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Thursday 25 December 2014

Happy Christmas everyone - on planet Earth and off it!


Christmas? It's a chance to celebrate everything good in the universe, regardless of race, colour, religion, culture, or any other divide. It's a chance to cultivate some hope when times are dark. I'm going to be peeling vegetables for Christmas dinner, while my better half cooks (I will also be doing the washing up), so I need a simple way of showing what makes me feel most like celebrating...  videos of the most awesome stuff in the known universe should do it....

Our home planet, seen from space:

Courtesy of ESA/NASA.

This man and his new arms:
Courtesy of John Hopkins University.

A tour of the International Space Station, humanity's outpost in space:

Courtesy of ESA/NASA

The Perseid meteor shower, a cloud of tiny space rocks our planet flies through every year:

Courtesy of Jeff Sullivan.

Following the Opportunity robot on its decades long trek across the Martian desert:

Courtesy of NASA.

The Aurora, caused when solar storms hit Earth:

Courtesy of Alaska News 

The Sun, in 3 minutes:

Courtesy of NASA. 

 ....and the extended Avengers 2 trailer. Now if only they'd do that Dr Who crossover I keep asking for.....

 Courtesy of Marvel.

Lastly, Something not so spectacular but fascinating if you have the time: A bit more on the findings (so far) of the Rosetta mission:

Courtesy of SETI.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Will Philae live?

Above: The twisted, black, ice of comet 67P.
At a recent press conference ESA scientists seemed remarkably confident that their lost comet lander, Philae, could survive and make contact with Earth: Last month the ESA spacecraft Rosetta sent it's lander, Philae down to the surface of a comet called 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. In a sequence of events that must have left mission controllers with brown, damp, trousers the probe hit the surface with a thud (exactly like this)....

...then completely failed to anchor itself with it's gas thruster, harpoons, or ice screws, and bounced back off into space.
Above: An image from Philae of a landscape blurred by speed. Not what you want to get from a spacecraft that has just 'landed'.
Oh. Dear.

The washing machine sized robot slowly bounced up and around the comet, under the weak gravity there. It hit a ridge, hit the ground, bounced off again, and finally came down in the shadow of steep cliff. Not a good positon for a solar powered robot. In the days that followed the science team made a desperate scramble to collect as much data as possible with the robot's tools, before its battery died, possibly forever. They succeeded, and as Philae's batteries failed they bade farewell to the child of so many hopes and dreams.

Their data revealed complex organic molecules, that the comet is almost hollow,giving clues to the origin of Earths water, and being named the top breakthrough of 2014. It's mother ship has been sucking in data like nobody's business, including the 'song' of the comets magnetic field:

Above: The 'sound' made by the comets magnetic field, sped up 100,000 times so we can hear it.

Now it seems that Philae might just call home again: As the comet gets closer to the sun Philae gets more sunlight - potentially enough for the solar panels to use, acoording to the Roseta team, who spoke at a multi national press conference this week. The conference is below - the session is an hour long, so spin on to 31:00 for the relevant bit if you're in a hurry:

Jean Pierre Biebring, part of the Rosetta team, said "... really the question is whether or not some electronics might suffer from the cold." But the robot is designed to handle cold temperatures - the camera can operate at temperatures of -150 degrees Celsius for example, and Philae has already endured the harsh environment of deep space.

Will the little droid that went to stand on a comet make a comeback? We should know around March next year, as the sun rises higher in Philae's sky, and grows brighter with the comets fall towards it.

Elsewhere on the internet:

Papers on Curiosity finds made publicly available

The papers on the recent findings of organic matter and methane on Mars are available for free

Venus express space probe to burn up in Venus' atmosphere:

The European Venus Express probe is going down in flames, over the skies of Venus.

Chinese Moon mission still alive

The Chinese lander is still at work on the surface of the Moon

Voyager 2 encounters 'tsunami' in interstellar space

Now the first craft to reach the interstellar void, Voyager 2 returns even more surprising data about the gas, dust, and magnetic fields out there.

Asteroid soil used to grow plants

Tiny worlds, asteroids are usually thought of as barren, but it turns out that the soil on some of them can be used to grow crops.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Methane on Mars?

Above: An image representing methane abundance on Mars

Methane gas is a potential tracer for life - it's also a potential tracer for non living organic matter. Even so, the detection of plumes of methane in the martian atmosphere caused excitment a while back. But the Rovers on the ground couldn't confirm the methane - until just today when a paper has popped up, seemingly saying that Curiosity rover has found Methane. I'll quote the abstract below, and here's the link.


Mars methane detection and variability at Gale crater

What Curiosity's uncovered on Mars

Usually I don't write midweek (I have one of those horrible 'job' things), or about Mars exploration - not because Mars isn't interesting or relevant though. Ancient Mars, whether it was warm and ocean covered as some theories go or an ice world with occasional floods as others think, was a huge part of the landscape of the ancient solar system. The reason I usually avoid it is because it gets so well served by the bigger news outlets and blogs, so there doesn't seem much need for me to shout about it too. As just one example of this:

Above: No, I'm not getting paid by Lego. It's just my way of sending a subtle hint to Santa...

 But recently the Curiosity Mars robot has found some things out about Gale crater on Mars that make it seem very likely there were not only streams but a lake there. The water seems to have come and gone. Curiosity Rover's Chief Scientist John Grotzinger described it as:

" [Not]  just a single lake that stood for millions of years, but rather a system of alluvial fans, deltas and lakes and dry deserts that alternated probably for millions if not tens of millions of years as a connected system."

Above: At present the water is definately going through a 'gone' phase....
If future results confirm this then it's a huge boost for hopes of finding ancient life on the red planet, and I'd be daft not to at least post a quick bit on the subject. I'll hand you over to NASA for a fuller explanation:

Saturday 13 December 2014

Do we need planetary protection from Japan's latest asteroid mission?

Two weeks ago Japan launched a spacecraft called 'Hayabusa 2', with a twofold mission: Bring back samples of a half mile wide asteroid called 1999 JU3, and deploy a small fleet of sub-craft to explore it in detail:

Above Hayabusa 2 lifts off on it's mission to 1999 JU3. Again, what's with the uninspiring place names astronomers?

OK, rocket launches are cool (so are bowties I'm told), but 1999 JU3 sounds like a dull part of the cosmos. So..... why has NASA's office of planetary protection recommended that any samples the  mission brings back should be classed as category 5; to be handled with "strict containment"?

Is that asteroid a just tiny chunk of lifeless rock adrift in the void, or something more?

Is there something terrible and sinister going on?

Above: I have been waiting for an excuse to use this clip in something since, like, forever.

Y'see, one of the planetary protection guy's jobs at NASA is to assess what the odds are that material coming back to Earth could have ever hosted life. If their verdict is yes then it potentially (but still very, very unlikely) could contain something harmful. They do this by working their way through a simple check list of questions, because bureaucracy I guess.
Lets look at the page of the planetary protection report that sums up the questions:

If you're interested in the fine details have a look at the link above. But, holy cow, that looks like there's a fair chance this miniscule asteroid was once habitable. Good god, could Haybusa accidentaly bring back alien bugs?
Almost certainly NO. In fact,  the 'category 5' rating is a technicality - but it's one that reveals whole point of the Hayabusa 2 mission.
It's been known for a long time that space rocks like 1999 JU3 could be fragments of protoplanets that had carbon chemistry, liquid water running beneath its surface, and energy sources like sunlight and radioactivity. These things are what we look for in a habitable world, but this tiny asteroid last saw liquid water and warmth four billion years ago. That's before life itself had begun. That water was likely trickling through the tiniest of pore spaces in rocks, as ice melted - hardly Barbados!  But yes, if we follow the reasoning strictly this was technically a habitable place.  
And that's the whole point of visiting this dull little place: It had all the conditions that life likes, all the conditions that organic chemistry needs to form life-like chemicals and processes. Earth had these, but life itself would have consumed them. 1999 JU3 could have preserved traces of the primordial processes leading up to the creation of life, but here life never came along to muddy the chemical waters, and wipe out any traces.
That's why Japan is sending a craft to visit it. And that's why NASA's 'strict containment ' verdict isn't a prediction of alien space germ doomsday, it's a promise of great discoveries in the making.
Elsewhere on the internet news:
Minute fragments of diamond revel the complex, and watery, history of a meteorite and it's parent world.
Another meteorite carries evidence of the proto-planetary disk that gave birth to our solar system.
A proposal for a robot radio observatory on the Moon's far side, that could probe the earliest times of the Universe and the most distant parts of it.
Here's an idea to protect your heirlooms: Send the m to the Moon!
A UK organisation aims to launch a publicly funded mission to the Moon's south pole.
And lastly, New Scientist magazine has had enough of all the delays stopping space agencies visiting Jupiter's ocean moon Europa, and is aiming to land its own probe there!


Sunday 7 December 2014

Worlds on the edge of knowledge: Dawn images Ceres, and New Horizons safely awakens for its date with Pluto

Real life... meh. It's needed, I suppose, but it surely interferes with the important things. Like blogging about sweet-ass missions to the furthest depths of space! Luckily it's relinquished its iron grip just as things are getting really interesting: The Rosetta/Philae mission is at comet 67-P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (yeah... you might want to work on your naming system astronomy).....

Above: This weird looking lump is a comet - a 4.5 billion year old relic o the ancient universe. Not what you just thought it was. Yes, I know what you thought it was.

.....Japan's Hayabusa2 mission has launched successfully to an organic matter rich asteroid, NASA has OSIRIS-ReX under development, and they have launched the Orion space capsule, which may be the first manned vessel to put people on an asteroid, and then Mars....
Above: The first flight of the Orion space capsule... at last! Video courtesy of NASA.
But more about those later. This weekend there are two great bits of news for a small worlds buff like me...

Dawn takes its first snap of the dwarf planet Ceres:

The Dawn space probe has already blown scientists minds with its exploration of the mutilated, torn up, volcanic asteroid Vesta. It showed us a world devastated by titanic asteroid impacts....

Above: Vesta. Originally it  was round.. so, yeah, it's 'a bit foxed' as we British say. Image courtesy of NASA.

.... a surface covered with weirdly distorted craters....
Above: Vesta, stop being weird!  Craters should be round. Round damnit! Image courtesy of NASA. 

....and surprising pockets of hydrogen bearing material - unusual because this would usually mean water ice beneath the surface, something that seems unlikely at Vesta.

Now DAWN is almost at it's next target, the dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is already an enticing world, just because of the information gathered by large telescopes: This little world shows signs of hydrated minerals on it's surface, and a plume of water vapour over one pole. Computer simulations suggest that once Ceres might have been warm enough for asubsurface ocean, an enticing prospect for scientists hunting after possible habitats for alien life.

Hubble has given us enticing images like this....

Above: Hubble's view of Ceres - known as the 'mouldy peach shot'.

....and now DAWN has gotten close enough to give it's first image of this small world:
Above: Dawn's first image of Ceres. Courtesy of NASA

Right now Ceres is just a pixelated blob, but from January onwards Dawn's cameras will have the best view of this little world in the solar system.

New Horizons awakens en route to Pluto:

New Horizons is NASA's probe into the great darkness of the Kuiper belt - a second asteroid belt out beyond the orbit of Neptune, where the 'rocks' are made of ices frozen at cryogenic temperatures. This is a very strange, place populated by bizarrely shaped dwarf planets, comets carrying relics from the birth of the solar system, and surprisingly complicated moon systems. Pluto, while no longer officially a planet, is one of the biggest little worlds out there. It's surface is covered by a thin atmosphere that freezes out as snow in winter. It's biggest moon, Charon, ...

Above: A painstakingly assembled image of Pluto and its moon Charon. Not a disco ball, I promise. Courtesy of NASA. 

...shows signs that the water ice on it's surface might begetting replenished, perhaps hinting at volcanic activity and internal temperatures high enough for liquid. And, since the New Horizons mission launched, better telescope imagers have increased the number of moons from one big one, to one big one plus a swarm of little ones. New Horizon's trip through Plutonian space is perhaps going to be a bit riskier than anticipated, since the region appears to be filled with chunks of ice.
Above The newly discovered moons of the Pluto system. Image courtesy of ESO.

But, danger or not, New Horizons has awakened from hibernation this weekend. The mission controllers have received telemetry, confirming that the space craft is alive.... it's time for NASA to boldly go somewhere no-one has ever been, again.