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Monday, 30 November 2015

Blue origin to begin commercial flights, ARM report available, and Yutu rover keeps on truckin'

Model T ford of rockets
Firefly Space Systems, a launch company specialising in launches for the rapidly growing small sat market, have gone on record as saying that they want their next design of space launcher to be the 'Model T ford' of rockets - by which I assume they mean they intend it to bring space access to a massive new market, not that it will have a top speed of 45 mph. 

Above: A video run down on Firefly Space System's efforts to build their advanced smallsat launcher. Courtesy of Firefly Space Systems

Asteroid Redirection Mission  - F.A.S.T. report available for public comment

NASA has released a draft copy of it's FAST (Final Assessment and Support Team) report of the ARM (Asteroid Redirection Mission), for public comment and feedback. Now, a lot of people are expecting that, just like George W Bush's project constellation, ARM will get cancelled  with the next change of US government. But on the off chance it doesn't here's your chance to tell NASA what you think of it, and maybe shape how it turns out - the email address to send your comments to is .

Yutu rover lives to see another day

Although it's been crippled for a long time now, the Yutu Moon 'rover' is still alive and talking to Earth from the Lunar surface, despite predictions that it would quickly succumb to the bitterly cold Lunar nights. The Chang'e lander craft that delivered it to the surface is also still operating - for nearly two years each, now -and functioning as an ultraviolet lunar observatory. Yutu itself has discovered that the Lunar geography is more complex than previously thought.

Above: Yutu rover on the surface, as seen by the Chang'e optical/UV observatory. Courtesy of the Chinese Government.

Hairy dark matter!

Does Earth have a hairy halo of dark matter? Since dark matter is expected to pass through ordinary matter like a ghost, this is an intriguing idea as the 'hairs' would pass through Earth's crust as if it wasn't there, and all join up at the core. Measuring these dark matter hairs might even provide a way to probe the deep structure of our planet, as they would reach right into the planet's core.

Angel Balloon

As more people focus on low cost ways of accessing space, near space balloon flights are getting more and more interest. Here's one example of the kind of new technologies that bare being tested on balloons: A NASA team launched a balloon in New Mexico to demonstrate the controlled descent of a high altitude balloon payload to a predetermined landing site. It flew to 120,000 feet and then disconnected from the balloon and was guided to the landing site by a paragliding parachute - see the video below:


Antarctica's newest observatory

With it's high altitude, thin air, low humidity, and stillness, Ridge A in Antarctica is the closest thing to a view from space you can get on the surface of the Earth - which is why a consortium of astronomers has built and placed a robotic observatory there. Called HEAT (High Elevation Antarctic Terahertz - hey, I didn't pick the name) the telescope is exploring star forming regions, some of the most important yet enigmatic regions in our Galaxy.

Above: The HEAT robotic telescope, courtesy of the University of Arizona.

Blue origin plans to launch space flights in summer 2016

Following it's successful sub-orbital flight last week (which resulted in a bit of a flame war between Blue origin's director, Jeff Bezos, and Space X founder Elon Musk) Blue origin plans to begin launching research payloads into space this coming summer, with manned flights to follow. for a video of their historic test flight, see below: 


Earth caught in supernova's afterglow 

An analysis of the intensity and direction of high energy particles reaching Earth suggests that our planet may still be caught in the 'afterglow' of a supernova that happened over two million years ago.

ULA to give miniature space craft free rideshare into space 

United Launch Alliance (ULA) will begin adding a cubesat dispenser on to its Atlas V rockets in 2017, allowing up to 24 cubesats to be launched alongside its main payload. Although most of the slots will be paid for, ULA will allow for several free rides for University payloads.
The cubesat/miniature spacecraft market is growing, with numerous small satellites being developed and already launched via a variety of launch vehicles. Still smaller spacecraft, such as thumbsats and chipsats are also being developed.

Above: The strange looking high altitude trail of an Atlas V rocket.

Above: The launch of an Atlas V, courtesy of ULA.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

My unsubstantiated opinion: Why do we explore Mars so much?

Why Mars?

This often used bit of artwork is used to illustrate Ancient Mars as often as it is a terraformed Mars.
Sometimes it seems that space exploration is fixated on Mars - odd, considering that it's a radiation bathed desert where the only liquid water is loaded with toxic salts.  And let's be honest: Yes, Mars is a fascinating place in its own right. Yes it can teach us a lot about the evolution of small planets, about climate change, and geology. But the reason why Mars receives more attention than any other world save Earth is that we're looking for the big L. True, some people see it as a place we could make a second home of - a world we could 'terraform' to be Earth like, but the main focus of most space agencies is determining if Mars ever hosted life, so I'll focus on that today.

So why Mars? And what are the odds we'll succeed?
The answer turns out to be more complicated than you'd think, and based less on the search for life and more on the limits of our spacecraft: Mars is certainly not an ideal place to be seeking out alien life. The surface is a (much!) more hostile version of Antarctica; To get a Mars like environment on Earth, take Antarctica and put it on top of a mountain 30 km high - not friendly.

Above: Antarctica - like Mars but with more air. Yes folks, the place NASA gets so excited about is even grimmer than this.

We've discovered worlds covered by volcanically warmed, chemically active oceans - Europa, Enceladus, maybe even Pluto - why not focus on those?

Above: The ice covered ocean world Europa - considered by many to be our best hope for finding alien life.
The truth is that the big advantage of Mars is accessibility, not habitability - we can reach the surface of Mars with a few months space travel, using well tested reliable technologies. Visiting the oceans of Europa or Enceladus would mean a far longer trip followed by finding a way through at least hundreds of meters of ice. By 'far longer' I mean, well, check out this video....

That doesn't mean we're looking to Mars in vain: Mars may be a desert today, but in the deep past volcanic heat kept things warmer, clean surface water was liquid at least some of the time, and there was (and possibly is) some sort of carbon chemistry going on - the three things that are generally recognised as vital for life are liquid (probably water... lets say water for the sake of simplicity today) carbon chemistry and an energy source.

So Mars once had ideal conditions for life, and lost them: In some ways that's actually more interesting than a habitable modern Mars. We can use Mars as a place to hunt for signs of life in the ancient past, and we can use it to learn how a habitable planet becomes an uninhabitable (or at most only borderline habitable) one. What's more we know that over long periods of time the Martian climate naturally shifts between more and less habitable modes, so we'd like to fully understand that too  - not a bad idea given our own current problems with climate change.

More than that, the Martian climate changed relatively slowly, so if there was any life there to begin with, and IF it has some how evolved to survive on modern Mars, we could chart he extreme outer edge of what evolution can do.

So, no, all else being equal Mars is not the ideal place to go to look for life. But all else is not equal..... and there are enough great reasons to make the trip worthwhile.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Blue Origin's New Shepherd spacecraft flies to space and back!

Blue origin reaches space!

Start saving for ticket money folks, there's a new ride going into space, and, without any doubt, there will be masses about this all over the news for the next couple of days: The private space flight company Blue Origin have succeeded in flying their New Shepherd spacecraft to the edge of space, and landing it intact. The company is the brainchild of Jeff Bezo's and has stayed relatively low key compared to the PR campaigns of companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, but today they've made a major splash (or, thankfully, haven't because the rocket landed safely on dry land) when the suborbital craft successfully reached its planned test altitude of100.5 kilometres before executing a safe landing back at the launch site in West Texas. Here's the video:


Space mining law, Rosetta's top 3 finds, and monitoring wildfires from space...

If the moon were 1 pixel wide....

I've seen a lot of attempts to represent the vast size of our solar system, but this is still one of the best. How far do you get before your patience gives out?

Above: A screen shot of a tiny part of Josh Worth's to scale solar system.

Three things Rosetta taught us - and three mysteries

The Rosetta space probe has shown us a lot about comets during its time at comet 67-P... but what are it's top three?

Unregulated space mining

Although the idea of mining the Moon or asteroids has been around for, well, as long as I've been alive and then some, the hurdles to making it happen (and profitable) have always been two fold: The technology, and the legality of it. While the tech is coming along, this is the first time I've heard of a big stride being made on the legal front - a US law is waiting to be signed into law by President Obama (the U.S. commercial space launch competitiveness act) that puts limits on the regulation needed for both private space flight and in-space mining, to encourage growth.

Above: A sample from an asteroid, etched and polished to show the pattern of iron crystals within.

Support a space mission that could save lives:

Fire sat is a kickstarter project for a constellation of heat sensing satellites that would monitor the world in real time for sudden increases in temperature. As our world warms the risk of wildfires will increase - and monitoring temperature flare ups is useful in other ways too: Oil spills, unlicensed flaring of gas, impending volcanic activity could all be monitored by the system. But rather than go the traditional route, the Firesat team are attempting to gain support for their idea through a kickstarter! 

Massive flood in Mars' 'grand canyon' 

Although Mars is known to have had a lot more water activity than today in the deep past, how much water activity can sometimes be a surprise:  ESA has found evidence of gigantic floods rushing through the regions of Aurora chaos and Ganges chasma, two to three billion years ago.

Above: The flood channels in Aurora Chaos and Ganges Chasma, as seen by ESA's Mars Express spacecraft.

Mission for Lunar Resource Prospector laid out 

The Lunar Resource Prospector is a rover mission to the Moon, designed to seek out usable materials like water. But the mission is still in the design phase, and exactly what it would do and how hasn't been laid out. This presentation sets out the goals and some of the likely methods the mission would use. 

Above:A shadowed crater on the Moon. In some craters the Sun is never seen, and the ultracold temperatures have trapped water ice and other useful things. Courtesy of NASA.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

SpaceX's first manned mission, helicopters on Mars, and impossible galaxies...

I'll have to keep things short and sweet this week, as a few things in real-life are still main priorities:

Space X to start flying humans in 2017

SpaceX has become the first of the new private spaceflight companies to be contracted by NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. “Commercial crew launches are really important for helping us meet the demand for research on the space station because it allows us to increase the crew to seven,” said Julie Robinson, International Space Station chief scientist. “Over the long term, it also sets the foundation for scientific access to future commercial research platforms in low- Earth orbit."

Above: CGI artwork of SpaceX's manned Dragon capsule. courtesy of SpaceX.

Next Mars rover may get flying companion

NASA may have plans for the Mars 2020 rover to use a small flying scout. A scouting drone could help the Mars 2020 rover avoid the sort of mission-ending misstep that got the smaller Spirit rover — the twin of the still-operational Opportunity rover — stuck in martian sand in 200.
“By March of next year — we’re actually building a full-scale helicopter, 1 kilogram size — we’re going to put it in a chamber and simulate, exactly, the Mars atmosphere. We have done some tests and we’re confident it will [fly],” JPL Director Charles Elachi said

Above: Artists impression of the Mars drone. Courtesy of JPL.

Space weather threatens equatorial power grids:

Although the effects of space weather on the power grids of more northerly countries are well understood, it's less well known how severely they can damage the infra structure of equatorial countries  and these new results suggest they may be more damaging that previously thought.

Space storms may have made a hospitable planet uninhabitable:

Massive versions of the coronal mass ejections thrown out by our Sun may be thrown out by the star of one of the most Earth-like exoplanets ever identified, rendering it uninhabitable.

Above: An artists impression of the poor little planet getting toasted.

Impossibly ancient galaxies

Some of the most ancient giant galaxies ever discovered have astronomers baffled - they're from such an early time in the universe that they have no shape, yet have grown to massive size by some unknown mechanism.

Relativity video earns $400,000:

Ryan Chester, a teenager from North Royalton in Ohio, submitted his video for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, winning  $250,000 of which will go towards a scholarship, $50,000 to his teacher Richard Nestoff and $100,000 for his school to fund a science lab.

Above: Ryan Chester's prize winning video.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Is there life on Mars? How space travel helps find food and water, tectonic activity on Ceres, and why the Moon might be a planet...

Hi all, some real life tasks I've been putting off have reached the point where I need to deal with them, so I'm taking a few days break. I should be back early next week. John.

Is there life on Mars?

The title sums the subject of this Physics World podcast up: The possibilities for Martian life and what forms it might take.

Above: Artwork depicting a pool of life-sustaining water on the Red Planet.

Using space resources to watch our crops.....

While it hasn't got the 'wow' factor of landing on Mars, or figuring out how to build habitats on the Moon, this is a good demonstration of how space as a resource can improve lives here on Earth: Stanford researchers have hit upon a novel way to monitor the growth of crops from space using solar-induced fluorescence, a type of light only emitted by growing plants.

Above: A video rundown of the new crop monitoring system. Courtesy of Stanford University. 

...and find drinkable water.

Along a very similar vein: India is launching four more 'Indian Regional Navigation Satellite Systems'  in the first quarter of the next academic year. So far India has benefited hugely from its space program, which has found sites for wells, warned of approaching tropical storms, helped disaster relief, and  guided fishermen to their catch.

Under new definition the Moon would be a planet.

The never ending argument over what constitutes a planet goes on, with one interesting twist: Under a definition recently suggested by  Jean-Luc Margot at the University of California the Earth-Moon system would be classed as a double planet.  Jean-Luc's definition is based on whether or not a world has enough mass to clear out it's orbit, and as both the earth and moon are over this limit they would jointly be considered a double planet.
“Of course it’s just a proposal,” says Margot. “I don’t know whether it will stick, whether people will love it, hate it or be indifferent.”

Above: The Moon would be a planet, under the proposed definition. So there.

Flowers grown on the ISS

The ISS crew have started using the 'Veggie' system to grow flowering plants in space. the investigation is part of ongoing studies to see how microgravity influences growth and reproduction, and this is the first time that the crew have tried to grow flowering plants. The results could impact how fresh fruit and vegetables are grown (or if they're grown) on future space missions, as well as feeding into studies of plant growth and productivity on Earth.

Above: Zinias, the type of flower being grown and tested. I think. I know nothing about botany, although I'm sure they're not tulips.

Dawn sees evidence of tectonic activity on Ceres

The Dawn space probe has seen hints of ancient tectonic activity on the dwarf planet Ceres. Although the mission has been fairly quite recently team have been hard at work with the probe, in its new Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO), and they're seeing more and more evidence that Ceresmust have been quite an active place in its youth - although they still don't have a definitive answer for what those bright spots are.... 

Above: Dantu crater on Ceres, which shows signs of tectonic activty in the past. Courtesy of NASA.

50 years of infra red astronomy 

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the start of infra red astronomy. CalTech has been celebrating with a two day symposium, in honour of the fields founders. Today infra red astronomy is used to study everything from dust clouds, to stars nearing the end of their lives, to the black hole at the centre of our galaxy. 

Above: A mock up of the James Webb space telescope, which will work in the infra red. Courtesy of JPL.

Monday, 16 November 2015

India's new mission to study the Sun, new jet pack technology for NASA, ESA to hunt gravity waves....

My sincere and deep sympathies to the the people of France, the citizens of Paris, the families of those killed, and those injured in Saturday's attacks. My sympathies to the people of Beirut who suffered similar attacks the day before.

Long live the people of Beirut.
Vive la grande nation de France, Vive le peuple de Paris.

Jet pack for flying around asteroids

NASA plans to go to an asteroid... well, to be accurate, NASA plans to kidnap and asteroid, park it in orbit around the Moon, and then go visit it - it's called the Asteroid Redirection Mission. That's all fine, ambitious, and so on - but once you're at the asteroid you need to be able to get around it. Now this asteroid is planned to be small, maybe not a lot bigger than the Orion spaceship visiting it, so it won't have any gravity worth speaking of. Loosing your grip and floating pathetically away from the asteroid would be kind of embarrassing, so Draper engineer Michele Carpenter, Draper fellow Todd Sheerin, and some  MIT students have been working on 'control moment gyroscope (CMG) hardware' - essentially the beginnings of a gyroscope controlled jetpack.

Michele Carpenter, told Popular Science that “The CMGs enable a finer level of control by operating continuously. Thrusters aren’t well suited for this function because they are discrete actuators (they need to turn on and off). If an astronaut tried to use them to stay in place, they would repeatedly bounce back and forth while the thrusters turned on and off.

 Above: CMG being demonstrated aboard parabolic flights on a NASA DC-9. Courtesy of NASA

LISA pathfinder mission: 

Gravitational waves are one of the last predictions of Einstein's theory of general relativity to be verified - they are 'waves' of distorting space time that ripple out from the most immensely powerful cosmic events, like super massive black holes colliding, and as they pass space itself stretches first one way, then the other. Luckily we live in quiet stretch of universe, so around here gravitational waves are incredibly faint - so faint that they haven't yet been detected, remaining just a theory.
ESA's LISA ( Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) mission, which launches in just over two weeks, will pave the way for future missions by testing in space the technology for gravitational wave detection: It will put two test masses into orbit and control and measure their motion with incredible  accuracy. To stand any chance of picking up gravitational waves the mission needs to minimise the extra forces on the test masses, so it has bleeding edge technology: Inertial sensors, the laser metrology system, the drag-free control system and an ultra-precise micro-propulsion system. 

Above: A video explaining ESA's LISA pathfinder mission, starting the hunt in space for gravitational waves. Courtesy of ESA.

India launches first solar mission

It's not a big surprise that space agencies are interested in studying the Sun: As well as being the only star we can study up close, it controls the space weather around Earth (which can influence and damage our power grids and communications) and is the source of 99% of all energy on Earth. India's space agency, ISRO, is building on it's recent successes and aiming launch a solar mission called Aditya. All they're waiting for is the final go-ahead from India's prime minister.
“A combination of imaging and spectroscopy in multi-wavelength will enhance our understanding of the solar atmosphere. It will provide high time cadence sharp images of the solar chromosphere and the corona in the emission lines. These images will be used to study the highly dynamic nature of the solar corona including the small-scale coronal loops and large-scale Coronal Mass Ejections,” said Dipankar Banerjee, physicist from IIA, who is part of the project.

 Above: The solar corona the Sun's atmosphere - seen during a solar eclispe. Courtesy of Astrobob

New evidence in the hunt for where Earth got its water

In case anyone hasn't noticed; Earth has a lot of water - in fact it covers two thirds of the planet's surface. But where it all came from is a bit of a mystery: Comet strikes have been proposed, but recent readings on the isotope ratios of comet water don't seem to match Earth's. A new paper (here, pay to view) by the University of Hawaii at Manoa has focused on results from rocks that have been preserved from Earth's earliest days, and which contain tiny bubbles of water from those times. The analysis points to the water being incorporated into Earth right at the start, as water rich dust from the protosolar nebular - the cloud of dust and gas from which the planets grew.

Above: Baffin island, where the rocks were found. Courtesy of Peter Dronkers at

Cygnus spacecraft being readied for cargo mission

Orbital ATK are readying a Cygnus robotic cargo ship for the next cargo run to the International Space Station. This will be Orbital's fourth commercial resupply flight to the station and will carry supplies, equipment and research to keep the station stocked. Maybe not the biggest news in space travel this year, but it's good to see the commercial spaceflight company getting back on it's feet, after the disastrous explosion of one of its Antares rockets earlier this year

Above: A Cygnus spacecraft on approach to the ISS. Courtesy of Orbital ATK.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

New space habitat to be tested, natural wormholes, mystery object burns up...

My sincere and deep sympathies to the the people of France, the citizens of Paris, the families of those killed and those injured in last nights attacks.

Vive la grande nation de France, Vive le peuple de Paris.

Progress towards deep space habitats has an very interesting article on NASA's recent review of progress towards developing next gen habitats for astronauts (title link). These could be used on Lunar and Mars missions, expanding the International Space Station, or building new research facilities in near Earth space. A few highlights are:
  • 78% Of their milestones (many of which involved building actual hardware) were met.
  • In January next year Bigelow aerospace will launch its BEAM inflatable habitat, which will become an extension to the ISS. 
  • Four companies – Lockheed Martin, Bigelow, Orbital ATK, and Boeing – were awarded contracts to address habitat concept development for the Next Space Technology Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) initiative, which is seeking concepts for the next generation of space habitats.
  • Bigelow already has a design - the B330 - which it hopes to demonstrate will suit long term human spaceflight.
The overall thrust of all this seems to be opening opportunities to expand human activity in space - for private as well as government bodies - and I find that a happy thought on a day when the world needs happy thoughts.

Above: Bigelow Aerospace's BA330 habitate. Courtesy of Bigelow aerospace.

Doug Litteken, a NASA engineeer, discusses the importance of using inflatable structures for a human mission to Mars

Oldest surviving stars in our galaxy seen

The elements that go into making up, well, this planet and everything we see around us, had their origins in the deaths of massive stars. Those early supernova acted as nuclear forges, creating heavier elements in a universe that was originally made mainly of hydrogen and helium gas. That makes spotting the oldest stars in our own galaxy - which could teach us the most about the earliest days of our universe - fairly easy in theory: We just need to look for stars with little or no heavier elements. In practice - not so easy - our galaxy contains 200 billion stars, and survivors from the most ancient eras will be scattered thinly between them.

So it's quite an achievement for an international team of astronomers to have discovered what may be only the second generation of stars to shine, huddled near the core of our galaxy

Above: The centre of our galaxy, as seen from Earth. Courtesy of Joe Bergeron.

Wormholes may form naturally

This is a theory and math heavy paper, and to be honest a lot of the detail is beyond my understanding. That said the upshot of it is fairly clear: According to some theories describing gravity, black holes might not just crush everything in their centres, but instead may naturally form wormholes - passageways  through spacetime. Although wormholes are strictly theoretical, they offer the possibility of circumventing the light speed speed limit by allowing shortcuts, through distorted space-time, to distant parts of the universe.

This is definitely a theory only, and I have no idea how it might ever be proved. But the implication would be that our universe is full of naturally occurring shortcuts through space - so in case it does one day pan out, you heard it here first folks.

Rather than take the long route across space (pink line), a wormhole allows a shortcut through space and time (blue funnel) (Detlev van Ravenswaay/SPL)

Mysterious object WT119F probably was artificial - but now it's dust!

For a while now an mysterious but unidentified object, designated WT1190F, has been nearing a collision with Earth. Late this week it finally hit our atmosphere, and  a multinational team of observers took to the skies in a specially prepared aircraft to follow it's fiery demise. The pattern of the objects breakup strongly suggests that this was an artificial object, possible part of an old Moon mission, although we may never know exactly what it was. The video below follows the team that took to the skies to follow it.

Amazing view of Marathon Valley

Based on the images taken by the Opportunity Mars rover, this is a simply stunning view down Marathon valley on Mars. The overall image was stitched together, and accurate colours added, by James Sorenson.

Winter hits Titan with vengeance

After a warmer than usual autumn we had our first blast of winter here in Scotland yesterday, with snow, high winds, and flooding (I do love this country). But that's nothing, compared to the winters on Saturn's moon Titan. lasting for seven and a half earth years, the temperatures can drop to minus a hundred and fifty degrees Celsius, and NASA's Cassini mission has now found that a truly monstrous cloud of ice particles is settling over titan's south pole as winter hits: The cloud already covers most of the immediate polar region, and towers to 200 kilometres in height.
Of course, the Cassini team are fascinated; “Titan's seasonal changes continue to excite and surprise," said Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "Cassini, with its very capable suite of instruments, will continue to periodically study how changes occur on Titan until its Solstice mission ends in 2017.”

Above: The massive ice cloud sits over Titan's south pole. Image courtesy of NASA.

My sympathies....

My sincere and deep sympathies to the the people of France, the citizens of Paris, the famillies of those killed and those injured in last nights attacks.

Vive la grande nation de France, Vive le peuple de Paris.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Strange red streaks on Saturn's moon Tethy's investigated, MOM gets aview of Deimos' hidden face, Archive of DPS releases....

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Furthest known member of the solar system has been seen

 V774104 is not an especially inspiring moniker, but this week it has gotten a lot of astronomers excited - it's the formal designation for the furthest member of our solar system ever to be seen. Out beyond the orbits of Uranus and Neptune is thought to lurk a whole collection of small, icy, weird worlds. Pluto was the first we've sent a space craft to, and others, like Sedna, are suspected to be foreigners from another solar system
For now V774104 is just a distant spot of light - we know almost nothing about it except that it exists. “We don’t know anything about its orbit,” says Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, whose team discovered the new addition. “We just know it’s the most distant object known.”
But over the coming months Sheppard and other astronomers will be working hard to learn as much as they can about this new little world, and what it might teach us about the wider universe.

Above: The Subaru telescope, which was used to find the new addition to the Sun's family. Courtesy of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

Cassini investigates odd red streaks on Tethys. 

 Scientists love a mystery - in fact that's at least 50% of the job definition - and the Saturn system is full of them. One that hasn't been investigated much until now is Saturn's moon Tethys. Although it looks like an unremarkable ball of cratered ice from a distance, closer inspection shows strange reddish streaks mottling its surface. This week the Cassini space probe performed a close flyby of Tethys to try and get a better look at them - hopefully some clues to what they can be found before the Cassini mission comes to an end in 2017.

Above: Tethy's, an icy moon of Saturn with parts of its surface coated in faint red marks

Asteroids seen being dismembered by dwarf star

A general rule of thumb in space exploration is that the more extreme the thing you're looking at is the more extreme you should expect its behaviour to be. White Dwarfs are up there with the most extreme things we know: They're the collapsed cores of dead suns. Incredibly dense and possessed of gravitational fields stronger than anything except a neutron star or a black hole, anything straying to close can expect a dramatic fate. For a collection of asteroids that strayed too close to the white dwarf called a SDSS1228+1040 their fate was to be ripped apart and smeared into an arc of dust and rock around the dead star. 

Such is life in the universe, but  for the first time the ring of debris has been imaged, using a technique called Doppler tomography. The new picture was taken by a team from the University of Warwick. Professor Boris Gänsicke of the University of Warwick’s Astrophysics Group described their find:
“When we discovered this debris disk orbiting the white dwarf SDSS1228+1040 back in 2006, we thought we saw some signs of an asymmetric shape. However, we could not have imagined the exquisite details that are now visible in this image constructed from twelve years of data - it was definitely worth the wait. Over the past decade, we have learned that remnants of planetary systems around white dwarfs are ubiquitous, and over thirty debris disks have been found by now. While most of them are in a stable state, just like Saturn’s rings, a handful are seen to change, and it is those systems that can tell us something about how these rings are formed.”
Above: The image of the 'ring' of debris around the dwarf star. Although there had been hints in the past of it's irregular shape, this is the first time it has actually been seen. Courtesy of the University of Warwick.

Indian Mars mission gets a look at Martian moon Deimos 

The Indian space agency's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has had a rare opportunity to get a look at the back side of the martian moon Deimos. Because its orbit is above that of most of the space craft orbiting the red planet, and because it is tidally locked to Mars, Deimos' back side is rarely able to be imaged.But MOM has a wider orbit than most, which crosses outside Deimos' orbit so it can photograph the tiny moon's unseen side. The pictures were taken from around four thousand kilometres away.

Above: The backside of Deimos, as seen by MOM from around four thousand kilometres away. Courtesy of ISRO

Archived press conferences for all the DPS announcements

Today is the last day of the Division of Planetary Science's 2015 conference. There's been a lot of interesting papers (here are a few of my favourites) and new discoveries announced, from scorching hot Mercury right near the Sun to frigid Pluto, all the way out on the edge of interstellar space. But it's been a busy week for us normal folk to, and the news outlets don't always catch everything. So, if you might have missed anything, here (the title link) is an archive of all the press releases from DPS this week.

Above: Pluto, as seen usingo using a technique called principal component analysis to highlight the many subtle colour differences between Pluto's distinct regions. it's well worth following the image link and zooming in - like New Horizons has hit a time warp and ended up in the 70's! Courtesy of NASA.

Satellites to track planes worldwide

Following the  the mysterious disappearance of flight MH370 in March 2014 representatives from countries across the world have met up at a conference run by the  UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU). To avoid such baffling tragedies as MH370 in future - where the lack of closur prevents many grieving relatives from moving on - the conference concluded that all aircraft would be tracked in future by satellites, allowing their positions to be known worldwide, in real time. Currently ground based radar is used to track aircraft, but this cannot follow an aircraft far out at sea, or flying below a certain altitude.
US Ambassador Decker Anstrom praised the deal, saying it would "enable better tracking and location of aircraft that otherwise could disappear from terrestrial tracking systems."