Mercury Is Spotted For The First Time – From Mars!

The planet Mercury (circled) was seen for the first time from Mars by Curiosity on June 3, 2014

The planet Mercury (circled) was seen for the first time from Mars by Curiosity on June 3, 2014

NASA’s Curiosity rover may be busy exploring the rugged and rocky interior of Gale Crater but it does get a chance to skygaze on occasion. And while looking at the Sun on June 3, 2014 (mission Sol 649) the rover’s Mastcam spotted another member of our Solar System: tiny Mercury, flitting across the Sun’s face.

Silhouetted against the bright disk of the Sun, Mercury barely appears as a hazy blur in the filtered Mastcam image above. But it was moving relatively quickly during the transit and passed the darker smudges of two Earth-sized sunspots over the course of several hours. It was the first time Mercury has ever been imaged from Mars, and also the first time we’ve observed a planet transiting our Sun from another world besides our own.

Read the rest of my article (and watch a cool animation of the transit) on Universe Today here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M

Telescope Tag-Team Reveals an Asteroid Beast’s Beauty

Radar image of the 1300-foot-long asteroid 2104 HQ124.

Radar image of the 1,300-foot-long asteroid 2104 HQ124.

Telescope twin powers: ACTIVATE! Form of… an asteroid?

Okay, so the telescopes involved aren’t twins — one is a giant 70-meter dish in California’s Mojave Desert and the other is a 305-meter behemoth high in the Puerto Rican rain forest — they did combine their powers to image the passing asteroid 2014 HQ124 on June 8 as it came to within about 3 lunar distances, obtaining some of the highest-resolution data of a near-Earth asteroid ever.

Before the pass this object was being called “the beast,” but once astronomers bounced some radar off it its true beauty shined through. Read more in my Discovery News article here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arecibo Observatory/USRA/NSF

What Made This Curious Cross Pattern on the Moon?

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) image of a crossed pattern on the Moon

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) image of a cross shape on the Moon

It’s not a trick of the light or camera sensor artifacts, there are actually geometric lines etched into the lunar surface in the image above, captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. But these aren’t the work of ancient aliens (or Richard Hoagland’s favorite Photoshop filters) —  they’re tracks left by the Soviet rover Lunokhod 2 during its exploration of the Moon in the first few months of 1973, immediately following the end of the Apollo missions.

Read the rest of this entry

What’s Ahead for Cassini?


If you’ve been a faithful reader of Lights in the Dark over the past five years you know that I just love Cassini (and you probably do too!) In orbit around Saturn since 2004, Cassini has taken us on an intimate tour of the Saturnian system for a decade now, revealing the incredible beauty of the ringed planet and its family of moons like no spacecraft ever has before. Thanks to Cassini and the Huygens probe, we have seen the surface of Titan for the first time, witnessed the jets of Enceladus, discovered many previously-unknown moons (and moonlets) and basically learned more about Saturn over the past ten years than since Galileo first pointed his telescope at it.

Cassini's final maneuver will be to dive through a gap in Saturn's rings in 2017 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Cassini’s will dive through a gap in Saturn’s rings in 2017 and sample the planet’s upper atmosphere (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Although nearing the end of its life span, Cassini still has a few good years left and scientists are taking full advantage of its remaining time around Saturn to learn as much as they can before the spacecraft makes its final dive into the planet’s atmosphere in 2017.* The video above shows what awaits Cassini in the years ahead — some of its best discoveries may be yet to come. Check it out!

Learn more about the Cassini mission and read about its latest discoveries here and here.

*The exact plan for the end of Cassini’s mission has not yet been finalized.

Oxygen Isotopes Support Our Moon’s Violent Origin

The "Giant Impact" hypothesis has the Moon formed from an impact between early Earth and a Mars-sized body (NASA)

The “Giant Impact” hypothesis has the Moon formed from an impact between early Earth and a Mars-sized body (NASA)

While it may not be a true “smoking gun” (there have been four and a half billion years of cooling off, after all!) scientists in Germany have found further support for the currently accepted scenario of the origin of our Moon, based on chemical analysis of rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts. (And yes, we really went to the Moon.)

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Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Isn’t So Great Anymore

A reduction in the width of the GRS observed since 1995 (NASA/ESA/Hubble)

A reduction in the width of the GRS observed since 1995 (NASA/ESA/A. Simon – GSFC)

It used to be said with confidence by even grade-school kids that the largest storm in the Solar System was Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, which has been churning for at least 350 years and could fit three Earths across it. And while it’s true that the GRS is a truly enormous hurricane by Earthly standards, these days it’s not as “great” as it used to be — over the past couple of decades the GRS has shrunk to only about a third of its former size.

“Recent Hubble Space Telescope observations confirm that the Great Red Spot (GRS) is now approximately 10,250 miles across, the smallest diameter we’ve ever measured,” said Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

That equals about 16,500 kilometers, or about one and one-third Earths across. Which is still very big, yes, but nothing compared to what it once was!

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No, The Moon Landings Weren’t Faked. (And Here’s How You Can Tell.)

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon with a lunar seismic experiment, July 20, 1969 (NASA photo)

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon with a lunar seismic experiment, July 20, 1969 (NASA photo)

When you write about space as often as I do (and use a laptop with a big NASA sticker on the cover no less) you’re occasionally going to get the question posed to you: did we really land on the Moon? (That, and “do you believe in UFOs?”) And with this year marking the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing — which, by the way, most definitely happened — and this particular weekend being 45 years since the Apollo 10 “dress rehearsal” lunar orbiting mission, I thought I’d assemble a list of a few oft-purported  “proofs” of a Moon landing hoax… and then let you know why they’re completely wrong.

You’ve probably heard a few of these before…

Read the rest of this entry

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