NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been busy orbiting Jupiter and providing fantastic new views of this giant world, something not possible since the previous Galileo mission. While almost flawless so far, the mission has had a few hiccups recently. Juno entered safe mode just shortly before its next close flyby of Jupiter this week, apparently the result of a software performance monitor inducing a reboot of the spacecraft’s onboard computer. The spacecraft is otherwise healthy and Juno is conducting its own software diagnostics to determine the specific cause of the problem. Before this, Juno took its first observations deep into Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere.
Water on Mars is one of the most talked about and controversial subjects in planetary science. It is now well-known that Mars used to be a much wetter place than it is now, although just how much water there was, and how long it lasted, is still a matter of considerable debate. Direct evidence from rovers, landers, and orbiters, including observations of ancient riverbeds, gullies, and lakes, has shown how at one time Mars was much more Earth-like than it is today. Rovers like Curiosity, Opportunity, and Spirit have actually driven over long-dried-up lakebeds, salty playa lakes, and regions of ancient geothermal activity such as hot steam vents. Now, the Opportunity rover is going to visit another feature not yet explored by any other rover or lander: a gully thought to have been carved by water millions or billions of years ago.
Ever since first landing in August 2012, the Curiosity rover has helped to revolutionize our understanding of Mars and has seen some incredible scenery along the way. It has travelled across an ancient lakebed and gazed at towering sand dunes and buttes, and now it is ready to begin the next phase in its mission: gradually ascending the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, the massive mountain sitting in the middle of Gale crater. The layers in the mountain will provide more clues as to how the Martian environment changed from being much wetter than it is now, to the dry but cold desert we see today. This next chapter in the rover’s mission is part of a two-year extension which began Oct. 1, 2016.
Intriguing new findings about Jupiter’s moon Europa were announced today by NASA, and while they don’t involve any direct evidence for life, they do provide more information on how scientists could better search for such evidence, without having to drill through the icy crust to the ocean below. The new observations, by the Hubble Space Telescope, have added to the evidence for active water vapour plumes on Europa – an exciting possibility, since they would possibly originate from the subsurface ocean, similar to the plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And just like the Cassini spacecraft has already done at Enceladus, those plumes – geysers really – could be sampled directly by a future spacecraft such as Europa Clipper.
The Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter has been sending back some beautiful new views of Jupiters north and south poles, not seen before in detail until now. This is still very early in the mission and there will be many more and better ones to come! The intricate swirls of storms and other clouds make the polar regions distinctly different from the banded equatorial and mid-latitude regions which we are used to seeing. Thanks to Matt Brealey for the use of his processed NASA images. More of his work is on his blog The State of Space.
It has been 14 months since the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto and its moons, but data still continues to come in, and new discoveries are still being made. The dwarf planet has surprised scientists by its geological activity, for the most part unexpected for such a small, cold body. Now two new results are adding to the mystery of Pluto: the detection of x-rays emanating from the surface and new evidence that Pluto “spray-paints” the north pole of its largest moon Charon a rusty red colour.
Mars has often been compared to deserts on Earth, and for good reason: it is pretty much a barren landscape with a lot of sand and rocks everywhere. Sometimes, the similarities can be quite striking, and the terrain in Gale crater where the Curiosity rover is roaming around is a good example. The rover is currently in a region of stunning scenery – buttes and mesas which are very reminiscent of ones on Earth. This area could easily be mistaken for the American southwest if it weren’t for the dusty, pinkish sky and complete lack of vegetation. Curiosity is now getting a close-up look at these formations, which are not only beautiful but record a long and fascinating geological history.
This is a great 10-part overview of Boyajian’s Star (Tabby’s Star/KIC 8462852) by astronomer and astrophysicist Jason Wright, outlining the various hypotheses to date to explain this weird star observed by the Kepler Space Telescope. Whatever is causing the unusual short-term and long-term dimming is still unknown.
NASA’s InSight mission to Mars will now go ahead as planned, it was announced today. After a delay due to a vacuum leak last December, with a launch originally slated for last March, it was unclear whether the mission would still be given the green light for a later launch. But now NASA has approved a launch for spring 2018.
It may sound cliche, but the question ‘Are we alone?’ is still one that captures the imagination of many people, including of course, scientists. With the now regular discovery of exoplanets orbiting other stars, the prospect that there may be other intelligent life out there somewhere (or any kind of life) has only become more exciting and compelling. When it comes to intelligent extraterrestrials, SETI is a name that has become part of our modern culture, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. SETI focuses on looking for radio and optical signals that could originate from an advanced society, a technique that in itself has generated much debate. After several decades of searching, a definitive signal has yet to be found, but there have been tantalizing possibilities. Unfortunately, none of those have yet panned out as the signal. Now, another interesting radio signal is making the news – could it be the evidence scientists are looking for or is it another dead-end?