Over the past few years, numerous orbiters, landers, and rovers have been sent to Mars, revealing the world as never before. There is, however, something else which hasn’t been done yet: a helicopter, airplane, or balloon. An airborne probe could provide stunning views of the Martian surface between those of a lander/rover and an orbiter at much higher altitude. The concept has been considered and tested to some degree, and now it may be moving closer to becoming a reality. The latest studies involve the possibility of sending a small helicopter-like drone along with the Mars 2020 Mission rover.
One of NASA’s primary objectives, and the one which most excites the general public, is the search for evidence of life elsewhere, whether in our own Solar System or on some distant exoplanet. However, the best way to go about that is a subject of much debate. Now, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have come up with a new proposal: a “Chemical Laptop,” a miniaturized portable laboratory which would look for signs of materials associated with life (at least as we know it), such as amino acids.
Mars is often referred to as a desert world, being bone-dry for the most part, with dust and sand blanketing most of the surface. Some regions are covered in vast sand dunes, reminiscent of deserts like the Sahara on Earth, only much colder. Gale crater, where the Curiosity rover landed in 2012, features extensive dune fields around the base of Mount Sharp, and the rover is now approaching some of them for the first time; their dark color makes them stand out starkly against the surrounding terrain. These dunes are also still active, meaning they are still mobile and shaped by the wind, not just old “fossil” (petrified) dunes which are no longer active.
Phobos is the largest of Mars’ two tiny moons, but 50 million years from now, that may no longer be the case. According to new research, Phobos is gradually being pulled apart by Mars’ gravity and will eventually be destroyed. The unusual long grooves on Phobos’ surface, which have been a puzzle for planetary scientists, are a key piece of evidence that point to eventual structural failure of this little worldlet.
Pluto is a small, cold world, but it is also turning out to be one of the most fascinating places in our Solar System – as reported this week at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in National Harbor, Maryland, images and other data have revealed possible ice volcanoes and other surprisingly diverse geology as well as weirdly spinning moons.
After having completed a wildly successful flyby of Pluto and its moons, the New Horizons spacecraft was given a new target, much farther out in the Kuiper Belt, a smaller space rock called 2014 MU69. Starting on Oct. 22, New Horizons was instructed to perform the first of four targeting maneuvers, which would be needed to guide the spacecraft toward its destination. Now, the fourth maneuver has been successfully completed, putting New Horizons firmly on the path for a January 2019 rendezvous with 2014 MU69.
The various rover and lander missions on Mars have provided unprecedented glimpses into the planet’s past, including geological history and environmental conditions. In many ways, ancient Mars was similar to Earth, with abundant water and volcanic activity. Now, new research has revealed that there was also another related Earth-like phenomenon: acid fog.
The Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed its deepest dive through the water vapour geysers of Enceladus and is now sending back some fantastic images of the event. These and subsequent images, as well as science data still to come, will help scientists better understand the incredible active geology occurring on this tiny, cold moon of Saturn.
Today, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, the Cassini spacecraft will make a historic close flyby (dubbed “E21”) of Saturn’s tiny icy moon Enceladus, not only passing very close to the surface, but also making the deepest dive yet through the water vapour geysers which erupt from the south pole. These plumes are connected to a global ocean of salty water deep below the surface ice, which may be a habitable environment for some form of life.