronomers in the 18th and 19th centuries named planetary nebula due to their resemblance when viewed through small telescopes of the time to the disks of distant Uranus and Neptune. Shining at a surface temperature of more than 360,000 degrees Fahrenheit (200,000 degrees Celsius), NGC 2440’s one of the hottest planetary nebula discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

It may look like a butterfly, but it's bigger than our Solar System. NGC 2346 is a planetary nebula made of gas and dust that has evolved into a familiar shape. At the heart of the bipolar planetary nebula is a pair of close stars orbiting each other once every sixteen days. The tale of how the butterfly blossomed probably began millions of years ago, when the stars were farther apart. The more massive star expanded to encompass its binary companion, causing the two to spiral closer and expel rings of gas. Later, bubbles of hot gas emerged as the core of the massive red giant star became uncovered. In billions of years, our Sun will become a red giant and emit a planetary nebula - but probably not in the shape of a butterfly, because the Sun has no binary star companion.
Planetary nebula NGC 2346 looks like a butterfly to many viewers, but you could comfortably fit our solar system within its boundaries. Two stars orbit closely together within every sixteen days. In a few billion years, our Sun will expand to become a red giant star and eject material to create a similar looking planetary nebula. Scientists think it will look different, however, because our Sun has no companion star. Credit: Massimo Stiavelli (STScI), Inge Heyer (STScI) et al., & the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/ STScI/ NASA)

Study of this planetary nebula’s chaotic structure suggests it shed its outer layers of mass in episodic outbursts heading in different directions as seen in the two bowtie-shaped lobes observed in the image at the top. Long, dark clouds of dust forming dark streaks traveling away from NGC 2440 can also be seen, along with expelled helium indicated by blue, oxygen highlighted in blue-green, and nitrogen and hydrogen in red. Matter expelled by the white dwarf glows in different colors, depending on its composition, density, and distance from the hot star.

A full-disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by SDO on March 30, 2010. False colors trace different gas temperatures. Reds are relatively cool (about 60,000 Kelvin, or 107,540 F); blues and greens are hotter (greater than 1 million Kelvin, or 1,799,540 F). Credits: NASA/Goddard/SDO AIA Team
This is a full-disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by SDO on March 30, 2010. False colors trace different gas temperatures. Reds are relatively cool (about 60,000 Kelvin, or 107,540 F); blues and greens are hotter (greater than 1 million Kelvin, or 1,799,540 F). In a few billion years it will expand into a red giant star and eject material that will become a similar, but different, looking planetary nebula than NGC 2440. Credits: NASA/Goddard/SDO AIA Team

The final days of stars like the Sun

The present theory concerning the final days of a white dwarf star says it will end its days as a black dwarf star. Unknown billions of years in the future, astronomers believe white dwarf stars could stop emitting light and heat and become cold, stellar bodies. Cold, dark stars our telescopes and present technology would have extreme difficulty detecting accept for the effects of their gravity wells on objects traveling nearby. Unfortunately, our universe is only about 14 billions years old, which is too young for black dwarf stars to exist, if the theory is correct. 

Read about NASA’s recently issued challenge to young innovators to “Think Outside the Box”.

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Learn more about black dwarf stars.

Ferocious Wind Nebula Around Magnetar Observed for First Time

Giving us a rare, unique window into the environment and emission history of the strongest magnets in the cosmos

This X-ray image shows extended emission around a source known as Swift J1834.9-0846, a rare ultra-magnetic neutron star called a magnetar. The glow arises from a cloud of fast-moving particles produced by the neutron star and corralled around it. Color indicates X-ray energies, with 2,000-3,000 electron volts (eV) in red, 3,000-4,500 eV in green, and 5,000 to 10,000 eV in blue. The image combines observations by the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton spacecraft taken on March 16 and Oct. 16, 2014. Credits: ESA/XMM-Newton/Younes et al. 2016
This X-ray image shows extended emission around a source known as Swift J1834.9-0846, a rare ultra-magnetic neutron star called a magnetar. The glow arises from a cloud of fast-moving particles produced by the neutron star and corralled around it. Color indicates X-ray energies, with 2,000-3,000 electron volts (eV) in red, 3,000-4,500 eV in green, and 5,000 to 10,000 eV in blue. The image combines observations by the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton spacecraft taken on March 16 and Oct. 16, 2014.
Credits: ESA/XMM-Newton/Younes et al. 2016

Space news (astrophysics: wind nebulas; Swift J1834.9-0846) – 13,000 light-years toward the constellation Scutum in the midst of a vast cloud of high-energy, particles surrounding supernova remnant W41 –

Astronomers studying the strongest magnets discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, magnetars, have detected one they haven’t seen before. A magnetar, a rare highly magnetic neutron star with a vast cloud of high-energy, recently-emitted particles called a wind nebula streaming from it. Offering a unique window into the characteristics, environment and emission history of one of the most enigmatic and eye-opening objects ever detected.

“Right now, we don’t know how J1834.9 developed and continues to maintain a wind nebula, which until now was a structure only seen around young pulsars,” said lead researcher George Younes, a postdoctoral researcher at George Washington University in Washington. “If the process here is similar, then about 10 percent of the magnetar’s rotational energy loss is powering the nebula’s glow, which would be the highest efficiency ever measured in such a system.”

This illustration compares the size of a neutron star to Manhattan Island in New York, which is about 13 miles long. A neutron star is the crushed core left behind when a massive star explodes as a supernova and is the densest object astronomers can directly observe. Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
This illustration compares the size of a neutron star to Manhattan Island in New York, which is about 13 miles long. A neutron star is the crushed core left behind when a massive star explodes as a supernova and is the densest object astronomers can directly observe.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

An object around 13 miles (20 kilometers) in diameter, or about the length of Manhattan Island, only 29 magnetars have been detected, so far. In this particular case, the source of detected emissions is called Swift J1834.9-0846, a rare type of ultra-magnetic neutron star detected by the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Satellite on August 7, 2011. It was subsequently looked at closer a month later by a team led by Younes using the European Space Agency’s (ESA) XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory. It was at this time astronomers realized and confirmed the first wind nebula ever detected around a magnetar.

“For me, the most interesting question is, why is this the only magnetar with a nebula? Once we know the answer, we might be able to understand what makes a magnetar and what makes an ordinary pulsar,” said co-author Chryssa Kouveliotou, a professor in the Department of Physics at George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

Neutron stars are the crushed cores of massive stars left over after they have gone supernova and the densest objects astrophysicists have been able to directly observe during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. All neutron star magnetic fields detected, so far, are 100 to 10 trillion times stronger than Earth’s, and magnetar fields reach levels thousands of times stronger. Astrophysicists have no ideas on how magnetic fields of such immense strength are formed. 

 co-author Alice Harding, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credits: NASA
Co-author Alice Harding, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Credits: NASA

“Making a wind nebula requires large particle fluxes, as well as some way to bottle up the outflow so it doesn’t just stream into space,” said co-author Alice Harding, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We think the expanding shell of the supernova remnant serves as the bottle, confining the outflow for a few thousand years. When the shell has expanded enough, it becomes too weak to hold back the particles, which then leak out and the nebula fades away. This naturally explains why wind nebulae are not found among older pulsars, even those driving strong outflows.

“The nebula around J1834.9 stores the magnetar’s energetic outflows over its whole active history, starting many thousands of years ago,” said team member Jonathan Granot, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at the Open University in Ra’anana, Israel. “It represents a unique opportunity to study the magnetar’s historical activity, opening a whole new playground for theorists like me.”

What’s next?

Astrophysicists think a magnetar outburst’s powered by energy stored in its super-strong magnetic field produced gamma rays and x-rays, along with the gales of accelerated particles making up the nebula wind detected in the case of Swift J1834.9-0846. Now, they have a mystery to figure out, and new theories to deduce to explain the way a magnetar produces a nebula wind. 

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How Galaxy CGCG254-021 Got its Tail

A tale of two galactic cities 

z8338

Space news (galaxy formation: galaxy tails; the largest ever) – 680 million light-years from Earth toward the constellation Hercules – 

The ghostly blue, diffuse ribbon of hot gas seen trailing behind galaxy CGCG254-021 in the upper right of this composite image is the longest, largest galaxy tail observed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. This stunning view was made using X-ray data (blue) collected by NASA’s Chandra Observatory and data (yellow) from the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes.

NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer found a tail behind a galaxy called IC 3418. The star-studded tail can be seen on the left, as detected by the space telescope in ultraviolet light. The tail has escaped detection in visible light, as shown by the image on the right, taken by a visible-light telescope on the ground. This tail was created as the galaxy plunged into gas in a family of galaxies known as the Virgo cluster. The image on the left is a composite of data from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (far-ultraviolet light is dark blue and near-ultraviolet light is light blue); and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (visible light is colored green and red). The image on the right is from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Other galaxies and stars can be seen scattered throughout the image. Another galaxy called IC 3413, which is part of the Virgo cluster, can be seen to the right of IC 3418 as an oval-shaped blob. The bright large dot at upper right is a star in our Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer found a tail behind a galaxy called IC 3418. The star-studded tail can be seen on the left, as detected by the space telescope in ultraviolet light. The tail has escaped detection in visible light, as shown by the image on the right, taken by a visible-light telescope on the ground. This tail was created as the galaxy plunged into gas in a family of galaxies known as the Virgo cluster.
The image on the left is a composite of data from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (far-ultraviolet light is dark blue and near-ultraviolet light is light blue); and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (visible light is colored green and red). The image on the right is from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
Other galaxies and stars can be seen scattered throughout the image. Another galaxy called IC 3413, which is part of the Virgo cluster, can be seen to the right of IC 3418 as an oval-shaped blob. The bright large dot at upper right is a star in our Milky Way galaxy.
Image Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Galaxy tails are wispy ribbons of hot gas stripped from a galaxy as it travels through an immense cloud of hot intergalactic gas. In the case of galaxy CGCG254-021, a tail of hot gas estimated at over 250,000 light-years in length, and around 10 million degrees Centigrade, which is half the estimated temperature of the intergalactic gas cloud. 

Astronomers think CGCG254-021’s tail was stripped from the galaxy as it moved through hot gas in galaxy cluster Zwicky 8338. The pressure exerted by this rapid motion stripped gas away from the galaxy, creating the ghostly blue ribbon of hot gas observed. A ribbon astronomers think could be completely free of the galaxy, considering the distance between the two as seen in this image. 

Astronomers have been studying interactions between the ribbon and galaxy CGCG254-021 by examining the characteristics and properties of the galaxy and its ghostly tail. They noted it has a brighter spot they call its head with a tail of diffuse x-ray emission trailing behind. This could indicate the gas in the head in cooler and richer in elements heavier than helium compared to the rest of the ribbon. There’s also a hint of a bow shock at the head of the tail with the galaxy at the front.  

Additional observations by researchers at infrared wavelengths also show galaxy CGCG254-021 has more mass than any other galaxy in galaxy cluster Zwicky 8338. Using the data obtained and models of the evolution of galaxies astrophysicists predicted it recently had the highest rate of new star formation in the cluster. However, they can find no evidence of new stars recently forming within the galaxy. They think this lack of new stars is due to the stripping of gas as it traveled through galaxy cluster Zwicky 8338.  

The foreground galaxy is NGC 4569 of the Virgo cluster. The red filaments at the right of the galaxy show the hydrogen gas that has been removed. The tail represents about 95 per cent of the gas reservoir the galaxy needs to feed the formation of new stars. Credit: CFHT/Coelum
The foreground galaxy is NGC 4569 of the Virgo cluster. The red filaments at the right of the galaxy show the hydrogen gas that has been removed. The tail represents about 95 per cent of the gas reservoir the galaxy needs to feed the formation of new stars. Credit: CFHT/Coelum

What’s next?

Astrophysicists plan on additional observations of galaxy CGCG254-021 and Zwicky 8383 in the future using Chandra, the Newton Group of telescopes, and other assets. They hope to fill in the blanks on how it obtained the largest galaxy tail recorded during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. To learn the story of how this galaxy got its ghostly blue tail. 

Read the PDF on the study of the tail of galaxy CGCG254-021 in galaxy cluster Zwicky 8383.

Read about the five-year journey of NASA’s Juno spacecraft to a recent arrival at Jupiter.

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Read a study on the galaxy tail of galaxy NGC 4569 in the Virgo Cluster.

You can learn more about galaxy CGCG254-021 here

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Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (yellow) in the Canary Island. 

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Initial Atmospheric Study of Two Earth-Sized Exoplanets

Data shows at least one of two exoplanets studied orbits within the habitable zone of host red dwarf star in system TRAPPIST-1

This illustration shows two Earth-sized worlds passing in front of their parent red dwarf star, which is much smaller and cooler than our sun. Credit: NASA/ESA/J. de Wit (MIT)/G. Bacon (STScI)
This illustration shows two Earth-sized worlds passing in front of their parent red dwarf star, which is much smaller and cooler than our sun. Credit: NASA/ESA/J. de Wit (MIT)/G. Bacon (STScI)

Space news (the search for Earth 2.0: the first atmospheric study of Earth-sized exoplanets; TRAPPIST-1 system) – searching for possible atmospheres surrounding exoplanets TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c 40 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Aquarius – 

This artist’s impression shows an imagined view from the surface one of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and are the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the Solar System. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star. In this view one of the inner planets is seen in transit across the disc of its tiny and dim parent star.
This artist’s impression shows an imagined view from the surface one of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and are the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the Solar System. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star. In this view one of the inner planets is seen in transit across the disc of its tiny and dim parent star.

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to search for suitable exoplanets to act as a cradle for a new human genesis recently sampled the atmospheres of two exoplanets orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. They used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to observe TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c in near-infrared wavelengths to look for signs of an atmosphere. They discovered these two exoplanets probably don’t have the fluffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres found around larger, gaseous exoplanets.  

This chart shows the naked eye stars visible on a clear dark night in the sprawling constellation of Aquarius (The Water Carrier). The position of the faint and very red ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is marked. Although it is relatively close to the Sun it is very faint and not visible in small telescopes.
This chart shows the naked eye stars visible on a clear dark night in the sprawling constellation of Aquarius (The Water Carrier). The position of the faint and very red ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is marked. Although it is relatively close to the Sun it is very faint and not visible in small telescopes.

The image seen at the top of the page is an artist’s portrayal of TRAPPIST-1b and 1c, two Earth-sized exoplanets shown passing in front of their host red dwarf star. Astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to look for hints of atmospheres surrounding these distant worlds and detected signs increasing the chances of habitability.  

This picture shows the Sun and the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 to scale. The faint star has only 11% of the diameter of the sun and is much redder in colour.
This picture shows the Sun and the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 to scale. The faint star has only 11% of the diameter of the sun and is much redder in color. Credit: ESO

“The lack of a smothering hydrogen-helium envelope increases the chances for habitability on these planets,” said team member Nikole Lewis of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. “If they had a significant hydrogen-helium envelope, there is no chance that either one of them could potentially support life because the dense atmosphere would act like a greenhouse.” 

Dr. Lewis is an expert in the area of exoplanet atmospheric characterization. Her work focuses on the interplay of dynamical, radiative, and chemical processes (including cloud formation) in exoplanet atmospheres. She has successfully bridged the gap between theory and observation through her pioneering work with Spitzer Space Telescope exoplanet observations and the development of general circulation models for a number of giant exoplanets. Dr. Lewis' work at the Space Telescope Science Institute focuses on enabling transiting exoplanet observations with the James Webb Space Telescope
Dr. Lewis is an expert in the area of exoplanet atmospheric characterization. Her work focuses on the interplay of dynamical, radiative, and chemical processes (including cloud formation) in exoplanet atmospheres. She has successfully bridged the gap between theory and observation through her pioneering work with Spitzer Space Telescope exoplanet observations and the development of general circulation models for a number of giant exoplanets. Dr. Lewis’ work at the Space Telescope Science Institute focuses on enabling transiting exoplanet observations with the James Webb Space Telescope

Julien de Wit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and a team of astronomers used spectroscopy to decipher the light, revealing clues to the chemical composition of an atmosphere surrounding these candidates. By taking advantage of a rare double-transit of both exoplanets across the face of their host star, they collected starlight passing through any gas envelope surrounding these exoplanets. This event only occurs every two years, but it allowed for a simultaneous measurement of atmospheric characteristics. The exact composition’s still a mystery at this point, further observations are required to determine more clues. This is an exciting and promising start. 

This artist’s impression shows an imagined view of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and may be the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the Solar System. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star. In this view one of the inner planets is seen in transit across the disc of its tiny and dim parent star.
This artist’s impression shows an imagined view of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and may be the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the Solar System. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star. In this view one of the inner planets is seen in transit across the disc of its tiny and dim parent star.

“These initial Hubble observations are a promising first step in learning more about these nearby worlds, whether they could be rocky like Earth, and whether they could sustain life,” says Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is an exciting time for NASA and exoplanet research.” 

Mr. Geoffrey L. Yoder is currently the acting Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.
Mr. Geoffrey L. Yoder is currently the acting Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

Estimates put the age of the host red dwarf star at around 500 million years, which is young for a star with a potential lifespan of trillions of years. Red dwarf stars burn a lot cooler, but completely consume their supply of hydrogen, unlike more massive types of stars. The most common star in the cosmos, astronomers think 20 out of 30 near-Earth suns could be red dwarfs. The numbers indicate searching nearby red dwarfs for an exoplanet with the right ingredients for habitability is a good place to begin our search. 

Dr. Susan Lederer stands next to the UKIRT Telescope located on Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i, which was used to confirm the existence of the newly discovered exoplanets and constrain their orbital periods. Says Lederer, "For such a small, cool, star giving off so much of its light in the infrared, the UKIRT telescope, designed solely for infrared observations, was ideally suited for confirming the existence of these Earth-sized planets.”
Dr. Susan Lederer stands next to the UKIRT Telescope located on Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i, which was used to confirm the existence of the newly discovered exoplanets and constrain their orbital periods. Says Lederer, “For such a small, cool, star giving off so much of its light in the infrared, the UKIRT telescope, designed solely for infrared observations, was ideally suited for confirming the existence of these Earth-sized planets.”

The team and other astronomers plan on making follow-up measurements of these two exoplanets using the Hubble Space Telescope, the Kepler Space Telescope, the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, and other assets to look for thinner gas layers containing heavier atoms than hydrogen as in Earth’s atmosphere.  

“With more data, we could perhaps detect methane or see water features in the atmospheres, which would give us estimates of the depth of the atmospheres,” said Hannah Wakeford, the paper’s second author, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. 

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Hannah Wakeford. Credits: Linked

Toward the future

In the years ahead, using assets like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers should be able to determine the exact composition of any atmospheres surrounding these exoplanets and others. Finding the signatures of water vapor and methane, or even carbon dioxide and ozone is a significant step toward possible habitability for lifeforms. The power of Webb should also allow planetary scientists to measure the surface and atmospheric temperature and pressure of each exoplanet. Both key factors to determining if these exoplanets orbiting red dwarf TRAPPIST-1 are possible cradles for the genesis of life. 

“Thanks to several giant telescopes currently under construction, including ESO’s E-ELT and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope due to launch for 2018, we will soon be able to study the atmospheric composition of these planets and to explore them first for water, then for traces of biological activity. That’s a giant step in the search for life in the Universe,” says Julien de Wit. 

Julien De Witt: Credits: Linked
Julien De Witt: Credits: Linked

“These Earth-sized planets are the first worlds that astronomers can study in detail with current and planned telescopes to determine whether they are suitable for life,” said de Wit. “Hubble has the facility to play the central atmospheric pre-screening role to tell astronomers which of these Earth-sized planets are prime candidates for more detailed study with the Webb telescope.” 

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