Category Archives: Space Porn

GRAIL impact site named the Sally Ride Lunar Impact Site

After her second successful Space Shuttle mission was complete in 1984, Sally Ride’s contributions to science and education were hardly at an end. In fact, the contributions of the first female and youngest-to-date astronaut were only just beginning. Her last mission, before she succumbed to pancreatic cancer in July of this year was to head the MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) portion of GRAIL’s moon mission.

GRAIL is the first planetary NASA mission to have included a camera system setup solely for the purposes of education. Not only were the two GRAIL satellites named by middle school students, but camera exploration sites were also selected by the students. Now that the GRAIL mission has come to an end with the spiking of Ebb and Flow into the lunar surface, the impact crater has been named in honor of this great woman.

At almost exactly the predicted moment this afternoon, at 2:28.51 and 2:29.21 respectively, the two GRAIL orbiters spiked at a maximum velocity of 3,760mph into the south side of the 1.5 mile high mountain on the side of a crater named Goldschmidt. This marked the end of the data-gathering portion of the GRAIL mission, sent to explore the gravitational variances of the moon’s surface. The analysis of that data, scientists say, will take many more years to complete.

Two probes to slam into the moon. No, really.

It sounds suspiciously like an Austin Powers movie, but no: the probes are not being slammed into our moon in ransom of 1. million. dollars. They’re being spiked into the moon at the end of a very successful mission to avoid leaving space junk floating around.

NASA announced on Friday that the last firing sequences were successfully completed that would propel the GRAIL gravity measurement satellites hurtling towards a sudden end. The Gravity Recovery and Internal Laboratory program was sent to the moon in order to study our largest satellite’s gravitational field in high detail, so that we might better understand the moon’s makeup and origins. The program is considered to have been a huge success, but fuel limits mean GRAIL will need to come to an end.

Even in the end, GRAIL’s contribution to NASA engineering is not quite finished, however. Because they know how much fuel the satellites were launched with and they’re certain that they’ve neared the end of that reserve, NASA plans to burn one long last firing to find out just how much is left in the tanks, exactly. This information will help engineers to understand just how accurate their measurements of fuel had been to this point to better prepare future missions.

For those that are interested, NASA will be providing minute-by-minute commentary on GRAIL’s final trajectory starting at 2pm Monday morning. Both probes are expected to crash at around 2:28pm. There will not be any video of the event, however, as the probes will be on the moon’s dark side on impact.

To Saturn and beyond? For Pac-Man, anything is possible.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Nope. It’s Pac-Man! Perhaps everyone’s favorite ghost gobbler from the 80s isn’t making a comeback to our television or computer screens just yet, but that’s okay. He’s found a much larger place to reside: in one of Saturn’s moons.

Scientists with NASA’s Cassini mission have spotted this second Pac-Man shaped feature on the moon Tethys in Saturn’s system. That’s right; this is not the first Pac-Man on the moon. The first space Pac-Man was found on Mimas back in 2010. According to Carly Howett, lead author of a recent paper in the online journal, Icarus,

“Finding a second Pac-Man in the Saturn system tells us that the processes creating these Pac-Men are more widespread than previously thought. The Saturn system – and even the Jupiter system – could turn out to be a veritable arcade of these characters.”

The Pac-Man shapes were found in thermal data obtained by a composite infrared spectrometer with the warmer areas making the Pac-Man shape. Scientists theorize that this is caused by the high-energy electrons bombarding the lower latitudes on the forward-facing side of the moon as it orbits Saturn. In turn, this bombardment then converts the area into hard-packed ice. As a result, the altered surface does not respond to heat or cooling as quickly as the rest of the surface.

Although you have to admit that Pac-Man in Space would be a pretty cool video game plot, this finding actually paves a lot of ground for future research beyond gaming. The origins of this particular Pac-Man provides scientists with deeper insight into how planets and moons are shaped, as well as the diversity of the processes in Saturn’s system. Moving forward, as Cassini project scientist, Linda Spilker says it,

“Future Cassini observations may reveal other new phenomena that will surprise us and help us better understand the evolution of moons in the Saturn system and beyond.”

To Saturn and beyond? For Pac-Man, anything is possible.

Moon river: Cassini spots river of methane on Titan

One of the more unique features of Earth, at least as far as current space exploration has been able to show us, is a “hydrologic system,” or a stable system of liquid transformation from solid to liquid to gas and vapour. On Earth, this system is one made up of water, where precipitation forms rivers, which flow into seas and oceans, and then evaporate back into a gaseous state to restart the whole system over again.

We do however have one very close neighbor which shares a similar feature. Jupiter’s moon Titan, a cold world distant from our sun, has a hydrologic system made of methane.

NASA JPL has released a photograph of a “mini Nile” which empties into a smallish a sea called the Kraken Mare, about the size of the Caspian here on Earth. Like the Nile, it is formed of a large number of tributaries feeding into one relatively straight river basin. Scientists speculate that the straightness of the main column may suggest that the river actually marks a fault line in the bedrock of the moon. Whether this indicates some sort of tectonic plate, as it might on Earth, remains a mystery.

Whereas the Nile river is some 4,100 miles long, this newly-photographed river is a scant 200 miles. But the similarities between the features of these two worlds are striking. This also represents the first time an active river has ever been photographed at this resolution outside of our Earth system.

Is there liquid on Vesta? Strange features puzzle boffins

No one is saying that, exactly. Even if there were a liquid, it wouldn’t be water, as the asteroid is far to distant from the sun and much too cold for liquid water.

But scientists are puzzling over the observations of Jennifer Scully, a University of California scientist who is working on the Vesta project. She has seen gullies and what seem to be flows down craters on the surface of the asteroid that so far have defied explanation.

On Earth, the answer would be simple: the gullies are created by liquid water flows eroding the surrounding landscape. On Mars, similar featured have been observed and attributed to liquid water in the Red Planet’s distant past.

But similar shapes on Vesta can have no such explanations, which means that if other erosive forces are at play, then even agreed-upon answers for Mars may be in question:

Indeed, scientists have suggested various explanations for gullies on Mars since fresh-looking gullies were discovered in images from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor in 2000. Some of the proposed Martian mechanisms involve water, some carbon dioxide, and some neither. One study in 2010 suggested that carbon-dioxide frost was causing fresh flows of sand on the Red Planet.

This is one more reason that scientific data is always important and often surprising: study of two completely different systems may reveal new facts that change our understanding of both systems. It isn’t rare, in fact, it is what science is all about.

Interested? Check out our archives on Vesta and NASA for even more great stuff!

NASA’s GRAIL maps the history of our bombarded moon

As our telescopes peer farther and farther into the cosmos and our Voyager spacecraft edge closer and closer to the edge of our Solar System, still we find there is a lot to be discovered about celestial bodies much closer to home. NASA’s Gravity Recovery And Internal Laboratory (GRAIL) mission explores the closest of them all, our moon.

Using two dishwasher-sized satellites to measure minute changes in the moon’s gravity, NASA hopes to learn more about the internal structure of our moon and suss out finer details about the moon’s creation. The two satellites measure the precise distance between them as they pass over the moon. As the GRAIL probes  detect minute changes in that distance, they record those differences as changes in the gravitational pull of the moon:

The gravity field map reveals an abundance of features never before seen in detail, such as tectonic structures, volcanic landforms, basin rings, crater central peaks and numerous simple, bowl-shaped craters. Data also show the moon’s gravity field is unlike that of any terrestrial planet in our solar system…

“What this map tells us is that more than any other celestial body we know of, the moon wears its gravity field on its sleeve,” said GRAIL Principal Investigator Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “When we see a notable change in the gravity field, we can sync up this change with surface topography features such as craters, rilles or mountains.”

The data has been compiled into two fascinating videos of the topography of the moon. The first displays the thickness of the moon’s crust. This one conforms pretty closely to what you might have expected of the moon, just from staring at it. The craters and gullies we know are there show where our moon has been bombarded in the past:

The second video, showing the variance in gravitational pull, reveals a much more complex world than we’ve generally assumed to be up there. The channels and pock marks reveal much more tectonic and bombardment activity than is generally understood to be taking place on the moon:

It would be interesting to see this same type of data gathering applied to other rocky worlds beyond our own moon. For example, we know gravitational pull keeps Mercury pretty hot in its center, but how much pull is really being exerted and where? Other moons such as Callisto or Ganymede of Jupiter might be candidates for further study in this way, if it is even possible to get that type of equipment that far.

Voyager 1 enters a “Magnetic Highway” outside our solar system

Just when you thought Voyager 1 wouldn’t have anything new to report, instead, she finds herself in the midst of an interstellar commute.

The NASA JPL scientists working with the Voyager project report today that instead of finding a quiet space in between solar systems, Voyager 1 has discovered what they’re calling a “magnetic highway.” This magnetic highway is formed where the magnetic fields of the sun combine with magnetic fields of other stars.

The result is a connecting band where low-energy charged particles can travel between star systems – one set flows out of the Solar System, another travels into it. And the result for Voyager scientists is that they can “taste” the elements of other star systems by observing these particles:

“Although Voyager 1 still is inside the sun’s environment, we now can taste what it’s like on the outside because the particles are zipping in and out on this magnetic highway,” said Edward Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “We believe this is the last leg of our journey to interstellar space. Our best guess is it’s likely just a few months to a couple years away. The new region isn’t what we expected, but we’ve come to expect the unexpected from Voyager.”

Voyager is currently en route to interstellar space and outside of what is known as the “heliosphere,” the zone in space created by solar wind from our sun that creates a “bubble” around our system. Scientists still do not know how long it will be before Voyager 1 exists this sphere.

A bounty of planets awaits in the Beehive Cluster.

It’s that time of year again. The season where we start thinking about harvests and crops: apples, pumpkins, squash, and – planets? According to NASA-funded astronomers, yes – this year, anyway.

For the first time ever, planets have been spotted orbiting stars resembling our own sun. These findings offer the best evidence yet that planets can develop in crowded stellar environments. These new-found planets, known as hot Jupiters, are enormous gaseous orbs that are boiling hot because of how tightly they orbit around their parent stars in what is known as a Beehive Cluster – a grouping of stars, all born at the same time from the same cloud of material, sharing  similar chemical composition.

The Cancer constellation.

The Beehive Cluster – aka Praecepe (the manger), aka M44 – sits in the center of the Cancer constellation, right next to Asellus Australus and is approximately 577 light years away from earth. If you’d like to take a look at this cluster, you’ll need to get out of the city and bring binoculars, as Cancer is a faint constellation. Be looking for it around January through March.

Although previous searches of clusters had established two planets around massive stars, none had been found around stars like our sun until now. This finding paves the way for further understanding of star migration; the Beehive clusters are currently among the youngest known, setting a constraint on how quickly giant planets can migrate inward. Knowing how quickly they migrate is the first step to learning how they migrate.

Although it has not yet been officially determined, research teams suspect the planets were found in the Beehive cluster due to its rich metals. According to Russel White, principal investigator of the NASA Origins of Solar Systems grant which funded this study,

“Searches for planets around nearby stars suggest that these metals act like a ‘planet fertilizer,’ leading to an abundant crop of gas giant planets. Our results suggest this may be true in clusters as well.”

Well, ‘tis the season, after all – happy harvest!

Forget your cell coverage: Hubble observes planet lose part of its atmosphere to solar flare

Here on Planet Earth, when solar flares head in our direction, it can wreak havoc on our sensitive electronic equipment. Satellite transmissions can be interrupted, whole satellites can be taken offline, low level electromagnetic pulses can disrupt even sensitive equipment here on terra-firma.

But elsewhere in the universe, solar flares can have significantly more severe consequences, as is the case for exoplanet HD 189733b. This planet orbits closely enough to its host star that it completes an entire orbit – a solar year, in other words – in a mere 2.2 Earth days. There are 165.9 HD 189733b years for every one Earth year.

And as the Hubble telescope observed, such a close orbit means the planet has very little to defend its atmosphere from the stripping effects of solar radiation. Scientists discovered a stream of the planet’s atmosphere exiting the planet at a rate of nearly 300,000mph, then discovered that the host star, HD 189733A, had let loose an X-ray flare that was powerful enough to have been the culprit.

How many times can that happen before the planet loses atmosphere altogether? Hard to say and there is no indication how common or uncommon the scientists think such an event might be. Science may have born witness to a once-in-an-eon event, for all we know. But HD 189733b is a gas giant about fourteen percent larger than Jupiter, so its got some reserves. Here is a NASA video which dramatizes the event:

Docking in Photos: Screen caps of the docking of SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station

Like I’m sure a lot of my readers were, I spent a remarkably unproductive morning staring in rapt attention at the live feed of NASA’s Mission Control and SpaceX’s Mission Control rooms as they docked the SpaceX Dragon to the ISS for the first time. This is a historic event which points the way to a rapidly-increasing presence in space for humanity, as there is now financial incentive for private companies to go out there and stake their claims. And yes, I realize that sounds very Republican. But our country’s history has always been an equal mix of public and private effort, as this event typifies.

Such a momentous occasion required at least a few screen shots, which I decided to lay out for you here:

Take a virtual flight into the dawn sky on asteroid Vesta

Miss the sunrise this morning? No worries. @NASAJPL (the Jet Propulsion Labs at NASA) gives you a virtual fly-over of the asteroid Vesta, composited from the many topographical photos taken by the Dawn mission. The video below shows the craters, mountains and other features of this 330 mile wide satellite that orbits our sun in the asteroid belt.

And Vesta is big: it comprises an estimated 9% of the total mass of the asteroid belt – which is the ring of asteroids and debris that orbits between Mars and Jupiter. It is considered the most geologically-diverse of the asteroids studied so far, containing huge features including a crater 285 miles across – nearly the whole diameter! – that is evidence of an impact with another object.

In fact, Vesta just behind to the dwarf planet Ceres in size, making it nearly big enough to sit in the same pantheon of semi-planets as the former planet Pluto.

[quicktime]http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/videos/asteroids/20120510/vestaflyover20120510-1280.m4v?[/quicktime]