Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mars, methane and mysteries

Mars may not be as dormant as scientists once thought. The 2004 discovery of methane means that either there is life on Mars, or that volcanic activity continues to generate heat below the martian surface. ESA plans to find out which it is. Either outcome is big news for a planet once thought to be biologically and geologically inactive.

The methane mystery started soon after December 2003, when ESA’s Mars Express arrived in orbit around the red planet. As the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) began taking data, Vittorio Formisano, Istituto di Fisica dello Spazio Interplanetario CNR, Rome, and the rest of the instrument team saw a puzzling signal. As well as the atmospheric gases they were anticipating, such as carbon monoxide and water vapour, they also saw methane.

“Methane was a surprise, we were not expecting that,” says Agustin Chicarro, ESA Mars Lead Scientist. The reason is that on Earth much of the methane in our atmosphere is released by evolved life forms, such as cattle digesting food. While there are ways to produce methane without life, such as by volcanic activity, it is the possible biological route that has focused attention on the discovery.

The Mars Express detection of methane is not an isolated case. While the spacecraft was en route, two independent teams of astronomers using ground-based telescopes started to see traces of methane. After five years of intensive study, the suite of observations all confirmed the discovery and presented planetary scientists with a big puzzle.

Methane is thought to be stable in the martian atmosphere for around 300 years. So, whatever is generating the methane up there, it is a recent occurrence. In January 2009, a team led by Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center published results that the methane they saw in 2003 was concentrated in three regions of the planet. This showed that the methane was being released at the present time and was being observed before it had time to distribute itself around the planet.

Things then took a strange turn. Instead of taking 300 years to disappear, the methane had almost entirely vanished by early 2006. Clearly something unusual is going on at Mars. “We thought we understood how methane behaved on Mars but if the measurements are correct then we must be missing something big,” says Franck Lefèvre, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, CNRS, Paris and a member of Mars Express’s SPICAM instrument team.

Together with his colleague François Forget, Mars Express Interdisciplinary Scientist in charge of atmospheric studies and also of Université Pierre et Marie Curie, CNRS, Paris, Lefèvre has investigated the disappearance using a computer model of Mars’ climate. “We have tackled the problem as atmospheric physicists, without worrying about the nature of the source of the methane,” he says.

In results published last week they found that, while their computer model can reproduce atmospheric species such as carbon monoxide and ozone, it is unable to reproduce the behaviour of the methane. “Something is removing the methane from the atmosphere 600 times faster than the models can account for,” says Lefèvre. “Consequently, the source must be 600 times more intense than originally assumed, which is considerable even by Earth’s geological standards.”

To remove methane at such a rate, suspicion falls on the surface of the planet. Either the methane is being trapped in the dust there or highly reactive chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide are destroying it, as was hinted by the Viking missions in the 1970s. If the latter, then the surface is much more hostile to organic molecules (those containing carbon) than previously thought. This will make searching for traces of past or present life much tougher and future rovers will have to drill below the martian surface to look for signs of life.

To help get to the bottom of the methane mystery, ESA and the Italian space agency (ASI) are to hold a three-day international workshop in November. The assembled scientists will discuss the results and plan strategies for the future study of methane. At the workshop, the Mars Express PFS team hopes to present a global map of martian methane. “We have made the PFS mapping a priority over the last few months,” says Olivier Witasse, ESA Project Scientist for Mars Express.

In July, ESA agreed with NASA to launch joint missions to Mars. The topic of methane is of such importance that it will be most likely addressed in these future missions. “Understanding the methane on Mars is one of our top priorities,” says Witasse.

However the methane is eventually explained, it makes Mars a more fascinating place than even planetary scientists dreamed.

Source: ESA

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Astronomer Found Planetary Nebula Around Heavy Stars

Lead image caption: An optical image from the 0.6-m University of Michigan/CTIO Curtis Schmidt telescope of the brightest Radio Planetary Nebula in the Small Magellanic Cloud, JD 04. The inset box shows a portion of this image overlaid with radio contours from the Australia Telescope Compact Array. The planetary nebula is a glowing record of the final death throes of the star. (Optical images are courtesy of the Magellanic Cloud Emission Line Survey (MCELS) team).

Planetary nebula – the glowing gaseous shells thrown off by stars during the latter stages of their evolution – were thought to only form around stars the size of our Sun or smaller. Although astronomers had predicted these shells should form around "heavier" stars, none had ever been detected. Until now. An international team of scientists have discovered a new class of object which they call “Super Planetary Nebulae,” found around stars up to 8 times the mass of the Sun.

“This came as a shock to us,” said Miroslav Filipovic from the University of Western Sydney “as no one expected to detect these object at radio wavelengths and with the present generation of radio telescopes. We have been holding up our findings for some 3 years until we were 100% sure that they are indeed Planetary Nebulae”.

The team surveyed the Magellanic Clouds, the two companion galaxies to the Milky Way, with radio telescopes of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Australia Telescope National Facility. They noticed that 15 radio objects in the Clouds match with well known planetary nebulae observed by optical telescopes.

The new class of objects are unusually strong radio sources and are associated with larger original stars (progenitors), up to 8 times the mass of the Sun. The nebular material around each star may have as much as 2.6 times the mass of the Sun.

Filipovic's team argues that the detections of these new objects may help to solve the so called “missing mass problem” – the absence of planetary nebulae around central stars that were originally 1 to 8 times the mass of the Sun. Up to now most known planetary nebulae have central stars and surrounding nebulae with respectively only about 0.6 and 0.3 times the mass of the Sun but none have been detected around more massive stars.

Some of the 15 newly discovered planetary nebulae in the Magellanic Clouds are 3 times more luminous than any of their Milky Way cousins. But to see them in greater detail astronomers will need the power of a coming radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array planned for the deserts of Western Australia.

Source: Universetoday

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 3-D

Pernahkan Anda mendengar tentang Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image? Jika belum, silakan simak sedikit penjelasan dari wikipedia.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, or HUDF, is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, composited from Hubble Space Telescope data accumulated over a period from September 24, 2003 through January 16, 2004. It is the deepest image of the universe ever taken, looking back approximately 13 billion years, and it will be used to search for galaxies that existed between 400 and 800 million years after the Big Bang.The HUDF image was taken in a section of the sky with a low density of bright stars in the near-field, allowing much better viewing of dimmer, more distant objects. The image contains an estimated 10,000 galaxies.

Located southwest of Orion in the Southern-Hemisphere constellation Fornax, the image covers 11.0 square arcminutes. This is just one-tenth the diameter of the full moon as viewed from Earth, smaller than a 1 mm by 1 mm square of paper held 1 meter away, and equal to roughly one thirteen-millionth of the total area of the sky. The image is oriented such that the upper left corner points toward north (-46.4°) on the celestial sphere.

The HUDF is the deepest image of the universe ever taken and it will be used to search for galaxies that existed between 400 and 800 million years after the Big Bang (redshifts between 7 and 12). The star near the center of the field is USNO-A2.0 0600-01400432 with apparent magnitude of 18.95.

The field imaged by the ACS contains over 10,000 objects, the majority of which are galaxies, many at redshifts greater than 3, and some that probably have redshifts between 6 and 7. The NICMOS measurements may have discovered galaxies at redshifts up to 12.

Scientific results
  1. High rates of star formation during the very early stages of galaxy formation, under a billion years after the Big Bang.
  2. Improved characterization of the distribution of galaxies, their numbers, sizes and luminosities at different epochs, allowing investigation into the evolution of galaxies.
  3. Confirmation that galaxies at high redshifts are smaller and less symmetrical than ones at lower redshifts, showing the rapid evolution of galaxies in the first couple of billion years after the Big Bang.
(untuk informasi lebih lengkap tentang HUDF, silakan lihat di artikel ini dan untuk peta dari HUDF, silakan klik link ini.)

Berikut juga ditampilkan sebuah video untuk visualisasi HUDF.

Semoga bermanfaat.