Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Spitzer space telescope reads solar system’s ’Rosetta Stone’


When our solar system was young, its biggest babies--Jupiter and Saturn--threw tantrums by the trillion. The huge planets hurled ice-covered rocky bodies from the inner solar system far past the orbit of Pluto. Some of those bodies revisit their old neighborhood as "long period" comets, which have been called the Rosetta Stone of the solar system because their pristine composition holds the key to understanding how Earth and similar planets formed. Astrophysicists from the University of Minnesota and the Spitzer Science Center (California Institute of Technology) will present sharp pictures of comets and their dust trails, as well as data on comets’ chemical composition, taken during the Spitzer Space Telescope’s first year of operation during a poster session and press conference Tuesday, Jan. 11, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego.

Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer does not oribt Earth; instead, it travels behind the Earth in the same orbital path. It operates at infrared wavelengths, which enables it to see objects and material too cold to emit visible light. This is possible because even cold objects radiate heat to their surroundings as long as the surroundings are even colder. That heat is given off as infrared radiation; the cooler the object, the longer the wavelength of infrared light it emits.

The astrophysicists who will present the studies are Robert Gehrz, a University of Minnesota astronomy professor and key member of the team that focused Spitzer in orbit; Charles "Chick" Woodward and Michael Kelley, astronomy professor and graduate student, respectively, at the university; and William T. Reach of the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology.

During their periodic sojourns into the inner solar system, comets are warmed by solar radiation and eject ices, gases and grains of rock. Included in the mix are organic materials and water, the building blocks of life, Gehrz said. By studying the infrared "signatures" of elements in comets, scientists have determined that some minerals in the dust evaporated from comet nuclei are similar to both common and unusual minerals on Earth.

"For example, comet dust may contain silica, the main ingredient in beach sand, or magnesium-rich olivine crystals, which are formed in cooling volcanic flows found on the beaches of Hawaii," Woodward said.

"Comets are leftovers from when the planets formed," said Gehrz. "Imaging their comae [the bright ’halos’ around comet nuclei] and tails tells us about the content of the solar system when planets were forming. With Spitzer we can see spectral [light] details in a wide variety of comets, which has never been done before because of Spitzer’s unprecedented sensitivity and range of wavelengths."

A highlight of the presentation is a study of Comet Encke, which orbits the sun every 3.3 years. Unlike more pristine comets from the netherworlds beyond Pluto’s orbit, Encke has exhausted its supply of fine particles and is now giving off larger particles that are perhaps like pea gravel. After boiling off the comet nucleus, the particles tend to spread along long dust trails that follow the comet, like box cars following an engine. Every October, the Earth passes through Encke’s dust trail and we witness the celestial fireworks known as the Taurid meteor shower, said Kelley.

A picture taken by Spitzer shows Encke along its bright debris trail, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter as it headed away from the sun. Also visible are sharp twin jets of material coming off the nucleus. The images are already helping the scientists model how the rotating nuclei of comets eject particles as they travel around the sun.

The work was funded by NASA. Spitzer is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Deane Morrison | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Move over, lasers: Scientists can now create holograms from neutrons, too
21.10.2016 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

nachricht Finding the lightest superdeformed triaxial atomic nucleus
20.10.2016 | The Henryk Niewodniczanski Institute of Nuclear Physics Polish Academy of Sciences

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

New method increases energy density in lithium batteries

24.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

International team discovers novel Alzheimer's disease risk gene among Icelanders

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

New bacteria groups, and stunning diversity, discovered underground

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>