Archive for February, 2011

Can WISE Find the Hypothetical ‘Tyche’?

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Source – JPL/NASA: Earth-Size Planet Candidates Found in Habitable Zone


In November 2010, the scientific journal Icarus published a paper by astrophysicists John Matese and Daniel Whitmire, who proposed the existence of a binary companion to our sun, larger than Jupiter, in the long-hypothesized “Oort cloud” — a faraway repository of small icy bodies at the edge of our solar system. The researchers use the name “Tyche” for the hypothetical planet. Their paper argues that evidence for the planet would have been recorded by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

WISE is a NASA mission, launched in December 2009, which scanned the entire celestial sky at four infrared wavelengths about 1.5 times. It captured more than 2.7 million images of objects in space, ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids and comets relatively close to Earth. Recently, WISE completed an extended mission, allowing it to finish a complete scan of the asteroid belt, and two complete scans of the more distant universe, in two infrared bands. So far, the mission’s discoveries of previously unknown objects include an ultra-cold star or brown dwarf, 20 comets, 134 near-Earth objects (NEOs), and more than 33,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Following its successful survey, WISE was put into hibernation in February 2011. Analysis of WISE data continues. A preliminary public release of the first 14 weeks of data is planned for April 2011, and the final release of the full survey is planned for March 2012.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: When could data from WISE confirm or rule out the existence of the hypothesized planet Tyche?

A: It is too early to know whether WISE data confirms or rules out a large object in the Oort cloud. Analysis over the next couple of years will be needed to determine if WISE has actually detected such a world or not. The first 14 weeks of data, being released in April 2011, are unlikely to be sufficient. The full survey, scheduled for release in March 2012, should provide greater insight. Once the WISE data are fully processed, released and analyzed, the Tyche hypothesis that Matese and Whitmire propose will be tested.

Q: Is it a certainty that WISE would have observed such a planet if it exists?

A: It is likely but not a foregone conclusion that WISE could confirm whether or not Tyche exists. Since WISE surveyed the whole sky once, then covered the entire sky again in two of its infrared bands six months later, WISE would see a change in the apparent position of a large planet body in the Oort cloud over the six-month period. The two bands used in the second sky coverage were designed to identify very small, cold stars (or brown dwarfs) — which are much like planets larger than Jupiter, as Tyche is hypothesized to be.

Q: If Tyche does exist, why would it have taken so long to find another planet in our solar system?

A: Tyche would be too cold and faint for a visible light telescope to identify. Sensitive infrared telescopes could pick up the glow from such an object, if they looked in the right direction. WISE is a sensitive infrared telescope that looks in all directions.

Q: Why is the hypothesized object dubbed “Tyche,” and why choose a Greek name when the names of other planets derive from Roman mythology?

A: In the 1980s, a different companion to the sun was hypothesized. That object, named for the Greek goddess “Nemesis,” was proposed to explain periodic mass extinctions on the Earth. Nemesis would have followed a highly elliptical orbit, perturbing comets in the Oort Cloud roughly every 26 million years and sending a shower of comets toward the inner solar system. Some of these comets would have slammed into Earth, causing catastrophic results to life. Recent scientific analysis no longer supports the idea that extinctions on Earth happen at regular, repeating intervals. Thus, the Nemesis hypothesis is no longer needed. However, it is still possible that the sun could have a distant, unseen companion in a more circular orbit with a period of a few million years — one that would not cause devastating effects to terrestrial life. To distinguish this object from the malevolent “Nemesis,” astronomers chose the name of Nemesis’s benevolent sister in Greek mythology, “Tyche.”

JPL manages and operates the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA’s Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. More information is online at, and .

Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


NASA Hosting Events for Valentine’s Night Comet Encounter

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

News release: 2011-044B Feb. 08, 2011

NASA Hosting Events for Valentine’s Night Comet Encounter

The full version of this story with accompanying images is at:
PASADENA, Calif. — NASA will host several live activities for the Stardust-NExT mission’s close encounter with comet Tempel 1. The closest approach is expected at approximately 8:37 p.m. PST (11:37 p.m. EST) on Feb. 14, with confirmation received on Earth at about 8:56 p.m. PST (11:56 p.m. EST).

Live coverage of the Tempel 1 encounter will begin at 8:30 p.m. PST on Feb. 14 on NASA Television and the agency’s website. The coverage will include live commentary from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and video from Lockheed Martin Space System’s mission support area in Denver.

Live coverage of a news briefing is planned for 10 a.m. PST on Feb. 15. Scheduled participants are:
— Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate, Washington
— Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
— Tim Larson, Stardust-NExT project manager, JPL
— Don Brownlee, Stardust-NExT co-investigator, University of Washington, Seattle

Mission coverage schedule (all times PST and subject to change):

— 8:30 to 10 p.m., Feb. 14: Live NASA TV commentary begins from mission control; includes coverage of closest approach and the re-establishment of contact with the spacecraft following the encounter.

— Midnight to 1:30 a.m., Feb. 15: NASA TV commentary will chronicle the arrival and processing of the first five of 72 close-approach images the team expects to be downlinked after the encounter. The images are expected to include a close-up view of the comet’s surface.

— 10 a.m., Feb. 15: News briefing

— Starting on Feb. 9, NASA TV will air Stardust-NExT mission animation and other video during its Video File segments. For NASA TV streaming video, scheduling and downlink information, visit: .

— Commentary and the news conference will also be carried live on one of JPL’s Ustream channels. During events, viewers can engage in a real-time chat and submit questions to the Stardust-NExT team at: .

The public can watch a real-time animation of the Stardust-NExT comet flyby using NASA’s new “Eyes on the Solar System” Web tool. JPL created this 3-D environment, which allows people to explore the solar system from their computers. It is available at: .

This flyby of Tempel 1 will give scientists an opportunity to look for changes on the comet’s surface since it was visited by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft in July 2005. Since then, Tempel 1 has completed one orbit of the sun, and scientists are looking forward to monitoring any differences in the comet.

During its 12 years in space, Stardust became the first spacecraft to collect samples of a comet (Wild 2 in 2004), which were delivered to Earth in 2006 for study. The Stardust-NExT mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

A press kit and other detailed information about Stardust-NExT is available at: .

DC Agle 818-393-9011
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
Headquarters, Washington

Blaine Friedlander 607-254-6235
Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

NASA What’s Up for February 2011?

Monday, February 7th, 2011

What’s Up for February 2011?.

Earth-Size Planet Candidates Found in Habitable Zone

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

Source – JPL/NASA: Earth-Size Planet Candidates Found in Habitable Zone
February 02, 2011

PASADENA, Calif. — 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.

Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets. Kepler also found six confirmed planets orbiting a sun-like star, Kepler-11. This is the largest group of transiting planets orbiting a single star yet discovered outside our solar system.

“In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today’s reality,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “These discoveries underscore the importance of NASA’s science missions, which consistently increase understanding of our place in the cosmos.”

The discoveries are part of several hundred new planet candidates identified in new Kepler mission science data, released on Tuesday, Feb. 1. The findings increase the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to-date to 1,235. Of these, 68 are approximately Earth-size; 288 are super-Earth-size; 662 are Neptune-size; 165 are the size of Jupiter and 19 are larger than Jupiter. Of the 54 new planet candidates found in the habitable zone, five are near Earth-sized. The remaining 49 habitable zone candidates range from super-Earth size — up to twice the size of Earth — to larger than Jupiter.

The findings are based on the results of observations conducted May 12 to Sept. 17, 2009, of more than 156,000 stars in Kepler’s field of view, which covers approximately one four-hundredth of the sky.

“The fact that we’ve found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests there are countless planets orbiting sun-like stars in our galaxy,” said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the mission’s science principal investigator. “We went from zero to 68 Earth-sized planet candidates and zero to 54 candidates in the habitable zone, some of which could have moons with liquid water.”

Among the stars with planetary candidates, 170 show evidence of multiple planetary candidates. Kepler-11, located approximately 2,000 light years from Earth, is the most tightly packed planetary system yet discovered. All six of its confirmed planets have orbits smaller than Venus, and five of the six have orbits smaller than Mercury’s. The only other star with more than one confirmed transiting planet is Kepler-9, which has three. The Kepler-11 findings will be published in the Feb. 3 issue of the journal Nature.

“Kepler-11 is a remarkable system whose architecture and dynamics provide clues about its formation,” said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist and Kepler science team member at Ames. “These six planets are mixtures of rock and gases, possibly including water. The rocky material accounts for most of the planets’ mass, while the gas takes up most of their volume. By measuring the sizes and masses of the five inner planets, we determined they are among the lowest-mass confirmed planets beyond our solar system.”

All of the planets orbiting Kepler-11 are larger than Earth, with the largest ones being comparable in size to Uranus and Neptune. The innermost planet, Kepler-11b, is 10 times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun. Moving outward, the other planets are Kepler-11c, Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e, Kepler-11f, and the outermost planet, Kepler-11g, which is half as far from its star as Earth is from the sun.

The planets Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e and Kepler-11f have a significant amount of light gas, which indicates that they formed within a few million years of the system’s formation.

“The historic milestones Kepler makes with each new discovery will determine the course of every exoplanet mission to follow,” said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Kepler, a space telescope, looks for planet signatures by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars caused by planets crossing in front of them. This is known as a transit. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take three years to locate and verify Earth-size planets orbiting sun-like stars.

The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planetary candidates and other objects of interest the spacecraft finds. The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be validated as planets.

Ames manages Kepler’s ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA’s 10th Discovery Mission and is funded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information about the Kepler mission, visit: .
More information about NASA’s planet-hunting efforts is online at: .

Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Trent Perrotto 202-358-0321
Headquarters, Washington


Surprise Hidden in Titan’s Smog: Cirrus-Like Clouds

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

Source – JPL/NASA: Surprise Hidden in Titan’s Smog: Cirrus-Like Clouds

Every day is a bad-air day on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Blanketed by haze far worse than any smog belched out in Los Angeles, Beijing or even Sherlock Holmes’ London, the moon looks like a dirty orange ball. Described once as crude oil without the sulfur, the haze is made of tiny droplets of hydrocarbons with other, more noxious chemicals mixed in. Gunk.

Icky as it may sound, Titan is really the rarest of gems: the only moon in our solar system with an atmosphere worthy of a planet. This atmosphere comes complete with lightning, drizzle and occasionally a big, summer-downpour style of cloud made of methane or ethane-hydrocarbons that are best known for their role in natural gas.

Now, thin, wispy clouds of ice particles, similar to Earth’s cirrus clouds, are being reported by Carrie Anderson and Robert Samuelson at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The findings, published this week in the journal Icarus, were made using the composite infrared spectrometer on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Unlike Titan’s brownish haze, the ice clouds have the pearly white appearance of freshly fallen snow. Their existence is the latest clue to the workings of Titan’s intriguing atmosphere and its one-way “cycle” that delivers hydrocarbons and other organic compounds to the ground as precipitation. Those compounds don’t evaporate to replenish the atmosphere, but somehow the supply has not run out yet.

“This is the first time we have been able to get details about these clouds,” says Samuelson, an emeritus scientist at Goddard and the co-author of the paper. “Previously, we had a lot of information about the gases in Titan’s atmosphere but not much about the [high-altitude] clouds.”

Compared to the puffy methane and ethane clouds found before in a lower part of the atmosphere by both ground-based observers and in images taken by Cassini’s imaging science subsystem and visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, these clouds are much thinner and located higher in the atmosphere. “They are very tenuous and very easy to miss,” says Anderson, the paper’s lead author. “The only earlier hints that they existed were faint glimpses that NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft caught as it flew by Titan in 1980.”

The full story is online at: .

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The CIRS team is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where the instrument was built.

Written by Elizabeth Zubritsky/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Media contact: Jia-Rui Cook/Priscilla Vega
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-0850/354-1357 /

Proposed Mission to Jupiter System Achieves Milestone

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

Source – JPL/NASA:

With input from scientists around the world, American and European scientists working on the potential next new mission to the Jupiter system have articulated their joint vision for the Europa Jupiter System Mission. The mission is a proposed partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency. The scientists on the joint NASA-ESA definition team agreed that the overarching science theme for the Europa Jupiter System Mission will be “the emergence of habitable worlds around gas giants.”

The proposed Europa Jupiter System Mission would provide orbiters around two of Jupiter’s moons: a NASA orbiter around Europa called the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, and an ESA orbiter around Ganymede called the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter.

“We’ve reached hands across the Atlantic to define a mission to Jupiter’s water worlds,” said Bob Pappalardo, the pre-project scientist for the proposed Jupiter Europa Orbiter, who is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “The Europa Jupiter System Mission will create a leap in scientific knowledge about the moons of Jupiter and their potential to harbor life.”

The new reports integrate goals that were being separately developed by NASA and ESA working groups into one unified strategy.

The ESA report is being presented to the European public and science community this week, and the NASA report was published online in December. The NASA report is available at .

The proposed mission singles out the icy moons Europa and Ganymede as special worlds that can lead to a broader understanding of the Jovian system and of the possibility of life in our solar system and beyond. They are natural laboratories for analyzing the nature, evolution and potential habitability of icy worlds, because they are believed to present two different kinds of sub-surface oceans.

The Jupiter Europa Orbiter would characterize the relatively thin ice shell above Europa’s ocean, the extent of that ocean, the materials composing its internal layers, and the way surface features such as ridges and “freckles” formed. It will also identify candidate sites for potential future landers. Instruments that might be on board could include a laser altimeter, an ice-penetrating radar, spectrometers that can obtain data in visible, infrared and ultraviolet radiation, and cameras with narrow- and wide-angle capabilities. The actual instruments to fly would be selected through a NASA competitive call for proposals.

Ganymede is thought to have a thicker ice shell, with its interior ocean sandwiched between ice above and below. ESA’s Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter would investigate this different kind of internal structure. The Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter would also study the intrinsic magnetic field that makes Ganymede unique among all the solar system’s known moons. This orbiter, whose instruments would also be chosen through a competitive process, could include a laser altimeter, spectrometers and cameras, plus additional fields-and-particles instruments

The two orbiters would also study other large Jovian moons, Io and Callisto, with an eye towards exploring the Jupiter system as an archetype for other gas giant planets.

NASA and ESA officials gave the Europa Jupiter System Mission proposal priority status for continued study in 2009, agreeing that it was the most technically feasible of the outer solar system flagship missions under consideration.

Over the next few months, NASA officials will be analyzing the joint strategy and awaiting the outcome of the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies. That survey will serve as a roadmap for new NASA planetary missions for the decade beginning 2013.

For more information about the Europa Jupiter System Mission, go to .

JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.