The Marines from Camp Pendleton had a night to remember filled with laughs made by some the funniest celebrities Oct. 28. A-list comedians included Adam Sandler, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Leslie Jordan, and more.
“Comedy Boot Jam” was a private troops-only event put on by Boot Campaign and celebrity supporters to celebrate active and veteran service members. We Are The Mighty’s Weston Scott and Article 15’s Jarred Taylor covered the event from the red carpet at the famous Hollywood Improv!
The once-proposed, hotly-debated November 10th parade in Washington D.C. has been put on the back-burner in the face of climbing costs. When it was first published that the price of the event was jumping from $10 million to $92 million, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, in response to the erroneously-suggested figure, “whoever told you that is probably smoking something.” Regardless of where the costs actually stand, it’s been officially postponed until 2019.
Unfortunately, by pushing the whole thing back a year, the event will lose much of its luster. This Veterans Day, which falls on November 11th, 2018, is the centennial of the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War.
So, what do we do now on such a tremendous anniversary? There have been many suggestions made by many sources, but two stand out against the noise: The American Legion’s request to focus on veteran support and attending the Centenary Armistice Forum in Paris.
I’m fairly confident that there would be little argument for a military parade when the War on Terrorism concludes.
(Photo by David Valdez)
To be frank, America has seldom felt the need to rattle its saber and show how powerful of a force it is — it just is. This fact has been proven when it matters time and time again. But putting on a parade doesn’t have to be a show of force. In fact, countless Veterans Day parades are held across the country at which Americans can show their support of the United States Armed Forces.
American troops are, at present, in armed conflict and, typically, military parades in Washington D.C. are reserved for the ending of wars, such as the celebration of the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Any military parade this November should focus on what the day is really about: Supporting America’s returning veterans and memorializing the end of World War I.
You know, like getting federal acknowledgement of the hazards of burn pits or the alarming number of veterans who commit suicide on a daily basis. A simple “we hear you” will get the ball rolling on helping those affected.
(U.S. Army photo by the 28th Public Affairs Detachment)
Meanwhile, it’s no secret that the Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t been, let’s say, “well equipped” to handle the many issues within the military community. National Commander of the American Legion, Denise H. Rohan, issued the following statement through the American Legion’s website:
“The American Legion appreciates that our president wants to show in a dramatic fashion our nation’s support for our troops. However, until such time as we can celebrate victory in the War on Terrorism and bring our military home, we think the parade money would be better spent fully funding the Department of Veterans Affairs and giving our troops and their families the best care possible.”
Securing funding for Veterans Affairs is always going to be a uphill battle, but any event held in the United States could be used to champion relevant issues and bring to light the very serious struggles that many veterans face.
Besides, Paris will be hosting their own Armistice Day parade. If America were to join in theirs — it’d send a strong message to both our allies and our enemies. We save money and it shows the world that they’ll have to face off against more than our fantastic military alone.
(DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro)
On the other side of the coin, French President Emmanuel Macron will be hosting an international forum in Paris on November 11th to advance the promise of “never again” for the war that was supposed to end all wars. He has invited more than 80 countries to attend the event, including the United States.
Macron has invited world leaders to join together to work towards international cooperation. He compared present-day divisions and fears to the roots that caused World War II. On August 17th, in a tweet, President Trump said that he’ll be there.
Forget secret agent. If you want one of the most exclusive, top-secret jobs about there, consider becoming a flight attendant.
JANET airlines, the secret airline run by the U.S. government, is hiring flight attendants to shuttle employees and contractors out of a private terminal at McCarran National Airport in Las Vegas to their jobs in places like Area 51.
As Business Insider previously reported, while some joke JANET stands for “Just Another Non-Existent-Terminal,” it may actually mean “Joint Air Network for Employee Transportation.”
The JANET airlines hires will perform all the usual flight attendant tasks, including providing food and drink service, giving pre-flight safety demonstrations, ensuring passenger safety throughout the flight, and providing assistance during emergencies.
And, like flight attendants working for other airlines, JANET flight attendants must have a high school degree or the equivalent diploma, pass flight attendant training, and comply with the airline’s dress code and uniform guidelines, among other things.
But JANET airline flight attendants bear the additional burden of qualifying for and maintaining a top-secret government security clearance and associated work location access.
According to the U.S. State Department’s website, “top secret” is the highest level of security clearance, and having this clearance gives you access to classified national security information.
Every application for security clearance is evaluated on an individual basis, and considerations include a number of deeply personal details including:
Coalition air power had a busy Veterans’ Day Weekend while attacking the Islamic State of Iraqi and Syria, also known as ISIS.
Across Iraq and Syria, 84 airstrikes were carried out against the terrorist group, 27 of which were around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which Iraqi forces have been trying to liberate from ISIS since October.
The attacks took place as Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the region. Iraqi forces are moving towards the city, in an offensive expected to take months, according to a DOD News article.
“In my judgment, what Mosul does is reduce ISIL inside of Iraq back to an insurgency with terrorist actions and get them to a level where Iraqi security forces with a minimum level of outside support will be able to manage the violence inside Iraq,” Dunford said. “It denies ISIL freedom of movement and sanctuary inside Iraq.”
The terrorist group was in retreat as their eastern defenses around Mosul collapsed, and the Iraqi Army claimed to have secured the Intisar district of the city, and was moving into the neighborhood of Salaam.
As Coalition forces move in, there have been reports of increasing atrocities carried out by ISIS. According to VOA news, one video released by the terrorist group showed four children — none older than 14 — being forced to execute alleged spies. ISIS had developed “hand grenade” drones and was using them around Mosul.
In other news about the fight against ISIS, the BBC reported that ISIS carried out a half-dozen bombings around Baghdad, and a tweet from CombatAir reported that a Russian MiG-29K Fulcrum operating from the Admiral Kuznetsov was lost.
According to a Nov. 11 release, 24 air strikes were carried out by coalition forces, seven of which took place near Mosul. The Mosul-area strikes destroyed or damaged seven mortar systems, an artillery system, three vehicles, and two weapon caches. Other targets hit that day included a command and control node, oil production facilities, three supply routes, fighting positions, heavy machine guns, a storage container, and a bulldozer.
A Department of Defense release on Nov. 12 reported that five out of 23 strikes that day took place near Mosul. Those five strikes hit a fighting position; five mortar systems; two tunnel entrances; two heavy machines guns; four vehicles; a vehicle bomb; and a weapons cache. The other 18 strikes blasted a number of other targets, including a headquarters building; six oil wellheads; five fighting positions; and six ISIS “tactical units.
On Dec. 9, 2018, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand went to the floor of the Senate to ask her colleagues for unanimous consent to pass H.R. 299, known as the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act.
The act, which passed in the House of Representatives with a unanimous vote, would extend Veterans Affairs benefits to veterans who served in warships off the coast of Vietnam and were exposed to toxic Agent Orange.
If successful, Gillibrand’s request would have expedited the bill’s passage — but one senator, Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming, objected, according to Stars Stripes.
“On this bill, many of us have been made aware of the potential cost growth and the budgetary and operational pressures that would happen at the VA,” he said. “They’re having a lot of problems, anyway.”
Leaking Agent Orange barrels circa 1973.
The VA has estimated that the bill would cost the bureau .5 million over the course of 10 years. But the Congressional Budget Office has previously estimated it would cost a fraction of that amount — id=”listicle-2623193782″.1 million. Regardless of cost, some senators, backed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, view the bill as an obligation.
“If we can afford to send veterans to war, it’s unacceptable that we can’t afford to take care of them when they return home wounded,” B.J. Lawrence, national commander of the VFW, said in a statement.
Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate veterans affairs committee, agreed.
“It is our obligation to meet the needs of the folks who have sacrificed for our country,” he said on the Senate floor.
Sens. Gillibrand and Tester held a press conference on Dec. 11, 2018, calling for more support for the struggling bill.
“Shame on the VA for trying to muddy the waters and say ‘but we don’t have enough money for these veterans,'” Gillibrand said in the press conference. “Is their sacrifice no less?”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
The Nigerian military has been fighting the radical Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram since 2009. Now, Nigeria is getting some new firepower to deal with the group made infamous by kidnapping over 200 girls from a school in Chibok in 2014.
According to the BBC, Boko Haram, which calls itself “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad,” and is also known as the “Islamic State in West Africa,” has conducted a lengthy campaign against the government of Nigeria. The group has suffered some recent reverses in the wake of the 2014 mass kidnapping, which drew international outrage. The United States has been involved in the campaign against Boko Haram, sending Special Forces to assist countries in the region.
To date, the JF-17’s primary user has been the Pakistani Air Force, which sought to replace a mix of French-built Mirages, Nanchang A-5 attack planes, and Chengdu J-7s. The plane was co-developed by Chengdu and the Pakistanis. Myanmar has also reportedly agreed to acquire the plane to bolster their existing force of 31 MiG-29 Fulcrums. They also have a total of 46 older jets, including A-5s, F-6s, and F-7s, according to FlightGlobal.com.
The JF17 is a good fit for the Nigerian Air Force. It can carry a wide variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons from both China and Western countries. This will allow Nigeria to use its current stocks of weapons to try and finish off Boko Haram.
The Army Combat Capabilities Development Center (CCDC) Research Lab is testing a new suppressor with an integrated muzzle brake that will help soldiers maintain accurate and quiet fire on the enemy in future battlefields. This new device is aptly named “Smuzzle.”
Smuzzle’s design was originally meant for the Army’s 155mm howitzers, yet the inventors turned afterward to one of the army’s most common automatic weapons, the M240B. Greg Oberlin, Daniel Cler, and Eric Binter, the inventors of the new equipment, were trying to reduce recoil and muzzle flash while also reducing the sound from the machinegun.
Standard suppressors for the 7.62 mm caliber were unable to withstand the intense heat of the M240B (which is known as “the pig” by the soldiers who carry it in the field).
The device is currently undergoing testing on the M240B with the NATO 7.62×51 mm round as well as the Next-Generation Squad Weapon Technology 6.8mm round. (The 6.8mm round reduces the volume at the shooter’s ear by half, volume downrange by 25 percent, and recoil by a third said Oberlin, a small arms engineer at the Army’s CCDC Army Research Lab.)
The three inventors began their research back in 2007. They were recently awarded a 20-year utility patent with the Army in late March 2020.
“A few years ago, we were asked whether our next-gen squad weapon should have a muzzle brake or a suppressor,” Oberlin said in an interview with TechLink. “We asked ourselves ‘why not both?'”
Like any small-caliber muzzle brake, this new device vents the pressurized gas of each shot to counteract the recoil of the rifle. By venting the gas through a series of tiny asymmetric holes, the device has — in testing thus far — reduced volume by 50 percent and flash signature by 25 percent with minimal weight increase (0.8-3.0 pounds). “Suppressors are notorious for increasing flash,” Cler said. Furthermore, the Smuzzle adds only three inches to the weapon’s overall length.
When a weapon is fired using a suppressor, gases are trapped inside from the sound rings from the front of the suppressor back to the breech. That spreads the carbon throughout the weapon. It can force the soldier to clean the weapon more frequently.
“That brake baffle actually has a curvature to it borrowed from a 155mm muzzle brake I designed,” Cler said. But the researchers have stated that the device is scalable to any caliber.
“It was designed for automatic and semi-automatic weapons, but it’d be useful for anyone shooting magnum cartridges,” Cler said. “It has what you could call a bottom blocker that also reduces how much dust kicks up.” A smaller Smuzzle weighing 0.8 lbs and other larger versions weighing approximately 3 lbs have been developed to be used depending on a weapon’s caliber.
Binter said in a piece with the Army Times that although they have not yet tested the prototype devices to failure, nevertheless some of them had already fired 10,000 rounds through the weapons which continue to hold up to the sound, recoil, and accuracy standards.
In one test the researchers fired hundreds of rounds through one prototype Smuzzle attached to an M240B machine gun in a full auto failure test. (See video below.)
“It was glowing red, but it never failed,” Cler said.
In testing the weapon is expected to be able to sustain a rate of fire of 600 rounds per minute.
Smuzzle goes beast mode in full auto endurance test
But the real dig at China that hints at the future of space conflict came in a more subtle fashion.
“While other nations increasingly possess the capability to operate in space, not all of them share our commitment to freedom, to private property, and the rule of law,” Pence said. “So as we continue to carry American leadership in space, so also will we carry America’s commitment to freedom into this new frontier.”
Pence also mentioned Russia, but one of the “other” nations at the top of Pence’s mind is China, where space exploration has boomed and Beijing has already started talking about celestial bodies as if they’re a birthright.
“The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands, Mars is Huangyan Island. If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.”
Ye’s mention of the Diaoyu Islands, which the Japanese also claim and contest, and of Huangyan Island, which the Philippines also claim and contest, recall Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea.
“Make no mistake about it that we are — we are totally at war with China right now,” said Jim Phillips, the CEO and chairman of the nanotechnology firm NanoMech, as Brietbart notes. “It’s not a war of bombs. It’s a war of cyberwarfare, and it’s also a war of GDP and jobs. And the one that has the most GDP and the jobs is going to be the clear winner.”
Phillips said nanotechnology, which could aid in manufacturing the advanced materials seen as vital for future space travel, will determine the next space race’s winner. He accused China of aggressively stealing nanotech secrets.
“At that point, China will have the new world,” he said. “America will no longer have a disproportionate financial advantage that gives it the moral, economic and the leadership authority it has now. When this happens, America loses; the world changes. Everything changes.” China, he said, “won’t have to use its military.”
But the US, for now, appears unwilling to let China have its way in either the South China Sea or space.
“Our destiny, beyond the Earth, is not only a matter of national identity but a matter of national security,” Trump said in June. “When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
“A few years ago I heard about the treatment from my friend in Washington state. I went on the computer and I checked a few things out, and I thought, ‘Why not? It’s time that you do something.'”
For Jerry, that time came 48 years after he had returned from Vietnam…
“Bullets are flying everyplace…”
“It was quite an experience coming back from ‘Nam, and I could tell I had changed an awful lot. And I think the biggest thing in my behavior was the fact that I was so jumpy. I would wake up in the middle of the night, and I’m in the middle of Vietnam, and bullets are flying everyplace, and my bed is ringing wet.”
“What they didn’t know is I was scared of myself.”
Something was wrong. He didn’t know what it was or what to do about it. And Jerry didn’t want to jeopardize his career in the military by speaking up. He went on to finish two tours in Korea, then was stationed in Germany where he met his future wife and started a family. “I just felt that if I said there’s something wrong with me the Army wouldn’t need me.”
Instead of asking for help, Jerry buried himself in his work. “I was working around the clock. I was trying to control my mind, and I was trying to block it. I was in control most of the time.”
But he also lost control. Stupid mistakes felt intolerable, and they could easily set him off. “I can talk like a sailor, and in talking like a sailor, I could take your head off and put it in your lap, and you’d never know it.”
These types of outbursts affected his work-life. He later learned that his colleagues didn’t like to be around him because he was too unpredictable, too volatile. One called him a loose cannon, another told him years later that people were afraid of him. “What they didn’t know is I was scared of myself.”
Time passed. Jerry’s two sons grew into men. And more recently, his beloved wife became ill and passed away. For all those years Jerry had wanted to ask for help, but he didn’t know where to go. He couldn’t trust anyone.
Then one day a friend told him about the treatments at the VA. Treatments for PTSD. Eager to get help, but still skeptical, Jerry went in for an appointment.
“She was just that good.”
“I’ll tell you right now, as I sit here, when I walked in that room and saw that petite little thing sitting there, I said there is no way in hell this young lady has any clue about what I’ve been through, what I’ve done, and she can’t help me. I feel like an ass now but it didn’t take long for me to change my mind. It didn’t take long. Within 30 minutes I knew I wanted to come back for my next appointment. I could have probably stayed there the rest of the week and talked to her. She was just that good. She was ready for me. I wasn’t ready for her, but she made me ready. She was good.”
Jerry finished his therapy, an evidence-based therapy called Prolonged Exposure, in nine weeks.
“I felt that the treatment helped me in the fact that I can control myself a lot better. I control my anger. I can do a lot of things that I couldn’t do before. I still have moments where I don’t know, something snaps or something build’s up or whatever [but] I accept life a lot easier. I’m more tolerant of people.”
“I’ll just say it this way. It takes a lot to piss me off. I’m so proud of that.”
The US has a small aircraft carrier hosting F-35B stealth fighter jets in the Middle East as Russia threatens US forces in Syria — and if fighting breaks out the US will have no choice but to send in the advanced fighters.
Russia and its ally, Syria, have launched a massive offensive against Idlib, the last rebel-held area in the country, and appeared to predict chemical weapons use in the process.
But Russia has made these claims before, and it hasn’t stopped the US from striking Syria in the past. This time, as Syria and Russia eye a bloody victory over the last remaining rebels, Russia has telegraphed that it would counter-attack the US if US missiles hit Syrian targets over chemical weapons use.
Russia, a weakened military power that often bolsters its image with propaganda, sat idly by while the US hit Syria twice before, but the US has spelled out that this time its penalty would take a much “stronger” form.
In the face of a massive Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean hugging Syria’s coast, the US doesn’t have a single carrier strike group anywhere near the region.
But the US does have the USS Essex, a US Navy small-deck helicopter carrier modified to carry US Marine Corps F-35B stealth fighters. The Essex and its accompanying ships across the Suez Canal from the Russian ships in the Mediterranean represents one of the greatest concentrations of naval power ever put to sea, and its main mission is simple — crisis response.
The long-awaited F-35Bs have updated software that grants them “full warfighting capability” Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Christopher Harrison told USNI News. That capability takes the F-35 beyond anything that F/A-18s, the US Navy’s standard carrier-based fighter, could do in an environment like Syria.
Syria has advanced Russian missile defenses, creating some of the world’s most challenging air spaces. Only a stealth jet with advanced sensors, like the F-35B, could safely take on the mission of fighting in the skies above Syria.
“The F-35’s ability to operate in contested areas, including anti-access/area-denial environments that legacy fighters cannot penetrate, provides more lethality and flexibility to the combatant commander than any other fighter platform,” said Harrison.
US Marines firing a howitzer in Syria.
(US Marine Corps photo)
Russia flirting with disaster
Russia specifically threatened US forces in southern Syria with retaliation. In the past, these US forces have come under attack from Russian-aligned forces and brutally beat them back with superior air power. But in that case, Russia held back its considerable bank of fighter jets in the region from the fight.
The F-35B has never tasted combat, but the Syrian war produced a rich list of firsts over the last seven years. Missile fires have taken down Israeli, Syrian, and Russian jets over the course of the war. Syria has seen the combat debut of Israel’s F-35I and the first US air-to-air kill between manned aircraft since 1999.
If Russia is serious about backing its ally and countering a possible US attack, it would no doubt need air power to do so. But not only does the US have stealth F-35s nearby ready to hit Russia with something it’s never seen, they have considerable air bases in the region that make Moscow’s threat appear less than serious.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Since the US and Chinese militaries became neighbors in the small African country of Djibouti, they haven’t been getting along very well.
Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, the director of intelligence at the US Africa Command, has accused the Chinese military of “irresponsible actions,” telling reporters recently that Chinese forces at a nearby base have been harassing US forces at the neighboring Camp Lemonnier base.
Berg, according to the Washington Times, said that the Chinese military has attempted to restrict access to international airspace near its base, targeted US pilots with ground lasers, and sent out drones to interfere with flight operations.
She also accused the Chinese military of “intrusion activity,” explaining that there have been “attempts to gain access to Camp Lemmonier.”
U.S. Marines at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.
(DoD photo by Lance Cpl. Lonzo-Grei D. Thornton, U.S. Marine Corps)
The US base, which opened in 2001 and is home to roughly 4,000 US military and civilian personnel, is an important strategic facility that has served as a launch site for US counter-terrorism activities in east Africa.
China opened its base, its first overseas military installation, nearby in the summer of 2017. China insists that the purpose of what it calls an “overseas support facility” is the “better undertaking its international responsibilities and obligations and better protecting its lawful interests.”
The movement of Chinese forces into the area have made US military leaders uneasy. “We’ve never had a base of, let’s just say a peer competitor, as close as this one happens to be,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, AFRICOM commander, told Breaking Defense just prior to the opening of China’s facility. “There are some very significant operational security concerns.”
The laser incidents Berg mentioned were first reported last year, when the Pentagon sent a formal complaint to Beijing after two C-130 pilots suffered injuries.
A C-130 Hercules cargo plane.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that the latest allegations against it do “not align with the facts,” adding that “China has always abided by international laws and laws of the host countries and is committed to maintaining regional safety and stability.”
Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, a military expert at the People’s Liberation Army Naval Military Studies Research Institute, told the Global Times, a state-affiliated Chinese publication, that the US has been sending low-flying aircraft to conduct spying operations near the Chinese facility.
The Global Times said that US accusations were “just the same old tune struck up again by the US to defame China.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
A major Chinese shipbuilder briefly posted, and then deleted, images of plans for ships and weapons systems that reveals that China may be planning to unseat the US as the most powerful navy in the world.
The images, screengrabbed and reported on by Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer at Popular Science, showed Chinese plans for a massive, nuclear-capable aircraft carrier with stealth jets, nuclear submarines, and underwater drones, as well as a possible “underwater Great Wall of China” attack and defense system to surveil and attack enemy ships.
The China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) had previously confirmed on their website that a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was in the works and expected by 2025, the South China Morning Post reported.
China currently operates two aircraft carriers, both of which are based on Cold War-era Soviet designs and burn fossil fuels, which limits their range and power projection ability. The smaller carriers, which displace about 60,000 tons, feature ski-jump platforms rather than the flat decks of US aircraft carriers, which also limits the weight and range of the aircraft it can launch.
The photos posted by CSIC show a large flat-deck carrier that looks much like US Nimitz-class carriers.
One picture shows a carrier at sea with models of unmanned drones and stealth jets on the deck. China has an upcoming class of stealth jets, though none of them have been navalized.
With a nuclear-powered, flat-deck aircraft carrier, China would join the US and France as the only countries with full-on naval power projection capabilities. China’s single nuclear carrier would put it on par with France, but far behind the US, which has 11 full-size nuclear aircraft carriers.
Just as dust gathers in corners and along bookshelves in our homes, dust piles up in space too. But when the dust settles in the solar system, it’s often in rings. Several dust rings circle the Sun. The rings trace the orbits of planets, whose gravity tugs dust into place around the Sun, as it drifts by on its way to the center of the solar system.
The dust consists of crushed-up remains from the formation of the solar system, some 4.6 billion years ago — rubble from asteroid collisions or crumbs from blazing comets. Dust is dispersed throughout the entire solar system, but it collects at grainy rings overlying the orbits of Earth and Venus, rings that can be seen with telescopes on Earth. By studying this dust — what it’s made of, where it comes from, and how it moves through space — scientists seek clues to understanding the birth of planets and the composition of all that we see in the solar system.
Two recent studies report new discoveries of dust rings in the inner solar system. One study uses NASA data to outline evidence for a dust ring around the Sun at Mercury’s orbit. A second study from NASA identifies the likely source of the dust ring at Venus’ orbit: a group of never-before-detected asteroids co-orbiting with the planet.
“It’s not every day you get to discover something new in the inner solar system,” said Marc Kuchner, an author on the Venus study and astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This is right in our neighborhood.”
In this illustration, several dust rings circle the Sun. These rings form when planets’ gravities tug dust grains into orbit around the Sun. Recently, scientists have detected a dust ring at Mercury’s orbit. Others hypothesize the source of Venus’ dust ring is a group of never-before-detected co-orbital asteroids.
(NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith)
Another ring around the Sun
Guillermo Stenborg and Russell Howard, both solar scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., did not set out to find a dust ring. “We found it by chance,” Stenborg said, laughing. The scientists summarized their findings in a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal on Nov. 21, 2018.
They describe evidence of a fine haze of cosmic dust over Mercury’s orbit, forming a ring some 9.3 million miles wide. Mercury — 3,030 miles wide, just big enough for the continental United States to stretch across — wades through this vast dust trail as it circles the Sun.
Ironically, the two scientists stumbled upon the dust ring while searching for evidence of a dust-free region close to the Sun. At some distance from the Sun, according to a decades-old prediction, the star’s mighty heat should vaporize dust, sweeping clean an entire stretch of space. Knowing where this boundary is can tell scientists about the composition of the dust itself, and hint at how planets formed in the young solar system.
So far, no evidence has been found of dust-free space, but that’s partly because it would be difficult to detect from Earth. No matter how scientists look from Earth, all the dust in between us and the Sun gets in the way, tricking them into thinking perhaps space near the Sun is dustier than it really is.
Stenborg and Howard figured they could work around this problem by building a model based on pictures of interplanetary space from NASA’s STEREO satellite — short for Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory.
Scientists think planets start off as mere grains of dust. They emerge from giant disks of gas and dust that circle young stars. Gravity and other forces cause material within the disk to collide and coalesce.
(NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
Ultimately, the two wanted to test their new model in preparation for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is currently flying a highly elliptic orbit around the Sun, swinging closer and closer to the star over the next seven years. They wanted to apply their technique to the images Parker will send back to Earth and see how dust near the Sun behaves.
Scientists have never worked with data collected in this unexplored territory, so close to the Sun. Models like Stenborg and Howard’s provide crucial context for understanding Parker Solar Probe’s observations, as well as hinting at what kind of space environment the spacecraft will find itself in — sooty or sparkling clean.
Two kinds of light show up in STEREO images: light from the Sun’s blazing outer atmosphere — called the corona — and light reflected off all the dust floating through space. The sunlight reflected off this dust, which slowly orbits the Sun, is about 100 times brighter than coronal light.
“We’re not really dust people,” said Howard, who is also the lead scientist for the cameras on STEREO and Parker Solar Probe that take pictures of the corona. “The dust close to the Sun just shows up in our observations, and generally, we have thrown it away.” Solar scientists like Howard — who study solar activity for purposes such as forecasting imminent space weather, including giant explosions of solar material that the Sun can sometimes send our way — have spent years developing techniques to remove the effect of this dust. Only after removing light contamination from dust can they clearly see what the corona is doing.
The two scientists built their model as a tool for others to get rid of the pesky dust in STEREO — and eventually Parker Solar Probe — images, but the prediction of dust-free space lingered in the back of their minds. If they could devise a way of separating the two kinds of light and isolate the dust-shine, they could figure out how much dust was really there. Finding that all the light in an image came from the corona alone, for example, could indicate they’d found dust-free space at last.
Mercury’s dust ring was a lucky find, a side discovery Stenborg and Howard made while they were working on their model. When they used their new technique on the STEREO images, they noticed a pattern of enhanced brightness along Mercury’s orbit — more dust, that is — in the light they’d otherwise planned to discard.
“It wasn’t an isolated thing,” Howard said. “All around the Sun, regardless of the spacecraft’s position, we could see the same five percent increase in dust brightness, or density. That said something was there, and it’s something that extends all around the Sun.”
Scientists never considered that a ring might exist along Mercury’s orbit, which is maybe why it’s gone undetected until now, Stenborg said. “People thought that Mercury, unlike Earth or Venus, is too small and too close to the Sun to capture a dust ring,” he said. “They expected that the solar wind and magnetic forces from the Sun would blow any excess dust at Mercury’s orbit away.”
With an unexpected discovery and sensitive new tool under their belt, the researchers are still interested in the dust-free zone. As Parker Solar Probe continues its exploration of the corona, their model can help others reveal any other dust bunnies lurking near the Sun.
Asteroids hiding in Venus’ orbit
This isn’t the first time scientists have found a dust ring in the inner solar system. Twenty-five years ago, scientists discovered that Earth orbits the Sun within a giant ring of dust. Others uncovered a similar ring near Venus’ orbit, first using archival data from the German-American Helios space probes in 2007, and then confirming it in 2013, with STEREO data.
Since then, scientists determined the dust ring in Earth’s orbit comes largely from the asteroid belt, the vast, doughnut-shaped region between Mars and Jupiter where most of the solar system’s asteroids live. These rocky asteroids constantly crash against each other, sloughing dust that drifts deeper into the Sun’s gravity, unless Earth’s gravity pulls the dust aside, into our planet’s orbit.
At first, it seemed likely that Venus’ dust ring formed like Earth’s, from dust produced elsewhere in the solar system. But when Goddard astrophysicist Petr Pokorny modeled dust spiraling toward the Sun from the asteroid belt, his simulations produced a ring that matched observations of Earth’s ring — but not Venus’.
This discrepancy made him wonder if not the asteroid belt, where else does the dust in Venus’ orbit come from? After a series of simulations, Pokorny and his research partner Marc Kuchner hypothesized it comes from a group of never-before-detected asteroids that orbit the Sun alongside Venus. They published their work in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on March 12, 2019.
“I think the most exciting thing about this result is it suggests a new population of asteroids that probably holds clues to how the solar system formed,” Kuchner said. If Pokorny and Kuchner can observe them, this family of asteroids could shed light on Earth and Venus’ early histories. Viewed with the right tools, the asteroids could also unlock clues to the chemical diversity of the solar system.
Because it’s dispersed over a larger orbit, Venus’ dust ring is much larger than the newly detected ring at Mercury’s. About 16 million miles from top to bottom and 6 million miles wide, the ring is littered with dust whose largest grains are roughly the size of those in coarse sandpaper. It’s about 10 percent denser with dust than surrounding space. Still, it’s diffuse — pack all the dust in the ring together, and all you’d get is an asteroid two miles across.
Using a dozen different modeling tools to simulate how dust moves around the solar system, Pokorny modeled all the dust sources he could think of, looking for a simulated Venus ring that matched the observations. The list of all the sources he tried sounds like a roll call of all the rocky objects in the solar system: Main Belt asteroids, Oort Cloud comets, Halley-type comets, Jupiter-family comets, recent collisions in the asteroid belt.
“But none of them worked,” Kuchner said. “So, we started making up our own sources of dust.”
Perhaps, the two scientists thought, the dust came from asteroids much closer to Venus than the asteroid belt. There could be a group of asteroids co-orbiting the Sun with Venus — meaning they share Venus’ orbit, but stay far away from the planet, often on the other side of the Sun. Pokorny and Kuchner reasoned a group of asteroids in Venus’ orbit could have gone undetected until now because it’s difficult to point earthbound telescopes in that direction, so close to the Sun, without light interference from the Sun.
Asteroids represent building blocks of the solar system’s rocky planets. When they collide in the asteroid belt, they shed dust that scatters throughout the solar system, which scientists can study for clues to the early history of planets.
(NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)
Co-orbiting asteroids are an example of what’s called a resonance, an orbital pattern that locks different orbits together, depending on how their gravitational influences meet. Pokorny and Kuchner modeled many potential resonances: asteroids that circle the Sun twice for every three of Venus’ orbits, for example, or nine times for Venus’ ten, and one for one. Of all the possibilities, one group alone produced a realistic simulation of the Venus dust ring: a pack of asteroids that occupies Venus’ orbit, matching Venus’ trips around the Sun one for one.
But the scientists couldn’t just call it a day after finding a hypothetical solution that worked. “We thought we’d discovered this population of asteroids, but then had to prove it and show it works,” Pokorny said. “We got excited, but then you realize, ‘Oh, there’s so much work to do.'”
They needed to show that the very existence of the asteroids makes sense in the solar system. It would be unlikely, they realized, that asteroids in these special, circular orbits near Venus arrived there from somewhere else like the asteroid belt. Their hypothesis would make more sense if the asteroids had been there since the very beginning of the solar system.
The scientists built another model, this time starting with a throng of 10,000 asteroids neighboring Venus. They let the simulation fast forward through 4.5 billion years of solar system history, incorporating all the gravitational effects from each of the planets. When the model reached present-day, about 800 of their test asteroids survived the test of time.
Pokorny considers this an optimistic survival rate. It indicates that asteroids could have formed near Venus’ orbit in the chaos of the early solar system, and some could remain there today, feeding the dust ring nearby.
The next step is actually pinning down and observing the elusive asteroids. “If there’s something there, we should be able to find it,” Pokorny said. Their existence could be verified with space-based telescopes like Hubble, or perhaps interplanetary space-imagers similar to STEREO’s. Then, the scientists will have more questions to answer: How many of them are there, and how big are they? Are they continuously shedding dust, or was there just one break-up event?
In this illustration, an asteroid breaks apart under the powerful gravity of LSPM J0207+3331, a white dwarf star located around 145 light-years away. Scientists think crumbling asteroids supply the dust rings surrounding this old star.
(NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott Wiessinger)
Dust rings around other stars
The dust rings that Mercury and Venus shepherd are just a planet or two away, but scientists have spotted many other dust rings in distant star systems. Vast dust rings can be easier to spot than exoplanets, and could be used to infer the existence of otherwise hidden planets, and even their orbital properties.
But interpreting extrasolar dust rings isn’t straightforward. “In order to model and accurately read the dust rings around other stars, we first have to understand the physics of the dust in our own backyard,” Kuchner said. By studying neighboring dust rings at Mercury, Venus and Earth, where dust traces out the enduring effects of gravity in the solar system, scientists can develop techniques for reading between the dust rings both near and far.
This article originally appeared on NASA. Follow @NASA on Twitter.