Image Gallery: mystery bright spots on Ceres

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The bright spots on Ceres. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The Dawn spacecraft has almost reached the dwarf planet Ceres, and a lot more detail can be seen as it gets closer. The odd bright spots which have puzzled scientists for a long time now can also be seen more clearly for the first time. What was thought to be one spot in this crater is now obviously two close together. Are they exposed ice or some other material? Are they related to possible cryovolcanoes? Dawn was 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles) away when it took this image on February 18, 2015.

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Scientists debate how to search for life on Europa in new mission

Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa hides a water ocean beneath its surface. A return mission is now planned to help search for evidence of life there. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL
Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa hides a water ocean beneath its surface. A return mission is now planned to help search for evidence of life there. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

Jupiter’s moon Europa, with its subsurface ocean, is considered by many to be the best place in the Solar System to search for extraterrestrial life. With NASA now committing itself to a new mission sometime in the 2020s, the focus is turning to what would be the best strategy for looking for any life which may be there. Over 200 scientists and engineers met at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., last week for a workshop called The Potential for Finding Life in a Europa Plume to do just that.

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Getting closer! New Horizons sees two of Pluto’s smaller moons for first time

Long-exposure images taken by New Horizons between Jan. 27 and Feb. 8, 2015, showing the two tiny moons Hydra (inside yellow diamond) and Nix (inside orange diamond). Image Credit: Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Long-exposure images taken by New Horizons between Jan. 27 and Feb. 8, 2015, showing the two tiny moons Hydra (inside yellow diamond) and Nix (inside orange diamond). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The New Horizons spacecraft, on course for a historic encounter with Pluto this summer, is now close enough to see two of its smaller moons for the first time. The new views also come 85 years after the discovery of Pluto by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh on Feb. 18, 1930.

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Exploring an alien sea: NASA designs submarine to send to Titan

Artist’s conception of the Titan Submarine Phase I Conceptual Design. Much like submarines on Earth, the sub would explore the depths of one of Titan’s methane/ethane seas. Image Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of the Titan Submarine Phase I Conceptual Design. Much like submarines on Earth, the sub would explore the depths of one of Titan’s methane/ethane seas. Image Credit: NASA

Who wouldn’t want to go explore an alien sea? It seems that NASA would certainly like to, and the agency has unveiled a new submarine design to hopefully do just that one day. The submarine would be sent to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to dive into one of the large liquid methane seas on the moon’s frigid surface; such a mission idea may sound like science fiction, but it’s not, and would be the first ever to explore a sea on another world which is both Earth-like in some ways, yet utterly alien in others.

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New technique provides better, clearer radar images of Titan’s amazing surface

Radar view of Ligeia Mare, a large hydrocarbon sea on Titan. The original version is on the left and the enhanced, “despeckled” version is on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI
Radar view of Ligeia Mare, a large hydrocarbon sea on Titan. The original version is on the left and the enhanced, “despeckled” version is on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is a fascinating world, uniquely alien yet eerily Earth-like in many ways, with its rain, rivers, lakes, seas, and massive sand dunes. But in this extremely cold environment, it is liquid methane and ethane which act as “water,” mimicking the hydrological cycle on Earth. Also, due to the perpetual and global hazy cloud cover, the only way to see these features from orbit is by using radar, which is what the Cassini spacecraft has done on a regular basis for quite a few years now. As good as they are, though, the radar images contain electronic noise, which reduces sharpness and clarity. But now a new technique is letting planetary scientists see Titan’s surface more clearly than ever before.

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Cassini data indicates Enceladus’ ocean similar to soda lakes on Earth

The geysers of Enceladus, erupting through cracks in the ice at the south pole from a subsurface salty ocean or sea. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
The geysers of Enceladus, erupting through cracks in the ice at the south pole from a subsurface salty ocean or sea. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Along with Jupiter’s infamous moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus is one of the most fascinating places in the Solar System, with its huge geysers of water vapour erupting from cracks in the surface at the south pole. The massive plumes are now thought to originate in a subsurface ocean or sea of salty liquid water, similar perhaps to Europa’s underground ocean. Now, new analysis is providing a more detailed look at the chemical makeup of this unique alien environment and its potential to support life.

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About that ‘mystery rock’ on Mars: no it’s not a plant, but…

Microscopic Imager (MI) closeup view of Pinnacle Island showing the whitish colouring around the edges and the darker appearing "jelly" interior. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Microscopic Imager (MI) closeup view of Pinnacle Island showing the whitish colouring around the edges and the darker appearing “jelly” interior. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

There has been a lot of discussion the past few days about that lawsuit filed against NASA for supposedly covering up / failing to investigate evidence of life on Mars by the Opportunity rover. This all has to do of course with that “mystery rock” found by Opportunity, nicknamed Pinnacle Island, which somehow just appeared near the rover (most likely dislodged and kicked up by one of the wheels) a few weeks ago.

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Curiosity plays in a Martian sand dune

Close-up view of the edge of a Curiosity wheel track in the sand dune at Dingo Gap. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Close-up view of the edge of a Curiosity wheel track in the sand dune at Dingo Gap. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Curiosity has also been taking a lot of close-up images of the sand dune which the rover has “toe-dipped” into. The rover’s wheels have left very distinct impressions in the very fine-grained sand within the dune, while the outside of the dune has a denser “crust” covered with many small rounded grains, similar to other dunes seen by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Whether or not Curiosity will actually drive through the dune (if deemed safe) to the other side of Dingo Gap or just go around hasn’t been decided yet, but in the meantime there are lots of new images to enjoy.

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Dingo Gap: new panorama and a rockhound’s bonanza

Mastcam panorama of Dingo Gap. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Damia Bouic
Mastcam panorama of Dingo Gap from sol 528. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Damia Bouic

Dingo Gap has turned out to be quite an interesting place for the Curiosity rover, being both scenic and of great geological interest. Rocks of all sizes and shapes litter the landscape amid the cliffs and sand dunes and Curiosity is continuing to study this area before driving further south toward Mount Sharp. Another new panorama by Damia Bouic shows the scenery in stunning high resolution and there is also a great overview by Emily Lakdawalla on The Planetary Society blog.

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