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Supermassive Black Hole Precursor Detected in Archival Hubble Data

An international team of astronomers using archival data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and other space- and ground-based observatories have discovered a unique object in the distant, early Universe that is a crucial link between star-forming galaxies and the emergence of the earliest supermassive black holes. This object is the first of its kind to be discovered so early in the Universe’s history, and had been lurking unnoticed in one of the best-studied areas of the night sky.

Astronomers have struggled to understand the emergence of supermassive black holes in the early Universe ever since these objects were discovered at distances corresponding to a time only 750 million years after the Big Bang [1]. Rapidly growing black holes in dusty, early star-forming galaxies are predicted by theories and computer simulations but until now they had not been observed. Now, however, astronomers have reported the discovery of an object — which they name GNz7q — that is believed to be the first such rapidly growing black hole to be found in the early Universe. Archival Hubble data from the Advanced Camera for Surveys helped the team study the compact ultraviolet emission from the black hole’s accretion disc and to determine that GNz7q existed just 750 million years after the Big Bang.

Our analysis suggests that GNz7q is the first example of a rapidly-growing black hole in the dusty core of a starburst galaxy at an epoch close to the earliest super massive black hole known in the Universe,” explains Seiji Fujimoto, an astronomer at the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and lead author of the paper describing this discovery. “The object’s properties across the electromagnetic spectrum are in excellent agreement with predictions from theoretical simulations.”

Supermassive Black Hole Precursor
Supermassive Black Hole Precursor Detected in Archival Hubble Data: Crop of the GNz7q in the Hubble GOODS-North field. An international team of astronomers using archival data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and other space- and ground-based observatories have discovered a unique object in the distant, early Universe that is a crucial link between young star-forming galaxies and the earliest supermassive black holes. This object is the first of its kind to be discovered so early in the Universe’s history, and had been lurking unnoticed in one of the best-studied areas of the night sky.  The object, which is referred to as GNz7q, is shown here in the centre of the image of the Hubble GOODS-North field. Credit: NASAESA, G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz), P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz; Yale University), R. Bouwens and I. Labbé (Leiden University), and the Science Team, S. Fujimoto et al. (Cosmic Dawn Center [DAWN] and University of Copenhagen)

Current theories predict that supermassive black holes begin their lives in the dust-shrouded cores of vigorously star-forming “starburst” galaxies before expelling the surrounding gas and dust and emerging as extremely luminous quasars. Whilst they are extremely rare, examples of both dusty starburst galaxies and luminous quasars have been detected in the early Universe. The team believes that GNz7q could be the “missing link” between these two classes of objects.

GNz7q provides a direct connection between these two rare populations and provides a new avenue towards understanding the rapid growth of supermassive black holes in the early days of the Universe,” continued Fujimoto. “Our discovery is a precursor of the supermassive black holes we observe at later epochs.

Whilst other interpretations of the team’s data cannot be completely ruled out, the observed properties of GNz7q are in strong agreement with theoretical predictions. GNz7q’s host galaxy is forming stars at the rate of 1600 solar masses of stars per year [2] and GNz7q itself appears bright at ultraviolet wavelengths but very faint at X-ray wavelengths. The team have interpreted this — along with the host galaxy’s brightness at infrared wavelengths — to suggest that GNz7q is harbors a rapidly growing black hole still obscured by the dusty core of its accretion disc at the center of the star-forming host galaxy.

Supermassive Black Hole Precursor Detected in Archival Hubble Data: GNz7q in the Hubble GOODS-North field. An international team of astronomers using archival data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and other space- and ground-based observatories have discovered a unique object in the distant, early Universe that is a crucial link between young star-forming galaxies and the earliest supermassive black holes. This object is the first of its kind to be discovered so early in the Universe’s history, and had been lurking unnoticed in one of the best-studied areas of the night sky.  The object, which is referred to as GNz7q, is shown here in the centre of the cutout from the Hubble GOODS-North field. Credit: NASAESA, G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz), P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz; Yale University), R. Bouwens and I. Labbé (Leiden University), and the Science Team, S. Fujimoto et al. (Cosmic Dawn Center [DAWN] and University of Copenhagen)

As well as GNz7q’s importance to the understanding of the origins of supermassive black holes, this discovery is noteworthy for its location in the Hubble GOODS North field, one of the most highly scrutinised areas of the night sky [3].

GNz7q is a unique discovery that was found just at the centre of a famous, well-studied sky field — showing that big discoveries can often be hidden just in front of you,” commented Gabriel Brammer, another astronomer from the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen and a member of the team behind this result. “It’s unlikely that discovering GNz7q within the relatively small GOODS-N survey area was just ‘dumb luck’ rather the prevalence of such sources may in fact be significantly higher than previously thought.

Finding GNz7q hiding in plain sight was only possible thanks to the uniquely detailed, multi-wavelength datasets available for GOODS-North. Without this richness of data GNz7q would have been easy to overlook, as it lacks the distinguishing features usually used to identify quasars in the early Universe. The team now hopes to systematically search for similar objects using dedicated high-resolution surveys and to take advantage of the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s spectroscopic instruments to study objects such as GNz7q in unprecedented detail.

Fully characterising these objects and probing their evolution and underlying physics in much greater detail will become possible with the James Webb Space Telescope.” concluded Fujimoto. “Once in regular operation, Webb will have the power to decisively determine how common these rapidly growing black holes truly are.”

Supermassive Black Hole Precursor
Supermassive Black Hole Precursor Detected in Archival Hubble Data: Artist’s Impression of GNz7q. An international team of astronomers using archival data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and other space- and ground-based observatories have discovered a unique object in the distant, early Universe that is a crucial link between young star-forming galaxies and the earliest supermassive black holes. This object is the first of its kind to be discovered so early in the Universe’s history, and had been lurking unnoticed in one of the best-studied areas of the night sky. Current theories predict that supermassive black holes begin their lives in the dust-shrouded cores of vigorously star-forming “starburst” galaxies before expelling the surrounding gas and dust and emerging as extremely luminous quasars. Whilst they are extremely rare, examples of both dusty starburst galaxies and luminous quasars have been detected in the early Universe. The team believes that GNz7q could be the “missing link” between these two classes of objects. Credit: ESA/Hubble, N. Bartmann

Notes

[1] Whilst light travels imperceptibly quickly in day-to-day life, the vast distances in astronomy mean that as astronomers look at increasingly distant objects, they are also looking backwards in time. For example, light from the Sun takes around 8.3 minutes to reach Earth, meaning that we view the Sun as it was 8.3 minutes ago. The most distant objects are the furthest back in time, meaning that astronomers studying very distant galaxies are able to study the earliest periods of the Universe.

[2] This does not mean that 1600 Sun-like stars are produced each year in GNz7q’s host galaxy, but rather that a variety of stars are formed each year with a total mass 1600 times that of the Sun.

[3] GOODS — the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey — is an astronomical survey that combines multi-wavelength observations from some of the most capable telescopes ever built, including Hubble, ESA’s Herschel and XMM-Newton space telescopes, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory, and powerful ground-based telescopes.

Supermassive Black Hole Precursor: more information

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

These results have been published in Nature.

The international team of astronomers in this study consists of S. Fujimoto (Cosmic Dawn Center [DAWN] and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), G. B. Brammer (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), D. Watson (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), G. E. Magdis (DAWN, DTU-Space at the Technical University of Denmark, and Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark), V. Kokorev (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), T. R. Greve (DAWN and DTU-Space, Technical University of Denmark, Denmark), S. Toft (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark),  F. Walter ( DAWN, Denmark, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, USA), R. Valiante (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Rome, Italy), M. Ginolfi (European Southern Observatory, Garching, Germany), R. Schneider (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Rome, Italy and Dipartimento di Fisica, Universitá di Roma La Sapienza, Rome, Italy), F. Valentino (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), L. Colina (DAWN, Copenhagen, Denmark and Centro de Astrobiología (CAB, CSIC-INTA), Madrid, Spain), M. Vestergaard (Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Steward Observatory, University of Arizona, USA), R. Marques-Chaves (Geneva Observatory, University of Geneva, Switzerland), J. P. U. Fynbo (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), M. Krips (IRAM, Domaine Universitaire, Saint-Martin-d’Hères, France), C. L. Steinhardt (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), I. Cortzen (IRAM, Domaine Universitaire, Saint-Martin-d’Hères, France), F. Rizzo (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), and P. A. Oesch (DAWN, Copenhagen, Denmark and Geneva Observatory, University of Geneva, Switzerland).

 

Press release from ESA/Hubble Information Centre

Hubble data confirms galaxies lacking dark matter

NGC1052-DF2 Hubble galaxies dark matter
Hubble data confirms galaxies lacking dark matter: NGC1052-DF2. Credits: NASA, ESA, Z. Shen and P. van Dokkum (Yale University), and S. Danieli (Institute for Advanced Study)

The most accurate distance measurement yet of ultra-diffuse galaxy (UDG) NGC1052-DF2 (DF2) confirms beyond any shadow of a doubt that it is lacking in dark matter. The newly measured distance of 22.1 +/-1.2 megaparsecs was obtained by an international team of researchers led by Zili Shen and Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University and Shany Danieli, a NASA Hubble Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study.

“Determining an accurate distance to DF2 has been key in supporting our earlier results,” stated Danieli. “The new measurement reported in this study has crucial implications for estimating the physical properties of the galaxy, thus confirming its lack of dark matter.”

The results, published in Astrophysical Journal Letters on June 9, 2021, are based on 40 orbits of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, with imaging by the Advanced Camera for Surveys and a “tip of the red giant branch” (TRGB) analysis, the gold standard for such refined measurements. In 2019, the team published results measuring the distance to neighboring UDG NGC1052-DF4 (DF4) based on 12 Hubble orbits and TRGB analysis, which provided compelling evidence of missing dark matter. This preferred method expands on the team’s 2018 studies that relied on “surface brightness fluctuations” to gauge distance. Both galaxies were discovered with the Dragonfly Telephoto Array at the New Mexico Skies observatory.

NGC1052-DF2 Hubble galaxies dark matter
Hubble data confirms galaxies lacking dark matter: NGC1052-DF2. Credits: NASA, ESA, Z. Shen and P. van Dokkum (Yale University), and S. Danieli (Institute for Advanced Study)

“We went out on a limb with our initial Hubble observations of this galaxy in 2018,” van Dokkum said. “I think people were right to question it because it’s such an unusual result. It would be nice if there were a simple explanation, like a wrong distance. But I think it’s more fun and more interesting if it actually is a weird galaxy.”

In addition to confirming earlier distance findings, the Hubble results indicated that the galaxies were located slightly farther away than previously thought, strengthening the case that they contain little to no dark matter. If DF2 were closer to Earth, as some astronomers claim, it would be intrinsically fainter and less massive, and the galaxy would need dark matter to account for the observed effects of the total mass.

Dark matter is widely considered to be an essential ingredient of galaxies, but this study lends further evidence that its presence may not be inevitable. While dark matter has yet to be directly observed, its gravitational influence is like a glue that holds galaxies together and governs the motion of visible matter. In the case of DF2 and DF4, researchers were able to account for the motion of stars based on stellar mass alone, suggesting a lack or absence of dark matter. Ironically, the detection of galaxies deficient in dark matter will likely help to reveal its puzzling nature and provide new insights into galactic evolution.

While DF2 and DF4 are both comparable in size to the Milky Way galaxy, their total masses are only about one percent of the Milky Way’s mass. These ultra-diffuse galaxies were also found to have a large population of especially luminous globular clusters.

This research has generated a great deal of scholarly interest, as well as energetic debate among proponents of alternative theories to dark matter, such as Modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND). However, with the team’s most recent findings–including the relative distances of the two UDGs to NGC1052–such alternative theories seem less likely. Additionally, there is now little uncertainty in the team’s distance measurements given the use of the TRGB method. Based on fundamental physics, this method depends on the observation of red giant stars that emit a flash after burning through their helium supply that always happens at the same brightness.

“There’s a saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the new distance measurement strongly supports our previous finding that DF2 is missing dark matter,” stated Shen. “Now it’s time to move beyond the distance debate and focus on how such galaxies came to exist.”

Moving forward, researchers will continue to hunt for more of these oddball galaxies, while considering a number of questions such as: How are UDGs formed? What do they tell us about standard cosmological models? How common are these galaxies, and what other unique properties do they have? It will take uncovering many more dark matter-less galaxies to resolve these mysteries and the ultimate question of what dark matter really is.

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The published ApJL article is available here: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/ac0335

A pre-publication is available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/2104.03319

About the Institute

The Institute for Advanced Study is one of the world’s foremost centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. Located in Princeton, N.J., the IAS is dedicated to independent study across the sciences and humanities. Founded in 1930, the Institute is devoted to advancing the frontiers of knowledge without concern for immediate application. From founding IAS Professor Albert Einstein to the foremost thinkers of today, the IAS enables bold, curiosity-driven innovation to enrich society in unexpected ways.

Each year, the Institute welcomes more than 200 of the world’s most promising post-doctoral researchers and scholars who are selected and mentored by a permanent Faculty, each of whom are preeminent leaders in their fields. Among present and past Faculty and Members there have been 35 Nobel Laureates, 42 of the 60 Fields Medalists, and 21 of the 24 Abel Prize Laureates, as well as many MacArthur Fellows and Wolf Prize winners.

 

Press release from the Institute for Advanced Study

Hubble sees new atmosphere forming on a rocky exoplanet, GJ 1132 b

The planet GJ 1132 b appears to have begun life as a gaseous world with a thick blanket of atmosphere. Starting out at several times the radius of Earth, this so-called “sub-Neptune” quickly lost its primordial hydrogen and helium atmosphere, which was stripped away by the intense radiation from its hot, young star. In a short period of time, it was reduced to a bare core about the size of Earth.

GJ 1132 b
This image is an artist’s impression of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b. For the first time, scientists using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have found evidence of volcanic activity reforming the atmosphere on this rocky planet, which has a similar density, size, and age to that of Earth. To the surprise of astronomers, new observations from Hubble have uncovered a second atmosphere that has replaced the planet’s first atmosphere. It is rich in hydrogen, hydrogen cyanide, methane and ammonia, and also has a hydrocarbon haze. Astronomers theorise that hydrogen from the original atmosphere was absorbed into the planet’s molten magma mantle and is now being slowly released by volcanism to form a new atmosphere. This second atmosphere, which continues to leak away into space, is continually being replenished from the reservoir of hydrogen in the mantle’s magma. Credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Hurt (IPAC/Caltech), CC BY 4.0

To the surprise of astronomers, new observations from Hubble [1] have uncovered a secondary atmosphere that has replaced the planet’s first atmosphere. It is rich in hydrogen, hydrogen cyanide, methane and ammonia, and also has a hydrocarbon haze. Astronomers theorise that hydrogen from the original atmosphere was absorbed into the planet’s molten magma mantle and is now being slowly released by volcanism to form a new atmosphere. This second atmosphere, which continues to leak away into space, is continually being replenished from the reservoir of hydrogen in the mantle’s magma.

“This second atmosphere comes from the surface and interior of the planet, and so it is a window onto the geology of another world,” explained team member Paul Rimmer of the University of Cambridge, UK. “A lot more work needs to be done to properly look through it, but the discovery of this window is of great importance.”

Pictured here is the region around the host star of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b. Credit:
ESA/Hubble, Digitized Sky Survey 2, CC BY 4.0.
Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin

“We first thought that these highly radiated planets would be pretty boring because we believed that they lost their atmospheres,” said team member Raissa Estrela of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, USA. But we looked at existing observations of this planet with Hubble and realised that there is an atmosphere there.”

“How many terrestrial planets don’t begin as terrestrials? Some may start as sub-Neptunes, and they become terrestrials through a mechanism whereby light evaporates the primordial atmosphere. This process works early in a planet’s life, when the star is hotter,” said team leader Mark Swain of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Then the star cools down and the planet’s just sitting there. So you’ve got this mechanism that can cook off the atmosphere in the first 100 million years, and then things settle down. And if you can regenerate the atmosphere, maybe you can keep it.”

In some ways, GJ 1132 b has various parallels to Earth, but in some ways it is also very different. Both have similar densities, similar sizes, and similar ages, being about 4.5 billion years old. Both started with a hydrogen-dominated atmosphere, and both were hot before they cooled down. The team’s work even suggests that GJ 1132 b and Earth have similar atmospheric pressure at the surface.

This plot shows the spectrum of the atmosphere of an Earth sized rocky exoplanet, GJ 1132 b, which is overlaid on an artist’s impression of the planet. The orange line represents the model spectrum. In comparison, the observed spectrum is shown as blue dots representing averaged data points, along with their error bars.  This analysis is consistent with GJ 1132 b being predominantly a hydrogen atmosphere with a mix of methane and hydrogen cyanide. The planet also has aerosols which cause scattering of light.  This is the first time a so-called “secondary atmosphere,” which was replenished after the planet lost its primordial atmosphere, has been detected on a world outside of our solar system. Credit:
NASA, ESA, and P. Jeffries (STScI)

However, the planets’ formation histories are profoundly different. Earth is not believed to be the surviving core of a sub-Neptune. And Earth orbits at a comfortable distance from our yellow dwarf Sun. GJ 1132 b is so close to its host red dwarf star that it completes an orbit the star once every day and a half. This extremely close proximity keeps GJ 1132 b tidally locked, showing the same face to its star at all times — just as our moon keeps one hemisphere permanently facing Earth.

“The question is, what is keeping the mantle hot enough to remain liquid and power volcanism?” asked Swain. “This system is special because it has the opportunity for quite a lot of tidal heating.”

The phenomenon of tidal heating occurs through friction, when energy from a planet’s orbit and rotation is dispersed as heat inside the planet. GJ 1132 b is in an elliptical orbit, and the tidal forces acting on it are strongest when it is closest to or farthest from its host star. At least one other planet in the host star’s system also exerts a gravitational pull on the planet. The consequences are that the planet is squeezed or stretched by this gravitational “pumping.” That tidal heating keeps the mantle liquid for a long time. A nearby example in our own Solar System is the Jovian moon, Io, which has continuous volcanism as a result of a tidal tug-of-war between Jupiter and the neighbouring Jovian moons.

The team believes the crust of GJ 1132 b is extremely thin, perhaps only hundreds of feet thick. That’s much too feeble to support anything resembling volcanic mountains. Its flat terrain may also be cracked like an eggshell by tidal flexing. Hydrogen and other gases could be released through such cracks.

“This atmosphere, if it’s thin — meaning if it has a surface pressure similar to Earth — probably means you can see right down to the ground at infrared wavelengths. That means that if astronomers use the James Webb Space Telescope to observe this planet, there’s a possibility that they will see not the spectrum of the atmosphere, but rather the spectrum of the surface,” explained Swain. “And if there are magma pools or volcanism going on, those areas will be hotter. That will generate more emission, and so they’ll potentially be looking at the actual geological activity — which is exciting!”

This result is significant because it gives exoplanet scientists a way to figure out something about a planet’s geology from its atmosphere,” added Rimmer. “It is also important for understanding where the rocky planets in our own Solar System — Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, fit into the bigger picture of comparative planetology, in terms of the availability of hydrogen versus oxygen in the atmosphere.”

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Notes:

[1] The observations were conducted as part of the Hubble observing program #14758 (PI: Zach Berta-Thomson).

Hubble Sees Summertime on Saturn

Saturn is truly the lord of the rings in this latest snapshot from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, taken on July 4, 2020, when the opulent giant world was 839 million miles from Earth. This new Saturn image was taken during summer in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

Saturn summertime Hubble summer
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of Saturn on July 4, 2020. Two of Saturn’s icy moons are clearly visible in this exposure: Mimas at right, and Enceladus at bottom. This image is taken as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project. OPAL is helping scientists understand the atmospheric dynamics and evolution of our solar system’s gas giant planets. In Saturn’s case, astronomers continue tracking shifting weather patterns and storms.
Credits: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL Team

 

Hubble found a number of small atmospheric storms. These are transient features that appear to come and go with each yearly Hubble observation. The banding in the northern hemisphere remains pronounced as seen in Hubble’s 2019 observations, with several bands slightly changing color from year to year. The ringed planet’s atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium with traces of ammonia, methane, water vapor, and hydrocarbons that give it a yellowish-brown color.

Hubble photographed a slight reddish haze over the northern hemisphere in this color composite. This may be due to heating from increased sunlight, which could either change the atmospheric circulation or perhaps remove ices from aerosols in the atmosphere. Another theory is that the increased sunlight in the summer months is changing the amounts of photochemical haze produced. “It’s amazing that even over a few years, we’re seeing seasonal changes on Saturn,” said lead investigator Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Conversely, the just-now-visible south pole has a blue hue, reflecting changes in Saturn’s winter hemisphere.

Hubble’s sharp view resolves the finely etched concentric ring structure. The rings are mostly made of pieces of ice, with sizes ranging from tiny grains to giant boulders. Just how and when the rings formed remains one of our solar system’s biggest mysteries. Conventional wisdom is that they are as old as the planet, over 4 billion years. But because the rings are so bright – like freshly fallen snow – a competing theory is that they may have formed during the age of the dinosaurs. Many astronomers agree that there is no satisfactory theory that explains how rings could have formed within just the past few hundred million years. “However, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft measurements of tiny grains raining into Saturn’s atmosphere suggest the rings can only last for 300 million more years, which is one of the arguments for a young age of the ring system,” said team member Michael Wong of the University of California, Berkeley.

Two of Saturn’s icy moons are clearly visible in this exposure: Mimas at right, and Enceladus at bottom.

This image is taken as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project. OPAL is helping scientists understand the atmospheric dynamics and evolution of our solar system’s gas giant planets. In Saturn’s case, astronomers continue tracking shifting weather patterns and storms.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

 

 

Press release from NASA, on Hubble capturing summertime data from Saturn.

The most extensive system of haze layers ever observed in the solar system have been discovered and characterised on the planet Saturn

High-resolution images obtained by the Cassini spacecraft were used for this purpose by the Planetary Science Group at the University of the Basque Country

Saturn hexagon
High-resolution images of Saturn’s Hexagon obtained by the Cassini spacecraft. Credits: UPV/EHU

 

A rich variety of meteorological phenomena take place in the extensive hydrogen atmosphere of the planet Saturn, a world about ten times the size of the Earth. They help us to better understand those that operate in a similar way in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Featuring among them due to its uniqueness is the well-known “hexagon”, an amazing wave structure that surrounds the planet’s polar region and whose shape looks as if it had been drawn by a geometrician.

Discovered in 1980 by NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, it has been observed without interruption since then, despite the planet’s long, strong cycle of seasons. A fast, narrow jet stream flows inside this gigantic planetary wave where winds reach maximum speeds of about 400 km/h. Yet, strangely enough, the wave itself remains almost static; in other words, it barely shifts with respect to the planet’s rotation. All these properties mean that the “hexagon” is a highly attractive phenomenon for meteorologists and planet atmosphere researchers.

Cassini, which was in orbit around the planet between 2004 and 2017, took a vast quantity of images from a whole range of distances from the planet and viewing angles. In June 2015 its main camera obtained very high-resolution images of the planet’s limb which are capable of solving details of between 1 and 2 km; they captured the hazes located above the clouds that shape the hexagonal wave. In addition, it used many colour filters, from ultraviolet to near infrared, thus enabling the composition of these hazes to be studied. To complete this study, images produced by the Hubble Space Telescope taken 15 days later and showing the hexagon not on the limb but seen from above were also used. “The Cassini images have enabled us to discover that, just as if a sandwich had been formed, the hexagon has a multi-layered system of at least seven mists that extend from the summit of its clouds to an altitude of more than 300 km above them,” said Professor Agustín Sánchez-Lavega, who led the study.  “Other cold worlds, such as Saturn’s satellite Titan or the dwarf planet Pluto, also have layers of hazes, but not in such numbers nor as regularly spaced out”.

The vertical extent of each haze layer is between approximately 7 and 18 km thick, and according to the spectral analysis, they contain minute particles with radii of the order of 1 micron. Their chemical composition is exotic for us, because, owing to the low temperatures in Saturn’s atmosphere ranging between 120° C and 180° C below zero, they could comprise hydrocarbon ice crystallites, such as acetylene, propyne, propane, diacetylene or even butane in the case of the highest clouds.

Another aspect studied by the team is the regularity in the vertical distribution of the hazes. The hypothesis put forward is that the hazes are organised by the vertical propagation of gravity waves that produce oscillations in the density and temperature of the atmosphere, a well-known phenomenon on the Earth and on other planets. The researchers raise the possibility that it could be the very dynamics of the hexagon itself and its powerful jet stream that may be responsible for the formation of these gravity waves. On the Earth, too, waves of this type produced by the undulating jet stream travelling at speeds of 100 km/h from West to East in the mid-latitudes have been observed. The phenomenon could be similar on both planets, even though the peculiarities of Saturn mean that it is the only case in the solar system. This is an aspect that remains subject to future research.

Saturn's hexagon
Santiago Pérez-Hoyos, Agustín Sánchez-Lavega, Teresa del Río-Gaztelurrutia and Ricardo Hueso. Credits: UPV/EHU

About the authors at the UPV/EHU  

Agustín Sánchez-Lavega is professor of physics at the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country, head of the GCP-Planetary Science Group and holder of the 2016 Euskadi Award for Research.  Teresa del Río-Gaztelurrutia and Ricardo Hueso are tenured lecturers, and Santiago Pérez-Hoyos is a permanent research doctor; they all belong to the GCP.

bibliographic reference

 

Press release on Saturn’s hexagon from the University of the Basque Country.