Mystery Mars Cloud: An Auroral Umbrella?

The strange cloud-like protursion above Mars' limb (around the 1 o'clock point). Credit: Wayne Jaeschke.
The strange cloud-like protursion above Mars' limb (around the 1 o'clock point). Credit: Wayne Jaeschke.

Last week, amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke noticed something peculiar in his observations of Mars — there appeared to be a cloud-like structure hanging above the limb of the planet.

Many theories have been put forward as to what the phenomenon could be — high altitude cloud? Dust storm? An asteroid impact plume?! — but it’s all conjecture until we can get follow-up observations. It is hoped that NASA’s Mars Odyssey satellite might be able to slew around and get a close-up view. However, it appears to be a transient event that is decreasing in size, so follow-up observations may not be possible.

For the moment, it’s looking very likely that it is some kind of short-lived atmospheric feature, and if I had to put money on it, I’d probably edge more toward the mundane — like a high-altitude cloud formation.

But there is one other possibility that immediately came to mind when I saw Jaeschke’s photograph: Could it be the effect of a magnetic umbrella?

Despite the lack of a global magnetic field like Earth’s magnetosphere, Mars does have small pockets of magnetism over its surface. When solar wind particles collide with the Earth’s magnetosphere, highly energetic particles are channeled to the poles and impact the high altitude atmosphere — aurorae are the result. On Mars, however, it’s different. Though the planet may not experience the intense “auroral oval” like its terrestrial counterpart, when the conditions are right, solar particles my hit these small pockets of magnetism. The result? Auroral umbrellas.

The physics is fairly straight forward — the discreet magnetic pockets act as bubbles, directing the charged solar particles around them in an umbrella fashion. There is limited observational evidence for these space weather features, but they should be possible.

As the sun is going through a period of unrest, amplifying the ferocity of solar storms, popping off coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares, could the cloud-like feature seen in Jaeschke’s photograph be a bright auroral umbrella? I’m additionally curious as a magnetic feature like this would be rooted in the planet’s crust and would move with the rotation of the planet. It would also be a transient event — much like an atmospheric phenomenon.

The physics may sound plausible, but it would be interesting to see what amateur astronomers think. Could such a feature appear in Mars observations?

For more information, see Jaeschke’s ExoSky website.

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What Do You See When SETI’s Allen Telescope Array Is Aimed At The Sun?

A comparison between an observation of the sun using the ATA's 2.75 GHz band (left) and SOHO's 195A filter. Both are near-simultaneous observations on Oct. 1, 2009 (Saint-Hilaire et al., 2011)
A comparison between an observation of the sun using the ATA's 2.75 GHz band (left) and SOHO's 195A filter. Both are near-simultaneous observations on Oct. 1, 2009 (Saint-Hilaire et al., 2011).

And no, “aliens” isn’t the answer.

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA), located near Hat Creek, California, isn’t only used by the SETI Institute to seek out signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. The 42 6.1-meter antennae form an interferometer that can be used for a variety of astronomical studies — in reality, this is the main focus of the project. SETI studies “piggyback” the active astronomical research, passively collecting data.

Due to the radio interferometer’s wide field of view, one surprising use of the ATA is solar astronomy — at radio frequencies. The ATA can be used to simultaneously observe the whole of the solar disk at a range of frequencies rarely studied. As outlined in a recent arXiv publication, a University of California, Berkeley, team of astronomers headed by Pascal Saint-Hilaire have carried out the first ATA solar study, producing images of the sun in a light we rarely see it in (shown above).

According to the paper, active regions were observed at radio and microwave frequencies, spotting the emissions associated with bremsstrahlung — electromagnetic radiation generated by accelerated charged particles caught in intense magnetic fields, a feature typical inside solar active regions. Also, coronal interactions, or gyroresonance, between solar plasma and plasma waves (propagating along magnetic field lines) was detected.

Combining the ATA’s wide field of view, range of frequencies and high resolution, it looks like the ATA is the only solar radiotelescope on the planet.

For more on this fascinating study, read “Allen Telescope Array Multi-Frequency Observations of the Sun,” Saint-Hilaire et al., 2011. arXiv:1111.4242v1 [astro-ph.SR]

M87’s Obese Black Hole: A Step Closer to the Event Horizon Telescope

The black hole lurking inside galaxy M87 has a mass of 6.6 billion suns, according to today's announcement (NASA)

Fresh from the Department Of I Really Shouldn’t Have Eaten That Last Binary, astronomers attending the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, Wash., have announced a supermassive black hole residing inside the nearby galaxy M87 has a weight problem.

In fact, this galactic behemoth is obese.

With a mass of 6.6 billion suns, it is the biggest black hole in our cosmic neighborhood. “It’s almost on top of us, relatively speaking. Fifty million light-years — that’s our backyard effectively. To have one so large, that’s kind of extreme,” astronomer Karl Gebhardt, with the University of Texas at Austin, told Discovery News. The black hole’s mass was arrived at after Gebhardt’s team tracked the motions of the stars near the black hole using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. By analyzing the stars’ orbits, the mass of the black hole could be calculated.

Although it’s been known for some time that M87’s black hole might be slightly on the heavy side, 6.6 billion solar masses exceeds previous estimates.

Previously on Astroengine, I’ve discussed the exciting possibility of imaging a black hole’s event horizon. Radio astronomers have even modeled what they might see should a collection of telescopes participate in event horizon astronomy. Naturally, to see the shadow of an event horizon, the black hole a) needs to be massive, and b) relatively close. The first nearby supermassive black hole that comes to mind is our very own Sagittarius A* (Sag. A*) that camps out in the middle of the Milky Way. That would be a good place to point our first event horizon telescope, right?

Think again. Even before astronomers were able to pinpoint M87’s black hole mass, in 2009, researchers from the Max Planck Institute and University of Texas had estimated M87’s mass to be 6.4 billion suns. Although M87 is a whopping 2,000 times further away from Earth than Sag. A*, due to its mass, the M87 supermassive black hole event horizon shadow should appear bigger in the sky than Sag. A*’s. Today’s announcement is bound to stimulate efforts in the quest to directly image a black hole’s event horizon for the first time.

“Right now we have no evidence that an object is a black hole. Within a few years, we might be able to image the shadow of the event horizon,” Gebhardt added.

For more on today’s news, read Irene Klotz’s report on Discovery News: “Obese Black Hole Lurks in Our Cosmic Backyard

Can Spicules Explain the Mysteries of Coronal Heating?

Solar spicules as imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (NASA)
Solar spicules as imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (NASA)

There’s one recurring question I’ve been asking for nearly a decade: Why is the Sun’s corona (its atmosphere) so hot?

When asking this out loud I inevitably get the sarcastic “um, because the Sun is… hot?” reply. Yes, the Sun is hot, really hot, but solar physicists have spent the last half-century trying to understand why the corona is millions of degrees hotter than the solar surface.

After all, if the air surrounding a light bulb was a couple of magnitudes hotter than the bulb’s surface, you’d want to know why that’s the case, right? At first glance, the solar atmosphere is breaking all kinds of thermodynamic laws.

The Sun is a strange beast and because of its magnetic dominance, energy travels through the solar body in rather unfamiliar ways. And today, a group of solar physicists have put forward a new theory as to where the coronal energy is coming from. But they’ve only been able to do this with help from NASA’s newest and most advanced solar telescope: the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO.

Using the SDO’s high-definition cameras and imagery from the awesome Japanese Hinode solar observatory, features previously invisible to solar astronomers have been resolved. The features in question are known as “spicules.” These small-scale jets inject solar plasma from the solar surface into the lower corona, but until now they’ve been considered too cool to have any appreciable heating effect.

That was until a new type of hot, high-speed spicule was discovered.

“It’s a little jet, then it takes off,” solar physicist Scott McIntosh, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s High Altitude Observatory, told Discovery News’ Larry O’Hanlon. “What we basically find is that the connection is the heated blobs of plasma. It’s kind of a missing link that we’ve been looking for since the 1960s.”

These Type II spicules blast hot multi-million degree Kelvin plasma at speeds of 100 to 150 kilometers per second (62 to 93 miles per second) into the corona and then dissipate. What’s more, these aren’t isolated events, they’ve been observed all over the Sun. “This phenomenon is truly ubiquitous and populates the solar wind,” said McIntosh.

While this research provides more clarity on coronal dynamics, McIntosh is keen to point out that Type II spicules probably don’t tell the whole coronal heating story.

NASA’s coronal physics heavyweight James Klimchuk agrees. “It is very nice work, but it is absolutely not the final story on the origin of hot coronal plasma,” he said.

“Based on some simple calculations I have done, spicules account for only a small fraction of the hot plasma.”

Klimchuk favors coronal heating through magnetic stresses in the lower atmosphere generating small reconnection events. Right at the base of the corona, loops of magnetic flux channeling multi-million degree plasma high above the Sun’s chromosphere become stressed and eventually snap. These reconnection processes produce sub-resolution nanoflare events — akin to small explosions releasing energy into the solar plasma, heating it up.

Another heating mechanism — a mechanism I studied during my solar research days (.pdf) — is that of wave heating, when magnetohydrodynamic waves (I studied high-frequency Alfven waves, or ion cyclotron waves) interact with the lower corona, heating it up.

But which heating mechanism injects the most energy into the corona? For now, although there’s plenty of theorized processes (including these new transient Type II spicules), we don’t really know. We can only observe the solar corona from afar, so getting a true grasp on coronal dynamics is very hard. We really need a probe to dive deep into the solar atmosphere and take a measurement in-situ. Although the planned Solar Probe Plus will provide some answers, it may still be some time before we know why the corona is so hot.

But it is most likely that it’s not one coronal heating mechanism, but a combination of the above and, perhaps, a mechanism we haven’t uncovered yet.

For more on this fascinating research, check out Larry O’Hanlon’s Discovery News article “New Clue May Solve Solar Mystery.”

Holographic Universe: Fermilab to Probe Smallest Space-Time Scales

Conceptual design of the Fermilab holometer (Fermilab)
Conceptual design of the Fermilab holometer (Fermilab)

During the hunt for the predicted ripples in space-time — known as gravitational waves — physicists stumbled across a rather puzzling phenomenon. Last year, I reported about the findings of scientists using the GEO600 experiment in Germany. Although the hi-tech piece of kit hadn’t turned up evidence for the gravitational waves it was seeking, it did turn up a lot of noise.

Before we can understand what this “noise” is, we need to understand how equipment designed to look for the space-time ripples caused by collisions between black holes and supernova explosions.

Gravitational wave detectors are incredibly sensitive to the tiniest change in distance. For example, the GEO600 experiment can detect a fluctuation of an atomic radius over a distance from the Earth to the Sun. This is achieved by firing a laser down a 600 meter long tube where it is split, reflected and directed into an interferometer. The interferometer can detect the tiny phase shifts in the two beams of light predicted to occur should a gravitational wave pass through our local volume of space. This wave is theorized to slightly change the distance between physical objects. Should GEO600 detect a phase change, it could be indicative of a slight change in distance, thus the passage of a gravitational wave.

While looking out for a gravitational wave signal, scientists at GEO600 noticed something bizarre. There was inexplicable static in the results they were gathering. After canceling out all artificial sources of the noise, they called in the help of Fermilab’s Craig Hogan to see if his expertise of the quantum world help shed light on this anomalous noise. His response was as baffling as it was mind-blowing. “It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time,” Hogan said.

Come again?

The signal being detected by GEO600 isn’t a noise source that’s been overlooked, Hogan believes GEO600 is seeing quantum fluctuations in the fabric of space-time itself. This is where things start to get a little freaky.

According to Einstein’s view on the universe, space-time should be smooth and continuous. However, this view may need to be modified as space-time may be composed of quantum “points” if Hogan’s theory is correct. At its finest scale, we should be able to probe down the “Planck length” which measures 10-35 meters. But the GEO600 experiment detected noise at scales of less than 10-15 meters.

As it turns out, Hogan thinks that noise at these scales are caused by a holographic projection from the horizon of our universe. A good analogy is to think about how an image becomes more and more blurry or pixelated the more you zoom in on it. The projection starts off at Planck scale lengths at the Universe’s event horizon, but its projection becomes blurry in our local space-time. This hypothesis comes out of black hole research where the information that falls into a black hole is “encoded” in the black hole’s event horizon. For the holographic universe to hold true, information must be encoded in the outermost reaches of the Universe and it is projected into our 3 dimensional world.

But how can this hypothesis be tested? We need to boost the resolution of a gravitational wave detector-type of kit. Enter the “Holometer.”

Currently under construction in Fermilab, the Holometer (meaning holographic interferometer) will delve deep into this quantum realm at smaller scales than the GEO600 experiment. If Hogan’s idea is correct, the Holometer should detect this quantum noise in the fabric of space-time, throwing our whole perception of the Universe into a spin.

For more on this intriguing experiment, read the Symmety Magazine article “Hogan’s holometer: Testing the hypothesis of a holographic universe.”

Compex Magnetic Eruption Witnessed by Solar Observatories

Solar Dynamics Observatory view of the solar disk shortly after eruption (NASA).

This morning, at 08:55 UT, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) detected a C3-class flare erupt inside a sunspot cluster. 100,000 kilometers away, deep within the solar atmosphere (the corona), an extended magnetic field filled with cool plasma forming a dark ribbon across the face of the sun (a feature known as a “filament”) erupted at the exact same time.

It seems very likely that both events were connected after a powerful shock wave produced by the flare destabilized the filament, causing the eruption.

A second solar observatory, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), then spotted a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) blast into space, straight in the direction of Earth. Solar physicists have calculated that this magnetic bubble filled with energetic particles should hit Earth on August 3, so look out for some intense aurorae, a solar storm is on its way…

For more on this impressive solar eruption, read my Discovery News article, “Incoming! The Sun Unleashes CME at Earth

Black Holes, Aurorae and the Event Horizon Telescope

My impression as to how a black hole 'aurora' might look like near an event horizon (Ian O'Neill/Discovery News)

Usually, aurorae happen when the solar wind blasts the Earth’s atmosphere. However, black holes may also have a shot at producing their very own northern lights. What’s more, we might even be able to observe this light display in the future.

Accretion Disks and Magnetic Fields

Simulating a rapidly spinning black hole, two researchers from Japan modeled an accretion disk spinning with it.

Inside this disk would be superheated plasma and as it rotates it might act like a dynamo, charged particles generating a magnetic field looping through the disk. But this magnetic field wont stay confined to the disk for long. Due to inertial effects, the magnetic field would be dragged into the event horizon, causing the magnetic fieldlines to ‘attach’ themselves to the black hole.

Assuming the accretion disk continues to generate a continuous magnetic field, a global black hole ‘magnetosphere’ would result.

A diagram of the black hole's magnetosphere (Takahashi and Takahashi, 2010)

A Plasma Hosepipe

As you’ve probably seen in the striking imagery coming from the high-definition movies being produced by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, magnetic fieldlines close to the solar surface can fill with solar plasma, creating bright coronal loops. This hot plasma fills the loops, feeding around the magnetic field like a hosepipe filling with water.

The same principal would apply to the black hole’s magnetosphere: the looped magnetic field feeding from the accretion disk to the event horizon filling with plasma as it is sucked out of the disk (by the black hole’s dominating gravitational field).

As you’d expect, the plasma will fall into the black hole at relativistic speeds, converted into pure energy, blasting with intense radiation. However, the Japanese researchers discovered something else that may happen just before the plasma is destroyed by the black hole: it will generate a shock.

As predicted by the model, this shock will form when the plasma exceeds the local Alfven speed. For want of a better analogy, this is like a supersonic jet creating a sonic boom. But in the plasma environment, as the plasma flow hits the shock front, it will rapidly decelerate, dumping energy before continuing to rain down on the event horizon. This energy dump will be converted into heat and radiation.

This fascinating study even goes so far as predicting the configuration of the black hole magnetosphere, indicating that the radiation generated by the shock would form two halos sitting above the north and south ‘poles’ of the black hole. From a distance, these halos would look like aurorae.

Very Large Baseline Interferometry

So there you have it. From a spinning black hole’s accretion disk to shocked plasma, a black hole can have an aurora. The black hole aurora, however, would be generated by shocked plasma, not plasma hitting atmospheric gases (as is the case on Earth).

This all sounds like a fun theoretical idea, but it may also have a practical application in the not-so-distant future.

Last year, I wrote “The Event Horizon Telescope: Are We Close to Imaging a Black Hole?” which investigated the efforts under way in the field of very large baseline interferometry (or “VLBI”) to directly observe the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A*) living in the center of our galaxy.

In a paper written by Vincent Fish and Sheperd Doeleman at the MIT Haystack Observatory, results from a simulation of several radio telescopes as part of an international VLBI campaign were detailed. The upshot was that the more radio antennae involved in such a campaign, the better the resolution of the observations of the ‘shadow’ of the black hole’s event horizon.

If the black hole’s event horizon could be observed by a VLBI campaign, could its glowing aurorae also be spotted? Possibly.

For more, check out my Discovery News article: “Can a Black Hole Have an ‘Aurora’?” and my Astroengine.com article: “The Event Horizon Telescope: Are We Close to Imaging a Black Hole?

Gecksteroids! Asteroids and Geckos May Share Common Force

The asteroid Itokawa (as imaged by the Japanese Hayabusa probe) and a gecko tattoo. Bear with me, it'll make sense soon (JAXA)
The asteroid Itokawa (as imaged by the Japanese Hayabusa probe) and a gecko tattoo. Bear with me, it'll make sense soon (JAXA)

What do asteroids and geckos have in common? Not a lot, as you’d expect, but they may share a common force.

This rather strange notion comes from research being done by a team of University of Colorado scientists who have been studying the odd nature of the asteroid Itokawa. When the Japanese Hayabusa mission visited the space rock in 2005 (Hayabusa’s sample return capsule is set to return to Earth on June 13th by the way), it noticed the asteroid was composed of smaller bits of rubble, rather than one solid chunk. Although this isn’t a surprise in itself — indeed, many asteroids are believed to be floating “rubble piles” — the rate of spin of the asteroid posed a problem.

Itokawa spins rather fast and if only the force of gravity was keeping the lumps of rock together, they would have been flung out into space long ago. In short, the asteroid shouldn’t exist.

Although plenty of theories have been bandied around, one idea seems to stick.

More commonly found as a force that holds molecules together, the van der Waals force may bind the individual components of the asteroid together, acting against the centripetal force caused by its spin.

But where do the geckos come in?

Geckos are highly skilled in the “climbing up walls” department, and it’s the van der Waals force that makes this happen. Should the body of a gecko be tilted in such a way against a perfectly smooth, “impossible” to climb surface, the gravity acting on the little creature will trigger the force into action. Therefore geckos have evolved to exploit the practical application of van der Waals.

This has some rather interesting ramifications for asteroid evolution too. During early stages of asteroid formation, the larger fragments of rock are flung off; the centripetal force exceeds that of gravity. In the latter stages of development, only the smallest rocks remain behind, their mass small enough to allow van der Waals forces to overcome the spin.

So, there you have it, asteroids do have something in common with geckos. It seems only right to call these space rubble piles “Gecksteroids.”

Thanks to my Discovery News colleague Jennifer Ouellette for drawing the comparison between asteroids and geckos!

Source: Discovery News, arXiv.org

Hubble Conquers Mystic Mountain

Where is that mystical land? (NASA/ESA/HST).
Where is this mystical land? (NASA/ESA/HST).

Sometimes, words are not enough to describe views of the universe when captured through the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope. This is one of those moments.

Kicking off its 20th anniversary (yes, that super-sized telescope has been in space that long — I would say that I remember it being launched, but I don’t, because I was nine, playing with my Star Wars toys), Hubble has published some astonishing images of deep inside the Carina Nebula, some 7,500 light-years from Earth. And, quite frankly, I’m floored.

BIG PIC: Have a look deep inside the Carina Nebula with some of my Discovery News coverage of the event.

The pillar of gas and dust looks like a gnarled tree branch, dotted with sparkling lights. The Hubble press release even describes the structure as a “Mystic Mountain,” and it’s not hard to see why. In this age of computer generated everything, this release of images show that the cosmos contains things that defy our tiny imaginations.

We are looking at a star-forming region, deep inside the nebula, where stars are being born inside the bulbous towers of gas and dust, but on the outside, young stars are battering the tower with intense stellar winds and powerful radiation. The pillar is being eroded away. However, this exterior pressure is seeding the birth of new stars inside the nebulous material.

The mindblowing clarity of this Hubble observation even brings out the fine detail in the jets of ionized gas as it is blasted from the point of the tallest finger of material. This is being generated by a young star, gorging itself on gas, forming a superheated accretion disk, blasting the energized gas out from the stellar nursery.

As Hubble’s 20th anniversary celebrations continue, I think we can expect a lot more where this came from. So brace yourself, this gem of a space telescope may be getting old, but it still has a shedload of cosmos to show us.

Now, lets stand back and get a better view of the incredible floating ‘Mystic Mountain’…

The Carina stellar nursary from afar (NASA/ESA/HST)
The Carina stellar nursary from afar (NASA/ESA/HST)

Then Spitzer Imaged Baby Stars in the Orion Nebula…

The Orion Nebula's star-forming region (NASA)
The Orion Nebula's star-forming region (NASA).

Firstly, apologies that it’s been over a month since last posting to Astroengine.com. Call it slacking off, call it a sabbatical, either way, it’s not good. I’ve actually prepared several half-finished articles, but I just never got around to completing them. However, I have been on writing overdrive over at Discovery News, so if I go quiet over here, you know where to find me.

Speaking of Discovery News, I’ve just posted an incredible image of the heart of the Orion Nebula as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope, so I can’t think of a better way to kick-start Astroengine with an image filled with awesomeness.

Although Spitzer has entered a new phase of operations since it depleted the liquid helium coolant used to maintain its instrumentation, that doesn’t mean its stopped producing some awe-inspiring imagery. In a new vista released on Thursday, a bustling star formation region in Orion is detailed, showing some 1,500 young stars the observatory watched for 40 days. This is an unprecedented study, allowing rapid variations in these baby stars to be tracked by Spitzer.

Young stars are generally highly variable in their brightness, a characteristic that is of huge interest to astrophysicists. If we can understand the mechanisms causing this variation, we can gain an insight to stellar evolution, possibly even understanding the history of our own Solar System.

As Spitzer observes in infrared wavelengths, it’s very sensitive to clouds of dust being heated by these young stars. Therefore, the proto-planetary disks surrounding these million year old stars glow brightly. Not only does this give an indication to the conditions surrounding the star, it also provides astronomers with an idea to how these disks of dust clump together, slowly evolving into exoplanets. And now Spitzer has data sets spanning weeks, dynamic changes in the emissions from the stars and their evolving planetary systems can be studied.

But science aside, the Spitzer imagery is a thing of beauty, reminding us how complex our cosmos really is. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself (click the pic to dive right in):

The star forming region in Orion as studied by Spitzer, rotated 90 degrees (NASA/JPL/Caltech)
The star forming region in Orion as studied by Spitzer, rotated 90 degrees (NASA/JPL/Caltech)