‘Ocean Worlds Exploration Program': new budget proposal calls for missions to Europa, Enceladus and Titan

Artist’s conception of Europa’s interior, with water rising through cracks in the surface, depositing salts similar to sea salt on Earth. The ocean below may be a habitable environment for some kind of life. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of Europa’s interior, with water rising through cracks in the surface, depositing salts similar to sea salt on Earth. The ocean below may be a habitable environment for some kind of life. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The exploration of the outer Solar System has revealed a plethora of amazing worlds, the likes of which were little known or even unheard of just a decade ago. Among the most remarkable and tantalizing discoveries are the “ocean moons” such as Europa and Enceladus, which have oceans or seas of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. Other moons like Titan, Ganymede, and Callisto may also have them, and even some asteroids. Titan also has seas and lakes of liquid methane/ethane on its surface. With all that water, these small worlds have become a primary focus in the search for possible life elsewhere in the Solar System. Now, a new NASA budget proposal wants to take that a step further and fund new missions to these watery moons.

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Researchers develop new technique to search for chemical evidence of life on Mars

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Despite decades of searching, definitive evidence for life on Mars, past or present, has still remained elusive and controversial. Confirmation of such a finding would need to be thoroughly tested and documented, and now researchers at the University of Kansas have developed a new technique that they hope would help to do just that, should that evidence be found by future rovers or landers.

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Flying (mostly) friendly skies: Northrop Grumman developing airplane to cruise atmosphere of Venus

Artist’s conception of the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) aircraft in the atmosphere of Venus. Image Credit: Northrop Grumman artist’s concept
Artist’s conception of the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) aircraft in the atmosphere of Venus. Image Credit: Northrop Grumman artist’s concept

With so much attention now on the rovers and spacecraft at Mars, Saturn, Ceres, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and, soon, Pluto, it may seem like Earth’s closest planetary neighbor Venus has been forgotten again. But no, Venus is still very much on the minds of researchers who are busy developing a concept airplane which could cruise for years in the hellish planet’s atmosphere.

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Dark material in fractures on Europa’s surface is sea salt, new research suggests

The darker-colored material within the fractures and elsewhere on Europa’s surface might be sea salt brought up from the ocean below. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk
The darker-coloured material within the fractures and elsewhere on Europa’s surface might be sea salt brought up from the ocean below. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

For over a decade, scientists have been curious about the long fractures on Europa’s icy surface and the darker-coloured material they contain, as well as other relatively young geological features which are also coated with the mystery dark stuff. Now, researchers have come up with an explanation which not only provides an answer, but suggests that the moon’s subsurface ocean is able to interact with the surface as well as the rocky interior: the dark material is sea salt. Plus, a proposed squid-like robotic probe might actually explore that alien salty ocean one day…

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Image Gallery: new views of mystery bright spots on Ceres

The most well-known bright spots, now seen to be multiple small spots. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The most well-known bright spots, now seen to be multiple small spots. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Some new views of Ceres were released today from the Dawn spacecraft, which include the now-famous mystery bright spots, as well as some new spots not seen before. The most prominent “double spot” as previously viewed, can now be seen to be multiple spots of various sizes.

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Image Gallery: Martian sunset and Lindbergh rock mound

Sunset in Gale crater, as seen by the M-34 and M-100 Mastcam cameras on Curiosity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/James Sorenson
Sunset in Gale crater, as seen by the M-34 and M-100 Mastcam cameras on Curiosity. The bluish sunsets are uniquely Martian, the opposite of sunsets on Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/James Sorenson

Two new beautiful composite images, from two different rovers and locations on Mars. The first is a sunset in Gale crater, taken by Curiosity. Martian sunsets look bluish due to the light scattering effects of reddish dust in the atmosphere. The other image, from Opportunity, is of the scenic Lindbergh rock mound in the Spirit of St. Louis crater, on the rim of the huge Endeavour crater. A natural monument!

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