NASA Telescope Finds Elusive Buckyballs in Space for First Time

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has at last found buckyballs in space, as illustrated by this artist's conception. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech - Larger Image

Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered carbon molecules, known as "buckyballs," in space for the first time. Buckyballs are soccer-ball-shaped molecules that were first observed in a laboratory 25 years ago.

They are named for their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, which have interlocking circles on the surface of a partial sphere. Buckyballs were thought to float around in space, but had escaped detection until now.

"We found what are now the largest molecules known to exist in space," said astronomer Jan Cami of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "We are particularly excited because they have unique properties that make them important players for all sorts of physical and chemical processes going on in space." Cami has authored a paper about the discovery that will appear online Thursday in the journal Science.

Buckyballs are made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in three-dimensional, spherical structures. Their alternating patterns of hexagons and pentagons match a typical black-and-white soccer ball. The research team also found the more elongated relative of buckyballs, known as C70, for the first time in space. These molecules consist of 70 carbon atoms and are shaped more like an oval rugby ball. Both types of molecules belong to a class known officially as buckminsterfullerenes, or fullerenes.

The Cami team unexpectedly found the carbon balls in a planetary nebula named Tc 1. Planetary nebulas are the remains of stars, like the sun, that shed their outer layers of gas and dust as they age. A compact, hot star, or white dwarf, at the center of the nebula illuminates and heats these clouds of material that has been shed.

The buckyballs were found in these clouds, perhaps reflecting a short stage in the star's life, when it sloughs off a puff of material rich in carbon. The astronomers used Spitzer's spectroscopy instrument to analyze infrared light from the planetary nebula and see the spectral signatures of the buckyballs. These molecules are approximately room temperature -- the ideal temperature to give off distinct patterns of infrared light that Spitzer can detect. According to Cami, Spitzer looked at the right place at the right time. A century from now, the buckyballs might be too cool to be detected.

The data from Spitzer were compared with data from laboratory measurements of the same molecules and showed a perfect match.

"We did not plan for this discovery," Cami said. "But when we saw these whopping spectral signatures, we knew immediately that we were looking at one of the most sought-after molecules."

In 1970, Japanese professor Eiji Osawa predicted the existence of buckyballs, but they were not observed until lab experiments in 1985. Researchers simulated conditions in the atmospheres of aging, carbon-rich giant stars, in which chains of carbon had been detected. Surprisingly, these experiments resulted in the formation of large quantities of buckminsterfullerenes. The molecules have since been found on Earth in candle soot, layers of rock and meteorites.

The study of fullerenes and their relatives has grown into a busy field of research because of the molecules' unique strength and exceptional chemical and physical properties. Among the potential applications are armor, drug delivery and superconducting technologies.

Sir Harry Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Bob Curl and Rick Smalley for the discovery of buckyballs, said, "This most exciting breakthrough provides convincing evidence that the buckyball has, as I long suspected, existed since time immemorial in the dark recesses of our galaxy."

Previous searches for buckyballs in space, in particular around carbon-rich stars, proved unsuccessful. A promising case for their presence in the tenuous clouds between the stars was presented 15 years ago, using observations at optical wavelengths. That finding is awaiting confirmation from laboratory data. More recently, another Spitzer team reported evidence for buckyballs in a different type of object, but the spectral signatures they observed were partly contaminated by other chemical substances.

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Arctic Voyage Illuminating Ocean Optics

During NASA's ICESCAPE voyage to the Arctic, scientists have been looking at the phytoplankton in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea -- how many, how big and at what depths they are found. But there are other ways of looking at these small life forms.

"We measure phytoplankton in terms of their pigments and light absorption properties," said Stan Hooker of NASA's Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry Calibration and Validation Office at Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Hooker, Joaquin Chaves and Aimee Neeley, also of NASA, measure the color of the water. Anything in the water, plankton or not, can influence that color.

On July 2, a crane maneuvered a small boat halfway down the side of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy – the platform for the five-week ICESCAPE mission, NASA's first dedicated oceanographic field campaign, which is studying the physics, chemistry and biology of the ocean and sea ice within a changing Arctic.

Hooker, Chaves and Coast Guard crew boarded the small boat and readied for an expedition away from the stirred water and shadow of the 420-foot Healy. Lowered to the ocean surface, Hooker's team powered away, entering uncharted waters.

Maneuvering over smooth water and around chunks of sea ice, the small boat slowed to a stop near the edge of an ice floe.

"This is new for us because we usually haven't been able to work this close to the ice before," Hooker said. "Satellites can't measure near the ice, so we do this to help specify the next generation of equipment, and to contribute to the science objectives."

First over the side was a small red instrument that the crew dropped on a line into the ocean and then reeled by hand, as if wrangling a fish. Sensors on the instrument measured the wavelengths of sunlight at different depths - both what's coming into the ocean and what's reflected back out which is similar to what is "seen" by satellites.

Next the crew lowered a second, larger package of instruments into the depths of the ocean. One pair of sensors emits light and measures how much is scattered back. Another pair measures the fluorescence of chlorophyll and colored dissolved organic matter, an important distinction as both appear green to satellites.

Last, the crew collected water samples to be returned to the Healy for analysis in the lab.

"We can measure the changes in the color to find out what's happening with the ecology," said Greg Mitchell, a research biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, who analyzes the water samples. "We can relate color back to how much chlorophyll is in the ocean, how much algae biomass there is, and processes such as the rate of photosynthesis."

Similar, more frequent measurements are made from the Healy, which marked its one-hundredth ocean station of the mission on July 8. The small boat deploys less often -- almost daily -- but reaches more targeted regions.

"We do the measurements at sea in order to relate what's going on in the ocean with the optics," Mitchell said. "Then we apply those relationships to the optical data from the ocean color satellites and we can make estimates of processes and distributions globally."

Onboard the Healy to help scientists figure out where to sample is Bob Pickart, a physical oceanographer from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Pickart can decipher water type and circulation to guide where to make measurements.

A great unknown, for example, is a picture of what's feeding the evolution of a "hotspot" in Barrow Canyon. Right now, winter water -- rich with nutrients -- has been carried across the shallow shelf where the Healy is surveying.

"This is a really interesting, important time of year," Pickart said. "As the ice recedes, productivity is starting and things are getting cranked up."

But for how long will these hotspots thrive? While this is dictated by light and nutrients, the circulation near Barrow and Herald canyons -- two fissures that channel water off the shelf -- plays a vitally important role as well.

On July 12, after a night of cutting through sea ice, ICESCAPE scientists caught a glimpse of the hotspot. As an instrument lowered from the Healy descended through the water, real-time fluorescence information showed low levels of chlorophyll.

Scientists on the Healy will analyze the hotspot data and water samples, but whether a plankton bloom has come and gone, the region remains a hotspot for ground-dwelling communities, according to Karen Frey of Clark University. Feeding off plankton that sink to the seafloor, species here are diverse and large. A single sample retrieved from the ocean floor turned up a large crab, sponges and a sea star.

Meanwhile, samples returned from the near-ice survey July 2 on the small boat are turning up mixed results – sometimes indicating the presence of phytoplankton communities and sometimes not, according to Atsushi Matsuoka, of Laboratoire d'Oceanographie de Villefranche. To find out why, his group will look at trends after returning home from ICESCAPE.

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Video Camera Will Show Mars Rover's Touchdown

A downward-pointing camera on the front-left side of NASA's Curiosity rover will give adventure fans worldwide an unprecedented sense of riding a spacecraft to a landing on Mars.

The Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, will start recording high-resolution video about two minutes before landing in August 2012. Initial frames will glimpse the heat shield falling away from beneath the rover, revealing a swath of Martian terrain below illuminated in afternoon sunlight. The first scenes will cover ground several kilometers (a few miles) across. Successive images will close in and cover a smaller area each second.

The full-color video will likely spin, then shake, as the Mars Science Laboratory mission's parachute, then its rocket-powered backpack, slow the rover's descent. The left-front wheel will pop into view when Curiosity extends its mobility and landing gear.

The spacecraft's own shadow, unnoticeable at first, will grow in size and slide westward across the ground. The shadow and rover will meet at a place that, in the final moments, becomes the only patch of ground visible, about the size of a bath towel and underneath the rover.

Dust kicked up by the rocket engines during landing may swirl as the video ends and Curiosity's surface mission can begin.

All of this, recorded at about four frames per second and close to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels per frame, will be stored safely into the Mars Descent Imager's own flash memory during the landing. But the camera's principal investigator, Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, and everyone else will need to be patient. Curiosity will be about 250 million kilometers (about 150 million miles) from Earth at that point. It will send images and other data to Earth via relay by one or two Mars orbiters, so the daily data volume will be limited by the amount of time the orbiters are overhead each day.

"We will get it down in stages," said Malin. "First we'll have thumbnails of the descent images, with only a few frames at full scale."

Subsequent downlinks will deliver additional frames, selected based on what the thumbnail versions show. The early images will begin to fulfill this instrument's scientific functions. "I am really looking forward to seeing this movie. We have been preparing for it a long time," Malin said. The lower-resolution version from thumbnail images will be comparable to a YouTube video in image quality. The high-definition version will not be available until the full set of images can be transmitted to Earth, which could take weeks, or even months, sharing priority with data from other instruments."

The Mars Descent Imager will provide the Mars Science Laboratory team with information about the landing site and its surroundings. This will aid interpretation of the rover's ground-level views and planning of initial drives. Hundreds of the images taken by the camera will show features smaller than what can be discerned in images taken from orbit.

"Each of the 10 science instruments on the rover has a role in making the mission successful," said John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, chief scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory. "This one will give us a sense of the terrain around the landing site and may show us things we want to study. Information from these images will go into our initial decisions about where the rover will go."

The nested set of images from higher altitude to ground level will enable pinpointing Curiosity's location even before an orbiter can photograph the rover on the surface.

Malin said, "Within the first day or so, we'll know where we are and what's near us. MARDI doesn't do much for six-month planning -- we'll use orbital data for that -- but it will be important for six-day and 16-day planning."

In addition, combining information from the descent images with information from the spacecraft's motion sensors will enable calculating wind speeds affecting the spacecraft on its way down, an important atmospheric science measurement. The descent data will later serve in designing and testing future landing systems for Mars that could add more control for hazard avoidance.

After landing, the Mars Descent Imager will offer the capability to obtain detailed images of ground beneath the rover, for precise tracking of its movements or for geologic mapping. The science team will decide whether or not to use that capability. Each day of operations on Mars will require choices about how to budget power, data and time.

Last month, spacecraft engineers and technicians re-installed the Mars Descent Imager onto Curiosity for what is expected to be the final time, as part of assembly and testing of the rover and other parts of the Mars Science Laboratory flight system at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Besides the rover itself, the flight system includes the cruise stage for operations between Earth and Mars, and the descent stage for getting the rover from the top of the Martian atmosphere safely to the ground.

Malin Space Science Systems delivered the Mars Descent Imager in 2008, when NASA was planning a 2009 launch for the mission. This camera shares many design features, including identical electronic detectors, with two other science instruments the same company is providing for Curiosity: the Mast Camera and the Mars Hand Lens Imager. The company also provided descent imagers for NASA's Mars Polar Lander, launched in 1999, and Phoenix Mars Lander, launched in 2007. However, the former craft was lost just before landing and the latter did not use its descent imager due to concern about the spacecraft's data-handling capabilities during crucial moments just before landing.

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NASA's WISE Mission to Complete Extensive Sky Survey

This image shows the famous Pleiades cluster of stars as seen through the eyes of WISE, or NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The mosaic contains a few hundred image frames -- just a fraction of the more than one million WISE has captured so far as it completes its first survey of the entire sky in infrared light. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA - Larger Image

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, will complete its first study of the entire sky on July 17, 2010. The mission has generated more than one million images so far, of everything from asteroids to distant galaxies.

"Like a globe-trotting shutterbug, WISE has completed a world tour with 1.3 million slides casing the whole sky," said Edward Wright, the principal investigator of the mission at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Some of these images have been processed and stitched together into a novel picture being released today. It shows the Pleiades cluster of stars, also known as the Seven Sisters, resting in a tangled bed of wispy dust. The pictured region covers seven square degrees, or an area equal to 35 full moons, highlighting the telescope's ability to take wide shots of vast regions of space.

The new picture was taken in February. It shows infrared light from WISE's four detectors in a range of wavelengths. This infrared vision highlights the region's expansive dust cloud, through which the Seven Sisters and other stars in the cluster are passing. Infrared light also reveals the smaller and cooler stars of the family.

"The WISE all-sky survey is helping us sift through the huge and diverse population of celestial objects," said Hashima Hasan, WISE Program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It's a great example of the high impact science that's likely from NASA's Explorer Program."

The first release of WISE data, covering about 80 percent of the sky, will be delivered to the astronomical community in May of next year. The mission scanned strips of the sky as it orbited around the Earth's poles since its launch last December. WISE always stays over the Earth's day-night line. As the Earth moves around the sun, innovative slices of sky come into the telescope's field of view. It has taken six months, or the amount of time for Earth to travel halfway around the sun, for the mission to complete one full scan of the entire sky.

For the next three months, the mission will map half of the sky again. This will improve the telescope's data, revealing more hidden asteroids, stars and galaxies. The mapping will give astronomers a look at what's changed in the sky. The mission will end when the instrument's block of solid hydrogen coolant, desirable to chill its infrared detectors, runs out.

"The eyes of WISE have not blinked since launch," said William Irace, the mission's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Both our telescope and spacecraft have performed flawlessly and have imaged every corner of our universe, just as we planned."

So far, WISE has observed more than 100,000 asteroids, both known and formerly unseen. Most of these space rocks are in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. However, some are near-Earth objects, asteroids and comets with orbits that pass relatively close to Earth. WISE has discovered more than 90 of these new near-Earth objects. The infrared telescope is also good at spotting comets that orbit far from Earth and has discovered more than a dozen of these so far.

WISE's infrared vision also gives it a exceptional ability to pick up the glow of cool stars, called brown dwarfs, in addition to distant galaxies bursting with light and energy. These galaxies are called ultra-luminous infrared galaxies. WISE can see the brightest of them.

"WISE is filling in the blanks on the infrared properties of everything in the universe from nearby asteroids to distant quasars," said Peter Eisenhardt of JPL, project scientist for WISE. "But the most thrilling discoveries may well be objects we haven't yet imagined exist."

JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The mission was selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., in Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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NASA Finds Super-Hot Planet with Unique Comet-Like Tail

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have established the existence of a baked object that could be called a "cometary planet." The gas giant planet, named HD 209458b, is orbiting so close to its star that its heated atmosphere is escaping into space.

Observations taken with Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) propose powerful stellar winds are sweeping the cast-off atmospheric material behind the parched planet and shaping it into a comet-like tail.

"Since 2003 scientists have theorized the lost mass is being pushed back into a tail, and they have even intended what it looks like," said astronomer Jeffrey Linsky of the University of Colorado in Boulder, leader of the COS study. "We think we have the best observational proof to support that theory. We have measured gas coming off the planet at specific speeds, some coming toward Earth. The most likely interpretation is that we have measured the velocity of material in a tail."

The planet, located 153 light-years from Earth, weighs slightly less than Jupiter but orbits 100 times closer to its star than the Jovian giant. The roasted planet zips about its star in a short 3.5 days. In contrast, our solar system's best planet, Mercury, orbits the Sun in 88 days. The extrasolar planet is one of the most intensely scrutinized, because it is the first of the few known alien worlds that can be seen transitory in front of, or transiting, its star. Linsky and his team used COS to examine the planet's atmosphere during transiting events. During a transit, astronomers study the structure and chemical makeup of a planet's atmosphere by sampling the starlight that passes through it. The dip in starlight because of the planet's passage, without the atmosphere, is very small, only about 1.5 percent. When the atmosphere is added, the dip jumps to 8 percent, indicating a bloated atmosphere.

COS detected the heavy elements carbon and silicon in the planet's super-hot, 2,000-degree-Fahrenheit atmosphere. This detection exposed the parent star is heating the entire atmosphere, dredging up the heavier elements and allowing them to escape the planet.

The COS data also showed the material leaving the planet was not all traveling at the same speed. "We found gas escaping at high velocities, with a great amount of this gas flowing toward us at 22,000 miles per hour," Linsky said. "This large gas flow is probable gas swept up by the stellar wind to form the comet-like tail trailing the planet."

Hubble's latest spectrograph has the ability to probe a planet's chemistry at ultraviolet wavelengths not accessible to ground-based telescopes. COS is proving to be an important instrument for probing the atmospheres of "hot Jupiters" like HD 209458b.

Another Hubble instrument, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), observed the planet in 2003. The STIS data showed an active, evaporating atmosphere, and a comet-tail-like structure was optional as a possibility. But STIS wasn't able to obtain the spectroscopic detail necessary to show a tail, or an Earthward-moving component of the gas, during transits. The tail was detected for the first time because of the unique combination of very high ultraviolet sensitivity and good spectral resolution provided by COS.

Although this extreme planet is being roasted by its star, it won't be destroyed anytime soon. "It will take about a trillion years for the planet to evaporate," Linsky said.

The results appeared in the July 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of global cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. in Washington, D.C.

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