NASA Space Place March 2015

The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, winter brings long, cold nights, which are often excellent for sky watchers (so long as there's a way to keep warm!) But there's often an added bonus that comes along when conditions are just right: the polar lights, or the Aurora Borealis around the North Pole. Here on our world, a brilliant green light often appears for observers at high northern latitudes, with occasional, dimmer reds and even blues lighting up a clear night.

We had always assumed that there was some connection between particles emitted from the Sun and the aurorae, as particularly intense displays were observed around three days after a solar storm occurred in the direction of Earth. Presumably, particles originating from the Sun—ionized electrons and atomic nuclei like protons and alpha particles—make up the vast majority of the solar wind and get funneled by the Earth's magnetic field into a circle around its magnetic poles. They're energetic enough to knock electrons off atoms and molecules at various layers in the upper atmosphere—particles like molecular nitrogen, oxygen and atomic hydrogen. And when the electrons fall back either onto the atoms or to lower energy levels, they emit light of varying but particular wavelengths—oxygen producing the most common green signature, with less common states of oxygen and hydrogen producing red and the occasional blue from nitrogen.

But it wasn't until the 2000s that this picture was directly confirmed! NASA's Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) satellite (which ceased operations in December 2005) was able to find out how the magnetosphere responded to solar wind changes, how the plasmas were energized, transported and (in some cases) lost, and many more properties of our magnetosphere. Planets without significant magnetic fields such as Venus and Mars have much smaller, weaker aurorae than we do, and gas giant planets like Saturn have aurorae that primarily shine in the ultraviolet rather than the visible. Nevertheless, the aurorae are a spectacular sight in the evening, particularly for observers in Alaska, Canada and the Scandinavian countries. But when a solar storm comes our way, keep your eyes towards the north at night; the views will be well worth braving the cold!

Auroral overlays from the IMAGE spacecraft.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory (Goddard Space Flight Center) / Blue Marble team.

NASA Space Place April 2014

The Power of the Sun's Engines

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

Here on Earth, the sun provides us with the vast majority of our energy, striking the top of the atmosphere with up to 1,000 Watts of power per square meter, albeit highly dependent on the sunlight's angle-of-incidence. But remember that the sun is a whopping 150 million kilometers away, and sends an equal amount of radiation in all directions; the Earth-facing direction is nothing special. Even considering sunspots, solar flares, and long-and-short term variations in solar irradiance, the sun's energy output is always constant to about one-part-in-1,000. All told, our parent star consistently outputs an estimated 4 × 1026 Watts of power; one second of the sun's emissions could power all the world's energy needs for over 700,000 years.

That's a literally astronomical amount of energy, and it comes about thanks to the hugeness of the sun. With a radius of 700,000 kilometers, it would take 109 Earths, lined up from end-to-end, just to go across the diameter of the sun once. Unlike our Earth, however, the sun is made up of around 70% hydrogen by mass, and it's the individual protons ¬— or the nuclei of hydrogen atoms — that fuse together, eventually becoming helium-4 and releasing a tremendous amount of energy. All told, for every four protons that wind up becoming helium-4, a tiny bit of mass — just 0.7% of the original amount — gets converted into energy by E=mc2, and that's where the sun's power originates.

You'd be correct in thinking that fusing ~4 × 1038 protons-per-second gives off a tremendous amount of energy, but remember that nuclear fusion occurs in a huge region of the sun: about the innermost quarter (in radius) is where 99% of it is actively taking place. So there might be 4 × 1026 Watts of power put out, but that's spread out over 2.2 × 1025 cubic meters, meaning the sun's energy output per-unit-volume is just 18 W / m3. Compare this to the average human being, whose basal metabolic rate is equivalent to around 100 Watts, yet takes up just 0.06 cubic meters of space. In other words, you emit 100 times as much energy-per-unit-volume as the sun! It's only because the sun is so large and massive that its power is so great.

It's this slow process, releasing huge amounts of energy per reaction over an incredibly large volume, that has powered life on our world throughout its entire history. It may not appear so impressive if you look at just a tiny region, but — at least for our sun — that huge size really adds up!

Check out these “10 Need-to-Know Things About the Sun”: **link**.

Kids can learn more about an intriguing solar mystery at NASA’s Space Place: **link**.

NASA Space Place March 2014

Old Tool, New Use: GPS and the Terrestrial Reference Frame

By Alex H. Kasprak

Flying over 1300 kilometers above Earth, the Jason 2 satellite knows its distance from the ocean down to a matter of centimeters, allowing for the creation of detailed maps of the ocean’s surface. This information is invaluable to oceanographers and climate scientists. By understanding the ocean’s complex topography—its barely perceptible hills and troughs—these scientists can monitor the pace of sea level rise, unravel the intricacies of ocean currents, and project the effects of future climate change.

But these measurements would be useless if there were not some frame of reference to put them in context. A terrestrial reference frame, ratified by an international group of scientists, serves that purpose. “It’s a lot like air,” says JPL scientist Jan Weiss. “It’s all around us and is vitally important, but people don’t really think about it.” Creating such a frame of reference is more of a challenge than you might think, though. No point on the surface of Earth is truly fixed.

To create a terrestrial reference frame, you need to know the distance between as many points as possible. Two methods help achieve that goal. Very-long baseline interferometry uses multiple radio antennas to monitor the signal from something very far away in space, like a quasar. The distance between the antennas can be calculated based on tiny changes in the time it takes the signal to reach them. Satellite laser ranging, the second method, bounces lasers off of satellites and measures the two-way travel time to calculate distance between ground stations.

Weiss and his colleagues would like to add a third method into the mix—GPS. At the moment, GPS measurements are used only to tie together the points created by very long baseline interferometry and satellite laser ranging together, not to directly calculate a terrestrial reference frame.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot of serious effort to include GPS directly,” says Weiss. His goal is to show that GPS can be used to create a terrestrial reference frame on its own. “The thing about GPS that’s different from very-long baseline interferometry and satellite laser ranging is that you don’t need complex and expensive infrastructure and can deploy many stations all around the world.”

Feeding GPS data directly into the calculation of a terrestrial reference frame could lead to an even more accurate and cost effective way to reference points geospatially. This could be good news for missions like Jason 2. Slight errors in the terrestrial reference frame can create significant errors where precise measurements are required. GPS stations could prove to be a vital and untapped resource in the quest to create the most accurate terrestrial reference frame possible. “The thing about GPS,” says Weiss, “is that you are just so data rich when compared to these other techniques.”

You can learn more about NASA’s efforts to create an accurate terrestrial reference frame here: **link**.

Kids can learn all about GPS by visiting **link** and watching a fun animation about finding pizza here: **link**.

Artist’s interpretation of the Jason 2 satellite. To do its job properly, satellites like Jason 2 require as accurate a terrestrial reference frame as possible. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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