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Monthly Archives: August 2014

As described in The Cosmos, 4ed, Section 12.7, the solar-neutrino and other experiments have been detecting subsidiary nuclear interactions, but could not reach the energy range of the most fundamental process that fuels the sun and stars like it–the interaction of two protons. Scientists of the Borexino project in Italy has announced that they have finally detected this fundamental process. Here is an abridged version of their press release of August 27, 2014:

Scientists working on the neutrino experiment in the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) Gran Sasso Laboratories have managed to measure the energy of our star in real time: the energy released today at the center of the Sun is exactly the same as that produced 100,000 years ago. For the first time in the history of scientific investigation of our star, solar energy has been measured at the very moment of its generation. The study was published on August 28, 2014, in the journal Nature.

INFN Borexino infographic

Credit: INFN/Borexino experiment

Borexino has managed to measure the Sun’s energy in real-time, detecting the neutrinos produced by nuclear reactions inside the solar mass: these particles take only a few seconds to escape from it and eight minutes to reach us. Previous measurements of solar energy, on the other hand, have always taken place on radiation (photons) which currently illuminate and heat the Earth and which refer to the same nuclear reactions, but which took place over a hundred thousand years ago: this, in fact, is the time it takes, on average, for the energy to travel through the dense solar matter and reach its surface. The comparison between the neutrino measurement now published by Borexino and the previous measurements concerning the emission of radiant energy from the Sun shows that solar activity has not changed in the last one hundred thousand years.

The Borexino detector, installed in the INFN underground Laboratories of Gran Sasso, has managed to measure the flux of neutrinos produced inside the Sun in the fusion reaction of two hydrogen nuclei to form a deuterium nucleus: this is the seed reaction of the nuclear fusion cycle which produces about 99% of the solar energy. Up until now, Borexino had managed to measure the neutrinos from nuclear reactions that were part of the chain originated by this reaction or belonging to secondary chains, which contribute significantly less to the generation of solar energy, but which were central to the discovery of certain crucial physical properties of this “ephemeral” elementary particle, the neutrino.

Links: Full INFN press release on; Borexino homepage.

From a JPL press release, August 21, 2014:

NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft gave humanity its first close-up look at Neptune and its moon Triton in the summer of 1989. Like an old film, Voyager’s historic footage of Triton has been “restored” and used to construct the best-ever global color map of this strange moon. The map, produced by Paul Schenk, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, has also been used to make a movie recreating that historic Voyager encounter, which took place 25 years ago, on August 25, 1989. (See pp. 190-192)

Map of Triton

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lunar & Planetary Institute

The new Triton map has a resolution of 1,970 feet (600 meters) per pixel. The colors have been enhanced to bring out contrast but are a close approximation to Triton’s natural colors. Voyager’s “eyes” saw in colors slightly different from human eyes, and this map was produced using orange, green and blue filter images.

In 1989, most of the northern hemisphere was in darkness and unseen by Voyager. Because of the speed of Voyager’s visit and the slow rotation of Triton, only one hemisphere was seen clearly at close distance. The rest of the surface was either in darkness or seen as blurry markings.

The production of the new Triton map was inspired by anticipation of NASA’s New Horizons encounter with Pluto, coming up a little under a year from now. Among the improvements on the map are updates to the accuracy of feature locations, sharpening of feature details by removing some of the blurring effects of the camera, and improved color processing.

Although Triton is a moon of a planet and Pluto is a dwarf planet, Triton serves as a preview of sorts for the upcoming Pluto encounter. Although both bodies originated in the outer solar system, Triton was captured by Neptune and has undergone a radically different thermal history than Pluto. Tidal heating has likely melted the interior of Triton, producing the volcanoes, fractures and other geological features that Voyager saw on that bitterly cold, icy surface.

Pluto is unlikely to be a copy of Triton, but some of the same types of features may be present. Triton is slightly larger than Pluto, has a very similar internal density and bulk composition, and has the same low-temperature volatiles frozen on its surface. The surface composition of both bodies includes carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen ices.

Voyager also discovered atmospheric plumes on Triton, making it one of the known active bodies in the outer Solar System, along with objects such as Jupiter’s moon Io and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Scientists will be looking at Pluto next year to see if it will join this list. They will also be looking to see how Pluto and Triton compare and contrast, and how their different histories have shaped the surfaces we see.

Links: the full JPL press release; Triton movie.

Adapted from a press release of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS):

A team of international astronomers has created a detailed three-dimensional map of the dusty structure of the Milky Way, as seen from Earth’s northern hemisphere.

3D map, detail

Credit: Sale et al./IPHAS

Dust and gas, which make up the interstellar medium (ISM), fill the space between stars in galaxies. The dust in the ISM is shaped by turbulent flows that form intricate fractal structures on scales ranging from thousands of light years down to hundreds of kilometers. Rather than measuring the dust itself to create the map, the team has used observations of more than 38 million stars to estimate how much starlight has been obscured by the ISM and thus how much dust lies in our line of sight to each star. This ‘extinction’ map derives from the newly released catalog of the Isaac Newton Telescope Photometric H-alpha Survey of the Northern Galactic Plane (IPHAS), the first digital survey to cover the entire northern Milky Way.

The map shows how extinction builds with distance away from the Sun (typically out to 12,000 light years or more) in any part of the surveyed northern Milky Way. The fractal nature of the ISM is visible in the map, as are large-scale features, such as star-forming molecular clouds and bubbles of ionized gas around clusters of hot stars.

Links: Full RAS press release; IPHAS homepage for map downloads (large file sizes) c/o Stuart Sale, University of Oxford.

Adapted from an ESA press release, August 6, 2014:
After a decade-long journey chasing its target, ESA’s Rosetta has today become the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet, opening a new chapter in Solar System exploration. Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and Rosetta now lie 405 million kilometers from Earth, about half way between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, rushing towards the inner Solar System at nearly 55,000 kilometers per hour.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on August 3, 2014


The comet is in an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. Rosetta will accompany it for over a year as they swing around the Sun and back out towards Jupiter again.
The journey to the comet was not straightforward, however. Since its launch in 2004, Rosetta had to make three gravity-assist flybys of Earth and one of Mars to help it on course to its rendezvous with the comet. It has traveled for ten years, five months and four days, clocking up 6.4 billion kilometers. Its complex course also allowed Rosetta to pass by asteroids Šteins and Lutetia, obtaining unprecedented views and scientific data on these two objects.

August 6 saw the last of a series of ten rendezvous manoeuvres that began in May to adjust Rosetta’s speed and trajectory gradually to match those of the comet. If any of these manoeuvres had failed, the mission would have been lost, and the spacecraft would simply have flown by the comet.

Links: the ESA press release, including further images; Rosetta fact-sheet.