This year’s prestigious Carl Sagan Medal, also known as the “Sagan Medal” and named after the late astronomer, Dr. Carl Sagan, has been awarded to Dr. Tracy Becker, who is a planetary scientist in the Space Science Division of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas. The Sagan Medal recipient is chosen by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and is meant to acknowledge planetary scientists who are not only active in science communication with the general public but have taken enormous strides in helping the general public better understand, and get excited for, the field of planetary science.Continue reading “Dr. Tracy Becker Honored with 2023 Carl Sagan Medal for Science Communication”
Venus and Earth have several things in common. Both are terrestrial planets composed of silicate minerals and metals that are differentiated between a rocky mantle and crust and a metal core. Like Earth, Venus orbits within our Sun’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ), though Venus skirts the inner edge of it. And according to a growing body of evidence, Venus has active volcanoes on its surface that contribute to atmospheric phenomena (like lightning). However, that’s where the similarities end, and some rather stark differences set in.
In addition to Venus’ hellish atmosphere, which is about 100 times as dense as Earth’s and hot enough to melt lead, Venus has a very “youthful” surface. Compared to other bodies in the Solar System (like Mercury, the Moon, and Mars), Venus’ surface retains little evidence of the many bolides impacts it experienced over billions of years. According to new research from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and Yale University, this may result from bolide impacts that provided a high-energy, rejuvenating boost to the planet in its early years.Continue reading “Did Powerful Asteroid Impacts Make Venus So Different From Earth?”
Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, started off as a beautiful, smooth red grape until someone came along, mostly peeled it, tried to smoosh it, then just gave up and walked away, leaving the poor moon to look like the absolute travesty that it is. Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly what happened, but Charon just looks like a mess and scientists want to know why. Never mind its smooshed equator, but what’s the deal with its red cap? Where did it come from and why is it red?Continue reading “Charon’s Red Cap at its North Pole? We Might Have an Answer”
On July 5th, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter and began its four-year mission (which has since been extended to 2025) to study the gas giant’s atmosphere, composition, magnetosphere, and gravitational environment. Juno is the first dedicated mission to study Jupiter since the Galileo probe studied the system between 1995 and 2003. The images and data it has sent back to Earth have revealed much about Jupiter’s atmosphere, aurorae, polar storms, internal structure, and moons.
In addition, the Juno mission has allowed astronomers to learn more about how magnetic interaction between some of Jupiter’s moons and its atmosphere leads the gas giant to experience aurorae around its northern and southern poles. After analyzing data from Juno’s payload, a team of researchers from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) observed how streams of electrons from Ganymede (Jupiter’s largest moon) leave an “auroral footprint” in Jupiter’s atmosphere.Continue reading “Jupiter and Ganymede are Connected by Magnetic Fields”
In the coming years, NASA and other space agencies hope to explore the southern polar region of the Moon. Recent surveys of this region have revealed an environment rich in volatiles – elements that vaporize rapidly due to changes in conditions. In particular, missions like NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) have detected abundant water ice in the permanently-shadowed craters around the South Pole-Aitken Basin.
Where this water came from has remained the subject of much debate, with theories ranging from it being deposited by volcanic activity or solar wind to being delivered by comets. After examining LCROSS data on the Cabeus crater near the Moon’s south pole, a multinational team of researchers from the U.S. and France determined that the water ice and volatiles in the crater were likely delivered by the impactor (a comet) that created it.Continue reading “One Crater on the Moon is Filled with Ice and Gas that Came from a Comet Impact”
How do you track an asteroid that hit the Earth over 60 million years ago? By using a combination of geology and computer simulations, at least according to a team of scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). Those methods might have let them solve a long-standing mystery of both archeology and astronomy – where did the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs come from?Continue reading “Scientists Figure out how the Asteroid Belt Attacked the Dinosaurs”
The far side of the moon has been getting more popular than a Pink Floyd album lately. A variety of missions are planned to visit the previously overlooked side opposite Earth. Recently NASA announced a few more, including two landers which will measure properties of the Moon’s interior.Continue reading “NASA is Finally Sending a Lunar Lander to the Moon’s far Side”
In two days (on Thursday, Feb. 18th, 2021), NASA’s Perseverance rover will land on Mars. As the latest robotic mission in the Mars Exploration Program (MEP), Perseverance will follow in the footsteps of its sister mission, Curiosity. Just in time for its arrival, research conducted at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has shown that Mars’ surface was shaped by flowing water several million years earlier than previously thought.Continue reading “Water Shaped Features on Mars Much Earlier Than Previously Believed”
It’s no secret that Mars once had abundant water flowing on its surface in the forms of rivers, lakes, and even an ocean. For this reason, scientists continue to wonder whether or not Mars might have had life in the past. Today, the surface is an extremely cold, dry place where even a single droplet of water would instantly freeze, boil, or evaporate. Unless, of course, the water had salt dissolved in it.
If these “briny” patches still exist on Mars, then it’s possible there are small pockets on the surface where microbes can still exist. This presents problems as far as issues of “planetary protection” are concerned. However, a new study led by the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) has shown that if life from Earth were brought over by robotic or human explorers, it probably couldn’t survive in these brines.Continue reading “Earth Life Probably Can’t Spread to Mars Today”
The space agencies of the world have some truly ambitious plans in mind for the coming decade. Alongside missions that will search for evidence for past (and maybe present) life on Mars, next-generation space telescopes, and the “return to the Moon”, there are missions will which will explore Jupiter’s moons for signs of extra-terrestrial life. These include the ESA’s JUpiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), which will launch in 2022.
As part of the agency’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 program, this spacecraft will conduct detailed observations of Jupiter and three of its large moons – Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa – to see if they could indeed harbor life in their interiors. Late last month (Feb. 25th), the first instrument that will fly aboard JUICE and aid in these efforts was delivered and began the process of integration with the spacecraft.Continue reading “Europe’s Mission to Jupiter’s Moons Just Got its First Instrument”