Join the University of Maryland A. James Clark School of Engineering for Mpact Week: Disaster Resilience.
The University of Maryland A. James Clark School of Engineering is engineering innovations to improve millions of lives across the globe.
Andrew Muir 301-405-7068
University recognized for excellence in environmental practices
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland maintained its No. 13 ranking in the Sierra Magazine Cool Schools listing. The eighth annual ranking of America's greenest universities once again placed UMD among the leaders in nationwide campus sustainability.
"The university's sustainability efforts are continuing to expand and we have never had a greater level of commitment and involvement than we do today. We are seeing the merging of our curriculum, student-led activities and operations in ways that benefit one another. Initiatives such as the new Partnership in Action Learning in Sustainability and Terp Farm are excellent examples. Such collaboration coupled with new campus goals related to energy and water set the stage for our students to have more opportunities to experience sustainability in action and further our campus vision of being a model of a green university." said Scott Lupin, director of the Office of Sustainability and associate director for the Department of Environmental Safety.
UMD finished No. 1 out of Big Ten schools who made the list, with Penn State University finishing No. 48, University of Iowa at No. 64, and Ohio State University at No. 72. Maryland also has one of the largest undergraduate populations out of the top 15 schools listed.
Key factors that contributed to this year's ranking include:
- The university decreased its carbon footprint 15 percent from 2005 to 2012.
- More than 130 professors in all 12 colleges/schools revised their courses to include sustainability lessons.
- Students contributed more than $870,000 to fund 54 sustainability projects led by students, faculty, and staff.
- More than 140 campus offices participated in the Green Office program.
- More than 250 students enrolled in the campus-wide Sustainability Studies Minor.
The university's commitment to sustainability was further showcased on Earth Day with President Loh's announcement of three campus energy initiatives aimed at reducing campus energy use 20 percent by 2020. In a campus-wide announcement, Loh stated, "Ultimately, group success relies on individual participation. If we are to meet our promises, each of us must do what we can to reduce our environmental footprints." In addition to these energy initiatives, Facilities Management also recently formed a new Department of Engineering and Energy to focus solely on energy and water issues.
It was also a promising year for new University Sustainability Fund projects. Dining Services and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources launched Terp Farm, a 2-acre farm project in Upper Marlboro, MD, to grow vegetables and fruit for campus. The project received a $124,400 grant for a three-year pilot program. Dining Services is also involved in The Drive to Zero Waste, a University Sustainability Fund project collaboration between Intercollegiate Athletics, Facilities Management, and Dining Services to go zero waste in all campus athletic venues, starting with Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium this fall.
"Dining Services is committed to making a sustainable difference on campus and in our community," said Colleen Wright-Riva, director of Dining Services. "Our recent collaborations with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and with Intercollegiate Athletics are just two ways we are achieving this goal. I am confident that as our campus sees the impact of local food sourcing, waste reduction, and student engagement, the next big project will be right around the corner!"
Sustainability initiatives also advanced in university academics and curricula. The Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS), which also received a grant from the University Sustainability Fund, is set to launch 28 interactive courses this fall designed to study and address sustainability issues in Frederick, MD.
"The best take away from this year-long partnership will be making a difference in the sustainability of Frederick," said Uri Avin, director of the PALS program. "Our goal is to create a real impact, both for the city and for the students, which will serve as a model for the rest of the state."
The university continues to take pride in the campus-wide engagement of staff, students and faculty in developing a culture of sustainability. The upcoming Sustainability Progress Report, set for release this fall, will highlight the array of campus achievements and goals it has set out to accomplish.
Heather Dewar 301-405-9267
UMD and NASA astronomers track an intermediate-mass black hole from syncopated flares of light
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Astronomers have accurately measured — and thus confirmed the existence of — a rare intermediate-mass black hole about 400 times the mass of our sun in a galaxy 12 million light years from the Milky Way. The finding, published August 17 in Nature, uses a technique never applied in this way before, and opens the door to new studies of these mysterious objects.
|This image of the galaxy Messier 82 is a composite of data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. The intermediate-mass black hole M82 X-1 is the brightest object in the inset, at approximately 2 o'clock near the galaxy's center. Credit: NASA/H. Feng et al.|
The universe has so many black holes that it's impossible to count them all. There may be 100 million of these intriguing astral objects in our galaxy alone. Nearly all black holes fall into one of two classes: big, and colossal. Astronomers know that black holes ranging from about 10 times to 100 times the mass of our sun are the remnants of dying stars, and that supermassive black holes, more than a million times the mass of the sun, inhabit the centers of most galaxies.
But scattered across the universe like oases in a desert are a few apparent black holes of a more mysterious type. Ranging from a hundred times to a few hundred thousand times the sun's mass, these intermediate-mass black holes are so hard to measure that even their existence is sometimes disputed. Little is known about how they form. And some astronomers question whether they behave like other black holes.
Now a team of astronomers has succeeded in accurately measuring — and thus confirming the existence of — a black hole about 400 times the mass of our sun in a galaxy 12 million light years from Earth. The finding, by University of Maryland astronomy graduate student Dheeraj Pasham and two colleagues, was published online August 17 in the journal Nature.
Co-author Richard Mushotzky, a UMD astronomy professor, says the black hole in question is a just-right-sized version of this class of astral objects.
"Objects in this range are the least expected of all black holes," says Mushotzky. "Astronomers have been asking, do these objects exist or do they not exist? What are their properties? Until now we have not had the data to answer these questions." While the intermediate-mass black hole that the team studied is not the first one measured, it is the first one so precisely measured, Mushotzky says, "establishing it as a compelling example of this class of black holes."
A black hole is a region in space containing a mass so dense that not even light can escape its gravity. Black holes are invisible, but astronomers can find them by tracking their gravitational pull on other objects. Matter being pulled into a black hole gathers around it like storm debris circling a tornado's center. As this cosmic stuff rubs together it produces friction and light, making black holes among the universe's brightest objects.
Since the 1970s astronomers have observed a few hundred objects that they thought were intermediate-mass black holes. But they couldn't measure their mass, so they couldn't be certain. "For reasons that are very hard to understand, these objects have resisted standard measurement techniques," says Mushotzky.
Pasham, who will receive his Ph.D. in astronomy at UMD August 22, focused on one object in Messier 82, a galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major. Messier 82 is our closest "starburst galaxy," where young stars are forming. Beginning in 1999 a NASA satellite telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, detected X-rays in Messier 82 from a bright object prosaically dubbed M82 X-1. Astronomers, including Mushotzky and co-author Tod Strohmayer of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, suspected for about a decade that the object was an intermediate-mass black hole, but estimates of its mass were not definitive enough to confirm that.
Between 2004 and 2010 NASA's Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellite telescope observed M82 X-1 about 800 times, recording individual x-ray particles emitted by the object. Pasham mapped the intensity and wavelength of x-rays in each sequence, then stitched the sequences together and analyzed the result.
Among the material circling the suspected black hole, he spotted two repeating flares of light. The flares showed a rhythmic pattern of light pulses, one occurring 5.1 times per second and the other 3.3 times per second – or a ratio of 3:2.
The two light oscillations were like two dust motes stuck in the grooves of a vinyl record spinning on a turntable, says Mushotzky. If the oscillations were musical beats, they would produce a specific syncopated rhythm. Think of a Latin-inflected bossa nova, or a tune from The Beatles' Abbey Road:
"Mean Mister Mustard sleeps in the park, shaves in the dark, try'na save paper."
In music, this is a 3:2 beat. Astronomers can use a 3:2 oscillation of light to measure a black hole's mass. The technique has been used on smaller black holes, but it has never before been applied to intermediate-mass black holes.
Pasham used the oscillations to estimate that M82 X-1 is 428 times the mass of the sun, give or take 105 solar masses. He does not propose an explanation for how this class of black holes formed. "We needed to confirm their existence observationally first," he says. "Now the theorists can get to work."
Though the Rossi telescope is no longer operational, NASA plans to launch a new X-ray telescope, the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), in about two years. Pasham, who will begin a post-doctoral research position at NASA Goddard in late August, has identified six potential intermediate-mass black holes that NICER might explore.
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The University of Maryland has again been recognized for its diversity and inclusion by being named to Campus Pride's 2014 Top 50 LGBT-Friendly Colleges & Universities list. Campus Pride is the leading national educational organization for LGBTQ and ally college students and campus groups building future leaders and safer, more LGBTQ-friendly colleges and universities.
The listing highlights the positive efforts to improve safety and academic life for LGBT students, as well as the top institutions leading the way.
“We are very proud of the recognition Campus Pride continues to give us,” said Luke Jensen, director of UMD’s campus LGBT Equity Center. “It acknowledges the efforts of many different units and people on campus who are dedicated to providing a supportive and empowering education to our LGBTQ students.”
This is the first year Campus Pride has released a list of the fifty ‘Best of the Best.’ In years past, Campus Pride has only featured a ‘Top 25 List.’ The listing is based on the final responses to the Campus Pride Index, a national benchmarking tool which self-assesses LGBT-friendly policies, programs and practices.
UMD is the only Maryland/Washington, D.C.-area university to make the list this year. To qualify for the list, institutions must earn 5 stars overall in the Campus Pride Index and have the highest percentages across the eight LGBT-friendly benchmarks for policy, program and practice.
“More than ever colleges today want to be viewed as LGBT-friendly and a welcoming place for all students. LGBT students and their safety impacts the recruitment efforts of the entire campus,” said
Shane Windmeyer, Executive Director of Campus Pride and the creator of the Campus
Pride Index. “Upper-level administrators are now understanding how LGBT-friendliness is key to future institutional success. This Top 50 list is proof.”
UMD created the LGBT Equity Center to help establish and maintain a fully equitable community that empowers innovators and agents of social justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. The LGBT Equity Center serves University of Maryland students, staff, faculty, and alumni of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
Maggie Haslam, Maggiehaslam6@gmail.com
50,000 hours of student work will help the City of Frederick
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – In a bold, campus-wide community engagement initiative, the University of Maryland's new Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS) will debut 28 courses geared toward galvanizing sustainable growth in Frederick, Maryland for the 2014-15 academic year. The course list is twice the number originally imagined for PALS' inaugural year. It draws courses from seven different schools and several specialized university programs, spanning a variety of disciplines across campus. In all, about 50,000 hours of student work and faculty expertise will be dedicated to Frederick over the two semesters.
"PALS is a landmark program for the university, in that it will pool the vast resources of faculty and students campus-wide for Maryland communities," says Uri Avin, director of PALS. "This is an extraordinary example of multiple programs collaborating with one community in mind. We hope the impact will be profound."
Developed by UMD's National Center for Smart Growth (NCSG), with support from the Town Creek Foundation and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, PALS is the first initiative of its kind at the university. Its mission is to blend student ingenuity, classroom concepts and faculty expertise in a meaningful way, leveraging the entire weight of the university's assets to help Maryland communities become leaders in sustainable practices. Coursework customized by PALS faculty targets the goals and projects articulated by Frederick, engaging students directly with the community on real projects. The win-win partnership created through PALS provides faculty an exciting, real-world venue to illustrate curriculum concepts, gives students the opportunity to stretch their critical and creative thinking muscles and allows Maryland communities unparalleled access to UMD's expertise and energy.
2014-15 Participating UMD colleges, schools and programs include:
- The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
- The School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
- The College of Arts and Humanities
- The Robert H. Smith Business School
- The College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences
- The School of Public Policy
- The Phillip Merrill College of Journalism
- College Park Scholars
- National Center for Smart Growth
- Environmental Finance Center
- Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Planning for Frederick
PALS administrators selected the Western Maryland city of Frederick as its first partner community in March. Administrators worked to match nearly 45 sustainability-oriented projects designated by the city with faculty and courses across campus. Roughly half of the 28 courses—ranging from real estate development to journalism—will commence in late August, with the remaining courses running in the spring. Among the projects slated for this year, business school students will develop marketing strategies for local businesses, conservation biology students will map invasive plant species in Frederick's watershed, College Park Scholars will investigate a municipal composting program and landscape architecture students will offer solutions for ecological challenges in the city's renowned Carroll Creek. Avin estimates that 300 students will participate in PALS coursework this year.
"What I'm really excited about is the real world experience we'll be offering our students," said Dr. Keryn Gedan, who will be leading a course on climate change and how it relates to municipal watersheds. "It's much more applied and is truly an active learning experience. In the past, my course has been entirely lecture-based. This is the first time we have ever participated in fieldwork. Not only will the students be able to take classroom concepts on global climate change and apply them on local level, they can share their work with each other, the public and the city, which I think will be much more meaningful."
"I am tremendously impressed with the seriousness and commitment of both the City's staff and UMD to make this pilot a model for Maryland," said Randy Clement, Mayor of the City of Frederick. "This will be a great program and we cannot wait to get started in September!"
Successful Test-Run Sets Program Expectation
A successful beta test of PALS ran this past spring in Salisbury, Md., under the guidance of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The project, entitled "Envision Salisbury," partnered 50 undergraduate and graduate architecture students with Salisbury residents to re-envision a new city master plan. Salisbury officials were enthusiastic about the host of design concepts created by the students, which included a plan to mitigate floodwater, developing a vibrant, functional river front design and strengthen the city's identity through gateways. With the help of two UMD students hired by the city for the summer, the planning board is integrating several of the ideas into an updated master plan.
PALS hopes to replicate UMD's efforts in Salisbury again in Frederick, where students and faculty are performing a "deep-dive" effort on many levels—from government to homeowners—gauging what ideas and solutions are both novel and attainable. While the results of the student's work will be compiled and presented to the city at the end of each semester, a blog—debuting in September—as well as two journalism classes, will document and report on the various projects throughout the year.
"If Salisbury is any indication of PALS' success, we are on our way to creating an extraordinary program for both the University and the state," says Gerrit Knaap, director of the NCSG.
To learn more about PALS, visit the program website.
Projected to Create 1,637 Jobs and Increase Economic Activity by $62M+ Per Year
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland and developer David H. Hillman of Southern Management Corporation today announce that the construction of The Hotel at the University of Maryland has been approved by the state and will break ground in spring 2015.
The hotel and conference center will be built on a parcel of land on the east side of campus opposite Turner Hall. The $115 million project is the cornerstone to the University’s vision to encourage redevelopment of the existing downtown College Park business district, in conjunction with strategic development along the Route 1 corridor.
“The University has long needed a 4-star hotel for the tens of thousands of visitors to campus every year. It will catalyze the revitalization of College Park as a top university town with a top research university,” said University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. “I’m so thankful and proud to partner with Mr. Hillman and our University’s foundation board on this transformative project.”
“This project will position the University of Maryland to attract more students, meetings, fans and businesses to College Park and Prince George’s County. I want to thank David Hillman for his commitment to this project and for leading the way as we reshape the Route 1 Corridor,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker, III. “I also applaud President Loh for his dedication to enhancing the academic programs and amenities that are in and around the university. The Hotel is an important step for the university and the County in our efforts to bring positive redevelopment to the Route 1 corridor.”
“College Park and the University of Maryland have had the need and demand for a hotel and conference center of this scale and quality for quite some time. As College Park and Prince Georges’ County are very important communities to me and to Southern Management, my hope is that this project will give developers the confidence to design and build additional hotels and amenities in this corridor," said David H. Hillman, CEO/Chairman, Southern Management Corporation.
Amenities and features of the hotel will include:
- 295 guest rooms with executive level and premium suites;
- Rooftop banquet facility and veranda overlooking the UMD campus;
- 43,000 square ft. of flexible meeting space capable of hosting events for as many as 1,500 guests;
- Two full service restaurants, two specialty restaurants and a coffee shop;
- Full lobby bar;
- Indoor/outdoor pool, and fully equipped fitness center;
- 750 covered parking spaces; and
- 24-hour concierge and private shuttle service.
The Hotel at the University of Maryland is expected to generate significant economic impact to the city, county and state:
- The overall economic impact of the project, including both construction and stable operations phases, will create 1,637 jobs, increase overall economic activity by over $62 million per year, and result in over $4.4 million in state and local tax revenues annually.
- The combined direct impacts include 1,010 new jobs (653 construction, 357 permanent).
- The project will generate an estimated total of $6,383,736 in new state and local tax revenues over the construction period (2014 – 2016), and an additional $4,410,775 annually once stable operations commence.
- The project will generate approximately $22 million per year in total wages, $36 million in value added and $62 million in new economic activity annually during both the construction and stable operations phases.
The Hotel at the University of Maryland is anticipated to open by fall 2016.
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland A. James Clark School of Engineering today announced the launch of a new Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Site in Southern Maryland. With support from the University System of Maryland, the site will bring together leaders in academia, industry, and government to accelerate UAS research.
Congressman Steny Hoyer, who represents the district in which UMD and its UAS Test Site are located, said, "With Patuxent River Naval Air Station serving as a premier facility for research, development, testing, and evaluation, our region is already a hub for aviation innovation, and today's launch of the UAS Test Site will put Southern Maryland at the forefront of integrating unmanned autonomous systems into our national airspace. With federal facilities like Pax River and a robust university system partnering together, Maryland will continue to lead the way in a critical field and benefit from diversification of our regional economy. I thank Chancellor Kirwan and his team at the University System of Maryland for their work to make this test site possible."
Based in St. Mary's County, just a few miles from Naval Air Warfare Center Aviation Division (NAWCAD) at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) headquarters, and NAWCAD Webster Field Annex, the UMD UAS Test Site will be a catalyst for research and development.
"Our expertise in autonomous vehicles research, aerospace engineering, and rotorcraft technology has positioned the University of Maryland as a pioneer and strong partner in the advancement of UAS research," said Mary Ann Rankin, senior vice president and provost of UMD.
Managed by UMD's Clark School of Engineering, the UMD UAS Test Site will create and deliver products and programs in support of workforce development and higher education goals.
"I am pleased that the University of Maryland, College Park will manage the site, and that its educational value extends to all University System of Maryland faculty, staff and students, as well as K-12 students throughout the state," said Chancellor William "Brit" Kirwan of the University System of Maryland.
The test site will serve as a hub to focus the capabilities of the people and infrastructure in Southern Maryland, the University System of Maryland, government, and industry to address issues related to UAS technology and policy, and will provide new opportunities for those in the region.
"This new addition to the St. Mary's County Technology Corridor is the first step toward a larger autonomous research initiative in the region," said Maryland Delegate John Bohanan, who advocated for the establishment of the UMD UAS Test Site since the idea was conceived. "The test site represents the next big transformation of our Southern Maryland economy, and will offer up new job opportunities for Maryland residents."
"Our existing relationship with the University of Maryland serves as the foundation of this new test site," said Vice Admiral David Dunaway, commander of NAVAIR. "The sharing of human capital and expertise from the university, government, and industry will be a conduit for technology transfer, and the overall betterment of national security."
The UMD UAS Test Site is part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, in consort with Virginia and New Jersey, under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) UAS Test Site program, and will help the FAA integrate UAS into the national airspace.
Matt Scassero, a former Navy captain who helped lead the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, is Director of the new UMD UAS Test Site.
To learn more about the UMD UAS Test Site, visit http://uas-test.umd.edu.
Technology Enables U.S. to Monitor Forest Carbon from Space Station
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - NASA has selected a proposal developed by the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) for a new instrument that will join a growing suite of technologies deployed on the International Space Station (ISS) providing key observations about the Earth's environment. The new instrument will provide unprecedented observations of the Earth's forests and their response to changes in climate and land use.
"GEDI will provide the first global data set on forest structure sufficient to accurately map forest above-ground carbon. These data can then be used to estimate the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere that occurs from forest loss, say through fire, and the sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere as forests grow," said UMD Department of Geographical Sciences Professor Ralph Dubayah, the Principal Investigator of the project.
The Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) Lidar will use a system of laser beams to map the three-dimensional structure of vegetation, including canopy heights, over a range of biomes including the temperature forests of North America, and tropical regions where rapid deforestation is occurring. GEDI offers scientists the means to answer key questions, including:
- How has deforestation contributed to atmospheric CO2 concentrations?
- How much carbon will forests absorb in the future?
- How will habitat degradation affect global biodiversity?
"By far, the largest uncertainties in the global carbon cycle concern the net impact of forest disturbance and subsequent regrowth on atmospheric CO2. Without these data, we cannot accurately predict future global warming, nor its consequences, such as sea-level rise. Nor can we accurately project the impact of potential policy actions to mitigate warming, such as planting trees or reducing deforestation," Professor Dubayah said.
Forest loss is also driving habitat degradation and erosion of biodiversity. "We are only now beginning to understand the relationship of canopy structure, how the leaves and branches are arranged vertically, to habitat quality and biodiversity", Dubayah said. "For example, many avian species have strong preferences for certain types of forests, such as those with little understory. What happens when we disturb these forests or the climate regime changes? We have very little data on vertical canopy structure globally and therefore we are limited in our ability to answer such questions. GEDI Lidar will provide billions of canopy profiles from which we can deepen our understanding of how habitat degradation drives the loss of biodiversity, and how we may mitigate its impacts."
GEDI will be completed in 2018 for a cost of $94 million. Upon deployment on the ISS, data from GEDI will be used create a variety of products, including canopy height and structure, forest carbon and its changes. In addition, these data will be used drive global ecosystem models to assess the impacts of changes in land use on atmospheric CO2 under various future climate scenarios.
Professor Dubayah said the GEDI team is confident their investigation will have a significant impact on U.S. environmental policy both domestically and abroad. "On a national policy level, GEDI strongly informs U.S. participation in international climate frameworks and treaties such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation [Redd+]," Dubayah said. "And for the first time, GEDI also provides the United States with a mechanism to monitor forest carbon from space that can be used to help verify potential treaty accordances, such as those which make payments to countries who preserve their forests and related resources."
The GEDI UMD/NASA team has unique technological capability and experience to make these urgently needed measurements with the required fidelity and resolution. They further have a long and extensive background in observing and modeling forest and vegetation dynamics. Dubayah is an expert in using lidar remote sensing observations to characterize forest ecosystem structure to better understand the carbon cycle, habitat quality and biodiversity and has led numerous such investigations from sub-orbital platforms throughout his career. He is joined at UMD by Co-Investigators, including Professors Matt Hansen, George Hurtt, and Research Assistant Professor Anu Swatantran.
GSFC is the world lead in laser-based remote sensing for both Earth and planetary science and will be responsible for constructing and delivering the instrument, under the guidance of Deputy PI J. Bryan Blair and others. GSFC earth scientists will also participate in the development of the mission and analysis of the science data.
The GEDI team includes Co-Investigators from Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts; the U.S. Forest Service, Ogden, Utah; and Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. GEDI additionally has formal collaborations in place with the German Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Massachusetts Boston, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the World Wildlife Fund, and Conservation International.
Abby Robinson 301-405-5845
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have gone looking for water vapor in the atmospheres of three planets orbiting stars similar to the sun — and have come up nearly dry.
The three planets, HD 189733b, HD 209458b, and WASP-12b, are between 60 and 900 light-years away. These giant gaseous worlds are so hot, with temperatures between 1,500 and 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, that they are ideal candidates for detecting water vapor in their atmospheres. However, to the surprise of the researchers, the planets surveyed have only one-tenth to one one-thousandth the amount of water predicted by standard planet-formation theories.
"There are so many things we still don't know about exoplanets, so this opens up a new chapter in understanding how planets and solar systems form," said study co-author Drake Deming, a University of Maryland professor of astronomy, who also led one of the precursor studies to the current finding. "The problem is that we are assuming the water to be as abundant as in our own solar system. What our study has shown is that water features could be a lot weaker than our expectations."
The findings were published on July 24, 2014 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study included researchers from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Toronto.
"Our water measurement in one of the planets, HD 209458b, is the highest-precision measurement of any chemical compound in a planet outside the solar system, and we can now say with much greater certainty than ever before that we've found water in an exoplanet," said Nikku Madhusudhan of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, England, who led the research. "However, the low water abundance we are finding is quite astonishing."
Madhusudhan emphasized that these results, though found in these large hot planets close to their parent stars, may have major implications for the search for water in potentially habitable Earth-sized exoplanets. Instruments on future space telescopes may need to be designed with a higher sensitivity if target planets are drier than predicted. "We should be prepared for much lower water abundances than predicted when looking at super-Earths (rocky planets that are several times the mass of Earth)," Madhusudhan said.
Using near-infrared spectra of the planets observed with Hubble, the research team estimated the amount of water vapor in the planetary atmospheres based on sophisticated computer models and statistical techniques to explain the data.
The planets were selected because they orbit relatively bright stars that provide enough radiation for an infrared-light spectrum to be taken. Absorption features from the water vapor in the planet's atmosphere are superimposed on the small amount of starlight that glances through the planet's atmosphere.
Detecting water is almost impossible for transiting planets from the ground because Earth's atmosphere has a lot of water in it that contaminates the observation. "We really need the Hubble Space Telescope to make such observations," said Nicolas Crouzet of the Dunlop Institute at the University of Toronto.
The currently accepted theory on how giant planets in our solar system formed is known as core accretion, in which a planet is formed around the young star in a protoplanetary disk made primarily of hydrogen, helium, and particles of ices and dust composed of other chemical elements. The dust particles stick to each other, eventually forming larger and larger grains. The gravitational forces of the disk draw in these grains and larger particles until a solid core forms. This then leads to runaway accretion of both solids and gas to eventually form a giant planet.
This theory predicts that the proportions of the different elements in the planet are enhanced relative to those in their star, especially oxygen that is supposed to be the most enhanced. Once the giant planet forms, its atmospheric oxygen is expected to be largely encompassed within water molecules. The very low levels of water vapor found by this research raises a number of questions about the chemical ingredients that lead to planet formation, say researchers.
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