Friday, July 30, 2010

Triton's Shooting Stars

Triton is by far the largest moon in orbit around the planet Neptune and with a diameter of 2700 kilometers; Triton is the seventh largest moon in the Solar System. Interestingly, Triton is the only large moon in the Solar System with a retrograde orbit, whereby it orbits Neptune in the opposite direction to Neptune’s rotation. Triton has a relatively high rock/ice ratio of approximately 70/30 and this composition is remarkably similar to large Kuiper Belt objects such as Pluto and Eris. Because of Triton’s retrograde orbit and its similar composition to objects such as Pluto and Eris, Triton is believed to be a Kuiper Belt object that was captured into orbit around Neptune.

Triton orbits Neptune at a distance of 354800 kilometers and it takes 5 days and 21 hours for Triton to orbit once around Neptune. Like the other large moons in the Solar System, Triton is tidally locked to Neptune where it keeps the same hemisphere oriented towards Neptune at all times. Triton was discovered by British astronomer William Lassell in 1846, only several days after Neptune itself was discovered. The first and only closed-up images of this elusive and far-flung moon of Neptune came on August 1989, after a close fly-by of Triton by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft.

Apart from Saturn’s moon Titan, Neptune’s moon Triton is the only other moon in the Solar System with an appreciable atmosphere. Similar to both the Earth and Titan, nitrogen is the main constituent of Triton’s atmosphere. The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Triton is over 50000 times less than the atmospheric pressure at sea-level on the Earth. This is actually equivalent to the atmospheric pressure up in the Earth’s mesosphere at well over 50 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Triton’s extremely frigid and cold environment allows the nitrogen in its atmosphere to be deposited onto the surface as frozen nitrogen. On the surface of Triton, the Sun will appear almost a thousand times dimmer than from the Earth’s surface.

The atmosphere of Triton contains thin clouds of nitrogen ice particles that are located a few kilometers above the surface. Above the clouds of nitrogen ice particles is a haze layer which extends up to 30 kilometers above Triton’s surface. This haze layer is made up of hydrocarbons and nitriles created when ultraviolet light from the Sun breaks down methane in Triton’s atmosphere. The surface of Titan also contains numerous erupting geysers of nitrogen gas. By itself, nitrogen gas is invisible and it is the entrained dust within the nitrogen gas which allows the geysers to be seen as plumes rising from the surface up to a height of 8 kilometers above Triton’s surface. The entrained dust within a plume can be deposited to over a hundred kilometers downwind of the plume and these plumes are responsible for creating the long and dark streaks on the surface of Triton.

Although Triton’s atmosphere is rather tenuous compared to the Earth’s atmosphere, it is still dense enough to ablate micrometeoroids when they pass through. The combination of a micrometeoroid’s orbital velocity around the Sun, the orbital velocity of Triton around Neptune, the orbital velocity of Neptune around the Sun and the gravitational accelerations of both Triton and Neptune, can allow the micrometeoroid to achieve a fast enough impact velocity that will enable the micrometeoroid to be sufficiently heated to visibility by friction with the air molecules in Triton’s atmosphere.

As Triton orbits Neptune, most micrometeoroids will impact the leading hemisphere of Triton and this is where most micrometeoroids can be observed. When a micrometeoroid penetrates an atmosphere, it heats up due to friction with the air molecules in the atmosphere. This causes material to sputter off the surface of the micrometeoroid particle in a process called ablation. Sufficiently strong heating and ablation can enable a micrometeoroid to become a visible meteor.

Due to the thin atmosphere of Triton and the much lower speeds at which micrometeoroids will impact the atmosphere of Triton as compared to the Earth, micrometeoroids can penetrate all the way down to the surface of Triton. This is unlike the Earth where micrometeoroids vaporize entirely high in the atmosphere. On Triton, visible meteor trails can extend all the way down to the surface. Icy micrometeoroids are expected to produce brighter meteor trails than stony micrometeoroids because icy micrometeoroids have a greater rate of ablation and the brightness of a meteor trail is directly related to the rate of ablation of the micrometeoroid.

Additionally, large variation in the brightness of meteors is expected to occur along different phases of Triton’s orbit around Neptune. The brightness of a meteor trail is expected to be the greatest when Triton’s orbital velocity around Neptune adds up most positively with Neptune’s orbital velocity around the Sun. The Neptune-Triton system is unique, because unlike other planet-satellite systems, it features a remarkably large variation in the meteoroid impact velocity onto Triton as a function of Triton’s orbital phase position around Neptune.

In addition to producing visible meteor tails, the ablation of incoming micrometeoroids can deposit metallic atoms and molecules that were once part of the micrometeoroid into the atmosphere of Triton. These metallic atoms and molecules can condense into dust particles in the atmosphere of Triton and these dust particles could serve as nucleation centers for the condensation and formation of cloud and haze particles observed in Triton’s atmosphere. Most of these metallic atoms and molecules will eventually get deposited together with the condensates onto the surface of Triton.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stellar Behemoth

The Tarantula Nebula is an extremely luminous nebula that is located approximately 165000 light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud and it is the largest and most active star formation region known in the Local Group of galaxies. The Large Magellanic Cloud is basically a nearby irregular galaxy which is roughly one-tenth as massive as the Milky Way Galaxy.

At the heart of the Tarantula Nebula lies an exceptionally dense cluster of stars called R136 which generates most of the light that illuminates the Tarantula Nebula. 4 exceedingly massive and luminous stars sit in the core of the R136 star cluster and they are designated R136a1, R136a2, R136a3 and R136c respectively. Each star is well over 100 times more massive than the Sun and each star is millions of times more luminous than the Sun.

The most massive and luminous of the 4 central stars in the R136 star cluster is the star called R136a1. This behemoth is currently the most massive and luminous star discovered so far. R136a1 has a current mass that is 265 times the mass of the Sun and an initial mass that is estimated to be 320 times the mass of the Sun! Since its birth, R136a1 has shed over 50 times the mass of the Sun in extremely powerful stellar winds.

R136a1 also shines with an “off-the-charts” luminosity that is approximately 10 million times greater than the Sun’s luminosity! To put this extreme luminosity into perspective, R136a1 emits as much energy in 3 seconds as the Sun emits in an entire Earth year! With an age of just over a million years, R136a1 is already a middle-aged star. In comparison, our Sun is already 5000 million years old and the Sun is only halfway through its lifespan.

Although the R136 star cluster contains approximately 100000 stars, its 4 brightest stars (R136a1, R136a2, R136a3 and R136c) account for approximately half of the wind and radiation power of the entire cluster of stars! Because very massive stars are so exceedingly rare, it is unlikely that there is any other star in the Tarantula Nebula or possibly even in the entire Local Group of galaxies that will be comparable to the brightest components of the R136 star cluster. An ultra-massive star like R136a1 is considered to be a very extreme case for a star and R136a1 might well be one in a trillion.

Source: Paul A Crowther, et al. (2010), “The R136 Star Cluster Hosts Several Stars Whose Individual Masses Greatly Exceed the Accepted 150 M_Sun Stellar Mass Limit”, arXiv:1007.3284v1

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mercurian Ice

Mercury is the closest planet from the Sun and it orbits the Sun once every 88 Earth days. Due to its eccentric orbit, Mercury has a minimum distance of 46.0 million kilometers from the Sun and a maximum distance of 69.8 million kilometers from the Sun. This causes the intensity of sunlight on Mercury to vary by over a factor of two as Mercury orbits the Sun. Mercury is also locked in a spin-orbit resonance where the ratio of orbital period to spin period is precisely 3:2. This means that Mercury completes three rotations about its axis for every two orbits around the Sun.

With a diameter of 4880 kilometers, Mercury is the smallest of the terrestrial planets and despite its size; it is the only other terrestrial planet besides the Earth that has a global magnetic field. Mercury also has a large and dense iron core which makes up well over half the planet’s mass. This makes Mercury the second densest planet in the Solar System with Earth being the densest due to gravitational compression effects. Had it not been for Earth’s gravitational compression effects, Mercury would have been the densest planet in the Solar System.

Mercury has a large surface temperature range which goes from a maximum of 700 degrees Kelvin at the subsolar point when Mercury is closest to the Sun to a minimum of below 100 degrees Kelvin at the bottoms of craters located around the poles. The subsolar point on a planet such as Mercury is where the Sun is directly overhead and hence, the Sun’s rays strike the surface perpendicularly at the subsolar point.

Permanently shadowed craters are known to exist around the north and south poles of Mercury. Since Mercury has an axial tilt that is almost zero, the rims of many of these craters are able to shield the Sun and keep the floors of the craters in permanent darkness. The temperatures within these permanently shadowed craters can go below 100 degrees Kelvin as the Sun never rises above the crater rims to warm the frigid interiors of these craters. Within these permanently shadowed craters, water can exist in the form of ice and remain stable over billions of years. In fact, radar observations have revealed the presence of ice deposits within permanently shadowed craters in Mercury’s polar regions.

These permanently shadowed regions within craters around the poles of Mercury receive only scattered sunlight and thermal emissions from the surrounding topography. The temperatures within these permanently shadowed regions are therefore sensitive to the orientations of the surface and surrounding topography. Finally, burial under a thin regolith layer can enable the ice deposits to remain stable at higher temperatures and can extend the presence of ice deposits to lower latitudes.

Currently, NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) spacecraft is on its way to Mercury and MESSENGER is expected to enter orbit around Mercury on 18 March 2011. Since its launch on 3 August 2004, MESSENGER has made one Earth flyby, two Venus flybys and three Mercury flybys. These flybys are a form of gravity assist maneuvers which greatly reduce the amount of fuel required to fly MESSENGER on the right trajectory that will allow it to eventually enter orbit around Mercury. The three flybys of Mercury by MESSENGER have already generated an astonishing amount of interesting science that is poised to greatly change and increase our understanding of the elusive closest planet from the Sun. If you want to find out more, visit the mission homepage at

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Frozen Oasis

Liquid water cannot exist on the surface of the Moon as it will rapidly evaporate on its airless surface or get broken down into hydrogen and oxygen by sunlight. However, water can be present in the form of ice within permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles. In such places, the Sun never gets high enough over the horizon to cast its rays over the rims of these craters and illuminate the floors of the craters.

Without ever being warmed by the Sun, these permanently shadowed regions can maintain incredibly low temperatures which make them ideal for water in its frozen form to exist over billion-year timescales. In fact, an instrument onboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter recorded temperatures as low as 25 degrees Kelvin or -248 degrees Centigrade in areas within these permanently shadowed regions, making them amongst the coldest known places in the Solar System!

[29] From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens [30] when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?
- Job 38:29-30 (New international Version)

The permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles can serve as cold traps where water brought to the Moon by impacting comets can accumulate in these places. This week, I researched on the retention of water from the impacts of comets onto the surface of the Moon. Comets are small icy objects which orbit the Sun and they range in sizes from a few hundred meters to tens of kilometers across. Comets are known to contain a large amount of volatiles, especially water in the form of ice. When a comet impacts the Moon, a fraction of the water from the comet can eventually end up in these permanently shadowed craters and accumulate there in the form of ice.

In my research, I derived a method which estimates the fraction of the comet’s mass that remains gravitationally bound to the Moon after the impact. I carried out the computations and analysis for various impact velocities and various impact incident angles. From my results, a significant fraction of the comet’s mass remains gravitationally bound to the Moon after the impact as long as the impact velocity of the comet is less than 30 to 40 kilometers per second. In my analysis, the comet’s mass is assumed to be entirely made up of water.

Of the fraction of the comet’s mass in water which remains gravitationally bound to the Moon after the impact, a portion can survive long enough in its migration across the surface of the Moon to eventually accumulate in the permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles. The presence of water on the Moon is an important factor in determining lunar habitability since a large and easily accessible source of water on the Moon will render needless the prohibitively expensive feat of transporting water from the Earth. Water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen to provide breathable oxygen and to serve as a form of rocket fuel.

I have also extended my method of analysis in estimating the retention of water from the impacts of comets onto the surface of the Moon to other worlds such as the planet Mercury. With a stronger gravitational field, Mercury is able to retain a larger fraction of a comet’s watery mass and like the Moon; Mercury also has permanently shadowed craters at its poles where frozen water can accumulate.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Visiting Europa

Jupiter has over twice the mass of all the other planets in our Solar System combined and it is the archetype of large gas giant planets, especially so for the countless giant planets now known to orbit other stars. Orbiting Jupiter are 4 large moons named Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Additionally, Jupiter also has a few dozen small irregular satellites and a ring system in orbit around it. The 4 large moons of Jupiter, also known as the Galilean satellites, are particularly fascinating. Io is by far the most volcanically active world in the Solar System while Europa has a huge global ocean of water hidden beneath just a thin layer of ice. Ganymede and Callisto are large moons that are believed to also harbor internal oceans. Ganymede is the largest moon in the Solar System and it is even larger than the planet Mercury.

A paper by K. Clark, et al. (2010) entitled “Return to Europa: Overview of the Jupiter Europa Orbiter Mission” describes a mission to explore Jupiter’s ocean moon Europa. The Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) is a proposed mission by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to explore Jupiter and its moons. The Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO) will make up the NASA-led portion of the EJSM and it is a satellite that will be placed into orbit around Europa.

Europa is a particularly interesting and intriguing moon of Jupiter because its subsurface ocean is in direct contact with the rocky interior of Europa, enabling the water to be infused with minerals and energy that is necessary for life through features such as hydrothermal vents. Thus, conditions at the bottom of Europa’s ocean could be very similar to the Earth’s ocean floor. Europa’s subsurface ocean is estimated to contain far more water than all the oceans on the Earth combined and the aquatic environment of Europa’s ocean is likely to be within the constraints of known life on Earth.

The Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO) is expected to be launched onboard an Atlas V 551 launch vehicle in the first quarter of 2020 and it will use a Venus-Earth-Earth gravity assist interplanetary trajectory to get to Jupiter. It will take approximately 6 years for JEO to get to Jupiter where it is expected to arrive at the end of 2025 or the beginning of 2026. Upon reaching Jupiter, JEO will perform a series of gravity assist with the moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto over a 30 month period to reduce its orbital energy with respect to Europa. This mission phase provides a unique opportunity to explore the Jovian system as it also includes several flybys of each of the 4 large moons of Jupiter.

In the middle of 2028, the Europa Orbit Insertion (EOI) will occur whereby a main engine burn will decelerate JEO into a low circular orbit around Europa. JEO will then begin its nominal Europa science campaign which is expected to last for 9 months and a mission extension beyond 9 months is very likely because the compounding effect of applying worst-case assumptions at every level in the design of the spacecraft tends to severely underestimate the mission lifetime.

JEO will be powered by Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTGs) where the radiogenic heat from the decay of Plutonium-238 will be used to power the onboard systems. The huge amount of radiation that JEO will be subjected to throughout its mission poses a unique technical challenge. The 4 main sources of radiation are solar radiation, galactic cosmic rays, high energy particles trapped within the Jovian magnetosphere and neutrons and gamma ray photons from the onboard MMRTG nuclear power source. The original paper briefly addresses the radiation risks and various mitigation methods for the JEO mission.

The JEO mission science objectives, as defined by the international EJSM Science Definition Team are:
1. Europa’s Ocean: Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior.
2. Europa’s Ice Shell: Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange.
3. Europa’s Chemistry: Determine global surface compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability.
4. Europa’s Geology: Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, and identify and characterize candidate sites for future in situ exploration.
5. Jupiter System: Understand Europa in the context of the Jupiter system.

If you want to read more about the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM), you can download the final report from

Monday, July 5, 2010

Alien Planets

Kepler is NASA’s first mission that is capable of finding Earth-sized worlds orbiting other stars and Kepler is a space telescope that is named after German astronomer Johannes Kepler. Kepler was launched into space on 7 March 2009 onboard a Delta II rocket. On 12 May 2009, Kepler completed its commissioning phase and started searching for planets around other stars.

Kepler utilizes the transit photometry method to detect extrasolar planets by precisely monitoring the brightness of about 150000 selected stars in its field-of-view. A transit occurs when a planet passes in front of its parent star and causes a slight decrease in the star’s apparent brightness from the blocking of a small fraction of the star’s light by the planet’s opaque disk. Therefore, transits only occur when a planet’s orbit around its parent star happens to be orientated nearly edge-on with respect to an observer’s line of sight. A larger planet will block out a greater fraction of the star’s light compared to a smaller planet and Kepler is sensitive enough to observe the miniscule drop in brightness when an Earth-sized planet transits a Sun-like star.

An Earth-sized planet transiting a Sun-like star will cause an 84 parts-per-million decrease in the star’s apparent brightness while a Jupiter-sized planet transiting a Sun-like star will cause a one percent decrease in the star’s apparent brightness. For the same star, the dip in its apparent brightness from the transit of a Jupiter-sized planet is over 100 times greater than the signal from a transiting Earth-sized planet. Kepler has to observe at least three transits to be sure that the dimming of a star is caused by a planet. Therefore, the discovery of Earth-sized planets in Earth-like orbits around Sun-like stars is expected to take three years or longer. However, Kepler has already turned out a myriad of potential planetary candidates during its first several days of observations.

On 15 June 2010, the Kepler mission team released data on all but 400 of the 706 targets from data collected during the first 43 days of Kepler’s nominal observation phase. This set of data contains viable extrasolar planet candidates with sizes ranging from as small as that of the Earth to larger than that of Jupiter! The paper detailing this is entitled “Characteristics of Kepler Planetary Candidates Based on the First Data Set - The Majority are found to be Neptune-Size and Smaller (2010)” and the appendix of this paper shows a list of 306 viable extrasolar planet candidates.

The publicly released list of 306 targets with viable extrasolar planet candidates shows that most candidate planets are significantly smaller than Jupiter. In fact, most of the candidate planets range in size from being slightly larger than the Earth to Neptune-sized worlds. Interestingly, 5 of the 306 targets are stars with multiple transiting candidate extrasolar planets and a paper entitled “Five Kepler Target Stars that Show Multiple Transiting Exoplanet Candidates (2010)” further describes this.

Data for 400 of the 706 targets with viable planetary candidates were not publicly released because they are bright enough for high-quality Doppler measurements or contain candidate planets with less than 1.5 times the diameter of the Earth, or both. Data for these 400 targets will only be released in February 2011.

Considering that there are approximately 470 known extrasolar planets as of July 2010, follow-up confirmations of the targets in this first set of data from Kepler is expected to dramatically increase the known planet count! Besides the discovery of Earth-sized planets, Kepler is also able to detect interesting objects such as a Saturn-style ring system around a planet or an Earth-sized moon of a gas giant planet. I bet that this initial set of data with 706 targets containing viable extrasolar planet candidates is just a sneak preview of things to come!