Cassini enters ‘Grand Finale’ phase of mission and solves a ‘bubbling mystery’ on Titan’s seas

Artist’s conception of Cassini’s final flyby of Titan on April 21. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This week marks another important milestone in the Cassini mission at Saturn – as of today, the spacecraft is conducting the last Ring-Grazing Orbit of its mission as it prepares for the Grand Finale, which will culminate in the death of the probe on Sept. 15. On April 21, Cassini will do its very last close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon Titan. Speaking of Titan, Cassini has also apparently solved a perplexing mystery; the unusual “magic island” formations seen in one of the moon’s methane/ethane seas are now thought to be caused by nitrogen bubbles fizzing periodically on the sea’s surface.

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Nearing the end: Cassini prepares for spectacular ‘Grand Finale’ orbits at Saturn

Cassini is now entering the Grand Finale phase of the mission, which will end on Sept. 15, 2017, after the spacecraft plunges between the planet and rings 22 times. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn has been one of the most successful and awe-inspiring ever, studying the giant ringed planet and its many moons since 2004. But now, scientists are preparing for what everyone knew would come eventually – the end of Cassini’s excursions throughout the Saturn system. Yesterday, NASA held a news conference to celebrate what Cassini has accomplished and outline what will happen during the next few months, culminating with the end of the mission in September.

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New Horizons reaches halfway point between Pluto and next KBO target

New Horizons is now halfway from Pluto to its next destination – the KBO known as 2014 MU69, which it will reach on Jan. 1, 2019 (artist’s conception). Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It may not seem like it, but it is approaching two years now since New Horizons made its historic flyby of Pluto and its moons in July 2015. But even though it has been quiet since then, the mission continues, as the spacecraft is now preparing for its next flyby of another Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) on Jan. 1, 2019 – and now New Horizons has reached the halfway point between Pluto and the next target, called 2014 MU69. It’s another major milestone for a mission that gave us our first close-up views of the Pluto system, and revealed worlds utterly alien and unique in the Solar System.

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NASA’s Juno spacecraft completes fifth close flyby of Jupiter, with more incredible images

Crescent Jupiter, with two of its moons, Europa and Io, as seen by Juno during its fifth flyby on March 27, 2017. This is a view never possible from Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Roman Tkachenko

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has successfully completed its fifth close flyby of Jupiter, gathering more scientific data and sending back more incredible images of the largest planet in our Solar System. Juno, the first mission dedicated to Jupiter since Galileo, has been helping scientists to understand some of the long-standing mysteries about the largest planet in our Solar System.

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First breaks seen in treads on Curiosity rover’s wheels, but the journey continues

MAHLI view on sol 1641 of two of the raised treads (grousers) on the left middle wheel of the Curiosity rover which recently broke, including the one seen partially detached at the top of the wheel. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As the Curiosity rover continues its traverse among the buttes and sand dunes of Gale crater, you would expect to see some wear and tear after a few years. The rover’s wheels have naturally taken the brunt of that, with small dents and holes appearing in the solid aluminum. But now, new damage has been seen for the first time, breaks in the raised treads on the wheels, called grousers. While not unexpected, and not a mission-stopper by any means, it does show how the wheels, and the rover overall, have been aging since landing in 2012.

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Venus beckons part 2: A new NASA collaborative mission with Russia?

Artist’s conception of the Venera-D spacecraft in orbit around Venus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Last week, Planetaria reported on why NASA should return to Venus, and new technology being developed to help make that happen, especially as in longer-lived landers or rovers. With its extremely hostile conditions, Venus has been much less of a priority in more recent years, at least in terms of surface missions, despite it being Earth’s closest planetary neighbour. But now there may be more impetus towards a new mission – not one that NASA would do alone, but rather a joint mission with Russia, known as Venera-D.

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Venus beckons: Why NASA should return and how new tech will help

First colour images from the surface of Venus (Soviet Venera missions). Image Credit: NASA National Space Science Data Center/Harvard Micro Observatory/Don P. Mitchell

The Solar System has been a busy place in recent years, with missions to a diverse range of worlds, from Mars, Jupiter and Saturn to distant Pluto and even comets and asteroids. Most of these have been NASA spacecraft, which continues to lay the path to exploring such distant places. There are, however, some places which have been visited in the past, decades ago, but now are seemingly no longer a priority, such as Uranus and Neptune. But there is another planet which is actually Earth’s closest neighbour, yet was only last visited in the 1970s and 1980s, by American and Soviet spacecraft – Venus.

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