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Tag archives: water

Hubble – one million and going strong

hubble 2 .jpg

By Tushna Commissariat

I have already raved on about the awesomeness of the Hubble Space Telescope in my blog entry about its 21st anniversary in April this year. Now, the telescope has crossed yet another milestone – on Monday 4 July the Earth-orbiting observatory logged its one-millionth science observation! The image above is a composite of all the various celestial objects ranging through stars, clusters, galaxies, nebulae, planets, etc that Hubble has catalogued over the years. Click on the image for a hi-res version. [Credit: NASA, ESA and R Thompson (CSC/STScI)]

The telescope has had a significant impact on all fields of science from planetary science to cosmology and has provided generations with breathtaking images of our universe ever since it was launched on 24 April 1990 aboard Discovery’s STS-31 mission.

Hubble’s counter reading includes every observation of astronomical targets since its launch. The millionth observation made by Hubble was during a search for water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet almost 1000 light-years away from us. The telescope had trained its Wide Field Camera 3, a visible and infrared light imager with an on-board spectrometer on the planet HAT-P-7b, a gas giant planet larger than Jupiter orbiting a star hotter than our Sun. HAT-P-7b has also been studied by NASA’s Kepler telescope after it was discovered by ground-based observations. Hubble now is being used to analyse the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

“For 21 years Hubble has been the premier space-science observatory, astounding us with deeply beautiful imagery and enabling ground-breaking science across a wide spectrum of astronomical disciplines,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. He piloted the space shuttle mission that carried Hubble to orbit. “The fact that Hubble met this milestone while studying a far away planet is a remarkable reminder of its strength and legacy.”

Hubble has now collected more than 50 terabytes – the archive of that data is available to scientists and the public at http://hla.stsci.edu/

And take a look at this Physics World article by astrophysicist Mark Voit where he looks at the most iconic images Hubble has produced over the years – Hubble’s greatest hits

The NASA video below was created last year for the 20th Hubble anniversary celebration and tells you how you could send a message to Hubble that will be stored in its archive.

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Icy spray from Saturn’s moon Enceladus sampled by Cassini

Cassini enhanced and false-coloured image of Enceladus backlit by the Sun shows the fountain-like plumes of the fine spray of material that spews from the south polar region (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Cassini’s enhanced and false-coloured image of Enceladus backlit by the Sun shows the fountain-like plumes of the fine spray of material that spews from the south polar region (Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

By Tushna Commissariat

Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon is back in the news as the Cassini-Huygens mission has managed to directly sample the water plumes jetting into space from its southern polar region. These plumes of ice and salt originate from the moon’s famed “tiger stripes” region – four parallel giant fissures on the southern face of the moon.

The findings from these fly-throughs are the strongest evidence yet for the existence of large-scale saltwater reservoirs beneath the moon’s icy crust. “Enceladus is a tiny icy moon located in a region of the outer solar system where no liquid water was expected to exist, because of its large distance from the Sun,” says Nicolas Altobelli, ESA’s project scientist for the Cassini-Huygens mission. “This finding is therefore a crucial new piece of evidence showing that environmental conditions favourable to the emergence of life may be sustainable on icy bodies orbiting gas-giant planets.”

Indeed, the moon has been described previously by other Cassini researchers as one of the “most habitable spots beyond Earth in the solar system for life as we know it”.

Enceladus’ water plumes are though to contribute towards replenishing Saturn’s outermost and faint E-ring, which traces the orbit of Enceladus around Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft discovered the plumes in 2005 and more recently has been able to fly directly through them.

During three of Cassini’s passes in 2008 and 2009, its Cosmic Dust Analyser measured the composition of freshly ejected plume grains. The icy particles hit the detector target at speeds of 6.5–17.5 km/s, and vaporized instantly. Electrical fields inside the instrument then separated the various constituents of the resulting impact cloud for analysis.

Researchers looking at the data from the detector have found that grains ejected in the plumes and into the atmosphere of the moon and out towards the E-ring are relatively small and mostly salt-poor, closely matching the composition of the E-ring. However, closer to the moon itself relatively large, salt-rich ice grains were found.

This mosaic of 21 Cassini images is a false colour full-disc view of the anti-Saturn hemisphere on Enceladus (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

This mosaic of 21 Cassini images is a false colour full-disc view of the anti-Saturn hemisphere on Enceladus (Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Scientists explain this by saying that more than 99% of the total mass of ejected solids is in salt-rich grains, but most of these are heavy and fall back to the moon, so never make it into the E-ring. The salt-rich particles have an “ocean-like” composition which indicates that most, if not all, of the expelled ice comes from liquid saltwater body somewhere under the surface, rather than from the icy face of the moon.

The scenario envisioned by the team goes something like this – deep underneath Enceladus’ surface, perhaps 80 km down, there is a reservoir of water between the rocky core and the icy mantle, kept liquid by tidal forces generated by Saturn and its neighbouring moons, as well as by the heat generated by radioactive decay. When the outermost layer cracks open, the reservoir is exposed to space. The drop in pressure causes the liquid to evaporate, with some of it flash-freezing into salty ice grains: together these create the plumes.

When salty water freezes slowly, the salt is squeezed out, leaving pure water ice behind. So, if the plumes were coming from the surface ice, there should be very little salt in them. “There currently is no plausible way to produce a steady outflow of salt-rich grains from solid ice across the tiger stripes other than from saltwater under Enceladus’ icy surface,” says Frank Postberg, Universität Heidelberg, Germany, who is the lead author of a Nature paper announcing these results.

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