Published by NASA
Link to article with video: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/video/details.php?id=1588
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 moon.nasa.gov/observe.
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 nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov. 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 nasa.gov. I’m Preston Dyches from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and that’s What’s Up for this month.
Even after decades of observations and a visit by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, Uranus held on to one critical secret — the composition of its clouds. Now, one of the key components of the planet’s clouds has finally been verified.
A global research team that includes Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has spectroscopically dissected the infrared light from Uranus captured by the 26.25-foot (8-meter) Gemini North telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. They found hydrogen sulfide, the odiferous gas that most people avoid, in Uranus’ cloud tops. The long-sought evidence was published in the April 23rd issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.
The detection of hydrogen sulfide high in Uranus’ cloud deck (and presumably Neptune’s) is a striking difference from the gas giant planets located closer to the Sun — Jupiter and Saturn — where ammonia is observed above the clouds, but no hydrogen sulfide. These differences in atmospheric composition shed light on questions about the planets’ formation and history.
Humanity has visited Uranus only once, and that was 30 years ago. NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft got its closest look at the mysterious, distant, gaseous planet on Jan. 24, 1986.
Voyager 2 sent back stunning images of the planet and its moons during the flyby, which allowed for about 5.5 hours of close study. The spacecraft got within 50,600 miles (81,500 kilometers) of Uranus during that time.
“We knew Uranus would be different because it’s tipped on its side, and we expected surprises,” said Ed Stone, project scientist for the Voyager mission, based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. Stone has served as project scientist since 1972, continuing in that role today.
Uranus revealed itself to be the coldest planet known in our solar system, even though it’s not the farthest from the sun. This is because it has no internal heat source.
Scientists determined that the atmosphere of Uranus is 85 percent hydrogen and 15 percent helium. There was also evidence of a boiling ocean about 500 miles (800 kilometers) below the cloud tops.
Scientists found that Uranus has a magnetic field different from any they had ever encountered previously. At Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, the magnetic field is aligned approximately with the rotational axis.
“Then we got to Uranus and saw that the poles were closer to the equator,” Stone said. “Neptune turned out to be similar. The magnetic field was not quite centered with the center of the planet.”
This surface magnetic field of Uranus was also stronger than that of Saturn. Data from Voyager 2 helped scientists determine that the magnetic tail of Uranus twists into a helix stretching 6 million miles (10 million kilometers) in the direction pointed away from the sun. Understanding how planetary magnetic fields interact with the sun is a key part of NASA’s goal to understand the very nature of space. Not only does studying the sun-planet connection provide information useful for space travel, but it helps shed light on the origins of planets and their potential for harboring life.
Voyager 2 also discovered 10 new moons (there are 27 total) and two new rings at the planet, which also proved fascinating. An icy moon called Miranda revealed a peculiar, varied landscape and evidence of active geologic activity in the past. While only about 300 miles (500 kilometers) in diameter, this small object boasts giant canyons that could be up to 12 times as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Miranda also has three unique features called “coronae,” which are lightly cratered collections of ridges and valleys. Scientists think this moon could have been shattered and then reassembled.
Mission planners designed Voyager 2’s Uranus encounter so that the spacecraft would receive a gravity assist to help it reach Neptune. In 1989, Voyager 2 added Neptune to its resume of first-ever looks.
“The Uranus encounter was very exciting for me,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, who began her career with the mission while Voyager 2 was en route to Uranus.” It was my first planetary encounter and it was of a planet humanity had never seen up close before. Every new image showed more details of Uranus, and it had lots of surprises for the scientists. I hope another spacecraft will be sent to explore Uranus, to explore the planet in more detail, in my lifetime.”
Voyager 2 was launched on Aug. 20, 1977, 16 days before its twin, Voyager 1. In August 2012, Voyager 1 made history as the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space, crossing the boundary encompassing our solar system’s planets, sun and solar wind. Voyager 2 is also expected to reach interstellar space within the next several years.
The Voyagers were built by JPL, which continues to operate both spacecraft. JPL is a division of Caltech. For more information about the Voyager spacecraft, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/voyager and http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, cruising in its lowest and final orbit at dwarf planet Ceres, has delivered the first images from its best-ever viewpoint. The new images showcase details of the cratered and fractured surface. 3-D versions of two of these views are also available.
Dawn took these images of the southern hemisphere of Ceres on Dec. 10, at an approximate altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers), which is its lowest-ever orbital altitude. Dawn will remain at this altitude for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward. The resolution of the new images is about 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel.
Among the striking views is a chain of craters called Gerber Catena, located just west of the large crater Urvara. Troughs are common on larger planetary bodies, caused by contraction, impact stresses and the loading of the crust by large mountains — Olympus Mons on Mars is one example. The fracturing found all across Ceres’ surface indicates that similar processes may have occurred there, despite its smaller size (the average diameter of Ceres is 584 miles, or 940 kilometers). Many of the troughs and grooves on Ceres were likely formed as a result of impacts, but some appear to be tectonic, reflecting internal stresses that broke the crust.
“Why they are so prominent is not yet understood, but they are probably related to the complex crustal structure of Ceres,” said Paul Schenk, a Dawn science team member at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston.
The images were taken as part of a test of Dawn’s backup framing camera. The primary framing camera, which is essentially identical, began its imaging campaign at this lowest orbit on Dec. 16. Both cameras are healthy.
Dawn’s other instruments also began their intense period of observations this month. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer will help identify minerals by looking at how various wavelengths of light are reflected by the surface of Ceres. The gamma ray and neutron detector is also active. By measuring the energies and numbers of gamma rays and neutrons, two components of nuclear radiation, it will help scientists determine the abundances of some elements on Ceres.
Earlier in December, Dawn science team members revealed that the bright material found in such notable craters as Occator is consistent with salt — and proposed that a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite may be present. A different group of Dawn scientists found that Ceres also contains ammoniated clays. Because ammonia is abundant in the outer solar system, this finding suggests that Ceres could have formed in the vicinity of Neptune and migrated inward, or formed in place with material that migrated in from the outer solar system.
“As we take the highest-resolution data ever from Ceres, we will continue to examine our hypotheses and uncover even more surprises about this mysterious world,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dawn is the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, and the first mission outside the Earth-moon system to orbit two distinct solar system targets. It orbited protoplanet Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, and arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015.
Dawn’s mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of mission participants, visit: http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft made history in 2012 by entering interstellar space, leaving the planets and the solar wind behind. But observations from the pioneering probe were puzzling with regard to the magnetic field around it, as they differed from what scientists derived from observations by other spacecraft.
A new study offers fresh insights into this mystery. Writing in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Nathan Schwadron of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, and colleagues reanalyzed magnetic field data from Voyager 1 and found that the direction of the magnetic field has been slowly turning ever since the spacecraft crossed into interstellar space. They believe this is an effect of the nearby boundary of the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that comes from the sun.
“This study provides very strong evidence that Voyager 1 is in a region where the magnetic field is being deflected by the solar wind,” said Schwadron, lead author of the study.
Researchers predict that in 10 years Voyager 1 will reach a more “pristine” region of the interstellar medium where the solar wind does not significantly influence the magnetic field.
Voyager 1’s crossing into interstellar space meant it had left the heliosphere — the bubble of solar wind surrounding our sun and the planets. Observations from Voyager’s instruments found that the particle density was 40 times greater outside this boundary than inside, confirming that it had indeed left the heliosphere.
But so far, Voyager 1’s observation of the direction of the local interstellar magnetic field is more than 40 degrees off from what other spacecraft have determined. The new study suggests this discrepancy exists because Voyager 1 is in a more distorted magnetic field just outside the heliopause, which is the boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar medium.
“If you think of the magnetic field as a rubber band stretched around a beach ball, that band is being deflected around the heliopause,” Schwadron said.
In 2009, NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) discovered a “ribbon” of energetic neutral atoms that is thought to hold clues to the direction of the pristine interstellar magnetic field. The so-called “IBEX ribbon,” which forms a circular arc in the sky, remains mysterious, but scientists believe it is produced by a flow of neutral hydrogen atoms from the solar wind that were re-ionized in nearby interstellar space and then picked up electrons to become neutral again.
The new study uses multiple data sets to confirm that the magnetic field direction at the center of the IBEX ribbon is the same direction as the magnetic field in the pristine interstellar medium. Observations from the NASA/ESA Ulysses and SOHO spacecraft also support the new findings.
“All of these different data sets that have been collected over the last 25 years have been pointing toward the same meeting point in the field,” Schwadron said.
Over time, the study suggests, at increasing distances from the heliosphere, the magnetic field will be oriented more and more toward “true north,” as defined by the IBEX ribbon. By 2025, if the field around Voyager 1 continues to steadily turn, Voyager 1 will observe the same magnetic field direction as IBEX. That would signal Voyager 1’s arrival in a less distorted region of the interstellar medium.
“It’s an interesting way to look at the data. It gives a prediction of how long we’ll have to go before Voyager 1 is in the medium that’s no longer strongly perturbed,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist, based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who was not involved in this study.
While Voyager 1 will continue delivering insights about interstellar space, its twin probe Voyager 2 is also expected to cross into the interstellar medium within the next few years. Voyager 2 will make additional observations of the magnetic field in interstellar space and help scientists refine their estimates.
Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977. Both spacecraft flew by Jupiter and Saturn.
Voyager 2 also flew by Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 2, launched before Voyager 1, is the longest continuously operated spacecraft. Voyager 1 is the most distant object touched by human hands.
JPL, a division of Caltech, built the twin Voyager spacecraft and operates them for the Heliophysics Division within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
For more information about Voyager, visit: http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov