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...

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...

Europa Chemistry

I always get giddy when talking about Europa, as many astronomers do.  It’s one of the most fascinating places in our solar system when it comes to the search for life.  It has lots of water, likely contained in a subsurface ocean.  It’s heated though a gravitational tug of war with Jupiter and the other Galilean moons.  And, as of recently, it has a chemical production system that matches Earth’s. I wonder what goes on beneath the thick ice of Europa.  Is there an ecosystem filled with alien life down there?  Life in Earth’s oceans feels very alien, but creatures from...

New England Fireball

Space dust hits the Earth every day in the form of meteorites. As much as 300 tonnes of the stuff falls to the Earth each day.  Of course, most of it is dust or small rocks, and goes unnoticed by the majority of people.  But every so often, a larger rock plummets to Earth, and if it’s big enough, it will make it’s presence known.  One such meteor flew through the atmosphere less than 48 hours ago in the Northeast USA. The bright flashes occur when a space rock, called a meteoroid, hits the atmosphere of the Earth, which rapidly...

Newest Moon Rocks Analyzed in 40 Years

Some days at work, when I am in the Space hall at the Ontario Science Center, I take a close look at the golf-ball-sized Moon rock we have on display.  I think about how this rock was brought back on an Apollo mission over 40 years ago, how it had been an untouched part of the Moon for Billions of years before this, and how it has taught us so much about how the Moon, and subsequently the Earth, formed.  But now it’s time for a new generation of Moon rocks to be analyzed, and China is in the nation...

Curiosity’s Next Step

Inhabited entirely by robots, Mars is the enigmatic planet that is under intense exploration by humanity.  The curiosity rover has been making it’s way closer to Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater, intending to slowly climb the mountain, sampling rocks from different eras in Mars’ history along the way.  One of the last regions to cross before beginning its ascent is the region known as the Bagnold dunes, strange dark features similar to sand dunes on Earth.  Photos from Curiosity show the beauty and detail in the dark features. The dark dunes have very interesting ripple features, similar to those...

Space Rocks Hit Ceres With a Splat

It’s hard to do experiments in space.  It costs a boatload of money, takes years of preparation, and even then we can’t get much further than low-Earth orbit. But there is a cheaper alternative to understanding the universe.  We can perform experiments on Earth to simulate what happens far beyond our own planet. That’s just what scientists did at the Vertical Gun Range at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.  They found that Ceres is likely a mish-mash of celestial bodies from several billion years of bombardment. Until March of this year, when the Dawn spacecraft entered orbit of the...

Unique Process Formed a Strange Lunar Dome

We tend to think of the Moon as a boring old rock.  “We’ve been there, so we know all there is to know, onto the next one.” But the Moon still holds secrets, and has its surprises.  The formation of the Moon through collision of proto-Earth with a Mars-sized object is an idea that can give us a lot of insight into how the Earth formed and what raw materials we started with.  But of course to study it we have to see what the Moon is made of in addition to what the Earth’s rocks contain. In recent years,...

What is in Occator Crater?

The short answer is….we don’t know.  It could still be a lot of different things, but take a look for yourself and see if you can figure it out. Here are the possibilities: Ceres is soon to make a descent to its lowest orbit for final mapping, and will be orbiting only 375 Km above the surface.  This will give the highest resolution data yet, and hopefully shed some light on the mystery of Occator crater. What do you think?

The Close-Up View of Ceres’ Mystery Bright Spot

The mysteries of the Occator crater on Ceres have continued to puzzle astronomers and the public, even as we have seen increasing resolution in recent photos.  The latest photos show a resolution of 140 meters per pixel and reveal striking details, though the jury is still out on what exactly the bright material is and where it came from. It seems incredibly likely that the bright spots are ices of some sort, maybe even water ice, since Ceres is a water-rich body, and may have more water than Earth!  One hypothesis is that Ceres has a subsurface layer of water,...