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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New images: Dingo Gap and the ‘Firepit’

View of Dingo Gap on sol 527. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
View of Dingo Gap on sol 527. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

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!).

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Curiosity arrives at Dingo Gap

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View of Dingo Gap on sol 527. The interesting “rock ring” is just a short ways straight ahead. Click for larger view. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Curiosity is now at Dingo Gap, and the new images show the sand dunes and rocks in great detail. That includes the interesting “rock ring” mentioned earlier, just in front of the largest sand dune. Curiosity will drive right up to the sand dune (and presumably “rock ring”) in the next day or so, so even better images should be available soon!

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Curiosity closing in on Dingo Gap

Panoramic image of Dingo Gap, with some of the hills of the Gale crater rim in the background. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Olivier de Goursac
Panoramic image of Dingo Gap, with some of the hills of the Gale crater rim in the background. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Olivier de Goursac

The Curiosity rover is now getting a lot closer to Dingo Gap, that interesting opening between two rocky ledges just a short ways to the west. Small sand dunes and rocks cover the ground in DG. The image above is a beautiful panorama of DG by Olivier de Goursac assembled from several separate rover images. The image below was taken closer to DG, showing more detail in the rocks and dunes. There is also a curious little oval-shaped ring of rock just in front of the largest dune on the left side of the image; it looks similar to some of the other “bubble” formations seen previously. Is it the same or something different? We should be even closer in the next day or two to see more… See also updates here.

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Curiosity headed to ‘Dingo Gap’

Dingo Gap, a short ways to the west of Curiosity's current position. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Dingo Gap, a short ways to the west of Curiosity’s current position. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Curiosity rover is going to take a slight detour to the west to cross through a gap between two rocky ledges, now nicknamed Dingo Gap (also “the chute”). The scenic feature was noticed a few days ago and there is a smooth-looking sand dune spanning the opening. Will be interesting to see up close! Then the journey southward to Mount Sharp continues…

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