Tag Archives: Atmosphere

What if the Earth rotated backwards?

Hi there! I recently realized that over more than 100 articles, I never spoke about our Earth. Of course, you can say that, when I mean planets, I implicitly mean planets other than our Earth… There was probably something like that…
Anyway, our Earth is our home, and as such, it is of the uttermost importance. In particular, the global warming threatens it, and threatens the mankind itself. This is why we must study the Earth, but don’t worry, the Earth is studied.
Today I present simulations of the climate that the Earth would have, if it rotated backwards, at the same rate.
Of course, this is a theoretical study, which does not reproduce a real situation. But this is anyway interesting, because it permits us to understand the role of the different factors, which affect the climate. What is the role of the spin direction?
This is the question this study answers. The study is The climate of a retrograde rotating Earth, by Uwe Mikolajewicz et al., and it has recently been published in Earth System Dynamics.

The climate of our Earth

The climate of our Earth is influences by 4 factors:

  1. the astronomical factors
  2. the atmospheric circulation
  3. the oceanic circulation
  4. the ones I forget

The astronomical factors (axial tilt)

The obliquity of the Earth, or axial tilt, is responsible for the seasons. The rotation axis of our Earth is not orthogonal to its orbital plane around the Sun (the ecliptic), but is tilted by some 23° (somehow the angle between your index and your middle fingers, when you open your hand). The consequence is that the two poles do not see the sunlight six months a year, alternatively. And the other regions of the Earth have varying day durations, which affect the temperature. You have the seasons.

The team of Jacques Laskar (IMCCE, Paris Observatory) has shown that the Moon stabilizes the axial tilt of the Earth (see here). In other words, a moonless Earth would have experienced large variations of the axial tilt, hence large variations of the climate. So large that they may have threatened the development of life on Earth, since we need to adapt to the climate. We can do it when the changes are slow enough… and our fear with global warming is not (only) the warming itself, but its acceleration… Anyway, we are alive thanks to our Moon.

In fact, the astronomic forcing affects the climate on a wider range. The Serbian geophysicist and astronomer Milutin Milanković has hypothesized (and this has been confirmed by several teams since then) that the variations of the orbit and the rotation of the Earth were responsible for the paleoclimates. This theory is now known as the Milanković cycles.

But astronomic forcing is not everything. This affects the insolation of a given place, providing some energy to heat the Earth (not the whole energy actually, but let us neglect this point). Once a planet is illuminated, it responds… and the response depends on its constituents, the atmosphere playing a critical role.

The atmospheric circulation

As you know, our Earth is surrounded by an atmosphere, which is a layer of air, mostly composed of nitrogen and oxygen. Its pressure decreases with the altitude, 3 quarters of it being in the 11 lowest kilometers, while the boundary at the atmosphere is considered to be at about 100 km. This atmosphere is responsible for greenhouse effect, which heats the surface. It also increases the pressure, this permits the existence of liquid water. Moreover, it protects us from ultraviolet radiation, meteorites (many of them being fragmented when encountering the atmosphere), and allows us to breath. You can forget life on an atmosphereless Earth.

Beside this, the atmospheric circulation redistributes the thermal energy on Earth. You know the winds.
More precisely, this circulation is structured as cells, which take hot air at given locations of the surface, before releasing it back somewhere else. The main effect is due to latitudinal cells (Hadley, Ferrel, and polar cells), which permit heat transfers between different latitudes, but there is also a longitudinal motion, known as zonal overturning circulation.

Oceans play a key role in the regulation of our climate, since they have a kind of thermal inertia, which affects the temperature of the coastal areas.

The oceanic circulation

I mean the oceanic currents, which are water displacements. This may transfer hot water to colder regions, and conversely. An example is the North Atlantic Drift, aka Gulf Stream, which is responsible for the pretty moderate winters in Europe, while Canada freezes. There are also currents designated as gyres, since they have a pretty circular motion on a very large scale.
Moreover, you also have formation of water masses in the Atlantic, i.e. masses of water, which properties (temperature, salinity,…) are pretty homogeneous, and different from the surrounding waters.

Atmospheric and oceanic circulations are influence by the Coriolis effect, which is the consequence of the Earth rotation… and this study is on the influence of the Earth rotation.

The ones I forget

Sorry, I don’t remember 🙂

Let me mention anyway the influence of the land, which of course blocks the oceanic currents, and also may affect the atmospheric ones, in particular if you have mountains.

Different climates

All of these effects make meteorology a very complicated science. And you also have different climates on Earth, such as (following Köppen climate classification):

  • tropical climates (constant high temperatures),
  • dry climates (deserts),
  • temperate climates,
  • continental climates, where you have large variations of temperature between summer and winter,
  • and polar climates (the coldest ones).

You cannot pretend simulating the climate of the Earth if you don’t get these 5 climates.

The Max Planck Institute Earth System Model

The authors are experts in climate simulation. This is a very difficult task, since you have to implement the interactions between all the physical parameters (insolation, oceanic currents, atmospheric circulation,…), in a code which is non-linear and depends on multiple variables. Basically, when an equation is non-linear, you cannot simply derive its solution. Instead, you need to integrate the equation numerically, and the solution may be very sensitive to your parameters, your initial conditions (how is the climate when you start the simulations?), and your numerical scheme.

In particular, you split the atmosphere and the oceans on a grid of finite elements, and your numerical code simulates the solution element by element, time after time. This requires high performance computing tools.

The authors dispose of a dedicated numerical model, the Max Planck Institute Earth System Model (MPI-ESM), which couples the atmosphere, ocean and land surface through the exchange of energy, momentum, water and carbon dioxide. This homemade tool has been developed after years of study. It interfaces the simulations of different physical processes, all of them having been developed and improved since many years.
The authors have used the MPI-ESM many times in the past, which makes it reliable.

Intensive numerical simulations

In present study, the authors ran two sets of simulations:

  • CNTRL, which are consistent with our knowledge of the Earth,
  • and RETRO. To each CNTRL simulation corresponds a RETRO one, in which the Earth rotates backwards.

Each set is composed of 1,850 climate conditions (i.e. 1,850 different simulations), over 6,990 years. The authors point out that the simulations should be over a long enough duration, to permit the climate to reach an equilibrium state. The simulations show that in practice, the equilibrium is reached in some 2,000 years.

CNTRL simulations are necessary since, if you just compare a RETRO simulation with our observed climate, you cannot be sure whether the difference comes from the retrograde rotation, or from an effect which would have been inaccurately modeled. Moreover, running so many simulations permits to distinguish robust solutions, which give in some sense the same climate for many simulations, from anecdotic ones, i.e. due to particular initial conditions. Such a non-linear system of equations (Navier-Stokes, etc.) may be chaotic, which implies to be possibly very sensitive to the initial conditions, in a given range which we do not really know…

In the RETRO simulations, the backward rotation is modeled as:

  • the inversion of the Coriolis parameter in the oceanic and atmospheric circulations,
  • the inversion of the Sun’s diurnal march in the calculations of radiative transfer.

And one the simulations have run, they get the results. The question you may ask is: would that affect the global temperature of the Earth? It appears that no. You have no change on average, I mean the mean temperature remains pretty the same, but you have dramatic local changes. Let me emphasize two of them.

The Atlantic and the Pacific exchange their roles

As you can imagine, the inversion of the rotation results in inversion of the oceanic currents and the zonal winds. No need to run the simulations to predict this. But the simulations show unexpected things.

The Atlantic ocean is known for its water masses, and the CNTRL simulations get them. However, the RETRO simulations do not have them in the Atlantic, but in the Pacific Ocean.

A green Sahara

Another change is that the monsoons occur in the Sahara and Arabian Peninsula. This dry area, made of desert, would be a forest if the Earth rotated backwards! However, the world’s biggest desert would have been in the Southern Brazil and Argentina.

You can finally ask: why the authors did this study, since a backward rotating Earth is not realistic? Just because we need to fully understand the climate, and the rotation direction is one of the effects affecting it. We do not know whether this could apply to an extrasolar planet, or whether the results would help us to understand something else… That’s research, but trust me, it is useful one! Climate science has become a critical topic.

The study and its authors

And now, the authors:

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

The red spot of Jupiter

Hi there! Today: the red spot of Jupiter. When you observe Jupiter with a common telescope, you just cannot miss it (if it is on the visible side, of course, since Jupiter rotates in about 9.5 hours). It is a red oval, located in the southern equator of Jupiter, as large as 3 Earth. It is actually an anticyclonic storm, which persists since at least 1830. The different space missions have permitted to observe its evolution and measure the winds composing it. Today I present the result of observations by the spacecraft Juno. The study, The rich dynamics of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot from JunoCam: Juno images, has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

The Red Spot

This Red Spot has been continuously observed since 1830. To be honest, I don’t know who observed it at that time, but the fact is that it is stable since at least 188 years. Before that, several astronomers, including Giovanni Cassini, claimed to have observed it between 1665 and 1713. It is even depicted by Donato Creti in 1711. But, because of the absence of observations between 1713 and 1830,

  1. we do not know whether it is the same spot or not,
  2. it could have disappeared and reappeared during the 18th century.
Astronomical Observations: Jupiter, by Donato Creti (1711).
Astronomical Observations: Jupiter, by Donato Creti (1711).

And this is possible, since the red spot is currently shrinking. We know it thanks to the different spacecraft having met Jupiter (Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, and now Juno) and the Hubble Space Telescope. It attained its maximal known width by the end of the 19th century, some 25,000 miles (40,000 km), while it is a little more than 10,000 miles (16,000 km) by now. At this rate, it should become a circle by 2040.

Global view of Jupiter, with the Red Spot at 22° South. © Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA
Global view of Jupiter, with the Red Spot at 22° South. © Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA

It rotates counter-clockwise with a period of 6 days, while the atmosphere of Jupiter rotates clockwise. The top of the spot is higher of 8 kilometers than the surrounding clouds, which makes it colder.

The spacecraft JUNO orbits Jupiter since July 2016, and permits a new analysis of the Red Spot.

The spacecraft JUNO

The NASA spacecraft JUNO, for JUpiter Near-polar Orbiter, has been launched to Jupiter from Cape Canaveral in August 2011. It orbits Jupiter since July 2016, on a polar orbit. This means that it flies over the poles of Jupiter. Its orbit is very eccentric, with a period of 53 days.

Contrary to Galileo, it is interested only in the planet itself, not in its satellites. Its payload is composed of 9 instruments, and among its objectives are the map of the magnetic field of Jupiter, the map of its gravitational field, which contains information on the solid core which is beneath the atmosphere, and a better knowledge of the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

Among the nine instruments is the camera JunoCam, which provided the data permitting this study.

The data: JunoCam images

JunoCam has not been conceived as a science, but as an outreach instrument, i.e. designed to give beautiful images. And it does.
But in this case, it appears that its data can be used for science. You can find below some images of the Red Spot by Juno, this video having been made by Gerald Eichstädt, one of the authors of the study. You can find more of them on its Youtube channel.

JunoCam has a field of 58°, and 4 filters:

  • Blue at 480.1 nanometers (nm),
  • Green at 553.5 nm,
  • Red at 698.9 nm. These three filters are in the visible spectrum,
  • while the fourth one is centered in the methane absorption band at 893.3 nm. This last one belongs to the near infrared spectral domain.

The authors used the images taken in visible light, i.e. with the first three filters, during a close fly-by of the Red Spot on 2017 July, 11.

From raw data to measurements

To make good science from raw data, you have to treat them. In particular, the authors needed to

  • consider the exact location and orientation of the spacecraft,
  • correct the images from distortion. For that, they assumed that the camera had Brown-Conrady radial distortion, or decentering distortion, which would be due to physical elements in a lens not being perfectly aligned.

Once they made these corrections, they got 4 images, distributed over 581 seconds. In comparing the location of the cloud features on these four images, they got the wind velocities in the upper level of the spot.

5 features in the spot

And from these velocities, they identified 5 structures, which are listed in the Table below.

Location Size Winds’ velocity
Compact cloud clusters Northern part 500 x 250 km 30-50 m/s
Mesoscale waves Northern boundary 2,000 x 500 km 50 m/s
Internal spiraling vortices South-West 1,000 x 1,000 km 75 m/s
Central nucleus Center 5,200 x 3,150 km 10-20 m/s
Large dark thin filaments Border 2,000-7,000 x 150 km 2-4 m/s

In particular,

  • the compact cloud clusters are composed of between 50 and 60 single wind cells, each with a size between 50 and 70 kilometers. This size suggests ammonia condensation.
  • The mesoscale waves could either be atmospheric gravity waves, i.e. when buoyancy tries to restore equilibrium between two media (see picture below, of atmospheric gravity waves observed on Earth), or shear instability waves, due to high wind.
  • Satellite image of atmospheric gravity waves over the Arabian Sea. Their visibility is due to sunlight, caused by the "impression" of the atmospheric waves on the sea surface. ©Jeff Schmaltz MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA-GSFC
    Satellite image of atmospheric gravity waves over the Arabian Sea. Their visibility is due to sunlight, caused by the "impression" of the atmospheric waves on the sea surface. ©Jeff Schmaltz MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA-GSFC
  • The cause of the internal spiraling vortices still needs to be understood.
  • The central nucleus is probably a cyclonic region, with turbulent winds.
  • It is not clear whether the large dark thin filaments are traced by darker aerosols, or represent areas with differetn altitudes and particles densities. They could be Vortex Rossby Waves, which accelerate the tangential winds, and play an important role in hurricanes. You can find more details here.

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

When a comet meets the Solar wind

Hi there! Today, let us talk about the environment of a comet. As you know, a comet is an active body, which emits ionized particles and dust. The Sun itself emits charged particles, which constitute the Solar wind. We discuss today of the interaction between these two emissions. The environment of charged particles around a comet has been measured by the spacecraft Rosetta, and this has motivated modeling these interactions. I present you Solar wind dynamics around a comet: The paradigmatic inverse-square-law model, by M. Saillenfest, B. Tabone, and E. Behar. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The spacecraft Rosetta

Let us first speak about the mission Rosetta. Rosetta was a European mission, which orbited the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko between 2014 and 2016. It was named after the Rosetta Stone, which permitted the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The mission Rosetta was supposed to give us clues on the primordial Solar System, i.e. on our origins, from the study of a comet.

It was launched in March 2004 from Kourou (French Guiana), and then started a 10-years journey, during which it made 3 fly-bys of the Earth and one of Mars. You can say: “why going back to Earth?” The reason is that Rosetta was supposed to orbit 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (spoiler alert: it did it). For this orbital insertion to be possible, it had to arrive slowly enough… but also had to leave Earth fast enough, to get rid off its attraction, and also to shorten the journey. Fly-bys permitted to slow the spacecraft in exchanging energy with the Earth (or Mars).

Rosetta also visited two asteroids: (2867) Šteins, and (21) Lutetia, in September 2008 and July 2010, respectively. It was inserted into orbit around 67P in August 2014, released the lander Philae in November, and the mission ended in September 2016. In particular, Rosetta was present when 67P reached its perihelion in August 2015. At this point, the comet was at its closest distance to the Sun (1.25 astronomical unit, while its mean distance is almost thrice this number), where the cometary activity is maximal.

The asteroids (2867) Šteins (left) and (21) Lutetia (right), seen by Rosetta. © ESA
The asteroids (2867) Šteins (left) and (21) Lutetia (right), seen by Rosetta. © ESA

So, Rosetta consisted of two modules: the orbiter itself, and the lander Philae. The orbiter had 11 instruments on board, and the lander 10. These instruments permitted, inter alia, to map the comet and measure its geometry, to constrain its internal structure and its chemistry, and to characterize its environment.

This environment is strongly affected by the Solar wind, especially in the vicinity of the perihelion, but not only.

The Solar wind

The Solar corona emits a stream of charges particles, which is mainly composed of electrons, protons, and alpha particles (kind of charged helium). This emission is called Solar wind. It is so energetic, that the emitted particles go far beyond the orbit of Pluto, constituting the heliosphere. The heliosphere has the shape of a bubble, and its boundary is called the heliopause. Voyager 1 crossed it in August 2012, at a distance of 121 AU of the Sun. At the heliopause, the pressure of the Solar wind is weak enough, to be balanced by the one of the interstellar medium, i.e. the winds from the surrounding stars. Hence, Voyager 1 is in this interstellar space, but technically still in the Solar System, as under the gravitational attraction of the Sun.

Anyway, our comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is much closer than that, and has to deal with the Solar wind. Let us see how.

The physics of the interaction

Imagine you are on the comet, and you look at the Sun… which should make you blind. From that direction comes a stream of these charged particles (the Solar wind), and you can consider that their trajectories are parallel if far enough from the comet. Of course, the Sun does not emit on parallel trajectories, i.e. the trajectories of all these particles converge to the Sun. But from the comet, the incident particles appear to arrive on parallel trajectories.

While a charged particle approaches the comet, it tends to be deflected. Here, the dominating effect is not the gravitation, but the Lorentz force, i.e. the electromagnetic force. This force is proportional to the electric charge of the particle, and also involves its velocity, and the electric and magnetic fields of the comet.

The authors showed in a previous paper that the trajectories of the charged particles could be conveniently described in assuming that the magnetic field obeys an inverse-square law, i.e. its amplitude decreases with the square of the distance to the comet. If you are twice further from the comet, then the magnetic field is four times weaker.

I do not mean that the magnetic field indeed obeys this law. It is in fact more complex. I just mean that if you model it with such an ideal law, you are accurate enough to study the trajectories of the Solar wind particles. And this is what the authors did.

By the way, the authors suggest that any magnetic field following an inverse-power law could work. Of course, the numbers would have been different, but the global picture of the trajectories would be pretty much the same. It seems, at this time, too challenging to determine which of these models is the most accurate one.

Reducing the problem

The authors used analytical calculations, i.e. maths, which are in fact close to the classical ones, you make to show that the gravitation results in elliptic, parabolic, or hyperbolic, trajectories.

A wonderful tool assisting such studies is the First Integrals. A First Integral is a quantity, which remains constant all along a trajectory. For instance, in a gravitational problem where no energy is dissipated, then the total energy (kinetic + potential energies) is conserved. This is a First Integral. Another First Integral in that problem is the norm of the total angular momentum. And the existence of these two quantities helps to understand the shape of the possible orbits.

The authors showed that this is quite similar here. Even if the equations are slightly different (anyway the inverse-square law is a similarity), they showed that the problems has 2 First Integrals. And from these 2 First Integrals, they showed that knowing only 2 parameters is in fact enough to characterize the trajectories of the Solar wind particles. These two parameters are called rC and rE, they have the physical dimension of a distance, and are functions of all the parameters of the problems. rE characterizes the stream, it is related to its velocity, while rC characterizes a given particle. If you know just these 2 parameters, then you can determine the trajectory.

An empty cavity around the comet

The authors give a detailed description of the trajectories. To make things simple: either the particles orbit the comet, or they just pass by. But anyway, there is an empty space around the comet, i.e. a spherical cavity in which no Solar wind particle enters.

To come: comparison with in situ measurements

The journey of Rosetta around 67P crossed the boundary of this empty cavity. In other words, we have measurements of the density of charged particles at different distances from the comet, and also for different distances from the Sun, since the orbital phase of the mission lasted 2 years, during which 67P orbited the Sun. The authors promise us that a study of the comparison between the model and the in situ measurements, i.e. the observations, is to come. We stay tuned!

Rosetta does not operate anymore, and has landed (or crashed…) on 67P in September 2016. It is still there, and has on-board a kind of modern Rosetta stone. This is a micro-etched pure nickel prototype of the Rosetta disc donated by the Long Now Foundation, as part of its Rosetta Project. The disc was inscribed with 6,500 pages of language translations. This is a kind of time capsule, aiming at preserving part of our culture. Maybe someone will one day find it…

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Triton from the Earth

Hi there! Today we speak about Triton. Triton is something unique in the Solar System. It is a large satellite of Neptune, which has almost no mid-sized satellite, contrary to Saturn and Uranus. Several studies show us that Triton could have been a cuckoo, i.e. initially a Trans-Neptunian Objects, which has been trapped by the gravitational field of Neptune, and which is massive enough to have ejected the mid-sized satellites.
Triton has been visited only once, by NASA’s Voyager 2 in 1989. This was only a fly-by, so we have images of only 40% of the surface. But the development of Earth-based instruments now permits to get data from the Earth, even if the apparent magnitude of Triton is 13.47 (Neptune is very far away…).

This is the opportunity to present Triton’s surface ices: Distribution, temperature and mixing state from VLT/SINFONI observations, by F. Merlin, E. Lellouch, E. Quirico and B. Schmitt, all based in France, even if they used European facilities based in Chile. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

Triton’s facts

The table below gives you some numbers.

Discovery 1846
Radius 1,353 km
Semimajor axis 354,759 km
Orbital period 5.88 days
Eccentricity 2×10-5
Inclination 157°

You can see first that Triton has been discovered in October 1846, by the British astronomer William Lassell. The discovery happened 10 days after the discovery of Neptune, and this is of course not by chance. When the discovery of a planet is made and announced, it is much easier, or much less difficult, to re-observe it, since you know where to point your telescope. So, Neptune has been reobserved, and Lassell saw this point following Neptune. You can distinguish a satellite from a background star by the fact that the satellite follows the planet in its apparent motion. This was Triton. And Triton was the only known satellite of Neptune during more than one century, until the discovery of Nereid by Gerard Kuiper in 1949.

As I said, Triton is pretty large, and its orbit is almost circular, as for many natural satellites of the giant planets. The tidal interaction with the parent planet tends to circularize the orbit, unless the eccentricity is excited by the action of another satellite… which cannot be the case around Neptune, since no satellite is heavy enough to move Triton.

A trapped object…

The interesting point about the dynamics of Triton is its orbital inclination. While natural satellites usually orbit close to the equatorial plane of their planet, Triton has a very large inclination, and its orbit is retrograde with respect to the rotation of Neptune. Usually, the natural satellites are formed with the planet, in the proto-planetary nebula, which is pretty flat… this is why their inclinations should be small. The inclination of Triton suggests it was not formed in situ, but has been trapped instead. Several studies have simulated this phenomenon, see e.g. your favorite blog.

…visited by Voyager 2

NASA’s Voyager 2 has been launched in August 1977 from Cape Canaveral, and it benefited from a favorable geometrical configuration of the planets. This virtual alignment permitted to fly by Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981, Uranus in 1986, and Neptune in 1989. Voyager 2 is still operating, as an interstellar mission.

Only a fly by may be frustrating, but for a spacecraft to be inserted an orbit around a planet, it must reach it slowly enough… which means take enough time to reach it. Neptune is so far away that we could not wait. So, its closest approach to Neptune was on August 25, 1989, and the closest to Triton 3 days later, imaging 40% of its surface (see video below, made by Paul Schenk, Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, TX, USA).

It revealed an active surface, i.e. few craters, which means that the surface is renewing, and geological features, craters, ridges, plains, maculae… and even volcanic plumes. It also confirmed the presence of an atmosphere.

The atmosphere of Triton

Triton has a very tenuous atmosphere, which pressure is 70,000 times lower than the one of the Earth, i.e. some 14 μbar. It is dominated by nitrogen, and extends 800 kilometers above its surface. Methane and carbon monoxide are also present. Its temperature is around 40 K, and Voyager 2 measured winds from the west from the surface to an altitude of 8 km, where the winds invert their directions, i.e. from east to west.

This atmosphere is probably the result of outgassing of surface material and volcanic activity (geysers). It can be seen as an equilibrium between a solid phase at the surface, and a gaseous one in the atmosphere, of some of its constituents. The study I present today analyses the chemical elements present at the surface, which interact with the atmosphere. The used facility is the instrument SINFONI, on the Very Large Telescope (Paranal Observatory, Chile).

THE VLT/SINFONI instrument

The Very Large Telescope, VLT for short, is a facility operated by the European Southern Observatory in the Atacama desert, Chile. It benefits from a very favorable sky, at an altitude of 2,635 meters, and consists of 4 refractors, Antu, Kueyen, Melipal, and Yepun, each with a primary mirror of 8.2 meters.

SINFONI, for Spectrograph for Integral Field Observations in the Near Infrared, operates on Yepun, and observes in the near-infrared, i.e. at wavelengths between 1 and 2.45 μm. You can find below its first light in July 2004, observing the star HD 130163.

"First Light" "data cube" spectrum obtained with SINFONI on the bright star HD 130163 on July 9, 2004, as seen on the science data computer screen. This 7th-magnitude A0 V star was observed in the near-infrared H-band with a moderate seeing of 0.8 arcsec. The width of the slitlets in this image is 0.25 arcsec. The exposure time was 1 second. © ESO
“First Light” “data cube” spectrum obtained with SINFONI on the bright star HD 130163 on July 9, 2004, as seen on the science data computer screen. This 7th-magnitude A0 V star was observed in the near-infrared H-band with a moderate seeing of 0.8 arcsec. The width of the slitlets in this image is 0.25 arcsec. The exposure time was 1 second. © ESO

As a spectrometer, it decomposes the light it observes following its wavelengths. You can find above a spectrum, on which you can see several minimums. These minimums are absorption lines, which reveal the presence of a chemical element. And this is the idea: the authors decomposed the Solar light reflected by the surface of Triton, to detect the chemical elements constituting it.

Spectral measurements

The authors made 5 observations between 2010 and 2013, each of them lasting between 40 and 55 minutes. They supplemented their data set with two observations dating back to 1995, and one to 2008. The 1995 observations were made at Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii.
Two spectral bands were investigated: the H band (1.5 to 1.8 μm) and the K band (2 to 2.45 μm). Once the data are acquired, they must be corrected from the influence of the Earth atmosphere and the one of Triton, which have themselves constituents which absorb the light. Pretty easy for correcting the telluric lines, however the authors admit that the correction from Triton’s atmosphere is not entirely satisfactory, given the accuracy of data we dispose on. In particular, this correction might add an artificial signature of methane.

After these corrections, and some that I do not detail, you have the spectra… What do to with that?

Lab experiments to understand the data

The spectrum should look like something we know. We know the absorption lines of methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen… but not necessarily under Triton’s conditions. The temperature at the surface should be around 40 K, i.e. -235°C / -390°F, to permit the coexistence of the solid and gaseous phases of these elements, without liquid phase, with a pressure of 14μbar. And when you look at the spectrum, you do not only have the location of the absorption lines, but also their amplitudes, which depend on many parameters, like the temperature, the grain size, the relative fraction of these components, and corrections accounting for instrumental constraints.
To get these parameters, the authors made several lab experiments in Grenoble (France), got plenty of spectra, and fitted their observations of Triton on them. Actually, lab experiments have been made in the past and used to previous studies, but in the present case this wasn’t enough, given the resolution of the new data.

And now, the results!

Results

The results are essentially a confirmation of previous studies, but with a better resolution, and new data, which gives access to time variations of the composition. Actually, the variations of the distance to the Sun results in variations of temperature, which perturb the equilibrium between the solid and the gaseous phases.

Regarding the different constituents:

  • The methane (CH4) is mostly in diluted form.
  • At least two populations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are present, with grain sizes of 5 μm and 25 μm, respectively.
  • The carbon monoxide (CO) is mostly present in diluted form into nitrogen ice.
  • The nitrogen (N2) ice temperature is 37.5±1 K.

The study confirms already known longitudinal variations of the nitrogen and carbon monoxide surface abundances, and suggests latitudinal and/or temporal variations.

This may be anecdotal, but the authors have detected two unexpected absorption lines, at 2.102 μm and 2.239 μm. The first one being present in one spectrum only, while the last one is detected on the three spectra. What do they mean? We do not know yet.

So, you see, it is possible to get data on Triton from our Earth. But a space mission to Neptune would be much more fruitful. But this is a very strong challenge. Even a mission to Uranus seems to become difficult to fund. Some scientists fight for that. But anyway, do not forget that you will be much older than you are now when such a mission would reach its destination, if launched now…

The study and its authors

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On the early evolution of Jupiter

Hi there! Today we will discuss on how Jupiter formed. I guess you know Jupiter, i.e. the largest planet of our Solar System. It is a gaseous planet, which means that it is composed of a large and thick atmosphere, which surrounds a solid core. Jupiter is currently studied by the NASA spacecraft Juno. The study I present you, The primordial entropy of Jupiter, by Andrew Cumming, Ravi Helled, and Julia Venturini, simulates different possible paths for the accretion of the atmosphere of Jupiter. The goal is to compare the outcomes with the current atmosphere, to eventually discard some scenarios and constrain the primordial Jupiter. This study has recently been published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The planet Jupiter

Jupiter is the largest planet of our Solar System, and the most massive one. It is about 1,000 more massive than our Earth, and 1,000 less massive than the Sun. As such, it has a tremendous influence on the architecture of our System, particularly the small bodies. The Main Asteroid Belt presents gaps, which are due to mean-motion resonances with Jupiter. Jupiter is also responsible for the destabilization of the orbits of objects which pass close to it. A famous example is the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 which Jupiter tidally destroyed before its impact. You can find below a comparison between Jupiter, Saturn, and our Earth.

Jupiter Saturn Earth
Equatorial radius 71,492 km 60,268 km 6,378 km
Polar radius 66,854 km 54,364 km 6,357 km
Distance to the Sun 5.20 AU 9.58 AU 1 AU
Orbital period 11.86 yr 29.46 yr 1 yr
Spin period 9 h 55 m 10 h 33 m 23 h 56 m
Density 1.326 g/cm3 0.687 g/cm3 5.514 g/cm3

I compare with our Earth given our special connection with that planet, but the comparison with Saturn is much more relevant from a physical point of view. For gaseous planets, the radius correspond to an atmospheric pressure of 1 bar. I here provide a unique spin period, but the gaseous planets experience differential rotation, i.e. the equator may spin slightly faster than the poles.

You can see that our Earth is much denser than the giant guys. The reason is the thick atmosphere, which is less dense than a rocky body. Actually Jupiter is assumed to have a rocky core as well, which would be surrounded by hydrogen, which pressure increases with the depth.

Jupiter seen by Voyager 2 in 1979. © NASA / JPL / USGS
Jupiter seen by Voyager 2 in 1979. © NASA / JPL / USGS

Observers especially know Jupiter for its Great Red Spot, i.e. a giant storm, which is observed since the 17th century.

Jupiter is currently the target of the NASA mission Juno.

The mission Juno

The NASA mission Juno has been sent from Cape Canaveral in August 2011, and orbits Jupiter since July 2016, on a polar orbit. The nominal mission will be completed in July 2018, but I hope it will be extended (I do not have information on this point, sorry). Its goals are to understand origin and evolution of Jupiter, look for solid planetary core, map magnetic field, measure water and ammonia in deep atmosphere, observe auroras.

The  South pole of Jupiter seen by Juno. © NASA / JPL/ SwRI
The South pole of Jupiter seen by Juno. © NASA / JPL/ SwRI

It is composed of 9 instruments. Beside impressive images of cyclones in the atmosphere of Jupiter, it for instance gave us its gravity field of Jupiter with an unprecedented accuracy. Such a result permits to constrain the interior, see for instance this study, in which the authors modeled different interiors for Jupiter. They then compared the resulting, theoretical gravity field, which the one actually measured by Juno. They deduced that the core contains between 7 and 25 Earth masses of heavy elements.

The study I present today does not model the present Jupiter, but instead simulates the evolution of Jupiter from its early life to present. Once more, the goal is to compare with current and future observations. Let us see how a giant planet evolves.

The formation of a giant planet

There are two identified scenarios for the triggering of the formation of a planet:

  • Disk instability: a massive disk fragments into planet-sized self-gravitating clumps
  • Core accretion: solid particles collide and coagulate into larger and larger bodies until a body large enough to accrete a gaseous envelope.

The core accretion model consists of 3 phases:

  1. Primary core/heavy-element accretion: here you create the solid core,
  2. Slow envelope/gas accretion: in this phase, the solid core continues growing, while gas accretes as well,
  3. Rapid gas accretion: this is the final stage, where the core has already been formed.

Here the authors simulate the Phase 3. They are particularly interested in the heat transfer inside the atmosphere. There are two ways to transport heat in such an environment: by radiation, or by convection, i.e. transport of gas, which is a much more effective process. Moreover, convection permits the transport of heavy elements, and so a gradient of density in the atmosphere. This gradient of density would eventually stop the convection, the atmosphere reaching a kind of equilibrium.

Let us see how the authors simulated that process.

Simulations of different scenarios

The authors simulated the gas accretion of Jupiter using the numerical MESA code, for Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics. Yes, stellar, not planetary. But this is very relevant here, since a gaseous planet and a star are both made of a thick gaseous envelope.

These simulations differ by

  • The initial mass of the core,
  • its initial luminosity, which affects the heat transfers during the accretion process. This could be expressed in terms of entropy, which is a thermodynamical quantity expressing the overall activity of a fluid. It will then express the quantity of conductive transfers,
  • the initial mass of the envelope,
  • the temperature of the accreted material,
  • the time-dependent accretion rate. In some simulations it is an ad-hoc model, fitted from previous studies, and in other ones it is directly derived from formation models. The accretion rate is obviously time-dependent, since it slows down at the end of the accretion,
  • the opacity of the material, which is defined as the ratio of the gravitational acceleration over the pressure, multiplied by the optical depth. This affects the heat transfers.

And from all of these simulations, the authors deduce some properties of the final Jupiter, to be compared with future observations to constrain the evolution models.

The initial state constrains the final one

And here are some of the results:

  • Lower opacity and lower solid accretion rate lead to a low mass core,
  • if the gas accretion rate is high then the proto-Jupiter is likely to be fully radiative, i.e. no convection,
  • the rate at which the accretion slows down at the end determines the depth of the convection zone,

etc.

At this time, we do not dispose of enough data to constrain the initial parameters and the accretion rates, but why not in the future? Juno is still on-going, and we hope other missions will follow. For instance, stable regions in Jupiter’s interior can be probed with seismology. Seismology of giant planets would be pretty similar to helioseismology, i.e. this would consist in the detection of acoustic waves, which would be generated by convection in the interior.

The study and its authors

  • You can find the study here. The authors made it freely available on arXiv, thanks to them for sharing! And now the authors:
  • The website of Andrew Cumming, first author of the study,
  • and the one of Ravit Helled.

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.