A Graveyard of comets

A team of astronomers from the University of Anitoquia, Medellin, Colombia, have discovered a graveyard of comets. The researchers, led by Anitoquia astronomer Prof. Ignacio Ferrin, describe how some of these objects, inactive for millions of years, have returned to life leading them to name the group the ‘Lazarus comets’.



These illustrations show the asteroid belt in the present day and in the early Solar System, located between the Sun (at centre) and four terrestrial planets (near the Sun) and Jupiter (at bottom left). The top image shows the conventional model for the asteroid belt; largely composed of rocky material. The middle image shows the proposed model, with a small number of active comets and a dormant cometary population. The lower diagram shows how the asteroid belt might have looked in the early Solar System, with vigorous cometary activity. (Credit: Ignacio Ferrin / University of Anitoquia)

The team publish their results in the Oxford University Press journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Comets are amongst the smallest objects in the Solar System, typically a few km across and composed of a mixture of rock and ices. If they come close to the Sun, then some of the ices turn to gas, before being swept back by the light of the Sun and the solar wind to form a characteristic tail of gas and dust.

Most observed comets have highly elliptical orbits, meaning that they only rarely approach the Sun. Some of these so-called long period comets take thousands of years to complete each orbit around our nearest star. There is also a population of about 500 short period comets, created when long period comets pass near Jupiter and are deflected in orbits that last anything between 3 and 200 years. Although uncommon events, comets also collide with Earth from time to time and may have helped bring water to our planet.

The new work looked at a third and distinct region of the Solar System, the main belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This volume of space contains more than 1 million objects ranging in size from 1 m to 800 km. The traditional explanation for asteroids is that they are the building blocks of a planet that never formed, as the movement of the pieces was disrupted by the strong gravitational field of Jupiter.

In the last decade 12 active comets have been discovered in the asteroid main belt region. This was something of a surprise and the Medellin team set out to investigate their origin. The team, made up of Prof. Ferrin and his colleagues Profs. Jorge Zuluaga and Pablo Cuartas, now think they have an explanation.

“We found a graveyard of comets,” exclaims Professor Ferrín. He adds: “Imagine all these asteroids going around the Sun for aeons, with no hint of activity. We have found that some of these are not dead rocks after all, but are dormant comets that may yet come back to life if the energy that they receive from the Sun increases by a few per cent.”

Surprisingly, this can happy fairly easily, as the orbits of many objects in the asteroid belt are nudged by the gravity of Jupiter. The shape of their orbits can then change, leading to a decrease in the minimum distance between the object and the Sun (perihelion) and a slight increase in average temperature.

According to this interpretation, millions of years ago the main belt was populated by thousands of active comets. This population aged and the activity subsided. What we see today is the residual activity of that glorious past. Twelve of those rocks are true comets that were rejuvenated after their minimum distance from the Sun was reduced a little. The little extra energy they received from the Sun was then sufficient to revive them from the graveyard.

Prof. Ferrin describes the 12 active comets. “These objects are the ‘Lazarus comets’, returning to life after being dormant for thousands or even millions of years. Potentially any one of the many thousands of their quiet neighbours could do the same thing.”

courtesy: sciencedaily


Detection of the Cosmic Gamma Ray Horizon

How much light has been emitted by all galaxies since the cosmos began? After all, almost every photon (particle of light) from ultraviolet to far infrared wavelengths ever radiated by all galaxies that ever existed throughout cosmic history is still speeding through the Universe today. If we could carefully measure the number and energy (wavelength) of all those photons — not only at the present time, but also back in time — we might learn important secrets about the nature and evolution of the Universe, including how similar or different ancient galaxies were compared to the galaxies we see today.


detection of cosmic rays

The attached figure illustrates how energetic gamma rays (dashed lines) from a distant blazar strike photons of extragalactic background light (wavy lines) and produce pairs of electrons and positrons. The energetic gamma rays that are not attenuated by this process strike the upper atmosphere, producing a cascade of charged particles which make a cone of erenkov light that is detected by the array of imaging atmospheric erenkov telescopes on the ground. (Credit: Nina McCurdy and Joel R. Primack/UC-HiPACC; Blazar: Frame from a conceptual animation of 3C 120 created by Wolfgang Steffen/UNAM)

That bath of ancient and young photons suffusing the Universe today is called the extragalactic background light (EBL). An accurate measurement of the EBL is as fundamental to cosmology as measuring the heat radiation left over from the Big Bang (the cosmic microwave background) at radio wavelengths. A new paper, called “Detection of the Cosmic γ-Ray Horizon from Multiwavelength Observations of Blazars,” by Alberto Dominguez and six coauthors, just published today by theAstrophysical Journal — based on observations spanning wavelengths from radio waves to very energetic gamma rays, obtained from several NASA spacecraft and several ground-based telescopes — describes the best measurement yet of the evolution of the EBL over the past 5 billion years.

Directly measuring the EBL by collecting its photons with a telescope, however, poses towering technical challenges — harder than trying to see the dim band of the Milky Way spanning the heavens at night from midtown Manhattan. Earth is inside a very bright galaxy with billions of stars and glowing gas. Indeed, Earth is inside a very bright solar system: sunlight scattered by all the dust in the plane of Earth’s orbit creates the zodiacal light radiating across the optical spectrum down to long-wavelength infrared. Therefore ground-based and space-based telescopes have not succeeded in reliably measuring the EBL directly.

So, astrophysicists developed an ingenious work-around method: measuring the EBL indirectly through measuring the attenuation of — that is, the absorption of — very high energy gamma rays from distant blazars. Blazars are supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies with brilliant jets directly pointed at us like a flashlight beam. Not all the high-energy gamma rays emitted by a blazar, however, make it all the way across billions of light-years to Earth; some strike a hapless EBL photon along the way. When a high-energy gamma ray photon from a blazar hits a much lower energy EBL photon, both are annihilated and produce two different particles: an electron and its antiparticle, a positron, which fly off into space and are never heard from again. Different energies of the highest-energy gamma rays are waylaid by different energies of EBL photons. Thus, measuring how much gamma rays of different energies are attenuated or weakened from blazars at different distances from Earth indirectly gives a measurement of how many EBL photons of different wavelengths exist along the line of sight from blazar to Earth over those different distances.

Observations of blazars by NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope spacecraft for the first time detected that gamma rays from distant blazars are indeed attenuated more than gamma rays from nearby blazars, a result announced on November 30, 2012, in a paper published in Science, as theoretically predicted.

Now, the big news — announced in today’s Astrophysical Journal paper — is that the evolution of the EBL over the past 5 billion years has been measured for the first time. That’s because looking farther out into the Universe corresponds to looking back in time. Thus, the gamma ray attenuation spectrum from farther distant blazars reveals how the EBL looked at earlier eras.

This was a multistep process. First, the coauthors compared the Fermi findings to intensity of X-rays from the same blazars measured by X-ray satellites Chandra, Swift, Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, and XMM/Newton and lower-energy radiation measured by other spacecraft and ground-based observatories. From these measurements, Dominguez et al. were able to calculate the blazars’ original emitted, unattenuated gamma-ray brightnesses at different energies.

The coauthors then compared those calculations of unattenuated gamma-ray flux at different energies with direct measurements from special ground-based telescopes of the actual gamma-ray flux received at Earth from those same blazars. When a high-energy gamma ray from a blazar strikes air molecules in the upper regions of Earth’s atmosphere, it produces a cascade of charged subatomic particles. This cascade of particles travels faster than the speed of light in air (which is slower than the speed of light in a vacuum). This causes a visual analogue to a “sonic boom”: bursts of a special light called Čerenkov radiation. This Čerenkov radiation was detected by imaging atmospheric Čerenkov telescopes (IACTs), such as HESS (High Energy Stereoscopic System) in Namibia, MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Čerenkov) in the Canary Islands, and VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array Systems) in Arizona.

Comparing the calculations of the unattenuated gamma rays to actual measurements of the attenuation of gamma rays and X-rays from blazars at different distances allowed Dominquez et al. to quantify the evolution of the EBL — that is, to measure how the EBL changed over time as the Universe aged — out to about 5 billion years ago (corresponding to a redshift of about z = 0.5). “Five billion years ago is the maximum distance we are able to probe with our current technology,” Domínguez said. “Sure, there are blazars farther away, but we are not able to detect them because the high-energy gamma rays they are emitting are too attenuated by EBL when they get to us — so weakened that our instruments are not sensitive enough to detect them.” This measurement is the first statistically significant detection of the so-called “Cosmic Gamma Ray Horizon” as a function of gamma-ray energy. The Cosmic Gamma Ray Horizon is defined as the distance at which roughly one-third (or, more precisely, 1/e — that is, 1/2.718 — where e is the base of the natural logarithms) of the gamma rays of a particular energy have been attenuated.

This latest result confirms that the kinds of galaxies observed today are responsible for most of the EBL over all time. Moreover, it sets limits on possible contributions from many galaxies too faint to have been included in the galaxy surveys, or on possible contributions from hypothetical additional sources (such as the decay of hypothetical unknown elementary particles).

courtesy: sciencedaily

NASA’s Kepler Discovers New Planets

NASA’s Kepler mission Monday announced the discovery of 461 new planet candidates. Four of the potential new planets are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in their sun’s “habitable zone,” the region in the planetary system where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet.Based on observations conducted from May 2009 to March 2011, the findings show a steady increase in the number of smaller-size planet candidates and the number of stars with more than one candidate.

Nasa kepler new planets Since the last Kepler catalog was released in February 2012, the number of candidates discovered in the Kepler data has increased by 20 percent and now totals 2,740 potential planets orbiting 2,036 stars. Based on observations conducted May 2009 to March 2011, the most dramatic increases are seen in the number of Earth-size and super Earth-size candidates discovered, which grew by 43 and 21 percent respectively. (Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

“There is no better way to kick off the start of the Kepler extended mission than to discover more possible outposts on the frontier of potentially life-bearing worlds,” said Christopher Burke, Kepler scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who is leading the analysis.

Since the last Kepler catalog was released in February 2012, the number of candidates discovered in the Kepler data has increased by 20 percent and now totals 2,740 potential planets orbiting 2,036 stars. The most dramatic increases are seen in the number of Earth-size and super Earth-size candidates discovered, which grew by 43 and 21 percent respectively.

The new data increase the number of stars discovered to have more than one planet candidate from 365 to 467. Today, 43 percent of Kepler’s planet candidates are observed to have neighbor planets.

“The large number of multi-candidate systems being found by Kepler implies that a substantial fraction of exoplanets reside in flat multi-planet systems,” said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “This is consistent with what we know about our own planetary neighborhood.”

The Kepler space telescope identifies planet candidates by repeatedly measuring the change in brightness of more than 150,000 stars in search of planets that pass in front of, or “transit,” their host star. At least three transits are required to verify a signal as a potential planet.

Scientists analyzed more than 13,000 transit-like signals to eliminate known spacecraft instrumentation and astrophysical false positives, phenomena that masquerade as planetary candidates, to identify the potential new planets.

Candidates require additional follow-up observations and analyses to be confirmed as planets. At the beginning of 2012, 33 candidates in the Kepler data had been confirmed as planets. Today, there are 105.

“The analysis of increasingly longer time periods of Kepler data uncovers smaller planets in longer period orbits– orbital periods similar to Earth’s,” said Steve Howell, Kepler mission project scientist at Ames. “It is no longer a question of will we find a true Earth analogue, but a question of when.”

The complete list of Kepler planet candidates is available in an interactive table at the NASA Exoplanet Archive. The archive is funded by NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program to collect and make public data to support the search for and characterization of exoplanets and their host stars.

Ames manages Kepler’s ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with JPL at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA’s 10th Discovery Mission and is funded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

JPL manages NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program. The NASA Exoplanet Archive is hosted at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology.

For information about the NASA Exoplanet Archive, visit:http://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu/index.html .

For information about the Kepler mission, visit:http://www.nasa.gov/kepler .


Sudden, Massive Outburst in Neighbor Galaxy

The surprising discovery of a massive outburst in a neighboring galaxy is giving astronomers a tantalizing look at what likely is a powerful belch by a gorging black hole at the galaxy’s center. The scientists were conducting a long-term study of molecules in galaxies, when one of the galaxies showed a dramatic change.”The discovery was entirely serendipitous. Our observations were spread over a few years, and when we looked at them, we found that one galaxy had changed over that time from being placid and quiescent, to undergoing a hugely energetic outburst at the end,” said Robert Minchin, of Arecibo Observatory, who presented the research.

galaxy outbursts


HSA image of bright “hotspots” (inset), in galaxy NGC 660. Entire HSA image is less than a pixel in the larger optical image. (Credit: Minchin et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF (HSA); Travis Rector, Gemini Observatory, AURA (optical).)

The scientists were using the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) 305-meter William E. Gordon Telescope at Arecibo for their study when they discovered the outburst in NGC 660, a spiral galaxy 44 million light-years distant in the constellation Pisces. The outburst was ten times brighter than the largest supernova, or exploding star. They reported their findings at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Long Beach, California.

After detecting the outburst, the team continued to observe NGC 660 with the Arecibo Telescope, and also sought to determine the cause of the outburst using an international network of telescopes to make a detailed image of the galaxy.

“High-resolution imaging is the key to understanding what’s going on,” said Emmanuel Momjian, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). “We needed to know if the outburst came from a supernova in this galaxy or from the galaxy’s core. We could only do that by harnessing the high-resolution imaging power we get by joining widely-separated radio telescopes together.”

The astronomers used a network called the High Sensitivity Array (HSA), composed of the NSF’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a continent-wide system of ten radio telescopes ranging from Hawaii to the Virgin islands; the Arecibo Telescope; the NSF’s 100-meter Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia; and the 100-meter Effelsberg Radio Telescope of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany.

“By adding the large collecting area of the three big dishes to the VLBA, we got the images much more quickly. What we did with the HSA in less than half a day would have taken nearly nine days with the VLBA alone,” Momjian said.

The resulting images were more complex than the scientists expected. They thought they would see either the ring of an expanding supernova or a jet of superfast material from the galaxy’s core. Instead, they saw five sites of bright radio emission, one near the center of the galaxy and two on either side.

“The most likely explanation is that there are jets coming from the core, but they are precessing, or wobbling, and the hot spots we see are where the jets slammed into material near the galaxy’s nucleus,” said Chris Salter, of Areceibo Observatory. “To confirm this, we will continue to observe the galaxy with the HSA over the next few years,” he added.

If the jet idea is correct, the outburst probably was caused by material pulled into the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. The material would form a rapidly-spinning disk around the black hole before finally falling into it, and the disk would generate jets of particles blasting outward at nearly the speed of light.

Astronomers are carefully watching a gas cloud in our own Milky Way Galaxy that is expected to fall into our Galaxy’s central black hole in the middle of this year.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. The Arecibo Observatory is operated by SRI International under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (AST-1100968), and in alliance with Ana G. Mendez-Universidad Metropolitana, and the Universities Space Research Association.


Courtesy: sciencedaily

A catalogue of more than 84 million stars in the the Milky Way

Using a whopping nine-gigapixel image from the VISTA infrared survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory, an international team of astronomers has created a catalogue of more than 84 million stars in the central parts of the Milky Way. This gigantic dataset contains more than ten times more stars than previous studies and is a major step forward for the understanding of our home galaxy. The image gives viewers an incredible, zoomable view of the central part of our galaxy. It is so large that, if printed with the resolution of a typical book, it would be 9 metres long and 7 metres tall.


This striking view of the central parts of the Milky Way was obtained with the VISTA survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. This huge picture is 108,500 by 81,500 pixels and contains nearly nine billion pixels. It was created by combining thousands of individual images from VISTA, taken through three different infrared filters, into a single monumental mosaic. These data form part of the VVV public survey and have been used to study a much larger number of individual stars in the central parts of the Milky Way than ever before. Because VISTA has a camera sensitive to infrared light it can see through much of the dust blocking the view for optical telescopes, although many more opaque dust filaments still show up well in this picture. (Credit: ESO/VVV Consortium Acknowledgement: Ignacio Toledo)

“By observing in detail the myriads of stars surrounding the centre of the Milky Way we can learn a lot more about the formation and evolution of not only our galaxy, but also spiral galaxies in general,” explains Roberto Saito (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Universidad de Valparaiso and The Milky Way Millennium Nucleus, Chile), lead author of the study.

Most spiral galaxies, including our home galaxy the Milky Way, have a large concentration of ancient stars surrounding the centre that astronomers call the bulge. Understanding the formation and evolution of the Milky Way’s bulge is vital for understanding the galaxy is a whole. However, obtaining detailed observations of this region is not an easy task.

“Observations of the bulge of the Milky Way are very hard because it is obscured by dust,” says Dante Minniti (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Chile), co-author of the study. “To peer into the heart of the galaxy, we need to observe in infrared light, which is less affected by the dust.”

The large mirror, wide field of view and very sensitive infrared detectors of ESO’s 4.1-metre Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) make it by far the best tool for this job. The team of astronomers is using data from the VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea programme (VVV) [1], one of six public surveys carried out with VISTA. The data have been used to create a monumental 108 200 by 81 500 pixel colour image containing nearly nine billion pixels. This is one of the biggest astronomical images ever produced. The team has now used these data to compile the largest catalogue of the central concentration of stars in the Milky Way ever created [2].

To help analyse this huge catalogue the brightness of each star is plotted against its colour for about 84 million stars to create a colour-magnitude diagram. This plot contains more than ten times more stars than any previous study and it is the first time that this has been done for the entire bulge. Colour-magnitude diagrams are very valuable tools that are often used by astronomers to study the different physical properties of stars such as their temperatures, masses and ages [3].

“Each star occupies a particular spot in this diagram at any moment during its lifetime. Where it falls depends on how bright it is and how hot it is. Since the new data gives us a snapshot of all the stars in one go, we can now make a census of all the stars in this part of the Milky Way,” explains Dante Minniti.

The new colour-magnitude diagram of the bulge contains a treasure trove of information about the structure and content of the Milky Way. One interesting result revealed in the new data is the large number of faint red dwarf stars. These are prime candidates around which to search for small exoplanets using the transit method [4].

“One of the other great things about the VVV survey is that it’s one of the ESO VISTA public surveys. This means that we’re making all the data publicly available through the ESO data archive, so we expect many other exciting results to come out of this great resource,” concludes Roberto Saito.


[1] The VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea (VVV) survey is an ESO public survey dedicated to scanning the southern plane and bulge of the Milky Way through five near-infrared filters. It started in 2010 and was granted a total of 1929 hours of observing time over a five-year period. Via Lactea is the Latin name for the Milky Way.

[2] The image used in this work covers about 315 square degrees of the sky (a bit less than 1% of the entire sky) and observations were carried out using three different infrared filters. The catalogue lists the positions of the stars along with their measured brightnesses through the different filters. It contains about 173 million objects, of which about 84 million have been confirmed as stars. The other objects were either too faint or blended with their neighbours or affected by other artefacts, so that accurate measurements were not possible. Others were extended objects such as distant galaxies.

The image used here required a huge amount of data processing, which was performed by Ignacio Toledo at the ALMA OSF. It corresponds to a pixel scale of 0.6 arcseconds per pixel, down-sampled from the original pixel scale 0.34 arcseconds per pixel.

[3] A colour-magnitude diagram is a graph that plots the apparent brightnesses of a set of objects against their colours. The colour is measured by comparing how bright objects look through different filters. It is similar to a Hertzsprung-Russell (HR) diagram but the latter plots luminosity (or absolute magnitude) rather than just apparent brightness and a knowledge of the distances of the stars plotted is also needed.

[4] The transit method for finding planets searches for the small drop in brightness of a star that occurs when a planet passes in front of it and blocks some of its light. The small size of the red dwarf stars, typically with spectral types K and M, gives a greater relative drop in brightness when low-mass planets pass in front of them, making it easier to search for planets around them.

courtesy: ScienceDaily

Scientist Discovers Plate Tectonics On Mars

For years, many scientists had thought that plate tectonics existed nowhere in our solar system but on Earth. Now, a UCLA scientist has discovered that the geological phenomenon, which involves the movement of huge crustal plates beneath a planet’s surface, also exists on Mars.

View of central segment of Mars’ Valles Marineris, in which an older circular basin created by an impact is offset for about 93 miles (150 kilometers) by a fault. (Credit: Image from Google Mars created by MOLA Science Team)

“Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth,” said An Yin, a UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences and the sole author of the new research.

Yin made the discovery during his analysis of satellite images from a NASA spacecraft known as THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) and from the HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He analyzed about 100 satellite images — approximately a dozen were revealing of plate tectonics.

Yin has conducted geologic research in the Himalayas and Tibet, where two of Earth’s seven major plates divide.

“When I studied the satellite images from Mars, many of the features looked very much like fault systems I have seen in the Himalayas and Tibet, and in California as well, including the geomorphology,” said Yin, a planetary geologist.

For example, he saw a very smooth, flat side of a canyon wall, which can be generated only by a fault, and a steep cliff, comparable to cliffs in California’s Death Valley, which also are generated by a fault. Mars has a linear volcanic zone, which Yin said is a typical product of plate tectonics.

“You don’t see these features anywhere else on other planets in our solar system, other than Earth and Mars,” said Yin, whose research is featured as the cover story in the August issue of the journal Lithosphere.

The surface of Mars contains the longest and deepest system of canyons in our solar system, known as Valles Marineris (Latin for Mariner Valleys and named for the Mariner 9 Mars orbiter of 1971-72, which discovered it). It is nearly 2,500 miles long — about nine times longer than Earth’s Grand Canyon. Scientists have wondered for four decades how it formed. Was it a big crack in Mars’ shell that opened up?

“In the beginning, I did not expect plate tectonics, but the more I studied it, the more I realized Mars is so different from what other scientists anticipated,” Yin said. “I saw that the idea that it is just a big crack that opened up is incorrect. It is really a plate boundary, with horizontal motion. That is kind of shocking, but the evidence is quite clear.

“The shell is broken and is moving horizontally over a long distance. It is very similar to the Earth’s Dead Sea fault system, which has also opened up and is moving horizontally.”

The two plates divided by Mars’ Valles Marineris have moved approximately 93 miles horizontally relative to each other, Yin said. California’s San Andreas Fault, which is over the intersection of two plates, has moved about twice as much — but Earth is about twice the size of Mars, so Yin said they are comparable.

Yin, whose research is partly funded by the National Science Foundation, calls the two plates on Mars the Valles Marineris North and the Valles Marineris South.

“Earth has a very broken ‘egg shell,’ so its surface has many plates; Mars’ is slightly broken and may be on the way to becoming very broken, except its pace is very slow due to its small size and, thus, less thermal energy to drive it,” Yin said. “This may be the reason Mars has fewer plates than on Earth.”

Mars has landslides, and Yin said a fault is shifting the landslides, moving them from their source.

Does Yin think there are Mars-quakes?

“I think so,” he said. “I think the fault is probably still active, but not every day. It wakes up every once in a while, over a very long duration — perhaps every million years or more.”

Yin is very confident in his findings, but mysteries remain, he said, including how far beneath the surface the plates are located.

“I don’t quite understand why the plates are moving with such a large magnitude or what the rate of movement is; maybe Mars has a different form of plate tectonics,” Yin said. “The rate is much slower than on Earth.”

Earth has a broken shell with seven major plates; pieces of the shell move, and one plate may move over another. Yin is doubtful that Mars has more than two plates.

“We have been able to identify only the two plates,” he said. “For the other areas on Mars, I think the chances are very, very small. I don’t see any other major crack.”

courtesy: NASA

360-Degree Panorama from NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover

Remarkable image sets from NASA’s Curiosity rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are continuing to develop the story of Curiosity’s landing and first days on Mars.The images from Curiosity’s just-activated navigation cameras, or Navcams, include the rover’s first self-portrait, looking down at its deck from above. Another Navcam image set, in lower-resolution thumbnails, is the first 360-degree view of Curiosity’s new home in Gale Crater. Also downlinked were two, higher-resolution Navcams providing the most detailed depiction to date of the surface adjacent to the rover.

Rover’s Self Portrait: This Picasso-like self portrait of NASA’s Curiosity rover was taken by its Navigation cameras, located on the now-upright mast. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“These Navcam images indicate that our powered descent stage did more than give us a great ride, it gave our science team an amazing freebie,” said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the mission from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “The thrust from the rockets actually dug a one-and-a-half-foot-long [0.5-meter] trench in the surface. It appears we can see Martian bedrock on the bottom. Its depth below the surface is valuable data we can use going forward.”

Another image set, courtesy of the Context Camera, or CTX, aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has pinpointed the final resting spots of the six, 55-pound (25-kilogram) entry ballast masses. The tungsten masses impacted the Martian surface at a high speed of about 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from Curiosity’s landing location.

Curiosity’s latest images are available at:http://1.usa.gov/MfiyD0 .

Wednesday, the team deployed the 3.6 foot-tall (1.1-meter) camera mast, activated and gathered surface radiation data from the rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector and concluded testing of the rover’s high-gain antenna.

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on NASA’s Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks’ elemental composition from a distance, are the first of their kind on Mars. Curiosity will use a drill and scoop, which are located at the end of its robotic arm, to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into the rover’s analytical laboratory instruments.

To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater’s interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera is operated by the University of Arizona in Tucson. The instrument was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Exploration Rover projects are managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The rover was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the orbiter.

For more about NASA’s Curiosity mission, visit:http://www.nasa.gov/marsandhttp://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl.

For more about NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, visit:http://www.nasa.gov/mro .

courtesy: NASA