Coming just after the news of the ringed asteroid and new dwarf planet, some more exciting news from the outer Solar System was announced last Thursday, and this will be of particular interest to those hoping to find evidence of alien life elsewhere in our solar system. Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus, famous for its geysers of water vapour spewing out into space, has long been suspected of harboring an internal ocean, just like Jupiter’s moon Europa (and possibly others). Now it seems that scientists have the evidence they’ve been looking for, thanks to new findings based on data returned by the Cassini spacecraft, still in orbit around Saturn.
When it comes to planetary rings, what do you think of? Saturn is the first obvious thing that comes to mind, with its famous majestic ring system surrounding the gas giant planet. The other gas and ice giants – Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune – also have rings, although not as spectacular as Saturn’s. The smaller rocky planets in our solar system are all lacking rings unfortunately. But now, a new set of rings has been discovered for the first time – not around a planet, but an asteroid!
When it comes to presenting space exploration and science to the general public, there is one program that continues to stand out, setting the standard for how it should be done: Cosmos, hosted by the late Carl Sagan, in 1980 (who passed away in 1996). Both visually captivating and filled with scientific facts, the 13-part series took viewers on a journey through the universe, while explaining our place in it in a way that was easy to understand by non-scientists. Now, in 2014, the landmark series has been reborn for a new generation.
For scientists and space enthusiasts who have been advocating a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, there was some good news this week from NASA. A mission to Europa has been officially included in the NASA 2015 Budget request. The inclusion is a reason for cautious optimism; while naming it as a target for a future robotic mission in the 2020s, NASA also wants to do that mission as cheaply as possible. Given the current economic climate, that may not be surprising, but what would reduced cost mean in terms of science?
This is a nice “selfie” photo that the Rosetta spacecraft took of itself as it flew past Mars in 2007. Rosetta is still en route to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and will start approaching it in May of this year, then will enter orbit around the comet and later deploy a lander in November. Hopefully this will be the view that astronauts have in the not-too-distant future.
There was more exciting exoplanet news this week from the Kepler mission: the space telescope has confirmed 715 new exoplanets! This brings the current total number of such worlds to 1,766, of which 961 have been found by Kepler. There are still also 3,601 other Kepler planetary candidates awaiting confirmation.
The debate over possible evidence for life on Mars is one of the most hotly debated subjects in space science, and some news released today, February 27, is sure to add fuel to the fire. Studies of a Martian meteorite, known as Yamato 000593 (Y000593), have revealed signs of past liquid water activity as well as possible evidence of actual biological processes.
This is a beautiful image of Jupiter’s moon Io, taken by the Galileo spacecraft on September 19, 1997. Io is slightly larger than Earth’s moon and is the most volcanically active place in the solar system. Sulfur dioxide and various other sulfurous materials blanket the surface, creating a colourful landscape on this “pizza moon” as it is sometime referred to. A lovely but deadly environment!
This is another beautiful new panoramic image from Damia Bouic, showing Mount Sharp in the distance and thinly layered outcrops in the foreground on sol 548. Curiosity has just passed through Violet Valley and is making good progress toward the base of Mount Sharp, which is still about 5 kilometres (3 miles) away. The full-size version of the image is here.
The possibility of an ancient Martian ocean is an enticing one, and there has been growing evidence that it did indeed exist (dubbed Oceanus Borealis), covering most of the northern hemisphere, and about a third of the planet, billions of years ago. Now, some new observations of boulders in what likely used to be the ocean bottom have given scientists additional clues as to what this ocean was like, it was announced this past Saturday (February 15, 2014).