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Friday, 9 October 2015

Massive ripples in distant solar system, NASA plans a Mars colony, and more....

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NASA planning a Mars colony:

NASA is planning a Mars colony, able to survive independantly from Earth, at some point in the 2030's. The agency is planning a 3 phase approach, beginning with gaining deep space experiance with things like its Asteroid Retrieval Mission over the next decade. You can download the whole report by following the link above. I tend to be skeptical about plans like this, but I want to believe that this might be different....

Above: Rover tracks on the Martian surface. Courtesy of NASA.
Which brings us to...

In case there was any doubt still, yes ancient Mars did have streams and lakes

In case the news of (probable) present day water, all those water-carved-looking valleys, and the geology from rovers showing things like stream beds wasn't enough to convince scientists, Curiosity Rover has come back with something pretty damn convincing as evidence that Mars once had entire lakes and runninf streams on its surface: Fossilised mud.
"Observations from the rover suggest that a series of long-lived streams and lakes existed at some point between about 3.8 to 3.3 billion years ago, delivering sediment that slowly built up the lower layers of Mount Sharp," said Ashwin Vasavada, part of the Curiosity team.

Above: Blocks of finely structured sediment on mars, once put down as lake bottom mud. Courtesy of JPL/NASA

Hubble and ESO's Very Large Telescope see enormous, fast moving 'ripples' seen in distant solar system:

Young stars are often surrounded by huge disks of orbiting dust and gas - it's from these disks that planets clump together and form. So astronomers and astrophysicsts are watching those protoplanetary disks, in order to find clues to the mechanisms of planet birth. 
Then the disk around a star called AU Microscopi was examined, and it was found to contain not clumps or eddies (which are the two main ideas on how the seeds of planets form) but gigantic waves, racing through the structure of the disk at incredible velocities.
“Our observations have shown something unexpected. The images from SPHERE show a set of unexplained features in the disc which have an arch-like, or wave-like, structure, unlike anything that has ever been observed before," said Anthony Boccaletti of the Observatoire de Paris, France, lead author on the paper.
Team member Christian Thalmann (ETH Z├╝rich, Switzerland) explained how the velocities were calculated:"We reprocessed images from the Hubble data and ended up with enough information to track the movement of these strange features over a four-year period. By doing this, we found that the arches are racing away from the star at speeds of up to about 40 000 kilometres/hour!”

Above: The gigantic ultra fast wave structures in AU Microscopi's dosk (seen edge on).

Northern lights seen across the UK:

A coronal mass ejection - a huge storm of ionised gas spat out by the Sun - hit Earth this week, resulting in northern lights visible from England. The Northern lights are caused by Earth's magnetic field channelking the storm away from most of the planet and into the upper atmosphere at high lattitues - and the gas particles are energitic enough to make the air itself glow. Heres the lights as seen from Rochdale (about halfway down the island) which is much further than they usually get. Follow the link for more images.

Peter Collins was able to photograph the lights in Rochdale.

Dawn team might have figured out what those bright patches on Ceres are:

Above: Mysterious bright areas on the surface of Ceres. courtesy of NASA/JPL
Chris Russel, principle invesigator of the Dawn mission (currently orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres) has told the EPSC conference that mysterious bright pathces on Ceres - bright enough to be visible to Hubble orbiting earth - are probably huge expanses of salt deposited on the dwarf planet's surface. 

Above: Chris Russel givbes his speech at the EPSC opening ceremony

Earth's inner core began to freeze a billion years ago?

In many ways our solar system - and even our dear old huggable planet Earth - were alien places further back in time. This paper shows another way in which this is true: The core of the Earth consists of an inner core of solid iron and a molten outer core, which has a big influence on things like Earth's protective magnetic field - except that the solid inner core (according to the results in this paper) may not have existed until a billion years ago. That would mean that for most of its history, Earth was relatively unprotected against things like the solar storms that cause the northern and southern lights.

Above: Earth. Please tell me you didn't need telling that?

Dark matter may cause stars to go supernova:

DUM-DAH-DAH! Actually it's not quite that dramatic: A particular kind of supernova, called type 1a supernova, happens when a white dwarf star leeches matter off a bigger companion star. When the shell of stolen hydrogen gas gets heavy enough to undergo fusion it explodes like a gigantic hydrogen bomb. But a study of type 1a supernova showed that some hadn't gotten heavy enough for fusion. Enter 'asymetric dark matter', a type of dark matter that could be drawn in by the white dwarf gravity and act as a catalyst for fusion

Above: The Crab Nebula, debris left by a supernova. Not a type 1a supernova, but who's counting?

People love to tease: Huge news from SpaceX?

I've already been fouled by one rumour this week (see the last post) so I'm treating this with great caution. Rumour has it that SpaceX has something momentous in the works... follow the link to the source I have, but keep your skepticism hat on, these things can sometimes be fairly dissapointing (although Chris Bergin, the source, is usually a very level headed reporter). Given NASA's Mars colony news and SpaceX's ambitions I'm guessing they tie in together somehow.

What happened to that Indian 'Mars Methane' news? 

Speaking of rumours: Remember the rumour that India's MOM mission to Mars had found something important about Martian methane (a possible indicator of microbial life)? It's been weeks now with no follow up. Emilly Lakdewalla of the Planetary Society takes a look at the rumour, and what we are actually learning from MOM.

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