ESA’s Philae lander, the first spacecraft to successfully soft-land on the surface of a comet and former piggyback partner to Rosetta, has not been in communication since July of 2015 and, with 67P now six months past perihelion and heading deeper out into the Solar System, it’s not likely it will ever be heard from again.
On this date half a century ago the Soviet Luna 9 spacecraft made humanity’s first-ever soft landing on the surface of the Moon. Launched from Baikonur on Jan. 31, 1966, Luna 9 lander touched down within Oceanus Procellarum — somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.08°N, 64.37°E* — at 18:44:52 UTC on Feb. 3. The fourth successful mission in the USSR’s long-running Luna series, Luna 9 sent us our first views of the Moon’s surface from the surface and, perhaps even more importantly, confirmed that a landing by spacecraft was indeed possible.
The entire Luna 9 lander was made up of two main parts: a 1,439-kg flight/descent stage which contained retro-rockets and orientation engines, navigation systems, and various fuel tanks, and a 99-kg (218-lb) pressurized “automatic lunar station” that contained all the science and imaging instruments along with batteries, heaters, and a radio transmitter.
When a probe on the descent stage detected contact with the lunar surface, the spherical station — encased in an inflated airbag — was jettisoned to soft-land a safe distance away — after a bit of bouncing, of course; the lander hit the Moon’s surface at about 22 km/hr (13 mph)!
Once the airbag cushions deflated Luna 9, like a shiny metal flower, opened its four “petals,” extended its radio antennas and began taking panoramic television camera images of its surroundings, at the time lit by a very low Sun on the lunar horizon. Received on Earth early on Feb. 4, 1966, they were the first pictures taken from the surface of the Moon and in fact the first images acquired from the surface of another world.
Other missions, both Soviet and American, had captured close-up images of the Moon in previous years but Luna 9 was the first to soft-land (i.e., not crash land) and operate from the surface. The spacecraft continued transmitting image data to Earth until its batteries ran out on the night of Feb. 6, 1966. A total of four panoramas were acquired by Luna 9 over the course of three days, as well as data on radiation levels on the Moon’s surface (not to mention the valuable knowledge that a spacecraft wouldn’t just completely sink into the lunar regolith!)
Four months later, on June 2, 1966, NASA’s Surveyor 1 would become the first U.S. spacecraft to soft-land on the Moon. Surveyor 1 would send back science data and 11,240 photos over the course of a month in operation but, in terms of the space “race,” Luna 9 will always be remembered as first place winner.
*Or is it 7.14°N/60.36°W? Even today it’s still not precisely known where Luna 9 landed, but researchers at Arizona State University are actively searching through Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera pictures in an attempt to spot the “lost” spacecraft and/or evidence of its historic landing. Read more about that here.
If you try to apply simple common sense to how Saturn’s rings really work you’re going to be sorely mistaken: the giant planet’s signature features run circles around average Earthly intuition. This has been the case for centuries and is still true today after recent news from Cassini that the most opaque sections of rings aren’t necessarily the densest; with Saturn looks literally are deceiving.
We’ve all seen illustrations of the Solar System. They’re in our school textbooks, on posters, on websites, on t-shirts… in some cases they’re used to represent the word “science” itself (and for good reason.) But, for the most part, they’re all wrong. At least where scale is concerned.
Sure, you can show the Sun and planets in relative size to each other accurately. But then the actual distances between them will probably be way off.* And OK, you can outline the planets’ concentric orbits around the Sun to scale pretty easily. But then there’s no convenient way to make sure that the planets themselves would actually be visible. In order to achieve both, you have to leave the realm of convenience behind entirely and make a physical model that, were you to start with an Earth the size of a marble, would stretch for several miles (and that’s not even taking Pluto into consideration.)
This is exactly what filmmaker Wylie Overstreet and four of his friends did in 2014, spending a day and a half on a dry lake bed in Nevada where they measured out and set up a scale model of the Sun and planets (not including Pluto, don’t tell Alan Stern) including their respective circular orbits. They then shot time-lapse images of their illuminated cars driving around the orbits. The resulting video is educational, mesmerizing, beautiful, and overall a wonderful demonstration of the staggering scale of space in the Solar System.
Watch the video below:
For some reason whenever I think about the sheer amount of space there actually is in space, it gets me a like choked up. These guys get an “A+” for effort, execution, and entertainment!
*There have been a few web pages that have been able to show the scale sizes and distances of the planets (and there are even some driving-distance ones too) but often they oversimplify by lining the planets up in a row — which doesn’t happen all that often and doesn’t portray the orbital circumferences either. This all just happens to be a favorite contemplating point of mine.
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.
On July 14, 2015, after nine and a half years journeying across the Solar System, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its historic close pass of Pluto and its moon Charon. Traveling a relative velocity of nearly 13.8 km/s (that’s almost 31,000 mph!) New Horizons passed through the Pluto system in a matter of hours but the views it captured from approach to departure held the world spellbound with their unexpected beauty. Those images and data – along with a bit of imagination – have been used by space imaging enthusiast Björn Jónsson to create an animation of New Horizons’ Pluto pass as if we were traveling along with the spacecraft – check it out above.
Brace yourselves: winter is coming. And by winter I mean the slow heat-death of the Universe, and by brace yourselves I mean don’t get terribly concerned because the process will take a very, very, very long time. (But still, it’s coming.)
Based on findings from the Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) project, which used seven of the world’s most powerful telescopes to observe the sky in a wide array of electromagnetic wavelengths, the energy output of the nearby Universe (currently estimated to be ~13.82 billion years old) is currently half of what it was “only” 2 billion years ago — and it’s still decreasing.
“The Universe has basically plonked itself down on the sofa, pulled up a blanket and is about to nod off for an eternal doze,” said Professor Simon Driver from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Western Australia, head of the nearly 100-member international research team.
As part of the GAMA survey 200,000 galaxies were observed in 21 different wavelengths, from ultraviolet to far-infrared, from both the ground and in space. It’s the largest multi-wavelength galaxy survey ever made.
Of course this is something scientists have known about for decades but what the survey shows is that the reduction in output is occurring across a wide range of wavelengths. The cooling is, on the whole, epidemic.
Watch a video below showing a fly-through 3D simulation of the GAMA survey:
“Just as we become less active in our old age, the same is happening with the Universe, and it’s well past its prime,” says Dr. Luke Davies, a member of the ICRAR research team, in the video.
But, unlike living carbon-based bags of mostly water like us, the Universe won’t ever actually die. And for a long time still galaxies will evolve, stars and planets will form, and life – wherever it may be found – will go on. But around it all the trend will be an inevitable dissipation of energy.
“It will just grow old forever, slowly converting less and less mass into energy as billions of years pass by,” Davies says, “until eventually it will become a cold, dark, and desolate place where all of the lights go out.”
Our own Solar System will be a quite different place by then, the Sun having cast off its outer layers – roasting Earth and the inner planets in the process – and spending its permanent retirement cooling off as a white dwarf. What will remain of Earthly organisms by then, including us? Will we have spread throughout the galaxy, bringing our planet’s evolutionary heritage with us to thrive elsewhere? Or will our cradle also be our grave? That’s entirely up to us. But one thing is certain: the Universe isn’t waiting around for us to decide what to do.
The findings were presented by Professor Driver on Aug. 10, 2015, at the IAU XXIX General Assembly in Honolulu, and have been submitted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Resembling what the skin on my arms looks like after giving my cat a bath, the surface of Saturn’s moon Tethys is seen above in an extended-color composite from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft showing strange long red streaks. They stretch for long distances across the moon’s surface following the rugged terrain, continuing unbroken over hills and down into craters… and their cause isn’t yet known.
According to a NASA news release, “The origin of the features and their reddish color is currently a mystery to Cassini scientists. Possibilities being studied include ideas that the reddish material is exposed ice with chemical impurities, or the result of outgassing from inside Tethys. The streaks could also be associated with features like fractures that are below the resolution of the available images.”
The images were taken by Cassini during a flyby of the 660-mile-wide (1,062 km) Tethys on April 11, 2015 at a resolution of about 2,300 feet (700 meters) per pixel. They were acquired in visible green, infrared, and ultraviolet light wavelengths and so the composite image reveals colors our eyes can’t directly perceive. The combination of this and the solar illumination needed to image this particular area as the spacecraft passed by are why these features haven’t been seen so well until now.
“The red arcs really popped out when we saw the new images,” said Cassini participating scientist Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. “It’s surprising how extensive these features are.”
While the nature of Tethys’ streaks isn’t understood, the observations do indicate a relatively young age compared to the surrounding surface.
“The red arcs must be geologically young because they cut across older features like impact craters, but we don’t know their age in years.” said Paul Helfenstein, a Cassini imaging scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca. “If the stain is only a thin, colored veneer on the icy soil, exposure to the space environment at Tethys’ surface might erase them on relatively short time scales.”
Could these arcs be signs of an underground ocean or reservoir of briny liquid, like Enceladus’ tiger stripes (aka sulcae) or the streaks that crisscross Europa’s ice? Or are they the results of infalling material from one of Saturn’s other moons? More observations with Cassini, now in its eleventh year in orbit at Saturn, are being planned to “study the streaks.”
“We are planning an even closer look at one of the Tethys red arcs in November to see if we can tease out the source and composition of these unusual markings,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL.
Source: NASA JPL
Ceres’ topography is revealed in full (but false) color in a new map created from elevation data gathered by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, now nearly five months in orbit around the dwarf planet orbiting the Sun within the main asteroid belt.
With craters 3.7 miles (6 km) deep and mountains rising about the same distance from its surface, Ceres bears a resemblance to some of Saturn’s frozen moons.
“The craters we find on Ceres, in terms of their depth and diameter, are very similar to what we see on Dione and Tethys, two icy satellites of Saturn that are about the same size and density as Ceres,” said Paul Schenk, Dawn science team member and a geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) in Houston, TX. “The features are pretty consistent with an ice-rich crust.”
Check out a rotation video of Ceres’ topography below:
In addition to elevation mapping Ceres has also had some of its more prominent craters named. No longer just “bright spot crater” and “Spot 1,” these ancient impact scars now have official IAU monikers… from the Roman Occator to the Hawaiian Haulani to the Hopi Kerwan, craters on Ceres are named after agriculture-related gods and goddesses of mythologies from around the world.
Dawn is currently moving closer toward Ceres into its third mapping orbit. By mid-August it will be 900 miles (1448 km) above Ceres’ surface and will proceed with acquiring data from this lower altitude, three times closer than it has been previously.
At 584 miles (940 km) in diameter Ceres is about 40 percent the size of Pluto.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is the first to successfully enter orbit around two different mission targets and the first to orbit a dwarf planet. Its first target was the asteroid Vesta, which it orbited from July 2011 to September 2012. Dawn arrived in orbit at Ceres on March 6, 2015 and there it will remain during its primary science phase and beyond; Ceres is now Dawn’s permanent home.
This picture of our home planet truly is EPIC – literally! The full-globe image was acquired with NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (aka EPIC; see what they did there) on board NOAA’s DSCOVR spacecraft, positioned nearly a million miles (1.5 million km) away at L1.
L1 is one of five Lagrange points that exist in space where the gravitational pull between Earth and the Sun are sort of canceled out, allowing spacecraft to be “parked” there. (Learn more about Lagrange points here.) Launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Feb. 11, 2015, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) arrived at L1 on June 8 and, after a series of instrument checks, captured the image of Earth’s western hemisphere above on July 6.
The EPIC instrument has the capability to capture images in ten narrowband channels from infrared to ultraviolet; the true-color picture above was made from images acquired in red, green, and blue visible-light wavelengths.
More than just a pretty picture of our blue marble, this image will be used by the EPIC team to help calibrate the instrument to remove some of the blue atmospheric haze from subsequent images. Once the camera is fully set to begin operations daily images of our planet will be made available on a dedicated web site starting in September.
Designed to provide early warnings of potentially-disruptive geomagnetic storms resulting from solar outbursts, DSCOVR also carries Earth-observing instruments that will monitor ozone and aerosols in the atmosphere and measure the amount of energy received, reflected, and emitted by Earth – the planet’s “energy budget.”
But also, from its permanent location a million miles away, DSCOVR will be able to get some truly beautiful – er, EPIC – images of our world.
DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force. Learn more about DSCOVR here.
UPDATE: President Obama liked this image so much, he decided to Tweet about it with a message of planetary conservation!
UPDATE 7/29/15: Here’s another view from DSCOVR on July 6, showing Europe, Africa, and the Middle East: