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This is How Saturn’s Rings Would Look to a Butterfly

Ultraviolet image of Saturn's rings acquired by Cassini in 2004 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Boulder)

Ultraviolet image of Saturn’s rings acquired by Cassini in 2004 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Boulder)

You don’t typically see Saturn’s rings looking like this, but then you can’t see in ultraviolet like Cassini (or many insects) can! The image above was acquired by the UVIS (UltraViolet Imaging Spectrograph) instrument aboard the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft on June 30, 2004, just as it was entering orbit around Saturn.

The area shown here is about 10,000 km (6,200 miles) across. It’s a small section of ring segments… just a portion of Saturn’s magnificent expanse of rings. Part of the C ring, toward Saturn, is along the left, and the inner edge of the B ring begins just right of the center. The colors are related to the composition of the ring particles; blue and green colors are from bright water ice, reds are rings with darker, “dirtier” particles.

While the colors aren’t “real” per se — our eyes simply can’t see UV light — the association of colors we can see to specific UV wavelengths allows scientists to accurately observe relative differences in the ring segments.

“It is cool that we can pick our own colors in the pictures we produce,” said Dr. Larry W. Esposito, a professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado and UVIS Principal Investigator. “No person has ever seen ultraviolet light, although some butterflies can. Our pictures may thus represent a ‘butterfly’s-eye view’ of the Saturn system.”

Click the image to access a higher-resolution image on ESA’s Flickr page, and read more about the Cassini mission here.

Hubble Eyes Mars-Bound Comet

Hubble image of comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), before and after processing. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

Hubble image of comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), before and after processing. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

Comet Siding Spring won’t hit Mars on October 19 but it will come really, really close: 86,000 miles, or just a bit over 1/3 the distance between the Moon and Earth. That’s like having a bullet from a sniper positioned a mile away knock your hat off! (Given that you were the target of a military-class sniper, not sure why you would be. Is there something I don’t know about you?) And while it won’t get bright enough or close enough to Earth to become a spectacle in our night sky, exploration robots on and around Mars should be in for quite a show.

Earlier this month, as Siding Spring (aka C/2013 A1) passed within the orbit of Jupiter, the Hubble Space Telescope turned its gaze onto it and captured the image above showing the comet’s icy 12,000-mile-wide coma and, after some processing, what appear to be two strong jets spraying out of its as-yet-unseen nucleus. These observations — and more like them in the months to come — will help scientists determine Siding Spring’s motion and rotation rate and what sort of interaction Mars (and its resident robots) can expect from its ejected material this fall.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

Rings Discovered Around an Asteroid

Artist's impression of the view from the asteroid Chariklo. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Artist’s impression of the view from the asteroid Chariklo. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

We all know that Saturn is encircled by a system of rings, and perhaps you also know about the fainter rings around Uranus, Jupiter, and Neptune. But today, ESO astronomers have revealed a surprising discovery: there are also rings surrounding the asteroid 10199 Chariklo, a small, distant world orbiting the Sun far beyond Saturn.

This makes 250-km-wide Chariklo the fifth world ever found to have rings, after the four planets mentioned previously, and, based on the observations, it could also even have its own moon.

“As well as the rings, it’s likely that Chariklo has at least one small moon still waiting to be discovered,” said Felipe Braga-Ribas of the Observatório Nacional/MCTI in Rio de Janeiro who planned the observation campaign and is lead author on the new paper.

Read the rest of this entry

“It’s Like The Universe Was Talkin’ To Me” – Neil Tyson’s First Visit To The Hayden Planetarium

“It’s as though you were locked in a room your whole life and then somebody opens a window.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson

11-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson with his first telescope (NOVA)

11-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson with his first telescope (NOVA)

Do you remember your first telescope? Your first trip to a planetarium or observatory? Astrophysicist and Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey host Neil deGrasse Tyson does, and in this installment of NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers he shares his memories of seeing the Universe on the Hayden Planetarium’s big screens for the first time, and then receiving his own first telescope a couple of years later.

Obviously, they made quite the impression on young Neil.

“Saturn has rings! Oh my gosh the Moon has craters! Things you’ve heard about and read about, but to experience them yourself becomes a singular moment in your life. You are there in the Universe.”

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Have Waves Finally Been Found on Titan’s Lakes?

Sunrise above a liquid methane lake on Titan. © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

Illustration of a sunrise above a liquid methane lake on Titan. © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

We’ve known for quite some time now that lakes of liquid methane and ethane exist on the frigid surface of Saturn’s overcast moon Titan. While the sheer presence of large amounts of liquid on another world is fascinating, one thing that’s particularly intrigued scientists about these hydrocarbon lakes is their uncanny stillness — in many radar images they appear to be literally as smooth as glass, with no indication of movement or wave action of any sort. And although liquid methane isn’t water and probably behaves differently, with Titan’s substantial atmosphere it only makes sense that some sort of waves would get kicked up across lakes so vast, even from the most moderate seasonal breezes.

Now, a research team led by Jason Barnes of the University of Idaho has released findings showing what might be wave action — however small — captured by instruments aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during several Titan flybys. And with the summer season approaching, this just might mean it’s “surf’s up” on Titan!

Read the rest of this article here.

Hubble Watches As an Asteroid Crumbles

Hubble images of P/2013 R3 acquired from Oct. 2013 to Jan. 2014 Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA). Animation by J. Major.

Hubble images of P/2013 R3 acquired from Oct. 2013 to Jan. 2014 Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA). Animation by J. Major.

Our solar system is an active place, and that is no better illustrated than with these recent observations by the Hubble Space Telescope of asteroid P/2013 R3 breaking apart — and it’s not even disintegrating in Earth’s or any other planet’s atmosphere, but rather as it travels through space 480 million km away from the Sun!

Seen over the course of four months, the breakup of the 200,000-ton space rock is thought to not be the result of an impact event but rather the slight but unyielding force of solar illumination on an already compromised cluster of rubble, barely held together by its own gravity.

“This is a really bizarre thing to observe — we’ve never seen anything like it before,” says co-author Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany. “The break-up could have many different causes, but the Hubble observations are detailed enough that we can actually pinpoint the process responsible.”

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What Is Pluto? A New Video from New Horizons

Is Pluto a planet? A dwarf planet? A Kuiper Belt Object? All — or none — of the above?

Pluto has been a topic of scientific fascination since Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in February 1930, and then a topic of controversy after the IAU reclassified it as a dwarf planet in 2006. While conversations continue over Pluto’s planetary identity, at least one theme carried through the talks at the Pluto Science Conference in July 2013. See if you can figure out what it is in the video above! (Hint: it’s not difficult.)

NASA’s New Horizons mission will help us understand worlds at the planetary frontier by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto in July 2015. Read more about the mission here.

#plutolives

Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

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