BREAKING NEWS: Magnetic Field Shifts Much Faster Than Expected

It was back in January 2014, when NASA’s Balloon Array for Radiation-belt Relativistic Electron Losses (BARREL)’s payload of thallium-activated sodium iodide, NaI(Tl) a crystalline material widely used for the detection of gamma-rays in scintillation detectors, saw something never seen before. During a moderate solar storm in which magnetic solar material collides with Earth’s magnetic field, BARREL mapped for the first time how the storm caused Earth’s magnetic field to shift and move.

earth's magnetic field lines

The fields’ configuration shifted much faster than expected – ‘on the order of minutes’ rather than hours or days. The results took researchers by such surprise causing them to check and re-check instruments and hypothesized outcomes. As a result, their findings were not published until last week on May 12 2016.

barrel

During the solar storm, three BARREL balloons were flying through parts of Earth’s magnetic field that directly connect a region of Antarctica to Earth’s north magnetic pole. One BARREL balloon was on a magnetic field line with one end on Earth and one end connected to the Sun’s magnetic field. And two balloons switched back and forth between closed and open field lines throughout the solar storm, providing a map of how the boundary between open and closed field lines moved.

“It is very difficult to model the open-closed boundary,” said Alexa Halford, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This will help with our simulations of how magnetic fields change around Earth, because we’re able to state exactly where we saw this boundary.”

solar-earth image cluster_m

We live in the path of the Sun’s outflow of charged particles, called the solar wind. Solar wind particles are accelerated to high speeds by explosions on the Sun or pushed along by plasma – clouds of solar material. Much of this magnetic field loops up and out into space, but then connects back to Earth at the north magnetic pole, near the Arctic Circle.

A portion of Earth’s magnetic field is open as it connects to the Sun’s magnetic field. This open magnetic field gives charged particles from the Sun a path into Earth’s atmosphere. Once particles are stuck to an open field line, they exceedingly accelerate down into the upper atmosphere. The boundary between these open and closed regions of Earth’s magnetic field is anything but constant. Due to various causes – such as incoming clouds of charged particles, the closed magnetic field lines can realign into open field lines and vice versa, changing the location of the boundary between open and closed magnetic field lines.

magnetic-shift

Scientists have known the open-closed boundary moves, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly how, when, and how quickly it changes – and that is where BARREL comes in. The six BARREL balloons flying during the January 2014 solar storm were able to map these changes, and they found something surprising – the open-closed boundary moves rapidly changing location within minutes.

It is possible, but unlikely, that complex dynamics in the magnetosphere gave the appearance that the BARREL balloons were dancing along this open-closed boundary. If a very fast magnetic wave was sending radiation belt electrons down into the atmosphere in short stuttering bursts, it could appear that the balloons were switching between open and closed magnetic field lines.

However, the particle counts measured by the two balloons on the open-closed boundary matched up to those observed by the other BARREL balloons hovering on closed or open field lines only. This observation strengths the case that BARREL’s balloons were actually crossing the boundary between solar and terrestrial magnetic field.

Astrophysicists Detect Extreme Energetic Processes of a Galaxy

A University of Oklahoma team has detected for the first time the most luminous gamma-ray emission from a galaxy. Named ‘Arp 220’, it is the nearest ultra-luminous infrared galaxy to Earth, and it reveals a hidden extreme energetic processes of a galaxy. The first gamma-ray detection of an infrared ultra-luminous galaxy occurs when the most energetic cosmic rays collide with the interstellar medium causing these galaxies to glow, expanding observations to the highest energy ranges.

apr 217

Team leader Xinyu Dai, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Oklahoma, made the discovery after collecting data using the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope.

“These galaxies are different because of their immense star formation and extra dust that scatters the light and makes them luminous in the infrared,” said co-author Todd Thompson, professor in the Department of Astronomy and Center for Cosmology and Astro-Particle Physics, Ohio State University.

The team developed a collective methodology used to detect gamma-ray emissions from Arp 220. The massive amount of star formation found in infrared luminous and ultra-luminous galaxies suggest a multitude of stars go supernovae ending in one final immense explosion.

A resulting thunderous outburst accelerates charged particles to relativistic velocity eventuating into cosmic rays, which synthesize to particles and light including gamma-ray emissions. Since cosmic rays are difficult to measure, the larger spectrum of gamma-rays reveal a hidden energy component in galaxies.

aPicture444_m

Arp 220’s center contains over 200 enormous star clusters. The most massive of these clusters contains enough material to equal 10 million Suns – twice as massive to any comparable star cluster in the Milky Way. The gamma-ray emission is expected to be tractable showing two compact disks in the nucleus of Arp 200, which contains almost all star-formation activities in this galaxy.

Hubble Finds Clues to the Birth of Supermassive Black Holes

Astrophysicists have taken a major step forward in understanding how supermassive black holes formed. Using data from Hubble and two other space telescopes, Italian researchers have found the best evidence yet for the seeds that ultimately grow into these cosmic giants.

supermassive-black-hole-seed

For years astronomers have debated how the earliest generation of supermassive black holes formed very quickly, relatively speaking, after the Big Bang. Now, an Italian team has identified two objects in the early Universe that seem to be the origin of these early supermassive black holes. The two objects represent the most promising black hole seed candidates found so far.

The group used computer models and applied a new analysis method to data from the NASA Chandra X-ray Observatory, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope to find and identify the two objects. Both of these newly discovered black hole seed candidates are seen less than a billion years after the Big Bang and have an initial mass of about 100 000 times the Sun.

“Our discovery, if confirmed, would explain how these monster black holes were born,” said Fabio Pacucci, lead author of the study, of Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy.

This new result helps to explain why we see supermassive black holes less than one billion years after the Big Bang.

There are two main theories to explain the formation of supermassive black holes in the early Universe. One assumes that the seeds grow out of black holes with a mass about ten to a hundred times greater than our Sun, as expected for the collapse of a massive star. The black hole seeds then grew through mergers with other small black holes and by pulling in gas from their surroundings. However, they would have to grow at an unusually high rate to reach the mass of supermassive black holes already discovered in the billion years young Universe.

The new findings support another scenario where at least some very massive black hole seeds with 100 000 times the mass of the Sun formed directly when a massive cloud of gas collapses. In this case the growth of the black holes would be jump started, and would proceed more quickly.

“There is a lot of controversy over which path these black holes take,” said co-author Andrea Ferrara also of Scuola Normale Superiore. “Our work suggests we are converging on one answer, where black holes start big and grow at the normal rate, rather than starting small and growing at a very fast rate.”

Andrea Grazian, a co-author from the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy explains: “Black hole seeds are extremely hard to find and confirming their detection is very difficult. However, we think our research has uncovered the two best candidates so far.”

Even though both black hole seed candidates match the theoretical predictions, further observations are needed to confirm their true nature. To fully distinguish between the two formation theories, it will also be necessary to find more candidates.

The team plans to conduct follow-up observations in X-rays and in the infrared range to check whether the two objects have more of the properties expected for black hole seeds. Upcoming observatories, like the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope will certainly mark a breakthrough in this field, by detecting even smaller and more distant black holes.

JUST IN: Study Affirms Jet Stream and Ocean Currents Cause of Sea Ice Differences at Earth’s Poles

Why has the sea ice cover surrounding Antarctica been increasing slightly, in sharp contrast to the drastic loss of sea ice occurring in the Arctic Ocean? A new NASA-led study finds the geology of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is responsible. A team led by Son Nghiem of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, used satellite radar, sea surface temperature, landform and bathymetry (ocean depth) data to study the physical processes and properties affecting Antarctic sea ice.

antarctica_ice_sheet

They found that two persistent geological factors, the topography of Antarctica and the depth of the ocean surrounding it are influencing winds and ocean currents, respectively, to drive the formation and evolution of Antarctica’s sea ice cover and help sustain it.

Equation:
Sunspots → Solar Flares (charged particles) → Magnetic Field Shift → Shifting Ocean and Jet Stream Currents → Extreme Weather and Human Disruption (mitch battros 1998).

equation2_1998

“Our study provides strong evidence that the behavior of Antarctic sea ice is entirely consistent with the geophysical characteristics found in the southern polar region, which differ sharply from those present in the Arctic,” said Nghiem. Antarctic sea ice cover is dominated by first-year (seasonal) sea ice. Each year, the sea ice reaches its maximum extent around the frozen continent in September and retreats to about 17 percent of that extent in February. Since the late 1970s, its extent has been relatively stable, increasing just slightly; however, regional differences are observed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Over the years, scientists have floated various hypotheses to explain the behavior of Antarctic sea ice, particularly in light of observed global temperature increases. Examples are: “changes in the ozone hole involved?” – “Could fresh meltwater from Antarctic ice shelves be making the ocean surface less salty” – “Are increases in the strength of Antarctic winds causing the ice to thicken.” Unfortunately, a definitive answer has remained elusive.

Nghiem and his team came up with a novel approach. They analyzed radar data from NASA’s QuikScat satellite from 1999 to 2009 to trace the paths of Antarctic sea ice movements and map its different types. They focused on the 2008 growth season, a year of exceptional seasonal variability in Antarctic sea ice coverage.

To address the question of how the Southern Ocean maintains this great sea ice shield, the team combined sea surface temperature data from multiple satellites with a recently available bathymetric chart of the depth of the world’s oceans. They found the temperature line corresponds with the southern Antarctic Circumpolar Current front, a boundary that separates the circulation of cold and warm waters around Antarctica. The team theorized that the location of this front follows the underwater bathymetry.

QuikScat satellite

When they plotted the bathymetric data against the ocean temperatures, the pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Pronounced seafloor features strongly guide the ocean current and correspond closely with observed regional Antarctic sea ice patterns.

Study results are published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment. Other participating institutions include the Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering at UCLA; the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle; and the U.S. National/Naval Ice Center, NOAA Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Maryland. Additional funding was provided by the National Science Foundation.

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.

Record High Temperatures…Or Are They? Let’s Blame El Nino

Thanks to a combination of global warming and an El Nino, the planet shattered monthly heat records for an unprecedented 12th straight month, as April smashed the old record by half a degree, according to federal scientists.

equation2_1998

And exactly what is El Nino? Science calls it the Southern Pacific Oscillation (ENSO). In English it simply means “shifting ocean and jet currents.” And what is the cause of this shifting? It is “charged particles” coming from above and below. This is to say from solar winds, and various plasma burst from celestial orbs.

Equation:
Sunspots → Solar Flares (charged particles) → Magnetic Field Shift → Shifting Ocean and Jet Stream Currents → Extreme Weather and Human Disruption (mitch battros 1998).

highest Temperatures by State3

ENLARGE

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s monthly climate calculation said Earth’s average temperature in April was 56.7 degrees (13.7 degrees Celsius). That’s 2 degrees (1. 1 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 20th century average and well past the old record set in 2010. The Southern Hemisphere led the way, with Africa, South America and Asia all having their warmest Aprils on record, NOAA climate scientist Ahira Sanchez-Lugo said. NASA was among other organizations that said April was the hottest on record.

The last month that wasn’t record hot was April 2015. The last month Earth wasn’t hotter than the 20th-century average was December 1984, and the last time Earth set a monthly cold record was almost a hundred years ago, in December 1916, according to NOAA records.

At NOAA’s climate monitoring headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina, “we are feeling like broken records stating the same thing” each month, Sanchez-Lugo said.

And more heat meant record low snow for the Northern Hemisphere in April, according to NOAA and the Rutgers Global Snow Lab. Snow coverage in April was 890,000 square miles below the 30-year average.

Sanchez-Lugo and other scientists say ever-increasing man-made global warming is pushing temperatures higher, and the weather oscillation El Nino—a warming of parts of the Pacific Ocean that changes weather worldwide—makes it even hotter.

The current El Nino, which is fading, is one of the strongest on records and is about as strong as the 1997-1998 El Nino. But 2016 so far is 0.81 degrees (0.45 degrees Celsius) warmer than 1998 so “you can definitely see that climate change has an impact,” Sanchez-Lugo said.

Given that each month this year has been record hot, it is not surprising that the average of the first four months of 2016 were 2.05 degrees (1.14 degrees Celsius) higher than the 20th-century average and beat last year’s record by 0.54 degrees (0.3 degrees Celsius).

Last year was the hottest year by far, beating out 2014, which also was a record. But 2016’s start “is unprecedented basically” and in general half a degree warmer than 2015, Sanchez-Lugo said.

Even though El Nino is fading and its cooler flip side La Nina is forecast to take hold later this year, Sanchez-Lugo predicted that 2016 will end up the hottest year on record for the third straight year. That’s because there’s a lag time for those changes to show up in global temperatures and because 2016 has started off so much hotter than 2015, she said.

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Unexpected Discovery of Stars Dying Prematurely

Using recent advancements in Australian telescope technology, a Monash University-led research team has made an unexpected discovery that a large group of stars are dying prematurely, challenging our accepted view of stellar evolution.

M4 globular cluster

The findings of this new study, published today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, were made by Monash PhD student Mr Ben MacLean, supervised by Professor John Lattanzio, Dr Simon Campbell from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics and Dr Gayandhi De Silva from the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) and the University of Sydney. Their results dispute the prevailing theory of stellar evolution, revealing that large numbers of helium burning stars are dying prematurely in the M4 globular cluster.

M4 is one of the closest and brightest globular clusters, and has already been very well studied. Professor John Lattanzio, has described the discovery as a surprising one to find in our own backyard.

“Globular clusters are some of the oldest objects in the Universe. Although we have some ideas for what is going on in them, every time we look carefully we find something unexpected. They are both fascinating and frustrating at the same time,” said Professor Lattanzio.

Researchers used a new instrument called a high efficiency and resolution multi-element spectrograph (HERMES). With HERMES fitted to the Anglo Australian Telescope (AAT) and operated by the AAO, the researchers uncovered the surprising results by working out the chemical composition of stars in M4 by deciphering their starlight. The international team found that about half of the stars tend to skip the Red Giant phase, instead becoming White Dwarfs millions of years ahead of schedule.

While the cause of this remains a mystery, the HERMES chemical analysis has revealed that premature death tends to only occur in the sodium-rich/oxygen-poor stars. The surprising thing is that our best models of these stars do not predict that they will die young.

These findings build on previous Monash University-led research which made the initial discovery that many stars were dying prematurely in the globular cluster NGC 6752. Commenting on this discovery, Dr Simon Campbell said he was surprised to find these results extend to much more ‘normal’ stars’.

“Although the phenomenon of sodium-rich stars failing to reach old age has been seen in our previous research, it was totally unexpected that it should occur on such a scale in this ‘normal’ star cluster, ” Dr Campbell said.

Until now, this research would have been impossible to conduct in Australia, instead requiring the use of larger overseas telescopes. However, thanks to the recent construction and installation of the HERMES instrument, researchers can now use the AAT to analyse the chemical composition of up to 400 stars at a time.

Dr Gayandhi De Silva from the AAO believes the recent upgrade to the AAO will benefit astronomers around the world.

“HERMES represents a significant step forward for Australia’s observational capacity. This incredible advance is unique in that it combines multi-object capability with high data quality. Otherwise we are limited to observing one star at a time to collect such high quality data. This capability makes HERMES and the AAT competitive against some of the world’s biggest telescopes and a new tool for making breakthrough discoveries,” Dr De Silva said.

Looking to the future research in this field, Professor Lattanzio highlighted the role that advanced computer simulations will play in the next stage of research.

“Computer simulations do not agree with this observation; so as well as continuing observations, new computer models will need to be generated to better understand what is taking place in the cores of these stars,” Professor Lattanzio said.