On Wednesday, Nov. 12 2014, after over ten years and literally hundreds of millions of miles of travel, ESA’s Rosetta mission successfully put its Philae lander down on the surface of a tumbling comet 316 million miles from Earth. While Philae’s long-awaited landing was deemed a success, if just in that all primary mission science data was returned for its on-board experiments, it didn’t go without some hitches: while Philae did in fact touch down on comet 67P/C-G almost exactly where planned its dual harpoons failed to fire, causing the 220-pound robot to rebound off the comet’s surprisingly hard surface and soar to another location… twice.
Unfortunately how Philae finally came to rest was at a tilt within a shadowed location, its solar panels shielded from the Sun. So once it began its science observations and communicating its findings with Rosetta orbiting nine miles overhead, Philae’s battery quickly ran out of voltage, eventually putting the robot into a low-power hibernation mode. But during Philae’s approach and initial bounce off the comet’s surface Rosetta’s OSIRIS imaging instrument captured it on camera – sort of a cometary version of “Where’s Waldo?” Check out the images above.
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:
What brings you an entire sidereal year of awesome space news and pictures, each and every day? (Besides me, of course?) That’s right: The Year in Space calendar!
Produced by Starry Messenger Press in conjunction with The Planetary Society, the 2015 Year in Space calendar is (like its predecessors) a gorgeous 16″ x 22″ (40.5 cm x 56 cm) work of art filled with over 120 images of space exploration and hundreds upon hundreds of facts and figures about space exploration. Sure it tells you the date like all calendars do, but no other calendar I know of gives you so much great information about astronomical objects, scientists and astronauts, the worlds of our solar system, and on-this-date space exploration history. If you love space – and if you’re reading my blog then I assume you do – then this is the perfect gift for yourself and any other space fans you may know. (Even if they don’t know they’re space fans yet!)
Because Lights in the Dark loves you (and its author is mentioned on the inside front cover) you can get a discount by mentioning that you saw it here. Find out how to get yours below:
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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!
“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.
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.
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.
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:
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!)