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Cassini’s Farewell Look at Dione

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The mottled surface of Dione, with the rings of of Saturn in the background during the June 16th 2015 flyby. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft paid a visit to Saturn’s moon Dione this week, one final time.

Cassini passed just 474 kilometers (295 miles) above the surface of the icy moon on Monday, August 17th at 2:33 PM EDT/18:33 UT. The flyby is the fifth and final pass of Cassini near Dione (pronounced dahy-OH-nee). The closest passage was 100 kilometers (60 miles) in December 2011.  This final flyby of Dione will give researchers a chance to probe the tiny world’s internal structure, as Cassini flies through the gravitational influence of the moon. Cassini has only gathered gravity science data on a handful of Saturn’s 62 known moons. [click to continue…]

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The second full trailer for 20th Century Fox’s upcoming film The Martian dropped this morning and it looks like a whole red-planetful of awesome space adventure! Directed by Ridley Scott and based on the runaway hit novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a member of a fictional yet not-too-distant-future NASA mission to explore the surface of Mars. After a violent dust storm batters the camp the team is forced to abort the mission, abandoning the base and Watney, who was injured and assumed dead. Except, of course, he’s not, thus beginning his new mission to remain alive on Mars long enough to be rescued — a feat which will require bravery, brains, luck… and a whole you-know-what-load of science. (If you haven’t read the book yet, it’s a lot of fun. I highly suggest it.) So check out the trailer above, and feel free to repeat as necessary.

The Martian opens in U.S. theaters on Oct. 2. Visit the official movie site here.

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The Dwarf Planet (and Plutoid) Makemake

Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA

Artist’s impression of the dwarf planet and Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) Makemake, which was discovered in 2005 by Mike Brown and his Caltech team. Credit: NASA

In 2003, astronomer Mike Brown and his team from Caltech began a discovery process which would change the way we think of our Solar System. Initially, it was the discovery of a body with a comparable mass to Pluto (Eris) that challenged the definition of the word “planet”. But in the months and years that followed, more discoveries would be made that further underlined the need for a new system of classification.

This included the discovery of Haumea, Orcus and Salacia in 2004, and Makemake in 2005. Like many other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) discovered in the past decade, this planet’s status is the subject of some debate. However, the IAU was quick to designate it as the fourth dwarf planet in our Solar System, and the third “Plutoid“.

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LIFTOFF! JAXA's H-IIB rocket  departs Tanegashima Space Center in a dramatic night shot. Image credit: JAXA/NASA TV

LIFTOFF! JAXA’s H-IIB rocket departs Tanegashima Space Center in a dramatic night shot. Image credit: JAXA/NASA TV

It’s away… and the hunt is on. The Japanese Space Agency’s H-II Transfer Vehicle Kounotori automated cargo spacecraft rocketed out of the Tanegashima Space Center today, headed for the ISS.

Loaded with over 6,000 kilograms of experiments and supplies, HTV-5 is on a five day odyssey that you can follow from your backyard, starting tonight. Kounotori stands for ‘white stork,’ or the purveyor of joyful things in Japanese, and in this instance, the name is appropriate, as the HTV-5 is delivering much needed supplies to the International Space Station. [click to continue…]

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More Evidence That Comets May Have Brought Life to Earth

Halleys Comet, as seen in May 1986. Credit and copyright: Bob King.

Halleys Comet, as seen in May 1986. Credit and copyright: Bob King.

The idea of panspermia — that life on Earth originated from comets or asteroids bombarding our planet — is not new. But new research may have given the theory a boost. Scientists from Japan say their experiments show that early comet impacts could have caused amino acids to change into peptides, becoming the first building blocks of life. Not only would this help explain the genesis of life on Earth, but it could also have implications for life on other worlds.
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What is the Earth’s Average Temperature?

Earth Observation of sun-glinted ocean and clouds

Earth Observation of sun-glinted ocean and clouds. Credit: NASA

Earth is the only planet in our Solar System where life is known to exists. Note the use of the word “known”, which is indicative of the fact that our knowledge of the Solar System is still in its infancy, and the search for life continues. However, from all observable indications, Earth is the only place in our Solar System where life can – and does – exist on the surface.

This is due to a number of factors, which include Earth’s position relative to the Sun. Being in the “Goldilocks Zone” (aka. habitable zone), and the existence of an atmosphere (and magnetosphere), Earth is able to maintain a stable average temperature on its surface that allows for the existence of warm, flowing water on its surface, and conditions favorable to life.

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Late Summer Tales of Tanabata

The August Milky Way graced with the occasional Perseid. Image credit: Andre van der Hoeven

The August Milky Way, graced with the occasional Perseid. Image credit: Andre van der Hoeven

One of the surest signs that late summer is here in the northern hemisphere is the arrival of the Milky Way in the early evening sky. As darkness falls ever earlier each night, the star-dappled plane of our home galaxy sits almost due south and stretches far to the north. This is also why we refer to the triangular shaped asterism formed by the bright stars of Altair, Deneb and Vega as the Summer Triangle. Two of these stars are the focus of a fascinating mythos from the Far East, and a poetic celestial configuration that commemorates star-crossed lovers lost. [click to continue…]

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This view over the Ophir Chasma canyon on the Martian surface was taken by the Mars Colour Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).  Ophir Chasma is a canyon in the Coprates quadrangle located at 4° south latitude and 72.5° west longitude. It is  part of the Valles Marineris canyon system.  Credit: ISRO

This view over the Ophir Chasma canyon on the Martian surface was taken by the Mars Colour Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Ophir Chasma is a canyon in the Coprates quadrangle located at 4° south latitude and 72.5° west longitude. It is part of the Valles Marineris canyon system. Credit: ISRO

India’s space agency has released a spectacular new batch of images taken by everyone’s favorite MOM – the Mars Orbiter Mission – the nation’s first probe ever dispatched to the Red Planet and which achieved orbit nearly a year ago.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has published a beautiful gallery of images featuring a steep and stunning Martian canyon and the landing site of NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover, and more. [click to continue…]

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What Is A Dwarf Planet?

An artist's concept showing the size of the best known dwarf planets compared to Earth and its moon (top). Eris is left center; Ceres is the small body to its right and Pluto and its moon Charon are at the bottom. Credit: NASA

An artist’s concept showing the size of the best known dwarf planets compared to Earth and its moon (top). Eris is left center; Ceres is the small body to its right and Pluto and its moon Charon are at the bottom. Credit: NASA

The term dwarf planet has been tossed around a lot in recent years. As part of a three-way categorization of bodies orbiting the Sun, the term was adopted in 2006 due to the discovery of objects beyond the orbit of Neptune that were comparable in size to Pluto. Since then, it has come to be used to describe many objects in our Solar System, upending the old classification system that claimed there were nine planets.

The term has also led to its fair share of confusion and controversy, with many questioning its accuracy and applicability to bodies like Pluto. Nevertheless, the IAU currently recognizes five bodies within our Solar System as dwarf planets, six more could be recognized in the coming years, and as many as 200 or more could exist within the expanse of the Kuiper Belt.

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Sequence of OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images from 12 August 2015, just a few hours before the comet reached perihelion. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Sequence of OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images from 12 August 2015, just a few hours before the comet reached perihelion. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
See hi res images below

A spectacular display of celestial fireworks like none ever witnessed before, burst forth from Rosetta’s comet right on time – commemorating the Europeans spacecraft’s history making perihelion passage after a year long wait of mounting excitement and breathtaking science.

As the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Rosetta marked its closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) at exactly 02:03 GMT on Thursday, August 13, 2015, while orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, its suite of 11 state-of-the-art science instruments, cameras and spectrometers were [click to continue…]

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