NASA Study Using Keck Telescope Hints at Possible Change in Water ‘Fingerprint’ of Comet

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

A trip past the sun may have selectively altered the production of one form of water in a comet – an effect not seen by astronomers before, a new NASA study suggests.

C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy & M45
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy passing by the Pleiades star cluster
Astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, observed the Oort cloud comet C/2014 Q2, also called Lovejoy, when it passed near Earth in early 2015. Through NASA’s partnership in the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the team observed the comet at infrared wavelengths a few days after Lovejoy passed its perihelion – or closest point to the sun.

Scientists from NASA’s Goddard Center for Astrobiology observed the comet C/2014 Q2 – also called Lovejoy – and made simultaneous measurements of the output of H2O and HDO, a variant form of water. This image of Lovejoy was taken on Feb. 4, 2015 – the same day the team made their observations and just a few days after the comet passed its perihelion, or closest point to the sun.

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Queen’s Bath

“We swam in the Queen’s Bath this weekend”

“Oh? Which one?”

Queen's Bath
One of many freshwater pools along the Kohala Coast
Queen’s Bath is a name you will find scattered through vacation guides to the island of Hawaiʻi. The problem is that there is more than one, dozens actually. The name Queen’s Bath tends to be applied to any freshwater pool, particularly near the ocean. Some are small, some are quite large pools of crystal clear freshwater, a few are hidden in lava tubes.

There is the well known lava tube at Kihilo just a pebble’s throw from the surf. Enter through a skylight into the crisp, cool water. Bring a dive light and swim all the way to the back of the tube. Careful, there are boulders waiting to scrape the shins of an unwary swimmer, reef shoes or river sandals are the ideal footwear here.

Another Queen’s bath is found on the grounds of the Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historic Park. The park requests that you refrain from swimming in this one.

There are any number of pools along the Kohala Coast, particularly the low-lying section from Puako to Kiholo bay where enormous amounts of fresh water find their way into the sea. These often have reef fish trapped within, perhaps washed in by the winter surf. Other species of fish prefer these pools, grazing on the algae growing in the shallow, warm water.

Queen's Bath
The lava tube Queen’s Bath at Kiholo
The Puna coastline hosts many pools along the shoreline. Kaimū beach at Kalapana hosted one of the most famous Queen’s Baths. It was lost to the lava on the 1990’s as successive flows covered the area and destroyed the famous black sand beach. I have heard the pool at Ahalanui Park called a Queen’s bath, yet another example of the confusion.

Some of these pools are brackish, the salt water mixing with fresh. The result is a swirling view through a dive mask with the mixed refractive indexes, looking a bit like mixing water and oil. As one swims away from the ocean the water becomes fresher, you often find startlingly cool currents where the fresh water enters the pool. Often the tides will affect the depth of the water in the pool, even pools a hundred yards from the ocean rising and falling as the tide backs up the flow of water.

Many of the pools are local secrets, directions not available to outsiders. Places where a hot afternoon can be enjoyed, swimming in the cool waters. I know a few of these, don’t ask me where to find them.

The 2015 El Niño Event

The intensifying El Niño event in the Pacific is looking to be the strongest event of the last 50 years. Some news outlets have dubbed it the “Godzilla” El Niño.

Officially referred to as ENSO, or El Niño Southern Ocsillation, this event is a period of dramatically warm surface water temperatures that occurs across the equatorial Pacific Ocean. These events usually alternate with periods of cooler temperatures, or La Niña events, and can have dramatic effects on weather across the globe.

The immediate effects of the warming water are already being felt… Water temperatures around the islands are at least 2°C above normal, pushing our normally cool water into near bathtub temperatures. Local divers are commenting on the warm water temperatures, those who normally wear wet suits are comfortable without.

This warm water is also fueling the series of hurricanes sweeping past the islands. The storms just keep coming. It will be an interesting year!

Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly
Sea surface temperature anomaly charts for August 2015

​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.

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The Main Pressure Regulator

Raking leaves out from underneath the lanai I just happen to look up. The water line into the house is right there and can be seen through a opening I cut in the lattice to allow the main shutoff valve to be reached without crawling under the house. There are pretty little ferns growing on the water pressure regulator.

That is not good.

Household Water Pressure Rregulator
A leaking household pressure regulator… Another weekend repair required.

The regulator is weeping, a steady dripping from the bottom of the assembly. A closer look shows that the valve body is badly corroded. This is not something I want to mess with until I have replacement parts on-hand. It is likely to come apart when disturbed, leaving the house without water.

Thus a mid-week trip to HPM is made. No matter, a lunchtime trip is an excuse to stop in Big Island Brewhaus and try some of the new menu items, the burgers are great! I note that the cherry trees are also beginning to bloom nicely, all good for the Cherry Blossom Festival next week.

A new regulator, a water pressure gauge, a handful of copper fittings. I have the rest of the needed tools on-hand already… Torch, propane, pipe cutter, flux, solder and pipe compound. I make sure I have everything before I shut off the water. I also warn my wife that the house will be without water for a few hours.

The old regulator is in bad shape, but not that bad. Failure was not imminent, maybe in a few months, but not tomorrow. It was leaking quite a bit, a steady drip. Water shut off at the street and at the supply to the solar water heating system I can open the lines. A little struggle ensues before the old fittings yield and the old regulator can be removed.

Of course the new regulator is smaller, I can not just thread it into place. This is what the copper fittings are for… I cut away the old threaded fittings and measure some new pieces of pipe. While I am cutting and fitting copper I add a new valve above the regulator, a convenient way to drain the household system and a place to attach a pressure gauge when adjusting the new regulator.

Yes, I raked out the pile of old leaves caught in the corner before lighting up the propane torch. No need to burn the house down to do a little plumbing repair.

All done I open the valves and return water pressure to the house. The gauge reads just below 50psi… good, just what the manual stated for the setting from the factory. This is not, of course, satisfactory for Deb, not enough pressure! Adjusting upwards to 60psi and my wife is happier.

The job cost a bit over $100 in parts. All good, and vastly cheaper than calling out a plumber for an easy job. Never mind that Hawaii law requires a licensed plumber to do such a job. Another weekend repair completed. What would I be doing else-wise? Probably painting or cleaning the garage.

Flowing Water

The flowing stream. An easy and fun shot that should be in any photographers skill set. Not only a pretty shot that captures the feel of a flowing stream, but a shot that teaches a little basic photography in the taking.

Hamakua Stream
A stream tumbles through boulders on the Hamakua Coast
This shot was taken at the Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Gardens at Onomea Bay north of Hilo. Several typical rainforest streams tumble through the gardens flowing to the cove below. This is a shot that can be taken thousands of places on this rainy coastline, there are hundreds of streams and waterfalls to choose from. This one happens to have a little bridge to keep your feet and tripod dry.

While I was taking this shot another couple was taking the same photo beside me on the bridge. They wondered what I did to get the shot they saw on my screen. I offered them a turn on my tripod for a moment and talked them through the steps needed to create the flowing stream look. The Canon Rebel T5i they were using was perfectly capable of achieving the same effect. A minute later they had succeeded, happy with a very pretty photo. I suspect they learned a little in the process.

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Water Vapor Detected in the Atmosphere of a Hot Jupiter

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

California Institute of Technology (Caltech) astronomers using data gathered at the W. M. Keck Observatory have developed a new technique for planetary scientists that could provide insight into how many water planets like Earth exist within our universe. The results have been published on February 24th by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Exoplanet Water Spectra
Simulated data showing the method used for detecting water vapor features detected around the hot Jupiter tau Boo b.
Credit: Alexandra Lockwood (CalTech) background image used with permission from David Aguilar (CFA)
Scientists have detected water vapor on other planets in the past, but these detections could only take place under very specific circumstances, according to graduate student Alexandra Lockwood, the first author of the study. “When a planet transits, or passes in orbit, in front of its host star, we can use information from this event to detect water vapor and other atmospheric compounds. Alternatively, if the planet is sufficiently far away from its host star, we can also learn about a planet’s atmosphere by imaging it.”

However, a significant portion of the population of extrasolar planets does not fit either of these criteria and there wasn’t really a way to find information about the atmospheres of these planets. Looking to resolve this problem, Lockwood and her advisor Geoffrey Blake—Caltech professor of cosmochemistry, planetary sciences and chemistry—were inspired by the recent detection of carbon monoxide in the extrasolar planet, tau Boo b and they wondered if they could detect water in a similar manner.

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Watery Asteroid Discovered in Dying Star Points to Habitable Exoplanets

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Astronomers have found the shattered remains of an asteroid that contained huge amounts of water orbiting an exhausted star, or white dwarf. This suggests that the star GD 61 and its planetary system – located about 150 light years away and at the end of its life – had the potential to contain Earth-like exoplanets.

The new research findings used data collected from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, both of W. M. Keck Observatory’s Keck I and Keck II telescopes, as well NASA’s FUSE telescope, and are reported today in the journal Science.

Watery Asteroid
Artist impression of a rocky and water-rich asteroid being torn apart by the strong gravity of the white dwarf star GD 61. Credit: Copyright Mark A. Garlick,, University of Warwick and University of Cambridge.
This is the first time both water and a rocky surface – two key ingredients for habitable planets – have been found together beyond our solar system.

Earth is essentially a “dry” planet, with only 0.02% of its mass as surface water, meaning oceans came long after it had formed; most likely when water-rich asteroids in the solar system crashed into our planet.

The asteroid analyzed is composed of 26% water mass, very similar to Ceres, the largest asteroid in the main belt of our solar system. Both are vastly more water-rich compared with Earth.

The new discovery shows the same water delivery system could have occurred in this distant, dying star’s solar system – as latest evidence points to it containing a similar type of water-rich asteroid that would have first brought water to Earth.

Astronomers at the Universities of Cambridge and Warwick say this is the first “reliable evidence” for water-rich, rocky planetary material in any extrasolar planetary system.

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Astronomers Using Keck Observatory Discover Rain Falling from Saturn’s rings

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

NASA funded observations on the W. M. Keck Observatory with analysis led by the University of Leicester, England tracked the “rain” of charged water particles into the atmosphere of Saturn and found the extent of the ring-rain is far greater, and falls across larger areas of the planet, than previously thought. The work reveals the rain influences the composition and temperature structure of parts of Saturn’s upper atmosphere. The paper appears in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.

“Saturn is the first planet to show significant interaction between its atmosphere and ring system,” said James O’Donoghue, the paper’s lead author and a postgraduate researcher at Leicester. “The main effect of ring rain is that it acts to ‘quench’ the ionosphere of Saturn, severely reducing the electron densities in regions in which it falls.”

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Astronomers Detect Water in Atmosphere of Distant Planet

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

A team of international scientists using the W. M. Keck Observatory has made the most detailed examination yet of the atmosphere of a Jupiter-size planet beyond our Solar System.

According to lead author Quinn Konopacky, an astronomer with the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto and a former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) postdoc, “We have been able to observe this planet in unprecedented detail because of Keck Observatory’s advanced instrumentation, our ground-breaking observing and data processing techniques, and because of the nature of the planetary system.” The paper appears online March 14th in Science Express, and March 22nd in the journal Science.

“This is the sharpest spectrum ever obtained of an extrasolar planet,” said co-author Bruce Macintosh, an astronomer at LLNL. “This shows the power of directly imaging a planetary system—the exquisite resolution afforded by these new observations has allowed us to really begin to probe planet formation.”

Early HR8799
Artist’s rendering of the planetary system HR 8799 at an early stage in its evolution. Credit: Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics

The team, using the OSIRIS instrument fitted on the mighty Keck II telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, has uncovered the chemical fingerprints of specific molecules, revealing a cloudy atmosphere containing water vapor and carbon monoxide. “With this level of detail,” says coauthor Travis Barman, an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory, “we can compare the amount of carbon to the amount of oxygen present in the atmosphere, and this chemical mix provides clues as to how the planetary system formed.”

There has been uncertainty about how planets in other solar systems formed, with two leading models, called core accretion and gravitational instability. When stars form, they are surrounded by a planet-forming disk. In the first scenario, planets form gradually as solid cores slowly grow big enough to start absorbing gas from the disk. In the latter, planets form almost instantly as parts of the disk collapse on themselves. Planetary properties, like the composition of a planet’s atmosphere, are clues as to whether a system formed according to one model or the other.

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