101 geysers erupt from Enceladus’ salty deeps

At least 20 geysers blast icy particles and water vapor from cracks in the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Scientists recently confirmed the geyser material derives from a salty ocean beneath the moon’s surface. Credit: NASA/JPL

Future astronauts better watch where their step when exploring the south polar terrain of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. A geyser could pop up anywhere.

This graphic shows a 3-D model of 98 geysers whose source locations and tilts were found in a Cassini imaging survey of Enceladus’ south polar terrain by the method of triangulation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have identified 101 distinct geysers erupting on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. Cassini has studied and photographed the moon’s intriguing ‘tiger stripe’ fractures for over 7 years and discovered that each of them coincides with a particular hot spot within a fracture.

Three competing hypotheses were put forward to explain how geysers might happen on an ice-covered moon nearly a billion miles from the warmth of the sun.

#1 – Tidal flexing: As Enceladus revolves around Saturn, the planet’s enormous gravity flexes the little moon, heating up its interior and melting ice into water which escapes as vapor through openings in the icy crust.
#2 – Frictional heating: Back-and-forth rubbing of opposing walls of the fractures generate frictional heat that turns ice into geyser-forming vapor and liquid. Same principle as rubbing your hands together to create heat.
#3 – Jaws of ice: The opening and closing of the fractures caused by Saturn’s gravitational might exposes water from below when then quickly vaporizes in the moon’s vacuum.

This artist’s rendering shows a cross-section of the ice shell immediately beneath one of Enceladus’ geyser-active fractures, illustrating how water works its way to the moon’s surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

But a detailed study by Cassini in 2010 appears finally to have netted the correct explanation. The probe’s heat-sensing instruments matched the geysers’ locations with small-scale hot spots only a few dozen feet across - too small to be produced by frictional heating, but the right size to be the result of condensation of vapor on the near-surface walls of the fractures.

“Once we had these results in hand, we knew right away heat was not causing the geysers, but vice versa,” said Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini imaging team and lead author of the first scientific paper on the discovery. “It also told us the geysers are not a near-surface phenomenon, but have much deeper roots.”

Researchers concluded the only logical source of the material forming the geysers is the sea now known to exist beneath the ice shell. They also found that narrow pathways through the ice shell can remain open from the sea all the way to the surface, if filled with liquid water. This implies, at least in my mind, that liquid water might exist as pools in hot spots encircled by thick rims of ice (condensed water vapor) on the moon’s chill -330° F (-201° C) surface.

Imagine standing nearby watching fountains of vapor turn to ice crystals before your eyes and sparkling like diamond dust against the black starry sky.

Source: JPL

Moon nestles in Hyades then departs for Venus

The crescent moon slips in front of the Hyades star cluster only a degree from Aldebaran tomorrow morning. Don’t miss the other bright star cluster, the Pleiades, just above. Look low in the northeastern sky about an hour before sunrise to catch the scene. Stellarium

That old devil moon’s up to its old tricks again. Tomorrow morning, early risers will see it tucked inside the V-shaped face of Taurus the Bull. Better known as the Hyades star cluster, look for the crescent to pass just 1° north of the bright star Aldebaran. A pair of binoculars will enhance the view by pulling in more stars and revealing details in the spooky, earth-lit moon. Sunlight illuminates the lunar crescent, but the remainder is light reflecting off Earth out to the moon and back again.

The crescent is lit by the sun while the remainder glows dimly from twice-reflected light called earthshine. Credit: Bob King

To the eye, ‘earthlight’ looks smoky gray and nearly featureless though binoculars will show the lunar seas and larger craters. The quality of the light mimics a lunar eclipse but instead of red we see the pale blue glow of sunlight reflecting back from our planet’s oceans.

At 153 light years, the Hyades is the nearest star cluster to our solar system, one of the reasons you can see it without a telescope. Aldebaran appears to be a full-fledged cluster member, but it’s a ruse. The bright, ruddy star lies much closer to us along the same line of sight.

Venus and a very thin crescent moon on July 24 about 45 minutes before sunrise low in the northeast. Stellarium

The Hyades were born in a dense cloud of interstellar dust and gas 625 million years ago around the time underwater life flourished in the late Precambrian era. When you gaze at the cluster tomorrow, the light that touches your retinas left the Hyades the same time Abraham Lincoln took office.

The moon moves on toward Venus after vacationing in the Hyades, passing south of the planet on Thursday morning. It will be extremely thin that morning and should make a pretty sight for anyone looking low in the northeastern sky 45 minutes before sunrise.

Can a boot print on the moon last a million years?

Buzz Aldrin first photographed a pristine patch of the lunar soil (left) before stepping onto it with his boot (right). The fine-grained consistency of the soil crisply records details in the tread. It’s estimated the impression will last 1 to 2 million years. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

One of my favorite pictures taken during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon 45 years ago was Buzz Aldrin’s famous boot print in the lunar soil. While it looks like he might have been doing it just for fun, pressing his boot into the fine, powdery soil had a purpose.

Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were asked to carefully observe and assess the properties of the regolith. Notice things like how deep their boots sank in the gritty stuff as well as how it affected their ability to walk about on the surface. Close up photos were taken, including 3D stereo images. Mission control didn’t leave a pebble unturned. It was all part of the mission’s Soil Mechanics Investigation.

After taking the first boot print photo, Aldrin moved closer to the little rock and took this second shot. The dusty, sandy pebbly soil is also known as the lunar ‘regolith’. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The soil on the Moon is very fine-grained, with more than half of all grains being dust particles less than 0.1 millimeters across. It not only adhered to their boots in fine layers but provided good traction. Typically the astronauts boots sunk down only one-half to one inch (1.5-2.5 cm) into the lunar regolith.

In this view taken with a camera mounted on the Lunar Module (LEM), Buzz Aldrin takes the picture of his boot next to the rock seen in the earlier photo. The first boot print is just behind his foot. Credit: NASA

Even though the moon is airless, windless and essentially waterless, erosion happens. Bombardment by protons from the solar wind and micrometeorites (bits of interplanetary dust shed by comets and spalled from asteroids) never stops.

Earth’s atmosphere slows micrometeorites, allowing them to drift down gently to the surface. No so on the airless moon, where space grit grinds away mercilessly on the lunar rocks. Before the unmanned Surveyors landed, some astronomers thought that moon dust might be so deep it would swallow a spacecraft. Before Neil Armstrong made his historic ‘first step’, he first tested the ground to make sure it was firm.

More than 3.5 billion years of bombardment by micrometeorites have rounded the outlines of the lunar Apennine Mountains. The lunar module Apollo 15 ‘Falcon’ in the foreground. Click to visit NASA’s Apollo 11 image archive.  Credit: NASA

Their surfaces are riddled with countless ‘zap pits’ from micrometeorites that strike the surface at thousands of miles an hour. Slowly, inexorably the mountains are ground into more rounded forms. It’s estimated that micrometeorites churn the lunar soil once every 10 million years. Aldrin’s boot prints and for that matter, all the impressions in the dust left by the astronauts and their equipment, will remain in place for 1 to 2 million years. Incredibly long by human standards.

Extreme temperature differences between daytime highs and nighttime lows also must play a part in breaking apart rocks and furthering erosion. At the lunar equator, mean surface temperatures reach almost 260 ºF at noon and then drop to -279 ºF during the night. The moon also gets whacked by larger meteorites that send up plumes of dust that fill in crevices and soften sharp edges.

Sunday marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, when our toes touched a world other than Earth. While astronauts left countless impressions in the lunar dust, Aldrin’s single boot print has come to symbolize humanity’s first steps from the cradle of Earth into that big thing we call the universe. I hope we can return soon.

Supermoon fun / Mars-Spica conjunction tonight / Venus visits Mercury at dawn

Passing clouds create a colorful corona around last night’s full moon. Credit: Bob King

The moon coaxed many of us out for a look last night. We had clear if hazy skies in my town which made for a striking display of lunar crepuscular rays. Lunar what? If you’ve ever seen sunbeams poking through clouds in the afternoon or evening, you’re looking at crepuscular rays. Crepuscular comes from the Latin word for ‘twilight’ as the beams are often noticed during early evening hours around sunset.

A delicate display of crepuscular rays radiates across the sky above a cloud-shrouded moon. Credit: Bob King

Bright rays shining through gaps in the clouds alternate with shadows cast by other clouds to form a spreading fan of light and dark columns. The dustier or smokier the air, the more vivid the crepuscular display. Notice how they appear to converge on the moon. This is an optical illusion. The rays are perfectly parallel just like endless rows of beans on a farm that appear to merge together in the distance.

Last night’s supermoon shines back from a mobile phone. I took the picture by holding the phone’s camera lens directly over the eyepiece. Credit: Bob King

Many of us like to take pictures of the moon through a telescope using nothing more than a mobile phone. If you’ve tried this, you know how tricky it is to hold the phone camera in the right spot over the telescope eyepiece. It takes a few tries, but the results can be remarkable. Phones do well on bright celestial object like the planets, moon and sun (with a safe filter). Despite what some ads might tout, phones can’t yet record fainter things like galaxies, nebulae and the like.

Orion Telescopes makes an adaptor to hold a phone securely over the telescope. While it gets mixed reviews, you might want to consider it if you don’t want to invest in a separate camera but would still like to create an album of your own astrophotos.

Mars (top) and Spica last night July 12. The difference in color between the rusty planet and blue-white star was very easy to see. Mars will remain near the star the next few nights but change its position like the hour hand on a clock. Credit: Bob King

I know we’ve all been moonstruck the past few nights, but did you happen to notice how close Mars and Virgo’s brightest star Spica have become? Last night they were separated by only 1.5 degrees; tonight they’ll be in conjunction a squinch closer at 1.3 degrees. Watch for the duo in the southwestern sky near the end of evening twilight.

Mars moves eastward and soon departs Spica en route to its next notable appointment, a conjunction with Saturn on August 25. Have you been up at 5 a.m. lately? Me neither. But my crystal ball a.k.a. Stellarium program tells me that Venus and Mercury are playing tag an hour before sunrise in the eastern sky.

Venus and Mercury shine together low in the northeastern sky during morning twilight the next couple weeks. This map shows the view tomorrow morning 45 minutes before sunrise. Venus will be about 10 degrees (one ‘fist’) high, Mercury half as much. Source: Stellarium

Mercury reached greatest elongation (distance) west of the sun yesterday and now appears about five degrees high in the northeast some 45 minutes before sunrise. Look for it about the same distance below brilliant Venus. This is a good apparition of Mercury, and having Venus nearby makes it easy to spot.

The swiftest-moving planet will hang near the goddess planet for the next two weeks, all the while growing in brightness as its phase fills out from crescent to full.

Supermoon feast begins – it’s three in a row, baby!

Overnight tonight we’ll see the first of three supermoons in July, August and September. Credit: Gary Hershorn / Reuters

If the moon’s orbit were circular there’d be no such thing as ‘supermoons’, the occasional, extra-large full moons we see about once every 13 months. But circular orbits are exceedingly rare. Most celestial bodies dance about each other in ellipses. At one end of the ellipse, the two bodies are closest; at the other end, farthest.

The moon revolves around Earth in an elliptical orbit, passing through perigee (closest point to Earth) and apogee about once each month. When perigee occurs at full moon, we see a supermoon. Credit: Bob King

When the full moon coincides with its time of closest approach to Earth – called perigee – its disk can be up to 14% bigger and 30% brighter than typical full moons. In 2014 we get three consecutive perigee or supermoons in a row. The first occurs tomorrow morning July 12 at 3:28 a.m. CDT about 3 hours before the moment of full moon. Not a perfect match but close.

The next supermoons happen on August 10 (1 p.m. CDT) and September 8 (10:30 p.m.)

“Generally speaking, full moons occur near perigee every 13 months and 18 days, so it’s not all that unusual,” said Geoff Chester of the US Naval Observatory. “In fact, just last year there were three perigee Moons in a row, but only one was widely reported.”

The size difference between an apogee (foreground) and perigee or supermoon. Would that we could see them simultaneously to truly appreciate their different sizes. Credit: Tom Ruen

Supermoons get a lot of press because the word ‘super’ attached to anything these days naturally attracts attention.

While the phenomenon is very real, it’s also really hard to see because there are no rulers you can hold up to the sky to compare the size of one full moon to another. They ALL look big especially when the full moon’s near the horizon. That’s when the infamous ‘moon illusion’ kicks in and psychologically inflates the lunar disk up another notch.

Still, there’s every reason to go out and enjoy a full moon, super or not. The striking beauty of a moonrise, the curious mix of light and dark areas representing ancient crust (light) and titanic impact craters (dark) and the soft, yet stark illumination of the landscape where mystery abounds in every shadow. I could go on and on.

Viva Las Vegas! Strange sights from my airplane window

A puffy cumulus cloud stands up from the rest on my return trip from Las Vegas over the weekend. Credit: Bob King

Are you like me and try to get a window seat on your cross country flights?  I always bring a book but never read it because of the constant but pleasant distraction of staring into space 35,000 feet above the surface of the planet.

I just returned from a trip to Las Vegas. A combination of pure chance and a friendly ticket agent landed me window seats on both flights. Since it’s summer, the sky featured plenty of towering cumulus clouds, but as we approached the City of Sin, a dark presence grew across the eastern horizon. What resembled an approaching storm was actually the shadow of Earth creeping upward into the sky.

The Earth’s shadow cast on the atmosphere looks like a dark blue-purple band along the horizon. Above it glows the pale orange ‘Belt of Venus’ created by sunset light reflecting off the atmosphere. Anti-crepuscular rays (shadows cast by clouds in the direction of the sun) are also seen. Credit: Bob King

We see this all the time from the ground, but it’s not nearly as ominous when viewed from the extremely clear, dry air at high altitude. The color and darkness of the shadowy hump has not been altered in the photo – that’s exactly what it looked like. Its fuzzy appearance is caused by the atmosphere itself, which softens out the shadow’s edge. This same shadow – cast across a much greater distance – cuts across the moon during a lunar eclipse and looks similarly woolly.

You can see Earth’s shadow from the ground anytime it’s clear around sunset or sunrise. Watch for a gray-purple band to appear in the eastern sky opposite the sun at sunset (or in the west at sunrise) for up to 30 minutes before fading away in the darkening sky. Because the shadow spans nearly 180 degrees with its highest point directly opposite the sun, you’ll get a visceral sense for how huge our planet is.

View of Las Vegas, Nevada moments before touchdown. The city spans 136 square miles (352 sq. km). It’s located in a wide, flat valley between mountains. Credit: Bob King

Maybe the craziest sight of all was seeing a gigantic city in the middle of the desert. As the plane descended, red, green and blue fireworks shot up like evanescent flowers everywhere across town.

While we’re all familiar with the Hollywood stars that frequent the city’s many casinos, I was thrilled to discover some actual stars – or at least their names – on city street signs.

Star-inspired signage in Las Vegas. Aldebaran is the brightest star in the constellation Taurus the Bull; Polaris is also known as the North Star. Credit: Bob King

Sure, there’s Mel Torme Way and Frank Sinatra Drive, but the astronomically-inclined will smile wide when they turn down Aldebaran and Polaris Avenues. My daughter Katherine, who I’d come to visit, graciously parked the car so I could get a few pictures.

You couldn’t miss Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah from the air. This striking 3.4 mile (5.5 km) wide impact crater was created 60 million years ago when a large meteoroid struck the Earth. Credit: Bob King

On the return trip, I’d hoped we pass near enough Meteor Crater in Arizona but our trajectory lay well to the north. As I followed the looping Green River from canyon to canyon an entirely different and unexpected crater crept into view from beneath the plane’s right wing – Upheaval Dome!

Younger sandstones form the outer rings of this belly button-shaped structure with older rocks heaped into a central peak on the crater’s floor. Originally thought to be a salt dome, shocked quarts and impactites found at the Dome in recent times clinch its extraterrestrial origin.

The waxing gibbous moon on July 7, 2014 above sunlit clouds. I didn’t tone the photo, allowing you to see that the clouds are considerably brighter than the moon. Credit: Bob King

Last but not least, the ever present gibbous moon shown hard and white against the super-blue sky. White, that is, until you compared it with the sunlit clouds below. They glowed far brighter, a sign that they reflect more light than the moon. Cumulus clouds have an albedo, a measure of the light reflected back by an object, of around 90%. The moon? Only 12%.

Of course I didn’t travel to the West just to stare out a window, but it was a wonderful way to pass the time while captive aboard a plane. Lots of educational rubbernecking without having to keep your hands on the steering wheel.

 

Rocky moon meets the ringed planet tonight

Look to the waxing gibbous moon tonight July 7 and you’ll see the planet Saturn about 1 degree above it. This map shows the sky around 10 o’clock local time. Stellarium

Forgive this ultra-brief appearance, but I’ve been exploring a virtually unknown astronomical paradise the past few days – Las Vegas! Although it seems incongruous, given Vegas’ image, the Las Vegas Astronomical Society has a very active presence here.

A recent photo posted by the Cassini spacecraft photo group shows Saturn’s magnificent rings, polar vortex and the jet stream-created polar hexagon. The hexagon, which is wider than 2 Earths, forms a six-lobed, stationary wave that wraps around the north polar regions at a latitude of roughly 77 degrees North. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The group planned a public outing for the Mars-moon conjunction on July 5 but were clouded out. Maybe tonight their members will get a clear sky for the Saturn-moon conjunction. I’ll be in a plane at 35,000 feet for the event crossing my fingers I get a window seat on the ‘right’ side.

Celestial fireworks light up the sky on the Fifth of July

The crescent moon shines in the southwestern sky tonight July 2 not far from Leo’s brightest star Regulus. It’s headed for two fine conjunctions later this week. Stellarium

We celebrate Independence Day this Friday the 4th with parades and good food topped off with colorful fireworks. Consider that the opening act. Festivities continue into the weekend with two spectacular conjunctions of the moon and planets.

Saturday evening July 5 allow your gaze to wander up to the first quarter moon. Levitating above it will be a bright red light – the planet Mars! They’ll be close. From most of the central and eastern U.S. and Canada the two are separated by just a half degree or one moon diameter. Look a short distance to the left of moon and you’ll also spot Virgo’s brightest star Spica.

The first quarter moon pays a close visit to Mars on Saturday July 5 and then passes Saturn two nights later. The views show the scene from the central U.S. around the start of nightfall. Stellarium

If you live farther south, the moon will inch closer to Mars. From sizzling Miami, the duo’s only a 1/3 of a moon apart, while the moon will completely cover or occult Mars for up to an hour across a wide swath of South America. Click HERE for a map and times showing where and when the occultation will occur.

Though Mars isn’t quite as bright as it was at opposition in April, it’s still brighter than its color rival Betelgeuse in Orion. With haze-free skies and a pair of binoculars you might be able to see it atop the moon a short time before sunset. Certainly worth a try.

Everybody loves an encore after a great performance, and the moon’s happy to oblige. Two nights later on July 7 it glides about a degree (two diameters) directly below Saturn. Once again, the moon will occult the planet as seen from the southern half of South America. While these sky events aren’t exactly stars exploding before our very eyes, their quiet beauty is worth our admiration.

Farewell Jupiter, hello moon!

The 2-day-old lunar crescent will shine low in the west-northwest tonight June 29, 2014. This view shows the moon about 30 minutes after sunset. Not far away – hidden by the tree – Jupiter makes its last stand. See below. Source: Stellarium

Tonight’s returning crescent moon will help us bid adieu to a planet that brought us through winter and spring to the doorstep of summer.

Jupiter’s put on a great show in Gemini this year. We’ve watched the nightly ballet of its four bright moons, pondered the shrinking of the Great Red Spot (how small it will get nobody knows) and witnessed the planet in many fine conjunctions with the crescent, quarter, gibbous and full moons.

That’s a lot of visual delight, but being one of the brightest planets, Jupiter rarely fails to please. Tonight you might see it for the last time this season using the moon as your guide. Face west-northwest about a half-hour after sunset. With binoculars, sweep the sky about 12 degrees to the right and below the crescent moon. Can you see it with your naked eye?

With a clear view to the west-northwest tonight, the moon will help you find Jupiter one last time. The map shows the sky 30 minutes after sunset from the central U.S. Jupiter lies about 12 degrees – a little more than a horizontally-held fist at arm’s length – to the right and below the moon. Use binoculars first and then see if you can spot it without optical aid. Source: Stellarium

No planet escapes the glare of the sun. The apparent movement of the sun across the sky caused by Earth’s revolution around it means that sooner or later our driven star catches up with the slower-orbiting planets that lie beyond the Earth. Indeed, the sun’s been gaining ground on Jupiter ever since January 5. On that date, the planet was at opposition, rising at sunset and remaining visible until the next morning’s sunrise. The very next day the sun gained 4 minutes on it and hasn’t stopped since.

Jupiter’s now (almost) hopelessly lost in bright evening twilight. It will still roast in the BBQ glow of the sunset until July 24 when it passes just a fraction of a degree north of the sun in conjunction. For several days before and after that date we’ll get to see it in SOHO’s coronagraph, an instrument that blocks out the sun to reveal the solar corona, background stars and occasional comet and planet crossings.

Wow! On Aug. 18, days after Jupiter returns to view in the morning sky, it will pass only 0.2 degrees (1/3 the diameter of the full moon) from Venus in the constellation Cancer. Source: Stellarium

As the sun passes and leaves Jupiter behind, the planet re-emerges in the east in morning twilight in early August. And what a grand entry it will be! On August 18 Jupiter passes just 0.2 degrees from Venus in one of the year’s most spectacular conjunctions.

If you recall, Jupiter spent most of this year in the constellation Gemini beneath the bright ‘twin stars’ Castor and Pollux. On its return in August you’ll be struck by how far the planet has moved east along the zodiac. Ceaselessly orbiting the sun, Jupiter will have abandoned Gemini for the faint constellation Cancer the Crab. And so it goes, round and round and round.

Crescent moon visits a ‘wintering’ Venus / Mercury-moon conjunction for y’all

The slender crescent moon brushes Venus Tuesday morning at dawn low in the northeastern sky. The Pleiades star cluster, better known as the Seven Sisters, floats just above the pair. This map shows the sky facing northeast around 4 a.m. June 24. Stellarium

Wonder where the moon’s been hiding lately? Unless you’re up around 3 a.m. it’s been scarce this past week. All that time our favorite cratered world has been slimming down in the morning sky.

Now it’s a waning crescent fingernail, what many consider the moon’s most eye-catching phase.

Tuesday morning June 24 at dawn the thin crescent will join Venus in the constellation Taurus just below the pretty Pleiades star cluster. About 1 1/2 degrees or three moon diameters will separate Venus and the moon. To see this beautiful conjunction, look low in the northeastern sky at the start of dawn.

For the best view of the Seven Sisters, I recommend binoculars. Whenever I’ve had a reason to be up before sunrise in early summer I make a point of looking at the cluster. Taurus, neighboring Auriga and the Pleiades all belong to the winter sky, but we get a preview of that inevitable season as early as the first mornings of summer. There’s something delicious about seeing the first stars of winter as the robins sing in the dewy woods.

An extremely thin moon will pass very close to Mercury on Thursday morning June 26 as seen from the southern U.S. This view shows the sky facing northeast right around sunrise for New Orleans, LA. The moon will only be about 5 degrees high at the time. Use binoculars to find it. Seeing Mercury will require a small telescope. Stellarium

Live in the far southern U.S.? You’ve got one more lunar visitation. This one will be challenging. On Thursday morning, the moon, just 21 hours before new, will glide a fraction of a degree south of the planet Mercury in a bright sky only minutes before sunrise. The moon will hover very low (5 degrees) in the northeast in a bright sky. Whatever you do, bring binoculars. You might need them to find the moon at all.

Like the moon, Mercury’s an extremely thin crescent and very faint, shining at just magnitude 3.5. Skywatchers might spot it in binoculars, but I’m not betting on it. With very clear skies, there’s a chance of seeing the planet directly above the northern cusp of the moon with a small telescope. Should you succeed, you’ll be rewarded with the rare sight of two delicate crescents one atop the other. Find a location with a wide open view to the northeast and start looking about 15 minutes before sunrise.

The moon will cover up or occult the planet for observers in northern South America, but again, this will happen in a bright sky and prove tricky to see.

Just a reminder. Although no auroras showed last night at mid-latitudes, there’s still a chance for a minor storm tonight. I’ll send out a notice if that happens.