SETI Has Already Tried Listening to TRAPPIST-1 for Aliens

SETI Has Already Tried Listening to TRAPPIST-1 for Aliens

The Trappist-1 system has been featured in the news quite a bit lately. In May of 2016, it appeared in the headlines after researchers announced the discovery of three exoplanets orbiting around the red dwarf star. And then there was the news earlier this week of how follow-up examinations from ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope revealed that there were actually seven planets in this system.

And now it seems that there is more news to be had from this star system. As it turns out, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute was already monitoring this system with their Allen Telescope Array (ATA), looking for signs of life even before the multi-planet system was announced. And while the survey did not detect any telltale signs of radio traffic, further surveys are expected.

Given its proximity to our own Solar System, and the fact that this system contains seven planets that are similar in size and mass to Earth, it is both tempting and plausible to think that life could be flourishing in the TRAPPIST-1 system. As Seth Shostak, a Senior Astronomer at SETI, explained:

“[T]he opportunities for life in the Trappist 1 system make our own solar system look fourth-rate.  And if even a single planet eventually produced technically competent beings, that species could quickly disperse its kind to all the rest… Typical travel time between worlds in the Trappist 1 system, even assuming rockets no speedier than those built by NASA, would be pleasantly short.  Our best spacecraft could take you to Mars in 6 months.  To shuttle between neighboring Trappist planets would be a weekend junket.”

Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Little wonder then why SETI has been using their Allen Telescope Array to monitor the system ever since exoplanets were first announced there. Located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in northern California (northeast of San Francisco), the ATA is what is known as a “Large Number of Small Dishes” (LNSD) array – which is a new trend in radio astronomy.

Like other LNSD arrays – such as the proposed Square Kilometer Array currently being built in Australia and South Africa – the concept calls for the deployment of many smaller dishes over a large surface area, rather than a single large dish. Plans for the array began back in 1997, when the SETI Institute convened a workshop to discuss the future of the Institute and its search strategies.

The final report of the workshop, titled “SETI 2020“, laid out a plan for the creation of a new telescope array. This array was referred to as the One Hectare Telescope at the time, since the plan called for a LNSD encompassing an area measuring 10,000 m² (one hectare). The SETI Institute began developing the project in conjunction with the Radio Astronomy Laboratory (RAL) at the UC Berkeley.

In 2001, they secured a $11.5 million donation from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which was established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. In 2007, the first phase of construction was completed and the ATA finally became operational on October 11th, 2007, with 42 antennas (ATA-42). Since that time, Allen has committed to an additional $13.5 million in funding for a second phase of expansion (hence why it bears his name).

A portion of the Allen Telescope Array. (Credit: Seth Shostak/The SETI Institute. Used with permission)

Compared to large, single dish-arrays, smaller dish-arrays are more cost-effective because they can be upgraded simply by adding more dishes. The ATA is also less expensive since it relies on commercial technology originally developed for the television market, as well as receiver and cryogenic technologies developed for radio communication and cell phones.

It also uses programmable chips and software for signal processing, which allows for rapid integration whenever new technology becomes available. As such, the array is well suited to running simultaneous surveys at centimeter wavelengths. As of 2016, the SETI Institute has performed observations with the ATA for 12 hour periods (from 6 pm and 6 am), seven days a week.

And last year, the array was aimed towards TRAPPIST-1, where it conducted a survey scanning ten billion radio channels in search of signals. Naturally, the idea that a radio signal would be emanating from this system, and one which the ATA could pick up, might seem like a bit of a longshot. But in fact, both the infrastructure and energy requirements would not be beyond a species who’s technical advancement is commensurate with our own.

“Assuming that the putative inhabitants of this solar system can use a transmitting antenna as large as the 500 meter FAST radio telescope in China to beam their messages our way, then the Allen Array could have found a signal if the aliens use a transmitter with 100 kilowatts of power or more,” said Shostak. “This is only about ten times as energetic as the radar down at your local airport.”

A plot of diameter versus the amount of sunlight hitting the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, scaled by the size of the Earth and the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth. Credit: F. Marchis/H. Marchis

So far, nothing has been picked up from this crowded system. But the SETI Institute is not finished and future surveys are already in the works. If there is a thriving, technologically-advanced civilization in this system (and they know their way around a radio antenna), surely there will be signs soon enough.

And regardless, the discovery of seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system is very exciting because it demonstrates just how plentiful systems that could support life are in our Universe. Not only does this system have three planets orbiting within its habitable zone (all of which are similar in size and mass to Earth), but the fact that they orbit a red dwarf star is very encouraging.

These stars are the most common in our Universe, making up 70% of stars in our galaxy, and up to 90% in elliptical galaxies. They are also very stable, remaining in their Main Sequence phase for up to 10 trillion years. Last, but not least, astronomers believe that 20 out of 30 nearest stars to our Solar System are red dwarfs. Lots of opportunities to find life within a few dozen light years!

“[W]hether or not Trappist 1 has inhabitants, its discovery has underlined the growing conviction that the Universe is replete with real estate on which biology could both arise and flourish,’ says Shostak. “If you still think the rest of the universe is sterile, you are surely singular, and probably wrong.”

Further Reading: SETI

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The Cepheus Constellation

The Cepheus Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with the King of Ethiopia himself, the Cepheus constellation!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of these is the northern constellation of Cepheus, named after the mythological king of Ethiopia. Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the IAU, and is bordered by the constellations of Camelopardalis, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Draco, Lacerta, and Ursa Minor.

Name and Meaning:

In Greek mythology, Cepheus represents the mythical king of Aethiopia – and husband to the vain queen Cassiopeia. This also makes him the father of the lovely Andromeda, and a member of the entire sky saga which involves jealous gods and mortal boasts. According to this myth, Zeus placed Cepheus in the sky after his tragic death, which resulted from a jealous lovers’ spat.

Cepheus as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c. 1825. Credit: Library of Congress/Sidney Hall

It began when Cepheus’ wife – Cassiopeia – boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids (the sea nymphs), which angered the nymphs and Poseidon, god of the sea. Poseidon sent a sea monster, represented by the constellation Cetus, to ravage Cepheus’ land. To avoid catastrophe, Cepheus tried to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda to Cetus; but she was saved by the hero Perseus, who also slew the monster.

The two were to be married, but this created conflict since Andromeda had already been promised to Cepheus brother, Phineus. A fight ensued, and Perseus was forced to brandish the head of Medusa to defeat his enemies, which caused Cepheus and Cassiopeia (who did not look away in time) to turn to stone. Perhaps his part in the whole drama is why his crown only appears to be seen in the fainter stars when he’s upside down?

History of Observation:

As one of the 48 fabled constellations from Greek mythology, Cepheus was included by Ptolemy in his 2nd century tract, The Almagest. In 1922, it was included in the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Notable Features:

Bordered by Cygnus, Lacerta and Cassiopeia, it contains only one bright star, but seven major stars and 43 which have Bayer/Flamsteed designations. It’s brightest star, Alpha Cephei, is a white class A star, which is located about 48 light years away. Its traditional name (Alderamin) is derived from the Arabic “al-dira al-yamin“, which means “the right arm”.

This Hubble image shows RS Puppis, a type of variable star known as a Cepheid variable. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA/H. Bond/STScI/Penn State University

Next is Beta Cephei, a triple star systems that is approximately 690 light years from Earth. The star’s traditional name, Alfirk, is derived from the Arabic “al-firqah” (“the flock”). The brightest component in this system, Alfirk A, is a blue giant star (B2IIIev), which indicates that it is a variable star. In fact, this star is a prototype for Beta Cephei variables – main sequence stars that show variations in brightness as a result of pulsations of their surfaces.

Then there’s Delta Cephei, which is located approximately 891 light years from the Solar System. This star also serves as a prototype for Cepheid variables, where pulsations on its surface are directly linked to changes in luminosity. The brighter component of the binary is classified as a yellow-white F-class supergiant, while its companion is believed to be a B-class star.

Gamma Cephei is another binary star in Cepheus, which is located approximately 45 light years away. The star’s traditional name is Alrai (Er Rai or Errai), which is derived from the Arabic ar-r?‘?, which means “the shepherd.” Gamma Cephei is an orange subgiant (K1III-IV) that can be seen by the naked eye, and its companion has about 0.409 solar masses and is thought to be an M4 class red dwarf.

Cepheus is also home to many notable Deep Sky Objects. For example, there’s NGC 6946, which is sometimes called the Fireworks Galaxy because of its supernovae rate and high volume of star formation. This  intermediate spiral galaxy is located approximately 22 million light years distant. The galaxy was discovered by William Herschel in September 1798, and nine supernovae have been observed in it over the last century.

The Fireworks Galaxy (NGC 6946). Credit: Simon Driver (University of St. Andrews)

Next up is the Wizard Nebula (NGC 7380), an open star cluster that was discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1787. The cluster is embedded in a nebula that is about 110 light years in size and roughly 7,000 light years from our Solar System. It is also a relatively young open cluster, as its stars are estimated to be less than 500 million years old.

Then there’s the Iris Nebula (NGC 7023), a reflection nebula with an apparent magnitude of 6.8 that is approximately 1,300 light years distant. The object is so-named because it is actually a star cluster embedded inside a nebula. The nebula is lit by the star SAO 19158 and it lies close to two relatively bright stars – T Cephei, which is a Mira type variable, and Beta Cephei.

Discovered by Sir William Herschel on October 18, 1794, Herschel made the correct assumption of, “A star of 7th magnitude. Affected with nebulosity which more than fills the field. It seems to extend to at least a degree all around: (fainter) stars such as 9th or 10th magnitude, of which there are many, are perfectly free from this appearance.”

So where did the confusion come in? It happened in 1931 when Per Collinder decided to list the stars around it as a star cluster Collinder 429. Then along came Mr. van den Berg, and the little nebula became known as van den Berg 139. Then the whole group became known as Caldwell 4! So what’s right and what isn’t?

The Wizard Nebula (NGC 738). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

According to Brent Archinal, “I was surprised to find NGC 7023 listed in my catalog as a star cluster. I assumed immediately the Caldwell Catalog was in error, but further checking showed I was wrong! The Caldwell Catalog may be the only modern catalog to get the type correctly!”

Finding Cepheus:

Cepheus is a circumpolar constellation of the northern hemisphere and is easily seen at visible at latitudes between +90° and -10° and best seen during culmination during the month of November. For the unaided eye observer, start first with Cepheus’ brightest star – Alpha. It’s name is Alderamin and it’s going through stellar evolution – moving off the main sequence into a subgiant, and on its way to becoming a red giant as its hydrogen supply depletes.

What’s very cool is Alderamin is located near the precessional path traced across the celestial sphere by the Earth’s north pole. That means that periodically this star comes within 3° of being a pole star! Keeping that in mind, head off for Gamma Cephei. Guess what? Due to the precession of the equinoxes, Errai will become our northern pole star around 3000 AD and will make its closest approach around 4000 AD. (Don’t wait up, though… It will be late).

However, you can stay up late enough with a telescope or binoculars to have a closer look at Errai, because its an orange subgiant binary star that’s also about to go off the main sequence and its accompanied by a red dwarf star. What’s so special about that? Well, maybe because a planet has been discovered floating around there, too!

The location of the northern Cepheus constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Now let’s have some fun with a Cepheid variable star that changes enough in about 5 days to make watching it fun! You’ll find Delta on the map as the figure 8 symbol and in the sky you’ll find it 891 light-years away. Delta Cephei is binary star system and the prototype of the Cepheid variable stars – the closest of its type to the Sun.

This star pulses every 5.36634 days, causing its stellar magnitude to vary from 3.6 to 4.3. But that’s not all! Its spectral type varies, too – going from F5 to G3. Try watching it over a period of several nights. Its rise to brightness is much faster than its decline! With a telescope, you will be able to see a companion star separated from Delta Cephei by 41 arc seconds.

Are you ready to examine two red supergiant stars? If you live in a dark sky area, you can see these unaided, but they are much nicer in binoculars. The first is Mu Cephei – aka. Herschel’s Garnet Star. In his 1783 notes, Sir William Herschel wrote: “a very fine deep garnet colour, such as the periodical star omicron ceti” and the name stuck when Giuseppe Piazzi included the description in his catalog.

Now compare it to VV Cephi, right smack in the middle of the map. VV is absolutely a supergiant star, and it is of the largest stars known. In fact, VV Cephei is believed to be the third largest star in the entire Milky Way Galaxy! VV Cephei is 275,000-575,000 times more luminous than the Sun and is approximately 1,600–1,900 times the Sun’s diameter.

Artist’s impression of VV Cep A, created using Celestia, with Mu Cephei (Garnet Star) in the background. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Rackshea

If placed in our solar system, the binary system would extend past the orbit of Jupiter and approach that of Saturn. Some 3,000 light years away from Earth, matter continuously flows off this bad boy and into its blue companion. Stellar wind flows off the system at a velocity of approximately 25 kilometers per second. And some body’s Roche lobe gets filled!

For some rich field telescope and binocular fun from a dark sky site, try your luck with IC1396. This 3 degree field of nebulosity can even be seen unaided at times! Inside you’ll find an open star cluster (hence the designation) and photographically the whole area is criss-crossed with dark nebulae.

For a telescope challenge, see if you can locate both Spiral galaxy NGC 6946 – aka. the Fireworks Nebula – and galactic cluster NGC 6939 about 2 degrees southwest of Eta Cepheus. About 40 arc minutes northwest of NGC 6946 – is about 8th magnitude, well compressed and contains about 80 stars.

More? Then try NGC 7023 – The Iris Nebula. This faint nebula can be achieved in dark skies with a 114-150mm telescope, but larger aperture will help reveal more subtle details since it has a lower surface brightness. Take the time at lower power to reveal the dark dust “lacuna” around it reported so many years ago, and to enjoy the true beauty of this Caldwell gem.

The Iris Nebula (NGC 7023). Credit: Hewholooks

Still more? Then head off with your telescope for IC1470 – but take your CCD camera. IC1470 is a compact H II region excited by a single O7 star associated with an extensive molecular cloud in the Perseus arm!

Yes, Cepheus has plenty of viewing opportunities for the amateur astronomer. And for thousands of years, it has proven to be a source of fascination for scholars and astronomers.

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Canes Venatici and Constellation Families.

Sources:

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Supernova Blast Wave Still Visible After 30 Years

Supernova Blast Wave Still Visible After 30 Years

30 years ago today, a supernova explosion was spotted in the southern hemisphere skies. The exploding star was located in the Large Magellanic Cloud — a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way – and Supernova 1987A was the brightest and nearest supernova explosion for modern astronomers to observe. This has provided an amazing opportunity to study the death of a star.

Telescopes around the world and in space have been keeping an eye on this event, and the latest images show the blast wave from the original explosion is still expanding, and it has plowed into a ring expelled by the pre-supernova star. The latest images and data reveal the blast is now moving past the ring.

Got a 3-D printer? You can print out your own version of SN1987A! Find the plans here.

Two different versions of 3-D printed models of SN1987A. Credit: Salvatore Orlando (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo) & NASA/CXC/SAO/A.Jubett et al.

Below is the latest image of this supernova, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. You can see it in the center of the image among a backdrop of stars, and the supernova is surrounded by gas clouds.

This new image of the supernova remnant SN 1987A was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in January 2017 using its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). Credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation) and P. Challis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Hubble launched in 1990, just three years after the supernova was detected, so Hubble has a long history of observations. In addition, the Chandra X-ray telescope – launched in 1999 – has been keeping an eye on the explosion too.

Here are a few animations and images of SN1987A over the years:

This scientific visualization, using data from a computer simulation, shows Supernova 1987A, as the luminous ring of material we see today.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and F. Summers and G. Bacon (STScI); Simulation Credit: S. Orlando (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo)

This montage shows the evolution of the supernova SN 1987A between 1994 and 2016, as seen by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit:
NASA, ESA, and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation) and P. Challis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Here’s a link to the original astronomer’s telegram announcing the detection.

Astronomers estimate that the ring material was was ejected about 20,000 years before the actual explosion took place. Then, the initial blast of light from the supernova illuminated the rings. They slowly faded over the first decade after the explosion, until the shock wave of the supernova slammed into the inner ring in 2001, heating the gas to searing temperatures and generating strong X-ray emission.

The observations by Hubble, Chandra and telescopes around the world has shed light on how supernovae can affect the dynamics and chemistry of their surrounding environment, and continue to shape galactic evolution.

Read all about SN1987A in our latest press release with Chandra, Hubble & ALMA https://t.co/lYiT95AabS pic.twitter.com/hTfgR0H3fW

— Kim Kowal Arcand (@kimberlykowal) February 24, 2017

See additional images and animations at the Chandra website, ESA’s Hubble website , and NASA.

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Weekly Space Hangout – February 24, 2017: 7 New Exoplanets Around Trappist-1 and More!

Weekly Space Hangout – February 24, 2017: 7 New Exoplanets Around Trappist-1 and More!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:

Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg)
Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )

Their stories this week:

Discovery of 7 exoplanet system Trappist-1

Alan Stern proposes a new definition of a planet

Juno to stay in longer orbit

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you would like to sign up for the AstronomyCast Solar Eclipse Escape, where you can meet Fraser and Pamela, plus WSH Crew and other fans, visit our site linked above and sign up!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page

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Wow, Mars Sure Can Be Pretty

Wow, Mars Sure Can Be Pretty

For a supposedly dead world, Mars sure provides a lot of eye candy. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is our candy store for stunning images of Mars. Recently, HiRise gave us this stunning image (above) of colorful, layered bedrock on the surface of Mars. Notice the dunes in the center. The colors are enhanced, which makes the images more useful scientifically, but it’s still amazing.

HiRise has done it before, of course. It’s keen vision has fed us a steady stream of downright jaw-dropping images of Elon Musk’s favorite planet. Check out this image of Gale Crater taken by HiRise to celebrate its 10 year anniversary orbiting Mars. This image was captured in March 2016.

HiRise captured this image of unusual textures on the floor of the Gale Crater, the same crater where the Curiosity rover is working. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The MRO is approaching its 11 year anniversary around Mars. It has completed over 45,000 orbits and has taken over 216,000 images. The next image is of a fresh impact crater on the Martian surface that struck the planet sometime between July 2010 and May 2012. The impact was in a dusty area, and in this color-enhanced image the fresh crater looks blue because the impact removed the red dust.

This color-enhanced image of a fresh Martian crater was captured by the HiRise camera. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

These landforms on the surface of Mars are still a bit of a mystery. It’s possible that they formed in the presence of an ancient Martian ocean, or perhaps glaciers. Whatever the case, they are mesmerizing to look at.

These odd ridges are still a mystery. Were they formed by glaciers? Oceans? Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Many images of the Martian surface have confounded scientists, and some of them still do. But some, though they look puzzling and difficult to explain, have more prosaic explanations. The image below is a large area of intersecting sand dunes.

What is this? A vast area of Martian rice paddies? Lizard skin? Nope, just an area of intersecting sand dunes. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The surface of Mars is peppered with craters, and HiRise has imaged many of them. This double crater was caused by a meteorite that split in two before hitting the surface.

This double impact crater was caused by a meteorite that split into two before hitting Mars. Notice how the eroding force of the wind has shaped each crater the same, smoothing one edge and creating dunes in the same place. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The image below shows gullies and dunes at the Russell Crater. In this image, the field of dunes is about 30 km long. This image was taken during the southern winter, when the carbon dioxide is frozen. You can see the frozen CO2 as white on the shaded side of the ridges. Scientists think that the gullies are formed when the CO2 melts in the summer.

These gullies are on the dunes of Russell Crater on Mars. This image was taken during winter, and the frozen carbon dioxide on the shaded slopes. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The next image is also the Russell Crater. It’s an area of study for the HiRise team, which means more Russell eye candy for us. This images shows the dunes, CO2 frost, and dust devil tracks that punctuate the area.

This image of the Russell Crater, an area of study for HiRise, shows the area covered in dunes, with some frost visible in the lower left. The larger, darker markings are dust devil tracks. Image: By NASA/JPL/University of Arizona – HiRISE, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12015650

One of the main geological features on Mars is the Valles Marineris, the massive canyon system that dwarfs the Grand Canyon here on Earth. HiRise captured this image of delicate dune features inside Valles Marineris.

These delicate dune features formed inside the Valles Mariners, the massive canyon system on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is still going strong. In fact, it continues to act as a communications relay for surface rovers. The HiRise camera is along for the ride, and if the past is any indication, it will continue to provide astounding images of Mars.

And we can’t seem to get enough of them.

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It Might Be Possible to Refreeze the Icecaps to Slow Global Warming

It Might Be Possible to Refreeze the Icecaps to Slow Global Warming

One of the most worrisome aspects of Climate Change is the role played by positive feedback mechanisms. In addition to global temperatures rising because of increased carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, there is the added push created by deforestation, ocean acidification, and (most notably) the disappearance of the Arctic Polar Ice Cap.

However, according to a new study by a team of researchers from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, it might be possible to refreeze parts of the Arctic ice sheet. Through a geoengineering technique that would rely on wind-powered pumps, they believe one of the largest positive feedback mechanisms on the planet can be neutralized.

Their study, titled “Arctic Ice Management“, appeared recently in Earth’s Future, an online journal published by the American Geophysical Union. As they indicate, the current rate at which Arctic ice is disappearing it quite disconcerting. Moreover, humanity is not likely to be able to combat rising global temperatures in the coming decades without the presence of the polar ice cap.

A drastic decrease in arctic sea ice since satellite imaging of the polar ice cap began. Credit: NASA

Of particular concern is the rate at which polar ice has been disappearing, which has been quite pronounced in recent decades. The rate of loss has been estimated at being between 3.5% and 4.1% per decade, with in an overall decrease of at least 15% since 1979 (when satellite measurements began). To make things worse, the rate at which ice is being lost is accelerating.

From a baseline of about 3% per decade between 1978-1999, the rate of loss since the 2000s has climbed considerably – to the point that the extent of sea-ice in 2016 was the second lowest ever recorded. As they state in their Introduction (and with the support of numerous sources), the problem is only likely to get worse between now and the mid-21st century:

“Global average temperatures have been observed to rise linearly with cumulative CO2 emissions and are predicted to continue to do so, resulting in temperature increases of perhaps 3°C or more by the end of the century. The Arctic region will continue to warm more rapidly than the global mean. Year-round reductions in Arctic sea ice are projected in virtually all scenarios, and a nearly ice-free (<106 km2 sea-ice extent for five consecutive years) Arctic Ocean is considered “likely” by 2050 in a business-as-usual scenario.”

One of the reasons the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet has to do with strong ice-albedo feedback. Basically, fresh snow ice reflects up to 90% of sunlight while sea ice reflects sunlight with albedo up to 0.7, whereas open water (which has an albedo of close to 0.06) absorbs most sunlight. Ergo, as more ice melts, the more sunlight is absorbed, driving temperatures in the Arctic up further.

Arctic sea-ice extent (area covered at least 15% by sea ice) in September 2007 (white area). The red curve denotes the 1981–2010 average. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data CenterTo address this concern, the research team – led by Steven J. Desch, a professor from the School of Earth and Space Exploration – considered how the melting is connected to seasonal fluctuations. Essentially, the Arctic sea ice is getting thinner over time because new ice (aka. “first-year ice”), which is created with every passing winter, is typically just 1 meter (3.28 ft) thick.

Ice that survives the summer in the Arctic is capable of growing and becoming “multiyear ice”, with a typical thickness of 2 to 4 meters (6.56 to 13.12 ft). But thanks to the current trend, where summers are getting progressively warmer, “first-year ice” has been succumbing to summer melts and fracturing before it can grow. Whereas multiyear ice comprised 50 to 60% of all ice in the Arctic Ocean in the 1980s, by 2010, it made up just 15%.

With this in mind, Desch and his colleagues considered a possible solution that would ensure that “first-year ice” would have a better chance of surviving the summer. By placing machines that would use wind power to generate pumps, they estimate that water could be brought to the surface over the course of an Arctic winter, when it would have the best chance of freezing.

Based on calculations of wind speed in the Arctic, they calculate that a wind turbine with 6-meter diameter blades would generate sufficient electricity so that a single pump could raise water to a height of 7 meters, and at a rate of 27 metric tons (29.76 US tons) per hour. The net effect of this would be thicker sheets of ice in the entire affected area, which would have a better chance of surviving the summer.

Melt pools on melting sea-ice. Every summer, newly-formed ice is threatened because of rising global temperatures. Credit NASA

Over time, the negative feedback created by more ice would cause less sunlight to be absorbed by the Arctic ocean, thus leading to more cooling and more ice accumulation. This, they claim, could be done on a relatively modest budget of $500 billion per year for the entire Arctic, or $50 billion per year for 10% of the Arctic.

While this may sounds like a huge figure, they are quick to point out that the cast covering the entire Arctic with ice-creating pumps  – which could save trillions in GDP and countless lives- is equivalent to just 0.64% of current world gross domestic product (GDP) of $78 trillion. For a country like the United States, it represents just 13% of the current federal budget ($3.8 trillion).

And while there are several aspects of this proposal that still need to be worked out (which Desch and his team fully acknowledge), the concept does appear to be theoretically sound. Not only does it take into account the way seasonal change and Climate Change are linked in the Arctic, it acknowledges how humanity is not likely to be be able to address Climate Change without resorting to geoengineering techniques.

And since Arctic ice is one of the most important things when it comes to regulating global temperatures, it makes perfect sense to start here.

Further Reading: Earth’s Future

The post It Might Be Possible to Refreeze the Icecaps to Slow Global Warming appeared first on Universe Today.

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NASA Fires a Rocket into the Northern Lights, for Science!

NASA Fires a Rocket into the Northern Lights, for Science!

Not only is it aurora season in Alaska, its sounding rocket season! NASA started launching a series of five sounding rockets from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska to study the aurora. The first of these rockets for this year, a Black Brant IX, was launched in the early morning hours of February 22, 2017.

The instrument on board was an Ionospheric Structuring: In Situ and Groundbased Low Altitude StudieS (ISINGLASS) instrumented payload, which studies the structure of an aurora.

The Black Brant IX sounding rocket carried instruments to an altitude of 225 miles as part of the Ionospheric Structuring: In Situ and Groundbased Low Altitude StudieS or ISINGLASS mission. Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach.

This is not the first sounding rocket flight from Poker Flats to launch into an aurora. Starting in 2009, this research has been taking place to help refine current models of aurora structure, and provide insight on the high-frequency waves and turbulence generated by aurorae. This helps us to better understand the space weather caused by the charged particles that come from the Sun and how it impacts Earth’s lower atmosphere and ionosphere.

“The visible light produced in the atmosphere as aurora is the last step of a chain of processes connecting the solar wind to the atmosphere,” said Kristina Lynch, ISINGLASS principal investigator from Dartmouth College. “We are seeking to understand what structure in these visible signatures can tell us about the electrodynamics of processes higher up.”

While humans don’t feel any of these effects directly, the electronic systems in our satellites do, and as our reliance on satellite technologies grow, researchers want to have all the data they can to help avert problems than can be caused by space weather.

The rocket sent a stream of real-time data back before landing about 200 miles downrange shortly after the launch.

The launch window for the remaining rockets runs through March 3. ISINGLASS will fly into what is known as a dynamic Alfenic curtain, which is a form of electromagnetic energy thought to be a key driver of “discrete” aurora – the typical, well-defined band of shimmering lights about six miles thick and stretching east to west from horizon to horizon.

NASA says that the five launches in the 2017 sounding rocket campaign will add to our body of information about this space through which our spacecraft and astronauts travel near Earth. By studying the interaction of the sun and its solar wind with Earth’s upper atmosphere, scientists are also able to apply the knowledge to other planetary bodies — helping us understand these interactions throughout the universe as well.

Here’s an infographic from NASA about the 2017 sounding rocket launches from Poker Flats:

Read more: NASA

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Ring of Fire: Catch the Only Annular Solar Eclipse of 2017 This Sunday

Ring of Fire: Catch the Only Annular Solar Eclipse of 2017 This Sunday

annular eclipse

The May 2012 annular solar eclipse. Image credit and copyright: Kevin Baird.

‘Tis the season… eclipse season that is, as a spectacular “ring of fire” annular solar eclipse marks the end of the first of two eclipse cycles for 2017. And although the annular path for this eclipse passes through some sparsely populated parts of the southern hemisphere, we just might get some amazing live views, courtesy of modern technology and some intrepid observers willing to adventurously trek after the shadow of the Moon.

Unlike many of the uncertainties in life, eclipses are sure to happen, a certainty ordained by orbital mechanics. Well, okay, the Vogons could always blow the Moon to smithereens this fine Thursday afternoon… but otherwise, we’re in for a true celestial show.

Eclipse circumstances: Prospects and prognostications.

The eclipse begins far out in the South Pacific at sunrise, and the path of annularity makes first landfall along the southern coast of Chile at 13:31 Universal Time (UT). The eclipse antumbra then races eastward over Argentina at 2.5 kilometers per second, as the “ring of fire” heads out over the South Atlantic where it reaches “maximum annularity” of just 44 seconds 900 kilometers southeast of Brazil. Finally, the 30 kilometer wide path touches down over Angola, nicks Zambia and ends at sunset over a southern track along the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The eclipse is partial across southern portion of South America, the Falkland Islands a swath of Antarctica and southwestern Africa.

2017 Annular Eclipse

The aspects of the February 26th, 2017 annular eclipse. Credit: F.Espenak/NASA/GSFC

Here are the partial prospects for select cities:

City – Maximum obscuration – Time

La Paz, Bolivia – 5% – 13:37 UT

Buenos Aires – 67% – 13:53 UT

The Falkland Islands – 71% – 13:56 UT

Palmer Station, Antarctica – 31% – 14:01 UT

Cape Town, South Africa – 41% – 15:59 UT

Luanda, Angola – 83% – 16:32 UT

eclipse animation

An animation of Sunday’s eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC/A.T. Sinclair

Annular vs. Total

Sunday’s eclipse is the first of two solar eclipses for 2017, and the only annular eclipse for the year. We get an annular eclipse when the Moon is near apogee (which occurred eight days ago on February 18th) and the Earth is near perihelion (which occurred last month on January 4th). At this time, the apparent size of the Moon is too small to cover the Sun as seen from the Earth, resulting instead in a brilliant annulus or “ring of fire” in the sky. Likewise, we refer to the shadow trace of this ring across the Earth as an antumbra, instead of the familiar umbra of a total solar eclipse.

Strange as it may seem, annular eclipses are slightly more common than total solar eclipses in our current epoch, and will become increasingly more so as the Moon slowly recedes from the Earth.

annular eclipse

The alignment needed for an annular eclipse. Credit: The National Observatory of Japan.

Observing and Eclipse Safety

Unlike a total solar eclipse, safety precautions must be taken during all phases of an annular solar eclipse. We witnessed the 1994 annular eclipse from the shores of Lake Erie, and can attest that 1% of the Sun is still pretty darn bright. Use only telescope and camera filters or glasses designed specifically for solar observing, even during the annular phase. Venus should also be a splendid sight for those observing near sunset from Africa, as the Cytherian world shines at -4.3 magnitude 34 degrees east of the Sun. Viewers in southwestern African nations will also be treated to a setting Sun during the eclipse, affording the chance to include the spectacle in shots along with foreground objects on the local horizon if skies are clear.

Sun Venus Annular

The eclipse versus Venus as seen from the path through Angola. Credit: Stellarium.

Clouded out? Live on the wrong part of the planet? There are actually several options to watch the eclipse live:

the venerable SLOOH plans to webcast the eclipse.

Time and Date will provide a webcast starting at 12:05 UT from Angola:

Watch this space: we’ll be dropping in more live webcasts of the eclipse as they turn up.

Plan on doing an ad hoc webcast of Sunday’s eclipse from anywhere along the annular or partial track? Let us know!

Sunspot activity is currently at a lull, and the Earthward face of Sol may well be blank come eclipse day. At an eclipse magnitude of 99.22%, this eclipse juuuusst misses being a hybrid/total. It’s also possible to catch the brief flashes of Bailey’s Beads along the edge of the antumbral graze line.

Tales of the Saros

This eclipse is member 29 of 71 for saros cycle 140, stretching all the way back to April 16th, 1512 and running out to June 1st, 2774. If you caught the February 16th, 1999 annular eclipse from the Australian Outback, then you witnessed the last eclipse in saros 140. Stick around until March 9th, 2035 and you can then complete an exeligmos or triple saros cycle, joining an elite club of eclipse-chasing adventurers, indeed.

Eclipses occur in pairs or sometimes triplets, when the nodes where the Moon’s orbit intersect the position of the Sun and the Earth’s shadow along the ecliptic plane. These nodes move due to orbital precession of the Moon’s path around the Earth. If the Moon weren’t inclined relative to the ecliptic, we’d see a lunar and solar eclipse every synodic month. The February 11th penumbral eclipse ushered in the current eclipse season, which ends with this weekend’s annular eclipse.

penumbral

The penumbral eclipse from earlier this month, ushering in eclipse season 1 of 2 for 2017. Credit and Copyright: Rob Sparks.

ISS and Views from Space (-ace -ace) Prospects

There is an ISS transit over SW Africa at around 15:45 UT, offering a chance to catch a transit of the station across the partially eclipsed Sun. Sun observing spacecraft in low Earth orbit including Hinode and Proba-2 also usually get good views of the eclipse.

New Moon sightings: And for the rest of the world, the hunt will be on to recover the slim waxing crescent Moon post-eclipse on the evening of Monday, February 27th. This lunation, first sighting opportunity without optical assistance favors southeast Asia.

Then, its on to eclipse season number two, featuring a partial lunar eclipse on August 7th, and then the big ticket event: the total eclipse of the Sun spanning the contiguous United States from coast to coast. Umbraphiles have been planning for this one and its brief 160 seconds maximum of totality for well over a decade now, no lie. Where will YOU be?

-Send those eclipse pics in to Universe Today Flickr.

-Read more about eclipses, occultations, comets and more for the year in our free e-book: 101 Astronomical Events for 2017.

-Eclipse science fiction? Read our original sci-fi tales Exeligmos, The Syzygy Gambit, Peak Season and more.

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SpaceX Dragon Arrives at Space Station with Tons of Earth and Human Science Experiments

SpaceX Dragon Arrives at Space Station with Tons of Earth and Human Science Experiments

SpaceX CRS-10 Dragon supply ship launched on Feb. 19, 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida successfully arrives at the International Space Station on Feb. 23, 2017 for capture and berthing at station port on the Harmony module. Credit: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A SpaceX Dragon supply ship jam packed with more than 2.5 tons of critical science gear, crew supplies and 40 mice successfully arrived this morning at the International Space Station (ISS) – where six humans from the US, Russia and France are living and working aboard.

Dragon reached the station four days after it was launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Sunday, Feb. 19 on the first Falcon 9 rocket ever to blast off from historic launch pad 39A in a blaze of glory.

Astronauts Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency) and station commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA deftly maneuvered the space station’s 57.7-foot (17.6-meter) Canadian-built Canadarm2 robotic arm to reach out and flawlessly capture the Dragon CRS-10 spacecraft at about 5:44 a.m. EST early Thursday, after it arrived at the station.

Pesquet and Kimbrough were working at the robotics work station inside the Cupola as they monitored Dragon’s approach for capture by the grappling snares on the terminus of the robotic arm this morning as the station was soaring over the northwest coast of Australia.

“Looks like we have a great Dragon capture,” said capcom astronaut Mike Hopkins.

“We want to congratulate all the teams working around the world for the successful arrival,” said Pesquet.

The million pound station is orbiting approximately 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

SpaceX Dragon arrives at the 30 meter hold point during final approach to International Space Station on Feb. 23, 2017 for capture and berthing at station port on the Harmony module. Credit: NASA

The commercial Dragon cargo freighter arrived about 16 minutes earlier than originally planned.

The duo were assisted by experienced NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. The 57 year old Whitson will soon set a record for most time spent in space by an American on April 24.

The gumdrop shaped Dragon cargo freighter slowly and methodically approached the station and the capture point through the required approach corridor during the final stages of the orbital chase.

After hovering at the capture point in free drift at a distance of about 34 feet (11 m) from the orbiting outpost, the crew members extended the robotic arm and Dragon was successfully plucked from free space using Canardarm2 at the grapple fixture located on the side of the supply ship.

The entire thrilling approach and grappling sequence was broadcast live on NASA TV.

Robotics officers on the ground at the NASA’s Johnson Space Center will take over and later berth Dragon to the Earth facing port on the Harmony module at about 8 a.m.

16 latches and bolts on the Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) will hold Dragon firmly in place for a hard mate to the stations Harmony module.

“Today’s’ re-rendezvous has gone by the book,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias.

“Dragon systems are in excellent shape.”

Yesterday’s rendezvous was automatically aborted when a bad bit of GPS navigational data was uplinked to Dragon as it was about 0.7 miles below the station.

“The Dragon’s computers received an incorrect navigational update, triggering an automatic wave off. Dragon was sent on a “racetrack” trajectory in front of, above and behind the station for today’s second rendezvous attempt.”

There was never any danger to the crew, space station or Dragon. It merely arrived a day later than planned as it is fully equipped to do if needed.

The Dragon is the first of two cargo craft arriving at the station over two consecutive days.

The unpiloted Russian Progress 66 supply ship launched yesterday from Baikonur is slated to arrive early Friday morning with 2.9 tons of supplies. It will automatically dock at the Pirs docking module, with a trio of Russian cosmonauts monitoring all the action.

After conducting leak checks, the crew plans to open the hatch to Dragon later today.

They will quickly begin removing the highest priority science investigations and gear first.

Dragon will remain at the station for about 30 days.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship rests horizontal atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 17 Feb 2017 as work crews use the access room to load ‘late stow’ science experiments aboard Dragon – as seen from inside the pad perimeter. This is the first rocket launched from pad 39A since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in July 2011. Liftoff of the CRS-10 mission occurred on 19 Feb 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

1000 pounds of ‘late stow’ experiments were loaded the day before the originally planned Feb. 18 liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Dragon was successfully launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center atop the 213-foot-tall (65-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 9:38 a.m. EST on Feb. 19, 2017 from historic Launch Complex 39A to low Earth orbit.

Raindrops keep falling on the lens, as inaugural SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon disappears into the low hanging rain clouds at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center after liftoff from pad 39A on Feb. 19, 2017. Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission is delivering over 5000 pounds of science and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dragon is carrying more than 5500 pounds of equipment, gear, food, crew supplies, hardware and NASA’s Stratospheric Aerosol Gas Experiment III (SAGE III) ozone mapping science payload in support of the Expedition 50 and 51 crew members.

SAGE III will measure stratospheric ozone, aerosols, and other trace gases by locking onto the sun or moon and scanning a thin profile of the atmosphere. It is one of NASA’s longest running earth science programs.

The LIS lightning mapper will measure the amount, rate and energy of lightning as it strikes around the world from the altitude of the ISS as it orbits Earth. Its data will complement that from the recently orbited GLM lighting mapper lofted to geosynchronous aboard the NASA/NOAA GOES-R spacecraft instrument.

NASA’s RAVEN experiment will test autonomous docking technologies for spacecraft.

SAGE III and RAVEN were stowed in the Dragon’s unpressurized truck.

The research supplies and equipment brought up by Dragon will support over 250 scientific investigations to advance knowledge about the medical, psychological and biomedical challenges astronauts face during long-duration spaceflight.

SpaceX Dragon CRS-10 Cargo manifest from NASA:

TOTAL CARGO: 5489.5 lbs. / 2490 kg

TOTAL PRESSURIZED CARGO WITH PACKAGING: 3373.1 lbs. / 1530 kg

• Science Investigations 1613.8 lbs. / 732 kg
• Crew Supplies 652.6 lbs. / 296 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 842.2 lbs. / 382 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 22.0 lbs. / 10 kg
• Computer Resources 24.2 lbs. / 11 kg
• Russian Hardware 48.5 lbs. / 22 kg

UNPRESSURIZED

• SAGE-III & STP-H5 Lightning Imaging Sensor 2116.4 lbs. / 960 kg

Historic maiden blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center) at 9:38 a.m. EDT on Feb 19, 2017, on Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite CRS-10 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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