Philae Lander Early Science Results: Ice, Organic Molecules and Half a Foot of Dust

An uncontrolled, chaotic landing.  Stuck in the shadow of a cliff without energy-giving sunlight.  Philae and team persevered.  With just 60 hours of battery power, the lander drilled, hammered and gathered science data on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko before going into hibernation. Here’s what we know. 

Despite appearances, the comet’s hard as ice. The team responsible for the MUPUS (Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Sub-Surface Science) instrument hammered a probe as hard as they could into 67P’s skin but only dug in a few millimeters:

Close-up of the first touchdown site before Philae landed (left) and after clearly shows the impressions of its three footpads in the comet’s dusty soil. Times are CST. Philae’s 3.3 feet (1-m) across. Credit: ESA
Close-up of the first touchdown site before Philae landed (left) and after clearly shows the impressions of its three footpads in the comet’s dusty soil. At the final landing site, it’s believed that Times are CST. Philae’s 3.3 feet (1-m) across. Credit: ESA

“Although the power of the hammer was gradually increased, we were not able to go deep into the surface,” said Tilman Spohn from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, who leads the research team. “If we compare the data with laboratory measurements, we think that the probe encountered a hard surface with strength comparable to that of solid ice,” he added. This shouldn’t be surprising, since ice is the main constituent of comets, but much of 67P/C-G appears blanketed in dust, leading some to believe the surface was softer and fluffier than what Philae found.

This finding was confirmed by the SESAME experiment (Surface Electrical, Seismic and Acoustic Monitoring Experiment) where the strength of the dust-covered ice directly under the lander was “surprisingly high” according to Klaus Seidensticker from the DLR Institute. Two other SESAME instruments measured low vaporization activity and a great deal of water ice under the lander.

As far as taking the comet’s temperature, the MUPUS thermal mapper worked during the descent and on all three touchdowns. At the final site, MUPUS recorded a temperature of –243°F (–153°C) near the floor of the lander’s balcony before the instrument was deployed. The sensors cooled by a further 10°C over a period of about a half hour:

The location of Philae's first touchdown on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G. Although covered in dust in many areas, Philae found strong evidence for firm ice beneath. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The location of Philae’s first touchdown on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G. Although covered in dust in many areas, Philae found strong evidence for firm ice beneath the comet’s surface. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

“We think this is either due to radiative transfer of heat to the cold nearby wall seen in the CIVA images or because the probe had been pushed into a cold dust pile,” says Jörg Knollenberg, instrument scientist for MUPUS at DLR. After looking at both the temperature and hammer probe data, the Philae team’s preliminary take is that the upper layers of the comet’s surface are covered in dust 4-8 inches (10-20 cm), overlaying firm ice or ice and dust mixtures.

The ROLIS camera (ROsetta Lander Imaging System) took detailed photos during the first descent to the Agilkia landing site. Later, when Philae made its final touchdown, ROLIS snapped images of the surface at close range. These photos, which have yet to be published, were taken from a different point of view than the set of panorama photos already received from the CIVA camera system.

During Philae’s active time, Rosetta used the CONSERT (COmet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radio wave Transmission) instrument to beam a radio signal to the lander while they were on opposite sides of the comet’s nucleus. Philae then transmitted a second signal through the comet back to Rosetta. This was to be repeated 7,500 times for each orbit of Rosetta to build up a 3D image of 67P/C-G’s interior, an otherworldly “CAT scan” as it were.  These measurements were being made even as Philae lapsed into hibernation. Deeper down the ice becomes more porous as revealed by measurements made by the orbiter.

Rosetta’s Philae lander includes a carefully selected set of instruments and is being prepared for a November 11th dispatch to analyze a comet’s surface. Credit: ESA, Composite – T.Reyes
Rosetta’s Philae lander includes a carefully selected set of instruments to analyze a comet’s surface. Credit: ESA, Composite – T.Reyes

The last of the 10 instruments on board the Philae lander to be activated was the SD2 (Sampling, Drilling and Distribution subsystem), designed to provide soil samples for the COSAC and PTOLEMY instruments. Scientists are certain the drill was activated and that all the steps to move a sample to the appropriate oven for baking were performed, but the data right now show no actual delivery according to a tweet this morning from Eric Hand, reporter at Science Magazine. COSAC worked as planned however and was able to “sniff” the comet’s rarified atmosphere to detect the first organic molecules. Research is underway to determine if the compounds are simple ones like methanol and ammonia or more complex ones like the amino acids.

Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander manager, is confident that we’ll resume contact with Philae next spring when the Sun’s angle in the comet’s sky will have shifted to better illuminate the lander’s solar panels. The team managed to rotate the lander during the night of November 14-15, so that the largest solar panel is now aligned towards the Sun. One advantage of the shady site is that Philae isn’t as likely to overheat as 67P approaches the Sun en route to perihelion next year. Still, temperatures on the surface have to warm up before the battery can be recharged, and that won’t happen until next summer.

Let’s hang in there. This phoenix may rise from the cold dust again.

Sources: 1, 2

What Are These Hollows on Mercury?

Emily Lakdawalla from the planetary society describes one of the mysteries that’s currently fascinating her. There are strange structures on Mercury which have been called “hollows”. What might they be?
Continue reading “What Are These Hollows on Mercury?”

Hubble Discovers Water Plumes Erupting from Europa

It’s been known since 2005 that Saturn’s 300-mile-wide moon Enceladus has geysers spewing ice and dust out into orbit from deep troughs that rake across its south pole. Now, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope (after 23 years still going strong) we know of another moon with similar jets: Europa, the ever-enigmatic ice-shelled moon of Jupiter. This makes two places in our Solar System where subsurface oceans could be getting sprayed directly into space — and within easy reach of any passing spacecraft.

(Psst, NASA… hint hint.)

The findings were announced today during the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

“The discovery that water vapor is ejected near the south pole strengthens Europa’s position as the top candidate for potential habitability,” said lead author Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas. “However, we do not know yet if these plumes are connected to subsurface liquid water or not.”

The 125-mile (200-km) -high plumes were discovered with Hubble observations made in December 2012. Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) detected faint ultraviolet light from an aurora at the Europa’s south pole. Europa’s aurora is created as it plows through Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, which causes particles to reach such high speeds that they can split the water molecules in the plume when they hit them. The resulting oxygen and hydrogen ions revealed themselves to Hubble with their specific colors.

Unlike the jets on Enceladus, which contain ice and dust particles, only water has so far been identified in Europa’s plumes. (Source)

Rendering showing the location and size of water vapor plumes coming from Europa's south pole.
Rendering showing the location and size of water vapor plumes coming from Europa’s south pole.

The team suspects that the source of the water is Europa’s long-hypothesized subsurface ocean, which could contain even more water than is found across the entire surface of our planet.

Read more: Europa’s Hidden Great Lakes May Harbor Life

“If those plumes are connected with the subsurface water ocean we are confident exists under Europa’s crust, then this means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice,” Roth said. “And that is tremendously exciting.”

One other possible source of the water vapor could be surface ice, heated through friction.

Cassini image of ice geysers on Enceladus (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Cassini image of ice geysers on Enceladus (NASA/JPL/SSI)

In addition the Hubble team found that the intensity of Europa’s plumes, like those of Enceladus, varies with the moon’s orbital position around Jupiter. Active jets have been seen only when Europa is farthest from Jupiter. But the researchers could not detect any sign of venting when Europa is closer.

One explanation for the variability is Europa undergoes more tidal flexing as gravitational forces push and pull on the moon, opening vents at larger distances from Jupiter. The vents get narrowed or even seal off entirely when the moon is closest to Jupiter.

Still, the observation of these plumes — as well as their varying intensity — only serves to further support the existence of Europa’s ocean.

“The apparent plume variability supports a key prediction that Europa should tidally flex by a significant amount if it has a subsurface ocean,” said Kurt Retherford, also of SwRI.

(Science buzzkill alert: although exciting, further observations will be needed to confirm these findings. “This is a 4 sigma detection, so a small uncertainly that the signal is just noise in the instruments,” noted Roth.)

“If confirmed, this new observation once again shows the power of the Hubble Space Telescope to explore and opens a new chapter in our search for potentially habitable environments in our solar system.”

– John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science

Read more: Hydrogen Peroxide Could Feed Life on Europa

So. Who’s up for a mission to Europa now? (And unfortunately in this case, Juno doesn’t count.)

“Juno is a spinning spacecraft that will fly close to Jupiter, and won’t be studying Europa,” Kurt Retherford told Universe Today. “The team is looking hard how we can optimize, maybe looking for gases coming off Europa and look at how the plasma interacts with environment, so we really need a dedicated Europa mission.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The findings were published in the Dec. 12 online issue of Science Express.

Sources: Hubble news releases (US and ESA)

Image credits:
Graphic Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute and University of Cologne, Germany)
Science Credit: NASA, ESA, L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute and University of Cologne, Germany), J. Saur (University of Cologne, Germany), K. Retherford (Southwest Research Institute), D. Strobel and P. Feldman (Johns Hopkins University), M. McGrath (Marshall Space Flight Center), and F. Nimmo (University of California, Santa Cruz)

A Dark and Dusty Avalanche on Mars

Mars may be geologically inactive but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening there — seasonal changes on the Red Planet can have some very dramatic effects on the landscape, as this recent image from the HiRISE camera shows!

The full extent of the 1000-meter-long dusty landslide (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
The full extent of the 1000-meter-long dusty landslide (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

When increasing light from the springtime Sun warms up the sides of sheer cliffs made from countless layers of water and carbon dioxide ice near Mars’ north pole, some of that CO2 ice sublimes, sending cascades of loose soil and dust down to the terraced base below. This uncovered material stains the frost-covered polar surface dark, outlining the paths of avalanches for HiRISE to easily spot from orbit. (See the original HiRISE image here.)

Circling Mars since March 2006, the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has even captured some of these polar landslides in action.

The rust-colored avalanche shown above has fallen hundreds of meters from the middle of a layered ice deposit, spreading nearly a kilometer across the frozen ridges at the base of the cliff. The view was acquired on Sept. 13, 2013.

Check out a video explaining this view and the processes that created it below, narrated by Phil Plait (aka the Bad Astronomer).

Mars’ seasonal polar caps are composed primarily of carbon dioxide frost. This frost sublimates (changes from solid directly to gas) in the spring, boosting the pressure of Mars’ thin atmosphere. In the fall the carbon dioxide condenses, causing the polar caps to reach as far as ~55 degrees latitude by late winter. By learning about current processes on a local level we can learn more about how to interpret the geological record of climate changes on Mars. (Source)

These Antarctic Research Photos Look Like Exploration on Another Planet

Some day, human explorers will land a spacecraft on the surface of Europa, Enceladus, Titan, or some other icy world and investigate first-hand the secrets hidden beneath its frozen surface. When that day comes — and it can’t come too soon for me! — it may look a lot like this.

One of a series of amazing photos by Stefan Hendricks taken during the Antarctic Winter Ecosystem & Climate Study (AWECS), a study of Antarctica’s sea ice conducted by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, the image above shows researchers working on the Antarctic ice during a winter snowstorm. It’s easy to imagine them on the night-side surface of Europa, with the research vessel Polarstern standing in for a distant illuminated lander (albeit rather oversized).

Hey, one can dream!

One of the goals of the campaign, called CryoVex, was to look at how ESA’s CryoSat mission can be used to understand the thickness of sea ice in Antarctica. The extent of the Antarctic sea ice in winter is currently more than normal, which could be linked to changing atmospheric patterns.

Antarctica’s massive shelves of sea ice in winter are quite dramatic landscapes, and remind us that there are very alien places right here on our own planet.

See this and more photos from the mission on the ESA website (really, go check them out!)

NASA Scientists Soar Over a Mini Ice Cap

It’s quite a long way from Mars, but I can’t help but be reminded of the Red Planet’s ice-covered north pole when looking at this photo taken by Michael Studinger earlier this month, during a recent IceBridge survey flight over Greenland.

Called Saunders Island (also Appat Island) the 82-square-mile frozen slab of rock rises from the sea off the coast of northwestern Greenland, one of many islands within the Wolstenholme (Uummannaq) Fjord on the shore of Baffin Bay. Operation IceBridge, a six-year aerial survey of the changing ice coverage at our planet’s poles, is run by NASA to provide valuable ground-level information to supplement satellite data.

To me, the shape of the island’s steep rock faces and rugged inlets slice into its interior bear a striking resemblance to Mars’ ice cap.

Mars' north polar ice cap
Mars’ north polar ice cap

While Mars’ ice cap is shaped by very different processes — and obviously much bigger — you might see the connection too!

But rather than dark Martian dunes, sea ice can be seen surrounding the islands in varying thicknesses in the IceBridge photo above. Sea ice coverage in the fjord ranges from thicker, white ice in the background to thinner “grease” ice and leads with dark, open ocean water in the foreground.

The IceBridge P-3B airborne laboratory in a hangar at Wallops Flight Facility (NASA/George Hale)
The IceBridge P-3B airborne laboratory in a hangar at Wallops Flight Facility (NASA/George Hale)

As the amount of darker, ice-free water surfaces increase over the course of the year due to rising global temperatures, the more heat from solar radiation is collected in the ocean — thus speeding up the process of seasonal sea ice loss and overall Arctic warming.

Read more about the IceBridge mission here, and see a collection of more photos from this season’s flights here.

NASA’s Operation IceBridge images Earth’s polar ice in unprecedented detail to better understand processes that connect the polar regions with the global climate system. IceBridge utilizes a highly specialized fleet of research aircraft and the most sophisticated suite of innovative science instruments ever assembled to characterize annual changes in thickness of sea ice, glaciers, and ice sheets. In addition, IceBridge collects critical data used to predict the response of earth’s polar ice to climate change and resulting sea-level rise.


Saturn to Shed its Spooky Spokes for Summer

As Saturn steadily moves along its 29.7-year-long orbit toward summertime in its northern hemisphere NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is along for the ride, giving astronomers a front-row seat to seasonal changes taking place on the ringed planet.

One of these fluctuations is the anticipated disappearance of the “spokes” found in the rings, a few of which can be seen above in an image captured on Dec. 20 of last year.

First identified by Voyager in 1980, spokes are ghostly streaks of varying size and brightness that stretch radially across Saturn’s ring system. They orbit around the planet with the ring particles and can last for hours before fading away.

Under the right lighting conditions spokes can appear dark, as seen in this image from Jan. 2010 (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Under the right lighting conditions spokes can appear dark, as seen in this image from Jan. 2010 (NASA/JPL/SSI)

One of the most elusive and transient of features found on Saturn, spokes are thought to be made up of larger microscopic particles of ice — each at least a micron or more — although exactly what makes them gather together isn’t yet known.

They are believed to be associated with interactions between ring particles and Saturn’s electromagnetic field.

“The spokes are most prominent at a point in the rings where the ring particles are moving at the same speed as Saturn’s electromagnetic field,” said Brad Wallis, Cassini rings discipline scientist. “That idea and variations of it are still the most prominent theories about the spokes.”

Other researchers have suggested that they may be caused by electron beams issuing outwards along magnetic field lines from lightning storms in Saturn’s atmosphere.

Regardless of how they are created, spokes are more often observed when sunlight is striking the rings edge-on — that is, during the spring and autumn equinoxes. Perhaps the increased solar radiation along Saturn’s equator increases the formation of lightning-generating storms, in turn creating more spokes? It’s only a guess, but Cassini — and astronomers — will be watching to see if these furtive features do in fact fail to appear during Saturn’s northern summer, the height of which arrives in 2016.

Read more about Saturn’s spokes here.

Dry Ice Drives Dramatic Changes on Mars

Mars may not be tectonically active but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening on the Red Planet’s surface. This video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows the dramatic seasonal changes that take place in Mars’ polar regions when the frozen carbon dioxide — called “dry ice”  — coating the basalt sand dunes begins to thaw and cracks, releasing jets of sublimating CO2 gas that carry dark material upwards and outwards, staining the frozen surface of the dunes. Imagine what it would be like to be standing nearby when these jets erupt!

This process occurs around the upper latitudes of Mars every spring and is responsible for the dark (and sometimes light) mottled discolorations observed across sandy and dune-covered terrain.

Bright fans are created when surface conditions cause escaping CO2 gas to condense back onto the surface. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

If a prevailing wind happens to be blowing when the gases are escaping the cracks in the ice, whatever material they are carrying will be spread by the wind across the dunes in long streaks and fans. Read more about this process here.

“It’s an amazingly dynamic process. We had this old paradigm that all the action on Mars was billions of years ago. Thanks to the ability to monitor changes with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, one of the new paradigms is that Mars has many active processes today.”

– Candice Hansen, Planetary Science Institute

The images in the video were acquired by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting and observing Mars in unprecedented detail for over six years. See more HiRISE images of the Martian surface here.


Lighting Up Mercury’s Shadowy North Pole

Part of a stereographic projection of Mercury’s north pole

Talk about northern exposure! This is a section of a much larger image, released today by the MESSENGER team, showing the heavily-cratered north pole of Mercury as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft’s Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument.

See the full-size image below:

Many MDIS images were averaged together to create a mosaic of Mercury’s polar region, which this stereographic projection is centered on. MESSENGER is at its lowest altitude as it passes over Mercury’s northern hemisphere — about  200 kilometers (124 miles), which is just a little over half the altitude of the ISS.

The largest centrally-peaked crater near the center is Prokofiev, named after a 20th-century Russian composer. Approximately 110 km (68 mi.) in diameter, its permanently-shadowed interior is home to radar-bright deposits that are thought to contain water ice.

Even though Mercury is almost three times closer to the Sun than Earth is and hosts searing daytime temperatures of 425ºC (800ºF), there’s virtually no atmosphere to hold or transmit that heat. Nighttime temperatures can reach as low as -185ºC (-300ºF), and since a day on Mercury is 176 Earth days long it gets very cold for quite a long time!

Also, because Mercury’s axis of rotation isn’t tilted like Earth’s, low elevation areas near the poles receive literally no sunlight. Unless vaporized by a meteorite impact any ice gathered inside these deep craters would remain permanently frozen.

Here’s an orthographic projection of the image above, showing what the scene would look like on Mercury — that is, if it was ever fully lit by the Sun, which it isn’t.

Many of the craters on Mercury’s north pole have recently been named after famous artists, authors and composers, such as Kandinsky, Stieglitz, Goethe, and even one named after J.R.R. Tolkien. You can see an annotated image showing the names of Mercury’s north polar craters here.

Read More: “The Hobbit” Author Gets a Crater on Mercury

On November 29, NASA will host a news conference at 2 p.m. EST to reveal new observations from MESSENGER, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. The news conference will be carried live on NASA Television and the agency’s website… you can tune in on NASA TV here. 

Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington