Spinning Comet Observed To Rapidly Slow Down During Close Approach To Earth

Astronomers at Lowell Observatory observed comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak last spring and noticed that the speed of its rotation was quickly slowing down. A research team led by David Schleicher studied the comet while it was closer to the Earth than it has ever been since its discovery. The comet rotational period became twice as long, going from 24 to more than 48 hours within six weeks, a far greater change than ever observed before in a comet. If it continues to slow down, it might stop completely and then begin rotating in the opposite direction.

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak is a short period comet that now completes an orbit around the Sun every 5.4 years. First discovered by H. Tuttle in 1858, it was lost for years until is was rediscovered by M. Giacobini in 1907. Lost again and rediscovered for a third time in 1951 by K. Kresak, now the comet holds the names of its three independent discoverers.

Astronomers had a hard time studying this comet in detail until early 2017 when it passed within 13 million miles (21 million kilometers) from Earth, the closest since its discovery.With a relatively inactive nucleus estimated to be less than one mile in size (about 1.4 km), this comet was finally sufficiently bright for an extensive observing campaign.

During eight weeks between March and May of this year, the comet remained at a distance of less than 18 million miles (30 million kilometers) from Earth. In comparison, the distance between the Sun and the Earth is 93 million miles. These conditions allowed astronomers to study it in great detail.

Remnants from the formation of the Solar System, comets have changed very little during the past 4.5 billion years. As a comet gets closer to the Sun and the ice on its surface vaporizes, it develops gas and dust jets thousands of miles in length that ultimately create the coma or head, and the tail that distinguish comets from asteroids and other celestial bodies. One of the most common gases found in comets is the cyanogen radical, a molecule composed of one carbon atom and one nitrogen atom.

Schleicher and his collaborators used Lowell Observatory’s Discovery Channel Telescope, together with the Hall telescope and the Robotic telescope located on Anderson Mesa near Flagstaff, Arizona. They found and measured the motion of two cyanogen jets coming from comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak. From these jets, they determined that the rotation period changed from 24 hours in March to 48 hour in late April, slowing down to less than half the rotation speed by the end of the observing campaign in May.

“While we expected to observe cyanogen jets and be able to determine the rotation period, we did not anticipate detecting a change in the rotation period in such a short time interval. It turned out to be the largest change in the rotational period ever measured, more than a factor of ten greater than found in any other comet,” said Schleicher, who lead the project.

This result also implies that the comet has a very elongated shape, a low density, and that the jets are located near the very end of its body, providing the torque needed to produce the observed change in rotation.
“If future observations can accurately measure the dimensions of the nucleus, then the observed rotation period change would set limits on the comet’s density and internal strength. Such detailed knowledge of a comet is usually only obtained by a dedicated spacecraft mission like the recently completed Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko,” said collaborator Matthew Knight.

Looking to the past on the other hand, brings another possible scenario. If the comet behaved similarly on previous orbits, it could have been rotating so fast that the nucleus might have broken, allowing more gas to escape and causing an increase in brightness for a short period of time. Such an outburst was observed in 2001.

The preliminary results were presented during the 49th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences held in Provo, Utah. The full team consists of David Schleicher from Lowell Observatory, Nora Eisner from the University of Sheffield, Matthew Knight from the University of Maryland, and Audrey Thirouin also from Lowell Observatory.

Earth’s New Traveling Buddy Is Definitely An Asteroid, Not Space Junk

At the 49th Annual Division for Planetary Sciences Meeting in Provo, Utah, astronomers led by Vishnu Reddy at the University of Arizona confirm true nature of one of Earth’s companions on its journey around the Sun.

Was it a burned-out rocket booster, tumbling along a peculiar near-earth orbit around the sun, and only occasionally getting close enough to be studied with even the largest telescopes?

Not at all, as it turns out. While, based on previous observations, most astronomers had strongly suspected that object (469219) 2016 HO3 was an ordinary asteroid and not space junk, it took a team of astronomers led by Vishnu Reddy, assistant professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, working with one of the world’s largest telescopes, the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), on Mt. Graham in Southeastern Arizona, to learn the true nature of this near-Earth object.

2016 HO3 is a small near-Earth object (NEO) measuring no more than 100 meters (330 feet) across that, while orbiting the Sun, also appears to circle around the Earth as a “quasi-satellite.” Only five quasi-satellites have been discovered so far, but 2016 HO3 is the most stable of them. The provenance of this object is unknown. On timescales of a few centuries, 2016 HO3 remains within 38-100 lunar distances from us.

“While HO3 is close to the Earth, its small size – possibly not larger than 100 feet – makes it challenging target to study, said Reddy. “Our observations show that the HO3 rotates once every 28 minutes and is made of materials similar to asteroids.”

Soon after its discovery in 2016, astronomers were not sure where this object came from, but in a recent presentation at the annual Division for Planetary Sciences Conference of the American Astronomical Society in Provo, Utah, Reddy and his colleagues show that Earth’s new traveling buddy is an asteroid and not space junk. The new observations confirm that 2016 HO3 is a natural object of similar provenance to other small NEOs that zip by the Earth each month.

“In an effort to constrain its rotation period and surface composition, we observed 2016 HO3 on April 14 and 18 with the Large Binocular Telescope and the Discovery Channel Telescope,” Reddy said. “The derived rotation period and the spectrum of emitted light are not uncommon amongst small NEOs, suggesting that 2016 HO3 is a natural object of similar provenance to other small NEOs.”

In their presentation, “Ground-based Characterization of Earth Quasi Satellite (469219) 2016 HO3,” Reddy and his co-authors, Olga Kuhn, Audrey Thirouin, Al Conrad, Renu Malhotra, Juan Sanchez, and Christian Veillet, point out that the light reflected off the surface of 2016 HO3 is similar to meteorites we have on Earth.

One way to visualize HO3’s orbit is by picturing a hula hoop dancer – the sun in this analogy – twirling two hoops around the hips at the same time, ever so slightly out of sync. While it orbits the sun, the object makes yearly loops (link to www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMJc7gmychk ) around the Earth. As a result, the object appears to orbit the Earth, but it is not gravitationally bound to our planet.

“Of the near-Earth objects we know of, these types of objects would be the easiest to reach, so they could potentially make suitable targets for exploration,” said Veillet, director of the LBT Observatory. “With its binocular arrangement of two 8.4-meter mirrors, coupled with a very efficient pair of imagers and spectrographs like MODS, LBT is ideally suited to the characterization of these Earth’s companions.”

Hubble Observes Source Of Gravitational Waves For The First Time

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has observed for the first time the source of a gravitational wave, created by the merger of two neutron stars. This merger created a kilonova — an object predicted by theory decades ago — that ejects heavy elements such as gold and platinum into space. This event also provides the strongest evidence yet that short duration gamma-ray bursts are caused by mergers of neutron stars. This discovery is the first glimpse of multi-messenger astronomy, bringing together both gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation.

On 17 August 2017 the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo Interferometer both alerted astronomical observers all over the globe about the detection of a gravitational wave event named GW170817 . About two seconds after the detection of the gravitational wave, ESA’s INTEGRAL telescope and NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope observed a short gamma-ray burst in the same direction.

In the night following the initial discovery, a fleet of telescopes started their hunt to locate the source of the event. Astronomers found it in the lenticular galaxy NGC 4993, about 130 million light-years away. A point of light was shining where nothing was visible before and this set off one of the largest multi-telescope observing campaigns ever — among these telescopes was the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Several different teams of scientists used Hubble over the two weeks following the gravitational wave event alert to observe NGC 4993. Using Hubble’s high-resolution imaging capabilities they managed to get the first observational proof for a kilonova, the visible counterpart of the merging of two extremely dense objects — most likely two neutron stars. Such mergers were first suggested more than 30 years ago but this marks the first firm observation of such an event. The distance to the merger makes the source both the closest gravitational wave event detected so far and also one of the closest gamma-ray burst sources ever seen.

“Once I saw that there had been a trigger from LIGO and Virgo at the same time as a gamma-ray burst I was blown away,” recalls Andrew Levan of the University of Warwick, who led the Hubble team that obtained the first observations. “When I realised that it looked like neutron stars were involved, I was even more amazed. We’ve been waiting a long time for an opportunity like this!”

Hubble captured images of the galaxy in visible and infrared light, witnessing a new bright object within NGC 4993 that was brighter than a nova but fainter than a supernova. The images showed that the object faded noticeably over the six days of the Hubble observations. Using Hubble’s spectroscopic capabilities the teams also found indications of material being ejected by the kilonova as fast as one-fifth of the speed of light.

“It was surprising just how closely the behaviour of the kilonova matched the predictions,” said Nial Tanvir, professor at the University of Leicester and leader of another Hubble observing team. “It looked nothing like known supernovae, which this object could have been, and so confidence was soon very high that this was the real deal.”

Connecting kilonovae and short gamma-ray bursts to neutron star mergers has so far been difficult, but the multitude of detailed observations following the detection of the gravitational wave event GW170817 has now finally verified these connections.

“The spectrum of the kilonova looked exactly like how theoretical physicists had predicted the outcome of the merger of two neutron stars would appear,” says Levan. “It ties this object to the gravitational wave source beyond all reasonable doubt.”

The infrared spectra taken with Hubble also showed several broad bumps and wiggles that signal the formation of some of the heaviest elements in nature. These observations may help solve another long-standing question in astronomy: the origin of heavy chemical elements, like gold and platinum. In the merger of two neutron stars, the conditions appear just right for their production.

The implications of these observations are immense. As Tanvir explains: “This discovery has opened up a new approach to astronomical research, where we combine information from both electromagnetic light and from gravitational waves. We call this multi-messenger astronomy — but until now it has just been a dream!”

Levan concludes: “Now, astronomers won’t just look at the light from an object, as we’ve done for hundreds of years, but also listen to it. Gravitational waves provide us with complementary information from objects which are very hard to study using only electromagnetic waves. So pairing gravitational waves with electromagnetic radiation will help astronomers understand some of the most extreme events in the Universe.”

Solar Eruptions Could Electrify Martian Moons

Powerful solar eruptions could electrically charge areas of the Martian moon Phobos to hundreds of volts, presenting a complex electrical environment that could possibly affect sensitive electronics carried by future robotic explorers, according to a new NASA study. The study also considered electrical charges that could develop as astronauts transit the surface on potential human missions to Phobos.

Phobos has been considered as a possible initial base for human exploration of Mars because its weak gravity makes it easier to land spacecraft, astronauts and supplies. The idea would be to have the astronauts control robots on the Martian surface from the moons of Mars, without the considerable time delay faced by Earth-based operators. “We found that astronauts or rovers could accumulate significant electric charges when traversing the night side of Phobos — the side facing Mars during the Martian day,” said William Farrell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “While we don’t expect these charges to be large enough to injure an astronaut, they are potentially large enough to affect sensitive equipment, so we would need to design spacesuits and equipment that minimizes any charging hazard.” Farrell is lead author of a paper on this research published online Oct. 3 in Advances in Space Research.

Mars has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. Although this study focused on Phobos, similar conditions are expected at Deimos, since both moons have no atmosphere and are directly exposed to the solar wind — a stream of electrically conducting gas, called a plasma, that’s constantly blowing off the surface of the Sun into space at around a million miles per hour.

The solar wind is responsible for these charging effects. When the solar wind strikes the day side of Phobos, the plasma is absorbed by the surface. This creates a void on the night side of Phobos that the plasma flow is obstructed from directly entering. However, the composition of the wind — made of two types of electrically charged particles, namely ions and electrons — affects the flow. The electrons are over a thousand times lighter than the ions. “The electrons act like fighter jets — they are able to turn quickly around an obstacle — and the ions are like big, heavy bombers — they change direction slowly,” said Farrell. “This means the light electrons push in ahead of the heavy ions and the resulting electric field forces the ions into the plasma void behind Phobos, according to our models.”

The study shows that this plasma void behind Phobos may create a situation where astronauts and rovers build up significant electric charges. For example, if astronauts were to walk across the night-side surface, friction could transfer charge from the dust and rock on the surface to their spacesuits. This dust and rock is a very poor conductor of electricity, so the charge can’t flow back easily into the surface — and charge starts to build up on the spacesuits. On the day side, the electrically conducting solar wind and solar ultraviolet radiation can remove the excess charge on the suit. But, on the night side, the ion and electron densities in the trailing plasma void are so low they cannot compensate or ‘dissipate’ the charge build-up. The team’s calculations revealed that this static charge can reach ten thousand volts in some materials, like the Teflon suits used in the Apollo lunar missions. If the astronaut then touches something conductive, like a piece of equipment, this could release the charge, possibly similar to the discharge you get when you shuffle across a carpet and touch a metal door handle.

The team modeled the flow of the solar wind around Phobos and calculated the buildup of charge on the night side, as well as in obstructed regions in shadow, like Stickney crater, the largest crater on Phobos. “We found that excess charge builds up in these regions during all solar wind conditions, but the charging effect was especially severe in the wake of solar eruptions like coronal mass ejections, which are dense, fast gusts of solar wind,” said Farrell.

This study was a follow-up to earlier studies that revealed the charging effects of solar wind in shadowed craters on Earth’s Moon and near-Earth asteroids. Some conditions on Phobos are different than those in the earlier studies. For example, Phobos gets immersed in the plasma flowing behind Mars because it orbits Mars much closer than the Moon orbits Earth. The plasma flow behind Mars’ orbit was modeled as well.

The research was funded by Goddard’s Dynamic Response of the Environment at Asteroids, the Moon, and moons of Mars (DREAM2) center, as well as the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), based and managed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

SSERVI is a virtual institute that, together with international partnerships, brings science and exploration researchers together in a collaborative virtual setting. SSERVI is funded by the Science Mission Directorate and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

First Observations Of Merging Neutron Stars Mark A New Era In Astronomy

After LIGO detected gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars, the race was on to detect a visible counterpart, because unlike the colliding black holes responsible for LIGO’s four previous detections, this event was expected to produce an explosion of visible light. A small team led by UCSC was the first to find the source of the gravitational waves, capturing the first images of the event with the Swope Telescope in Chile.

Two months ago, the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) notified astronomers around the world of the possible detection of gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars. From that moment on August 17, the race was on to detect a visible counterpart, because unlike the colliding black holes responsible for LIGO’s four previous detections of gravitational waves, this event was expected to produce a brilliant explosion of visible light and other types of radiation.

A small team led by Ryan Foley, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, was the first to find the source of the gravitational waves, located in a galaxy 130 million light-years away called NGC 4993. Foley’s team captured the first images of the event with the 1-meter Swope Telescope at the Carnegie Institution’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

“This is a huge discovery,” Foley said. “We’re finally connecting these two different ways of looking at the universe, observing the same thing in light and gravitational waves, and for that alone this is a landmark event. It’s like being able to see and hear something at the same time.”

Theoretical astrophysicist Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and a member of Foley’s team, said the observations have opened a new window into understanding the physics of neutron star mergers. Among other things, the results could resolve a hotly debated question about the origins of gold and other heavy elements in the universe, which Ramirez-Ruiz has been studying for years.

“I think this can prove our idea that most of these elements are made in neutron star mergers,” he said. “We are seeing the heavy elements like gold and platinum being made in real time.”

Foley’s team is publishing four papers October 16 in Science based on their observations and analysis, as well as three papers in Astrophysical Journal Letters, and they are coauthors of several more papers in Nature and other journals, including two major papers led by the LIGO collaboration. The key Science papers include one presenting the discovery of the first optical counterpart to a gravitational wave source, led by UCSC graduate student David Coulter, and another, led by postdoctoral fellow Charles Kilpatrick, presenting a state-of-the-art comparison of the observations with theoretical models to confirm that it was a neutron-star merger. Two other Science papers were led by Foley’s collaborators at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

By coincidence, the LIGO detection came on the final day of a scientific workshop on “Astrophysics with gravitational wave detections,” which Ramirez-Ruiz had organized at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and where Foley had just given a talk. “I wish we had filmed Ryan’s talk, because he was so gloomy about our chances to observe a neutron star merger,” Ramirez-Ruiz said. “But then he went on to outline his strategy, and it was that strategy that enabled his team to find it before anyone else.”

Foley’s strategy involved prioritizing the galaxies within the search field indicated by the LIGO team, targeting those most likely to harbor binary pairs of neutron stars, and getting as many of those galaxies as possible into each field of view. Other teams covered the search field more methodically, “like mowing the lawn,” Foley said. His team found the source in the ninth field they observed, after waiting 10 hours for the sun to set in Chile.

“As soon as the sun went down, we started looking,” Foley said. “By finding it as quickly as we did, we were able to build up a really nice data set.”

He noted that the source was bright enough to have been seen by amateur astronomers, and it likely would have been visible from Africa hours before it was visible in Chile. Gamma rays emitted by the neutron star merger were detected by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope at nearly the same time as the gravitational waves, but the Fermi data gave no better information about the location of the source than LIGO did.

Foley’s team took the first image of the optical source 11 hours after the LIGO detection and, after confirming their discovery, announced it to the astronomy community an hour later. Dozens of other teams quickly followed up with observations from other telescopes. Foley’s team also obtained the first spectra of the source with the Magellan Telescopes at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory.

The gravitational wave source was named GW170817, and the optical source was named Swope Supernova Survey 2017a (SSS17a). By about seven days later, the source had faded and could no longer be detected in visible light. While it was visible, however, astronomers were able to gather a treasure trove of data on this extraordinary astrophysical phenomenon.

“It’s such a rich data set, the amount of science to come from this one thing is incredible,” Ramirez-Ruiz said.

Neutron stars are among the most exotic forms of matter in the universe, consisting almost entirely of neutrons and so dense that a sugar cube of neutron star material would weigh about a billion tons. The violent merger of two neutron stars ejects a huge amount of this neutron-rich material, powering the synthesis of heavy elements in a process called rapid neutron capture, or the “r-process.”

The radiation this emits looks nothing like an ordinary supernova or exploding star. Astrophysicists like Ramirez-Ruiz have developed numerical models to predict what such an event, called a kilonova, would look like, but this is the first time one has actually been observed in such detail. Kilpatrick said the data fit remarkably well with the predictions of theoretical models.

“It doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “It got very bright very quickly, then started fading rapidly, changing from blue to red as it cooled down. It’s completely unprecedented.”

A theoretical synthesis of data from across the spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays, was led by Ariadna Murguia-Berthier, a graduate student working with Ramirez-Ruiz, and published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, providing a coherent theoretical framework for understanding the full range of observations. Their analysis indicates, for example, that the merger triggered a relativistic jet (material moving at near the speed of light) that generated the gamma-ray burst, while matter torn from the merger system and ejected at lower speeds drove the r-process and the kilonova emissions at ultraviolet, optical, and infrared wavelengths.

Ramirez-Ruiz has calculated that a single neutron-star merger can generate an amount of gold equal to the mass of Jupiter. The team’s calculations of heavy element production by SSS17a suggest that neutron star mergers can account for about half of all the elements heavier than iron in the universe.

The detection came just one week before the end of LIGO’s second observing run, which had begun in November 2016. Foley was in Copenhagen, taking advantage of his one afternoon off to visit Tivoli Gardens with his partner, when he got a text from Coulter alerting him to the LIGO detection. At first, he thought it was a joke, but soon he was pedaling his bicycle madly back to the University of Copenhagen to begin working with his team on a detailed search plan.

“It was crazy. We barely got it done, but our team was incredible and it all came together,” Foley said. “We got lucky, but luck favors the prepared, and we were ready.”

Foley’s team at UC Santa Cruz includes Ramirez-Ruiz, Coulter, Kilpatrick, Murguia-Berthier, professor of astronomy and astrophysics J. Xavier Prochaska, postdoctoral researcher Yen-Chen Pan, and graduate students Matthew Siebert, Cesar Rojas-Bravo and Enia Xhakaj. Other team members include Maria Drout, Ben Shappee, and Tony Piro at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science; UC Berkeley astronomer Daniel Kasen; and Armin Rest at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Their team is called the One-Meter, Two-Hemisphere (1M2H) Collaboration because they use two one-meter telescopes, one in each hemisphere: the Nickel Telescope at UC’s Lick Observatory and Carnegie’s Swope Telescope in Chile. The UCSC group is supported in part by the National Science Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, and Kavli Foundation; fellowships for Foley and Ramirez-Ruiz from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and for Foley from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; a Niels Bohr Professorship for Ramirez-Ruiz from the Danish National Research Foundation; and the UC Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS).

Astronomers Strike Cosmic Gold, Confirm Origin Of Precious Metals In Neutron Star Mergers

The first detection of gravitational waves from the cataclysmic merger of two neutron stars, and the observation of visible light in the aftermath of that merger, finally answer a long-standing question in astrophysics: Where do the heaviest elements, ranging from silver and other precious metals to uranium, come from?

Based on the brightness and color of the light emitted following the merger, which closely match theoretical predictions by University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicists, astronomers can now say that the gold or platinum in your wedding ring was in all likelihood forged during the brief but violent merger of two orbiting neutron stars somewhere in the universe.

This is the first detection of a neutron star merger by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors in the United States, whose leaders were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics two weeks ago, and the Virgo detector in Italy. LIGO had previously detected gravitational waves from four black hole mergers, and Virgo one, but such events should be completely dark. This is the first time that light associated with a source of gravitational waves has been detected.

“We have been working for years to predict what the light from a neutron merger would look like,” said Daniel Kasen, an associate professor of physics and of astronomy at UC Berkeley and a scientist at Berkeley Lab. “Now that theoretical speculation has suddenly come to life.”

The neutron star merger, dubbed GW170817, was detected on August 17 and immediately telegraphed to observers around the world, who turned their small and large telescopes on the region of the sky from which it came. The ripples in spacetime that LIGO/Virgo measured suggested a neutron star merger, since each star of the binary weighed between 1 and 2 times the mass of our sun. Apart from black holes, neutron stars are the densest objects known in the universe. They are created when a massive star exhausts its fuel and collapses onto itself, compressing a mass comparable to that of the sun into a sphere only 10 miles across.

Only 1.7 seconds after the gravitational waves were recorded, the Fermi space telescope detected a short burst of gamma rays from the same region, evidence that concentrated jets of energy are produced during the merger of neutron stars. Less than 11 hours later, observers caught their first glimpse of visible light from the source. It was localized to a known galaxy, NGC 4993, situated about 130 million light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Hydra.

The detection of a neutron star merger was surprising, because neutron stars are much smaller than black holes and their mergers produce much weaker gravitational waves than do black hole mergers. According to Berkeley professor of astronomy and physics Eliot Quataert, “We were anticipating LIGO finding a neutron star merger in the coming years but to see it so nearby — for astronomers — and so bright in normal light has exceeded all of our wildest expectations. And, even more amazingly, it turns out that most of our predictions of what neutron star mergers would look like as seen by normal telescopes were right!”

The LIGO/Virgo observations of gravitational waves and the detection of their optical counterpart will be discussed at a 10 a.m. EDT press conference on Monday, Oct. 16, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Simultaneously, several dozen papers discussing the observations will be published online by Nature, Science and the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Genesis of the elements

While hydrogen and helium were formed in the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, heavier elements like carbon and oxygen were formed later in the cores of stars through nuclear fusion of hydrogen and helium. But this process can only build elements up to iron. Making the heaviest elements requires a special environment in which atoms are repeatedly bombarded by free neutrons. As neutrons stick to the atomic nuclei, elements higher up the periodic table are built.

Where and how this process of heavy element production occurs has been one of the longest-standing questions in astrophysics. Recent attention has turned to neutron star mergers, where the collision of the two stars flings out clouds of neutron-rich matter into space, where they could assemble into heavy elements.

Speculation that astronomers might see light from such heavy elements traces back to the 1990s, but the idea had mostly been gathering dust until 2010, when Brian Metzger, then a freshly minted graduate student at UC Berkeley, now a professor of astrophysics at Columbia University, co-authored a paper with Quataert and Kasen in which they calculated the radioactivity of the neutron star debris and estimated its brightness for the first time.

“As the debris cloud expands into space,” Metzger said, “the decay of radioactive elements keeps it hot, causing it to glow.”

Metzger, Quataert, Kasen and collaborators showed that this light from neutron star mergers was roughly one thousand times brighter than normal nova explosions in our galaxy, motivating them to name these exotic flashes “kilonovae.”

Still, basic questions remained as to what a kilonova would actually look like.

“Neutron star merger debris is weird stuff — a mixture of precious metals and radioactive waste,” Kasen said.

Astronomers know of no comparable phenomena, so Kasen and collaborators had to turn to fundamental physics and solve mathematical equations describing how the quantum structure of heavy atoms determines how they emit and absorb light.

Jennifer Barnes, an Einstein postdoctoral fellow at Columbia, worked as a Berkeley graduate student with Kasen to make some of the first detailed predictions of what a kilonova should look like.

“When we calculated the opacities of the elements formed in a neutron star merger, we found a lot of variation. The lighter elements were optically similar to elements found in supernovae, but the heavier atoms were more than a hundred times more opaque than what we’re used to seeing in astrophysical explosions,” said Barnes. “If heavy elements are present in the debris from the merger, their high opacity should give kilonovae a reddish hue.”

“I think we bummed out the entire astrophysics community when we first announced that,” Kasen said. “We were predicting that a kilonova should be relatively faint and redder than red, meaning it would be an incredibly difficult thing to find. On the plus side, we had defined a smoking-gun — you can tell that you are seeing freshly produced heavy elements by their distinctive red color.”

That is just what astronomers observed.

A ‘treacherous prediction’

The August LIGO/Virgo discovery of a neutron star merger meant that “judgment day for the theorists would come sooner than expected,” Kasen said.

“For years the idea of a kilonova had existed only in our theoretical imagination and our computer models,” he said. “Given the complex physics involved, and the fact that we had essentially zero observational input to guide us, it was an insanely treacherous prediction — the theorists were really sticking their necks out.”

But as the data trickled in, one night after the next, the images began to assemble into a surprisingly familiar picture.

On the first couple nights of observations, the color of the merger event was relatively blue with a brightness that matched the predictions of kilonova models strikingly well if the outer layers of the merger debris are made of light precious elements such as silver. However, over the ensuing days the emission became increasingly red, a signature that the inner layers of the debris cloud also contain the heaviest elements, such as platinum, gold and uranium.

“Perhaps the biggest surprise was how well-behaved the visual signal acted compared to our theoretical expectations,” Metzger noted. “No one had ever seen a neutron star merger up close before. Putting together the complete picture of such an event involves a wide range of physics — general relativity, hydrodynamics, nuclear physics, atomic physics. To combine all that and come up with a prediction that matches the reality of nature is a real triumph for theoretical astrophysics.”

Kasen, who was also a member of observational teams that discovered and conducted follow-up observations of the source, recalled the excitement of the moment: “I was staying up past 3 a.m. night after night, comparing our models to the latest data, and thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening; I’m looking at something never before seen on Earth, and I think I actually understand what I am seeing.'”

Kasen and his colleagues have presented updated kilonova models and theoretical interpretations of the observations in a paper released Oct. 16 in advance of publication in Nature. Their models are also being used to analyze a wide-ranging set of data presented in seven additional papers appearing in Nature, Science and the Astrophysical Journal.

Not only did the observations confirm the theoretical predictions, but the modeling allowed Kasen and his colleagues to calculate the amount and chemical makeup of the material produced. The scientists inferred that around 6 percent of a solar mass of heavy elements were made. The yield of gold alone was around 200 Earth masses, and that of platinum nearly 500 Earth masses.

Initially, astrophysicists thought ordinary supernovae might account for the heavy elements, but there have always been problems with that theory, said co-author Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. According to Ramirez-Ruiz, the new observations support the theory that neutron star mergers can account for all the gold in the universe, as well as about half of all the other elements heavier than iron.

“Most of the time in science you are working to gradually advance an established subject,” Kasen said. “It is rare to be around for the birth of an entirely new field of astrophysics. I think we are all very lucky to have had the chance to play a role.”

Kasen’s work is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, and simulations were made possible by resources from the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC). Kasen’s and Quataert’s work is supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Quataert is also supported by the Simons Foundation.

Intense Storms Batter Saturn’s Largest Moon, Scientists Report

Titan, the largest of Saturn’s more than 60 moons, has surprisingly intense rainstorms, according to research by a team of UCLA planetary scientists and geologists. Although the storms are relatively rare — they occur less than once per Titan year, which is 29 and a half Earth years — they occur much more frequently than the scientists expected.

“I would have thought these would be once-a-millennium events, if even that,” said Jonathan Mitchell, UCLA associate professor of planetary science and a senior author of the research, which was published Oct. 9 in the journal Nature Geoscience. “So this is quite a surprise.”

The storms create massive floods in terrain that are otherwise deserts. Titan’s surface is strikingly similar to Earth’s, with flowing rivers that spill into great lakes and seas, and the moon has storm clouds that bring seasonal, monsoon-like downpours, Mitchell said. But Titan’s precipitation is liquid methane, not water.

“The most intense methane storms in our climate model dump at least a foot of rain a day, which comes close to what we saw in Houston from Hurricane Harvey this summer,” said Mitchell, the principal investigator of UCLA’s Titan climate modeling research group.

Sean Faulk, a UCLA graduate student and the study’s lead author said the study also found that the extreme methane rainstorms may imprint the moon’s icy surface in much the same way that extreme rainstorms shape Earth’s rocky surface.

On Earth, intense storms can trigger large flows of sediment that spread into low lands and form cone-shaped features called alluvial fans. In the new study, the UCLA scientists found that regional patterns of extreme rainfall on Titan are correlated with recent detections of alluvial fans, suggesting that they were formed by intense rainstorms.

The finding demonstrates the role of extreme precipitation in shaping Titan’s surface, said Seulgi Moon, UCLA assistant professor of geomorphology and a co-senior author of the paper. Moon said the principle likely applies to Mars, which has large alluvial fans of its own, and to other planetary bodies. Greater understanding of the relationship between precipitation and the planetary surfaces could lead to new insights about the impact of climate change on Earth and other planets.

Titan’s alluvial fans were detected by a radar instrument on the Cassini spacecraft, which began orbiting Saturn in late 2004. The Cassini mission ended in September 2017, when NASA programmed it to plunge into the planet’s atmosphere as a way to safely destroy the spacecraft.

Juan Lora, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar and a co-author of the paper, said Cassini has revolutionized scientists’ understanding of Titan.

Although Titan’s alluvial fans are a new discovery, scientists have had eyes on the moon’s surface for years. Shortly after Cassini reached Saturn, radar and other instruments showed that vast sand dunes dominated Titan’s lower latitudes, while lakes and seas dominated its higher latitudes. The UCLA scientists found that the alluvial fans are mostly located between 50 and 80 degrees latitude — close to the centers of the moon’s northern and southern hemispheres, but generally slightly closer to the poles than to the equator.

Such variations in surface features suggest the moon has corresponding regional variations in precipitation, because rainfall and subsequent runoff play a key role in eroding land and filling lakes, while the absence of rainfall promotes the formation of dunes.

Previous models have shown that liquid methane generally concentrates on Titan’s surface at higher latitudes. But no previous study had investigated the behavior of extreme rainfall events that might be capable of triggering major sediment transport and erosion, or shown their connection to surface observations.

The scientists primarily used computer simulations to study Titan’s hydrologic cycle because observations of actual precipitation on Titan are difficult to obtain and because, given the length of each year on Titan, Cassini only observed the moon for three seasons. They found that while rain mostly accumulates near the poles, where Titan’s major lakes and seas are located, the most intense rainstorms occur near 60 degrees latitude — precisely the region where alluvial fans are most heavily concentrated.

The study suggests that the intense storms develop due to the sharp differences between the wetter, cooler weather in the higher latitudes and the drier, warmer conditions in the lower latitudes. Similar temperature contrasts on Earth produce intense cyclones in the mid-latitudes, which is what creates the storms and blizzards that are common during the winter months across much of North America.

The research was funded by a NASA Cassini Data Analysis and Participating Scientists Program grant.