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...

Space Travel HERTS

In the post-Voyager era of deep space flight, spacecraft propulsion designs feel like science fiction.  Instead of using rockets and a thermonuclear generator to produce heat, we have things like solar sails, laser sails, and ion propulsion.  These all take advantage of the vastness of space to create a slow-but-continuous acceleration that can get spacecraft moving at incredible speeds. Of course, even at incredible speeds it will still take decades to reach other stars, but compared to Voyager, it’s a step in the right direction. If you want to get to the outer solar system quickly, try the Heliopause Electrostatic...

New Gamma Source

Gamma rays are the highest energy photons on the electromagnetic spectrum.  Their wavelength is similar to the size of an atom, and when two of them collide they tend to produce a matter-antimatter particle pair.  They represent energy high enough to synthesize the fundamental particles of matter, and are produced in the highest energy environments in the cosmos.  The interchange of matter and energy works both ways, so one of the ways gamma rays are generated is through annihilation of a matter-antimatter particle pair.  Looking back to the beginning of the universe it gives us the earliest ‘chicken or egg’...

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...

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...

New Views of The Dark Martian Dunes

Not long ago, the Curiosity rover started taking pictures of a fascinating region near mount Sharp that was soon named the Bagnold Dunes.  Dark, sandy, and full of interesting features, the dunes are along the road that Curiosity has to travel before reaching the base of mount Sharp and beginning it’s ascent.  Study of the dunes has revealed major differences from dunes on Earth, and they have Astronomers and Geologists alike asking some interesting questions. The more I see photos of Mars, the more I realize that it’s a lot like Earth.  It has such diverse features and interesting landscapes,...

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...

And I Thought Hurricanes on Earth Were Bad…

Our species is just now reaching the technology necessary to detect features of exoplanets, and not just the exoplanets themselves.  We have seen atmospheres, aurorae, and magnetism on distant worlds, and now we can add incredibly fast winds to that list.  A team of astronomers have discovered an exoplanet, classified as HD 189733b, that has wind speeds exceeding 8,500 km / h, or about 2 Km / s. Lead researcher Tom Louden, of the University of Warwick’s Astrophysics group, said: “This is the first ever weather map from outside of our solar system. Whilst we have previously known of Wind on...

Hurricane Patricia from Space

This storm is a monster.  It strengthened from a pretty usual category 1 hurricane to the most powerful hurricane the planet has ever seen in less than a day.  This strengthening was all due to the warmer-than-usual pacific waters under the influence of el nino. Luckily the storm has weakened since making landfall and is down to a tropical depression (less than a category 1), but it still highlights the fact that warmer oceans and a shifting climate are bringing more extreme weather events our way every year.

Global Jupiter Maps Reveal Wind Speeds

If you wanted to look at weather and climate patterns on the Earth, you would put a satellite in orbit and watch the planet for a long time, looking for changes in the cloud layers and measuring wind speeds, etc.  It isn’t a stretch to think that we could do the same for another planet, especially since most of the planets in the solar system have atmospheres.  Jupiter, being the largest and heaviest planet, also has immense wind speeds and beautiful vortex features, some of which are larger than the Earth.  But in order to understand these features, we have...