Our solar system is an active place, and that is no better illustrated than with these recent observations by the Hubble Space Telescope of asteroid P/2013 R3 breaking apart — and it’s not even disintegrating in Earth’s or any other planet’s atmosphere, but rather as it travels through space 480 million km away from the Sun!
Seen over the course of four months, the breakup of the 200,000-ton space rock is thought to not be the result of an impact event but rather the slight but unyielding force of solar illumination on an already compromised cluster of rubble, barely held together by its own gravity.
“This is a really bizarre thing to observe — we’ve never seen anything like it before,” says co-author Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany. “The break-up could have many different causes, but the Hubble observations are detailed enough that we can actually pinpoint the process responsible.”
Is Pluto a planet? A dwarf planet? A Kuiper Belt Object? All — or none — of the above?
Pluto has been a topic of scientific fascination since Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in February 1930, and then a topic of controversy after the IAU reclassified it as a dwarf planet in 2006. While conversations continue over Pluto’s planetary identity, at least one theme carried through the talks at the Pluto Science Conference in July 2013. See if you can figure out what it is in the video above! (Hint: it’s not difficult.)
NASA’s New Horizons mission will help us understand worlds at the planetary frontier by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto in July 2015. Read more about the mission here.
This is from a post I originally published in 2010. I’ll keep trotting it out until it’s not cool anymore. (Which I don’t think will ever happen.)
On February 14, 1990, after nearly 13 years of traveling the solar system, the Voyager 1 spacecraft passed the orbit of Pluto and turned its camera around to take a series of photos of the planets. The image above shows those photos, isolated from the original series and are left to right, top to bottom: Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
From that distance, over 4 billion miles from the Sun, the planets each appear as little more than a bright dot against the vastness of interplanetary space. And Voyager was still a long ways off from reaching the “edge” of our solar system, the bubble of energy emitted by the Sun in which all of the planets, moons, and asteroids reside. In fact, Voyager 1 still has an expected five years to go before it crosses that boundary and truly enters interstellar space.*
“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”
– Carl Sagan
We don’t get to hear a lot about Ganymede these days, what with everyone paying so much attention to Titan and Enceladus and Europa and several other moons out there. Which is too bad because 1. Ganymede is plenty fascinating in its own right; and 2. it’s the LARGEST MOON IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM (and we shouldn’t forget it!) That’s why I was so happy to see this news come out today: geologists have created the first map of Ganymede that focuses exclusively on its complex geology, as observed close-up by the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft during their respective flybys. The resulting global map — which reminds me of some of the ornate illustrations that Giovanni Schiaparelli made of Mars in the 1880s — is a colorful layout of the many different terrains found across icy Ganymede, providing evidence of its complex history and a guide to future exploration missions.
Image credit: USGS Astrogeology Science Ctr/Wheaton/ASU/NASA/JPL-Caltech
If you count at least slightly over two years old as “brand new” then yes, this one is certainly that!
Seen above in an image taken by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 19, 2013, a 100-foot-wide (30-meter) crater is surrounded by bright rays of ejected material and blown-clear surface. Since HiRISE calibrates color to surface textures, the less-dusty cleared surface at the crater site appears blue. (See a true-color calibrated scan here.)
By narrowing down when this particular spot was last seen to be crater-free, scientists have determined that the impact event that caused this occurred between July 2010 and May 2012.
Ejected material from this cratering event was thrown outward over 9 miles (15 km). It’s estimated that impacts producing craters at least 12.8 feet (3.9 meters) in diameter occur on Mars at a rate of over 200 per year.
What are asteroids made of? While composed of metals, rocks, ices, and also many elements that are difficult to find and retrieve here on Earth — hence the growing interest in asteroid-mining missions — these drifting denizens of the Solar System have many different possible ways of forming. Some may be dense hunks of rock and metal, created during violent collisions and breakups of once-larger bodies, while others may be little more than loose clusters of gravel held together by gravity. Knowing how to determine the makeup of an asteroid is important to astronomers, not only to know its history but also to be better able to predict its behavior as it moves through space, interacting with other bodies — other asteroids, future exploration craft, radiation from the Sun, and potentially (although we hope not!) our own planet Earth.
Now, using the European Southern Observatory’s New Technology Telescope (NTT) researchers have probed the internal structure of the 535-meter-long near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, and found out that different parts have greatly varying densities, possibly an indication of how it — and others like it — formed.
On this day in 1966, the Soviet Luna 9 spacecraft made the first successful soft landing on the Moon and, 7 hours later, transmitted its first images of the lunar surface back to Earth. The image above is the Luna 9 lander’s first view.
It was the very first time we had ever seen images taken from the surface of another world.