Friday, December 31, 2010

Radius, Luminosity, Temperature: A Key Relationship

We don’t have to give up on measuring the sizes of stars, however. We just have to be more clever. What astronomers do is determine the temperature and mass of a star, which can be done using a star’s color and spectrum. Then, using numerical models of how stars hold together, they derive the quantity that they are interested in (radius, for example). It is akin to looking out over a parking lot and seeing a Cadillac. Now, you may not know its size, but you know (consulting a chart) that this model of Cadillac is 18.5 feet long. You can see clearly that it is indeed this particular model of Cadillac, so you know its length, even though you didn’t actually measure it with a ruler.
Stefan’s law states that a star’s luminosity (its wattage, or the rate at which it emits energy into space) is proportional to the fourth power to the star’s surface temperature. This relationship can be extended further. A star’s luminosity is not only related to its temperature, but to its surface area. Heat the head of a pin to 400 degrees F and a large metal plate to the same temperature. Which will radiate more heat? Obviously, the object with the larger surface area. Given the same surface temperature, a larger body will always radiate more energy than a smaller one.
This relationship can be expressed in this way: A star’s luminosity is proportional to the square of its radius (that’s the surface area term) times its surface temperature to the fourth power (luminosity ×radius2 ×temperature4). Thus, if we know a star’s luminosity and temperature (which can be measured by available astronomical instruments), we can calculate its radius. How do we measure a star’s luminosity and temperature? Let’s see.

Your Standard Solar Model

By combining theoretical modeling of the sun’s (unobservable) interior with observations of the energy that the sun produces, astronomers have come to an agreement on what is called a standard solar model, a mathematically-based picture of the structure of the sun. The model seeks to explain the observable properties of the sun and also describe properties of its unobservable interior. With the standard solar model, we can begin to describe some of the interior regions—regions hidden, beneath the photosphere, from direct observation. Below the photosphere is the convection zone, some 124,000 miles (200,000 km) thick. Below this is the radiation zone, 186,000 miles (300,000 km) thick, which surrounds a core with a radius of 124,000 miles (200,000 km).
The sun’s core is tremendously dense (150,000 kg/m3) and tremendously hot: some 15,000,000 K. We can’t stick a thermometer in the sun’s core, so how do we know it’s that hot? If we look at the energy emerging from the sun’s surface, we can work backward to the conditions that must prevail at the sun’s core. At this density and temperature, nuclear fusion is continuous, with particles always in violent motion. The sun’s core is a giant nuclear fusion reactor.
At the very high temperatures of the core, all matter is completely ionized—stripped of its negatively charged electrons. As a result, photons (packets of electromagnetic energy) move slowly out of the core into the next layer of the sun’s interior, the radiation zone.
Here the temperature is lower, and photons emitted from the core of the sun interact continuously with the charged particles located there, being absorbed and re-emitted. While the photons remain in the radiation zone, heating it and losing energy, some of their energy escapes into the convection zone, which in effect, boils like water on a stove so that hot gases rise to the photosphere and cool gases sink back into the convection zone. Convective cells become smaller and smaller, eventually becoming visible as granules at the solar surface. Thus, by convection, huge amounts of energy reach the surface of the sun. At the sun’s surface, a variety of processes give rise to the electromagnetic radiation that we detect from the earth. Atoms and molecules in the sun’s photosphere absorb some of the photons at particular wavelengths, giving rise to the sun’s absorption-line spectrum. Most of the radiation from a star that has the surface temperature of the sun is emitted in the visible part of the spectrum.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chain Reactions in the Sun

The sun generates energy by the converting the hydrogen in its core to helium. The details are complex, but we may content ourselves with an overview. When temperatures and pressures are sufficiently high (temperatures of about 10 million K are required) 4 hydrogen nuclei (which are protons, positively charged particles) can combine to create the nucleus of a helium atom (2 protons and 2 neutrons). Now the mass of the helium nucleus created is slightly less than that of the four protons that were needed to create it. That small difference in mass is converted into energy in the fusion process. One of the simplest fusion reactions involves the production of deuterium (a hydrogen isotope) from a proton and a neutron. When these two particles collide with enough velocity, they create a deuterium nucleus (consisting of a proton and a neutron) and the excess energy is given off as a gamma ray photon. In the sun, this process proceeds on a massive scale, liberating the energy that lights up our daytime skies. That’s a 4 ×1026 watt lightbulb up there, remember.

Fission in the Sun

On December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist who had fled his fascistoppressed native land for the United States, withdrew a control rod from an “atomic pile” that had been set up in a squash court beneath the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. This action initiated the world’s first self-sustaining atomic chain reaction. Fermi and his team had invented the nuclear reactor, and the world hasn’t been the same since.
Nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which an atomic nucleus splits into fragments, thereby releasing energy. In a fission reactor, such as the one Fermi was instrumental in creating, the process of fission is controlled and self-sustaining, so that the splitting of one atom leads to the splitting of others, each fission liberating more energy.
Nuclear fission is capable of liberating a great deal of energy, whether in the form of a controlled sustained chain reaction or in a single great explosion, like an atomic bomb. Yet even the powerful fission process cannot account for the tremendous amount of energy the sun generates so consistently. We must look to another process: nuclear fusion.
Whereas nuclear fission liberates energy by splitting atomic nuclei, nuclear fusion produces energy by joining them, combining light atomic nuclei into heavier ones. In the process, the combined mass of two nuclei in a third nucleus is less than the total mass of the original two nuclei. The mass is not simply lost, but converted into energy. A lot of energy. One of the by-products of nuclear fusion reactions is a tiny neutral particle called the neutrino. The fusion reactions themselves produce high energy gamma ray radiation, but those photons are converted into mostly visible light by the time their energy reaches the surface of the sun. Neutrinos, with no charge to slow them down, come streaming straight out of the sun’s core. The numbers that we detect give us great insight into a region of the sun that is otherwise inaccessible.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Solar flares

Most frequently at the peak of the sunspot cycle, violent eruptions of gas are ejected from the sun’s surface. The prominences and flares may rise to some 60,000 miles (100,000 km) and may be visible for weeks. Solar flares are more sudden and violent events than prominences. While they are thought to also be the result of magnetic kinks, they do not show the arcing or looping pattern characteristic of prominences. Flares are explosions of incredible power, bringing local temperatures to 100,000,000 K. Whereas prominences release their energy over days or weeks, flares explode in a flash of energy release that lasts a matter of minutes or, perhaps, hours.

Understanding Sunspot Cycles

Long before the magnetic nature of sunspots was perceived, astronomer Heinrich Schwabe, in 1843, announced his discovery of a solar cycle, in which the number of spots seen on the sun reaches a maximum about every 11 years (on average). In 1922, the British astronomer Annie Russel Maunder charted the latitude drift of sunspots during each solar cycle. She found that each cycle begins with the appearance of small spots in the middle latitudes of the sun, followed by spots appearing progressively closer to the solar equator until the cycle reaches its maximum level of activity. After this point, the number of spots begins to decline. The most recent maximum occured in early 2001.
Actually, the 11-year period is only half of a 22-year cycle that is more fundamental. Recall that the leading spots on one hemisphere exhibit the same polarity; that is, they are all either north magnetic poles or south (and the followers are the opposite of the leaders). At the end of the first 11 years of the cycle, polarities reverse. That is, if the leaders had north poles in the southern hemisphere, they become, as the second half of the cycle begins, south poles.
The cyclical nature of sunspot activity is very real, but not exact and inevitable. Studying historical data, Maunder discovered that the cycle had been apparently dormant from 1645 to 1715. At present, there is no explanation for this dormancy and other variations in the solar cycle.

Sunspots: What They Are

Sunspots are irregularly shaped dark areas on the face of the sun. They look dark because they are cooler than the surrounding material. The strong local magnetic fields push away some of the hot ionized material rising from lower in the photosphere. A sunspot is not uniformly dark. Its center, called the umbra, is darkest and is surrounded by a lighter penumbra. If you think of them as blemishes on the face of the sun, just remember that one such blemish may easily be the size of the earth or larger.
Sunspots may persist for months, and they may appear singly, although, usually, they are found in pairs or groups. Such typical groupings are related to the magnetic nature of the sunspots. Every pair of spots has a leader and a follower (with respect to the direction of the sun’s rotation), and the leader’s magnetic polarity is always the opposite of the follower. That is, if the leader is a north magnetic pole, the follower will be a south magnetic pole.
Sunspots are never seen exactly at the equator or near the solar poles, and leaders and followers in one hemisphere of the sun are almost always opposite in polarity from those across the equator. That is, if all the leaders in the northern hemisphere are south magnetic poles, all the leaders in the southern hemisphere will be north magnetic poles.
We have said that sunspots are thought to be associated with strong local magnetic fields. But why are the fields strong in certain regions of the photosphere? A meteorologist from Norway, Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862–1951) concluded in 1926 that sunspots are the erupting ends of magnetic field lines, which are distorted by the sun’s differential rotation. That is, like the gas giant jovian worlds, the sun does not rotate as a single, solid unit, but differentially, at different speeds for different latitudes. The sun spins fastest at its equator—the result being that the solar magnetic field becomes distorted. The field lines are most distorted at the equator, so that the north-south magnetic field is turned to an east-west orientation. In places where the field is sufficiently distorted, twisted like a knot, the field becomes locally very strong, powerful enough to escape the sun’s gravitational pull. Where this happens, field lines “pop” out of the photosphere, looping through the lower solar atmosphere and forming a sunspot pair at the two places where the field lines pass into the solar interior.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sun Trivias

We have described the layers in the sun’s outer atmosphere, but have ignored some of their more interesting aspects, the storms in the atmosphere. The sun’s atmosphere is regularly disturbed by solar weather in the form of sunspots, prominences, and solar flares. With the proper equipment—or an Internet connection (http://sohowww.estec.—you can observe some of the signs of activity on the sun’s surface.
A Granulated Surface
If we look at the sun, its surface usually appears featureless, except, perhaps, for sunspots, which we’ll discuss in a moment. However, viewed at high-resolution, the surface of the sun actually appears highly granulated. Now, granule is a relative concept when we are talking about a body the size of the sun. Each granule is about the size of an earthly continent, appearing and disappearing as a hot gas bubble rises to the surface of the sun.
Galileo Sees Spots Before His Eyes
People must have seen sunspots before 1611, when Galileo (and, independently, other astronomers) first reported them. (As recently as March 2001, sunspots easily visible to the unaided eye have appeared.) The largest spots are visible to the naked eye (at least when the sun is seen through clouds). Yet, at the time, the world was reluctant to accept imperfections on the face of the sun.
Sunspots were not (as far as we know) studied before Galileo. Galileo drew a profound conclusion from the existence and behavior of sunspots. In 1613, he published three letters on sunspots, explaining that their movement across the face of the sun showed that the sun rotated.

What is Solar Wind

The sun does not keep its energy to itself. Its energy flows away in the form of electromagnetic radiation and particles. The particles (mostly electrons and protons) do not move nearly as fast as the radiation, which escapes the sun at the speed of light, but they move fast nevertheless—at more than 300 miles per second (500 km/s). It is this swiftly moving particle stream that is called the solar wind.
The solar wind is driven by the incredible temperatures in the solar corona. As a result, the gases are sufficiently hot to escape the tremendous gravitational pull of the sun. The surface of the earth is protected from this wind by its magnetosphere, the magnetic “cocoon” generated by the rotation of the earth’s molten core. As with many other planets, the motion of charged molten material in the earth’s core generates a magnetic field around the planet. This magnetic field either deflects or captures charged particles from the solar wind. Some of these particles are trapped in the Van Allen Belts, doughnut-shaped regions around the earth named after their discoverer. Some of the charged particles rain down on the earth’s poles and collide with its atmosphere, giving rise to displays of color and light called aurora (in the Northern Hemisphere the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, and in the Southern Hemisphere, the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights). The Auroras are especially prominent when the sun reaches its peak of activity every 11 years.

Understanding Solar Eclipse

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves across the disk of the sun so that the moon’s shadow falls across the face of the earth. In the heart of that shadow, called the umbra, the sun’s disk will appear completely covered by that of the moon: a total solar eclipse. The umbra, however, only falls on a small region of the earth. Thus a total eclipse can be observed only within the zone of totality, a very narrow area of the earth (where this shadow falls as the earth rotates). For this reason, total eclipses are rare events in any given geographical area. Much more common are partial eclipses, in which the moon obscures only part of the sun. Observers located in the much broader outer shadow of the moon (the penumbra) see such an eclipse.
Certainly, partial eclipses are interesting, but a total eclipse can be spectacular, not only dramatically darkening the world, but allowing sight of such solar features as feathery prominences, the chromosphere, and, most thrilling of all, the corona. These features are fleeting, since totality lasts only a few minutes at any one observing location. As mentioned elsewhere in this book, observing the sun directly is very dangerous.
Looking at the sun through an unfiltered telescope or binoculars will cause irreversible damage to your eyesight. The sun is no more or less dangerous during an eclipse than at any other time; but the point is that looking directly at the sun is always dangerous and harmful.
The sun, during an eclipse or at any time, is most safely observed by projecting its image onto a piece of paper or cardboard. You can project a telescope or binocular image onto a white card held at the correct distance from the eyepiece. But you don’t need a telescope or binoculars to project an image. Just make a pinhole in a stiff piece of cardboard and project the pinhole image onto a white card or paper. (By the way: Do not look
through the pinhole directly at the sun!)
If you want to look at the sun through your telescope during an eclipse or at another time, purchase a solar filter (glass or Mylar) from any of the major telescope manufacturers. This type of filter attaches to the front of your telescope tube, it does not screw onto the eyepiece.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Luminous Crown

Corona is Latin for “crown,” and it describes the region beyond the transition zone consisting of elements that have been highly ionized (stripped of their electrons) by the tremendous heat in the coronal region. Like the chromosphere, the corona is normally invisible, blotted out by the intense light of the photosphere. It is only during total solar eclipses that the corona becomes visible, at times when the disk of the moon covers the photosphere and the chromosphere. During such eclipse conditions, the significance of the Latin name becomes readily apparent: The corona appears as a luminous crown surrounding the darkened disk of the sun. When the sun is active—a cycle that peaks every 11 years—its surface becomes mottled with sunspots, and great solar flares and prominences send material far above its surface.

Not That Kind of Chrome

The sun’s lower atmosphere is called the chromosphere, normally invisible because the photosphere is far brighter. However, during a total solar eclipse, which blots out the photosphere, the chromosphere is visible as a pinkish aura around the solar disk. The strongest emission line in the hydrogen spectrum is red, and the predominance of hydrogen in the chromosphere imparts the pink hue. The chromosphere is a storm-racked region, into which spicules, jets of expelled matter thousands of miles high, intrude.
Above the chromosphere is the transition zone. As mentioned earlier, the temperature at the surface of the photosphere is 5,780 K, much cooler than the temperatures in the solar interior, which get hotter the closer one approaches the core. Yet, in the chromosphere, transition zone, and into the corona, the temperature rises sharply the farther one goes from the surface of the sun! At about 6,000 miles (10,000 km) above the photosphere, where the transition zone becomes the corona, temperatures exceed 1,000,000 K. (For detailed real-time views of the solar photosphere, chromosphere, and corona, see How do we explain this apparent paradox? It is believed that the interaction between the sun’s strong magnetic field and the charged particles in the corona heat it to these high temperatures.

The Solar Atmosphere

The sun does not have a surface as such. What we call its surface is just the layer that emits the most light. Let’s begin our journey at the outer layers of the sun (the layers that we can actually see), and work our way in. When you look up at the sun during the day, what you are really looking at is the sun’s photosphere. The layer from which the visible photons that we see arise, the photosphere has a temperature of about 6,000 K. Lower layers are hidden behind the photosphere, and higher layers are so diffuse and faint (though very hot) that we only see them during total solar eclipses or with special satellites. Above the photosphere in the solar atmosphere are the chromosphere, the transition zone, and the corona. As we move higher in the sun’s atmosphere, the temperatures rise dramatically.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Four Trillion Trillion Light Bulbs

Next time you are screwing in a light bulb, notice its wattage. A watt is a measure of power, or how much energy is produced or consumed each second. A 100 watt bulb uses 100 joules of energy every second. For comparison, the sun produces 4 1026 watts of power. That’s a lot of light bulbs—four trillion trillion of them, to be exact. This rate of energy production is called the sun’s luminosity. Many stars have luminosities much higher than that of the sun.
The source of the sun’s power—and that of all stars, during most of their lifetimes—is the fusing together of nuclei. Stars first convert hydrogen into helium, and heavier elements come later. The only fusion reactions that we have been able to produce on the earth are uncontrolled reactions known as hydrogen bombs. The destructive force of these explosions gives insight into the enormous energies released in the core of the sun. Nuclear fusion could be used as a nearly limitless supply of energy on the earth; however, we are not yet able to create the necessary conditions on Earth for controlled fusion reactions.

A Spectacular, Mediocre Star

In terms of its size, mass and energy released, the sun is by far the most spectacular body in the solar system. With a radius of 22.8 X108 feet (6.96 X108 m), it is 100 times larger than the earth. Imagine yourself standing in a room with a golf ball. If the golf ball is the earth, the sun would touch the eight-foot ceiling. With a mass of 1.99 1030 kg, the sun is 300,000 times more massive than the earth. And with a surface temperature of 5,780 K (compared to the earth’s average 290 K surface temperature), the sun would melt or vaporize any matter we know.

What’s Sun Made Of?

The sun is mostly hydrogen (about 73 percent of the total mass) and helium (25 percent). Other elements are found in much smaller amounts, adding up to just under two percent of the sun’s mass. These include carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur, and iron. Over 50 other elements are found in trace amounts. There is nothing unique about the presence of these particular elements; they are the same ones that are distributed throughout the solar system and the universe. In particular, hydrogen atoms of the sun’s core plow into one another to create helium atoms. In the process, a little mass is converted into energy. That little bit of energy for each collision means enormous amounts of energy when we count all of the collisions that occur in the core of the sun. The fact that c is a very large number means that a tiny amount of mass results in a very large amount of energy. With this energy source, the sun is expected to last not a thousand years, or even 100 million years, but about 8 to 10 billion years, typical for a star with the sun’s mass.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Solar Furnace

Greek philosopher Anaximenes of Miletus believed the sun, like other stars, was a great ball of fire. His was an important insight, but not entirely accurate. The sun is not so simple. In terms of human experience, the sun is an unfailing source of energy. Where does all of that energy come from? In the nineteenth century, scientists knew of two possible sources: thermal heat (like a candle burning) and gravitational energy. The problem with thermal energy is that even the sun doesn’t have enough mass to produce energy the way a candle does—at least, not for billions of years. Calculations showed that the sun “burning” chemically, would last only a few thousand years.
While a sun that was a few thousand years old might have pleased some theologians at the time, there was a variety of evidence showing that the earth was much older.
So scientists turned their attention to gravitational energy, that is, the conversion of gravitational energy into heat. The theory went this way: As the sun condensed out of the solar nebula, its atoms fell inward and collided more frequently as they got more crowded. These higher velocities and collisions converted gravitational energy into heat. Gravitational energy could power the sun’s output at its current rate for about 100 million years.
But when it started to become clear that the earth was much older (geological evidence showed that it was at least 3.5 billion years old), scientists went back to the drawing board. The nineteenth century ended without an understanding of the source of energy in the sun.

Understanding Sun

An evening spent looking up under dark skies will convince you that stars can be breathtaking in their loveliness. We can appreciate why, for thousands of years, human beings thought that the stars were embedded in a perfect sphere, spinning and changeless. Yet, because of their great distance, theirs is a remote beauty. Many amateur astronomers are disappointed to discover that stars (other than the sun) look pretty much the same through even the best telescope. Our common sense sees little similarity between the distant, featureless points of light against a sable sky and the great yellow disk of daytime, whose brilliance overwhelms our vision and warms our world. Yet, of course, our sun is a star—and, as stars go, not a particularly remarkable one. We now turn our attention to the very center of our solar system, the parent of the terrestrial and jovian planets and their rings and moons. We have spent the last three chapters discussing the planets and their moons. But taken together, these objects represent only 0.1 percent of the mass of the solar system. The other 99.9 percent of the mass is found in the sun. Peoples of many times and cultures have worshipped the sun as the source of all life, and in some sense, they were right. The sun is our furnace and our light bulb: the ultimate source of most energy and light here on the earth. And because it contains almost all of the mass, it is the gravitational anchor of the solar system. Indeed, its very matter is ours. The early sun was the hot center of a swirling disk of gas and dust from which the solar system formed some 4.6 billion years ago. If the sun were a cake, the earth and the rest of the planets would be some flour left on the counter. But the sun is only one star in a galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars. Astronomers feel fortunate that the sun is so nondescript a citizen of the galaxy. It is, of course, the star closest to us and its very averageness lets us generalize about the many stars that lie far beyond our reach. In this chapter we examine our own star, and begin to explore how the sun (and stars in general) generate the enormous energies that they do.

Where Did Pluto Come From?

Except that it doesn’t orbit another planet—and, indeed, has a moon of its own—Pluto looks more like a jovian moon than a planet. It fits into neither the terrestrial nor jovian mold. Some astronomers believe that Pluto is really a renegade moon, escaped from Neptune’s gravitational influence due to a collision or interaction involving Triton, Pluto, Charon, and Nereid. Others regard it as a kind of spare part, something left over from the creation of the solar system, and perhaps only one of a number of such objects in the outer reaches of the solar system, the Kuiper Belt.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Charon, the Moon of Pluto

If, having been discovered in 1930, Pluto was a late addition to our known solar system, its moon, Charon, is almost brand new, having been found in 1978. Named, fittingly, for the mythological ferryman who rowed the dead across the River Styx to the underworld ruled by Pluto, Charon is a little more than half the size of its parent: 806 miles (1,300 km) in diameter versus Pluto’s 1,426 miles (2,300 km). Orbiting 12,214 miles (19,700 km) from Pluto, it takes 6.4 Earth days to make one circuit. Pluto and Charon are tidally locked—forever facing one another; the orbital period and rotation period for both are synchronized at 6.4 days. Like Venus and Uranus, Pluto’s rotation is retrograde spinning on its axis in the opposite direction of most of the planets.

A Dozen More Moons in the Outer Solar System

Thanks to Voyager, the six medium-sized moons of Saturn have also been explored. All of these bodies are tidally locked with Saturn, their orbits synchronous, so that they show but one face to their parent planet. They are frozen worlds, mostly rock and water ice. The most distant from Saturn, Iapetus, orbits some 2,207,200 miles (3,560,000 km) from its parent. Because these moons orbit synchronously, astronomers speak of their leading faces and trailing faces. That one face always looks in the direction of the orbit and the other in the opposite direction has created asymmetrical surface features on some of these moons. The leading face of Iapetus, for example, is very dark, while the trailing face is quite light. While some astronomers suggest that the dark material covering this moon’s leading face is generated internally, others believe that Iapetus sweeps up the dust it encounters.
The innermost moon of Saturn, Mimas is 115,320 miles (186,000 km) out. It is also the smallest of Saturn’s moons, with a radius of just 124 miles (200 km). Mimas is very close to Saturn’s rings and seems to have been battered by material associated with them. Heavily cratered overall, this small moon has one enormous crater named for the astronomer William Herschel, which makes it resemble the “Death Star” commanded by Darth Vader in Star Wars. Whatever caused this impact probably came close to shattering Mimas. Indeed, some astronomers believe that similar impacts may have created some of the debris that formed Saturn’s great rings. The Cassini mission will add greatly to our knowledge of these moons and rings. The Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn and its mysterious moon Titan was launched on October 15, 1997.
The spacecraft will separate into two parts as it approaches Saturn, sending the Huygens Titan probe on a mission to the surface of the atmosphereenshrouded moon. The mission will study the magnetosphere of Saturn, the planet Saturn itself and its atmosphere and rings, the moon Titan, and finally the other icy moons that orbit the planet. If there were any worries about the performance of the spacecraft, or what it will do when it arrives at Saturn on July 1, 2004, they were substantially allayed in early 2001 when the Cassini-Huygens Mission sped past Jupiter, snapping pictures of the gas giant. You can check on the progress of the mission and view its photos of Jupiter at
The medium-sized moons of Uranus are Miranda, orbiting 80,600 miles (130,000 km) above the planet; Ariel, 118,400 miles (191,000 km) out; Umbriel, 164,900 miles (266,000 km) out; Titania, 270,300 miles (436,000 km) out; and Oberon, 361,500 miles (583,000 km) out. Of these, the most remarkable is Miranda, which, in contrast to the other moons, is extremely varied geographically, with ridges, valleys, and ovalshaped faults. To the camera of Voyager 2, it presented a chaotic, violently fractured, cobbled-together surface unlike that of any other moon in the solar system. Clearly, this moon had a violent past, though it is unclear whether the disruptions it suffered came from within, without, or both. Some astronomers believe that Miranda was virtually shattered, its pieces coming back together in a near-jumble.

Triton, Neptune’s Large Moon

Triton’s distinction among the jovian moons is a retrograde (backward) orbit—in the reverse direction of the other moons. Moreover, Triton is inclined on its axis about 20 degrees and is the only large jovian moon that does not orbit in the equatorial plane of its planet. Many astronomers believe that these peculiarities are the result of some violent event, perhaps a collision. Others suggest that Triton did not form as part of the Neptunian system of moons, but was captured later by the planet’s gravitational field.
Triton’s atmosphere is so thin that Voyager 2 had no trouble imaging the moon’s surface, finding vast lakes of water ice or water-ammonia mixtures there. Nitrogen frost, found at the polar caps, appears to retreat and reforms seasonally.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Titan: Saturn’s Highly Atmospheric Moon

If Io is the most geologically active moon in the solar system and Ganymede the largest, Saturn’s Titan enjoys the distinction of having the most substantial atmosphere of any moon. No wispy, trace covering, Titan’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen (90 percent) and argon (nearly 10 percent) with traces of methane and other gases in an atmosphere thicker than the earth’s. The earth’s atmosphere consists of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and 1 percent argon. Surface pressure on Titan is about 1.5 times that of the earth. But its surface is very cold, about 90 K. Remember 90 K is –183 C!
Titan’s atmosphere prevents any visible-light view of the surface, though astronomers speculate that the interior of Titan is probably a rocky core surrounded by ice, much like Ganymede and Callisto. Because Titan’s temperature is lower than that of Jupiter’s large moons, it has retained its atmosphere. The presence of an atmosphere thick with organic molecules (carbon monoxide, nitrogen compounds, and various hydrocarbons have been detected in the upper atmosphere) has led to speculation that Titan might support some form of life.

Jupiter’s Four Galilean Moons

The four large moons of Jupiter are very large, ranging in size from Europa, only a bit smaller than the earth’s moon, to Ganymede, which is larger than the planet Mercury. Certainly, they are large enough to have been discovered even through the crude telescope of Galileo Galilei, after whom they have been given their group name. In his notebooks, Galileo called the moons simply I, II, III, and IV. Fortunately, they were eventually given more poetic names, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, drawn from Roman mythology. These four are, appropriately, the attendants serving the god Jupiter.
Io is closest to Jupiter, orbiting at an average distance of 261,640 miles (421,240 km);
Europa comes next (416,020 miles or 669,792 km); then Ganymede (663,400 miles or 1,068,074 km); and finally Callisto (1,165,600 miles or 1,876,616 km). Intriguingly, data from Galileo suggests that the core of Io is metallic, and its outer layers rocky—much like the planets closest to the sun. Europa has a rocky core, with a covering of ice and water. The two outer large moons, Ganymede and Callisto, also have more icy surfaces surrounding rocky cores.
This pattern of decreasing density with distance from the central body mimics that of the solar system at large, in which the densest planets, those with metallic cores, orbit nearest the sun, while those composed of less dense materials orbit farthest away. This similarity is no mere coincidence and can be used to discover more about how the Jupiter “system” formed and evolved.
Let’s look briefly at each of Jupiter’s large moons.
Because of our own moon, we are accustomed to thinking of moons generally as geologically dead places. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Io, which has the distinction of being the most geologically active object in the solar system. Io’s spectacularly active volcanoes continually spew lava, which keeps the surface of Io relatively smooth—any craters are quickly filled in—but also angry-looking, vivid orange and yellow, sulfurous. In truth, Io is much too small to generate the kind of heat energy that produces vulcanism (volcanic activity); however, orbiting as close as it does to Jupiter, it is subjected to the giant planet’s tremendous gravitational field, which produces tidal forces.These forces stretch the planet from its spherical shape and create the geologically unsettled conditions on Io. Think about what happens when you rapidly squeeze a small rubber ball. The action soon makes the ball quite warm. The forces exerted on Io by Jupiter are analogous to this, but on a titanic scale. Don’t invest in an Io globe for your desk. Its surface features change even faster than political boundaries on the earth! In contrast to Io, Europa is a cold world—but probably not an entirely frozen world, and perhaps, therefore, not a dead world. Images from Galileo suggest that Europa is covered by a crust of water ice, which is networked with cracks and ridges. It is possible that beneath this frozen crust is an ocean of liquid water (not frozen water or water vapor). Liquid water is certainly a requisite of life on Earth, though the presence of water does not dictate the existence of life. Still, the prospects are most exciting. Europa may be a literal lifeboat in the outer solar system, although before we get our hopes up, we need to realize just how cold Europa is at 130 K and how thin its atmosphere is—at a pressure approximately one billionth that on Earth. Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system (bigger than the planet Mercury). Its surface shows evidence of subsurface ice that was liquefied by the impact of asteroids and then refrozen. Callisto is smaller but similar in composition. Both are ancient worlds of water ice, impacted by craters. There is little evidence of the current presence of liquid water on these moons.

Moons of Gas Giants

One of the key differences between the terrestrial and many jovian planets is that, while the terrestrials have few if any moons, the jovians each have several: 16 (at least) for Jupiter, over 25 for Saturn, 15 for Uranus, and 8 for Neptune. Of these known moons, only 6 are classified as large bodies, comparable in size to the earth’s moon. Our own moon is all the more remarkable when compared to the moons of the much larger jovian planets. It is larger than all of the known moons except for Ganymede, Titan, Callisto, and Io. The largest Jovian moons (in order of decreasing radius) are …

➤ Ganymede orbits Jupiter; approximate radius: 1,630 miles (2,630 km)
➤ Titan orbits Saturn; approximate radius: 1,600 miles (2,580 km)
➤ Callisto orbits Jupiter; approximate radius: 1,488 miles (2,400 km)
➤ Io orbits Jupiter; approximate radius: 1,130 miles (1,820 km)
➤ Europa orbits Jupiter; approximate radius: 973 miles (1,570 km)
➤ Triton orbits Neptune; approximate radius: 856 miles (1,380 km)

It is interesting to compare these to the earth’s moon, with a radius of about 1,079 miles (1,740 km), and the planet Pluto, smaller than them all, with a radius of 713 miles (1,150 km).
The rest of the moons are either medium-sized bodies—with radii from 124 miles (200 km) to 465 miles (750 km)—or small bodies, with radii of less than 93 miles (150 km). Many of the moons are either entirely or mostly composed of water ice, and some of the smallest bodies are no more than irregularly shaped rock and ice chunks. Thanks to the Voyager and Galileo space probes, we have some remarkable images and data about the moons at the far end of our solar system. Those that have received the most attention, since they are the largest, are the so-called Galilean moons of Jupiter; Saturn’s Titan; and Neptune’s Triton. They were first observed in 1610 by Galileo Galilei.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

More Rings on the Far Planets

During a 1977 Earth-based observation of Uranus in the course of a stellar occultation (the passage of Uranus in front of the star), the star’s light dimmed several times before disappearing behind the planet. That dimming of the star’s light revealed the presence of nine thin, faint rings around the planet. Voyager 2 revealed another pair. Uranus’s rings are very narrow—most of them less than 6 miles (10 km) wide—and are kept together by the kind of shepherd satellites that are found outside of Saturn’s F ring. Neptune has rings similar to those of Uranus.

Looking at Saturn with Voyager

The Voyager probes told us much more about the rings than we could have discovered from our earthly perspective.
First, data from Voyager confirmed that the rings are indeed made up of particles, primarily of water ice. Voyager also revealed additional rings, invisible from an earthly perspective. The F ring is more than twice the size of the A ring, stretching out to 186,000 miles.
The D ring is the innermost ring—closer to the planet than the innermost ring visible from the earth, the C ring. F and E are outside of the A ring.
But these additional rings are only part of what
Voyager told us. Voyager 2 revealed that the six major rings are composed of many thousands of individual ringlets, which astronomers liken to ripples or waves in the rings.
Voyager 2 also revealed many gaps within the rings, which are believed to be caused by small moonlets, which may be considered very large ring particles—a few miles in diameter—in orbit around Saturn. The gaps are, in effect, the wake of these bodies. Perhaps the most remarkable Voyager discovery concerning Saturn’s rings concerns the outermost F ring. Its structure is highly complex, sometimes appearing braided. Apparently, the structure of the F ring is influenced by two small outlying moons that bracket the ring called shepherd satellites, which seem to keep the F ring particles from moving in or out.

Looking at the Saturn from Earth

Galileo’s telescope, a wondrous device in 1610, would be no match even for a decent amateur instrument today. When he first observed the planet, all Galileo could tell about Saturn was that it seemed to have “ears.” He speculated that this feature might be topographical, great mountain ranges of some sort. Or perhaps that Saturn was a triple planet system. It wasn’t until a half-century later, in 1656, that Christian Huygens, of the Netherlands, was able to make out this feature for what it was: a thin ring encircling the planet. A few years later, in the 1670s, the Italian-born French astronomer Gian Domenico Cassini (1625–1712) discovered the dark gap between what are now called rings A and B. This feature is now called the Cassini division.
Six major rings, all lying in the equatorial plane of Saturn, have been identified, of
which three, in addition to the Cassini division and a subtler demarcation called the
Encke division, can be seen from the earth with a good telescope. With a typical amateur
instrument you should be able to see ring A (the outermost ring), the Cassini division, and inside the Cassini division, ring B.
If you become a serious Saturn observer, you will notice that the rings of Saturn are seen at different angles at different times. Sometimes we look down on the top of the ring system, and at other times we see
it “edge-on.” When the angle is right, it is possible to see the dramatic image of Saturn’s shadow cast onto its rings. Consult any of the guides in Appendix E for information on where to look for Saturn and when to view it.
The rings readily visible from the earth are vast, the outer radius of the A ring stretching more than 84,800 miles.
Big as the rings are, they are also very thin—in places only about 65 feet (20 m) thick. If you wanted to make an accurate scale model of the rings and fashioned them to the thickness of this sheet of paper, they would have to be a mile wide to remain in proper scale.
Speculation as to the composition of the rings began with their discovery in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1857, James Clerk Maxwell, the British physicist who had been critical of the nebular hypothesis of the formation of the solar system, concluded that the rings must consist of many small particles in orbit around Saturn. By the end of the century, the instrumentation existed to measure reflectivity, the differences in the way sunlight was reflected from the rings. These observations showed that the rings behaved as was to be expected if they were made up of particles; that is, orbital speeds closer to the planet were faster than those farther out—they were in differential rotation, not rotating as a solid disk might.
Where do the rings come from? There are two ways to think about the question, and both involve the gravitational field of the host planet. First, the rings may be the result of a shattered moon. According to this theory, a satellite could have been orbiting too close to the planet and have been torn apart by tidal forces (the same sort of forces that pulled comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into pieces), or it might have been shattered by a collision. In either case, the fragments of the former moon continued to orbit the planet, but now as fragmentary material. The other possibility is that the rings are material left over from the formation of the planet itself, material that was never able to coalesce into planets due to the strong gravitational field of the host planet.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Jovian Magnetospheres

Jupiter’s magnetosphere is the most powerful in the solar system. Its extent reaches some 18,600,000 miles (30 million km) north to south. Saturn has a magnetosphere that extends about 600,000 miles (1 million km) toward the sun. The magnetospheres of Uranus and Neptune are smaller, weaker, and (strangely) offset from the gravitational center of the planets.
The rapid rate of rotation and the theorized presence of electrically conductive metallic hydrogen inside Jupiter and Saturn account for the generation of these planets’ strong magnetic fields. While Uranus and Neptune also rotate rapidly, it is less clear what internal material generates the magnetic fields surrounding these planets, since they are not thought to have metallic hydrogen in their cores. With charged particles trapped by their magnetospheres, the jovian planets experience Aurora Borealis, or “Northern Lights,” just as we do here on Earth. These “lights” occur when charged particles escape the magnetosphere and spiral along the field lines onto the planet’s poles. The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged such auroras at the poles of Jupiter and Saturn.

Inside the Jovians

How do you gather information about the interior of planets that lack a solid surface and that are so different from the earth? You combine the best observational data you have with testable, constrained speculation known as theoretical modeling. Doing just this, astronomers have concluded that the interiors of all four jovians consist largely of the elements found in their atmospheres: hydrogen and helium. As we go deeper into the planet, the gases, at increasing pressure and temperature, become liquid. In the case of Jupiter, it is believed that the hot liquid hydrogen is transformed from molecular hydrogen to metallic hydrogen and behaves much like a molten metal, in which electrons are not bound to a single nucleus, but move freely, conducting electrical charge. As we shall see in just a moment, this state of hydrogen is likely related to the creation of Jupiter’s magnetosphere—the result of its powerful magnetic field. Astronomers are less confident about the nature of the very core of Jupiter, though most believe that it is a rocky core the diameter of the earth. Of course, the incredible temperatures and pressures at this depth in Jupiter mean that the material in the core might behave very differently from materials that we have studied on Earth. Saturn’s internal composition is doubtless similar to Jupiter’s, though its layer of metallic hydrogen is probably proportionately thinner, while its core is slightly larger. Temperature and pressure at the Saturnine core are certainly less extreme than on Jupiter.
Uranus and Neptune are believed to have rocky cores of similar size to those of Jupiter
and Saturn surrounded by a slushy layer consisting of water clouds and, perhaps, the
ammonia that is largely absent from the outer atmosphere of these planets. Because
Uranus and Neptune have significant magnetospheres, some scientists speculate that the ammonia might create an electrically conducting layer, needed to generate the detected magnetic field.
Above the slushy layer is molecular hydrogen. Without the enormous internal pressures present in Jupiter and Saturn, the hydrogen does not assume a metallic form.

The Atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune

The atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune have not been probed by unmanned space vehicles, but they have been studied spectroscopically from the earth, revealing that, like Jupiter and Saturn, they are mostly hydrogen (about 84 percent) and helium (about 14 percent). Methane makes up about 3 percent of Neptune’s atmosphere, and 2 percent of Uranus’s, but ammonia is far less in abundance on either planet than on Jupiter and Saturn. Because Uranus and Neptune are colder and have much lower atmospheric pressure than the larger planets, any ammonia present is frozen. The lack of ammonia in the atmosphere and the significant presence of methane give both Uranus and Neptune a bluish appearance, since methane absorbs red light and reflects blue. Uranus, with slightly less methane than Neptune, is blue-green, while Neptune is quite blue.
Uranus reveals almost no atmospheric features. Those that are there are submerged under layers of haze. Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2, reveals more atmospheric features and even some storm systems, including a Great Dark Spot, an area of storm comparable in size to the earth. Discovered by Voyager 2 in 1989, the Great Dark Spot had vanished by the time the Hubble Space Telescope observed the planet in 1994.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jupiter's Layers of Gas

On July 13, 1995, Galileo released an atmospheric probe, which plunged into Jupiter’s atmosphere and transmitted data for almost an hour before it was destroyed by intense atmospheric heat and pressure. After analysis of this data (and earlier data from Voyager), astronomers concluded that Jupiter’s atmosphere is arranged in distinct layers. Since there is no solid surface to call sea level, the troposphere (the region containing the clouds we see) is considered zero altitude, and the atmosphere is mapped in positive and negative distances from this. Just above the troposphere is a haze layer, and just below it are white clouds of ammonia ice. Temperatures in this region are 125–150 K. Starting at about –40 miles (60 km) below the ammonia ice level is a cloud layer of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, in which temperatures climb to 200 K. Below this level are clouds of water ice and water vapor, down to about –60 miles (100 km). Further down are the substances that make up the interior of the planet: hydrogen, helium, methane, ammonia, and water, with temperatures steadily rising the deeper we go.

Bands of Atmosphere

The atmospheric bands that are Jupiter’s most striking feature are the result of convective motion and zonal wind patterns. Warm gases rise, while cooler gases sink. The location of particular bands appear to be associated with the wind speed on Jupiter at various latitudes.
Anyone who watches an earthly television weather forecast is familiar with high-pressure and lowpressure areas. Air masses move from high pressure regions to low pressure regions. But we never see these regions on the earth as regular zones or bands that circle the planet. That’s because the earth doesn’t rotate nearly as fast as Jupiter. The rapid rotation of the giant planet spreads the regions of high and low pressure out over the entire planet.

The Great Red Spot

The Great Red Spot was first reported by the British scientist Robert Hooke (1635–1703). It is a storm, a swirling hurricane or whirlpool, of gigantic dimensions (twice the size of the earth), at least 300 years old. It rotates once every six days and is accompanied by other smaller storms. Neptune has a similar storm called the Great Dark Spot.
How could a storm last for three centuries or more?
We know from our experience on the earth that hurricanes form over the ocean and may remain active there for days. Once they move over land, however, they are soon spent (albeit often destructively); the land mass disrupts the flow pattern and removes the source of energy. On Jupiter, however, there is no land. Once a storm starts, it continues indefinitely, until a larger storm disrupts it. The Great Red Spot is the biggest storm on the planet.