Space Science

Two Bizarre Brown Dwarfs Found With Citizen Scientists’ Help

Posted on Updated on


This artist’s concept shows a brown dwarf, a ball of gas not massive enough to power itself the way stars do. Despite their name, brown dwarfs would appear magenta or orange-red to the human eye if seen close up. Credit: CC byWilliam Pendrill 

With the help of citizen scientists, astronomers have discovered two highly unusual brown dwarfs, balls of gas that are not massive enough to power themselves the way stars do. 

 Participants in the NASA-funded Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project helped lead scientists to these bizarre objects, using data from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite along with all-sky observations collected between 2009 and 2011 under its previous moniker, WISE. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is an example of “citizen science,” a collaboration between professional scientists and members of the public. 

Scientists call the newly discovered objects “the first extreme T-type subdwarfs.” They weigh about 75 times the mass of Jupiter and clock in at roughly 10 billion years old. These two objects are the most planetlike brown dwarfs yet seen among the Milky Way’s oldest population of stars. 


Read the rest of this entry »

The Coolest Experiment in the Universe

Posted on Updated on

Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) physicist David Aveline works in the CAL test bed Shown here is theInternational Space Station Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) Cold Atom Laboratory Astronaut Ricky Arnold assists with the installation of NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory The International Space Station, shown here in 2018, is home to many scientific experiments, including NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory. Credit: NASA


The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) consists of two standardized containers that will be installed on the International Space Station. The larger container holds CAL’s physics package, or the compartment where CAL will produce clouds of ultracold atoms. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What’s the coldest place you can think of? Temperatures on a winter day in Antarctica dip as low as -120ºF (-85ºC). On the dark side of the Moon, they hit -280ºF (-173ºC). But inside NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station, scientists are creating something even colder.

The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is the first facility in orbit to produce clouds of “ultracold” atoms, which can reach a fraction of a degree above absolute zero: -459ºF (-273ºC), the absolute coldest temperature that matter can reach. Nothing in nature is known to hit the temperatures achieved in laboratories like CAL, which means the orbiting facility is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe.

 NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe. But why are scientists producing clouds of atoms a fraction of a degree above absolute zero? And why do they need to do it in space? Quantum physics, of course.

USeven months after its May 21, 2018, launch to the space station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, CAL is producing ultracold atoms daily. Five teams of scientists will carry out experiments on CAL during its first year, and three experiments are already underway. 


Read the rest of this entry »

NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space

Posted on Updated on

Dwayne Brown / Karen Fox
NASA Headquarters, Washington

Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

This illustration shows the position of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech


For the second time in history, a human-made object has reached the space between the stars. NASA’s Voyager 2 probe now has exited the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.

Members of NASA’s Voyager team will discuss the findings at a news conference at 11 a.m. EST (8 a.m. PST) today at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington. The news conference will stream live on the agency’s website.

Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5. This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium. Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space.

Read the rest of this entry »

Ancient Stardust Sheds Light on the First Stars

Posted on Updated on

This research was presented in a paper entitled “Dust in the Reionization Era: ALMA Observations of a z =8.38 Gravitationally-Lensed Galaxy”
by Laporte et al., to appear in 
The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

This artist’s impression shows what the very distant young galaxy A2744_YD4 might look like. Observations using ALMA have shown that this galaxy, seen when the Universe was just 4% of its current age, is rich in dust. Such dust was produced by an earlier generation of stars and these observations provide insights into the birth and explosive deaths of the very first stars in the Universe. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Astronomers have used ALMA to detect a huge mass of glowing stardust in a galaxy seen when the Universe was only four percent of its present age. This galaxy was observed shortly after its formation and is the most distant galaxy in which dust has been detected. This observation is also the most distant detection of oxygen in the Universe. These new results provide brand-new insights into the birth and explosive deaths of the very first stars.

An international team of astronomers, led by Nicolas Laporte of University College London, have used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe A2744_YD4, the youngest and most remote galaxy ever seen by ALMA. They were surprised to find that this youthful galaxy contained an abundance of interstellar dust — dust formed by the deaths of an earlier generation of stars.

Follow-up observations using the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope confirmed the enormous distance to A2744_YD4. The galaxy appears to us as it was when the Universe was only 600 million years old, during the period when the first stars and galaxies were forming [1].


Read the rest of this entry »

Hubble Finds Big Brother of Halley’s Comet – Ripped Apart By White Dwarf

Posted on Updated on

February 9, 2017
European Space Agency News Release 

Siyi Xu
European Southern Observatory
Garching bei München, Germany

Mathias Jäger
ESA/Hubble, Public Information Officer
Garching, Germany

This artist’s impression shows a massive, comet-like object falling towards a white dwarf. New observations with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope show evidence for a belt of comet-like bodies orbiting the white dwarf, similar to the Kuiper Belt in our own Solar System. The findings also suggest the presence of one or more unseen surviving planets around the white dwarf which may have perturbed the belt sufficiently to hurl icy objects into the burned-out star. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI)


The international team of astronomers observed the white dwarf WD 1425+540, about 170 light-years from Earth in the constellation Boötes (the Herdsman) [1]. While studying the white dwarf’s atmosphere using both the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory the team found evidence that an object rather like a massive comet was falling onto the star, getting tidally disrupted while doing so.

The team determined that the object had a chemical composition similar to the famous Halley’s Comet in our own Solar System, but it was 100,000 times more massive and had twice the proportion of water as its local counterpart. Spectral analysis showed that the destroyed object was rich in the elements essential for life, including carbon, oxygen, sulphur and even nitrogen [2].

Read the rest of this entry »

Spitzer Telescope Maps Super Earth’s Climate

Posted on Updated on

The varying brightness of an exoplanet called 55 Cancri e is shown in this plot of infrared data captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Cambridge


Observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have led to the first temperature map of a super-Earth planet — a rocky planet nearly two times as big as ours. The map reveals extreme temperature swings from one side of the planet to the other, and hints that a possible reason for this is the presence of lava flows. 

 This animated illustration shows one possible scenario for the rocky exoplanet 55 Cancri e, nearly two times the size of Earth. New Spitzer data show that one side of the planet is much hotter than the other – which could be explained by a possible presence of lava pools.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Our view of this planet keeps evolving,” said Brice Olivier Demory of the University of Cambridge, England, lead author of a new report appearing in the March 30 issue of the journal Nature. “The latest findings tell us the planet has hot nights and significantly hotter days. This indicates the planet inefficiently transports heat around the planet. We propose this could be explained by an atmosphere that would exist only on the day side of the planet, or by lava flows at the planet surface.” 

The toasty super-Earth 55 Cancri e is relatively close to Earth at 40 light-years away. It orbits very close to its star, whipping around it every 18 hours. Because of the planet’s proximity to the star, it is tidally locked by gravity just as our moon is to Earth. That means one side of 55 Cancri, referred to as the day side, is always cooking under the intense heat of its star, while the night side remains in the dark and is much cooler. 

“Spitzer observed the phases of 55 Cancri e, similar to the phases of the moon as seen from the Earth. We were able to observe the first, last quarters, new and full phases of this small exoplanet,” said Demory. “In return, these observations helped us build a map of the planet. This map informs us which regions are hot on the planet.”

Spitzer stared at the planet with its infrared vision for a total of 80 hours, watching it orbit all the way around its star multiple times. These data allowed scientists to map temperature changes across the entire planet. To their surprise, they found a dramatic temperature difference of 2,340 degrees Fahrenheit (1,300 Kelvin) from one side of the planet to the other. The hottest side is nearly 4,400 degrees Fahrenheit (2,700 Kelvin), and the coolest is 2,060 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 Kelvin). 

The fact Spitzer found the night side to be significantly colder than the day side means heat is not being distributed around the planet very well. The data argues against the notion that a thick atmosphere and winds are moving heat around the planet as previously thought. Instead, the findings suggest a planet devoid of a massive atmosphere, and possibly hint at a lava world where the lava would become hardened on the night side and unable to transport heat.

“The day side could possibly have rivers of lava and big pools of extremely hot magma, but we think the night side would have solidified lava flows like those found in Hawaii,” said Michael Gillon, University of Liège, Belgium. 

The Spitzer data also revealed the hottest spot on the planet has shifted over a bit from where it was expected to be: directly under the blazing star. This shift either indicates some degree of heat recirculation confined to the day side, or points to surface features with extremely high temperatures, such as lava flows. 

Additional observations, including from NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, will help to confirm the true nature of 55 Cancrie. 

The new Spitzer observations of 55 Cancri are more detailed thanks to the telescope’s increased sensitivity to exoplanets. Over the past several years, scientists and engineers have figured out new ways to enhance Spitzer’s ability to measure changes in the brightness of exoplanet systems. One method involves precisely characterizing Spitzer’s detectors, specifically measuring “the sweet spot” — a single pixel on the detector — which was determined to be optimal for exoplanet studies. 

“By understanding the characteristics of the instrument — and using novel calibration techniques of a small region of a single pixel — we are attempting to eke out every bit of science possible from a detector that was not designed for this type of high-precision observation,” said Jessica Krick of NASA’s Spitzer Space Science Center, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

 For more information about Spitzer, visit:

Particles in Love: Quantum Mechanics Explored in New Study

Posted on Updated on

Technology used to study the “love” between particles is also being used in research to improve communications between space and Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Fast Facts: 

  • Entangled particles influence each other instantaneously even when they are physically far apart.
  • In the 1960s, theoretical physicist John Bell proposed that a model of reality with hidden variables must allow for this entanglement.
  • Three papers published in 2015 support Bell’s hypothesis.

Here’s a love story at the smallest scales imaginable: particles of light. It is possible to have particles that are so intimately linked that a change to one affects the other, even when they are separated at a distance.

This idea, called “entanglement,” is part of the branch of physics called quantum mechanics, a description of the way the world works at the level of atoms and particles that are even smaller. Quantum mechanics says that at these very tiny scales, some properties of particles are based entirely on probability. In other words, nothing is certain until it happens.


Testing Bell’s Theorem

Albert Einstein did not entirely believe that the laws of quantum mechanics described reality. He and others postulated that there must be some hidden variables at work, which would allow quantum systems to be predictable. In 1964, however, John Bell published the idea that any model of physical reality with such hidden variables also must allow for the instantaneous influence of one particle on another. While Einstein proved that information cannot travel faster than the speed of light, particles can still affect each other when they are far apart according to Bell.


Scientists consider Bell’s theorem an important foundation for modern physics. While many experiments have taken place to try to prove his theorem, no one was able to run a full, proper test of the experiment Bell would have needed until recently. In 2015, three separate studies were published on this topic, all consistent with the predictions of quantum mechanics and entanglement.

“What’s exciting is that in some sense, we’re doing experimental philosophy,” said Krister Shalm, physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Boulder, Colorado. Shalm is lead author on one of the 2015 studies testing Bell’s theorem. “Humans have always had certain expectations of how the world works, and when quantum mechanics came along, it seemed to behave differently.”

How ‘Alice and Bob’ Test Quantum Mechanics

The paper by Shalm, Marsili and colleagues was published in the journal Physical Review Letters, with the mind-bending title “Strong Loophole-Free Test of Local Realism.”

“Our paper and the other two published last year show that Bell was right: any model of the world that contains hidden variables must also allow for entangled particles to influence one another at a distance,” said Francesco Marsili of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who collaborated with Shalm.

An analogy helps to understand the experiment, which was conducted at a NIST laboratory in Boulder:

Imagine that A and B are entangled photons. A is sent to Alice and B is sent to Bob, who are located 607 feet (185 meters) apart.

Alice and Bob poke and prod at their photons in all kinds of ways to get a sense of their properties. Without talking to each other, they then each randomly decide how to measure their photons, using random number generators to guide their decisions. When Alice and Bob compare notes, they are surprised to find that the results of their independent experiments are correlated. In other words, even at a distance, measuring one photon of the entangled pair affects the properties of the other photon.

“It’s as if Alice and Bob try to tear the two photons apart, but their love still persists,” Shalm said. In other words, the entangled photons behave as if they are two parts of a single system, even when separated in space.

Alice and Bob — representing actual photon detectors — then repeat this with many other pairs of entangled photons, and the phenomenon persists.

In reality, the photon detectors are not people, but superconducting nanowire single photon detectors (SNSPDs). SNSPDs are metal strips that are cooled until they become “superconducting,” meaning they lose their electric resistance. A photon hitting this strip causes it to turn into a normal metal again momentarily, so the resistance of the strip jumps from zero to a finite value. This change in resistance allows the researchers to record the event.

To make this experiment happen in a laboratory, the big challenge is to avoid losing photons as they get sent to the Alice and Bob detectors through an optical fiber. JPL and NIST developed SNSPDs with worldrecord performance, demonstrating more than 90 percent efficiency and low “jitter,” or uncertainty on the time of arrival of a photon. This experiment would not have been possible without SNSPDs.

Why This is Useful

The design of this experiment could potentially be used in cryptography — making information and communications secure — as it involves generating random numbers.

“The same experiment that tells us something deep about how the world is constructed also can be used for these applications that require you to keep your information safe,” Shalm said.

Cryptography isn’t the only application of this research. Detectors similar to those used for the experiment, which were built by JPL and NIST, could eventually also be used for deep-space optical communication. With a high efficiency and low uncertainty about the time of signal arrival, these detectors are well-suited for transmitting information with pulses of light in the optical spectrum.

“Right now we have the Deep Space Network to communicate with spacecraft around the solar system, which encodes information in radio signals. With optical communications, we could increase the data rate of that network 10- to 100-fold,” Marsili said.

Deep space optical communication using technology similar to the detectors in Marsili’s experiment was demonstrated with NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, which orbited the moon from October 2013 to April 2014. A technology mission called the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration, with components on LADEE and on the ground, downlinked data encoded in laser pulses, and made use of ground receivers based on SNSPDs.

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is working on the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) mission. The mission proposes to revolutionize the way we send and receive data, video and other information, using lasers to encode and transmit data at rates 10 to 100 times faster than today’s fastest radio-frequency systems, using significantly less mass and power.

“Information can never travel faster than the speed of light — Einstein was right about that. But through optical communications research, we can increase the amount of information we send back from space,” Marsili said. “The fact that the detectors from our experiment have this application creates great synergy between the two endeavors.”

And so, what began as the study of “love” between particles is contributing to innovations in communications between space and Earth. “Love makes the world go ’round,” and it may, in a sense, help us learn about other worlds.

Galaxy Clusters Reveal New Dark Matter Insights

Posted on Updated on

This comparison of galaxy clusters from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey DR8 galaxy catalog shows a spread-out cluster (left) and a more densely-packed cluster (right). A new study shows that these differences are related to the surrounding dark-matter environment. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Editor’s Note: This story would have been up at 3:30pm on Monday, however, my tablet kept rebooting itself after an iOS update. Here it is, and it very interesting.

Dark matter is a mysterious cosmic phenomenon that accounts for 27 percent of all matter and energy. Though dark matter is all around us, we cannot see it or feel it. But scientists can infer the presence of dark matter by looking at how normal matter behaves around it.

Galaxy clusters, which consist of thousands of galaxies, are important for exploring dark matter because they reside in a region where such matter is much denser than average. Scientists believe that the heavier a cluster is, the more dark matter it has in its environment. But new research suggests the connection is more complicated than that. 

“Galaxy clusters are like the large cities of our universe. In the same way that you can look at the lights of a city at night from a plane and infer its size, these clusters give us a sense of the distribution of the dark matter that we can’t see,” said Hironao Miyatake at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

A new study in Physical Review Letters, led by Miyatake, suggests that the internal structure of a galaxy cluster is linked to the dark matter environment surrounding it. This is the first time that a property besides the mass of a cluster has been shown to be associated with surrounding dark matter.

Warping Galaxies
This image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows the inner region of Abell 1689, an immense cluster of galaxies. Scientists say the galaxy clusters we see today have resulted from fluctuations in the density of matter in the early universe. Credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/Yale/CNRS

Researchers studied approximately 9,000 galaxy clusters from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey DR8 galaxy catalog, and divided them into two groups by their internal structures: one in which the individual galaxies within clusters were more spread out, and one in which they were closely packed together. The scientists used a technique called gravitational lensing — looking at how the gravity of clusters bends light from other objects — to confirm that both groups had similar masses.

But when the researchers compared the two groups, they found an important difference in the distribution of galaxy clusters. Normally, galaxy clusters are separated from other clusters by 100 million light-years on average. But for the group of clusters with closely packed galaxies, there were fewer neighboring clusters at this distance than for the sparser clusters. In other words, the surrounding dark-matter environment determines how packed a cluster is with galaxies.

“This difference is a result of the different dark-matter environments in which the groups of clusters formed. Our results indicate that the connection between a galaxy cluster and surrounding dark matter is not characterized solely by cluster mass, but also its formation history,” Miyatake said.

Study co-author David Spergel, professor of astronomy at Princeton University in New Jersey, added, “Previous observational studies had shown that the cluster’s mass is the most important factor in determining its global properties. Our work has shown that ‘age matters’: Younger clusters live in different large-scale dark-matter environments than older clusters.”

The results are in line with predictions from the leading theory about the origins of our universe. After an event called cosmic inflation, a period of less than a trillionth of a second after the big bang, there were small changes in the energy of space called quantum fluctuations. These changes then triggered a non-uniform distribution of matter. Scientists say the galaxy clusters we see today have resulted from fluctuations in the density of matter in the early universe.

“The connection between the internal structure of galaxy clusters and the distribution of surrounding dark matter is a consequence of the nature of the initial density fluctuations established before the universe was even one second old,” Miyatake said. 

Researchers will continue to explore these connections.

“Galaxy clusters are remarkable windows into the mysteries of the universe. By studying them, we can learn more about the evolution of large-scale structure of the universe, and its early history, as well as dark matter and dark energy,” Miyatake said.





Runaway Stars Leave Infrared Waves in Space

Posted on Updated on


Bow shocks thought to mark the paths of massive, speeding stars are highlighted in these images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Wyoming
Bow shocks thought to mark the paths of massive, speeding stars are highlighted in these images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Wyoming

Astronomers are finding dozens of the fastest stars in our galaxy with the help of images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

When some speedy, massive stars plow through space, they can cause material to stack up in front of them in the same way that water piles up ahead of a ship. Called bow shocks, these dramatic, arc-shaped features in space are leading researchers to uncover massive, so-called runaway stars.

“Some stars get the boot when their companion star explodes in a supernova, and others can get kicked out of crowded star clusters,” said astronomer William Chick from the University of Wyoming in Laramie, who presented his team’s new results at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Kissimmee, Florida. “The gravitational boost increases a star’s speed relative to other stars.”

Our own sun is strolling through our Milky Way galaxy at a moderate pace. It is not clear whether our sun creates a bow shock. By comparison, a massive star with a stunning bow shock, called Zeta Ophiuchi (or Zeta Oph), is traveling around the galaxy faster than our sun, at 54,000 mph (24 kilometers per second) relative to its surroundings. Zeta Oph’s giant bow shock can be seen in this image from the WISE mission:

Both the speed of stars moving through space and their mass contribute to the size and shapes of bow shocks. The more massive a star, the more material it sheds in high-speed winds. Zeta Oph, which is about 20 times as massive as our sun, has supersonic winds that slam into the material in front of it.

The result is a pile-up of material that glows. The arc-shaped material heats up and shines with infrared light. That infrared light is assigned the color red in the many pictures of bow shocks captured by Spitzer and WISE.

Chick and his team turned to archival infrared data from Spitzer and WISE to identify new bow shocks, including more distant ones that are harder to find. Their initial search turned up more than 200 images of fuzzy red arcs. They then used the Wyoming Infrared Observatory, near Laramie, to follow up on 80 of these candidates and identify the sources behind the suspected bow shocks. Most turned out to be massive stars. 

The findings suggest that many of the bow shocks are the result of speedy runaways that were given a gravitational kick by other stars. However, in a few cases, the arc-shaped features could turn out to be something else, such as dust from stars and birth clouds of newborn stars. The team plans more observations to confirm the presence of bow shocks.

“We are using the bow shocks to find massive and/or runaway stars,” said astronomer Henry “Chip” Kobulnicky, also from the University of Wyoming. “The bow shocks are new laboratories for studying massive stars and answering questions about the fate and evolution of these stars.”

Another group of researchers, led by Cintia Peri of the Argentine Institute of Radio Astronomy, is also using Spitzer and WISE data to find new bow shocks in space. Only instead of searching for the arcs at the onset, they start by hunting down known speedy stars, and then they scan them for bow shocks.

“WISE and Spitzer have given us the best images of bow shocks so far,” said Peri. “In many cases, bow shocks that looked very diffuse before, can now be resolved, and, moreover, we can see some new details of the structures.”

Some of the first bow shocks from runaway stars were identified in the 1980s by David Van Buren of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He and his colleagues found them using infrared data from the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), a predecessor to WISE that scanned the whole infrared sky in 1983. 

Kobulnicky and Chick belong to a larger team of researchers and students studying bow shocks and massive stars, including Matt Povich from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The National Science Foundation funds their research. 

Images from Spitzer, WISE and IRAS are archived at the NASA Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information about Spitzer is online at:

More information about WISE is at:



NASA’s Hubble Observations Suggest Underground Ocean on Jupiter’s Largest Moon

Posted on Updated on

In this artist’s concept, the moon Ganymede orbits the giant planet Jupiter. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope observed aurorae on the moon generated by Ganymede’s magnetic fields. A saline ocean under the moon’s icy crust best explains shifting in the auroral belts measured by Hubble. Image Credit: NASA/ESA

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has the best evidence yet for an underground saltwater ocean on Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. The subterranean ocean is thought to have more water than all the water on Earth’s surface.

Identifying liquid water is crucial in the search for habitable worlds beyond Earth and for the search of life as we know it.

“This discovery marks a significant milestone, highlighting what only Hubble can accomplish,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington. “In its 25 years in orbit, Hubble has made many scientific discoveries in our own solar system. A deep ocean under the icy crust of Ganymede opens up further exciting possibilities for life beyond Earth.”

Ganymede is the largest moon in our solar system and the only moon with its own magnetic field. The magnetic field causes aurorae, which are ribbons of glowing, hot electrified gas, in regions circling the north and south poles of the moon. Because Ganymede is close to Jupiter, it is also embedded in Jupiter’s magnetic field. When Jupiter’s magnetic field changes, the aurorae on Ganymede also change, “rocking” back and forth.

By watching the rocking motion of the two aurorae, scientists were able to determine that a large amount of saltwater exists beneath Ganymede’s crust affecting its magnetic field.

Hubble telescope image of Ganymede auroral belts

NASA Hubble Space Telescope images of Ganymede’s auroral belts (colored blue in this illustration) are overlaid on a Galileo orbiter image of the moon. The amount of rocking of the moon’s magnetic field suggests that the moon has a subsurface saltwater ocean.

Image Credit: NASA/ESA

A team of scientists led by Joachim Saur of the University of Cologne in Germany came up with the idea of using Hubble to learn more about the inside of the moon.

“I was always brainstorming how we could use a telescope in other ways,” said Saur. “Is there a way you could use a telescope to look inside a planetary body? Then I thought, the aurorae! Because aurorae are controlled by the magnetic field, if you observe the aurorae in an appropriate way, you learn something about the magnetic field. If you know the magnetic field, then you know something about the moon’s interior.”

If a saltwater ocean were present, Jupiter’s magnetic field would create a secondary magnetic field in the ocean that would counter Jupiter’s field. This “magnetic friction” would suppress the rocking of the aurorae. This ocean fights Jupiter’s magnetic field so strongly that it reduces the rocking of the aurorae to 2 degrees, instead of the 6 degrees, if the ocean was not present.

Scientists estimate the ocean is 60 miles (100 kilometers) thick – 10 times deeper than Earth’s oceans – and is buried under a 95-mile (150-kilometer) crust of mostly ice.

Scientists first suspected an ocean in Ganymede in the 1970s, based on models of the large moon. NASA’s Galileo mission measured Ganymede’s magnetic field in 2002, providing the first evidence supporting those suspicions. The Galileo spacecraft took brief “snapshot” measurements of the magnetic field in 20-minute intervals, but its observations were too brief to distinctly catch the cyclical rocking of the ocean’s secondary magnetic field.

The new observations were done in ultraviolet light and could only be accomplished with a space telescope high above the Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks most ultraviolet light.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is celebrating 25 years of groundbreaking science on April 24. It has transformed our understanding of our solar system and beyond, and helped us find our place among the stars. To join the conversation about 25 years of Hubble discoveries, use the hashtag #Hubble25.

Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

For images and more information about Hubble, visit: