Team Makes Breakthrough in Understanding Rare Lightning-Triggered Gamma-Rays (Video Inside)

Telescope Array physicists discovered a strange particle signature; the photon equivalent of a light drizzle punctuated by a fire hose. The array had unexpectedly recorded an extremely rare phenomenon – gamma rays, the highest-energy light waves on the electromagnetic spectrum, produced by lightning strikes that beam the radiation downward toward the Earth’s surface. Five years later, an international team led by the Cosmic Ray Group at the University of Utah has observed the so-called downward terrestrial gamma ray flashes (TGFs) in more detail than ever before.

The Telescope Array detected 10 bursts of downward TGFs between 2014 and 2016, more events than have been observed in rest of the world combined. The Telescope Array Lightning Project is the first to detect downward TGFs at the beginning of cloud-to-ground lightning, and to show where they originated inside thunderstorms. The Telescope Array is by far the only facility capable of documenting the full TGF “footprint” on the ground, and show that gamma rays cover an area 3 to 5 km in diameter.

“What’s really cool is the Telescope Array was not designed to detect these,” said lead author Rasha Abbasi, researcher at the High-Energy Astrophysics Institute and the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the U. “We are 100 times bigger than other experiments, and our detector response time is much faster. All of these factors give us the ability that we were not aware of – we can look at lightning in a way that nobody else can.”

The work builds on a study published by the group last year that established a strong correlation between similar bursts of energetic particle showers detected between 2008 and 2013, and lightning activity recorded by the National Lightning Detection Network. The physicists were stunned.

“It was BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM. Like, four or five triggers of the detectors occurring within amillisecond. Much faster than could be expected by cosmic rays,” said John Belz, professor of physics at the U and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-funded Telescope Array Lightning Project. “We realized eventually that all of these strange events occurred when the weather was bad. So, we looked at the National Lightning Detection Network and, low and behold, there would be a lightning strike, and within a millisecond we would get a burst of triggers.”

The researchers brought in lightning experts from the Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research at New Mexico Tech to help study the lightning in more detail. They installed a nine-station Lightning Mapping Array developed by the group, which produces 3-D images of radio-frequency radiation that lightning emits inside a storm. In 2014, they installed an additional instrument in the center of the array, called a “slow antenna,” that records changes in the storm’s electric charge caused by the lightning discharge.

“Taken together, the Telescope Array detections and the lightning observations constitute a major advance in our understanding of TGFs. Prior to this, TGFs were primarily detected by satellites, with little or no ground based data to indicate how they are produced”, said Paul Krehbiel, long-time lightning researcher at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and co-author of the study. “In addition to providing much better areal coverage for detecting the gamma rays, the array measurements are much closer to the TGF source and show that the gamma rays are produced in short duration bursts, each lasting only ten to a few tens of microseconds.”

An extremely rare phenomenon

Until a FERMI satellite recorded the first TGF in 1994, physicists thought only violent celestial events, such as exploding stars, could produce gamma rays. Gradually, scientists determined that the rays were produced in the initial milliseconds of upward intracloud lightning, which beamed the rays into space. Since discovering these upward TGFs, physicists have wondered whether cloud-to-ground lightning could produce similar TGFs that beam downward to the Earth’s surface.

Previously, only six downward TGFs have ever been recorded, two of which came from artificially-induced lightning experiments. The remaining four studies with natural lightning report TGFs originating much later, after the lightning had already struck the ground. The array’s observations are the first to show that downward TGFs occur in the initial breakdown stage of lightning, similar to the satellite observations.

“The downward-going TGFs are coming from a similar source as the upward ones. We safely assume that we have similar physics going on. What we see on the ground can help explain what they see in the satellites, and we can combine those pictures in order to understand the mechanism of how it happens,” said Abbasi.

“The mechanism that produces the gamma rays has yet to be figured out,” added Krehbiel.


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BREAKING NEWS: Two Missions Will Go Closer to Our Sun Than Ever Before

Two upcoming missions will soon take us closer to the Sun than we’ve ever been before, providing our best chance yet at uncovering the complexities of solar activity in our own solar system and shedding light on the very nature of space and stars throughout the universe.

Together, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and ESA’s (the European Space Agency) Solar Orbiter may resolve decades-old questions about the inner workings of our nearest star. Their comprehensive, up-close study of the Sun has important implications for how we live and explore: Energy from the Sun powers life on Earth, but it also triggers space weather events that can pose hazard to technology we increasingly depend upon.

Such space weather can disrupt radio communications, affect satellites and human spaceflight, and can severely damage our power grids. Such events also have a direct causal effect to Earth’s weather which can lead to extreme events causing vast destruction.  A better understanding of the fundamental processes at the Sun driving these events could improve predictions of when they’ll occur and how their effects may be felt on Earth.

“Our goal is to understand how the Sun works and how it affects the space environment to the point of predictability,” said Chris St. Cyr, Solar Orbiter project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This is really a curiosity-driven science.”

Parker Solar Probe is slated to launch in the summer of 2018 and Solar Orbiter is scheduled to follow in 2020. These missions were developed independently, but their coordinated science objectives are no coincidence: Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter are natural teammates.

Both missions will take a closer look at the Sun’s dynamic outer atmosphere, called the corona. From Earth, the corona is visible only during total solar eclipses, when the Moon blocks the Sun’s most intense light and reveals the outer atmosphere’s wispy, pearly-white structure. But the corona isn’t as delicate as it looks during a total solar eclipse. It can release a powerful punch of charged particles, and if Earth directed can have significant repercussions to Earth’s upper and lower atmospheres reflective of Rossby Waves which drive shifting jet streams and ocean currents.

Both Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter will study the Sun’s most pervasive influence on the solar system: the solar wind. The Sun constantly exhales a stream of magnetized gas that fills the inner solar system, called solar wind. This solar wind interacts with magnetic fields, atmospheres, or even surfaces of worlds throughout the solar system. On Earth, this interaction can spark auroras and sometimes disrupt communications systems and power grids.

Data from previous missions have led scientists to believe the corona contributes to the processes that accelerate particles, driving the solar wind’s incredible speeds—which triple as it leaves the Sun and passes through the corona. Right now, the solar wind travels some 92 million miles by the time it reaches the spacecraft that measure it—plenty of time for this stream of charged gases to intermix with other particles traveling through space and lose some of its defining features. Parker Solar Probe will catch the solar wind just as it forms and leaves the corona, sending back to Earth some of the most pristine measurements of solar wind ever recorded. Solar Orbiter’s perspective, which will provide a good look at the Sun’s poles, will complement Parker Solar Probe’s study of the solar wind, because it allows scientists to see how the structure and behavior of the solar wind varies at different latitudes.

Solar Orbiter will also make use of its unique orbit to better understand the Sun’s magnetic fields; some of the Sun’s most interesting magnetic activity is concentrated at the poles. But because Earth orbits on a plane more or less in line with the solar equator, we don’t typically get a good view of the poles from afar. It’s a bit like trying to see the summit of Mount Everest from the base of the mountain.

That view of the poles will also go a long way toward understanding the overall nature of the Sun’s magnetic field, which is lively and extensive, stretching far beyond the orbit of Neptune. The Sun’s magnetic field is so far-reaching largely because of the solar wind: As the solar wind streams outward, it carries the Sun’s magnetic field with it, creating a vast bubble, called the heliosphere. Within the heliosphere, the solar wind determines the very nature of planetary atmospheres. The heliosphere’s boundaries are shaped by how the Sun interacts with interstellar space. Since Voyager 1’s passage through the heliopause in 2012, we know these boundaries dramatically protect the inner solar system from incoming galactic radiation.

It’s not yet clear how exactly the Sun’s magnetic field is generated or structured deep inside the Sun—though we do know intense magnetic fields around the poles drives variability on the Sun, causing solar flares and coronal mass ejections. Solar Orbiter will hover over roughly the same region of the solar atmosphere for several days at a time while scientists watch tension build up and release around the poles. Those observations may lead to better awareness of the physical processes that ultimately generate the Sun’s magnetic field.

Together, Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter will refine our knowledge of the Sun and heliosphere. Along the way, it’s likely these missions will pose even more questions than they answer—a problem scientists are very much looking forward to.


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Waves Similar To Those Controlling Weather On Earth Have Now Been Found On The Sun

A team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) and the University of Göttingen has discovered new waves of vorticity on the Sun. As described in today’s issue of Nature Astronomy, these Rossby waves propagate in the direction opposite to rotation, have lifetimes of several months, and maximum amplitudes at the Sun’s equator. For forty years scientists had speculated about the existence of such waves on the Sun, which should be present in every rotating fluid system. Now, they have been unambiguously detected and characterized for the first time. The solar Rossby waves are close relatives of the Rossby waves known to occur in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

In almost every weather map of the Earth’s northern hemisphere atmospheric Rossby waves are a prominent feature. They appear as meanders in the jet stream separating cold polar air in the north from warmer subtropical air farther to the south. Sometimes these waves reach the equatorial regions and can even affect weather in Australia. In principle, waves of this type (often referred to as planetary waves) arise on every rotating sphere due to the Coriolis force. Saturn’s hexagon, a stable cloud pattern at the planet’s north pole, may also be an expression of these waves.

The existence of Rossby waves in stars was predicted about forty years ago. “Solar Rossby waves have very small amplitudes and periods of several months, thus they are extremely difficult to detect”, says Prof. Dr. Laurent Gizon, coordinator of the team that made the discovery and director at the MPS. The study required high-precision observations of the Sun over many years. The scientists from MPS analyzed a six-year dataset from the Heliospheric and Magnetic Imager (HMI) onboard NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), in operation since 2010.

“The HMI images have sufficiently high spatial resolution to allow us to follow the movement of photospheric granules on the Sun’s visible surface”, says Dr. Björn Löptien, scientist at the MPS and first author of the article. These granules are small convective cells that are roughly 1500 kilometers in size on the solar surface. In their new study, the researchers used the granules as passive tracers to uncover the underlying, much larger vortex flows associated with the Rossby waves. In addition, methods of helioseismology were used to confirm the discovery and to study the Rossby waves in the solar interior at depths up to 20000 kilometers.

“All in all, we find large-scale waves of vorticity on the Sun that move in the direction opposite to rotation. That these waves are only seen in the equatorial regions is completely unexpected”, Gizon explains. The vorticity patterns are stable for several months. The researchers were able to determine the relationship between the waves’ frequency and wavelength for the first time – thus clearly identifying them as Rossby waves.

“Solar Rossby waves are gigantic in size, with wavelengths comparable to the solar radius”, Gizon explains. They are an essential component of the Sun’s internal dynamics because they contribute half of the Sun’s large-scale kinetic energy.

Are Rossby Waves To Blame For Earth’s Magnetic Field Drifting Westward?

A doctoral student at the University of Cambridge has come up with a possible explanation for the westward drift of the Earth’s magnetic field. In his paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, O.P. Bardsley suggests it may be due to Rossby waves generated in the Earth’s core.

Humans first became aware of the Earth’s magnetic field over 400 years ago, and since that time, have been taking measurements of it. As time passed, it became clear that the field was moving in a westerly direction—and nobody knew why. The actual reason is still not known—Bardsley is proposing a new idea: Somehow, Rossby waves in the Earth’s outer core cause the magnetic drift.

Prior efforts to explain the westward drift have also involved the outer core—one theory suggests that it has a gyre, similar in some respects to the jet stream. If so, it could be dragging the magnetic field as it moves slowly westward. The problem with that theory, Bardsley notes, is that no one has ever found any other evidence of a gyre in the outer core. He suggests Rossby waves make more sense.

Rossby waves are slow and arise when fluids rotate. Because they are generated by most planets, some scientists have taken to calling them planetary waves. Rossby waves on Earth are generated in several places—in the oceans, the atmosphere and the outer core. It is those generated by the fluid in the outer core that Bardsley suggests might be pushing the magnetic field. But there is one major problem: The outer core generates wave crests that move east, not west. Bardsley suggests that this may not be a problem after all—he notes that some ocean waves with crests moving in one direction expend energy in the opposite direction. If that is the case with outer core Rossby waves, he suggests, they could be pushing the magnetic field. He notes that current technology only allows for measuring the energy of the magnetic field in a general sense, not the small details. Much more research is required, he acknowledges, before his theory can be tested, much less proven right or wrong.

Unusual Laser Emission From The Ant Nebula

An international team of astronomers have discovered an unusual laser emission that suggests the presence of a double star system hidden at the heart of the “spectacular” Ant Nebula.

The extremely rare phenomenon is connected to the death of a star and was discovered in observations made by European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel space observatory.

When low- to middleweight stars like our Sun approach the end of their lives they eventually become dense, white dwarf stars. In the process, they cast off their outer layers of gas and dust into space, creating a kaleidoscope of intricate patterns known as a planetary nebula. Our Sun is expected to one day form such a planetary nebula.

A nebula is an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases. The Ant Nebula earns its nickname from the twin lobes that resemble the head and body of an ant.

The recent Herschel observations have shown that the dramatic demise of the central star in the core of the Ant Nebula is even more theatrical than implied by its colourful appearance in visible images — such as those taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

The new data shows that the Ant Nebula also beams intense laser emission from its core. Lasers are well-known down on earth in everyday life, from special visual effects in music concerts to health care and communications. In space, laser emission is detected at very different wavelengths and only under certain conditions. Only a few of these infrared space lasers are known.

By coincidence, astronomer Donald Menzel who first observed and classified this particular planetary nebula in the 1920s (it is officially known as Menzel 3 after him) was also one of the first to suggest that in certain conditions natural ‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’ — from which the acronym ‘laser’ derives — could occur in nebulae in space. This was well before the discovery of lasers in laboratories.

Dr Isabel Aleman, lead author of a paper describing the new results, said “We detected a very rare type of emission called hydrogen recombination laser emission, which is only produced in a narrow range of physical conditions.

“Such emission has only been identified in a handful of objects before and it is a happy coincidence that we detected the kind of emission that Menzel suggested, in one of the planetary nebulae that he discovered.”

This kind of laser emission needs very dense gas close to the star. Comparison of the observations with models found that the density of the gas emitting the lasers is around ten thousand times denser than the gas seen in typical planetary nebulae and in the lobes of the Ant Nebula itself.

Normally, the region close to the dead star — close in this case being about the distance of Saturn from the Sun — is quite empty, because its material is ejected outwards. Any lingering gas would soon fall back onto it.

Co-author Prof Albert Zijlstra, from the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at University of Manchester, added: “The only way to keep such dense gas close to the star is if it is orbiting around it in a disc. In this nebula, we have actually observed a dense disc in the very centre that is seen approximately edge-on. This orientation helps to amplify the laser signal.

“The disc suggests there is a binary companion, because it is hard to get the ejected gas to go into orbit unless a companion star deflects it in the right direction. The laser gives us a unique way to probe the disc around the dying star, deep inside the planetary nebula.”

Astronomers have not yet seen the expected second star, hidden in the heart of the Ant nebula.

Göran Pilbratt, ESA’s Herschel project scientist, added: “It is a nice conclusion that it took the Herschel mission to connect together Menzel’s two discoveries from almost a century ago.”

The paper’s publication coincides with the first UNESCO International Day of Light, and celebrates the anniversary of the first successful operation of the laser in 1960 by physicist and engineer, Theodore Maiman.

Scientists Just Found the Fastest-Growing Black Hole

Researchers have spotted the fastest-growing black hole ever found — and have seen the (thankfully) distant devourer consume a mass equivalent to Earth’s sun every two days.

Researchers used newly released data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite to confirm that the brightly shining object is a black hole, which appears to have been the mass of about 20 billion suns when the light was released and was growing by 1 percent every million years, researchers said in a statement released today (May 15).

“This black hole is growing so rapidly that it’s shining thousands of times more brightly than an entire galaxy, due to all the gases it sucks in daily that cause lots of friction and heat,” Christian Wolf, an astronomer at the Australian National University and first author on the new research, said in the statement. [The Strangest Black Holes in the Universe]

“If we had this monster sitting at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, it would appear 10 times brighter than a full moon. It would appear as an incredibly bright, pinpoint star that would almost wash out all of the stars in the sky,” he added.

Luckily, though, the black hole is far enough away that it likely released its light more than 12 billion years ago, the researchers said. The energy it emits is mostly ultraviolet light, but it also releases X-rays. “Again, if this monster was at the center of the Milky Way, it would likely make life on Earth impossible with the huge amounts of X-rays emanating from it,” Wolf said.

Because of its distance and the expansion of space, that light had shifted into the near-infrared during its billions-of-years journey. Wolf and his colleagues spotted the light with the SkyMapper telescope at the ANU Siding Spring Observatory. They then used the Gaia satellite to measure that the object was sitting still, thereby also confirming that it was incredibly distant and likely a supermassive black hole, the researchers said. Then, another ANU telescope measured the wavelengths released from the object to verify its composition.

“We don’t know how this one grew so large, so quickly in the early days of the universe,” Wolf said. “The hunt is on to find even faster-growing black holes.”

Wolf added that distant black holes like this one can help scientists study the early universe. Researchers can spot the shadows of other objects in front of the black holes, and their radiation also helps clear away obscuring gas.

With giant new ground-based telescopes currently under construction, scientists will also be able to use bright, distant objects like this voracious black hole to measure the universe’s expansion, the researchers said.

The new work was accepted to the journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia.

BREAKING NEWS: ‘Lost’ Asteroid To Pass Close To Earth Tuesday Evening

An asteroid that was lost by tracking satellites eight years ago has been spotted again as it prepares to make an unnervingly close pass by the Earth on May 15. While the giant space rock is expected to miss the planet, the asteroid will give sky watchers a chance to see the action unfold live online.

On Nov. 30, 2010, astronomers discovered an asteroid that could be as large as one of the Great Pyramids of ancient Egypt. It passed within nine million miles of Earth and then scientists lost track of it as it headed back to the outer solar system.

Asteroid 2010 WC9, which is about 426 feet in diameter, was observed for too short of a time for astronomers to be able to predict when its orbit might bring it back to our neighborhood.

This same asteroid is back and about to buzz by us about 70 times closer (126,000 miles away) than it did eight years ago. That puts it at about half the distance between the Earth and moon, making it one of the closest approaches ever observed by such a sizable asteroid.

London’s Northolt Branch Observatories, which helped to rediscover the asteroid, will be broadcasting the flyby live on Facebook. Don’t worry, the broadcast won’t be like a countdown to the apocalypse. 2010 WC9 will sail by the planet safely at about 6:05 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on May 15.

While this asteroid isn’t a threat (this time) it does emphasize the need to keep a watchful eye on the sky to catalog and track as many space rocks as possible.

“There are lots of asteroids and comets in our solar system and it’s impossible to predict the trajectories of all of these objects, but we need to try,} University of Saskatchewan astronomy professor Daryl Janzen said in a news release on May 10.

Just last month, astronomers discovered a slightly smaller asteroid just hours before it passed by the Earth and came even closer to hitting the moon.

On the cosmic scale, these asteroids are large enough to do some damage if they were to impact Earth, especially near a populated area. However, they aren’t considered big enough to do the kind of catastrophic damage caused by the space rock believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs.

“There is an extremely low probability of the planet coming into contact with one of these large near-Earth objects in our lifetime, but there is really good evidence that it happened in the past and led to mass extinction on the planet,” Janzen added. “So, although the probability is low, it’s important to discover as many NEOs as we can, so that if one does enter into a collision course with Earth, we can try to do something about it.”