Solar Studies

What’s Up – October 2019

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Published by NASA

Celebrate International Observe the Moon Night with NASA on October 5! Credit: NASA/JPL


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Link to page: International Observe the Moon Night, Oct 5, 2019

What can you see in the October sky? Join the global celebration of International Observe the Moon Night on Oct. 5th, then try to catch the ice giant planets Uranus and Neptune, which are well placed for viewing in the late night sky.


What’s Up for October? A night for the whole world to observe the Moon and hunting for ice giants!

International Observe the Moon Night is Oct. 5th. It’s an annual celebration of lunar observation and exploration. Events are scheduled in lots of places around the world, so there may be one near you. But all you really need to participate is to go out and look up.

The event is timed to coincide with the first quarter moon. This allows for some great observing along the lunar terminator – the line that divides the dayside from the nightside. With even a small pair of binoculars, you can see some great details as features like mountains and craters pop up into the light. Learn more and look for events in your area at

October is a great time to try and capture an ICE GIANT. Now, these aren’t mythical creatures. They’re planets – the most distant of the major planets of our solar system, Uranus and Neptune.

The four giant planets of our solar system are not created equal. The gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, are much bigger and way more massive, while the ice giants are so named because they contain a much higher amount of materials that typically form ices in the frigid depths of the outer solar system.

In October, both Uranus and Neptune are well placed in the late night sky. In fact, you can see all four giant planets in the same evening if you look for Jupiter and Saturn in the west after sunset, and then come back a couple of hours later to spot Uranus and Neptune. (Think of it as your own personal “Voyager mission.” NASA’s Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have visited the ice giants so far, although scientists are eager to go back for a more detailed study.)

Unlike Jupiter and Saturn, the ice giants are quite faint, so the best way to observe them is with a telescope, and from personal experience, it’s much easier to find them if you have a computer-controlled mount that can automatically point the telescope for you. If you don’t have access to one, find a local event with the Night Sky Network at Otherwise, sky watching apps can help you star-hop your way to these two incredibly distant planets.

Now be advised, because they’re so far away, each planet appears as just a point of light. But with a modest telescope, you’ll see Uranus as a tiny disk. You’d be forgiven for mistaking Neptune as a star – it’s the same size as Uranus, but much farther away, so it’s fainter.

The ice giants are elusive, but well worth the effort to say you’ve seen them with your own eyes.

Here are the phases of the Moon for October. You can catch up on all of NASA’s current and future missions at I’m Preston Dyches from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and that’s What’s Up for this month.


Solar Storms Can Drain Electrical Charge Above Earth

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Written by Carol Rasmussen
NASA’s Earth Science News Team

A solar eruption on Sept. 26, 2014, seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. If erupted solar material reaches Earth, it can deplete the electrons in the upper atmosphere in some locations while adding electrons in others, disrupting communications either way. Credit: NASA


New research on solar storms finds that they not only can cause regions of excessive electrical charge in the upper atmosphere above Earth’s poles, they also can do the exact opposite: cause regions that are nearly depleted of electrically charged particles. The finding adds to our knowledge of how solar storms affect Earth and could possibly lead to improved radio communication and navigation systems for the Arctic. 

A team of researchers from Denmark, the United States and Canada made the discovery while studying a solar storm that reached Earth on Feb. 19, 2014. The storm was observed to affect the ionosphere in all of Earth’s northern latitudes. Its effects on Greenland were documented by a network of global navigation satellite system, or GNSS, stations as well as geomagnetic observatories and other resources. Attila Komjathy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, developed software to process the GNSS data and helped with the data processing. The results were published in the journal Radio Science.

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(ESO) ALMA Starts Observing the Sun

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Roman Brajsa
Hvar Observatory, University of Zagreb

Ivica Skokic
Astronomical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences
Ondrejov, Czech Republic


This image of the entire Sun was taken in the red visible light emitted by iron atoms in the Sun’s atmosphere. Light at this wavelength originates from the visible solar surface, the photosphere. A cooler, darker sunspot is clearly visible in the disc, and as a visual comparison is shown alongside the image from ALMA at a wavelength of 1.25 millimetres. The full-disc solar image was taken with the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) on board the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA.


Astronomers have harnessed the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)s capabilities to image the millimetre-wavelength light emitted by the Sun’s chromosphere — the region that lies just above the photosphere, which forms the visible surface of the Sun. The solar campaign team, an international group of astronomers with members from Europe, North America and East Asia [1], produced the images as a demonstration of ALMA’s ability to study solar activity at longer wavelengths of light than are typically available to solar observatories on Earth.

Astronomers have studied the Sun and probed its dynamic surface and energetic atmosphere in many ways through the centuries. But, to achieve a fuller understanding, astronomers need to study it across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, including the millimetre and submillimetre portion that ALMA can observe.


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‘Heartbeat Stars’ Unlocked in New Study

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Written by Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
October 21, 2016 

Heart_Beat_Stars.jpg This artist’s concept depicts ”heartbeat stars,” which have been detected by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope and others. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Matters of the heart can be puzzling and mysterious – so too with unusual astronomical objects called heartbeat stars.

Heartbeat stars, discovered in large numbers by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, are binary stars (systems of two stars orbiting each other) that got their name because if you were to map out their brightness over time, the result would look like an electrocardiogram, a graph of the electrical activity of the heart. Scientists are interested in them because they are binary systems in elongated elliptical orbits. This makes them natural laboratories for studying the gravitational effects of stars on each other.

In a heartbeat star system, the distance between the two stars varies drastically as they orbit each other. Heartbeat stars can get as close as a few stellar radii to each other, and as far as 10 times that distance during the course of one orbit.
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NASA’s LISA Pathfinder Thrusters Operated Successfully

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The LISA Pathfinder spacecraft will help pave the way for a mission to detect gravitational waves. NASA/JPL developed a thruster system onboard. (Credit: European Space Agency – ESA)


While some technologies were created to make spacecraft move billions of miles, the Disturbance Reduction System has the opposite goal: To keep a spacecraft as still as possible.

The thruster system, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, is part of the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder spacecraft, which launched from Kourou, French Guiana on Dec. 3, 2015 GMT (Dec. 2 PST). LISA Pathfinder will test technologies that could one day allow detection of gravitational waves, whose effects are so miniscule that a spacecraft would need to remain extremely steady to detect them. Observing gravitational waves would be a huge step forward in our understanding of the evolution of the universe.

Now, LISA Pathfinder is on its way to Lagrange Point L1, about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth in the direction of the sun. L1 is a special point that a spacecraft can orbit while maintaining a nearly constant distance to Earth. This month, scientists and engineers have been switching on LISA Pathfinder’s instruments to test them in space. This has included the Disturbance Reduction System instrument computer and thrusters.

The system uses colloid micronewton thrusters, which operate by applying an electric charge to small droplets of liquid and accelerating them through an electric field, to precisely control the position of the spacecraft. Thrusters that work this way had never been successfully operated in space before LISA Pathfinder launched.

As of Jan. 10, all eight identical thrusters, developed by Busek Co., Natick, Massachusetts, with technical support from JPL, passed their functional tests. The thrusters achieved their maximum thrust of 30 micronewtons, equivalent to the weight of a mosquito. This level of precision is necessary to counteract small forces on the spacecraft such as the pressure of sunlight, with the result that the spacecraft and the instruments inside are in near-perfect free-fall. A mission to detect gravitational waves would need that level of stability.

“We reached a major milestone with this technology development,” said Phil Barela, Disturbance Reduction System project manager at JPL. “The DRS is helping point the way to a system that could be used to detect gravitational waves in the future.”

Gravitational waves are one of the last unverified predictions from the theory of General Relativity, which Albert Einstein published about a century ago. Einstein wrote that as massive bodies accelerate, such as black holes, they produce distortions in space-time. Scientists are interested in observing and characterizing these ripples in space-time so that they can learn more about the astrophysical systems that produce them, and about gravity itself. Proposed experiments to detect them from space, such as a future LISA mission, would need to measure how two freely-falling objects move ever so slightly, relative to each other, as a result of gravitational waves. In order to rule out any disturbances that could mask these waves, there must be a system to compensate for solar pressure and other factors. The Disturbance Reduction System on LISA Pathfinder will demonstrate this technology.

The Disturbance Reduction System could also lead to advanced thruster systems for other space applications. Space telescopes need to be very stable to detect distant planets in other solar systems, for example, and could use a similar system. A set of thrusters like the Disturbance Reduction System’s could also be used in small satellites to help synchronize flying patterns.

LISA Pathfinder will reach its final orbit on Jan. 22, and begin science operations on March 1. For the first phase of the mission’s science operations, a thruster technology system designed by the European Space Agency will be used. JPL’s Disturbance Reduction System will then take over in June or July, operating for 90 days. 

LISA Pathfinder is managed by the European Space Agency. The spacecraft was built by Airbus Defence and Space, Ltd., United Kingdom. Airbus Defence and Space, GmbH, Germany, is the payload architect for the LISA Technology Package. The DRS is managed by JPL. The California Institute of Technology manages JPL for NASA.