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An Ocean Beyond Earth: Europa Awaits

It’s no secret that Earth’s ocean is filled with life, much of it still a mystery or totally unknown to science. But what about the ocean on other worlds? I’m not talking about sci-fi planets or suspected alien Earths around other stars, either, but right here in our own solar system, where an ocean even deeper than ours lies hidden beneath a global shell of ice.

Scientists believe there is an ocean hidden beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. In the video above, NASA-JPL astrobiologist Kevin Hand explains why scientists are so excited about the potential of this ice-covered world to answer one of humanity’s most profound questions: does life exist beyond Earth?

To learn more about Europa, click here, and see the latest enhanced version of a Galileo image of Europa below:

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Dear Jupiter: Use More Sunscreen

Image of Jupiter's Great Red Spot from Voyager 1, 1979 data. Edited by Björn Jónsson.

Image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot from Voyager 1, 1979 data. Edited by Björn Jónsson.

It’s the signature accessory of the largest planet in our solar system: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, an enormous anticyclone over twice the width of our entire planet. Visible in even modest backyard telescopes, the GRS has been churning away for at least several hundred years. But, based on recent analysis of data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft during its pass by Jupiter in December 2000, the Great Red Spot’s rusty coloration may actually only be skin-deep – a “sunburn” created by interaction between Jupiter’s upper atmosphere and solar radiation.

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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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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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Voyager’s Long-Distance Valentine

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.)

Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as seen by Voyager 1 in 1990 (Credit: NASA)

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

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E Pur Si Muove: Galileo’s Big Night

Jupiter and the fours "Galilean moons" Europa, Io, Callisto, and Ganymede. (Jan Sandberg/www.desert-astro.com)

Jupiter and the fours “Galilean moons” Europa, Io, Callisto, and Ganymede. (Jan Sandberg/www.desert-astro.com)

404 years ago tonight, January 7, 1610, the Pisan astronomer Galileo Galilei looked up at a bright Jupiter at opposition through his handmade telescope and saw three little “stars” next to it, which piqued his natural scientific curiosity. He soon realized that these little objects weren’t stars at all but rather moons that orbited the giant planet (and not the Earth). Further observations over the next nights showed that the planet wasn’t moving relative to the little “stars” as it should if they were indeed background stars, and in fact the smaller bodies (of which he soon saw four) were moving along with Jupiter, each in its own little orbit. This revelation helped change our entire view of the solar system, causing no end of trouble for Galileo (as the Church didn’t appreciate a restructuring of their conveniently Earth-centered Universe) but also opening the door for the discovery of many more moons around other planets.

Drawings from Galileo's notebook

Drawings from Galileo’s notebook

Jupiter is now known to have at least 50 moons, with possibly as many as 67.

As a result of his research and publications regarding the (actual) motions of bodies in the solar system, Galileo was eventually sentenced as a heretic by the Inquisition in Rome and spent the last 9 years of his life under house arrest. Still, his legacy of observation and science over dogma and established belief lives on to this day… in fact, if you go outside on a clear night now you can see a brightly shining Jupiter in the eastern sky, just as Galileo did 404 years ago. Take even a small telescope or pair of binoculars and you will easily see its four largest moons as pinpoints of light beside it. Thanks to Galileo and others like him, we now know what those are, and that there are countless other worlds and moons out there like them, just waiting for discovery.

Read more about Galileo here.

*E pur si muove – “and yet it moves” is a quote often attributed to Galileo, in that he muttered it as he “recanted” and accepted his punishment by the Roman court. But it is likely purely apocryphal, as there is no mention of it in records from the time.

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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