Archive for September, 2008

Solar Cycle Reaches All Time Low

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008 by Evan Finnes

The solar cycle was first discovered in 1843 by Samuel Heinrich Schwabe, who noticed a periodic change from year to year in the number of sunspots. This cycle has been determined to last an average of 11 years, but it has been recorded as low as 9 years and as high as 14 years. This cycle is responsible for several space-weather phenomena such as shaping the structure of the Sun’s atmosphere, corona, and wind. The number of solar flares, mass ejections, and high energy particles are modulated by the solar cycles.

The sun is currently experiencing the lowest solar minimum observed in the last 50 years. This is also the longest lasting solar minimum ever observed, already six months longer than last cycle. A solar minimum impacts the entire solar system, and directly effects life on Earth. During a solar minimum less UV radiation reaches the Earth. This results in reduced ozone layer, because ozone is produced when UV radiation spits the O2 molecules in the stratosphere. A smaller ozone layer means that more UV light will reach the Earth’s surface potentially causing sunburns and skin cancer.

Changes in the solar cycle could also affect the Earth’s climate. During a solar minimum less energy reaches the Earth, on an average year the Earth receives about 1366.7 W/m2 during a solar maximum, and 1365.6 W/m2 during the solar minimum. Some scientists argue that this difference may be too small to significantly affect the Earth’s climate. (Although it is interesting that in 2008 we experienced the largest world-wide temperature drop ever recorded in a 12 month period, not to mention Minneapolis celebrated its coldest Easter in 33 years, which is a factor of 11.) In 1991 E. Friis-Chritensen published a study which demonstrated a direct correlation between solar cycles and Land air temperature in the Northern hemisphere.

Another side effect of solar minimums is a reduced heliosphere. The heliosphere is a large magnetic bubble generated by the sun which protects the solar system from harmful cosmic rays. The Voyager spacecrafts inadvertently provided proof of the shrinking helioshpere when Voyager 2 reached the termination shock after traveling 10 AUs less than Voyager 1 had to travel in order to reach the same boundary. Because of fluctuations in solar activity Voyager 1 actually crossed the terminal shock 5 times!

By studying the Sun and its cycles, scientists are gaining a better understanding of stellar phenomena, and how it affects us here on Earth. Such knowledge will aid in the development of better climate models, and in evaluated and eliminating some of the radiation risks which would hinder future colonies on the Moon or Mars.

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Little Stars with Jets

Monday, September 29th, 2008 by Bellatrix

There are many objects in the universe that have jets of material exploding from them. A few examples are neutron stars, black holes, quasars, and protostars. Well now we can add brown dwarfs to that list. One wonders what causes these jets and if brown dwarfs can have them what’s next?

A brown dwarf is like a failed star. It’s cool and small, with a mass range of between 10 to 90 Jupiter masses. These objects are not massive enough to start nuclear burning like normal stars. They can be hard to observe since they are so small and don’t give off nearly as much light as a normal star. There is some debate about how to distinguish a brown dwarf from a giant planet like Jupiter. There are some differences; they all have about the same radii so if the mass is higher than about 10 Jupiter masses, they have a higher density and are usually not considered a planet. Also with brown dwarfs water is always found in a gaseous state where in giant planets it condenses to ice; also planets usually have ammonia in their atmospheres while brown dwarfs do not.

Now the brown dwarf called 2MASS1207-3932 has a mass of about 24 Jupiter masses with a companion planet of about 5 Jupiter masses. This brown dwarf also has a disk around it like that seen in young stars. This is the smallest object ever observed to have a jet. The jet is moving at a speed of a few kilometers per second and stretches about 1 billion kilometers; it is also much smaller and less bright than jets seen in regular stars. Astronomers had observed jets from one other brown dwarf, so with this new discovery a pattern is emerging. Its discovery suggests that these brown dwarfs form in a similar manner to normal stars but also that outflows are driven out by objects as massive as hundreds of millions of solar masses down to Jupiter-sized objects.

Astronomers were not able to observe the jets directly. Astronomers had to use the powerful Very Large Telescope (VLT) , and only an instrument called UVES could provide the sensitivity and resolution required to “see” the jet. The results highlight the incredible level of quality of instruments available today. With ever more powerful and sensitive instruments we are observing more of these faint objects and are able to learn much more about brown dwarfs, their properties, and how they develop.

This discovery tells us more about the development of brown dwarfs, but also raises some new questions. Does this mean that giant planets also have jets that we haven’t detected yet? If not, why not? What is the cut off threshold between the two? Also, what role exactly do these jets play in the life of the brown dwarf? If not all brown dwarfs have jets, what are the resulting differences between ones that do and ones that don’t? Hopefully, as we are able to observe more of these objects with our better instruments we will learn the answers to these questions.

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Wednesday, September 24th, 2008 by Evan Finnes

Saturn’s rings were first discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610, but he was unable to identify them as rings, instead he called then “ears”. In 1655 Christiaan Huygens became the first person to identify Saturn’s “ears” as Rings. Since the discovery of the rings in 1610, there have been many theories which have attempted to describe the formation of the rings.

The most popular theory is that Saturn’s rings are only 100 million years old. These young rings would have formed by a commit that was ripped apart by Saturn’s tidal forces, or by a moon which was destroyed by a large asteroid impact. The strong evidence for this theory is that the rings are much too bright to be very old, because as time passes the rings should accumulate dust which would slowly darken the rings.

Recent simulations, based on data gathered by the Cassini mission, show that the rings might be much larger and much older than previously thought, perhaps as old as four billion years. These simulations show that the particles in the rings form clumps and are not evenly distributed particles. This could mean that there is an ongoing warfare between formation and destruction within the rings. The particles slowly clump together and a blasted apart by micro-meteors. The researchers believe that the reason for the relative brightness of the rings could be that the dust is incorporated into the centers of the clumps after reformation.

The rings consist of eleven major sub-rings. For the most part the rings have been given lettered names in the order of their discovery. The D ring is the closest to Saturn and is very faint. Voyager 1 discovered that the D ring consists of three ringlets: D73, D72, and D68. Recently Cassini has discovered that D73 has moved 200 km towards Saturn since its discovery. The C ring is about 5 meters thick and it has a mass of about 1.1×1018 kg. If viewed from above or below the ring appears transparent because 5 to 12 percent of the light perpendicular to the ring is blocked. The B ring is the thickest ring, about 5 to 15 meters. Voyager discovered “spokes” inside the B ring; these spokes were not observed again until Cassini observed them in 2007. These spokes may be seasonal phenomena, as they disappear in midsummer then reappearing around equinox, and disappearing again around midwinter. The A Ring is 10 to 30 meters thick and has a mass of about 6.2 x 1018 kg. In 2006 4 small tiny moons were discovered inside the A ring. There is now estimated to be over 1000 such moonlets inside the A ring. The F was discovered in 1979 by Pioneer 11. The ring is the most active of the rings, and is the very thin outermost ring. The ring is held together by two moons, Prometheus and Pandora. Occasionally during Prometheus’s orbit, it approaches the ring causing kinks and knots. It also steals material from the ring leaving behind a dark channel.

Besides their formation, there is still much to learn about the rings. For instance, what causes the seasonal spokes which occur inside the B ring? Why is some of the material accreted into tiny moonlets, while the rest remains as independent particles or clumps? Why has the ringlet D73 moved in towards Saturn? Whatever the answers may be, anyone who looks at Saturn through a telescope knows one thing for sure–Saturn is one of the most amazing and beautiful objects in our solar system.

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Little Black Hole; Where’s the Limit?

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 by Bellatrix

Two NASA scientists have found the smallest, or lightest weight, black hole ever yet discovered. The black hole is in the binary system, XTE J1650-500, which is in the constellation Ara in the southern hemisphere. The mass of the black hole is only 3.8 solar masses. This beats the previous record holder of 6.3 solar masses. The black hole was discovered earlier as part of the binary with a normal star and was known to be lightweight but its exact weight was not known until recently with the use of a new method.

This new method uses a relationship between the black hole and the inner part of the surrounding in falling gas and material. Hot gas piles up around the black hole as it falls in and heats up giving off x-rays. The x-ray’s intensity varies in a regular pattern, called the quasi-periodic oscillation, or QPC. Astronomers discovered the congestion zone is closer to smaller black holes and therefore makes the QPC change more quickly. To measure the black hole masses, astronomers used archival data from RXTE, which has made exquisitely precise measurements of QPO frequencies in at least 15 black holes. Using this method they measured the mass of XTE J1650-500 as 3.8 solar masses with a margin of error of only half a sun.

This value is well below those measured for other standard black holes. Now there is a threshold value below which a dying star will become a neutron star instead of a black hole. It is thought to be between 1.7 to 3 solar masses. However, with this new discovery and method of detection this boundary could be in question. This value is very important for fundamental astrophysics. This is because it’s hard to know exactly what happens when a star goes supernova, when a very large amount of mass is condensed to a very small size with high density. The more details we learn about this process in particular, the more we learn about physics in general. So while the study of super massive black holes may sound more exciting, studying the smallest of black holes may be more fundamental for our understanding of physics and matter.

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