Dwarf Planet Haumea Has a Ring

A unique opportunity to study the dwarf planet Haumea has led to an intriguing discovery: Haumea is surrounded by a ring. Add this to the already long list of unique things about the weird-shaped world with a dizzying rotation and a controversial discovery. On January 21, 2017 Haumea passed in front of a distant star, […]

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Planet 9 Can’t Run Forever. Two Asteroids Give Up Some Clues

Last year, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin found indirect evidence for the existence of a large planet in the outer reaches of our Solar System — likely located out past Pluto — and since then, the search has been on. The latest research continues to show signs of an unseen planet, the hypothetical […]

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Will You Be The Discoverer Of Planet 9?

Citizen science projects are a great way for anyone to be involved in the scientific process. Average, everyday folks have discovered things like supernovae, previously unseen craters on the Moon and Mars and even new planets orbiting a distant star. Now, you could be part of one of the most exciting quests yet: finding a […]

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Huygens Data Confirms Presence Of Methane Fog At Titan’s South Pole

Titan's dense, hydrocarbon rich atmosphere remains a focal point of scientific research. Credit: NASA

Titan is a moon shrouded in mystery. Despite multiple flybys and surface exploration conducted in the past few decades, this Cronian moon still manages to surprise us from time to time. In addition to having a dense atmosphere rich in hydrocarbons, which scientists believe may be similar to what Earth’s own atmosphere was like billions of years ago, it appears that methane is to Titan what water is to planet Earth.

In addition, methane fog was also observed by the Cassini space probe back in 2009 as it conducted a flyby of Titan. But recent findings by a team of researchers from York University indicates that the Huygens lander also detected fog during its short time on the surface. This evidence, combined with the data obtained by Cassini, have helped to shed light on the weather patterns of this mysterious moon.

In a paper that appeared in arXiv on March 14th, Dr. Christina Smith – a postdoctoral student from York University’s Center for Research in Earth and Space Sciences (CRESS) – described how the Huygens probe’s Side Looking Imager (SLI) obtained information that has since been analyzed to identify potential atmospheric features. These features show that Titan experiences meteorological phenomena which were not previously known.

In total, the team looked over 82 SLI images, which were all taken after the lander reached the surface. These were then calibrated, processed and examined for signs of atmospheric features. Of these, six showed evidence of an extended horizontal feature that differed in radiance from what was predicted at higher and lower regions. No other discernible features were detected.

The team concluded that this feature most likely originated from the presence of a fog bank close to the horizon that rose and fell during the period of observation. This indicated that it had recently rained in the area, which was a rather surprising find. Much like the observations made in 2009, the presence of methane fog shows that Titan has an active methane hydrological cycle.

In essence, this means that methane on Titan is subject to the same transfer process as water is here on Earth. Basically, liquid methane on the surface evaporates and is exchanged with the atmosphere, where it condenses to form fog banks and rain clouds. As Christina Smith told Universe Today via email:

“We initially set out to see if we could see features such as clouds from the Huygens SLI data, but the features we found don’t seem to be consistent with clouds and more likely are caused by a fog bank rising and falling over the time of observation. Fog had been seen before from orbit but never from the surface of Titan – this is what makes this work so exciting. This work is also a great example of how new insights and new findings can be made from “older” data sets.”

Looking over this old data for the sake of making new discoveries was made possible, in part, because of the ongoing investigations conducted by Martian rovers and their respective science teams. Brittany Cooper – an undergraduate research assistant at York University’s Center for Research in Mass Spectrometry, and the second author of the paper – explained via email:

“We applied a technique of image analysis developed by Mark Lemmon for use with the Mars Exploration Rovers that was adapted by John Moores for use on the Mars Phoenix lander mission. This analysis method allowed the faint, barely observable atmospheric features captured by the Huygens’ probe Side Looking Imager (SLI) on Titan to be amplified and more easily discerned.”

For years, scientists have understood that on Titan, methane is analogous to water. It exists in solid form, in liquid form (especially around the north pole where several large methane lakes exist), and in gaseous form in the atmosphere. However, what they did not know was whether or not there was an active cycle, where liquid methane on the surface was replenished through evaporation, condensation, and rain.

But this evidence, combined with the Cassini probe data, confirms that on Titan, there is active transfer process between the liquid methane and the atmospheric methane. And where atmospheric humidity reaches 100%, methane fogs will form. Just the latest in a long line of fascinating discoveries to emerge from this mysterious moon!

Further Reading: arXiv.com

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Search Narrows For Planet Nine

Based on a careful study of Saturn's orbit and using mathematical models, French scientists were able to whittle down the search region for Planet Nine to "possible" and "probable" zones.  Source: CNRS, Cote d'Azur and Paris observatories. Created by the author

Last month, planetary scientists Mike Brown and  Konstantin Batygin of the California Institute of Technology found evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer Solar System. Nicknamed Planet Nine, it’s estimated to be 10 times more massive than Earth with a diameter as large as 16,000 miles (25,750 km).  The putative planet orbits about 20 times farther from the Sun on average than Neptune or some 56 billion miles away; at that tremendous distance it would take between 10,000 and 20,000 years to complete one orbit around the Sun.

Planet Nine’s existence is inferred through mathematical modeling and computer simulations based on the clustering of six remote asteroids in the Kuiper Belt, a vast repository of icy asteroids and comets beyond Neptune. Brown and Batyginsay there’s only a 0.007% chance or about 1 in 15,000 that the clustering could be a coincidence.

All well and good. But with such an enormous orbit, astronomers face the daunting task of searching vast swaths of space for this needle in a haystack. Where to begin? A study done by a team of French scientists may help narrow the search. In a recent paper appearing in Astronomy and Astrophysics, astronomer Agnes Fienga and colleagues looked at what effect a large Kuiper Belt planet would have on the orbits of other planets in the Solar System, focusing their study on Saturn. Thanks to NASA’s Cassini orbiter, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, we can precisely calculate Saturn’s position along its orbit.

Based on the planet’s “residuals”, the difference between the calculated position of Saturn versus what was actually observed, the team was able to exclude two sections of its potential orbit and home in on “probable” swath and a much larger “possible” section of the orbit. The process may sound familiar, since it was the one used to discover another planet more than 150 years ago — Neptune. Back then, irregularities (residuals) in the motion of Uranus led astronomers in 1847 to predict a more distant 8th planet as the cause. On September 24, 1846, Johann Galle discovered Neptune only 1° from its position predicted by French mathematician Urbain LeVerrier.

While the current solution for Planet Nine doesn’t come anywhere near as close, it’s a step in the right direction.

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Astronomers Find Theoretical Evidence for Distant Gas Giant Planet in Our Solar System

Artistic rendering shows the distant view from theoretical Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side.  Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

The astronomer known worldwide for vigorously promoting the demotion of Pluto from its decades long perch as the 9th Planet, has now found theoretical evidence for a new and very distant gas giant planet lurking at the far reaches of our solar system.

In a obvious reference to the planethood controversy, the proposed new planet is nicknamed ‘Planet Nine’ and its absolutely huge!

The possible planet has a mass about 10 times that of Earth and is believed to be gaseous, like Uranus and Neptune, according to Mike Brown of Caltech, who became famous during the contentious debate on Pluto’s planetary status. He announced the new finding today, Jan. 20, along with fellow Caltech researcher Konstantin Batygin.

The giant new planet orbits the sun some 20 times farther out than Neptune in the distant reaches of the Kuiper Belt. Neptune orbits the sun at an average distance of 2.8 billion miles.

Astronomers have been searching for decades for “Planet X” a large theorized planet beyond Pluto.

The theorized ‘Planet Nine’ travels in a highly elongated path that takes between 10,000 and 20,000 years to complete just one full orbit around the sun, according to Caltech statement describing the work.

Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin coauthored a paper describing their work on the discovery of the existence of the proposed gas giant in the current issue of the Astronomical Journal.

The paper is titled; “EVIDENCE FOR A DISTANT GIANT PLANET IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM” and is available here.

“This would be a real ninth planet,” says Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy, in a statement.

“There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It’s a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that’s still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting.”

So far there is no confirmation of the existence of the planet.

It has not actually been observed but its existence is theorized through complex mathematical modeling and computer simulations.

Brown’s discovery of Eris in 2005, which orbits farther out than Pluto and is almost the same size as Pluto but smaller, sparked the IAU to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet in 2006.

Many planetary scientists, led by Alan Stern, do not agree with Pluto’s demotion.

Stern is the Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons probe which carried out history’s first flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015.

Among its numerous discoveries, New Horizons found that Pluto is a very geologically world even today and larger than Eris, and thus reigns as undisputed ‘King of the Kuiper Belt!”

In the Astronomical Journal paper, Batygin and Brown “show how Planet Nine helps explain a number of mysterious features of the field of icy objects and debris beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt.”

“Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there,” says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science.

“For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system’s planetary census is incomplete.”

In a prior interview, Alan Stern has told me that he believes that a planet at least as large as Mars lurks somewhere far out in the Kuiper Belt.

Meanwhile Batygin and Brown are hunting for ‘Planet Nine’ and they encourage others to search too.

Since they only know the rough orbit of the object, they continue to “refine their simulation” to better pin down its location to more productively aim the telescopes along the highly elliptical path.

“I would love to find it,” says Brown. “But I’d also be perfectly happy if someone else found it. That is why we’re publishing this paper. We hope that other people are going to get inspired and start searching.”

Here’s a comment from NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences Jim Green, about today’s discovery:


Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Europa Life: Could ‘Extreme Shrimp’ Point To Microbes On That Moon?

For all of the talk about aliens that we see in science fiction, the reality is in our Solar System, any extraterrestrial life is likely to be microbial. The lucky thing for us is there are an abundance of places that we can search for them — not least Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter […]