NASA’s InSight mission to Mars approved for spring 2018 launch

Artist’s conception of InSight on the surface of Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of InSight on the surface of Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

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Image Gallery: Curiosity at Murray Buttes (part 2)

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/
Sol 1431. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Thomas Appéré

The Curiosity rover is continuing to travel through the ancient and eroded buttes and mesas which are part of the Murray Buttes formation. Very reminiscent of the terrain in the desert regions of the American southwest. Included are a couple new panoramas, processed by Thomas Appéré. All images are available on the mission website.

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Does Pluto have a subsurface ocean? New research says probably

The discovery of huge faults on Pluto provides evidence for a possible liquid water ocean beneath the ice crust. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The discovery of huge faults on Pluto provides evidence for a possible liquid water ocean beneath the ice crust. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

So-called “waterworlds” have been found to be surprisingly common in the Solar System – small icy moons which have ice crusts but oceans of liquid water below the surface. These include Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede and Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, and possibly others. These moons are cold and very far from the Sun, but heated inside by the gravitational pull of their giant host planets and/or radioactivity. Now there’s another Solar System body which, even more surprisingly, some scientists think has a subsurface ocean: Pluto.

Read MoreDoes Pluto have a subsurface ocean? New research says probably

Image Gallery: Delicate rock formations on Naukluft Plateau

Long, spindly and delicate rock formations created by blowing sand. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Long, spindly and delicate rock formations created by blowing sand. Click image for larger version. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This image from the Curiosity rover on sol 1294 shows some very delicate rock formations on Naukluft Plateau, shaped by blowing Martian sand. The thin atmosphere and lower gravity also help in the formation of such spindly protrusions. Similar ones have also been seen before by the rover.

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Image Gallery: Conical hill and sand dunes in Ganges Chasma

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Conical hill and sand dunes in Ganges Chasma. Click for larger image. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Another odd but beautiful image of Mars, showing a cone-shaped hill with sand dunes wrapping around it. The formation is in the Ganges Chasma region, and the image was taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mars has a lot of diverse geology, and this is another good example of that. Original images are here.

Read MoreImage Gallery: Conical hill and sand dunes in Ganges Chasma

Pluto once had rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen, New Horizons data suggests

Artist’s conception of Pluto’s surface, with the distant Sun and largest moon Charon in the sky. The surface is frozen now, but evidence suggests that rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen once flowed here. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker
Artist’s conception of Pluto’s surface, with the distant Sun and largest moon Charon in the sky. The surface is frozen now, but evidence suggests that rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen once flowed here. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker

As has been discussed extensively now, New Horizons has revealed Pluto to be a place unlike any other in the Solar System, with vast plains and glaciers of nitrogen ice, tall mountains of solid water ice capped with methane snow, layers of haze in its atmosphere, and perhaps an ocean of water below the surface. Now, there is additional evidence that Pluto once had rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen on its surface, during times when the atmosphere was thicker than it is now. Just when you think Pluto can’t get any more bizarre, it does.

Read MorePluto once had rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen, New Horizons data suggests

The changing bright spots of Ceres: New evidence for geological activity?

Artist’s illustration of the brights spots Occator crater and elsewhere, based on a detailed map of the surface compiled from images taken from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres. New observations show that the bright spots change in brightness from day to night, suggesting that they change under the influence of sunlight as Ceres rotates, and may also indicate subsurface geological activity. Image Credit: ESO/L.Calçada/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/Steve Albers/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)
Artist’s illustration of the brights spots Occator crater and elsewhere, based on a detailed map of the surface compiled from images taken from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres. New observations show that the bright spots change in brightness from day to night, suggesting that they change under the influence of sunlight as Ceres rotates, and may also indicate subsurface geological activity. Image Credit: ESO/L.Calçada/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/Steve Albers/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Ceres is the king of the asteroid belt, being the largest object in that region of the Solar System, and the Dawn spacecraft has shown it to be a very interesting world. While it is relatively small, classified as a dwarf planet, and very cold being so far from the Sun, there are hints that it has been surprisingly geologically active in the past and perhaps still is. Superficially it resembles the Moon or Mercury, gray and covered in craters. But there are also canyons, hazes, and unusual bright spots. Those spots have become a focus of much interest for scientists, and now new studies indicate that they appear to change in brightness from day to night, and may be evidence of ongoing activity inside Ceres.

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