Astronomy Picture of the Day
Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.
2012 July 3
In the Shadow of Saturn’s Rings
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/J. Major
Explanation: Humanity’s robot orbiting Saturn has recorded yet another amazing view. That robot, of course, is the spacecraft Cassini, while the new amazing view includes a bright moon, thin rings, oddly broken clouds, and warped shadows. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, appears above as a featureless tan as it is continually shrouded in thick clouds. The rings of Saturn are seen as a thin line because they are so flat and imaged nearly edge on. Details of Saturn’s rings are therefore best visible in the dark ring shadows seen across the giant planet’s cloud tops. Since the ring particles orbit in the same plane as Titan, they appear to skewer the foreground moon. In the upper hemisphere of Saturn, the clouds show many details, including dips in long bright bands indicating disturbances in a high altitude jet stream. Recent precise measurements of how much Titan flexes as it orbits Saturn hint that vast oceans of water might exist deep underground.
Discover the cosmos!Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.
2012 June 19
NuSTAR X-Ray Telescope Launched Illustration
Credit & Copyright: Fiona Harrison et al., Caltech, NASA
Explanation: What’s left after a star explodes? To help find out, NASA launched the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) satellite into Earth orbit last week. NuSTAR’s ability to focus hard X-rays emitted from the nuclei of atoms will be used, among other things, to inspect the surroundings of supernova remnants so as to better understand why these supernovas occurred, what types of objects resulted, and what mechanisms make their surroundings glow so hot. NuSTAR will also give humanity unprecedented looks at the hot corona of our Sun, hot gasses in clusters of galaxies, and the supermassive black hole in the center of our Galaxy. Pictured above is an artist’s illustration depicting how NuSTAR works. X-rays similar to those used in your dentist’s office enter the telescope on the right and skip off two sets of parallel mirrors that focus them onto the detectors on the left. A long but low-weight mast separates the two, and the whole thing is powered by solar panels on the upper left. Part of the excitement involving NuSTAR is not only what things it is expected to see, but by looking at the universe in a new way, what things that are completely unknown that might be discovered. NuSTAR has a planned two year lifetime.
The probe is encountering 25 percent more cosmic radiation as it pushes over 11.1 billion miles from Earth, indicating that it is reaching new regions of space.
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has encountered a new environment more than 11 billion miles from Earth, suggesting that the venerable probe is on the cusp of leaving the
The Voyager 1 probe has entered a region of space with a markedly higher flow of charged particles from beyond our solar system, researchers said. Mission scientists suspect this increased flow indicates that the spacecraft — currently 11.1 billion miles (17.8 billion kilometers) from its home planet — may be poised to cross the boundary into interstellar space.
“The laws of physics say that someday Voyager will become the first human-made object to enter interstellar space, but we still do not know exactly when that someday will be,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, in a statement.
“The latest data indicate that we are clearly in a new region where things are changing more quickly,” Stone added. “It is very exciting. We are approaching the solar system’s frontier.”
Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, launched in 1977, tasked chiefly with studying Saturn, Jupiter and the gas giants’ moons. The two spacecraft made many interesting discoveries about these far-flung bodies, and then they just kept going, checking out Uranus and Neptune on their way toward interstellar space.
They’re not quite out of the solar system yet, however. Both are still within a huge bubble called the heliosphere, which is made of solar plasma and solar magnetic fields. This gigantic structure is about three times wider than the orbit of Pluto, researchers have said.
Specifically, the Voyagers are plying the heliosphere’s outer shell, a turbulent region called the heliosheath. But Voyager 1’s new measurements — of fast-moving galactic cosmic rays hurled our way by star explosions — suggest the probe may be nearing the heliosphere’s edge.
“From January 2009 to January 2012, there had been a gradual increase of about 25 percent in the amount of galactic cosmic rays Voyager was encountering,” Stone said. “More recently, we have seen very rapid escalation in that part of the energy spectrum. Beginning on May 7, the cosmic ray hits have increased five percent in a week and nine percent in a month.”
More measurements needed
While it may be tough to identify the moment when Voyager 1 finally pops free into interstellar space, scientists are keeping an eye on the cosmic ray measurements and a few other possible indicators.
One is the intensity of energetic particles generated inside the heliosphere. Voyager 1 has recorded a gradual decline in these particles as it flies farther and farther away from Earth, but it hasn’t seen the dramatic dropoff that scientists expect would accompany an exit from the solar system.
The Voyager team also thinks the magnetic fields surrounding the spacecraft should change when it crosses the solar boundary. Those field lines run roughly east-west within the heliosphere, and researchers predict they’ll shift to a more north-south orientation in interstellar space. They’re currently looking at Voyager 1 data for any signs of such a transition.
In the meantime, both Voyagers just keep on flying and exploring. Voyager 2 trails its twin a little bit; it’s currently 9.1 billion miles (14.7 billion km) from home.
“When the Voyagers launched in 1977, the space age was all of 20 years old,” Stone said. “Many of us on the team dreamed of reaching interstellar space, but we really had no way of knowing how long a journey it would be — or if these two vehicles that we invested so much time and energy in would operate long enough to reach it.”
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