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.”
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.
This is from a post I originally published in 2010. I’ll keep trotting it out until it’s not cool anymore. (Which I don’t think will ever happen.)
On February 14, 1990, after nearly 13 years of traveling the solar system, the Voyager 1 spacecraft passed the orbit of Pluto and turned its camera around to take a series of photos of the planets. The image above shows those photos, isolated from the original series and are left to right, top to bottom: Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
From that distance, over 4 billion miles from the Sun, the planets each appear as little more than a bright dot against the vastness of interplanetary space. And Voyager was still a long ways off from reaching the “edge” of our solar system, the bubble of energy emitted by the Sun in which all of the planets, moons, and asteroids reside. In fact, Voyager 1 still has an expected five years to go before it crosses that boundary and truly enters interstellar space.*
“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”
– Carl Sagan
Prometheus is at it again! On Feb. 5, Cassini acquired a series of images with its narrow-angle camera of Saturn’s reflective and ropy F ring, around the inside of which travels the shepherd moon Prometheus. As it orbits Saturn it regularly arcs outwards toward the inner edge of the F ring and tumbles back inwards again, a scalloping orbit by a potato-shaped moon that yanks at the fine icy particles of the ring with its gravitational tug. However faint they might be, these tidal forces are enough to pull the wispy ring particles into long strands, gaps, and clumps that follow Prometheus’ passage before eventually settling back down again.
It’s being called “the most important alarm clock in the solar system” — tomorrow, Monday January 20, at 10:00 GMT (which is 5:00 a.m. for U.S. East Coasters like me) the wake-up call will ring for ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, bringing it out of hibernation after over two and a half years in preparation of its long-awaited rendezvous with a comet later this year.
The signal will incite the warming of Rosetta’s star trackers, which allow it to determine its orientation in space. Six hours later its thrusters will fire to stop its slow rotation and ensure that its solar arrays are receiving the right amount of sunlight. Using its thawed-out star trackers Rosetta will aim its transmitter towards Earth and, from 500 million miles (807 million km) away, will send a thumbs-up message that everything is OK and it’s time to get to work.
From that distance the transmission will take 45 minutes to reach us. Rosetta’s first signal is expected between 17:30 – 18:30 GMT (12:30 – 1:30 p.m. ET).
And, if all is well, Rosetta has a very exciting year ahead! Read the rest of this article here.
UPDATE Jan. 20: Rosetta has awoken! This afternoon at 18:18 UTC, after 48 minutes of increasingly tense anticipation, a signal was received from the spacecraft by both NASA’s Deep Space Network in Goldstone, CA and the ground station in Canberra, Australia. Rosetta is up and running and so far seems to be in good condition — Go Rosetta and Philae! Read the full story from ESA here.
What a year for space exploration! With 2013 coming to a close I thought I would look back on some of the biggest news in space that I’ve featured here on Lights in the Dark. Rather than a “top ten” list, as is common with these year-end reviews, I’m going to do more of a month-by-month (hence the 12) to help recollect some of the amazing stories and sights that 2013 has brought us. And with some of the big headliners we’ve seen this year it’s easy to lose sight of the smaller (but no less fascinating) discoveries — so I’ll be sure to include some of those too. After all, when it comes to learning about the Universe there’s no “little” news!
Ready? Let’s go!
By now you probably know about the lakes of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan. Thanks to Cassini, we know that Saturn’s largest moon is the one other place in the solar system where liquid can be found in stable amounts on the surface, except that it’s not water like we have here on Earth, but rather liquid methane. (Thank you for not smoking!) Now, radar measurements by Cassini show that Titan’s lakes are nearly all found in one 600 x 1100-mile region around its north pole — a true “land o’lakes!”
The animation above, made up of colorized radar data acquired over the past 9 years that the spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn, takes us on a flyover tour of Titan’s northern lakes region. Fasten your seat belts!