NASA JPL

New Organic Compounds Found in Enceladus Ice Grains

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Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
gretchen.p.mccartney@jpl.nasa.gov

Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov

PIA09761_hires
In this image captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2007, the plumes of Enceladus are clearly visible. The moon is nearly in front of the Sun from Cassini’s viewpoint.Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

New kinds of organic compounds, the ingredients of amino acids, have been detected in the plumes bursting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The findings are the result of the ongoing deep dive into data from NASA’s Cassini mission.

Powerful hydrothermal vents eject material from Enceladus’ core, which mixes with water from the moon’s massive subsurface ocean before it is released into space as water vapor and ice grains. The newly discovered molecules, condensed onto the ice grains, were determined to be nitrogen- and oxygen-bearing compounds.

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Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
gretchen.p.mccartney@jpl.nasa.gov

Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov

PIA09761_hires
In this image captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2007, the plumes of Enceladus are clearly visible. The moon is nearly in front of the Sun from Cassini’s viewpoint.Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

New kinds of organic compounds, the ingredients of amino acids, have been detected in the plumes bursting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The findings are the result of the ongoing deep dive into data from NASA’s Cassini mission.

Powerful hydrothermal vents eject material from Enceladus’ core, which mixes with water from the moon’s massive subsurface ocean before it is released into space as water vapor and ice grains. The newly discovered molecules, condensed onto the ice grains, were determined to be nitrogen- and oxygen-bearing compounds.

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Mar’s Solar Conjuction — What Is It & What It Means

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Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov

 

 

This animation illustrates Mars solar conjunction, a period when Mars is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. During this time, the Sun can interrupt radio transmissions to spacecraft on and around the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

The daily chatter between antennas here on Earth and those on NASA spacecraft at Mars is about to get much quieter for a few weeks. 

That’s because Mars and Earth will be on opposite sides of the Sun, a period known as Mars solar conjunction. The Sun expels hot, ionized gas from its corona, which extends far into space. During solar conjunction, this gas can interfere with radio signals when engineers try to communicate with spacecraft at Mars, corrupting commands and resulting in unexpected behavior from our deep space explorers. 

 

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Scientists Finally Know What Time It Is on Saturn

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Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 

JoAnna Wendel 
NASA Headquarters, Washington DC

 

A view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016 as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice. A year on Saturn is 29 Earth years; days only last 10:33:38, according to a new analysis of Cassini data. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

Using new data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, researchers believe they have solved a longstanding mystery of solar system science: the length of a day on Saturn. It’s 10 hours, 33 minutes and 38 seconds. 

The figure has eluded planetary scientists for decades, because the gas giant has no solid surface with landmarks to track as it rotates, and it has an unusual magnetic field that hides the planet’s rotation rate.

The answer, it turned out, was hidden in the rings. 

 

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NASA’s InSight Places First Instrument on Mars

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Jia-Rui Cook / Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

NASA’s InSight lander placed its seismometer on Mars on Dec. 19, 2018. This was the first time a seismometer had ever been placed onto the surface of another planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

NASA’s InSight lander has deployed its first instrument onto the surface of Mars, completing a major mission milestone. New images from the lander show the seismometer on the ground, its copper-colored covering faintly illuminated in the Martian dusk. It looks as if all is calm and all is bright for InSight, heading into the end of the year.

 

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The Coolest Experiment in the Universe

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Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) physicist David Aveline works in the CAL test bed Shown here is theInternational Space Station Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) Cold Atom Laboratory Astronaut Ricky Arnold assists with the installation of NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory The International Space Station, shown here in 2018, is home to many scientific experiments, including NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory. Credit: NASA

 

The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) consists of two standardized containers that will be installed on the International Space Station. The larger container holds CAL’s physics package, or the compartment where CAL will produce clouds of ultracold atoms. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What’s the coldest place you can think of? Temperatures on a winter day in Antarctica dip as low as -120ºF (-85ºC). On the dark side of the Moon, they hit -280ºF (-173ºC). But inside NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station, scientists are creating something even colder.

The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is the first facility in orbit to produce clouds of “ultracold” atoms, which can reach a fraction of a degree above absolute zero: -459ºF (-273ºC), the absolute coldest temperature that matter can reach. Nothing in nature is known to hit the temperatures achieved in laboratories like CAL, which means the orbiting facility is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe.

 NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe. But why are scientists producing clouds of atoms a fraction of a degree above absolute zero? And why do they need to do it in space? Quantum physics, of course.

USeven months after its May 21, 2018, launch to the space station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, CAL is producing ultracold atoms daily. Five teams of scientists will carry out experiments on CAL during its first year, and three experiments are already underway. 

 

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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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NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Set for Fifth Jupiter Flyby

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DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
NASA Headquarters, Washington

 

This enhanced-color image of a mysterious dark spot on Jupiter seems to reveal a Jovian “galaxy” of swirling storms. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Roman Tkachenko

 

NASA’s Juno spacecraft will make its fifth flyby over Jupiter’s mysterious cloud tops on Monday, March 27, at 1:52 a.m. PDT (4:52 a.m. EDT, 8:52 UTC).

At the time of closest approach (called perijove), Juno will be about 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops, traveling at a speed of about 129,000 miles per hour (57.8 kilometers per second) relative to the gas-giant planet. All of Juno’s eight science instruments will be on and collecting data during the flyby.


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Experiments Show Titan Lakes May Fizz with Nitrogen

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Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

Radar images from Cassini showed a strange island-like feature in one of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas that appeared to change over time (series of images at left). One possible explanation for this “magic island” is bubbles. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

A recent NASA-funded study has shown how the hydrocarbon lakes and seas of Saturn’s moon Titan might occasionally erupt with dramatic patches of bubbles.

For the study, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, simulated the frigid surface conditions on Titan, finding that significant amounts of nitrogen can be dissolved in the extremely cold liquid methane that rains from the skies and collects in rivers, lakes and seas. They demonstrated that slight changes in temperature, air pressure or composition can cause the nitrogen to rapidly separate out of solution, like the fizz that results when opening a bottle of carbonated soda.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has found that the composition of Titan’s lakes and seas varies from place to place, with some reservoirs being richer in ethane than methane. “Our experiments showed that when methane-rich liquids mix with ethane-rich ones — for example from a heavy rain, or when runoff from a methane river mixes into an ethane-rich lake — the nitrogen is less able to stay in solution,” said Michael Malaska of JPL, who led the study.


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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.