Astronomers Need Help Finding Asteroids Hurtling Through Our Solar System
Anyone with an internet connection can now join University of Arizona researchers as they work to discover asteroids hurtling through our solar system.
Anyone can become an asteroid hunter thanks to a new program launched by astronomers at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. As part of the <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey, the scientists created an online portal that opens their mission – the discovery and identification of space rocks that regularly visit Earth’s neighborhood – to the general public.
While gazing up at the night sky with the naked eye, one might see stars, planets and the occasional airplane. What one usually won’t see, however, are asteroids and comets – lumps of rock tumbling through space – left over from the formation of our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Because of their origin, these space objects might hold clues about the formation of the sun and planets, scientists believe.
Through the new portal, scientists from the Catalina Sky Survey will share potential asteroid and comet detections from their ground-based telescopes with anyone with an internet connection. Even amateurs can help scientists find unknown objects in the solar system as they click through and pore over high-resolution, telescope snapshots of the sky that scientists haven’t been able to look at.
“I thought it would be great if people could do what we do every night,” said Carson Fuls, a science engineering specialist for the Catalina Sky Survey who heads the project. “We see this website as throwing open the doors: Do you want to look for asteroids, too? If so, come on in.”
To begin asteroid hunting, participants must create an account on Zooniverse, an online platform for people-powered research. Through the website, volunteers without any specialized training or expertise assist professional researchers from various fields. In the case of the public asteroid detection portal, a basic tutorial will have participants picking out moving asteroids from pictures in no time.
Participants look at sets of images of the night sky taken by one of the Catalina Sky Survey telescopes. Each image set contains four exposures taken six or seven minutes apart. The pictures are noteworthy because software spotted a moving speck of light from one image to the next, which may or may not represent the light reflected from a faraway comet or asteroid.
The task for the amateur asteroid hunter: Decide if the identified speck of light in the images looks like a genuine celestial body or, rather, is a false detection resulting from inconveniently timed “twinkles” of the star-studded background, dust on the telescope mirror or other causes. After answering by clicking a “yes” or “no” button, the participant can either write a comment or move on to the next detection.
It is not necessary that people know the correct answer every time, said Catalina Sky Survey director Eric Christensen. Rather, the system relies on strength in numbers.
“With enough people participating, you can establish a general consensus, so there’s less margin of error,” Christensen said.
The Catalina Sky Survey operates up to five large, powerful telescopes each night in their quest to keep track of over 1 million lumps of flying rock with diameters ranging from the length of a school bus to the width of Arizona. Initially, the images in the portal will come from their G96 telescope atop Mount Lemmon, just north of Tucson. The diameter of the telescope’s primary mirror is approximately 5 feet, and it can usually survey the whole Northern Hemisphere night sky in about a month.
“The number of asteroids we detect per night with our telescope really depends on the weather or where we are in the lunar calendar,” Christensen said. “On clear nights, the database matches tens of thousands of candidates to known asteroids based on their motion, speed and position in the sky.”
While the lab’s software detects and records all asteroid sightings, Catalina Sky Survey is a NASA-funded project with the mission of specifically tracking and discovering near-Earth objects, or NEOs. NEOs are asteroids that have strayed from the flock of space rocks plodding around the sun in the asteroid belt between <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>Mars and <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>Jupiter. Their new orbits take them much closer to Earth, and some pose a potential threat if their orbit crosses that of Earth.
More than 14,400 NEOs in the past 30 years – almost half of the entire known population of nearly 32,000 – have been discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey. Of those, 1,200 were found just in the past year.
“We are most interested in candidates that are moving fast with an unknown identity because they are most likely to be NEOs,” Fuls said. “Because NEOs are closer to us, they appear to move faster and in somewhat random directions from our viewpoint compared to main belt asteroids.”
The process of spotting a new NEO and reporting it is time-sensitive, and astronomers can lose track of them if there is no immediate follow-up on their discovery. That’s because NEOs have highly elliptical orbits that only bring them close to Earth every three or four years. Plus, some smaller NEOs can only be detected if they are passing near Earth.
“NEOs move so erratically that it’s easy to miss them,” Christensen said. “We try not to filter out false detections too aggressively because this could also filter out some NEOs.”
Currently, the asteroid-tracking telescope on Mount Lemmon is set up to take about 1,000 images per night. Afterward, sensitive software ranks detected moving objects from most to least likely to be an asteroid. The final step is for a human observer to analyze the detections that the software identified.
“A human can only process so many images a night,” said Fuls, explaining that while the software flags many possible objects, the researchers don’t have the time and resources to look through everything that was picked up. “We are missing a certain number of objects because they simply didn’t rank high enough in the algorithm.”
That is where a Zooniverse account comes in handy, as “citizen scientists” peek through sky photos that the software flagged but weren’t obvious enough to make the cut. For each set of images, a participant must decide: Did the software pick up on a never-before-seen space object or did it just get confused by the flickering stars?
Already, three citizen scientists have discovered 64 possible candidates for unknown asteroids during the testing phase of the web portal.
“We’ve sent these detections off to the Minor Planet Center as potential new discoveries, and most of these objects have not yet been linked to any object that has been detected before,” Fuls said. “We anticipate that there will be many more discoveries like that going forward.”
The Catalina Sky Survey astronomers plan to release new data into the interface every day after their scheduled nighttime viewing session.
“The observations made by these citizen scientists may not always be of a never-before-detected object,” Christensen said. “But they may still be key observations that allow the Minor Planet Center to nail down the identity of something that, until now, was just a candidate.”
To keep prospective asteroid hunters on their toes, Fuls said, he and his colleagues will throw pictures of already known objects into the mix to test people’s ability to identify real objects and keep them engaged.
“Even when you’re at the telescope, you perk up when you see one of those,” Fuls said. “You don’t want it to be mindless and boring.”
James Webb Space Telescope finds water in super-hot exoplanet's atmosphere – Space.com
The James Webb Space Telescope has found traces of water vapor in the atmosphere of a super-hot gas giant exoplanet that orbits its star in less than one Earth day.
The exoplanet in question, WASP-18 b, is a gas giant 10 times more massive than the solar system‘s largest planet, Jupiter. The planet is quite extreme, as it orbits the sun-like star WASP-18, which is located some 400 light-years away from Earth, at an average distance of just 1.9 million miles (3.1 million kilometers). For comparison, the solar system’s innermost planet, Mercury, circles the sun at a distance of 39.4 million miles (63.4 million km).
Due to such close proximity to the parent star, the temperatures in WASP-18 b’s atmosphere are so high that most water molecules break apart, NASA said in a statement. The fact that Webb managed to resolve signatures of the residual water is a testament to the telescope’s observing powers.
Related: Exoplanets, dark matter and more: Big discoveries coming from James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers say
“The spectrum of the planet’s atmosphere clearly shows multiple small but precisely measured water features, present despite the extreme temperatures of almost 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,700 degrees Celsius),” NASA wrote in the statement. “It’s so hot that it would tear most water molecules apart, so still seeing its presence speaks to Webb’s extraordinary sensitivity to detect remaining water.”
WASP-18 b, discovered in 2008, has been studied by other telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s X-ray space telescope Chandra, the exoplanet hunter TESS and the now-retired infrared Spitzer Space Telescope. None of these space telescopes, however, was sensitive enough to see the signatures of water in the planet’s atmosphere.
“Because the water features in this spectrum are so subtle, they were difficult to identify in previous observations,” Anjali Piette, a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science and one of the authors of the new research, said in the statement. “That made it really exciting to finally see water features with these JWST observations.”
In addition to being so massive, hot and close to its parent star, WASP-18 b is also tidally locked. That means one side of the planet constantly faces the star, just like the moon‘s near side always faces Earth. As a result of this tidal locking, considerable differences in temperature exist across the planet’s surface. The Webb measurements, for the first time, enabled scientists to map these differences in detail.
The measurements found that the most intensely illuminated parts of the planet can be up to 2,000 degrees F (1,100 degrees C) hotter than those in the twilight zone. The scientists didn’t expect such significant temperature differences and now think that there must be some not yet understood mechanism in action that prevents the distribution of heat around the planet’s globe.
“The brightness map of WASP-18 b shows a lack of east-west winds that is best matched by models with atmospheric drag,” co-author Ryan Challener, of the University of Michigan, said in the statement. “One possible explanation is that this planet has a strong magnetic field, which would be an exciting discovery!”
To create the temperature map, the researchers calculated the planet’s infrared glow by measuring the difference in the glow of the parent star during the time the planet transited in front of the star’s disk and then when it disappeared behind it.
“JWST is giving us the sensitivity to make much more detailed maps of hot giant planets like WASP-18 b than ever before,” Megan Mansfield, a Sagan Fellow at the University of Arizona and one of the authors of the paper describing the results. said in the statement. “This is the first time a planet has been mapped with JWST, and it’s really exciting to see that some of what our models predicted, such as a sharp drop in temperature away from the point on the planet directly facing the star, is actually seen in the data.”
The new study was published online Wednesday (May 31) in the journal Nature.
JWST Scans an Ultra-Hot Jupiter's Atmosphere – Universe Today
When astronomers discovered WASP-18b in 2009, they uncovered one of the most unusual planets ever found. It’s ten times as massive as Jupiter is, it’s tidally locked to its Sun-like star, and it completes an orbit in less than one Earth day, about 23 hours.
Now astronomers have pointed the JWST and its powerful NIRSS instrument at the ultra-Hot Jupiter and mapped its extraordinary atmosphere.
Ever since its discovery, astronomers have been keenly interested in WASP-18b. For one thing, it’s massive. At ten times more massive than Jupiter, the planet is nearing brown dwarf territory. It’s also extremely hot, with its dayside temperature exceeding 2750 C (4900 F.) Not only that, but it’s likely to spiral to its doom and collide with its star sometime in the next one million years.
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For these reasons and more, astronomers are practically obsessed with it. They’ve made extensive efforts to map the exoplanet’s atmosphere and uncover its details with the Hubble and the Spitzer. But those space telescopes, as powerful as they are, were unable to collect data detailed enough to reveal the atmosphere’s properties conclusively.
Now that the JWST is in full swing, it was inevitable that someone’s request to point it at WASP-18b would be granted. Who in the Astronomocracy would say no?
In new research, a team led by a Ph.D. student at the University of Montreal mapped WASP-19b’s atmosphere with the JWST. They used the NIRISS instrument, one of Canada’s contributions to the JWST. The paper is “A broadband thermal emission spectrum of the ultra-hot Jupiter WASP-18b.” It’s published in Nature, and the lead author is Louis-Philippe Coulombe.
The researchers trained Webb’s NIRISS (Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph) on the planet during a secondary eclipse. This is when the planet passes behind its star and emerges on the other side. The instrument measures the light from the star and the planet, then during the eclipse, they deduct the star’s light, giving a measurement of the planet’s spectrum. The NIRISS’ power gave the researchers a detailed map of the planet’s atmosphere.
With the help of NIRISS, the researchers mapped the temperature gradients on the planet’s dayside. They found that the planet is much cooler near the terminator line: about 1,000 degrees cooler than the hottest point of the planet directly facing the star. That shows that winds are unable to spread heat efficiently to the planet’s nightside. What’s stopping that from happening?
“JWST is giving us the sensitivity to make much more detailed maps of hot giant planets like WASP-18 b than ever before. This is the first time a planet has been mapped with JWST, and it’s really exciting to see that some of what our models predicted, such as a sharp drop in temperature away from the point on the planet directly facing the star, is actually seen in the data!” said paper co-author Megan Mansfield, a Sagan Fellow at the University of Arizona.
The lack of winds moving the atmosphere around and regulating the temperature is surprising, and atmospheric drag has something to do with it.
“The brightness map of WASP-18 b shows a lack of east-west winds that is best matched by models with atmospheric drag,” said co-author Ryan Challener, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Michigan. “One possible explanation is that this planet has a strong magnetic field, which would be an exciting discovery!”
In our Solar System, Jupiter has the strongest magnetic field. Scientists think that swirling conducting materials deep inside the planet, near its bizarre liquid, metallic hydrogen core generates the magnetic fields. The fields are so powerful that they protect the three Galilean moons from the solar wind. They also generate permanent aurorae and create powerful radiation belts around the giant planet.
But WASP-18 b is ten times more massive than Jupiter, and it’s reasonable to think its magnetic fields are even more dominant. If the planet’s magnetic field is responsible for the lack of east-west winds, it could be forcing the winds to move over the North Pole and down the South Pole.
The researchers were also able to measure the atmosphere’s temperature at different depths. Temperatures increased with altitude, sometimes by hundreds of degrees. They also found water vapour at different depths.
At 2,700 Celsius, the heat should tear most water molecules apart. The fact that the JWST was able to spot the remaining water speaks to its sensitivity.
“Because the water features in this spectrum are so subtle, they were difficult to identify in previous observations. That made it really exciting to finally see water features with these JWST observations,” said Anjali Piette, a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science and one of the authors of the new research.
But the JWST was able to reveal more about the star than just its temperature gradients and its water content. The researchers found that the atmosphere contains Vanadium Oxide, Titanium Oxide, and Hydride, a negative ion of hydrogen. Together, those chemicals could combine to give the atmosphere its opacity.
All these findings came from only six hours of observations with NIRISS. Six hours of JWST time is precious to astronomers, and that’s all the researchers needed. That’s not only because the JWST is so powerful and capable, but also because of WASP-18 b itself.
At only 400 light-years away, it’s relatively close in astronomical terms. Its proximity to its star also helped, and the planet is huddled right next to its star. Plus, WASP-18 b is huge. In fact, it’s one of the most massive planets accessible to atmospheric investigation.
The planet’s atmospheric properties also provide clues to its origins. Comparisons of metallicity and composition between planets and stars can help explain a planet’s history. WASP-18 b couldn’t have formed in its current location. It must have migrated there somehow. And while this work can’t answer that conclusively, it does tell us other things about the giant planet’s formation.
“By analyzing WASP-18 b’s spectrum, we not only learn about the various molecules that can be found in its atmosphere but also about the way it formed. We find from our observations that WASP-18 b’s composition is very similar to that of its star, meaning it most likely formed from the leftover gas that was present just after the star was born,” Coulombe said. “Those results are very valuable to get a clear picture of how strange planets like WASP-18 b, which have no counterpart in our Solar System, come to exist.”
Private astronaut crew, including first Arab woman in orbit, returns from space station – Indiatimes.com
An all-private astronaut team of two Americans and two Saudis, including the first Arab woman sent into orbit, splashed down safely off Florida on Tuesday night, capping an eight-day research mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
After spending 8 days on a space exploration mission, four astronauts, including two from the United States and the other two from Saudi Arabia, returned to Earth safely off the coast near Florida. Although the mission was funded by private entities, the mission included deep space exploration and was a landmark achievement in terms of the inclusion of women in this field.
— Axiom_Space (@Axiom_Space)
The space crew came back in a SpaceX Dragon capsule, after completing 12 hours in the return journey. The space capsule is said to have descended in a very hot environment at blazing speeds through Earth’s atmosphere. The splashdown was carried live by a SpaceX and Axiom Space joint webcast.
Axiom Space spent millions of dollars off its own pocket to send a private expedition to the space station. The company organized, prepared and funded the mission that involved their second attempt to get into space, without any government intervention. Axiom Space is based in Houston and is run by a former NASA researcher, who had worked on the initiation of NASA’s International Space Station program.
Peggy Whitson, who is 63, led the Axiom 2 crew. She holds the record for most time spent in orbit with 665 days divided into 3 long space missions. This includes her 10 spacewalks. Along with her were John Shoffner, who is a professional race car driver and investor, and two astronauts from Saudi Arabia, who helmed cancer stem cell research, and were fighter pilots by profession.
Barnawi and Alqarni are two Saudi women who went to space just five years after Saudi Arabia removed restrictions on women driving. Sara Sabry was another woman from Egypt who went into space in 2022 for a short duration. At that time, Alqarni and Barnawi were on board the international space station with Sultan Alneydi from UAE. They made history as the triplets were the first three astronauts into space from Saudi Arabia.
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