The exoplanet Beta Pictoris b. And yet it moves
Published 12/5/2019 in Gemini Planet Imager Author Franck Marchis
Eric Nielsen, formerly a post-doc at the SETI Institute and now a researcher at Stanford University, led a study of the planet beta Pictoris b that combined direct observation of the planet recorded with the Gemini Planet Imager with additional data from space and ground-based observations. The team estimated the mass of this distant planet to be eight to sixteen times that of Jupiter and found that it likely has an elliptical orbit. A video shows the motion of the planet around its star, something that was inconceivable fifteen years ago. Since it was installed on the Gemini-South telescope in 2013, GPI has been continually observing beta Pictoris, studying its debris disk, atmosphere, and orbit, and searching for additional planets in the system. What makes beta Pictoris b special in the family of directly imaged exoplanets is that it is close enough to its star to complete an orbit in just twenty-five years,... read more ❯

Finding a Space Station with a Backpack Telescope
Published 11/28/2019 in Dan's Cosmic Diary Author Dan Peluso
How I observed the International Space Station (ISS) transit the Moon with a Unistellar eVscope!   Space station! Read it, hear it, or think it, and my mind is immediately transported to the scene in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope when Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, and Han Solo find the Death Star and Obi-Wan says “that’s no moon, it’s a space station” (Lucas 1977). On Saturday morning, November 16, at 3:43 am PDT in Pioneer Park in Woodland, California, I saw both a space station and a moon with a robotic telescope that fits in a backpack! The International Space Station (a.k.a. the ISS) is one of the greatest technological achievements of human creation. The football field sized space station is a scientific laboratory collaborative with... read more ❯

When dunes vary in color
Published 11/11/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
Nov. 11, 2019 It's Veterans Day in the US today. For some it's another day of work. For others it's a day to spend with the family. For most, we honor those who have served in our armed forces. I'm at work today, along with what I call the "holiday skeleton crew" - those of us at the SETI Institute who come to work on some holidays because our schedules allow it and because this is where we want to be. It's been a while since I posted a HiRISE picture. I've been really busy with work, and I've also been fighting off a seemingly endless cold. So to take a break from being sick (oh how I wish I actually could), here's a new HiRISE image that I find quite intriguing. Let's jump into it. Here are some dunes that seem to be made of two distinct colors: HiRISE... read more ❯

Helping Future NASA Missions: The Case of Orus, Target of the Lucy Mission
Published 10/16/2019 in Franck Marchis Blog Author Franck Marchis
A Unistellar team traveled to Oman in early September to observe the occultation of a 11-mag star by the Trojan asteroid Orus. We succeeded in capturing the event with one of our eVscopes, an achievement in and of itself considering the small and uncertain path of this occultation. This is an important breakthrough because this detection will be used for another occultation by  Orus again, coming up soon in Australia. On the top of that, this positive detection heralds the arrival of a new tool (the eVscope network) for the study of asteroids, centaurs and trans-Neptunian objects by occultations. Lucy is a Discovery-class mission scheduled for launch by NASA in 2021. Its goal is to study primitive asteroids by conducting a flyby of five trojan asteroids and one main-belt asteroid. Last year, Cathy Olkin, deputy principal investigator of the Lucy mission, sent me a list of occultation events involving those targets... read more ❯

Blackout Lights Out in California? Time to look at the positive and up at the cosmos!
Published 10/11/2019 in Dan's Cosmic Diary Author Dan Peluso
Doom and gloom, the end of the world and all that stuff we like to click on. Time Magazine, New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, and many major news sources are reporting on California's current blackout initiated by PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric Co.) to help prevent another major California wildfire. I live in the Bay Area, but am fortunately not affected by the blackouts in my location (at least not yet). Some reports say that 600,000 have lost their power as of Thursday, October 10, and that another 250,000 are expected to lose power over the next several days (Fuller 2019). Losing electricity is no doubt a horrible nightmare for anyone in our modern society--you can't watch Netflix, play video games, watch television, charge your phone for more Fortnite or Candy Crush, microwave a burrito, etc. Doom and gloom. Cats and dogs raining from the sky. Mass hysteria.  On... read more ❯

Drake Equation Mural in a High School Physics Class
Published 10/2/2019 in Dan's Cosmic Diary Author Dan Peluso
The Attention-Grabbing Intro How well do you remember your first high school physics class? The only thing I recall was dropping an egg off of some bleachers and trying to make a device that protected that egg so that it would not crack. I also remember that there was some math involved and I think I might not have been too happy about that. Other than those memories, I cannot remember anything from that class! Sorry, Mr. Hanlon! Science was not my favorite subject in high school. In fact, it wasn’t until my late 20s that I fell in love with science and changed careers. Before that I couldn’t have cared less about it, but that’s another story. This story is about how I molded art, research, dimensional analysis, and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) into an engaging project in a high school physics class. I’m not a big fan of the traditional... read more ❯

Wind and sun on the dunes
Published 10/1/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
Oct. 1, 2019 It's spring in the northern hemisphere on Mars. Actually, as of today, it's pretty close to northern summer solstice, but the recent crop of released HiRISE images mostly come from the spring season. Northern polar dunes on Mars get covered in winter frost every year. That frost sublimes away, bit by bit, as the sun rises higher and the days grow longer throughout northern spring. It's a fun process to watch, like in this image:   The image is tilted a bit so that north is to the upper right. Sitting on the mosaic-tile of northern patterned ground are the slowly defrosting dunes. The sun shines most directly on the south-facing slopes, so the dark slopes facing toward the lower left are the most free of frost. But there are other dune surfaces... read more ❯

How many dust devils can you find?
Published 8/28/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
Aug. 28, 2019 So I was wasting time looking for dune fields on Mars and I came across a great CTX image that's just riddled with dust devil tracks. Most of the time that's all you see, but sometimes you can spy a dust devil or two. And once in a great while you catch the dust devil engine at maximum. Below is the browse image for one such example. OK, right, you can't see any spectacular dust devils looking at this alone. That's because it's the browse image, which is a thumbnail of the actual, much bigger image, which would make WordPress pretty annoyed with me if I tried to upload here. So instead I've set it so that if you click on the image, you'll go to the image web page maintained by... read more ❯

Finding Kuiper Belt 2.0
Published 8/27/2019 in Gemini Planet Imager Author Franck Marchis
A team of astronomers led by Bin Ren (The Johns Hopkins University) imaged the debris disk system around star HD 191089 using the GPI instrument, located at 160 light-year away from us. The structure of the debris disk around this younger sibling of our Sun is strikingly similar to our own Kuiper Belt. New technology available maybe in 2030s, like the giant space telescopes (HabEx & LUVOIR) could one day tell if there is also an Earth 2.0 with the Belt delivering water right now, or is there an exotic world that we have never seen or imagined, or maybe (and sadly) if there is nothing but void.  Written by Bin Ren and posted on the Cosmic Diary GPI Blog Post with her permission.   The Kuiper Belt Since NASA’s New Horizons’ visit to Pluto in 2015, the spacecraft began its journey in the hometown of Halley’s Comet---the Kuiper Belt. Kuiper Belt is a... read more ❯

<3 on Mars
Published 8/22/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
Aug. 22, 2019 Yeah, yeah, I should be working. But I had to do this. I found a heart❤️ on Mars made by dust devils:   The wind blows dust devils around, so sometimes they meander this way and that. Straighter paths are probably created by stronger winds, which sweep the dust devils along in a straight line. Curvy tracks like these are probably made when the winds are weaker, so the dust devil paths are more affected by turbulent convective activity, which can move in any direction. OK, now back to work... read more ❯

Dunes or bacteria?
Published 8/21/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
Aug. 21, 2019 Trolling through the HiRISE image catalog, I came across some dunes that look a bit like bacteria. (Well okay, they look like some sort of microbe to my eye, which is highly untrained in looking at microbes, so if that's your thing then go ahead and shake your head. I'll wait. Ready to move on?) (On the other hand, if you have a pic of microbes that look like this, let me know.) (Oh and I want to give a shout-out to a new Youtube channel Journey to the Microcosmos, which is absolutely mesmerizing.) See what I mean? But no, these are big sand dunes, located on the north polar plains. They're covered in winter frost that has just begun to sublimate away (this image was taken in mid-spring). Here's a close-up that's in color, showing the ripples that cover most... read more ❯

Bask in Mars' beauty, because you can
Published 8/5/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
August 5, 2019 It's been a while since I posted anything. Not because I didn't want to, but because I'm involved in so many projects that many things I love are being shoved aside for whatever has to be dealt with at any given moment. It was a rough weekend and end of the week in the US - there have been a few quite prominent mass shootings. I'm not going to get political about it here. I'm just going to share my personal escape route from it all: gorgeous Mars. So. Here are a couple of scenes from Ius Chasma, one of Mars' big valleys (it's part of Valles Marineris - the word "Valles" is plural, since the area has a ton of huge cracks in it - Ius Chasma is one of the bigger ones). These frames come from this HiRISE image. If you follow that link and scroll down you'll... read more ❯

TMT controversy. I vote for healing
Published 7/21/2019 in Franck Marchis Blog Author Franck Marchis
I’ve been quiet on the TMT controversy not through choice but because it erupted while I was traveling, and because it’s an important topic that needs more than a tweet to discuss. Let me begin by saying that I love astronomy and science—but I also understand the heritage and cultural importance of Maunakea to the people of Hawaii. As a POC (Malagasy-Indian, and from Reunion island), I question the way we have, and are currently, handling this situation. True, the people behind the TMT have been patient, taken lots of time, and gone to enormous pains to complete all the paperwork necessary to certify the project. They have also attended countless hearings to make the project better and more respectful of both the environment and Hawaiian culture. I admire my colleagues at the TMT who worked around the clock to improve the project—they did the best they could under trying circumstances, and... read more ❯

Dust Devil Fieldwork #5: Summary
Published 7/11/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
July 11, 2019 This is Part 5 of a series on my dust devil fieldwork in 2019 (see Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4). We came back home a couple of weeks ago. I'd say our field campaign was a great success, considering how much data we collected. I've started sorting through it and it's going to take me a while to start making sense of it. I want to give a shout out to our undergraduate students from St. Lawrence University, Banner Cole and Owen Sprau, and to our graduate student from UCLA, Taylor Dorn. There's no way we could have accomplished all we did without their help, and I'm grateful they were there. I am of course also grateful to have had awesome help from my colleagues Steve Metzger and Stephen Scheidt, who know way more about cameras and meteorology instruments than I do, and to... read more ❯

Dust Devil Fieldwork #4: Team Paparazzi
Published 6/16/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
June 16, 2019 This is Part 4 of a series on my dust devil fieldwork in 2019 (see Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3). The last post was a short one. That's partly because I'm short on time, partly because my poor aging laptop's battery doesn't work (so I can only make these posts when it's plugged into an inverter while my truck is on, which means something else that needs charging isn't getting charged), and partly because I'm tethering my phone for internet access and don't want to totally eat up my data plan. Anyway. Last time I showed the weather station, so this time I'll show pictures of the camera setup. We've got four cameras pointing across our field site toward our weather tower, a couple of kilometers away. They're there to look for dust devils, so we can track their occurrence and location every day. Stephen... read more ❯

Dust Devil Fieldwork #3: Progress
Published 6/12/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
June 12, 2019 This is Part 3 of a series on my dust devil fieldwork in 2019 (see Part 1 | Part 2). We're here, we're really here. I have a team and wonderful instruments and everybody is awesome and working hard. We're camping on a playa in central Nevada, and I can't believe we've been here for a week now. It took us some time to set up all our gear and get everything working, but I think we've got a set routine now. The team: Me, the PI, ultimately responsible for All The Things. Steve Metzger, who set up & manages the weather instruments, organizes our camp, and is mentoring two undergrads who joined us for the campaign. He's got all the gear and outdoors experience you could want on a field research campaign, plus he specializes in dust devils. Stephen Scheidt, who set up & manages the cameras that are recording the dust... read more ❯

Dust Devil Fieldwork #2: Field Trials
Published 5/10/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
May 10, 2019 (This is Part 2 of a series on my summer 2019 dust devil fieldwork. See previous post Part 1.) Today my colleague Steve Metzger and I drove out to a playa in Nevada to test some of our field equipment. The "real" field campaign will happen in June. But first, we want to work out some of the kinks in our planned study. There's a lot of new equipment to test out, calibrate, and make work, and we don't want to waste precious time in June on silly mistakes that we could learn from now (fortunately our proposal panel reviewers seemed to agree with this, as they were happy to fund this part of the work). Yesterday I drove out to Nevada from California, carrying my ceilometer in the flat bed of a rental truck. Today we set it up, and tested out a nice Canon camera and some little... read more ❯

Baby dunes
Published 4/26/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
I saw an article today linked by the International Society for Aeolian Research's Facebook page, on the dangers of dust being lofted in Earth's youngest desert, the Aralkum Desert in Kazakhstan. It's where the Aral Sea used to be, decades ago. Here's the article from Atlas Obscura. It sounds like a difficult place to get to, and an even harder place to study. But, I thought, maybe there was something interesting to see from above. Maybe even new dunes, because rapidly exposed lake beds provide ready sources of sand for building dunes. A flat plain of sand will tend to form a field of uniformly-sized dunes, as they all grow at the same rate from a similarly sized sand supply. So I went to have a look with Google Earth Pro. And, yeah, I found a vast field of tiny little dunes. Here's a tiny bit of one of them: ... read more ❯

Dust Devil Fieldwork #1: Equipment
Published 4/23/2019 in Lori Fenton's Blog Author lfenton
April 22, 2019 Hey. So last fall I found out that some colleagues and I got our dust devil proposal funded (I'm the PI, which means I'm the one in charge.) My initial reaction included elation. Relief. Joy. 🤗🎉🎈🥂🎊 We'd submitted this proposal five times (FIVE!!) before we got it funded. And now we're really going to do it. We're going to get some amazing meteorology instruments, some awesome cameras, and go out to the US southwest to study some dust devils. As reality set in, my second reaction looked like this: 😨😰🙀 Because. Well. This is a big job. I want to do it well. After sinking so much time into getting the proposal to be perfect, I now have to follow through on all of my promises and learn some great things about dust devils. In another post I'll start going into the details of what we're looking for out in the... read more ❯

Calling Exogeophysicists to Solve the Mystery of Super-Earths
Published 3/5/2019 in Franck Marchis Blog Author Franck Marchis
There is a mystery in our galaxy, and astronomers around the world are working to solve it. The NASA Kepler mission revealed that planetary systems are common, and that on average, each star has two planets in orbit around it. This is great news for SETI researchers, since it means that there are a lot of worlds out there to explore. Many of them may have liquid water, meaning that there is the possibility that life could exist elsewhere in our galaxy. However, there is something unusual about some recently discovered planetary systems—half of those with a sun-like star have one or more so-called “super-Earths,” planets with a mass larger than that of our planet, but less than that of icy giant planets like Uranus or Neptune. What are they? We don’t really know. An artist concept of 55 Cancri e in contrast with our familiar Earth.... read more ❯

1 4