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The Glory of Venus

A rainbow-colored "glory" in Venus' atmosphere seen by ESA's Venus Express

A rainbow-colored “glory” in Venus’ atmosphere seen by ESA’s Venus Express

Oh, glorious Venus! How fragrant are your sulphuric skies! How your rainbow clouds do shimmer!

Actually the sulfuric acid-laden clouds of our neighboring planet would be anything but pleasant for humans, but ESA’s Venus Express orbiter did spot some iridescent hues as it flew over. The picture above, made from images acquired on July 24, 2011, show a circular “rainbow” effect known as a glory. It’s the backscattering of sunlight observed around the shadow point of an object when the Sun is directly behind it from the perspective of the observer (in this case, Venus Express itself.)

Glories are often seen here on Earth from aircraft (but sometimes even from the ground within banks of dense fog) and the mechanics of this one on Venus are pretty much the same — except that the composition of Venus’ clouds is very different, leading to a perfect opportunity for science! Read more…

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A Ceres of Surprises: the Largest Asteroid is a Water World

Artist's interpretation of Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist’s interpretation of Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By now you must know about the jets of ice particles blasting out of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and maybe have even heard about the recent discovery of water vapor issuing forth from Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa. But now we know of another spray-happy world out there: Ceres, which at 591 miles across is our solar system’s smallest dwarf planet but the largest object in the  asteroid belt. New findings from ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory reveal that this diminutive world is jetting water vapor out into space, proving both that it has an icy surface and that water does in fact exist in the main asteroid belt, which stretches out between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Read more below: Read the rest of this entry

Wake Up, Rosetta!

Frame from 'Chasing A Comet – The Rosetta Mission'. Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

Frame from ‘Chasing A Comet – The Rosetta Mission’. Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

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.

The Brightest Lights: 12 Awesome Space Stories of 2013

1400-image mosaic of Earthlings waving at Saturn on July 19, 2013 (NASA/JPL)

1400-image mosaic of Earthlings waving at Saturn on July 19, 2013 (NASA/JPL)

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!

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Jupiter’s Moon Europa Has Jets Like Enceladus!

Rendering of Europa's vapor plumes, seen by Hubble UV observations (NASA, ESA, and M. Kornmesser)

Rendering of Europa’s vapor plumes, seen by Hubble UV observations (NASA, ESA, and M. Kornmesser)

“Attempt no landings there?” Ok, FINE. We’ll just fly a spacecraft through Europa’s newly-discovered plumes and get a taste of its underground ocean that way!

Because it has them, and so we could.

This was the big news from NASA, ESA, and Hubble researchers today: Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa (yes, the one from 2010) has Enceladus-like plumes of water vapor near its south pole. What’s more, these plumes appear to vary depending on the moon’s distance from Jupiter; the giant planet’s gravity is “squeezing” Europa, causing the plumes to shut off when it’s closer and turn on when farther away. Now I’m no scientist, but I’d call that pretty solid evidence for a subsurface ocean… and darn good reason to scramble some exploration missions out to Europa tout de suite!

Read more in my article on Universe Today here.

Happy Birthday, ISS!


It’s been 15 years since the first piece of what we now know as the International Space Station left the surface of our planet. It was Russia’s Zarya module, launched aboard a Proton rocket on Nov. 20, 1998, and the U.S. followed suit two weeks later with the Unity module sent aboard the shuttle Endeavour. Since then, in what is truly an international effort, the Station was assembled piece by piece until its ultimate ‘official’ completion in 2011 (more research instruments and upgrades have been added since then, of course.)

iss027e036656Orbiting the planet 16 times every day and consistently occupied since 2000, the ISS is not only an invaluable space research lab but also a testament to what we humans can do when we cooperate successfully and focus our energies and abilities toward a common goal, overcoming the challenges of national politics, economic difficulties, and even the barriers of language and culture. It is a lofty achievement, but the work that is done there each day is for the benefit of everyone.

And don’t forget about the view! Our planet is quite beautiful from 260 miles up — and the video above, assembled from time-lapse photos taken from the ISS and edited by David Peterson, shows that wonderfully. See a collection of photos taken from the Space Station here.

“Station is truly an engineering marvel and a testament to what we can accomplish when we all work together. I think one of the most enduring legacies will be the international cooperation we have achieved in building and operating it. It has provided us the framework for how we will move forward as we explore beyond our home planet, not as explorers from any one country, but as explorers from planet Earth.”

– Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana

Read more about the 15th anniversary of ISS here, and check out a cool infographic of Station facts and figures below:

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Venus Has a Surprisingly Chilly Layer

The Blank Face of Venus (NASA/Gordan Ugarkovic)

Although similar in size to Earth, the planet-next-door Venus is typically perceived as a hellish inferno of caustic clouds, crushing pressures and kiln-like temperatures. And while those are indeed all very much the case, Venus has recently been found to have a cooler side too… although it’s 125 km (77 miles) up in its atmosphere.

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