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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Ten years at Mars: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter celebrates a decade of discovery

Illustration of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as it entered orbit ten years ago. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Illustration of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as it entered orbit ten years ago. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The Martian rover Opportunity has become famous for its amazing longevity, but it is not the only one; orbiting spacecraft also usually enjoy long lifespans, and today the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is celebrating its 10th year exploring Mars from above. It has helped to revolutionize our understanding of Mars and its complex geological history as well as, of course, sending back thousands of incredible high-res images of the Martian surface.

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Dawn celebrates one year at Ceres with incredible new images of ‘Lonely Mountain’

View of Ahuna Mons from the low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

View of Ahuna Mons from the low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

It has been a year now since the Dawn spacecraft first reached the dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and during that time has shown Ceres to be a unique and complex little world. At first glance, Ceres just seems to be a heavily battered place, covered in craters like the Moon or Mercury, but a closer look reveals something more interesting: a small rocky world with large fractures, unusual “bright spots” randomly dispersed across the surface and an odd conical “mountain” which sits in isolation with nothing else like it around. Dawn has already acquired an enormous amount of data about Ceres, but now, in its lowest possible orbit, will continue to do for some time to come.

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New Horizons discovers methane ‘snow’ on Pluto’s mountain peaks

Methane “snow” on mountain peaks in the Cthulhu region of Pluto. The enhanced colour version of the inset image is on the left and the false colour version is on the right. The image covers an area 450 kilometres (280 miles) long by 225 kilometres (140 miles) wide. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Methane “snow” on mountain peaks in the Cthulhu region of Pluto. The enhanced colour version of the inset image is on the left and the false colour version is on the right. The image covers an area 450 kilometres (280 miles) long by 225 kilometres (140 miles) wide. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

As the data from New Horizons continues to come in, we are learning more about what an incredible little world Pluto really is, with tall mountains of rock-hard water ice, as well as glaciers and vast icy plains composed of nitrogen ice. In some ways, these features are visually reminiscent of similar ones on Earth, and now this week another cool discovery was revealed: methane snow on some of Pluto’s mountain peaks.

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Opportunity rover begins ‘mountain climbing’ up steep ridge at Endeavour crater

Panoramic view of Knudsen Ridge, where Opportunity has been climbing a steep 30 degree slope. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU/James Sorenson

Panoramic view of Knudsen Ridge, where Opportunity has been climbing a steep 30 degree slope. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU/James Sorenson

NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars may have been stealing the spotlight in recent years, but the other rover, Opportunity, is still going strong after 12 long years. Opportunity has survived the harsh environment and various challenges for much longer than anyone anticipated, and now is taking on a new task: climbing slopes as steep as 30 degrees while searching for deposits of clay minerals which had already been detected by orbiting spacecraft. The region where Opportunity landed, Meridiani Planum, is mostly flat plains, but now on the rugged edge of the huge Endeavour crater, the rover is becoming something of a mountain climber.

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Calling all artists: Send your artwork to asteroid Bennu on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission

Artist’s conception of OSIRIS-REx preparing to take a sample from the surface of Bennu. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Chris Meaney

Artist’s conception of OSIRIS-REx preparing to take a sample from the surface of Bennu. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Chris Meaney

This coming September, a new NASA spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, will be heading toward an asteroid to collect samples which will later be brought back to Earth. This is the first time for such a sample return mission to an asteroid by a U.S. spacecraft, but there’s also another unique aspect to this mission – artists, and space enthusiasts in general, are being invited to submit some of their work to be included onboard the spacecraft.

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New Horizons finds evidence for frozen ocean inside Pluto’s moon Charon

The canyons of Charon, some of which dwarf the Grand Canyon on Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The canyons of Charon, some of which dwarf the Grand Canyon on Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

One of the most surprising discoveries in recent years in the outer Solar System is that there are small moons which have oceans inside them. Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are now known to have global oceans of water beneath their icy crusts, and others are thought to as well, including Ganymede, Titan, and possibly others. These moons have a lot of ice and rock as well, and gravitational tugging and heating from the large gas giant planets helps maintain a deep layer of liquid water inside them, where otherwise they would most likely be frozen solid in the deep cold so far from the Sun. Now it seems that another moon also once had an ocean, although in this case it is thought to now be solid ice: Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

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Hubble Space Telescope analyzes atmosphere of super-Earth exoplanet for first time

Artist’s conception of 55 Cancri e, a searingly hot, carbon-rich world. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

Artist’s conception of 55 Cancri e, a searingly hot, carbon-rich world. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

Exoplanets are now being discovered by the thousands, but most are so far away that determining anything specific about their composition or atmosphere is currently very difficult. But technology keeps advancing, and scientists are now starting to be able to learn more about them, at least ones which are a bit closer to our own Solar System. One of the most common types of exoplanets are the “super-Earths,” which are larger and more massive than Earth but smaller than Uranus or Neptune. Now, astronomers have been able to analyze the atmosphere of one of these worlds for the first time.

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The ‘floating hills’ of Pluto: Icebergs in a frozen nitrogen sea

Icebergs on Pluto: The large blocks of water ice float in a “sea” of nitrogen ice and are thought to have broken off from the rugged and mountainous highlands. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Icebergs on Pluto: The large blocks of water ice float in a “sea” of nitrogen ice and are thought to have broken off from the rugged and mountainous highlands. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto is a tiny world and incredibly distant from the Sun, so it was a pleasant surprise for scientists last summer when the New Horizons spacecraft found that it is such a geologically active and dynamic place, with vast “seas” of nitrogen ice and glaciers, tall mountains of rock-hard water ice, and possible ice volcanoes. A new update this week focuses on some of the most interesting features discovered: iceberg-like blocks of water ice which “float” in the “seas” of softer nitrogen ice.

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NASA’s FY2017 budget request may delay SLS Europa mission several years

We are finally going back to Europa, but it may be a little later than originally planned. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

We are finally going back to Europa, but it may be a little later than originally planned. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

The recently announced new mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a highly anticipated return to this ocean world, may face a launch delay from 2022 to the late 2020s. The news comes amid the release yesterday of NASA’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, which provides substantially less funding than Congress had mandated last year.

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