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Venus Express Survived Its Dive!

Illustration of ESA's Venus Express aerobraking in Venus' upper atmosphere (ESA)

Illustration of ESA’s Venus Express aerobraking in Venus’ upper atmosphere (ESA)

Having made over 3,000 orbits of Venus over the past eight years, ESA’s Venus Express has (as of May 15) completed its science mission and is now in the final few months of its operational life. With a nothing-left-to-lose attitude, the spacecraft recently made a daring and risky dive down into the upper layers of the planet’s thick atmosphere, coming within 80 miles of Venus’ broiling surface on July 12 — that’s the closest any human-made spacecraft have gotten to Venus since the Soviet Vega balloon-and-lander missions of 1985!

As dangerous as it may have been for the spacecraft, Venus Express survived the encounter and grabbed some valuable data about the planet’s atmosphere along the way. It’s now working its way up to a higher altitude orbit, but there’s no escaping the fact that its fuel reserves are nearly depleted and it will soon be back on its way down into Venus’ atmosphere on a mission-ending, one-way trip.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

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

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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MESSENGER Gets Up Close and Personal With Mercury

One of MESSENGER's highest-resolution images of Mercury's surface yet

One of MESSENGER’s highest-resolution images of Mercury’s surface yet

Mercury’s ready for its close-up, Mr. MESSENGER! At an incredible 5 meters per pixel, the image above is one of the highest-resolution images of Mercury’s surface ever captured. It was acquired on March 15 with the MESSENGER spacecraft’s MDIS (Mercury Dual Imaging System) instrument and shows an 8.3-km (5.2-mile) -wide section of the planet’s north polar region, speckled with small craters and softly rolling hills.

And, with a new low-altitude mission ahead, there’ll be plenty more like this — and likely even better — in the months ahead. Read the rest of this article here.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Now You Can Watch Beautiful Live Video of Earth From Space

Image from one of the four HDEV cameras mounted on the ISS on May 7, 2014 (NASA_

Video screen capture from one of the four HDEV cameras mounted on the ISS on May 7, 2014 (NASA)

This is something really special, and everyone should know about it, and so I’m doing my part and sharing it here but please feel free to pass it along yourself as well. We now have publicly-accessible, high-definition video of our planet coming in live from the Space Station, thanks to the High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment aboard the ISS. Activated April 30 of this year, HDEV consists of four cameras contained within a single housing mounted on the External Payload Facility of the European Space Agency’s Columbus module. When the experiment is running these cameras take actual video of the planet as the ISS passes overhead in real time (not a recording or time-lapse) which is simultaneously aired live online FOR EVERYONE TO SEE.

It’s beautiful, it’s mesmerizing, it’s fascinating (when it’s on, of course) and you really just need to see it for yourself.

Check out the live video here, or you can watch the Ustream feed right here on LITD below:

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Curiosity Smiles For The Camera In Her Newest Selfie

Mosaic of MAHLI images acquired on April 27-28, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Jason Major.

Mosaic of MAHLI images acquired on April 27-28, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Jason Major.

What were you doing on Sunday night? Whatever it was (and by the way I do hope it was watching Cosmos) about the same time, 59.5 million miles away, NASA’s Curiosity rover was taking her picture on Mars inside Gale Crater! Here’s Curiosity’s latest “selfie,” a mosaic I assembled from about a dozen images acquired with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on April 27-28, 2014 (Sol 613). Along with Curiosity’s “grinning” face there on the left you can see the 3.5-mile-high Mount Sharp (aka Aeolis Mons) rising in the background.

Doesn’t she look adorable (if a bit dusty)?

Putting this together wasn’t an exact science, so there are plenty of discrepancies where the separate images line up. But that’s okay — the overall effect came out pretty nicely and I’m happy with it. It still a robot on another planet, after all! And until there’s people walking around on Mars, I can’t think of anything cooler than that.

This image was recently featured on Universe TodayNBC News, and now on The Weather Channel. And as always, you can find the newest images from the MSL mission here.

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