First breaks seen in treads on Curiosity rover’s wheels, but the journey continues

MAHLI view on sol 1641 of two of the raised treads (grousers) on the left middle wheel of the Curiosity rover which recently broke, including the one seen partially detached at the top of the wheel. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As the Curiosity rover continues its traverse among the buttes and sand dunes of Gale crater, you would expect to see some wear and tear after a few years. The rover’s wheels have naturally taken the brunt of that, with small dents and holes appearing in the solid aluminum. But now, new damage has been seen for the first time, breaks in the raised treads on the wheels, called grousers. While not unexpected, and not a mission-stopper by any means, it does show how the wheels, and the rover overall, have been aging since landing in 2012.

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Titan’s lakes and seas may be fizzy with patches of nitrogen bubbles

Radar image from Cassini of the northern hemisphere methane/ethane lakes and seas on Titan, as seen on Feb. 17, 2017. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s moon Titan is the only other body in the Solar System besides Earth known to have liquids on its surface. In Titan’s case, they are rivers, lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons (methane/ethane) instead of water. There is even methane/ethane rain, which further mimics Earth’s hydrological cycle. For the most part, the lakes and seas are fairly smooth, with only small amounts of wave activity. But now, new research suggests that those lakes and seas might be quite fizzy at times – with periodic bursts of nitrogen bubbles.

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NASA’s new Europa mission formally named ‘Europa Clipper’

Artist’s conception of Europa Clipper during a flyby of Europa. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s been a long time coming, but NASA’s new mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa now has a formal name: Europa Clipper. The spacecraft, to be launched in the early 2020s, will conduct multiple close flybys of the moon, with the goal of determining just how habitable it actually is. With a global salty ocean just beneath its icy crust, Europa is thought to be one of the best places in the Solar System to search for possible alien life.

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Enceladus’ ice-covered ocean closer to surface than previously thought

Enceladus as seen by Cassini. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

When it comes to places in the Solar System to search for possible alien life, Saturn’s moon Enceladus is now right near the top of the list. Like Jupiter’s moon Europa, it has a subsurface ocean of water, and even plumes/geysers of water vapour which erupt from fissures in the icy surface near the south pole. Those plumes contain organics as discovered by the Cassini probe and there is evidence for hydrothermal activity on the ocean floor, just like on Earth. The fissures are warmed by heat from below, and now there is evidence that some of them are even warmer than expected, meaning that water could be closer to the surface than previously thought.

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Venus beckons part 2: A new NASA collaborative mission with Russia?

Artist’s conception of the Venera-D spacecraft in orbit around Venus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Last week, Planetaria reported on why NASA should return to Venus, and new technology being developed to help make that happen, especially as in longer-lived landers or rovers. With its extremely hostile conditions, Venus has been much less of a priority in more recent years, at least in terms of surface missions, despite it being Earth’s closest planetary neighbour. But now there may be more impetus towards a new mission – not one that NASA would do alone, but rather a joint mission with Russia, known as Venera-D.

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Cassini returns stunning new close-up images of Saturn’s ‘ravioli’ moon and rings

New image of Saturn’s tiny moon Pan, which orbits inside the Encke Gap of Saturn’s rings. A thin “skirt” or ridge of material surrounds the moon’s equator, giving it a “ravioli” or “dumpling” appearance. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Ian Regan

NASA’s Cassini mission may be entering its last several months now, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any more cool science discoveries to be made. Some amazing new images were just posted of one of Saturn’s tiniest moons, Pan. This small asteroid-like object orbits Saturn within a gap in the rings and so is known as a ring moon. Scientists had a basic idea of what it looked like before, kind of like a walnut in earlier Cassini images, but the new images show it in much more detail and reveal how odd-looking it really is – more like a giant ravioli or dumpling. There have also been some incredible new close-up images of Saturn’s rings, as Cassini continues the Ring-Grazing Orbits phase of its mission. The images reveal intricate details never seen before in the structure of the rings.

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NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope continues observations of TRAPPIST-1 planetary system

Artist’s conception of some of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system. Image by ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

The seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 generated a lot of excitement when their discovery was announced last month. This is the largest collection of Earth-sized worlds in one planetary system found so far, and some of them are well within the star’s “habitable zone” where temperatures could allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces. Little else is known about the actual conditions on these planets so far, but NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has also been observing TRAPPIST-1 in recent weeks.

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Venus beckons: Why NASA should return and how new tech will help

First colour images from the surface of Venus (Soviet Venera missions). Image Credit: NASA National Space Science Data Center/Harvard Micro Observatory/Don P. Mitchell

The Solar System has been a busy place in recent years, with missions to a diverse range of worlds, from Mars, Jupiter and Saturn to distant Pluto and even comets and asteroids. Most of these have been NASA spacecraft, which continues to lay the path to exploring such distant places. There are, however, some places which have been visited in the past, decades ago, but now are seemingly no longer a priority, such as Uranus and Neptune. But there is another planet which is actually Earth’s closest neighbour, yet was only last visited in the 1970s and 1980s, by American and Soviet spacecraft – Venus.

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MAVEN spacecraft makes evasive maneuver to avoid impact with Mars’ moon Phobos

Artist’s illustration of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. Image Credit: NASA

Mars is a busy place these days, with multiple rovers and orbiters exploring the planet. Out of the several spacecraft currently in orbit, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) is a fairly recent addition, having been at Mars for just over two years now. Usually, things are pretty routine, but this week the spacecraft had to make an unplanned evasive maneuver – to avoid a collision with one of Mars’ two small moons, Phobos!

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