One Planet Hunter to Another

It wasn’t long after the discovery of exo-solar planets that scientists sent up spacecraft to look for them.  The Kepler Space Telescope (KST) was NASA’s first planet finder, which has been exceeding expectations since 2009.  It likely won’t get to continue on that road, as it is nearing the end of it’s life.  At the same time, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is just starting to open it’s eyes.  Today we say goodbye to one great planet hunter and hello to another.   KST is part of NASA’s early 2000s spacecraft approvals that saw relatively inexpensive missions pushed forward...

A Dusty Martian Opportunity

Mars is a planet wide desert with underground and polar cap water, but it’s general arid environment and occasional wind give rise to dusty weather events such as tornado-like dust devils and local dust storms.  Every so often, one of these little dust storms expands and becomes a planet wide phenomena, and in early June this is exactly what happened. So what does it mean for our rovers and orbiters? Global dust storms are a recurring phenomenon on Mars, and happen regularly about the planet regardless of season.  Every 3-4 Martian years (6-8 Earth years) one of these smaller storms...

Navigation by Pulsar

On the golden record that accompanies the Voyager spacecraft, there is a map showing the location of Earth.  It’s not a road map that you might pull out when navigating a city, but a 3D map showing the location of a star, the Sun, in a populous galaxy.  But just how would this map work? And more importantly, what are the map markers? If you notice the lines at the bottom left of the golden record image, they all intersect at a common center point.  This is the Sun, and the lines extend out showing relative distances to the nearest...

Double Post: Mini Stars & Morning Micrometeorites on Mercury

Alliteration is accessible to all! Okay I’m done. Start some science! Really done this time.  Today’s double post covers the smallest of stars, still larger than most planets, and the only weather Mercury will ever have. Humans are naturally interested in the extremes, the biggest, smallest, fastest, hottest, coldest, and every other characteristic outlier.  With stars, being so huge and powerful, we are often more interested in the largest, hottest, and most energetic.  Though on the opposite end of the spectrum, Cambridge University astronomers have discovered the smallest star in the known universe. The star, a red dwarf, has the...

Always an Eclipse Somewhere

As I often do, I pulled up the Astronomy Picture of the Day, and noticed today’s photo was a fond reminder of the eclipse I witnessed a month ago. I began to think about the preparation and timing, planning and organizing, the countless hours of testing gear for a single moment lasting two minutes, where the Moon and Sun aligned.  I was in the right place, at the right time. Solar Eclipses are rare, and it’s mostly because only a narrow band of land on Earth, usually around 100 Km wide, experiences such an event at any one time.  And with...

Water in the Lunar Desert

The environment on the moon is pretty boring.  Rocks, dust, and craters as far as the eye can see in all directions.  Untouched for billions of years, save for meteors and a few recent visits by a blue neighbour.  In 2009, the cold, dry surface of the moon was found to harbour trace amounts of water.  Now, less than a decade later, the first map of lunar water has been produced. The map was produced with data taken by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, which flew aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, the craft that discovered the water in 2009, along with a similar...

Cassini Science: Ring Propellors

As I was watching the grand finale of Cassini and listening to the mission team talk about the accomplishments of the mission, I learned a little bit about propellors.  Not your typical airplane propellor, but the name used to describe this fascinating feature in Saturn’s rings. Seeing Saturn’s rings from afar, or even relatively close with Cassini, we see the rings as perfect.  How do we end up with strange features and imperfections like this one?  Looking elsewhere in the rings, we can find clues. The first clue is the namesake of the mission itself.  The Cassini spacecraft was named for...

Cassini – A Fond Farewell

I remember vividly my first astronomy class in university.  Winter 2004, only months before the Cassini spacecraft was set to arrive at Saturn after a seven year journey.  On several occasions in that class we talked about what we might see when Cassini reached it’s destination.  The first dedicated mission to the jewel of the solar system, originally conceived right after the voyager flyby in 1982, would give us a chance to study more than just a planet, but an entire system of interaction between a planet and it’s moons.  Beyond that, it included the Huygens probe, to land at...

Juno’s New Jupiter

The Juno spacecraft began its long journey to Jupiter in 2011.  Waking up in 2016 it underwent a successful orbit injection on July 4th. Now after nearly a year of waiting, the public finally gets to see the first fruits of the mission. It has certainly been worth the wait.   A new Jupiter, seen from a distance of 52,000 Km, has a vivid and chaotic southern pole in the above image.  Swirling storms thousands of kilometres across whirl around one another in a sea of gaseous ammonia clouds.  Will the system remain chaotic? Or will it change a year from...