NASA’s WISE Colors in Unknowns on Jupiter Asteroids

Trojan Colors Revealed (Artist’s Concept) – nasa.gov

Scientists using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, have uncovered new clues in the ongoing mystery of the Jovian Trojans — asteroids that orbit the sun on the same path as Jupiter. Like racehorses, the asteroids travel in packs, with one group leading the way in front of the gas giant, and a second group trailing behind.

The observations are the first to get a detailed look at the Trojans’ colors: both the leading and trailing packs are made up of predominantly dark, reddish rocks with a matte, non-reflecting surface. What’s more, the data verify the previous suspicion that the leading pack of Trojans outnumbers the trailing bunch.

The new results offer clues in the puzzle of the asteroids’ origins. Where did the Trojans come from? What are they made of? WISE has shown that the two packs of rocks are strikingly similar and do not harbor any “out-of-towners,” or interlopers, from other parts of the solar system. The Trojans do not resemble the asteroids from the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, nor the Kuiper belt family of objects from the icier, outer regions near Pluto.

“Jupiter and Saturn are in calm, stable orbits today, but in their past, they rumbled around and disrupted any asteroids that were in orbit with these planets,” said Tommy Grav, a WISE scientist from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz. “Later, Jupiter re-captured the Trojan asteroids, but we don’t know where they came from. Our results suggest they may have been captured locally. If so, that’s exciting because it means these asteroids could be made of primordial material from this particular part of the solar system, something we don’t know much about.” Grav is a member of the NEOWISE team, the asteroid-hunting portion of the WISE mission.

The first Trojan was discovered on Feb. 22, 1906, by German astronomer Max Wolf, who found the celestial object leading ahead of Jupiter. Christened “Achilles” by the astronomer, the roughly 220-mile-wide (350-kilometer-wide) chunk of space rock was the first of many asteroids detected to be traveling in front of the gas giant. Later, asteroids were also found trailing behind Jupiter. The asteroids were collectively named Trojans after a legend, in which Greek soldiers hid inside in a giant horse statue to launch a surprise attack on the Trojan people of the city of Troy.

“The two asteroid camps even have their own ‘spy,'” said Grav. “After having discovered a handful of Trojans, astronomers decided to name the asteroid in the leading camp after the Greek heroes and the ones in the trailing after the heroes of Troy. But each of the camps already had an ‘enemy’ in their midst, with asteroid ‘Hector’ in the Greek camp and ‘Patroclus’ in the Trojan camp.”

Other planets were later found to have Trojan asteroids riding along with them too, such as Mars, Neptune and even Earth, where WISE recently found the first known Earth Trojan: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2011-230 .

Before WISE, the main uncertainty defining the population of Jupiter Trojans was just how many individual chunks were in these clouds of space rock and ice leading Jupiter, and how many were trailing. It is believed that there are as many objects in these two swarms leading and trailing Jupiter as there are in the entirety of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

To put this and other theories to bed requires a well-coordinated, well-executed observational campaign. But there were many things in the way of accurate observations — chiefly, Jupiter itself. The orientation of these Jovian asteroid clouds in the sky in the last few decades has been an impediment to observations. One cloud is predominantly in Earth’s northern sky, while the other is in the southern, forcing ground-based optical surveys to use at least two different telescopes. The surveys generated results, but it was unclear whether a particular result was caused by the problems of having to observe the two clouds with different instruments, and at different times of the year.

Enter WISE, which roared into orbit on Dec. 14, 2009. The spacecraft’s 16-inch (40-centimeter) telescope and infrared cameras scoured the entire sky looking for the glow of celestial heat sources. From January 2010 to February 2011, about 7,500 images were taken every day. The NEOWISE project used the data to catalogue more than 158,000 asteroids and comets throughout the solar system.

“By obtaining accurate diameter and surface reflectivity measurements on 1,750 Jupiter Trojans, we increased by an order of magnitude what we knew about these two gatherings of asteroids,” said Grav. “With this information, we were able to more accurately than ever confirm there are indeed almost 40 percent more objects in the leading cloud.”

Trying to understand the surface or interior of a Jovian Trojan is also difficult. The WISE suite of infrared detectors was sensitive to the thermal glow of the objects, unlike visible-light telescopes. This means WISE can provide better estimates of their surface reflectivity, or albedo, in addition to more details about their visible and infrared colors (in astronomy “colors” can refer to types of light beyond the visible spectrum).

“Seeing asteroids with WISE’s many wavelengths is like the scene in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ where Dorothy goes from her black-and-white world into the Technicolor land of Oz,” said Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of the NEOWISE project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Because we can see farther into the infrared portion of the light spectrum, we can see more details of the asteroids’ colors, or, in essence, more shades or hues.”

The NEOWISE team has analyzed the colors of 400 Trojan asteroids so far, allowing many of these asteroids to be properly sorted according to asteroid classification schemes for the first time.

“We didn’t see any ultra-red asteroids, typical of the main belt and Kuiper belt populations,” said Grav. “Instead, we find a largely uniform population of what we call D-type asteroids, which are dark burgundy in color, with the rest being C- and P-type, which are more grey-bluish in color. More research is needed, but it’s possible we are looking at the some of the oldest material known in the solar system.”

Scientists have proposed a future space mission to the Jupiter Trojans that will gather the data needed to determine their age and origins.

The results were presented today at the 44th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Reno, Nev. Two studies detailing this research are accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.
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A Sky Chock-Full of Black Holes

With its all-sky infrared survey, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has identified millions of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes with masses millions to billions times greater than our sun. The black holes “feed” off surrounding gas and dust, pulling the material onto them. As the material falls in on the black hole, it becomes extremely hot and extremely bright. This image zooms in on one small region of the WISE sky, covering an area about three times larger than the moon. The WISE quasar candidates are highlighted with yellow circles.

Read more: NASA’s WISE Survey Uncovers Millions of Black Holes

New WISE mission catalog of entire infrared sky released

This is a mosaic of the images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), part of its All-Sky Data Release. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

PASADENA — NASA unveiled a new atlas and catalog of the entire infrared sky today showing more than a half billion stars, galaxies and other objects captured by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

“Today, WISE delivers the fruit of 14 years of effort to the astronomical community,” said Edward Wright, WISE principal investigator at UCLA, who first began working on the mission with other team members in 1998.

WISE launched Dec. 14, 2009, and mapped the entire sky in 2010 with vastly better sensitivity than its predecessors. It collected more than 2.7 million images taken at four infrared wavelengths of light, capturing everything from nearby asteroids to distant galaxies. Since then, the team has been processing more than 15 trillion bytes of returned data. A preliminary release of WISE data, covering the first half of the sky surveyed, was made last April.

Over 11,000 years ago, a massive, supergiant star came to the end of its life. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The WISE catalog of the entire sky meets the mission’s fundamental objective. The individual WISE exposures have been combined into an atlas of more than 18,000 images covering the sky and a catalog listing the infrared properties of more than 560 million individual objects found in the images. Most of the objects are stars and galaxies, with roughly equal numbers of each. Many of them have never been seen before.

WISE observations have led to numerous discoveries, including the elusive, coolest class of stars. Astronomers hunted for these failed stars, called “Y-dwarfs,” for more than a decade. Because they have been cooling since their formation, they don’t shine in visible light and could not be spotted until WISE mapped the sky with its infrared vision.

WISE also took a poll of near-Earth asteroids, finding there are significantly fewer mid-size objects than previously thought. It also determined NASA has found more than 90 percent of the largest near-Earth asteroids.

Other discoveries were unexpected. WISE found the first known “Trojan” asteroid to share the same orbital path around the sun as Earth. One of the images released today shows a surprising view of an “echo” of infrared light surrounding an exploded star. The echo was etched in the clouds of gas and dust when the flash of light from the supernova explosion heated surrounding clouds. At least 100 papers on the results from the WISE survey already have been published. More discoveries are expected now that astronomers have access to the whole sky as seen by the spacecraft.

“With the release of the all-sky catalog and atlas, WISE joins the pantheon of great sky surveys that have led to many remarkable discoveries about the universe,” said Roc Cutri, who leads the WISE data processing and archiving effort at the Infrared and Processing Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “It will be exciting and rewarding to see the innovative ways the science and educational communities will use WISE in their studies now that they have the data at their fingertips.”…
Read more: nasa.gov/mission_pages/WISE

NASA Telescopes Help Solve Ancient Supernova Mystery

This image combines data from four different space telescopes to create a multi-wavelength view of all that remains of the oldest documented example of a supernova, called RCW 86

A mystery that began nearly 2,000 years ago, when Chinese astronomers witnessed what would turn out to be an exploding star in the sky, has been solved. New infrared observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, reveal how the first supernova ever recorded occurred and how its shattered remains ultimately spread out to great distances.

The findings show that the stellar explosion took place in a hollowed-out cavity, allowing material expelled by the star to travel much faster and farther than it would have otherwise.

“This supernova remnant got really big, really fast,” said Brian J. Williams, an astronomer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Williams is lead author of a new study detailing the findings online in the Astrophysical Journal. “It’s two to three times bigger than we would expect for a supernova that was witnessed exploding nearly 2,000 years ago. Now, we’ve been able to finally pinpoint the cause.”

A new image of the supernova, known as RCW 86, is online athttp://go.nasa.gov/pnv6Oy .

In 185 A.D., Chinese astronomers noted a “guest star” that mysteriously appeared in the sky and stayed for about 8 months. By the 1960s, scientists had determined that the mysterious object was the first documented supernova. Later, they pinpointed RCW 86 as a supernova remnant located about 8,000 light-years away. But a puzzle persisted. The star’s spherical remains are larger than expected. If they could be seen in the sky today in infrared light, they’d take up more space than our full moon.

The solution arrived through new infrared observations made with Spitzer and WISE, and previous data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton Observatory.

The findings reveal that the event is a “Type Ia” supernova, created by the relatively peaceful death of a star like our sun, which then shrank into a dense star called a white dwarf. The white dwarf is thought to have later blown up in a supernova after siphoning matter, or fuel, from a nearby star.

“A white dwarf is like a smoking cinder from a burnt-out fire,” Williams said. “If you pour gasoline on it, it will explode.”

The observations also show for the first time that a white dwarf can create a cavity around it before blowing up in a Type Ia event. A cavity would explain why the remains of RCW 86 are so big. When the explosion occurred, the ejected material would have traveled unimpeded by gas and dust and spread out quickly.

Spitzer and WISE allowed the team to measure the temperature of the dust making up the RCW 86 remnant at about minus 325 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 200 degrees Celsius. They then calculated how much gas must be present within the remnant to heat the dust to those temperatures. The results point to a low-density environment for much of the life of the remnant, essentially a cavity.

Scientists initially suspected that RCW 86 was the result of a core-collapse supernova, the most powerful type of stellar blast. They had seen hints of a cavity around the remnant, and, at that time, such cavities were only associated with core-collapse supernovae. In those events, massive stars blow material away from them before they blow up, carving out holes around them.

But other evidence argued against a core-collapse supernova. X-ray data from Chandra and XMM-Newton indicated that the object consisted of high amounts of iron, a telltale sign of a Type Ia blast. Together with the infrared observations, a picture of a Type Ia explosion into a cavity emerged.

“Modern astronomers unveiled one secret of a two-millennia-old cosmic mystery only to reveal another,” said Bill Danchi, Spitzer and WISE program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Now, with multiple observatories extending our senses in space, we can fully appreciate the remarkable physics behind this star’s death throes, yet still be as in awe of the cosmos as the ancient astronomers.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Spitzer, visit http://spitzer.caltech.edu/ and http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer.
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WISE Revises Numbers of Asteroids Near Earth


This chart shows how data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has led to revisions in the estimated population of near-Earth asteroids. The infrared-sensing telescope performed the most accurate survey to date of a slice of this population as part of project called NEOWISE. This allowed the science team to make new estimates of the total numbers of the objects in different size categories. NEOWISE observed more than 500 objects larger than 100-meters (330-feet) wide — what can be thought of as medium to large-size asteroids. Near-Earth asteroids smaller than this size range were not studied, and near-Earth comets will be analyzed at a later time. Asteroid sizes are not drawn to scale in the chart.

Each asteroid image represents about 100 actual objects. Near-Earth asteroids that have already been found are filled in and appear brown. An entire row of asteroid images through the blue outlines shows how many total objects were thought to exist before the NEOWISE survey. The green outlines show the reduced new estimates based on the NEOWISE data.

As the graphic reveals, only a small difference was observed in the estimated total numbers of the largest asteroids — the ones with the potential for global consequences should they impact Earth. For the medium-sized asteroids, which could still destroy a metropolitan area, new estimates predict fewer space rocks than previously thought. Details are listed below.

–For the largest asteroids, larger than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet), NEOWISE data revises the total population down to 981 from a prior estimate of about 1,000. While this is not a dramatic difference, the findings show that NASA has met an initial near-Earth asteroid goal agreed to with Congress in 1998, calling for at least 90 percent of the largest objects to be found. There are an estimated 911 objects of this size range known, which means that NASA has found 93 percent. That leaves roughly 70 of these bodies left to find.

–The NEOWISE data reveals an approximately 44 percent decline in the estimated numbers of medium-sized asteroids, which are defined as those objects between 100 meters and 1,000 meters (330 and 3,300 feet). Estimates now indicate about 19,500, where as 35,000 were thought to exist before.

–The study does not apply to objects smaller than 100 meters (330 feet), but it is estimated that there are more than a million in this size range based on previous studies.
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