Category Archives: NASA
Mysterious cloud spotted on Mars
Amateur astrophotographer Wayne Jaeschke captured this image of a “terminator projection” rising up from the edge of the Martian disk at about the 1 o’clock position on March 22. The inset photo is a 200 percent enlargement of the region around the projection. For more, check out Exosky.net, Jaeschke’s website.
By Alan Boyle
Amateur astronomers are puzzling over a seemingly anomalous cloud that has shown up on images of Mars taken over the past few days. Is it really a cloud, or a trick of the eye? Does it really extend 150 miles up from the surface, as some of the observers suggest? And what churned up all that stuff, anyway? The amateurs and the pros will be trying to resolve those questions before the phenomenon fades away.
“It’s not completely unexpected,” Jonathon Hill, a member of the team at the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University, told me today. “But it’s bigger than we would expect, and it’s definitely something that our atmosphere guys want to take a look at.”
Hill and his colleagues will be looking at the area where the cloud was spotted using the Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS, which is one of the instruments on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter.
“In the command upload we’re preparing to send today, we’ve included observations that will hopefully capture some of these recent clouds,” Hill wrote in an email. “Our THEMIS camera on Mars Odyssey is capable of acquiring simultaneous visible and thermal infrared images, so our atmospheric researchers are pretty excited about the possibility of not only getting a good look at the cloud structures, but also their temperatures.”
THEMIS will be checking out heightened cloud activity around Mars’ shield volcanoes as well as around the southern site spotted by the amateurs. Pictures from a camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, called the Mars Color Imager, or MARCI, might provide further clues about the southern cloud feature. And amateur astronomers are sending out the alert for observers to keep a close watch on the Red Planet over the coming days.
There’s been lots of buzz about the high-altitude cloud on Cloudy Nights and other online discussion forums for skywatchers. Sky & Telescope’s Sean Walker says the puff of white was first noticed on March 20 by Wayne Jaeschke, an amateur astrophotographer from Pennsylvania. Since then, other observers have identified the feature in images going back as far as March 12.
All sorts of hypotheses have been proposed: Could it be debris kicked up by a meteoric impact? Is it a huge weather system? Is it merely a funny kind of glint caused by a combination of lighting and atmospheric conditions?
In an email, Jaeschke told me that the feature is “still there, although it has decreased in size over the past two days.”
“This has led some to believe that it was some sort of transient-type event,” Jaeschke said. So it’s crucial to make as many observations of the area as possible over the next few days.
Wayne Jaeschke created this animated GIF image of Mars with the cloud coming into view on the upper right edge of the planet’s disk. For more from Jaeschke, check out his Exosky website.
Walker says the feature is currently well-placed for viewing from the Americas. He says it should show up on the edge of Mars’ disk around 1:10 a.m. ET Saturday, and 39.5 minutes later on each succeeding night. Consult the photos above for guidance on where to point a medium-size telescope — keeping in mind that these images are inverted to appear as they would through a telescope, with south pointing “up.” Arizona State University’s Hill says the area in question is called Terra Cimmeria.
Observation reports should be sent via email to Richard McKim, director of the British Astronomical Association’s Mars Section. (The linked website includes McKim’s email address, as well as a picture of the chap.)
Solving this mystery — if it indeed turns out to be an honest-to-goodness mystery rather than a mere quirk — may require additional data from the big guns of the astronomy world. But in any case, the episode illustrates once again how much amateurs can contribute to uncovering the wonders of the cosmos.
“When it comes to Mars, amateurs and professionals working together give you way more insight into ongoing processes, because with so many amateurs, you’re continuously monitoring changes in the planet,” Hill told me. “They provide a perspective and a context that we don’t usually get.”
Solar Storm Dumps Gigawatts into Earth’s Upper Atmosphere
March 22, 2012:� A recent flurry of eruptions on the sun did more than spark pretty auroras around the poles.� NASA-funded researchers say the solar storms of March 8th through 10th dumped enough energy in Earth’s upper atmosphere to power every residence in New York City for two years.
“This was the biggest dose of heat we’ve received from a solar storm since 2005,” says Martin Mlynczak of NASA Langley Research Center.� “It was a big event, and shows how solar activity can directly affect our planet.”
Earth’s atmosphere lights up at infrared wavelengths during the solar storms of March 8-10, 2012. A ScienceCast video explains the physics of this phenomenon. Play it!
Mlynczak is the associate principal investigator for the SABER instrument onboard NASA’s TIMED satellite.� SABER monitors infrared emissions from Earth’s upper atmosphere, in particular from carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitric oxide (NO), two substances that play a key role in the energy balance of air hundreds of km above our planet’s surface.
“Carbon dioxide and nitric oxide are natural thermostats,” explains James Russell of Hampton University, SABER’s principal investigator.� “When the upper atmosphere (or ‘thermosphere’) heats up, these molecules try as hard as they can to shed that heat back into space.”
That’s what happened on March 8th when a coronal mass ejection (CME) propelled in our direction by an X5-class solar flare hit Earth’s magnetic field. �(On the “Richter Scale of Solar Flares,” X-class flares are the most powerful kind.) �Energetic particles rained down on the upper atmosphere, depositing their energy where they hit.� The action produced spectacular auroras around the poles and significant1 upper atmospheric heating all around the globe.
“The thermosphere lit up like a Christmas tree,” says Russell.� “It began to glow intensely at infrared wavelengths as the thermostat effect kicked in.”
For the three day period, March 8th through 10th, the thermosphere absorbed 26 billion kWh of energy.� Infrared radiation from CO2 and NO, the two most efficient coolants in the thermosphere, re-radiated 95% of that total back into space.
A surge of infrared radiation from nitric oxide molecules on March 8-10, 2012, signals the biggest upper-atmospheric heating event in seven years. Credit: SABER/TIMED. See also the CO2 data.
In human terms, this is a lot of energy.� According to the New York City mayor’s office, an average NY household consumes just under 4700 kWh annually. This means the geomagnetic storm dumped enough energy into the atmosphere to power every home in the Big Apple for two years.
“Unfortunately, there’s no practical way to harness this kind of energy,” says Mlynczak.� “It’s so diffuse and out of reach high above Earth’s surface.� Plus, the majority of it has been sent back into space by the action of CO2 and NO.”
During the heating impulse, the thermosphere puffed up like a marshmallow held over a campfire, temporarily increasing the drag on low-orbiting satellites.� This is both good and bad.� On the one hand, extra drag helps clear space junk out of Earth orbit.� On the other hand, it decreases the lifetime of useful satellites by bringing them closer to the day of re-entry.
The storm is over now, but Russell and Mlynczak expect more to come.
“We’re just emerging from a deep solar minimum,” says Russell.� “The solar cycle is gaining strength with a maximum expected in 2013.”
More sunspots flinging more CMEs toward Earth adds up to more opportunities for SABER to study the heating effect of solar storms.
“This is a new frontier in the sun-Earth connection,” says Mlynczak, “and the data we’re collecting are unprecedented.”
Stay tuned to Science@NASA for updates from the top of the atmosphere.
Author:Dr. Tony Phillips| Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA
We humans are not used to seeing plasma forms, until VERY recently in our development.
I think we will begin to see very strange stuff like this occur more and more, as our technologies improve on seeing things that previously, were ‘un-seeable’. I think things like this recent occurrence on the sun is a fine example.
Now, to my important point. Plasma behaves like a living thing. Is it a living thing? I guess it depends on what you view as living. Also, can ‘offworld sentient beings’ utilize plasma and magnetism, etc., as a means o transportation, or some type of ‘tool’? Just doing a little thinking outside the box.
Plasma is the fourth state of matter. It differs from solids, liquids and gases in so far as it’s atoms are divided into free-floating ‘negative’ electrons and ‘positive’ ions (an atom which has lost its electron/s). It is sometimes referred to as an ionized gas.
Students are generally taught about only three states of matter, and when Plasma does get a mention, little importance is assigned. Not only should plasma be added to the list, but the order should be reversed to put it in first place. The reasons for this will become clear.
The term Plasma was borrowed from blood plasma in order to describe its almost life-like and self-organising properties.
Plasma sometimes emits light when under the excitation of electrical and magnetic fields. Polar auroras bear witness to this fact.
[link to www.plasmacosmology.net
Plasma is an excellent conductor of electricity. Because of its free-flowing electrons its conductive properties far surpass those of copper and gold.
Due to its interaction with electromagnetism, plasmas display a complexity in structure far exceeding that of matter in gaseous, liquid, or solid states. It has a tendency to form into cellular and filamentary structures.
These structures derive from the fact that a charged particle flow (or current) produces a ring of magnetic fields around itself, ‘pinching’ plasma into multi-filamentary strands, as can be seen on both cosmic and more localised scales. Pictured right is a novelty plasma-lamp typical of those available on the high street.
[link to www.plasmacosmology.net]
Astronomers have found the brightest and youngest example yet of a fast-spinning star, suggesting that the extremely luminous versions of these super-dense objects may be far more common than thought…
..The pulsar’s extreme brightness and youth challenge current ideas about how super-bright millisecond pulsars form and how widespread they may be, researchers said…
…When a mass as great as our sun’s is packed into a space the size of a city, the conserved angular momentum causes the resulting neutron star to spin very rapidly and to emit a ray of high-energy light that sweeps around like a lighthouse beam.
This light appears to pulse because astronomers see the beam only when it’s pointed at Earth. “Normal” pulsars rotate at a rate between 7 and 3,750 revolutions per minute, but millisecond pulsars can spin much faster — up to 43,000 rotations per minute…
J1823-3021A also appears to have a much stronger magnetic field than other millisecond pulsars. The exotic object’s combination of characteristics is likely to have astronomers scratching their heads, Freire said.
…“It challenges the way we believe millisecond pulsars form,” he said. “It was not thought that, for the spin period of this object (5.44 ms), they could be so energetic and have such a high magnetic field.”…
…The researchers aren’t yet sure whether millisecond pulsar formation theories will need a tweak or a serious overhaul.
“We are currently investigating a number of possibilities,” study co-author Michael Kramer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, said in a statement. “Nature might even be forming millisecond pulsars in a way we have not anticipated.”