Space Exploration – Spacecraft

Water Vapor Plumes Discovered on Jupiter’s Moon Europa

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Written by George McGinn
Cosmology and Space Research
September 27, 2016 at 4:32pm EST

This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The plumes, photographed by NASA’s Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter. Hubble’s ultraviolet sensitivity allowed for the features — rising over 100 miles (160 kilometers) above Europa’s icy surface — to be discerned. The water is believed to come from a subsurface ocean on Europa. The Hubble data were taken on January 26, 2014. The image of Europa, superimposed on the Hubble data, is assembled from data from the Galileo and Voyager missions. Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center


In one of the most promising places in the Solar System where life may exist, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have photographed what appears to be water vapor plumes escaping Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The team from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore saw finger-like projections when viewing Europa as it past in front of Jupiter, according to team leader William Sparks.

The discovery occurred by accident as the team’s original proposal was to observe Europa to determine if it had an atmosphere or exosphere.

An exosphere of neon was detected on Earth’s Moon on August 17, 2015 based on study the data from the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft.

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Light Echoes Gives Clues To Protoplanetary Disk

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This illustration shows a star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk. Material from the thick disk flows along the star’s magnetic field lines and is deposited onto the star’s surface. When material hits the star, it lights up brightly. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Imagine you want to measure the size of a room, but it’s completely dark. If you shout, you can tell if the space you’re in is relatively big or small, depending on how long it takes to hear the echo after it bounces off the wall. 

Astronomers use this principle to study objects so distant they can’t be seen as more than points. In particular, researchers are interested in calculating how far young stars are from the inner edge of their surrounding protoplanetary disks. These disks of gas and dust are sites where planets form over the course of millions of years.

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NASA Team Probes Peculiar Age-Defying Star

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An age-defying star designated as IRAS 19312+1950 (arrow) exhibits features characteristic of a very young star and a very old star. The object stands out as extremely bright inside a large, chemically rich cloud of material, as shown in this image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. A NASA-led team of scientists thinks the star – which is about 10 times as massive as our sun and emits about 20,000 times as much energy – is a newly forming protostar. That was a big surprise because the region had not been known as a stellar nursery before. But the presence of a nearby interstellar bubble, which indicates the presence of a recently formed massive star, also supports this idea. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech


For years, astronomers have puzzled over a massive star lodged deep in the Milky Way that shows conflicting signs of being extremely old and extremely young.

Researchers initially classified the star as elderly, perhaps a red supergiant. But a new study by a NASA-led team of researchers suggests that the object, labeled IRAS 19312+1950, might be something quite different — a protostar, a star still in the making.

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NASA’s Juno to Soar Closest to Jupiter This Saturday

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This dual view of Jupiter was taken on August 23, when NASA’s Juno spacecraft was 2.8 million miles (4.4 million kilometers) from the gas giant planet on the inbound leg of its initial 53.5-day capture orbit. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS


This Saturday at 5:51 a.m. PDT, (8:51 a.m. EDT, 12:51 UTC) NASA’s Juno spacecraft will get closer to the cloud tops of Jupiter than at any other time during its prime mission. At the moment of closest approach, Juno will be about 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) above Jupiter’s swirling clouds and traveling at 130,000 mph (208,000 kilometers per hour) with respect to the planet. There are 35 more close flybys of Jupiter scheduled during its prime mission (scheduled to end in February of 2018). The Aug. 27 flyby will be the first time Juno will have its entire suite of science instruments activated and looking at the giant planet as the spacecraft zooms past.

“This is the first time we will be close to Jupiter since we entered orbit on July 4,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Back then we turned all our instruments off to focus on the rocket burn to get Juno into orbit around Jupiter. Since then, we have checked Juno from stem to stern and back again. We still have more testing to do, but we are confident that everything is working great, so for this upcoming flyby Juno’s eyes and ears, our science instruments, will all be open.”

“This is our first opportunity to really take a close-up look at the king of our solar system and begin to figure out how he works,” Bolton said.

While the science data from the pass should be downlinked to Earth within days, interpretation and first results are not expected for some time.

“No other spacecraft has ever orbited Jupiter this closely, or over the poles in this fashion,” said Steve Levin, Juno project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This is our first opportunity and there are bound to be surprises. We need to take our time to make sure our conclusions are correct.”

Not only will Juno’s suite of eight science instruments be on, the spacecraft’s visible light imager — JunoCam will also be snapping some closeups. A handful of JunoCam images, including the highest resolution imagery of the Jovian atmosphere and the first glimpse of Jupiter’s north and south poles, are expected to be released during the later part of next week.

The Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. Caltech, in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

More information on the Juno mission is available at: http://www.nasa.gov/juno

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: http://www.facebook.com/NASAJuno or http://www.twitter.com/NASAJuno

NASA’s Juno Spacecraft in Orbit Around Mighty Jupiter

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The Juno team celebrates at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, after receiving data indicating that NASA’s Juno mission entered orbit around Jupiter. Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at JPL, is seen at the center hugging JPL’s acting director for solar system exploration, Richard Cook. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Note from George McGinn: Yesterday I watched NASA’s briefing, and the Juno Spacecraft did something nearly impossible. The largest danger to the mission is the immense radiation. Jupiter’s version of Earth’s Van Allen belt have been catching huge amounts of solar radiation for 4.5 billion years. The gravity of Jupiter is so strong that it pulls more charged particles than would directly hit it. The Juno team estimated that the spacecraft will be exposed to radiation at LD25 (LD is Leathal Dose and 25 means 25 times, so 25 times the lethal dose to a human), or having 1 million dental X-rays all at once (in a space of 2 seconds). This is equal to 260 rads.

I applaud the Juno’s team, who worked almost 12 years to get this spacecraft safely in orbit. I am excited to see finally how deep the atmosphere goes, what gases make up Jupiter, and if there is a solid or semi-solid center, or just compressed gases. And can all that gas create the large magnetic field, or what is in the center, the speed of spin, and the chemical makeup. 

 

After an almost five-year journey to the solar system’s largest planet, NASA’s Juno spacecraft successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit during a 35-minute engine burn. Confirmation that the burn had completed was received on Earth at 8:53 pm. PDT (11:53 p.m. EDT) Monday, July 4.

“Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America’s birthday another reason to cheer — Juno is at Jupiter,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. “And what is more American than a NASA mission going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before? With Juno, we will investigate the unknowns of Jupiter’s massive radiation belts to delve deep into not only the planet’s interior, but into how Jupiter was born and how our entire solar system evolved.” 

Confirmation of a successful orbit insertion was received from Juno tracking data monitored at the navigation facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, as well as at the Lockheed Martin Juno operations center in Denver. The telemetry and tracking data were received by NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas in Goldstone, California, and Canberra, Australia.

“This is the one time I don’t mind being stuck in a windowless room on the night of the Fourth of July,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “The mission team did great. The spacecraft did great. We are looking great. It’s a great day.”

Preplanned events leading up to the orbital insertion engine burn included changing the spacecraft’s attitude to point the main engine in the desired direction and then increasing the spacecraft’s rotation rate from 2 to 5 revolutions per minute (RPM) to help stabilize it..

The burn of Juno’s 645-Newton Leros-1b main engine began on time at 8:18 p.m. PDT (11:18 p.m. EDT), decreasing the spacecraft’s velocity by 1,212 mph (542 meters per second) and allowing Juno to be captured in orbit around Jupiter. Soon after the burn was completed, Juno turned so that the sun’s rays could once again reach the 18,698 individual solar cells that give Juno its energy.

“The spacecraft worked perfectly, which is always nice when you’re driving a vehicle with 1.7 billion miles on the odometer,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from JPL. “Jupiter orbit insertion was a big step and the most challenging remaining in our mission plan, but there are others that have to occur before we can give the science team members the mission they are looking for.”

 

This is the final view taken by the JunoCam instrument on NASA’s Juno spacecraft before Juno’s instruments were powered down in preparation for orbit insertion. Juno obtained this color view on June 29, 2016, at a distance of 3.3 million miles (5.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Click image for full-size)


Over the next few months, Juno’s mission and science teams will perform final testing on the spacecraft’s subsystems, final calibration of science instruments and some science collection.

“Our official science collection phase begins in October, but we’ve figured out a way to collect data a lot earlier than that,” said Bolton. “Which when you’re talking about the single biggest planetary body in the solar system is a really good thing. There is a lot to see and do here.” 

Juno’s principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. With its suite of nine science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras. The mission also will let us take a giant step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the solar system. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter also can provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars. 

The Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. JPL manages the Juno mission for NASA. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

More information on the Juno mission is available at: http://www.nasa.gov/juno

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: http://www.facebook.com/NASAJuno or http://www.twitter.com/NASAJuno

Gluttonous Star May Hold Clues to Planet Formation

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The brightness of outbursting star FU Orionis has been slowly fading since its initial flare-up in 1936. Researchers found that it has dimmed by about 13 percent in short infrared wavelengths from 2004 (left) to 2016 (right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

In 1936, the young star FU Orionis began gobbling material from its surrounding disk of gas and dust with a sudden voraciousness. During a three-month binge, as matter turned into energy, the star became 100 times brighter, heating the disk around it to temperatures of up to 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit (7,000 Kelvin). FU Orionis is still devouring gas to this day, although not as quickly. 

This brightening is the most extreme event of its kind that has been confirmed around a star the size of the sun, and may have implications for how stars and planets form. The intense baking of the star’s surrounding disk likely changed its chemistry, permanently altering material that could one day turn into planets.  

“By studying FU Orionis, we’re seeing the absolute baby years of a solar system,” said Joel Green, a project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland. “Our own sun may have gone through a similar brightening, which would have been a crucial step in the formation of Earth and other planets in our solar system.”

Visible light observations of FU Orionis, which is about 1,500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Orion, have shown astronomers that the star’s extreme brightness began slowly fading after its initial 1936 burst. But Green and colleagues wanted to know more about the relationship between the star and surrounding disk. Is the star still gorging on it? Is its composition changing? When will the star’s brightness return to pre-outburst levels?  

To answer these questions, scientists needed to observe the star’s brightness at infrared wavelengths, which are longer than the human eye can see and provide temperature measurements.  

Green and his team compared infrared data obtained in 2016 using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, to observations made with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2004. SOFIA, the world’s largest airborne observatory, is jointly operated by NASA and the German Aerospace Center and provides observations at wavelengths no longer attainable by Spitzer. The SOFIA data were taken using the FORCAST instrument (Faint Object infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope). 

“By combining data from the two telescopes collected over a 12-year interval, we were able to gain a unique perspective on the star’s behavior over time,” Green said. He presented the results at the American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego, this week. 

Using these infrared observations and other historical data, researchers found that FU Orionis had continued its ravenous snacking after the initial brightening event: The star has eaten the equivalent of 18 Jupiters in the last 80 years.

The recent measurements provided by SOFIA inform researchers that the total amount of visible and infrared light energy coming out of the FU Orionis system decreased by about 13 percent over the 12 years since the Spitzer observations. Researchers determined that this decrease is caused by dimming of the star at short infrared wavelengths, but not at longer wavelengths. That means up to 13 percent of the hottest material of the disk has disappeared, while colder material has stayed intact.    

“A decrease in the hottest gas means that the star is eating the innermost part of the disk, but the rest of the disk has essentially not changed in the last 12 years,” Green said. “This result is consistent with computer models, but for the first time we are able to confirm the theory with observations.” 

Astronomers predict, partly based on the new results, that FU Orionis will run out of hot material to nosh on within the next few hundred years. At that point, the star will return to the state it was in before the dramatic 1936 brightening event. Scientists are unsure what the star was like before or what set off the feeding frenzy.

“The material falling into the star is like water from a hose that’s slowly being pinched off,” Green said. “Eventually the water will stop.” 

If our sun had a brightening event like FU Orionis did in 1936, this could explain why certain elements are more abundant on Mars than on Earth. A sudden 100-fold brightening would have altered the chemical composition of material close to the star, but not as much farther from it. Because Mars formed farther from the sun, its component material would not have been heated up as much as Earth’s was. 

At a few hundred thousand years old, FU Orionis is a toddler in the typical lifespan of a star. The 80 years of brightening and fading since 1936 represent only a tiny fraction of the star’s life so far, but these changes happened to occur at a time when astronomers could observe. 

“It’s amazing that an entire protoplanetary disk can change on such a short timescale, within a human lifetime,” said Luisa Rebull, study co-author and research scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC), based at Caltech, Pasadena, California.   

Green plans to gain more insight into the FU Orionis feeding phenomenon with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2018. SOFIA has mid-infrared high-resolution spectrometers and far-infrared science instrumentation that complement Webb’s planned near- and mid-infrared capabilities. Spitzer is expected to continue exploring the universe in infrared light, and enabling groundbreaking scientific investigations, into early 2019. 

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at IPAC at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. 

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The aircraft is based at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s facility in Palmdale, California. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. 

For more information about Spitzer, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ or http://spitzer.caltech.edu

For more information about SOFIA, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/sofia or http://www.dlr.de/en/sofia

NASA Extends Hubble Space Telescope Science Operations Contract

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Image of the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit taking photos of deep space objects. Credit NASA 

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Components making up the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit NASA

This action will extend the period of performance from July 1 through June 30, 2021. The contract value will increase by approximately $196.3 million for a total contract value of $2.03 billion. 

This contract extension covers the work necessary to continue the science program of the Hubble mission by the Space Telescope Science Institute. The support includes the products and services required to execute science system engineering, science ground system development, science operations, science research, grants management and public outreach support for Hubble and data archive support for missions in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes. 

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To replace the Hubble in 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope is to be the premier telescope. Credit NASA

After the final space shuttle servicing mission to the telescope in 2009, Hubble is better than ever. Hubble is expected to continue to provide valuable data into the 2020’s, securing its place in history as an outstanding general purpose observatory in areas ranging from our solar system to the distant universe. 

In 2018, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will be launched into space as the premier observatory of the next decade, serving astronomers worldwide to build on Hubble’s legacy of discoveries and help unlock some of the biggest mysteries of the universe.

For information about NASA and agency programs, visit: http://www.nasa.gov

Small Asteroid Is Earth’s Constant Companion

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Asteroid 2016 HO3 has an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


A small asteroid has been discovered in an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth, and it will remain so for centuries to come.

As it orbits the sun, this new asteroid, designated 2016 HO3, appears to circle around Earth as well. It is too distant to be considered a true satellite of our planet, but it is the best and most stable example to date of a near-Earth companion, or “quasi-satellite.”

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. 

“One other asteroid — 2003 YN107 — followed a similar orbital pattern for a while over 10 years ago, but it has since departed our vicinity. This new asteroid is much more locked onto us. Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.”

 


This video shows the obit of the Earth and asteroid 2016 H03 (If video does not appear, click on Asteroid Orbit).


In its yearly trek around the sun, asteroid 2016 HO3 spends about half of the time closer to the sun than Earth and passes ahead of our planet, and about half of the time farther away, causing it to fall behind. Its orbit is also tilted a little, causing it to bob up and then down once each year through Earth’s orbital plane. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a game of leap frog with Earth that will last for hundreds of years.

The asteroid’s orbit also undergoes a slow, back-and-forth twist over multiple decades. “The asteroid’s loops around Earth drift a little ahead or behind from year to year, but when they drift too far forward or backward, Earth’s gravity is just strong enough to reverse the drift and hold onto the asteroid so that it never wanders farther away than about 100 times the distance of the moon,” said Chodas. “The same effect also prevents the asteroid from approaching much closer than about 38 times the distance of the moon. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth.”

Asteroizd s2016 HO3 was first spotted on April 27, 2016, by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, operated by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The size of this object has not yet been firmly established, but it is likely larger than 120 feet (40 meters) and smaller than 300 feet (100 meters).

The Center for NEO Studies website has a complete list of recent and upcoming close approaches, as well as all other data on the orbits of known NEOs, so scientists and members of the media and public can track information on known objects.

For asteroid news and updates, follow AsteroidWatch on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AsteroidWatch

Cloudy Days on Exoplanets May Hide Atmospheric Water

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Hot Jupiters, exoplanets around the same size as Jupiter that orbit very closely to their stars, often have cloud or haze layers in their atmospheres. This may prevent space telescopes from detecting atmospheric water that lies beneath the clouds, according to a study in the Astrophysical Journal. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Water is a hot topic in the study of exoplanets, including “hot Jupiters,” whose masses are similar to that of Jupiter, but which are much closer to their parent star than Jupiter is to the sun. They can reach a scorching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,100 degrees Celsius), meaning any water they host would take the form of water vapor.

Astronomers have found many hot Jupiters with water in their atmospheres, but others appear to have none. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, wanted to find out what the atmospheres of these giant worlds have in common.

Researchers focused on a collection of hot Jupiters studied by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. They found that the atmospheres of about half of the planets were blocked by clouds or haze.

“The motivation of our study was to see what these planets would be like if they were grouped together, and to see whether they share any atmospheric properties,” said Aishwarya Iyer, a JPL intern and master’s degree candidate at California State University, Northridge, who led the study.

The new study, published in the June 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal, suggests that clouds or haze layers could be preventing a substantial amount of atmospheric water from being detected by space telescopes. The clouds themselves are likely not made of water, as the planets in this sample are too hot for water-based clouds. 

“Clouds or haze seem to be on almost every planet we studied,” Iyer said. “You have to be careful to take clouds or haze into account, or else you could underestimate the amount of water in an exoplanet’s atmosphere by a factor of two.”

In the study, scientists looked at a set of 19 hot Jupiters previously observed by Hubble. The telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 had detected water vapor in the atmospheres of 10 of these planets, and no water on the other nine. But that information was spread across more than a dozen studies. The methods of analyzing and interpretation varied because the studies were conducted separately. There had not been one overarching analysis of all these planets.

To compare the planets and look for patterns, the JPL team had to standardize the data: Researchers combined the datasets for all 19 hot Jupiters to create an average overall light spectrum for the group of planets. They then compared these data to models of clear, cloud-free atmospheres and those with various cloud thicknesses.

The scientists determined that, for almost every planet they studied, haze or clouds were blocking half of the atmosphere, on average.

“In some of these planets, you can see water peeking its head up above the clouds or haze, and there could still be more water below,” Iyer said.

Scientists do not yet know the nature of these clouds or hazes, including what they are they made of.

“Clouds or haze being on almost all these planets is pretty surprising,” said Robert Zellem, a postdoctoral fellow at JPL and co-author of the study.

The implications of this result agree with findings published in the Dec. 14, 2015, issue of the journal Nature. The Nature study used data from NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes to suggest that clouds or haze could be hiding undetected water in hot Jupiters. This new study uses exoplanet data from a single instrument on Hubble to uniformly characterize a larger group of hot Jupiters, and is the first to quantify how much of the atmosphere would be shielded as a result of clouds or haze.

The new research could have implications for follow-up studies with future space observatories, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Exoplanets with thick cloud covers blocking the detection of water and other substances may be less desirable targets for more extensive study.

These results are also important for figuring out how planets form, scientists say.

“Did these planets form in their current positions or migrate toward their host stars from farther out? Understanding the abundances of molecules such as water helps us answer those questions,” Zellem said.

“This paper is an exciting step forward for the study of exoplanets and comparing their properties,” said Mark Swain, study co-author and group supervisor for the exoplanet discovery and science group at JPL.

Michael Line of the University of California, Santa Cruz, also contributed to the study. Other co-authors from JPL included Gael Roudier, Graca Rocha and John Livingston.

For more information about the Hubble Space Telescope, visit: www.nasa.gov/hubble.

Clues About How Giant Black Holes Formed So Quickly

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This illustration depicts a possible “seed” for the formation of a supermassive black hole. The inset boxes at right contain Chandra (top) and Hubble (bottom) images of one of two candidate seeds, where the properties in the data matched those predicted by sophisticated models. Illustration Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

 

Using data from NASA’s Great Observatories, astronomers have found the best evidence yet for cosmic seeds in the early universe that should grow into supermassive black holes.

Researchers combined data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and Spitzer Space Telescope to identify these possible black hole seeds. They discuss their findings in a paper that will appear in an upcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“Our discovery, if confirmed, explains how these monster black holes were born,” said Fabio Pacucci of Scuola Normale Superiore (SNS) in Pisa, Italy, who led the study. “We found evidence that supermassive black hole seeds can form directly from the collapse of a giant gas cloud, skipping any intermediate steps.”

Scientists believe a supermassive black hole lies in the center of nearly all large galaxies, including our own Milky Way. They have found that some of these supermassive black holes, which contain millions or even billions of times the mass of the sun, formed less than a billion years after the start of the universe in the Big Bang.

One theory suggests black hole seeds were built up by pulling in gas from their surroundings and by mergers of smaller black holes, a process that should take much longer than found for these quickly forming black holes.

These new findings suggest instead that some of the first black holes formed directly when a cloud of gas collapsed, bypassing any other intermediate phases, such as the formation and subsequent destruction of a massive star.

“There is a lot of controversy over which path these black holes take,” said co-author Andrea Ferrara, also of SNS. “Our work suggests we are narrowing in on an answer, where the black holes start big and grow at the normal rate, rather than starting small and growing at a very fast rate.”

The researchers used computer models of black hole seeds combined with a new method to select candidates for these objects from long-exposure images from Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer.

The team found two strong candidates for black hole seeds. Both of these matched the theoretical profile in the infrared data, including being very red objects, and they also emit X-rays detected with Chandra. Estimates of their distance suggest they may have been formed when the universe was less than a billion years old 

“Black hole seeds are extremely hard to find and confirming their detection is very difficult,” said Andrea Grazian, a co-author from the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy. “However, we think our research has uncovered the two best candidates to date.”

The team plans to obtain further observations in X-rays and infrared to check whether these objects have more of the properties expected for black hole seeds. Upcoming observatories, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, will aid in future studies by detecting the light from more distant and smaller black holes. Scientists currently are building the theoretical framework needed to interpret the upcoming data, with the aim of finding the first black holes in the universe.

“As scientists, we cannot say at this point that our model is ‘the one’,” said Pacucci. “What we really believe is that our model is able to reproduce the observations without requiring unreasonable assumptions.”

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program while the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations. 

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission, whose science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado.

For more on NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/chandra

For more on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

For more on NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer