Caltech joins effort to extend capabilities of major observatories

PASADENA—The California Institute of Technology will participate in a multi-institutional effort, funded by the National Science Foundation, to advance the field of adaptive optics, which promises to revolutionize astronomy.

The National Science Foundation's governing body, the National Science Board, has approved a proposal to establish a Center for Adaptive Optics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a partner institution, Caltech will bring together faculty from astronomy, planetary science, and physics to advance the use of existing adaptive optics technology at the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory in California and the two 10-meter Keck Telescopes in Hawaii.

According to Mike Brown, assistant professor of planetary astronomy and leader of the Caltech team, "This effort will breathe new life into ground-based observing by giving us more sophisticated tools to view distant planetary systems." Depending on the size of the telescope, adaptive optics technology will make images 10 to 20 times sharper, giving scientists a much better view of space. "We plan on making Palomar the best at seeing very faint things next to very bright things, possible indicators of planetary systems. We can learn and experiment at Palomar, then utilize Keck for the really big discoveries."

Very few astronomers have any experience using adaptive optics. "We're hoping to quickly learn how to optimize the technology currently available and pass on that knowledge to other scientists. I expect this to bring about some exciting discoveries," said Brown.

Adaptive optics is a method to actively compensate for changing distortions that cause blurring of images. It is used in astronomy to correct for the blurring effect of turbulence in the earth's atmosphere. For astronomers, adaptive optics can give ground-based telescopes the same clarity of vision that space telescopes achieve by orbiting above the earth's turbulent atmosphere.

Astronomers have already started to reap the benefits of applying adaptive optics to their research. A team headed by Dr. Richard Dekany at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently conducted a highly successful first test of an adaptive optics system on the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory. Enhanced high-resolution images of excellent quality were obtained of the ring system of Uranus and of the Lagoon Nebula.

The 27 partner institutions of the Center for Adaptive Optics will include Caltech, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Irvine, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester, the University of Houston, Indiana University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and 17 other national laboratory, industry, and international partners.

The center will provide the sustained effort needed to bring adaptive optics from promise to widespread use. It will conduct research, educate students, develop new instruments, and disseminate knowledge about adaptive optics to the broader scientific community.

Caltech participants will include Shri Kulkarni, Chuck Steidel, Mark Metzger, and Keith Matthews from astronomy, and Christopher Martin from physics.

Palomar Observatory is located near San Diego, Calif., and is owned and operated by Caltech. Caltech and the University of California jointly operate the W. M. Keck Observatory, which houses the world's two largest optical and infared telescopes and is located on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Sue Pitts McHugh

Caltech Question of the Month: If the sun ceased to exist right now, how long would mankind survive?" Would the oceans freeze?

Question: If the sun ceased to exist right now, how long would mankind survive?" Would the oceans freeze?

Submitted by Joseph Canale, La Crescenta.

Answered by Dave Stevenson, George Van Osdol Professor of Planetary Science, Caltech.

The sun provides more than just energy, it provides the gravitational force that keeps us in orbit. But I interpret the question to mean "What if the sun stopped shining?"

In that situation, Earth's surface would cool down to a state in which the outgoing infrared radiation is balanced only by conductive heat from Earth's interior. The heat content of the atmosphere is negligible except on the very short time scale of a few days.

Within days to a week, Earth's surface would cool to below the freezing point of salty water, and the oceans would begin to form a complete ice cap. In a year or so the temperature would be down below 200 degrees absolute at the surface (that's roughly minus 100 Fahrenheit). The water in the deepest part of Earth's oceans would freeze after 1,000 years. Earth's surface would not cool all the way to its new stable state of around 30 degrees absolute (approaching minus 400 Fahrenheit) until millions of years had elapsed.

This state is one in which the radioactive heat in Earth's interior balances outgoing radiation. In the interim period of several million years, Earth's subsurface would be kept warm because of the slowness of heat conduction through solid rock or ice. So the inside would stay warm even as Earth's atmosphere was freezing out as solid oxygen and nitrogen. Interestingly, this means that bacteria that live well beneath Earth's surface might survive for a while, though life right at Earth's surface would be extinguished very rapidly on a time scale of years or less. A small number of people could survive a long time by drilling and creating a habitat deep down (miles below Earth's surface).


Many life-bearing planets could exist in interstellar space, according to Caltech planetary science professor

PASADENA-Long ago in a solar system not at all far away, there could have existed about five to 10 Earth-like planets in Jupiter-crossing orbits.

These planets today could harbor life somewhere in interstellar space, according to a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

In the July 1 issue of the journal Nature, Caltech professor Dave Stevenson says in a new study that such objects could be life-sustaining due especially to the molecular hydrogen they accreted when the solar system formed long ago.

Called "interstellar planets" because they would exist between the stars but no longer in orbit around an original parent star, they have never been directly observed or proved to even exist. But based on what scientists know about the way matter should fall together in forming a solar system, such Earth-like planets could definitely have been formed.

Over a period of several million years, one of two things happened to these planets: either they slammed into Jupiter and made it even bigger, or else they came so close to Jupiter that they were catapulted by gravity completely out of the solar system, never to return.

Because these bodies formed when the solar system was permeated with hydrogen gas, they retained a dense atmosphere of hydrogen, allowing them to have surfaces with temperatures not too different from Earth, and possibly water oceans.

Stevenson writes that in the absence of sunlight, the natural radioactivity inside an Earth-like planet would only be sufficient to raise the radiating temperature of the body to 30 degrees above absolute zero (that's about minus 400 Fahrenheit). But the expected dense hydrogen atmosphere would prevent the surface from radiating effectively-just like the greenhouse effect on Earth, but more so.

As a result, the surface could have a similar temperature to the current Earth surface, allowing water oceans and a surface pressure similar to that at the bottom of Earth's oceans. For this to happen, the interstellar planet would probably need to be at least half Earth's mass.

Therefore, the energy source would be much the same as that which drives geothermal energy and plate tectonics on Earth.

It is not known whether geothermal heat alone is sufficent to allow life to originate, and the amount of energy is small compared to sunlight, suggesting that the amount of biological activity would also be small. But the existence of life in such an environment would be of great interest even if the mass of living matter were small.

The heat energy, and especially variations in temperature, could potentially allow life to get going, Stevenson says.

"I'm not saying that these objects have life, but everyone agrees that life requires disequilibrium," he says. "So there has to be a way to get free energy, because that's what drives biochemical processes.

"These objects could have weather, variations in clouds, oceans...even lightning."

If life exists on such objects, an open question is how complex it could be, Stevenson says. "I don't think anyone knows what is required to drive biological evolution from simple to very complex systems."

These interstellar wanderers could also have arisen as a natural outcome of the formation of stars, and not just during the formation of the system we live in. In either case, such planets cannot be seen with present technology because they are so dark and cold-at least from Earth's vantage point.

Although these bodies may have warm surfaces, they would appear to us as very weak emitters of long-wavelength infrared radiation, much below current detection limits.

The best bet for even demonstrating that interstellar planets exist is to have some programmed search for occultations, he says. In other words, the object might pass occasionally in the direct line of sight between Earth and a star, and if instruments were watching, the light of the star might dim or even flicker out for a time.

Programs like this are already advocated for the purpose of looking for planets in orbit around other stars. But looking for interstellar planets would be even harder.

"All I'm saying is that, among the places you might want to consider for sustainable life, you might eventually want to look at these objects. They could be the most common location for life in the universe."

Robert Tindol

Lack of Energy Makes Life on Europa Unlikely, Caltech Study Concludes

Embargoed for Release at 3 p.m. Thursday, June 3, 1999

PASADENA—Future space travelers to the watery Jovian moon Europa should probably leave their fishing tackle at home. A new study conducted by California Institute of Technology and Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists shows that the Europan ocean is unlikely to harbor any life form more complex than single-celled organisms—and maybe not even that.

In this week's issue of the journal Science, Caltech geobiologist Eric Gaidos and coauthors Kenneth Nealson and Joseph Kirschvink show that nearly all forms of energy used by life on the Earth are unavailable to the organisms that might live beneath Europa's surface ice layer.

According to Gaidos, "One must be careful when doing comparative planetology. It is not a safe assumption to use Earth as an analogy. A liquid-water ocean on Europa does not necessarily mean there is life there."

On Earth, chemical energy is derived either from sunlight by means of photosynthesis or from the oxygen that is a byproduct. This oxygen reaches even the exotic animals inhabiting the super-hot volcanic vents in the deep sea that were discovered 20 years ago.

Even for the organisms living under ice sheets on Earth, the system is not closed. Energy from outside is available for the organisms underneath.

Unlike Earth, Europa is a closed system. The ice layer cannot be penetrated by sunlight and the only available energy in the system comes from within. This study shows that the energy available is very small compared to levels used by organisms on the Earth. It seems very unlikely that multicellular life could survive, and the lack of energy puts constraints on the likelihood of finding even hardy single-celled organisms.

Gaidos uses the analogy of an energy waterfall. "Chemical energy is falling from a high state to a low state just as water falls due to gravity. Life acts as a waterwheel in this process and harnesses the energy. However, without a source of chemical energy, the waterwheel stops."

Kirschvink adds, "Earth has a lot of metabolic energy available for life, but if you shut off the source, you shut off the system."

The study doesn't completely rule out the possibility of life, however. Gaidos says the study "assumes that the life we look for is based on the same energy sources used by life on Earth.

"The study puts limits on what life is possible," says Gaidos. "Complex life is very unlikely, but there are other possible alternatives for simple organisms to acquire the necessary energy."

One such possibility is that the organisms derive the necessary biochemical energy from oxidized iron (rust) that may exist under the ice. Other possibilities may exist, so long as there is a source of energy and life can insert its waterwheel at some point in the system.

"But we are talking about very simple organisms that can live on these energy sources. These are not multicellular creatures," Gaidos says.

Only the future will reveal what scientists might find under the ice of Europa. But we do know that no fish will be biting.

Robert Tindol

Earth's water probably didn't come from comets, Caltech researchers say

PASADENA—A new Caltech study of comet Hale-Bopp suggests that comets did not give Earth its water, buttressing other recent studies but contrary to the longstanding belief of many planetary scientists.

In the March 18 issue of Nature, cosmochemist Geoff Blake and his team show that Hale-Bopp contains sizable amounts of "heavy water," which contains a heavier isotope of hydrogen called deuterium.

Thus, if Hale-Bopp is a typical comet, and if comets indeed gave Earth its water supply billions of years ago, then the oceans should have roughly the same amount of deuterium as comets. In fact, the oceans have significantly less.

"An important question has been whether comets provided most of the water in Earth's oceans," says Blake, professor of cosmochemistry and planetary science at Caltech. "From the lunar cratering record, we know that, shortly after they were made, both the moon and Earth were bombarded by large numbers of asteroids or comets.

"Did one or the other dominate?"

The answer lies in the Blake team's measurement of a form of heavy water called HDO, which can be measured both in Earth's oceans using mass spectrometers and in comets with Caltech's Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) Millimeter Array. Just as radio waves go through clouds, millimeter waves easily penetrate the coma of a comet.

This is where cosmochemists can get a view of the makings of the comet billions of years ago, before the sun had even coalesced from an interstellar cloud. In fact, the millimeter-wave study of deuterium in water and in organic molecules in the jets emitted from the surface of the nucleus shows that Hale-Bopp is composed of 15 to 40 percent primordial material that existed before the sun formed.

The jets are quite small in extent, so the image clarity provided by the OVRO Millimeter Array was crucial in the current study. "Hale-Bopp came along at just the right time for our work," Blake says. "We didn't have all six telescopes in the array when Halley's comet passed by, and Hyakutake was a very small comet. Hale-Bopp was quite large, and so it was the first comet that could be imaged at high spatial and spectral resolution at millimeter wavelengths."

One other question that the current study indirectly addresses is the possibility that comets supplied Earth with the organic materials that contributed to the origin of life. While the study does not resolve the issue, neither does it eliminate the possibility.

Also involved in the Nature study are Charlie Qi, a graduate student in planetary science at Caltech; Michiel Hogerheijde of the UC Berkeley department of astronomy; Mark Gurwell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Duane Muhleman, professor emeritus of planetary science at Caltech.

Robert Tindol

Anderson wins National Medal of Science

PASADENA-Don L. Anderson, a professor of geophysics at the California Institute of Technology, has been named a 1998 recipient of the National Medal of Science. The announcement was made at 2:45 p.m. EST today (December 8, 1998) at the White House by President Clinton.

Anderson, who holds the Eleanor and John R. McMillan Professorship at Caltech, is one of nine Americans to be awarded the country's highest scientific honor. In naming this year's recipients, Clinton cited the scientists for "their lifetime of passion, perseverance and persistence to bring about new knowledge that extends the limits of their fields and drives our nation forward into a new century."

Anderson was born in 1933 in Maryland and received his doctorate in geophysics from Caltech in 1962. He has been a leading figure in "deep Earth" research since the 1960s. He was director of the Seismological Laboratory at Caltech from 1967 to 1989.

In 1989 he published his "Theory of the Earth," a remarkable synthesis of his broad and provocative research and a guide for geo-researchers from different fields for future exploration of the dynamics of the deep parts of Earth.

Among Anderson's research interests are the changes arising from the pressure deep down in Earth's mantle. Sudden changes in the rock types at depths of 400 kilometers and 660 kilometers are explained by conversions undergone by the rock types, so that they contain minerals entirely unknown at Earth's surface. His team's research has shown that changes in composition of the mantle may explain the occurrence of tensions in Earth's crust that can lead to earthquakes.

His team has also used seismic data to study convection currents in the mantle, important for understanding continental drift and volcanism. Recently, Anderson has also used geochemical and chemical-isotope methods not only for mapping Earth's development, but also for understanding the development of the moon and the planets Mars and Venus.

The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 to be bestowed annually by the President of the United States. The first Medal of Science was awarded by John F. Kennedy in 1962 to Caltech's Theodore von Kármán, a pioneer of aerospace engineering.

To date, 362 American scientists have been awarded the Medal of Science. Of these, 44 have been Caltech professors and alumni.


New educational module on earthquakes now on-line

PASADENA-The ever-changing Earth and the forces that make it so are the theme of a new Web-based educational module from the Southern California Earthquake Center.

"Investigating Earthquakes Through Regional Seismicity" has been designed to provide students and others with the opportunity to learn about the nature of earthquakes. With two interactive sections already on-line and additional offering in the planning stages, the module will provide Web surfers with knowledge of matters such as faults, rates of occurrence, magnitudes, and geographic distribution.

The module is designed by John Marquis, Katrin Hafner, and Egill Hauksson of the Seismological Lab at Caltech, with funding provided by the Southern California Earthquake Center.

Hafner says that the material was originally designed to answer common questions about earthquakes, but that the project has now expanded to provide a significant education component for classrooms as well. "Because the module is Web-based, it is more than just a static educational product," says Hafner.

"Each section consists of a sequence of text 'pages'-with explanatory maps, diagrams, and other in-line images-hyperlinked to activities, in which students can develop an understanding of the concepts in a more interactive way."

Many of the activities are also linked to resources such as fault maps, which provide access to seismological data archived at the Southern California Earthquake Center's data center.

The content and format of the module have been reviewed by scientists and educators alike, and portions of the module have been field- tested in high school and community college settings.

The Web module can be accessed at the following address:

Robert Tindol

New study explains motions of the Emerson fault in the years following the Landers earthquake

PASADENA—For geophysicists, the 7.3–magnitude Landers earthquake of June 28, 1992 has yielded much in terms of understanding the basic mechanisms of seismic events. A new study appearing in this week's Science provides a new model to explain why the ground near the fault gradually shifted the first few years after the main shock. The work could be used in the future for the analysis of earthquake hazard.

In the Science article, Jishu Deng, a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology, and his coauthors attribute the postseismic deformation to a viscous flow in the lower crust. Experts have known for some time that such slow motions around faults can occur, and in fact were quite aware of the effect near the Emerson fault on which the Landers earthquake was centered. But no one knew whether the ground was moving in small, quirky steps or slowly flowing like a viscous liquid.

Analyzing existing data from various satellites, Deng speculates that viscous flow must be the case, even though the "afterslip model" has for some time been the preferred explanation. Deng believes the "viscoelastic model" is preferable because the satellite data shows both a horizontal motion along the Emerson fault over about three or four years, as well as a vertical motion. While the viscoelastic model is not completely new, previous studies have been unable to distinguish between the viscoelastic and afterslip models. The Landers earthquake, however, provides the first opportunity to determine which mechanism is indeed at work.

Specifically, the area just west of the north–south fault has continued to move northward since the initial rupture. On the day of the earthquake, the fault slippage was measured to be about five to six meters along the fault line. But the GPS satellites show that the displacement has gradually expanded another 10 centimeters or so.

This continued slippage can be explained by the prevailing theory of postseismic slippage, but an additional result calls for a new theory: according to information gained from the Interferometric Synethetic Aperture Radar satellite (the ERS-1), the ground to the west of the fault has also sunk by about 28 millimeters, while ground east of the fault has risen slightly. And because the afterslip model cannot explain this motion, Deng shows that the effect must be the result of viscous flow.

"So we think the fault is not slipping," says Deng, who came to Caltech after earning his doctorate at Columbia University. "It must be in a flow." Deng further says the new information could be used in the future to assess the seismic hazard in specific locales. "Our new calculations will lead to a new generation of stress evolution models and help people understand how stress builds up and releases in seismic areas."

The other authors of the paper are Michael Gurnis and Hiroo Kanamori, both professors of geophysics at Caltech; and Egill Hauksson, senior research associate in geophysics at Caltech.

Robert Tindol

Galileo data shows Jupiter's lightning associated with low-pressure regions

MADISON, Wisconsin—Images of Jupiter's night side taken by the Galileo spacecraft reveal that the planet's lightning is controlled by the large-scale atmospheric circulation and is associated with low-pressure regions.

The new findings were reported October 13, 1998 by Andrew Ingersoll at the 30th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences.

"Lightning is an indicator of convection and precipitation," says Ingersoll, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and member of the Galileo Imaging Team. "These processes are the main sources of atmospheric energy, both on Earth and on Jupiter."



In a terrestrial hurricane, Ingersoll explains, the low pressure at the center draws air in along the ocean surface, where it picks up moisture. Energy is relased when the moisture condenses and falls out as rain.



On Jupiter, energy is transferred from the warm interior of the planet to the visible atmosphere in a similar process. The new findings show that lightning occurs in the low-pressure regions on Jupiter, too.

"On both planets, the air spins counterclockwise around a low in the northern hemisphere and clockwise around a low in the southern hemisphere," Ingersoll says. "The lows are called cyclones and the highs are called anticyclones."

On Jupiter the cyclones are amorphous, turbulent regions that are spread out in the east-west direction. In the Voyager movies they spawn rapidly expanding bright clouds that look like huge thunderstorms. The Galileo lightning data confirm that convection is occurring there.

"We even caught one of these bright clouds on the day side and saw it flashing away on the night side less than two hours later," says Ingersoll.

In contrast, the Jovian anticyclones tend to be long-lived, stable, and oval-shaped. The Great Red Spot is the best example (it is three times the size of Earth and has been around for at least 100 years), but it has many smaller cousins. No lightning was seen coming from the anticyclones.

"That probably means that the anticyclones are not drawing energy from below by convection," says Ingersoll. "They are not acting like Jovian hurricanes."

Instead, the anticyclones maintain themselves by merging with the smaller structures that get spun out of the cyclones. "That's what we see in the Voyager movies, and the Galileo lightning data bear it out. Whether the precipitation is rain or snow is uncertain," says Ingersoll.

"Models of terrestrial lightning suggest that to build up electrical charge, both liquid water and ice have to be present. Rain requires a relatively wet Jupiter, and that's a controversial subject.

"Water is hard to detect from the outside because it is hidden below the ammonia clouds. And the Galileo probe hit a dry spot where we didn't expect much water."

Fortunately the Galileo imaging system caught glimpses of a cloud so deep it has to be water, according to findings to be reported at the conference by Dr. Don Banfield of Cornell University and an imaging team affiliate. Banfield showed images of the water cloud near the convective centers in the cyclonic regions.

These results appear in the September issue of Icarus, the International Journal of Solar System Studies.

"We know the water is there, and we know where it's raining," says Ingersoll. "This is a big step toward understanding how Jupiter's weather gets its energy."


Robert Tindol

Crust of Tibetan Plateau is being squeezed by India and Asia, new study shows

PASADENA—Geophysicists have discovered why there are high plains and mountains in the Himalayas for trekkers to trek on. According to new data, the soft crust of the Tibetan Plateau is being squeezed like an accordion between the harder crusts of India and Asia.

According to Caltech professor of geophysics Donald Helmberger and his doctoral student Lupei Zhu, the results show for the first time that a portion of crust can be squeezed and thickened if plate tectonics is forcing a harder section of crust into another hard section. Before the current study, geophysicists were unsure whether the plateau was formed by actions in the mantle or more shallow movements of the crust.

In the August 21 issue of the journal Science, the researchers show that the northward tectonic motion of India is forcing the softer and younger crust of the Tibetan Plateau into the Qaidam Basin to the north. Like India, the crust of the Qaidam Basin is also old and hard.

Since the seismic data shows there is a dramatic change in the thickness of the crust at the edge of the Qaidam Basin, the researchers infer that the softer crust is being literally forced into a hard vertical wall beneath the surface.

Therefore, the crust of the Tibetan Plateau is being crammed up and thickened in the collision. In addition to providing uplift, the action is also grinding the materials laterally. The horizontal fault lines observed in the region also support this interpretation.

"This gives a different perception about how strong an old crust can be," says Helmberger. "There's a very sharp change in the thickness of the crust, from about 40 kilometers at the Qaidam Basin to about 60 kilometers at the Tibetan Plateau.

"Physically, this means the crust beneath the Qaidam Basin is like a solid wall," he adds. "This thing below the basin is cold and old and very tough."

Zhu and Helmberger's results come from raw data collected by the Institute of Geophysics at Beijing and the University of South Carolina during the joint PASSCAL project in the early 1990s. Zhu did some of the field work before entering Caltech in 1993 as a graduate student.

Zhu says he would like to return to Tibet for additional data at other sites, and both he and Helmberger think the work could herald a new understanding of how the crust figures into plate tectonics. 

Robert Tindol


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