New Global Map of Triton Shows Neptune’s Moon Like Never Before

Neptune's moon Triton as seen by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft in August 1989 (Screenshot; NASA/JPL-Caltech/LPI)

Neptune’s moon Triton as seen by NASA’s Voyager 2 in August 1989 (Screenshot; NASA/JPL-Caltech/LPI)

This Monday will mark the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s visit to Neptune, its historic close approach to the distant ice giant having been made back on Aug. 25, 1989. To mark the occasion, the Lunar and Planetary Institute has released a newly-restored, high-resolution map of Triton, Neptune’s largest moon and the last solid body to be visited by Voyager.

In addition to commemorating Voyager 2’s visit, the new map of Triton is also a sort of “teaser” to how we might expect to see Pluto and its moon Charon when they’re visited in July 2015 by New Horizons – which, by the way, will coincidentally be crossing the orbit of Neptune on Monday, Aug. 25.

The annotated version of the full planetary map, created by LPI’s Dr. Paul Schenk from Voyager 2 images, can be seen below:
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Cassini Watches Clouds Form Over Titan’s Methane Sea

Animation of clouds forming over Ligeia Mare, one of Titan's many large methane lakes (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Animation of clouds forming over Ligeia Mare, one of Titan’s many large methane lakes (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

What’s the weather forecast on Titan? Well if you’re planning a vacation down by the shores of Ligeia Mare you may get some cloudy skies, if what happened at the end of July repeats itself!

The animation above was made from images acquired by Cassini during a flyby of Titan in July 2014, showing the formation and dissipation of bright methane clouds over one of the moon’s polar lakes. Spanning a period of two days, the images reveal what may be the start of summer weather in Titan’s northern hemisphere… or just a bit of isolated “lake effect” cloudiness.

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New Horizons Captures Pluto and Charon Orbiting

Animation of Pluto and Charon showing nearly a full rotation (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Animation of Pluto and Charon showing nearly a full rotation (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Whether you think Pluto is a planet, a dwarf planet, a Kuiper Belt Object – or something else entirely – you should still be fascinated by this: a video of the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon Charon showing the two distinctly separate worlds actually in motion around each other! Captured by the New Horizons spacecraft from July 19–24, the 12 images that comprise this animation were acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument from distances of 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million km) and show nearly a full orbital rotation. Amazing!

Read more and see a close-up of these two distant worlds in my article on Universe Today here.

Storms on Uranus Observed From Hawaii

Infrared image of Uranus acquired from the Keck Observatory on Aug. 6 2014 (Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley)/Keck Observatory) Colored with Voyager true-color data.

Infrared image of Uranus acquired from the Keck Observatory on Aug. 6 2014 (Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley)/Keck Observatory) Colored with Voyager 2 true-color data.

Wrapped in an atmosphere tinted pale blue by high-altitude methane, Uranus has occasionally been observed to develop large storms in its frigid windy skies. NASA’s Voyager 2 saw a few small storm clouds spotting Uranus during its flyby in Jan. 1986, and more recently some large but short-lived storms were observed by Hubble and the W.M. Keck Observatory as the planet moved toward its equinox in 2007. Now, seven years after its equinox, swirling storms are once again blooming on Uranus — and Keck astronomers have caught them on camera (while preparing for terrestrial hurricanes to make landfall!)

Read more in my article on Discovery News here.

Yes, Rosetta, We Are There! ESA’s Spacecraft Arrives at Comet 64P/C-G and Returns Amazing Images

OSIRIS image of the surface of comet 64P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from 130 km (ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

OSIRIS image of the surface of comet 64P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from 130 km (ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

A comparison of images from OSIRIS on Aug. 3 and Aug. 6

A comparison of images from OSIRIS on Aug. 3 and Aug. 6

We don’t have to keep asking “Rosetta are we there yet?” anymore – we’re there! This morning, August 6 2014, Rosetta made its arrival at the ~4-km-wide comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and soon sent back some incredible pictures of its surface taken with its OSIRIS science imager. The one above was acquired at a distance of 130 km (80 miles) and shows some very rugged terrain and large boulders, and but some rather smooth, flat regions too. (The same area had been imaged a few days earlier – see at right –  but the closer distance obviously allows for much more detail.) Congratulations to ESA and Rosetta for becoming the first mission to rendezvous with a comet! Now the real science can begin!

“Europe’s Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet, a major highlight in exploring our origins,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General. “Discoveries can start.”

“After ten years, five months and four days traveling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometers, we are delighted to announce finally ‘we are here.’

Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General

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Get Ready for Rosetta’s Rendezvous with a Comet!

Rosetta is just hours away from its first rendezvous with Comet 67P/C-G, 404.19 million km away. (Source: ESA's Where Is Rosetta visualization)

Rosetta is now just hours away from its first rendezvous with Comet 67P/C-G, 404.19 million km from Earth. (Source: ESA’s Where Is Rosetta visualization)

How exciting – it’s almost time! After over ten years of travel ESA’s comet chaser Rosetta is mere hours away from its first rendezvous with the 4-km-wide comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko! We’ve all been seeing better and better images of the comet since it first became visible to Rosetta a few months back, with the past couple of weeks bringing us some exceptionally intriguing views as the spacecraft closes the gap, but on Wednesday, August 6 Rosetta will have officially arrived — and I can only imagine what we’ll be seeing then!

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Boom! Io Explodes With Volcanic Eruptions Hundreds of Miles High

A volcanic outburst on Io on Aug. 29, 2013. Credit: Katherine de Kleer/UC Berkeley/Gemini Observatory

Infrared image of a volcanic outburst on Io on Aug. 29, 2013. Credit: Katherine de Kleer/UC Berkeley/Gemini Observatory

Three enormous volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s moon Io were witnessed by scientists last year using the Keck II and Gemini telescopes in Hawaii. The only other confirmed volcanically-active world in the solar system besides Earth, Io is constantly being resurfaced by eruptions and lava flows, due to internal heat and pressures caused by tidal stresses as a result of its elliptical orbit around Jupiter. These recent outbursts were exceptionally powerful, sending huge amounts of incredibly hot molten material out into space and likely coating a large area on its surface as well.

“We typically expect one huge outburst every one or two years, and they’re usually not this bright,” said Imke de Pater, professor and chair of astronomy at UC Berkeley and lead author of a paper describing the 2013 eruptions. “Here we had three extremely bright outbursts, which suggest that if we looked more frequently we might see many more of them on Io.”

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