Blog Archives

Is Mars Alive? Curiosity Uncovers Organics and Methane in Gale Crater

Mosaic of Curiosity made with its turret-mounted MAHLI imager. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/J. Major)

Mosaic of Curiosity made from images acquired with its turret-mounted MAHLI camera. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/J. Major)

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

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It’s Time to Say Bon Voyage to Venus Express

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

Venus Express will soon plunge into the planet’s thick atmosphere (ESA)

Launched in 2005, the European Space Agency’s Venus Express successfully entered orbit around our cloud-shrouded neighboring world. Now, after more than eight and a half years of scientific observations Venus Express has run out of fuel and will soon go gentle into that good night – that is if by “going gentle” you mean death-diving into the corrosive, sulfuric acid-laden atmosphere of an intensely overheated planet.

“While we are sad that this mission is ended, we are nevertheless happy to reflect on the great success of Venus Express as part of ESA’s planetary science program and are confident that its data will remain important legacy for quite some time to come.”
— Martin Kessler, Head of ESA Science Operations

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

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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Dear Jupiter: Use More Sunscreen

Image of Jupiter's Great Red Spot from Voyager 1, 1979 data. Edited by Björn Jónsson.

Image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot from Voyager 1, 1979 data. Edited by Björn Jónsson.

It’s the signature accessory of the largest planet in our solar system: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, an enormous anticyclone over twice the width of our entire planet. Visible in even modest backyard telescopes, the GRS has been churning away for at least several hundred years. But, based on recent analysis of data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft during its pass by Jupiter in December 2000, the Great Red Spot’s rusty coloration may actually only be skin-deep – a “sunburn” created by interaction between Jupiter’s upper atmosphere and solar radiation.

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Seven Days Out: ESA’s Historic Landing on a Comet is Just a Week Away

In less than a week, on November 12, 2014, the Philae lander will separate from ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft and descend several kilometers down to the dark, dusty and frozen surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Its three spindly legs and rocket-powered harpoon are all that will keep the 100-kilogram spacecraft from crashing or bouncing hopelessly back out into space. It will be the culmination of a decade-long voyage across the inner Solar System, a testament to human ingenuity and inventiveness and a shining example of the incredible things we can achieve through collaboration.

Philae is getting ready for his biggest challenge yet!

Philae is getting ready for his biggest challenge yet!

But first, Philae has to get there… to touch down safely in the chosen site (named Agilkia, after a small island in the Nile) and successfully become, as designed, the first human-made object to soft-land on a comet. How will the little spacecraft pull off such a daring maneuver around a tumbling chunk of icy rubble traveling over 18 kilometers a second? The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has released a video about the event, with a finale worthy of the best sci-fi film. Watch it above, and follow along with the landing on Twitter with the hashtag #CometLanding.

Want a more playful version of Rosetta and Philae’s upcoming adventure? Check out the latest animated video from ESA below:

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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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This Is The First Photo Ever Taken of Earth From Space

The first photo of Earth from space was taken on Oct. 24, 1946 (Credit: White Sands Missile Range/Applied Physics Laboratory. HT to Smithsonian Air & Space.)

This is the first photo of Earth taken from space. (Credit: White Sands Missile Range/Applied Physics Laboratory. HT to Smithsonian Air & Space.)

These days we get to see photos of our planet taken from space literally every day. Astronauts and cosmonauts living and working aboard the ISS, weather and Earth-observing satellites in various orbits, even distant spacecraft exploring other planets in our Solar System… all have captured images of Earth from near and far. But there was a time not that long ago when there were no pictures of Earth from space, when a view of the planet against the blackness of the cosmos was limited to the imagination of dreamers and artists and there was nothing but the Moon orbiting our world.

On October 24, 1946, — before Apollo, before Mercury, even before Sputnik — that was no longer the case.

The image above shows the first photo captured of Earth from space, taken by a camera mounted to a V-2 rocket that was launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Taken to the United States by the dozen from Germany after the end of World War II, V-2 (for “Vergeltungswaffe 2″) missiles were used by the US Army to improve on their own rocket designs and also by scientists who were permitted to fill their payloads with experiments.

Read the rest of this article and see some cool video footage of the V-2 launch here.

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