Kepler Goes Silent

This last week we said goodbye to a truly pioneering space telescope. The Kepler mission was designed to find exoplanets, planets that orbit around other stars. The mission succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations.

Artist’s rendition of the Kepler Spacecraft in orbit around the Sun peering at a distant solar system, press release image from the NASA Kepler website
This little space telescope monitored over 500,000 stars during it’s mission, watching for the minuscule dip in brightness as a panet passed in front of the star. For nine years Kepler stared at those thousands of stars, during that time it discovered over 2,600 exoplanets. Along with the planets came a long list of other discoveries such as binary stars, variable stars, and novae.

After nine productive years this engine of discovery has come to an end. With the spacecraft out of fuel NASA flight engineers sent the last commands, shutting the spacecraft down.

The Keck Observatory and the Kepler Spacecraft had a great partnership. It was not possible to confirm most Kepler’s possible exoplanets using only data from the spacecraft. A large telescope using a high resolution spectrograph, like HIRES on Keck 1, would allow astronomers to not only confirm Kepler’s discovery, but to learn more about each exoplanet.

Continue reading “Kepler Goes Silent”

By Jove!

Jupiter from Juno
A spectacular image taken by the Juno spacecraft just above the cloud tops of Jupiter.
Waves of clouds at 37.8 degrees latitude dominate this three-dimensional Jovian cloudscape, courtesy of NASA’s Juno spacecraft. JunoCam obtained this enhanced-color picture on May 19, 2017, at 5:50 UTC from an altitude of 5,500 miles (8,900 kilometers).
Image credit: NASA/SWRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt/Sean Doran

A Whole New Jupiter: First Science Results from NASA’s Juno Mission

JPL Press Release

Early science results from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter portray the largest planet in our solar system as a complex, gigantic, turbulent world, with Earth-sized polar cyclones, plunging storm systems that travel deep into the heart of the gas giant, and a mammoth, lumpy magnetic field that may indicate it was generated closer to the planet’s surface than previously thought.

Jupiter South Pole from Juno
This image shows Jupiter’s south pole, as seen by NASA’s Juno spacecraft from an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles
“We are excited to share these early discoveries, which help us better understand what makes Jupiter so fascinating,” said Diane Brown, Juno program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It was a long trip to get to Jupiter, but these first results already demonstrate it was well worth the journey.”

Juno launched on Aug. 5, 2011, entering Jupiter’s orbit on July 4, 2016. The findings from the first data-collection pass, which flew within about 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) of Jupiter’s swirling cloud tops on Aug. 27, are being published this week in two papers in the journal Science, as well as 44 papers in Geophysical Research Letters.

Continue reading “A Whole New Jupiter: First Science Results from NASA’s Juno Mission”

More Than 100 Planets Confirmed in Single Trove

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

An international team of astronomers have discovered and confirmed a treasure trove of new worlds. The researchers achieved this extraordinary discovery of exoplanets by combining NASA’s K2 mission data with follow-up observations by Earth-based telescopes including the W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, the twin Gemini telescopes on Maunakea and in Chile, the Automated Planet Finder of the University of California Observatories and the Large Binocular Telescope operated by the University of Arizona. The team confirmed more than 100 planets, including the first planetary system comprising four planets potentially similar to Earth. The discoveries are published online in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

Image montage showing the Maunakea Observatories, Kepler Space Telescope, and night sky with K2 Fields and discovered planetary systems (dots) overlaid. Credit: Karen Teramura/IFA , Miloslav Druckmüller, NASA
Image montage showing the Maunakea Observatories, Kepler Space Telescope, and night sky with K2 Fields and discovered planetary systems (dots) overlaid. Credit: Karen Teramura/IFA , Miloslav Druckmüller, NASA
Ironically, the bounty was made possible when the Kepler space telescope’s pointing system broke.

In its initial mission, Kepler surveyed a specific patch of sky in the northern hemisphere, measuring the frequency with which planets whose sizes and temperatures are similar to Earth occur around stars like our sun. But when it lost its ability to precisely stare at its original target area in 2013, engineers created a second life for the telescope that is proving remarkably fruitful.

Continue reading “More Than 100 Planets Confirmed in Single Trove”

Ceres Up Close

Dawn has been in orbit around Ceres for over a year now, having entered orbit back on March 6th, 2015. Most of the dwarf planet has been photographed and mapped in high resolution now, creating beautiful imagery that reveals a great deal of interesting terrian. As we have seen with other dwarf planets like Pluto, these little worlds are surprisingly dynamic places, hardly the dead rocks one might have expected.

The bright features in Occator crater have been revealed to be some sort of cryovolcano. While not certain, the bright is likely to be water ice, or perhaps a briny, salt and water mixture. There has even been some evidence of vapor observed over the crater, possibly from sublimating ices.

I am sure this is a large disappointment to those who claimed it was some sort of alien base. Not that this has stopped the claims, they are just more modest in size. You can find YouTube videos of folks combing through the high resolution images and claiming any little feature that is slightly regular looking is some alien artifact.

More enjoyable to watch is a JPL video pointing out the highlights of Ceres…

NASA Honors Keck Observatory for Opening its Archive to the Public

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Keck 2 Lasing
The Keck 2 AO laser works the northern sky
The W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii has just been awarded the 2015 NASA Group Achievement Award for pioneering the Keck Observatory Archive (KOA) ten years ago, which has significantly increased the impact of Keck Observatory data. The award was received by Keck Observatory Chief Scientist, Dr. Anne Kinney at NASA headquarters on December 8, 2015.

“For the past 10 years, the NASA KOA team has boosted the science value of data acquired at Keck Observatory by providing the scientific community with open access to WMKO data,” said Mario Perez, Keck Observatory Program Executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “They helped set a standard that all new ground based observatories are adopting. For this, the NASA KOA team has earned the NASA Group Achievement Award.”

“We are very proud of this award as well as the KOA project itself,” said Hilton Lewis, Director of W. M. Keck Observatory. “This was the brainchild of Anne Kinney while she was at NASA and who I am happy to report recently joined Keck Observatory as our Chief Scientist. Thanks to her vision, data gathered by all instruments at Keck Observatory is available for everyone to use. The Keck Observatory telescopes are the most scientifically productive on Earth, responsible for gathering data used in about 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers per year – almost one per night. There are terabytes of valuable data collected over the last 20 years waiting to be mined.”

In 2004, NASA established a partnership with WMKO to acquire large volumes of data from a single instrument, the High Resolution Spectrograph (HIRES), for NASA science purposes. It is standard practice to make data from NASA’s space telescopes available to the world in a public archive, but in 2004 it was unheard of to do the same with data from a ground-based telescope. Kinney, then Director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, decided to start a visionary project of promoting public access to these data, and the project began by archiving NASA-acquired HIRES data.

Continue reading “NASA Honors Keck Observatory for Opening its Archive to the Public”

The Definitive Pluto Image

The NASA New Horizons team has released a gorgeous full disk image of Pluto. I would predict that this high resolution image will be the definitive image of Pluto for at least a century. Expect to see this image any time you run across Pluto in any media, from Wikipedia to school textbooks.

Panning across the image one can see that Pluto does feature a fair number of impact craters, more than I noted on the earlier images that often concentrated on the ice fields of the Sputnik Planum. This ice cap is startlingly smooth, with flow features visible, primarily at the margins. The ice is probably nitrogen ice as water is essentially a rock at these temperatures. Indeed much of the bedrock visible across the image is probably water ice.

The ice sheet is made up of polygons, a feature sometimes seen in ice here on Earth. For some reason the boundaries of the polygons are marked with long linear double depressions. These depressions look like 4WD roads across a desert of sand, if the vehicles had tires a mile across.

On the right side of the ice fields of Sputnik Planum there are a a large number of aeolian features, huge ridges one would suppose are aligned with the prevailing winds. Given that the image resolution is 0.8 miles per pixel these features must be miles high. These have recently been dubbed snakeskin terrain. I expect the planetary scientists will have a bit of fun trying to figure these out.

It is a beautiful image, conveying a great sense of what this dwarf planet is really like. Download the high resolution image and just wander. The larger image is bigger than WordPress will allow, use the link above to get the full size image.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The Icy Plains of Pluto

As the New Horizons data trickles back to Earth we are being treated to ever better images of this distant dwarf planet. Soaring mountains, glaciers of nitrogen ice flowing into ice caps that cover huge areas, a hazy and layered atmosphere, Pluto has turned out to be a surprise to just about every one. Those who expected an ancient cratered terrain have been presented with a surprisingly dynamic world.

Click on the image for more information, click again for the big version to really appreciate…

New Horizons Pluto
Pluto’s Majestic Mountains, Frozen Plains and Foggy Hazes: Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Public Lecture Reminder

A reminder that the Keck public lecture is tomorrow night…

Astronomy Talk: America’s Space Program – NASA’s Roadmap to Tomorrow’s Missions

Saturn from Above
This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will discuss America’s space program and the challenges the agency faces for the missions of tomorrow. Using a stepping stone approach that builds on the capabilities of our unique orbiting laboratory – the International Space Station – the growing abilities of commercial providers to reach space, and a new rocket and crew vehicle to travel to deep space, NASA is extending human reach into the solar system even as its amazing science missions are rewriting textbooks about our universe and inspiring the next generation of explorers.
The agency currently has spacecraft speeding toward Jupiter and Pluto and roving on Mars, and is searching for planets that could potentially harbor life beyond our solar system. An unprecedented mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to an orbit near to Earth is in the planning stages, and the Space Launch System and Orion Crew vehicle are reaching new milestones in development to take astronauts to an asteroid and on to Mars.

NASA has been a 1/6 partner in the W. M. Keck Observatory since 1996 and it is an honor to offer this program to the community.

Friday March 13, 2015
07:00 pm – 08:00 pm
Kahilu Theatre
Free Admission

​Mars Lost an Ocean’s Worth of Water

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

A primitive ocean on Mars once held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean, according to NASA scientists who measured signatures of water in the planet’s atmosphere using the most powerful telescopes on Earth including the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The results are being published in the journal Science on March 6, 2015.

Mars with Oceans
NASA scientists have determined that a primitive ocean on Mars held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean and that the Red Planet has lost 87 percent of that water to space. Credit: NASA/GSFC
The young planet would have had enough water to cover the entire surface in a liquid layer about 450 feet (137 meters) deep. More likely, the water would have formed an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’ northern hemisphere, in some regions reaching depths greater than a mile (1.6 kilometers).

“Our study provides a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had, by determining how much water was lost to space,” said Geronimo Villanueva, first author of the paper and scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “With this work, we can better understand the history of water on Mars.”

The new estimate is based on detailed observations of two slightly different forms of water in Mars’ atmosphere. One is the familiar H2O, made with two hydrogens and one oxygen. The other is HDO, a naturally occurring variation in which one hydrogen is replaced by a heavier form, called deuterium.

Continue reading “​Mars Lost an Ocean’s Worth of Water”