New Horizons Latest Find: Floating Ice Hills On Pluto!

Ever since the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto in July 2015, people here at Earth have been treated to an endless supply of discoveries about the dwarf planet. These included the first accurate pictures of what Pluto looks like, images of “Pluto’s Heart“, information about the geology and morphology of the surface (and its largest moon, Charon), and information about Pluto’s atmosphere and its escape rate.

And based on the data obtained from images by the New Horizons probe, NASA recently announced that Pluto’s flowing glaciers have numerous hills composed of water ice floating on top of them. Located in the vast ice plain known as “Sputnik Planum” – named after Sputnik One, the first satellite to orbit Earth – these hills measure several kilometers across, and are believed to be fragments that originated from the surrounding uplands.

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Peculiar ‘Cauliflower Rocks’ May Hold Clues To Ancient Mars Life

"Cauliflower" shaped silica-rich rocks photographed by the Spirit Rover near the Home Plate rock formation in Gusev Crater in 2008. Could microbes have built their nodular shapes? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
“Cauliflower” shaped silica-rich rocks photographed by the Spirit Rover near the Home Plate rock formation in Gusev Crater in 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Evidence of water and a warmer, wetter climate abound on Mars, but did life ever put its stamp on the Red Planet? Rocks may hold the secret. Knobby protuberances of rock discovered by the Spirit Rover in 2008 near the rock outcrop Home Plate in Gusev Crater caught the attention of scientists back on Earth. They look like cauliflower or coral, but were these strange Martian rocks sculpted by microbes, wind or some other process?

Close-up of the lobed silica rocks on Mars photographed by the Spirit Rover on Sol 1157. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech
Close-up of the lobed silica rocks on Mars photographed by the Spirit Rover’s microscopic imager on Sol 1157. It’s not known where wind (or other non-biological process) or micro-life had a hand in creating these shapes. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech

When analyzed by Spirit’s mini-TES (Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer), they proved to be made of nearly pure silica (SiO2), a mineral that forms in hot, volcanic environments. Rainwater and snow seep into cracks in the ground and come in contact with rocks heated by magma from below. Heated to hundreds of degrees, the water becomes buoyant and rises back toward the surface, dissolving silica and other minerals along the way before depositing them around a vent or fumarole. Here on Earth, silica precipitated from water leaves a pale border around many Yellowstone National Park’hot springs.

The Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park. Could it be an analog to similar springs, hydrothermal vents and geysers that may once have existed in Gusev Crater on Mars? Credit: Jim Peaco, National Park Service
The Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park. Could it be an analog to similar springs, hydrothermal vents and geysers that may once have existed in Gusev Crater on Mars? Credit: Jim Peaco, National Park Service

Both at Yellowstone, the Taupo Volcanic Zone in New Zealand and in Iceland, heat-loving bacteria are intimately involved in creating curious bulbous and branching shapes in silica formations that strongly resemble the Martian cauliflower rocks. New research presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting last month by planetary geologist Steven Ruff and geology professor Jack Farmer, both of Arizona State University, explores the possibility that microbes might have been involved in fashioning the Martian rocks, too.


A sizzling visit to El Tatio’s geysers

The researchers ventured to the remote geyser fields of El Tatio in the Chilean Atacama Desert to study an environment that may have mimicked Gusev Crater billions of years ago when it bubbled with hydrothermal activity. One of the driest places on Earth, the Atacama’s average elevation is 13,000 feet (4 km), exposing it to considerably more UV light from the sun and extreme temperatures ranging from -13°F to 113°F (-10° to 45°C). Outside of parts of Antarctica, it’s about as close to Mars as you’ll find on Earth.

Ruff and Farmer studied silica deposits around hot springs and geysers in El Tatio and discovered forms they call “micro-digitate silica structures” similar in appearance and composition to those on Mars (Here’s a photo). The infrared spectra of the two were also a good match. They’re still analyzing the samples to determine if heat-loving microbes may have played a role in their formation, but hypothesize that the features are “micro-stromatolites” much like those found at Yellowstone and Taupo.

A stromatolite from Wyoming made of many layers of bacteria-cemented mineral grains. Credit: Bob King
A stromatolite from Wyoming made of many layers of bacteria-cemented mineral grains. Credit: Bob King

Stromatolites form when a sticky film of bacteria traps and cements mineral grains to create a thin layer. Other layers form atop that one until a laminar mound or column results. The most ancient stromatolites on Earth may be about 3.5 billion years old. If Ruff finds evidence of biology in the El Tatio formations in the punishing Atacama Desert environment, it puts us one step closer to considering the possibility that ancient bacteria may have been at work on Mars.

Scientists have found evidence that Home Plate at Gusev crater on Mars is composed of debris deposited from a hydrovolcanic explosion. The finding suggests that water may have been involved in driving an eruption that formed the deposits found on Home Plate. Spirit found the silica-rich rocks at lower right near
Scientists have found evidence that Home Plate at Gusev crater on Mars is composed of debris deposited from a hydrovolcanic explosion. The finding suggests that water may have been involved in driving an eruption that formed the deposits found on Home Plate. Spirit found the silica-rich rocks at lower right near Tyrone in 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Silica forms may originate with biology or from non-biological processes like wind, water and other environmental factors. Short of going there and collecting samples, there’s no way to be certain if the cauliflower rocks are imprinted with the signature of past Martian life. But at least we know of a promising place to look during a future sample return mission to the Red Planet. Indeed, according to Ruff, the Columbia Hills inside Gusev Crater he short list of potential sites for the 2020 Mars rover.

More resources:

NASA Says “No Chance” Small Asteroid Will Hit Earth On March 5th

On October 6th, 2013, the Catalina Sky Survey discovered a small asteroid which was later designated as 2013 TX68. As part Apollo group this 30 meter (100 ft) rock is one of many Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that periodically crosses Earth’s orbit and passes close to our planet. A few years ago, it did just that, flying by our planet at a safe distance of about 2 million km (1.3 million miles).

And according to NASA’s Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it will be passing us again in a few weeks time, specifically between March 2nd and 6th. Of course, asteroids pass Earth by on a regular basis, and there is very rarely any cause for alarm. However, there is some anxiety about 2013 TX68’s latest flyby, mainly because its distance could be subject to some serious variation.

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Jupiter Not the Planetary Protector We Thought it Was?

Jupiter takes a beating from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope team.

I’ve always liked the idea that Jupiter has acted like a protector to its little brother, Earth. That it has used its massive gravitational pull to divert asteroids and comets from a collision course with Earth. Maybe Jupiter even felt bad when one got through, and doomed the dinosaurs to extinction. But a new study has cast this idea into doubt.

The idea of Jupiter as a protector has been around for a while. The images of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 breaking apart and crashing into Jupiter in 1994 reinforced the idea. But according to Kevin Grazier, at the Jet Propulstion Laboratory (JPL), rather than acting solely as a shield, re-directing comets and other objects away from the inner solar system, Jupiter may have actually directed planetesimals into the inner solar system.

Illustration of a rocky planet being bombarded by comets. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Illustration of a rocky planet being bombarded by comets. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In the early days of the Solar System, there was much more debris around than there is now. The early days would have been a race between planetesimals to gather enough mass to form the planets we see today. After planets were formed, there would still have been plenty of planetesimals left. This new study shows that, rather than clearing the inner solar system from all this debris that could collide with Earth, Jupiter nudged many of these planetesimals towards Earth, helping to create Earth as we know it.

As reported in January 2016 in Astrobiology, Glazier created a simulator of the solar system, and ran 30,000 particles through this simulation. All of the particles began in “non life-threatening” trajectories, but a significant number of them ended the simulation in orbits that crossed the orbit of the Earth.

So not only did Jupiter—and Saturn—re-direct material into the inner Solar System, but the simulation also showed that Jupiter slowed that material to a speed which allowed it to contribute mass to Earth.

But these planetesimals would have contributed more than just mass to Earth. They would have carried volatiles with them. Volatiles are chemical elements and molecules with low boiling points. They are associated with the atmosphere and the crust. These volatiles, which include nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and others, make up a large portion of the Earth’s crust. Without them, Earth would be a very different place. It may never have developed the atmosphere that has allowed life to flourish.

It’s clear that Jupiter has contributed to the evolution of Earth and the Solar System as we know it. As the largest planet by far, its influence is undeniable. As a result of this study, we better understand the dual-role Jupiter has played. While it no doubt has played the role of protector, by changing the direction of some objects on a collision course with Earth, Jupiter’s presence has also been responsible for slowing and diverting planetesimals—and their life-friendly volatiles—directly into Earth.

Earth From Afar Would Look Only 82% Right For Life

From Lunar orbit, Earth is obviously habitable. But from a distant point in the galaxy, not so much. Image: NASA/LRO.

Right now, we’re staring hard at a small section of the sky, to see if we can detect any planets that may be habitable. The Kepler Spacecraft is focused on a tiny patch of sky in our Milky Way galaxy, hoping to detect planets as they transit in front of their stars. But if alien astronomers are doing the same, and detect Earth transiting in front of the Sun, how habitable would Earth appear?

You might think, because, well, here we are, that the Earth would look 100% habitable from a distant location. But that’s not the case. According to a paper from Rory Barnes and his colleagues at the University of Washington-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory, from a distant point in the galaxy, the probability of Earth being habitable might be only 82%.

Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft.(NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)
Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft.(NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

Barnes and his team came up with the 82% number when they worked to create a “habitability index for transiting planets,” that seeks to rank the habitability of planets based on factors like the distance from its star, the size of the planet, the nature of the star, and the behaviour of other planets in the system.

The search for habitable exo-planets is dominated by the idea of the circumstellar habitable zone—or Goldilocks Zone—a region of space where an orbiting planet is not too close to its star to boil away all the water, and not so far away that the water is all frozen. This isn’t a fixed distance; it depends on the type and size of the star. With an enormous, hot star, the Goldilocks Zone would be much further away than Earth is from the Sun, and vice-versa for a smaller, cooler star. “That was a great first step, but it doesn’t make any distinctions within the habitable zone,” says Barnes.

Comparing a star's habitable zone based on its size. Credit: Fine Art America/Detlev Van Ravenswaay
Comparing a star’s habitable zone based on its size. Credit: Fine Art America/Detlev Van Ravenswaay.

Kepler has already confirmed the existence of over 1,000 exo-planets, with over 4,700 total candidate planets. And Kepler is still in operation. When it comes time to examine these planets more closely, with the James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments, where  do we start? We needed a way to rank planets for further study. Enter Barnes and his team, and their habitability index.

To rank candidates for further study, Barnes focused on not just the distance between the planet and the host star, but on the overall energy equilibrium. That takes into account not just the energy received by the planet, but the planet’s albedo—how much energy it reflects back into space. In terms of  being warm enough for life, a high-albedo planet can tolerate being closer to its star, whereas a low-albedo planet can tolerate a greater distance. This equilibrium is affected in turn by the eccentricity of the planet’s orbit.

The habitability index created by Barnes—and his colleagues Victoria Meadows and Nicole Evans—is a way to enter data, including a planet’s albedo and its distance from its host star, and get a number representing the planet’s probability of being habitable. “Basically, we’ve devised a way to take all the observational data that are available and develop a prioritization scheme,” said Barnes, “so that as we move into a time when there are hundreds of targets available, we might be able to say, ‘OK, that’s the one we want to start with.’”

So where does the Earth fit into all this? If alien astronomers are creating their own probability index, at 82%, Earth is a good candidate. Maybe they’re already studying us more closely.

 

The Highest-Resolution Image Ever Seen in Astronomy

A jet of material being ejected out of a black hole at the centre of the galaxy BL Lacertae. Image: Dr. Jose L. Gomez

What do you get when you combine 15 radio telescopes on Earth and one in space? You get an enormous “virtual telescope” that is 63,000 miles across. And when you point it at a distant black hole, you get the highest resolution image every seen in astronomy.

Although it looks just like a big green blob, it’s actually an enormously energetic jet of matter streaming out of a black hole. And this black hole is 900 million light years away.

As reported at Popular Science, it required an array of 15 radio telescopes on Earth, and the Russian space telescope Spektr-R, to capture the image. This technique—called interferometry—is like creating a telescope that is 63,000 miles across. The detail it provides is like seeing a 50 cent coin on the Moon.

For perspective, the object in the image is 186 billion miles long, at minimum, and would just barely fit in the Oort Cloud.

The jet at the heart of BL Lacertae, with the Oort Cloud and Alpha Centauri for comparison. Image: Gomez et. al., A Lobanov, NRAO.
The jet at the heart of BL Lacertae, with the Oort Cloud and Alpha Centauri for comparison. Image: Gomez et. al., A Lobanov, NRAO.

China Shares Stunning New Moon Photos With the World

This image shows the Yutu rover leaving the lander area and making its way on the lunar surface. Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration/The Science and Application Centre for Moon and Deep Space Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla.

China has released hundreds of images of the Moon, taken by its Chang’e 3 lander and its companion rover, Yutu. It’s been 50 years since the first lunar photos were taken by astronauts on NASA’s Apollo 11 mission. China is the third nation to land on the Moon, with the USA and the USSR preceding them.

Even though the Yutu rover’s engine failed after a short time on the lunar surface, the mission’s camera systems have captured hundreds of images.

Thanks to the hard work of Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society, who wrestled with a somewhat cumbersome Chinese website, and stitched some of these images together, we can get a first-hand look at what Chang’e 3 and Yutu were up to.

Here are some of our favourites.

Pyramid Rock, as named by the Chinese. This rock was ejected when the crater immediately behind it was created. Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration/The Science and Application Centre for Moon and Deep Space Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla.
Pyramid Rock, as named by the Chinese. This rock was ejected when the crater immediately behind it was created. Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration/The Science and Application Centre for Moon and Deep Space Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla.

 

This is a 360 degree panoramic image of the rover and part of the lander. Bright white rocks litter the rim of the crater on the left. Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration/The Science and Application Centre for Moon and Deep Space Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla.
This is a 360 degree panoramic image of the rover and part of the lander. Bright white rocks litter the rim of the crater on the left. Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration/The Science and Application Centre for Moon and Deep Space Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla.
The Yutu lander looks at its tracks in the lunar soil. Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration/The Science and Application Centre for Moon and Deep Space Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla.
The Yutu lander looks at its tracks in the lunar soil. Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration/The Science and Application Centre for Moon and Deep Space Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla.
This image shows a lot of detail of the Yutu rover. Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration/The Science and Application Centre for Moon and Deep Space Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla.
This image shows a lot of detail of the Yutu rover. Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration/The Science and Application Centre for Moon and Deep Space Exploration/Emily Lakdawalla.

Emily Lakdawalla talks more about the camera systems here, and talks about what other images might be coming soon.

Universe Today reported on the Chinese Moon mission here.

A Cataclysmic Collision Formed the Moon, but Killed Theia

Artist's impression of a Mars-sized object crashing into the Earth, starting the process that eventually created our Moon. Credit: Joe Tucciarone

The Moon is the first object in space that fascinates we Earthlings. The Sun might be more prominent, but you can’t stare at the Sun without ocular damage. Anyone can gaze at the Moon, with or without binoculars or a telescope, and wonder where it came from and what it all means.

New evidence from a team at UCLA is clarifying the story of the Moon’s origins. According to this research, the Moon was formed as a result of a massive collision between Earth and a “planet embryo” about the size of Mars called Theia. This collision happened about 100 million years after the Earth was formed. Published on January 29th in the journal Science, this new geological evidence strengthens the case for the collision model.

The researchers compared Earth rocks with rocks retrieved from the Moon over the years. (Over 380kg of rocks have been brought back to Earth.) They found that these samples—collected on Apollo missions 12, 15, and 17—had the same chemical composition as seven rocks collected from Earth’s mantle, in Hawaii and Arizona. The key to the comparison lies in the nature of the oxygen atoms in the rocks.

Oxygen is a highly reactive element. It is easily combined with other elements, and is the most common element in the Earth’s crust. There are several different oxygen isotopes present in the Earth’s crust, and on other bodies in the solar system. The amount of each isotope present on each body is the “fingerprint” that makes the formation of each body different.

But the team at UCLA has shown that Earth and the Moon share the same cocktail of oxygen isotopes. They have the same fingerprint. This means that somehow, someway, their formation is linked. It can’t be pure coincidence. Says Edward Young, lead author of the new study, “We don’t see any difference between the Earth’s and the Moon’s oxygen isotopes; they’re indistinguishable.”

So how did this happen? How do Earth and the Moon share the same oxygen fingerprint? Enter Theia, an embryonic planet that got in the way of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. And as the research shows, this collision had to be more than a glancing blow. The collision had to be direct and cataclysmic.

This video shows how the collision would have played out.

A glancing blow would mean that the Moon would be mostly made of Theia, and would therefore have a different oxygen isotope fingerprint than Earth. But the fact that the Earth and Moon are indistinguishable from each other means that Theia had to have been destroyed, or rather, had to become part of both the Earth and the Moon.

“Theia was thoroughly mixed into the Earth and the Moon, and evenly dispersed between them. This explains why we don’t see a different signature of Theia in the Moon versus Earth,” said Young.

If this collision had not taken place, our Solar System would look very different, with an additional rocky planet in the inner regions. We also would have no Moon, which would have changed the evolution of life on Earth.

This collision theory, called the Theia Impact, or the Big Splash, has been around since 2012. But in 2014, a team of German researchers reported in Science that the Earth and Moon have different oxygen isotope ratios, which threw the collision formation theory into doubt. These new results confirm that it was a cataclysmic collision that gave birth to the Moon, and changed our Solar System forever.

Massive Ariane 5 To Launch Giant NextGen Telescope In Dynamic Deployment To L2

The Ariane5 lifting off from Kourou in French Guiana. Image: ESA/Arianespace.

The Ariane 5 rocket is a workhorse for delivering satellites and other payloads into orbit, but fitting the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) inside one is pushing the boundaries of the Ariane 5’s capabilities, and advancing our design of space observatories at the same time.

The Ariane 5 is the most modern design in the ESA’s Ariane rocket series. It’s responsible for delivering things like Rosetta, the Herschel Space Observatory, and the Planck Observatory into space. The ESA is supplying an Ariane 5 to the JWST mission, and with the planned launch date for that mission less than three years away, it’s a good time to check in with the Ariane 5 and the JWST.

The Ariane 5 has a long track record of success, often carrying multiple satellites into orbit in a single launch. Here’s its most recent launch, on January 27th from the ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana. This is Ariane 5’s 70th successful launch in a row.

But launching satellites into orbit, though still an amazing achievement, is becoming old hat for rockets. 70 successful launches in a row tells us that. The Ariane 5 can even launch multiple satellites in one mission. But launching the James Webb will be Ariane’s biggest challenge.

The thing about satellites is, they’re actually getting smaller, in many cases. But the JWST is huge, at least in terms of dimensions. The mass of the JWST—6,500 kg (14,300 lb)—is just within the limits of the Ariane 5. The real trick was designing and building the JWST so that it could fit into the cylindrical space atop an Ariane 5, and then “unfold” into its final shape after separation from the rocket. This video shows how the JWST will deploy itself.

The JWST is like a big, weird looking beetle. Its gold-coated, segmented mirror system looks like multi-faceted insect eyes. Its tennis-court sized heat shield is like an insect’s shell. Or something. Cramming all those pieces, folded up, into the nose of the Ariane 5 rocket is a real challenge.

Because the JWST will live out its 10-year (hopefully) mission at L2, rather than in orbit around Earth, it requires this huge shield to protect itself from the sun. The instruments on the James Webb have to be kept cool in order to function properly. The only way to achieve this is to have its heat shield folded up inside the rocket for launch, then unfolded later. That’s a very tricky maneuver.

But there’s more.

The heart of the James Webb is its segmented mirror system. This group of 18 gold-coated, beryllium mirrors also has to be folded up to fit into the Ariane 5, and then unfolded once it’s separated from the rocket. This is a lot trickier than launching things like the Hubble, which was deployed from the space shuttle.

Something else makes all this folding and unfolding very tricky. The Hubble, which was James Webb’s predecessor, is in orbit around Earth. That means that astronauts on Shuttle missions have been able to repair and service the Hubble. But the James Webb will be way out there at L2, so it can’t be serviced in any way. We have one chance to get it right.

Right now, the James Webb is still under construction in the “Clean Room” at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. A precision robotic arm system is carefully mounting Webb’s 18 mirrors.

A robotic arm positions one of James Webb's 18 mirrors. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn
A robotic arm positions one of James Webb’s 18 mirrors. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

There’s still over two years until the October 2018 launch date, and there’s a lot of testing and assembly work going on until then. We’ll be paying close attention not only to see if the launch goes as planned, but also to see if the James Webb—the weird looking beetle—can successfully complete its metamorphosis.

What Would Earth Look Like With Rings?

Saturn’s Rings are amazing to behold. Since they were first observed by Galileo in 1610, they have been the subject of endless scientific interest and popular fascination. Composed of billions of particles of dust and ice, these rings span a distance of about 282,000 km (175,000 miles) – which is three quarters of the distance between the Earth and its Moon – and hold roughly 30 quintillion kilograms (that’s 3.0. x 1018 kg) worth of matter.

All of the Solar System’s gas giants, from Jupiter to Neptune, have their own ring system – albeit less visible and picturesque ones. Sadly, none of the terrestrial planets (i.e. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) have such a system. But just what would it look like if Earth did? Putting aside the physical requirements that it would take for a ring system to exist, what would it be like to look up from Earth and see beautiful rings reaching overhead?

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