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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Selection process for Mars landing sites begins, Cassini survives its 'plume dive', and Russia to open space market...

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Cassini completes deepest ever 'plume dive' 

NASA's Cassini spacecraft completed a daring dive thought the geysers of Saturn's Moon Enceladus,to try and learn more about the ocean beneath the surface. I haven't heard anything about results yet - and I wouldn't expect to for some time - but in case anyone was worried that NASA confused metric and imperial measurements again and slammed Cassini into that moons icy crust - no they didn't. Cassini is safe and well and transmitting its data back to Earth.

Above; An artists impression of the geysers of Enceladus, courtesy of NASA.

First workshop to select manned Mars landing site in progress:

NASA's first 'Landing Sites/Exploration Zones Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars' is running right now  (Oct. 27-30) at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. The idea is to collect proposals for locations on Mars that would be of high scientific research value while also providing natural resources to let people live and work safely.

The workshop is being webcast live via UStream at:

Above: Morning frost on the rocky landscape of Mars, as seen by the Viking lander. Courtesy of NASA.

Russia to open space services market to private firms

Although the last ten years has seen the beginnings of private space firms in the US, in Russia the national space agency, Roscosmos, is still the only real player. This could be set to change however, according to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozi:“By 2020, we plan to form an effective system of support for Russian corporations on the market of space services and allow private companies onto the market,” Rogozin, who oversees the country’s space industry, said during an innovation technology forum in Moscow.

Using gravity's lens to look deeper into the past

Supernova are some of the brightest events in the universe, but our telescopes can still only detect them a certain distance away. This is a frustration for cosmologists, because supernova are useful tool for learning about the universe: For example the number of supernova in a particular region of space tells us something about what kind of stars there are there. As light travels at a finite speed the further into space we look the further back in time we're looking too, so if we could find a way of spotting the most distant supernova we'd also be able to learn a lot about the early universe. The paper linked in the title has come up with a n interesting cheat to get around the limitations of our telescopes: Gravity lens's. A big collection of matter can pull light off course, and can act like a lens - so the authors of the paper want to train telescopes on the naturally occurring gravity lens in the universe, and try to pick up magnified, ancient, supernova through them.

Above: An Einstein ring, caused by gravity lensing the light from a distant galaxy. Courtesy of

A very British spaceship 

Although Britain isn't exactly a massive space power, something that's not well known is that once upon a time the island had it's own independent space program. This week marks the 44th anniversary of the launch of the only successful home grown space satellite to be launched on a British designed and built rocket: Prosepero, a satellite launched to test what were, at the time, ground breaking communications technologies.

The craft is still visible in the night sky (follow the title link for more details), and it might even be possible for a team with good antenna to contact the elderly space vehicle again - radio operators tracked Prospero's signal until 2004.

Above: The Prospero satellite, passing by overhead.Courtesy of Astroroadshow.

The Black Arrow rocket it was launched on was also a unique bit of history:  A home grown UK space rocket that might have formed the start of an ambitious British space program...

Above: A documentary on the British space program and the Black Arrow rocket. Courtesy of the

NASA's TIMED mission shows we still don't understand the atmosphere

Launched 14 years ago, the TIMED mission was the first satellite capable of measuring how the levels of Co2 in our atmosphere changes over the long term. Now  a study based on its results has turned up some perplexing tends that challenge existing theories of how different layers of the atmosphere interact with each other: CO2 is increasing much more rapidly in the upper atmosphere, and seems to be concentrated over the northern hemisphere to.

“Before TIMED, the only measurements of carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere were direct measurements from sounding rocket research flights and short-lived spaceborne sensors. But it’s impossible to study long-term trends from snapshots.”said Jia Yue lead author on the study. Diego Janches, a TIMED project scientist added: “It seems clear that we don’t quite understand the relationship between the lower atmosphere and the upper atmosphere. We tend to separate them into different fields—lower atmosphere is Earth science, upper atmosphere is heliophysics—but we need to understand the atmosphere as a complete system.” 

Above: Mars..... just kidding.

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