Just add water: scientists explain Saturn’s powerful thunderstorms

A giant storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, which now extends around the planet, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A giant storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, which now extends around the planet, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thunderstorms are a powerful force of nature, but the ones we experience on Earth are dwarfed by the ones on the gas giant planet Saturn. They are huge and can be larger than Earth itself, and now scientists think they know why they tend to appear most prominently every 20-30 years, encircling the entire planet with intense lightning and massive cloud disturbances.

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Orbiting Rainbows: using ‘glitter clouds’ to search for and image exoplanets

YouTube Preview ImageThe search for exoplanets may one day get a lot more glittery. It sounds a bit like science fiction, but a new NASA proposal called Orbiting Rainbows would use glitter-like materials to help image some of those far-away worlds, which could enable high-resolution imaging at a fraction of the cost.

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‘Old Earths': the search for ancient and habitable (but dying) exoplanets

Illustration depicting the life cycle of Sun-like stars. Billions of years from now, our own Sun will expand into a red giant star, scorching any life that exists. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Illustration depicting the life cycle of Sun-like stars. Billions of years from now, our own Sun will expand into a red giant star, scorching any life that exists. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Researchers at Cornell University are taking a new approach to the search for alien life: looking for habitable planets older than Earth, “old Earth analogues,” which may be nearing the end of their habitable lifetimes. Astronomers would search for biosignatures from worlds much older than Earth, where lifeforms are dying off due to circumstances such as the planet’s star expanding in its old age, gradually heating the planet to a point where life is no longer possible.

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Curiosity rover finds more evidence for possible liquid water brines on Mars

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) on the Curiosity rover, used to make the brine calculations. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) on the Curiosity rover, used to make the brine calculations. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The search for liquid water on Mars is one that has been on-going for decades. It can’t exist for long on the surface, as it will quickly sublimate into the cold, thin atmosphere. Aquifers deep below the surface are still possible, but there is also another tantalizing possibility which scientists have been considering: brines. Such salty liquid water could theoretically last a bit longer on the surface or in the near-subsurface, and now the Curiosity rover has provided more evidence that this may indeed be happening at its location in Gale Crater, as well as elsewhere.

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Image Gallery: first colour photo of Pluto from New Horizons

The first colour photo of Pluto and its largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons. Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
The first colour photo of Pluto and its largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on April 9, 2015. The spacecraft will make its closest approach on July 14, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This is the first colour photo of the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon Charon taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken on April 9, 2015, from a distance of about 71 million 115 million kilometers (71 million miles).

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Buried glaciers have enough ice to cover entire surface of Mars, according to new study

Image of dust-covered glaciers on Mars from the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express. The glaciers are composed of water ice. Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin
Image of dust-covered glaciers on Mars from the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express. The glaciers are composed of water ice. Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

When the topic of ice on Mars comes up, the first thing that usually comes to mind are the polar ice caps which are prominent even in small telescopes. There is, however, ice elsewhere on the planet as well, such as beneath the surface in the mid-latitudes, covered by dust. Now, a new study has revealed the extent of these subsurface glaciers and the amount of frozen water they contain.

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Two Earth-sized exoplanets may exist in closest star system, Hubble observations reveal

Artist’s conception of the Alpha Centauri binary star system and the exoplanet Alpha Centauri Bb. Our own Sun is also shown in the distance. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/N. Risinger
Artist’s conception of the Alpha Centauri binary star system and the exoplanet Alpha Centauri Bb. Our own Sun is also shown in the distance. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/N. Risinger

The closest star system to our own Sun may have two Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting it, a new study has shown based on observations by the Hubble Space Telescope. If confirmed, the discovery would help to illustrate just how common exoplanets are; data from Kepler and other telescopes has also already shown that the vast majority of stars have exoplanets orbiting them, and the number of exoplanets in our galaxy alone is now thought to number in the billions.

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Spirit rover: more evidence for ancient hot springs on Mars

View from the Spirit rover looking toward Husband Hill on the right, with the lighter-toned Home Plate rock outcrop below that. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
View from the Spirit rover looking toward Husband Hill on the right, with the lighter-toned Home Plate rock outcrop below that. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Spirit rover may have finished its journey a long time ago, but there is still plenty of data to go through and analyze, and continued study of that data has provided more evidence for one of the rover’s most significant findings: ancient hot springs in this area inside Gusev crater. Hot springs, as on Earth, would also have provided a potentially habitable environment for any Martian microorganisms, as well as being ideal for preserving fossils of such organisms if they existed.

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Scientists create colour-based catalogue of Earthly life forms to help search for alien biology

A hypothetical rendering of colorful plant life on a habitable exoplanet. Although most such alien life, if it exists, found with this technique may be microscopic, it illustrates how analysis of color could help scientists learn more about the physical nature of alien biology. Image Credit: NASA/Caltech/Doug Cummings
A hypothetical rendering of colourful plant life on a habitable exoplanet. Although most such alien life, if it exists, found with this technique may be microscopic, it illustrates how analysis of colour could help scientists learn more about the physical nature of alien biology. Image Credit: NASA/Caltech/Doug Cummings

With exoplanets now being discovered by the thousands, and estimated to be in the billions in our galaxy alone, attention is naturally turning to how astronomers might be able to search for evidence of life on any of those far-away worlds. Now, a team of scientists is taking a novel approach to doing just that, by creating a colourful catalogue of reflection signatures of various life forms on Earth. The new database and research was just published in the March 16 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Cassini finds evidence for hydrothermal activity on Saturn’s moon Enceladus

Cutaway view depicting the interior of Enceladus. Water, salts, organics, and methane make their way from the hydrothermal vents on the ocean bottom to the surface through cracks in the icy crust, erupting as geysers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Cutaway view depicting the interior of Enceladus. Water, salts, organics, and methane make their way from the hydrothermal vents on the ocean bottom to the surface through cracks in the icy crust, erupting as geysers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The deep oceans on Earth are teeming with life, despite the cold and darkness, thanks to hydrothermal vents which provide needed heat and nutrients in an otherwise rather uncomfortable environment. Now, the first evidence has been found for current hydrothermal activity elsewhere in the Solar System: on the ocean bottom of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

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