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!).
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!
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.
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…