From atop Mauna Kea, UH scientists are finding exoplanets, boosting the chance of discovering alien life

From atop Mauna Kea, UH scientists are finding exoplanets, boosting the chance of discovering alien life

[source] University of Hawaii astronomers were part of a globe-spanning team that recently announced the discovery of more than 100 new planets orbiting stars beyond our own solar system. These new exoplanets, confirmed in part through observations made from Hawaii-based telescopes, reveal an unprecedented range of diversity in the places and ways in which planets can form. And the study’s findings further raise the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial life. “One of my favorite quotes comes to mind, from Arthur C. Clarke,” said Evan Sinukoff, a co-author of the study and a graduate student at the UH Manoa Institute for Astronomy. “‘Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not — both are equally terrifying.’” This artist’s concept shows a crop of more than 100 planets, discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. Those planets include four in Earth’s size range orbiting a single dwarf star. NASA/JPL “We all know how easily fear can motivate people,” he laughed, then added, “What keeps me going into work every day is my desire for exploration and the notion that I’m contributing a chapter to a journey thousands of years in the making … and coffee.” The Flea And The Street Lamp To find these new planets, an international group of astronomers collaborated on a specific set of observations made with NASA’s orbiting Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2009. Sinukoff said they started by taking measurements of more than 10,000 stars, in five different patches of the sky, each of which they monitored for three months. They looked for specific changes in a star’s brightness, potentially caused by an...
NASA Telescope on Maunakea finds Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Likely a Massive Heat Source

NASA Telescope on Maunakea finds Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Likely a Massive Heat Source

[source] New NASA-funded research suggests that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot may be the mysterious heat source behind Jupiter’s surprisingly high upper atmospheric temperatures. Here on Earth, sunlight heats the atmosphere at altitudes well above the surface—for example, at 250 miles above our planet where the International Space Station orbits. Scientists have been stumped as to why temperatures in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere are comparable to those found at Earth, yet Jupiter is more than five times the distance from the sun. They wanted to know: if the sun isn’t the heat source, then what is? Researchers from Boston University’s Center for Space Physics set out to solve the mystery by mapping temperatures well above Jupiter’s cloud tops using observations from Earth. They analyzed data from the SpeX spectrometer at NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a 3-meter infrared telescope operated for NASA by the University of Hawaii. By observing non-visible infrared light hundreds of miles above the gas giant, scientists found temperatures to be much higher in certain latitudes and longitudes in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere, where the spot is located. “We could see almost immediately that our maximum temperatures at high altitudes were above the Great Red Spot far below—a weird coincidence or a major clue?” said Boston University’s James O’Donoghue, lead author of the study. The study, in the July 27 issue of the journal Nature, concludes that the storm in the Great Red Spot produces two kinds of turbulent energy waves that collide and heat the upper atmosphere. Gravity waves are much like how a guitar string moves when plucked, while acoustic waves are compressions...
Subaru Telescope Maunakea find new, ancient source of gravitational lensing with Student Help

Subaru Telescope Maunakea find new, ancient source of gravitational lensing with Student Help

[source NAOJ] Light from a distant galaxy can be strongly bent by the gravitational influence of a foreground galaxy. That effect is called strong gravitational lensing. Normally a single galaxy is lensed at a time. The same foreground galaxy can – in theory – simultaneously lens multiple background galaxies. Although extremely rare, such a lens system offers a unique opportunity to probe the fundamental physics of galaxies and add to our understanding of cosmology. One such lens system has recently been discovered and the discovery was made not in an astronomer’s office, but in a classroom. It has been dubbed the Eye of Horus (Fig. 1), and this ancient eye in the sky will help us understand the history of the universe.   Figure 1: Eye of Horus in pseudo color. Enlarged image to the right (field of view of 23 arcseconds x 19 arcseconds) show two arcs/rings with different colors. The inner arc has a reddish hue, while the outer arc has a blue tint. These arcs are lensed images of the two background galaxies. There are blobs in and around the arcs/rings, which are also the lensed images of those background galaxies. The yellow-ish object at the center is a massive galaxy at z = 0.79 (distance 7 billion light years), which bends the light from the two background galaxies. The wide field image in the background is here. Enlarged image of the Eye of Horus is here and the image with labels is here. (Credit: NAOJ)   Classroom Research Pays Off Subaru Telescope organizes a school for undergraduate students each year. One such session was held...
Gemini Observatory Instrumental in Exoplanet Harvest

Gemini Observatory Instrumental in Exoplanet Harvest

[source] Gemini Observatory plays a key role in the latest harvest of over 100 confirmed exoplanets from NASA’s K2 mission, the repurposed Kepler spacecraft. Three instruments on the Gemini North telescope delivered precise images verifying many of the candidate stars as planetary system hosts. Researchers note that these systems could contain a considerable number of rocky, potentially earthlike exoplanets. The Gemini North telescope on Hawaii’s Maunakea helped verify many of the over 100 new worlds announced in the initial crop of discoveries from the NASA K2 mission, according to Ian Crossfield of the University of Arizona. Crossfield led the international team of scientists who announced the findings, which are published online in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. A preprint of the paper is available here. “Gemini North was instrumental because it delivered extremely high-resolution images of over 70 of the almost 200 potential planetary systems that K2 uncovered,” says Crossfield. ”In total we used three instruments, or cameras, on Gemini to complete our studies – so you could say that Gemini was instrumental in that way too!” Once K2’s data are analyzed to identify potential exoplanet candidates, many of the world’s most powerful telescopes, like Gemini, are set into motion. This is so astronomers can rule out other explanations that can produce the signature of a planet orbiting a star. “This is where the discovery happens,” says astronomer Christopher Davis of the US National Science Foundation, which funds over 70% of Gemini. “Once other possibilities are eliminated, like nearby background stars, the team can say with extreme certainty that we have a new exoplanet system.” One of the instruments...
UH Astronomers Examine Ice Trapped on Pluto’s Ceres

UH Astronomers Examine Ice Trapped on Pluto’s Ceres

[from HPR] Astronomers with the University of Hawai‘i are examining possible ice pockets on the dwarf planet Ceres which orbits Pluto. Pictures taken from NASA’s Dawn mission show frozen water may be trapped in craters on the planet’s poles–which sit in dark areas that don’t receive sunlight.  Researchers say Ceres may have just enough gravity to hold the water on the surface.  If temperatures in the crater stay below minus 243 degrees Fahrenheit the area becomes a “Cold Trap”, holding ice for billions of years. Scientists have previously discovered ice hiding in similar pockets on Mercury and Earth’s moon.  Norbert Schorghofer is an associate professor with UH’s Institute for Astronomy. Schorghofer says his team will continue to run stereo imaging tests on the photos to see if water actually exists on the surface of Ceres....
HI-STAR program for Hawaiʻi high school students prepares future science leaders

HI-STAR program for Hawaiʻi high school students prepares future science leaders

From UH News For a decade, a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Institute for Astronomy’s summer program has attracted middle school and high school students from across the state. It’s called Hawaiʻi Student/Teacher Astronomy Research or HI STAR. “This program introduces students from across the state of Hawaiʻi to the basic practices of science,” said Geoff Mathews, UH Mānoa astronomy instructor. “Science is about exploring, going out and discovering new things, adding to humanity’s understanding of the universe.” Over the past few years, HI STAR alumni have been awarded more than $400,000 in scholarships and awards at science fairs. The program, which recently marked its 10th year, is unique to the extent in which students design and direct their research projects. Pahoa High School student James Iaukea said, “We got to learn about star clusters and galaxies and basic things like that and now we’re moving into more field-based studies, like I’m working on my exoplanets right now.” UH Mānoa student mentor Marielle Dela Cruz, will be the first student to graduate from from the campus’ nascent astrophysics program in 2017. ”My (students’) project is globular clusters. They have the oldest stars in the universe,” she said. According to organizers, HI STAR alumni are not only college and research ready, they are also becoming future leaders in the science, engineering and technology fields that are so important to Hawaiʻi and the nation....