Sunday, October 2, 2016

Recent space discoveries reveal more of God's greatness

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
Psalms 8:3-4

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Psalms 19:1

Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. Revelation 4:11

Although the scientific establishment insists on trying to see the universe through the lens of evolution, it makes more sense to see the discoveries reported in the items below as evidence of God's creativity. While the achivements of the scientists and engineers are impressive, I'm more impressed by the God who created these heavenly bodies in the first place.

As reported by Associated Press, September 15, 2016:

CAPE CANAVERAL (USA): A new study finds that Pluto is ``spray-painting'' the red poles of its big moon Charon.

The paint is actually Pluto's continually escaping atmosphere. Methane and other gases from Pluto end up coating Charon's frozen poles, which are so cold and where winters are so long that this buildup remains for decades.

A chemical transformation, via solar radiation, turns the polar caps a dark red.

Planetary scientist Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, bases his findings on observations last year by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.

The study was reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday, 14 months to the day after New Horizons' historic flyby of Pluto.

Grundy, lead author of the paper, called it a new phenomenon for scientists.

``It's almost like Pluto is a graffiti artist, spray-painting Charon's poles with its escaping atmosphere, leaving planet-scale colored spots,'' Grundy said in an email. ``This sort of thing might not be unusual among double planets, but we never had a close look at such a system until New Horizons flew through the Pluto system last year.''

He and other scientists- including New Horizons' principal scientist Alan Stern- were curious as to how such a large surface feature became such a conspicuous color.

``This study solves one of the greatest mysteries we found on Charon,'' Stern, a co-author on the paper, said in a statement. It opens up the possibility that other small bodies in this faraway twilight zone known as the Kuiper Belt may be undergoing the same thing, he noted.

Pluto's little moon Nix, for example, has a reddish spot. But it orbits farther from Pluto and is so small that the so-called spray-painting wouldn't be nearly as efficient, according to the study.

Meanwhile, a second study finds Pluto is emitting X-rays.

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory detected the low-energy rays last year. Until then, the most distant body in the solar system with detected X-ray emission was the ringed Saturn system, according to scientists. The source of Pluto's X-rays is still a mystery.

The X-ray findings were announced Wednesday.
Click on the link to see the abstract and references for the original article The formation of Charon’s red poles from seasonally cold-trapped volatiles in Nature, published online September 14, 2016.

As reported by Daniel Garisto of Eos, September 28, 2016 (bold, links in original):

What could be towering plumes of water vapor that rise as high as 200 kilometers above the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa appear as no more than a few grainy pixels when viewed from Earth. Nonetheless, such images from the Hubble Space Telescope unveiled on Monday strengthen previous evidence that these otherworldly fountains do exist.

The results, to be published in the Astrophysical Journal later this month, add to a long saga of interest in Europa. Ever since the Galileo mission discovered Europa’s subsurface ocean in 1996, Europa has held the attention of both scientists and nonscientists as a space oddity—notably, one that might have the potential for life because of its liquid water.

If these plumes do exist, they would likely open the door to other avenues of investigation, according to Louise Prockter, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.

“It’s potentially great if [the images] do show plumes from Europa … because that means Europa’s subsurface is coming to us. We could sample the subsurface material without digging through ice,” she said in an interview. Prockter, a former member of the Galileo Europa Mission, didn’t participate in the new Hubble observations.

Taking a Different View

The team of scientists, led by William Sparks, a researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., used a novel method to acquire an independent corroboration of the plumes that they say is statistically significant.

The plumes were discovered by Lorenz Roth and his coauthors in 2012 when they surveyed a silhouette of Europa against the background of space for spectral lines of hydrogen and oxygen—indicators of water. Sparks and his colleagues, however, made their observations as Europa passed in front of its mother planet Jupiter, as Sparks explained at the press conference.

Exoplanet discoverers commonly use this method, called transit photometry, to find their quarry against the backdrop of the star it orbits. The technique relies on a simple principle: When an object moves in front of a light source, it blocks out part of that light. The amount of this occlusion can tell observers about the exoplanet, in much the same way that a shadow can tell them about the object that cast it.

Here the task was slightly different. Sparks and his team used Jupiter as a light source but went beyond just detecting dimmed light. Instead, Jupiter’s glow provided a sufficiently smooth background against which potential plumes from Europa could be viewed.

The team took its photos of Europa’s transit of Jupiter in 2014, but processing them to achieve adequate resolution to spot the plumes took months and months. By using a method different from that used for the original discovery, Sparks and his team gave further credence to the possibility that the plumes exist. “These are different approaches, but they complement each other,” senior Hubble project scientist Jennifer Wiseman said during the press conference. Wiseman did not participate in the research but served as the project’s Hubble science expert.

Three of the 10 images the team made show signs of plumes, all in the same region. Still, Sparks urged caution, warning that the result was not 100% verifiable, in part because Hubble is at its technological limits and lacks the capacity to observe in greater resolution.

But most scientists are in agreement that at the very least, the results are cause for optimism. “Now, an independent group using an independent technique seemed to have detected the same thing in more or less the same place,” said Francis Nimmo, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a collaborator on the first sightings in 2012.

In this video, NASA explains how techniques used in 2012 and in these newer observations, although different, both yielded evidence of possible water plumes on Europa.



Uncovering Mysteries

If Europa’s plumes are really there, they could potentially reveal the secrets of the subsurface ocean to which they may be connected. They could also possibly help expand scientists’ understanding of how planets, and icy satellites in particular, form and continue to exist, according to Nimmo. He is also an editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, a publication, as is Eos.org, of the American Geophysical Union.

Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, had its own plumes confirmed about a decade ago. “What it’s telling you is it’s not too hard for icy bodies to hang on to their oceans,” he said. “Enceladus is tiny, yet somehow, it has an ocean and that ocean has presumably lasted for billions of years.”

Although NASA plans to send a spacecraft to Europa in the next decade and the James Webb Space Telescope promises better views of the moon after it becomes operational in 2018, scientists are relying until then on the Hubble Space Telescope for their sharpest views of Europa.

“We can’t fly a mission up close, so the next best thing is to use the Hubble Space Telescope to study Europa from afar,” said the director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, Paul Hertz, at the press conference.
As reported by the European Space Agency, September 30, 2016 (links in original):

ESA’s historic Rosetta mission has concluded as planned, with the controlled impact onto the comet it had been investigating for more than two years.

Confirmation of the end of the mission arrived at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany at 11:19 GMT (13:19 CEST) with the loss of Rosetta’s signal upon impact.

Rosetta carried out its final manoeuvre last night at 20:50 GMT (22:50 CEST), setting it on a collision course with the comet from an altitude of about 19 km. Rosetta had targeted a region on the small lobe of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, close to a region of active pits in the Ma’at region.

The descent gave Rosetta the opportunity to study the comet’s gas, dust and plasma environment very close to its surface, as well as take very high-resolution images.

Pits are of particular interest because they play an important role in the comet’s activity. They also provide a unique window into its internal building blocks.

The information collected on the descent to this fascinating region was returned to Earth before the impact. It is now no longer possible to communicate with the spacecraft.

“Rosetta has entered the history books once again,” says Johann-Dietrich Wörner, ESA’s Director General. “Today we celebrate the success of a game-changing mission, one that has surpassed all our dreams and expectations, and one that continues ESA’s legacy of ‘firsts’ at comets.”

“Thanks to a huge international, decades-long endeavour, we have achieved our mission to take a world-class science laboratory to a comet to study its evolution over time, something that no other comet-chasing mission has attempted,” notes Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science.

“Rosetta was on the drawing board even before ESA’s first deep-space mission, Giotto, had taken the first image of a comet nucleus as it flew past Halley in 1986.

“The mission has spanned entire careers, and the data returned will keep generations of scientist busy for decades to come.”

“As well as being a scientific and technical triumph, the amazing journey of Rosetta and its lander Philae also captured the world’s imagination, engaging new audiences far beyond the science community. It has been exciting to have everyone along for the ride,” adds Mark McCaughrean, ESA’s senior science advisor.

Since launch in 2004, Rosetta is now in its sixth orbit around the Sun. Its nearly 8 billion-kilometre journey included three Earth flybys and one at Mars, and two asteroid encounters.

The craft endured 31 months in deep-space hibernation on the most distant leg of its journey, before waking up in January 2014 and finally arriving at the comet in August 2014.

After becoming the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, and the first to deploy a lander, Philae, in November 2014, Rosetta continued to monitor the comet’s evolution during their closest approach to the Sun and beyond.

“We’ve operated in the harsh environment of the comet for 786 days, made a number of dramatic flybys close to its surface, survived several unexpected outbursts from the comet, and recovered from two spacecraft ‘safe modes’,” says operations manager Sylvain Lodiot.

“The operations in this final phase have challenged us more than ever before, but it’s a fitting end to Rosetta’s incredible adventure to follow its lander down to the comet.”

The decision to end the mission on the surface is a result of Rosetta and the comet heading out beyond the orbit of Jupiter again. Further from the Sun than Rosetta has ever journeyed before, there would be little power to operate the craft.

Mission operators were also faced with an imminent month-long period when the Sun is close to the line-of-sight between Earth and Rosetta, meaning communications with the craft would have become increasingly more difficult.

“With the decision to take Rosetta down to the comet’s surface, we boosted the scientific return of the mission through this last, once-in-a-lifetime operation,” says mission manager Patrick Martin.

Many surprising discoveries have already been made during the mission, not least the curious shape of the comet that became apparent during Rosetta’s approach in July and August 2014. Scientists now believe that the comet’s two lobes formed independently, joining in a low-speed collision in the early days of the Solar System.

Long-term monitoring has also shown just how important the comet’s shape is in influencing its seasons, in moving dust across its surface, and in explaining the variations measured in the density and composition of the coma, the comet’s ‘atmosphere’.

Some of the most unexpected and important results are linked to the gases streaming from the comet’s nucleus, including the discovery of molecular oxygen and nitrogen, and water with a different ‘flavour’ to that in Earth’s oceans.

Together, these results point to the comet being born in a very cold region of the protoplanetary nebula when the Solar System was still forming more than 4.5 billion years ago.

While it seems that the impact of comets like Rosetta’s may not have delivered as much of Earth’s water as previously thought, another much anticipated question was whether they could have brought ingredients regarded as crucial for the origin of life.

Rosetta did not disappoint, detecting the amino acid glycine, which is commonly found in proteins, and phosphorus, a key component of DNA and cell membranes. Numerous organic compounds were also detected ¬by Rosetta from orbit, and also by Philae in situ on the surface.

“It’s a bittersweet ending, but in the end the mechanics of the Solar System were simply against us: Rosetta’s destiny was set a long time ago. But its superb achievements will now remain for posterity and be used by the next generation of young scientists and engineers around the world.”

While the operational side of the mission has finished today, the science analysis will continue for many years to come.

Overall, the results delivered by Rosetta so far paint comets as ancient leftovers of early Solar System formation, rather than fragments of collisions between larger bodies later on, giving an unparalleled insight into what the building blocks of the planets may have looked like 4.6 billion years ago.

“Just as the Rosetta Stone after which this mission was named was pivotal in understanding ancient language and history, the vast treasure trove of Rosetta spacecraft data is changing our view on how comets and the Solar System formed,” says project scientist Matt Taylor.

“Inevitably, we now have new mysteries to solve. The comet hasn’t given up all of its secrets yet, and there are sure to be many surprises hidden in this incredible archive. So don’t go anywhere yet – we’re only just beginning.”
See photos here, here, here, here, and here, and a video here.

October 31, 2016 update: As reported by Metro News, October 28, 2016:

Researchers re-analyzing 1986 data found odd, periodic disturbances in Uranus's rings that suggest the icy planet has two very small moons near its surface.

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