As Curiosity has continued to investigate the rock outcrops of Pahrump Hills near the base of Mount Sharp, it has found a variety of interesting textures on the rocks that should provide more clues to the conditions here a long time ago. Shown here are examples of rounded, raised “blisters” and many small elongated “hollows” which look similar to the vugs (where crystals had once formed) seen previously by the Opportunity rover. The hollows were revealed after Curiosity brushed off a layer of dust on the rock.
The Cassini spacecraft continues to make new discoveries about Titan’s methane seas and lakes, answering some questions but raising additional ones as well. As announced this week, Cassini has discovered two more of the unusual “magic islands” – bright features which seem to appear in the seas where they didn’t exist before – and has measured the depth of the largest Titanian sea.
The search for exoplanets is about to enter an exciting new phase, as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission has now been cleared for development by NASA. TESS will greatly expand the number of stars being observed for evidence of exoplanets orbiting them, as the next step forward from the Kepler space telescope and others which have already found thousands of such worlds outside of our own Solar System.
For the first time ever, the effects of a comet making a close flyby of Mars have been observed by spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet. The results of this event was announced at a media teleconference held on Friday, Nov. 7. As comet Siding Spring made its closest approach on Oct. 19, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and Mars Express spacecraft turned their attention to the small icy body from the safety of their orbits, studying the comet itself as well as its effects on the Martian atmosphere.
Saturn’s moon Titan is a very unique world, and the only place in the solar system known to have seas and lakes (liquid methane/ethane) on its surface, other than Earth. And just like our home world, if you look at them at the right moment from space, you can see sunlight gleaming off of them, as the Cassini spacecraft just did again on Aug. 21, 2014.
A beautiful new image of Earth and Moon from the Chinese Chang’e 5 T1 spacecraft.
Comets have been in the news a lot recently, with the ongoing investigation of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the Rosetta spacecraft and the close flyby of Mars by comet Siding Spring this past week. But there is also another comet discovery – one much further out from our solar system. With the help of the HARPS instrument, on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) 3.6-meter telescope, astronomers have identified nearly 500 comets orbiting the nearby star Beta Pictoris, as part of an unprecedented new survey of exocomets orbiting other stars.
Venus is one of the most inhospitable places in the Solar System, with temperatures hot enough to melt lead, crushing air pressure on the surface, and thick, toxic clouds perpetually hiding the planet itself from view. Now new research is helping to solve a long-standing mystery by showing that there may be frost on the surface. Not water frost, of course, given the conditions, but rather a bizarre frost composed of heavy metals.
It wasn’t that long ago that Earth was thought to be the only place in the Solar System capable of having liquid water oceans, but now we know of several moons that do as well, including Europa and Enceladus, and likely Titan and Ganymede as well. In all these cases, the oceans are below ground, similar to ocean water below ice sheets at the Earth’s poles. Now there is yet another moon which might be added to this special list: Saturn’s moon Mimas.
The Solar System is full of surprises. Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, is a baking hot world, as would be expected. It is one of the last places where you would think anything would or could be frozen, but things aren’t always as they seem. There has been tantalizing evidence already for water ice deposits in craters at Mercury’s north pole, and now the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around the small planet has visually confirmed it for the first time.