Many of the planets in our Solar System have a system of moons. But among the rocky planets that make up the inner Solar System, having moons is a privilege enjoyed only by two planets: Earth and Mars. And for these two planets, it is a rather limited privilege compared to gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn which each have several dozen moons.
Whereas Earth has only one satellite (aka. the Moon), Mars has two small moons in orbit around it: Phobos and Deimos. And whereas the vast majority of moons in our Solar System are large enough to become round spheres similar to our own Moon, Phobos and Deimos are asteroid-sized and misshapen in appearance.
Feel like visiting a dwarf planet today? How about a comet or the planet Mars? Luckily for us, there are sentinels across the Solar System bringing us incredible images, allowing us to browse the photos and follow in the footsteps of these machines. And yes, there are even a few lucky humans taking pictures above Earth as well.
Below — not necessarily in any order — are some of the best space photos of 2014. You’ll catch glimpses of Pluto and Ceres (big destinations of 2015) and of course Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (for a mission that began close-up operations in 2014 and will continue next year.) Enjoy!
Mars today is a planet that appears to be mostly shaped by wind, but that wasn’t always the case. A new map adds information to the hypothesis that “marsquakes” affected at least a part of the planet’s vast canyon, Valles Marineris, while the area contained spring-filled lakes.
When the damp sand got shaken up, it deposited itself in hills. NASA says the new map, based on observations from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (which you can see below), adds credence to the theory that it was water that made these deposits.
“The conditions under which sedimentary deposits in it formed have been an open issue for decades,” NASA wrote in a press release. “Possibilities proposed have included accumulation in lakebeds, volcanic eruptions under glaciers within the canyons, and accumulation of wind-blown sand and dust.”
The map you see below was created by the U.S. Geological Survey, which has more extensive information on the findings at this website. The observations also produced a suite of research in recent years, such as this 2009 paper led by Scott Murchie at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Research Laboratory.
Here’s the awesome thing about space and social media: in some cases, you can often follow along with a mission almost as soon as the images come to Earth. A group of Canadians is taking that to the next level this month as they take control of the 211th imaging cycle of a powerful camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
While some images need to be kept back for science investigations, the team is sharing several pictures a day on Twitter and on Facebook portraying the views they saw coming back from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. The results are astounding, as you can see in the images below.
“It’s mind-blowing to realize that when the team, myself included, first look at the images, we are likely the first people on Earth to lay eyes upon a portion of the Martian surface that may have not been imaged before at such high resolution,” stated research lead Livio Tornabene, who is part of Western University’s center for planetary science and exploration.
The team will capture up to 150 images between Nov. 30 and Dec. 12, and already have released close to two dozen to the public. Some of the best are below.
NASA is puzzled by this “enigmatic landform” caught on camera by one of its Mars orbiters, but looking around the region provides some possible clues. This 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) feature is surrounded by relatively young lava flows, so they suspect that it could be some kind of volcanism in the Athabasca area that created this rippled surface.
“Perhaps lava has intruded underneath this mound and pushed it up from beneath. It looks as if material is missing from the mound, so it is also possible that there was a significant amount of ice in the mound that was driven out by the heat of the lava,” NASA wrote in an update on Thursday (Dec. 4).
“There are an array of features like this in the region that continue to puzzle scientists. We hope that close inspection of this … image, and others around it, will provide some clues regarding its formation.”
The picture was captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a University of Arizona payload which has released a whole slew of intriguing pictures lately. We’ve collected a sample of them below.
We’ve been watching Mars with spacecraft for about 50 years, but there’s still so little we know about the Red Planet. Take this sequence of images in this post recently taken by a powerful camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Spring arrives in the southern hemisphere and produces a bunch of mysteries, such as gray-blue streaks you can see in a picture below.
That’s where citizen scientists can come in, according to a recent post for the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera that took these pictures. They’re asking people with a little spare time to sign up for Planet Four (a Zooniverse project) to look at mysterious Mars features. With amateurs and professionals working together, maybe we’ll learn more about these strange changes you see below.
Not to be outdone by the feisty Opportunity Rover, the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) turned in its homework this evening with a fine image of comet C/2013 Siding Spring taken during closest approach on October 19.
The highest-resolution images were acquired by HiRISE at the minimum distance of 85,750 miles (138,000 km). The image has a scale of 453 feet (138-m) per pixel.
The top set of photos uses the full dynamic range of the camera to accurately depict brightness and detail in the nuclear region and inner coma. Prior to its arrival near Mars astronomers estimated the nucleus or comet’s core diameter at around 0.6 mile (1 km). Based on these images, where the brightest feature is only 2-3 pixels across, its true size is shy of 1/3 mile or 0.5 km. The bottom photos overexpose the comet’s innards but reveal an extended coma and the beginning of a tail extending to the right.
To photograph a fast-moving target from orbit, engineers at Lockheed-Martin in Denver precisely pointed and slewed the spacecraft based on comet position calculations by engineers at JPL. To make sure they knew exactly where the comet was, the team photographed the comet 12 days in advance when it was barely bright enough to register above the detector’s noise level. To their surprise, it was not exactly where orbital calculations had predicted it to be. Using the new positions, MRO succeeded in locking onto the comet during the flyby. Without this “double check” its cameras may have missed seeing Siding Spring altogether!
Meanwhile, the Jet Propulsion Lab has released an annotated image showing the stars around the comet in the photo taken by NASA’s Opportunity Rover during closest approach. From Mars’ perspective the comet passed near Alpha Ceti in the constellation Cetus, but here on Earth we see it in southern Ophiuchus not far from Sagittarius.
“It’s excitingly fortunate that this comet came so close to Mars to give us a chance to study it with the instruments we’re using to study Mars,” said Opportunity science team member Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, who coordinated the camera pointing. “The views from Mars rovers, in particular, give us a human perspective, because they are about as sensitive to light as our eyes would be.”
After seeing photos from both Earth and Mars I swear I’m that close to picturing this comet in 3D in my mind’s eye. NASA engineers and scientists deserve a huge thanks for their amazing and successful effort to turn rovers and spacecraft, intended for other purposes, into comet observatories in a pinch and then deliver results within 24 hours. Nice work!
What are these thick dune-like features on Mars, and how were they formed? Scientists are still trying to puzzle out these ridges, which you can see above in a more tropical region of the Red Planet called Iapygia, which is south of Syrtis Major. The thick ridges were captured from orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), and we’ve included some more intriguing pictures below the jump.
“Called transverse aeolian ridges, or TARs, the features stand up to 6 meters tall and are spaced a few tens of meters apart. They are typically oriented transverse to modern day wind directions, and often found in channels and crater interiors,” read an update on the University of Arizona’s HiRISE blog.
“The physical process that produces these features is still mysterious. Most TARs display no evidence of internal structure, so it is difficult to discern exactly how they were formed.”
This picture from the NASA spacecraft was taken in Iapygia, which is south of Syrtis Major. While scientists say these look similar to TARs in other parts of the Red Planet, the features have layers on the northwest faces and a paucity on the southern side.
Scientists suggest it’s because these TARs may have had wedge-shaped layers, which hints that they would have gotten taller as material was added to the ridges. They hope to do further studies to learn more about how TARs formed in other regions on Mars.
We’ve included other recent releases from the HiRISE catalog below, so enjoy the Martian vistas!
Don’t you love it when close-up pictures come beaming to your computer from another planet? Below are some of the latest images from Mars taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
And by the way, there’s a way for you to request where HiRISE will be pointing next.
All you need to go to this page (called HiWish) and leave a suggestion for where you’d like the spacecraft to look. For some tips on what to do:
A new study looking at several more gullies comes to about the same conclusion. Researchers examined images of 356 sites, with each of these sites captured multiple times on camera. Of the 38 of these sites that showed changes since 2006, the researchers concluded site changes happened in the winter — when it’s too cold for any liquid water to flow.
“As recently as five years ago, I thought the gullies on Mars indicated activity of liquid water,” stated lead author Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona.
“We were able to get many more observations, and as we started to see more activity and pin down the timing of gully formation and change, we saw that the activity occurs in winter.”
Observations were made using NASA’s long-running Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, which has been in orbit there since 2006. The researchers said that these lengthy missions are important for examining and confirming findings, because they can revisit data over time and change their conclusions, as needed, as more evidence comes in. Pictures were taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.
The first images of gullies in 2000 sparked speculation that liquid water could be responsible for changing the surface today. It’s true that Mars has water frozen in its poles, and observations with several NASA rovers show strong evidence that water once flowed on the surface. But, these trenches are unlikely to show evidence that liquid water is flowing right now.
“Frozen carbon dioxide, commonly called dry ice, does not exist naturally on Earth, but is plentiful on Mars. It has been linked to active processes on Mars such as carbon dioxide gas geysers and lines on sand dunes plowed by blocks of dry ice,” NASA stated.
“One mechanism by which carbon-dioxide frost might drive gully flows is by gas that is sublimating from the frost providing lubrication for dry material to flow. Another may be slides due to the accumulating weight of seasonal frost buildup on steep slopes.”
The team added that smaller features could be the result of liquid water, such as this recent study using MRO. It’ll be interesting to see what other data is churned up as the fleet of orbiters continues making observations, and other scientists weigh in on the results.