The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 spacecraft just reached that milestone. And the fine folks at the Society have released a bunch of new pictures from the spacecraft. Ten of them, in fact. One for each successful month.
We like to focus on successful space missions and celebrate what those successes add to our knowledge. But, obviously, not all missions are completely successful. And since some missions are at such huge distances from Earth, their fate can remain a mystery.
This was true of the Beagle 2 Lander, until recently.
The Beagle 2 was a UK contribution to the ESA’s Mars Express mission, launched in 2003. Mars Express consisted of two components; the Mars Express Orbiter and the Beagle 2 Lander. The mission arrived at Mars in December 2003, when the Beagle 2 separated from the orbiter and landed on the Martian surface.
Beagle 2’s destination was Isidis Planitia, a vast sedimentary basin. Beagle 2 was supposed to operate for 180 days, with a possible extension up to one Martian year. But the ESA was unable to contact the lander after several attempts, and in February 2004, the ESA declared the mission lost.
The Beagle 2, named after the ship that Darwin took on his famous voyage, had some solid science goals in mind. It was going to study the geology, mineralogy, and the geochemistry of the landing site, and also the physical properties of the atmosphere and Mars’ surface. It was also going to study the Martian meteorology and climate, and search for biosignatures. But all that was lost.
There was lots of conjecture, but the Beagle 2’s fate was a mystery.
Now, thanks to a new method of ‘stacking and matching’ photos of the Martian surface, which results in higher resolution images than previously possible, the likely fate of the Beagle 2 is known. It appears that the spacecraft landed softly as planned, but that solar panels failed to deploy properly. This not only starved the lander of electrical power, but blocked the craft’s antenna from functioning. This is why no signal was ever received from Beagle 2.
It took quite a bit of sleuthing to find the Beagle 2. The MRO has used its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) camera to search for other craft on the surface of Mars, but the Beagle 2 was harder to find. It never sent even a brief signal after touchdown, which would have made it much easier to locate.
Adding to the difficulty is the huge landing area the Beagle 2 had. Beagle 2’s landing site at the time of its launch was an ellipse 170 km by 100 km in the Isidis Planitia. That’s an enormous area in which to locate a spacecraft that’s less than a few meters across once deployed, with a camera that has an image scale of about 0.2m, (10 inches).
The MRO has been using its HiRise to look for Beagle 2 since it was lost. As it went about the business of its science objectives, it captured occasional images of the Beagle 2’s landing site. Eventually, the lander was identified by Michael Croon, a former member of the ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter team. In HiRise images from February 2013 and June 2014, Croon found visual evidence of the lander and its entry and descent components.
The puzzling thing was that the image seemed to shift around in different photos. This could be because the lander deployed its solar panels like flower petals arranged around the center. The panels will reflect light differently in different lighting conditions, which could make the lander appear to change location in subsequent photos. If Beagle 2 is sitting on an uneven surface, that could add to the illusion.
The HiRise images are consistent with the idea that the panels failed to deploy, and that also makes sense if the panels blocked the antenna from operating. It’s also possible that the sun glinting off the panels only makes it appear that not all of them opened.
But what’s bad news for Beagle 2 is good news for the human endeavour to study Mars. The new technique of combining images of the surface of Mars yields photos with 5 times the resolution that MRO can provide. This will make selecting landing sites for future missions much easier, and will also contribute to the science objectives of the MRO itself.
The Mars Express Orbiter is still in operation above Mars, and has been for over 12 years. Among its achievements are the detection of water ice in Mars’ South Polar cap and the discovery of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. The orbiter also performed the closest-ever flyby of Mars’ moon Phobos.
Two comets currently on their way toward the Sun have been captured on camera from the innermost planet. The MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around Mercury has spotted the well-known short-period comet Encke as well as the much-anticipated comet ISON, imaging the progress of each over the course of three days. Both comets will reach perihelion later this month within a week of each other.
While Encke will most likely survive its close encounter to continue along its 3.3-year-long lap around the inner Solar System, the fate of ISON isn’t nearly as certain… but both are making for great photo opportunities!
The figure above shows, on the left, images of comet 2P/Encke on three successive days from Nov. 6 to Nov. 8; on the right, images of C/2012 S1 (ISON) are shown for three successive days from Nov. 9 to Nov. 11. Both appear to brighten a little bit more each day.
MESSENGER is viewing these comets from a vantage point that is very different from that of observers on Earth. Comet Encke was approximately 0.5 AU from the Sun and 0.2 AU from MESSENGER when these images were taken; the same distances were approximately 0.75 AU and 0.5 AU, respectively, for ISON. More images will be obtained starting on November 16 when the comets should be both brighter and closer to Mercury. (Source: MESSENGER featured image article.)
Encke will reach its perihelion on Nov. 21; ISON on Nov. 28.
“We are thrilled to see that we’ve detected ISON,” said Ron Vervack, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who is leading MESSENGER’s role in the ISON observation campaign. “The comet hasn’t brightened as quickly as originally predicted, so we wondered how well we would do. Seeing it this early bodes well for our later observations.”
Unlike ISON, Encke has been known for quite a while. It was discovered in 1786 and recognized as a periodic comet in 1819. Its orbital period is 3.3 years — the shortest period of any known comet — and November 21 will mark its 62nd recorded perihelion. (Source)
“Encke has been on our radar for a long time because we’ve realized that it would be crossing MESSENGER’s path in mid-November of this year,” Vervack explained. “And not only crossing it, but coming very close to Mercury.”
These early images of both comets are little more than a few pixels across, Vervack said, but he expects improved images next week when the comets make their closest approaches to MESSENGER and Mercury.
“By next week, we expect Encke to brighten by approximately a factor of 200 as seen from Mercury, and ISON by a factor of 15 or more,” Vervack said. “So we have high hopes for better images and data.”
– Ron Vervack, JHUAPL
Read more about the MESSENGER cometary observation campaign in the full news release here.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Southwest Research Institute
Satellites collect more than just pretty pictures. NASA’s Earth Observatory website released this temperature anomaly map above, based on data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite, shows how this affected temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere.
See more of this week’s best images, below:
Our viewers have been sending in gorgeous pictures of Comet PANSTARRS paired with the Andromeda Galaxy, or M31. Göran Strand shared this view taken from Sweden on April 4, 2013 on Universe Today’s Flickr photo stream.
These three frames from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope show the supernova dubbed SN UDS10Wil, or SN Wilson, the most distant Type Ia supernova ever detected. The leftmost frame in this image shows just the supernova’s host galaxy, before the violent explosion. The middle frame shows the galaxy after the supernova had gone off, and the third frame indicates the brightness of the supernova alone.
The combined light of NASA’s Great Observatories creates amazingly beautiful images. A part of the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy is dazzling in this new view from NASA’s Great Observatories. The Small Magellanic Cloud, or SMC, is a small galaxy about 200,000 light-years way that orbits our own Milky Way spiral galaxy.
Using the Australia Telescope Compact Array radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, Supernova 1987A has been now observed in unprecedented detail and created this overlay of radio emission (contours) and a Hubble space telescope image of Supernova 1987A.
Prometheus keeps lonely watch over Saturn’s F-ring in this image from NASA’s Cassini mission. This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 52 degrees below the ringplane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Jan. 15, 2013.
On June 28 NASA’s Cassini spacecraft passed by Tethys, a 1,062-kilometer (662-mile) -wide moon of Saturn that’s made almost entirely of ice. Tethys is covered in craters of all sizes but by far the most dramatic of all is the enormous Odysseus crater, which spans an impressive 450 kilometers (280 miles) of the moon’s northern hemisphere — nearly two-fifths of its entire diameter!
In fact, whatever struck Tethys in the distant past probably should have shattered it into pieces… but didn’t.
Tethys likely held itself together because when the impact occurred that formed Odysseus, the moon was still partially molten. It was able to absorb some of the energy of the impact and thus avoid disintegration — although it was left with a quite the battle scar as an eternal reminder.
The images below are raw images from Cassini’s latest pass of Tethys, showing the moon’s rugged terrain and portions of Odysseus from a distance of 68,521 kilometers (42,577 miles).
The central peak of Odysseus has collapsed, leaving a depression — another indication that the moon wasn’t entirely solid at the time of impact.
Tethys orbits Saturn at a distance of 294,660 kilometers (183,100 miles), about 62,000 miles closer than the Moon is from Earth. Such a close proximity to Saturn subjects Tethys to tidal forces, the frictional heating of which likely helped keep it from cooling and solidifying longer than more distant moons. As a result Tethys appears somewhat less cratered than sister moons Rhea and Dione, which still bear the marks of their earliest impacts… although looking at the region south of Odysseus it’s hard to image a more extensively-cratered place.
Tethys is just another reminder of the violent place our solar system can be. Find out more about Tethys on the Cassini mission site here.
Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Edited by J. Major. Images have not been calibrated or validated, and each has been level-adjusted and sharpened to bring out surface detail, and in some areas deinterlacing was used to remove linear raw image artifacts.
Here are some amazing Cassini images. There are some pictures of the spacecraft, and some pictures taken by the spacecraft.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You’re looking at a photo of Saturn’s moon Rhea passing in front of Saturn. Both Rhea and Saturn are cloaked in shadow.
Here are Amazon forest pictures from space. Satellite observation of the Amazon is the best way to keep track on the ongoing deforestation of the region.
Here’s a cool picture that shows how the Amazon has a dry period too, where the skies have nice fluffy clouds. The Amazon River is up at the top of the image, with some of its other tributaries further down in the picture.
The next of our Amazon pictures was captured by NASA’s Terra satellite. It’s mostly untouched forest, but you can see regions of deforestation near the top center. The red dots in the image are fires, likely used to clear forested land.
This is a photograph of the Mato Grosso region of the Amazon forest. Officials in Brazil think that almost 50% of the deforestation in the Amazon in recent years occurred in this region.
Here’s a beautiful image of the Amazon captured by the crew of the space shuttle. You can see large clouds of smoke coming from deforestation activities in the region, as farmers clear land for cattle.
Here’s an image that shows the amount of deforestation going on in the Amazon rainforest. You can see the alternating strips of forest and clearcuts as farmers expand deeper into the forest.
Want a nebula wallpaper to put as the background image of your computer desktop? Here’s a handful of nebula images. To make any of them your computer’s background image, just click on the image to see a larger version. Then right-click on the image and choose to set the image as your desktop background.
The nebula wallpaper is the Flame Nebula, captured by the European Southern Observatory. Also known as NGC 2024, it’s a famous nebula located about 1,500 light-years away in the constellation of Orion. The bright star at the top of the image is Alnitak, one of the belt stars of Orion.
This is a wallpaper image of the Crab Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Also known as M1, the Crab Nebula is the results of a supernova explosion that occurred almost 1000 years ago. Astronomers in 1054 AD reported a star brighting in the sky, and lasting for a few weeks before it dimmed again. That was the supernova that went on to create the Crab Nebula.
This is a wallpaper of the Butterfly Nebula (or NGC 6302) captured by Hubble. This is a planetary nebula, the result of a dying star blasting out its outer layers into space. This is what our own Sun might do in about 7 billion years from now after it becomes a red giant star.
This is Hubble Space Telescope image of the Ring Nebula, also known as M57. It’s actually a planetary nebula, where the outer layers of a dying star are puffed out into space. The Ring Nebula is located about 4000 light-years away, and measures about 500 times larger than the Solar System.
This is the Carina Nebula, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. This is just one pillar of gas and dust in the nebula, measuring 2 light-years across. It’s located about 7,500 light years from Earth.
Here are some space station pictures. We’ve already done photo galleries of the International Space Station, but let’s take a look at some different stations as well:
This is a picture of the Mir Space Station, launched by Russia. This photograph was taken by the crew of STS-89 on the space shuttle Endeavour.
Here is a recent image of the International Space Station captured by the crew of STS-129. It shows how much of the construction has now been completed.
This is a picture of Skylab, the United States’ first space station. It was in orbit from 1973 to 1979, and was visited by 3 crews of astronauts.
And maybe some day we’ll live in a futuristic space station like this. It’s called a Stanford Torus, and rotates to provide the people living inside an artificial gravity.
This is an artist’s impression of a future space hotel developed by Bigelow Aerospace. The various modules are inflated and connected together. Test versions of the modules have already been sent into orbit.