This Martian Lava Tube Skylight is 50 Meters Across. The Biggest Lava Tube on Earth is Only 15 Meters Across

NASA’s Mariner 9 was the first spacecraft to orbit another planet when it reached Mars in late 1971. It got there only a few weeks before the Soviet Union’s Mars 2 and Mars 3 spacecraft, despite being launched 11 days later than those missions. Unfortunately, there was a major dust storm when Mariner 9 arrived, and NASA had to wait until January before the spacecraft could get good images.

When it did get those images, they revealed a surprise: volcanoes and lava flows cover large portions of the Martian surface.

Continue reading “This Martian Lava Tube Skylight is 50 Meters Across. The Biggest Lava Tube on Earth is Only 15 Meters Across”

A History of the Magellanic Clouds and How They Got Their Names

The Magellanic Clouds are a pair of dwarf galaxies that are bound to the Milky Way. The Milky Way is slowly consuming them in Borg-like fashion, starting with the gas halo that surrounds both Clouds. They’re visible in the southern sky, and for centuries people have gazed up at them. They’re named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, in our current times.

But they weren’t always called that.

Continue reading “A History of the Magellanic Clouds and How They Got Their Names”

Lava Tubes on the Moon and Mars are Really, Really Big. Big Enough to Fit an Entire Planetary Base

Could lava tubes on the Moon and Mars play a role in establishing a human presence on those worlds? Possibly, according to a team of researchers. Their new study shows that lunar and Martian lava tubes might be enormous, and easily large enough to accommodate a base.

Continue reading “Lava Tubes on the Moon and Mars are Really, Really Big. Big Enough to Fit an Entire Planetary Base”

Why Lava Tubes Should be Our Top Exploration Priority on Other Worlds

When magma comes out of the Earth onto the surface, it flows as lava. Those lava flows are fascinating to watch, and they leave behind some unique landforms and rocks. But a lot of what’s fascinating about these flows can be hidden underground, as lava tubes.

These lava tubes are turning out to be a very desirable target for exploration on other worlds, just as they are here on Earth.

Continue reading “Why Lava Tubes Should be Our Top Exploration Priority on Other Worlds”

The First Images Are In from Rosetta’s Valentine’s Day Comet Flyby

On Saturday, Feb. 14, the Rosetta spacecraft swooped low over the surface of comet 67P/C-G in the first dedicated close pass of its mission, coming within a scant 6 km (3.7 miles) at 12:41 UTC. The image above is a mosaic of four individual NavCam images acquired just shortly afterwards, when Rosetta was about 8.9 km from the comet.

The 45m "Cheops" boulder on comet 67P/C-G (ESA/Rosetta/Navcam)
The 45m “Cheops” boulder on comet 67P/C-G (ESA/Rosetta/Navcam)

The view above looks across much of the Imhotep region along the flat bottom of comet 67P’s larger lobe. (See a map of 67P’s named regions here.) At the top is the flat “plain” where the Cheops boulder cluster can be seen – the largest of which is 45 meters (148 feet) across.

Read more: Rosetta Gets a Peek at Comet 67P’s Underside

The zero phase angle of sunlight during the pass made for fairly even illumination across the comet’s surface.

The image scale on the full mosaic is 0.76 m/pixel and the entire view encompasses a 1.35 × 1.37 km-wide area.

Other NavCam images acquired before and after the pass have been assembled into mosaics – check those out below:

Four-image mosaic made from NavCam images acquired on Feb. 14, 2015 at a distance of 35 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.
Four-image mosaic made from NavCam images acquired on Feb. 14, 2015 at a distance of 35 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.

Four-image mosaic made from NavCam images acquired on Feb. 14, 2015 at a distance of 12.6 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.
Four-image mosaic made from NavCam images acquired on Feb. 14, 2015 at a distance of 12.6 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.

Four-image mosaic made from NavCam images acquired on Feb. 14, 2015 at 19:42 UTC at a distance of 31.6 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.
Four-image mosaic made from NavCam images acquired on Feb. 14, 2015 at 19:42 UTC at a distance of 31.6 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.

In addition to NavCam images of 67P, Rosetta also acquired high-resolution OSIRIS images of the comet and gathered scientific data about its coma environment during the flyby. These data will be downlinked and processed over the next week or so.

Flybys will be regular parts of Rosetta’s operations over the course of 2015, but due to the comet’s increasing activity none will bring the spacecraft as close as this particular pass.

Rosetta is now moving out to a distance of about 250 km (155 miles) from 67P. Watch a video below of how the Feb. 14 flyby was planned and executed:

Source: ESA’s Rosetta blog

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(Also, on Feb. 9, Rosetta captured a full-frame NavCam image of 67P from 105 km. I’ve edited that image for additional contrast and added a blue tint. Enjoy!)

Comet 67P on Feb. 9, 2015 from 105 km (65 miles)
Comet 67P on Feb. 9, 2015 from 105 km (65 miles)

ESA Marks 50 Years of Cooperative Space Innovation

In 1964 the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) and the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) were founded, on February 29 and March 20 respectively, marking the beginning of Europe as a major space power and player in the new international venture to explore beyond our planet. A decade later these two entities merged to become ESA, and the rest, as it’s said, is history.

The video above commemorates ESA’s service to the cooperation and innovation of European nations in space, and indeed the entire world with many of the far-reaching exploration missions its member states have developed, launched and maintained. From advanced communications and observational satellites to its many missions exploring the worlds of the Solar System to capturing the light from the beginning of the Universe, ELDO, ESRO, and ESA have pushed the boundaries of science and technology in space for half a century… and are inspiring the next generation to continue exploring into the decades ahead. So happy anniversary, ESA — I can only imagine what we might be looking back on in another 50 years!

Source: ESA. See more key dates from ESA’s history here

Flying, Rolling Robot Might Make a Great Titan Explorer

The HyTAQ (Hybrid Terrestrial and Aerial Quadrotor) robot developed at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)

Ever since the Huygens probe landed on Titan back in January 2005, sending us our first tantalizing and oh-so-brief glimpses of the moon’s murky, pebbly surface, researchers have been dreaming up ways to explore further… after all, what’s more intriguing than a world in our own Solar System that’s basically a miniature version of an early Earth (even if it’s quite a few orders of magnitude chillier?)

Many concepts have been suggested as to the best way to explore Titan, from Mars-style rovers to boats that would sail its methane seas to powered gliders… and even hot-air balloons have been put on the table. Each of these have their own specific benefits, specially suited to the many environments that are found on Titan, but what if you could have two-in-one; what if you could, say, rove and fly?

That’s what this little robot can do.

Designed by Arash Kalantari and Matthew Spenko at the Robotics Lab at Illinois Institute of Technology, this rolling birdcage is actually a quadrotor flying craft that’s wrapped in a protective framework, allowing it to move freely along the ground and then take off when needed, maneuvering around obstacles easily.

A design like this, fitted with scientific instruments and given adequate power supply, might make a fantastic robotic explorer for Titan, where the atmosphere is thick and the terrain may range from rough and rocky to sandy and slushy. (And what safer way to ford a freezing-cold Titanic stream than fly over it?)

Also, the robot’s cage design may make it better suited to travel across the frozen crust of Titan’s flood plains, which have been found to have a consistency like damp sand with a layer of frozen snow on top. Where wheels could break through and get permanently stuck (a la Spirit) a rolling cage might remain on top. And if it does break through… well, fire up the engines and take off.

The robot (as it’s designed now) is also very energy-efficient, compared to quadrotors that only fly.

“During terrestrial locomotion, the robot only needs to overcome rolling resistance and consumes much less energy compared to the aerial mode,” the IIT website notes. “This solves one of the most vexing problems of quadrotors and rotorcraft in general — their short operation time. Experimental results show that the hybrid robot can travel a distance 4 times greater and operate almost 6 times longer than an aerial only system.”

Of course this is all just excited speculation at this point. No NASA or ESA contracts have been awarded to IIT to build the next Titan explorer, and who knows if the idea is on anyone else’s plate. But innovations like this, from schools and the private sector, are just the sorts of exciting things that set imaginations rolling (and flying!)

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Color view of Titan’s surface, captured by the Huygens probe after landing in January 2005. (NASA/JPL/ESA/University of Arizona)

Video by RoboticsIIT

Curiosity’s Sundial Carries a Message of Hope

 A recent high-definition image from Curiosity’s Mastcam shows the rover’s sundial (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

While Curiosity is definitely loaded up with some of the most high-tech instruments ever made to investigate the surface of Mars, it also carries a very low-tech instrument: a sundial (aka the “MarsDial”) which can be used to determine the position of the Sun in the sky and the season on Mars just like they do here on Earth. Curiosity’s sundial also has additional color calibration tools for the rover’s Mastcam, which captured the image above on August 19 — the 13th “Sol” of the mission.

The connection between a device invented by people thousands of years ago being in use today on a robotic explorer on another planet didn’t go unnoticed by the Mars Exploration Rover team either; in addition to the words “Mars 2012” and “To Mars, To Explore” around its top bezel, Curiosity’s sundial also carries a message of history, hope and inspiration printed along its edges…

Along with line drawings and the word for “Mars” in sixteen languages, Curiosity’s sundial bears the following inscription:

“For millennia, Mars has stimulated our imaginations. First, we saw Mars as a wandering star, a bringer of war from the abode of the gods. In recent centuries, the planet’s changing appearance in telescopes caused us to think that Mars had a climate like the Earth’s. Our first space age views revealed only a cratered, Moon-like world, but later missions showed that Mars once had abundant liquid water. Through it all, we have wondered: Has there been life on Mars? To those taking the next steps to find out, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery.”

Curiosity’s successful landing on Mars at 10:31 p.m. on August 5, 2012 (PDT) was only the first (although very exciting!) step of its mission, and the first of hopefully many next steps to explore our neighboring world. Perhaps one day this message will be revisited by human explorers on Mars who may then reflect back on how it all began, and all of the innovations, hope and — well, curiosity — that made each of their rust-dusted steps possible.

Follow the sun, Curiosity!

Find out more about Curiosity’s many science and exploration instruments on JPL’s interactive 3D page here, and keep up with the latest MSL downloaded images here.

Europe’s Plans to Visit the Moon in 2018

The European Space Agency is aiming for the Moon with their Lunar Lander mission, anticipated to arrive on the lunar surface in 2018. Although ESA successfully put a lander on Titan with the Huygens probe in 2005, this will be the first European spacecraft to visit the surface of Earth’s Moon.

Although Lunar Lander will be an unmanned robotic explorer, the mission will be a forerunner to future human exploration of the Moon as well as Mars. Lunar Lander will use advanced technologies for autonomous landing and will be able to determine the best location for touchdown on its own, utilizing lasers to avoid obstacles on the Moon’s surface.

With no GPS on the Moon, Lunar Lander will navigate by digitally imaging the surface on the fly. Landing will be accomplished via thrusters, which were successfully tested earlier this year at a test chamber in Germany.

Lunar Lander’s destination will be the Moon’s south pole, where no exploration missions have ever landed. Once on the lunar surface, the Lander will investigate Moon dust using a robotic arm and a suite of onboard diagnostic instruments, sending data and images back to scientists on Earth for further study.

Watch a video of the Lunar Lander mission below, from launch to landing.

Read more about Lunar Lander on the ESA site here.

Images and video: ESA