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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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Saturn and Titan Show Off Their Crescents

Cassini image of Saturn and Titan from Aug. 11, 2013 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Cassini image of Saturn and Titan from Aug. 11, 2013 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

It may not be in color but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful: this stunning image from Cassini shows Saturn and its largest moon Titan – the second-largest moon in our solar system, after Jupiter’s Ganymede – from their night sides, both showing their crescents against the blackness of space.

Titan’s crescent nearly wraps all the way around its globe, because of the way its thick atmosphere scatters sunlight.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.1 million miles (1.7 million kilometers) from about 3 degrees above the ringplane. The image was taken in violet wavelengths with Cassini’s wide-angle camera (WAC) on Aug. 11, 2013.

Source: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Turning Up the Heat: Orion’s Upcoming Trial by Fire


On the morning of December 4 2014, at 7:05 a.m. EST, a ULA Delta IV Heavy will thunder into the sky from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Pad 37, its orange-and-white triple-barreled, Boy Scout salute-shaped rocket carrying NASA’s next-generation Orion space vehicle 3,600 miles into space where it will perform a multi-stage orbital test before splashing down in the Pacific. Called Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1 for short) it will be the first high-altitude flight of the Lockheed Martin-built Orion vehicle and the first step in NASA’s current goal of sending humans farther out into the Solar System than ever before.

The EFT-1 reentry will subject Orion to temperatures of over 4000ºF!

The EFT-1 reentry will subject Orion to temperatures of over 4000ºF!

The video above shows what will happen during the four-hour EFT-1 “Trial by Fire,” from liftoff to splashdown.

And while nobody will be on board Orion for this flight, I (and quite a few other space fans!) will be on board for a NASA Social event at the Cape and Kennedy Space Center, where we’ll learn more about Orion, NASA and its commercial crew partners, and ultimately watch the launch from the Causeway viewing site from the incredibly close distance of 2.7 miles! It’ll be loud, it’ll be bright, and it will be the beginning of a new era for NASA. I’m honored to be able to be a part of it!

Want to know more about Orion’s first flight? Check out an infographic below of what will happen on Dec. 4:

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Cassini Spots the Sun Shining on Titan’s Sea

Infrared mosaic image showing sunglint off Titan's Kraken Mare. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho)

Infrared mosaic image showing sunglint off Titan’s Kraken Mare. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho)

There’s nothing like the beautiful reflection of sunlight off the mirrored surface of a lovely lake… regardless if you’re on Earth or Saturn’s moon Titan! This picture, a mosaic of images acquired by Cassini’s Visual Infrared and Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument during a flyby on August 21, 2014, shows exactly that: sunglint reflecting off the super-smooth surface of the moon’s largest polar lakes.

(Except unlike on Earth this lake isn’t filled with liquid water but rather liquid methane and ethane!)

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Spaceflight is Still Hard: Antares Explosion Destroys Station Supplies

Explosion of the Antares rocket and Cygnus resupply vehicle on October 28, 2014. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Explosion of the Antares rocket and Cygnus resupply vehicle on October 28, 2014. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

This past Tuesday, October 28, at 6:22 p.m. EDT, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket lifted off from the shorefront pad at NASA’s Wallops Space Flight Facility in Virginia, the Cygnus vehicle inside its fairing . The third of eight planned launches in Orbital Sciences’ $1.9-billion NASA contract, the Orb-3 mission was to deliver over 5,000 lbs of cargo to the International Space Station after a beautiful nighttime launch that would be visible to viewers up and down the U.S. East Coast.

Except, as you probably know by now, that’s not at all what happened.

Just six seconds after ignition and liftoff from the pad, a series of explosions ran through the Antares rocket. Ablaze, the 133-foot-tall stack stopped in midair and then fell back onto the pad in a fiery smear, where it and its contents of fuels and cargo detonated in an enormous explosion. It was incredible, it was catastrophic, it was awful.

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Surprise: it can snow on Venus! (But it’s made of metal.)

Radar observations of Ovda Regio highlands show bright, reflective "frost" on rising slopes but dark "bare" patches at the highest elevations. (NASA image)

Radar observations of Ovda Regio highlands show bright, reflective “frost” on rising slopes but dark “bare” patches at the highest elevations. (NASA Magellan data)

Our neighboring planet Venus is pretty badass. Sulfuric acid-laden clouds, crushing atmospheric pressure, and broiling surface temperatures soaring to nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit (480 degrees Celsius) make Earth’s “sister” world quite the alien horror show. And now there may be another strange phenomenon to add to Venus’ list of extreme oddities: heavy metal ferroelectric “snow” covering its highest mountain peaks — but, curiously, only up to a certain height.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

New Global Map of Triton Shows Neptune’s Moon Like Never Before

Neptune's moon Triton as seen by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft in August 1989 (Screenshot; NASA/JPL-Caltech/LPI)

Neptune’s moon Triton as seen by NASA’s Voyager 2 in August 1989 (Screenshot; NASA/JPL-Caltech/LPI)

This Monday will mark the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2′s visit to Neptune, its historic close approach to the distant ice giant having been made back on Aug. 25, 1989. To mark the occasion, the Lunar and Planetary Institute has released a newly-restored, high-resolution map of Triton, Neptune’s largest moon and the last solid body to be visited by Voyager.

In addition to commemorating Voyager 2′s visit, the new map of Triton is also a sort of “teaser” to how we might expect to see Pluto and its moon Charon when they’re visited in July 2015 by New Horizons – which, by the way, will coincidentally be crossing the orbit of Neptune on Monday, Aug. 25.

The annotated version of the full planetary map, created by LPI’s Dr. Paul Schenk from Voyager 2 images, can be seen below:
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