While it’s not quite the “smoking gun” for evidence of life on Mars, the recent announcement of a detection of spiking methane levels by NASA’s Curiosity rover has certainly caught everyone’s attention – especially since the activity of microbes is one possible source for the presence of the compound, which has already been detected by spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
“This temporary increase in methane – sharply up and then back down – tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, a member of the Curiosity rover science team. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”
Still, biological in origin or not, these findings are yet another milestone for the MSL mission.
“We have had a major discovery. We have found organics on Mars.”
– John Grotzinger, Curiosity lead scientist
On Wednesday, Nov. 12 2014, after over ten years and literally hundreds of millions of miles of travel, ESA’s Rosetta mission successfully put its Philae lander down on the surface of a tumbling comet 316 million miles from Earth. While Philae’s long-awaited landing was deemed a success, if just in that all primary mission science data was returned for its on-board experiments, it didn’t go without some hitches: while Philae did in fact touch down on comet 67P/C-G almost exactly where planned its dual harpoons failed to fire, causing the 220-pound robot to rebound off the comet’s surprisingly hard surface and soar to another location… twice.
Unfortunately how Philae finally came to rest was at a tilt within a shadowed location, its solar panels shielded from the Sun. So once it began its science observations and communicating its findings with Rosetta orbiting nine miles overhead, Philae’s battery quickly ran out of voltage, eventually putting the robot into a low-power hibernation mode. But during Philae’s approach and initial bounce off the comet’s surface Rosetta’s OSIRIS imaging instrument captured it on camera – sort of a cometary version of “Where’s Waldo?” Check out the images above.
History has been made! At 11:03 a.m. EST / 16:03 UTC today, Nov. 12 2014, during an event telecast live online, ESA received confirmation from its Philae lander that it successfully touched down and attached to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, currently 509.5 million km (316 million miles) from Earth. It is the first time a human-made spacecraft has ever soft-landed on a comet… a truly momentous accomplishment! This is a real testament to the capability of teams of people across the world working together to achieve something amazing for the sake of science and knowledge. Go Philae! Congratulations ESA!
“How audacious! How exciting! How unbelievable to be able to land on a comet!” said Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Director on location at ESA Operations Center in Germany during the landing event.
UPDATE: The image above is a mosaic of two images taken by one of Philae’s three CIVA (Comet Infrared and Visible Analyzer) cameras from its final landing position. Philae’s “foot” can be seen in the lower foreground. That’s basically like you standing on the comet and looking down at your feet!
Unfortunately the news is not all good… read more below.
We don’t have to keep asking “Rosetta are we there yet?” anymore – we’re there! This morning, August 6 2014, Rosetta made its arrival at the ~4-km-wide comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and soon sent back some incredible pictures of its surface taken with its OSIRIS science imager. The one above was acquired at a distance of 130 km (80 miles) and shows some very rugged terrain and large boulders, and but some rather smooth, flat regions too. (The same area had been imaged a few days earlier – see at right – but the closer distance obviously allows for much more detail.) Congratulations to ESA and Rosetta for becoming the first mission to rendezvous with a comet! Now the real science can begin!
“Europe’s Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet, a major highlight in exploring our origins,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General. “Discoveries can start.”
“After ten years, five months and four days traveling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometers, we are delighted to announce finally ‘we are here.’
Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General
She’s almost there! After a decade of soaring through the inner solar system ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft (and Philae lander) are now on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the ultimate goal of the mission. On August 6 the spacecraft will approach within 100 km of the comet and attempt to establish orbit — if successful, Rosetta will become the first spacecraft ever to do so!
In the meantime we are getting treated to better and better images of the comet’s 4-km-wide nucleus as Rosetta closes the gap. The picture above was taken just yesterday, July 31, with the spacecraft’s navigational camera. Details of 67P’s unexpected double-lobed contact binary shape are becoming more evident, with surface features coming into view. As we’ve discovered several times before, every comet is a unique world – and 67P is no exception! Click below for an even better view…
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).
While it may not be a true “smoking gun” (there have been four and a half billion years of cooling off, after all!) scientists in Germany have found further support for the currently accepted scenario of the origin of our Moon, based on chemical analysis of rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts. (And yes, we really went to the Moon.)