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There goes the neighborhood: What will the Webb Telescope reveal about our solar system?

Astronomer Heidi Hammel talks about how the Webb Telescope can be used to study our solar system.

Astronomer Heidi Hammel talks about how the Webb Telescope can be used to study our solar system.


The James Webb Space Telescope will look far back in cosmic time to study the origins of the universe.  But that doesn’t mean the observatory will turn a blind eye to the planets. Yesterday, at a conference at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore,  noted planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel gave us a quick tour of the solar system from Webb’s (future) point of view.

UPDATE: A webcast video of Hammel’s talk is now available on the STScI website.

The conference, Frontier Science Opportunities with the James Webb Space Telescope (June 6-8), is all about what Webb can and will do once it makes it into space. It’ll be a while: As Matt Mountain, director of STSciI, mentioned in his opening remarks to the conference, Webb won’t see the cold of space, some 1 million miles from Earth, until at least 2017.

Hammel is known to be a great speaker, and she didn’t disappoint. First she took Mercury, Venus, and Earth out of the lineup. Her Powerpoint slides?

Mercury? No.

Venus? No.

Earth? No.



Webb’s orbit and the size and shape of its sunshield leave these planets in an “exclusion zone” hidden from the observatory’s view. (Its planned orbital perch is a point called L2, opposite from Earth with respect to the sun.) Ok, fine. What about Mars?

Yes. According to a March 9, 2010 White Paper about Webb and the solar system, the observatory could measure a number of important things in Mars’ atmosphere, like dust and carbon dioxide gas, that affect its climate.

Hammel speculated that Webb’s infrared eyes could help solve the mysterious nature of methane releases observed on Mars. Where does the methane come from? Webb might help us figure it out.

Jupiter? Saturn? Yes, yes. There is much Webb could learn about the atmospheres of these giant gas planets — which are, by the way, the best nearby examples we have of the scores of giant gaseous exoplanets being discovered in other solar systems.

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon? Yes. Webb could add a decade of observations of Titan’s surface and atmosphere to the work of the Cassini orbiter, and during a time in Titan’s seasonal cycle not yet explored in the infrared band, according to the White Paper.

Uranus and Neptune? An enthusiastic thumbs up from Hammel to the idea of studying these cool, distant bodies with the Webb’s infrared camera and spectrographs. She cited several scientific puzzles that Webb might help solve, including shifts in the wavelengths of light emitted by Uranus as the planet rotates and Neptune’s inexplicably warm polar region.

In general, Hammel said, “Neptune’s atmosphere is so dynamic, and little is known.” Anything Webb contributes will be helpful.

Last but not least, the region beyond Neptune, realm of Pluto and the other icy dwarf planets, is also fair game for Webb.  As the White Paper explains:

“Beyond Neptune, a class of cold, large bodies that include Pluto, Triton and Eris exhibits surface deposits of nitrogen, methane, and other molecules that are poorly observed from the ground, but for which JWST might provide spectral mapping at high sensitivity and spatial resolution difficult to match with the current generation of ground-based observatories.”

And comets, too. At least comets slow enough for Webb to track.

There has been much public hand wringing lately over growth in the Webb budget and slips in the launch date. But in the scientific community, two generations eagerly await the lofting of the giant Webb observatory into orbit. Many of them are up at STScI today sharing their plans.

“There’s a lot of great science that’s going to come out of this and I’m really looking forward to it,” Hammel said. “There is a wide range of interesting planetary phenomena observable by JWST, especially in the outer solar system.”

This NASA video goes into detail about planet studies — here and elsewhere in the universe — and the James Webb Space Telescope:

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.


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Magnetic Loops A'Crackling on the Sun


image of magnetic loops on sun

The latest amazing close-up shot of solar activity is available courtesy of Steele Hill and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Steele is a Goddard media specialist who sends out packages of sun images and videos that get displayed in hundreds of museums and science centers. In Steele’s own words. . .

“When a substantial active region rotated into view, it was a hot-bed of dynamic motion and loops (Mar. 21-22, 2011). As observed by Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in extreme ultraviolet light, the region’s powerful magnetic forces tangled, broke apart and reconnected with a vengeance, even popping off a few flares. Very tight close-ups such as this one had not been possible until the SDO began operations just a year ago.”



Here is an extreme close-up view of the active region and its loopy magnetic fields:





. . . and a larger view of the magnetic loopiness and the sun’s boiling surface.



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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Happy Birthday L'il SDO!

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment
Goddard's Martha Wawro and SDO commemorative Snowmageddon snow globe.

Goddard's Martha Wawro and SDO commemorative Snowmageddon snow globe. Click to see a close-up!

It’s been a year since NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and so far everything is A.O.K. Good data, good images, lots of public interest. Must be time to have a party.

A bunch of the folks here at Goddard who helped make SDO happen, including mission scientist Dean Pesnell, got together today for a 1-year launch anniversary celebration. One major complicating event that overlapped the launch and critical follow-up operations was the infamous Snowmageddon.

At Goddard, which got socked just as bad as the rest of the Northeast region, 73 hardy souls associated with the SDO launch and mission operations camped out during the mother-of-all-blizzards. Today, at the party they got a Snowmageddon snow globe to mark their dedication. The person holding the globe in the photo above is Martha Wawro, the deputy “EPO lead” at Goddard for SDO. (EPO stands for “education and public outreach.”)

aleya van doren and martha wawroMartha and the other young woman in the photo at right, Aleya Van Doren, are members of the small army of EPO specialists — people who help to educate the public about SDO and help involve students in the mission. Aleya is one of the resident Twitter gurus in the EPO forces here.

Hurray for SDO! Hurray for EPO!


Front and back view...

Front and back view...


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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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"Ask A Scientist" about the STEREO mission's New 360 degree view of our home star on Twitter

February 9, 2011 2 comments

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Categories: Solar System, STEREO, The Sun Tags: , , ,

Here comes the sun in STEREO II: Sun watching through time

February 4, 2011 Leave a comment






Here’s the latest teaser video about the orbital alignment that will allow NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft to observe both hemispheres of the sun, simultaneously, for the first time since launch. NASA will release the new images at a press conference Sunday, Feb. 6, at 11 a.m. EST.

Seeing the whole sun front and back simultaneously will enable
significant advances in space weather forecasting for Earth, and
improve planning for future robotic or crewed spacecraft missions
throughout the solar system.



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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Categories: Solar System, STEREO, The Sun

Extra! Extra! NASA's Kepler mission discovers possible 'earthlike' planets. What's that mean anyway?

February 2, 2011 2 comments

artist view of solar system around another star

The big NASA news of the day is that the Kepler mission has discovered planets that are about the size of our own and may have similar conditions for life. Or as the press release explains:

“NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered its first Earth-size planet candidates and its first candidates in the habitable zone, a region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Five of the potential planets are near Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of smaller, cooler stars than our sun.”

Recently a Kepler team acientist and famous exoplanet hunter, David Charbonneau, stopped by Goddard to give a talk and gogblog got a chanvce to ask a few dumb questions. Starting with: “What do you means by earthlike planet? And what is a super Earth?”



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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Move over, Gustav Holst: the solar system gets a whole new groove

February 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Today the International Year of Astronomy’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast show is featuring a program I recorded about an album, Planets, by the New York City band One Ring Zero. I did it on my own time, as a labor of love for IYA’s excellent and important effort to promote understanding of science, astronomy, and the night sky. But ORZ’s music turns out to have deep connections to NASA and its mission to understand and appreciate the universe. So here is the podcast on 365 Days of Astronomy about Planets, One Ring Zero’s thoughtful and fresh take on the “music of the spheres.” What’s it got to do with NASA? Read on. . .

365 days of astronomy show banner


It’s a perfect time to give the solar system a new groove. NASA has decreed 2011 the “year of the solar system.” Stardust NExT encounters Comet Tempel 1 on February 14. MESSENGER enters orbit around Mercury on March 18. Dawn begins its approach to asteroid Vesta in May. Next comes the launch of the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter in August, the launch of GRAIL to map the gravitational field of the Moon in September, and the launch of a roving science lab named “Curiosity” to Mars in November.

Science and astronomy, the NASA missions to the inner and outer planets, and the art and culture associated with astronomy and the night sky all fueled One Ring Zero’s inspiration for the album. The band’s leaders, Joshua Camp and Michael Hearst, explained it better than I could in an interview last year with SEED Magazine:

Seed Magazine: Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea for this album?

Joshua Camp: It started when the International Astronomical Union decided to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet.  At the time, we had just finished our album Wake Them Up, and hadn’t begun any other projects.  The news of Pluto’s demotion was shocking, inspiring, and funny, which led to us write and record a song about it.

Michael Hearst: Yes, at that point, it dawned on us that maybe we should write songs for all of the planets. After all, it had been just about 100 years since Gustav Holst had composed his song cycle. Our knowledge of the solar system has changed since then, with many new discoveries. Of course, music has also changed since then.  At the same time, Holst’s The Planets was a big inspiration for us. It’s such an epic and entertaining piece—it seemed almost daunting to try and do what he had already done so well.  And yet, the challenge was what really sparked our interest.



Actually, Holst’s The Planets is the reason I ended up doing this podcast. I discovered Holst in the 1980s, when I was a college intern in the Link Planetarium in Binghamton, New York. At one point, we were developing a new show titled “Mission to Mars,” and my boss Jay Sarton mentioned the Holst composition Mars, Bringer of War. We used it for the scene in the show where humans blast off into space to explore Mars. I’ve been a big fan of The Planets ever since.

Holst composed this music almost a century ago, during the dark days of world war one. Each of its seven parts are named for one of seven planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Holst was an amateur astrologer, and he intended his orchestral suite to convey the astrological influence of the planets. The piece was first performed with a full orchestra in 1919.

Now fast-forward a century to Brooklyn, home base of One Ring Zero. Gustav Holst died in 1934, but if he were alive today, he might find the band’s version of the solar system bewildering. It’s an eclectic and quirky journey from Mercury to Pluto, with influences as diverse as gypsy violin, Pink Floyd and David Bowie, Electric Light Orchestra, and even klezmer.

I decided to kick off the interview by having a little fun with Hearst, demanding that he explain where he got the nerve to take on Holst’s masterwork.

GOGBLOG: Let’s see…Holst’s The Planets, enduringly popular, they say; influential; widely performed  and the subject of numerous recordings. Much beloved by astronomy and space fans the world over. And you, Mr Popular Music Guy, think you have what it takes to meet Gustav Holst. To you I say, sir, how dare you! How do you comment?

HEARST: Well, you’re welcome to say that. In many ways it’s sort of an homage to Holst; it was inspired by him. We’re certainly not trying to compete against what he created, which was fantastic and very much the inspiration for our work. However, with all due respect, it has been just about a hundred years.

GOGBLOG: He started writing it, composing it, in the middle of world war one!

HEARST: Yeah, exactly. The other big difference is his is based on astrology, where ours is much more based on astronomy.

GOGBLOG: Right, he was trying to capture the astrological influence…

HEARST: Yeah, apparently he used to even read his friends’ horoscopes for fun.

GOGBLOG: Right…

HEARST: Nothing wrong with that, but that was his kind of angle.

GOGBLOG: An astrological hobbyist.

HEARST: Whereas Joshua and I are much more geeks, and inspired by all things science.  [A] slightly different angle.


In fact, Hearst says that as a result of this project, he became a bit junkie for NASA TV from the space station and for the stunning imagery of the Cassini mission to Saturn.

One Ring Zero’s video (below) for the song Venus should give you a pretty good idea of what the album is about.

Yes, that is gypsy violin and an accordion you hear in the song. But is the other sound the sound of Holst spinning in his grave?



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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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How to rip a moon apart

December 14, 2010 2 comments

artist concept of ice particles in saturn rings


We know that Saturn’s rings are ice particles orbiting the planet like a zillion tiny moons. But we’re not so sure how they got there. Surprised?

This week, a researcher at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, Robin Canup, published a new and intriguing hypothesis for what built Saturn’s rings as well as its inner moons. In a nutshell, Canup says multiple icy moons spiraled to their doom early in Saturn’s history, leaving behind the ice and rock that formed the rings and Saturn’s small inner moons.

Canup’s idea solves a few key problems for Saturn ring theorists. For more details, see the press release or a story by Discovery News writer Irene Klotz.

It’s hard to imagine a moon perhaps the size of Titan — around 5,150 kilometers (3,200 miles) across — getting torn apart. But it can happen, and the cause of it all is called tidal disruption.

Terry Hurford is a planetary scientist at Goddard who studies tidal disruption as it relates to Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Gravitational tides alternately stretch and compress those bodies, causing cracking at the surface and interior heating.

On Europa, the degree of distortion is about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in extent. It’s not as clear about Enceladus, but Hurtford roughly estimates it could be around 500 meters.

But if a moon strays too close to its planet, the tides can stretch it to the breaking point. The threshold is known as the Roche limit. Once a satellite gets within that distance to its planet, the planet’s gravity is in charge and the moon literally can’t hold itself together.

“The body gets more and more distorted tidally,” Hurford explains. “The gravity from Saturn makes it more like a football shape, where you have this kind of a point of the football pointed toward Saturn. As you get closer, this distortion can grow really large. If you get close enough, you can distort the body so much that it no longer can hold onto its mass.”

And that’s exactly what Canup shows in her new computer simulation. Multiple moons stray inside Saturn’s Roche limit. Tidal flexing — the same thing that today occurs on Europa and Enceladus — melts the moon’s watery ices and separates them from rocky material. Eventually the ice gets stripped off entirely to form the rings and inner moons, and the rocky stuff plummets into Saturn.

Pretty dramatic! And it’s intriguing to think that Saturn might have once had several large moon, not just one. I think they deserve to at least be named, these lost satellites of Saturn.

How about: “Going, “Going,” and “Gone”?


Tidal Disruption of a Moon
[These illustrations appear in the Wikipedia entry for “Roche limit” and were created by Theresa Knott of English Wikipedia. The illustration shows a top view of a planet and its moon.]


illustration of tidal disruptionFar from the planet’s Roche limit (curved white line), the moon’s gravity molds it into a near-perfect sphere.





illustration of tidal disruptionAs the moon approaches the Roche limit, the planet’ s powerful gravity stretches and distorts the smaller satellite.





illustration of tidal disruptionAt the Roche limit, tidal forces overwhelm the moon’s own gravity, tearing the satellite into pieces.





illustration of tidal disruptionParticles inside the Roche limit orbit faster than those outside the limit. This causes the particles to spread out and form rings.
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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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How big did you say that massive plasma snake…er, magnetic filament…on the sun was?

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment

My colleague Frank Reddy at Goddard Space Flight Center has kindly cooked up some quick illustrations to drive home the massive scale of that giant looping filament on the sun that everybody was oooing and ahhhing about in the blogpodcastotwittersphere yesterday, including the ever-blogolicious Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait. There’s a video of the beast out now, too.

To make these images, Frank laid Earth and Jupiter along the filament. In the full-disk illustration, Earth is a mere 15 pixels in diameter! By the way, the Earth image is the famous Apollo 17 photo, much shrunken, and the Jupiter snapshot is from Cassini.


sun_earth_jupiter_whole_600


sun_earth_jupiter_closeup_600


_____________________________________________________________________________________________________ OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA. //
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SDO sees a solar eclipse from space: watch the dark shadow of the moon chug across the surface of our sun

October 18, 2010 2 comments



On October 7, 2010, the moon passed between NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and its target. And SDO saw the equivalent of a partial solar eclipse — from space.  The SDO “Pick of the Week” write-up below provides additional details. Watch the incredible video to see the dark shadow of the moon chug across the surface of our sun.

This was a first for SDO and it was visually engaging too. On October 7, 2010, SDO observed its first lunar transit when the new Moon passed directly between the spacecraft (in its geosynchronous orbit) and the Sun. With SDO watching the Sun in a wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light, the dark Moon created a partial eclipse of the Sun.

These images, while unusual and cool to see, have practical value to the SDO science team. Karel Schrijver of Lockheed-Martin’s Solar and Astrophysics Lab explains: “The very sharp edge of the lunar limb allows us to measure the in-orbit characteristics of the telescope e.g., light diffraction on optics and filter support grids. Once these are characterized, we can use that information to correct our data for instrumental effects and sharpen up the images to even more detail.”

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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