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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.

The Details Are In The Dunes

HiRISE image of frosty Martian dunes acquired on Jan. 24, 2014 (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

HiRISE image of frosty Martian dunes acquired on Jan. 24, 2014 (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

And what details! This image, acquired by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Jan. 24, 2014, shows rippled dunes in Mars’ southern hemisphere, coated with a fall dusting of seasonal carbon dioxide frost. With the Sun just five degrees above the horizon, the surface detail captured by HiRISE is simply exquisite.

Be sure to click the image for a high-resolution version.

The original image resolution is just over 50 cm per pixel, so details about 151 cm (5 feet) wide are resolved. See the full image area here, and view the original post on the University of Arizona’s HiRISE site here.

MRO launched on August 12, 2005, and has been in orbit around Mars since March 2006. It is currently in its second Extended Mission exploring the surface of Mars.

Mars Gets a Brand New Crater

HiRISE image of a bright rayed crater on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

HiRISE image of a bright rayed crater on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

If you count at least slightly over two years old as “brand new” then yes, this one is certainly that!

Seen above in an image taken by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 19, 2013, a 100-foot-wide (30-meter) crater is surrounded by bright rays of ejected material and blown-clear surface. Since HiRISE calibrates color to surface textures, the less-dusty cleared surface at the crater site appears blue. (See a true-color calibrated scan here.)

By narrowing down when this particular spot was last seen to be crater-free, scientists have determined that the impact event that caused this occurred between July 2010 and May 2012.

Ejected material from this cratering event was thrown outward over 9 miles (15 km). It’s estimated that impacts producing craters at least 12.8 feet (3.9 meters) in diameter occur on Mars at a rate of over 200 per year.

Source: NASA/JPL (And download this on a HiFlyer 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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What Happened to Mars?

Mars wasn’t always the cold, dry world that it is today — billions of years ago it likely looked a lot more like Earth, with seas and rivers of liquid water on its surface and a thick atmosphere with air and clouds. But something happened over the course of Mars’ history to transform it from a warm, wet world to a cold, desiccated desert planet, and while there are many viable suggestions as to what process is responsible, no verdict has yet been delivered.

This video, just released by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, shows what Mars might have looked like four billion years ago. As the camera tracks back the clouds gradually disappear, the lakes and rivers turn to rubble-strewn plains and the skies change from blue to pale orange. As we rise above the dust clouds that roll across the planet, we see the first evidence of modern times: NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft, flying high overhead to investigate the mystery of a lost Mars.
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Curiosity Gets the Big Scoop on Martian Water

Trenches dug by Curiosity in a region called "Rocknest" in October 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Trenches dug by Curiosity in a region called “Rocknest” in October 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Making a big splash (pun intended) in the space news world today is the report that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity has found traces of water in samples of Martian soil!  The samples were scooped from an area nicknamed “Rocknest” in October 2012 and analyzed with the SAM instrument suite (read more on that here.)

Now it’s not a lot of water, definitely not a cupful or even remotely resembling what we’d call damp, but it is water — about 2% of the soil particles’ mass contains water molecules, and it’s estimated that this is indicative of the surface material across the entire planet. Obviously the implications of this are huge! (Think: resources for future explorers, for one!)

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Curiosity will check out these bright outcrops on her way to Mount Sharp

Color-adjusted image of the terrain in front of Curiosity as of Sept. 7, 2013 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Color-adjusted image of the terrain in front of Curiosity as of Sept. 7, 2013 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

An outcrop visible as light-toned streaks in the lower center of this image has been chosen as a place for NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity to study for a few days in September 2013. The pause for observations at this area, called “Waypoint 1,” is the first during the rover’s trek of many months from the “Glenelg” area where it worked for the first half of 2013 to an entry point to the lower layers of Mount Sharp aka Aeolis Mons, the towering central peak of Gale Crater.

The pale outcrop is informally named “Darwin.”

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