Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Methane on Mars?

Above: An image representing methane abundance on Mars

Methane gas is a potential tracer for life - it's also a potential tracer for non living organic matter. Even so, the detection of plumes of methane in the martian atmosphere caused excitment a while back. But the Rovers on the ground couldn't confirm the methane - until just today when a paper has popped up, seemingly saying that Curiosity rover has found Methane. I'll quote the abstract below, and here's the link.


Mars methane detection and variability at Gale crater

What Curiosity's uncovered on Mars

Usually I don't write midweek (I have one of those horrible 'job' things), or about Mars exploration - not because Mars isn't interesting or relevant though. Ancient Mars, whether it was warm and ocean covered as some theories go or an ice world with occasional floods as others think, was a huge part of the landscape of the ancient solar system. The reason I usually avoid it is because it gets so well served by the bigger news outlets and blogs, so there doesn't seem much need for me to shout about it too. As just one example of this:


Above: No, I'm not getting paid by Lego. It's just my way of sending a subtle hint to Santa...

But recently the Curiosity Mars robot has found some things out about Gale crater on Mars that make it seem very likely there were not only streams but a lake there. The water seems to have come and gone. Curiosity Rover's Chief Scientist John Grotzinger described it as:

" [Not]  just a single lake that stood for millions of years, but rather a system of alluvial fans, deltas and lakes and dry deserts that alternated probably for millions if not tens of millions of years as a connected system."

Above: At present the water is definately going through a 'gone' phase....
If future results confirm this then it's a huge boost for hopes of finding ancient life on the red planet, and I'd be daft not to at least post a quick bit on the subject. I'll hand you over to NASA for a fuller explanation:

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Do we need planetary protection from Japan's latest asteroid mission?

Two weeks ago Japan launched a spacecraft called 'Hayabusa 2', with a twofold mission: Bring back samples of a half mile wide asteroid called 1999 JU3, and deploy a small fleet of sub-craft to explore it in detail:

Above Hayabusa 2 lifts off on it's mission to 1999 JU3. Again, what's with the uninspiring place names astronomers?

OK, rocket launches are cool (so are bowties I'm told), but 1999 JU3 sounds like a dull part of the cosmos. So..... why has NASA's office of planetary protection recommended that any samples the  mission brings back should be classed as category 5; to be handled with "strict containment"?

Is that asteroid a just tiny chunk of lifeless rock adrift in the void, or something more?

Is there something terrible and sinister going on?

Above: I have been waiting for an excuse to use this clip in something since, like, forever.

Y'see, one of the planetary protection guy's jobs at NASA is to assess what the odds are that material coming back to Earth could have ever hosted life. If their verdict is yes then it potentially (but still very, very unlikely) could contain something harmful. They do this by working their way through a simple check list of questions, because bureaucracy I guess.
Lets look at the page of the planetary protection report that sums up the questions:

If you're interested in the fine details have a look at the link above. But, holy cow, that looks like there's a fair chance this miniscule asteroid was once habitable. Good god, could Haybusa accidentaly bring back alien bugs?
Almost certainly NO. In fact,  the 'category 5' rating is a technicality - but it's one that reveals whole point of the Hayabusa 2 mission.
It's been known for a long time that space rocks like 1999 JU3 could be fragments of protoplanets that had carbon chemistry, liquid water running beneath its surface, and energy sources like sunlight and radioactivity. These things are what we look for in a habitable world, but this tiny asteroid last saw liquid water and warmth four billion years ago. That's before life itself had begun. That water was likely trickling through the tiniest of pore spaces in rocks, as ice melted - hardly Barbados!  But yes, if we follow the reasoning strictly this was technically a habitable place.  
And that's the whole point of visiting this dull little place: It had all the conditions that life likes, all the conditions that organic chemistry needs to form life-like chemicals and processes. Earth had these, but life itself would have consumed them. 1999 JU3 could have preserved traces of the primordial processes leading up to the creation of life, but here life never came along to muddy the chemical waters, and wipe out any traces.
That's why Japan is sending a craft to visit it. And that's why NASA's 'strict containment ' verdict isn't a prediction of alien space germ doomsday, it's a promise of great discoveries in the making.
Elsewhere on the internet news:
Minute fragments of diamond revel the complex, and watery, history of a meteorite and it's parent world.
Another meteorite carries evidence of the proto-planetary disk that gave birth to our solar system.
A proposal for a robot radio observatory on the Moon's far side, that could probe the earliest times of the Universe and the most distant parts of it.
Here's an idea to protect your heirlooms: Send the m to the Moon!
A UK organisation aims to launch a publicly funded mission to the Moon's south pole.
And lastly, New Scientist magazine has had enough of all the delays stopping space agencies visiting Jupiter's ocean moon Europa, and is aiming to land its own probe there!


Sunday, 7 December 2014

Worlds on the edge of knowledge: Dawn images Ceres, and New Horizons safely awakens for its date with Pluto

Real life... meh. It's needed, I suppose, but it surely interferes with the important things. Like blogging about sweet-ass missions to the furthest depths of space! Luckily it's relinquished its iron grip just as things are getting really interesting: The Rosetta/Philae mission is at comet 67-P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (yeah... you might want to work on your naming system astronomy).....

Above: This weird looking lump is a comet - a 4.5 billion year old relic o the ancient universe. Not what you just thought it was. Yes, I know what you thought it was.

.....Japan's Hayabusa2 mission has launched successfully to an organic matter rich asteroid, NASA has OSIRIS-ReX under development, and they have launched the Orion space capsule, which may be the first manned vessel to put people on an asteroid, and then Mars....
Above: The first flight of the Orion space capsule... at last! Video courtesy of NASA.
But more about those later. This weekend there are two great bits of news for a small worlds buff like me...

Dawn takes its first snap of the dwarf planet Ceres:

The Dawn space probe has already blown scientists minds with its exploration of the mutilated, torn up, volcanic asteroid Vesta. It showed us a world devastated by titanic asteroid impacts....

Above: Vesta. Originally it  was round.. so, yeah, it's 'a bit foxed' as we British say. Image courtesy of NASA.

.... a surface covered with weirdly distorted craters....
Above: Vesta, stop being weird!  Craters should be round. Round damnit! Image courtesy of NASA. 

....and surprising pockets of hydrogen bearing material - unusual because this would usually mean water ice beneath the surface, something that seems unlikely at Vesta.

Now DAWN is almost at it's next target, the dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is already an enticing world, just because of the information gathered by large telescopes: This little world shows signs of hydrated minerals on it's surface, and a plume of water vapour over one pole. Computer simulations suggest that once Ceres might have been warm enough for asubsurface ocean, an enticing prospect for scientists hunting after possible habitats for alien life.

Hubble has given us enticing images like this....

Above: Hubble's view of Ceres - known as the 'mouldy peach shot'.

....and now DAWN has gotten close enough to give it's first image of this small world:
Above: Dawn's first image of Ceres. Courtesy of NASA

Right now Ceres is just a pixelated blob, but from January onwards Dawn's cameras will have the best view of this little world in the solar system.

New Horizons awakens en route to Pluto:

New Horizons is NASA's probe into the great darkness of the Kuiper belt - a second asteroid belt out beyond the orbit of Neptune, where the 'rocks' are made of ices frozen at cryogenic temperatures. This is a very strange, place populated by bizarrely shaped dwarf planets, comets carrying relics from the birth of the solar system, and surprisingly complicated moon systems. Pluto, while no longer officially a planet, is one of the biggest little worlds out there. It's surface is covered by a thin atmosphere that freezes out as snow in winter. It's biggest moon, Charon, ...

Above: A painstakingly assembled image of Pluto and its moon Charon. Not a disco ball, I promise. Courtesy of NASA. 

...shows signs that the water ice on it's surface might begetting replenished, perhaps hinting at volcanic activity and internal temperatures high enough for liquid. And, since the New Horizons mission launched, better telescope imagers have increased the number of moons from one big one, to one big one plus a swarm of little ones. New Horizon's trip through Plutonian space is perhaps going to be a bit riskier than anticipated, since the region appears to be filled with chunks of ice.
Above The newly discovered moons of the Pluto system. Image courtesy of ESO.

But, danger or not, New Horizons has awakened from hibernation this weekend. The mission controllers have received telemetry, confirming that the space craft is alive.... it's time for NASA to boldly go somewhere no-one has ever been, again.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Worlds on the edge of knowledge: The dark worlds....

How's my blogging? Leave some feedback, I get better at this, you get a more interesting read!

I'm back! As nerdy as ever!!.....What? Whaddya mean I blatantly ripped off the title of some superhero movie? What movie? Thor 2? What's that?

Oh, that Thor 2.

Ahem. Ok, but there is a point to my blatant plagiarism: The dark worlds of our solar system, near the abyss of interstellar space*, is where our next big journey in deep space exploration lies. And this week has seen confirmation that the Voyager 1 space probe has become he first human ship to leave our solar system.

But why the big hooha? What's out on the farthest edge of the Suns light?

On the edge of explored space lie some of the strangest worlds we've ever encountered - the bizarre worlds of the Kuiper belt[1] - with histories that include immense violence, clues to how our solar system formed, and perhaps even conditions suitable for strange life....

Image above:  A map of where the Kuiper belt worlds are. Yes, the giant planets actually do this with the little worlds of the Kuiper belt (using gravity not giant arms) - which is good because we get a chance to learn about the belt.
It's bad because getting a ten billion ton comet in the face hurts....

The Kuiper belt: Pluto, Salacia, Actaiea, Makemake...and countless others

Even with our best space telescopes, studying Kuiper belt worlds from Earth is hard. But we've been able to Sherlock out some information on a few of the biggest - and we've found a rogues gallery....


By far the best known KBO, and still one of the biggest, this dwarf planet has become a more and more fascinating place as we've studied it from Earth. From an atmosphere that snows out during winter, to strangely coloured markings, to a system of five moons (possibly six).

And one of those moons is Charon, a world with signs of cryo-volcanoes[2] - and so, perhaps, some liquid water...

Image above: Recent Hubble images of Pluto and its system of moons. Courtesy of NASA.


Only 30 degrees above absolute zero, plated with exotic ices[3], this oddball is even further from the Sun than Pluto. It's thought to be home to chemical reactions where the weak solar radiation turns methane ice into chemicals associated with the origin of life on Earth....

 Image above: Red light! No, hang on.... It's the dwarf planet Makemake, located in the Kuiper belt. So...why am I in the outer solar system? I was trying to get to Hackney! Image courtesy of NASA.

As far as weird worlds goes Haumea has the record: It has two moons, and a day that's just 4 hours long. It's shaped like a gigantic peanut and it seems to have been deformed by a massive collision[4] with another ice world. Not only that but Haumea has water ice crystals on its surface. Cosmic radiation destroys crystalline water ice, so Haumea must have been resurfaced at some point in the geologically recent past.
Which is impossible - it's far, far, far too small and cold to have the internal heat to do that....
Image above: A CGI impression of the truly bizarre world Haumea. Or possibly a half sucked Trebor mint.
No, it's definitely Haumea.

And lots more- the Kuiper belt is something like a hundred times more heavier than the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. These are worlds that froze billions of years ago - which makes them snapshots of how things were when the planets were young.
Image above: A map of some of the larger (and therefore easier to spot) worlds in the Kuiper belt. Courtesy of NASA.
But exploring it aint easy! The belt lies so far from the Earth that it takes our fastest probes decades to reach it. Right now there are three that are heading out into the dark: Voyager 2, Voyager 1[5], and New Horizons[6].

The Voyager probes were originally designed to visit the major planets and their moons, and they had no fuel left to visit strange cold worlds on the edge of known space. That wasn't deliberate, the Kuiper belt wasn't discovered until 1992, decades after the Voyager missions had been launched .

Despite this many scientist suspect that the Voyagers have accidentally seen Kuiper belt worlds up close: Some of the moons of Uranus and Neptune, like Triton with its weird geysers of liquid nitrogen[7], are thought to be Kuiper worlds that got caught by their gravity.

Image above: Triton, a moon of Neptune, is thought to be a Kuiper belt world that was sucked in by Neptune's gravity. With its pink snow, bizarre cantaloupe melon terrain, and geysers of liquid nitrogen, it's a strange little hint at what else we might find in the depths of the belt. Image courtesy of NASA.

But the mission that is carrying our best hopes for seeing some these worlds in real Star Trek style is the New Horizons spacecraft:

This robot, loaded with the best sensors people can make, is well over halfway to Pluto and its five moons - and Pluto is just its first stop: After it's made the passage through the Plutonian system - which is filled with dangerous chunks of ice - New Horizons will move on to visit other Kuiper belt targets, deeper into the black.

The exploration of the solar systems twilight outer edge is more of a challenge than ever..... and the secrets to be found get more compelling by the day.....

* What? This stuff's dramatic, let me ham it up a bit.

List of links:

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Very quickly...

Blogging about the exploration of space seems to be a bit like smoking - even when you know you should quit, you can't. So, very, very quickly:

Weird crystals from the Russian mountains:

Quasicrystal is a form of matter with crystal structure that can only be fully expressed in higher dimensional space. This strange class of material - that started a minor revolution in materials science when it was discovered - has been confirmed to come from the site of an ancient meteorite impact in the Russian Koryak Mountains. A massive expedition there has found more natural quasicrystals, and further results are on their way. Even more interesting, it seems to be present in carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, which date from the solar systems birth.

"What does nature know that we don't? How did the quasicrystal form so perfectly inside a complex meteorite when we normally have to work hard in the laboratory to get anything as perfect? What other new phases can we find in this meteorite, and what can they tell us about the early solar system?" Said Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University, who was part of the expedition.

Image above: A piece of lab made quasicrystal. Image courtesy of Stanford University.

Fastest solar storm ever:

The fastest Coronal Mass Ejection ever observed has been seen by NASA's STEREO spacecraft. It was clocked at one percent of lightspeed. If you could ride the front of this blast of particles and radiation it would get you to Pluto's orbit in a little over five weeks.

Video above: A huge, high speed, CME tearing through space. 
No fart jokes, please. Video courtesy of NASA.

Mars has Earth-like geology.

And Mars have a primitive form of plate tectonics, consisting of just two moving plates, that formed the titanic Valles Marineris. The result comes from a paper by An Yin, a UCLA professor, and shows that Mars may resemble a primitive version of Earth geologically.

Image above: The Valles Marineris fault line. Image courtesy of UCLA.


Sunita Williams, an astronaut stationed on the International Space Station, is training to compete in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in September. She'll still be on the station as she does so, so she will compete using various equipment in the stations gym. Yes, the ISS has gym, in fact it's vital for the astronauts health, but that's another story....

Image above: Sunita, training in the ISS gym. The eighties hair is entirely an artefact of zero gravity, NASA officials say. Image courtesy of NASA tv.

Monday, 13 August 2012


...real life has caught up with me. I'm going to be very short on time for a couple of weeks at least, but I promise I'll be back with something special (not that it isn't all special) as soon as possible! Until then, keep looking at the world, and thinking about it - ultimately that's what people do best...