New NASA model gives glimpse into the invisible world of electric asteroids

Jun 25, 2014
This is a concept image of an astronaut preparing to take samples from a captured asteroid. The sun is in the background; NASA wants to know more about electrical activity generated by the interaction of solar wind and radiation with asteroids. Credit: NASA

Space may appear empty—a soundless vacuum, but it's not an absolute void. It flows with electric activity that is not visible to our eyes. NASA is developing plans to send humans to an asteroid, and wants to know more about the electrical environment explorers will encounter there.

A blown from the surface of the sun at about a million miles per hour flows around all solar system objects, forming swirling eddies and vortices in its wake. Magnetic fields carried by the solar wind warp, twist, and snap as they slam into the magnetic fields around other objects in our solar system, blasting particles to millions of miles per hour and sending electric currents surging in magnetic storms that, around Earth, can damage sensitive technology like satellites and power grids.

On airless objects like moons and asteroids, sunlight ejects negatively charged electrons from matter, giving sunlit areas a strong positive electric charge. The solar wind is an electrically conducting gas called plasma where matter has been torn apart into electrons, which are relatively light, and positively charged ions, which are thousands of times more massive. While areas in sunlight can charge positive, areas in shadow get a strong negative charge when electrons in the solar wind rush in ahead of heavier ions to fill voids created as the solar wind flows by.

The surface of Earth is shielded from the direct effects of this activity by our planet's magnetic field, but airless objects without strong repelling magnetic fields, like small asteroids, have no protection from electrical activity in space.

NASA-sponsored researchers funded by the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) (formerly the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI)) have developed a new computer model that can predict and visualize the interaction between the solar wind, solar radiation, and the surface of asteroids in unprecedented detail.

"Our model is the first to provide detailed, two-dimensional views of the complex interaction between solar activity and small objects like asteroids, using an adaptive computational technique that makes these simulations highly efficient," said Michael Zimmerman, project lead at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Electric field direction (arrows) and strength (colors) produced by the simulated interaction of the solar wind with a small irregularly shaped asteroid, about 150 meters (yards) long by 50 meters wide. The deepest shades of red indicate strong and possibly hazardous electric fields. Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/Michael Zimmerman

Previous "grid-type" models are less efficient at calculating the effects of solar activity on complex surfaces like asteroids because they devote computer resources equally to all areas, according to Zimmerman. His new "tree code" model continually adapts to the flowing plasma, applying the most resources to areas with lots of complex activity, while devoting less to areas that are simpler.

"Our model can calculate a solar activity-asteroid interaction in a few days," said Zimmerman. "It would probably take a few weeks – or a supercomputer – for a grid-type model to do the same at high resolution." Zimmerman is lead author of a paper on this research available online in the journal Icarus since April 4, 2014.

Zimmerman and his team plan to apply the model to see if the electrical activity around asteroids presents any potential hazards to human explorers.

"For example, understanding the electrical environment around an asteroid could help identify locations where astronauts can safely make first contact with the object," said co-author William Farrell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "If an astronaut is tethered to a spacecraft that is in sunlight and positively charged, and touches a negatively charged asteroid surface in shadow, there could be an unexpected current flow between the two systems upon contact. We simply can't speculate on the nature of that current without this model."

The model also can be used to predict interactions between an asteroid and the spacecraft itself. "One of the reasons we're visiting asteroids is because they are relatively pristine remnants from the formation of the , so they give clues as to how the planets formed and life originated," says Farrell. "However, spacecraft release gases (like water) that ionize, and these spacecraft-emitted ions likely will contaminate the surfaces of the asteroids we want to study. This new asteroid model will allow us to estimate the degree of ion collection and contamination over various regions." Farrell is the Principal Investigator of one of SSERVI's nine teams called the Dynamic Response of the Environment at Asteroids, the Moon, and moons of Mars (DREAM2), which provided a portion of the funding to develop the model.

The model shows that the solar wind flow at a small asteroid displays some phenomena that have been observed directly at the moon, giving confidence in its results. For example, a well-developed cloud of electrons ejected by sunlight forms on the 's sunlit surface, while a low density supersonic wake streams behind the object in the solar wind flow. However, as with any computer model, these elements will have to be verified by actual measurements from future missions to asteroids.

"Eventually, we also plan to expand the capability of the model by making predictions and visualizations in three dimensions, as well as adding the capability to simulate electrically conductive exploration infrastructure as well as effects," says Zimmerman.

This research was supported by an appointment to the NASA Postdoctoral Program at Goddard, administered by Oak Ridge Associated Universities through a contract with NASA. It also was supported by the NLSI and SSERVI, based and managed at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

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

Explore further: NASA Goddard joins new virtual research institute

More information: sservi.nasa.gov/

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA Goddard joins new virtual research institute

Dec 02, 2013

Researchers from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. have joined a new NASA virtual institute that will focus on questions concerning space science and human space exploration. Nine research ...

The solar wind breaks through the Earth's magnetic field

Jun 10, 2014

Space is not empty. A wind of charged particles blows outwards from the Sun, carrying a magnetic field with it. Sometimes this solar wind can break through the Earth's magnetic field. Researchers at the Swedish ...

Leaping lunar dust

Mar 18, 2013

(Phys.org) —Electrically charged lunar dust near shadowed craters can get lofted above the surface and jump over the shadowed region, bouncing back and forth between sunlit areas on opposite sides, according ...

Electric Moon jolts the solar wind

May 30, 2012

(Phys.org) -- With the Moon as the most prominent object in the night sky and a major source of an invisible pull that creates ocean tides, many ancient cultures thought it could also affect our health or ...

Spitzer spies an odd, tiny asteroid

Jun 19, 2014

(Phys.org) —Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have measured the size of an asteroid candidate for NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), a proposed spacecraft concept to capture either a ...

Recommended for you

Hinode satellite captures X-ray footage of solar eclipse

17 hours ago

The moon passed between the Earth and the sun on Thursday, Oct. 23. While avid stargazers in North America looked up to watch the spectacle, the best vantage point was several hundred miles above the North ...

Asteroid 2014 SC324 zips by Earth Friday afternoon

Oct 24, 2014

What a roller coaster week it's been. If partial eclipses and giant sunspots aren't your thing, how about a close flyby of an Earth-approaching asteroid?  2014 SC324 was discovered on September 30 this ...

User comments : 16

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

thermodynamics
4 / 5 (9) Jun 25, 2014
Oh my god... Here comes Cantdrive!!! Can he possibly restrain from making a fool of himself screeching about how astrophysicists NEVER learn plasma physics (how did they do this model?).
Uncle Ira
5 / 5 (3) Jun 25, 2014
Oh my god... Here comes Cantdrive!!! Can he possibly restrain from making a fool of himself screeching about how astrophysicists NEVER learn plasma physics (how did they do this model?).


@ thermo-Skippy. You know that the cantdrive-Nazi-Skippy got the three names he use now don't you? It is true he does. He is the Delicious-Norton-Skippy now too and another who name I forget now. I'll P.S. to you when I remember that one.
cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 25, 2014
Oh my god... Here comes Cantdrive!!! Can he possibly restrain from making a fool of himself screeching about how astrophysicists NEVER learn plasma physics (how did they do this model?).


@ thermo-Skippy. You know that the cantdrive-Nazi-Skippy got the three names he use now don't you? It is true he does. He is the Delicious-Norton-Skippy now too and another who name I forget now. I'll P.S. to you when I remember that one.

So now you resort to lies, typical.
cantdrive85
2.3 / 5 (9) Jun 25, 2014
screeching about how astrophysicists NEVER learn plasma physics

"Michael Zimmerman, project lead at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland."

See that? Applied physics, not fantasyland theoretical plasma physics.

how did they do this model?


"Our model is the first to provide detailed..."
The first? Thermodumbonics seems to suggest this is an ongoing model.

Previous "grid-type" models are less efficient at calculating the effects of solar activity on complex surfaces


Probably because he uses the same circuit/particle-in-cell models that Alfven, Peratt, and other Plasma Cosmologists use, rather than the MHD models preferred by astrophysicists.

A bit of investigation into Mr. Zimmerman shows he seems to favor the approach to plasma held by Electric Universe theorists.

http://adsabs.har..._key=AST

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Max Planck
Captain Stumpy
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 06, 2014
A bit of investigation into Mr. Zimmerman shows he seems to favor the approach to plasma held by Electric Universe theorists.
@cd
don't put words in his mouth... ask him. and your link only proves that he studied electrical engineering as well as astrophysics, but likely concentrated on astrophysics... please note that it comes up
SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS)
notice that ASTROPHYSICS in there?
wow, huh?
from HARVARD

http://adsabs.har..._key=AST
and YOU linked it... which only proves that you see but you don't understand/read as it supports my arguments from
http://phys.org/n...sun.html
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Jul 06, 2014
I have a correction- his education is :
2010 Ph.D. Physics, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV

2008 M.S. Physics, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV

2002 B.S. Computer Science/Physics (double major), Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD

Positions/Employment
11 / 2010 - Present
NASA Postdoctoral Fellow
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD

2 / 2008 - 11 / 2010
Graduate Research Assistant
West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV

6 / 2006 - 7 / 2006
Visiting Graduate Research Assistant
Institute for Low-Temperature Plasma Physics, Greifswald, Germany

1 / 2004 - 2 / 2008
Graduate Research Assistant
West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV

cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 06, 2014
Yep, no astrophysics to be found. Likely the reason this is the first model of it's kind...
Captain Stumpy
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 06, 2014
Yep, no astrophysics to be found. Likely the reason this is the first model of it's kind...
@cd
so...wait... you are saying that this link from YOUR post here
A bit of investigation into Mr. Zimmerman shows he seems to favor the approach to plasma held by Electric Universe theorists.

http://adsabs.har..._key=AST
which goes to this page here: http://adsabs.har..._key=AST
this link that YOU left, is not astrophysics and contains NO astrophysicists? really?

did you even READ the link?
its: SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS)
your page is linked to the "Author Query" from SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS) who's homepage is: http://www.adsabs.harvard.edu/
and in that page YOU linked, there are a number of astrophysicists...
or did you miss all THAT too?

cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 06, 2014
As usual, you twist things and misinterpret an argument. I was responding to your comment inre to Dr. Zimmerman's education.
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Jul 06, 2014
As usual, you twist things and misinterpret an argument
@cd
and how is that?
lets walk back through it. I posted
don't put words in his mouth... ask him. and your link only proves that he studied electrical engineering as well as astrophysics, but likely concentrated on astrophysics... please note that it comes up
SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS)
notice that ASTROPHYSICS in there?
wow, huh?
from HARVARD
http://adsabs.har..._key=AST
and YOU linked it... which only proves that you see but you don't understand/read as it supports my arguments from
http://phys.org/n...sun.html
to which you replied:
Yep, no astrophysics to be found
so... where did I twist anything? Dr. Z WORKS for SOA/NASA which was what I was referring to in the original post! and that collaboration has astrophysicists in it (probably where they got that nifty name from!)

I twisted nothing. those are YOUR words, not mine. from YOUR link. I just READ IT. apparently you didn't.
cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 08, 2014
Wow, the senility is spreading fast...

lets walk back through it. I posted

don't put words in his mouth. blah blah blah BLAH BLAH blah BLAH BLAH...

Then you posted...
I am Captain Stupid and have a correction because I blather stupidity before looking stuff up- his education is:
BS- not astrophysics
MS- not astrophysics
PhD- not astrophysics
blah BLAH BLAH blah...

To which I replied...
Yep, no astrophysics to be found. Likely the reason this is the first model of it's kind...

But yet again you choose to lie and twist the facts. Being he's the lead author and subject interviewed for this article, that's who I was referring, and likely why it is the first paper of it's kind.

BTW, Dr.Farrell, this papers co-author? Yep, not astrophysicist. From NASA GSFC Bio;
"Dr. Farrell continues to be a scientific reviewer on AGU, EGS, and IEEE journals"
You see that, he is a reviewer of "known pseudoscience" journals.

Rube!
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Jul 08, 2014
Wow, the senility is spreading fast
@cd
it's ok... there are nursing homes and they make large diapers for people like you... just remember to have them put it on your backside, not your head. Maybe you should tattoo which is which so they can tell?
Then you posted
a correction about the extent of his education. IT STILL DIDN'T CHANGE THE FACT THAT HE IS WORKING AT SOA/NASA, which was the original comment.
If you were talking about his education, you should have specified which post you were commenting on. But then again, EU hates precision, accuracy or facts... see your posts above for proof
IEEE journals"
You see that, he is a reviewer of "known pseudoscience" journals
as far as astrophysics is concerned? yep!
But yet again you choose to lie and twist the facts
not one lie. not one twisted fact. I replied only to your continued twisted pseudoscience EU posts which are only about as accurate and useful as used toilet paper.

Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Jul 08, 2014
so, like always, cantthink de sparky-boy lied and got caught in it and now is trying to backpedal and gain some modicum of respect (to which I say- good luck... you've got a long way to go given your history)

and I have no problem with engineers posting/publishing in IEEE. it is for engineers, after all. My daughter is published at IEEE.
but like I have always contended... IEEE has a LOW impact on astrophysics, which is LIKELY why the EU crowd has gotten away with publishing there with their pseudoscience.

Are their papers still posted on IEEE? or did they get deleted after that sting found over a hundred false papers on the site? (128 I think it was?)

That would be something interesting to know... how about it spark boy?
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (3) Jul 08, 2014
Are their papers still posted on IEEE? or did they get deleted after that sting found over a hundred false papers on the site?

They're still there.

http://ieeexplore...rch=true

http://ieeexplore...rch=true

http://ieeexplore...rch=true

Then there is Dr. Scott at Goddard...
https://www.youtu...A70D493D

as far as astrophysics is concerned? yep!

So I guess you believe astrophysics has it's own "physics". So you acknowledge Alfven was correct again;

"Scientists tend to resist interdisciplinary inquiries into their own territory. In many instances, such parochialism is founded on the fear that intrusion from other disciplines would compete unfairly for limited financial resources and thus diminish their own opportunity for research." Alfven
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Jul 08, 2014
So I guess you believe astrophysics has it's own "physics"
@cd
I see comprehension is not your strong suit... I believe in physics, it is the EU pseudoscience that has it's own physics, which are not viable, able, or proven. Alfie is still wrong, just like you are.

IEEE is a VERY LOW impact journal for astrophysics, and this is why EU can publish such blatantly physics defying rubbish in a respectable journal that is primarily tailored for engineers
IEEE would have been smart to refuse publication in order to improve its standing in the scientific community (especially after its 100+ false papers scandal)
engineers might actually publish there because they are engineers, and might have relevant info for... you guessed it ENGINEERS (like my daughter)

But publishing known pseudoscience only destroys the credibility of the journal... IF you post a link to astrophysics, but link IEEE, it should be considered suspect

that is logic and SMART... not disbelief of physics
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Jul 08, 2014
"Scientists tend to resist blah blah blah blah." Alfven
@cant comprehend
this is also pretty much basic human nature for ANYONE... no one likes an intruder of unknown ability trying to much up their work...

HOWEVER, there is a BIG DIFFERENCE in science...

REAL SCIENTISTS bow to empirical evidence. The key words there are REAL SCIENTISTS, which I capitalized for you, because I know that you can't read/comprehend well.
This is the turning point of your EU philosophy, and the one thing that makes EU a pseudoscience and your adherence to its dogma a fanatical religious experience: YOU disregard empirical data for your EU pseudoscience.

YOU disregard ANYTHING that debunks your EU pseudoscience.. like physics, forensics, and reality.

therefore the skepticism of IEEE with regard to astrophysics is logical and necessary, as you've already proven that they don't mind continuing to support EU pseudoscience.

Sorry, spark-boy... you still fail miserably