Titan’s lakes and seas may be fizzy with patches of nitrogen bubbles

Radar image from Cassini of the northern hemisphere methane/ethane lakes and seas on Titan, as seen on Feb. 17, 2017. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s moon Titan is the only other body in the Solar System besides Earth known to have liquids on its surface. In Titan’s case, they are rivers, lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons (methane/ethane) instead of water. There is even methane/ethane rain, which further mimics Earth’s hydrological cycle. For the most part, the lakes and seas are fairly smooth, with only small amounts of wave activity. But now, new research suggests that those lakes and seas might be quite fizzy at times – with periodic bursts of nitrogen bubbles.

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NASA’s new Europa mission formally named ‘Europa Clipper’

Artist’s conception of Europa Clipper during a flyby of Europa. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s been a long time coming, but NASA’s new mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa now has a formal name: Europa Clipper. The spacecraft, to be launched in the early 2020s, will conduct multiple close flybys of the moon, with the goal of determining just how habitable it actually is. With a global salty ocean just beneath its icy crust, Europa is thought to be one of the best places in the Solar System to search for possible alien life.

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Enceladus’ ice-covered ocean closer to surface than previously thought

Enceladus as seen by Cassini. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

When it comes to places in the Solar System to search for possible alien life, Saturn’s moon Enceladus is now right near the top of the list. Like Jupiter’s moon Europa, it has a subsurface ocean of water, and even plumes/geysers of water vapour which erupt from fissures in the icy surface near the south pole. Those plumes contain organics as discovered by the Cassini probe and there is evidence for hydrothermal activity on the ocean floor, just like on Earth. The fissures are warmed by heat from below, and now there is evidence that some of them are even warmer than expected, meaning that water could be closer to the surface than previously thought.

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NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope continues observations of TRAPPIST-1 planetary system

Artist’s conception of some of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system. Image by ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

The seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 generated a lot of excitement when their discovery was announced last month. This is the largest collection of Earth-sized worlds in one planetary system found so far, and some of them are well within the star’s “habitable zone” where temperatures could allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces. Little else is known about the actual conditions on these planets so far, but NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has also been observing TRAPPIST-1 in recent weeks.

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MAVEN spacecraft makes evasive maneuver to avoid impact with Mars’ moon Phobos

Artist’s illustration of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. Image Credit: NASA

Mars is a busy place these days, with multiple rovers and orbiters exploring the planet. Out of the several spacecraft currently in orbit, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) is a fairly recent addition, having been at Mars for just over two years now. Usually, things are pretty routine, but this week the spacecraft had to make an unplanned evasive maneuver – to avoid a collision with one of Mars’ two small moons, Phobos!

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Could the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system be home to alien life?

Artist’s conception of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system as seen from one of the seven Earth-sized planets. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 generated a lot of excitement last week. Earth-sized planets have been found before, among the thousands of exoplanets discovered so far by astronomers, but this is the first time that so many have been detected in one planetary system. As of now, astronomers are limited in how much they can learn about these new worlds, but the James Webb Space Telescope, the upcoming successor to Hubble due to launch in 2018, will be able to gather more data and analyze whatever atmospheres these planets have, perhaps bringing us closer to finding another habitable world.

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