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Rosetta’s Comet Looks Like a Giant Peep

Video of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko made from images acquired by the approaching Rosetta on July 14, 2014.

Video of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s nucleus made from images acquired by the approaching Rosetta on July 14, 2014.

Surprise!* Rosetta’s target comet 67P/C-G is apparently a contact binary, with a nucleus made of two objects joined at a point and held together by gravity based on the latest images in from the spacecraft. Tumbling through space on its orbit around the Sun, it bears an uncanny resemblance to… a giant marshmallow Peep. (The chick kind, not the bunny.)

At nearly 4 km across at its longest dimension, that’s one big Peep!

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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.

Europa Is Covered In Bacon. That Is Why We Must Go.

A newly-released image of Europa's surface captured by Galileo (NASA/JPL)

A newly-released image of Europa’s surface captured by Galileo (NASA/JPL)

Whether you’re a trend-loving hipster, a breakfast lover, or just fan of meat products in general, you’d have to agree that it does look like a giant piece of bacon* running across the image above. And while the color and shape seems about right, the size and temperature is a bit off — that’d be a piece of fried pork 25 miles wide and -300ºF!

All kidding aside, this is actually a newly-released picture of the frozen surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, made from images acquired by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1997 and 1998. The dark coloration of the river-like bands is thought to be the result of organic compounds staining the water ice that has welled up from the moon’s deep subsurface ocean… all the more reason that yes, we really should attempt a landing there in the very near future!

Read more about this in my article on Universe Today here.

*No pigs were harmed in the production of this image.

What’s Ahead for Cassini?


If you’ve been a faithful reader of Lights in the Dark over the past five years you know that I just love Cassini (and you probably do too!) In orbit around Saturn since 2004, Cassini has taken us on an intimate tour of the Saturnian system for a decade now, revealing the incredible beauty of the ringed planet and its family of moons like no spacecraft ever has before. Thanks to Cassini and the Huygens probe, we have seen the surface of Titan for the first time, witnessed the jets of Enceladus, discovered many previously-unknown moons (and moonlets) and basically learned more about Saturn over the past ten years than since Galileo first pointed his telescope at it.

Cassini's final maneuver will be to dive through a gap in Saturn's rings in 2017 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Cassini’s will dive through a gap in Saturn’s rings in 2017 and sample the planet’s upper atmosphere (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Although nearing the end of its life span, Cassini still has a few good years left and scientists are taking full advantage of its remaining time around Saturn to learn as much as they can before the spacecraft makes its final dive into the planet’s atmosphere in 2017.* The video above shows what awaits Cassini in the years ahead — some of its best discoveries may be yet to come. Check it out!

Learn more about the Cassini mission and read about its latest discoveries here and here.

*The exact plan for the end of Cassini’s mission has not yet been finalized.

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

Saturn’s Still in the Business of Making Moons

A 750-mile (1,200-km) -long feature spotted on Saturn’s A ring by Cassini on April 15, 2013 could be a new moon in the making (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

This 750-mile (1,200-km) -long feature spotted on Saturn’s A ring on April 15, 2013 could be a new moon in the making (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Congratulations! It’s a baby… moon? A bright clump spotted orbiting Saturn at the outermost edge of its A ring may be a brand new moon in the process of being born, according to research recently published in the journal Icarus.

“We have not seen anything like this before,” said Carl Murray of Queen Mary University in London, lead author of the paper. “We may be looking at the act of birth, where this object is just leaving the rings and heading off to be a moon in its own right.”

Read the rest of this article here.

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