Saturday, 4 August 2012

Ho, Hum.....

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Well, Curiosity [1] is barely a day away from its rendezvous with Gale crater [2]. I suppose this is like the bit in the movie theatre, when we're all waiting for the film to start. So.. why not check out some upcoming attractions?

The Expendable:

Image above: An artists impression of JUNO at Jupiter. I've gotta be honest: I love the triangular architecture, it's a nice change from the box shapes so many space craft have.Yes, I'm a nerd. NASA/JPL/Caltech.

NASA launched the Juno space probe [3] to Jupiter one year ago today - it still has another four years to go. When it arrives this three point five ton, heavy armoured, robot will brave the lethal radiation environment of Jupiter - which damaged Pioneer 10 [4] - to study the depths of the Jovian atmosphere, understand the workings of its water cloud klayer, and determine if the planet has a solid core. In so doing it will be cracking the mystery of how Jupiter formed [5] , and how it arrived at its place in our solar system...

Image above: An infographic on the massive Juno robot. Image courtesy of NASA/Caltech.

Rosetta and its final destination:

Image above: Asteroid Steins, all alone in the black. Aside from the Rosetta spaceship, that is, which was taking the picture. And it's basically a big - if interesting - rock, so I don't think it minds. Image courtesy of ESA.

The ESA space craft Rosetta has already given us some exciting discoveries, encountering and mapping the asteroids Lutetia [6] and Steins [7], and performing a flyby of Mars. .

Image above: A massive landslide on asteroid Lutetia, which has buried part of a crater under a kilometre deep pile of rubble. How that happens on a world where gravity is that weak is an interesting puzzle. Image courtesy of ESA.

But it's aimed at the comet Churyumov - Gerasimenko, a time capsule of weird materials [8] - some of perhaps relating to the origin of life - from the birth of our solar system. Rosetta will be the first ship from Earth to make a long term study of a comet core, and will drop its daughter ship, Philae, onto the comet to study the surface and geology...

Image above: An artist impression of the Philae lander, at work on the surface of comet Churyumov - Gerasimenko. Isn't that little arm sweet? Too nerdy? OK then. Image courtesy of ESA.

Voyage of the Dawn treads on:

Dawn [9], which has already changed our view of the maimed protoplanet Vesta [10] from this....

Image above: Vesta as seen by the Hubble space telescope. Now, getting a shot like that from (near) Earth is an amazing achievement.But it's kinda fuzzy. Image courtesy of NASA/ this....

Image above: Dawn took this shot of where the Vestan south pole should be. what we're seeing here is a double impact crater - one blast on top of another - so huge it deleted the protoplanets entire south pole, and imprinted shock waves into the planets crust as massive ridges. Image courtesy of NASA. about to leave orbit for its next destination: The water-altered dwarf planet Ceres [11]...

Fantastic Voayger...

The granddaddy of deep space explorers is right on the edge [12] of leaving our solar system: It's approaching the heliosphere [13], the edge of the magnetic field that surrounds our solar system, and keeps out higher energy cosmic rays.

Image above: A map of the magnetic shield that the Sun blows around our solar system. Seriously, this thing actually keeps a lot of radiation out the inner system where Earth resides. Image courtesy of George K. Park

Voyager two is about to become the first human built spacecraft to enter interstellar space...

Image above: The launch of Voayger two -  before I was born, and it's still exploring the universe. I'm a professional* engineer and physicist - that's what we in the trade call 'a nice job'. Image courtesy of JPL/NASA.

The eye...

The biggest eye on the sky ever conceived, the foirty meter wide Extremely Large Telescope [14], has received funding, and is entering the planning stages. This one won't be 'out' for  many years yet, but keep watching: with the latest adaptive optics, and such a stonkingly huge main mirror, this telescope will be searching our surrounding galaxy for new planets, new star clusters, nebula... you name it, it's probably on this beasts list of targets somewhere...

Image above: An artists impression of the extremely Large telescope. so called because.. um it's going to be extremely large. I'm waiting for the 'Absurdly Large Telescope', and the 'Now You're Just Being Silly Telescope'. Image courtesy of the European southern Observatory.

Avengers assemble...

What? I liked it. And here's how it should have ended.


And finally:

An optical illusion, from Mars:

Image above: What look a lot like blasted forests, on the dune tops of Mars. But they're not. Sorry. Image courtesy of NASA.

Ye gads! These look like blasted, fossilised trees atop those dunes! Could they really be three billion year old remains from the catastrophe [15] that turned Mars into a hyper-arctic desert...?!

Er, No, they're not. But it's easy to be fooled: These are actually dark streaks on the surface of dunes, caused by dust avalanches rolling down the sides. The avalanches are set off by the evaporation of carbon dioxide ice, as spring approaches.

But! Some other dark streaks [16] on Mars have been put up as possible signs of present day liquid water. Now, let me think, wasn't there something, on it's way to Mars soon, to answer questions about water there...?

* Admittedly, I've blown a few very expensive bits of kit up. And melted a couple more. But then, so has my boss. And so have most of the people I work with. You know, when I was a research student, we had a running tally for who'd given themselves the worst electric shock. The record was about two kilovolts, off what was, basically, a big can full of plasma.... It was a DC shock, so he lived, after flying ten feet through the air. Seriously, if you plan to do science as a career, learn the difference between DC and AC current. British AC is especially deadly. I'm a connoisseur of electric shocks, as well as nerd, go figure. 

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