First exomoon found? Astronomers optimistic but urge caution

Artist’s conception of a large Earth-like exomoon orbiting a giant gaseous exoplanet. Image Credit: Avatar/20th Century Fox

Exoplanets are being found so frequently now that they have become commonplace. But what about exomoons? As might be expected, they are much harder to detect, being typically much smaller than most planets. There have been tantalizing hints but nothing conclusive so far. That may be about to change soon, however. Astronomers from Columbia University have reported the possible discovery of the first exomoon – but they stress that it is still unconfirmed and just a candidate at this point.

Read More…

Fly over Pluto and Charon for second anniversary of New Horizons’ historic visit

Pluto is a world of wonders, with vast glaciers and plains of nitrogen ice, mountains of water ice capped with methane snow, ancient rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen, massive “ice spikes” reaching 500 metres tall (similar to Penitentes on Earth but much larger), a possible subsurface ocean and a hazy blue atmosphere. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It was two years ago today that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft became the first-ever probe to visit Pluto in the cold, outer fringes of the Solar System. To help celebrate the occasion, NASA has posted a new video of the epic flyby, when the spacecraft soared over the tall mountains and vast icy plains of this small but active world.

Read More…

Joint NASA/ESA mission proposed to search for life on Europa

Ocean world: new proposed mission would search for evidence of life in Europa’s subsurface water ocean. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

Europa is one of the most fascinating places in the Solar System, and is considered to be at or near the top of the list of worlds to search for possible evidence of life. Beneath its outer ice crust lies a deep and dark salty ocean, thought to be quite to Earth’s own oceans. Could that ocean be inhabited, even if just by microbes? Scientists want to know, and now a new proposal calls for a joint orbiter/lander mission between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), to try to answer that question.

Read More…

Nearing the end: Cassini prepares for spectacular ‘Grand Finale’ orbits at Saturn

Cassini is now entering the Grand Finale phase of the mission, which will end on Sept. 15, 2017, after the spacecraft plunges between the planet and rings 22 times. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn has been one of the most successful and awe-inspiring ever, studying the giant ringed planet and its many moons since 2004. But now, scientists are preparing for what everyone knew would come eventually – the end of Cassini’s excursions throughout the Saturn system. Yesterday, NASA held a news conference to celebrate what Cassini has accomplished and outline what will happen during the next few months, culminating with the end of the mission in September.

Read More…