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Comet, Dead Ahead! ESA’s Rosetta Is Only Days Away From Its Target

Comet 67P/C-G imaged by Rosetta's NAVCAM on July 31, 2014 (post-processed)

Comet 67P/C-G imaged by Rosetta’s NAVCAM on July 31, 2014 (post-processed)

She’s almost there! After a decade of soaring through the inner solar system ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft (and Philae lander) are now on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the ultimate goal of the mission. On August 6 the spacecraft will approach within 100 km of the comet and attempt to establish orbit — if successful, Rosetta will become the first spacecraft ever to do so!

In the meantime we are getting treated to better and better images of the comet’s 4-km-wide nucleus as Rosetta closes the gap. The picture above was taken just yesterday, July 31, with the spacecraft’s navigational camera. Details of 67P’s unexpected double-lobed contact binary shape are becoming more evident, with surface features coming into view. As we’ve discovered several times before, every comet is a unique world – and 67P is no exception! Click below for an even better view…

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Opportunity Breaks the Record for Extraterrestrial Roving

A simulated view of Opportunity on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A simulated view of Opportunity on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Well it’s official: after over a decade of roving on Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover has surpassed the off-world driving record previously and proudly held by the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover since 1973*! As of July 27, 2014, the tenacious solar-powered Opportunity racked 25.01 miles (40.25 kilometers) on its odometer as it traveled along the southern rim of Endeavour crater.

Not too shabby for a robot that was only originally intended to operate for 3 months!

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Curiosity Claims the Biggest Meteorite Ever Found on Mars

A 6.5-foot-wide (2-meter) iron meteorite found by Curiosity (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS)

A 6.5-foot-wide (2-meter) iron meteorite found by Curiosity (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS)

If you’re a heavy metal fan then you’ll love this: this shiny, lumpy rock spotted by NASA’s Curiosity rover is made mostly of iron — and came from outer space! Dubbed “Lebanon” it’s a stony iron meteorite, similar to ones found in years past by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but is considerably larger than any of the ones they came across. In fact, at 2 meters (6.5 feet) wide, Lebanon is the biggest meteorite ever discovered on Mars!

Read more in my article on Universe Today here.

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.

Cassini Marks Ten Discovery-Filled Years at Saturn

Cassini by the Numbers: an infographic of the spacecraft's achievements over the past decade (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Cassini by the Numbers: an infographic of the spacecraft’s achievements over the past decade (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Just a week after Curiosity celebrated its first Martian year in Gale Crater and we have yet another milestone anniversary in Solar System exploration: as of 10:48 p.m. EDT tonight Cassini will have been in orbit around Saturn for a full decade!

“There are times when human language is inadequate, when emotions choke the mind, when the magnitude of events cannot properly be conveyed by the same syllables we use to navigate everyday life. The evening of June 30, 2004 was such a time.” 

– Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, CICLOPS “Captain’s Log” on June 30, 2014

That’s ten years and over 2 billion miles of discoveries and explorations of our Solar System’s most majestic planet and its incredibly varied family of moons. Over the course of its primary mission and three extended missions, we have been able to get a close-up look at Saturn and its moons like never before, witnessing first-hand the changes that occur as their seasons change. What’s been discovered by the Cassini mission about Saturn has offered invaluable insight into the evolution of our entire Solar System, as well as planets that could be found elsewhere in our galaxy.

“Having a healthy, long-lived spacecraft at Saturn has afforded us a precious opportunity,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “By having a decade there with Cassini, we have been privileged to witness never-before-seen events that are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life.”

Launched on October 15, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft established orbit around Saturn on June 30, 2004 (July 1, UTC).

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