After having completed its successful encounter with Pluto and its moons last July, the New Horizons spacecraft is now setting its sights on its next target much farther out in the Kuiper Belt: a tiny rocky world called 2014 MU69, which is less than 30 miles in diameter and orbits nearly 1 billion miles past Pluto, in the far outer reaches of the Solar System.
There has been a lot of discussion during the past several days regarding a discovery by the Kepler Space Telescope, which, according to some, may be the first evidence for advanced extraterrestrial intelligence, or perhaps just a weird but natural phenomenon instead.
It has been three months since the historic close flyby of Pluto by New Horizons, and new discoveries have been coming in quickly about this previously little-known world. The first paper detailing these results so far, “The Pluto System: Initial Results from its Exploration by New Horizons,” has now been published in Science. New Horizons has revealed Pluto and its moons to be more complex and geologically active than ever thought.
The Cassini spacecraft has just successfully completed the first of three final close flybys of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and has sent back some spectacular images of the northern regions of this icy and watery world, the best views ever seen so far. Two more upcoming flybys will dive back into the water vapor plumes at the south pole and measure how much heat is emanating from the tiny moon’s interior.
Starting yesterday, the Cassini spacecraft is making the first of three scheduled close flybys of the moon Enceladus, which will provide the first good look at the north polar region of the tiny, water-spraying moon. These will be the final close-up views of this fascinating world during Cassini’s mission, and may help scientists to better understand the potential habitability of Enceladus, which has become a primary target of interest in the search for evidence of life elsewhere.
Last week there was the exciting news that Mars still has flows of briny water occurring now, and this week there is more water-related news: additional findings from the Curiosity rover that the huge Gale crater was once a lake or series of lakes a long time ago. Curiosity had already found evidence that there used to be shallow lakes and streams in this area, but the new data confirms this and suggests that the lake(s) once filled Gale crater and were long-lasting, explaining the formation of Mount Sharp in the middle of the crater and also providing a potentially habitable environment for life.
Planetary debris disks, or protoplanetary disks, are some of the most interesting phenomena in astronomy – these giant clouds of dust and gas surrounding young stars are the birthplaces of new planets. Now, astronomers studying one of these disks have found structures never seen before, giant “ripples” which are arch-like or wave-like in appearance.
As new images and data continue to be sent back from the New Horizons spacecraft, scientists have quickly learned that Pluto is a world full of surprises. Today, the mission team revealed that Pluto indeed is a weirdly colourful place – the latest images show blue skies and red water ice. Almost like home, although not quite.
Looking ahead to future planetary missions, NASA has selected five new science investigations for refinement over the next year. Later, one or two of those missions will be chosen to actually be launched, perhaps as early as 2020. The selections are part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which had requested the proposals in November 2014. Initially, 27 proposals had been submitted, from which the five current finalists were chosen. The five proposals would study Venus, near-Earth objects, an unusual metallic asteroid and Trojan asteroids.
Another beautiful panoramic image of the foothills of Mount Sharp, taken by Curiosity on Sep. 9, 2015. The mesas, buttes and valleys can be seen in greater detail as the rover keeps getting closer. The image has been white-balanced to show the terrain under more Earth-like lighting conditions. The full-size version of the image is available here.