Stare Down from Space into the Churning Maw of Hurricane Florence

Even if you know nothing about hurricanes, an unavoidable sense of doom and destruction overtakes you when you look at this image of Hurricane Florence as it moves inexorably toward North and South Carolina.

Even if you didn’t know that the powerful storm is forecast to gain strength as it hits the coast on Friday, or that it will dump several months of rain onto the region in a mere few days, or that the storm surge could reach as high as 9 to 13 ft. If you didn’t know all those things, the picture of Florence taken from space would still fill you with foreboding.

Continue reading “Stare Down from Space into the Churning Maw of Hurricane Florence”

Rogue NASA, EPA, NPS Twitter Accounts Launched to Protest Trump Directives

Twitter page of Rogue NASA. Credit: Twitter

Three federal agencies — the National Park Service, the EPA and now NASA — have allegedly launched unofficial “protest” accounts on Twitter in defiance of the Trump team’s directives to not blog, tweet or talk to the news media about climate changes issues. While it’s not unusual for a new administration to want to control the message, many bristle at what they see as an administration that wants to redefine and control scientific fact.

That brings us to these accounts. Are they really created by NASA and other government employees or are they the work of ticked off science advocates not connected to the agencies? In at least one case earlier this week in Badlands National Park, a former employee posted this unauthorized tweet:

“Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years.” The tweet was later removed.

The @RogueNASA Twitter account uses NASA’s logo — a no-no unless you have specific permission. The site describes itself as “the unofficial “Resistance” team of NASA. Not an official NASA account. Follow for science and climate news and facts. REAL NEWS, REAL FACTS.”

NASA’s very strict about how it’s logo is used. Under Media Usage Guidelines, here’s what the agency has to say:

“The NASA insignia logo (the blue “meatball” insignia), the retired NASA logotype (the red “worm” logo) and the NASA seal may not be used for any purpose without explicit permission. These images may not be used by persons who are not NASA employees or on products, publications or web pages that are not NASA-sponsored. These images may not be used to imply endorsement or support of any external organization, program, effort, or persons.”

AltEPA Twitter page. Credit: Twitter

Moreover, NASA reported that it had not given permission for another group or person to use its logo on the new account. While the sites may be legit and you and I sympathetic to the cause, exercise skepticism when poking around these accounts. Be cautious of opening up or downloading files the same way you’re careful with e-mail attachments. Take a look, participate, but be wary.

For your perusal, the current “alt science” sites I’m aware of are listed below. My hunch after looking at them is that it’s possible they may have been created by the same group of people. Whatever their origin, they’re quickly becoming very popular. As of Wednesday evening (Jan. 25), Rogue NASA has 209,000 followers; AltEPA 41,600 and 883,000 at AltUSNatParkService.

* AltUSNatParkService
* AltEPA
* Rogue NASA
* AltNASA

For more on the new administration and NASA, check out Nancy Atkinson’s story “Could NASA Be Muzzled Under Trump Administration?”

Schiaparelli is Gone. Smashed on the surface of Mars

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter view of Schiaparelli landing site before and after the lander arrived. The images have a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface when compared to an image from the same camera taken in May this year. The black dot appears to be the lander impact site and the smaller white dot below the paw-shaped cluster of craters, the parachute. Credit: NASA
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter view of Schiaparelli landing site before and after the lander arrived. The images have a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface when compared to an image from the same camera taken in May this year. The black dot appears to be the lander impact site and the smaller white dot below the paw-shaped cluster of craters, the parachute. Credit: NASA

Instead of a controlled descent to the surface using its thrusters, ESA’s Schiaparelli lander hit the ground hard and may very well have exploded on impact.  NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter then-and-now photos of the landing site have identified new markings on the surface of the Red Planet that are believed connected to the ill-fated lander.

Schiaparelli entered the martian atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. EDT (14:42 GMT) on October 19 and began a 6-minute descent to the surface, but contact was lost shortly before expected touchdown seconds after the parachute and back cover were discarded. One day later, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took photos of the expected touchdown site as part of a planned imaging run.

The landing site is shown within the Schiaparelli landing ellipse (top) along with before and after images below. Copyright Main image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, Arizona State University; inserts: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The landing site is shown within the Schiaparelli landing ellipse (top) along with before and after images below. Copyright Main image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, Arizona State University; inserts: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

One of the features is bright and can be associated with the 39-foot-wide (12-meter) diameter parachute used in the second stage of Schiaparelli’s descent. The parachute and the associated back shield were released from Schiaparelli prior to the final phase, during which its nine thrusters should have slowed it to a standstill just above the surface.

The other new feature is a fuzzy dark patch or crater roughly 50 x 130 feet (15 x 40 meters) across and about 0.6 miles (1 km) north of the parachute. It’s believed to be the impact crater created by the Schiaparelli module following a much longer free fall than planned after the thrusters were switched off prematurely.

Artist's concept of Schiaparelli deploying its parachute. The parachute may also have played a role in the crash. It may have deployed too soon, causing the thrusters to fire up too soon and run out of fuel. Or the thrusters may have simply cut out after firing. Credit: ESA
Artist’s concept of Schiaparelli deploying its parachute. The parachute may also have played a role in the crash. It may have deployed too soon, causing the thrusters to fire too soon. The thrusters may also have simply cut out too soon after firing. Credit: ESA

Mission control estimates that Schiaparelli dropped from between 1.2 and 2.5 miles (2 and 4 km) altitude, striking the Martian surface at more than 186 miles an hour (300 km/h). The dark spot is either disturbed surface material or it could also be due to the lander exploding on impact, since its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full. ESA cautions that these findings are still preliminary.

Something went wrong with Schiaparelli's one or more sets of thrusters during the descent. Credit: ESA
Something went wrong with Schiaparelli’s one or more sets of thrusters during the descent, causing the lander to crash on the surface at high speed. Credit: ESA

Since the module’s descent trajectory was observed from three different locations, the teams are confident that they will be able to reconstruct the chain of events with great accuracy. Exactly what happened to cause the thrusters to shut down prematurely isn’t yet known.

Europe’s Orbiter is Safely at Mars, but No Word from the Lander

Schiaparelli on Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
This artist’s view shows the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander on Mars. It’s unclear whether the landing was successful. Signals were received during its descent but then suddenly cut off. Mission control is working on the data now and will have an update on the status of the probe tomorrow morning Oct. 20. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Good news and bad news.  First the good. After a seven-month and 300 million mile (483 million km) journey, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) successfully achieved orbit around Mars today. A signal spike appeared out of the noise about 12:35 p.m. EDT to great applause and high-fives at ESA’s European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.

Hugs in the control room when the signal from the Trace Gas Orbiter was received this morning, signaling that the spacecraft had achieved orbit around Mars. Credit: ESA Livestream
Joy in the control room when the signal from the Trace Gas Orbiter was received this morning, signaling that the spacecraft had achieved orbit around Mars. Credit: ESA Livestream

Two hours later, news of the lander arrived. Not so good but to be fair, it’s still too early to tell. Schiaparelli broadcast a signal during its descent to the Red Planet that was received here on Earth and by the orbiting Mars Express. All well and good. But then mid-transmission, the signal cut out.

Paolo Ferri, head of ESA’s mission operations department, called the news “not good signs” but promised that his team would be analyzing the data through the night to determine the status of the lander. Their findings will be shared around mid-morning Friday Central European Time (around 5 a.m. EDT).

Three days ago, Schiaparelli separated from the orbiter and began a three-day coast to Mars. It entered the atmosphere today at an altitude of 76 miles (122 km) and speed of 13,049 mph (21,000 km/hr), protected from the hellish heat of re-entry by an aerodynamic heat shield.

Simulated sequence of the 15 images that the descent camera Schiaparelli module should have taken during its descent to Mars this morning. In the simulated images shown here, the first was made from 3 km up. The camera took images every 1.5 seconds with the final image in this at ~1.5 km. Depending on Schiaparelli’s actual descent speed, the final image may have been snapped closer to the surface. The views were generated from images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the center of Schiaparelli's landing ellipse, and represent the views expected at each altitude. Copyright spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; simulated views based on NASA MRO/CTX images (credit: NASA/JPL/MRO); landing ellipse background image: Mars Odyssey; simulation: ESA
Simulated sequence of the 15 images that the descent camera Schiaparelli module should have taken during its descent to Mars this morning. In the simulated images shown here, the first was made from 3 km up. The camera had planned to take images every 1.5 seconds with the final image in this at ~1.5 km. Depending on Schiaparelli’s actual descent speed, the final image may have been snapped closer to the surface. The views were generated from images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the center of Schiaparelli’s landing ellipse, and represent the views expected at each altitude. Copyright spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; simulated views from NASA images (credit: NASA/JPL/MRO); landing ellipse background image: Mars Odyssey; simulation: ESA

If all went well, at 6.8 miles (11 km) altitude, it would have deployed its parachute and moments later, dropped the heat shield. At 0.7 miles (1.2 km) above the surface, the lander would have jettisoned the chute and rear protective cover and fired its nine retrorockets while plummeting to the surface at 155 mph (255 mph). 29 seconds later, the thrusters would have shut off with Schiaparelli dropping the remaining 6.5 feet (2 meters) to the ground. Total elapsed time: just under 6 minutes.

For now, have hope. Given that Schiaparelli was primarily a test of landing technologies for future Mars missions, whatever happened, everything we learn from this unexpected turn of events will be invaluable. You can continue to follow updates on ESA’s Livestream.

** Update Oct. 20: It appears that the thrusters on Schiaparelli may have cut out too soon, causing the lander to drop from a higher altitude. In addition, the ejection of the parachute and back heat shield may have happened earlier than expected.

This from ESA:

“The data have been partially analyzed and confirm that the entry and descent stages occurred as expected, with events diverging from what was expected after the ejection of the back heat shield and parachute. This ejection itself appears to have occurred earlier than expected, but analysis is not yet complete.

The thrusters were confirmed to have been briefly activated although it seems likely that they switched off sooner than expected, at an altitude that is still to be determined.”

Bright Binocular Nova Discovered in Lupus

The possible nova in Lupus photographed on Sept. 25 from Australia. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe
The possible nova in Lupus photographed on Sunday, Sept. 25 from Australia. The star is now bright enough to see in binoculars for observers in the far southern U.S. and points south. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe

On September 20, a particular spot in the constellation Lupus the Wolf was blank of any stars brighter than 17.5 magnitude. Four nights later, as if by some magic trick, a star bright enough to be seen in binoculars popped into view. While we await official confirmation, the star’s spectrum, its tattle-tale rainbow of light, indicates it’s a nova, a sun in the throes of a thermonuclear explosion.

A bright possible nova was discovered only days ago near the 3rd magnitude star Epsilon Lupi. It shot from fainter than magnitude +17.5 to its current magnitude +6.8 in just four nights ... and it's still rising. The nova is bright enough to see in binoculars for observers in the far southern U.S., where it's visible low in the southwestern sky in late evening twilight. This map shows the sky facing southwest about an hour after sunset from Key West, Florida, latitude 24.5 degrees north. Source: Stellarium
The nova was discovered on Sept. 23 near the 3rd magnitude star Epsilon Lupi. It rose from fainter than magnitude +17.5 to its current magnitude +6.8 in just four nights … and it’s still rising. It’s visible low in the southwestern sky in late evening twilight low northern latitudes, the tropics and southern hemisphere. This map shows the sky facing southwest about an hour after sunset from Key West, Florida, latitude 24.5 degrees north. Source: Stellarium

The nova, dubbed ASASSN-16kt for now, was discovered during the ongoing All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae (ASAS-SN or “Assassin”), using data from the quadruple 14-cm “Cassius” telescope in CTIO, Chile. Krzysztof  Stanek and team reported the new star in Astronomical Telegram #9538. By the evening of September 23 local time, the object had risen to magnitude +9.1, and it’s currently +6.8. So let’s see — that’s about an 11-magnitude jump or a 24,000-fold increase in brightness! And it’s still on the rise.

Use this chart with binoculars to help you find the likely nova. The field of view is about 5 degrees with north up. The "new star" lies between a bright triangle of stars to the east and the naked-eye star Epsilon Lupi to the west. Stars are labeled with magnitudes. Chart: Bob King,  Source: Stellarium
Use this chart with binoculars to help you find the likely nova. The field of view is about 5 degrees with north up. The “new star” lies between a bright triangle of stars to the east and the naked-eye star Epsilon Lupi to the west. Stars are labeled with magnitudes. Chart: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

The star is located at R.A. 15h 29?, –44° 49.7? in the southern constellation Lupus the Wolf. Even at this low declination, the star would clear the southern horizon from places like Chicago and further south, but in late September Lupus is low in the southwestern sky. To see the nova you’ll need a clear horizon in that direction and observe from the far southern U.S. and points south. If you’ve planned a trip to the Caribbean or Hawaii in the coming weeks, your timing couldn’t have been better!

Novae occur in close binary systems where one star is a tiny but extremely compact white dwarf star. The dwarf pulls material into a disk around itself, some of which is funneled to the surface and ignites in a nova explosion. Credit: NASA
Novae occur in close binary systems where one star is a tiny but extremely compact white dwarf star. The dwarf draws material into a disk around itself, some of which is funneled to the surface and ignites in a nova explosion. Credit: NASA

I’ve drawn the map for Key West, one of southernmost locations on the U.S. mainland, where the nova stands about 7-8° high in late twilight, but you might also see it from southern Texas and the bottom of Arizona if you stand on your tippytoes. Other locales include northern Africa, Finding a good horizon is key. Observers across Central and South America, Africa, India, s. Asia and Australia, where the star is higher up in the western sky at nightfall, are favored.

Nova means “new”, but a nova isn’t a brand new star coming to life but rather an explosion that occurs on the surface of an otherwise faint star no one’s taken notice of – until the blast causes it to brighten 50,000 to 100,000 times.

You can use this AAVSO chart to find the nova and track its changing brightness. Star magnitudes are shown to the tenth with the decimal omitted. Credit: AAVSO
You can use this AAVSO chart to find the nova and track its changing brightness. Star magnitudes are shown to the tenth with the decimal omitted. Click to enlarge. Credit: AAVSO

A nova occurs in a close binary star system, where a small but extremely dense and massive (for its size) white dwarf siphons hydrogen gas from its closely-orbiting companion. After whirling around in a flattened accretion disk around the dwarf, the material gets funneled down to the star’s 150,000 F° surface where gravity compacts and heats the gas until it detonates in a titanic thermonuclear explosion. Suddenly, a faint star that wasn’t on anyone’s radar vaults a dozen magnitudes to become a standout “new star”.

Novae are relatively rare and almost always found in the plane of the Milky Way, where the stars are most concentrated. The more stars, the greater the chances of finding one in a nova outburst. Roughly a handful a year are discovered, many of those in Scorpius and Sagittarius, in the direction of the galactic bulge.

We’ll keep tabs on this new object and report back with more information and photos as they become available. You can follow the new celebrity as well as print out finder charts on the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) website by typing ASASSN-16kt in the info boxes.

I sure wish I wasn’t stuck in Minnesota right now or I’d be staring down the wolf’s new star!

Spectacular Breakup of WT1190F Seen by Airborne Astronomers

Clouds hampered observations from the ground in Sri Lanka during the re-entry of WT1190F overnight, but a team of astronomers captured spectacular images of the object from a high-flying plane over the Indian Ocean very close to the predicted time of arrival. 

Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center will operate eleven staring cameras with a wider field of view, including two spectographic cameras, to catch the reentry if pointing efforts fail. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA
Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center is shown here before the flight setting up the eleven staring cameras with a wider field of view, including two spectographic cameras, to catch the reentry.  Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA

The International Astronomical Center (IAC) and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency hosted a rapid response team to study the re-entry of what was almost certainly a rocket stage from an earlier Apollo moon shot or the more recent Chinese Chang’e 3 mission. In an airplane window high above the clouds, the crew, which included Peter Jenniskens, Mike Koop and Jim Albers of the SETI Institute along with German, UK and United Arab Emirates astronomers, took still images, video and gathered high-resolution spectra of the breakup.


Video and still imagery of WT1190F’s Reentry November 13, 2015

The group of seven astronomers hoped to study WT1190F’s re-entry as a  test case for future asteroid entries as well as improve our understanding of space debris behavior. Photos and video show the object breaking up into multiple pieces in a swift but brief fireball. From the spectra, the team should be able to determine the object’s nature — whether natural or manmade.

Wide view of the colorful fireball created when WT1190F burned up in Earth's atmosphere. Credit:
Wide view of the colorful fireball and breakup when WT1190F struck Earth’s atmosphere. More than 20 cameras were used to record the event. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA
Animation made on Nov. 12 when WT1190F was still in one piece in orbit about Earth. Credit: Marco Langbroek
Animation from photos made on Nov. 12 when WT1190F was still in one piece in orbit about the Earth. Credit: Marco Langbroek
Gulfstream 450 business jet, sponsored by United Arab Emirates and coordinated by Mohammad Shawkat Odeh from the International Astronomical Center, Abu Dhabi. There are only five windows available to observe the object. The observation teams comprise:
Flying observatory. This Gulfstream 450 business jet, sponsored by United Arab Emirates and coordinated by Mohammad Shawkat Odeh from the International Astronomical Center, Abu Dhabi, was used by the team to observe and record the re-entry. Only five windows were available to make observations. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA
SETI Institute staring cameras used for wide field observations of the re-entry. Credit:
SETI Institute “staring cameras” used for wide field observations of the re-entry. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA

Asteroid? Rocket Stage? Whatever it is, WT1190F Plunges to Earth Tonight

No one’s 100% certain what WT1190F is — asteroid or rocket stage — but we are certain it will light up like a Roman candle when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere around 6:20 Universal Time (12:20 a.m. CST) tomorrow morning Nov. 13. 


Animation by Jost Jahn of WT1190F’s final hours as it races across the sky coming down off the coast of Sri Lanka

As described in an earlier story at Universe Today, an object discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on Oct 3rd and temporarily designated WT1190F is expected to burn up about 60 miles (100 km) off the southern coast of Sri Lanka overnight. The same team observed it twice in 2013. Based upon the evolution of its orbit, astronomers determined that the object is only about six feet (2-meters) across with a very low density,  making it a good fit for a defunct rocket booster, possibly one used to launch either one of the Apollo spacecraft or the Chinese Chang’e 3 lander to the Moon.

Below a plot of the last three orbits of WT1190F. The small red circle is the earth. The big green circle is the orbit of the moon, just to give some scale to the chart (click on it for a bigger version).
Below a plot of the last three orbits of WT1190F. The small red circle is the Earth. For scale, the large green circle is the orbit of the Moon. Notice that its final orbit takes straight into Earth. Credit: Bill Gray / Project Pluto

Additional observations of WT1190F have been made in the past few days confirming its re-entry later tonight. Checking the latest predictions on Bill Gray of Project Pluto’s page, the object will likely be visible from Europe about an hour before “touchdown”. To say it will be moving quickly across the sky is an understatement. Try about 3 arc minutes per second or 3° a minute! Very tricky to find and track something moving that fast.

Three 90-second exposures showing WT1190F zipping across the Rosette Nebula taken on Nov. 11, 2015 at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary. Credit: Krisztián Sárneczky
Three 90-second exposures showing WT1190F zipping across the Rosette Nebula taken on Nov. 11, 2015 at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary. Credit: Krisztián Sárneczky

58 minutes later, in the minute of time from 6:18 to 6:19 UT,  WT1190F will move one full hour of right ascension and plummet 34° in declination while brightening from magnitude +8 to +4.5. If you’d like to attempt to find and follow the object, head over to JPL’s Horizons site  for the latest ephemerides and orbital elements. At the site, make sure that WT1190F is in the Target Body line. If not, click Change and search for WT1190F in the Target Body field at the bottom of the window.

WT1190F Re-Entry Trajectory – Data courtesy of Bill Gray, Project Pluto
WT1190F re-Entry Trajectory. The object is expected to break up and fall harmlessly into the ocean. Credit: Bill Gray, Project Pluto

You’ll find updates at Bill Gray’s site. According to the most recent positions, the object will pass almost exactly in front of the Sun shortly before plunging into the ocean. Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is expected to get the best views.

Because the mystery object’s arrival has been fairly well publicized, I hope to update you with a full report and photos first thing tomorrow morning. Like many of you, I wish I could see the show.

Images from Enceladus ‘Plume Dive’ Courtesy of Cassini

Oh, to hitch a ride aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft this week. The Saturn orbiting sentinel recently completed an amazing series of passes near the enigmatic ice-covered moon Enceladus, including a daredevil dive only 49 km (31 miles) above the southern pole of the moon and through an ice geyser. Images of the dramatic flyby were released by the Cassini team earlier this morning, revealing the moon in stunning detail. 

Image credit
Enceladus vs the rings of Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

“Cassini’s stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come,” says NASA mission project scientist Linda Spilker in today’s NASA/JPL press release.

Launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Florida in a dramatic night shot, Cassini arrived at the Saturnian system in 2004, and has delivered on some amazing planetary science ever since.

Discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, we got our very first views of Enceladus via the Voyager 1 spacecraft at 202,000 kilometers distant in 1980. Cassini has flown by the moon 21 times over the past decade, and ice geysers were seen sprouting from the surface of the moon by Cassini on subsequent flybys. one final flyby of Enceladus is planned for this coming December.

Image credit:
Ice geysers ahead, in this Oct 28th view from Cassini. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

Mission planners are getting more daring with the spacecraft as its mission nears completion in 2017. The idea of reaching out and ‘tasting’ an icy plume emanating from Enceladus has been an enticing one,  though a fast-moving good-sized ice pellet could spell disaster for the spacecraft.

NASA successfully established contact with the spacecraft on Wednesday night October 28th after the closest approach for the flyby at 11:22 AM EDT/ 15:22 UT (Universal Time) earlier in the day. Cassini is reported to be in good health, and we should see further images along with science data returns in the weeks to come.

Image credit:
A closeup view of the icy terrain of the southern polar region of Enceladus from this weeks’ flyby. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

A second, more distant flyby of Enceladus was completed by Cassini earlier this month as it passed 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers) from the northern pole of Enceladus on October 14th, 2015 on its E-20 flyby.

But beyond just pretty post-cards from the outer solar system, Cassini’s successive passes by the mysterious moon will characterize just what might be occurring far down below.

Why Enceladus? Well, ever since ice geysers were spotted gushing from the fractured surface of the moon, it’s been on NASA’s short list of possible abodes for life in the solar system. Other contenders include Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s giant moon, Titan. If the story of life on Earth is any indication, you need a place where an abundant level of chemical processes are occurring, and a subsurface ocean under the crust of Enceladus heated by tidal flexing may just fit the bill.

We’ll be adding further images and info to this post as more data comes in over the weekend, plus Cassini mission highlights, a look at the mission and final objectives and the last days of Cassini and more…

Stay tuned!

The end of Cassini in 2017 as it burns up in the atmosphere of Saturn will be a bittersweet affair, as our outer solar system eyes around the ringed planet fall silent. Cassini represents the most distant spacecraft inserted into orbit around a planet, and ESA’s Huygens lander on Titan marked the most remote landing on another world as well. Will we one day see a Titan Blimp or Ocean Explorer, or perhaps a dedicated life-finding mission to Enceladus?  Final mission objectives for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft include a final flyby of Saturn’s large moon Titan, which will set the course for its final death plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15th, 2017.

A high-resolution capture of Enceladus released this weekend by the Cassini team. The spacecraft was about 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometers) out when this image was taken. You can see the stark contract of the moon's fractured cantlope terrain, versus craters in the opposite hemisphere imaged criedt: NASA/JPL-CalTech/Space Science Institute
A high-resolution capture of Enceladus released this weekend by the Cassini team. The spacecraft was about 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometers) out when this image was taken. You can see the stark contract of the moon’s fractured cantaloupe terrain, versus craters in the opposite hemisphere imaged. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/Space Science Institute

Want to see Enceladus for yourself? The moon orbits Saturn once every 1.4 days, reaching a maximum elongation of 13″ from the ring tips of Saturn and a maximum brightness of magnitude +11.7. Enceladus is one of six major moons of Saturn visible in a backyard telescope, and one of 62 moons of the ring planet known overall. The other five moons within reach of an amateur telescope are: Titan, Mimas, Dione, Rhea, and Tethys, and the fainter moon Hyperion shining at magnitude +15 might just be within reach of skill observers with large light bucket instruments.

Enjoy the amazing views of Enceladus, courtesy of Cassini!

Revealed: Mars to Appear Larger Than a Full Moon!

We can finally reveal the truth.

A massive conspiracy, spanning over a decade, has been revealed at last by basement bloggers, YouTubers and Facebook users everywhere, implicating ‘big-NASA’ and the powers that be in a massive cover-up.

Yes, it’s the month of August once again, and the Red Planet Mars is set to appear ‘larger than a Full Moon’ over the skies of Earth, as it apparently does now… every year.

Um, no. Stop. Just… stop.

Sure, by now, you’ve had the hoax forwarded to you by that certain well-meaning, but astronomically uninformed family member/co-worker/anonymous person on Facebook.

What’s new under the Sun concerning the August Mars Hoax? To see where the hoax was born, we have to journey all the way back to the close opposition of Mars on August 27th, 2003. Hey, we actually took two weeks leave in the Fall of 2003 just to sketch and image Mars each night from our backyard lair in the Sonoran desert south of Tucson, Arizona from the then known Very Small Optical Observatory. Those were the days. We measured dial-up internet speeds in kbit/s, ‘burned CDs,’ and Facebook and Twitter were still some years away. Even spam e-mail was still sorta hip.

Two years later in 2005, we were all amused, as the ‘August Mars Hoax’ chain email made its first post-2003 appearance in our collective inboxes. Heck, we were even eager in those halcyon days to take to the nascent web, and do that new hipster thing known as ‘blogging’ to explain just exactly why this couldn’t be so to the masses.

Later in 2006, 2007, and 2008, it wasn’t so funny.

The Mars Hoax just wouldn’t die. “One more unto the breach,” the collective astro-blogging community sighed, as we all dusted off last year’s post explaining how the Red Planet could never approach our own fair world so closely.

It. Just. Couldn’t. Because orbital mechanics. Because physics.

Even the advent of social media couldn’t kill in annual onslaught of the Mars Hoax, and over a Spiderman movie reboot later, we’re now seeing it shared across Facebook, Twitter and more.

Sure, the Mars Hoax is as fake as Donald Trump’s hair. If there’s any true science lesson to learn here, it’s perhaps the mildly interesting social science study of just how the Mars hoax weathers the lean months of winter, to reemerge every August.

Here’s the skinny (again!) on just why Mars can’t appear as large as the Full Moon:

-The Moon is 3,474 kilometers in diameter, and orbits the Earth at an average distance of just under 400,000 kilometers.

-At this distance, the Moon can only appear about 30’ (half a degree) across.

-Think that’s a lot? Well, you could ring the 360 degree circle of the local horizon with 720 Full Moons.

-Mars, like the Earth, orbits the Sun. Even with Earth at aphelion (its most distant point) and Mars at perihelion, we’re still 206.7 – 151.9 = 54.8 million km apart. Sure, aphelion and perihelion of our respective worlds don’t quite line up in our current epochs, but we’ll indulge imagination and fudge things a bit.

-Though Mars is just over 2x times larger in diameter than the Moon, it’s also more than 143 times farther away, even at its said hypothetical closest.

Credit Dave Dickinson
Mars vs Earth; oppositions from 2003 to 2018, including perihelion and aphelion positions. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

-Still want to see Mars as big as a Full Moon? Perhaps one day, astronauts will, though they’ll have to be orbiting just over a 800,000 km from the Red Planet to do it.

If we sound a little pessimistic in our characterizing the Mars Hoax as a recurring non-story, it’s because we see many truly fantastic things in space news that get far from their far shake. Real stories, of collapsing stars, rogue exoplanets, and intrepid rovers exploring distant worlds. Tales of humanoids, exploring space and doing the very best and noble things humanoids as a species can do.

Want to trace the history the Mars Hoax?

Here’s the saga of Universe Today’s coverage of all things ‘Mars Hoax’ since those olden days of the early web:

2005- No, Mars Won’t Look as Big as the Moon

2006- No, Mars Won’t Look as Big as the Moon in August

2007- Will Mars Look as Big as the Moon on August 27? Nope

2008- Please (Again) – Mars Will NOT Look as Big as the Full Moon

2009- Mars Will NOT Look as Big as the Full Moon… But You Can Watch it Get Closer

2010- Tonight’s the Night Mars Will NOT Look as Big as the Full Moon

2011- Is the Moon Mars Myth Over?

2013- The Cyber Myth that Just Won’t Die

2016- ????

Hey, it looks like the hoax did take a break in 2012 and 2014, so that’s encouraging at least…

The great Mars opposition of 2003. image credit: Dave Dickinson
The great Mars opposition of 2003. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

Now, I’m going to do my best to truly terrify all of science blogger-dom, and leave you with one final thought to consider. Mars reaches opposition (otherwise known in astronomical circles as ‘when it’s really nearest to the Earth’) once roughly every 26 months. All oppositions of Mars are not created equal, owing mostly to the eccentric orbit of the Red Planet. We have another fine opposition of Mars coming right up next year on May 22nd, 2016, followed by one that’s very nearly as favorable as the historic 2003 opposition in 2018, falling juuuuust shy of August on July 28th of that year…

Will the Mars Hoax meme find a new unwitting audience, and with it, new life?

Sleep tight…. we’ll be covering real science stories in the meantime, ’til we’re called to do battle with the Mars Hoax once again.

Naming Pluto: Christening Features on Brave New Worlds

‘Here be Dragons…’ read the inscriptions of old maps used by early seafaring explorers. Such maps were crude, and often wildly inaccurate.

The same could be said for our very understanding of distant planetary surfaces today. But this week, we’ll be filling in one of those ‘terra incognita’ labels, as New Horizons conducts humanity’s very first reconnaissance of Pluto and its moons.

The closest approach for New Horizons is set for Tuesday, July 14th at 11:49 UT/7:49 AM EDT, as the intrepid spacecraft passes 12,600 kilometres (7,800 miles) from Pluto’s surface. At over 4 light hours or nearly 32 astronomical units (AUs) away, New Horizons is on its own, and must perform its complex pirouette through the Pluto system as it cruises by at over 14 kilometres (8 miles) a second.

This also means that we’ll be hearing relatively little from the spacecraft on flyby day, as it can’t waste precious time pointing its main dish back at the Earth. With a downlink rate of 2 kilobits a second—think ye ole 1990’s dial-up, plus frozen molasses—it’ll take months to finish off data retrieval post flyby. A great place to watch a simulation of the flyby ‘live’ is JPL’s Eyes on the Solar System, along with who is talking to New Horizons currently on the Deep Space Network with DSN Now.

A snapshot of the current July 13th view of New Horizons as it nears Pluto. (Image credit: NASA's Eyes on the Solar System).
A snapshot of the current July 13th view of New Horizons as it nears Pluto. (Image credit: NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System).

Launched in 2006, New Horizons is about to join the ranks of nuclear-fueled explorers that have conducted first time reconnaissance of solar system objects.

Bob King also wrote up an excellent timeline of New Horizons events for Universe Today yesterday. Also be sure to check out the Planetary Society’s in-depth look at what to expect by Emily Lakdawalla.

Seems strange that after more than a decade of recycling the same blurry images and artist’s conceptions in articles, we’re now getting a new and improved shot of Pluto and Charon daily!

To follow the tale of Pluto is to know the story of modern planetary astronomy. Discovered in 1930 by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh from the Lowell Observatory, Pluto was named by 11-year old Venetia Burney. Venetia just passed away in 2009, and there’s a great short documentary interview with her entitled Naming Pluto.

Blink comparitor
The blink comparitor Clyde Tombaugh used to discover Pluto, on display at the Lowell Observatory. Image Credit: David Dickinson

Fun fact: Historians at the Carnegie Institute recently found images of Pluto on glass plates… dated 1925, from five years before its discovery.

Despite the pop culture reference, Pluto was not named after the Disney dog, but after the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto the dog was not named in Disney features until late 1930, and if anything, the character was more than likely named after the buzz surrounding the newest planet on the block.

We’re already seeing features on Pluto and Charon in the latest images, such as the ‘heart,’ ‘donut,’ and the ‘whale’ of Pluto, along with chasms, craters and a dark patch on Charon. The conspicuous lack of large craters on Pluto suggests an active world.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) convention for naming any new moons discovered in the Plutonian system specifies characters related to the Roman god Pluto and tales of the underworld.

Image credit:
Brake for New Horizons on July 14th… Image credit: David Dickinson

With features, however, cartographers of Pluto should get a bit more flexibility. Earlier this year, the Our Pluto campaign invited the public to cast votes to name features on Pluto and Charon related to famous scientists, explorers and more. The themes of ‘fictional explorers and vessels’ has, of course, garnered much public interest, and Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and the Firefly vessel Serenity may yet be memorialized on Charon. Certainly, it would be a fitting tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy. We’d like to see Clyde Tombaugh and Venetia Burney paid homage to on Pluto as well.

We’ve even proposed the discovery of a new moon be named after the mythological underworld character Alecto, complete with a Greek ‘ct’ spelling to honor Clyde Tombaugh.

The discovery and naming of Charon in 1978 by astronomer Robert Christy set a similar precedent. Christy choose the name of the mythological boatman who plied the river Styx (which also later became a Plutonian moon) as it included his wife Charlene’s nickname ‘Char.’ This shibboleth  also set up a minor modern controversy as to the exact pronunciation of Charon, as the mythological character is pronounced with a hard ‘k’ sound, but most folks (including NASA) say the moon as ‘Sharon’ in keeping with Christy’s in-joke that slipped past the IAU.

And speaking of Pluto’s large moon, someone did rise to the occasion and take our ‘Charon challenge,’ we posed during the ongoing Pluto opposition season recently. Check out this amazing capture of the +17th magnitude moon winking in and out of view next to Pluto courtesy of Wendy Clark:

Image credit
Click here to see the animation of the possible capture of Charon near Pluto. Image credit and copyright: Wendy Clark

Clark used the 17” iTelescope astrograph located at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia to tease out the possible capture of the itinerant moon.

Great job!

What’s in a name? What strange and wonderful discoveries await New Horizons this week? We should get our very first signal back tomorrow night, as New Horizons ‘phones home’ with its message that it survived the journey around 9:10 PM EDT/1:10 UT. Expect this following Wednesday—in the words of New Horizons principal Investigator Alan Stern—to begin “raining data,” as the phase of interpreting and evaluating information begins.

Image credit
The women who power the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Image credit: SwRI/JHUAPL

And there’s more in store, as the New Horizons team will make the decision to maneuver the spacecraft for a rendezvous with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) next month. Said KBO flyby will occur in the 2019-2020 timeframe, and perhaps, we’ll one day see a Pluto orbiter mission or lander in the decades to come…

Maybe one way journeys to ‘the other Red Planet’ are the wave of the future.’ Pluto One anyone?