New Horizons team successfully observes transit of next KBO target, and clouds on Pluto!

Four members of the South African observation team, who helped to track the occultation of a star by the KBO called 2014 MU69, the next target for the New Horizons spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Henry Throop

With the Pluto flyby now well behind them, the New Horizons team has been busy preparing for the next encounter, the small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) called 2014 MU69. New Horizons is scheduled to fly past 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019, and it will be the farthest Solar System body to ever be visited so far. From June 2-3, astronomers in Argentina and South Africa pointed their telescopes at 2014 MU69, hoping to catch its “shadow” moving across a background star as it transited the star (also known as a stellar occultation). This would help determine the object’s exact size and allow the mission team to fine-tune the planned flyby. Back at Pluto, there is more evidence, from data gathered by New Horizons during the flyby, for clouds in Pluto’s thin atmosphere.

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Grand Final part 4: Cassini completes eighth ring crossing, and a ‘tour of Saturn’s moons’

A haunting raw image view of Saturn and its rings taken on June 7, 2017 by Cassini. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As Cassini’s “Grand Finale” journey continues, the spacecraft has completed its eighth dive past the innermost rings of Saturn (known as a ring crossing), and there are now just under 100 days left until it plunges into the giant planet’s atmosphere, never to come back. Although time may be running out, Cassini continues to devour every drop of science data that it can, which builds upon other data that has transformed our view of the Saturnian system – a complex array of worlds like a miniature Solar System. This includes, of course, more fantastic images of Saturn and its rings and moons. The detail seen in the rings is nothing short of staggering.

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Aliens or comets? Has the ‘Wow!’ signal mystery finally been solved?

Illustration showing the location of the “Wow!” signal in 1977, from the direction of a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii, and where the comets were located and monitored. Image Credit: The Center for Planetary Science

The search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence is one of the most exciting pursuits in astronomy today. Needless to say, there is a lot of controversy and debate surrounding the topic, partly due to an event which happened in 1977 – the famous “Wow!” signal. The brief but unusual radio transmission was detected only once, and the debate over its origin has continued to this day. Now, a group of astronomers are claiming to have finally solved the mystery. According to their new study just published, the signal came not from aliens, but comets.

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New findings from Curiosity hint ancient Mars lake ‘favourable for different microbial life’

Mudstone lakebed sedimentary deposits seen by the Curiosity rover in Gale crater. The latest findings show that the lake in the crater was stratified and could have supported a wide variety of microorganisms. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Was Mars ever habitable? Did life ever actually exist there? Those are two of the biggest questions for planetary scientists and slowly but surely, we are getting closer to answering them. Well, the first one has been, thanks to the numerous orbiters, landers and rovers which have been sent to the Red Planet over the past few decades. Mars was indeed much more habitable than it is now, in the distant past, although we still don’t know if it was actually inhabited, two different things. Much of the data confirming past habitability has come from the Curiosity rover, which has been exploring an ancient lakebed in Gale crater, and now new findings suggest that this lake offered multiple types of microbe-friendly environments simultaneously. This is good news for the possibility that some form of life, even if just microscopic, did once exist there or perhaps even still does.

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A stormy, turbulent world: New science results from Juno reveal ‘whole new Jupiter’

Jupiter in all its glory: stunning view from Juno showing intricate details in the atmosphere of the gas giant. Image Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran

The first in-depth science results from the Juno mission at Jupiter were presented yesterday morning in a NASA media teleconference, and as referred to in the press release, they do indeed reveal “a whole new Jupiter.” The Solar System’s largest planet is incredibly active and complex, with polar cyclone storm systems as large as Earth, other storms which plunge deep down into the atmosphere and an immense, but lumpy, magnetic field. Juno has sent back the most detailed images ever taken of the planet, showing the atmospheric storms and other features, including Jupiter’s rings, as never before.

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