New Horizons finishes returning Pluto data to Earth before continuing farther into Kuiper Belt

Artist’s depiction of data being sent by New Horizons back to Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Artist’s depiction of data being sent by New Horizons back to Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

To say that the New Horizons mission has been a success would be a massive understatement; this first-ever spacecraft to visit Pluto has revolutionized our understanding of this distant, small world. Pluto and its moons are complex and active places, more so than thought possible by most scientists. Even though New Horizons flew past Pluto instead of orbiting it in July 2015, it still collected an enormous amount of information, which has taken more than a year to be sent back to Earth. That process is now complete, NASA just announced.

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Juno spacecraft exits safe mode, prepares for next close flyby of Jupiter in December

Artist’s conception of Juno orbiting Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of Juno orbiting Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA

As reported a few days ago, the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter had entered safe mode, a precautionary turning off of all but vital instruments and other components when a software performance monitor induced a reboot of the spacecraft’s onboard computer. Now, Juno has successfully exited safe mode and is otherwise healthy and ready to continue its exploration of Jupiter.

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Juno spacecraft peers deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere before entering safe mode

Artist’s conception of Juno orbiting Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of Juno orbiting Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been busy orbiting Jupiter and providing fantastic new views of this giant world, something not possible since the previous Galileo mission. While almost flawless so far, the mission has had a few hiccups recently. Juno entered safe mode just shortly before its next close flyby of Jupiter this week, apparently the result of a software performance monitor inducing a reboot of the spacecraft’s onboard computer. The spacecraft is otherwise healthy and Juno is conducting its own software diagnostics to determine the specific cause of the problem. Before this, Juno took its first observations deep into Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere.

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Opportunity rover ready to explore Martian gully for first time ever

Panoramic view of Marathon Valley as seen by the Opportunity rover. The interior of Endeavour Crater lies in the distance. Soon, the rover will move southward to examine a gully thought to have been carved by water long ago. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Panoramic view of Marathon Valley as seen by the Opportunity rover. The interior of Endeavour Crater lies in the distance. Soon, the rover will move southward to examine a gully thought to have been carved by water long ago. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Water on Mars is one of the most talked about and controversial subjects in planetary science. It is now well-known that Mars used to be a much wetter place than it is now, although just how much water there was, and how long it lasted, is still a matter of considerable debate. Direct evidence from rovers, landers, and orbiters, including observations of ancient riverbeds, gullies, and lakes, has shown how at one time Mars was much more Earth-like than it is today. Rovers like Curiosity, Opportunity, and Spirit have actually driven over long-dried-up lakebeds, salty playa lakes, and regions of ancient geothermal activity such as hot steam vents. Now, the Opportunity rover is going to visit another feature not yet explored by any other rover or lander: a gully thought to have been carved by water millions or billions of years ago.

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Goodbye, Murray Buttes: Curiosity rover continues journey in next phase of extended mission

A “self-portrait” of Curiosity at the Quela drilling location at the base of one of the buttes in Murray Buttes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
A “self-portrait” of Curiosity at the Quela drilling location at the base of one of the buttes in Murray Buttes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Ever since first landing in August 2012, the Curiosity rover has helped to revolutionize our understanding of Mars and has seen some incredible scenery along the way. It has travelled across an ancient lakebed and gazed at towering sand dunes and buttes, and now it is ready to begin the next phase in its mission: gradually ascending the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, the massive mountain sitting in the middle of Gale crater. The layers in the mountain will provide more clues as to how the Martian environment changed from being much wetter than it is now, to the dry but cold desert we see today. This next chapter in the rover’s mission is part of a two-year extension which began Oct. 1, 2016.

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Geysers on Europa? Hubble Space Telescope finds more evidence for water vapour plumes

Composite image showing the possible water vapor plumes near the south pole of Europa, at about the 7 o’clock position. The image of Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions, is superimposed on the Hubble data. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center
Composite image showing the possible water vapour plumes near the south pole of Europa, at about the 7 o’clock position. The image of Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions, is superimposed on the Hubble data. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Intriguing new findings about Jupiter’s moon Europa were announced today by NASA, and while they don’t involve any direct evidence for life, they do provide more information on how scientists could better search for such evidence, without having to drill through the icy crust to the ocean below. The new observations, by the Hubble Space Telescope, have added to the evidence for active water vapour plumes on Europa – an exciting possibility, since they would possibly originate from the subsurface ocean, similar to the plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And just like the Cassini spacecraft has already done at Enceladus, those plumes – geysers really – could be sampled directly by a future spacecraft such as Europa Clipper.

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Image Gallery: New views of Jupiter’s poles from Juno

Partial view of Jupiter's south pole. Image Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Matt Brealey
Partial view of Jupiter’s south pole. Click image for larger version. Image Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Matt Brealey

The Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter has been sending back some beautiful new views of Jupiters north and south poles, not seen before in detail until now. This is still very early in the mission and there will be many more and better ones to come! The intricate swirls of storms and other clouds make the polar regions distinctly different from the banded equatorial and mid-latitude regions which we are used to seeing. Thanks to Matt Brealey for the use of his processed NASA images. More of his work is on his blog The State of Space.

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Enigmatic Pluto emits x-rays and ‘spray-paints’ its largest moon, new research shows

For the first time, x-rays have been detected around Pluto, as seen by Chandra (inset image). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Chandra X-Ray Center
For the first time, x-rays have been detected around Pluto, as seen by Chandra (inset image). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Chandra X-Ray Center

It has been 14 months since the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto and its moons, but data still continues to come in, and new discoveries are still being made. The dwarf planet has surprised scientists by its geological activity, for the most part unexpected for such a small, cold body. Now two new results are adding to the mystery of Pluto: the detection of x-rays emanating from the surface and new evidence that Pluto “spray-paints” the north pole of its largest moon Charon a rusty red colour.

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Curiosity rover examines spectacular layered buttes as it closes in on Mount Sharp

Curiosity near Murray Buttes, on first approach. Panoramic image processing by James Sorenson. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/James Sorenson
Curiosity near Murray Buttes, on first approach. Panoramic image processing by James Sorenson. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/James Sorenson

Mars has often been compared to deserts on Earth, and for good reason: it is pretty much a barren landscape with a lot of sand and rocks everywhere. Sometimes, the similarities can be quite striking, and the terrain in Gale crater where the Curiosity rover is roaming around is a good example. The rover is currently in a region of stunning scenery – buttes and mesas which are very reminiscent of ones on Earth. This area could easily be mistaken for the American southwest if it weren’t for the dusty, pinkish sky and complete lack of vegetation. Curiosity is now getting a close-up look at these formations, which are not only beautiful but record a long and fascinating geological history.

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10-part overview of enigmatic ‘alien megastructure’ star, by Jason Wright

Whatever is causing the weird dimming around the star isn't known yet, but theories have ranged from comets to "alien megastructures." Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Whatever is causing the weird dimming around the star isn’t known yet, but theories have ranged from comets or dust to “alien megastructures.” Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a great 10-part overview of Boyajian’s Star (Tabby’s Star/KIC 8462852) by astronomer and astrophysicist Jason Wright, outlining the various hypotheses to date to explain this weird star observed by the Kepler Space Telescope. Whatever is causing the unusual short-term and long-term dimming is still unknown.

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