Water, Mars & Herschel (everyone else can, why can’t we?)

[tweetmeme only_single=false service=wp.me source=allinthegutter]

The first set of results from the Herschel Space Telescope have been flooding out over the past couple of weeks*, so it’s about time they got a mention here. Rather than rehashing one of the many press releases, I thought I’d focus on an interesting result that I doubt will get much attention – the detection of water vapour (and carbon monoxide) on Mars with the spectrometer within the SPIRE instrument.

I have to be upfront about this; the reason why you probably won’t hear much about this is that detecting water on Mars, whilst important for understanding its water cycle, is nothing new, though it is only present in small amounts (900 parts per million according to these observations). It was first seen in the Martian atmosphere in 1963, and since then has been extensively studied with many different observatories. The Opportunity rover even sent back images of cirrus clouds that are very similar to those we see here on Earth:

So what is special about these Herschel observations? Well, the telescope was never expected to be able to make them, because Mars is around 100 times brighter than SPIRE was designed to cope with. (Imagine taking a picture with your digital camera in the direction of the Sun on a really sunny day – the image you get looks overexposed because the excess light has overloaded (saturated) it.) However, the instrument team, led by Bruce Swinyard, didn’t let that stop them – they found a way to ‘desensitize’ the detectors in the instrument and avoid this saturation problem, enabling the water vapour to be seen.

This might not be as flashy as some of the other early results from Herschel but it does illustrate how well its been performing over this first year. This new ‘bright source’ mode will open up new targets to observe that were previously thought impossible and personally I think that’s something worth mentioning!

* For more Herschel results have a look at this audio slideshow from the BBC. There’s also this movie from the European Space Agency celebrating Herschel’s first year in space:

Image credits: NASA

ResearchBlogging.orgB. M. Swinyard, P. Hartogh, S. Sidher, T. Fulton, E. Lellouch, C. Jarchow, M. J. Griffin, R. Moreno, H. Sagawa, G. Portyankina, M. Blecka, M. Banaszkiewicz, D. Bockelee-Morvan, J. Crovisier, T. Encrenaz, M. Kueppers, L. Lara, D. Lis, A. Medvedev, M. Renge, S. Szutowicz, B. Vandenbussche, F. Bensch, E. Bergin, F. Billebaud, N. Biver, G. Blake, J. Blommaert, M. de Val-Borro, J. Cernicharo, T. Cavalie, R. Courtin, G. Davis, L. Decin, P. Encrenaz, T. de Graauw, E. Jehin, M. Kidger, S. Leeks, G. Orton, D. Naylor, R. Schieder, D. Stam, N. Thomas, E. Verdugo, C. Waelkens, & H. Walker (2010). The Herschel-SPIRE submillimetre spectrum of Mars to appear in the Herschel Special Issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics arXiv: 1005.4579v1

Guest post: Dr Chris Evans – behind an unexpected discovery

[tweetmeme only_single=false service=”wp.me” source=”allinthegutter”]

The internet has been abuzz this week with news of a recently discovered massive star being booted from its home cluster. I have the good fortune to know one of the scientists involved in this discovery and have asked him to give us an insight in what went in to this find.

So without further delay I introduce our first guest post from Dr Chris Evans, a researcher at the UK Astronomy Technology Center.

Pick a clear night in the southern hemisphere, get out of town, and let your eyes get night adjusted – not only are you assailed by the depth and scale of the Milky Way, but you also see the faint fuzzy patches of the Magellanic Clouds.  Here’s a pretty spectacular shot from ESO, when Comet McNaught was visible.

These are two irregular galaxies outside of our own, only visible from the south, with distances of 160,000 light years to the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), and 195,000 to the Small Magellanic Cloud.  These are great laboratories for learning about how stars live their lives, from birth in beautiful nebulae, to their deaths, sometimes as spectacular supernovae explosions.

The fruits of some of our work in the Clouds came together early this year with some very cool new observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, leading to a journal paper and a press release on a so-called “runaway” star, that we think has been ejected from the centre of the largest stellar nursery in the local universe, 30 Doradus.

Astronomers often have unpublished data from projects that were incomplete due to bad weather, people leaving the subject, the onslaught of more immediate deadlines and so on.  In our case, we had two observations of a bright blue star on the western edge of 30 Doradus; the much bigger project we had planned was thwarted by bad weather. Months later at a conference, Nolan Walborn, based at STScI in Baltimore, was looking through the observations and recognised the tell-tale signs of one of the most massive, rare types of stars called O2 stars. Even with all of our work over the past decades we still only know of a handful of these.  A journalist once asked me if they lived fast and died young?  It’s a cheesy but accurate description. After just a few million years they effectively run out of fuel in their cores, causing a fatal collapse of their atmospheres leading to a supernova explosion. Intriguingly, the speed of this O2 star (relative to the Sun) looked peculiar when compared to the rest of the LMC, but at the time we dimissed this as perhaps being a binary system.

Cut to 2009… NASA launched the fifth servicing mission to the HST which installed some new instruments, as well as giving Hubble some much needed TLC (new batteries and gyroscopes) to keep it going for a few more years.  One of these new instruments was the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which takes spectra at ultraviolet wavelengths.

Our O2 star was used as one of the calibration targets immediately after the servicing mission, using some of the spectral lines to help focus COS. Nolan contacted me the moment he saw the data as the COS observation tells us that this star has a stellar wind that accelerates up to a velocity of 3450km/s – that’s 1% of the speed of light just from the processes in the atmosphere of the star, some acceleration!

By chance, the star was also observed as part of a new survey that over thirty of us across Europe (and beyond) are working on, the VLT-FLAMES Tarantula Survey, in which we’ve observed 1000 stars in that part of the LMC. It’s rare you have a real “eureka” moment of discovery, but this was one of them.

The new data, taken over the course of a year, show no changes in the velocity of the star, ruling out a massive binary companion. This tells us that its velocity is very different to the local gas, suggesting it was not formed locally and that it has been ejected from the dense core of 30 Dor, thought to be home of some of the most massive stars known. Theoreticians think that runaway stars like ours can either be ejected via interactions with other stars or via the kick of a supernova explosion. The key to this story is that the cluster at the centre of 30 Dor is thought to be too young to have hosted any supernovae, suggesting this as the first compelling evidence for a star booted-out by more massive stars.

C. J. Evans, N. R. Walborn, P. A. Crowther, V. Henault-Brunet, D. Massa, W. D. Taylor, I. D. Howarth, H. Sana, D. J. Lennon, & J. Th. van Loon (2010). A massive runaway star from 30 Doradus The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 715 (2) arXiv: 1004.5402v1

Hunt for missing spacecraft

This morning sees the launch of the newest project from the zooniverse team, moonzoo ! Using high resolution images from the LCROSS mission, we want people to help us map craters, find unusual structures and help find lost spacecraft. Turns out we dont know where a bunch of stuff we sent to the moon is, LCROSS is the first mission with a high enough resolution to be able to see manmade objects on the surface of the moon. We covered this mission before but now its your turn to pour over the stunning images of the moons surface.

so head over to www.moonzoo.org and happy hunting.

[tweetmeme only_single=false service=”wp.me” source=”allinthegutter”]

Astronomy photographer of the year guest gallery

Hey all

Just a quick heads up to advertise a great project run by Greenwich Royal Observatory. The astronomy photographer of the year competition invites members of the public to submit their images of the night sky.

This year they are asking guest astronomers to curate flicker galleries of their favourite entries and have asked me to take part this month. You can find my gallery and links to the flicker pool at here. I cant heap enough praise on the entries, pretty much all of the images are simply stunning and it was a hard job to pick just 18!



oops forgot to include the link


[tweetmeme only_single=false service=http://www.facebook.com/l/6a9bb;wp.me source=allinthegutter]

Building a telescope (live tweeting)

Hey everyone

So this morning I head out to a field in Chilbolton to help build the UK node of the LOFAR radio telescope. Today we will be helping lay cabling for the scope and you can, if my iphone battery holds out and signal at the site is good, follow the effort on twitter @allinthegutter. I will have a blog post in the next few days about it as well.

Wish me luck