Friday, 2 October 2015

Charon is beautiful, first private Moon landing set for 2017

Stunning new pictures of Pluto's moon Charon:

The New Horizons spacecraft has returned some jaw dropping pictures of Pluto's largest moon Charon to Earth. Even better the images have been made into an amazing virtual flyover of the moon's world spanning canyons and weird moated mountains....

Above:Virtual Charon flyover, courtesy of JPL/NASA.

Above: A side by side colour view of Charon and Pluto. NASA/JPL

Above: A detailed zoom in on the canyons. JPL/NASa

Charon with its world spanning canyons and strange red cap, in colour. JPL/NASA

Meanwhile the data still coming back from the mission on Pluto seems to indicate a far more complex world than anyone imagined. Even it's ultra thin atmosphere is showing layers and hazes that no-one expected.....
Above: Pluto's atmosphere, backlit. The layers you see aren't optical illusions, they're  layers of particles, floating over the surface in the ultra thin 'air'. NASA/JPL

 Private Moon landing in 2017:

Above:This is not my garden after I returned from holiday and forgot to ask the neighbour to water it. My garden was full of dead plants. This is the Moon, it never had plants to start with.

Moon Express , a private company, plans to send two robots to the Moon in 2017 to scout it for resources. Their MX-1 lander will first head to the Moon on a shakedown run, testing out systems and stretching the designs lunar legs. The miniature lander will be launched on a Rocket Labs Electron rocket, a launch system little bigger than a large missile, and designed for small spacecraft launches. This will keep the launch cost below $5 million, and  Moon Express hopes to spark a revolution in lunar exploration.
"We think the collapse of the price to get to the moon is going to enable a whole new market — kind of like the 4-minute-mile of space," Said Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards.
Above: Artists impression of lunar ice and hydrocarbons, hidden in permanently shadowed areas.

A successful landing would put Moon Express in a position to claim the $20 million first place Lunar X prize, although other teams in the race have said they plan to launch their own vehicles to the Mon in 2016.

Asteroids and volcanoes killed dinosaurs :

Above: The many hundreds of meters of frozen lava, put down by the Deccan Traps eruption

A long standing argument may end in a tie: For many years an argument has been raging as to whether it was gigantic asteroid impact in chicxulub, Mexico, that killed the dinosaurs, or the massive volcanic eruption of the Deccan Traps at around the same time that did them in. Now it seems that both may have happened at the same time, making the dinosaurs incredibly unlucky - or implying some as yet unknown link between the two disasters

Thursday, 1 October 2015

DPS conference full of curiosities, and might Curiosity be able to investigate Martian water sites?

Possible water flows near Curiosity rover?

Above: The landscape of Gale crater, seen by the Curiosity robot. Courtesy of  NASA.
The Curiosity Mars rover might be able to eye ball some of the RSL (Recurring Slope Linea) that recent findings point to being made by flowing water. Possible RSL have been seen (link here) in Gale crater  although at a location some 50km from Curiosity's current position. An extreme drive to get a visual of the slopes where the RSL's might be isn't totally impossible - the older Opportunity rover has covered nearly that distance. However a more likely scenario would be if signs of RSL's were found nearer to Curiosity's current position. That's not totally impossible as Curiosity has already seen signs of brine's forming in the soil (link here) where it is .

Five possible new low-budget missions competing for  NASA funding

NASA's Discovery class missions are relatively low budget probes that explore interesting but less studied destinations, test new technologies, or some combination of the two. The potential missions are chosen from a pool of proposals via competitive examination, and NASA has whittled its current pool down to five, with the final selection being made next year. The current contenders are:

VERITAS, an orbiter mission to Venus.

DAVINCI would dive into the Venusian atmosphere.

NEOcam, a space telescope that would hunt for asteroids.

'Psyche' would visit an asteroid thought to be a fragment of the core of a log dead protoplanet.

'Lucy' would visit one of the mysterious swarms of Trojan asteroids that follow Jupiter around the Sun.

Above: Venus. Like hell if  all the demons decided to move out and go into law. Reconstructed image courtesy of Don Mitchell.

New results from the Dawn mission:

The Dawn team have released a topographic map of Occator crater (the one with the mysterious bright spots)......

....and a false colour map of Ceres, showing terrain that is bright in the infra red as red, terrain that is bright in UV  as blue, and generally bright terrain as green. These psychedelic fake colours of the dwarf planets surface give clues about its composition.....

Russian Progress spacecraft sets out for the International Space Station, carrying supplies

 Above: It's always cool to include a rocket launch. Although I think this one is carrying clean socks for the astronauts.....

Abstracts for the DPS 2015 conference are now available:

The Division for Planetary Science conference is a week long meeting of space boffins and geeks who'll give talks and presentations on space topics from the utterly obscure to  the biggest mysteries out there.
You can look at the abstracts yourself here - there're a lot of them- but here're a few (picked out at random) examples to show you how much space is covered:

Liquid Water Lakes on Mars Under Present-Day Conditions: Sustainability and Effects on the Subsurface

Abstract: Decades of Mars exploration have produced ample evidence that aqueous environments once existed on the surface. Much evidence supports groundwater emergence as the source of liquid water on Mars [1-4]. However, cases have also been made for rainfall [5] and snow pack melts [6].
Whatever the mechanism by which liquid water is emplaced on the surface of Mars, whether from groundwater seeps, atmospheric precipitation, or some combination of sources, this water would have collected in local topographic lows, and at least temporarily, would have created a local surface water system with dynamic thermal and hydrologic properties. Understanding the physical details of such aqueous systems is important for interpreting the past and present surface environments of Mars. It is also important for evaluating potential habitable zones on or near the surface.
In conjunction with analysis of surface and core samples, valuable insight into likely past aqueous sites on Mars can be gained through modeling their formation and evolution. Toward that end, we built a 1D numerical model to follow the evolution of small bodies of liquid water on the surface of Mars. In the model, liquid water at different temperatures is supplied to the surface at different rates while the system is subjected to diurnally and seasonally varying environmental conditions. We recently simulated cases of cold (275 K) and warm (350 K) water collecting in a small depression on the floor of a mid southern latitude impact crater. When inflows create an initial pool > 3 m deep and infiltration can be neglected, we find that the interior of the pool can remain liquid over a full Mars year under the present cold and dry climate as an ice cover slowly thickens [7]. Here we present new results for the thermal and hydrologic evolution of surface water and the associated subsurface region for present-day conditions when infiltration of surface water into the subsurface is considered.
[1] Pieri (1980) Science 210.
[2] Carr (2006) The Surface of Mars.
[3] Wray et al. (2011) J. Geophys. Res. 116.
[4] Michalski et al. (2013) Nature Geosci. 6.
[5] Craddock and Howard (2002) J. Geophys. Res. 107.
[6] Clow (1987) Icarus 72.

New results from the analyses of the solid phase of the NASA Ames Titan Haze Simulation (THS) experiment

ABSTRACT: In Titan’s atmosphere, a complex chemistry occurs at low temperature between N2 and CH4 that leads to the production of heavy organic molecules and subsequently solid aerosols. The Titan Haze Simulation (THS) experiment was developed at the NASA Ames COSmIC facility to study Titan’s atmospheric chemistry at low temperature. In the THS, the chemistry is simulated by plasma in the stream of a supersonic expansion. With this unique design, the gas is cooled to Titan-like temperature (~150K) before inducing the chemistry by plasma, and remains at low temperature in the plasma (~200K). Different N2-CH4-based gas mixtures can be injected in the plasma, with or without the addition of heavier molecules, in order to monitor the evolution of the chemical growth.
Following a recent in situ mass spectrometry study of the gas phase that demonstrated that the THS is a unique tool to probe the first and intermediate steps of Titan’s atmospheric chemistry at low temperature (Sciamma-O’Brien et al., Icarus, 243, 325 (2014)), we have performed a complementary study of the solid phase. The findings are consistent with the chemical growth evolution observed in the gas phase. Grains and aggregates form in the gas phase and can be jet deposited onto various substrates for ex situ analyses. Scanning Electron Microscopy images show that more complex mixtures produce larger aggregates, and that different growth mechanisms seem to occur depending on the gas mixture. They also allow the determination of the size distribution of the THS solid grains. A Direct Analysis in Real Time mass spectrometry analysis coupled with Collision Induced Dissociation has detected the presence of aminoacetonitrile, a precursor of glycine, in the THS aerosols. X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure (XANES) measurements also show the presence of imine and nitrile functional groups, showing evidence of nitrogen chemistry. Infrared and µIR spectra of samples deposited on KBr and Si substrates show the presence of more aromatic functional groups for more complex gas mixtures, and allowed the determination of the samples’ thickness. These complementary studies show the potential of THS to better understand Titan’s chemistry and the origin of aerosol formation.

Changing Perspectives on Mercury and the Moon:

ABSTRACT: Airless, cratered, and not so different in size, the Moon and Mercury form a natural pair in the inner Solar System. For decades after the 1974 and 1975 Mariner 10 flybys of Mercury, with little compositional information, no concrete evidence for volcanism, and images of less than half of the planet, it was thought that Mercury’s surface may be similar to the lunar highlands: an ancient anorthositic flotation crust subsequently shaped mainly by impact cratering. However, observations from the recently completed MESSENGER mission to Mercury have upended our view of the innermost planet, revealing, for example, a crust that may be rich in graphite and that has been extensively resurfaced by volcanic activity, and geologic activity that may continue today to produce enigmatic “hollows” – a crust very different from that of the Moon. Meanwhile, the Moon has undergone its own revolution, as data from recent spacecraft such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal sites of silicic volcanism indicative of complex differentiation in the mantle, tectonic activity that may be ongoing, recent volcanic activity that alters the paradigm that volcanism died on the Moon over a billion years ago, and evidence that the early chronology of the inner Solar System may not be as well known as once thought. As our views of these two bodies evolve, a new understanding of their differences informs our knowledge of the variety of processes and styles of planetary evolution, and their similarities point to commonalities among all airless bodies.

Geomorphological Mapping of Sputnik Planum and Surrounding Terrain on Pluto

ABSTRACT: The New Horizons flyby of Pluto in July 2015 has provided the first few close-up images of the Kuiper belt object, which reveal it to have a highly diverse range of terrains, implying a complex geological history. The highest resolution images that have yet been returned are seven lossy 400 m/pixel frames that cover the majority of the prominent Plutonian feature informally named Sputnik Planum (all feature names are currently informal), and its surroundings. This resolution is sufficient to allow detailed geomorphological mapping of this area to commence. Lossless versions of all 15 frames that make up the mosaic will be returned in September 2015, and the map presented at DPS will incorporate the total area covered by these frames.
Sputnik Planum, with an area of ~650,000 km2, is notable for its smooth appearance and apparent total lack of impact craters at 400 m/pixel resolution. The Planum actually displays a wide variety of textures across its expanse, which includes smooth and pitted plains to the south, polygonal terrain at its center (the polygons can reach tens of kilometers in size and are bounded by troughs that sometimes feature central ridges), and, to the north, darker polygonal terrain displaying patterns indicative of glacial flow. Within these plains there exist several well-defined outcrops of a mottled, light/dark unit that reach from several to tens of kilometers across. Separating Sputnik Planum from the dark, cratered equatorial terrain of Cthulhu Regio on its south-western margin is a unit of chaotically arranged mountains (Hillary Montes); similar mountainous units exist on the south and western margins. The northern margin is bounded by rugged, hilly, cratered terrain (Cousteau Rupes) into which ice of Sputnik Planum appears to be intruding in places. Terrain of similar relief exists to the east, but is much brighter than that to the north. The southernmost extent of the mosaic features a unit of rough, undulating terrain (Pandemonium Dorsa) that displays very few impact craters at 400 m/pixel resolution.
This work was supported by the NASA New Horizons project.

Resolving Enceladus thermal emission at the 10s of meters scale along Baghdad Sulcus using Cassini CIRS

Abstract: On 14th April 2012 Cassini executed one of its closest flyby to the South Pole of Enceladus with the primary goal to study the moon’s gravity. During this flyby the Composite InfraRed Spectrometer (CIRS) was orientated such that its three focal planes were dragged across Baghdad sulcus. The instrument was specifically configured to record interferograms with 52 seconds duration. CIRS focal plane 1 (17 to 1000 µm) single circular detector provided a spatial resolution of about 300 meters. CIRS focal plane 3 and 4 (9 to 17 µm and 7 to 9 µm) are 2 1x10 detectors arrays. Both arrays were used in pair mode leading to 5 elements per focal plane and a resolution of about 43 meters across track.
The ground-track speed was so fast during this observation that this was enough time to observe the entire South Polar Region in a single integration. The thermal sources were passed over so rapidly that it is not possible to reconstruct a spectrum from the resulting interferogram, instead features were created in the interferogram whenever the scene temperature changed. The signature of these features was also altered by bit trimming and band-pass filter convolution. To enable interpretation of the interferograms we developed an innovative new approach that included the development of new instrument models, modification of the flight software and multiple in flight validation experiments. Our preliminary results show temperature variability of the tiger stripes at 10s meters scale along track, providing a constraint on the distribution and temperature profile of Enceladus’ endogenic sources.
A similar methodology will be used for the penultimate targeted Enceladus flyby in Oct 28th 2015 and we aim to also present our preliminary analysis of the results from this encounter

TITLE: The primordial nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Abstract: Observations of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by Rosetta show that the nucleus is bi-lobed, extensively layered, has a low bulk density, a high dust-to-ice mass ratio (implying high porosity), and weak strength except for a thin sintered surface layer. The comet is rich in supervolatiles (CO, CO2, N2), may contain amorphous water ice, and displays little to no signs of aqueous alteration. Lack of phyllosilicates in Stardust samples from Comet 81P/Wild 2 provides further support that comet nuclei did not contain liquid water.
These properties differ from those expected for 50-200 km diameter bodies in the primordial disk. We find that thermal processing due to Al-26, combined with collisional compaction, creates a population of medium-sized bodies that are comparably dense, compacted, strong, heavily depleted in supervolatiles, containing little to no amorphous water ice, and that have experienced extensive aqueous alteration. Irregular satellites Phoebe and Himalia are potential representatives of this population. Collisional rubble piles inherit these properties from their parents. We therefore conclude that observed comet nuclei are primordial rubble piles, and not collisional rubble piles.
We propose a concurrent comet and TNO formation scenario that is consistent with these observations. We argue that TNOs form due to streaming instabilities at sizes of about 50-400 km and that about 350 of these grow slowly in a low-mass primordial disk to the size of Triton, causing little viscous stirring during growth. We propose a dynamically cold primordial disk, that prevents medium-sized TNOs from breaking into collisional rubble piles, and allows for the survival of primordial rubble-pile comets. We argue that comets form by hierarchical agglomeration out of material that remains after TNO formation. This slow growth is necessary to avoid thermal processing by Al-26, and to allow comet nuclei to incorporate 3 Myr old material from the inner Solar System, found in Stardust samples. Growth in the Solar Nebula creates porous single-lobe nuclei, while continued growth in a mildly viscously stirred primordial disk creates denser outer layers, and allow bi-lobe nucleus formation through mergers.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Video of the 'water on Mars' press conference, big solar storm causes radio blackout, and more

Flowing water on Mars:

Yesterday's 'mystery solved' release from NASA seems to point to a certain kind of dark feature on the Martian surface being due to liquid water, stabilised against freezing in the Martian cold, or evaporating in the thin martian air, by the naturally occurring perchlorate salts in the Martian soil. It's a process that occurs on earth (well, similar to) and keeps a very strange lake called 'Don Juan Pond in Antarctica filled.

Above: Don Juan Pond, Antarctica, is the saltiest lake in the world - it never freezes, not even in the - 50 degrees Celsius of Antarctic winter. Courtesy of the British Antarctic Survey.
Reactions to this have been surprisingly mixed: A lot of people are happy to hear that our planetary neighbour is a bit less inhospitable than we thought, even if it's still damn inhospitable. Others are (maybe with some justification) pointing out that NASA has over hyped this a bit. They point out that  although this is the first really solid evidence for liquid water in this part of Mars, and solves the mystery of the 'Recurring Slope Linea' (RSL's), thin films of liquid water have been detected in results from the Phoenix Mars lander in the past.
Still others point out that the water in these RSL's will be incredibly salty -  maybe too salty for even the toughest extremophiles to drink. But it's still (in my opinion) a good find, and it shows us a (slightly!) friendlier side to the red planet. But don't look to me for the answers, here's the video of the conference (above) - judge for yourselves!

Big solar flare causes radio blackout:

Parts of Africa, the America's, and the Atlantic suffered a radio blackout yesterday, as a result of a solar flare.The map below shows the most severely affected areas. This isn't an unusual event, and although really big solar events have been known to knock out power grids, there doesn't seem to be any danger of that happening here.

It seems that, for a while now, ESA's Rosetta spacecraft has been exploring not one comet but two - The famous double-lobed shape of comet 67-P is due to it actually being two comets stuck together:
“It is clear from the images that both lobes have an outer envelope of material organised in distinct layers, and we think these extend for several hundred metres below the surface,” says Matteo Massironi, lead author from the University of Padova, Italy, and an associate scientist of the OSIRIS team.
“You can imagine the layering a bit like an onion, except in this case we are considering two separate onions of differing size that have grown independently before fusing together.”

Above: Two infographics from ESA, showing the layering on Comet 67-P
“Layering has also been observed on the surface of other comets during previous flyby missions, suggesting that they also underwent a similar formation history.” Added co-author Bjorn Davidsson of Uppsala University, Sweden. The results are published in Nature, here.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Update on that Mars story...

Above: Artists impression of a pool of ultra salty water on Mars

It seems that the speculation has been on the money for once: Today's NASA announcement is, if not utterly iron clad evidence, at least a convincing 'smoking gun' that some small amount of liquid water is present on Mars today. I'll give this the proper attention and write up it deserves when I've got time to go through the press release and background materials properly. For now I'll give you a quick snippet of the NASA release:

New findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.
Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.
“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water -- albeit briny -- is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”
These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it’s likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.

Garni crater on Mars
Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (RED) image (ESP_031059_1685) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5.
Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
"We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)"

... an animation (courtesy of NASA) of one of the sites where the salt laden water seems to have flowed.....

 and a link to the full NASA report. See you soon with more details!

'Major' Mars science announcment, and a few other bits and pieces....

Watch the 'Major' announcement on Mars science here:

EDIT: According to this Guardian article the news is indeed a 'smoking gun' for present day water on the surface of Mars.

Just a very quick note to let you all now that you can watch today's announcement from NASA on NASA ustream, either in the panel below or by clicking the link above, at 15:30 UTC:

Fusion power within reach?
A team from the university of Gothenburg may have found the key to using fusion power in small scale power plants.

Upgraded ion engine 153% more fuel efficient

Above: An ion engine being tested in a vacuum chamber.

Cubesats represent a fundamental change in space usage and exploration
See below for Crag Clark of Clydespace giving a talk on how the rise of miniature satellites is changing space travel.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Pluto, the Dragon Skinned planet....

We have no idea how this formed:

"We have no idea how this formed" I love it when a space missions team say that - it means they've found something interesting. The New Horizons team have revealed even more data from Pluto, including the discovery of 'Snakeskin terrain', and landscape that looks like nothing on any world we've ever explored:

Above: The mysterious terrain wioth its weird parralel ridges....

William McKinnon, a New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis, said “It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.
The latest data set also contains information on the colours of Pluto - blues, yellows, pinks, and deep red....

Above, the colours of Pluto, courtesy of NASA. Click vand save the image to get the hugely enlargeable version and explore Pluto yourself!
The coast of Pluto's glacier sea, courtesy of NASA: Click and save the image to get the hugely enlargeable version.

.... and some of the data on the composition of the Plutonian surface is starting to come in, like this map  of methane abundance:

Above: A map of methane concentrations on Pluto. Courtesy of NASA.

There're also a lot of new and perplexing images of Pluto's largest moon, Charon - but I think there's be more on Charon coming in a few weeks time. In the meanwhile you can find all the recent images here.

Speaking of methane, whatever happened to the 'Mars revelation':

Ahem, yes. In my last post I reported that, according to this source, there was some big news about methane (a possible indicator of life) coming from the Indian MOM mission. While some new images have been released to mark MOM's 1 year anniversary in orbit there's no sign of any announcement about a methane related discovery. Rumour has it that there is a discovery in the data, but someone jumped the gun and let something leak without respecting the proper peer review process and embargoes.

Above: One of the stunning new images from MOM. Courtesy of ISRO

But worry not Mars fans, it's NASA to the rescue....

NASA have a big 'mystery solved' announcement to make on Monday the 28th

Right now no-one has any idea what it's about, so all we can do is watch this space.... but there is a clue in the list of scientists giving the conference, perhaps: Lujendra Ojha, of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is on the panel, and he's known for the theory that strange features called recurring slope linea are evidence of salty water flowing during the warmer months. That's totally unconfirmed, but it would gel with evidence from the Curiosity rover that tiny amounts of salt water are forming at its location even today.

Above: Recurring Slope Linea. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL.

Rosetta finds comets have a way of replenishing their surface ice:

How comets replenish the ice on their surfaces has always been a bit of a head scratcher, but now the Rosetta team have an answer: The heat from the sun can penetrate deeper into the comet and become trapped by insulating layers, making buried ice evaporate and then freeze onto the surface as the frigid cometary night falls

Above A comparison of ice abundance and surface temperature for an area of comet 67-P. Courtesy of ESA

...and also finds argon:

Argon, an nonreactive noble gas, may not seem that interesting. But it's dull nonreactive nature is its hidden strength - it persists unchanged across billions of years and can be a useful tracer of how things were billions of years ago. So the team behind the ROSINA instrument on the Rosetta mission are being tantalised by the discovery of an argon reserve on comet 67-P, which could help them unravel the solar systems earliest history.... 

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

What's the news on Martian methane?

Indian space agency to reveal data on Martian methane:

For some reason I don't hear much about the Indian space agency's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), but a few photos have trickled down to me (here). However, any information on the mysterious source of the methane in the Martian atmosphere should make a bit more of a splash.....

Above: one of the images MOM has returned. Image courtesy of the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Alan Stern hints at 'landscapes unlike anything seen on any other world' on Pluto:

Alan Stern, principle investigator on the New Horizons mission, likes to tease us. Midweek he gave a very informative Q and A session on the mission and its findings to date. But he also dropped tjis comment:

"We do see similarities to Neptune's large moon Triton which itself used to be a planet orbiting -- and was since captured into orbit -- around Neptune, but we also see similarities to the Earth in the glacial fields. We see many similarities, geomorphologicaly to Mars -- really blowing our minds that this is another Mars, we call it the other red planet -- and to other icy satellites of some of the giant planets as well, and on our geology team -- and I'm not a geologist -- but the geologists, you know, they work a lot by analogy, where they're looking for examples of similar morphologies that have been modeled and understood in previous explorations, from missions like Cassini and Galileo and Voyager, and we're finding many examples on Pluto and its satellites of other places, but also completely new phenomena. In fact, we're going to be releasing some images later this week of a completely unique type of terrain -- it's just mind-blowing and makes my head hurt to think about how it may have formed -- that we see on Pluto that we don't see anywhere else in the Solar System.."
So stay tuned!

Above: Sunset over Pluto illuminates the haze layers in its atmosphere. Courtesy of NASA

A new look at Io through re-processed Voyager images:

There's a website called, where imaging buffs like to hang out and use their skills to wring even more data from the blurred or damaged images sent back to us by our robotic probes. One in particular has caught my eye in the last week: A poster called 'jccwt' (otherwise known as Justin Cowert) has managed to clean up some old voyager images, to give us previously unseen images of Jupiter's volcanic moon Io. I'll let them speak for themselves:

UK signs up to build instrument for really big telescope:

The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council have signed a contract to produce an instrument called Harmoni, for the European Extremely Large Telescope, a monstrous device that will be 30 meters across and will be able to image exoplanets orbiting nearby stars.

An animation showing the geography of Ceres: 

The Dawn mission has revealed a lot to us about the dwarf planet Ceres, but it's still hard to get an idea of the geography of this strange little world - so this quick video has been made, to literally show the world the highs and lows of Ceres;