Saturn’s moon Titan is one of the murkiest places in the Solar System; its thick smog-like hydrocarbon haze in the upper atmosphere shrouds the entire moon, much like Venus’ perpetual cloud cover. Titan’s surface is completely hidden by this orange-ish haze, making it look rather bland and uninteresting. This unique environment may provide valuable clues to the nature of atmospheres on distant exoplanets, however, according to new findings from scientists with the Cassini mission.
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There is some good news for planet-hunters this week: The proposed K2 mission extension for the Kepler Space Telescope has been been approved by NASA. The approval, based on a recommendation from the agency’s 2014 Senior Review, means that the Kepler mission will have at least two more years to continue its search for exoplanets, after having already found thousands of planetary candidates and nearly a thousand confirmed planets to date.
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.
Meteors flashing across the sky are a common sight here on Earth, but of course they are not limited to only our planet; these bits of rocky debris, smaller pieces of asteroids and comets known as meteoroids, can be found just about everywhere in the solar system (becoming meteors when entering and burning up in the atmosphere). Now, the Cassini spacecraft has observed similar impacts occurring in another very different and far-away place: the rings of Saturn!
For any future astronauts who land on Mars, there is one piece of advice that shouldn’t even need to be said: keep your helmet on! Mars has an atmosphere, like Earth, but it is much thinner than ours (and mostly carbon dioxide), and so is unbreathable by humans. However, evidence has continued to grow that Mars’ atmosphere was once a lot thicker than it is now, early on in the planet’s history. Recent findings from the Curiosity rover have added to that evidence, as well as showing not only how Mars has lost most of the atmosphere that it once had, but also that the atmosphere which remains is still very active.
You may be familiar with the phrase “follow the water” when it comes to the search for life on Mars, and for good reason – any place on Earth where there is liquid water, there is life. So, logically, the best places to look for evidence of past or present life on Mars would be where there has been liquid water in the past (or perhaps even still is, underground). But now there is also another approach being taken, in terms of possible present-day habitability in particular: follow the salt.
The Dawn spacecraft left behind the giant asteroid Vesta last September, and is now en route to the even bigger dwarf planet Ceres, but scientists are still busy studying all of the data that was sent back to Earth while it was orbiting Vesta for over a year. And as often happens while exploring these new worlds, they have made a surprising discovery: long, sinuous gullies on the walls of geologically younger craters.