News from Space: Jupiter’s Eye Disappearing

jupiterJupiter’s Red Eye, that trademark spot on the gas giant’s surface that is its most recognizable feature, appears to be shrinking faster than ever. Earlier this year, amateur astronomers had observed and photographed the Eye and noted that it had grown smaller. Shorlty thereafter, astronomers observed it using the Hubble Space Telescope and came to the same conclusion. Based on their calculations, they estimate that Jupiter’s Eye, a giant long-lasting storm, is narrowing by more than 900 kilometres a year, much faster than before.

At this rate, they claim, it will be gone by 2031 – just 17 years from now. Using historic sketches and photos from the late 1800s, astronomers determined the spot’s diameter then at 41,000 km (25,475 miles) across. Now, it is turned from a giant ovoid into a discrete circle that is a mere 16,500 kilometres (10,252 miles) across. Many who’ve attempted to see Jupiter’s signature feature have been frustrated in recent years not only because the spot’s pale color makes it hard to see  against adjacent cloud features, but because it’s physically getting smaller.

Jupiter-GRS-Hubble-shrink-panel-580x399As to what causing the drastic downsizing, there are no firm answers yet. However, NASA has a theory, which was shared by Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA:

In our new observations it is apparent that very small eddies are feeding into the storm. We hypothesized that these may be responsible for the accelerated change by altering the internal dynamics of the Great Red Spot.

Michael Wong, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, seems to be in agreement. He stated that one theory is the spot eats smaller storms, and that it is consuming fewer of them. But for the time being, scientists can’t be sure why its getting smaller, why the eye is red in the first place, or what will happen once it is completely gone.

Jupiters_EyeThe Great Red Spot has been a trademark of the planet for at least 400 years – a giant hurricane-like storm whirling in the planet’s upper cloud tops with a period of 6 days. But as it’s shrunk, its period has likewise grown shorter and now clocks in at about 4 days. The storm appears to be conserving angular momentum by spinning faster and wind speeds are increasing as well, making one wonder whether they’ll ultimately shrink the spot further or bring about its rejuvenation.

In short, the eye could become a thing of the past, the sort of thing children many years from now will only read about or see in pictures to give them some idea of how the Solar System once looked. Or, its possible that it could blow up again and become as it once was, a massive red Eye observable from millions of kilometres away. Who knows? In the meantime, check out this video by NASAJuno, explaining what little we know about Jupiter’s most prominent feature (while it lasts):

Typhoon Haiyan From Space

typhoon_haiyanEarlier this month, the Super Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the island nation of the Philippines, leaving an enormous amount of death and destruction in its wake. According to NASA, the typhoon struck with winds that exceeded 379 kilometers per hour (235 mph), while the U.S. Navy Joint Typhoon Warning Center indicates that it has since sustained wind speeds of over 315 kilometers per hour (95 MPH).

Classified as a Category 5 monster storm on the U.S. Saffir-Simpson scale, Haiyan is reported to be the largest and most powerful storm ever to make landfall in recorded human history. The current estimates claim that some 5000 people have died so far, with the final toll expected to be far higher.

haiyan_8_november_2013_0019_utc_0-566x580Given the enormous scale of this typhoon, many of the clearest pictures of it have come from space. Since it first made landfall on Friday, November 8th, many detailed images have been captured by NASA, the Russian Space Agency, the India’s newly-launched Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), and even from the ISS – courtesy of astronaut Karen Nyberg.

According to NASA, the most detailed data on the storm came from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, which captured visible, microwave and infrared data on the storm just as it was crossing the island of Leyte in the central Philippines. In addition to gauging wind speed, the satellite was also able to measure precipitation rates and temperature fluctuations.

typhoon_haiyan1Far from simply documenting this tragedy, the high resolution imagery and precise measurements provided by these and other satellites have been absolutely essential to tracking this storm and providing advance warning. Whereas thousands have died in the effected areas, some 800,000 more have been evacuated from the central region of the country.

Coincidentally, NASA’s Goddard Flight Center has just finished assembling the next generation weather satellite known as the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM), an observatory that is scheduled to replace the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission. GPM is equipped with advanced, higher resolution radar instruments and is vital to the continued effort of providing forecasts and advance warning of extreme super storms.

typhoon_haiyan2In the midst of tragedies like Hurricane Sandy and Haiyan, not to mention the escalating risk of super-storms associated with Climate Change, it is good to know that there are silver linings, such as advanced warning and sophisticated instruments that can keep us apprised of the threats we face. For more information on Super Typhoon Haiyan and how you can aid in the recovery, check out the Internationa Red Cross’ website.

And be sure to check out this video of Haiyan as it made landfall, as captured by the Russian weather satellite Electro-L:

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News From Space: MAVEN Launched

maven_launchYesterday, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) space probe was finally launched into space. The flawless launch took place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 at 1:28 p.m. EST atop a powerful Atlas V rocket. This historic event, which was the culmination of years worth of research, was made all the more significant due to the fact that it was nearly scrapped.

Back in late September, during the government shutdown, NASA saw its funding curtailed and put on hold. As a result, there were fears that MAVEN would miss its crucial launch window this November. Luckily, after two days of complete work stoppage, technicians working on the orbiter were granted an exemption and went back to prepping the probe for launch.

NASA_mavenThanks to their efforts, the launch went off without a hitch. 52 minutes later, the $671 Million MAVEN probe separated from the Atlas Centaur upper stage module, unfurled its wing-like solar panels, and began making its 10 month interplanetary voyage that will take it to Mars. Once it arrives, it will begin conducting atmospheric tests that will answer key questions about the evolution of Mars and its potential for supporting life.

Originally described as a “time-machine for Mars”, MAVEN was designed to orbit Mars and examine whether the atmosphere could also have provided life support, what the atmosphere was like, and what led to its destruction. This mission was largely inspired by recent discoveries made by the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, whose surface studies revealed that Mars boasted an atmosphere some billions of years ago.

maven_atmo1During a post launch briefing for reporters, Bruce Jakosky – MAVEN’s Principal Investigator – described MAVEN’s mission as follows:

We want to determine what were the drivers of that change? What is the history of Martian habitability, climate change and the potential for life?

Once the probe arrives in orbit around Mars, scheduled for September 22nd, 2014, MAVEN will study Mars’ upper atmosphere to explore how the Red Planet may have lost its atmosphere over the course of billions of years. This will be done by measuring the current rates of atmospheric loss to determine how and when Mars lost its atmosphere and water.

maven_atmosphereFor the sake of this research, MAVEN was equipped with nine sensors the come in three instrument suites. The first is the Particles and Fields Package – which contains six instruments to characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of Mars – that was provided by the University of California at Berkeley with support from CU/LASP and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The second suite is the Remote Sensing Package, which ill determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere and was built by CU/LASP. And last, but not least, is the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, built by Goddard, which will measure the composition of Mars’ upper atmosphere.

As for the long term benefits of the mission and what it could mean for humanity, I’d say that Dr. Jim Green – NASA’s Director of Planetary Science at NASA HQ in Washington, DC – said it best:

We need to know everything we can before we can send people to Mars. MAVEN is a key step along the way. And the team did it under budget! It is so exciting!


News from Space: Curiosity Finds Water!

curiosity_drillsGood news (and bad) from the Red Planet! According to NASA, an examination of the fine-grained soil particles extracted by Curiosity, scientists have concluded that roughly 2 percent of Martian surface soil is made up of water. Though they did not find any traces of organic particles, this latest find confirms that water not only used to exist on the surface of the planet, but can still be found within.

These results bode well for future manned missions to Mars, wherein astronauts could mine the soil for water and study it to advance their understanding of Mars’ history. The findings, which were published today in the journal Science are part of a five-paper segment that began back in August of 2012 and is dedicated to Curiosity’s ongoing mission.

curiosity_drilling2Laurie Leshin, dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author of the paper, said in a NASA press release:

One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil.

These tests were conducted using the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a collection of instruments that includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer. The first soil samples were collected back in February when the rover used its drill tool for the first time and created a series of holes that were a little over 6 centimeters (2.5 inches) deep and collected the fine dust that resulted.

SAM_NASAOnce placed into the SAM assembly, the samples were heated to 835 degrees Celsius (1,535 degrees Fahrenheit). The gases that were released – which included significant portions of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and sulfur compounds – were then analyzed. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) also noticed that quantities of gaseous carbonite were found, which would suggests the presence of water in the Martian soil.

These positive findings were quite welcome, especially in light of the disheartening news last week that Curiosity has yet to crack the methane mystery. Back in 2003, scientists observed methane plumes coming from the planet, a strong indicator of microbial life, which sent scientific and professional interest in finding life on the red planet soaring.

Since that time, no traces of methane have been found, and it was hoped that Curiosity would finally locate it. However, the lack of methane thus far indicates that the rover has little chance of finding existing microbial life on the planet. But the existence of water in such great quantities in the surface soil brings scientists one step closer to piecing together the planet’s past potential for harboring life.

Curiosity_drillingsPaul Mahaffy, a lead investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, had this to say:

This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments… By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical, and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars.

Given the renewed interest of late in manned missions to Mars – from nonprofit organizations like Mars One, privatized transportation companies like SpaceX, and the unofficial plans to mount a manned mission to Mars by 2030 by NASA – these findings are reassuring. In addition to providing fuel for hydrogen fuel cells for a return craft, subsurface water will be a boon for settlers and terraformers down the road.

mars-one-brian-versteegLeshin confirmed a cubic foot of soil, as opposed to the tiny sample Curiosity analyzed, could yield nearly 2 pints of condensation when heated. So volunteers who are planning on signing up with Mars One, pack your buckets and stoves and be prepared to do a lot of condensing! And perhaps we can expect “moisture farms” to become the norm on a colonized Mars of the future.


Climate Crisis: NASA’s Projected Changes

NASA_global_warming_predAs the world’s foremost space agency, NASA has been at the forefront of climate research for many decades. Their contributions to this field of science has helped to shape our understanding of the planet’s past and has led to our current understanding of the Greenhouse Effect, Global Warming, and Climate Change. As a result, they are committed to educating the public about what’s in store for our blue planet in the near future.

Below are two videos that were recently released by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Both briefly, but succinctly, provide visualizations of what an average temperature increase of up to 5.5 Celsius (8 degrees Fahrenheit) and the resulting effect on weather patterns would look like, which is expected to happen by the end of the 21st century.

These visualizations – which highlight computer model projections from the draft National Climate Assessment – show how average temperatures and precipitation patterns could change across the U.S. in the coming decades under two different scenarios. As you can see, both predict significant warming and drying as a result of increased concentrations of CO2 in the upper atmosphere.

Projected Temperature Change by 2100:

Projected Precipitation Change by 2100:

The visualizations, which combine the results from 15 global climate models, present projections of temperature and precipitation changes from 2000 to 2100 compared to the historical average from 1970 -1999. They were produced by the Scientific Visualization Studio at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., in collaboration with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center and the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, both in Asheville, N.C.

Speaking on the subject of these videos, Allison Leidner, Ph.D. – a scientist who coordinates NASA’s involvement in the National Climate Assessment – said:

These visualizations communicate a picture of the impacts of climate change in a way that words do not. When I look at the scenarios for future temperature and precipitation, I really see how dramatically our nation’s climate could change.

But of course, these visualizations only tell part of the story. Far from this being a geographically restricted phenomena, residents inside the US are likely to be less severely hit than those people living in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Central Asia, India and East Asia, where the problems of flooding, water loss, famine and drought area already common.

Add to this flooding coastlines, invasive parasites and diseases, militarized borders, potential skirmishes over dwindling resources, and a refugee crisis the likes of which the world has never seen, and you get a pretty good idea of why this issue matters as much as it does. The next century is going to be an interesting time. Here’s hoping we survive it!