NASA, SpaceX, Mars One… all (and others) are actively working on plans to send humans to the surface of Mars at some time within the next few decades. And while the first human exploration of the Red Planet will be a truly momentous and historic event in whatever fashion it ends up being – it will involve the first steps people make on another planet, after all – getting humans safely to the surface of Mars and back will certainly not be a simple task… we still have yet to venture farther than our own Moon, after all.
To help develop the technologies needed and work out the logistics of traveling to Mars, NASA is proposing an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that would be sort of a “midpoint” in human spaceflight beyond Earth. The exact details of ARM won’t be nailed down until next year, but in essence it will involve getting a small asteroid or a piece thereof into orbit around the Moon, where it can be examined and sampled by astronauts. But while ARM will certainly assist in practicing for advanced deep space missions, some NASA engineers are suggesting that we could do better, actually putting humans if not on at least above another planet with airships soaring the skies of Venus.
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
Many of the images we’ve been seeing of the craggy surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as incredible as they are, are still monochrome. Now Rosetta’s OSIRIS team has released a true-color image of the comet taken with it high-res science imaging instrument… but even then it’s still pretty much grey.
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.