It has been nearly a month and a half since the historic flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft, and now the mission team has selected its next target for exploration – a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69, which orbits the Sun about a billion miles further than Pluto. This will be the first time such a remote object in the Kuiper belt has been visited by a spacecraft from Earth.
We still don’t know if there is life elsewhere in the universe, but scientists are working on techniques to better understand how it may have originated anyway, in the event that such alien biology is indeed discovered, even if just simple microbes. Focusing on exoplanets, the research suggests that if multiple inhabited worlds were found, then researchers could look for patterns similar to those found in epidemics on Earth, which might provide evidence for panspermia, the theory that life could spread through our galaxy from one habitable planet to another.
The outer Solar System has been a busy place lately, with the ongoing Cassini mission at Saturn and New Horizons’ recent spectacular flyby of Pluto. Literally in-between those two worlds, however, it has been quiet for a long time now – the last time the ice giants Uranus and Neptune were visited was 26 years ago yesterday, when the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Neptune. There have been no new missions to these worlds since then, but if a new proposed mission gets the green light, that may change in the not-too-distant future.
Exactly two years from today, on Aug. 21, 2017, a rare total solar eclipse will be seen again in the skies of the United States, racing east from Oregon to South Carolina. For a brief couple of minutes, the skies will darken as the Moon passes in front of the Sun, revealing the Sun’s corona, which is not normally visible in daylight, to millions of people as it crosses coast to coast for the first time in nearly a century. A total solar eclipse is one of the greatest sights in nature, not to be missed, and many are already making plans to witness the event.
After extensive investigations of rock layers in Marias Pass, a shallow valley near the base of Mount Sharp, the Curiosity rover is now heading southwest again, to continue gradually climbing the lower slopes of the mountain. Marias Pass is a region with rocks and ground which contain high levels of silica and hydrogen, more evidence that there used to be a lot more water here than there is now.
There are a couple new views of the foothills on Mount Sharp from the Curiosity rover, and they are beautiful. Many layers, mesas and buttes are visible, reminiscent of the American southwest. Curiosity will keep getting closer in the weeks and months ahead. Image processing by Lars (@LarsTheWanderer).
The existence of neon gas in our Moon’s ultra-thin atmosphere has been confirmed for the first time, by NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft. Its presence had been theorized for decades, but has now finally been confirmed and found to be relatively abundant, even though it’s not nearly enough for the Moon to actually glow like a neon sign.
The Gemini Planet Imager, a new telescopic instrument designed to find, image, and study faint, young planets orbiting bright stars, has discovered its first exoplanet: a young Jupiter-like planet called 51 Eridani b which orbits the star 51 Eridani, about 100 light-years away. Thought to be similar to a younger version of Jupiter, it should help astronomers learn more about how planetary systems form.
A beautiful and unique view of the Moon passing in front of the Earth as seen from the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite. The far side of the Moon, never seen from Earth, is visible here as the Moon passes between the satellite and Earth. The video animation is here. The images were taken between 3:50 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. EDT on July 16, 2015 from 1,609,000 kilometres (1,000,000 miles) away.
NASA’s next Mars rover is due to launch in July or August 2020, and the number of potential landing sites has now been narrowed down by scientists to eight locations. Out of an initial list of 21 targets, eight sites have been chosen as candidate landing sites for the Mars 2020 Rover. Due to land on Mars in February 2021, the rover will search for rocks which could hold possible evidence of past life on the planet.