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 The Potential for Finding Life in a Europa Plume to do just that.
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.
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.
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.
After some technical problems with WordPress the past few days, the blog is now back online and basically restored, although unfortunately blog posts from about the past year have been lost. But at least it’s functioning again!
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.
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.
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.
Curiosity is now doing a complete examination of Dingo Gap, and sending back some beautiful new photos. The rover team hasn’t decided yet whether to try to cross though the largest sand dune which spreads across the middle of the Gap, and is about 1 metre (3 feet) tall. The dunes, cliffs and many different broken and jumbled rocks here make this a very scenic location. Of particular interest also is the “rock ring” beside the largest dune, and also now nicknamed by some as the “firepit” (thanks to Bill Dunford of the Riding with Robots blog for that!).