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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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Surprising Structures Discovered at the Bottom of Uranus

Voyager 2 view of Uranus with  rings and moons noted (Credit: NASA/University of Arizona/Erich Karkoschka)

Enhanced Voyager 2 view of Uranus with rings and moons noted (Credit: NASA/University of Arizona/Erich Karkoschka)

Out in the depths of our solar system, about 1.8 billion miles away from the Sun somewhere between the planets Saturn and far-flung Neptune, orbits the oddball ice giant Uranus – a frigid, thinly-ringed world tipped almost completely on its side and shrouded in both mystery and pale blue-green clouds. Aside from the occasional bright storm clouds spotted along the planet’s mid-latitudes and the even rarer darker blue storms, Uranus’ atmosphere has proven to be remarkably featureless… especially around its high southern latitudes.

Now, astronomer Erich Karkoschka from the University of Arizona has used imagery from Voyager 2’s 1986 visit to Uranus to bring out some visible features in the planet’s skies by using pattern recognition software to map out even the most subtle differences, and then boosting the contrast to make them more apparent. What he’s found are atmospheric anomalies that hint at curious structures in the planet’s dense core far beneath.

Watch a very cool animation below showing the new details Karkoschka has teased out of 29-year-old Voyager 2 data:

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A Matter of Scale

Note: this post was first published on Feb. 22, 2011. I’m reposting it again today because 1. the video creator has since updated the soundtrack, and 2. it’s still awesome.


One of the things that fascinates me so much about the Universe is the incredible vastness of scale, distance and size.

On Earth we have virtually nothing to compare to the kinds of sizes seen in space. We look up at the stars and planets in the night sky but they are just bright points of light. Some brighter, some larger, some slightly different colors. But they’re still just points from where we stand. Even from space, seen by telescopes or by astronauts in orbit….still just points.

But they’re so much more than that, obviously.

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ESA Landed a Robot on a Comet Today!

Mosaic of two Philae images taken from its landing site. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

Mosaic of two Philae images taken from its landing site. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

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!

Rosetta's view of Philae as it descended to the comet. (ESA/Rosetta)

Rosetta’s view of Philae as it descended to the comet. (ESA/Rosetta)

“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.

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Saturn and Titan Show Off Their Crescents

Cassini image of Saturn and Titan from Aug. 11, 2013 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Cassini image of Saturn and Titan from Aug. 11, 2013 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

It may not be in color but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful: this stunning image from Cassini shows Saturn and its largest moon Titan – the second-largest moon in our solar system, after Jupiter’s Ganymede – from their night sides, both showing their crescents against the blackness of space.

Titan’s crescent nearly wraps all the way around its globe, because of the way its thick atmosphere scatters sunlight.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.1 million miles (1.7 million kilometers) from about 3 degrees above the ringplane. The image was taken in violet wavelengths with Cassini’s wide-angle camera (WAC) on Aug. 11, 2013.

Source: NASA/JPL

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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