Saturn is probably the single most iconic image in all of astronomy–so iconic that it was, literally, the official Discover magazine icon for a number of years. Yet, amazingly, scientists continue to find new ways to look at the ringed planet, uncovering details never before seen by human eyes. If you follow space images, you probably saw the stunning polar view of Saturn, taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft from a height of 935,000 miles. And that picture tells only a small part of the story.
Two things that got largely overlooked in last week’s gasping news coverage. First, the image was taken by Cassini and transmitted back to Earth while the federal government was officially shut down–a poetic reminder of what humans can achieve when they are working together effectively. Second, that even while NASA employees were on furlough, other space enthusiasts were still hard at work making good use of the data NASA was already collecting.
Among those enthusiasts is Gordan Ugarkovic, a self-described “guy who does programming for a living…but in free time I like to fool around with image processing.” Modesty be damned, what he really does is quite magical. He digs through Cassini images released to the Planetary Data System and creates his own color versions of images that NASA has released only in grayscale (what you and I would call “black & white”). The image I’m showing here is another one of his–a different view than the one that stunned the world last week. I highly recommend visiting Ugarkovic’s Photostream for more fabulous space views.
But wait–there’s more. NASA has just released another landmark image of Saturn, also taken by Cassini. The impact of this one is not quite as immediate. In its own way, though, it offers just as much head-spinning beauty (click below for a better look). Here we get a double dose of novel perspective. We are seeing Saturn as it appears from behind, on the other side away from Earth, looking back at the sun. And we are looking at the planet and its rings not in light but in infrared rays.
Adjust your perspective–imagine you are watching Saturn eclipse the sun, watching through a slit-shaped window in your spacecraft–and you begin to appreciate what you are seeing. The colors are not real; instead they represent the wavelength of the infrared rays, with blue representing the shortest (“hottest”) and red denoting the longest (“coolest”) emission. Because you are viewing Saturn from behind, all of the usual logic is turned on its head.
The middle rings, which appear bright from Earth, are dark here, because they are thick with particles that block the sun’s light. The outer rings, which normally appear faint, stand out bright here because they contain fine particles that scatter light like cigarette smoke. (NASA, being more health-conscious, likens the effect to the scatting of headlights off fog on a dark night.) The inner rings are somewhat bright as well, because they contain fairly transparent particles that let sunlight shine through. In the extended version of the image, you can even see the extremely fine ice particles blasted out of geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Then–whoa, Saturn itself is red! That’s because you are looking at heat emitted by the planet. You can see cloud patterns and weather systems in silhouette, visible in the places where they block the heat escaping from Saturn’s atmosphere. This image contains a staggering amount of information. It show the effects of seasons and weather systems on Saturn, it shows the structure of the rings, it shows the size of the particles in the rings, it even shows what the whole ring system is made of.
Spectacular all around. And knowing how things work, more Saturn beauty is on the way.
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Four months ago, NASA issued what the agency—in all its acronym-loving glory—called an “RFI for the Asteroid Grand Challenge.” Translated into English, that means the agency was opening its doors to outside ideas about how to locate, study, and deflect potential Earth-threatening asteroids. (RFI stands for “request for information.”) More than 400 organizations and individuals responded.
On September 4, NASA announced that it had identified 96 submissions that merited further study. Because of the insane government shutdown there has been little progress in that direction, but that hasn’t prevented the general public from continuing to think through the challenge. Over the past few weeks, DISCOVER readers have sent in a number of provocative ideas, written in response to my September and October Out There columns about asteroid hazards.
The readers’ solutions may not be practical, exactly, but even the most outlandish ideas contain hints of practical ways to control our destiny. There’s also an intriguing theme running through these suggestions: turning the threat around and using asteroids to our advantage, an astronomical version of natural pest control. Read More
I don’t mean any disrespect when I say that the Higgs Boson is yesterday’s news. In some ways, that is the very definition of what qualifies something for a Nobel Prize: a discovery that has already established its lasting importance and shown the way toward deeper insights. The foundational papers by Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, his Nobel-co winner, were published in 1964–nearly a half century ago. (Several other researchers also contributed to the work around this time, but are not recognized as part of this year’s Nobel prize.)
By the time researchers found strong evidence of the Higgs boson in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, almost all physicists expected that it would be there; the shock would have been not finding it. The Higgs boson was the last missing piece of the standard model of particle physics, a model so well accepted that it is formally known–seriously–as the Standard Model. As with groundbreaking discoveries in general, the most interesting thing now is where it will lead next. So I conferred with one of the most thoughtful and articulate particle physicists I know, Joseph Lykken of Fermilab. Read More
3/4/14 update: Gravity got a lot of love at this year’s Oscars, including a best-director award for Alfonso Cuarón and well-earned nods also for cinematography and film editing. Looking back at the movie now, I have two big thoughts. First–no, it cannot happen for real. The space-debris disaster scenario and the orbit-hopping from shuttle to station to station are not physically possible. And second–that artificiality is far less important than the deeper realism of Gravity, which does an exquisite job capturing the beauty and danger of humans tiptoeing off our planet and into the infinite void.
Astronaut Mike Massimino, whom I associate with the George Clooney character in Gravity (see below), clearly agrees. After the Oscars he posted a video congratulating the cast and crew, and explaining exactly why he thinks the movie is advancing the cause of space exploration. By coincidence, President Obama released NASA’s 2015 budget request a day later. The real-world support for Massimino’s vision of exploration is decidedly mixed. The agency gets funding to keep the International Space Station alive until 2024 and to start work on the exciting WFIRST space telescope, but overall NASA takes a slight pay cut from 2014.
Congress will undoubtedly make some changes. If you would like to have a say in the process, I urge you to contact your Senators and Representative.
I’ve had black holes on the brain lately.* There’s been a flurry of related research announced lately, even the discovery of black hole-like vortexes in the Atlantic Ocean, and astronomers are keenly watching as a gas cloud is ripped apart by the monster black hole at the center of our galaxy. All of which has prompted me to think about the odd simplicity of how black holes work.
In fact, you might say that black holes are the simplest objects in the universe. Think of all the attributes you would have to list in order to describe the Earth. There are oceans, continents, clouds, volcanoes, animals, plants, people…really, all of science except for astronomy and its cousin disciplines is dedicated to describing our planet and the varied things that exist on it or in it. Black holes, in contrast, have only three defining attributes: mass, spin, and electric charge. List those three and you can paint a complete portrait of a black hole. Read More
A general rule of skygazing is that the farther you look, the less things change. Clouds? Different from one minute to the next. Moon? Phases shifting every night. Planets? You can easily see them move over the course of a week. But stars? Nah, they’re usually the same your whole lifetime. Usually.
Right now is one of the exceptions to that rule. Five days ago, amateur astronomer Koichi Itagaki of Yamagata, Japan was the first to report that a previously obscure star in the constellation Delphinus had suddenly skyrocketed in brightness, by a factor of 50,000, give or take. He recognized it as a nova explosion, now officially designated Nova Delphini 2013. If you act fast and have clear, dark skies you can see it for yourself. Nature has even kindly placed it in a convenient location, high in the east at sunset, with an arrow of stars (the small constellation Saggita–literally, “the arrow”) pointing right at it.
And if you have the bad luck to live near city lights, beside tall buildings, or just under cloudy skies, have no fear: The Internet will let you watch Nova Delphinus, either live or archived, as it slowly fades away back to its former, anonymous self. Read More
A conversation with NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver is always livelier than her title would suggest. Her enthusiasm for all things space is immediately evident, and she always seems on the verge of speaking more candidly than her position supposedly allows. She’s not entirely immune to the carefully crafted talking points typically served up by high-level government officials, but the punctuations in her speech—“wow” when excited, “frankly” when frustrated—strip away the veneer.
Lately, Garver has been using plenty of both words as she drums up support for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, a proposal to send a robotic spacecraft to a small near-Earth asteroid (perhaps about 15-20 feet wide), tow it back to a location near the moon, and send astronauts to study it. The concept has sparked a lot of public excitement, but also a fair bit of skepticism on Capital Hill, where the House Science Committee voted to block funding for the program. Read More
What’s up with that crazy giant hole on the sun? That’s the question I was addressing during my short appearance on Fox News last week. Or rather, it’s the question I was trying to address. My explanation contained a few poor word choices, which resulted in a confusing and misleading description of solar activity. That is the danger of live television: once a conversation goes off track, it’s hard to get back in real time, with only 100 seconds to go.
These days nothing on TV really vanishes, of course. My clip is preserved online, where anyone can react and critique it—and boy did I get some critiques. The good news is that the story of the hole on the sun is a fascinating one, and the queries and criticisms it inspired point the way to a much deeper understanding both of how the sun works and how it affects us here on Earth. I gave a lemon of an interview. Time to make some lemonade. Read More
This question came up as part of a new Q&A column running monthly in DISCOVER magazine. I love responding to reader queries; answering them in a meaningful way almost always leads to some interesting new ideas. (Got a burning science question of your own? Send it to Ask@DiscoverMagazine.com and we’ll try to answer it here or in a future issue of the magazine.)
On to the answer part. You might think that dark matter would be a significant factor when NASA plots the kind of trajectories that sent Cassini to Saturn, or the New Horizons spacecraft on its way to a 2015 rendezvous with Pluto. After all, dark matter seems to greatly outweigh the visible kind. But as with so many things in astronomy, human intuition turns out to be a poor guide. In reality, the effect of dark matter on a spacecraft within the solar system is basically zero — much smaller than the subtle effects of sunlight and solar wind, not to mention outgassing from equipment and heat radiated from the spacecraft itself. Read More
Earlier this week, the visionaries who operate NASA’s Cassini spacecraft released a remarkable snapshot of Earth as seen from Saturn. It got a ton of media attention, and rightly so. It is a stunning celestial view that no human being can see first-hand, but that billions of people around the world can now experience vicariously. It starkly illustrates how small we are within the universe, while simultaneously celebrating the grand things our little species is capable of. I went on cable news to talk about it, and DISCOVER blogger Tom Yulsman wrote a poignant post about it.
But that new Cassini image is far from the only perspective-busting picture that has come in from humanity’s space fleet. In fact, there is a whole portfolio, many of them rarely seen. Collectively they offer what I call an alien’s-eye view of Earth: They show what our planet might look like to extraterrestrial scientist scoping out our planet from afar. Here I’ve pulled together a few of my favorites. [To follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell] Read More