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,...

A Panorama of Mars that feels Earth-like

Occasionally it’s strange to see photos from the Curiosity Rover on Mars.  Some of them feel distinctly like home.  I can almost imagine a person walking by on the soft sand, through the pathway of rocks, and over the horizon, like a traveller navigating the desert.  The latest panorama of Mars gives me that feeling in spades. And yet, this rusty world has too thin an atmosphere to allow a human to breathe.  It has no water to drink, and intense radiation from the Sun that prevents life from blanketing its surface.  It is human, and yet alien.  No homo...

Happy Third Anniversary to Curiosity on Mars

With all the news of the past year in the Astronomy world, Rosetta on 67P, Dawn on Ceres, New Horizons on Pluto, our old friend the Curiosity rover hasn’t had time to watch the news. Curiosity has been working hard, ‘rocking out’ (pun intended) on the red planet. Tomorrow, August 6th, marks its third anniversary since touching down on Mars and beginning science operations that would forever change our understanding of our next-door neighbor. To mark the occasion, the Mars Science Laboratory team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has released an anniversary video. For its third anniversary, Curiosity has found...

Surface Science from Philae – Finally!

A few weeks back, the Philae lander woke up and began transmitting the coveted science data it had been holding on to for the better part of 2015, waiting for the Sun to shine bright enough to wake it from its deep slumber.  As soon as it was able, it transmitted data back to the Rosetta orbiter, which then sent it on its long journey back home to Earth. Now that a few weeks have passed, we can finally see what the first science from the surface of 67P looks like, and determine its true fate. We can clearly see a...

Comets Crashed into the Moon

The Moon has clearly seen some stuff.  It’s visibly heavily cratered across it’s surface, which has remained unchanged since it’s surface solidified 4.2 Billion years ago.  Think about that – the Moon has been the same, with the exception of cratering, for 4 Billion years. This is a stark contrast to the Earth, whose erosion and tectonic activity cause the crust to change on scales of a few hundred million years. Astronomers have worked hard to learn about the early solar system by looking at the Moon and its cratering patterns.  Most of the visible craters on the Moon are...

Mining the Moon

It sounds completely like science fiction, something out of a campy space thriller where the protagonist is a miner taking a daily shuttle to the Moon to mine all the precious metals that the Earth needs to sustain itself.  But in real life, for a long time, it was thought that the Moon was a dead rock, completely useless to humanity except as the gravitational force to provide the amazing tides in the bay of Fundy.  Today we know so much more about the Moon, and its value has (pun intended) skyrocketed. For one, the low gravity of the Moon...

Ceres has a Mystery Bright Spot: What is it?

As the Dawn Spacecraft readies for orbit insertion only a week from now, the images coming in are getting sharper and sharper.  Once the craft is fully in orbit its first task will be to map the surface of the planet in high definition.  Even on the last few weeks of the journey to Ceres, we have seen increasingly clear images, and have already started asking ‘What the heck is that?’ This week’s ‘what the heck are we looking at?’ involves this apparent double bright spot on Ceres, imaged on February 19th from a distance of 46,000 Km, about an...

4.4 Billion Year Old Meteorite Represents the Bulk of Mars’ Crust

A few years ago, in a desert in Morocco, a very special meteorite was found.  A rock unlike anything ever found on Earth, called NWA 7034, or colloquially ‘black beauty.’  Chemical analysis in 2011 found that it originated on Mars, but it was even unlike any other Martian meteorite discovered.  The scientific community was extremely excited to determine its properties through a spectroscopic analysis, and today we have some answers that are as amazing as we expected. A new paper detailing spectroscopic results of the meteorite reveal that its composition is the same as the composition of the dark Martian...

Three New Earth Sized Planets Found Orbiting Distant Star

As the Kepler Space Telescope continues work on its second mission, the slow trickle of new exoplanet discoveries has begun.  In the past few weeks scientists working with Kepler data have been able to identify new planets, and of course the variation continues to surprise us all. Most Recently, Kepler discovered a system of three planets orbiting the nearby red dwarf star EPIC 201367065, which is about half the size and mass of the Sun.  The planets are all super-Earths, being only 2.1, 1.7, and 1.5 times the size of Earth and receiving 10.5, 3.2 and 1.4 times the light intensity of Earth...

Asteroid Belt vs. Kuiper Belt vs. Oort Cloud

Ever wondered the difference? The Asteroid Belt, shown above, consists of hundreds of thousands of rocks, with all kinds of different shapes, ranging in size from the Dwarf Planet Ceres at 950 Km in Diameter, down to small bits the size of dust particles.  It lies between Mars and Jupiter. The Kuiper Belt (pronounced Kai-per) consists of Icy rocks, and it a major source of short-period Comets in the Solar system.  Extending beyond the planet Neptune, Pluto was discovered to be one of the largest objects in the belt. The mysterious Oort cloud is a collection of Comets, thought to...