Category Archives: Hubble Space Telescope

Astronomers create most detailed weather map yet of an exoplanet

Graphic depicting how WASP-43b orbits its star, always keeping the same hemisphere facing the star, much like how the Moon always keeps the same hemisphere facing the Earth. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

Graphic depicting how WASP-43b orbits its star, always keeping the same hemisphere facing the star, much like how the Moon always keeps the same hemisphere facing the Earth. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

Being able to find exoplanets orbiting distant stars is a major accomplishment in itself, and fine-tuning the data enough to discover details about the characteristics of those planets is quite another. Not an easy task. Astronomers have had some initial success, but now they have been able to create the most detailed weather map for any exoplanet so far.

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Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Is shrinking – now the smallest ever seen

In this new image from the Hubble Space Telescope, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is seen at its smallest size ever recorded. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

In this new image from the Hubble Space Telescope, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is seen at its smallest size ever recorded. Credit: NASA / ESA / A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is one of the most recognizable features in the Solar System: a massive hurricane-like oval-shaped storm in the atmosphere of the gas giant planet. It has been observed by telescopes and spacecraft for centuries. How a storm much larger than Earth could persist for so long has been mystery to astronomers, but something is changing: The Spot is shrinking. Recent images from the Hubble Space Telescope now show it at the smallest size ever seen.

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Beautiful new views of Saturn’s auroras

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Auroras are one of the most beautiful natural phenomena on Earth, but they can be found on other planets in the solar system as well, notably the gas giants. New photos and video were released today, February 11, 2014, of just such displays on Saturn, which is already well known of course for its stunning rings and hexagonal bands of clouds at its north pole.

The auroras at Saturn’s north pole were seen by the orbiting Cassini spacecraft as well as the Hubble Space Telescope and viewed in infrared, visible-light and ultraviolet wavelengths.

There’s no guarantee you will always see Saturn’s light displays, as Jonathan Nichols of the University of Leicester in England explained:

“Saturn’s auroras can be fickle – you may see fireworks, you may see nothing. In 2013, we were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of dancing auroras, from steadily shining rings to super-fast bursts of light shooting across the pole.”

Mosaic of ultraviolet and infrared images of auroras at Saturn's north pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Colorado/Central Arizona College and NASA/ESA/University of Leicester and NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Lancaster University

Mosaic of ultraviolet and infrared images of auroras at Saturn’s north pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Colorado/Central Arizona College and NASA/ESA/University of Leicester and NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Lancaster University

“This is our best look yet at the rapidly changing patterns of auroral emission,” said Wayne Pryor, a Cassini co-investigator at Central Arizona College in Coolidge, Ariz. “Some bright spots come and go from image to image. Other bright features persist and rotate around the pole, but at a rate slower than Saturn’s rotation.”

The images were initially taken last April and May in 2013, and show changing patterns of light down to a scale of a few hundred kilometres / miles, pretty good for a planet as large as Saturn.

Like on Earth, the auroras form as charged particles coming from the Sun interact with Saturn’s atmosphere. One interesting difference is in colour – while Earth’s auroras tend to be green at the bottom and red at the top, Saturn’s are red at the bottom and purple at the top. That difference is because because Earth’s auroras are dominated by nitrogen and oxygen molecules, while Saturn’s are dominated by hydrogen molecules.

While there is of course much scientific interest in these Saturnian light displays, they are also simply another wonderful planetary phenomena to be watched and enjoyed.

Other versions of the video of Saturn’s auroras can be seen here.

This article was first published on Examiner.com.

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It’s an alien blue world – but nothing like Earth

Artist’s conception of exoplanet HD 189733b—a “deep blue dot” reminiscent of Earth from a distance. Image Credit: NASA / ESA / M. Kornmesser

Artist’s conception of exoplanet HD 189733b – a “deep blue dot” reminiscent of Earth from a distance. Credit: NASA / ESA / M. Kornmesser

The planets and moons in our Solar System come in a wide variety of colours, and the natural beauty can be breathtaking. Now, the true colour of a much more distant planet has been seen for the first time – and it’s blue!

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New evidence from Hubble Space Telescope for exoplanet that ‘shouldn’t be there’

Hubble image and illustration showing the gap in the planetary disk surrounding TW Hydrae. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Debes (STScI), H. Jang-Condell (University of Wyoming), A. Weinberger (Carnegie Institution of Washington), A. Roberge (Goddard Space Flight Center), G. Schneider (University of Arizona/Steward Observatory), and A. Feild (STScI/AURA)

Hubble image and illustration showing the gap in the planetary disk surrounding TW Hydrae.
Click for larger version. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Debes (STScI), H. Jang-Condell (University of Wyoming), A. Weinberger (Carnegie Institution of Washington), A. Roberge (Goddard Space Flight Center), G. Schneider (University of Arizona/Steward Observatory), A. Feild (STScI/AURA)

So far, thousands of exoplanets and exoplanet candidates have been found orbiting other stars. As well, astronomers have seen some exoplanets still in the process of formation, providing clues as to how our own solar system came to be. One of these recent “planet-under-construction” findings however is challenging current theories on planetary formation – it’s a planet which “shouldn’t be there” according to conventional wisdom.

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‘Back from the dead': new analysis says exoplanet Fomalhaut b is real

Artist’s conception of Fomalhaut B. Credit: ESA / Hubble / M. Kornmesser / ESO / L. Calçada / L. L. Christensen

Among the many exoplanets now being discovered, Fomalhaut B was considered something special – the first exoplanet to be directly photographed in visible light, by the Hubble Space Telescope, back in 2008. That is, until more recent studies suggested that it might not be real, not even a planet after all.

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Hot, steamy ‘waterworld’ exoplanet observed by Hubble

Artist's conception of GJ1214b orbiting its red dwarf star. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

The Hubble Space Telescope has made new observations of a “waterworld” exoplanet which has a thick, steamy atmosphere.

The planet, GJ1214b, orbits a red-dwarf star and is about 40 light-years from Earth. It is about 2.7 times larger than Earth, with an estimated temperature of 232 ºC (450 ºF). While it orbits too close to its star to be in the habitable zone, and thus unlikely to have liquid water on its surface, it still apparently does have water in its atmosphere, and a lot of it.

It was initially discovered in 2009 by the MEarth Project using ground-based telescopes. Follow-up observations were made by Hubble in 2010, providing a more detailed look at the composition of its atmosphere.

It wasn’t clear however whether GJ1214b had a thick atmosphere of water vapour or if there was just a planet-wide haze in its atmosphere.

The new studies indicated that it is most likely the former – a hot, steamy atmosphere surrounding the planet. The science team used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) to examine the atmosphere during a transit, when the planet crossed in front of its star. When the star’s light is filtered through the planet’s atmosphere, it can be analyzed to determine its composition. The spectrum turned out to be featureless, consistent with a dense atmosphere composed primarily of water vapour.

According to Zachory Berta of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), “The Hubble measurements really tip the balance in favor of a steamy atmosphere.”

The results also suggest that GJ1214b has more water and less rock than Earth; internally it may be quite different from our planet.

“The high temperatures and high pressures would form exotic materials like ‘hot ice’ or ‘superfluid water,’ substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience,” Berta said.

It could be said that GJ1214b is something like a wetter version of Venus – with a very hot, thick atmosphere but an atmosphere that is humid and saturated with water, instead of one that is bone dry, acidic and composed mostly of carbon dioxide.

The discovery is also another step closer to finding an alien world that is similar to our own. Water, in its various forms, is already known to be abundant in the universe. It may just be a matter of time before we find another waterworld that is actually like Earth – not just a planet with subsurface oceans like on some icy moons in our solar system, but another Earth with oceans, lakes and rivers on its surface. It is also thought possible that there are planets which are covered completely with water, with no continents or islands anywhere.

In the meantime, GJ1214b has shown once again that, like snowflakes, no two planets are exactly the same, with an almost limitless variety out there waiting to be discovered.

The paper is available here.

This article was first published on Examiner.com.

Have complex molecules been found on Pluto’s surface?

Artist's conception of New Horizons during its flyby of Pluto in 2015. Credit:Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

First there was the recent story about evidence for a possible subsurface ocean on Pluto, of all places. Now there is a new report regarding evidence for complex molecules on its surface, from scientists at Southwest Research Institute and Nebraska Wesleyan University. Little enigmatic Pluto is starting to get even more interesting…

See Universe Today for the full article.

Six more exoplanets found by Kepler and Hubble space telescopes

The number of exoplanets being found orbiting other stars continues to grow at an exponential rate; the current number of confirmed exoplanets now stands at 692. Plus the 1,235 additional candidates from Kepler (so far!) that are awaiting confirmation. Now six more have just been added to the confirmed list, a system of three planets found by Kepler and another system of three planets discovered (or re-discovered as outlined below) by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Credit: NASA; ESA; STScI, R. Soummer

Kepler’s new planetary trio orbit the sun-like star Kepler-18, which is only 10 percent larger than our sun. One of these is a “super-Earth” about twice the diameter and 6.9 times the mass of Earth, called Kepler 18-b. It’s very close to its star, taking only 3.5 days to complete an orbit. The other two, Kepler 18-c and Kepler 18-d, are both Neptune-size worlds about 5.5 times and seven times the diameter of Earth. What’s unusual is that these two planets seem to interacting with each other in a kind of “orbital dance,” alternately tugging and pulling on each other. They take about 7.6 and 14.9 days to complete an orbit respectively, so all three planets are in orbits that are much smaller than Mercury’s in our own solar system.

Meanwhile, the Hubble Space Telescope has imaged three planets orbiting the star HR 8799 (a small but growing number of exoplanets have been directly photographed so far). The interesting part is that these planets were actually known to exist already, but they didn’t show up in the first images taken by Hubble back in 1998. But now, using more advanced techniques, astronomers have been able to tease them out of the data in those original photographs after all. There are actually four known planets orbiting HR 8799, but the fourth one hasn’t been imaged yet. (Note: the Space.com story linked to above mentions two planets photographed in the text, although the image itself shows three and this is the number quoted in other articles about this, such as DiscoveryNews).

This is an exciting time for exoplanet research, with each new discovery adding to our knowledge of the many planetary systems beyond our own; and it wasn’t that long ago when we didn’t know of any

This article was first published on Examiner.com.

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