A Surprising Pan

You’d think I would have learned my lesson by now.  Every time I think I’ve seen it all, that I’ve seen every strange phenomenon in space, every unique planet, moon, star, galaxy, every variation, I’m proven wrong.  I expect that the order has been established and everything newly discovered will fall into a category with no more unique variation. But here we are again.  The close up view of Pan. Pan was photographed only a few days ago by the Cassini spacecraft as it carries out the final months of it’s mission to Saturn.  It was revealed to be a...

Reflection in a Dark Universe

Like lighthouse beacons in a dark ocean, stars act as tiny islands in the vast universe.  Producing light at the atomic level from the powerful release of energy through fusion, they are the engines that drive the formation of new elements.  But in the darkness there are plenty of other hidden objects that are cold and give off little to no light.  Yet many of them are easily seen.  Here’s Why! The first thing to think about is infrared light, the radiation given off by warm objects.  Large planets and brown dwarf stars are very bright in infrared, much brighter...

Martian Water is Quick-Boil

At this stage of our understanding of the planet Mars, we have seen salty water flowing (recurring slope lineae), found evidence of ancient riverbeds, and seen seasonal changes in the polar caps.  But an important question is how does water behave on Mars? A bit of science here on Earth gives some insight. Water at sea level on Earth boils at 100 degrees Celsius, which actually defined the Celsius scale.  But as pressure changes, liquids boil at different temperatures.  As the atmosphere gets thinner, the boiling temperature of water decreases.  On Mars, with it’s extremely thin atmosphere, this means that water...

Five New Studies of Pluto

It’s been nine months since NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto.  Time sure does fly.  And even though the spacecraft is moving further from Pluto and Earth, it’s still sending back the massive amounts of data it gathered during closest approach.  As this data is received, the huge team of scientists that are part of the mission use it to characterize Pluto so humanity can begin to understand just how strange the distant dwarf Planet is. Five new papers characterize some of the latest science done on the enigmatic world.  Here’s a quick summary of each: The first paper from...

Cometary Chaos

In 2014, comet C/2013 A1, known as sliding spring, came within 140,000 Km of the planet Mars.  This is a bit more than a third of the distance from the Earth to the Moon.  Comets are small, so gravitationally this interaction was insignificant, but from an electromagnetic point of view, things were shaken up big time! Comets are small, relatively speaking.  A typical comet is a few kilometers across, about the size of a big city.  But with sunlight melting ices and liberating gases and dust from the comet’s interior, the part of the comet we see in the sky,...

A Cracked Egg Moon

One of the first things you hear when learning about the states of matter is about good old H2O: Steam, Water, Ice.  Naturally you are asked “Why does Ice float?” The answer is a simple matter of density, frozen water is less dense because water expands when it freezes.  You can do a bit of an experiment by filling a balloon with water.  Paint the balloon and put it in the freezer.  When it freezes the water will expand, and so will the rubbery balloon, but the dried paint will crack at weak points. This is exactly the same thing...

Cryovolcano on Pluto

Cryovolcano is a cool word, literally and figuratively.  You hear about it a lot when talking about solar system moons like Enceladus, and it’s one of those words that would make a heck of a great Hollywood disaster movie title, like ‘Sharknado’ or ‘Armageddon.’ I do not, however, endorse either of those movies, they were both terrible.  At any rate, a real cryovolcano seems like an interesting thing.  It’s a volcano in the sense that it looks a little like a mountain and spews out material when the pressure builds from beneath the surface, but it’s not your traditional Earth-like volcano...

The Mystery Spot of Ceres

Since the arrival of the Dawn spacecraft in March of 2015, we have seen tremendous views of the dwarf planet Ceres.  Lying within the asteroid belt, it is revealed to be a frozen world of ice and rock, with many interesting features.  None of these features had generated more intrigue than the famous bright spot in the bottom of what is now called the Occator crater. The icy spot has had astronomers guessing for months whether it is a cryovolcano, water ice, frozen carbon dioxide, or something even more strange and rare. As the Dawn spacecraft has moved into a...

Cassini Dives into Enceladus Geysers

Since 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn, giving us unprecedented views of the rings and Moons, and sending back data that has helped us to understand the dynamic nature of the Saturnian system.  The flexibility of such a craft allows for new science goals to be determined in an ongoing basis, since new discoveries often lead to new questions and new areas to focus our resources on.  Yesterday, October 28th, Cassini focused its resources on the geysers of Enceladus, flying lower than ever before over the surface of the icy moon, in an attempt to sample some of...

Ancient Solar Storms

The Sun.  A bright fiery light in the sky to some, worshipped as a god by others, seen as a massive ball of hydrogen plasma 150 million kilometres away by scientists.  Once in a while, the Sun goes ahead and releases massive amounts of charged plasma particles toward the Earth.  The particles should eradicate humanity with horrible burns and render our planet lifeless, but luckily… they don’t.  Why? The Earth’s magnetic field protects us, funnelling the particles to the poles where they ionize gases in the atmosphere and become harmless.  The bonus for humanity, aside from not dying, is that we...