Giant cloud at Titan’s south pole is toxic and freezing cold

View from Cassini of the huge polar vortex cloud over Titan’s south pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/University of Arizona/SSI/Leiden Observatory and SRON

View from Cassini of the huge polar vortex cloud over Titan’s south pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/University of Arizona/SSI/Leiden Observatory and SRON

Titan is the only moon in the solar system known to have a dense atmosphere, and while similar to Earth’s atmosphere in some ways, such as being rich in nitrogen, it also holds surprises for planetary scientists. Analysis of data from Cassini of a huge cloud which hovers over the moon’s south pole shows that it is both toxic and colder than expected.

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Image Gallery: Mars as seen by Mars Orbiter

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View of Mars from the Mars Orbiter spacecraft. Image Credit: ISRO/Ted Stryk

A beautiful new image of Mars taken from orbit by India’s Mars Orbiter spacecraft. Clouds, dust storms and the mottled surface of the planet itself can all be seen in this view. Thanks to Ted Stryk for colour enhancement of original ISRO image. More information about the Mars Orbiter mission is available here.

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It’s back! ‘Mystery Island’ in Titan sea makes unexpected reappearance

Three radar images, taken from April 2007 to August 2014, showing how the “mystery island” in Ligeia Mare has changed in appearance over time. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

Three radar images, taken from April 2007 to August 2014, showing how the “mystery island” in Ligeia Mare has changed in appearance over time. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

The mystery of an unusual feature in one of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas, dubbed the “mystery island,” has taken an interesting turn. After apparently disappearing following its initial discovery in 2013, it has now reappeared and has changed in appearance and size, as well.

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Image Gallery: more oddities from Curiosity

The small sphere, maybe a cm or two across. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The “ball,” a small spherical stone, about a cm or two across. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As the Curiosity rover was approaching the flat rock outcrop called Pahrump Hills, where it is currently drilling again, it spotted a few more interesting features. These include the “ball,” a small round spherical stone, about a cm or two across, which resembles the “blueberry” concretions seen by the Opportunity rover in Meridiani (like the ones in the image at the top of the blog sidebar). The Meridiani ones were all over the place though, while this one seems to be all by itself.

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Landing site selected for first-ever attempt to land on a comet

Landing site J, marked by the white + sign, on the head of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Landing site J, marked by the white + sign, on the head of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

A landing site has now been chosen for the Rosetta spacecraft’s lander, Philae, on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, it was announced yesterday morning. After several candidate landing sites had been considered, site J has now been selected for the daring landing later in November. It will be the first-ever attempt to actually land on a comet.

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‘We’re Here!': Curiosity rover arrives at Mount Sharp on Mars

The hills beckon: the mesas and buttes in the foothills of Mount Sharp where Curiosity will soon be exploring. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The hills beckon: the mesas and buttes in the foothills of Mount Sharp where Curiosity will soon be exploring. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After a long, and at times risky two-year journey, the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity has reached the base of the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, the primary destination since its landing back in 2012. Mount Sharp is about the same height as Mount Rainier on Earth and sits in the middle of the expansive Gale crater. The arrival was announced on Thursday, Sept. 11 at a NASA telecon which discussed Curiosity’s achievements so far and what else now awaits at the mountain.

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Image Gallery: Rosetta ‘selfie’

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Photo Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

A nice “selfie” image from the Rosetta spacecraft, with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in the background. :-) More information here.

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Image Gallery: speckled rocks in Owens Valley

Brightly speckled rocks overturned by the rover's wheels at the edge of Owens Valley. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cropped image of brightly speckled rocks overturned by the rover’s wheels at the edge of Owens Valley. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some interesting images taken on sol 739 by the Curiosity rover on Mars, at the entrance to Owens Valley. Some of the rocks here were overturned by the rover’s wheels and three of them here have a very speckled appearance with white spots. No word yet on what ChemCam analysis may have shown, but perhaps other geologists have some idea as to what these are?

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Plate tectonics may increase chances for life on Europa

Europa, with its subsurface ocean, and now evidence for plate tectonics, is a primary goal of exploration in the search for alien life. Processed image copyright: Ted Stryk. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ted Stryk

Europa, with its subsurface ocean, and now evidence for plate tectonics, is a primary goal of exploration in the search for alien life. Processed image copyright: Ted Stryk. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ted Stryk

Jupiter’s moon Europa is a fascinating little world, but particularly so for one reason: water. It’s deep alien ocean underneath the surface ice is reminiscent of our own planet, and since our oceans and seas are teeming with life, even beneath the ice at the poles, could Europa’s ocean also harbor life of some kind? Now, another discovery shows that Europa may be similar to Earth in yet another way, and one that could bolster the chances of life even more: plate tectonics. The new results were just published in Nature Geoscience on Sep. 7, 2014.

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Rainfall on Titan may create propane aquifers, study suggests

Illustration of a cross-section of Titan’s surface and near-subsurface, showing the surface lakes/seas, underground aquifers, clathrate layers, and icy crust. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Illustration of a cross-section of Titan’s surface and near-subsurface, showing the surface lakes/seas, underground aquifers, clathrate layers, and icy crust. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is a very alien yet eerily Earth-like world, with rain, rivers, lakes, and seas; seen from above, the landscape has a familiar look to it. But those lakes, seas, and rivers are fed by a different kind of rainfall – liquid methane/ethane. It is far too cold on the surface for liquid water, but the liquid hydrocarbons nicely fill in for H20 in Titan’s “water cycle.” Now, a new study shows how this rainfall interacts with and changes underground aquifers.

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