Weird Swirly Features Found on Mars

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Strange coiling spiral patterns have been found on Mars surface by a graduate student who was doing what many of us enjoy: looking through the high-resolution images from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Similar features have been seen on Earth, but this is the first time they have been identified on Mars. However, on Mars, these features, called lava coils, are supersized. “On Mars the largest lava coil is 30 meters across – that’s 100 feet,” said Andrew Ryan from Arizona State University. “That’s bigger than any known lava coils on Earth.”

The lava coils resemble snail or nautilus shells. Ryan has found about 269 of these lava coils just in one region on Mars, Cerberus Palus. 174 of them swirl in a clockwise-in orientation, 43 are counterclockwise, and 52 of the features remain unclassified due to resolution limits.

A small lava coil on pahoehoe flow, Kilauea Volcano, Hawai`i(see the pocket knife for scale.) Credit: W.W. Chadwick

On Earth, lava coils can be found on the Big Island of Hawaii, mainly on the surface of ropey pahoehoe lava flows. They usually form along slow-moving shear zones in a flow; for example, along the margins of a small channel, and the direction of the flow can be determined from a lava coil.

“The coils form on flows where there’s a shear stress – where flows move past each other at different speeds or in different directions,” said Ryan. “Pieces of rubbery and plastic lava crust can either be peeled away and physically coiled up – or wrinkles in the lava’s thin crust can be twisted around.”

Similarly, Ryan said scientists have documented the formation of rotated pieces of oceanic crust at mid-ocean ridge spreading centers.

Newer lava lying between two older plates of rough, hardened lava was still hot and plastic enough to form coils and spirals when the plates slid past one another. This image shows an area about 360 meters (1200 feet) wide in Cerberus Palus. Credit: NASA

But Ryan and the co-author on the paper, Phil Christiansen, Principal Investigator for the Thermal Emission Imaging Spectrometer on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, are certain water has nothing to do with the formation of the lava coils on Mars.

“There are no known mechanisms to naturally produce spiral patterns in ice-rich environments on the scale and frequency observed in this area,” they wrote in their paper. “It is also unlikely that ice-rich patterned regolith, which takes decades to centuries to develop, could fracture and drift. The lava coils and drifting polygonal and platy-ridge lava crust described above are therefore most consistent with known volcanic analogs, rather than ice-related processes.”
These features are probably quite young, formed 1.5 to 200 million years ago in Mars’ late Amazonian period when the planet was volcanically active.

The team’s paper presented at the 2012 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

NASA Wants Your Help in Finding Asteroids

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If you are an amateur astronomer who likes a challenge, NASA has a new project and is looking for a little help from their amateur astronomers friends. Called called “Target Asteroids!” the project is part of the upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission to improve basic scientific understanding of Near Earth Objects. NASA is hoping amateur astronomers can help in the mission by discovering new asteroids and studying their characteristics to help better characterize the population of NEOs. NASA says amateur contributions will affect current and future space missions to asteroids.

Amateur astronomers can help determine the position, motion, rotation and changes in the intensity of light asteroids emit. Professional astronomers will use this information to refine theoretical models of asteroids, improving their understanding about asteroids similar to the one OSIRIS-Rex will encounter.

OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer) is scheduled to launch 2016 and will be a sample return mission from an asteroid, 1999 RQ36. When it meets up with the asteroid in 2019, it will map the asteroid’s global properties, measure non-gravitational forces and provide observations that can be compared with data obtained by telescope observations from Earth. In 2023, OSIRIS-REx will return back to Earth at least 2.11 ounces (60 grams) of surface material from the asteroid.

Target Asteroids! data will be useful for comparisons with actual mission data. The project team plans to expand participants in 2014 to students and teachers.

“Although few amateur astronomers have the capability to observe 1999 RQ36 itself, they do have the capability to observe other targets,” said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Previous observations indicate 1999 RQ36 is made of primitive materials. OSIRIS-REx will supply a wealth of information about the asteroid’s composition and structure. Data also will provide new insights into the nature of the early solar system and its evolution, orbits of NEOs and their impact risks, and the building blocks that led to life on Earth.

Amateur astronomers long have provided NEO tracking observations in support of NASA’s NEO Observation Program. A better understanding of NEOs is a critically important precursor in the selection and targeting of future asteroid missions.

“For well over 10 years, amateurs have been important contributors in the refinement of orbits for newly discovered near-Earth objects,” said Edward Beshore, deputy principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Visit the Target Asteroids! webpage.

The Sun Does a Barrel Roll

Well, not really…… The Sun didn’t do a barrel roll; it was actually the Solar Dynamics Observatory that performed a 360-degree roll about the spacecraft-Sun line. But this video showing the change in perspective of SDO makes it appear as though the Sun suddenly shifted (that’s a new one for 2012 doomsdayers to go crazy over!) This roll maneuver wasn’t just so SDO could have a bit of fun, joyriding out there in its inclined geosynchronous orbit. The roll allows the scientists to remove the instrument optical distortions from the solar images taken by the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) to precisely determine the solar limb.
Continue reading “The Sun Does a Barrel Roll”

Few Details in ESA’s Report on Phobos-Grunt Re-Entry

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A week and a half after the re-entry of Russia’s Phobos–Grunt probe, experts have now made an official statement on their determination of where the spacecraft entered Earth’s atmosphere. But their report offers no information regarding if any pieces of the craft made it to Earth and where any remaining debris might be. Consequently, recovery of any pieces, including the Phobos-LIFE biomodule is highly unlikely.

“While this was an uncontrolled reentry, the location of the potential impact area was largely over ocean, with a correspondingly low probability of any detrimental effects,” said Prof. Heiner Klinkrad, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany.

The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) reports that Phobos–Grunt re-entered on January 15, 2012 at 17:46 GMT, at an altitude of 80 km at 46°S and 87°W, near the South American coastline. About 7 minutes later, the report says, the spacecraft’s altitude was 10 km.

“Within the expected uncertainties, the prediction has been largely confirmed by observations,” ESA’s press release stated.

And that is all the information the IADC has provided, with no details on whether those observations were from observers on the ground or from satellite and radar facilities.

In fact, most of the initial information verifying that Phobos-Grunt was no longer in orbit came from ground observations of not seeing the spacecraft in orbit over Europe after 18:00 UTC on January 15 when it was supposed to have a visible pass.

IADC members include NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency, European national agencies and the space agencies of Canada, China, India, Japan and Ukraine. The group primarily used orbit data from the U.S. Space Surveillance Network and the Russian Space Surveillance System to determine Phobos-Grunt’s path to destruction. Radar systems in Germany and France also provided orbit calculations.

Phobos-Grunt orbiter and lander. Credit: ESA

Before re-entry, predictions from the various agencies differed widely, and initially after the probe was said to have re-entered, there was confusion on when and where the re-entry took place. Roscosmos initially released a statement claiming that the probe had fallen safely in the Pacific, off the coast of Chile, but later there were reports that fragments of the spacecraft had fallen in the south Atlantic Ocean. Officials said the confusion was due to the large number of uncertainties in the spacecraft’s orbit and the space environment affecting the satellite.

Indeed, everyone involved in re-entry calculations acknowledges the problematic nature of trying to monitor things in real-time, such as atmospheric density in the specific location the object is traveling. Most of the time, the details can only be deduced after the time of re-entry, and any unknowns can alter the projected re-entry and impact point by wide margins.

And so it is not entirely surprising that the IADC cannot offer much information beyond the initial entry point and time for Phobos-Grunt.

Although much of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was expected to disintegrate upon re-entry, Roscosmos said perhaps 20 to 30 fragments weighing a combined 200 kg (440 lb.) might survive and fall somewhere over a vast strip of the Earth’s surface between 51.4 deg. north and south of the equator.

The cause of the spacecraft’s malfunction has not yet been determined, and Roscosmos has indicated that a full report on the failure will be published on January 26, 2012, although an interim report said to be available by January 20 did not appear. The investigation is being conducted by Yuri Koptev, former head of the Russian Space Agency.

Shortly after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Nov. 9, 2011, the probe became stuck in low Earth orbit after its upper stage engines repeatedly failed to ignite to send the ship on an unprecedented sample return mission to Mars’ moon Phobos. Later, ESA tracking stations were instrumental in establishing short-lived contact with the probe, leading to hopes the spacecraft could be saved. But subsequent contact was not able to be made, and without contact and inputs from the ground, the spacecraft’s orbit disintegrated.

However, the story of Phobos-Grunt’s malfunctions and demise has included some wild claims ranging from accidental radar interference to outright sabotage, along with intimations of conspiracy theories.

Several times after the malfunction, Russian space officials suggested that US radar emissions may have accidently disabled the spacecraft; at first from a station in Alaska, and then — after it was pointed out that Phobos-Grunt had never flown over that location — another Russian official said it was perhaps radar from a military installation on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

But these claims were later dismissed by a Russian scientist, Alexander Zakharov from the Russian Academy of Science Space Research Institute, who was involved with the development of Phobos-Grunt. He told the Russian news agency Ria Novosti that the radar theory is “far-fetched,” and suggested instead that issues with the spacecraft itself were likely to blame.

“You can come up with a lot of exotic reasons,” Zakharov told RIA Novosti. “But first you need to look at the apparatus itself. There are problems there,” and he indicated there may have been some known problems with the second stage of the rocket.

Later, after re-entry, links to Phobos-Grunt tracking data on the Space Track website were removed, fueling speculation of a conspiracy to hide in formation of where the probe fell. Space Track is a public website that ordinarily details such events, and is operated by U.S. Strategic Command. The military also did not publish any confirmation of the probe’s fall, which is not the usual protocol.

But later, the US Strategic Command said a human error had accidentally misfiled the information (in the 2011 files instead of 2012). Shortly after the error was discovered, the information was re-posted to the site and is accessible at this time.

The Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) capsule, on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Credit:The Planetary Society

Meanwhile, hopes dim for finding the capsule for the Phobos-LIFE biomodule which included organisms in a small capsule to test the “transpermia” hypothesis –- the possibility that life can travel from planet to planet inside rocks blasted off one planetary surface by impact, to land on another planetary surface. The biomodule would have flown to Phobos and then returned to Earth with the sample return capsule of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft.

“Because we can’t predict the details of the re-entry, we can’t predict whether the Phobos LIFE biomodule will survive, and certainly we can’t predict whether it will land somewhere it could be recovered,” said Bruce Betts from The Planetary Society, which sponsored the LIFE mission. “In the unlikely event the Phobos LIFE biomodule is recovered, we would want to study the organisms inside. Though not the long deep space experience we had hoped for, there still will be scientific value to study of the organisms even after just two months in low Earth orbit.”

Sources: ESA, ZaryaInfo.com, ieeeSpectrum/Jim Oberg, Ria Novosti. Special thanks to Robert Christy for the lead image, from his website Zarya.info

8 Years on Mars: Downloadable Rover Poster

8 years ago today, January 24, the Opportunity rover landed on Mars. In what has become a tradition, Stu Atkinson and Astro0 from Unmanned Spaceflight have teamed up to create a poster and poem combo to celebrate the occasion. While we fondly remember Spirit’s now-finished journey, the poster features scenes from Opportunity’s view of the ‘Tribulation’ hill and the hills of the crater rim beyond. And no, Oppy didn’t actually spin out in double donuts on Mars to create the ‘figure 8.’

“For a little effect, we’ve added the ‘figure 8’ in the form of the rovers own tracks on Mars,” Astro0 said. “While they may have dreamed of doing it, I’m sure no rover driver would ever be tempted to leave such a mark on Mars for real. So it was only right and proper that I and Photoshop do it for them.”

Click on the image above for a larger version or visit the Astro0 website for higher resolution versions that you can download to print out as a poster or use for your computer wallpaper. Stu’s poem — which both waxes wistful about the year of the MER rovers landing and prognosticates Mars’ future — is written out below:

8 Years on Mars

Hard to believe the Homeworld has circled Sol eight times
Since the first MER bounced and boinged to a historic halt on Mars,
Spirit followed faithfully soon after by her sister, Opportunity,
Just as Clark had followed Lewis two centuries before.
Babies born bloodied and bawling on the day chase girls
In busy schoolyards now; wide-eyed, Star Trek t-shirt wearing
Interns who stumbled along the deer-stalked paths of JPL
Now have interns of their own, and peer at screens painted
Picasso-shades by read date beamed from the true Final Frontier…

In a thousand years, when Mars has oceans of retina-burning blue,
And honeymooning couples crump across the snow-capped summit
Of Olympus, the names ‘Spirit’ and ‘Opportunity’ will still be
Spoken wistfully; and tourists from Titan, explorers from Europa
And Hyperion’s most respected historians will stand before
The rovers, displayed in all their restored gory in the Great
Museum of Mars and envy us, this generation which saw Gusev’s
Rugged Rocks and Meridiani’s misty mountains for the first time,
In 2004, the year Earth finally conquered Mars.

By Stu Atkinson

To see maps of where the rovers are now, see the Mars Rover website.

See more images and musings on space at the Astro0 website, and follow along Oppy’s journey at the Stu’s Road to Endeavour site. For more skillfully mastered images from the MER mission and more, visit Unmanned Spaceflight.

Scientists Still Searching for the Beagle 2 Crash Site on Mars

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Since its disappearance in December 2003, scientists and citizen scientists alike have continued the search for Europe’s Beagle 2 lander which likely crashed on Mars. Its disappearance is a mystery and if the spacecraft could be located, it might be possible to discover what went wrong.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s powerful HiRISE camera has been regularly taking high-resolution images of the Isidis basin region where the Beagle 2 lander was supposed to touch down.

“Nothing resembling the Beagle lander has been seen in any of the HiRISE images, although we aren’t sure that they’ve been thoroughly searched,” said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen, writing on the HiRISE website.

So, join in the search and take a look!

Above is the 12th such image taken by HiRISE.

McEwen said the easiest thing to spot would be the bright parachute — if it actually deployed. Remember how HiRISE was able to find the parachutes at the MER landing sites, and even capture the Phoenix lander descending on its parachute? The Beagle 2’s parachute would be a good clue to search for.

(As we reported earlier, the HiRISE team will attempt to image the Mars Science Laboratory during its descent to Mars’ surface in August, as it did for Phoenix.)

Dust should not be a problem as far as hiding the lander or parachutes, McEwen said. “Dust deposition over the past eight years probably would not disguise the bright feature over equatorial regions of Mars,” he said noting that the parachutes are still easy to spot at the MER and Pathfinder landing sites. “At high latitudes the brightness patterns are reset each winter by the seasonal deposits of carbon-dioxide and dust, as seen at the Phoenix landing site.”

All contact with Beagle 2 was lost after its separation from the Mars Express spacecraft, just six days before atmospheric entry. McEwen said the lack of telemetry on its way to the surface means there is little information about where the spacecraft may have landed on the surface, but searching in the region where it was expected to land is a good place to start.

You can download high-resolution version of this images here.

For an idea of what the Beagle 2 hardware might look like, see this web page.

Did a Comet Hit Cause an Explosion on the Sun?

This amazing video from the SOHO mission (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) shows a sun-diving comet hitting the solar surface on October 1, 2011 and unexpectedly a huge explosion occurs shortly after. Are the two events related? Probably not, but solar scientists don’t know for sure. The region where the CME originated was on the opposite side of the Sun from the comet hit, so that is very great distance. Scientists say there is no known mechanism for comets to trigger a CME.

SpaceWeather.com reports that before 2011 most solar physicists would have discounted these two events as being related, but earlier this year, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) watched another sungrazer comet disintegrate in the Sun’s atmosphere, and it appeared to interact with plasma and magnetic fields in its surroundings as it fell apart. Could a puny comet cause a magnetic instability that might propagate and blossom into a impressive CME? Most likely this is just a coincidence, but this is definitely an event in which solar scientists are taking a closer look. The comet, named SOHO-2143, was just discovered on Sept. 30 by an amateur astronomer.

See below for SDO’s look at two solar flares which also occurred on October 1, showing how events on the Sun can be related.
Continue reading “Did a Comet Hit Cause an Explosion on the Sun?”

Cassini Images

Launch of Cassini Orbiter and Huygens Probe on Titan IV

Here are some amazing Cassini images. There are some pictures of the spacecraft, and some pictures taken by the spacecraft.

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Here’s a picture of the launch of Cassini and Huygens atop a Titan IV rocket. This was the beginning of a 7-year journey to travel from Earth all the way to Saturn, with a few detours along the way.

Cassini Begins Transmitting Data From Enceladus Flyby
Cassini Begins Transmitting Data From Enceladus Flyby

This is an artist’s impression of Cassini flying past Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Cassini discovered strange geysers on Enceladus, blasting water ice into space. These geysers are coming from cracks at Saturn’s south pole, and scientists think it could mean there’s an ocean of liquid water underneath the ice.

Cassini
Cassini

This is an artist’s impression of Cassini approaching Saturn. It arrived at Saturn in 2004, beginning many years of incredible research about the ringed planets and its intriguing moons.

Enceladus Near Saturn
Enceladus Near Saturn

Here’s another view of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, with Saturn itself as a backdrop. You can see Saturn’s rings at the bottom of the image, cutting a line across the photo.

Crescent Rhea Occults Crescent Saturn
Crescent Rhea Occults Crescent Saturn

You’re looking at a photo of Saturn’s moon Rhea passing in front of Saturn. Both Rhea and Saturn are cloaked in shadow.

We’ve written many articles about Cassini for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the sunlight glinting off a lake on Titan, and here are some amazing pictures of Saturn during its equinox.

If you’d like more Cassini images, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Saturn. And here’s a link to the homepage of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting Saturn.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Saturn. Listen here, Episode 59: Saturn.