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Opportunity Breaks the Record for Extraterrestrial Roving

A simulated view of Opportunity on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A simulated view of Opportunity on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Well it’s official: after over a decade of roving on Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover has surpassed the off-world driving record previously and proudly held by the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover since 1973*! As of July 27, 2014, the tenacious solar-powered Opportunity racked 25.01 miles (40.25 kilometers) on its odometer as it traveled along the southern rim of Endeavour crater.

Not too shabby for a robot that was only originally intended to operate for 3 months!

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Curiosity Claims the Biggest Meteorite Ever Found on Mars

A 6.5-foot-wide (2-meter) iron meteorite found by Curiosity (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS)

A 6.5-foot-wide (2-meter) iron meteorite found by Curiosity (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS)

If you’re a heavy metal fan then you’ll love this: this shiny, lumpy rock spotted by NASA’s Curiosity rover is made mostly of iron — and came from outer space! Dubbed “Lebanon” it’s a stony iron meteorite, similar to ones found in years past by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but is considerably larger than any of the ones they came across. In fact, at 2 meters (6.5 feet) wide, Lebanon is the biggest meteorite ever discovered on Mars!

Read more in my article on Universe Today here.

Europa Is Covered In Bacon. That Is Why We Must Go.

A newly-released image of Europa's surface captured by Galileo (NASA/JPL)

A newly-released image of Europa’s surface captured by Galileo (NASA/JPL)

Whether you’re a trend-loving hipster, a breakfast lover, or just fan of meat products in general, you’d have to agree that it does look like a giant piece of bacon* running across the image above. And while the color and shape seems about right, the size and temperature is a bit off — that’d be a piece of fried pork 25 miles wide and -300ºF!

All kidding aside, this is actually a newly-released picture of the frozen surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, made from images acquired by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1997 and 1998. The dark coloration of the river-like bands is thought to be the result of organic compounds staining the water ice that has welled up from the moon’s deep subsurface ocean… all the more reason that yes, we really should attempt a landing there in the very near future!

Read more about this in my article on Universe Today here.

*No pigs were harmed in the production of this image.

Cassini Marks Ten Discovery-Filled Years at Saturn

Cassini by the Numbers: an infographic of the spacecraft's achievements over the past decade (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Cassini by the Numbers: an infographic of the spacecraft’s achievements over the past decade (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Just a week after Curiosity celebrated its first Martian year in Gale Crater and we have yet another milestone anniversary in Solar System exploration: as of 10:48 p.m. EDT tonight Cassini will have been in orbit around Saturn for a full decade!

“There are times when human language is inadequate, when emotions choke the mind, when the magnitude of events cannot properly be conveyed by the same syllables we use to navigate everyday life. The evening of June 30, 2004 was such a time.” 

– Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, CICLOPS “Captain’s Log” on June 30, 2014

That’s ten years and over 2 billion miles of discoveries and explorations of our Solar System’s most majestic planet and its incredibly varied family of moons. Over the course of its primary mission and three extended missions, we have been able to get a close-up look at Saturn and its moons like never before, witnessing first-hand the changes that occur as their seasons change. What’s been discovered by the Cassini mission about Saturn has offered invaluable insight into the evolution of our entire Solar System, as well as planets that could be found elsewhere in our galaxy.

“Having a healthy, long-lived spacecraft at Saturn has afforded us a precious opportunity,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “By having a decade there with Cassini, we have been privileged to witness never-before-seen events that are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life.”

Launched on October 15, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft established orbit around Saturn on June 30, 2004 (July 1, UTC).

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Mercury Is Spotted For The First Time – From Mars!

The planet Mercury (circled) was seen for the first time from Mars by Curiosity on June 3, 2014

The planet Mercury (circled) was seen for the first time from Mars by Curiosity on June 3, 2014

NASA’s Curiosity rover may be busy exploring the rugged and rocky interior of Gale Crater but it does get a chance to skygaze on occasion. And while looking at the Sun on June 3, 2014 (mission Sol 649) the rover’s Mastcam spotted another member of our Solar System: tiny Mercury, flitting across the Sun’s face.

Silhouetted against the bright disk of the Sun, Mercury barely appears as a hazy blur in the filtered Mastcam image above. But it was moving relatively quickly during the transit and passed the darker smudges of two Earth-sized sunspots over the course of several hours. It was the first time Mercury has ever been imaged from Mars, and also the first time we’ve observed a planet transiting our Sun from another world besides our own.

Read the rest of my article (and watch a cool animation of the transit) on Universe Today here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M

Telescope Tag-Team Reveals an Asteroid Beast’s Beauty

Radar image of the 1300-foot-long asteroid 2104 HQ124.

Radar image of the 1,300-foot-long asteroid 2104 HQ124.

Telescope twin powers: ACTIVATE! Form of… an asteroid?

Okay, so the telescopes involved aren’t twins — one is a giant 70-meter dish in California’s Mojave Desert and the other is a 305-meter behemoth high in the Puerto Rican rain forest — they did combine their powers to image the passing asteroid 2014 HQ124 on June 8 as it came to within about 3 lunar distances, obtaining some of the highest-resolution data of a near-Earth asteroid ever.

Before the pass this object was being called “the beast,” but once astronomers bounced some radar off it its true beauty shined through. Read more in my Discovery News article here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arecibo Observatory/USRA/NSF

What’s Ahead for Cassini?


If you’ve been a faithful reader of Lights in the Dark over the past five years you know that I just love Cassini (and you probably do too!) In orbit around Saturn since 2004, Cassini has taken us on an intimate tour of the Saturnian system for a decade now, revealing the incredible beauty of the ringed planet and its family of moons like no spacecraft ever has before. Thanks to Cassini and the Huygens probe, we have seen the surface of Titan for the first time, witnessed the jets of Enceladus, discovered many previously-unknown moons (and moonlets) and basically learned more about Saturn over the past ten years than since Galileo first pointed his telescope at it.

Cassini's final maneuver will be to dive through a gap in Saturn's rings in 2017 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Cassini’s will dive through a gap in Saturn’s rings in 2017 and sample the planet’s upper atmosphere (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Although nearing the end of its life span, Cassini still has a few good years left and scientists are taking full advantage of its remaining time around Saturn to learn as much as they can before the spacecraft makes its final dive into the planet’s atmosphere in 2017.* The video above shows what awaits Cassini in the years ahead — some of its best discoveries may be yet to come. Check it out!

Learn more about the Cassini mission and read about its latest discoveries here and here.

*The exact plan for the end of Cassini’s mission has not yet been finalized.

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