Every 45 minutes a gigawatt pulse of x-rays courses through the solar system. "The pulses are coming from the north pole of Jupiter," says Randy Gladstone, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and leader of the team that made the discovery using NASA's orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory.
"We weren't surprised to find x-rays coming from Jupiter," he says. What did surprise him is what Chandra revealed for the first time: the location of the beacon, which is surprisingly close the planet's pole, and the regular way it pulses.
NASA's Einstein x-ray satellite first spotted Jupiter's x-ray glow in 1979. Then researchers pointed the German x-ray observatory ROSAT toward Jupiter in 1992 and found the glow was still there. Scientists wondered what it was.
The x-rays came mostly from Jupiter's northern hemisphere, but the Einstein and ROSAT maps weren't crisp enough to reveal exactly where. Some researchers thought they were seeing x-ray emissions from powerful auroras, because Jupiter has "Northern Lights" just as Earth does, only on a different scale. Jupiter's auroras are hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than our Earth?s.
Auroras occur when electrons and ions rain down on the upper atmosphere. Such particles are guided by lines of magnetic force toward the poles where they slam into air molecules and cause them to glow. On Earth, most of the raining electrons and ions come from the solar wind or from our planet's ionosphere. On Jupiter, many of them come from volcanoes from Jupiter's moon Io, which fill Jupiter?s magnetosphere with ionized sulfur and oxygen.
When Gladstone and his colleagues trained the Chandra X-ray Observatory on Jupiter they expected to find the planet's northern x-rays coming from its giant auroral ring, since the auroral ring of Earth is a source of x-rays. "We used Chandra's High Resolution Camera to image the planet during a 10 hour period on Dec. 18, 2000," says Ron Elsner, an x-ray astronomer at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center who worked with Gladstone. "We hoped it would pinpoint the x-ray source better than earlier satellites had managed."
Chandra revealed that most of the x-rays came from a hot spot located very close to Jupiter's north magnetic pole and that they were given off in regular pulses. "The 45-minute pulsations are very mysterious," says Elsner. "This is a natural process, we just don't know what it is...".
"Maybe Jupiter's magnetic field, when it gets hit by a solar wind gust, rings like a bell with a 45-minute period," says Gladstone. Or perhaps, "x-ray producing ions might be bouncing back and forth between Jupiter's north and south poles."
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David Jewitt and Scott Sheppard of the University of Hawaii have discovered 11 more moons orbiting Jupiter, bringing the number orbiting the solar system's largest planet to 39. They used a telescope atop Mauna Kea and one of the largest digital imaging cameras in the world to find the moons, which are between 1.25 miles and 2.5 miles in diameter. "It's pretty exciting to find these," Sheppard says. "When you're actually up there observing, it's very time consuming, very rigorous."
"The technology is improving now to the point that the number of moons in the solar system has doubled because of the new technology," says Donald Yeomans, senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "It's really quite extraordinary - the number of moons in the solar system has doubled."
The discovery is also significant because the moons rotate in the opposite rotation of Jupiter. Satellites typically rotate in the same direction as the planet they orbit; however, our Moon rotates opposite to the Earth. These rotations indicate the moons were formed in another place and captured by Jupiter's orbit. "They must have been captured at some very, very early time when things were different," Jewitt says.
With 39 moons, Jupiter has the most of any planet in the solar system. Its four largest - Io, Europa, Calisto and Ganymede - were discovered by Galileo in 1610. Sheppard thinks even more moons could be discovered the next time the planet can be clearly observed from Earth. The new moons won't be named until astronomers observe one full orbit rotation, which takes 600 days. Sheppard says, "We've recently discovered so many new moons we're going to run out of names."
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New calculations based on images taken from NASA?s Galileo spacecraft indicate that the crust of ice covering the liquid ocean on Jupiter is 12 miles thick, which is much too dense for any landing craft to dig through to find what lies beneath. "It raises challenges for future planning but it doesn't end the debate over whether there is life on Europa. It still requires us to go there," says Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.
Scientists thought the icy crust was about 0.6 miles thick but Schenk came up with the new figure after comparing images of craters on Europa with those on Jupiter's other moons. In addition to giving scientists a new obstacle to overcome, the dense crust could also make it harder for any forms of life that may exist there.
Images from orbiting spacecrafts suggest there is an ocean of water under the crust of ice that could be up to 60 miles deep and that life could get energy from heat sources below. Scientists have ranked Europa along with Mars as a place where life, past or present, might exist.
Scientists will now have to plan carefully about where to land an unmanned probe, because the density of the crust limits the number of likely sites where exposed oceanic material might be found. The key will be to find the right landing site which will require reconnaissance missions before sending a landing craft to the surface.
There could still be life on Europa. Organisms survive on the bottom of the Earth's oceans without sunlight, using chemical energy. Says Schenk, "We know that life can evolve into almost any niche in the environment. What we don't know is where it starts. Could it have started at the bottom of the ocean on Europa? We don't know. If it did then it would be perfectly happy there right now."
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We may be able to find out for ourselves soon, because ?wormhole? travel may soon become a reality. The biggest problem with space travel is that we cannot travel faster than the speed of light, meaning it could take years to travel to some of the planets in our solar system and generations to travel outside of it.
But there are tiny doors that lead to the rest of the Universe all around us that were predicted by Einstein. These tiny quantum openings are called ?wormholes,? and if they exist, they could give us a faster-than-light shortcut to the galaxy. Physicists now believe they can eventually open these doors wide enough to allow us to travel through them.
Quantum wormholes are thought to be much smaller than even protons and electrons, and until now no one has figured out what happens when something passes through one. Sean Hayward at Ewha Womans University in Korea and Hisa-aki Shinkai at the Riken Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Japan decided to try to do just that. They found that any matter traveling through adds positive energy to the wormhole, which causes it to collapse into a black hole, an area with a gravitational pull so strong that not even light can escape.
But there's a way to stop future astronauts from being crushed into oblivion?a strange energy field called "ghost radiation? which is predicted by quantum theory. Ghost radiation is a negative energy field that slows down normal positive energy. Ghost radiation could therefore be used to offset the positive energy of the spacecraft, the researchers believe. If we add just the right amount, it should be possible to prevent the wormhole from collapsing. If we add a lot more, the wormhole could be widened just enough for someone to pass through.
It would be tricky to do it right. If too much negative energy is added, the wormhole will briefly explode into a new universe that expands at the speed of light, like ours did right after the big bang.
Scientists will be able to test this theory soon. The CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is expected to generate one mini-black hole per second, a potential source of wormholes through which physicists could try to send quantum-sized particles. But opening a wormhole wide enough to send a spacecraft through it would be much harder.
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Or maybe they?ll come to us. The Amazing Kreskin is forecasting that the largest UFO sighting in recorded history will take place in Nevada during May or June. He will donate $50,000 of his own money to charity if he?s wrong.
Kreskin predicts this sighting will take place in the Nevada desert and will be seen by hundreds of people. He has successfully foretold the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election, the Academy Awards and the beginning of a war on terrorism.
"I am absolutely convinced that in May or June of this year the largest sighting to date will take place in the Nevada desert, probably the largest sighting in the past century, " he says. "I am so convinced of the accuracy of my prediction that I am putting up $50,000 to back my claim."
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