James Sikora, a postdoctoral fellow at Bishop’s University, joined the iREx in September 2019. In September 2022, he left iREx to pursue his career as a postdoc at the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy at the University of Amsterdam where he’ll be continuing to do exoplanet research. He answered a few of our questions about his time at iREx.
What did you like most about your time in Montreal?
As a member of the exoplanet group at Bishop’s University, I spent most of my time in Lennoxville, Sherbrooke. Aside from the wonderful people that I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with during this time, I also enjoyed being close to beautiful lakes and mountainous landscapes. The fall season in the Eastern Townships of Quebec is truly special!
What were the most important projects you led at iREx?
I think the most important and exciting projects I have been leading while a member of iREx have been (1) an upcoming James Webb Space Telescope observing program targeting an unusual hot Jupiter-like planet and (2) a program using the Gemini-North telescope in Hawai’i to collect high-precision radial velocity measurements in order to study a system of very young planets.
What question were you trying to answer in these projects?
In the case of the Webb Telescope observations that are scheduled for November of 2022, we are hoping to help answer questions about the conditions under which clouds form and dissipate within the atmospheres of hot Jupiter-like planets. We will do this by observing a particularly special planet that has a highly eccentric orbit. The distance between the planet and its host star — and hence, the amount of energy absorbed by the planet and its atmosphere — varies dramatically over the course of a single orbit.
Obtaining high-precision radial velocity measurements can allow you to measure an exoplanet’s mass. The vast majority of exoplanets discovered to date are old (i.e., either close in age to the Solar System planets or older). Measuring the masses of very young planets — such as those that we have recently observed using Gemini — can give us important clues about how planets form and evolve. When and to what extent do gas-rich planets shed their outer layers? How quickly do gas-rich planets contract as they cool over time?
What did you discover?
While the Webb Telescope observations have yet to be obtained, recent publicly released data from the telescope has shown that the instruments are performing spectacularly, making us all very excited for our own upcoming observations.
For the high-precision radial velocity measurements of young planets, our preliminary results are in agreement with the current theoretical understanding of how gas-rich planets cool and contract over timescales of hundreds of millions to billions of years. This kind of confirmation provides a key constraint that can be used in models to improve our understanding of planetary formation both outside and within our own Solar System. We are working on a paper that will give more details on this subject. Stay tuned for the full story!
What motivates you in exoplanet research?
What motivates me to do exoplanet research is largely the end product: learning something new that helps to push the boundaries of what we currently know about planetary formation and evolution. However, I am motivated by the whole process of doing observational astronomy; I feel extremely privileged to be able to use amazing, cutting-edge observatories to collect previously unseen measurements that ultimately lead to new discoveries.
Why do you think people should be interested in this kind of work?
I believe that any research that can help us better understand how we as the human species got to where we are today and where we might be headed hundreds or thousands of years from now to be very important and exciting. The diverse landscape of exoplanets discovered so far provides us with important clues that help to guide our fundamental understanding of how planets such as those found in the Solar System form and evolve.
How does your time with us helped you in your new job?
While spending time within iREx, I learned a ton about new and improved methods of analysing observational data sets. Moreover, thanks to help from researchers at iREx and Bishop’s University, I’ve been able to get my hands on a wide range of data that I did not previously have a lot of experience with such as high-precision transit spectroscopy and radial velocity measurements. This has allowed me to greatly expand my skillset in the context of observational exoplanet research, which is already helping me to develop new and exciting paths for my own research moving forward.
N.W.T. man among finalists in international astronomy photographer contest
YELLOWKNIFE — A man from Yellowknife is gaining international recognition for a photo capturing a stunning display of dancing green aurora lights over the Cameron River.
Frank Bailey was the only Canadian among the finalists in the Royal Observatory Greenwich’s 2022 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. His time-lapse photo taken outside the Northwest Territories capital landed him the runner-up spot in the Aurorae category.
“I was of course thrilled, but also humbled at the news given the quality of the entries this year,” he said. “Once the overall standings were made fully public, it sunk in really quickly that this was a significant achievement and shows that I am heading in the right direction with my photography.”
The annual competition is the largest of its kind and showcases space and sky photography from astrophotographers around the world. More than 100 winning and shortlisted images from this year’s entries are currently on display at the National Maritime Museum in London, featuring planets, galaxies, skyscapes and other celestial bodies.
Gerald Rhemann from Austria was named the overall winner for his photo of Comet C/2021 A1, commonly known as Comet Leonard.
The top spot in the Aurorae category went to Filip Hrebenda for his photo titled “In the Embrace of a Green Lady,” showing the lights reflected in a frozen lake above Eystrahorn mountain in Hvalnes, Iceland.
Bailey’s photo, titled “Misty Green River,” was taken last September using a 15-second exposure. He said the photo was taken looking up the river toward the riffle as mist rose off the water.
Bailey, who has lived in Yellowknife for 18 years, said he first photographed the aurora when he and his wife, Karen, lived in Yukon in the early 1980s.
He said he likes to enter competitions to get feedback on his photography.
“As for future goals, I have always said it would be a good retirement job,” he said, noting he and his wife have dabbled with making sellable products such as calendars and producing prints for friends and family.
Another photo Bailey took of the aurora over the Cameron River, which he submitted to the National Wildlife Federation’s photo contest in 2020, was selected for use in a holiday card collection.
He said three of his aurora photos received a bronze award from the Epson International Pano Awards in 2021.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Emily Blake, The Canadian Press
Tonga volcano blast was unusual, could even warm the Earth – Kelowna Capital News – Kelowna Capital News
When an undersea volcano erupted in Tonga in January, its watery blast was huge and unusual — and scientists are still trying to understand its impacts.
The volcano, known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, shot millions of tons of water vapor high up into the atmosphere, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.
The researchers estimate the eruption raised the amount of water in the stratosphere — the second layer of the atmosphere, above the range where humans live and breathe — by around 5%.
Now, scientists are trying to figure out how all that water could affect the atmosphere, and whether it might warm Earth’s surface over the next few years.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said lead author Holger Voemel, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.
Big eruptions usually cool the planet. Most volcanoes send up large amounts of sulfur, which blocks the sun’s rays, explained Matthew Toohey, a climate researcher at the University of Saskatchewan who was not involved in the study.
The Tongan blast was much soggier: The eruption started under the ocean, so it shot up a plume with much more water than usual. And since water vapor acts as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, the eruption will probably raise temperatures instead of lowering them, Toohey said.
It’s unclear just how much warming could be in store.
Karen Rosenlof, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who was not involved with the study, said she expects the effects to be minimal and temporary.
“This amount of increase might warm the surface a small amount for a short amount of time,” Rosenlof said in an email.
The water vapor will stick around the upper atmosphere for a few years before making its way into the lower atmosphere, Toohey said. In the meantime, the extra water might also speed up ozone loss in the atmosphere, Rosenlof added.
But it’s hard for scientists to say for sure, because they’ve never seen an eruption like this one.
The stratosphere stretches from around 7.5 miles to 31 miles (12 km to 50 km) above Earth and is usually very dry, Voemel explained.
Voemel’s team estimated the volcano’s plume using a network of instruments suspended from weather balloons. Usually, these tools can’t even measure water levels in the stratosphere because the amounts are so low, Voemel said.
Another research group monitored the blast using an instrument on a NASA satellite. In their study, published earlier this summer, they estimated the eruption to be even bigger, adding around 150 million metric tons of water vapor to the stratosphere — three times as much as Voemel’s study found.
Voemel acknowledged that the satellite imaging might have observed parts of the plume that the balloon instruments couldn’t catch, making its estimate higher.
Either way, he said, the Tongan blast was unlike anything seen in recent history, and studying its aftermath may hold new insights into our atmosphere.
—Maddie Burakoff, The Associated Press
NASA is slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid on Monday to test planetary defence – CBC.ca
On Monday, in what seems like a scene out of a science fiction movie, NASA will slam a spacecraft into a distant asteroid to see whether it can nudge its orbit — all in an effort to test a way to protect Earth from any potential future threats.
The good news is that there’s no need to panic: The asteroid, which is part of a binary — or two-bodied — system, is not a threat to our planet, and there are no known ones that are headed our way for at least the next 100 years. However, space agencies like the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration want to be prepared should there ever be a threat.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is testing a way in which a spacecraft may be able to nudge an asteroid on a collision course with Earth out of its orbit.
At 7:14 p.m. ET on Monday, the refrigerator-sized spacecraft will plunge itself into Dimorphos — a moonlet that orbits its larger companion, Didymos — at roughly 6.6 km/s.
The goal isn’t to knock Dimorphos out of orbit but rather to change its 12-hour orbit around Didymos by 10 minutes. This means that scientists will know within roughly 12 hours whether they were successful.
So why target a binary asteroid system rather than a single asteroid to see whether you can change its orbit around the sun?
“A binary system was perfect for this test,” said Mallory DeCoster, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland and part of the DART Impact Modeling Working Group.
For one, the size of Dimorphos — about 164 metres across — is perfect to illustrate whether this would be an effective way of deflecting asteroids that pose a threat to Earth. Didymos is 780 metres across.
“But then the other piece is, if we were to impact a single asteroid, in order to characterize if we changed its orbit, we would have to wait until it completed its orbit around the sun, which could take many, many years.”
The other advantage is that the binary system is relatively close to us, astronomically speaking, at just 11 million kilometres away.
NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies says that more than 90 per cent of near-Earth objects (NEOs) bigger than one kilometre have already been discovered. But that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods when it comes to Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs).
In 2013, the Chelyabinsk asteroid — which was roughly 20 metres in diameter— exploded over parts of Russia, injuring about 1,000 people and serving as a reminder of how even a small asteroid can be dangerous.
Basically, Earth flies through a shooting gallery in space. There are small chunks of debris that burn up in our atmosphere as meteors; bigger ones, like Chelyabinsk; and then even bigger ones that can be catastrophic — all left over from the formation of our solar system.
Mike Daly, a professor at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering in Toronto and a co-investigator on DART, said one of the most popular concepts is deflecting asteroids before they become a real threat. But that means we need to have advance warning that one is headed our way.
“So the simplest method is the one that DART is doing, which is essentially to take a spacecraft at high speed and crash it into the asteroid and use that transfer of the energy from the spacecraft to the asteroid to move it along,” he said.
However, the science behind asteroid deflection in this manner is about more than just the combination of the spacecraft’s size and incredibly high speed, called a hypervelocity impact.
“In a hypervelocity impact, you induce this pressure wave into the target that causes a lot of new physics to happen,” Johns Hopkins University’s DeCoster said.
“So what will happen, or what we think will happen, is that the size of the spacecraft might actually not matter that much. It might actually be: How does the asteroid respond to this pressure wave that is induced due to the hypervelocity impact? And we think that it will likely spew out a lot of material in the form of ejecta. And this ejecta might actually have a major component for changing the orbit. So much ejecta might get spewed out that that piece might matter more than the incoming energy from the spacecraft in changing its orbit.”
The DART team hopes that an onboard camera, called DRACO, will show the close approach and then suddenly go black, which would be indicative of an impact.
But there’s a straggler tagging along behind DART, by about three minutes: the Italian Space Agency’s Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids, or LICIACube. Its job is to photograph the impact, study the plume of ejecta and help determine the morphology of the asteroid, as they can be made of iron, rock or just rocky clumps held together by gravity.
As this is the first test of a form of planetary defence, scientists are eagerly anticipating not only the impact of the event itself but what they will learn from it and, most importantly, what this may mean for the future of protecting Earth in the future. Telescopes from around the world will be observing the event and collecting followup data.
“We’re really the first generation that can protect ourselves from these potentially catastrophic impacts,” York University’s Daly said. “And, you know, fortunately the really catastrophic ones don’t happen very often, but they could happen, and never before have we been able to change our fate. So I think it’s really up to us, given the potentially large consequences of not paying attention and our ability to do it.”
The event will be broadcast on NASA TV, which is available online and through its app.
N.W.T. man among finalists in international astronomy photographer contest
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