NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has just successfully completed its tenth ring crossing at Saturn, on June 23, which brings it almost halfway through the Grand Finale – the last phase of the mission, which will end on Sept. 15, 2017. This leaves twelve more ring crosses to go before the end of the mission. There may not be a lot of time left for Cassini, but these last close flybys of Saturn are providing views and data never before possible – a crowning achievement for a mission which has already completely changed our understanding of the giant ringed planet and its moons.
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.
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.
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.
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.