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Humanity Will Continue to Live an Inferior Life Than What is Possible Until the Two Halves: All Individuals in Them: That Make It are Absolutely Fundamentally and Jubilantly Equal at Liberty
 

 

Year Gamma: London: Sunday: February 04: 2018
First Published: September 24: 2015

Change: Either Happens or Is Made: When It is Not Made It Happens Regardless in Which We Become Mere Logs and Get Washed Away in and by Utterly Mechanical Forces of Dehumanisation: When Made Change is Created by Our Conscious Choices, Efforts, Initiatives and Works: In the Former We Let Go Off Our Humanity So That Dehumanisation Determines and Dictates the Existence of Our Sheer Physiologies: But in the Later We Claim, Mark and Create Our Humanity as to the Change We Choose to Make and Create It Onto Reality: To Nurture, Foster, Support, Sustain, Maintain, Enhance, Expand, Empower and Enrich the Very Humanity That We Are:  As Individuals, As Families, As Communities and As Societies All of Which Now Exist in the Fabrics of Time-Space of What is Called Civic Society: One That Exists by Natural Justice and Functions by the Rule of Law: Ensuring Liberty and Equality, Along with Purpose and Meaning of Existence, Exist in Each and Every Soul Equally at All Times: The Humanion

 

 

 

 

 

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The Sunnara Arkive Year Alpha: September 24: 2015-September 23: 2016

Back to The Sunnara

The Sunnara

In this realm of wonder awe and invisible multitudes
In this realm of unfoldings of many a range of seasons
Of many a range of times and of seasons for on each
Location on earth on mars on moon on rhea or venus

It is a different time a different season a different pull
In the magnificent silence that sings the particles of an
Infinite Symphony as if an eternal phoenix invisibly
Flying with infinite wings stretching and striving on

This space a nano-dot we call home my Sunnara Ray
Where Mother Earth flows around goes around with
The Moon following a-glow with the joys of sun lights

And I look at the heavens at night and all I see is my
Soul looking out and see nothing but wondrous Eye
The Eden Eye of the Mother Earth and silent I stay

Munayem Mayenin: February 04, 2016

A Planetary Quintet is Dancing Across the Skies: Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To Read Stories Published in The Sunnara Section in September-December 2015

Junographer Presents Out of This World Jupiter

 

|| September 04: 2016|| ά. NASA's Juno spacecraft captured this view as it closed in on Jupiter's north pole, about two hours before closest approach on Aug. 27, 2016. Image: NASA:JPL-Caltech:SwRI:MSSS. ω.

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NASA's Juno Successfully Completes Jupiter Flyby

Jupiter's north polar region is coming into view as NASA's Juno spacecraft approaches
the giant planet. This view of Jupiter was taken on August 27,
when Juno was 437,000 miles, 703,000 kilometres, away.
Image: NASA:JPL-Caltech:SwRI:MSSS
 

|| August 28: 2016|| ά. NASA's Juno mission successfully executed its first of 36 orbital flybys of Jupiter on Saturday, August 27. The time of closest approach with the gas-giant world was 06:44 PDT, 09:44 EDT, 13:44 UTC, when Juno passed about 2,600 miles, 4,200 kilometres above Jupiter's swirling clouds. At the time, Juno was travelling at 130,000 mph, 208,000 kilometres per hour with respect to the planet. This flyby was the closest Juno will get to Jupiter during its prime mission.

"Early post-flyby telemetry indicates that everything worked as planned and Juno is firing on all cylinders," said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. There are 35 more close flybys of Jupiter planned during Juno's mission, scheduled to end in February 2018. The August 27 flyby was the first time Juno had its entire suite of science instruments activated and looking at the giant planet as the spacecraft zoomed past.

"We are getting some intriguing early data returns as we speak," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "It will take days for all the science data collected during the flyby to be downlinked and even more to begin to comprehend what Juno and Jupiter are trying to tell us."

While results from the spacecraft's suite of instruments will be released down the road, a handful of images from Juno's visible light imager, JunoCam, are expected to be released the next couple of weeks. Those images will include the highest-resolution views of the Jovian atmosphere and the first glimpse of Jupiter's north and south poles.

"We are in an orbit nobody has ever been in before, and these images give us a whole new perspective on this gas-giant world," said Bolton.

The Juno spacecraft launched on August 05, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and arrived at Jupiter on July 04, 2016. JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA's New Frontiers Programme, which is managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

More information on the Juno mission.

DC Agle: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-393-9011: agle at jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown: Laurie Cantillo: NASA Headquarters, Washington: 202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077: dwayne.c.brown at nasa.gov: laura.l.cantillo at nasa.gov

:Editor: Tony Greicius:NASA: ω.

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Mercury Surface Mystery Explained

Image: NASA


|| August 27: 2016|| ά.  NASA scientists at Johnson Space Centre have solved a longstanding mystery about why some of Mercury’s surface looks new, but some appears to be old. The scientists in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division are working with data from NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, which orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015. This unprecedented feat provided continuous, up-close observation of our solar system's innermost planet and revealed that the planet is extremely diverse.

One area of the planet, the Northern Volcanic Plains, is very young while the other is older and consists of intercrater plains and heavily cratered terrains. Until now, there has been no good explanation for how such heterogenerous compositions could develop. “We think that planets start hot and almost completely melt,” said Dr. Asmaa Boujibar, NASA postdoctoral fellow and lead author of the study. “As they cool, they crystallise various minerals. In some cases, minerals can separate to form different layers inside the planets.”

Earth’s Moon is a good example of this as shown in samples brought back during the Apollo missions. In contrast, Earth does not seem to have these layers, either because the minerals never separated, or because the movement of its surface plates, called tectonics, has mixed everything up again, Boujibar said. So the research team at Johnson set out to answer the big question about Mercury, which is whether its interior would be chemically layered like the Moon, or homogenous like the Earth. Previous studies suggested that the surface of Mercury is so heterogeneous that the mantle had to be compositionally layered like the Moon.

The team performed its research in the experimental petrology laboratory at Johnson, where planetary interior conditions are simulated, allowing scientists to study materials at high pressures and temperatures. Mercury is the least oxidised planet of our solar system, where most of its iron is bound to metal or sulfide rather than an oxide.

Chondritic meteorites have compositions similar to the sun and are thought to be the building blocks of planets. The metal-rich and reduced or least oxidised, enstatite chondrites represent the best candidates as Mercury’s building blocks. The researchers took enstatite chondrite compositions and subjected them to the high temperatures and pressures found deep inside the interior of Mercury.

The team’s study shows that a layered mantle is not needed. With a homogeneous interior of Mercury, a large variety of melts can be brought to its surface from a wide range of depths, which can explain the heterogeneous composition of the surface. “The key finding is that by varying pressure and temperature on only one type of composition, we could produce the variety of material found on the planet’s surface,” Boujibar said.

In particular, the study shows that older terrains on Mercury have formed by material melting deep in the boundary between the core and mantle, while younger terrains formed closer to the surface. At reduced conditions, sulfur dissolves into the silicate mantle and also influences the melting and melt compositions. The combined effects of pressure and sulfur explain the overall heterogeneous surface composition of Mercury.

The findings have fundamental implications for our understanding of how the solar system formed. They show that Mercury could have formed from materials like enstatite chondrites. This means that three large bodies, Earth, Moon and Mercury, could have formed from similar material and suggests that much of the inner solar system may have been made from the same material rather than from diverse materials as traditionally believed.

Going forward, the researchers will seek to understand if the mantle of Mercury homogenised through convection early in its history, or was it never layered, why Mercury has a larger core than any other planet, if a giant impact stripped out some of the mantle, and if asteroids already have large cores.

:Editor: Mark Garcia:NASA: ω.

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Once Upon a Time Venus May Have Been Habitable

Image: Inside Image: NASA

|| August 14: 2016|| ά. Venus may have had a shallow liquid-water ocean and habitable surface temperatures for up to 2 billion years of its early history, according to computer modelling of the planet’s ancient climate by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies:GISS in New York. The findings, published this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, were obtained with a model similar to the type used to predict future climate change on Earth.

“Many of the same tools we use to model climate change on Earth can be adapted to study climates on other planets, both past and present,” said Michael Way, a researcher at GISS and the paper’s lead author. “These results show ancient Venus may have been a very different place than it is today.”

Venus today is a hellish world. It has a crushing carbon dioxide atmosphere 90 times as thick as Earth’s. There is almost no water vapour. Temperatures reach 864 degrees Fahrenheit, 462 degrees Celsius at its surface.

Scientists long have theorised that Venus formed out of ingredients similar to Earth’s, but followed a different evolutionary path. Measurements by NASA’s Pioneer mission to Venus in the 1980s first suggested Venus originally may have had an ocean. However, Venus is closer to the sun than Earth and receives far more sunlight. As a result, the planet’s early ocean evaporated, water-vapour molecules were broken apart by ultraviolet radiation, and hydrogen escaped to space. With no water left on the surface, carbon dioxide built up in the atmosphere, leading to a so-called runaway greenhouse effect that created present conditions.

Observations suggest Venus may have had water oceans in its distant past. A land-ocean pattern like that above
was used in a climate model to show how storm clouds could have shielded ancient Venus from strong sunlight
and made the planet habitable. Image: NASA
 

Previous studies have shown that how fast a planet spins on its axis affects whether it has a habitable climate. A day on Venus is 117 Earth days. Until recently, it was assumed that a thick atmosphere like that of modern Venus was required for the planet to have today’s slow rotation rate. However, newer research has shown that a thin atmosphere like that of modern Earth could have produced the same result. That means an ancient Venus with an Earth-like atmosphere could have had the same rotation rate it has today.

Another factor that impacts a planet’s climate is topography. The GISS team postulated ancient Venus had more dry land overall than Earth, especially in the tropics. That limits the amount of water evaporated from the oceans and, as a result, the greenhouse effect by water vapour. This type of surface appears ideal for making a planet habitable; there seems to have been enough water to support abundant life, with sufficient land to reduce the planet’s sensitivity to changes from incoming sunlight.

Way and his GISS colleagues simulated conditions of a hypothetical early Venus with an atmosphere similar to Earth’s, a day as long as Venus’ current day, and a shallow ocean consistent with early data from the Pioneer spacecraft. The researchers added information about Venus’ topography from radar measurements taken by NASA’s Magellan mission in the 1990s, and filled the lowlands with water, leaving the highlands exposed as Venusian continents. The study also factored in an ancient sun that was up to 30 percent dimmer. Even so, ancient Venus still received about 40 percent more sunlight than Earth does today.

“In the GISS model’s simulation, Venus’ slow spin exposes its dayside to the sun for almost two months at a time,” co-author and fellow GISS scientist Anthony Del Genio said. “This warms the surface and produces rain that creates a thick layer of clouds, which acts like an umbrella to shield the surface from much of the solar heating. The result is mean climate temperatures that are actually a few degrees cooler than Earth’s today.”

The research was done as part of NASA’s Planetary Science Astrobiology program through the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science:NExSS program, which seeks to accelerate the search for life on planets orbiting other stars, or exoplanets, by combining insights from the fields of astrophysics, planetary science, heliophysics, and Earth science. The findings have direct implications for future NASA missions, such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and James Webb Space Telescope, which will try to detect possible habitable planets and characterize their atmospheres.

By Michael Cabbage and Leslie McCarthy: NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York City

:Editor: Rob Garner:NASA: ω.

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Spotlight on Schiaparelli’s Landing Site

Image: ESA:DLR:FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

|| August 14: 2016|| ά. Schiaparelli, the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module of the joint ESA:Roscosmos ExoMars 2016 mission, will target the Meridiani Planum region for its October landing, as seen in this mosaic created from Mars Express images.  The landing ellipse, measuring 100 x 15 km, is located close to the equator, in the southern highlands of Mars. The region was chosen based on its relatively flat and smooth characteristics, as indicated in the topography map, in order to satisfy landing safety requirements for Schiaparelli.

NASA’s Opportunity rover also landed within this ellipse near Endurance crater in Meridiani Planum, in 2004, and has been exploring the 22 km-wide Endeavour crater for the last five years. Endeavour lies just outside the south-eastern extent of Schiaparelli’s landing ellipse. The region has also been well studied from orbit and is shown to host clay sediments and sulphates that were likely formed in the presence of water. Indeed, a number of water-carved channels are also clearly visible, in particular in the southern portion of the image.

Dune fields are seen inside a number of the craters in the region, and along with the dark deposits surrounding them, are likely shaped by wind and dust storms. Although Schiaparelli’s main task is to demonstrate technologies needed to safely land on Mars, its small suite of scientific instruments will also record the wind speed, humidity, pressure and temperature at its landing site.

It will also obtain the first measurements of electric fields on the surface of Mars that, combined with measurements of the concentration of atmospheric dust, will provide new insights into the role of electric forces in dust lifting, the trigger for dust storms.  Schiaparelli is riding to Mars on board the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. The mission launched on a Proton rocket from Baikonur on March 14, and is on course for a October 19 rendezvous with the Red Planet.

Schiaparelli will separate from its mothership on October 16; three days later, it will use a combination of a heat shield, a parachute, a propulsion system and a crushable structure to slow down during its six-minute descent to the surface of Mars.  ESA’s Mars Express, which has been in orbit at the Red Planet since 2003, is among the fleet of orbiters that will act as a data relay during Schiaparelli’s short battery-powered mission on the surface.

Images acquired with the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on August 23, 26 nd 29, 2005, and August 01, 2010, were used to compile the four-image colour mosaic featured in this release. ω.

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New Research Reveals Fluctuating Atmosphere of Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon

Artist’s concept of the atmospheric collapse of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io, which is eclipsed by Jupiter for two hours of each day, 1.7 Earth days. The resulting temperature drop freezes sulfur dioxide gas, causing the atmosphere to “deflate,” as seen in the shadowed area on the left. Image: SwRI:Andrew Blanchard

 



|| August 06: 2016|| ά.  Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io has a thin atmosphere that collapses in the shadow of Jupiter, condensing as ice, according to a new study by NASA-funded researchers. The study reveals the freezing effects of Jupiter’s shadow during daily eclipses on the moon’s volcanic gases. “This research is the first time scientists have observed this remarkable phenomenon directly, improving our understanding of this geologically active moon,” said Constantine Tsang, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The study was published Aug 02 in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Io is the most volcanically active object in the solar system. The volcanoes are caused by tidal heating, the result of gravitational forces from Jupiter and other moons. These forces result in geological activity, most notably volcanoes that emit umbrella-like plumes of sulfur dioxide gas that can extend up to 300 miles, 480 kilometers above Io and produce extensive basaltic lava fields that can flow for hundreds of miles.

The new study documents atmospheric changes on Io as the giant planet casts its shadow over the moon’s surface during daily eclipses. Io’s thin atmosphere, which consists primarily of sulfur dioxide:SO2 gas emitted from volcanoes, collapses as the SO2 freezes onto the surface as ice when Io is shaded by Jupiter, then is restored when the ice warms and sublimes i.e. transforms from solid back to gas, when the moon moves out of eclipse back into sunlight.

The study used the large eight-meter Gemini North telescope in Hawaii and an instrument called the Texas Echelon Cross Echelle Spectrograph:TEXES. Data showed that Io’s atmosphere begins to “deflate” when the temperatures drop from -235 degrees Fahrenheit in sunlight to -270 degrees Fahrenheit during eclipse. Eclipse occurs two hours of every Io day, 1.7 Earth days. In full eclipse, the atmosphere effectively collapses, as most of the sulfur dioxide gas settles as frost on the moon’s surface. The atmosphere redevelops as the surface warms once the moon returns to full sunlight.

“This confirms that Io’s atmosphere is in a constant state of collapse and repair, and shows that a large fraction of the atmosphere is supported by sublimation of SO2 ice,” said John Spencer, a co-author of the new study, also at the Southwest Research Institute. “Though Io’s hyperactive volcanoes are the ultimate source of the SO2, sunlight controls the atmospheric pressure on a daily basis by controlling the temperature of the ice on the surface. We’ve long suspected this, but can finally watch it happen.”

Prior to the study, no direct observations of Io’s atmosphere in eclipse had been possible because Io’s atmosphere is difficult to observe in the darkness of Jupiter’s shadow. This breakthrough was possible because TEXES measures the atmosphere using heat radiation, not sunlight, and the giant Gemini telescope can sense the faint heat signature of Io’s collapsing atmosphere.

The observations occurred over two nights in November 2013, when Io was more than 420 million miles (675 million kilometers) from Earth. On both occasions, Io was observed moving into Jupiter’s shadow for a period about 40 minutes before and after the start of the eclipse. The research was funded by NASA’s Solar System Workings and Solar System Observations programs. ω.

:Editor: Tricia Talbert:NASA:

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The Rhea Perfection


Image: NASA:JPL-Caltech:Space Science Institute


|| August 04: 2016|| ά. Rhea, like many moons in the outer solar system, appears dazzlingly bright in full sunlight. This is the signature of the water ice that forms most of the moon's surface. Rhea, 949 miles or 1,527 kilometres across, is Saturn's second largest moon after Titan. Its ancient surface is one of the most heavily cratered of all of Saturn's moons. Subtle albedo variations across the disk of Rhea hint at past geologic activity.

This view looks toward the anti-Saturn hemisphere of Rhea. North on Rhea is up and rotated 36 degrees to the right. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on June 03, 2016 using a spectral filter which preferentially admits wavelengths of ultraviolet light centered at 338 nanometers.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 365,000 miles, 587,000 kilometres from Rhea and at a Sun-Rhea-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 09 degrees. Image scale is 2.4 miles, 3.9 kilometres per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA:the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations centre is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

:Editor: Tony Greicius:NASA: ω.

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Solar Eruption Larger Than Earth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Released 01.08.2016 11:13: The Inset Image: SOHO:ESA:NASA: The Outside image: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University Image

|| August 01: 2016|| ά. A gigantic ribbon of hot gas bursts upwards from the Sun, guided by a giant loop of invisible magnetism. This remarkable image was captured on July 27, 1999 by SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Earth is superimposed for comparison and shows that from top to bottom the loop of gas, or prominence, extends about 35 times the diameter of our planet into space.

A prominence is an extension of gas that arches up from the surface of the Sun. Prominences are sculpted by magnetic fields that are generated inside the Sun, and then burst through the surface, propelling themselves into the solar atmosphere. The Sun is predominantly made of plasma, an electrified gas of electrons and ions. Being electrically charged, the ions respond to magnetic fields. So when the magnetic loops reach up into the solar atmosphere, huge streams of plasma are attracted to fill them, creating the prominences that can last for weeks or months.

Spectacular prominences like this one are not particularly common, a few being detected each year. When they start to collapse, mostly the gas ‘drains’ down the magnetic field lines back into the Sun. Occasionally, however, they become unstable and release their energy into space. These eruptive prominences fling out a huge quantity of plasma that solar physicists call a coronal mass ejection. Solar flares are also associated with coronal mass ejections.

If this plasma hits Earth it can disrupt satellites, power grids and communications. It also causes the aurora to shine in the polar skies. Taken by SOHO’s ultraviolet telescope, this image shows ionised helium at a temperature of about 70 000ºC. ω.

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ExoMars: Meridiani Planum, Soon You Will Be Mearth: October 19

“The engine provides about the same force as that needed to lift a 45 kg weight in a fitness studio, and it ran for about 52 minutes, so that’s quite a significant push,” says Silvia Sangiorgi, deputy spacecraft operations manager, seen at centre in the photo. Today’s burn was extremely accurate, and resulted in an extremely slight under performance of 0.01%. The next firing is set for August 11. Image: ESA

|| July 28: 2016|| ά. Following a lengthy firing of its powerful engine this morning, ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is on track to arrive at the Red Planet in October. ExoMars made its first critical manoeuvre since its March 14 launch this morning, firing its engine for 52 minutes to help it intercept Mars on October 19. ExoMars, a joint mission with Russia’s Roscosmos, has already travelled well over half way of its nearly 500 million km journey.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, TGO, is carrying the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator. Upon arrival, Schiaparelli will test the technology needed for the 2020 rover to make a controlled landing, while its parent craft will brake into an elliptical orbit around Mars. Over the following months, TGO will shave the outer reaches of the atmosphere to lower its orbit. Its final circular orbit at about 400 km altitude will allow it to begin its five-year scientific mission in December 2017.

TGO will analyse rare gases in the planet’s atmosphere, especially methane, which on Earth may indicate either active geological or biological processes. Today’s deep-space firing began automatically at 09:30 GMT, after commands to orient itself and ignite the 424 N main engine were uploaded on Tuesday. The manoeuvre was closely monitored by ESA’s mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, who followed the craft’s signals via the highly sensitive radio dish at New Norcia, Australia.

“The engine provides about the same force as that needed to lift a 45 kg weight in a fitness studio, and it ran for about 52 minutes, so that’s quite a significant push,” says Silvia Sangiorgi, deputy spacecraft operations manager. The firing was planned well in advance, and its duration was carefully calculated to minimise fuel consumption for the overall set of cruise and Mars capture manoeuvres. These include a second burn on August 11 and smaller ‘trim’ manoeuvres on September 19 and October 14.

A brief burn was made on July 18 to test the engine for the first time. The performance that day was not as expected because of a misconfiguration, so a repeat test was done on July 21, which ran perfectly. “Today’s burn was the biggest of the four planned that will enable ExoMars to intercept Mars and precisely deliver the Schiaparelli lander on October 19 onto Meridiani Planum, a large, flat region near the equator,” says flight operations director Michel Denis.

Calculating today’s burn was done with the assistance of an ultra-precise navigation technique that pinpoints the craft’s position to within 1000 m at a distance of 150 million km from Earth. In addition to the firing slots available in September and October, which will provide final fine adjustments to the trajectory before the separation of Schiaparelli on October 16, ExoMars must also raise its orbit on October 17 and manoeuvre into Mars orbit on October 19.

Teams have been using the relatively quiet cruise phase to test spacecraft systems, including the Schiaparelli lander and the radio unit that will be used to relay data from rovers on Mars, and to check TGO’s four science instruments. ω.

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For Journey to Mars: Beneath the Sea

Marine science training for NEEMO: Released 19.07.2016 11:19: Image: NASA NEEMO
 

|| July 24: 2016|| ά. This year, NASA’s underwater training mission for astronauts promises to be longer and better than ever. Starting on July 21, space agencies will test technologies and research international crew behaviour for long-duration missions using a permanent underwater base off the coast of Florida. The 21st NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO, sortie will enact a mission to Mars to test equipment for astronauts. The six ‘aquanauts’ will spend 16 days 20 m underwater in their habitat and perform ‘waterwalks, by adjusting their buoyancy, the aquanauts can simulate Mars gravity.

ESA is sending Hervé Stevenin and Matthias Maurer from the European Astronaut Centre to take part in the mission. Hervé explains: “We have taken part in previous NEEMOs facing the challenges of future space exploration missions. Each time we improve our operational concepts for spacewalks and our interactions with ground control for a future Mars mission, but what we learn here is also fully applicable to a manned Moon mission.”

Matthias will stay the full 16 days with NASA astronaut Megan McArthur. They will be accompanied by NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and research scientist Marc O'Griofa, who will change half way through for research scientists Dawn Kernagis and Noel DuToit.

 As on the International Space Station, NEEMO missions are international and the crew will test new equipment and run experiments. The Japanese Multi-Omics experiment is also being conducted on the Space Station, ESA astronaut Tim Peake is one of the test subjects.

The aquanauts will also be testing a new version of ESA’s mobiPV, a wearable prototype that gives astronauts access to hands-free instructions with audio and video that only they hear and see. The equipment was tested on previous underwater sorties as well as by ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen in space during his 10-day mission.

Based on the results of this year’s mission, a second flight version is expected to fly to the Space Station in 2017. mobiPV will be used by the aquanauts to help take and analyse water samples throughout the mission to test AquaPad, an ESA-led investigation to filter water cheaply and easily using a new type of biomimetic membrane that copies nature.

Ground control will follow and help the aquanauts with their own mobiPV. This, too, was tested on the Space Station and will be used again by ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet during his mission beginning in November. Further experiments will test virtual-reality headsets for mission operations and examine nutrition for astronauts in extreme environments.

Matthias concludes: “I am looking forward immensely to this adventure with the international crew. We might only be 20 m underwater but it takes over 16 hours to decompress and return to the surface, longer than it would take to return to Earth if you were on the International Space Station.” ω.

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What Shall I Call Thee: Thou That Hath No Name?

Mars Express spies a nameless and ancient impact crater: Image: ESA:DLR:FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO


|| July 19: 2016|| ά. This striking perspective view from ESA’s Mars Express shows an unnamed but eye-catching impact crater on Mars. This region sits south-west of a dark plain named Mare Serpentis, the sea of serpents, which in turn is located in Noachis Terra, the land of Noah’. Noachis Terra is one of the oldest known regions on the Red Planet, dating back at least 3.9 billion years. In fact, the earliest martian era, the Noachian epoch, is named after it. Noachis Terra is representative of ancient Mars’ surface, which is characteristically peppered with craters that have been preserved for billions of years, although many have degraded over time.

The crater visible on the top right of this image is around 4 km deep and 50 km in diameter. At its very centre is a small depression known as a central pit. These are common in craters on rocky worlds throughout the Solar System, especially on Mars, and are thought to form as icy material explosively vaporises and turns to gas in the heat of the initial crater-forming collision.

The outer walls around the crater are slightly raised above its surroundings. These stacked deposits may have formed during the impact that carved out the crater itself. As a rocky impactor slammed into the surface of Mars it likely compacted the loose and powdery material, small-grained dust and soil dubbed ‘regolith’, to form a small plateau that has stood the test of time.

Just within the crater walls are channels and valleys threading and weaving down the inner slope, these are thought to have been carved and sculpted by running water. This water, locked up within the soil as groundwater and ice, would have melted as the Sun illuminated the crater walls, driving fluvial erosion processes and sketching thin lines down towards the centre of the crater.

This image was created using data from the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera’s stereo channels, resulting in this oblique perspective, as well as its colour and nadir channels, creating the colour. The data were obtained on July 29, 2015 during orbit 14680. The resolution is approximately 14 m per pixel and the image is centred at 37° East and 35° South.
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One Year Later: New Horizons’ Top 10 Discoveries at Pluto

|| July 17: 2016|| ά. Where were you at 07:49 Eastern Time on July 14, 2015? Three billion miles from Earth, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, moving at speeds that would get it from New York to Los Angeles in about four minutes, was pointing cameras, spectrometers, and other sensors at Pluto and its moons, distant worlds that humankind had never seen up close – recording hundreds of pictures and other data that would forever change our view of the outer solar system.

“New Horizons not only completed the era of first reconnaissance of the planets, the mission has intrigued and inspired. Who knew that Pluto would have a heart?” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green. “Even today, New Horizons captures our imagination, rekindles our curiosity, and reminds us of what’s possible.”

To say that New Horizons shook the foundation of planetary science is an understatement—discoveries already culled from the pictures and compositional and space environment readings have not only introduced us to the Pluto system, but hint at what awaits as scientists examine other worlds in the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, lists the mission’s most surprising and amazing findings from Pluto, so far:

Illustration of Pluto and its next science target, 2014 MU69, with the trajectory of New Horizons in yellow. Image: Alex Parker

The complexity of Pluto and its satellites is far beyond what we expected.
The degree of current activity on Pluto’s surface and the youth of some surfaces on Pluto are simply astounding.
Pluto’s atmospheric hazes and lower-than-predicted atmospheric escape rate upended all of the pre-flyby models.
Charon’s enormous equatorial extensional tectonic belt hints at the freezing of a former water ice ocean inside Charon in the distant past. Other evidence found by New Horizons indicates Pluto could well have an internal water-ice ocean today.
All of Pluto’s moons that can be age-dated by surface craters have the same, ancient age—adding weight to the theory that they were formed together in a single collision between Pluto and another planet in the Kuiper Belt long ago.
Charon’s dark, red polar cap is unprecedented in the solar system and may be the result of atmospheric gases that escaped Pluto and then accreted on Charon’s surface.
Pluto’s vast 1,000-kilometer-wide heart-shaped nitrogen glacier (informally called Sputnik Planum) that New Horizons discovered is the largest known glacier in the solar system.
Pluto shows evidence of vast changes in atmospheric pressure and, possibly, past presence of running or standing liquid volatiles on its surface – something only seen elsewhere on Earth, Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan in our solar system.
The lack of additional Pluto satellites beyond what was discovered before New Horizons was unexpected.
Pluto’s atmosphere is blue. Who knew?

“It’s strange to think that only a year ago, we still had no real idea of what the Pluto system was like,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “But it didn’t take long for us to realize Pluto was something special, and like nothing we ever could have expected. We’ve been astounded by the beauty and complexity of Pluto and its moons and we’re excited about the discoveries still to come.”

New Horizons is now nearly 300 million miles beyond Pluto, speeding to its next destination deeper into the Kuiper Belt, following NASA approval of an extended mission. About 80 percent of the data stored on the spacecraft’s recorders has been sent to Earth; transmission of the remainder will be complete by October.

“Our entire team is proud to have accomplished the first exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, something many of us had worked to achieve since the 1990s,” said Stern. “The data that New Horizons sent back about Pluto and its system of moons has revolutionised planetary science and inspired people of all ages across the world about space exploration. It’s been a real privilege to be able to do that, for which I’ll be forever indebted to our team and our nation.” ω.

:Editor: Bill Keeter:NASA:

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Enceladus and Her Paper-thin Crust

Released 05.07.2016:14:00: Image: LPG-CNRS-U. Nantes:Charles U. Prague
 

|| July 05: 2016|| ά. Of all the icy moons in the Solar System, Saturn’s moon Enceladus is probably the ‘hottest’ when measured for its potential to host life. Despite its distance from Earth, it may also be the easiest to investigate. Buried beneath its icy crust is a global ocean of water, much like the one scientists are convinced lies inside Jupiter’s moon Europa. The question is how to get below what is probably tens of kilometres of ice to see if there is life in the water.

Although this is the problem at Europa, at Enceladus the moon does some of the work for you. At its south poles, huge geysers of water jet into space. These come from the ocean depths and suggest that the ice there must be relatively thin for this to happen. But how thin? Planetary scientists may now have an answer.

The international Cassini spacecraft has been paying particular attention to Enceladus since arriving at Saturn in 2004. Indeed, it was Cassini that discovered the geysers on Enceladus in the first place. Now there are more than 100 individual jets known on the moon, each spewing water into space. A team of independent researchers have now taken all of the data about Enceladus collected by the spacecraft and built a computer simulation of the moon that includes the thickness of the ice crust.

This picture of Enceladus has been created using data taken by Cassini’s high-resolution camera. The ice crust thickness, indicated by the colour, has then been plotted over the moon’s surface. According to the model, the thickness varies between about 35 km in the cratered equatorial regions, yellow, to less than 5 km in the active south polar terrain, blue.

In astronomical terms, this is paper-thin. The model predicts that the 505 km-wide moon contains a core that is 360–370 km in diameter. The rest is ocean and the ice crust, with the ice crust itself having an average thickness of 18–22 km.

Remarkably, however, the model predicts that the thickness of the ice reduces to less than 5 km at the south pole. This could make it easier for the water to escape along cracks and fissures.

Last year Cassini flew through the geysers, analysing the water with its instruments. On previous occasions, the discovery of silica particles, likely originating from Enceladus, and the presence of methane in the water plumes indicated there is hydrothermal activity at the ocean’s floor. This water and the chemicals were then transported from the floor to the base of the ice crust, and subsequently jetted through and out into space.

No one knows how the geysers are powered but showing that the ice crust could be much thinner than previously thought is intriguing.
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Happy 4th of July Jupiter: Juno Arrives at Jupiter After an Almost Five-Year Journey

Image: NASA


|| July 03: 2016|| ά. This Fourth of July, tomorrow, NASA’s solar-powered Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter after an almost five-year journey. In the evening of July 04, Juno will perform a suspenseful orbit insertion maneuver, a 35-minute burn of its main engine, to slow the spacecraft by about 1,212 miles per hour, 542 meters per second, so it can be captured into the gas giant’s orbit. NASA TV coverage of orbital insertion begins on July 04 at 10:30 p.m. EDT.

Once in Jupiter’s orbit, the spacecraft will circle the Jovian world 37 times during 20 months, skimming to within 3,100 miles:5,000 km: above the cloud tops. This is the first time a spacecraft will orbit the poles of Jupiter, providing new answers to ongoing mysteries about the planet’s core, composition and magnetic fields.
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Venus Full of Potential But Not for Water

 Electric field at Venus: Image: ESAESA–C. Carreau

|| June 25: 2016|| ά. ESA’s Venus Express may have helped to explain the puzzling lack of water on Venus. The planet has a surprisingly strong electric field – the first time this has been measured at any planet, that is sufficient to deplete its upper atmosphere of oxygen, one of the components of water. Venus is often called Earth’s twin, since the second planet from the Sun is only slightly smaller than our own. But its atmosphere is quite different, consisting mainly of carbon dioxide, with a little nitrogen and trace amounts of sulphur dioxide and other gases. It is much thicker than Earth’s, reaching pressures of over 90 times that of Earth at sea level, and incredibly dry, with a relative abundance of water about 100 times lower than in Earth’s gaseous shroud.

In addition, Venus now has a runaway greenhouse effect and a surface temperature high enough to melt lead. Also, unlike our home planet, it has no significant magnetic field of its own. Scientists think Venus did once host large amounts of water on its surface over 4 billion years ago. But as it heated up, much of this water evaporated into the atmosphere, where it could then be ripped apart by sunlight and subsequently lost to space.

The solar wind – a powerful stream of charged subatomic particles blowing from the Sun – is one of the culprits, stripping hydrogen ions (protons) and oxygen ions from the planet’s atmosphere and so depriving it of the raw materials that make water. Now, scientists using Venus Express have identified another difference between the two planets: Venus has a substantial electric field, with a potential around 10 V.

This is at least five times larger than expected. Previous observations in search of electric fields at Earth and Mars have failed to make a decisive detection, but they indicate that, if one exists, it is less than 2 V. “We think that all planets with atmospheres have a weak electric field, but this is the first time we have actually been able to detect one,” says Glyn Collinson from NASA’s Goddard Flight Space Center, lead author of the study.

In any planetary atmosphere, protons and other ions feel a pull from the planet’s gravity. Electrons are much lighter and thus feel a smaller pull – they are able to escape the gravitational tug more easily. As the negative electrons drift upwards in the atmosphere and away into space, they are nevertheless still connected to the positive protons and ions via the electromagnetic force, and this results in an overall vertical electric field being created above the planet’s atmosphere.

The electric field detected by Venus Express is much stronger than expected, and it can provide enough energy to oxygen ions to accelerate them upwards fast enough to escape the gravitational pull of the planet. The discovery thus reveals another process, in addition to the solar wind stripping, that could contribute to the very low water content at Venus.

“The electric field of Venus is much stronger than we ever dreamed it could be, and really powerful if you’re as tiny as an oxygen ion,” adds Glyn. “However, in real terms, the total power is only roughly the same as a single wind turbine, and it’s spread out over hundreds of kilometers of altitude, so as you can imagine, it’s incredibly hard to measure.”

The scientists patiently scrutinised two years’ data collected with an electron spectrometer, part of the ASPERA-4 instrument on Venus Express. They found 14 brief one-minute windows when the spacecraft was in just the right place with all the right conditions to measure an electric field. On every such occasion, the field was observed. The reason why Venus has a much higher electric field than Earth is still under investigation. Glyn and his colleagues suspect that the planet’s closer position to the Sun might play a role.

“As it’s closer to the Sun than Earth, Venus receives twice as much ultraviolet light, which results in a higher number of free electrons in its atmosphere and, as a consequence, may cause a stronger electric field above the planet,” says Andrew Coates from Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UK, lead investigator of the ASPERA-4 electron spectrometer. The presence of such a field at Venus suggests that particles and ions necessary to form water are leaving the planet’s atmosphere faster than was expected. In turn, this means that Venus might have hosted even larger amounts of water in the past, before being almost entirely stripped away.

“Water has a key role for life as we know it on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the Universe,” says Håkan Svedhem, Venus Express Project Scientist at ESA. “By suggesting a mechanism able to deprive a planet close to its parent star of most of its water, this discovery calls for a rethink of how we define a ‘habitable’ planet, not only in our Solar System, but also in the context of exoplanets.”

“The electric wind of Venus: A global and persistent “polar wind”-like ambipolar electric field sufficient for the direct escape of heavy ionospheric ions,” by G.A. Collinson et al. is published in Geophysical Research Letters. The study is based on data from the electron spectrometer, part of the ASPERA-4 instrument on Venus Express, which is led by Y. Futaana at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna, Sweden. ESA’s Venus Express was launched in 2005, arrived at Venus in 2006, and spent eight years exploring the planet from orbit. The mission ended in December 2014 after the spacecraft ran out of orbit-raising propellant and entered the atmosphere.
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See You on Mars: When and Wheremars: October 19

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mars Beautiful Gale Crater

This magnificent piece of work is done by Mother Nature on Mars. P: February 15, 2016:
Image Released on June 19, 2015: Minerals at Gale Crater: Curiosity's Home: Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

|| June 16: 2016|| ά. ESA’s first Mars orbiter will provide an important helping hand when the second arrives at the Red Planet in October. Following lift off in March, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter:TGO and the Schiaparelli lander are now enroute to Mars, with arrival set for October 19. Upon arrival, Schiaparelli will demonstrate the technology needed to make a controlled landing.

Afterwards, once in its working orbit at Mars, TGO will begin analysing rare gases in the planet’s atmosphere, especially methane, which on Earth points to active geological or biological processes. But they have to arrive at the planet first, and that’s where the 13 year-old Mars Express will lend a crucial helping hand – or, rather, ear.

 On October 16, Schiaparelli will separate and, three days later, descend and land as TGO enters orbit. On landing day, ESA’s Mars Express, which has been delivering spectacular science data since 2003, will record signals from Schiaparelli for mission control to confirm a safe arrival and later reconstruct its descent. “This will use the Mars Express Melacom communication system, originally carried for communications with the Beagle 2 lander and NASA rovers,” says James Godfrey, Mars Express deputy spacecraft operations manager.

“This will enable Mars Express to detect and record critical Schiaparelli descent events, such as entry into the atmosphere, parachute deployment, heatshield release, touchdown and start of surface activities.” The orbit of Mars Express was adjusted in February for it to be in the right part of the martian sky to hear the signals transmitted from the descending Schiaparelli.

 On October 19, about 80 minutes before landing, Schiaparelli will wake up and a few minutes later begin transmitting a beacon signal. Mars Express will already have pointed Melacom’s small antenna to the spot above the planet where Schiaparelli will appear, and will begin recording the beacon, turning to follow the descent path.

“Recording will continue through touchdown and the first 15 minutes of surface operation, after which Schiaparelli will switch off and Mars Express will stop recording,” says Simon Wood, Mars Express spacecraft operations engineer. “Then, Mars Express will turn its main antenna towards Earth and begin downloading data that contain the first in-situ confirmation from Mars of Schiaparelli’s arrival and landing.”

Melacom’s software was recently updated to be compatible with Schiaparelli’s transmitter. On June 15, it will be tested while flying over NASA’s Curiosity rover, which will transmit a signal similar to Schiaparelli’s. Mars Express won’t be the only set of ‘ears’ listening in to Schiaparelli’s descent that day.   At Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will monitor signals from Schiaparelli, but only after landing, as it comes within view.

TGO, while firing its engine to brake into orbit, will record Schiaparelli’s descent and landing, but these data can only be downloaded some hours later. In the following days, Mars Express and NASA’s three orbiters will each serve as data relays, overflying Schiaparelli’s landing site in Meridiani Planum once or twice per day, picking up signals from the lander during its surface mission of two–four days, and relaying them to Earth.

Mars Express will also contribute to Schiaparelli’s mission with remote-sensing measurements over the landing site for several weeks before. “The Mars Express science team is looking forward to TGO’s arrival at Mars, which will allow combining capabilities of both spacecraft in investigating the Red Planet,” says Dmitri Titov, Mars Express project scientist.

“It’s perhaps fitting that ESA’s newest mission to Mars is being supported by ESA’s oldest, which after 13 years will provide still more valuable service by relaying the news of Schiaparelli’s arrival on the surface,” says Patrick Martin, ESA’s Mars Express mission manager. ω.

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Mars in Opposition: May 19: 2016

Mars in opposition 2016: Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team:STScI:AURA, J. Bell:ASU, and M. Wolff:Space Science Institute

|| May 21: 2016|| ά. During May 2016 the Earth and Mars get closer to each other than at any time in the last ten years. The NASA:ESA Hubble Space Telescope has exploited this special configuration to catch a new image of our red neighbour, showing some of its famous surface features. This image supplements previous Hubble observations of Mars and allows astronomers to study large-scale changes on its surface.

On May 22 Mars came into opposition, the point at which the planet was located directly opposite the Sun in the sky. This means that the Sun, Earth and Mars line up, with Earth sitting in between the Sun and the Red Planet.

Opposition also marks the planet's closest approach to Earth, so that Mars appears bigger and brighter in the sky than usual. This event allows astronomers using telescopes in space and on the ground to see more details on the Martian surface. For observers using ground-based instruments the opposing planet is visible throughout the night and is also fully illuminated, making it a great opportunity for detailed studies.

On May 12 Hubble took advantage of this favourable alignment and turned its gaze towards Mars to take an image of our rusty-hued neighbour, adding it to the collection of previous images. From this distance the telescope could see Martian features as small as 30 kilometres across.

This image shows our neighbouring planet Mars, as it was observed shortly before opposition in 2016 by the NASA:ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Date: May 19, 2016: Satellite: Hubble Space Telescope: Copyright: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team:STScI:AURA, J. Bell:ASU, and M. Wolff:Space Science Institute.


Hubble observed Mars using its Wide Field Camera 3:WFC3. The final image shows a sharp, natural-colour view of Mars and reveals several prominent geological features, from smaller mountains and erosion channels to immense canyons and volcanoes.

 The large, dark region to the far right is Syrtis Major Planitia, one of the first features identified on the surface of the planet by seventeenth century observers. Syrtis Major is an ancient, inactive shield volcano. Late-afternoon clouds surround its summit in this view. The oval feature south of Syrtis Major is the bright Hellas Planitia basin, the largest crater on Mars. About 1,800 kilometres across and eight kilometres deep, it was formed about 3.5 billion years ago by an asteroid impact.

The orange area in the centre of the image is Arabia Terra, a vast upland region. The landscape is densely cratered and heavily eroded, indicating that it could be among the oldest features on the planet.

South of Arabia Terra, running east to west along the equator, are the long dark features known as Sinus Sabaeous (to the east) and Sinus Meridiani (to the west). These darker regions are covered by bedrock from ancient lava flows and other volcanic features.

An extended blanket of clouds can be seen over the southern polar cap. The icy northern polar cap has receded to a comparatively small size because it is now late summer in the northern hemisphere.

For Mars, the average time between successive oppositions — known as the planet's synodic period — is 780 days — so the previous time that the planet was in opposition was April 2014. Hubble has observed Mars at or near opposition many times, including in 1995, 1999 twice, 2001, 2003  twice, 2005, and 2007. ω.

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Like Water You Cannot Cut This Crater into Two

Cut crater in Memnonia Fossae: Released 17/05/2016 11:09 am: Copyright ESA:DLR:FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

 

|| May 17: 2016|| ά. An extensive network of fault lines cut through this region of Mars, including one that slices clean through an ancient 52 km-wide crater. The fault network is likely linked to the formation of the Tharsis Bulge, a region to the east that is home to several large volcanoes, including Olympus Mons.

Vast volumes of lava that erupted from these volcanoes in the past were deposited onto the surface, building up thick layers. The load imposed on the crust by the lava resulted in immense stress, which was later released by the formation of a wide-reaching fault and fracture system.

One 1.5 km-wide ‘graben’ cuts through the crater in this image. It also encounters numerous blocks of material that sit on the otherwise smooth crater floor, reminiscent of chaotic terrain found in many locations on Mars.

The crater has apparently been infilled by other materials, perhaps a mix of lava and wind-blown or fluvial sediments. To the top left of the crater, in particular, the sediments have been shaped into parallel features known as yardangs.

This image was first published on the DLR website on April 28, 2016.
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The Promethean Work at the Saturn's Ring

Credit: NASA:JPL-Caltech:Space Science Institute

|| May 16: 2016|| ά. Most planetary rings appear to be shaped, at least in part, by moons orbiting their planets, but nowhere is that more evident than in Saturn's F ring. Filled with kinks, jets, strands and gores, the F ring has been sculpted by its two neighbouring moons Prometheus and Pandora. Even more amazing is the fact that the moons remain hard at work reshaping the ring even today.

Prometheus:53 miles, or 86 kilometres across shapes the F ring through consistent, repeated gravitational nudges and occasionally enters the ring itself (clearing out material and creating a "gore" feature. Although the gravitational force of Prometheus is much smaller than that of Saturn, even small nudges can tweak the ring particles' orbits to create new patterns in the ring.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 12 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Feb. 21 2016.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.4 million miles:2.3 million kilometres from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft or phase angle of 105 degrees. Image scale is 9 miles:14 kilometres per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov  and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org .
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:Editor: Tony Greicius:NASA:

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Sandstone on Mount Sharp: Mars


Credit: NASA:JPL-Caltech/MSSS

|| May 15: 2016|| ά. Patches of Martian sandstone visible in the lower-left and upper portions of this view from the Mast Camera: Mastcam of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover have a knobbly texture due to nodules apparently more resistant to erosion than the host rock in which some are still embedded.

The site is at a zone on lower Mount Sharp where mudstone of the Murray geological unit -- visible in the lower right corner here -- is exposed adjacent to the overlying Stimson unit. The exact contact between Murray and Stimson here is covered with windblown sand. Most other portions of the Stimson unit investigated by Curiosity have not shown erosion-resistant nodules. Curiosity encountered this unusually textured exposure on the rover's approach to the "Naukluft Plateau." The Naukluft Plateau location is indicated on a map at  showing the rover's traverse path since its 2012 landing.

This view is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing, to resemble how the scene would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth. It combines six images taken with the left-eye camera of Mastcam on March 9, 2016, during the 1,276th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. About midway up the scene, the area that is shown spans about 10 feet (3 meters) across. Figure A includes a scale bar of 30 centimeters (12 inches). The images were taken to show the work area within reach of the rover's arm. Targets in the work area were subsequently examined with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the end of the arm. Resulting close-ups from MAHLI -- at   and-- show how the nodules are made up of grains of sand cemented together.

Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates the rover's Mastcam. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. For more information about Curiosity, visit http://www.nasa.gov/msl  and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

:Editor:Tony Greicius:NASA:
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Wherefore Art Thou, Juno: 19 Million Miles Yet to Go Before 4th of July

Image: NASA

|| May 14: 2016 || As of May 06, 2016, Juno is approximately 450 million miles: 724 million kilometres from Earth. The one-way radio signal travel time between Earth and Juno is currently about 40 minutes.

Juno is travelling at a velocity of approximately 60,000 miles per hour: about 26.9 kilometres per second relative to Earth, 15,000 miles per hour: about 6.7 kilometres per second relative to the Sun, and 13,000 miles per hour: about 6 kilometres per second relative to Jupiter.

Juno has now travelled 1.74 billion miles: 2.8 billion kilometres or 18.73 AU: Astronomical Unit: the distance between the Sun and the Earth since launch, and has another 19 million miles to go: 31 million kilometres or 0.20 AU before entering orbit around Jupiter.

The Juno spacecraft is in excellent health and is operating nominally.

Juno will arrive at Jupiter on July 04, 2016, at 8:35 p.m. PDT:Earth Received Time. Track and visualize Juno’s journey through space using NASA's Eyes on the Solar System 3D interactive.

Juno’s onboard color camera, called JunoCam, invites the public to serve as a virtual imaging team. Vote and comment on where to point JunoCam and which features to image on Jupiter using the new JunoCam web platform on this site.

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Curiosity Mars Rover, Reporting from Duty: Over

Image: NASA: To be precise, taken by Curiosity!

|| May 12: 2016 || NASA's Curiosity Mars rover today completes its second Martian year since landing inside Gale Crater nearly four Earth years ago, which means it has recorded environmental patterns through two full cycles of Martian seasons.

The repetition helps distinguish seasonal effects from sporadic events. For example, a large spike in methane in the local atmosphere during the first southern-hemisphere autumn in Gale Crater was not repeated the second autumn. It was an episodic release, still unexplained. However, the rover's measurements do suggest that much subtler changes in the background methane concentration -- amounts much less than during the spike -- may follow a seasonal pattern. Measurements of temperature, pressure, ultraviolet light reaching the surface and the scant water vapor in the air at Gale Crater show strong, repeated seasonal changes.

Monitoring the modern atmosphere, weather and climate fulfills a Curiosity mission goal supplementing the better-known investigations of conditions billions of years ago. Back then, Gale Crater had lakes and groundwater that could have been good habitats for microbes, if Mars has ever had any. Today, though dry and much less hospitable, environmental factors are still dynamic.

Curiosity's Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), supplied by Spain's Centro de Astrobiología, has measured air temperatures from 60.5 degrees Fahrenheit (15.9 degrees Celsius) on a summer afternoon, to minus 148 F (minus 100 C) on a winter night. Seasonal patterns in temperature, water vapor and pressure that Curiosity has measured in Gale Crater are charted in a new graphic at

"Curiosity's weather station has made measurements nearly every hour of every day, more than 34 million so far," said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "The duration is important, because it's the second time through the seasons that lets us see repeated patterns."

Each Martian year -- the time it takes the Red Planet to orbit the sun once -- lasts 687 Earth days. Curiosity landed on Aug. 5, 2012, (Pacific Time; Aug. 6, Universal Time). It begins its third Martian year on May 11, 2016, during the mission's 1,337th Martian day, or "sol," since landing. Each Martian sol lasts about 39.6 minutes longer than an Earth day, and a Martian year lasts 668.6 sols.

The similar tilts of Earth and Mars give both planets a yearly rhythm of seasons. But some differences are great, such as in comparisons between day and night temperatures. Even during the time of the Martian year when temperatures at Gale Crater rise above freezing during the day, they plummet overnight below minus 130 F (minus 90 C), due to the thin atmosphere. Also, the more-elliptical orbit of Mars, compared to Earth, exaggerates the southern-hemisphere seasons, making them dominant even at Gale Crater's near-equatorial location.

"Mars is much drier than our planet, and in particular Gale Crater, near the equator, is a very dry place on Mars," said Germán Martínez, a Curiosity science-team collaborator from Spain at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "The water vapor content is a thousand to 10 thousand times less than on Earth."

Relative humidity is a function of both temperature and water-vapor content. During winter nights, Curiosity has measured relative humidity of up to 70 percent, high enough to prompt researchers to check for frost forming on the ground. Other Mars landers have detected frost, but Curiosity has not.

Curiosity's air-pressure measurements confirm a strong seasonal trend previously seen by other missions. "There are large changes due to the capture and release of carbon dioxide by the seasonal polar caps," Martínez explained. Most of the Martian atmosphere is carbon dioxide. During each pole's winter, millions of tons of this gas freeze solid, only to be released again in spring, prompting very un-Earthlike seasonal variations of about 25 percent in atmospheric pressure.

Other seasonal patterns measured by Curiosity and repeated in the rover's second Martian year are that the local atmosphere is clear in winter, dustier in spring and summer, and windy in autumn. Visibility in Gale Crater is as low as 20 miles (30 kilometers) in summer, and as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) in winter.

For tracking changes in the concentration of methane in the air above Gale Crater, researchers use the tunable laser spectrometer in Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments. These measurements are made less often than REMS measurements, though frequently enough to tease out seasonal patterns. For most of the two Martian years, the rover has measured methane concentrations between 0.3 and 0.8 parts per billion. For several weeks during the first autumn, the level spiked, reaching 7 parts per billion. The mission checked carefully for a repeat of that spike during the second autumn, but concentrations stayed at lower background levels.

"Doing a second year told us right away that the spike was not a seasonal effect," said JPL's Chris Webster of the SAM team. "It's apparently an episodic event that we may or may not ever see again."

However, the mission is continuing to monitor a possible seasonal pattern in the background methane concentration. The background level is far less than the spike level, but it appears to be even lower in autumn than in other seasons. If this pattern is confirmed, it may be related to the pressure pattern measured by REMS or to seasonal change in ultraviolet radiation, which is measured by REMS in concert with the rover's Mast Camera.

"This shows not only the importance of long-term monitoring, but also the importance of combining more than one type of measurement from a single platform," Webster said.

While continuing to study the modern local environment, Curiosity is investigating geological layers of lower Mount Sharp, inside Gale Crater, to increase understanding of ancient changes in environmental conditions. For more information about Curiosity, visit: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

Guy Webster: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-6278: guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo: NASA Headquarters, Washington: 202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077: dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov


: Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA:

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The Solarian State of Being: Let's Talk About Magnetic Reconnection

Sarah Schlieder Writing

Image: NASA

|| May 10: 2016 || From our vantage point on the ground, the sun seems like a still ball of light, but in reality, it teems with activity. Eruptions called solar flares and coronal mass ejections explode in the sun's hot atmosphere, the corona, sending light and high energy particles out into space. The corona is also constantly releasing a stream of charged particles known as the solar wind.

But this isn't the kind of wind you can fly a kite in.

Even the slowest moving solar wind can reach speeds of around 700,000 mph. And while scientists know a great deal about solar wind, the source of the slow wind remains a mystery. Now, a team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has explored a detailed case study of the slow solar wind, using newly processed observations close to Earth to determine what in fact seeded that wind 93 million miles away, back on the sun. The team spotted tell-tale signs in the wind sweeping by Earth showing that it originated from a magnetic phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection. A paper on these results was published April 22, 2016, in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Knowing the source of the slow solar wind is important for understanding the space environment around Earth, as near-Earth space spends most of its time bathed in this wind. Just as it is important to know the source of cold fronts and warm fronts to predict terrestrial weather, understanding the source of the solar wind can help tease out space weather around Earth — where changes can sometimes interfere with our radio communications or GPS, which can be detrimental to guiding airline and naval traffic.

Slow and Fast Solar Wind

Fast solar wind — not surprisingly — can travel much faster than the slow wind at up to 1.7 million mph, but the most definitive difference between fast and slow solar wind is their composition. Solar wind is what's known as a plasma, a heated gas made up of charged particles — primarily protons and electrons, with trace amounts of heavier elements such as helium and oxygen. The amount of heavy elements and their charge state, or number of electrons, differ between the two types of wind.

"The composition and charge state of the slow solar wind is very different from that of fast solar wind," said Nicholeen Viall, a solar scientist at Goddard. "These differences imply that they came from different places on the sun."

By studying its composition, scientists know that fast solar wind emanates from the interior of coronal holes — areas of the solar atmosphere where the corona is darker and colder. The slow solar wind, on the other hand, is associated with hotter regions around the equator, but just how the slow solar wind is released has not been clear.

But the new results may have provided an answer.

Tracking Down the Source: Magnetic Reconnection

Magnetic reconnection can occur anywhere there are powerful magnetic fields, such as in the sun’s magnetic environment. Imagine a magnetic field line pointing in one direction and another field line nearby moving toward it pointing in the opposite direction. As they come together, the field lines will cancel and re-form, each performing a sort of U-turn and curving to move off in a perpendicular direction. The resulting new magnetic field lines create a large force — like a taut rubber band being released — that flings out plasma. This plasma is the slow solar wind.

The team studied an interval of 90-minute periodic structures in the slow wind, and identified magnetic structures that are the telltale fingerprints of magnetic reconnection. They also found that each 90-minute parcel of slow wind showed an intriguing and repeating variability that could only be remnants of magnetic reconnection back at the sun.

"We found that the density and charge state composition of the slow solar wind rises and falls every 90 minutes, varying from what is normally slow wind to what is considered fast,” Viall said. “But the speed was constant at a slow wind speed. This could only be created by magnetic reconnection at the sun, tapping into both fast and slow wind source regions.”

Researchers first discovered the periodic density structures about 15 years ago using the Wind spacecraft — a satellite launched in 1994 to observe the space environment surrounding Earth. The scientists observed oscillations in the magnetic fields near Earth, known as the magnetosphere.

"It has been thought that the magnetosphere rang like a bell when the solar wind hit it with a sudden increase in pressure,” said Larry Kepko, a magnetospheric scientist at Goddard. “We went in for a closer look and found these periodicities in the solar wind. The magnetosphere was acting more like a drum than a bell."

But Wind only gave the researchers measurements of the slow solar wind’s density and velocity, and could not identify its source. For that, they needed composition data.

Furthermore, in order to solve this problem, scientists from different disciplines needed to work together to come up with an explanation of the entire system. Kepko studies the magnetosphere, while Viall studies the sun. By observing what’s close to Earth and what’s happening at the sun, the team could determine the source of the slow solar wind.

The scientists turned to NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer. ACE launched in 1997 to study and measure the composition of several types of space material including the solar wind and cosmic rays. It can observe solar particles and helps researchers determine the elemental composition and speeds of solar wind.

"Without the ACE data, we wouldn’t have been able to do this research," Kepko said. "There’s no other instrument that gives us the information at the time resolution we needed."

The team is continuing to look at composition data to find other instances of the periodic density structures to determine if the source for all slow solar wind is magnetic reconnection. Their case study clearly shows that this particular event was the result of magnetic reconnection, but they wish to find other examples to show this is the most common mechanism for powering the slow solar wind.

As the team gathers more information about magnetic reconnection and its effects near the sun, it will add to a growing body of knowledge about the phenomenon in general -- because magnetic reconnection events take place throughout the universe.

"If we can understand this phenomenon here, where we can actually measure the magnetic field, we can get a better handle on how these fundamental physics processes take place in other places in the universe," Viall said.

By Sarah Schlieder: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

( Editor: Rob Garner: NASA)

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Poor Little Moon Epimetheus: Do Not Take It So Badly. At Least You Have a Beautiful Name, You are Not Like Any Other Moons and Your Face Looks Almost Like a Heart

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


|| May 09: 2016 || Life is hard for a little moon. Epimetheus, seen here with Saturn in the background, is lumpy and misshapen, thanks in part to its size and formation process. Epimetheus did not form with all of those craters in place -- rather, bombardment over the eons has left this tiny moon's surface heavily pitted.

Epimetheus (70 miles or 113 kilometers across) is too small to have sufficient self-gravity to form itself into a round shape, and it has too little internal heat to sustain ongoing geological activity. Thus, its battered shape provides hints about its formation, and the myriad craters across its surface bear testament to the impacts it has suffered over its long history.

North on Epimetheus is up and rotated 5 degrees to the left. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 6, 2015.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1,670 miles (2,690 kilometers) from Epimetheus. Image scale on Epimetheus is 520 feet (160 meters) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini. The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org .


( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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Crater Dunes on the Floor of an Unnamed Martian Crater in Vastitas Borealis

 Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

|| May 08: 2016 ||  This image shows a sand sheet with surface dune forms located on the floor of an unnamed crater in Vastitas Borealis. A beautiful image.

Orbit Number: 62680 Latitude: 71.9401 Longitude: 344.635 Instrument: VIS Captured: 2016-01-30 21:00

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) was developed by Arizona State University, Tempe, in collaboration with Raytheon Santa Barbara Remote Sensing. The THEMIS investigation is led by Dr. Philip Christensen at Arizona State University. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, is the prime contractor for the Odyssey project, and developed and built the orbiter. Mission operations are conducted jointly from Lockheed Martin and from JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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Furthermore on Enceladus

Image: NASA

|| May 07: 2016 || During a recent stargazing session, NASA's Cassini spacecraft watched a bright star pass behind the plume of gas and dust that spews from Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. At first, the data from that observation had scientists scratching their heads. What they saw didn't fit their predictions.

The observation has led to a surprising new clue about the remarkable geologic activity on Enceladus: It appears that at least some of the narrow jets that erupt from the moon's surface blast with increased fury when the moon is farther from Saturn in its orbit.

Exactly how or why that's happening is far from clear, but the observation gives theorists new possibilities to ponder about the twists and turns in the "plumbing" under the moon's frozen surface. Scientists are eager for such clues because, beneath its frozen shell of ice, Enceladus is an ocean world that might have the ingredients for life.

It's a Gas, Man

During its first few years after arriving at Saturn in 2004, Cassini discovered that Enceladus continuously spews a broad plume of gas and dust-sized ice grains from the region around its south pole. This plume extends hundreds of miles into space, and is several times the width of the small moon itself. Scores of narrow jets burst from the surface along great fractures known as "tiger stripes" and contribute to the plume. The activity is understood to originate from the moon's subsurface ocean of salty liquid water, which is venting into space.

Cassini has shown that more than 90 percent of the material in the plume is water vapor. This gas lofts dust grains into space where sunlight scatters off them, making them visible to the spacecraft's cameras. Cassini has even collected some of the particles being blasted off Enceladus and analyzed their composition.

Not the Obvious Explanation

Previous Cassini observations saw the eruptions spraying three times as much icy dust into space when Enceladus neared the farthest point in its elliptical orbit around Saturn. But until now, scientists hadn't had an opportunity to see if the gas part of the eruptions -- which makes up the majority of the plume's mass -- also increased at this time.

So on March 11, 2016, during a carefully planned observing run, Cassini set its gaze on Epsilon Orionis, the central star in Orion's belt. At the appointed time, Enceladus and its erupting plume glided in front of the star. Cassini's ultraviolet imaging spectrometer (or UVIS) measured how water vapor in the plume dimmed the star's ultraviolet light, revealing how much gas the plume contained. Since lots of extra dust appears at this point in the moon's orbit, scientists expected to measure a lot more gas in the plume, pushing the dust into space.

But instead of the expected huge increase in water vapor output, the UVIS instrument only saw a slight bump -- just a 20 percent increase in the total amount of gas.

Cassini scientist Candy Hansen quickly set to work trying to figure out what might be going on. Hansen, a UVIS team member at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, led the planning of the observation. "We went after the most obvious explanation first, but the data told us we needed to look deeper," she said. As it turned out, looking deeper meant paying attention to what was happening closer to the moon's surface.

Hansen and her colleagues focused their attention on one jet known informally as "Baghdad I." The researchers found that, while the amount of gas in the overall plume didn't change much, this particular jet was four times more active than at other times in Enceladus' orbit. Instead of supplying just 2 percent of the plume's total water vapor, as Cassini previously observed, it was now supplying 8 percent of the plume's gas.

Call a Plumber

This insight revealed something subtle, but important, according to Larry Esposito, UVIS team lead at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "We had thought the amount of water vapor in the overall plume, across the whole south polar area, was being strongly affected by tidal forces from Saturn. Instead we find that the small-scale jets are what's changing." This increase in the jets' activity is what causes more icy dust grains to be lofted into space, where Cassini's cameras can see them, Esposito said.

The new observations provide helpful constraints on what could be going on with the underground plumbing -- cracks and fissures through which water from the moon's potentially habitable subsurface ocean is making its way into space.

With the new Cassini data, Hansen is ready to toss the ball to the theoreticians. "Since we can only see what's going on above the surface, at the end of the day, it's up to the modelers to take this data and figure out what's going on underground."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The ultraviolet imaging spectrograph was designed and built at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where the team is based.

Preston Dyches: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-7013: preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)
 

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The Image of the Day: A Little Wonder of an Exoplanet to Claim Its Connection to Our Sunnara

 

Image: NASA

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Plutonics Goes on: Pluto’s Interaction with the Solar Wind is Unique: Study Finds

Image: NASA

|| May 04: 2016 || Pluto behaves less like a comet than expected and somewhat more like a planet like Mars or Venus in the way it interacts with the solar wind, a continuous stream of charged particles from the sun.

This is according to the first analysis of Pluto’s interaction with the solar wind, funded by NASA’s New Horizons mission and published today in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics by the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

Using data from the Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument from the New Horizons July 2015 flyby, scientists have for the first time observed the material coming off of Pluto’s atmosphere and studied how it interacts with the solar wind, leading to yet another “Pluto surprise.”

“This is a type of interaction we’ve never seen before anywhere in our solar system,” said David J. McComas, lead author of the study. McComas, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and vice president for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. “The results are astonishing.” McComas leads the SWAP instrument aboard New Horizons; he also led the development of SWAP when he was at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

Space physicists say that they now have a treasure trove of information about how Pluto’s atmosphere interacts with the solar wind. Solar wind is the plasma that spews from the sun into the solar system at a supersonic 100 million miles per hour (160 million kilometers per hour), bathing planets, asteroids, comets and interplanetary space in a soup of mostly protons and electrons.

Previously, most researchers thought that Pluto was characterized more like a comet, which has a large region of gentle slowing of the solar wind, as opposed to the abrupt diversion solar wind encounters at a planet like Mars or Venus. Instead, like a car that’s part gas- and part battery-powered, Pluto is a hybrid, researchers say.

So Pluto continues to confound. “These results speak to the power of exploration. Once again we’ve gone to a new kind of place and found ourselves discovering entirely new kinds of expressions in nature,” said SwRI’s Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator.

Since it’s so far from the sun – an average of about 3.7 billion miles, the farthest planet in the solar system – and because it’s the smallest, scientists thought Pluto’s gravity would not be strong enough to hold heavy ions in its extended atmosphere. But, “Pluto’s gravity clearly is enough to keep material relatively confined,” McComas said.

The researchers were able to separate the heavy ions of methane, the main gas escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere, from the light ions of hydrogen that come from the sun using the SWAP instrument.

Among additional Pluto findings:

Like Earth, Pluto has a long ion tail, that extends downwind at least a distance of about 100 Pluto radii (73,800 miles/118,700 kilometers, almost three times the circumference of Earth), loaded with heavy ions from the atmosphere and with “considerable structure.”
Pluto’s obstruction of the solar wind upwind of the planet is smaller than had been thought. The solar wind isn’t blocked until about the distance of a couple planetary radii (1,844 miles/3,000 kilometers, about the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles.)
Pluto has a very thin boundary of Pluto’s tail of heavy ions and the sheath of the shocked solar wind that presents an obstacle to its flow.

Heather Elliott, astrophysicist at SwRI and co-author on the paper, notes, “Comparing the solar wind-Pluto interaction to the solar wind-interaction for other planets and bodies is interesting because the physical conditions are different for each, and the dominant physical processes depend on those conditions.”

These findings offer clues to the magnetized plasmas that one might find around other stars, said McComas. “The range of interaction with the solar wind is quite diverse, and this gives some comparison to help us better understand the connections in our solar system and beyond.”

( Editor: Bill Keeter: NASA)

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Mercury Magic Transiting the Sun on May 09

Released 03/05/2016 9:48 am: Copyright NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

|| May 03: 2016 || On May 09, at 11:10 GMT, Mercury will begin making its way across the face of the Sun – an astronomical event known as a transit. During the transit, which will last for several hours and be at least partially visible across most of the world, the planet will be seen as a small black dot silhouetted against our star.

To mark the event, this week’s Space Science Image of the Week allows Mercury to take centre stage. Mercury is a remarkable planet: it is the smallest and innermost planet in the Solar System, with an orbit that is both the fastest and the most eccentric. It boasts fascinating surface geology, including countless craters, ridges, highlands, plains, mountains and valleys.

This image offers an intriguing view of Mercury’s Kertész crater, as viewed by NASA’s Messenger orbiter. Reminiscent of a ‘Magic Eye’ optical illusion, the image may show one of two things: either a mound bulging out of the planetary surface, looming towards the camera like a dome, or – correctly – a crater that dips into Mercury’s crust.

After a short while, the orientation of the image may appear to flip. This effect is sometimes referred to as the crater illusion. It arises because our brains are used to interpreting shadows as arising from a source of light being overhead. But for many satellite photos of terrain the shadows arise only when the light source is almost horizontal to the surface and this sometimes leads to us misinterpret the patterns of light and shade.

Within this crater, the smooth, rippling slopes – one illuminated, the other in shadow – burrow into the surface of Mercury until they reach a relatively flat patch, which is the deep floor of Kertész. The features scarring this floor are the crater’s central peaks, which rise up to stand hundreds of metres above their surroundings.

Kertész is roughly 33 km across and located in the western part of Mercury’s Caloris basin – at up to 1500 km across, Caloris is the largest basin on the planet, and one of the largest in the Solar System.

Kertész is an interesting crater: it is flooded with a 30 m-thick layer of melted rock thought to have formed during the initial crater-forming impact (known as ‘impact melt’). This layer is heavily indented with small pits, hollows and depressions, and covered in unusually bright deposits. These are thought to be the result of rocks evaporating due to Mercury’s scorching surface temperatures, or perhaps mineral deposits unearthed by the impact melt.

This image is a mosaic formed of three separate frames taken by the narrow-angle camera of Messenger’s imaging system on 11 January 2013. Messenger was launched in 2004 and orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015, greatly improving our knowledge of the planet. Our exploration of Mercury will continue with the BepiColombo mission – a collaboration between ESA and Japan’s JAXA space agency, due for launch in 2018.

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O Enceladus! What a Dew Drop You are of Saturn!

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

|| May 02: 2016 || The water-world Enceladus appears here to sit atop Saturn's rings like a drop of dew upon a leaf. Even though it appears like a tiny drop before the might of the giant Saturn, Enceladus reminds us that even small worlds hold mysteries and wonders to be explored.

By most predictions prior to Cassini's arrival at Saturn, a moon the size of Enceladus (313 miles, 504 kilometers across) would have been expected to be a dead, frozen world. But Enceladus displays remarkable geologic activity, as evidenced by the plume emanating from its southern polar regions and its global, subsurface ocean. (For a closer look at individual jets that contribute to the plume, see PIA11688; for more on the subsurface ocean see PIA19656.) The plume, which was discovered in Cassini images, is comprised mostly of water vapor and contain entrained dust particles.

This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 0.3 degrees below the ring plane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on May 25, 2015 using a spectral filter which preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 728 nanometers.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 54 miles (87 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov  and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)
 

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Image of the Day: Maarth

|| April 30: 2016 || This image of that human foot-step on Mars is still in imagination that is following the course towards becoming a reality. One day, some day, it will become reality.

''There are nine steps between imagination and reality: imagination, prospectivity, tentativity, feasibility, possibility, onwardineity, probability, certainty and reality; these are the nine realms of reality through which human endeavours begin and progress towards reality.''

 

Image: NASA

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Naukluft Plateau Mars

 

This 360-degree panorama from the Mastcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the rugged surface of "Naukluft Plateau" plus upper Mount Sharp at right and part of the rim of Gale Crater. The April 4, 2016, scene is dominated by eroded remnants of a finely layered ancient sandstone deposit. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

|| April 30: 2016 || NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has nearly finished crossing a stretch of the most rugged and difficult-to-navigate terrain encountered during the mission's 44 months on Mars.

The rover climbed onto the "Naukluft Plateau" of lower Mount Sharp in early March after spending several weeks investigating sand dunes. The plateau's sandstone bedrock has been carved by eons of wind erosion into ridges and knobs. The path of about a quarter mile (400 meters) westward across it is taking Curiosity toward smoother surfaces leading to geological layers of scientific interest farther uphill.

The roughness of the terrain on the plateau raised concern that driving on it could be especially damaging to Curiosity's wheels, as was terrain Curiosity crossed before reaching the base of Mount Sharp. Holes and tears in the rover's aluminum wheels became noticeable in 2013. The rover team responded by adjusting the long-term traverse route, revising how local terrain is assessed and refining how drives are planned. Extensive Earth-based testing provided insight into wheel longevity.

The rover team closely monitors wear and tear on Curiosity's six wheels. "We carefully inspect and trend the condition of the wheels," said Steve Lee, Curiosity's deputy project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "Cracks and punctures have been gradually accumulating at the pace we anticipated, based on testing we performed at JPL. Given our longevity projections, I am confident these wheels will get us to the destinations on Mount Sharp that have been in our plans since before landing."

Inspection of the wheels after crossing most of the Naukluft Plateau has indicated that, while the terrain presented challenges for navigation, driving across it did not accelerate damage to the wheels.

On Naukluft Plateau, the rover's Mast Camera has recorded some panoramic scenes from the highest viewpoints Curiosity has reached since its August 2012 landing on the floor of Gale Crater on Mars.

The scenes show wind-sculpted textures in the sandstone bedrock close to the rover, and Gale Crater's rim rising above the crater floor in the distance. Mount Sharp stands in the middle of the crater, which is about 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter.

This early-morning view from the Mastcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on March 16, 2016, covers a portion of the inner wall of Gale Crater. At right, the image fades into glare of the rising sun. Details such as gullies and debris fans help geologists understand processes that shaped the crater. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The next part of the rover's route will return to a type of lake-deposited mudstone surface examined previously. Farther ahead on lower Mount Sharp are three geological units that have been key destinations for the mission since its landing site was selected. One of the units contains an iron-oxide mineral called hematite, which was detected from orbit. Just above it lies a band rich in clay minerals, then a series of layers that contain sulfur-bearing minerals called sulfates. By examining them with Curiosity, researchers hope to gain a better understanding of how long ancient environmental conditions remained favorable for microbial life, if it was ever present on Mars, before conditions became drier and less favorable.

Each of Curiosity's six wheels is about 20 inches (50 centimeters) in diameter and 16 inches (40 centimeters) wide, milled out of solid aluminum. Most of the wheel's circumference is a metallic skin that is about half the thickness of a U.S. dime. Nineteen zigzag-shaped treads, called grousers, extend about a quarter inch (three-fourths of a centimeter) outward from the skin of each wheel. The grousers bear much of the rover's weight and provide most of the traction and ability to traverse over uneven terrain.

The holes seen in the wheels so far perforate only the skin. Wheel-monitoring images obtained every 547 yards (500 meters) have not yet shown any grouser breaks on Curiosity. Earth-based testing examined long-term wear characteristics and the amount of damage a rover wheel can sustain before losing its usefulness for driving. The tests indicate that when three grousers on a wheel have broken, that wheel has reached about 60 percent of its useful mileage.

At a current odometry of 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing, Curiosity's wheels are projected to have more than enough life remaining to investigate the hematite, clay and sulfate units ahead, even in the unlikely case that up to three grousers break soon. The driving distance to the start of the sulfate-rich layers is roughly 4.7 miles (7.5 kilometers) from the rover's current location.

Curiosity reached the base of Mount Sharp in 2014 after fruitfully investigating outcrops closer to its landing site and then trekking to the layered mountain. For more information about Curiosity, visit: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

Guy Webster:Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-6278: guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo: NASA Headquarters, Washington: 202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077: dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov: 2016-115
 

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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Titan's Methane Sea

Sunlight glints off of Titan's northern seas this near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Credits: NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

 

|| April 27: 2016 || Of the hundreds of moons in our solar system, Titan is the only one with a dense atmosphere and large liquid reservoirs on its surface, making it in some ways more like a terrestrial planet.

Both Earth and Titan have nitrogen-dominated atmospheres -- over 95 percent nitrogen in Titan's case. However, unlike Earth, Titan has very little oxygen; the rest of the atmosphere is mostly methane and trace amounts of other gases, including ethane. And at the frigid temperatures found at Saturn's great distance from the sun, the methane and ethane can exist on the surface in liquid form.

For this reason, scientists had long speculated about the possible existence of hydrocarbon lakes and seas on Titan, and data from the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission does not disappoint. Since arriving in the Saturn system in 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has revealed that more than 620,000 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers) of Titan's surface -- almost two percent of the total -- are covered in liquid.

There are three large seas, all located close to the moon's north pole, surrounded by numerous of smaller lakes in the northern hemisphere. Just one large lake has been found in the southern hemisphere.

The exact composition of these liquid reservoirs remained elusive until 2014, when the Cassini radar instrument was first used to show that Ligeia Mare, the second largest sea on Titan and similar in size to Lake Huron and Lake Michigan combined, is methane-rich. A new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, which used the radar instrument in a different mode, independently confirms this result.

"Before Cassini, we expected to find that Ligeia Mare would be mostly made up of ethane, which is produced in abundance in the atmosphere when sunlight breaks methane molecules apart. Instead, this sea is predominantly made of pure methane," said Alice Le Gall, a Cassini radar team associate at the French research laboratory LATMOS, Paris, and lead author of the new study.

The new study is based on data collected with Cassini's radar instrument during flybys of Titan between 2007 and 2015.

A number of possible explanations could account for the sea's methane composition, according to Le Gall. "Either Ligeia Mare is replenished by fresh methane rainfall, or something is removing ethane from it. It is possible that the ethane ends up in the undersea crust, or that it somehow flows into the adjacent sea, Kraken Mare, but that will require further investigation."

In their research, the scientists combined several radar observations of heat given off by Ligeia Mare. They also used data from a 2013 experiment that bounced radio signals off Ligeia. The results of that experiment were presented in a 2014 paper led by radar team associate Marco Mastrogiuseppe at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, who also contributed to the current study.

During the 2013 experiment, the radar instrument detected echoes from the seafloor and inferred the depth of Ligeia Mare along Cassini's track over Ligeia Mare -- the first-ever detection of the bottom of an extraterrestrial sea. The scientists were surprised to find depths in the sea as great as 525 feet (160 meters) at the deepest point along the radar track.

Le Gall and her colleagues used the depth-sounding information to separate the contributions made to the sea's observed temperature by the liquid sea and the seabed, which provided insights into their respective compositions.

"We found that the seabed of Ligeia Mare is likely covered by a sludge layer of organic-rich compounds," adds Le Gall.

In the atmosphere of Titan, nitrogen and methane react to produce a wide variety of organic materials. Scientists believe the heaviest materials fall to the surface. Le Gall and colleagues think that when these compounds reach the sea, either by directly falling from the air, via rain or through Titan's rivers, some are dissolved in the liquid methane. The insoluble compounds, such as nitriles and benzene, sink to the sea floor.

The study also found that the shoreline around Ligeia Mare may be porous and flooded with liquid hydrocarbons. The data span a period running from local winter to spring, and the scientists expected that -- like the seaside on Earth -- the surrounding solid terrains would warm more rapidly than the sea.

However, Cassini's measurements did not show any significant difference between the sea's temperature and that of the shore over this period. This suggests that the terrains surrounding the lakes and seas are wet with liquid hydrocarbons, which would make them warm up and cool down much like the sea itself.

"It's a marvelous feat of exploration that we're doing extraterrestrial oceanography on an alien moon," said Steve Wall, deputy lead of the Cassini radar team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Titan just won't stop surprising us."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the US and several European countries.

Preston Dyches: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-7013: preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Markus Bauer: European Space Agency, Noordwijk, Netherlands: 011-31-71-565-6799: markus.bauer@esa.int:
 

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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The Universe of Venus the Planet

 

How Can We Thank Hubble for It Keeps on Discovering: a New Moon Orbiting the Dwarf Planet Makemake
 

This artist's concept shows the distant dwarf planet Makemake and its newly discovered moon. Makemake and its moon, nicknamed MK 2, are more than 50 times farther away than Earth is from the sun. Credits: NASA, ESA, and A. Parker (Southwest Research Institute)


|| April 26: 2016 || Peering to the outskirts of our solar system, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a small, dark moon orbiting Makemake, the second brightest icy dwarf planet — after Pluto — in the Kuiper Belt.

The moon — provisionally designated S/2015 (136472) 1 and nicknamed MK 2 — is more than 1,300 times fainter than Makemake. MK 2 was seen approximately 13,000 miles from the dwarf planet, and its diameter is estimated to be 100 miles across. Makemake is 870 miles wide. The dwarf planet, discovered in 2005, is named for a creation deity of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island.

The Kuiper Belt is a vast reservoir of leftover frozen material from the construction of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago and home to several dwarf planets. Some of these worlds have known satellites, but this is the first discovery of a companion object to Makemake. Makemake is one of five dwarf planets recognized by the International Astronomical Union.

The observations were made in April 2015 with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. Hubble’s unique ability to see faint objects near bright ones, together with its sharp resolution, allowed astronomers to pluck out the moon from Makemake’s glare. The discovery was announced today in a Minor Planet Electronic Circular.

The observing team used the same Hubble technique to observe the moon as they did for finding the small satellites of Pluto in 2005, 2011, and 2012. Several previous searches around Makemake had turned up empty. “Our preliminary estimates show that the moon’s orbit seems to be edge-on, and that means that often when you look at the system you are going to miss the moon because it gets lost in the bright glare of Makemake,” said Alex Parker of Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, who led the image analysis for the observations.

A moon’s discovery can provide valuable information on the dwarf-planet system. By measuring the moon’s orbit, astronomers can calculate a mass for the system and gain insight into its evolution.

Uncovering the moon also reinforces the idea that most dwarf planets have satellites.

“Makemake is in the class of rare Pluto-like objects, so finding a companion is important,” Parker said. “The discovery of this moon has given us an opportunity to study Makemake in far greater detail than we ever would have been able to without the companion.”

Finding this moon only increases the parallels between Pluto and Makemake. Both objects are already known to be covered in frozen methane. As was done with Pluto, further study of the satellite will easily reveal the density of Makemake, a key result that will indicate if the bulk compositions of Pluto and Makemake are also similar. “This new discovery opens a new chapter in comparative planetology in the outer solar system,” said team leader Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

The researchers will need more Hubble observations to make accurate measurements to determine if the moon’s orbit is elliptical or circular. Preliminary estimates indicate that if the moon is in a circular orbit, it completes a circuit around Makemake in 12 days or longer.

Determining the shape of the moon’s orbit will help settle the question of its origin. A tight circular orbit means that MK 2 is probably the product of a collision between Makemake and another Kuiper Belt Object. If the moon is in a wide, elongated orbit, it is more likely to be a captured object from the Kuiper Belt. Either event would have likely occurred several billion years ago, when the solar system was young.

The discovery may have solved one mystery about Makemake. Previous infrared studies of the dwarf planet revealed that while Makemake’s surface is almost entirely bright and very cold, some areas appear warmer than other areas. Astronomers had suggested that this discrepancy may be due to the sun warming discrete dark patches on Makemake’s surface. However, unless Makemake is in a special orientation, these dark patches should make the dwarf planet’s brightness vary substantially as it rotates. But this amount of variability has never been observed.

These previous infrared data did not have sufficient resolution to separate Makemake from MK 2. The team’s reanalysis, based on the new Hubble observations, suggests that much of the warmer surface detected previously in infrared light may, in reality, simply have been the dark surface of the companion MK 2.

There are several possibilities that could explain why the moon would have a charcoal-black surface, even though it is orbiting a dwarf planet that is as bright as fresh snow. One idea is that, unlike larger objects such as Makemake, MK 2 is small enough that it cannot gravitationally hold onto a bright, icy crust, which sublimates, changing from solid to gas, under sunlight. This would make the moon similar to comets and other Kuiper Belt Objects, many of which are covered with very dark material.

When Pluto’s moon Charon was discovered in 1978, astronomers quickly calculated the mass of the system. Pluto’s mass was hundreds of times smaller than the mass originally estimated when it was found in 1930. With Charon’s discovery, astronomers suddenly knew something was fundamentally different about Pluto. “That’s the kind of transformative measurement that having a satellite can enable,” Parker said.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

For images and more information about Makemake's moon MK 2 and Hubble, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/hubble
http://hubblesite.org/news/2016/18

For additional information, contact:

Felicia Chou: NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. 202-358-0257: felicia.chou@nasa.gov

Donna Weaver / Ray Villard: Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland: 410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514: dweaver@stsci.edu / villard@stsci.edu

Alex Parker: Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado: 360-599-5346: alex.parker@swri.org

( Editor: Ashley Morrow: NASA)
 

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Idunn Mons

 This figure shows the volcanic peak Idunn Mons in the Imdr Regio area of Venus. The topography derives from data obtained by NASA's Magellan spacecraft, with a vertical exageration of 30 times. Radar data (in brown) from Magellan has been draped on top of the topographic data. Bright areas are rough or have steep slopes. Dark areas are smooth. The colored overlay shows the heat patterns derived from surface brightness data collected by the visible and infrared thermal imaging spectrometer (VIRTIS) aboard ESA's Venus Express spacecraft. Temperature variations due to topography were removed. The brightness signals the composition of the minerals that have been changed due to lava flow. Red-orange is the warmest area and purple is the coolest. The warmest area is situated on the summit, which stands about 2.5 km above the plains, and on the bright flows that originate there. Idunn Mons has a diameter of about 200 km. The VIRTIS data was collected from May 2006 to the end of 2007. Source: NASA/JPL/ESA

|| April 26: 2016 || Venus and Earth are similar in size, mass, density, composition, and gravity. There, however, the similarities end. Venus is covered by a thick, rapidly spinning atmosphere, creating a scorched world with temperatures hot enough to melt lead and surface pressure 90 times that of Earth (similar to the bottom of a swimming pool 1-1/2 miles deep). Because of its proximity to Earth and the way its clouds reflect sunlight, Venus appears to be the brightest planet in the sky.

We cannot normally see through Venus' thick atmosphere, but NASA's Magellan mission during the early 1990s used radar to image 98 percent of the surface, and the Galileo spacecraft used infrared mapping to view both the surface and mid-level cloud structure as it passed by Venus on the way to Jupiter. In 2010, infrared surface images by the European Space Agency's Venus Express provided evidence for recent volcanism within the past several hundred thousand years. Indeed, Venus may be volcanically active today.

Venus Blues ||  Cloudy, Cloudy, Cloudy Venus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The forecast for Venus is cloudy, cloudy, cloudy. Although similar to the Earth in size and mass, Venus' slightly closer orbit to the sun create for it a much thicker atmosphere and a much hotter surface. The thick atmosphere was photographed above in ultraviolet light in 1979 by the Pioneer Venus Orbiter. Venus's extremely uncomfortable climate was likely caused by a runaway greenhouse effect. Pioneer Venus used an orbiter and several small probes to study the planet from above and within the clouds. Source: NSSDC Photo Gallery: Published: 27 October 2009

Like Mercury, Venus can be seen periodically passing across the face of the sun. These "transits" of Venus occur in pairs with more than a century separating each pair. Transits occurred in 1631, 1639; 1761, 1769; and 1874, 1882. On 8 June 2004, astronomers worldwide watched the tiny dot of Venus crawl across the sun; and on 6 June 2012, the second in this pair of transits occurred. The next transit is 11 December 2117. Observing these transits helps us understand the capabilities and limitations of techniques used to find and characterize planets around other stars.

Venus' atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulfuric acid droplets. Only trace amounts of water have been detected in the atmosphere. The thick atmosphere traps the sun's heat, resulting in surface temperatures higher than 470 degrees Celsius (880 degrees Fahrenheit). The few probes that have landed on Venus have not survived longer than 2 hours in the intense heat. Sulfur compounds are abundant in Venus' clouds; the corrosive chemistry and dense, moving atmosphere cause significant surface weathering and erosion.

The Venusian year (orbital period) is about 225 Earth days long, while the planet's rotation period is 243 Earth days with respect to the stars (unseen beneath Venus' clouds). Venus' backward rotation makes a Venus day/night cycle about 117 Earth days long. Venus rotates retrograde (east to west) compared with Earth's prograde (west to east) rotation. Seen from Venus, the sun would rise in the west and set in the east. As Venus moves forward in its solar orbit while slowly rotating backwards on its axis, the top level of cloud layers zips around the planet every four Earth days, driven by hurricane-force winds traveling at about 360 kilometers (224 miles) per hour. Speeds within the clouds decrease with cloud height, and at the surface are estimated to be just a few kilometers per hour. How this atmospheric "super-rotation" forms and is maintained continues to be a topic of scientific investigation.

Atmospheric lightning bursts, long suspected by scientists, were confirmed in 2007 by the European Venus Express orbiter. On Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, lightning is associated with water clouds, but on Venus, it is associated with sulfuric acid clouds.

Cloudy, Cloudy, Cloudy Venus

NASA's TRACE satellite captured this image of Venus crossing the face of the Sun as seen from Earth orbit. The last event occurred in 1882. The next Venus transit will be visible in 2012. This image also is a good example of the scale of Earth to the Sun since Venus and Earth are similar in size. Source: NASA: Published: 8 June 2004

Craters smaller than 1.5 to 2 kilometers (0.9 to 1.2 miles) across do not exist on Venus, because small meteors burn up in the dense atmosphere before they can reach the surface. It is thought that Venus was completely resurfaced by volcanic activity 300 to 500 million years ago. More than 1,000 volcanoes or volcanic centers larger than 20 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter dot the surface. Volcanic flows have produced long, sinuous channels extending for hundreds of kilometers. Venus has two large highland areas - Ishtar Terra, about the size of Australia, in the north polar region; and Aphrodite Terra, about the size of South America, straddling the equator and extending for almost 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles). Maxwell Montes, the highest mountain on Venus and comparable to Mount Everest on Earth, is at the eastern edge of Ishtar Terra.

Venus has an iron core that is approximately 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) in radius. Venus has no global magnetic field - though its core iron content is similar to that of Earth, Venus rotates too slowly to generate the type of magnetic field that Earth has.

How Venus Got its Name

Venus is named for the ancient Roman goddess of love and beauty. (Venus is the Roman counterpart to the Greek goddess Aphrodite.) It is believed Venus was named for the most beautiful of the ancient gods because it shone the brightest of the five planets known to ancient astronomers. Other civilizations have named it for their god or goddess of love/war as well.

Significant Dates

650 BCE: Mayan astronomers make detailed observations of Venus, leading to a highly accurate calendar.

1761-1769: Two European expeditions to watch Venus cross in front of the sun lead to the first good estimate of the sun's distance from Earth.

1962: NASA's Mariner 2 reaches Venus and reveals the planet's extreme surface temperatures. It is the first spacecraft to send back information from another planet.

1970: The Soviet Union's Venera 7 sends back 23 minutes of data from the surface of Venus. It is the first spacecraft to successfully land on another planet.

1990-1994: NASA's Magellan spacecraft, in orbit around Venus, uses radar to map 98 percent of the planet's surface.

2005: The European Space Agency launches Venus Express to study the atmosphere and surface. The orbiter reached Venus in April 2006, and will study the planet through at least 2014. Japan's Akatsuki ("Dawn") orbiter is en route to Venus, scheduled to arrive in 2015. Combining the Venus Express and Akatsuki datasets should greatly enhance our knowledge of the planet.

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Mission Europa Getting Ready

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

|| April 24: 2016 || This artist's rendering shows NASA's Europa mission spacecraft, which is being developed for a launch sometime in the 2020s. This view shows the spacecraft configuration, which could change before launch, as of early 2016.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/DLR

The mission would place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of the giant planet's moon Europa -- a world that shows strong evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust and which could host conditions favourable for life. The highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft would enter into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/DLR

The concept image shows two large solar arrays extending from the sides of the spacecraft, to which the mission's ice-penetrating radar antennas are attached. A saucer-shaped high-gain antenna is also side mounted, with a magnetometer boom placed next to it. On the forward end of the spacecraft (at left in this view) is a remote-sensing palette, which houses the rest of the science instrument payload.

The nominal mission would perform at least 45 flybys of Europa at altitudes varying from 1,700 miles to 16 miles (2,700 kilometers to 25 kilometers) above the surface.

This view takes artistic liberty with Jupiter's position in the sky relative to Europa and the spacecraft. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Europa mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about NASA's Europa mission, visit

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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The Deep Space Atomic Clock

Loura Hall Writing

One future use for the Deep Space Atomic Clock is using the technology to help investigate possible undersea oceans within Europa – a moon of Jupiter. Credits: NASA/JPL

|| April 24: 2016 || As the saying goes, timing is everything. More so in 21st-century space exploration where navigating spacecraft precisely to far-flung destinations—say to Mars or even more distant Europa, a moon of Jupiter—is critical.

NASA is making great strides to develop the Deep Space Atomic Clock, or DSAC for short. DSAC is being readied to fly and validate a miniaturized, ultra-precise mercury-ion atomic clock that in orders of magnitude more stable than today’s best navigational clocks.

Slated for a boost into space in 2016, DSAC will perform a yearlong demonstration aimed at advancing the technology to a new level of maturity for potential adoption by a host of other missions.

Stability in space

The upcoming DSAC mission will deliver the next generation of deep-space radio science. At first blush, that may seem humdrum. But here’s the wake-up call stemming from such work on a timepiece for tomorrow…

For one, the Deep Space Atomic Clock will be far more “stable” than any other atomic clock flown in space, as well as smaller and lighter. Stability is the extent to which each tick of the clock matches the duration of every other tick. At its core, DSAC is a “paradigm shifting” technology demonstration mission to exhibit how to navigate spacecraft better, collect more data with better precision and boost the ability for a spacecraft to brake itself more accurately into an orbit or land upon other worlds.

The DSAC project is sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Flight-ready demonstration unit

At JPL, the DSAC flight-ready demonstration unit is assembled. Further environmental testing, performance optimization and other activities are being completed. In the laboratory setting, DSAC has been refined to permit “drift” of no more than 1 nanosecond throughout 10 days. Drift is when a clock does not run at the exact right speed compared to another clock.

“Transitioning the technology from the lab, where environments are very stable, to the launch and space environments—where they are much more variable—has presented some unique challenges to DSAC’s design,” says Todd Ely, principal technologist for the DSAC Technology Demonstration Mission.

For example, Ely points to temperatures in orbit that vary daily and seasonally. They can affect clock function if not carefully considered. Then there are gravitational loads placed on the instrument during launch that can reach up to 14g (14 times the gravity of Earth). Those g-stresses can strain the clock’s structure and must also be accounted for in DSAC’s design.

“These are just a couple of factors that have led to DSAC’s robustness,” Ely says.

In-orbit test

The DSAC demonstration unit and payload are to be hosted on a spacecraft provided by Surrey Satellite Technologies U.S. of Englewood, Colorado, and lofted spaceward as part of the U.S. Air Force's Space Test Program (STP)-2 mission aboard a Space X Falcon 9 Heavy booster.

The DSAC payload will be operated for at least a year to demonstrate its functionality and utility for one-way-based navigation. The clock will make use of GPS satellite signals to demonstrate precision orbit determination and confirm its performance.

Once DSAC is in orbit, what are the steps to successful testing?

“Our in-orbit investigation has several phases beginning with commissioning, where we start up the clock and bring it to its normal operating state,” Ely responds.

“After that we’ll spend the first few months confirming and updating our modeling assumptions, which we will use to validate the clock’s space-based performance,” Ely adds. “With these updates and our observation data, we’ll spend the next few months determining DSAC’s performance over many time scales…from seconds to days.”

Infusion for the future

Ely says that from that point, the DSAC team transitions to a less intense mode, one in which they will monitor clock telemetry. By using that data, ground controllers can characterize the atomic clock’s potential for long life operations.

“This will be important data for the next generation DSAC, where its lifetime for deep space would most likely need to be many years,” Ely says. The DSAC flight in 2016 will identify pathways to ‘spin’ the design of a future operational unit to be smaller and more power efficient, he adds.

Indeed, DSAC is an ideal technology for infusion into deep space exploration. One future use of DSAC follow-on application includes Mars-bound spacecraft that need to aerobrake accurately into the red planet’s atmosphere.

Transformational technology

Yet another DSAC-inspired duty is to help confirm the existence and characteristics of a possible subsurface liquid ocean on Europa. Any liquid/ice ocean on the enigmatic moon would be affected by nearby giant Jupiter. DSAC technology could make possible global estimations of the subsurface ocean.

Estimation of Europa’s gravitational tide, Ely says, provides an example of the use of DSAC-enabled tracking data for Europa gravity science.
DSAC-enabled high-quality one-way signals for deep space navigation and radio science can enhance radio science at Europa, Mars and other celestial bodies, Ely concludes. DSAC has the potential to transform the traditional two-way paradigm of deep space radiometric tracking, he says, to a more flexible, efficient and extensible one-way tracking architecture.
 

( Editor: Loura Hall: NASA)

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Dawn Sees Dawnseerose 

Elizabeth Landau Writing

We call this exposition, Dawnseerose: Image: NASA

 

|| April 21: 2016 || Craters with bright material on dwarf planet Ceres shine in new images from NASA's Dawn mission.

In its lowest-altitude mapping orbit, at a distance of 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres, Dawn has provided scientists with spectacular views of the dwarf planet.

Haulani Crater, with a diameter of 21 miles (34 kilometers), shows evidence of landslides from its crater rim. Smooth material and a central ridge stand out on its floor. An enhanced false-color view allows scientists to gain insight into materials and how they relate to surface morphology. This image shows rays of bluish ejected material. The color blue in such views has been associated with young features on Ceres.

"Haulani perfectly displays the properties we would expect from a fresh impact into the surface of Ceres. The crater floor is largely free of impacts, and it contrasts sharply in color from older parts of the surface," said Martin Hoffmann, co-investigator on the Dawn framing camera team, based at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany.

The crater's polygonal nature (meaning it resembles a shape made of straight lines) is noteworthy because most craters seen on other planetary bodies, including Earth, are nearly circular. The straight edges of some Cerean craters, including Haulani, result from pre-existing stress patterns and faults beneath the surface.

A hidden treasure on Ceres is the 6-mile-wide (10-kilometer-wide) Oxo Crater, which is the second-brightest feature on Ceres (only Occator's central area is brighter). Oxo lies near the 0 degree meridian that defines the edge of many Ceres maps, making this small feature easy to overlook. Oxo is also unique because of the relatively large "slump" in its crater rim, where a mass of material has dropped below the surface. Dawn science team members are also examining the signatures of minerals on the crater floor, which appear different than elsewhere on Ceres.

"Little Oxo may be poised to make a big contribution to understanding the upper crust of Ceres," said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dawn's mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of mission participants, visit: http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission

More information about Dawn is available at the following sites: http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov http://www.nasa.gov/dawn

Elizabeth Landau: NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-6425: Elizabeth.Landau@jpl.nasa.gov

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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Twin-Comets: ISON and S-Four

Molly Porter: Megan Watzke Writing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Comets ISON and PanSTARRS in optical images taken by an astrophotographer, with insets showing the X-ray images from Chandra. Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ . of CT/B.Snios et al, Optical: DSS, Damian Peach ( damianpeach.com )

 

||April 19, 2016||For millennia, people on Earth have watched comets in the sky. Many ancient cultures saw comets as the harbingers of doom, but today scientists know that comets are really frozen balls of dust, gas, and rock and may have been responsible for delivering water to planets like Earth billions of years ago.

While comets are inherently interesting, they can also provide information about other aspects of our Solar System. More specifically, comets can be used as laboratories to study the behavior of the stream of particles flowing away from the Sun, known as the solar wind.

Recently, astronomers announced the results of a study using data collected with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory of two comets -- C/2012 S1 (also known as "Comet ISON") and C/2011 S4 ("Comet PanSTARRS"). ( The Humanion  used S-Four for C/2011 S4 since these names are so..........)

Chandra observed these two comets in 2013 when both were relatively close to Earth, about 90 million and 130 million miles for Comets ISON and PanSTARRS respectively. These comets arrived in the inner Solar System after a long journey from the Oort cloud, an enormous cloud of icy bodies that extends far beyond Pluto's orbit.

The graphics show the two comets in optical images taken by an astrophotographer, Damian Peach, from the ground during the comets' close approach to the sun that have been combined with data from the Digitized Sky Survey to give a larger field of view. (The greenish hue of Comet ISON is attributed to particular gases such as cyanogen, a gas containing carbon and nitrogen, escaping from the comet's nucleus.)

The insets show the X-rays detected by Chandra from each comet. The different shapes of the X-ray emission (purple) from the two comets indicate differences in the solar wind at the times of observation and the atmospheres of each comet. Comet ISON, on one hand, shows a well-developed, parabolic shape, which indicates that the comet had a dense gaseous atmosphere. On the other hand, Comet PanSTARRS has a more diffuse X-ray haze, revealing an atmosphere with less gas and more dust.

Scientists have determined that comets produce X-ray emission when particles in the solar wind strike the atmosphere of the comet. Although most of the particles in the solar wind are hydrogen and helium atoms, the observed X-ray emission is from "heavy" atoms (that is, elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, such as carbon and oxygen). These atoms, which have had most of their electrons stripped away, collide with neutral atoms in the comet's atmosphere. In a process called "charge exchange," an electron is exchanged between one of these neutral atoms, usually hydrogen, and a heavy atom in the solar wind. After such a collision, an X-ray is emitted as the captured electron moves into a tighter orbit.

The Chandra data allowed scientists to estimate the amount of carbon and nitrogen in the solar wind, finding values that agree with those derived independently using other instruments such as NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). New measurements of the amount of neon in the solar wind were also obtained.

The detailed model developed to analyze the Chandra data on comets ISON and PanSTARRS demonstrates the value of X-ray observations for deriving the composition of the solar wind. The same techniques can be used, together with Chandra data, to investigate interactions of the solar wind with other comets, planets, and the interstellar gas.

A paper describing these results appeared in February 20th, 2016 issue of The Astrophysical Journal and is available online. The authors are Bradford Snios and Vasili Kharchenko (University of Connecticut), Carey Lisse (Johns Hopkins University), Scott Wolk (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Konrad Dennerl (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics) and Michael Combi (University of Michigan).

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra's science and flight operations.

Read More from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

For more Chandra images, multimedia and related materials, visit http://www.nasa.gov/chandra

Molly Porter: Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. 256-544-0034: molly.a.porter@nasa.gov

Megan Watzke: Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass. 617-496-7998: mwatzke@cfa.harvard.edu

( Editor: Lee Mohon: NASA)

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Enceladus: It's All in the Y

 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

||April 18, 2016|| A sinuous feature snakes northward from Enceladus' south pole like a giant tentacle. This feature, which stretches from the terminator near center, toward upper left, is actually tectonic in nature, created by stresses in Enceladus' icy shell.

Geologists call features like these on Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) "Y-shaped discontinuities." These are thought to arise when surface material attempts to push northward, compressing or displacing existing ice along the way. Such features are also believed to be relatively young based on their lack of impact craters -- a reminder of how surprisingly geologically active Enceladus is.

This view looks towards the trailing hemisphere of Enceladus. North is up. The image was taken in visible green light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Feb. 15, 2016.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 60,000 miles (100,000 kilometers) from Enceladus. Image scale is 1,900 feet (580 meters) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini.

(Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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Pluto’s Haze Varies in Brightness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: NASA

||April 16, 2016||  Scientists on NASA’s New Horizons mission team are learning more about the structure and behavior of Pluto’s complex atmosphere by discovering new attributes of its extensive haze layers. The hazes were first discovered by New Horizons in July, as the spacecraft swept past Pluto and made its historic first exploration of the mysterious world.

Mission scientists have discovered that the layers of haze in Pluto’s nitrogen atmosphere vary in brightness depending on illumination and viewpoint, yet the haze itself maintains its overall vertical structure. The brightness variations may be due to buoyancy waves – what atmospheric scientists also call gravity waves – which are typically launched by the flow of air over mountain ranges. Atmospheric gravity waves are known to occur on Earth, Mars and now, likely, Pluto as well.

Pluto’s haze layers are best seen in images taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft with the sun behind Pluto. New Horizons obtained a series of these backlit images as it departed from Pluto on July 14, 2015. In these observations, from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), the haze layers over particular geographic locations on Pluto were imaged several times, at time intervals of 2 to just over 5 hours. The brightness in the layers varied by about 30 percent, though the height of the layers above the surface remained the same.

“Pluto is simply amazing,” said Andy Cheng, LORRI principal investigator from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “When I first saw these images and the haze structures that they reveal, I knew we had a new clue to the nature of Pluto’s hazes. The fact that we don’t see the haze layers moving up or down will be important to future modelling efforts.”

( Editor: Jim Wilson: NASA)

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Saturn Spacecraft Samples Interstellar Dust

Emily Baldwin Writing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of the millions of dust grains Cassini has sampled at Saturn, a few dozen appear to have come from beyond our solar system. Scientists believe these special grains have interstellar origins because they moved much faster and in different directions compared to dusty material native to Saturn. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

||April 14, 2016|| NASA's Cassini spacecraft has detected the faint but distinct signature of dust coming from beyond our solar system. The research, led by a team of Cassini scientists primarily from Europe, is published this week in the journal Science.

Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004, studying the giant planet, its rings and its moons. The spacecraft has also sampled millions of ice-rich dust grains with its cosmic dust analyzer instrument. The vast majority of the sampled grains originate from active jets that spray from the surface of Saturn's geologically active moon Enceladus.

But among the myriad microscopic grains collected by Cassini, a special few -- just 36 grains -- stand out from the crowd. Scientists conclude these specks of material came from interstellar space -- the space between the stars.

Alien dust in the solar system is not unanticipated. In the 1990s, the ESA/NASA Ulysses mission made the first in-situ observations of this material, which were later confirmed by NASA's Galileo spacecraft. The dust was traced back to the local interstellar cloud: a nearly empty bubble of gas and dust that our solar system is traveling through with a distinct direction and speed.

"From that discovery, we always hoped we would be able to detect these interstellar interlopers at Saturn with Cassini. We knew that if we looked in the right direction, we should find them," said Nicolas Altobelli, Cassini project scientist at ESA (European Space Agency) and lead author of the study. "Indeed, on average, we have captured a few of these dust grains per year, travelling at high speed and on a specific path quite different from that of the usual icy grains we collect around Saturn."

The tiny dust grains were speeding through the Saturn system at over 45,000 mph (72,000 kilometers per hour), fast enough to avoid being trapped inside the solar system by the gravity of the sun and its planets.

"We're thrilled Cassini could make this detection, given that our instrument was designed primarily to measure dust from within the Saturn system, as well as all the other demands on the spacecraft," said Marcia Burton, a Cassini fields and particles scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and a co-author of the paper.

Importantly, unlike Ulysses and Galileo, Cassini was able to analyze the composition of the dust for the first time, showing it to be made of a very specific mixture of minerals, not ice. The grains all had a surprisingly similar chemical make-up, containing major rock-forming elements like magnesium, silicon, iron and calcium in average cosmic proportions. Conversely, more reactive elements like sulfur and carbon were found to be less abundant compared to their average cosmic abundance.

"Cosmic dust is produced when stars die, but with the vast range of types of stars in the universe, we naturally expected to encounter a huge range of dust types over the long period of our study," said Frank Postberg of the University of Heidelberg, a co-author of the paper and co-investigator of Cassini's dust analyzer.

Stardust grains are found in some types of meteorites, which have preserved them since the birth of our solar system. They are generally old, pristine and diverse in their composition. But surprisingly, the grains detected by Cassini aren't like that. They have apparently been made rather uniform through some repetitive processing in the interstellar medium, the researchers said.

The authors speculate on how this processing of dust might take place: Dust in a star-forming region could be destroyed and recondense multiple times as shock waves from dying stars passed through, resulting in grains like the ones Cassini observed streaming into our solar system.

"The long duration of the Cassini mission has enabled us to use it like a micrometeorite observatory, providing us privileged access to the contribution of dust from outside our solar system that could not have been obtained in any other way," said Altobelli.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cosmic Dust Analyzer is supported by the German Aerospace Center (DLR); the instrument is managed by the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

For more information about Cassini, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

Preston Dyches: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-7013: preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Markus Bauer: European Space Agency, Noordwijk, Netherlands: 011-31-71-565-6799: markus.bauer@esa.int

Written by Emily Baldwin, ESA
( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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The Saturn's Two Moons: Near and Far

 

The Saturn's Two Moons: Dione (near) and Enceladus (far)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

||April 14, 2016|| Although Dione (near) and Enceladus (far) are composed of nearly the same materials, Enceladus has a considerably higher reflectivity than Dione. As a result, it appears brighter against the dark night sky.

The surface of Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) endures a constant rain of ice grains from its south polar jets. As a result, its surface is more like fresh, bright, snow than Dione's (698 miles or 1123 kilometers across) older, weathered surface. As clean, fresh surfaces are left exposed in space, they slowly gather dust and radiation damage and darken in a process known as "space weathering."

This view looks toward the leading hemisphere of Enceladus. North on Enceladus is up and rotated 1 degree to the right. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Sept. 8, 2015.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 52,000 miles (83,000 kilometers) from Dione. Image scale is 1,600 feet (500 meters) per pixel. The distance from Enceladus was 228,000 miles (364,000 kilometers) for an image scale of 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov or http://www.nasa.gov/cassini . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org .


( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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The Titan Ring of Light

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturn’s past and present moons: Released 11/04/2016 11:09 am: Copyright NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

||April 11, 2016||Saturn’s beautiful rings form a striking feature, cutting across this image of two of the planet’s most intriguing moons.

The rings have been a source of mystery since their discovery in 1610 by Galileo Galilei. There is not full agreement on how they formed, but among the possibilities are that they may have formed along with Saturn, or that they are debris of a former moon that strayed too close to the planet and was ripped apart.

The rings are now shepherded by the gravity of some of the planet’s surviving moons. Of more than 60 known natural satellites, two of the most fascinating are also pictured in this image: Titan and Enceladus.

At 5150 km across, Titan is 10 times larger than Enceladus, which measures just 505 km in diameter. Titan is seen as a disc because light from the distant Sun is being refracted through the moon’s dense atmosphere.

Somewhere on Titan’s surface rests the Huygens probe. On December 25, 2004, Huygens detached from the Cassini mothership and, a few weeks later, parachuted through the dense atmosphere to return the first pictures of Titan’s rugged landscape of icy mountains.

Although Enceladus is a smaller moon, it has as much character. The restless interior means that water constantly jets through cracks in the icy surface. In some images, these geysers can be glimpsed at the south pole.

The image was taken on June 10, 2006 in red light with the Cassini spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera, and is orientated with north facing up. The spacecraft was some 3.9 million km from Enceladus and 5.3 million km from Titan.

Cassini itself is nearing the end of its mission, after 12 years exploring Saturn’s system. It will be guided to a dramatic end, plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, 2017. Before then it will be moved into closer and closer orbits to the giant planet. Known as the Cassini Grand Finale, the spacecraft’s movements will reveal details of Saturn’s gravitational field.

As well as providing a way to determine the mass of the rings themselves, this will also tell scientists whether the ringed planet has a dense core of rocks and metal. If it does, it confirms that planets build up through the collision of smaller asteroid-like planetesimals.

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Regardless of the Hypothetical Planet 9, Cassini Has Neither April Thesis Nor Perturbations Hypothesis as It Keeps Orbiting Saturn 'Undisturbed'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturn as seen by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in 2008. Long-term tracking of the spacecraft's position has revealed no unexplained perturbations in Cassini's orbit. Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

||April 09, 2016|| Contrary to recent reports, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is not experiencing unexplained deviations in its orbit around Saturn, according to mission managers and orbit determination experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Several recent news stories have reported that a mysterious anomaly in Cassini's orbit could potentially be explained by the gravitational tug of a theorized massive new planet in our solar system, lurking far beyond the orbit of Neptune. While the proposed planet's existence may eventually be confirmed by other means, mission navigators have observed no unexplained deviations in the spacecraft's orbit since its arrival there in 2004.

"An undiscovered planet outside the orbit of Neptune, 10 times the mass of Earth, would affect the orbit of Saturn, not Cassini," said William Folkner, a planetary scientist at JPL. Folkner develops planetary orbit information used for NASA's high-precision spacecraft navigation. "This could produce a signature in the measurements of Cassini while in orbit about Saturn if the planet was close enough to the sun. But we do not see any unexplained signature above the level of the measurement noise in Cassini data taken from 2004 to 2016."

A recent paper predicts that, if data tracking Cassini's position were available out to the year 2020, they might be used to reveal a "most probable" location for the new planet in its long orbit around the sun. However, Cassini's mission is planned to end in late 2017, when the spacecraft -- too low on fuel to continue on a longer mission -- will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere.

"Although we'd love it if Cassini could help detect a new planet in the solar system, we do not see any perturbations in our orbit that we cannot explain with our current models," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about Cassini, visit http://www.nasa.gov/cassini            http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

Preston Dyches: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-7013: preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

( Editor: Martin Perez: NASA)

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In Wavelength 195 Angstroms the Sun Appears as Green as This

 

A STEREO-A View of Half the Sun: Credits: NASA/STEREO

||April 09, 2016|| On last Nov. 09, 2015, NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory Ahead, or STEREO-A, once again began transmitting data at its full rate. For the previous year, STEREO-A was transmitting only a weak signal—or occasionally none at all—due to its position almost directly behind the sun. Subsequently, as of Nov. 17, STEREO resumed its normal science operations, which includes transmission of lower-resolution real-time data—used by scientists to monitor solar events—as well as high-definition, but delayed, images of the sun’s surface and atmosphere.

One of the key components of the real-time data, known as beacon data, is what's called coronagraph imagery – in which the bright light of the sun is blocked out in order to better see the sun's faint atmosphere. Coronagraphs are key for monitoring when the sun erupts with a coronal mass ejection, which can send a giant cloud of solar material out into space. Such space weather can lead to interference with radio communications, GPS signals and satellites.

“STEREO-A’s real-time data is key for scientists to make accurate models of interplanetary space weather,” said Yari Collado-Vega, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Having a second set of coronagraph images, in addition to those from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), means we can measure coronal mass ejections much more accurately.”
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A-STEREO-AViewOfHalfTheSunAn image of the sun taken with the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager aboard STEREO-A, which collects images in several wavelengths of light that are invisible to the human eye. This image shows the sun in wavelengths of 195 angstroms, which are typically colorized in green. Credits: NASA/STEREO

For the past year, however, beacon data was only received for a few hours each day—if at all—limiting scientists’ ability to monitor the sun. Since August 2014, our line of communication to the spacecraft was so close to the sun that pointing the antenna straight at Earth also meant pointing it nearly directly at the sun, which would cause the spacecraft’s antenna to dangerously overheat. Now that STEREO-A has emerged from behind the sun, scientists have once again pointed the main lobe of STEREO-A’s antenna towards Earth and the stronger signal means that the majority of the beacon data can once again be picked up.

STEREO-A is also using this stronger signal to send high-definition views of the sun’s far side with a two- to three-day delay. These detailed images of the sun’s surface and atmosphere allow scientists to better track the formation of solar events.

“We’re now using STEREO-A to its fullest capabilities, given how far away it is,” said Terry Kucera, deputy project scientist for the STEREO mission at Goddard.

STEREO-A’s twin spacecraft, STEREO Behind, has been out of communication since October 2014, when communications were lost following a planned reset of the spacecraft. For several months, STEREO-B’s orbit took it behind the sun from our perspective, making it impossible to send messages to the spacecraft. But STEREO-B will soon emerge from the sun’s interference zone, and spacecraft operators will resume their attempts to contact the spacecraft on Nov. 30.

Sarah Frazier: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

( Editor: Rob Garner: NASA)

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Journey to Mars: 2030s: NASA's Orion Flight Test and the Journey to Mars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image: NASA

April 08, 2016: In the not-too-distant future, astronauts destined to be the first people to walk on Mars will leave Earth aboard an Orion spacecraft. Carried aloft by the tremendous power of a Space Launch System rocket, our explorers will begin their Journey to Mars from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying the spirit of humanity with them to the Red Planet.

The first future human mission to Mars and those that follow will require the ingenuity and dedication of an entire generation. It's a journey worth the risks. We take the next step on that journey this Thursday, Dec. 4, with the uncrewed, first flight test of Orion. (Follow along on the Orion Blog, or see the full schedule of events and launch viewing opportunities).

Journey to Mars: 2030s

NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s – goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.

Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth, helping us learn more about our own planet’s history and future. Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?

While robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years, NASA’s path for the human exploration of Mars begins in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station. Astronauts on the orbiting laboratory are helping us prove many of the technologies and communications systems needed for human missions to deep space, including Mars. The space station also advances our understanding of how the body changes in space and how to protect astronaut health.

Our next step is deep space, where NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, which we’ll need to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. Beginning in FY 2018, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System rocket will enable these “proving ground” missions to test new capabilities. Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.

A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers already are on and around Mars, dramatically increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet and paving the way for future human explorers. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover measured radiation on the way to Mars and is sending back radiation data from the surface. This data will help us plan how to protect the astronauts who will explore Mars. Future missions like the Mars 2020 rover, seeking signs of past life, also will demonstrate new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.

Engineers and scientists around the country are working hard to develop the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars, and safely return home from the next giant leap for humanity. NASA also is a leader in a Global Exploration Roadmap, working with international partners and the U.S. commercial space industry on a coordinated expansion of human presence into the solar system, with human missions to the surface of Mars as the driving goal. Follow our progress at www.nasa.gov/exploration  and www.nasa.gov/mars Readmore

Orion is the first spacecraft built for astronauts destined for deep space since the storied Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. It is designed to go farther than humans have ever traveled, well beyond the moon, pushing the boundaries of spaceflight to new heights.

Orion will open the space between Earth and Mars for exploration by astronauts. This proving ground will be invaluable for testing capabilities future human Mars missions will need. The area around our moon, in particular, called cis-lunar space, is a rich environment for testing human exploration needs, like advanced spacewalking suits, navigating using gravity, and protecting astronauts from radiation and extreme temperatures.

One of Orion's early missions in the 2020s will send astronauts to explore an asteroid, which will be placed in a stable orbit around the moon using a robotic spacecraft. This Asteroid Redirect Mission will test new technologies, like Solar Electric Propulsion, which will help us send heavy cargo to Mars in advance of human missions. Astronauts aboard Orion will return to Earth with samples of the asteroid, having tested a number of collection tools and techniques we'll use in future human missions to Mars or its moons.

Astronauts will board Orion for a first crewed flight in 2021. Many of Orion's systems needed for that flight and others will be tested on Thursday with the first uncrewed flight test.

Orion’s flight test is designed to test many of the riskiest elements of leaving Earth and returning home in the spacecraft. It will evaluate several key separations events, including the jettison of the launch abort system that will be capable of carrying astronauts on future missions to safety if a problem were to arise on the launch pad or during ascent to space, and the separation of the Orion crew module from its service module ahead of its reentry though Earth’s atmosphere.

Orion’s heat shield also will be tested to examine how the spacecraft endures its high speed return from deep space. The heat shield will experience temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit during Thursday’s test, and will come back at about 80 percent of the speed the spacecraft would endure returning from the vicinity of the moon.

Other elements will also be put to the test, including how Orion’s computers handle the radiation environment in the Van Allen Belt, the spacecraft’s attitude control and guidance and how its 11 parachutes slow the crew module to just about 20 mph ahead of its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Teams also will evaluate the procedures and tools used to recover Orion from the ocean after it touches down about 600 miles southwest of San Diego and is transported back to shore.

Testing these capabilities now will help ensure that Orion will be the next generation spacecraft for missions in the 2020s that will put Mars within the reach of astronauts in the 2030s.

As development continues on Orion, astronauts aboard the International Space Station are helping us learn how to protect the human body for longer durations, which missions to Mars will require. Researchers operating increasingly advanced rovers and spacecraft on and around Mars are revealing the planet's history while characterizing its environment to better prepare for human explorers. Here on Earth, the U.S. spaceflight industry is building and testing next generation technologies NASA will need to send astronauts to Mars and return them safely.

The Journey to Mars is humanity's Next Giant Leap into our solar system. The Orion spacecraft and its first flight test will help make it possible.

( Editor: Jim Wilson: NASA)

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Transit of Mercury May 09: ESA Schools' Challenge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mercury Globe: An orthographic projection of a global mosaic centered at 0 degrees N, 0 degrees E. The rayed crater Debussy can be seen towards the bottom of the globe and the peak-ring basin Rachmaninoff can be seen towards the eastern edge. Released 05/04/2016 3:01 pm: Copyright NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

April 05, 2016: ESA invites European schools to join together to observe the transit of Mercury taking place on Monday 9 May 2016. Schools are challenged to observe the transit and to recreate the measurements made by astronomers around 300 years ago in order to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

A transit occurs when a one celestial object passes in front of another. From our viewpoint on Earth, it can only be the two innermost planets in the Solar System, Mercury and Venus that transit the disc of the Sun.

A transit of Mercury is a relatively rare event happening only 13 or 14 times each century. Mercury actually passes between the Earth and Sun at least three times a year, however since its orbit is inclined with respect to the plane of the Solar System, it usually appears to pass above or below the Sun to an observer on Earth.

During a transit, Mercury appears as a small black dot moving across the disc of the Sun.

On May 09, 2016, from 11:12 until 18:42 UT, an entire transit of Mercury will be visible from western Europe. Find out if you can enjoy this event from your location, here

Your Challenge

 ESA invites European schools to observe the transit of Mercury (either the entire or partial transit) and to measure the times that the edge of the disc of Mercury makes contact with the edge of the disc of the Sun.

To be able to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun from the transit you will need a second set of data from a different location, ideally as far away as possible. Therefore, we would like you to send your data to us so that it can be made available to everyone participating.

Once you have calculated the distance between the Earth and the Sun Earth-Sun from your measurements, you can submit a short report of your transit of Mercury experience to be published on the ESA website, and be in with a chance of winning a prize. Your report should include a brief description of your observing event with a picture, and your calculations as well as your result.

Even if you are not able to make your own observations you can still submit a report and calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun using the measurements that will be published online.

If you are observing the event please remember to NEVER look at the Sun with unprotected eyes, through ordinary sunglasses or through a telescope, as this might cause permanent damage to your eyes.

Prizes

All groups that enter a short report including a description, photo, calculations and result will receive a certificate of participation and be entered into a draw with a chance to receive one of five ESA goodie bags. Furthermore, the first entry to be drawn at random will receive a videoconference [video skype] with ESA scientists.

Who can participate?

The transit of Mercury challenge is recommended for schools and groups of young people in secondary level education. Schools and groups of young people in primary level education are also welcome to participate and are encourage to get engaged with the transit of Mercury.

Visit this page again closer to the time of the transit for updates and further information.

For further information, please contact: Rebecca Barnes: Communications, Outreach and Education Group: Directorate of Science: rebecca.barnes @ esa.int

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The Saturnesque View: Well, This is When Saturn is Askew

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

       Here's Dione

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

April 04, 2016: As a convention for public release, Cassini images of Saturn are generally oriented so that Saturn appears north up, but the spacecraft views the planet and its expansive rings from all sorts of angles. Here, a half-lit Saturn sits askew as tiny Dione (698 miles or 1,123 kilometers across) looks on from lower left. And the terminator, which separates night from day on Saturn, is also askew, owing to the planet’s approach to northern summer solstice. As a result, the planet’s northern pole is in sunlight all throughout Saturn’s day, much as it would be on Earth during northern summer.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 7 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Feb. 19, 2016 using a spectral filter that preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 752 nanometers. North on Saturn is up and rotated 20 degrees to the right.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.2 million miles (1.9 million kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 68 miles (110 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini. The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org.

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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In Total Solar Eclipse the Earth's Sunny Side Looks Absolutely Beautiful from 1 Million Miles Away

Rob Gutro: Adam Voiland Writing

The Sun-lit side of the Earth During Total Solar Eclipse Taken from 1 Million Miles Away

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April 03, 2016: Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that it has not been possible to capture images of the entire sunlit side of Earth since Apollo 17 astronauts captured the iconic Blue Marble photograph in 1972. In fact, other satellites—including Galileo, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and geostationary weather satellites including GOES—have captured full-disc views of Earth since then.

The journey has been a long one for the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). Once known as Triana, the satellite was conceived in 1998 to provide continuous views of Earth, to monitor the solar wind, and to measure fluctuations in Earth’s albedo. The mission was put on hold in 2001, and the partly-built satellite ended up in storage for several years with an uncertain future. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, and the U.S. Air Force decided to refurbish and update the spacecraft for launch.

On February 11, 2015, DSCOVR was finally lofted into space by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. After journey of about 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles) to the L1 Lagrange Point, the satellite and its Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) has returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth. At L1—four times farther than the orbit of the Moon—the gravitational pull of the Sun and Earth cancel out, providing a stable orbit and a continuous view of Earth. The image above was made by combining information from EPIC’s red, green, and blue bands. (Bands are narrow regions of the electromagnetic spectrum to which a remote sensing instrument responds. When EPIC collects data, it takes a series of 10 images at different bands—from ultraviolet to near infrared.)

This first public image shows the effects of sunlight scattered by air molecules, giving the disk a characteristic bluish tint. The EPIC team is developing data processing techniques that will emphasize land features and remove this atmospheric effect. Once the instrument begins regular data acquisition, new images will be available every day, 12 to 36 hours after they are acquired by EPIC. These images will be posted to a dedicated web page by autumn 2015. Data from EPIC will be used to measure ozone and aerosol levels in Earth’s atmosphere, as well as cloud height, vegetation properties, and the ultraviolet reflectivity of Earth. NASA will use this data for a number of Earth science applications, including dust and volcanic ash maps of the entire planet.

“This first DSCOVR image of our planet demonstrates the unique and important benefits of Earth observation from space,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “As a former astronaut who’s been privileged to view the Earth from orbit, I want everyone to be able to see and appreciate our planet as an integrated, interacting system.”

References
European Space Agency What are Lagrange Points? Accessed July 20, 2015.
NASA (2015, February 11) NOAA’s New Deep Space Solar Monitoring Satellite Launches. Accessed July 20, 2015.
NASA Kennedy Space Center (2015, February 11) Deep Space Climate Observatory Photo Gallery. Accessed July 20, 2015.
NASA (2015, January 7) NOAA’s DSCOVR to Provide “EPIC” Views of Earth. Accessed July 20, 2015.
NASA (2015, July 20) NASA Satellite Camera Provides “EPIC” View of Earth . Accessed July 20, 2015.
NASA Earth Observatory (2009, September 4) Catalog of Earth Satellite Orbits. Accessed July 20, 2015.
NASA Earth Observatory (2009, September 4) History of the Blue Marble. Accessed July 20, 2015.
NOAA Satellite and Information Service (2015) DSCOVR: Deep Space Climate Observatory. Accessed July 20, 2015.

Further Reading
Scientific American (2015, February 6) Al Gore Weighs in on a Long-Delayed Earth Observatory Launch. Accessed July 20, 2015.
The Atlantic (2015, February 10) 7 Truly Amazing Reasons to Care About NASA’s New Satellite. Accessed July 20, 2015.
The Planetary Society (2015, July 20) DSCOVR mission releases first EPIC global view of Earth, more to come in September. Accessed July 20, 2015.
The White House (2015, July 20) A New Blue Marble. Accessed July 20, 2015.

Image courtesy of the DSCOVR EPIC team. Caption by Rob Gutro and Adam Voiland.

Instrument(s):
DSCOVR - EPIC

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Jupiterian Neighbour: Comet Tempel One

Comet Tempel One

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASA's Deep Impact impactor probe hits comet Tempel 1 (artist's impression)

April 02, 2016:  No comet has ever been visited twice before. Therefore, the unprecedented pass of the Stardust-NeXT spacecraft near Comet Tempel 1 earlier this week gave humanity a unique opportunity to see how the nucleus of a comet changes over time. Changes in the nucleus of Comet Tempel 1 were of particular interest because the comet was hit with an impactor from the passing Deep Impact spacecraft in 2005. Pictured above is one digitally sharpened image of Comet Tempel 1 near the closest approach of Stardust-NeXT.

Comet Tempel One from Stardust-NeXT Spacecraft
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Cornell

Visible are many features imaged in 2005, including craters, ridges, and seemingly smoother areas. Few firm conclusions are yet available, but over the next few years astronomers who specialize in comets and the understanding the early Solar System will be poring over these images looking for new clues as to how Comet Tempel 1 is composed, how the 2005 impact site now appears, and how general features of the comet have evolved.

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Saturnmore: Seemore: Wondermore

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 31, 2016:  With giant Saturn hanging in the blackness and sheltering Cassini from the sun's blinding glare, the spacecraft viewed the rings as never before, revealing previously unknown faint rings and even glimpsing its home world.

This marvelous panoramic view was created by combining a total of 165 images taken by the Cassini wide-angle camera over nearly three hours on Sept. 15, 2006. The full mosaic consists of three rows of nine wide-angle camera footprints; only a portion of the full mosaic is shown here. Color in the view was created by digitally compositing ultraviolet, infrared and clear filter images and was then adjusted to resemble natural color.

The mosaic images were acquired as the spacecraft drifted in the darkness of Saturn's shadow for about 12 hours, allowing a multitude of unique observations of the microscopic particles that compose Saturn's faint rings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Ring structures containing these tiny particles brighten substantially at high phase angles: i.e., viewing angles where the sun is almost directly behind the objects being imaged.

During this period of observation Cassini detected two new faint rings: one coincident with the shared orbit of the moons Janus and Epimetheus, and another coincident with Pallene's orbit. (See PIA08322 and PIA08328 for more on the two new rings.)

The narrowly confined G ring is easily seen here, outside the bright main rings. Encircling the entire system is the much more extended E ring. The icy plumes of Enceladus, whose eruptions supply the E ring particles, betray the moon's position in the E ring's left-side edge.

Interior to the G ring and above the brighter main rings is the pale dot of Earth. Cassini views its point of origin from over a billion kilometers (and close to a billion miles) away in the icy depths of the outer solar system. See PIA08324 for a similar view of Earth taken during this observation.

Small grains are pushed about by sunlight and electromagnetic forces. Hence, their distribution tells much about the local space environment.

A second version of the mosaic view is presented here in which the color contrast is greatly exaggerated. In such views, imaging scientists have noticed color variations across the diffuse rings that imply active processes sort the particles in the ring according to their sizes.

Looking at the E ring in this color-exaggerated view, the distribution of color across and along the ring appears to be different between the right side and the left. Scientists are not sure yet how to explain these differences, though the difference in phase angle between right and left may be part of the explanation. The phase angle is about 179 degrees on Saturn.

The main rings are overexposed in a few places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This view looks toward the unlit side of the rings from about 15 degrees above the ringplane.

Cassini was approximately 2.2 million kilometers (1.3 million miles) from Saturn when the images in this mosaic were taken. Image scale on Saturn is about 260 kilometers (162 miles) per pixel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.cfm . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org

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Journey to Mars: The Groundwork Goes on: NASA

Kathryn Hambleton, Amber Philman, Rachel Kraft Writing

This artist concept depicts the Space Launch System rocket rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 30, 2016: NASA has completed a major milestone on its journey to Mars and is ready to begin another phase of work on its spaceport of the future, where the next generation of astronauts will launch to Mars and other deep-space destinations.

The agency recently wrapped up a comprehensive and successful review of plans for the facilities and ground support systems that will process the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“NASA is developing and modernizing the ground systems at Kennedy to safely integrate Orion with SLS, move the vehicle to the pad, and successfully launch it into space,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Modernizing the ground systems for our journey to Mars also ensures long-term sustainability and affordability to meet future needs of the multi-use spaceport.”

Over the course of a few months, engineers and experts across the agency reviewed hundreds of documents as part of a comprehensive assessment. The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program (GSDO), responsible for processing SLS and Orion for flight and ensuring all systems and facilities are ready, completed its critical design review (CDR) of the facilities and ground support systems plans in December 2015.

This was followed in January by the completion of an independent assessment by a Standing Review Board, a team of aerospace experts that assessed program readiness and confirmed the program is on track to complete the engineering design and development process on budget and on schedule.

In the final step before actual fabrication, installation and testing of Kennedy's ground systems, the GSDO program and review board briefed the results of their assessments to NASA’s Agency Program Management Council, led by Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

Engineers are transforming Kennedy's launch infrastructure to support the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. The heavy-lift rocket will be stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building on the mobile launcher and roll out to Launch Pad 39B atop a modified crawler transporter. The Orion spacecraft will be fueled with propellants in the Multi-Payload Processing Facility at Kennedy prior to stacking atop the rocket. The launch team will use the new command and control system in the firing room as the clock counts down to liftoff of SLS’s first flight.

“The team is working hard and we are making remarkable progress transforming our facilities," said Mike Bolger, GSDO Program Manager. "As we are preparing for NASA's journey to Mars, the outstanding team at the Kennedy Space Center is ensuring that we will be ready to receive SLS and Orion flight hardware and process the vehicle for the first flight in 2018."

The council also heard the results of the Orion CDR, completed at the program level in October 2015. The evaluation assessed the primary systems of the spacecraft, including the capsule’s structures, pyrotechnics, Launch Abort System jettison, guidance, navigation and control and software systems among many other elements.

For the spacecraft’s first mission on the SLS rocket, ESA (European Space Agency) is providing Orion’s service module, which powers, propels, cools and provides consumables like air and water in space. Results from ESA's service module design review, which began this month, will be assessed and incorporated into Orion development and integration plans later this summer. Systems unique to the first crewed flight will be addressed at a review in the fall of 2017.

Progress continues on Orion at NASA facilities across the country. The underlying structure of the crew module arrived at Kennedy in early February for outfitting, which is currently underway. Over the next 18 months, thousands of Orion components will arrive and be installed.

Meanwhile, a structural representation of the service module is being tested at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, where engineers conducted a successful solar array wing deployment test on Feb. 29 and are preparing for a variety of tests to confirm it can withstand the harsh conditions of launch.

For more information on GSDO, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/groundsystems For more information on Orion, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/orion

Kathryn Hambleton: Headquarters, Washington: 202-358-1100: kathryn.hambleton@nasa.gov

Amber Philman: Kennedy Space Center, Fla. 321-867-2468: amber.n.philman@nasa.gov

Rachel Kraft: Johnson Space Center, Houston: 281-244-2611: rachel.h.kraft@nasa.gov
 

(Editor: Sarah Ramsey: NASA)

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The Saturn: A Splendour Seldom Seen But Always Is

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

March 30, 2016: NASA's Cassini spacecraft has delivered a glorious view of Saturn, taken while the spacecraft was in Saturn's shadow. The cameras were turned toward Saturn and the sun so that the planet and rings are backlit. (The sun is behind the planet, which is shielding the cameras from direct sunlight.) In addition to the visual splendor, this special, very-high-phase viewing geometry lets scientists study ring and atmosphere phenomena not easily seen at a lower phase.

Since images like this can only be taken while the sun is behind the planet, this beautiful view is all the more precious for its rarity. The last time Cassini captured a view like this was in Sept. 2006, when it captured a mosaic processed to look like natural color, entitled "In Saturn's Shadow" (see PIA08329.) In that mosaic, planet Earth put in a special appearance, making "In Saturn's Shadow" one of the most popular Cassini images to date. Earth does not appear in this mosaic as it is hidden behind the planet.

Also captured in this image are two of Saturn's moons: Enceladus and Tethys. Both appear on the left side of the planet, below the rings. Enceladus is closer to the rings; Tethys is below and to the left.

This view looks toward the non-illuminated side of the rings from about 19 degrees below the ring plane.

Images taken using infrared, red and violet spectral filters were combined to create this enhanced-color view. The images were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Oct. 17, 2012 at a distance of approximately 500,000 miles (800,000 kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale at Saturn is about 30 miles per pixel (50 kilometers per pixel).

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org 

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Dear, New Horizon, With This Ring, I Bid Thee Goodbye!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

 

March 29, 2016: Pluto sends a breathtaking farewell to New Horizons. Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image, delivered to Earth on July 23, is displayed with north at the top of the frame.

( Editor: Tricia Talbert: NASA)

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Jupiter's Northern Lights

Megan Watzke, Molly Porter Writing

Solar storms are triggering X-ray auroras on Jupiter that are about eight times brighter than normal over a large area of the planet and hundreds of times more energetic than Earth’s "northern lights"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STScI

 

March 27, 2016: Solar storms are triggering X-ray auroras on Jupiter that are about eight times brighter than normal over a large area of the planet and hundreds of times more energetic than Earth’s "northern lights," according to a new study using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This result is the first time that Jupiter's auroras have been studied in X-ray light when a giant solar storm arrived at the planet.

The Sun constantly ejects streams of particles into space in the solar wind. Sometimes, giant storms, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), erupt and the winds become much stronger. These events compress Jupiter's magnetosphere, the region of space controlled by Jupiter's magnetic field, shifting its boundary with the solar wind inward by more than a million miles. This new study found that the interaction at the boundary triggers the X-rays in Jupiter's auroras, which cover an area bigger than the surface of the Earth.

These composite images show Jupiter and its aurora during and after a CME's arrival at Jupiter in October 2011. In these images, X-ray data from Chandra (purple) have been overlaid on an optical image from the Hubble Space Telescope. The left-hand panel reveals the X-ray activity when the CME reached Jupiter, and the right-hand side is the view two days later after the CME subsided. The impact of the CME on Jupiter's aurora was tracked by monitoring the X-rays emitted during two 11-hour observations. The scientists used that data to pinpoint the source of the X-ray activity and identify areas to investigate further at different time points. They plan to find out how the X-rays form by collecting data on Jupiter's magnetic field, magnetosphere and aurora using Chandra and ESA’s XMM-Newton.

A paper describing these results appeared in the March 22, 2016 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research. The authors on the paper are William Dunn (UCL), Graziella Branduardi-Raymont (UCL), Ronald Elsner (NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center), Marissa Vogt (Boston University), Laurent Lamy (University of Paris Diderot), Peter Ford (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Andrew Coates (UCL), Randall Gladstone (Southwest Research Institute), Caitriona Jackman (University of Southampton), Jonathan Nichols (University of Leicester), Jonathan Rae (UCL), Ali Varsani (UCL), Tomoki Kimura (JAXA), Kenneth Hansen (University of Michigan), and Jamie Jasinski (UCL).

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra's science and flight operations.

For more Chandra images, multimedia and related materials, visit

Megan Watzke: Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass: 617-496-7998: mwatzke@cfa.harvard.edu

Molly Porter: Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala: 256-544-0034: molly.a.porter@nasa.gov

( Editor: Jennifer Harbaugh:NASA)

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The Hellas Basin Crater on Mars

 
Hellas Basin rim topography
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The colour-coded topographic view shows relative heights and depths of terrain in the Hellas Basin region on Mars. Red and white represent the highest terrain, and blues and purples show lower terrain (see key). The image is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived. The region was imaged by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express on 6 December 2015 during orbit 15127. The image is centred on 45ºS/48ºE and the ground resolution is about 52 m per pixel. Released 24/03/2016 11:00 am: Copyright ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
 

March 24, 2016: Nestled within the fractured rim of a vast impact basin on Mars are valley floors dusted in frost.

At 2200 km wide and up to 9 km deep, the Hellas Basin is the largest impact crater on Mars. This scene, captured on 6 December 2015 by ESA’s Mars Express, focuses on a portion of the western rim of the basin.

This region spans a height difference of over 6000 m, stepping down like a staircase from the basin’s fractured, terraced rim to its flat, low-lying floor that is covered in frost or ice.

Hellas Basin rim: perspective view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


This perspective view in the Hellas Basin was generated from the high-resolution stereo camera on ESA’s Mars Express. It looks from the frost-covered lower terrain in the basin floor towards the rugged terraces in the basin’s rim in the background. The scene is part of region imaged by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express on 6 December 2015 during orbit 15127. The main image is centred on 45ºS/48ºE and the ground resolution is about 52 m per pixel. Released 24/03/2016 11:00 am: Copyright ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The surface expression of numerous valley-like features can be seen below the icy covering, indicating a flow of material towards the catchment areas on the floor of Hellas.

For example, towards the centre of the image, a glacier-like flow has carved a valley through the terraced topography, transporting and dumping material into the basin in a fan structure.

Zooming into the channel reveals parallel structures on the surface – ‘lineated valley fill’– that point to the flow of material.

 Mass-movement of material can be seen all over the scene. Another example can be found in the small impact crater to the far left of the main image: its rim has been breached, and material has cascaded downhill.
 

 

Hellas Basin rim in context

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

This context image shows part of the Hellas basin on Mars imaged by Mars Express on 6 December 2015 during orbit 15127 (outlined by the large white box). The region outlined by the inner white box provides the focus of an associated image release. Released 24/03/2016 11:00 am: Copyright NASA MGS MOLA Science Team

Elsewhere, numerous gullies can be seen etched all along the terraced slopes.

Towards the centre-right of the main images are neighbouring impact craters that have been cross-cut by a fault, creating a small step in the terrain that can be best seen in the 3D anaglyph image.

The fault must be younger than the crater that it cuts through, implying that this region could have been subject to later periods of faulting due to subsidence of the terraces.

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March 22, 2016

The Sun in Ultraviolet Intricacy

Ultraviolet image shows the Sun’s intricate atmosphere: Released 21/03/2016 12:15 pm: Copyright SOHO (ESA & NASA)


March 22, 2016: This eerie coloured orb is nothing less than the life-giver of the Solar System. It is the Sun, the prodigious nuclear reactor that sits at the heart of our planetary system and supplies our world with all the light and heat needed for us to exist.

To the human eye, the Sun is a burning light in the sky. It is dangerous to look at it directly unless some special filtering is used to cut out most of the light pouring from its incandescent surface.

However, to the electronic eyes of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the Sun appears a place of delicate beauty and detail.

SOHO’s extreme-ultraviolet telescope was used to take these images. This telescope is sensitive to four wavelengths of extreme-ultraviolet light, and the three shortest were used to build this image. Each wavelength has been colour-coded to highlight the different temperatures of gas in the Sun.

The gas temperature is traced by iron atoms, where rising temperature strips increasing numbers of electrons from around the nucleus.

An iron atom usually contains 26 electrons. In this image, blue shows iron at a temperature of 1 million degrees celsius, having lost 8 or 9 electrons. Yellow shows iron at 1.5 million degrees (11 lost electrons) and red shows iron at 2.5 million degrees (14 lost electrons).

These atoms all exist in the outer part of the Sun’s atmosphere known as the corona. How the corona is heated to millions of degrees remains the subject of scientific debate.

The constant monitoring of the Sun’s atmosphere with SOHO, and with other Sun-staring spacecraft like the Solar Dynamics Observatory and Proba-2, is allowing solar physicists to build up a detailed picture of the way the corona behaves. This gives them insight into the physical processes that give rise to the corona and its behaviour.

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Pluto’s ‘Snakeskin’ Terrain: Cradle of the Solar System?

Orkan Umurhan Writing

The Bladed Terrain of Tartarus Dorsa. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

March 21, 2016: Greetings and salutations. In this week’s New Horizons blog entry, I want to share with you the exciting possibility that some of Pluto’s surface features may record conditions from the protosolar nebula from which the solar system formed.

A case in point is the image below. It’s what geologists call ‘bladed’ terrain in a region known as Tartarus Dorsa, located in the rough highlands on the eastern side of Tombaugh Regio. (Note that all names used here are informal.) A moment’s study reveals surface features that appear to be texturally ‘snakeskin’-like, owing to their north-south oriented scaly raised relief. A digital elevation model created by the New Horizons’ geology shows that these bladed structures have typical relief of about 550 yards (500 meters). Their relative spacing of about 3-5 kilometers makes them some of the steepest features seen on Pluto.
The Bladed Terrain of Tartarus Dorsa

Now, here comes the puzzle. Spectroscopic measurements of this region made by New Horizons’ Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument show that this region of Pluto’s surface has a predominance of methane (CH4)—with a smattering of water as well. Naturally, one then would ask, “Can pure methane ice support such steep structures under Pluto’s gravity and surface temperature conditions over geologic time?”

The answer is a meek “maybe.” To date, there are only two known published studies examining the rheological properties (i.e., how much a material deforms when stresses are applied to it) of methane ice in the extreme temperature range of Pluto—a bitterly cold -300 to -400 degrees Fahrenheit. According to one study, the answer is a definite ‘no,’ because methane ice of those dimensions would flatten out in a matter of decades. Yet in another study, methane ice may maintain such a steepened structure if the individual CH4 ice grains constituting the collective ice are large enough. Which study is right? Or is there a way to reconcile them? This is something we simply do not know at the moment.

So before we try to explain how the bladed shapes came to be, we have to make sure we have developed a detailed and controlled laboratory understanding of the behavior of both pure methane ice and methane-hydrate ice. If there were ever an example of why we need further laboratory work, this is it!

But what if it turns out that pure methane ice is always too ‘mushy’ to support such observed structures? Because water is also observed in this region, perhaps the material making up the bladed terrain is a methane clathrate. A clathrate is a structure in which a primary molecular species (say water, or H2O) forms a crystalline ‘cage’ to contain a guest molecule (methane or CH4, for example.). Methane clathrates exist on the Earth, namely at the bottoms of the deep oceans where it is sufficiently cold to maintain clathrate ice. Under those terrestrial conditions, however, methane clathrates are relatively unstable to increases in temperature, causing their cages to open and release their guest methane molecules. This poses a real problem for terrestrial climate stability, since methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

However, under the cold conditions typical of the surface of Pluto, methane clathrates are very stable and extremely strong, so they might easily mechanically support the observed bladed structures. While there is no direct and unambiguous evidence of methane clathrates on the surface of Pluto, it’s certainly a plausible candidate, and we are actively considering that possibility too.

If the Tartarus Dorsa bladed region is comprised of methane clathrates, then the next question would be, “how were the clathrates placed there and where did they come from?” Recent detailed studies (see Mousis et al., 2015) strongly suggest that methane clathrates in the icy moons of the outer solar system and also in the Kuiper Belt were formed way back before the solar system formed – i.e., within the protosolar nebula – potentially making them probably some of the oldest materials in our solar system.

Might the material comprising the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa be a record of a time before the solar system ever was? That would be something!

About the Author: Orkan Umurhan

Orkan Umurhan is a mathematical physicist currently working as a senior post-doc at NASA Ames Research Center. He has been on the New Horizons Science Team for over two years. He specializes in astrophysical and geophysical fluid dynamics, and now works on a variety of geophysical problems, including landform evolution modelling as applied to the icy bodies of the solar system. He is a co-author of a graduate-level textbook on fluid dynamics coming out late this spring.
 

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Pluto’s Beautiful

Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
 

March 19, 2016: In September, the New Horizons team released a stunning but incomplete image of Pluto’s crescent. Thanks to new processing work by the science team, New Horizons is releasing the entire, breathtaking image of Pluto.

This image was made just 15 minutes after New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, as the spacecraft looked back at Pluto toward the sun. The wide-angle perspective of this view shows the deep haze layers of Pluto's atmosphere extending all the way around Pluto, revealing the silhouetted profiles of rugged plateaus on the night (left) side. The shadow of Pluto cast on its atmospheric hazes can also be seen at the uppermost part of the disk. On the sunlit side of Pluto (right), the smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum is flanked to the west (above, in this orientation) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. Below (east) of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers.

The backlighting highlights more than a dozen high-altitude layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere. The horizontal streaks in the sky beyond Pluto are stars, smeared out by the motion of the camera as it tracked Pluto. The image was taken with New Horizons' Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto. The resolution is 700 meters (0.4 miles).

( Editor: Tricia Talbert:NASA)

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The Mysteries of Jupiter's Aurora

Credit: NASA, ESA & John T. Clarke (Univ. of Michigan)

March 18, 2016: This ultraviolet image of Jupiter was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on 26 November 1998 and gives a good impression of the observations that Hubble will make in the weeks to come. The bright emissions above the dark blue background are auroral lights, similar to those seen above the Earth's polar regions. The aurorae are curtains of light resulting from high energy electrons following the planet's magnetic field into the upper atmosphere, where collisions with atmospheric atoms and molecules produce the observed light. On Jupiter one can normally see three different types of auroral emissions:

a) a main oval, centred on the magnetic north pole

b) a pattern of more diffuse emissions inside the polar cap and

c) a unique auroral feature showing the 'magnetic footprints' of three of Jupiter's satellites. These 'footprints' can be seen in this image: from Io (along the left-hand limb), from Ganymede (near the centre just below the reference oval) and from Europa (just below and to the right of Ganymede's auroral footprint). These emissions are unlike anything seen on Earth and are produced by electric currents generated at the satellites that then flow along Jupiter's magnetic field, weaving in and out of its upper atmosphere.

This incredibly detailed image was taken on November 26 1998 when Jupiter was at a distance of 700 million km from Earth. The image was taken in UV light at 140 nm.

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Pluto is Turning Out to Be a 'Star' Among the Planetary Inhabitants of the Sunnara

This image of haze layers above Pluto’s limb was taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. About 20 haze layers are seen; the layers have been found to typically extend horizontally over hundreds of kilometers, but are not strictly parallel to the surface. For example, scientists note a haze layer about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the surface (lower left area of the image), which descends to the surface at the right. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Gladstone et al./Science (2016)

March 17, 2016: A year ago, Pluto was just a bright speck in the cameras of NASA’s approaching New Horizons spacecraft, not much different than its appearances in telescopes since Clyde Tombaugh discovered the then-ninth planet in 1930.

But this week, in the journal Science, New Horizons scientists have authored the first comprehensive set of papers describing results from last summer’s Pluto system flyby. “These five detailed papers completely transform our view of Pluto – revealing the former ‘astronomer’s planet’ to be a real world with diverse and active geology, exotic surface chemistry, a complex atmosphere, puzzling interaction with the sun and an intriguing system of small moons,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.
 

After a 9.5-year, 3-billion-mile journey – launching faster and traveling farther than any spacecraft to reach its primary target – New Horizons zipped by Pluto on July 14, 2015. New Horizons’ seven science instruments collected about 50 gigabits of data on the spacecraft’s digital recorders, most of it coming over nine busy days surrounding the encounter.

The first close-up pictures revealed a large heart-shaped feature carved into Pluto’s surface, telling scientists that this “new” type of planetary world – the largest, brightest and first-explored in the mysterious, distant “third zone” of our solar system known as the Kuiper Belt – would be even more interesting and puzzling than models predicted.

The newly published Science papers bear that out; click here for a list of top results.

“Observing Pluto and Charon up close has caused us to completely reassess thinking on what sort of geological activity can be sustained on isolated planetary bodies in this distant region of the solar system, worlds that formerly had been thought to be relics little changed since the Kuiper Belt’s formation,” said Jeff Moore, lead author of the geology paper from NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California.

Scientists studying Pluto’s composition say the diversity of its landscape stems from eons of interaction between highly volatile and mobile methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices with inert and sturdy water ice. “We see variations in the distribution of Pluto's volatile ices that point to fascinating cycles of evaporation and condensation,” said Will Grundy of the Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona, lead author of the composition paper. “These cycles are a lot richer than those on Earth, where there's really only one material that condenses and evaporates – water. On Pluto, there are at least three materials, and while they interact in ways we don't yet fully understand, we definitely see their effects all across Pluto's surface.”

This enhanced color view of Pluto's surface diversity was created by merging Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) color imagery (650 meters or 2,132 feet per pixel) with Long Range Reconnaissance Imager panchromatic imagery (230 meters or 755 feet per pixel). At lower right, ancient, heavily cratered terrain is coated with dark, reddish tholins. At upper right, volatile ices filling the informally named Sputnik Planum have modified the surface, creating a chaos-like array of blocky mountains. Volatile ice also occupies a few nearby deep craters, and in some areas the volatile ice is pocked with arrays of small sublimation pits. At left, and across the bottom of the scene, gray-white methane ice deposits modify tectonic ridges, the rims of craters, and north-facing slopes. The scene in this image is 260 miles (420 kilometers) wide and 140 miles (225 kilometers) from top to bottom; north is to the upper left.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Above the surface, scientists discovered Pluto’s atmosphere contains layered hazes, and is both cooler and more compact than expected. This affects how Pluto’s upper atmosphere is lost to space, and how it interacts with the stream of charged particles from the sun known as the solar wind. “We’ve discovered that pre-New Horizons estimates wildly overestimated the loss of material from Pluto’s atmosphere,” said Fran Bagenal, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and lead author of the particles and plasma paper. “The thought was that Pluto’s atmosphere was escaping like a comet, but it is actually escaping at a rate much more like Earth’s atmosphere.”

SwRI’s Randy Gladstone of San Antonio is the lead author of the Science paper on atmospheric findings. He added, “We’ve also discovered that methane, rather than nitrogen, is Pluto’s primary escaping gas. This is pretty surprising, since near Pluto’s surface the atmosphere is more than 99 percent nitrogen.”

Scientists also are analyzing the first close-up images of Pluto’s small moons—Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. Discovered between 2005 and 2012, the four moons range in diameter from about 25 miles (40 kilometers) for Nix and Hydra to about six miles (10 kilometers) for Styx and Kerberos. Mission scientists further observed that the small satellites have highly anomalous rotation rates and uniformly unusual pole orientations, as well as icy surfaces with brightness and colors distinctly different from those of Pluto and Charon.

They’ve found evidence that some of the moons resulted from mergers of even smaller bodies, and that their surface ages date back at least 4 billion years. “These latter two results reinforce the hypothesis that the small moons formed in the aftermath of a collision that produced the Pluto-Charon binary system,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and lead author of the Science paper on Pluto’s small moons.

About half of New Horizons’ flyby data has now been transmitted home – from distances where radio signals at light speed need nearly five hours to reach Earth – with all of it expected back by the end of 2016.

“This is why we explore,” said Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The many discoveries from New Horizons represent the best of humankind and inspire us to continue the journey of exploration to the solar system and beyond.”

( Editor: Tricia Talbert:NASA)

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Picturing the Sun’s Magnetic Field


Credits: NASA/SDO/AIA/LMSAL


This illustration lays a depiction of the sun's magnetic fields over an image captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 12, 2016. The complex overlay of lines can teach scientists about the ways the sun's magnetism changes in response to the constant movement on and inside the sun. Note how the magnetic fields are densest near the bright spots visible on the sun – which are magnetically strong active regions – and many of the field lines link one active region to another.

This magnetic map was created using the PFSS – Potential Field Source Surface – model, a model of the magnetic field in the sun’s atmosphere based on magnetic measurements of the solar surface. The underlying image was taken in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths of 171 angstroms. This type of light is invisible to our eyes, but is colorized here in gold.

Steele Hill and Sarah Frazier: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

( Editor: Rob Garner:NASA)

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ESA's ExoMars Up and Away Towards Mars: A Genuine Illustration of How the Entire World Science Community Working Together

The European Space Agency's ExoMars 2016 mission, combining the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli landing demonstrator, launched on March 14, 2106, atop a Proton launch vehicle from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The orbiter carries two Electra relay radios provided by NASA.: Image: ESA

Imagine, how many hundreds of agencies are working to put each component of such a gigantic project together, how many thousands of agencies are connected to those hundreds of agencies and how many hundreds of thousands of human minds, in interconnected chains, in hundreds of teams, based at all those agencies spread across the Earth, ESA, NASA, Roscosmos, Chinese, British, French, Italian, Japanese, Indian and the list goes on.

Image: ESA

This is work at its epic level of grandeur and proportion that demonstrates the beauty of human mind and its ability to work as teams and that is the future of humanity. We ought to learn to work together as elements, components of an orchestra to seek, try and achieve something as astonishing as preparing to send humans to stand on Mars, hold the Martian solitude-hewn horizon in view and say: a small step for a human, may be, but a giant of a note of the human symphony..... or something like that!

 

Knobbly Textured Sandstone: Mount Sharp, Mars

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Patches of Martian sandstone visible in the lower-left and upper portions of this view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover have a knobbly texture due to nodules apparently more resistant to erosion than the host rock in which some are still embedded.

The site is at a zone on lower Mount Sharp where mudstone of the Murray geological unit -- visible in the lower right corner here -- is exposed adjacent to the overlying Stimson unit. The exact contact between Murray and Stimson here is covered with windblown sand. Most other portions of the Stimson unit investigated by Curiosity have not shown erosion-resistant nodules. Curiosity encountered this unusually textured exposure on the rover's approach to the "Naukluft Plateau." The Naukluft Plateau location is indicated on a map at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA20166 showing the rover's traverse path since its 2012 landing.

This view is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing, to resemble how the scene would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth. It combines six images taken with the left-eye camera of Mastcam on March 9, 2016, during the 1,276th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. About midway up the scene, the area that is shown spans about 10 feet (3 meters) across. Figure A includes a scale bar of 30 centimeters (12 inches). The images were taken to show the work area within reach of the rover's arm. Targets in the work area were subsequently examined with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the end of the arm. Resulting close-ups from MAHLI -- at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA20323  and http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA20324  -- show how the nodules are made up of grains of sand cemented together.

Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates the rover's Mastcam. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. For more information about Curiosity, visit http://www.nasa.gov/msl  and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl .

( Editor: Tony Greicius:NASA)

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Close Comet Flyby Threw Mars’ Magnetic Field Into Chaos

Elizabeth Zubritsky Writing

The close encounter between comet Siding Spring and Mars flooded the planet with an invisible tide of charged particles from the comet's coma. The dense inner coma reached the surface of the planet, or nearly so. The comet's powerful magnetic field temporarily merged with, and overwhelmed, the planet's weak field, as shown in this artist's depiction.
Credits: NASA/Goddard

March 12, 2016: Just weeks before the historic encounter of comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) with Mars in October 2014, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft entered orbit around the Red Planet. To protect sensitive equipment aboard MAVEN from possible harm, some instruments were turned off during the flyby; the same was done for other Mars orbiters. But a few instruments, including MAVEN’s magnetometer, remained on, conducting observations from a front-row seat during the comet’s remarkably close flyby.

The one-of-a-kind opportunity gave scientists an intimate view of the havoc that the comet’s passing wreaked on the magnetic environment, or magnetosphere, around Mars. The effect was temporary but profound.

“Comet Siding Spring plunged the magnetic field around Mars into chaos,” said Jared Espley, a MAVEN science team member at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We think the encounter blew away part of Mars’ upper atmosphere, much like a strong solar storm would.”

Unlike Earth, Mars isn’t shielded by a strong magnetosphere generated within the planet. The atmosphere of Mars offers some protection, however, by redirecting the solar wind around the planet, like a rock diverting the flow of water in a creek. This happens because at very high altitudes Mars’ atmosphere is made up of plasma – a layer of electrically charged particles and gas molecules. Charged particles in the solar wind interact with this plasma, and the mingling and moving around of all these charges produces currents. Just like currents in simple electrical circuits, these moving charges induce a magnetic field, which, in Mars’ case, is quite weak.

Comet Siding Spring is also surrounded by a magnetic field. This results from the solar wind interacting with the plasma generated in the coma – the envelope of gas flowing from a comet’s nucleus as it is heated by the sun. Comet Siding Spring’s nucleus – a nugget of ice and rock measuring no more than half a kilometer (about 1/3 mile) – is small, but the coma is expansive, stretching out a million kilometers (more than 600,000 miles) in every direction. The densest part of the coma – the inner region near the nucleus – is the part of a comet that’s visible to telescopes and cameras as a big fuzzy ball.

When comet Siding Spring passed Mars, the two bodies came within about 140,000 kilometers (roughly 87,000 miles) of each other. The comet’s coma washed over the planet for several hours, with the dense inner coma reaching, or nearly reaching, the surface. Mars was flooded with an invisible tide of charged particles from the coma, and the powerful magnetic field around the comet temporarily merged with – and overwhelmed – the planet’s own weak one.

“The main action took place during the comet’s closest approach,” said Espley, “but the planet’s magnetosphere began to feel some effects as soon as it entered the outer edge of the comet’s coma.”

At first, the changes were subtle. As Mars’ magnetosphere, which is normally draped neatly over the planet, started to react to the comet’s approach, some regions began to realign to point in different directions. With the comet’s advance, these effects built in intensity, almost making the planet’s magnetic field flap like a curtain in the wind. By the time of closest approach – when the plasma from the comet was densest – Mars’ magnetic field was in complete chaos. Even hours after the comet’s departure, some disruption continued to be measured.

Espley and colleagues think the effects of the plasma tide were similar to those of a strong but short-lived solar storm. And like a solar storm, the comet’s close passage likely fueled a temporary surge in the amount of gas escaping from Mars’ upper atmosphere. Over time, those storms took their toll on the atmosphere.

“With MAVEN, we’re trying to understand how the sun and solar wind interact with Mars,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s principal investigator from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder. “By looking at how the magnetospheres of the comet and of Mars interact with each other, we’re getting a better understanding of the detailed processes that control each one.”

This research was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

For more information about MAVEN

By Elizabeth Zubritsky: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

(Editor: Karl Hille:NASA0

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Sublimation Eating Away Pluto?

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
 

March 12, 2016: Far in the western hemisphere, scientists on NASA’s New Horizons mission have discovered what looks like a giant “bite mark” on Pluto’s surface. They suspect it may be caused by a process known as sublimation—the transition of a substance from a solid to a gas. The methane ice-rich surface on Pluto may be sublimating away into the atmosphere, exposing a layer of water-ice underneath.

In this image, north is up. The southern portion of the left inset above shows the cratered plateau uplands informally named Vega Terra (note that all feature names are informal). A jagged scarp, or wall of cliffs, known as Piri Rupes borders the young, nearly crater-free plains of Piri Planitia. The cliffs break up into isolated mesas in several places.

Cutting diagonally across the mottled plans is the long extensional fault of Inanna Fossa, which stretches eastward 370 miles (600 kilometers) from here to the western edge of the great nitrogen ice plains of Sputnik Planum.

Compositional data from the New Horizons spacecraft’s Ralph/Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument, shown in the right inset, indicate that the plateau uplands south of Piri Rupes are rich in methane ice (shown in false color as purple). Scientists speculate that sublimation of methane may be causing the plateau material to erode along the face of the cliffs, causing them to retreat south and leave the plains of Piri Planitia in their wake.

Compositional data also show that the surface of Piri Planitia is more enriched in water ice (shown in false color as blue) than the higher plateaus, which may indicate that Piri Planitia’s surface is made of water ice bedrock, just beneath a layer of retreating methane ice. Because the surface of Pluto is so cold, the water ice is rock-like and immobile. The light/dark mottled pattern of Piri Planitia in the left inset is reflected in the composition map, with the lighter areas corresponding to areas richer in methane – these may be remnants of methane that have not yet sublimated away entirely.

The inset at left shows about 650 feet (200 meters) per pixel; the image measures approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) long by 255 miles (410 kilometers) wide. It was obtained by New Horizons at a range of approximately 21,100 miles (33,900 kilometers) from Pluto, about 45 minutes before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015.

The LEISA data at right was gathered when the spacecraft was about 29,000 miles (47,000 kilometers) from Pluto; best resolution is 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) per pixel.

( Editor: Tricia Talbert:NASA)

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NASA Targets May 5, 2018 Launch of Mars InSight Mission; Mars Landing on November 26

NASA has set a new launch opportunity, beginning May 5, 2018, for the InSight mission to Mars. This artist's concept depicts the InSight lander on Mars after the lander's robotic arm has deployed a seismometer and a heat probe directly onto the ground. InSight is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings will advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission to study the deep interior of Mars is targeting a new launch window that begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018.

InSight’s primary goal is to help us understand how rocky planets – including Earth – formed and evolved. The spacecraft had been on track to launch this month until a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument prompted NASA in December to suspend preparations for launch.

InSight project managers recently briefed officials at NASA and France's space agency, Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), on a path forward; the proposed plan to redesign the science instrument was accepted in support of a 2018 launch.

“The science goals of InSight are compelling, and the NASA and CNES plans to overcome the technical challenges are sound," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades. We’re excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, will redesign, build and conduct qualifications of the new vacuum enclosure for the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), the component that failed in December. CNES will lead instrument level integration and test activities, allowing the InSight Project to take advantage of each organization’s proven strengths. The two agencies have worked closely together to establish a project schedule that accommodates these plans, and scheduled interim reviews over the next six months to assess technical progress and continued feasibility.

The cost of the two-year delay is being assessed. An estimate is expected in August, once arrangements with the launch vehicle provider have been made.

The seismometer instrument's main sensors need to operate within a vacuum chamber to provide the exquisite sensitivity needed for measuring ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom. The rework of the seismometer's vacuum container will result in a finished, thoroughly tested instrument in 2017 that will maintain a high degree of vacuum around the sensors through rigors of launch, landing, deployment and a two-year prime mission on the surface of Mars.

The InSight mission draws upon a strong international partnership led by Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL. The lander's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package is provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). This probe will hammer itself to a depth of about 16 feet (five meters) into the ground beside the lander.

SEIS was built with the participation of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, with support from the Swiss Space Office and the European Space Agency PRODEX program; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, supported by DLR; Imperial College, supported by the United Kingdom Space Agency; and JPL.

"The shared and renewed commitment to this mission continues our collaboration to find clues in the heart of Mars about the early evolution of our solar system," said Marc Pircher, director of CNES's Toulouse Space Centre.

The mission’s international science team includes researchers from Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

JPL manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The InSight spacecraft, including cruise stage and lander, was built and tested by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. It was delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in December 2015 in preparation for launch, and returned to Lockheed Martin's Colorado facility last month for storage until spacecraft preparations resume in 2017.

NASA is on an ambitious journey to Mars that includes sending humans to the Red Planet, and that work remains on track. Robotic spacecraft are leading the way for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover being designed and built, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers exploring the Martian surface, the Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft currently orbiting the planet, along with the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) orbiter, which is helping scientists understand what happened to the Martian atmosphere.

NASA and CNES also are participating in ESA’s (European Space Agency's) Mars Express mission currently operating at Mars. NASA is participating on ESA’s 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing telecommunication radios for ESA's 2016 orbiter and a critical element of a key astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.

For addition information about the mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/insight

More information about NASA's journey to Mars is available online at:

http://www.nasa.gov/journeytomars

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo: Headquarters, Washington: 202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077: dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov

Guy Webster: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif: 818-354-6278: guy.w.webster@jpl.nasa.gov

Pascale Bresson / Nathalie Journo:Centre National d'Études Spatiales, Paris:
+33-1-44-76-75-39 / +33-5-61-27-39-11:pascale.bresson@cnes.fr / nathalie.journo@cnes.fr

Manuela Braun: German Aerospace Center (DLR): +49 2203 601 3882
manuela.braun@dlr.de:Last Updated: March 9, 2016
(Editor: Sarah Ramsey:NASA)

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Dawn's Found Ahuna Mons on Ceres

Elizabeth Landau Writes

Ceres' mysterious mountain Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Dawn took these images from its lowest-altitude orbit. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

One year ago, on March 6, 2015, NASA's Dawn spacecraft slid gently into orbit around Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Since then, the spacecraft has delivered a wealth of images and other data that open an exciting new window to the previously unexplored dwarf planet.

"Ceres has defied our expectations and surprised us in many ways, thanks to a year's worth of data from Dawn. We are hard at work on the mysteries the spacecraft has presented to us," said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for the mission, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Among Ceres' most enigmatic features is a tall mountain the Dawn team named Ahuna Mons. This mountain appeared as a small, bright-sided bump on the surface as early as February 2015 from a distance of 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers), before Dawn was captured into orbit. As Dawn circled Ceres at increasingly lower altitudes, the shape of this mysterious feature began to come into focus. From afar, Ahuna Mons looked to be pyramid-shaped, but upon closer inspection, it is best described as a dome with smooth, steep walls.

Dawn's latest images of Ahuna Mons, taken 120 times closer than in February 2015, reveal that this mountain has a lot of bright material on some of its slopes, and less on others. On its steepest side, it is about 3 miles (5 kilometers) high. The mountain has an average overall height of 2.5 miles (4 kilometers). It rises higher than Washington's Mount Rainier and California's Mount Whitney.

Scientists are beginning to identify other features on Ceres that could be similar in nature to Ahuna Mons, but none is as tall and well-defined as this mountain.

"No one expected a mountain on Ceres, especially one like Ahuna Mons," said Chris Russell, Dawn's principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We still do not have a satisfactory model to explain how it formed."

About 420 miles (670 kilometers) northwest of Ahuna Mons lies the now-famous Occator Crater. Before Dawn arrived at Ceres, images of the dwarf planet from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope showed a prominent bright patch on the surface. As Dawn approached Ceres, it became clear that there were at least two spots with high reflectivity. As the resolution of images improved, Dawn revealed to its earthly followers that there are at least 10 bright spots in this crater alone, with the brightest area on the entire body located in the center of the crater. It is not yet clear whether this bright material is the same as the material found on Ahuna Mons.

"Dawn began mapping Ceres at its lowest altitude in December, but it wasn't until very recently that its orbital path allowed it to view Occator's brightest area. This dwarf planet is very large and it takes a great many orbital revolutions before all of it comes into view of Dawn's camera and other sensors," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission director at JPL.

Researchers will present new images and other insights about Ceres at the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, during a press briefing on March 22 in The Woodlands, Texas.

When it arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015, Dawn made history as the first mission to reach a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct extraterrestrial targets. The mission conducted extensive observations of Vesta in 2011-2012.

Dawn's mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of mission participants, visit

More information about Dawn is available at the following sites:

http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov

http://www.nasa.gov/dawn

Elizabeth Landau: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA: 818-354-6425
elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

( Editor: Tony Greicius:NASA)

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Wind at Work on the Martian Surface

Writes Candy Hansen

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
 

Wind is one of the most active forces shaping Mars' surface in today's climate. The wind has carved the features we call "yardangs," one of many in this scene, and deposited sand on the floor of shallow channels between them. On the sand, the wind forms ripples and small dunes. In Mars' thin atmosphere, light is not scattered much, so the shadows cast by the yardangs are sharp and dark.

This image was acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Dec. 15, 2015, at 3:05 p.m. local Mars time.

The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

( Editor: Sarah Loff: NASA)

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Journey to Mars: The Grand Affairs of Exomars: Launch March 14 to Land on Mars on October 19


ExoMars 2016 Schiaparelli descent sequence (16:9): Released 24/02/2016 2:00 pm: Copyright ESA/ATG medialab
 

Establishing if life ever existed on Mars is one of the outstanding scientific questions of our time. To address this important goal, ESA has established the ExoMars programme to investigate the martian environment and to demonstrate new technologies paving the way for a future Mars sample return mission in the 2020s.

There are two missions in the ExoMars programme: one comprises the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) plus an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), dubbed Schiaparelli, launch in 2016, and the other, comprising a rover, with a launch date of 2018. Both missions are in cooperation with Roscosmos.

The 2016 ExoMars TGO carries scientific instruments to detect and study atmospheric trace gases, such as methane. EDM contains sensors to evaluate the lander’s performance as it descends, and additional sensors to study the environment at the landing site.

In addition to its prime science mission, the orbiter also carries a sophisticated radio relay capability provided by NASA. The Electra Proximity Payload (Electra) is a telecommunications package that acts as a communications relay and navigation aid.

During its operational lifetime, the ExoMars TGO will perform three key roles:

Conduct investigations into the biological or geological origin of trace gases on Mars with a scientific payload of four instruments;
Deliver Schiaparelli and support part of the data transmission during its descent and surface operations;
Serve as a data relay platform to support communications for the ExoMars 2018 rover and the surface science platform, as well as partner agency rovers.

The Flight Control Team

 The Flight Control Team (FCT) operates TGO from a Dedicated Control Room (collocated with the DCR for Mars Express and Rosetta) at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Spacecraft Operations Manager (SOM) Peter Schmitz oversees a team of 14, including spacecraft operations engineers, mission planners, analysts and spacecraft controllers.

Additional experts from across the ESOC centre are supporting the mission with specialised knowledge in several areas, including flight dynamics, software support and ground stations. This support is increased during prelaunch training and simulations, the crucial launch and early orbit phase, during certain periods of the cruise to Mars and the deep-space manoeuvre and during the orbit arrival manoeuvres.

Mission Operations Overview

 TGO and Schiaparelli will go through several mission phases and pass a number of critical milestones in order to arrive at Mars and begin routine science observations, including:

Launch, set for 14 March 2016
Commissioning and cruise phase: almost 500 million km to go
Mid-course deep-space manoeuvre (to adjust trajectory for Mars arrival)
Separation: dispatch Schiaparelli to the surface
Entry, descent and landing of Schiaparelli
TGO manoeuvres, to be captured by Mars gravity into its initial orbit
Aerobraking, to lower TGO to its final 400 x 400 km science orbit (Nov 2017)

Every moment of this complex and challenging process will be overseen by the ExoMars mission controllers at ESOC, with crucial support by ESA’s science operations team at ESAC, ESA’s establishment near Madrid, Spain, and by industrial experts at Thales Alenia Space (Italy & France), among others.

At ESOC, the ExoMars Flight Control Team are supported by experts from flight dynamics, ground stations and software systems to conduct TGO mission control. Once Schiaparelli separates and later lands, its mission will be automated, based on settings developed by ESA’s industrial partners.

Launch March 14, 2016

March 14, 2016: the two-week launch window opens. Lift off from Baikonur is set for 09:31:42 GMT (10:31:42 CET) on a powerful Russian Proton-M launcher, equipped with a Breeze-M upper stage. The separation of TGO and Schiaparelli from Breeze is expected at 20:13 GMT (21:13 CET), and the pair will then be en route to Mars on the initial interplanetary transfer orbit.

For the ExoMars Mission Control Team at ESOC, Darmstadt, a critical moment on launch day will be receipt of the first signals from TGO, expected at around 21:28 GMT (22:28 CET), via the Malindi ground tracking station in Africa. This will enable ESOC to establish full command and control of the craft, and begin a series of critical health and function checks.

Commissioning Phase

Until 24 April: en route to Mars, the spacecraft is now in the commissioning phase and mission control teams at ESOC, instrument teams and science operations teams at ESAC check out, verify and test all systems and instruments. Schiaparelli will similarly be checked out by industrial teams from Thales Alenia Space. Daily communication passes are provided by ESA’s New Norcia deep-space station during daylight hours in Darmstadt, with additional support from ESA’s Malargüe station as required.

Cruise Phase

May 2016: ExoMars enters the cruise phase as it continues enroute to Mars; onboard activities are relatively quiet and ground station passes are scheduled only three times weekly. Mission control teams continue verifying and confirming the health and functionality of TGO and Schiaparelli in the harsh environment of interplanetary space.

Teams at ESOC will conduct a series of ultra-precise navigation measurements known as ‘delta-DOR’, for Delta-differential One-Way Ranging. This advanced technique uses signals received from quasars deep in our Milky Way galaxy to correct the radio signals received from ExoMars, resulting in an extremely precise position determination. Results will be used to calculate the upcoming midcourse correction manoeuvre (also called the deep-space manoeuvre).

A second Delta-DOR campaign in September–October will generate results that will help to determine the Mars orbit injection for TGO and the final Schiaparelli descent trajectory.

Deep-space Manoeuvre

July 28 (forecast): TGO carries out one of the most critical activities during the voyage to Mars: a very large engine burn in deep space that changes its direction and speed by some 326 m/s. This midcourse trajectory correction will line the spacecraft up to intersect the Red Planet on 19 October.

Mars Arrival

In August–October, the work of the mission control teams will become steadily more intense, and ESA's ground stations are now providing daily telecommanding passes. In the final 10 days before arrival, New Norcia and Malargüe ground stations will provide 24 hr/day radio contact as engineers at ESOC carefully monitor the spacecraft and plan its complex orbit-entry activities.

The final commands for the Schiaparelli EDM will be prepared and uploaded, and all systems on both TGO and Schiaparelli will be thoroughly checked out in the run up to arrival.

Orbit Insertion

October 16, 2016: TGO will eject Schiaparelli at 14:42 GMT (16:42 CEST, forecast), dispatching it on a three-day descent to the surface. ESA will enlist the support of NASA’s giant 70 m-diameter Deep Space Network (DSN) ground stations at Canberra, Australia, and Madrid, Spain, to listen for the spacecraft’s signals as the module separates.

Schiaparelli will be dispatched on a direct intercept course toward Mars, on track to enter the atmosphere and conduct a challenging descent and landing on 19 October, lowering itself to the surface for a soft landing under parachutes.

October 17, 2016: About 12 hours after Schiaparelli has separated, TGO will conduct an ‘orbit raising manoeuvre’ – a modest but crucial engine burn that must provide a change in direction, raising its trajectory to several hundred kilometres above the planet (otherwise, like Schiaparelli, TGO, too, would intersect the surface on 19 October). This manoeuvre will line the craft up for a second critical burn on 19 October, which will slow it sufficiently to be captured by Mars’ gravity.

During the critical arrival activities, several of NASA’s 34 m-diameter deep-space stations will provide a ‘hot back-up’ to ESA’s stations, ensuring that there is no loss of communication at a time when any delay in commanding could have serious effect on orbit entry or landing.

The October 19: The Arrival Day on Mars

October 19, 2016: Arrival Day for TGO/Landing Day for Schiaparelli

Three days after separation, TGO and Schiaparelli each undergo the most critical portions of their journey to Mars.

Schiaparelli: Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL)

Continuing on its post-separation ballistic orbit, the 600 kg Schiaparelli wakes up 75 minutes prior to entering the atmosphere, expected at 14:42 GMT, at an altitude of 122.5 km and a speed of about 21 000 km/h. An aerodynamic heatshield protects Schiaparelli from the severe heat flux and deceleration; at an altitude of about 11 km, the 12 m-diameter parachute is deployed.

Descending under its parachute, Schiaparelli releases its front heatshield at an altitude of about 7 km and turns on its Doppler radar altimeter, which can measure the distance to the ground and its velocity relative to the surface. This information is used to activate and command the propulsion system once the rear heatshield and parachute are jettisoned 1.3 km above the surface.

Between 1300 m and 2 m altitude, the propulsion system slow it from 270 km/h to 7 km/h. At that height, the thrusters are switched off and Schiaparelli freefalls to the ground, where the final impact, at just under 11 km/h, is cushioned by a crushable structure on the base.

 Schiaparelli will target a landing site on the plain known as Meridiani Planum. This area interests scientists because it contains an ancient layer of haematite, an iron oxide that, on Earth, almost always forms in an environment containing liquid water.

Mars Express listens in

During Schiaparelli’s critical descent on 19 October, ESA’s Mars Express probe, which has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2003, will monitor and record signals from the module.

Ground recording campaign

Schiaparelli’s descent is also expected to be recorded on Earth by scientists using the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), located near Pune, India, and operated by the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. GMRT comprises an array of 30 radio telescopes, each with a dish diameter of 45 m, and it is one of the world’s largest interferometric arrays.

This activity promises to provide an extremely important confirmation of the module’s descent and landing, and signifies a major area of international cooperation between ESA, NASA and India for the Schiaparelli mission.

ExoMars/TGO: Mars orbit insertion (MOI)

On the same day, 19 October, TGO will carry out two critical activities, almost at the same time.

First, it will use its radio system to record signals from Schiaparelli during descent, similar to Mars Express. This information will be stored onboard and later transmitted to Earth, where it will be processed at ESOC to extract telemetry and other information to enable a detailed reconstruction of the descent profile.

Second, it will conduct a critical engine burn, using its 424 N main engine for the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) manoeuvre. This will slow TGO by 1550 m/s, sufficient to be captured into an initial Mars orbit (double what was needed for Mars Express capture in 2003), and will last about 134 minutes, beginning at 13:09 GMT.

 This critical manoeuvre will be tracked by ESA and by NASA 70 m ground stations, which will provide periodic updates to mission controllers at ESOC. Successful completion of the burn, expected at 15:23 GMT, will mark the second time Europe has placed a spacecraft into orbit around the Red Planet.

The initial highly eccentric orbit is dubbed the ‘4 Sol’ orbit, as it will take TGO four Mars days to complete one revolution, with its altitude above Mars varying between 430 km and 96 000 km.

Capture by Mars means that TGO can begin a lengthy series of orbital adjustments.

Transition to Science Orbit

Between January and November 2017, TGO will employ sophisticated aerobraking techniques – the first time ESA will do so to attain a science orbit around another body in our Solar System – to steadily lower itself to a circular, 400 km orbit.

With aerobraking, the TGO solar wings will experience tiny amounts of drag from the wisps of atmosphere at very high altitudes, which will slow the craft and lower its orbit. While aerobraking takes time, it uses very little fuel and will itself provide scientific insight into the dynamics of Mars’ atmosphere.

The TGO science and radio relay missions will begin in December 2017.

TGO Data Relay

ESA Malargüe tracking station:Views of the 35m ESTRACK deep-space tracking station in Argentina, now supporting the Rosetta mission. Released 21/08/2015 10:20 am: Copyright ESA/D. Pazos - CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
 

TGO features a sophisticated radio relay capability provided by NASA. The Electra system is a telecommunications package that acts as a communications relay and navigation aid. It comprises twin ultra-high frequency (UHF) radios and will provide communication links between Earth and craft on Mars, rovers or landers.

TGO will provide daily data relay services to NASA’s Curiosity and MER-B (Opportunity) rovers currently on the surface, as well as to the InSight lander and ESA’s ExoMars 2018 rover. It will also support Russia’s 2018 lander and future NASA rovers.

ESA is now establishing a new European Relay Coordination Office (ERCO) at ESOC to manage scheduling, planning and day-to-day control of the service, which will also employ ESA, NASA and Russian ground stations for download, receipt and distribution of the scientific data.

ERCO will make use of sophisticated new techniques to conduct relay coordination on a semi-automated basis, making it the central European hub for relay of precious scientific data between landers and orbiters at Mars.

Flying NASA’s Electra payload with its advanced data relay capabilities on ESA’s TGO marks a significant deepening of cross-agency cooperation and mutual support at Mars.

Ground Stations

 Primary communication services for ExoMars will be provided by ESA’s tracking station network – Estrack – a global system of ground stations providing links between satellites in orbit and mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. The core Estrack network comprises nine stations in seven countries.

On launch day, contact between mission controllers and ExoMars/TGO is maintained via the Italian space agency’s 2 m dish antenna at Malindi, Kenya, and by ESA’s 15 m stations at Maspalomas, Spain, and Kourou, French Guiana.

Subsequently, as the craft embarks on its journey to Mars, tracking and telecommanding duties are handed over to ESA’s ‘Big Iron’ – the 35 m-diameter deep-space tracking stations at Malargüe, Argentina, and New Norcia, Australia. These two stations can provide 24 hr/day communication coverage, so long as the spacecraft is visible from the southern hemisphere.

During critical phases, NASA’s Deep Space Network stations will provide crucial tracking and telecommanding support.

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Next Flight to Mars IS Departing Soon: Got Your Boarding Pass?

Title ExoMars 2016 fairing release: Artist's impression visualising the separation of the payload fairing during the ExoMars 2016 launch sequence. The Trace Gas Orbiter with the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, can be seen as the fairing falls away. Released 19/02/2016 10:00 am: Copyright ESA/ATG medialab

 

February 29, 2016: The ExoMars 2016 mission is planned for launch at 09:31 GMT (10:31 CET) on 14 March from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Representatives of traditional and social media are invited to apply for accreditation to attend a day-long event at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

ExoMars is a joint endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, and comprises the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, an entry, descent and landing demonstrator.

TGO will make a detailed inventory of Mars’ atmospheric gases, with particular interest in rare gases like methane, which implies that there is an active, current source. TGO aims to measure its geographical and seasonal dependence and help to determine whether it stems from a geological or biological source.

Meanwhile, Schiaparelli will demonstrate a range of technologies to enable a controlled landing on Mars in preparation for future missions. After a seven-month cruise, the lander will separate from the TGO on 16 October and land on Mars on 19 October, for several days of activities.

TGO will then enter orbit around the Red Planet ahead of its exciting multiyear science mission. It will also serve as a data relay for the second ExoMars mission, comprising a rover and a surface science platform, planned for launch in 2018. It will also provide data relay for NASA rovers.

TGO and Schiaparelli are undergoing final preparations in Baikonur ahead of launch in the 14–25 March window, with the first opportunity at 09:31 GMT (10:31 CET) on 14 March being targeted.

The launch of ExoMars 2016 will mark the start of a new era of Mars exploration for Europe.

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Aeolis Mensae: Mars

Released 29/02/2016 12:36 pm: Copyright ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
 

A powerful combination of tectonic activity and strong winds have joined forces to shape the scenery in this region of Mars.

The image was taken by ESA’s Mars Express on 7 July 2015 and covers part of the Aeolis Mensae region. It straddles the transitional region between the southern hemisphere highlands and the smooth, northern hemisphere lowlands.

Several fracture zones cross this region, the result of the martian crust stretching apart under tectonic stress. As it did so, some pieces of the crust sheared away and became stranded, including the large block in the centre of the image.

This flat-topped block, some 40 km across and rising some 2.5 km above the surrounding terrain, is one such remnant of the crust’s expansion. Its elevation is the same as the terrain further to the south, supporting the idea that it was once connected.

Over time, the stranded blocks and their associated landslides have been eroded by wind and possibly flowing water.

Towards the north (right) it becomes apparent that wind is the dominant force. Hundreds of sets of ridges and troughs known as ‘yardangs’ are aligned in southeasterly to northwesterly, reflecting the course of the prevailing wind over a long period of time.

One small steep-sided feature set perpendicular to the main direction of the yardangs is prominent in the lower right of the image. This ridge is evidently made of harder and more resistant rock that has allowed it to withstand the erosive power of the wind.
 

This image was first published on the DLR website on 21 December 2015.

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NASA is Looking for Life on Mars on Earth

Mary Beth Wilhelm (in white cleanroom suit) carefully samples ground-truth material obtained from the 2.2 meter depth science excavation pit, assisted by Jonathan Araya (Univ. de Antofagasta) and watched by ARADS co-investigators Jocelyn DiRuggiero (Johns Hopkins) and the SOLID instrument lead, Victor Parro (Centro de Astrobiologia, Spain). Image: NASA

NASA Tests Life-Detection Drill in Earth’s Driest Place

In a harsh environment with very little water and intense ultraviolet radiation, most life in the extreme Atacama Desert in Chile exists as microbial colonies underground or inside rocks.

Researchers at NASA hypothesize that the same may be true if life exists on Mars.

The cold and dry conditions on Mars open the possibility that evidence for life may be found below the surface where negative effects of radiation are mitigated, in the form of organic molecules known as biomarkers. But until humans set foot on the Red Planet, obtaining samples from below the surface of Mars will require the ability to identify a location of high probability for current or ancient life, place a drill, and control the operation robotically.


The Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) project has just completed its first deployment after one month of fieldwork in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert, the “driest place on Earth.” Despite being considerably warmer than Mars, the extreme dryness the soil chemistry in this region are remarkably similar to that of the Red Planet. This provides scientists with a Mars-like laboratory where they can study the limits of life and test drilling and life-detection technologies that might be sent to Mars in the future.

“Putting life-detection instruments in a difficult, Mars-analog environment will help us figure out the best ways of looking for past or current life on Mars, if it existed,” said Dr. Brian Glass, a NASA Ames space scientist and the principal investigator of the ARADS project. “Having both subsurface reach and surface mobility should greatly increase the number of biomarker and life-target sites we can sample in the Atacama,” Glass added.

More than 20 scientists from the United States, Chile, Spain, and France camped together miles from civilization and worked in extremely dry, 100+ degree heat with high winds during the first ARADS field deployment. Their work was primarily at Yungay Station, a mining ghost town at one of the driest places in the Atacama, owned by the University of Antofagasta in Chile. Yungay has been a focal point for astrobiology studies in the last two decades. ARADS field scientists also evaluated two other Atacama sites – Salar Grande, an ancient dried-up lake composed of thick beds of salt, and Maria Elena, a similarly extremely dry region – to be considered along with Yungay as the host location for the future ARADS tests in 2017-19.

During this initial deployment, scientists put several technologies through the paces under harsh and unpredictable field conditions: a Mars-prototype drill; a sample transfer arm; the Signs of Life Detector (SOLID) created by Spain’s Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB); and a prototype version of the Wet Chemistry Laboratory (WCL), which flew on the Phoenix Mars mission in 2007.

Engineers and scientists were successful in accomplishing their primary technology goal of this season—to use the ARADS drill and sample transfer robot arm at Yungay to acquire and feed sample material to the SOLID and WCL instruments under challenging environmental conditions. The in situ analyses of the drilled samples help set a yardstick for interpreting future results from these two instruments, and will be compared to results obtained from the same samples in some of the best laboratories.

Additionally, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and NASA Ames collected samples for laboratory investigations of the extreme microorganisms living inside salt habitats in the Atacama. These salt habitats could be the last refuge for life in this extremely dry region that is otherwise devoid of plants, animals, and most types of microorganisms. “We are excited to learn as much as we can about these distinctive, resilient microorganisms, and hope that our studies will improve life-detection technology and strategies for Mars,” said Mary Beth Wilhelm, a NASA Ames researcher and member of the ARADS science team.

Over the next four years, the ARADS project will return to the Atacama to demonstrate the feasibility of integrated roving, drilling and life-detection, with the goal of demonstrating the technical feasibility and scientific value of a mission that searches for evidence of life on Mars.

ARADS team members will be sending photos and captions from their fieldwork. Updates will be posted on www.nasa.gov  and www.nasa.gov/ames .

(Editor: Darryl Waller:NASA)

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The Frozen Canyons of Pluto’s North Pole

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

This ethereal scene captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft tells yet another story of Pluto’s diversity of geological and compositional features—this time in an enhanced color image of the north polar area.

Long canyons run vertically across the polar area—part of the informally named Lowell Regio, named for Percival Lowell, who founded Lowell Observatory and initiated the search that led to Pluto’s discovery. The widest of the canyons (yellow in the image below) – is about 45 miles (75 kilometers) wide and runs close to the north pole. Roughly parallel subsidiary canyons to the east and west (in green) are approximately 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide. The degraded walls of these canyons appear to be much older than the more sharply defined canyon systems elsewhere on Pluto, perhaps because the polar canyons are older and made of weaker material. These canyons also appear to represent evidence for an ancient period of tectonics.

A shallow, winding valley (in blue) runs the entire length of the canyon floor. To the east of these canyons, another valley (pink) winds toward the bottom-right corner of the image. The nearby terrain, at bottom right, appears to have been blanketed by material that obscures small-scale topographic features, creating a ‘softened’ appearance for the landscape.

Large, irregularly-shaped pits (in red), reach 45 miles (70 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, scarring the region. These pits may indicate locations where subsurface ice has melted or sublimated from below, causing the ground to collapse.

The color and composition of this region – shown in enhanced color – also are unusual. High elevations show up in a distinctive yellow, not seen elsewhere on Pluto. The yellowish terrain fades to a uniform bluish gray at lower elevations and latitudes. New Horizons' infrared measurements show methane ice is abundant across Lowell Regio, and there is relatively little nitrogen ice. “One possibility is that the yellow terrains may correspond to older methane deposits that have been more processed by solar radiation than the bluer terrain,” said Will Grundy, New Horizons composition team lead from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.

This image was obtained by New Horizons’ Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The image resolution is approximately 2,230 feet (680 meters) per pixel. The lower edge of the image measures about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) long. It was obtained at a range of approximately 21,100 miles (33,900 kilometers) from Pluto, about 45 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14, 2015.

( Editor: Tricia Talbert: NASA)

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North Polar Stereographic Projection of Jupiter Seen From Cassini-Huygens


Released 03/04/2006 9:39 am: Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

 

This is one of the most detailed global colour maps of Jupiter ever produced; the smallest visible features are about 120 kilometres across.

It was produced from images taken by the NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens spacecraft on 11/12 December 2000. The raw images are in just two colours, 750 nm (near-infrared) and 451 nm (blue).

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Jarosite in the Noctis Labyrinthus Region of Mars

Cathy Weitz introduces Jarosite

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

This image, acquired on Nov. 24, 2015 by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows the western side of an elongated pit depression in the eastern Noctis Labyrinthus region of Mars. Along the pit's upper wall is a light-toned layered deposit. Noctis Labyrinthus is a huge region of tectonically controlled valleys located at the western end of the Valles Marineris canyon system.

Spectra extracted from the light-toned deposit by the spacecraft's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument are consistent with the mineral jarosite, which is a potassium and iron hydrous sulfate. On Earth, jarosite can form in ore deposits or from alteration near volcanic vents, and indicates an oxidizing and acidic environment. The Opportunity rover discovered jarosite at the Meridiani Planum landing site, and jarosite has been found at several other locations on Mars, indicating that it is a common mineral on the Red Planet.

The jarosite-bearing deposit observed here could indicate acidic aqueous conditions within a volcanic system in Noctis Labyrinthus. Above the light-toned jarosite deposit is a mantle of finely layered darker-toned material. CRISM spectra do not indicate this upper darker-toned mantle is hydrated. The deposit appears to drape over the pre-existing topography, suggesting it represents an airfall deposit from either atmospheric dust or volcanic ash.

The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.


Caption: Cathy Weitz
( Editor: Sarah Loff:NASA)

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February 19, 2016

Mars The Other Earth

From NASA's Solar System : Mars

A Window Martian

Mars is a cold desert world. It is half the diameter of Earth and has the same amount of dry land. Like Earth, Mars has seasons, polar ice caps, volcanoes, canyons and weather, but its atmosphere is too thin for liquid water to exist for long on the surface. There are signs of ancient floods on Mars, but evidence for water now exists mainly in icy soil and thin clouds.

All Images: Credit: NASA

Valles Marineris (at the centre) is more than 3,000 km long and 8 km deep.

 

Though details of Mars' surface are difficult to see from Earth, telescope observations show seasonally changing features and white patches at the poles. For decades, people speculated that bright and dark areas on Mars were patches of vegetation, Mars was a likely place for advanced life forms, and water might exist in the polar caps.

When the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars in 1965, photographs of a bleak, cratered surface shocked many - Mars seemed to be a dead planet. Later missions, however, showed that Mars is a complex planet and holds many mysteries yet to be solved. Chief among them is whether Mars ever had the right conditions to support small life forms called microbes.

Mars is a rocky body about half the size of Earth. As with the other terrestrial planets - Mercury, Venus, and Earth - volcanoes, impact craters, crustal movement, and atmospheric conditions such as dust storms have altered the surface of Mars.


Valles Marineris is more than 3,000 km long and 8 km deep.
 

Mars has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, that may be captured asteroids. Potato-shaped, they have too little mass for gravity to make them spherical. Phobos, the innermost moon, is heavily cratered, with deep grooves on its surface.

Like Earth, Mars experiences seasons due to the tilt of its rotational axis. Mars' orbit is about 1.5 times farther from the sun than Earth's and is slightly elliptical, so its distance from the sun changes. That affects the length of Martian seasons, which vary in length. The polar ice caps on Mars grow and recede with the seasons.

Layered areas near the poles suggest that the planet's climate has changed more than once. Volcanism in the highlands and plains was active more than 3 billion years ago. Some of the giant shield volcanoes are younger, having formed between 1 and 2 billion years ago. Mars has the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons, as well as a spectacular equatorial canyon system, Valles Marineris.

Mars has no global magnetic field today. However, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter found that areas of the Martian crust in the southern hemisphere are highly magnetized, indicating traces of a magnetic field from 4 billion years ago that remain.

Fresh Crater Near Sirenum Fossae Region of Mars: The HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acquired this closeup image of a "fresh" (on a geological scale, though quite old on a human scale) impact crater in the Sirenum Fossae region of Mars on March 30, 2015. This impact crater appears relatively recent as it has a sharp rim and well-preserved ejecta.


Scientists believe that Mars experienced huge floods about 3.5 billion years ago. Though we do not know where the ancient flood water came from, how long it lasted, or where it went, recent missions to Mars have uncovered intriguing hints. In 2002, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter detected hydrogen-rich polar deposits, indicating large quantities of water ice close to the surface. Further observations found hydrogen in other areas as well. If water ice permeated the entire planet, Mars could have substantial subsurface layers of frozen water. In 2004, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity found structures and minerals indicating that liquid water once existed at its landing site. The rover's twin, Spirit, also found the signature of ancient water near its landing site, halfway around Mars from Opportunity's location.

Close-up image of a dust storm on Mars

The cold temperatures and thin atmosphere on Mars do not allow liquid water to exist at the surface for long. The quantity of water required to carve Mars' great channels and flood plains is not evident today. Unraveling the story of water on Mars is important to unlocking its climate history, which will help us understand the evolution of all the planets. Water is an essential ingredient for life as we know it. Evidence of long-term past or present water on Mars holds clues about whether Mars could ever have been a habitat for life.

In 2008, NASA's Phoenix Mars lander was the first mission to touch water ice in the Martian arctic. Phoenix also observed precipitation (snow falling from clouds), as confirmed by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Soil chemistry experiments led scientists to believe that the Phoenix landing site had a wetter and warmer climate in the recent past (the last few million years). NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, with its large rover Curiosity, is examining Martian rocks and soil at Gale Crater, looking for minerals that formed in water, signs of subsurface water, and carbon-based molecules called organics, the chemical building blocks of life. That information will reveal more about the present and past habitability of Mars, as well as whether humans could survive on Mars some day.

How Mars Got its Name

Mars was named by the Romans for their god of war because of its red, bloodlike color. Other civilizations also named this planet from this attribute; for example, the Egyptians named it "Her Desher," meaning "the red one."

Significant Dates

1877: Asaph Hall discovers the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.

1965: NASA's Mariner 4 sends back 22 photos of Mars, the world's first close-up photos of a planet beyond Earth.

1976: Viking 1 and 2 land on the surface of Mars.

1997: Mars Pathfinder lands and dispatches Sojourner, the first wheeled rover to explore the surface of another planet.

2002: Mars Odyssey begins its mission to make global observations and find buried water ice on Mars.

2004: Twin Mars Exploration Rovers named Spirit and Opportunity find strong evidence that Mars once had long-term liquid water on the surface.

2006: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter begins returning high-resolution images as it studies the history of water on Mars and seasonal changes.

2008: Phoenix finds signs of possible habitability, including the occasional presence of liquid water and potentially favorable soil chemistry.

2012: NASA's Mars rover Curiosity lands in Gale Crater and finds conditions once suited for ancient microbial life on Mars.

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Life on Mars: NASA Plant Researchers Explore Question of Deep-Space Food Crops

Writes Linda Herridge, NASA

An artist concept depicts a greenhouse on the surface of Mars. Plants are growing with the help of red, blue and green LED light bars and a hydroponic cultivation approach. Image credit: SAIC

NASA plant physiologist Ray Wheeler, Ph.D., and fictional astronaut Mark Watney from the movie "The Martian" have something in common — they are both botanists. But that's where the similarities end. While Watney is a movie character who gets stranded on Mars, Wheeler is the lead for Advanced Life Support Research activities in the Exploration Research and Technology Program at Kennedy Space Center, working on real plant research.

"The Martian movie and book conveyed a lot of issues regarding growing food and surviving on a planet far from the Earth," Wheeler said. "It's brought plants back into the equation."

As NASA prepares the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft for Exploration Mission-1, it's also turning its attention to exploring the possibilities of food crops grown in controlled environments for long-duration missions to deep-space destinations such as Mars.

Wheeler and his colleagues, including plant scientists, have been studying ways to grow safe, fresh food crops efficiently off the Earth. Most recently, astronauts on the International Space Station harvested and ate a variety of red romaine lettuce that they activated and grew in a plant growth system called Veggie.

Wheeler, who has worked at Kennedy since 1988, was among the plant scientists and collaborators who helped get the Veggie unit tested and certified for use on the space station. The plant chamber, developed by Orbitec through a NASA Small Business Innovative Research Program, passed safety reviews and met low power usage and low mass requirements for use on the space station.

Aside from the chamber, the essentials needed for growing food crops, whether on the Earth or another planet, such as Mars, are water, light and soil, along with some kind of nutrients to help them grow.

Potato Crop Studies

What kind of crops could be grown in space or on another planet? Potatoes, sweet potatoes, wheat and soybeans would all be good according to Wheeler because they provide a lot of carbohydrates, and soybeans are a good source of protein.

Also, potatoes are tubers, which means they store their edible biomass in underground structures. Wheeler said potatoes could produce twice the amount of food as some seed crops when given equivalent light. After salad crops that are now being studied, they are the next category of minimally processed food crops and could be consumed raw.

"You could begin to grow potatoes, wheat and soybeans, things like that, and along with the salad crops, you could provide more of a complete diet," Wheeler said.

Wheeler has spent a lot of time studying different ways to grow potatoes. Most of his studies took place during the late 1980s through the early 2000s inside Hangar L at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The lab was relocated to the Space Life Sciences Laboratory in 2003. A major portion of the labs were then relocated to the Space Station Processing Facility in 2014 to become part of the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Directorate at Kennedy.

Many of the early potato crop studies were done at the University of Wisconsin, where Wheeler worked prior to coming to Kennedy. Plant scientists at Kennedy used these fundamental findings as a starting point for their studies, and in particular, a variety called Norland red potatoes, using a large plant chamber called the Biomass Plant Production Chamber.

The Biomass Production Chamber originally was a hypobaric test chamber used during the Mercury Project. Including its pedestal, the chamber is 28 feet tall. It was later modified to grow plants in the mid-1980s. Air circulation ducts and fans, high pressure sodium lamps, cooling and heating systems, and hydroponic trays and solution tanks were added. The chamber provided a tightly closed atmosphere for plant growth, which simulated what might be encountered in space.

"Providing food is a complex issue," Wheeler said. "We have to think about nutritional issues, what's acceptable and what tastes good. If nobody wants to eat it, that won't work."

Water - A Precious Resource

In the movie, the character chooses to use the regolith, or Martian soil, to grow the plants. In reality, the soil on Mars is essentially broken rock material, and lacks most of the nutrients needed to sustain plant growth.

Much of what Wheeler did in his potato studies involved growing the plants in shallow, tilted trays using a hydroponic recirculating system.

"With potatoes, it was a little bit more interesting in the sense that you can't use systems that require a lot of standing or deep water—potatoes don’t like to be submerged," Wheeler said, "and we kept the nutrient water film very thin."

They did very well, as do many crops grown this way, according to Wheeler. But traveling in a spacecraft to another planet will put constraints on the quantity and weight of commodities that could be brought along. You can't pack everything you need for a long-duration spaceflight. Some resources will need to be recycled, acquired or made at the destination, a process called in-situ resource utilization.

"The recent discovery of water on Mars is a positive development," said Rob Mueller, senior technologist for Advanced Projects Development in the Exploration Research and Technology Program at Kennedy. "It can be used for making propellant, sustaining human life and growing crops."

But, Mueller noted, the water will not be pure and will have a brine composition. Perchlorates and other impurities are known to exist in the regolith on Mars, so these must be accounted for and mitigated before the water can be used.

Wheeler said one scenario could be that provisions such as water pumps and fertilizer salts are brought along on deep-space trips, and the plants are grown hydroponically inside a protected environment. Martian soils might be used later as the growing systems expand.

"Growing plants on Mars is not a trivial matter," Mueller said.

Plants Need Light to Grow

In open fields on Earth, light is plentiful. But out in space, use of direct sunlight for plant growth could be challenging. Yet having sufficient light will be required for growing plants quickly in space.

In 2007, a graduate student at the University of Colorado mapped the light intensity at the surface of Mars over two Martian years. Results showed that the Red Planet gets 43 percent of the sunlight that Earth receives due to its distance from the sun, but has numerous areas at low latitudes that receive adequate light to grow plants.

"Mars gets significant dust storms, which could block a lot of sunlight, and that must be considered," Wheeler said. "That's an issue, even if we're using a photovoltaic system."

That's the reason why planetary probes and spacecraft that travel farther away from the sun, like Cassini, Galileo and New Horizons, didn't use photovoltaic type systems. Just like in the movie, they use radioactive thermal generators, also called RTGs, as power generators. It's a form of radioactive decay that generates heat, which is converted to electrical power.

"An alternate approach to sunlight would be to use electric light sources. High intensities of efficient LED lights could be used to help push the plants hard," Wheeler said. "This is an area where NASA has been really right up on the edge of research and development."

The Veggie plant growth system, currently on the space station, uses blue and red LED lights. Wheeler said using LED lights to grow plants was an idea that originated from a NASA-funded effort at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s. The technology was patented with NASA-supported funds.

Kennedy Space Center's plant scientists also were one of the first groups to demonstrate vertical farming -- layers of plant trays with a water source and LED lighting. This type of farming is now being used in Japan, Korea, and China, and several facilities in North America.

Protection from Radiation

As if finding the right soil, water and lighting wasn’t enough of a challenge, food crops also would need to be protected from ultraviolet radiation and kept inside a pressurized environment with adequate nutrients and appropriate lighting. The shelter would have to be able to withstand radiation and the extreme temperatures of a Martian environment.

"That's a big challenge for materials for a greenhouse-like structure. The thermal issues could be alleviated by having either a cover or clamshell that would go over it at night and open in the daytime," Wheeler suggested.

When nuclear power was emerging in the 1970s, there was a lot of interest in understanding the potential effects of radiation on living organisms, including plants. There are limits to what plants can take, and Wheeler said more research needs to be done on the tolerance of food crops to radiation.

The "Eyes" Have It

How do you regenerate your food source? If you consume everything over a period of time, you will eventually run out.

But there's something special about potato tubers. Potatoes have "eyes" or buds. If given enough time, the eyes sprout. Sections of potatoes containing at least one "eye" could be replanted so they can sprout and produce new plants. This process was illustrated in The Martian, and actually is used by seed potato growers in field settings on Earth who then take their crops and sell them to production companies.

During the 1990s, NASA's potato studies with hydroponics got the attention of the Frito-Lay Company in Wisconsin. Wheeler consulted with the company on ways to produce clean, disease-free seed potato stock.

A Source of Recycling

Growing crops in space or on another planet could provide other benefits besides food. Plants could serve to provide oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from air sources.

While plants grow, they generate oxygen through photosynthesis, and they would scrub carbon dioxide out of the air inside a cabin environment. Wheeler said if you co-utilize them in the right manner, they could help process wastewater.

And as odd as it sounds, using wastewater, or even urine, as a source of nutrients for plant growth could be an option. Aboard the space station, U.S. astronauts use the Environmental Control and Life Support System — a system that collects and recycles used water, wastewater and urine.

While the recent movie made it seem like growing potatoes on Mars was a no-brainer, a lot of research has gone into making that a real possibility. With humans expected to plant boots on Mars in the next couple of decades, solving the challenges of growing plants in space today is critical to our journey to the Red Planet.

(Editor: Linda Herridge: NASA)

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NASA's SDO and Sun's Solarian Prominence

NASA Image

An elongated solar prominence rose up above the sun’s surface and slowly unraveled on Feb. 3, 2016, as seen in this video by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO. Prominences, also known as filaments when seen over the sun’s limb, are clouds of solar material suspended above the sun’s surface by the solar magnetic field – the same complex magnetism that drives solar events like flares and coronal mass ejections. The solar material in the prominence streams along the sun’s magnetic field lines before it thins out and gradually breaks away from the solar surface. These images were taken in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths of 304 angstroms, a type of light that is invisible to our eyes but is colorized here in red.

The sun appears to move in the last few seconds of the video because SDO was performing a guide telescope calibration.

Steele Hill and Sarah Frazier: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

( Editor: Rob Garner: NASA)

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I am Whole; It is Your Perspective That Makes You See Me in Two: Dione

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Dione appears cut in two by Saturn's razor-thin rings, seen nearly edge-on in a view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. This scene was captured from just 0.02 degrees above the ring plane.

The bright streaks of Dione's wispy terrain (see PIA12553) are seen near the moon's limb at right. The medium-sized crater Turnus (63 miles, 101 kilometers, wide) is visible along Dione's terminator.

PIA12553: Dione The Wispy Marble

 



Appearing like the swirls of marble, the wispy terrain of Saturn's moon Dione is captured in a dramatic display of light and dark.

These wispy features are a system of braided canyons with bright walls. See PIA06163 for a closeup view. This view looks toward the area between the trailing hemisphere and Saturn-facing side of Dione (1,123 kilometers, or 698 miles across). North on Dione is up and rotated 1 degree to the left.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 26, 2009. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 644,000 kilometers (400,000 miles) from Dione and at a Sun-Dione-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 2 degrees. Image scale is 4 kilometers (2 miles) per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/. The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

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The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 25, 2015. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers) from Dione and at a Sun-Dione-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 115 degrees. Image scale is 8.6 miles (13.8 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov  and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini  . The Cassini imaging team homepage

(Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)
 

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Sit a While With Me: Kimberley Formation on Mars

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A view from the "Kimberley" formation on Mars taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp, indicating flow of water toward a basin that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed.

The colors are adjusted so that rocks look approximately as they would if they were on Earth, to help geologists interpret the rocks. This "white balancing" to adjust for the lighting on Mars overly compensates for the absence of blue on Mars, making the sky appear light blue and sometimes giving dark, black rocks a blue cast.

This image was taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Curiosity on the 580th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates Curiosity's Mastcam. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, built the rover and manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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Mars Beautiful Gale Crater

Image Released on June 19, 2015: Minerals at Gale Crater: Curiosity's Home: Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University


Gale Crater, home to NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, shows a new face in this mosaic image made using data from the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.

The colors come from an image processing technique that identifies mineral differences in surface materials and displays them in false colors. For example, windblown dust appears pale pink and olivine-rich basalt looks purple. The bright pink on Gale's floor appears due to a mix of basaltic sand and windblown dust. The blue at the summit of Gale's central mound, Mount Sharp, probably comes from local materials exposed there. The typical average Martian surface soil looks grayish-green. Scientists use false-color images such as these to identify places of potential geologic interest.

The diameter of the crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers). North is up. THEMIS and other instruments on Mars Odyssey have been studying Mars from orbit since 2001. Curiosity landed in the northeastern portion of Gale Crater in 2012 and climbed onto the flank of Mount Sharp in 2014.

Mars Mission 2020

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Saturn's Moon Tathys Floating Between Two Sets of Rings

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn's moon appears to float between two sets of rings in this view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, but it's just a trick of geometry. The rings, which are seen nearly edge-on, are the dark bands above Tethys, while their curving shadows paint the planet at the bottom of the image.

Tethys (660 miles or 1,062 kilometers across) has a surface composed mostly of water ice, much like Saturn's rings. Water ice dominates the icy surfaces in the the far reaches of our solar system, but ammonia and methane ices also can be found.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Nov. 23, 2015. North on Tethys is up. The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 40,000 miles (65,000 kilometers) from Tethys. Image scale is 2.4 miles (4 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
 
For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit and. The Cassini imaging team homepage

(Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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Saturn's Rings: Less Than Meets the Eye?

Saturn's B ring is the most opaque of the main rings, appearing almost black in this Cassini image taken from the unlit side of the ringplane.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

It seems intuitive that an opaque material should contain more stuff than a more translucent substance. For example, muddier water has more suspended particles of dirt in it than clearer water. Likewise, you might think that, in the rings of Saturn, more opaque areas contain a greater concentration of material than places where the rings seem more transparent.

But this intuition does not always apply, according to a recent study of the rings using data from NASA's Cassini mission. In their analysis, scientists found surprisingly little correlation between how dense a ring might appear to be -- in terms of its opacity and reflectiveness -- and the amount of material it contains.

The new results concern Saturn's B ring, the brightest and most opaque of Saturn's rings, and are consistent with previous studies that found similar results for Saturn's other main rings.

The scientists found that, while the opacity of the B ring varied by a large amount across its width, the mass – or amount of material – did not vary much from place to place. They "weighed" the nearly opaque center of the B ring for the first time -- technically, they determined its mass density in several places -- by analyzing spiral density waves. These are fine-scale ring features created by gravity tugging on ring particles from Saturn's moons, and the planet's own gravity. The structure of each wave depends directly on the amount of mass in the part of the rings where the wave is located.

"At present it's far from clear how regions with the same amount of material can have such different opacities. It could be something associated with the size or density of individual particles, or it could have something to do with the structure of the rings," said Matthew Hedman, the study's lead author and a Cassini participating scientist at the University of Idaho, Moscow. Cassini co-investigator Phil Nicholson of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, co-authored the work with Hedman.

"Appearances can be deceiving," said Nicholson. "A good analogy is how a foggy meadow is much more opaque than a swimming pool, even though the pool is denser and contains a lot more water."

Research on the mass of Saturn's rings has important implications for their age. A less massive ring would evolve faster than a ring containing more material, becoming darkened by dust from meteorites and other cosmic sources more quickly. Thus, the less massive the B ring is, the younger it might be -- perhaps a few hundred million years instead of a few billion.

"By 'weighing' the core of the B ring for the first time, this study makes a meaningful step in our quest to piece together the age and origin of Saturn's rings," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "The rings are so magnificent and awe-inspiring, it's impossible for us to resist the mystery of how they came to be."

While all the giant planets in our solar system (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) have ring systems of their own, Saturn's are clearly different. Explaining why Saturn's rings are so bright and vast is an important challenge in understanding their formation and history. For scientists, the density of material packed into each section of the rings is a critical factor in ascribing their formation to a physical process.

An earlier study by members of Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer team had suggested the possibility that there might be less material in the B ring than researchers had thought. The new analysis is the first to directly measure the density of mass in the ring and demonstrate that this is the case.

Hedman and Nicholson used a new technique to analyze data from a series of observations by Cassini's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer as it peered through the rings toward a bright star. By combining multiple observations, they were able to identify spiral density waves in the rings that aren't obvious in individual measurements.

The analysis also found that the overall mass of the B ring is unexpectedly low. It was surprising, said Hedman, because some parts of the B ring are up to 10 times more opaque than the neighboring A ring, but the B ring may weigh in at only two to three times the A ring's mass.

Despite the low mass found by Hedman and Nicholson, the B ring is still thought to contain the bulk of material in Saturn's ring system. And although this study leaves some uncertainty about the ring's mass, a more precise measurement of the total mass of Saturn's rings is on the way. Previously, Cassini had measured Saturn’s gravity field, telling scientists the total mass of Saturn and its rings. In 2017, Cassini will determine the mass of Saturn alone by flying just inside the rings during the final phase of its mission. The difference between the two measurements is expected to finally reveal the rings' true mass.

The study was published online by the journal Icarus.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about Cassini

Saturn

Preston Dyches: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-7013 preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov
(Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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NASA Tests Solar Sail Deployment as Part of the Progress on the Road to Journey to Mars

NASA Tests Solar Sail Deployment for Asteroid-Surveying CubeSat NEA Scout: NASA Image
 

Feb. 2, 2016: Progress continues on the journey to Mars as NASA plans to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including to an asteroid and ultimately to the surface of Mars. Before humans embark on the journey, the agency will survey an asteroid to learn about the risks and challenges asteroids may pose to future human explorers.

One way NASA will do this is by performing a reconnaissance flyby of an asteroid with Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout. NEA Scout -- a CubeSat, or small satellite -- will launch as a secondary payload on the inaugural flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the world’s most powerful rocket, scheduled to launch in 2018. Information gained from NEA Scout’s flyby will enhance the agency’s understanding of asteroids and their environments and will help reduce risk for future exploration of asteroids and small planetary bodies.

NEA Scout’s second mission objective will be to develop and verify a low-cost reconnaissance platform capable of carrying a wide range of research spacecraft to many destinations. To do this, NEA Scout will utilize a solar sail, harnessing solar pressure to propel the spacecraft.

NEA Scout’s solar sail will be larger and travel farther than any NASA has ever deployed in space. “As a propulsion system that doesn’t require any propellant, solar sails have a lot of potential,” said Les Johnson, NEA Scout’s solar sail principal investigator. “In the future, solar sails can take spacecraft to the outermost regions of the solar system faster than ever before.”

NEA Scout’s flight solar sail will be 86 square meters, approximately the length of a full-size school bus. Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, recently conducted a series of tests with a sail roughly half that size -- 36 square meters to verify the folding and deployment of the sail in deep space.

“We were able to zero in some specifics of design, motor size, hardware attrition and even the time required to fold and deploy the sail,” said Tiffany Russell Lockett, NEA Scout Sail systems engineer. Next spring, the team will build and test a full-size engineering development unit.

Only one-third of NEA Scout’s total size can be dedicated to the solar sail. Each of the 13 CubeSats hitching a ride on the SLS will be the size of a large shoebox and weigh less than 30 pounds. For the school bus-size sail to fit within the small space requirements, it will have to be meticulously folded and then unpacked in space. To test the folding and deployment process, engineers built a low-cost test article using parts left over from previous programs.

“We were fortunate to have parts so readily available to test these new techniques,” said NEA Scout Project Manager Leslie McNutt. “It’s a fabulous opportunity for us to learn more before building our engineering development unit.”

The lightweight assembly consists of three 3D printed spools -- an oblong spool that contains the sail’s material and two smaller spools, each containing two booms, or the sail’s arms. The booms -- which will unfold the sail and hold it in place during flight -- are strong, yet flexible.

“The booms are much like a handyman’s metal tape measure. They are very strong when held out straight, and when bent they become flexible enough to be wound around the spools -- saving space,” said McNutt.

The sail’s material, a strong plastic with aluminum coating, is as thin as a human hair and has to be meticulously folded and wrapped around the oblong spool. Once in space, the booms -- each attached to a different corner of the sail -- will extend, unpacking the solar sail.

“We successfully tested a new folding technique that has never been used before with solar sails,” said McNutt. “The sail material is folded like an accordion and unreels like a bow tie as the booms deploy.”

To simulate a microgravity environment similar to that in space, the team used Marshall’s Flat Floor Facility -- the world’s flattest floor. “We connected air bearings to the ends of the booms,” said McNutt. “That allowed the booms to float on a thin layer of air above the floor, offsetting the effects of Earth’s gravity.”

McNutt believes solar sails like NEA Scout’s could be a game changer in the future of deep-space missions. “In the past, they have been relatively small,” she said. “Advances like NEA Scout’s sail could enable larger and larger spacecraft. The larger the spacecraft, the larger the solar sail will need to be. You have to work your way up -- this is a step in the direction of bigger and better.”

NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) manages NEA Scout with the team led at Marshall Space Flight Center with support from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. AES infuses new technologies developed by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate and partners with the Science Mission Directorate to address the unknowns and mitigate risks for crews and systems during future human exploration missions.

For more information about NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, visit

For more information about Secondary Payloads, visit

For more information about NEA Scout, visit

Kim Newton: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center: 256-544-0034
kimberly.d.newton@nasa.gov
( Editor: Jennifer Harbaugh: NASA)
 

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Saturn's 3: Titan, Mimas and Rhea

A single crescent moon is a familiar sight in Earth's sky, but with Saturn's many moons, you can see three or even more. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


The three moons shown here -- Titan (3,200 miles or 5,150 kilometers across), Mimas (246 miles or 396 kilometers across), and Rhea (949 miles or 1,527 kilometers across) -- show marked contrasts. Titan, the largest moon in this image, appears fuzzy because we only see its cloud layers. And because Titan’s atmosphere refracts light around the moon, its crescent “wraps” just a little further around the moon than it would on an airless body. Rhea (upper left) appears rough because its icy surface is heavily cratered. And a close inspection of Mimas (center bottom), though difficult to see at this scale, shows surface irregularities due to its own violent history.

And Rhea's Day in the Sun


A nearly full Rhea shines in the sunlight in this recent Cassini image. Rhea (949 miles, or 1,527 kilometers across) is Saturn's second largest moon.

Lit terrain seen here is on the Saturn-facing hemisphere of Rhea. North on Rhea is up and rotated 43 degrees to the left. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Sept. 10, 2013.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 990,000 miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Rhea. Image scale is 6 miles (9 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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This view looks toward the anti-Saturn hemisphere of Titan. North on Titan is to the right. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on March 25, 2015.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 2.7 million miles (4.3 million kilometers) from Titan. Image scale at Titan is 16 miles (26 kilometers) per pixel. Mimas was 1.9 million miles (3.0 million kilometers) away with an image scale of 11 miles (18 kilometers) per pixel. Rhea was 1.6 million miles (2.6 million kilometers) away with an image scale of 9.8 miles (15.7 kilometer) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit Or The Cassini imaging team homepage

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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Martian Noctis Labyrinthus The Labyrinth of the Night

Perspective view in Noctis Labyrinthus: This perspective view in Noctis Labyrinthus was generated from the main camera’s stereo channels on ESA’s Mars Express. It shows the beautiful details of landslides in the steep-sided walls of the flat-topped graben in the foreground, and in the valley walls in the background. The scene is part of region imaged by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express on 15 July 2015 during orbit 14632. The image is centred on 6°S / 265°E; the ground resolution is about 16 m per pixel.: Released 28/01/2016 11:00 am Copyright ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

 

28 January 2016: This block of martian terrain, etched with an intricate pattern of landslides and wind-blown dunes, is a small segment of a vast labyrinth of valleys, fractures and plateaus.


The region, known as Noctis Labyrinthus – the “labyrinth of the night” – lies on the western edge of Valles Marineris, the grand canyon of the Solar System. It was imaged by ESA’s Mars Express on 15 July 2015.

It is part of a complex feature whose origin lies in the swelling of the crust owing to tectonic and volcanic activity in the Tharsis region, home to Olympus Mons and other large volcanoes.

As the crust bulged in the Tharsis province it stretched apart the surrounding terrain, ripping fractures several kilometres deep and leaving blocks – graben – stranded within the resulting trenches.

The entire network of graben and fractures spans some 1200 km, about the equivalent length of the river Rhine from the Alps to the North Sea.

The segment presented here captures a roughly 120 km-wide portion of that network, with one large, flat-topped block taking centre stage.


Landslides are seen in extraordinary detail in the flanks of this unit and along the valley walls (most notable in the perspective view, top), with eroded debris lying at the base of the steep walls.
Noctis Labyrinthus topography

In some places, particularly notable in the lower-right corner of the plan view image (above), wind has drawn the dust into dune fields that extend up onto the surrounding plateaus.

Near-linear features are also visible on the flat elevated surfaces: fault lines crossing each other in different directions, suggesting many episodes of tectonic stretching in the complex history of this region.

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Journey to Mars: Orion Parachute Passes Development Tests

Orion’s three main parachutes begin to unfurl after they are drawn out by three pilot parachutes. A test of the spacecraft’s parachute system was conducted Jan. 13. Credit: NASA Image

 

A dart-shaped test vehicle descended from the skies above the Arizona desert under Orion’s parachutes Wednesday, Jan. 13, successfully completing the final development test of the parachute system. NASA engineers evaluated modifications to the system for the last time before the start of qualification testing for Orion missions with astronauts.

During the test, engineers demonstrated that when the spacecraft is traveling faster during descent than in previous tests, Orion’s parachutes can properly deploy and withstand high-inflation loads. The dart-shaped vehicle allows engineers to simulate faster descent conditions than the capsule-shaped test article that has been used in many previous evaluations. The test also evaluated new, lighter-weight suspension line material for the parachutes saving a significant amount of mass.

“The completion of this last development test of the parachute system gives us a high degree of confidence that we’ll be successful in certifying the system with the remaining qualification tests for flights with astronauts,” said CJ Johnson, project manager for Orion’s parachute system. “During our development series, we’ve tested all kinds of failure scenarios and extreme descent conditions to refine the design and ensure Orion’s parachutes will work in a variety of circumstances. We’ll verify the system is sound during our qualification tests.”

During Wednesday’s test, a C-17 aircraft dropped the test vehicle from its cargo bay while flying 30,000 feet over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona. NASA conducts the tests at the proving ground because of the capabilities of airdrop testing that exists there, and the ability for engineers to gather detailed video and photo imagery from chase aircraft to analyze how all of the parachute system’s mechanisms work, including how mortars fire and the parachutes unfurl and descend.

Orion’s parachute system is a critical part of returning future crews who will travel to deep space on the journey to Mars and return to Earth in the spacecraft. The first parachutes deploy when the crew module is travelling more than 300 mph, and in a matter of minutes, the remaining parachute system slows the vehicle and enables it to splash down in the ocean at about 20 mph.

The system is composed of 11 total parachutes that deploy in a precise sequence. Three parachutes pull off Orion’s forward bay cover, which protects the top of the crew module -- where the packed parachutes reside -- from the heat of re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Two drogues then deploy to slow the capsule and steady it. Three pilot parachutes then pull out the three orange and white mains, on which Orion rides for the final 8,000 feet of its descent. Orion’s main parachutes are packed to the density of oak wood to fit in the top part of the spacecraft, but once fully inflated cover almost an entire football field.

The test was the seventh in the developmental series. In July, engineers will begin qualifying Orion’s parachute system for flights with astronauts. The series will encompass eight drop tests over a three year-period.

( Editor: Erin Kisliuk: NASA)
 

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Seasons of Light and Dark Divides the North and the South of Enceladus

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
 

This half-lit view of Enceladus bears a passing resemblance to similar views of Earth's own natural satellite, but the similarities end there. Earth's rocky moon is covered in dark, volcanic basins and brighter, mountainous highlands -- both exceedingly ancient. The surface of icy Enceladus is uniformly bright, far brighter than Earth's moon. Large areas of Enceladus' surface are characterized by youthful (on geologic timescales), wrinkled terrains.

Although the north pole of Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) was dark when Cassini arrived at Saturn, the march of the seasons at Saturn have brought sunlight to the north and taken it from the south.

This view looks toward the leading hemisphere of Enceladus. North on Encealdus is up. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Sept. 8, 2015.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 80,000 miles (129,000 kilometers) from Enceladus. Image scale is 2,530 feet (772 meters) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov or http://www.nasa.gov/cassini . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org .

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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A Planetary Quintet is Dancing Across the Skies

Jane Platt

Early risers have an opportunity to see five naked-eye planets in pre-dawn skies during late January and continuing through late February.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Well, it's not quite like the song about the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but our solar system is experiencing an uncommon lineup that should be quite a treat for sky-watchers. The solar system itself hasn't changed -- it's just that the timing of the planets orbiting the sun puts them into a lineup that makes for good viewing by Earthlings.

From now until about Feb. 20, early risers will stand a good chance of seeing five planets simultaneously in the pre-dawn sky: Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter (technically six, if you count the Earth you're standing on). Those planets should be visible to the naked eye. Of course, if you happen to have binoculars or a telescope, you'll get an even better view.

The last appearance by the quintet on one nighttime stage was in December 2004 and January 2005. If you miss this month's viewing opportunity, the five will be back in the evening sky in late July through mid-August, but Mercury and Venus won't be easily visible from northern latitudes.

If you go outside during the five-planet display, and if weather conditions are favorable, here's what you should be able to see: Jupiter will rise in the evening, then Mars will pop up after midnight, followed by Saturn, brilliant Venus, and finally, Mercury. All five will be visible from southeast to southwest between 6 and 6:30 a.m. local time, over the span. Earth’s moon will also join the cosmic display from Jan. 23 to Feb. 7. During that time, the moon will shift from the west-northwest to east-southeast and will be visible near the five planets and some stars.

During the day and night between Jan. 27 and 28, the morning view of the moon will switch from right of Jupiter to left of Jupiter. Then, on Feb. 1, the moon will be visible near Mars, followed by an appearance near Saturn on Feb. 3. On Feb. 6, the moon, Mercury and dazzling Venus will appear in a triangular formation before sunrise.

For Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, the rare planetary lineup reminds him how far we have come in exploring our solar system.

"NASA spacecraft have visited each one of the five planets that we will be able to see over the next few weeks, as well as Uranus, Neptune and Pluto," Green said. "We can be proud that American curiosity, technology and determination are helping us unlock many mysteries about our solar system."

Jane Platt
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-0880 jane.platt@jpl.nasa.gov

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)
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The Planet Nine : Caltech Researchers Find Evidence of a Real Ninth Planet

This artistic rendering shows the distant view from Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. Image Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Caltech researchers have found evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer solar system. The object, which the researchers have nicknamed Planet Nine, has a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbits about 20 times farther from the sun on average than does Neptune (which orbits the sun at an average distance of 2.8 billion miles). In fact, it would take this new planet between 10,000 and 20,000 years to make just one full orbit around the sun.

The researchers, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, discovered the planet's existence through mathematical modeling and computer simulations but have not yet observed the object directly.

"This would be a real ninth planet," says Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy. "There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It's a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that's still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting."

Brown notes that the putative ninth planet-at 5,000 times the mass of Pluto-is sufficiently large that there should be no debate about whether it is a true planet. Unlike the class of smaller objects now known as dwarf planets, Planet Nine gravitationally dominates its neighborhood of the solar system. In fact, it dominates a region larger than any of the other known planets-a fact that Brown says makes it "the most planet-y of the planets in the whole solar system."

Batygin and Brown describe their work in the current issue of the Astronomical Journal and show how Planet Nine helps explain a number of mysterious features of the field of icy objects and debris beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt.

and created objects like Sedna, we thought this is kind of awesome-you kill two birds with one stone," says Batygin. "But with the existence of the planet also explaining these perpendicular orbits, not only do you kill two birds, you also take down a bird that you didn't realize was sitting in a nearby tree."

Where did Planet Nine come from and how did it end up in the outer solar system? Scientists have long believed that the early solar system began with four planetary cores that went on to grab all of the gas around them, forming the four gas planets-Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Over time, collisions and ejections shaped them and moved them out to their present locations. "But there is no reason that there could not have been five cores, rather than four," says Brown. Planet Nine could represent that fifth core, and if it got too close to Jupiter or Saturn, it could have been ejected into its distant, eccentric orbit.

Batygin and Brown continue to refine their simulations and learn more about the planet's orbit and its influence on the distant solar system. Meanwhile, Brown and other colleagues have begun searching the skies for Planet Nine. Only the planet's rough orbit is known, not the precise location of the planet on that elliptical path. If the planet happens to be close to its perihelion, Brown says, astronomers should be able to spot it in images captured by previous surveys. If it is in the most distant part of its orbit, the world's largest telescopes-such as the twin 10-meter telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Subaru Telescope, all on Mauna Kea in Hawaii-will be needed to see it. If, however, Planet Nine is now located anywhere in between, many telescopes have a shot at finding it.

"I would love to find it," says Brown. "But I'd also be perfectly happy if someone else found it. That is why we're publishing this paper. We hope that other people are going to get inspired and start searching."

In terms of understanding more about the solar system's context in the rest of the universe, Batygin says that in a couple of ways, this ninth planet that seems like such an oddball to us would actually make our solar system more similar to the other planetary systems that astronomers are finding around other stars. First, most of the planets around other sunlike stars have no single orbital range-that is, some orbit extremely close to their host stars while others follow exceptionally distant orbits. Second, the most common planets around other stars range between 1 and 10 Earth-masses.

"One of the most startling discoveries about other planetary systems has been that the most common type of planet out there has a mass between that of Earth and that of Neptune," says Batygin. "Until now, we've thought that the solar system was lacking in this most common type of planet. Maybe we're more normal after all."

Brown, well known for the significant role he played in the demotion of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet adds, "All those people who are mad that Pluto is no longer a planet can be thrilled to know that there is a real planet out there still to be found," he says. "Now we can go and find this planet and make the solar system have nine planets once again."

The paper is titled "Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System."

( Written by Kimm Fesenmaier: NASA)

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Is There a 9th World in Our Solar System? A New Planet Nine? A Ninearth?

NASA’s Director of Planetary Science, Jim Green, discusses the Jan. 20 Astronomical Journal science paper that points to the possibility of a new “Planet 9” in our solar system beyond Pluto, examining the scientific process and inviting you to have a front row seat to our exploration of the solar system. You can hear Jim Green on this video

Published in The Astronomical Journal of The American Astronomical Society, Volume 151, Number 2, 2016 January 20,   Konstantin Batygin  and Michael E. Brown discussed EVIDENCE FOR A DISTANT GIANT PLANET IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM

The Article can be read here

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Pluto’s Haze in Bands of Blue


This processed image is the highest-resolution color look yet at the haze layers in Pluto’s atmosphere. Shown in approximate true color, the picture is constructed from a mosaic of four panchromatic images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) splashed with Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) four-color filter data, all acquired by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. The resolution is 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) per pixel; the sun illuminates the scene from the right.

Scientists believe the haze is a photochemical smog resulting from the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere, producing a complex mixture of hydrocarbons such as acetylene and ethylene. These hydrocarbons accumulate into small particles, a fraction of a micrometer in size, and scatter sunlight to make the bright blue haze seen in this image.

As they settle down through the atmosphere, the haze particles form numerous intricate, horizontal layers, some extending for hundreds of miles around Pluto. The haze layers extend to altitudes of over 120 miles (200 kilometers).

Adding to the stark beauty of this image are mountains on Pluto’s limb (on the right, near the 4 o’clock position), surface features just within the limb to the right, and crepuscular rays (dark finger-like shadows to the left) extending from Pluto’s topographic features.

Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

( Editor: Tricia Talbert: NASA)

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Martian Starburst Spider

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona



Mars' seasonal cap of carbon dioxide ice has eroded many beautiful terrains as it sublimates (goes directly from ice to vapor) every spring. In the region where the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took this image, we see troughs that form a starburst pattern. In other areas these radial troughs have been refered to as spiders, simply because of their shape. In this region the pattern looks more dendritic as channels branch out numerous times as they get further from the center.

The troughs are believed to be formed by gas flowing beneath the seasonal ice to openings where the gas escapes, carrying along dust from the surface below. The dust falls to the surface of the ice in fan-shaped deposits.

This image, covering an area about 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) across, is a portion of the HiRISE observation catalogued as ESP_011842_0980, taken on Feb. 4, 2009. The observation is centered at 81.8 degrees south latitude, 76.2 degrees east longitude. The image was taken at a local Mars time of 4:56 p.m. and the scene is illuminated from the west with a solar incidence angle of 78 degrees, thus the sun was about 12 degrees above the horizon. At a solar longitude of 203.6 degrees, the season on Mars is northern autumn.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the instrument was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.

( Editor: NASA Administrator)

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Pluto's Rusalka By Moonlight!

It’s Antarctic winter on Pluto. The sun has not been visible for twenty years in this frigid south polar region; it will not shine again for another 80 years. The only source of natural light is starlight and moonlight from Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. Image: NASA


On July 14, New Horizons mission scientists will soon obtain the first images of the night region of Pluto, using only the light from Charon, itself softly illuminated by a Sun 1,000 times dimmer than it is at Earth. The images will provide New Horizons’ only view of Pluto’s lesser-known south polar region, currently in the midst of a numbingly-long winter. The pictures will be made with the LORRI and Ralph instruments, shortly after New Horizons passes its point of closest approach to Pluto.

If you stood on the night region of Pluto at that moment of closest approach by New Horizons – looking up at a distinctly gray Charon - it would appear seven times larger in the sky than Earth’s moon. Charon, although three billion miles from the sun, is so close to Pluto and so ice-covered that it would be only five times dimmer than the full moon seen from Earth. At your feet, the icy surface – resembling a sooty snow bank - would be bathed in Charon’s faint glow. The area around you would be dim, but not so dark that you would bump into things.

On your moonlight stroll on Pluto you’d notice that your shadow, cast by Charon, is much less defined than your shadow from moonlight on Earth. A wisp of cloud might even pass in front of Charon as you look up.

If you stood on Pluto’s Charon-facing side as New Horizons speeds by, you would see Charon go through a cycle of phases during a “Pluto Day” - 6 days and 10 hours—but not the complete set of phases our moon displays to us on Earth. Seen from Pluto during that time, Charon would go from a wide crescent, to a “quarter moon,” then to gibbous (partway between quarter and full phases), and back again.

New Horizons has been traveling for nine-and-a-half-years to bring humankind its first exploration of the Pluto system. While the sunlit features of Pluto are growing sharper every day, the shadowy winter region is still cloaked in mystery—but not for long.

“The only way for New Horizons to observe Pluto’s elusive night region is to see it in ‘Charonshine,’” says Cathy Olkin, New Horizons deputy project scientist. “It’s almost time for the big reveal, and I couldn’t be more excited.”

NASA’s unmanned New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on the Pluto system after a more than nine-year, three-billion-mile journey. At 7:49 AM EDT on July 14 it will zip past Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour), with a suite of seven science instruments busily gathering data. The mission will complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system with the first-ever look at the icy dwarf planet.

Follow the path of the spacecraft in coming days in real time with a visualization of the actual trajectory data, using NASA’s online Eyes on Pluto.

Stay in touch with the New Horizons mission with #PlutoFlyby and on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/new.horizons1

( Editor: Tricia Talbert: NASA)

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ESA's Sun Explorer, Solar Orbiter, Will be Launched in 2018

Solar Orbiter exploring the Sun’s realm: Released 27/04/2012 9:32 am
Copyright ESA/AOES

 

ESA’s next-generation Sun explorer, Solar Orbiter, will be launched in 2018. It will investigate the connections and the coupling between the Sun and the heliosphere, a huge bubble in space created by the solar wind. The solar wind can cause auroras and disrupt satellite-based communication.

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It is a Matter of Being Saturnian Three If You Look Close Enough

Enceladus, Rhea and the invisible nano dot Atlas: NASA Image

 

What looks like a pair of Saturnian satellites is actually a trio upon close inspection.

Here, Cassini has captured Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) above the rings and Rhea (949 miles or 1,527 kilometers across) below. The comparatively tiny speck of Atlas (19 miles or 30 kilometers across) can also be seen just above and to the left of Rhea, and just above the thin line of Saturn's F ring.

This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 0.34 degrees below the ring plane.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Sept. 24, 2015.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.8 million miles (2.8 million kilometers) from Rhea. Image scale on Rhea is 10 miles (16 kilometers) per pixel. The distance to Enceladus was 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers) for a scale of 5 miles (8 kilometers) per pixel. The distance to Atlas was 1.5 million miles (2.4 million) kilometers) for an image scale at Atlas of 9 miles (14 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov  or http://www.nasa.gov/cassini  . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org
( Editor: Martin Perez: NASA)

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Posted: January 6, 2016

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Curiosity Self-Portrait at Martian Sand Dune

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS: January 29, 2016

This self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at "Namib Dune," where the rover's activities included scuffing into the dune with a wheel and scooping samples of sand for laboratory analysis.

The scene combines 57 images taken on Jan. 19, 2016, during the 1,228th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. The camera used for this is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) at the end of the rover's robotic arm.

Namib Dune is part of the dark-sand "Bagnold Dune Field" along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Images taken from orbit have shown that dunes in the Bagnold field move as much as about 3 feet (1 meter) per Earth year.

The location of Namib Dune is show on a map of Curiosity's route at . The relationship of Bagnold Dune Field to the lower portion of Mount Sharp is shown in a map at

The view does not include the rover's arm. Wrist motions and turret rotations on the arm allowed MAHLI to acquire the mosaic's component images. The arm was positioned out of the shot in the images, or portions of images, that were used in this mosaic. This process was used previously in acquiring and assembling Curiosity self-portraits taken at sample-collection sites, including "Rocknest"   "Windjana"  and "Buckskin"

For scale, the rover's wheels are 20 inches (50 centimeters) in diameter and about 16 inches (40 centimeters) wide.

MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover.

More information about Curiosity is online at and at

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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30 I Am!

Arriving at Uranus in 1986, Voyager 2 observed a bluish orb with extremely subtle features. A haze layer hid most of the planet's cloud features from view. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Humanity has visited Uranus only once, and that was 30 years ago. NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft got its closest look at the mysterious, distant, gaseous planet on Jan. 24, 1986.

Voyager 2 sent back stunning images of the planet and its moons during the flyby, which allowed for about 5.5 hours of close study. The spacecraft got within 50,600 miles (81,500 kilometers) of Uranus during that time.

"We knew Uranus would be different because it's tipped on its side, and we expected surprises," said Ed Stone, project scientist for the Voyager mission, based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. Stone has served as project scientist since 1972, continuing in that role today.

Uranus revealed itself to be the coldest planet known in our solar system, even though it's not the farthest from the sun. This is because it has no internal heat source.

Scientists determined that the atmosphere of Uranus is 85 percent hydrogen and 15 percent helium. There was also evidence of a boiling ocean about 500 miles (800 kilometers) below the cloud tops.

Scientists found that Uranus has a magnetic field different from any they had ever encountered previously. At Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, the magnetic field is aligned approximately with the rotational axis.

"Then we got to Uranus and saw that the poles were closer to the equator," Stone said. "Neptune turned out to be similar. The magnetic field was not quite centered with the center of the planet."

This surface magnetic field of Uranus was also stronger than that of Saturn. Data from Voyager 2 helped scientists determine that the magnetic tail of Uranus twists into a helix stretching 6 million miles (10 million kilometers) in the direction pointed away from the sun. Understanding how planetary magnetic fields interact with the sun is a key part of NASA’s goal to understand the very nature of space. Not only does studying the sun-planet connection provide information useful for space travel, but it helps shed light on the origins of planets and their potential for harboring life.

Uranus' icy moon Miranda wowed scientists during the Voyager encounter with its dramatically fractured landscapes.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 2 also discovered 10 new moons (there are 27 total) and two new rings at the planet, which also proved fascinating. An icy moon called Miranda revealed a peculiar, varied landscape and evidence of active geologic activity in the past. While only about 300 miles (500 kilometers) in diameter, this small object boasts giant canyons that could be up to 12 times as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Miranda also has three unique features called "coronae," which are lightly cratered collections of ridges and valleys. Scientists think this moon could have been shattered and then reassembled.

Mission planners designed Voyager 2's Uranus encounter so that the spacecraft would receive a gravity assist to help it reach Neptune. In 1989, Voyager 2 added Neptune to its resume of first-ever looks.

"The Uranus encounter was very exciting for me," said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, who began her career with the mission while Voyager 2 was en route to Uranus." It was my first planetary encounter and it was of a planet humanity had never seen up close before. Every new image showed more details of Uranus, and it had lots of surprises for the scientists. I hope another spacecraft will be sent to explore Uranus, to explore the planet in more detail, in my lifetime."

Voyager 2 was launched on Aug. 20, 1977, 16 days before its twin, Voyager 1. In August 2012, Voyager 1 made history as the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space, crossing the boundary encompassing our solar system's planets, sun and solar wind. Voyager 2 is also expected to reach interstellar space within the next several years.

The Voyagers were built by JPL, which continues to operate both spacecraft. JPL is a division of Caltech. For more information about the Voyager spacecraft, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/voyager

http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov

Elizabeth Landau
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-6425 elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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Fish Eye View of Saturn's Moon Titan

View over an alien world: Released 14/01/2016 10:00 am: Copyright ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

 


At first glance, this scene may look like a reptilian eye or a textured splash of orange paint, but it is actually a fish-eye view of Saturn’s moon Titan. It was acquired at a height of about 5 km as ESA’s Huygens probe, part of the international Cassini–Huygens mission, descended through Titan’s atmosphere before landing.

In the late afternoon of 14 January 2005, engineers and scientists at ESA’s ESOC operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, waited anxiously for data to arrive from Huygens, which touched down on Titan at around 12:34 GMT – the most distant landing of any craft.

Following its release from NASA’s Cassini on 25 December, Huygens reached Titan’s outer atmosphere after 20 days and a 4 million km cruise. The probe started its descent through Titan’s hazy cloud layers from an altitude of about 1270 km at 10:13 GMT. During the following three minutes Huygens decelerated from 18 000 km/h to 1400 km/h.

A sequence of parachutes then slowed it down to less than 300 km/h. At a height of about 160 km the probe’s scientific instruments were exposed to Titan’s atmosphere. Around 120 km, the main parachute was replaced by a smaller one to complete the descent.

The probe began transmitting data to Cassini four minutes into its descent and continued to transmit after landing at least as long as Cassini was above Titan’s horizon. The signals, relayed by Cassini, were picked up by NASA’s Deep Space Network and delivered immediately to ESOC. The first science data arrived at 16:19 GMT.

Huygens was humankind’s first attempt to land a probe on another world in the outer Solar System. “This is a great achievement for Europe and its US partners in this ambitious international endeavour to explore Saturn system,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, then ESA’s Director General.

This image is a stereographic (fish-eye) projection taken with the descent imager/spectral radiometer on Huygens.

More information and a high-res TIFF version of the image is available at the NASA JPL website.

ESA Operations

ESOC

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Saturn's Moon Titan's Dark Pools of Methane Captured by Cassini Orbiter

Dark pools on Titan: Released 11/01/2016 10:43 am. Copyright NASA/JPL/USGS
 

This radar image from the Cassini orbiter shows a thin strip of surface on Saturn’s moon Titan. The yellow-hued terrain appears to be peppered with blue-tinted lakes and seas. However, these would not be much fun to splash around in – rather than containing water, they are filled with liquid methane.

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, and has studied Titan in detail. Alongside the Cassini orbiter was the Huygens probe, which separated from the orbiter on 25 December 2004 and landed on Titan 11 years ago this week, on 14 January 2005. This was the first landing on an outer Solar System body.

As intended, Huygens sent back data for a short time after landing – about 72 minutes – before its mission ended. The probe provided a unique insight into the moon’s dense nitrogen-rich atmosphere during the descent, and gathered in situ measurements of the surface.

One of its discoveries was that the landing site resembled a dried lakebed, and there were channels and valleys nearby, hinting at the sporadic presence of surface liquid. A year later the presence of liquid-filled lakes was confirmed, making Titan the only Solar System body other than Earth known to have liquid lakes and seas on its surface.

This image is made from observations gathered during a flyby of Titan on 22 July 2006, when the orbiter was about 950 km from the moon’s surface. It has been coloured to give a rough approximation of what Cassini saw – it does not reflect what the human eye would see.

Brighter regions that strongly reflected Cassini’s radar signal look different from regions that reflected the signal weakly: bright areas show up as a tan–yellow shade, while less reflective regions appear as dark, mottled patches. These patches have also been tinted blue to make them even clearer; this is a research technique used by scientists to enhance and highlight various features and details in their observations.

Although Huygens’ mission is over, we have many more opportunities to explore Titan with Cassini. The orbiter will perform nearly 40 more flybys of Titan before the mission ends in September 2017. These will range from close flybys at just under 1000 km, like the one responsible for this image, to more distant ones when the moon will be seen from a vantage point up to a million kilometres away.

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Look, What NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Drilled out at Martian  'Telegraph Peak'!

This hole, with a diameter slightly smaller than a U.S. dime, was drilled by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover into a rock target called "Telegraph Peak." The rock is located within the basal layer of Mount Sharp. The hole was drilled on Feb. 24, 2015.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

- "Telegraph Peak" is third drilling site in outcrop at base of Mount Sharp

-- Choice of drilling site motivated by chemistry measurements

-- Mission heading through "Artist's Drive" and higher on Mount Sharp

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used its drill on Tuesday, Feb. 24 to collect sample powder from inside a rock target called "Telegraph Peak." The target sits in the upper portion of "Pahrump Hills," an outcrop the mission has been investigating for five months.

The Pahrump Hills campaign previously drilled at two other sites. The outcrop is an exposure of bedrock that forms the basal layer of Mount Sharp. Curiosity's extended mission, which began last year after a two-year prime mission, is examing layers of this mountain that are expected to hold records of how ancient wet environments on Mars evolved into drier environments.

The rover team is planning to drive Curiosity away from Pahrump Hills in coming days, exiting through a narrow valley called "Artist's Drive," which will lead the rover along a strategically planned route higher on the basal layer of Mount Sharp.

The Telegraph Peak site was selected after the team discussed the large set of physical and chemical measurements acquired throughout the campaign. In particular, measurements of the chemistry of the Telegraph Peak site, using the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) on the rover's arm, motivated selection of this target for drilling before the departure from Pahrump Hills.

Compared to the chemistry of rocks and soils that Curiosity assessed before reaching Mount Sharp, the rocks of Pahrump Hills are relatively enriched in the element silicon in proportion to the amounts of the elements aluminum and magnesium. The latest drilling site exhibits that characteristic even more strongly than the earlier two, which were lower in the outcrop.

"When you graph the ratios of silica to magnesium and silica to aluminum, 'Telegraph Peak' is toward the end of the range we've seen," said Curiosity co-investigator Doug Ming, of NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston. "It's what you would expect if there has been some acidic leaching. We want to see what minerals are present where we found this chemistry."

The rock-powder sample from Telegraph Peak goes to the rover's internal Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument for identification of the minerals. After that analysis, the team may also choose to deliver sample material to Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of laboratory instruments.

The sample-collection drilling at Telegraph Peak was the first in Curiosity's 30 months on Mars to be conducted without a preliminary "mini drill" test of the rock's suitability for drilling. The team judged full-depth drilling to be safe for the drill based on similarities of the target to the previous Pahrump Hills targets. The rover used a low-percussion-level drilling technique that it first used on the previous drilling target, "Mojave 2."

Curiosity reached the base of Mount Sharp after two years of examining other sites inside Gale Crater and driving toward the mountain at the crater's center.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, built the rover and manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover's APXS was provided by the Canadian Space Agency. CheMin was developed by NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Air Force Base, California, and SAM was developed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

For more information about Curiosity, visit

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity

http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity

Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-6278
guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

2015-069
( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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March 22, 2016

The Sun in Ultraviolet Intricacy

Ultraviolet image shows the Sun’s intricate atmosphere: Released 21/03/2016 12:15 pm: Copyright SOHO (ESA & NASA)


March 22, 2016: This eerie coloured orb is nothing less than the life-giver of the Solar System. It is the Sun, the prodigious nuclear reactor that sits at the heart of our planetary system and supplies our world with all the light and heat needed for us to exist.

To the human eye, the Sun is a burning light in the sky. It is dangerous to look at it directly unless some special filtering is used to cut out most of the light pouring from its incandescent surface.

However, to the electronic eyes of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the Sun appears a place of delicate beauty and detail.

SOHO’s extreme-ultraviolet telescope was used to take these images. This telescope is sensitive to four wavelengths of extreme-ultraviolet light, and the three shortest were used to build this image. Each wavelength has been colour-coded to highlight the different temperatures of gas in the Sun.

The gas temperature is traced by iron atoms, where rising temperature strips increasing numbers of electrons from around the nucleus.

An iron atom usually contains 26 electrons. In this image, blue shows iron at a temperature of 1 million degrees celsius, having lost 8 or 9 electrons. Yellow shows iron at 1.5 million degrees (11 lost electrons) and red shows iron at 2.5 million degrees (14 lost electrons).

These atoms all exist in the outer part of the Sun’s atmosphere known as the corona. How the corona is heated to millions of degrees remains the subject of scientific debate.

The constant monitoring of the Sun’s atmosphere with SOHO, and with other Sun-staring spacecraft like the Solar Dynamics Observatory and Proba-2, is allowing solar physicists to build up a detailed picture of the way the corona behaves. This gives them insight into the physical processes that give rise to the corona and its behaviour.

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Pluto’s ‘Snakeskin’ Terrain: Cradle of the Solar System?

Orkan Umurhan Writing

The Bladed Terrain of Tartarus Dorsa. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

March 21, 2016: Greetings and salutations. In this week’s New Horizons blog entry, I want to share with you the exciting possibility that some of Pluto’s surface features may record conditions from the protosolar nebula from which the solar system formed.

A case in point is the image below. It’s what geologists call ‘bladed’ terrain in a region known as Tartarus Dorsa, located in the rough highlands on the eastern side of Tombaugh Regio. (Note that all names used here are informal.) A moment’s study reveals surface features that appear to be texturally ‘snakeskin’-like, owing to their north-south oriented scaly raised relief. A digital elevation model created by the New Horizons’ geology shows that these bladed structures have typical relief of about 550 yards (500 meters). Their relative spacing of about 3-5 kilometers makes them some of the steepest features seen on Pluto.
The Bladed Terrain of Tartarus Dorsa

Now, here comes the puzzle. Spectroscopic measurements of this region made by New Horizons’ Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument show that this region of Pluto’s surface has a predominance of methane (CH4)—with a smattering of water as well. Naturally, one then would ask, “Can pure methane ice support such steep structures under Pluto’s gravity and surface temperature conditions over geologic time?”

The answer is a meek “maybe.” To date, there are only two known published studies examining the rheological properties (i.e., how much a material deforms when stresses are applied to it) of methane ice in the extreme temperature range of Pluto—a bitterly cold -300 to -400 degrees Fahrenheit. According to one study, the answer is a definite ‘no,’ because methane ice of those dimensions would flatten out in a matter of decades. Yet in another study, methane ice may maintain such a steepened structure if the individual CH4 ice grains constituting the collective ice are large enough. Which study is right? Or is there a way to reconcile them? This is something we simply do not know at the moment.

So before we try to explain how the bladed shapes came to be, we have to make sure we have developed a detailed and controlled laboratory understanding of the behavior of both pure methane ice and methane-hydrate ice. If there were ever an example of why we need further laboratory work, this is it!

But what if it turns out that pure methane ice is always too ‘mushy’ to support such observed structures? Because water is also observed in this region, perhaps the material making up the bladed terrain is a methane clathrate. A clathrate is a structure in which a primary molecular species (say water, or H2O) forms a crystalline ‘cage’ to contain a guest molecule (methane or CH4, for example.). Methane clathrates exist on the Earth, namely at the bottoms of the deep oceans where it is sufficiently cold to maintain clathrate ice. Under those terrestrial conditions, however, methane clathrates are relatively unstable to increases in temperature, causing their cages to open and release their guest methane molecules. This poses a real problem for terrestrial climate stability, since methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

However, under the cold conditions typical of the surface of Pluto, methane clathrates are very stable and extremely strong, so they might easily mechanically support the observed bladed structures. While there is no direct and unambiguous evidence of methane clathrates on the surface of Pluto, it’s certainly a plausible candidate, and we are actively considering that possibility too.

If the Tartarus Dorsa bladed region is comprised of methane clathrates, then the next question would be, “how were the clathrates placed there and where did they come from?” Recent detailed studies (see Mousis et al., 2015) strongly suggest that methane clathrates in the icy moons of the outer solar system and also in the Kuiper Belt were formed way back before the solar system formed – i.e., within the protosolar nebula – potentially making them probably some of the oldest materials in our solar system.

Might the material comprising the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa be a record of a time before the solar system ever was? That would be something!

About the Author: Orkan Umurhan

Orkan Umurhan is a mathematical physicist currently working as a senior post-doc at NASA Ames Research Center. He has been on the New Horizons Science Team for over two years. He specializes in astrophysical and geophysical fluid dynamics, and now works on a variety of geophysical problems, including landform evolution modelling as applied to the icy bodies of the solar system. He is a co-author of a graduate-level textbook on fluid dynamics coming out late this spring.
 

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Pluto’s Beautiful

Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
 

March 19, 2016: In September, the New Horizons team released a stunning but incomplete image of Pluto’s crescent. Thanks to new processing work by the science team, New Horizons is releasing the entire, breathtaking image of Pluto.

This image was made just 15 minutes after New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, as the spacecraft looked back at Pluto toward the sun. The wide-angle perspective of this view shows the deep haze layers of Pluto's atmosphere extending all the way around Pluto, revealing the silhouetted profiles of rugged plateaus on the night (left) side. The shadow of Pluto cast on its atmospheric hazes can also be seen at the uppermost part of the disk. On the sunlit side of Pluto (right), the smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum is flanked to the west (above, in this orientation) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. Below (east) of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers.

The backlighting highlights more than a dozen high-altitude layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere. The horizontal streaks in the sky beyond Pluto are stars, smeared out by the motion of the camera as it tracked Pluto. The image was taken with New Horizons' Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto. The resolution is 700 meters (0.4 miles).

( Editor: Tricia Talbert:NASA)

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The Mysteries of Jupiter's Aurora

Credit: NASA, ESA & John T. Clarke (Univ. of Michigan)

March 18, 2016: This ultraviolet image of Jupiter was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on 26 November 1998 and gives a good impression of the observations that Hubble will make in the weeks to come. The bright emissions above the dark blue background are auroral lights, similar to those seen above the Earth's polar regions. The aurorae are curtains of light resulting from high energy electrons following the planet's magnetic field into the upper atmosphere, where collisions with atmospheric atoms and molecules produce the observed light. On Jupiter one can normally see three different types of auroral emissions:

a) a main oval, centred on the magnetic north pole

b) a pattern of more diffuse emissions inside the polar cap and

c) a unique auroral feature showing the 'magnetic footprints' of three of Jupiter's satellites. These 'footprints' can be seen in this image: from Io (along the left-hand limb), from Ganymede (near the centre just below the reference oval) and from Europa (just below and to the right of Ganymede's auroral footprint). These emissions are unlike anything seen on Earth and are produced by electric currents generated at the satellites that then flow along Jupiter's magnetic field, weaving in and out of its upper atmosphere.

This incredibly detailed image was taken on November 26 1998 when Jupiter was at a distance of 700 million km from Earth. The image was taken in UV light at 140 nm.

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Pluto is Turning Out to Be a 'Star' Among the Planetary Inhabitants of the Sunnara

This image of haze layers above Pluto’s limb was taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. About 20 haze layers are seen; the layers have been found to typically extend horizontally over hundreds of kilometers, but are not strictly parallel to the surface. For example, scientists note a haze layer about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the surface (lower left area of the image), which descends to the surface at the right. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Gladstone et al./Science (2016)

March 17, 2016: A year ago, Pluto was just a bright speck in the cameras of NASA’s approaching New Horizons spacecraft, not much different than its appearances in telescopes since Clyde Tombaugh discovered the then-ninth planet in 1930.

But this week, in the journal Science, New Horizons scientists have authored the first comprehensive set of papers describing results from last summer’s Pluto system flyby. “These five detailed papers completely transform our view of Pluto – revealing the former ‘astronomer’s planet’ to be a real world with diverse and active geology, exotic surface chemistry, a complex atmosphere, puzzling interaction with the sun and an intriguing system of small moons,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.
 

After a 9.5-year, 3-billion-mile journey – launching faster and traveling farther than any spacecraft to reach its primary target – New Horizons zipped by Pluto on July 14, 2015. New Horizons’ seven science instruments collected about 50 gigabits of data on the spacecraft’s digital recorders, most of it coming over nine busy days surrounding the encounter.

The first close-up pictures revealed a large heart-shaped feature carved into Pluto’s surface, telling scientists that this “new” type of planetary world – the largest, brightest and first-explored in the mysterious, distant “third zone” of our solar system known as the Kuiper Belt – would be even more interesting and puzzling than models predicted.

The newly published Science papers bear that out; click here for a list of top results.

“Observing Pluto and Charon up close has caused us to completely reassess thinking on what sort of geological activity can be sustained on isolated planetary bodies in this distant region of the solar system, worlds that formerly had been thought to be relics little changed since the Kuiper Belt’s formation,” said Jeff Moore, lead author of the geology paper from NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California.

Scientists studying Pluto’s composition say the diversity of its landscape stems from eons of interaction between highly volatile and mobile methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices with inert and sturdy water ice. “We see variations in the distribution of Pluto's volatile ices that point to fascinating cycles of evaporation and condensation,” said Will Grundy of the Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona, lead author of the composition paper. “These cycles are a lot richer than those on Earth, where there's really only one material that condenses and evaporates – water. On Pluto, there are at least three materials, and while they interact in ways we don't yet fully understand, we definitely see their effects all across Pluto's surface.”

This enhanced color view of Pluto's surface diversity was created by merging Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) color imagery (650 meters or 2,132 feet per pixel) with Long Range Reconnaissance Imager panchromatic imagery (230 meters or 755 feet per pixel). At lower right, ancient, heavily cratered terrain is coated with dark, reddish tholins. At upper right, volatile ices filling the informally named Sputnik Planum have modified the surface, creating a chaos-like array of blocky mountains. Volatile ice also occupies a few nearby deep craters, and in some areas the volatile ice is pocked with arrays of small sublimation pits. At left, and across the bottom of the scene, gray-white methane ice deposits modify tectonic ridges, the rims of craters, and north-facing slopes. The scene in this image is 260 miles (420 kilometers) wide and 140 miles (225 kilometers) from top to bottom; north is to the upper left.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Above the surface, scientists discovered Pluto’s atmosphere contains layered hazes, and is both cooler and more compact than expected. This affects how Pluto’s upper atmosphere is lost to space, and how it interacts with the stream of charged particles from the sun known as the solar wind. “We’ve discovered that pre-New Horizons estimates wildly overestimated the loss of material from Pluto’s atmosphere,” said Fran Bagenal, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and lead author of the particles and plasma paper. “The thought was that Pluto’s atmosphere was escaping like a comet, but it is actually escaping at a rate much more like Earth’s atmosphere.”

SwRI’s Randy Gladstone of San Antonio is the lead author of the Science paper on atmospheric findings. He added, “We’ve also discovered that methane, rather than nitrogen, is Pluto’s primary escaping gas. This is pretty surprising, since near Pluto’s surface the atmosphere is more than 99 percent nitrogen.”

Scientists also are analyzing the first close-up images of Pluto’s small moons—Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. Discovered between 2005 and 2012, the four moons range in diameter from about 25 miles (40 kilometers) for Nix and Hydra to about six miles (10 kilometers) for Styx and Kerberos. Mission scientists further observed that the small satellites have highly anomalous rotation rates and uniformly unusual pole orientations, as well as icy surfaces with brightness and colors distinctly different from those of Pluto and Charon.

They’ve found evidence that some of the moons resulted from mergers of even smaller bodies, and that their surface ages date back at least 4 billion years. “These latter two results reinforce the hypothesis that the small moons formed in the aftermath of a collision that produced the Pluto-Charon binary system,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and lead author of the Science paper on Pluto’s small moons.

About half of New Horizons’ flyby data has now been transmitted home – from distances where radio signals at light speed need nearly five hours to reach Earth – with all of it expected back by the end of 2016.

“This is why we explore,” said Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The many discoveries from New Horizons represent the best of humankind and inspire us to continue the journey of exploration to the solar system and beyond.”

( Editor: Tricia Talbert:NASA)

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Picturing the Sun’s Magnetic Field


Credits: NASA/SDO/AIA/LMSAL


This illustration lays a depiction of the sun's magnetic fields over an image captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 12, 2016. The complex overlay of lines can teach scientists about the ways the sun's magnetism changes in response to the constant movement on and inside the sun. Note how the magnetic fields are densest near the bright spots visible on the sun – which are magnetically strong active regions – and many of the field lines link one active region to another.

This magnetic map was created using the PFSS – Potential Field Source Surface – model, a model of the magnetic field in the sun’s atmosphere based on magnetic measurements of the solar surface. The underlying image was taken in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths of 171 angstroms. This type of light is invisible to our eyes, but is colorized here in gold.

Steele Hill and Sarah Frazier: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

( Editor: Rob Garner:NASA)

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ESA's ExoMars Up and Away Towards Mars: A Genuine Illustration of How the Entire World Science Community Working Together

The European Space Agency's ExoMars 2016 mission, combining the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli landing demonstrator, launched on March 14, 2106, atop a Proton launch vehicle from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The orbiter carries two Electra relay radios provided by NASA.: Image: ESA

Imagine, how many hundreds of agencies are working to put each component of such a gigantic project together, how many thousands of agencies are connected to those hundreds of agencies and how many hundreds of thousands of human minds, in interconnected chains, in hundreds of teams, based at all those agencies spread across the Earth, ESA, NASA, Roscosmos, Chinese, British, French, Italian, Japanese, Indian and the list goes on.

Image: ESA

This is work at its epic level of grandeur and proportion that demonstrates the beauty of human mind and its ability to work as teams and that is the future of humanity. We ought to learn to work together as elements, components of an orchestra to seek, try and achieve something as astonishing as preparing to send humans to stand on Mars, hold the Martian solitude-hewn horizon in view and say: a small step for a human, may be, but a giant of a note of the human symphony..... or something like that!

 

Knobbly Textured Sandstone: Mount Sharp, Mars

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Patches of Martian sandstone visible in the lower-left and upper portions of this view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover have a knobbly texture due to nodules apparently more resistant to erosion than the host rock in which some are still embedded.

The site is at a zone on lower Mount Sharp where mudstone of the Murray geological unit -- visible in the lower right corner here -- is exposed adjacent to the overlying Stimson unit. The exact contact between Murray and Stimson here is covered with windblown sand. Most other portions of the Stimson unit investigated by Curiosity have not shown erosion-resistant nodules. Curiosity encountered this unusually textured exposure on the rover's approach to the "Naukluft Plateau." The Naukluft Plateau location is indicated on a map at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA20166 showing the rover's traverse path since its 2012 landing.

This view is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing, to resemble how the scene would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth. It combines six images taken with the left-eye camera of Mastcam on March 9, 2016, during the 1,276th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. About midway up the scene, the area that is shown spans about 10 feet (3 meters) across. Figure A includes a scale bar of 30 centimeters (12 inches). The images were taken to show the work area within reach of the rover's arm. Targets in the work area were subsequently examined with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the end of the arm. Resulting close-ups from MAHLI -- at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA20323  and http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA20324  -- show how the nodules are made up of grains of sand cemented together.

Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates the rover's Mastcam. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. For more information about Curiosity, visit http://www.nasa.gov/msl  and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl .

( Editor: Tony Greicius:NASA)

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Close Comet Flyby Threw Mars’ Magnetic Field Into Chaos

Elizabeth Zubritsky Writing

The close encounter between comet Siding Spring and Mars flooded the planet with an invisible tide of charged particles from the comet's coma. The dense inner coma reached the surface of the planet, or nearly so. The comet's powerful magnetic field temporarily merged with, and overwhelmed, the planet's weak field, as shown in this artist's depiction.
Credits: NASA/Goddard

March 12, 2016: Just weeks before the historic encounter of comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) with Mars in October 2014, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft entered orbit around the Red Planet. To protect sensitive equipment aboard MAVEN from possible harm, some instruments were turned off during the flyby; the same was done for other Mars orbiters. But a few instruments, including MAVEN’s magnetometer, remained on, conducting observations from a front-row seat during the comet’s remarkably close flyby.

The one-of-a-kind opportunity gave scientists an intimate view of the havoc that the comet’s passing wreaked on the magnetic environment, or magnetosphere, around Mars. The effect was temporary but profound.

“Comet Siding Spring plunged the magnetic field around Mars into chaos,” said Jared Espley, a MAVEN science team member at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We think the encounter blew away part of Mars’ upper atmosphere, much like a strong solar storm would.”

Unlike Earth, Mars isn’t shielded by a strong magnetosphere generated within the planet. The atmosphere of Mars offers some protection, however, by redirecting the solar wind around the planet, like a rock diverting the flow of water in a creek. This happens because at very high altitudes Mars’ atmosphere is made up of plasma – a layer of electrically charged particles and gas molecules. Charged particles in the solar wind interact with this plasma, and the mingling and moving around of all these charges produces currents. Just like currents in simple electrical circuits, these moving charges induce a magnetic field, which, in Mars’ case, is quite weak.

Comet Siding Spring is also surrounded by a magnetic field. This results from the solar wind interacting with the plasma generated in the coma – the envelope of gas flowing from a comet’s nucleus as it is heated by the sun. Comet Siding Spring’s nucleus – a nugget of ice and rock measuring no more than half a kilometer (about 1/3 mile) – is small, but the coma is expansive, stretching out a million kilometers (more than 600,000 miles) in every direction. The densest part of the coma – the inner region near the nucleus – is the part of a comet that’s visible to telescopes and cameras as a big fuzzy ball.

When comet Siding Spring passed Mars, the two bodies came within about 140,000 kilometers (roughly 87,000 miles) of each other. The comet’s coma washed over the planet for several hours, with the dense inner coma reaching, or nearly reaching, the surface. Mars was flooded with an invisible tide of charged particles from the coma, and the powerful magnetic field around the comet temporarily merged with – and overwhelmed – the planet’s own weak one.

“The main action took place during the comet’s closest approach,” said Espley, “but the planet’s magnetosphere began to feel some effects as soon as it entered the outer edge of the comet’s coma.”

At first, the changes were subtle. As Mars’ magnetosphere, which is normally draped neatly over the planet, started to react to the comet’s approach, some regions began to realign to point in different directions. With the comet’s advance, these effects built in intensity, almost making the planet’s magnetic field flap like a curtain in the wind. By the time of closest approach – when the plasma from the comet was densest – Mars’ magnetic field was in complete chaos. Even hours after the comet’s departure, some disruption continued to be measured.

Espley and colleagues think the effects of the plasma tide were similar to those of a strong but short-lived solar storm. And like a solar storm, the comet’s close passage likely fueled a temporary surge in the amount of gas escaping from Mars’ upper atmosphere. Over time, those storms took their toll on the atmosphere.

“With MAVEN, we’re trying to understand how the sun and solar wind interact with Mars,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s principal investigator from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder. “By looking at how the magnetospheres of the comet and of Mars interact with each other, we’re getting a better understanding of the detailed processes that control each one.”

This research was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

For more information about MAVEN

By Elizabeth Zubritsky: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

(Editor: Karl Hille:NASA0

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Sublimation Eating Away Pluto?

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
 

March 12, 2016: Far in the western hemisphere, scientists on NASA’s New Horizons mission have discovered what looks like a giant “bite mark” on Pluto’s surface. They suspect it may be caused by a process known as sublimation—the transition of a substance from a solid to a gas. The methane ice-rich surface on Pluto may be sublimating away into the atmosphere, exposing a layer of water-ice underneath.

In this image, north is up. The southern portion of the left inset above shows the cratered plateau uplands informally named Vega Terra (note that all feature names are informal). A jagged scarp, or wall of cliffs, known as Piri Rupes borders the young, nearly crater-free plains of Piri Planitia. The cliffs break up into isolated mesas in several places.

Cutting diagonally across the mottled plans is the long extensional fault of Inanna Fossa, which stretches eastward 370 miles (600 kilometers) from here to the western edge of the great nitrogen ice plains of Sputnik Planum.

Compositional data from the New Horizons spacecraft’s Ralph/Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument, shown in the right inset, indicate that the plateau uplands south of Piri Rupes are rich in methane ice (shown in false color as purple). Scientists speculate that sublimation of methane may be causing the plateau material to erode along the face of the cliffs, causing them to retreat south and leave the plains of Piri Planitia in their wake.

Compositional data also show that the surface of Piri Planitia is more enriched in water ice (shown in false color as blue) than the higher plateaus, which may indicate that Piri Planitia’s surface is made of water ice bedrock, just beneath a layer of retreating methane ice. Because the surface of Pluto is so cold, the water ice is rock-like and immobile. The light/dark mottled pattern of Piri Planitia in the left inset is reflected in the composition map, with the lighter areas corresponding to areas richer in methane – these may be remnants of methane that have not yet sublimated away entirely.

The inset at left shows about 650 feet (200 meters) per pixel; the image measures approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) long by 255 miles (410 kilometers) wide. It was obtained by New Horizons at a range of approximately 21,100 miles (33,900 kilometers) from Pluto, about 45 minutes before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015.

The LEISA data at right was gathered when the spacecraft was about 29,000 miles (47,000 kilometers) from Pluto; best resolution is 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) per pixel.

( Editor: Tricia Talbert:NASA)

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NASA Targets May 5, 2018 Launch of Mars InSight Mission; Mars Landing on November 26

NASA has set a new launch opportunity, beginning May 5, 2018, for the InSight mission to Mars. This artist's concept depicts the InSight lander on Mars after the lander's robotic arm has deployed a seismometer and a heat probe directly onto the ground. InSight is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings will advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission to study the deep interior of Mars is targeting a new launch window that begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018.

InSight’s primary goal is to help us understand how rocky planets – including Earth – formed and evolved. The spacecraft had been on track to launch this month until a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument prompted NASA in December to suspend preparations for launch.

InSight project managers recently briefed officials at NASA and France's space agency, Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), on a path forward; the proposed plan to redesign the science instrument was accepted in support of a 2018 launch.

“The science goals of InSight are compelling, and the NASA and CNES plans to overcome the technical challenges are sound," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades. We’re excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, will redesign, build and conduct qualifications of the new vacuum enclosure for the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), the component that failed in December. CNES will lead instrument level integration and test activities, allowing the InSight Project to take advantage of each organization’s proven strengths. The two agencies have worked closely together to establish a project schedule that accommodates these plans, and scheduled interim reviews over the next six months to assess technical progress and continued feasibility.

The cost of the two-year delay is being assessed. An estimate is expected in August, once arrangements with the launch vehicle provider have been made.

The seismometer instrument's main sensors need to operate within a vacuum chamber to provide the exquisite sensitivity needed for measuring ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom. The rework of the seismometer's vacuum container will result in a finished, thoroughly tested instrument in 2017 that will maintain a high degree of vacuum around the sensors through rigors of launch, landing, deployment and a two-year prime mission on the surface of Mars.

The InSight mission draws upon a strong international partnership led by Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL. The lander's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package is provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). This probe will hammer itself to a depth of about 16 feet (five meters) into the ground beside the lander.

SEIS was built with the participation of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, with support from the Swiss Space Office and the European Space Agency PRODEX program; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, supported by DLR; Imperial College, supported by the United Kingdom Space Agency; and JPL.

"The shared and renewed commitment to this mission continues our collaboration to find clues in the heart of Mars about the early evolution of our solar system," said Marc Pircher, director of CNES's Toulouse Space Centre.

The mission’s international science team includes researchers from Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

JPL manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The InSight spacecraft, including cruise stage and lander, was built and tested by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. It was delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in December 2015 in preparation for launch, and returned to Lockheed Martin's Colorado facility last month for storage until spacecraft preparations resume in 2017.

NASA is on an ambitious journey to Mars that includes sending humans to the Red Planet, and that work remains on track. Robotic spacecraft are leading the way for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover being designed and built, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers exploring the Martian surface, the Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft currently orbiting the planet, along with the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) orbiter, which is helping scientists understand what happened to the Martian atmosphere.

NASA and CNES also are participating in ESA’s (European Space Agency's) Mars Express mission currently operating at Mars. NASA is participating on ESA’s 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing telecommunication radios for ESA's 2016 orbiter and a critical element of a key astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.

For addition information about the mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/insight

More information about NASA's journey to Mars is available online at:

http://www.nasa.gov/journeytomars

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo: Headquarters, Washington: 202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077: dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov

Guy Webster: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif: 818-354-6278: guy.w.webster@jpl.nasa.gov

Pascale Bresson / Nathalie Journo:Centre National d'Études Spatiales, Paris:
+33-1-44-76-75-39 / +33-5-61-27-39-11:pascale.bresson@cnes.fr / nathalie.journo@cnes.fr

Manuela Braun: German Aerospace Center (DLR): +49 2203 601 3882
manuela.braun@dlr.de:Last Updated: March 9, 2016
(Editor: Sarah Ramsey:NASA)

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Dawn's Found Ahuna Mons on Ceres

Elizabeth Landau Writes

Ceres' mysterious mountain Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Dawn took these images from its lowest-altitude orbit. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

One year ago, on March 6, 2015, NASA's Dawn spacecraft slid gently into orbit around Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Since then, the spacecraft has delivered a wealth of images and other data that open an exciting new window to the previously unexplored dwarf planet.

"Ceres has defied our expectations and surprised us in many ways, thanks to a year's worth of data from Dawn. We are hard at work on the mysteries the spacecraft has presented to us," said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for the mission, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Among Ceres' most enigmatic features is a tall mountain the Dawn team named Ahuna Mons. This mountain appeared as a small, bright-sided bump on the surface as early as February 2015 from a distance of 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers), before Dawn was captured into orbit. As Dawn circled Ceres at increasingly lower altitudes, the shape of this mysterious feature began to come into focus. From afar, Ahuna Mons looked to be pyramid-shaped, but upon closer inspection, it is best described as a dome with smooth, steep walls.

Dawn's latest images of Ahuna Mons, taken 120 times closer than in February 2015, reveal that this mountain has a lot of bright material on some of its slopes, and less on others. On its steepest side, it is about 3 miles (5 kilometers) high. The mountain has an average overall height of 2.5 miles (4 kilometers). It rises higher than Washington's Mount Rainier and California's Mount Whitney.

Scientists are beginning to identify other features on Ceres that could be similar in nature to Ahuna Mons, but none is as tall and well-defined as this mountain.

"No one expected a mountain on Ceres, especially one like Ahuna Mons," said Chris Russell, Dawn's principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We still do not have a satisfactory model to explain how it formed."

About 420 miles (670 kilometers) northwest of Ahuna Mons lies the now-famous Occator Crater. Before Dawn arrived at Ceres, images of the dwarf planet from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope showed a prominent bright patch on the surface. As Dawn approached Ceres, it became clear that there were at least two spots with high reflectivity. As the resolution of images improved, Dawn revealed to its earthly followers that there are at least 10 bright spots in this crater alone, with the brightest area on the entire body located in the center of the crater. It is not yet clear whether this bright material is the same as the material found on Ahuna Mons.

"Dawn began mapping Ceres at its lowest altitude in December, but it wasn't until very recently that its orbital path allowed it to view Occator's brightest area. This dwarf planet is very large and it takes a great many orbital revolutions before all of it comes into view of Dawn's camera and other sensors," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission director at JPL.

Researchers will present new images and other insights about Ceres at the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, during a press briefing on March 22 in The Woodlands, Texas.

When it arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015, Dawn made history as the first mission to reach a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct extraterrestrial targets. The mission conducted extensive observations of Vesta in 2011-2012.

Dawn's mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of mission participants, visit

More information about Dawn is available at the following sites:

http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov

http://www.nasa.gov/dawn

Elizabeth Landau: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA: 818-354-6425
elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

( Editor: Tony Greicius:NASA)

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Wind at Work on the Martian Surface

Writes Candy Hansen

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
 

Wind is one of the most active forces shaping Mars' surface in today's climate. The wind has carved the features we call "yardangs," one of many in this scene, and deposited sand on the floor of shallow channels between them. On the sand, the wind forms ripples and small dunes. In Mars' thin atmosphere, light is not scattered much, so the shadows cast by the yardangs are sharp and dark.

This image was acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Dec. 15, 2015, at 3:05 p.m. local Mars time.

The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

( Editor: Sarah Loff: NASA)

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Journey to Mars: The Grand Affairs of Exomars: Launch March 14 to Land on Mars on October 19


ExoMars 2016 Schiaparelli descent sequence (16:9): Released 24/02/2016 2:00 pm: Copyright ESA/ATG medialab
 

Establishing if life ever existed on Mars is one of the outstanding scientific questions of our time. To address this important goal, ESA has established the ExoMars programme to investigate the martian environment and to demonstrate new technologies paving the way for a future Mars sample return mission in the 2020s.

There are two missions in the ExoMars programme: one comprises the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) plus an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), dubbed Schiaparelli, launch in 2016, and the other, comprising a rover, with a launch date of 2018. Both missions are in cooperation with Roscosmos.

The 2016 ExoMars TGO carries scientific instruments to detect and study atmospheric trace gases, such as methane. EDM contains sensors to evaluate the lander’s performance as it descends, and additional sensors to study the environment at the landing site.

In addition to its prime science mission, the orbiter also carries a sophisticated radio relay capability provided by NASA. The Electra Proximity Payload (Electra) is a telecommunications package that acts as a communications relay and navigation aid.

During its operational lifetime, the ExoMars TGO will perform three key roles:

Conduct investigations into the biological or geological origin of trace gases on Mars with a scientific payload of four instruments;
Deliver Schiaparelli and support part of the data transmission during its descent and surface operations;
Serve as a data relay platform to support communications for the ExoMars 2018 rover and the surface science platform, as well as partner agency rovers.

The Flight Control Team

 The Flight Control Team (FCT) operates TGO from a Dedicated Control Room (collocated with the DCR for Mars Express and Rosetta) at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Spacecraft Operations Manager (SOM) Peter Schmitz oversees a team of 14, including spacecraft operations engineers, mission planners, analysts and spacecraft controllers.

Additional experts from across the ESOC centre are supporting the mission with specialised knowledge in several areas, including flight dynamics, software support and ground stations. This support is increased during prelaunch training and simulations, the crucial launch and early orbit phase, during certain periods of the cruise to Mars and the deep-space manoeuvre and during the orbit arrival manoeuvres.

Mission Operations Overview

 TGO and Schiaparelli will go through several mission phases and pass a number of critical milestones in order to arrive at Mars and begin routine science observations, including:

Launch, set for 14 March 2016
Commissioning and cruise phase: almost 500 million km to go
Mid-course deep-space manoeuvre (to adjust trajectory for Mars arrival)
Separation: dispatch Schiaparelli to the surface
Entry, descent and landing of Schiaparelli
TGO manoeuvres, to be captured by Mars gravity into its initial orbit
Aerobraking, to lower TGO to its final 400 x 400 km science orbit (Nov 2017)

Every moment of this complex and challenging process will be overseen by the ExoMars mission controllers at ESOC, with crucial support by ESA’s science operations team at ESAC, ESA’s establishment near Madrid, Spain, and by industrial experts at Thales Alenia Space (Italy & France), among others.

At ESOC, the ExoMars Flight Control Team are supported by experts from flight dynamics, ground stations and software systems to conduct TGO mission control. Once Schiaparelli separates and later lands, its mission will be automated, based on settings developed by ESA’s industrial partners.

Launch March 14, 2016

March 14, 2016: the two-week launch window opens. Lift off from Baikonur is set for 09:31:42 GMT (10:31:42 CET) on a powerful Russian Proton-M launcher, equipped with a Breeze-M upper stage. The separation of TGO and Schiaparelli from Breeze is expected at 20:13 GMT (21:13 CET), and the pair will then be en route to Mars on the initial interplanetary transfer orbit.

For the ExoMars Mission Control Team at ESOC, Darmstadt, a critical moment on launch day will be receipt of the first signals from TGO, expected at around 21:28 GMT (22:28 CET), via the Malindi ground tracking station in Africa. This will enable ESOC to establish full command and control of the craft, and begin a series of critical health and function checks.

Commissioning Phase

Until 24 April: en route to Mars, the spacecraft is now in the commissioning phase and mission control teams at ESOC, instrument teams and science operations teams at ESAC check out, verify and test all systems and instruments. Schiaparelli will similarly be checked out by industrial teams from Thales Alenia Space. Daily communication passes are provided by ESA’s New Norcia deep-space station during daylight hours in Darmstadt, with additional support from ESA’s Malargüe station as required.

Cruise Phase

May 2016: ExoMars enters the cruise phase as it continues enroute to Mars; onboard activities are relatively quiet and ground station passes are scheduled only three times weekly. Mission control teams continue verifying and confirming the health and functionality of TGO and Schiaparelli in the harsh environment of interplanetary space.

Teams at ESOC will conduct a series of ultra-precise navigation measurements known as ‘delta-DOR’, for Delta-differential One-Way Ranging. This advanced technique uses signals received from quasars deep in our Milky Way galaxy to correct the radio signals received from ExoMars, resulting in an extremely precise position determination. Results will be used to calculate the upcoming midcourse correction manoeuvre (also called the deep-space manoeuvre).

A second Delta-DOR campaign in September–October will generate results that will help to determine the Mars orbit injection for TGO and the final Schiaparelli descent trajectory.

Deep-space Manoeuvre

July 28 (forecast): TGO carries out one of the most critical activities during the voyage to Mars: a very large engine burn in deep space that changes its direction and speed by some 326 m/s. This midcourse trajectory correction will line the spacecraft up to intersect the Red Planet on 19 October.

Mars Arrival

In August–October, the work of the mission control teams will become steadily more intense, and ESA's ground stations are now providing daily telecommanding passes. In the final 10 days before arrival, New Norcia and Malargüe ground stations will provide 24 hr/day radio contact as engineers at ESOC carefully monitor the spacecraft and plan its complex orbit-entry activities.

The final commands for the Schiaparelli EDM will be prepared and uploaded, and all systems on both TGO and Schiaparelli will be thoroughly checked out in the run up to arrival.

Orbit Insertion

October 16, 2016: TGO will eject Schiaparelli at 14:42 GMT (16:42 CEST, forecast), dispatching it on a three-day descent to the surface. ESA will enlist the support of NASA’s giant 70 m-diameter Deep Space Network (DSN) ground stations at Canberra, Australia, and Madrid, Spain, to listen for the spacecraft’s signals as the module separates.

Schiaparelli will be dispatched on a direct intercept course toward Mars, on track to enter the atmosphere and conduct a challenging descent and landing on 19 October, lowering itself to the surface for a soft landing under parachutes.

October 17, 2016: About 12 hours after Schiaparelli has separated, TGO will conduct an ‘orbit raising manoeuvre’ – a modest but crucial engine burn that must provide a change in direction, raising its trajectory to several hundred kilometres above the planet (otherwise, like Schiaparelli, TGO, too, would intersect the surface on 19 October). This manoeuvre will line the craft up for a second critical burn on 19 October, which will slow it sufficiently to be captured by Mars’ gravity.

During the critical arrival activities, several of NASA’s 34 m-diameter deep-space stations will provide a ‘hot back-up’ to ESA’s stations, ensuring that there is no loss of communication at a time when any delay in commanding could have serious effect on orbit entry or landing.

The October 19: The Arrival Day on Mars

October 19, 2016: Arrival Day for TGO/Landing Day for Schiaparelli

Three days after separation, TGO and Schiaparelli each undergo the most critical portions of their journey to Mars.

Schiaparelli: Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL)

Continuing on its post-separation ballistic orbit, the 600 kg Schiaparelli wakes up 75 minutes prior to entering the atmosphere, expected at 14:42 GMT, at an altitude of 122.5 km and a speed of about 21 000 km/h. An aerodynamic heatshield protects Schiaparelli from the severe heat flux and deceleration; at an altitude of about 11 km, the 12 m-diameter parachute is deployed.

Descending under its parachute, Schiaparelli releases its front heatshield at an altitude of about 7 km and turns on its Doppler radar altimeter, which can measure the distance to the ground and its velocity relative to the surface. This information is used to activate and command the propulsion system once the rear heatshield and parachute are jettisoned 1.3 km above the surface.

Between 1300 m and 2 m altitude, the propulsion system slow it from 270 km/h to 7 km/h. At that height, the thrusters are switched off and Schiaparelli freefalls to the ground, where the final impact, at just under 11 km/h, is cushioned by a crushable structure on the base.

 Schiaparelli will target a landing site on the plain known as Meridiani Planum. This area interests scientists because it contains an ancient layer of haematite, an iron oxide that, on Earth, almost always forms in an environment containing liquid water.

Mars Express listens in

During Schiaparelli’s critical descent on 19 October, ESA’s Mars Express probe, which has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2003, will monitor and record signals from the module.

Ground recording campaign

Schiaparelli’s descent is also expected to be recorded on Earth by scientists using the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), located near Pune, India, and operated by the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. GMRT comprises an array of 30 radio telescopes, each with a dish diameter of 45 m, and it is one of the world’s largest interferometric arrays.

This activity promises to provide an extremely important confirmation of the module’s descent and landing, and signifies a major area of international cooperation between ESA, NASA and India for the Schiaparelli mission.

ExoMars/TGO: Mars orbit insertion (MOI)

On the same day, 19 October, TGO will carry out two critical activities, almost at the same time.

First, it will use its radio system to record signals from Schiaparelli during descent, similar to Mars Express. This information will be stored onboard and later transmitted to Earth, where it will be processed at ESOC to extract telemetry and other information to enable a detailed reconstruction of the descent profile.

Second, it will conduct a critical engine burn, using its 424 N main engine for the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) manoeuvre. This will slow TGO by 1550 m/s, sufficient to be captured into an initial Mars orbit (double what was needed for Mars Express capture in 2003), and will last about 134 minutes, beginning at 13:09 GMT.

 This critical manoeuvre will be tracked by ESA and by NASA 70 m ground stations, which will provide periodic updates to mission controllers at ESOC. Successful completion of the burn, expected at 15:23 GMT, will mark the second time Europe has placed a spacecraft into orbit around the Red Planet.

The initial highly eccentric orbit is dubbed the ‘4 Sol’ orbit, as it will take TGO four Mars days to complete one revolution, with its altitude above Mars varying between 430 km and 96 000 km.

Capture by Mars means that TGO can begin a lengthy series of orbital adjustments.

Transition to Science Orbit

Between January and November 2017, TGO will employ sophisticated aerobraking techniques – the first time ESA will do so to attain a science orbit around another body in our Solar System – to steadily lower itself to a circular, 400 km orbit.

With aerobraking, the TGO solar wings will experience tiny amounts of drag from the wisps of atmosphere at very high altitudes, which will slow the craft and lower its orbit. While aerobraking takes time, it uses very little fuel and will itself provide scientific insight into the dynamics of Mars’ atmosphere.

The TGO science and radio relay missions will begin in December 2017.

TGO Data Relay

ESA Malargüe tracking station:Views of the 35m ESTRACK deep-space tracking station in Argentina, now supporting the Rosetta mission. Released 21/08/2015 10:20 am: Copyright ESA/D. Pazos - CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
 

TGO features a sophisticated radio relay capability provided by NASA. The Electra system is a telecommunications package that acts as a communications relay and navigation aid. It comprises twin ultra-high frequency (UHF) radios and will provide communication links between Earth and craft on Mars, rovers or landers.

TGO will provide daily data relay services to NASA’s Curiosity and MER-B (Opportunity) rovers currently on the surface, as well as to the InSight lander and ESA’s ExoMars 2018 rover. It will also support Russia’s 2018 lander and future NASA rovers.

ESA is now establishing a new European Relay Coordination Office (ERCO) at ESOC to manage scheduling, planning and day-to-day control of the service, which will also employ ESA, NASA and Russian ground stations for download, receipt and distribution of the scientific data.

ERCO will make use of sophisticated new techniques to conduct relay coordination on a semi-automated basis, making it the central European hub for relay of precious scientific data between landers and orbiters at Mars.

Flying NASA’s Electra payload with its advanced data relay capabilities on ESA’s TGO marks a significant deepening of cross-agency cooperation and mutual support at Mars.

Ground Stations

 Primary communication services for ExoMars will be provided by ESA’s tracking station network – Estrack – a global system of ground stations providing links between satellites in orbit and mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. The core Estrack network comprises nine stations in seven countries.

On launch day, contact between mission controllers and ExoMars/TGO is maintained via the Italian space agency’s 2 m dish antenna at Malindi, Kenya, and by ESA’s 15 m stations at Maspalomas, Spain, and Kourou, French Guiana.

Subsequently, as the craft embarks on its journey to Mars, tracking and telecommanding duties are handed over to ESA’s ‘Big Iron’ – the 35 m-diameter deep-space tracking stations at Malargüe, Argentina, and New Norcia, Australia. These two stations can provide 24 hr/day communication coverage, so long as the spacecraft is visible from the southern hemisphere.

During critical phases, NASA’s Deep Space Network stations will provide crucial tracking and telecommanding support.

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Next Flight to Mars IS Departing Soon: Got Your Boarding Pass?

Title ExoMars 2016 fairing release: Artist's impression visualising the separation of the payload fairing during the ExoMars 2016 launch sequence. The Trace Gas Orbiter with the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, can be seen as the fairing falls away. Released 19/02/2016 10:00 am: Copyright ESA/ATG medialab

 

February 29, 2016: The ExoMars 2016 mission is planned for launch at 09:31 GMT (10:31 CET) on 14 March from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Representatives of traditional and social media are invited to apply for accreditation to attend a day-long event at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

ExoMars is a joint endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, and comprises the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, an entry, descent and landing demonstrator.

TGO will make a detailed inventory of Mars’ atmospheric gases, with particular interest in rare gases like methane, which implies that there is an active, current source. TGO aims to measure its geographical and seasonal dependence and help to determine whether it stems from a geological or biological source.

Meanwhile, Schiaparelli will demonstrate a range of technologies to enable a controlled landing on Mars in preparation for future missions. After a seven-month cruise, the lander will separate from the TGO on 16 October and land on Mars on 19 October, for several days of activities.

TGO will then enter orbit around the Red Planet ahead of its exciting multiyear science mission. It will also serve as a data relay for the second ExoMars mission, comprising a rover and a surface science platform, planned for launch in 2018. It will also provide data relay for NASA rovers.

TGO and Schiaparelli are undergoing final preparations in Baikonur ahead of launch in the 14–25 March window, with the first opportunity at 09:31 GMT (10:31 CET) on 14 March being targeted.

The launch of ExoMars 2016 will mark the start of a new era of Mars exploration for Europe.

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Aeolis Mensae: Mars

Released 29/02/2016 12:36 pm: Copyright ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
 

A powerful combination of tectonic activity and strong winds have joined forces to shape the scenery in this region of Mars.

The image was taken by ESA’s Mars Express on 7 July 2015 and covers part of the Aeolis Mensae region. It straddles the transitional region between the southern hemisphere highlands and the smooth, northern hemisphere lowlands.

Several fracture zones cross this region, the result of the martian crust stretching apart under tectonic stress. As it did so, some pieces of the crust sheared away and became stranded, including the large block in the centre of the image.

This flat-topped block, some 40 km across and rising some 2.5 km above the surrounding terrain, is one such remnant of the crust’s expansion. Its elevation is the same as the terrain further to the south, supporting the idea that it was once connected.

Over time, the stranded blocks and their associated landslides have been eroded by wind and possibly flowing water.

Towards the north (right) it becomes apparent that wind is the dominant force. Hundreds of sets of ridges and troughs known as ‘yardangs’ are aligned in southeasterly to northwesterly, reflecting the course of the prevailing wind over a long period of time.

One small steep-sided feature set perpendicular to the main direction of the yardangs is prominent in the lower right of the image. This ridge is evidently made of harder and more resistant rock that has allowed it to withstand the erosive power of the wind.
 

This image was first published on the DLR website on 21 December 2015.

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NASA is Looking for Life on Mars on Earth

Mary Beth Wilhelm (in white cleanroom suit) carefully samples ground-truth material obtained from the 2.2 meter depth science excavation pit, assisted by Jonathan Araya (Univ. de Antofagasta) and watched by ARADS co-investigators Jocelyn DiRuggiero (Johns Hopkins) and the SOLID instrument lead, Victor Parro (Centro de Astrobiologia, Spain). Image: NASA

NASA Tests Life-Detection Drill in Earth’s Driest Place

In a harsh environment with very little water and intense ultraviolet radiation, most life in the extreme Atacama Desert in Chile exists as microbial colonies underground or inside rocks.

Researchers at NASA hypothesize that the same may be true if life exists on Mars.

The cold and dry conditions on Mars open the possibility that evidence for life may be found below the surface where negative effects of radiation are mitigated, in the form of organic molecules known as biomarkers. But until humans set foot on the Red Planet, obtaining samples from below the surface of Mars will require the ability to identify a location of high probability for current or ancient life, place a drill, and control the operation robotically.


The Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) project has just completed its first deployment after one month of fieldwork in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert, the “driest place on Earth.” Despite being considerably warmer than Mars, the extreme dryness the soil chemistry in this region are remarkably similar to that of the Red Planet. This provides scientists with a Mars-like laboratory where they can study the limits of life and test drilling and life-detection technologies that might be sent to Mars in the future.

“Putting life-detection instruments in a difficult, Mars-analog environment will help us figure out the best ways of looking for past or current life on Mars, if it existed,” said Dr. Brian Glass, a NASA Ames space scientist and the principal investigator of the ARADS project. “Having both subsurface reach and surface mobility should greatly increase the number of biomarker and life-target sites we can sample in the Atacama,” Glass added.

More than 20 scientists from the United States, Chile, Spain, and France camped together miles from civilization and worked in extremely dry, 100+ degree heat with high winds during the first ARADS field deployment. Their work was primarily at Yungay Station, a mining ghost town at one of the driest places in the Atacama, owned by the University of Antofagasta in Chile. Yungay has been a focal point for astrobiology studies in the last two decades. ARADS field scientists also evaluated two other Atacama sites – Salar Grande, an ancient dried-up lake composed of thick beds of salt, and Maria Elena, a similarly extremely dry region – to be considered along with Yungay as the host location for the future ARADS tests in 2017-19.

During this initial deployment, scientists put several technologies through the paces under harsh and unpredictable field conditions: a Mars-prototype drill; a sample transfer arm; the Signs of Life Detector (SOLID) created by Spain’s Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB); and a prototype version of the Wet Chemistry Laboratory (WCL), which flew on the Phoenix Mars mission in 2007.

Engineers and scientists were successful in accomplishing their primary technology goal of this season—to use the ARADS drill and sample transfer robot arm at Yungay to acquire and feed sample material to the SOLID and WCL instruments under challenging environmental conditions. The in situ analyses of the drilled samples help set a yardstick for interpreting future results from these two instruments, and will be compared to results obtained from the same samples in some of the best laboratories.

Additionally, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and NASA Ames collected samples for laboratory investigations of the extreme microorganisms living inside salt habitats in the Atacama. These salt habitats could be the last refuge for life in this extremely dry region that is otherwise devoid of plants, animals, and most types of microorganisms. “We are excited to learn as much as we can about these distinctive, resilient microorganisms, and hope that our studies will improve life-detection technology and strategies for Mars,” said Mary Beth Wilhelm, a NASA Ames researcher and member of the ARADS science team.

Over the next four years, the ARADS project will return to the Atacama to demonstrate the feasibility of integrated roving, drilling and life-detection, with the goal of demonstrating the technical feasibility and scientific value of a mission that searches for evidence of life on Mars.

ARADS team members will be sending photos and captions from their fieldwork. Updates will be posted on www.nasa.gov  and www.nasa.gov/ames .

(Editor: Darryl Waller:NASA)

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The Frozen Canyons of Pluto’s North Pole

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

This ethereal scene captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft tells yet another story of Pluto’s diversity of geological and compositional features—this time in an enhanced color image of the north polar area.

Long canyons run vertically across the polar area—part of the informally named Lowell Regio, named for Percival Lowell, who founded Lowell Observatory and initiated the search that led to Pluto’s discovery. The widest of the canyons (yellow in the image below) – is about 45 miles (75 kilometers) wide and runs close to the north pole. Roughly parallel subsidiary canyons to the east and west (in green) are approximately 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide. The degraded walls of these canyons appear to be much older than the more sharply defined canyon systems elsewhere on Pluto, perhaps because the polar canyons are older and made of weaker material. These canyons also appear to represent evidence for an ancient period of tectonics.

A shallow, winding valley (in blue) runs the entire length of the canyon floor. To the east of these canyons, another valley (pink) winds toward the bottom-right corner of the image. The nearby terrain, at bottom right, appears to have been blanketed by material that obscures small-scale topographic features, creating a ‘softened’ appearance for the landscape.

Large, irregularly-shaped pits (in red), reach 45 miles (70 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, scarring the region. These pits may indicate locations where subsurface ice has melted or sublimated from below, causing the ground to collapse.

The color and composition of this region – shown in enhanced color – also are unusual. High elevations show up in a distinctive yellow, not seen elsewhere on Pluto. The yellowish terrain fades to a uniform bluish gray at lower elevations and latitudes. New Horizons' infrared measurements show methane ice is abundant across Lowell Regio, and there is relatively little nitrogen ice. “One possibility is that the yellow terrains may correspond to older methane deposits that have been more processed by solar radiation than the bluer terrain,” said Will Grundy, New Horizons composition team lead from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.

This image was obtained by New Horizons’ Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The image resolution is approximately 2,230 feet (680 meters) per pixel. The lower edge of the image measures about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) long. It was obtained at a range of approximately 21,100 miles (33,900 kilometers) from Pluto, about 45 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14, 2015.

( Editor: Tricia Talbert: NASA)

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North Polar Stereographic Projection of Jupiter Seen From Cassini-Huygens


Released 03/04/2006 9:39 am: Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

 

This is one of the most detailed global colour maps of Jupiter ever produced; the smallest visible features are about 120 kilometres across.

It was produced from images taken by the NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens spacecraft on 11/12 December 2000. The raw images are in just two colours, 750 nm (near-infrared) and 451 nm (blue).

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Jarosite in the Noctis Labyrinthus Region of Mars

Cathy Weitz introduces Jarosite

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

This image, acquired on Nov. 24, 2015 by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows the western side of an elongated pit depression in the eastern Noctis Labyrinthus region of Mars. Along the pit's upper wall is a light-toned layered deposit. Noctis Labyrinthus is a huge region of tectonically controlled valleys located at the western end of the Valles Marineris canyon system.

Spectra extracted from the light-toned deposit by the spacecraft's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument are consistent with the mineral jarosite, which is a potassium and iron hydrous sulfate. On Earth, jarosite can form in ore deposits or from alteration near volcanic vents, and indicates an oxidizing and acidic environment. The Opportunity rover discovered jarosite at the Meridiani Planum landing site, and jarosite has been found at several other locations on Mars, indicating that it is a common mineral on the Red Planet.

The jarosite-bearing deposit observed here could indicate acidic aqueous conditions within a volcanic system in Noctis Labyrinthus. Above the light-toned jarosite deposit is a mantle of finely layered darker-toned material. CRISM spectra do not indicate this upper darker-toned mantle is hydrated. The deposit appears to drape over the pre-existing topography, suggesting it represents an airfall deposit from either atmospheric dust or volcanic ash.

The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.


Caption: Cathy Weitz
( Editor: Sarah Loff:NASA)

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February 19, 2016

Mars The Other Earth

From NASA's Solar System : Mars

A Window Martian

Mars is a cold desert world. It is half the diameter of Earth and has the same amount of dry land. Like Earth, Mars has seasons, polar ice caps, volcanoes, canyons and weather, but its atmosphere is too thin for liquid water to exist for long on the surface. There are signs of ancient floods on Mars, but evidence for water now exists mainly in icy soil and thin clouds.

All Images: Credit: NASA

Valles Marineris (at the centre) is more than 3,000 km long and 8 km deep.

 

Though details of Mars' surface are difficult to see from Earth, telescope observations show seasonally changing features and white patches at the poles. For decades, people speculated that bright and dark areas on Mars were patches of vegetation, Mars was a likely place for advanced life forms, and water might exist in the polar caps.

When the Mariner four spacecraft flew by Mars in 1965, photographs of a bleak, cratered surface shocked many - Mars seemed to be a dead planet. Later missions, however, showed that Mars is a complex planet and holds many mysteries yet to be solved. Chief among them is whether Mars ever had the right conditions to support small life forms called microbes.

Mars is a rocky body about half the size of Earth. As with the other terrestrial planets - Mercury, Venus, and Earth - volcanoes, impact craters, crustal movement, and atmospheric conditions such as dust storms have altered the surface of Mars.


Valles Marineris is more than 3,000 km long and 8 km deep.
 

Mars has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, that may be captured asteroids. Potato-shaped, they have too little mass for gravity to make them spherical. Phobos, the innermost moon, is heavily cratered, with deep grooves on its surface.

Like Earth, Mars experiences seasons due to the tilt of its rotational axis. Mars' orbit is about 1.5 times farther from the sun than Earth's and is slightly elliptical, so its distance from the sun changes. That affects the length of Martian seasons, which vary in length. The polar ice caps on Mars grow and recede with the seasons.

Layered areas near the poles suggest that the planet's climate has changed more than once. Volcanism in the highlands and plains was active more than 3 billion years ago. Some of the giant shield volcanoes are younger, having formed between 1 and 2 billion years ago. Mars has the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons, as well as a spectacular equatorial canyon system, Valles Marineris.

Mars has no global magnetic field today. However, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter found that areas of the Martian crust in the southern hemisphere are highly magnetized, indicating traces of a magnetic field from 4 billion years ago that remain.

Fresh Crater Near Sirenum Fossae Region of Mars: The HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acquired this closeup image of a "fresh" (on a geological scale, though quite old on a human scale) impact crater in the Sirenum Fossae region of Mars on March 30, 2015. This impact crater appears relatively recent as it has a sharp rim and well-preserved ejecta.


Scientists believe that Mars experienced huge floods about 3.5 billion years ago. Though we do not know where the ancient flood water came from, how long it lasted, or where it went, recent missions to Mars have uncovered intriguing hints. In 2002, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter detected hydrogen-rich polar deposits, indicating large quantities of water ice close to the surface. Further observations found hydrogen in other areas as well. If water ice permeated the entire planet, Mars could have substantial subsurface layers of frozen water. In 2004, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity found structures and minerals indicating that liquid water once existed at its landing site. The rover's twin, Spirit, also found the signature of ancient water near its landing site, halfway around Mars from Opportunity's location.

Close-up image of a dust storm on Mars

The cold temperatures and thin atmosphere on Mars do not allow liquid water to exist at the surface for long. The quantity of water required to carve Mars' great channels and flood plains is not evident today. Unraveling the story of water on Mars is important to unlocking its climate history, which will help us understand the evolution of all the planets. Water is an essential ingredient for life as we know it. Evidence of long-term past or present water on Mars holds clues about whether Mars could ever have been a habitat for life.

In 2008, NASA's Phoenix Mars lander was the first mission to touch water ice in the Martian arctic. Phoenix also observed precipitation (snow falling from clouds), as confirmed by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Soil chemistry experiments led scientists to believe that the Phoenix landing site had a wetter and warmer climate in the recent past (the last few million years). NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, with its large rover Curiosity, is examining Martian rocks and soil at Gale Crater, looking for minerals that formed in water, signs of subsurface water, and carbon-based molecules called organics, the chemical building blocks of life. That information will reveal more about the present and past habitability of Mars, as well as whether humans could survive on Mars some day.

How Mars Got its Name

Mars was named by the Romans for their god of war because of its red, bloodlike color. Other civilizations also named this planet from this attribute; for example, the Egyptians named it "Her Desher," meaning "the red one."

Significant Dates

1877: Asaph Hall discovers the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.

1965: NASA's Mariner 4 sends back 22 photos of Mars, the world's first close-up photos of a planet beyond Earth.

1976: Viking 1 and 2 land on the surface of Mars.

1997: Mars Pathfinder lands and dispatches Sojourner, the first wheeled rover to explore the surface of another planet.

2002: Mars Odyssey begins its mission to make global observations and find buried water ice on Mars.

2004: Twin Mars Exploration Rovers named Spirit and Opportunity find strong evidence that Mars once had long-term liquid water on the surface.

2006: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter begins returning high-resolution images as it studies the history of water on Mars and seasonal changes.

2008: Phoenix finds signs of possible habitability, including the occasional presence of liquid water and potentially favorable soil chemistry.

2012: NASA's Mars rover Curiosity lands in Gale Crater and finds conditions once suited for ancient microbial life on Mars.

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Life on Mars: NASA Plant Researchers Explore Question of Deep-Space Food Crops

Writes Linda Herridge, NASA

An artist concept depicts a greenhouse on the surface of Mars. Plants are growing with the help of red, blue and green LED light bars and a hydroponic cultivation approach. Image credit: SAIC

NASA plant physiologist Ray Wheeler, Ph.D., and fictional astronaut Mark Watney from the movie "The Martian" have something in common — they are both botanists. But that's where the similarities end. While Watney is a movie character who gets stranded on Mars, Wheeler is the lead for Advanced Life Support Research activities in the Exploration Research and Technology Program at Kennedy Space Center, working on real plant research.

"The Martian movie and book conveyed a lot of issues regarding growing food and surviving on a planet far from the Earth," Wheeler said. "It's brought plants back into the equation." As NASA prepares the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft for Exploration Mission-1, it's also turning its attention to exploring the possibilities of food crops grown in controlled environments for long-duration missions to deep-space destinations such as Mars.

Wheeler and his colleagues, including plant scientists, have been studying ways to grow safe, fresh food crops efficiently off the Earth. Most recently, astronauts on the International Space Station harvested and ate a variety of red romaine lettuce that they activated and grew in a plant growth system called Veggie.

Wheeler, who has worked at Kennedy since 1988, was among the plant scientists and collaborators who helped get the Veggie unit tested and certified for use on the space station. The plant chamber, developed by Orbitec through a NASA Small Business Innovative Research Program, passed safety reviews and met low power usage and low mass requirements for use on the space station.

Aside from the chamber, the essentials needed for growing food crops, whether on the Earth or another planet, such as Mars, are water, light and soil, along with some kind of nutrients to help them grow.

Potato Crop Studies

What kind of crops could be grown in space or on another planet? Potatoes, sweet potatoes, wheat and soybeans would all be good according to Wheeler because they provide a lot of carbohydrates, and soybeans are a good source of protein.

Also, potatoes are tubers, which means they store their edible biomass in underground structures. Wheeler said potatoes could produce twice the amount of food as some seed crops when given equivalent light. After salad crops that are now being studied, they are the next category of minimally processed food crops and could be consumed raw.

"You could begin to grow potatoes, wheat and soybeans, things like that, and along with the salad crops, you could provide more of a complete diet," Wheeler said.

Wheeler has spent a lot of time studying different ways to grow potatoes. Most of his studies took place during the late 1980s through the early 2000s inside Hangar L at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The lab was relocated to the Space Life Sciences Laboratory in 2003. A major portion of the labs were then relocated to the Space Station Processing Facility in 2014 to become part of the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Directorate at Kennedy.

Many of the early potato crop studies were done at the University of Wisconsin, where Wheeler worked prior to coming to Kennedy. Plant scientists at Kennedy used these fundamental findings as a starting point for their studies, and in particular, a variety called Norland red potatoes, using a large plant chamber called the Biomass Plant Production Chamber.

The Biomass Production Chamber originally was a hypobaric test chamber used during the Mercury Project. Including its pedestal, the chamber is 28 feet tall. It was later modified to grow plants in the mid-1980s. Air circulation ducts and fans, high pressure sodium lamps, cooling and heating systems, and hydroponic trays and solution tanks were added. The chamber provided a tightly closed atmosphere for plant growth, which simulated what might be encountered in space.

"Providing food is a complex issue," Wheeler said. "We have to think about nutritional issues, what's acceptable and what tastes good. If nobody wants to eat it, that won't work."

Water - A Precious Resource

In the movie, the character chooses to use the regolith, or Martian soil, to grow the plants. In reality, the soil on Mars is essentially broken rock material, and lacks most of the nutrients needed to sustain plant growth.

Much of what Wheeler did in his potato studies involved growing the plants in shallow, tilted trays using a hydroponic recirculating system.

"With potatoes, it was a little bit more interesting in the sense that you can't use systems that require a lot of standing or deep water—potatoes don’t like to be submerged," Wheeler said, "and we kept the nutrient water film very thin."

They did very well, as do many crops grown this way, according to Wheeler. But traveling in a spacecraft to another planet will put constraints on the quantity and weight of commodities that could be brought along. You can't pack everything you need for a long-duration spaceflight. Some resources will need to be recycled, acquired or made at the destination, a process called in-situ resource utilization.

"The recent discovery of water on Mars is a positive development," said Rob Mueller, senior technologist for Advanced Projects Development in the Exploration Research and Technology Program at Kennedy. "It can be used for making propellant, sustaining human life and growing crops."

But, Mueller noted, the water will not be pure and will have a brine composition. Perchlorates and other impurities are known to exist in the regolith on Mars, so these must be accounted for and mitigated before the water can be used.

Wheeler said one scenario could be that provisions such as water pumps and fertilizer salts are brought along on deep-space trips, and the plants are grown hydroponically inside a protected environment. Martian soils might be used later as the growing systems expand.

"Growing plants on Mars is not a trivial matter," Mueller said.

Plants Need Light to Grow

In open fields on Earth, light is plentiful. But out in space, use of direct sunlight for plant growth could be challenging. Yet having sufficient light will be required for growing plants quickly in space.

In 2007, a graduate student at the University of Colorado mapped the light intensity at the surface of Mars over two Martian years. Results showed that the Red Planet gets 43 percent of the sunlight that Earth receives due to its distance from the sun, but has numerous areas at low latitudes that receive adequate light to grow plants.

"Mars gets significant dust storms, which could block a lot of sunlight, and that must be considered," Wheeler said. "That's an issue, even if we're using a photovoltaic system."

That's the reason why planetary probes and spacecraft that travel farther away from the sun, like Cassini, Galileo and New Horizons, didn't use photovoltaic type systems. Just like in the movie, they use radioactive thermal generators, also called RTGs, as power generators. It's a form of radioactive decay that generates heat, which is converted to electrical power.

"An alternate approach to sunlight would be to use electric light sources. High intensities of efficient LED lights could be used to help push the plants hard," Wheeler said. "This is an area where NASA has been really right up on the edge of research and development."

The Veggie plant growth system, currently on the space station, uses blue and red LED lights. Wheeler said using LED lights to grow plants was an idea that originated from a NASA-funded effort at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s. The technology was patented with NASA-supported funds.

Kennedy Space Center's plant scientists also were one of the first groups to demonstrate vertical farming -- layers of plant trays with a water source and LED lighting. This type of farming is now being used in Japan, Korea, and China, and several facilities in North America.

Protection from Radiation

As if finding the right soil, water and lighting wasn’t enough of a challenge, food crops also would need to be protected from ultraviolet radiation and kept inside a pressurized environment with adequate nutrients and appropriate lighting. The shelter would have to be able to withstand radiation and the extreme temperatures of a Martian environment.

"That's a big challenge for materials for a greenhouse-like structure. The thermal issues could be alleviated by having either a cover or clamshell that would go over it at night and open in the daytime," Wheeler suggested.

When nuclear power was emerging in the 1970s, there was a lot of interest in understanding the potential effects of radiation on living organisms, including plants. There are limits to what plants can take, and Wheeler said more research needs to be done on the tolerance of food crops to radiation.

The "Eyes" Have It

How do you regenerate your food source? If you consume everything over a period of time, you will eventually run out.

But there's something special about potato tubers. Potatoes have "eyes" or buds. If given enough time, the eyes sprout. Sections of potatoes containing at least one "eye" could be replanted so they can sprout and produce new plants. This process was illustrated in The Martian, and actually is used by seed potato growers in field settings on Earth who then take their crops and sell them to production companies.

During the 1990s, NASA's potato studies with hydroponics got the attention of the Frito-Lay Company in Wisconsin. Wheeler consulted with the company on ways to produce clean, disease-free seed potato stock.

A Source of Recycling

Growing crops in space or on another planet could provide other benefits besides food. Plants could serve to provide oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from air sources.

While plants grow, they generate oxygen through photosynthesis, and they would scrub carbon dioxide out of the air inside a cabin environment. Wheeler said if you co-utilize them in the right manner, they could help process wastewater.

And as odd as it sounds, using wastewater, or even urine, as a source of nutrients for plant growth could be an option. Aboard the space station, U.S. astronauts use the Environmental Control and Life Support System — a system that collects and recycles used water, wastewater and urine.

While the recent movie made it seem like growing potatoes on Mars was a no-brainer, a lot of research has gone into making that a real possibility. With humans expected to plant boots on Mars in the next couple of decades, solving the challenges of growing plants in space today is critical to our journey to the Red Planet.

(Editor: Linda Herridge: NASA)

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NASA's SDO and Sun's Solarian Prominence

NASA Image

An elongated solar prominence rose up above the sun’s surface and slowly unraveled on Feb. 3, 2016, as seen in this video by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO. Prominences, also known as filaments when seen over the sun’s limb, are clouds of solar material suspended above the sun’s surface by the solar magnetic field – the same complex magnetism that drives solar events like flares and coronal mass ejections. The solar material in the prominence streams along the sun’s magnetic field lines before it thins out and gradually breaks away from the solar surface. These images were taken in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths of 304 angstroms, a type of light that is invisible to our eyes but is colorized here in red.

The sun appears to move in the last few seconds of the video because SDO was performing a guide telescope calibration.

Steele Hill and Sarah Frazier: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

( Editor: Rob Garner: NASA)

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I am Whole; It is Your Perspective That Makes You See Me in Two: Dione

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Dione appears cut in two by Saturn's razor-thin rings, seen nearly edge-on in a view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. This scene was captured from just 0.02 degrees above the ring plane.

The bright streaks of Dione's wispy terrain (see PIA12553) are seen near the moon's limb at right. The medium-sized crater Turnus (63 miles, 101 kilometers, wide) is visible along Dione's terminator.

PIA12553: Dione The Wispy Marble

 



Appearing like the swirls of marble, the wispy terrain of Saturn's moon Dione is captured in a dramatic display of light and dark.

These wispy features are a system of braided canyons with bright walls. See PIA06163 for a closeup view. This view looks toward the area between the trailing hemisphere and Saturn-facing side of Dione (1,123 kilometers, or 698 miles across). North on Dione is up and rotated 1 degree to the left.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 26, 2009. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 644,000 kilometers (400,000 miles) from Dione and at a Sun-Dione-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 2 degrees. Image scale is 4 kilometers (2 miles) per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/. The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

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The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 25, 2015. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers) from Dione and at a Sun-Dione-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 115 degrees. Image scale is 8.6 miles (13.8 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov  and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini  . The Cassini imaging team homepage

(Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)
 

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Sit a While With Me: Kimberley Formation on Mars

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A view from the "Kimberley" formation on Mars taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp, indicating flow of water toward a basin that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed.

The colors are adjusted so that rocks look approximately as they would if they were on Earth, to help geologists interpret the rocks. This "white balancing" to adjust for the lighting on Mars overly compensates for the absence of blue on Mars, making the sky appear light blue and sometimes giving dark, black rocks a blue cast.

This image was taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Curiosity on the 580th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates Curiosity's Mastcam. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, built the rover and manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

( Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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Mars Beautiful Gale Crater

Image Released on June 19, 2015: Minerals at Gale Crater: Curiosity's Home: Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University


Gale Crater, home to NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, shows a new face in this mosaic image made using data from the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.

The colors come from an image processing technique that identifies mineral differences in surface materials and displays them in false colors. For example, windblown dust appears pale pink and olivine-rich basalt looks purple. The bright pink on Gale's floor appears due to a mix of basaltic sand and windblown dust. The blue at the summit of Gale's central mound, Mount Sharp, probably comes from local materials exposed there. The typical average Martian surface soil looks grayish-green. Scientists use false-color images such as these to identify places of potential geologic interest.

The diameter of the crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers). North is up. THEMIS and other instruments on Mars Odyssey have been studying Mars from orbit since 2001. Curiosity landed in the northeastern portion of Gale Crater in 2012 and climbed onto the flank of Mount Sharp in 2014.

Mars Mission 2020

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Saturn's Moon Tathys Floating Between Two Sets of Rings

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn's moon appears to float between two sets of rings in this view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, but it's just a trick of geometry. The rings, which are seen nearly edge-on, are the dark bands above Tethys, while their curving shadows paint the planet at the bottom of the image.

Tethys (660 miles or 1,062 kilometers across) has a surface composed mostly of water ice, much like Saturn's rings. Water ice dominates the icy surfaces in the the far reaches of our solar system, but ammonia and methane ices also can be found.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Nov. 23, 2015. North on Tethys is up. The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 40,000 miles (65,000 kilometers) from Tethys. Image scale is 2.4 miles (4 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
 
For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit and. The Cassini imaging team homepage

(Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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Saturn's Rings: Less Than Meets the Eye?

Saturn's B ring is the most opaque of the main rings, appearing almost black in this Cassini image taken from the unlit side of the ringplane.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

It seems intuitive that an opaque material should contain more stuff than a more translucent substance. For example, muddier water has more suspended particles of dirt in it than clearer water. Likewise, you might think that, in the rings of Saturn, more opaque areas contain a greater concentration of material than places where the rings seem more transparent.

But this intuition does not always apply, according to a recent study of the rings using data from NASA's Cassini mission. In their analysis, scientists found surprisingly little correlation between how dense a ring might appear to be -- in terms of its opacity and reflectiveness -- and the amount of material it contains.

The new results concern Saturn's B ring, the brightest and most opaque of Saturn's rings, and are consistent with previous studies that found similar results for Saturn's other main rings.

The scientists found that, while the opacity of the B ring varied by a large amount across its width, the mass – or amount of material – did not vary much from place to place. They "weighed" the nearly opaque center of the B ring for the first time -- technically, they determined its mass density in several places -- by analyzing spiral density waves. These are fine-scale ring features created by gravity tugging on ring particles from Saturn's moons, and the planet's own gravity. The structure of each wave depends directly on the amount of mass in the part of the rings where the wave is located.

"At present it's far from clear how regions with the same amount of material can have such different opacities. It could be something associated with the size or density of individual particles, or it could have something to do with the structure of the rings," said Matthew Hedman, the study's lead author and a Cassini participating scientist at the University of Idaho, Moscow. Cassini co-investigator Phil Nicholson of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, co-authored the work with Hedman.

"Appearances can be deceiving," said Nicholson. "A good analogy is how a foggy meadow is much more opaque than a swimming pool, even though the pool is denser and contains a lot more water."

Research on the mass of Saturn's rings has important implications for their age. A less massive ring would evolve faster than a ring containing more material, becoming darkened by dust from meteorites and other cosmic sources more quickly. Thus, the less massive the B ring is, the younger it might be -- perhaps a few hundred million years instead of a few billion.

"By 'weighing' the core of the B ring for the first time, this study makes a meaningful step in our quest to piece together the age and origin of Saturn's rings," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "The rings are so magnificent and awe-inspiring, it's impossible for us to resist the mystery of how they came to be."

While all the giant planets in our solar system (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) have ring systems of their own, Saturn's are clearly different. Explaining why Saturn's rings are so bright and vast is an important challenge in understanding their formation and history. For scientists, the density of material packed into each section of the rings is a critical factor in ascribing their formation to a physical process.

An earlier study by members of Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer team had suggested the possibility that there might be less material in the B ring than researchers had thought. The new analysis is the first to directly measure the density of mass in the ring and demonstrate that this is the case.

Hedman and Nicholson used a new technique to analyze data from a series of observations by Cassini's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer as it peered through the rings toward a bright star. By combining multiple observations, they were able to identify spiral density waves in the rings that aren't obvious in individual measurements.

The analysis also found that the overall mass of the B ring is unexpectedly low. It was surprising, said Hedman, because some parts of the B ring are up to 10 times more opaque than the neighboring A ring, but the B ring may weigh in at only two to three times the A ring's mass.

Despite the low mass found by Hedman and Nicholson, the B ring is still thought to contain the bulk of material in Saturn's ring system. And although this study leaves some uncertainty about the ring's mass, a more precise measurement of the total mass of Saturn's rings is on the way. Previously, Cassini had measured Saturn’s gravity field, telling scientists the total mass of Saturn and its rings. In 2017, Cassini will determine the mass of Saturn alone by flying just inside the rings during the final phase of its mission. The difference between the two measurements is expected to finally reveal the rings' true mass.

The study was published online by the journal Icarus.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about Cassini

Saturn

Preston Dyches: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-7013 preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov
(Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA)

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NASA Tests Solar Sail Deployment as Part of the Progress on the Road to Journey to Mars

NASA Tests Solar Sail Deployment for Asteroid-Surveying CubeSat NEA Scout: NASA Image
 

Feb. 2, 2016: Progress continues on the journey to Mars as NASA plans to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including to an asteroid and ultimately to the surface of Mars. Before humans embark on the journey, the agency will survey an asteroid to learn about the risks and challenges asteroids may pose to future human explorers.

One way NASA will do this is by performing a reconnaissance flyby of an asteroid with Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout. NEA Scout -- a CubeSat, or small satellite -- will launch as a secondary payload on the inaugural flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the world’s most powerful rocket, scheduled to launch in 2018. Information gained from NEA Scout’s flyby will enhance the agency’s understanding of asteroids and their environments and will help reduce risk for future exploration of asteroids and small planetary bodies.

NEA Scout’s second mission objective will be to develop and verify a low-cost reconnaissance platform capable of carrying a wide range of research spacecraft to many destinations. To do this, NEA Scout will utilize a solar sail, harnessing solar pressure to propel the spacecraft.

NEA Scout’s solar sail will be larger and travel farther than any NASA has ever deployed in space. “As a propulsion system that doesn’t require any propellant, solar sails have a lot of potential,” said Les Johnson, NEA Scout’s solar sail principal investigator. “In the future, solar sails can take spacecraft to the outermost regions of the solar system faster than ever before.”

NEA Scout’s flight solar sail will be 86 square meters, approximately the length of a full-size school bus. Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, recently conducted a series of tests with a sail roughly half that size -- 36 square meters to verify the folding and deployment of the sail in deep space.

“We were able to zero in some specifics of design, motor size, hardware attrition and even the time required to fold and deploy the sail,” said Tiffany Russell Lockett, NEA Scout Sail systems engineer. Next spring, the team will build and test a full-size engineering development unit.

Only one-third of NEA Scout’s total size can be dedicated to the solar sail. Each of the 13 CubeSats hitching a ride on the SLS will be the size of a large shoebox and weigh less than 30 pounds. For the school bus-size sail to fit within the small space requirements, it will have to be meticulously folded and then unpacked in space. To test the folding and deployment process, engineers built a low-cost test article using parts left over from previous programs.

“We were fortunate to have parts so readily available to test these new techniques,” said NEA Scout Project Manager Leslie McNutt. “It’s a fabulous opportunity for us to learn more before building our engineering development unit.”

The lightweight assembly consists of three 3D printed spools -- an oblong spool that contains the sail’s material and two smaller spools, each containing two booms, or the sail’s arms. The booms -- which will unfold the sail and hold it in place during flight -- are strong, yet flexible.

“The booms are much like a handyman’s metal tape measure. They are very strong when held out straight, and when bent they become flexible enough to be wound around the spools -- saving space,” said McNutt.

The sail’s material, a strong plastic with aluminum coating, is as thin as a human hair and has to be meticulously folded and wrapped around the oblong spool. Once in space, the booms -- each attached to a different corner of the sail -- will extend, unpacking the solar sail.

“We successfully tested a new folding technique that has never been used before with solar sails,” said McNutt. “The sail material is folded like an accordion and unreels like a bow tie as the booms deploy.”

To simulate a microgravity environment similar to that in space, the team used Marshall’s Flat Floor Facility -- the world’s flattest floor. “We connected air bearings to the ends of the booms,” said McNutt. “That allowed the booms to float on a thin layer of air above the floor, offsetting the effects of Earth’s gravity.”

McNutt believes solar sails like NEA Scout’s could be a game changer in the future of deep-space missions. “In the past, they have been relatively small,” she said. “Advances like NEA Scout’s sail could enable larger and larger spacecraft. The larger the spacecraft, the larger the solar sail will need to be. You have to work your way up -- this is a step in the direction of bigger and better.”

NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) manages NEA Scout with the team led at Marshall Space Flight Center with support from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. AES infuses new technologies developed by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate and partners with the Science Mission Directorate to address the unknowns and mitigate risks for crews and systems during future human exploration missions.

For more information about NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, visit

For more information about Secondary Payloads, visit

For more information about NEA Scout, visit

Kim Newton: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center: 256-544-0034
kimberly.d.newton@nasa.gov
( Editor: Jennifer Harbaugh: NASA)
 

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Saturn's Three: Titan, Mimas and Rhea

A single crescent moon is a familiar sight in Earth's sky, but with Saturn's many moons, you can see three or even more. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


The three moons shown here, Titan, 3,200 miles or 5,150 kilometres across, Mimas, 246 miles or 396 kilometres across, and Rhea, 949 miles or 1,527 kilometres across, show marked contrasts. Titan, the largest moon in this image, appears fuzzy because we only see its cloud layers. And because Titan’s atmosphere refracts light around the moon, its crescent 'wraps' just a little further around the moon than it would on an airless body. Rhea, upper left, appears rough because its icy surface is heavily cratered. And a close inspection of Mimas, centre bottom, though difficult to see at this scale, shows surface irregularities due to its own violent history.

And Rhea's Day in the Sun


A nearly full Rhea shines in the sunlight in this recent Cassini image. Rhea, 949 miles, or 1,527 kilometres across, is Saturn's second largest moon.

Lit terrain seen here is on the Saturn-facing hemisphere of Rhea. North on Rhea is up and rotated 43 degrees to the left. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Sept. 10, 2013.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 990,000 miles, 01.6 million kilometres from Rhea. Image scale is six miles, 09 kilometres per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

: Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA:

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This view looks toward the anti-Saturn hemisphere of Titan. North on Titan is to the right. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on March 25, 2015.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 02.7 million miles, 04.3 million kilometres from Titan. Image scale at Titan is 16 miles, 26 kilometres per pixel. Mimas was 01.9 million miles, 03.0 million kilometres away with an image scale of 11 miles, 18 kilometres per pixel. Rhea was 01.6 million miles, 02.6 million kilometres away with an image scale of 09.8 miles, 15.7 kilometres per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency:ESA and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations centre is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit Or The Cassini imaging team homepage

: Editor: Tony Greicius: NASA:

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Martian Noctis Labyrinthus The Labyrinth of the Night

Perspective view in Noctis Labyrinthus: This perspective view in Noctis Labyrinthus was generated from the main camera’s stereo channels on ESA’s Mars Express. It shows the beautiful details of landslides in the steep-sided walls of the flat-topped graben in the foreground, and in the valley walls in the background. The scene is part of region imaged by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express on 15 July 2015 during orbit 14632. The image is centred on 6°S / 265°E; the ground resolution is about 16 m per pixel.: Released 28/01/2016 11:00 am Copyright ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

 

28 January 2016: This block of martian terrain, etched with an intricate pattern of landslides and wind-blown dunes, is a small segment of a vast labyrinth of valleys, fractures and plateaus.


The region, known as Noctis Labyrinthus – the “labyrinth of the night” – lies on the western edge of Valles Marineris, the grand canyon of the Solar System. It was imaged by ESA’s Mars Express on 15 July 2015.

It is part of a complex feature whose origin lies in the swelling of the crust owing to tectonic and volcanic activity in the Tharsis region, home to Olympus Mons and other large volcanoes.

As the crust bulged in the Tharsis province it stretched apart the surrounding terrain, ripping fractures several kilometres deep and leaving blocks – graben – stranded within the resulting trenches.

The entire network of graben and fractures spans some 1200 km, about the equivalent length of the river Rhine from the Alps to the North Sea.

The segment presented here captures a roughly 120 km-wide portion of that network, with one large, flat-topped block taking centre stage.


Landslides are seen in extraordinary detail in the flanks of this unit and along the valley walls (most notable in the perspective view, top), with eroded debris lying at the base of the steep walls.
Noctis Labyrinthus topography

In some places, particularly notable in the lower-right corner of the plan view image (above), wind has drawn the dust into dune fields that extend up onto the surrounding plateaus.

Near-linear features are also visible on the flat elevated surfaces: fault lines crossing each other in different directions, suggesting many episodes of tectonic stretching in the complex history of this region.

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Journey to Mars: Orion Parachute Passes Development Tests

Orion’s three main parachutes begin to unfurl after they are drawn out by three pilot parachutes. A test of the spacecraft’s parachute system was conducted Jan. 13. Credit: NASA Image

 

A dart-shaped test vehicle descended from the skies above the Arizona desert under Orion’s parachutes Wednesday, Jan. 13, successfully completing the final de