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:
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.
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!
*The exact plan for the end of Cassini’s mission has not yet been finalized.
This is something really special, and everyone should know about it, and so I’m doing my part and sharing it here but please feel free to pass it along yourself as well. We now have publicly-accessible, high-definition video of our planet coming in live from the Space Station, thanks to the High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment aboard the ISS. Activated April 30 of this year, HDEV consists of four cameras contained within a single housing mounted on the External Payload Facility of the European Space Agency’s Columbus module. When the experiment is running these cameras take actual video of the planet as the ISS passes overhead in real time (not a recording or time-lapse) which is simultaneously aired live online FOR EVERYONE TO SEE.
It’s beautiful, it’s mesmerizing, it’s fascinating (when it’s on, of course) and you really just need to see it for yourself.
Check out the live video here, or you can watch the Ustream feed right here on LITD below:
Is Pluto a planet? A dwarf planet? A Kuiper Belt Object? All — or none — of the above?
Pluto has been a topic of scientific fascination since Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in February 1930, and then a topic of controversy after the IAU reclassified it as a dwarf planet in 2006. While conversations continue over Pluto’s planetary identity, at least one theme carried through the talks at the Pluto Science Conference in July 2013. See if you can figure out what it is in the video above! (Hint: it’s not difficult.)
NASA’s New Horizons mission will help us understand worlds at the planetary frontier by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto in July 2015. Read more about the mission here.
I don’t typically post things here about deep-space stuff (just to stay on theme) but this was too cool not to share. It’s a visualization of the Universe made from data acquired by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and shows the locations (and actual images, in most cases) of almost 400,000 galaxies as if we were in a starship soaring among them at many, many times the speed of light. (Without all the bothersome distortion effects of light-speed travel.)
Really, you’re going to want to full-screen this one. (And HD too if you can spare the bandwidth.)
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There’s a rabbit on the Moon! A robot rabbit, that is — China’s Yutu rover (named after the mythological jade rabbit pet of the lunar goddess Chang’e) successfully deployed from the Chang’e-3 lander earlier this afternoon, completing the country’s first successful lunar landing and the first soft touchdown on the Moon by any nation since the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976. (“Soft” meaning not a crash impact, whether intentional or not.)
The image above is a screenshot from a YouTube video of the rover deployment from China Central Television — watch the full footage below:
Mars wasn’t always the cold, dry world that it is today — billions of years ago it likely looked a lot more like Earth, with seas and rivers of liquid water on its surface and a thick atmosphere with air and clouds. But something happened over the course of Mars’ history to transform it from a warm, wet world to a cold, desiccated desert planet, and while there are many viable suggestions as to what process is responsible, no verdict has yet been delivered.
This video, just released by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, shows what Mars might have looked like four billion years ago. As the camera tracks back the clouds gradually disappear, the lakes and rivers turn to rubble-strewn plains and the skies change from blue to pale orange. As we rise above the dust clouds that roll across the planet, we see the first evidence of modern times: NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft, flying high overhead to investigate the mystery of a lost Mars.
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