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...

Ceres and Photoshop

NASA has been zeroing in on certain features of dwarf planet Ceres and looked at them in more detail.  Here are the most surprising as well as what we know so far. There are a few other great videos in this playlist, but the first one gives a great summary of what has been seen so far.  The most surprising and interesting feature of Ceres in my opinion has been the Occator crater.  With the enigmatic bright spots that have been observed since the Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres, we are seeing them in finer detail than ever before, and we...

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,...

12 Years of Martian Opportunity

This week marks the 12 year anniversary of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, part of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission.  Only expected to last 90 days, Opportunity is still working.  Not only functional, it’s still returning good data about Mars. It’s definitely taken a beating, and it has to be careful.  Being powered by solar panels and not a thermonuclear generator like it’s younger cousin Curiosity means it has to be careful to stay in the sunlight.  Dust on the panels certainly reduces their efficiency, but Opportunity has had some help from Martian winds to keep the dust from...

Ceres Up Close

It’s mapping orbit #4 for the Dawn spacecraft as it orbits the dwarf planet Ceres.  Currently mapping at an altitude of only 385 Km, the images are stunning, and give a feeling of actually being on Ceres.  I can imagine the terrain, being in a crater, seeing the dark horizon off in the distance, the rocky-ice world untouched for Billions of years. It really reminds me of the Moon, with the powdery bright dust across the surface and craters dotting the landscape, yet when I see some of the close up craters, it feels very different from our familiar moon. ...

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...

More New Horizons Images!

After focussing all of its energy on taking science data during closest approach, New Horizons has been slowly but surely sending back the stream of information collected on the Pluto system.  This long process of returning the data to Earth has meant periodic updates for humanity, and a rekindling of excitement for the newest secrets revealed about the dwarf planet.  Here is a video of the region of Pluto imaged in high resolution, followed by some of the best still along the way. This is the closest and most detailed view of Pluto that humanity will have for decades.  We...

Massive Ice Cloud on Titan

Titan is the most interesting body in the solar system from a weather standpoint.  It has a thick and robust atmosphere, a liquid cycle of methane and other hydrocarbons, and it has seasonal variations in these patterns.  It’s essentially a cold and oxygen-deficient version of Earth.  Because the seasons on Titan take 7.5 years to pass, we have few opportunities to study them up close with the Cassini spacecraft.  So as long as Cassini is operating, we are using our time wisely to see how Titan is changing.  The first major change is a giant ice cloud that has formed...

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,...