Archive for April 26, 2013

NASA Probe Observes Meteors Colliding With Saturn’s Rings

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Cornell

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Cornell

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has provided the first direct evidence of small meteoroids breaking into streams of rubble and crashing into Saturn’s rings.

These observations make Saturn’s rings the only location besides Earth, the moon and Jupiter where scientists and amateur astronomers have been able to observe impacts as they occur. Studying the impact rate of meteoroids from outside the Saturnian system helps scientists understand how different planet systems in our solar system formed.

The solar system is full of small, speeding objects. These objects frequently pummel planetary bodies. The meteoroids at Saturn are estimated to range from about one-half inch to several yards (1 centimeter to several meters) in size. It took scientists years to distinguish tracks left by nine meteoroids in 2005, 2009 and 2012.

Results from Cassini have already shown Saturn’s rings act as very effective detectors of many kinds of surrounding phenomena, including the interior structure of the planet and the orbits of its moons. For example, a subtle but extensive corrugation that ripples 12,000 miles (19,000 kilometers) across the innermost rings tells of a very large meteoroid impact in 1983.

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Einstein’s Gravity Theory Passes Toughest Test Yet

Artist’s impression. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Artist’s impression. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

A strange stellar pair nearly 7,000 light-years from Earth has provided physicists with a unique cosmic laboratory for studying the nature of gravity. The extremely strong gravity of a massive neutron star in orbit with a companion white dwarf star puts competing theories of gravity to a test more stringent than any available before.

Once again, Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, published in 1915, comes out on top.

At some point, however, scientists expect Einstein’s model to be invalid under extreme conditions. General Relativity, for example, is incompatible with quantum theory. Physicists hope to find an alternate description of gravity that would eliminate that incompatibility.

A newly-discovered pulsar — a spinning neutron star with twice the mass of the Sun — and its white-dwarf companion, orbiting each other once every two and a half hours, has put gravitational theories to the most extreme test yet. Observations of the system, dubbed PSR J0348+0432, produced results consistent with the predictions of General Relativity.

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How To Target An Asteroid

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Like many of his colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., Shyam Bhaskaran is working a lot with asteroids these days. And also like many of his colleagues, the deep space navigator devotes a great deal of time to crafting, and contemplating, computer-generated 3-D models of these intriguing nomads of the solar system.
But while many of his coworkers are calculating asteroids’ past, present and future locations in the cosmos, zapping them with the world’s most massive radar dishes, or considering how to rendezvous and perhaps even gently nudge an asteroid into lunar orbit, Bhaskaran thinks about how to collide with one.

“If you want to see below the surface of an asteroid, there’s no better way than smacking it hard,” said Bhaskaran. “But it’s not that easy. Hitting an asteroid with a spacecraft traveling at hypervelocity is like shooting an arrow at a target on a speeding race car.

“Most of the hypervelocity impact scenarios that I simulate have spacecraft/asteroid closure rates of around eight miles a second, 30,000 miles per hour [about 48,000 kilometers per hour],” said Bhaskaran.

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Using Black Holes To Measure The Universe’s Rate Of Expansion

A few years ago, researchers revealed that the universe is expanding at a much faster rate than originally believed — a discovery that earned a Nobel Prize in 2011. But measuring the rate of this acceleration over large distances is still challenging and problematic, says Prof. Hagai Netzer of Tel Aviv University’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

Now, Prof. Netzer, along with Jian-Min Wang, Pu Du and Chen Hu of the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Dr. David Valls-Gabaud of the Observatoire de Paris, has developed a method with the potential to measure distances of billions of light years with a high degree of accuracy. The method uses certain types of active black holes that lie at the center of many galaxies. The ability to measure very long distances translates into seeing further into the past of the universe — and being able to estimate its rate of expansion at a very young age.

Published in the journal Physical Review Letters, this system of measurement takes into account the radiation emitted from the material that surrounds black holes before it is absorbed. As material is drawn into a black hole, it heats up and emits a huge amount of radiation, up to a thousand times the energy produced by a large galaxy containing 100 billion stars. For this reason, it can be seen from very far distances, explains Prof. Netzer.

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Astronomer Studies Far-Off Worlds Through ‘Characterization By Proxy’

A University of Washington astronomer is using Earth’s interstellar neighbors to learn the nature of certain stars too far away to be directly measured or observed, and the planets they may host.

“Characterization by proxy” is the technique used by Sarah Ballard, a post-doctoral researcher at the UW, to infer the properties of small, relatively cool stars too distant for measurement, by comparing them to closer stars that now can be directly observed.

Our understanding of the size and temperature of planets depends crucially on the size and temperature of the stars they orbit. Astronomers already have a robust way to discern the physical properties of solar-type stars — those like the sun — by measuring the light they emit at different wavelengths and matching that to synthetically created spectra.

“The challenge is that small stars are incredibly difficult to characterize,” Ballard said. Those theoretical methods don’t work well for what are called M-dwarf stars, lower-mass stars about half the size of the sun and smaller — which is too bad, because such stars make up about three-quarters of the universe.

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