An Ocean Beyond Earth: Europa Awaits

It’s no secret that Earth’s ocean is filled with life, much of it still a mystery or totally unknown to science. But what about the ocean on other worlds? I’m not talking about sci-fi planets or suspected alien Earths around other stars, either, but right here in our own solar system, where an ocean even deeper than ours lies hidden beneath a global shell of ice.

Scientists believe there is an ocean hidden beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. In the video above, NASA-JPL astrobiologist Kevin Hand explains why scientists are so excited about the potential of this ice-covered world to answer one of humanity’s most profound questions: does life exist beyond Earth?

To learn more about Europa, click here, and see the latest enhanced version of a Galileo image of Europa below:

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Dear Jupiter: Use More Sunscreen

Image of Jupiter's Great Red Spot from Voyager 1, 1979 data. Edited by Björn Jónsson.

Image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot from Voyager 1, 1979 data. Edited by Björn Jónsson.

It’s the signature accessory of the largest planet in our solar system: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, an enormous anticyclone over twice the width of our entire planet. Visible in even modest backyard telescopes, the GRS has been churning away for at least several hundred years. But, based on recent analysis of data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft during its pass by Jupiter in December 2000, the Great Red Spot’s rusty coloration may actually only be skin-deep – a “sunburn” created by interaction between Jupiter’s upper atmosphere and solar radiation.

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Where’s Waldo – er, Philae? Rosetta Captures Bouncing Lander on Camera

Rosetta's OSIRIS camera spotted Philae's journey across the surface of 67P (ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera spotted Philae’s journey across the surface of 67P, from descent to first contact. (ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

On Wednesday, Nov. 12 2014, after over ten years and literally hundreds of millions of miles of travel, ESA’s Rosetta mission successfully put its Philae lander down on the surface of a tumbling comet 316 million miles from Earth. While Philae’s long-awaited landing was deemed a success, if just in that all primary mission science data was returned for its on-board experiments, it didn’t go without some hitches: while Philae did in fact touch down on comet 67P/C-G almost exactly where planned its dual harpoons failed to fire, causing the 220-pound robot to rebound off the comet’s surprisingly hard surface and soar to another location… twice.

Unfortunately how Philae finally came to rest was at a tilt within a shadowed location, its solar panels shielded from the Sun. So once it began its science observations and communicating its findings with Rosetta orbiting nine miles overhead, Philae’s battery quickly ran out of voltage, eventually putting the robot into a low-power hibernation mode. But during Philae’s approach and initial bounce off the comet’s surface Rosetta’s OSIRIS imaging instrument captured it on camera – sort of a cometary version of “Where’s Waldo?” Check out the images above.

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Surprising Structures Discovered at the Bottom of Uranus

Voyager 2 view of Uranus with  rings and moons noted (Credit: NASA/University of Arizona/Erich Karkoschka)

Enhanced Voyager 2 view of Uranus with rings and moons noted (Credit: NASA/University of Arizona/Erich Karkoschka)

Out in the depths of our solar system, about 1.8 billion miles away from the Sun somewhere between the planets Saturn and far-flung Neptune, orbits the oddball ice giant Uranus – a frigid, thinly-ringed world tipped almost completely on its side and shrouded in both mystery and pale blue-green clouds. Aside from the occasional bright storm clouds spotted along the planet’s mid-latitudes and the even rarer darker blue storms, Uranus’ atmosphere has proven to be remarkably featureless… especially around its high southern latitudes.

Now, astronomer Erich Karkoschka from the University of Arizona has used imagery from Voyager 2′s 1986 visit to Uranus to bring out some visible features in the planet’s skies by using pattern recognition software to map out even the most subtle differences, and then boosting the contrast to make them more apparent. What he’s found are atmospheric anomalies that hint at curious structures in the planet’s dense core far beneath.

Watch a very cool animation below showing the new details Karkoschka has teased out of 29-year-old Voyager 2 data:

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A Matter of Scale

Note: this post was first published on Feb. 22, 2011. I’m reposting it again today because 1. the video creator has since updated the soundtrack, and 2. it’s still awesome.


One of the things that fascinates me so much about the Universe is the incredible vastness of scale, distance and size.

On Earth we have virtually nothing to compare to the kinds of sizes seen in space. We look up at the stars and planets in the night sky but they are just bright points of light. Some brighter, some larger, some slightly different colors. But they’re still just points from where we stand. Even from space, seen by telescopes or by astronauts in orbit….still just points.

But they’re so much more than that, obviously.

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The 2015 Year in Space Calendars Are Here!

The 2015 Year in Space calendar -- full of awesome space info!

If The Year in Space calendar were any more packed with information it would become a black hole. And try hanging one of those on your wall.

What brings you an entire sidereal year of awesome space news and pictures, each and every day? (Besides me, of course?) That’s right: The Year in Space calendar!

Produced by Starry Messenger Press in conjunction with The Planetary Society, the 2015 Year in Space calendar is (like its predecessors) a gorgeous 16″ x 22″ (40.5 cm x 56 cm) work of art filled with over 120 images of space exploration and hundreds upon hundreds of facts and figures about space exploration. Sure it tells you the date like all calendars do, but no other calendar I know of gives you so much great information about astronomical objects, scientists and astronauts, the worlds of our solar system, and on-this-date space exploration history. If you love space – and if you’re reading my blog then I assume you do – then this is the perfect gift for yourself and any other space fans you may know. (Even if they don’t know they’re space fans yet!)

Because Lights in the Dark loves you (and its author is mentioned on the inside front cover) you can get a discount by mentioning that you saw it here. Find out how to get yours below:
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ESA Landed a Robot on a Comet Today!

Mosaic of two Philae images taken from its landing site. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

Mosaic of two Philae images taken from its landing site. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

History has been made! At 11:03 a.m. EST / 16:03 UTC today, Nov. 12 2014, during an event telecast live online, ESA received confirmation from its Philae lander that it successfully touched down and attached to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, currently 509.5 million km (316 million miles) from Earth. It is the first time a human-made spacecraft has ever soft-landed on a comet… a truly momentous accomplishment! This is a real testament to the capability of teams of people across the world working together to achieve something amazing for the sake of science and knowledge. Go Philae! Congratulations ESA!

Rosetta's view of Philae as it descended to the comet. (ESA/Rosetta)

Rosetta’s view of Philae as it descended to the comet. (ESA/Rosetta)

“How audacious! How exciting! How unbelievable to be able to land on a comet!” said Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Director on location at ESA Operations Center in Germany during the landing event.

UPDATE: The image above is a mosaic of two images taken by one of Philae’s three CIVA (Comet Infrared and Visible Analyzer) cameras from its final landing position. Philae’s “foot” can be seen in the lower foreground. That’s basically like you standing on the comet and looking down at your feet!

Unfortunately the news is not all good… read more below.

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