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Tuesday 29 September 2015

Video of the 'water on Mars' press conference, big solar storm causes radio blackout, and more

Flowing water on Mars:

Yesterday's 'mystery solved' release from NASA seems to point to a certain kind of dark feature on the Martian surface being due to liquid water, stabilised against freezing in the Martian cold, or evaporating in the thin martian air, by the naturally occurring perchlorate salts in the Martian soil. It's a process that occurs on earth (well, similar to) and keeps a very strange lake called 'Don Juan Pond in Antarctica filled.

Above: Don Juan Pond, Antarctica, is the saltiest lake in the world - it never freezes, not even in the - 50 degrees Celsius of Antarctic winter. Courtesy of the British Antarctic Survey.
Reactions to this have been surprisingly mixed: A lot of people are happy to hear that our planetary neighbour is a bit less inhospitable than we thought, even if it's still damn inhospitable. Others are (maybe with some justification) pointing out that NASA has over hyped this a bit. They point out that  although this is the first really solid evidence for liquid water in this part of Mars, and solves the mystery of the 'Recurring Slope Linea' (RSL's), thin films of liquid water have been detected in results from the Phoenix Mars lander in the past.
Still others point out that the water in these RSL's will be incredibly salty -  maybe too salty for even the toughest extremophiles to drink. But it's still (in my opinion) a good find, and it shows us a (slightly!) friendlier side to the red planet. But don't look to me for the answers, here's the video of the conference (above) - judge for yourselves!

Big solar flare causes radio blackout:

Parts of Africa, the America's, and the Atlantic suffered a radio blackout yesterday, as a result of a solar flare.The map below shows the most severely affected areas. This isn't an unusual event, and although really big solar events have been known to knock out power grids, there doesn't seem to be any danger of that happening here.

It seems that, for a while now, ESA's Rosetta spacecraft has been exploring not one comet but two - The famous double-lobed shape of comet 67-P is due to it actually being two comets stuck together:
“It is clear from the images that both lobes have an outer envelope of material organised in distinct layers, and we think these extend for several hundred metres below the surface,” says Matteo Massironi, lead author from the University of Padova, Italy, and an associate scientist of the OSIRIS team.
“You can imagine the layering a bit like an onion, except in this case we are considering two separate onions of differing size that have grown independently before fusing together.”

Above: Two infographics from ESA, showing the layering on Comet 67-P
“Layering has also been observed on the surface of other comets during previous flyby missions, suggesting that they also underwent a similar formation history.” Added co-author Bjorn Davidsson of Uppsala University, Sweden. The results are published in Nature, here.

Monday 28 September 2015

Update on that Mars story...

Above: Artists impression of a pool of ultra salty water on Mars

It seems that the speculation has been on the money for once: Today's NASA announcement is, if not utterly iron clad evidence, at least a convincing 'smoking gun' that some small amount of liquid water is present on Mars today. I'll give this the proper attention and write up it deserves when I've got time to go through the press release and background materials properly. For now I'll give you a quick snippet of the NASA release:

New findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.
Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.
“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water -- albeit briny -- is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”
These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it’s likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.

Garni crater on Mars
Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (RED) image (ESP_031059_1685) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5.
Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
"We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)"

... an animation (courtesy of NASA) of one of the sites where the salt laden water seems to have flowed.....

 and a link to the full NASA report. See you soon with more details!

'Major' Mars science announcment, and a few other bits and pieces....

Watch the 'Major' announcement on Mars science here:

EDIT: According to this Guardian article the news is indeed a 'smoking gun' for present day water on the surface of Mars.

Just a very quick note to let you all now that you can watch today's announcement from NASA on NASA ustream, either in the panel below or by clicking the link above, at 15:30 UTC:

Fusion power within reach?
A team from the university of Gothenburg may have found the key to using fusion power in small scale power plants.

Upgraded ion engine 153% more fuel efficient

Above: An ion engine being tested in a vacuum chamber.

Cubesats represent a fundamental change in space usage and exploration
See below for Crag Clark of Clydespace giving a talk on how the rise of miniature satellites is changing space travel.

Saturday 26 September 2015

Pluto, the Dragon Skinned planet....

We have no idea how this formed:

"We have no idea how this formed" I love it when a space missions team say that - it means they've found something interesting. The New Horizons team have revealed even more data from Pluto, including the discovery of 'Snakeskin terrain', and landscape that looks like nothing on any world we've ever explored:

Above: The mysterious terrain wioth its weird parralel ridges....

William McKinnon, a New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis, said “It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.
The latest data set also contains information on the colours of Pluto - blues, yellows, pinks, and deep red....

Above, the colours of Pluto, courtesy of NASA. Click vand save the image to get the hugely enlargeable version and explore Pluto yourself!
The coast of Pluto's glacier sea, courtesy of NASA: Click and save the image to get the hugely enlargeable version.

.... and some of the data on the composition of the Plutonian surface is starting to come in, like this map  of methane abundance:

Above: A map of methane concentrations on Pluto. Courtesy of NASA.

There're also a lot of new and perplexing images of Pluto's largest moon, Charon - but I think there's be more on Charon coming in a few weeks time. In the meanwhile you can find all the recent images here.

Speaking of methane, whatever happened to the 'Mars revelation':

Ahem, yes. In my last post I reported that, according to this source, there was some big news about methane (a possible indicator of life) coming from the Indian MOM mission. While some new images have been released to mark MOM's 1 year anniversary in orbit there's no sign of any announcement about a methane related discovery. Rumour has it that there is a discovery in the data, but someone jumped the gun and let something leak without respecting the proper peer review process and embargoes.

Above: One of the stunning new images from MOM. Courtesy of ISRO

But worry not Mars fans, it's NASA to the rescue....

NASA have a big 'mystery solved' announcement to make on Monday the 28th

Right now no-one has any idea what it's about, so all we can do is watch this space.... but there is a clue in the list of scientists giving the conference, perhaps: Lujendra Ojha, of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is on the panel, and he's known for the theory that strange features called recurring slope linea are evidence of salty water flowing during the warmer months. That's totally unconfirmed, but it would gel with evidence from the Curiosity rover that tiny amounts of salt water are forming at its location even today.

Above: Recurring Slope Linea. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL.

Rosetta finds comets have a way of replenishing their surface ice:

How comets replenish the ice on their surfaces has always been a bit of a head scratcher, but now the Rosetta team have an answer: The heat from the sun can penetrate deeper into the comet and become trapped by insulating layers, making buried ice evaporate and then freeze onto the surface as the frigid cometary night falls

Above A comparison of ice abundance and surface temperature for an area of comet 67-P. Courtesy of ESA

...and also finds argon:

Argon, an nonreactive noble gas, may not seem that interesting. But it's dull nonreactive nature is its hidden strength - it persists unchanged across billions of years and can be a useful tracer of how things were billions of years ago. So the team behind the ROSINA instrument on the Rosetta mission are being tantalised by the discovery of an argon reserve on comet 67-P, which could help them unravel the solar systems earliest history.... 

Wednesday 23 September 2015

What's the news on Martian methane?

Indian space agency to reveal data on Martian methane:

For some reason I don't hear much about the Indian space agency's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), but a few photos have trickled down to me (here). However, any information on the mysterious source of the methane in the Martian atmosphere should make a bit more of a splash.....

Above: one of the images MOM has returned. Image courtesy of the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Alan Stern hints at 'landscapes unlike anything seen on any other world' on Pluto:

Alan Stern, principle investigator on the New Horizons mission, likes to tease us. Midweek he gave a very informative Q and A session on the mission and its findings to date. But he also dropped tjis comment:

"We do see similarities to Neptune's large moon Triton which itself used to be a planet orbiting -- and was since captured into orbit -- around Neptune, but we also see similarities to the Earth in the glacial fields. We see many similarities, geomorphologicaly to Mars -- really blowing our minds that this is another Mars, we call it the other red planet -- and to other icy satellites of some of the giant planets as well, and on our geology team -- and I'm not a geologist -- but the geologists, you know, they work a lot by analogy, where they're looking for examples of similar morphologies that have been modeled and understood in previous explorations, from missions like Cassini and Galileo and Voyager, and we're finding many examples on Pluto and its satellites of other places, but also completely new phenomena. In fact, we're going to be releasing some images later this week of a completely unique type of terrain -- it's just mind-blowing and makes my head hurt to think about how it may have formed -- that we see on Pluto that we don't see anywhere else in the Solar System.."
So stay tuned!

Above: Sunset over Pluto illuminates the haze layers in its atmosphere. Courtesy of NASA

A new look at Io through re-processed Voyager images:

There's a website called, where imaging buffs like to hang out and use their skills to wring even more data from the blurred or damaged images sent back to us by our robotic probes. One in particular has caught my eye in the last week: A poster called 'jccwt' (otherwise known as Justin Cowert) has managed to clean up some old voyager images, to give us previously unseen images of Jupiter's volcanic moon Io. I'll let them speak for themselves:

UK signs up to build instrument for really big telescope:

The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council have signed a contract to produce an instrument called Harmoni, for the European Extremely Large Telescope, a monstrous device that will be 30 meters across and will be able to image exoplanets orbiting nearby stars.

An animation showing the geography of Ceres: 

The Dawn mission has revealed a lot to us about the dwarf planet Ceres, but it's still hard to get an idea of the geography of this strange little world - so this quick video has been made, to literally show the world the highs and lows of Ceres;

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Strange structures seen on Pluto, a new fleet of tiny weather sats, and more..

Earth gives the Moon a massage:

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission has discovered hundreds of small, active, faults on the Moon - and the forces powering them seems to be Earth's gravity and the Moon's cooling interior. "The discovery of so many previously undetected tectonic features as our LROC high-resolution image coverage continues to grow is truly remarkable," said Mark Robinson of Arizona State University, coauthor and LROC principal investigator.
Above: One of the geologically young lobate thrust faults. Courtesy of NASA.
'Solid cloud' seen on Pluto...

Even though New Horizons only had a few brief hours in the Pluto system to observe the dwarf planet and its moons, it's apparent that the 'last stop before Alpha Centauri' will be keeping scientists busy for decades at least. As well as the vast sea of  nitrogen/carbon monoxide glaciers, mysterious ice patterns, huge black mountains and 'impossible' dune like features, the most recent sunset view of Pluto has revealed strange 'Candyfloss' or 'broccoli' structures covering parts of the surface, hundreds of kilometres tall. No-one is sure what they are, but the speculation I've heard includes monstrously overgrown hoar frost, and frozen emissions from cryovolcanic vents. New Horizons has delivered one of the strangest images for decades.....

....and a spectacular aerial tour:

Surface of comet 67P changes at breakneck speed: 

ESA's comet chasing Rossetta spaceprobe has seen geological changes happen on the surface of comet 67-P at breakneck speed... which, geologically, means tens of centimeters an hour or more.... showing that the comet is reshaping itself before the probes eyes. Anticipation is mounting for the release of more data on the makeup of the organic matter from the comet, which is already thought to contain prebiotic compounds.

Above: Strange, circular, patterns grow in the Imhotep region of the comet, in a matter of days.

Early solar storm causes aurora:

A Coronal Mass ejection hit Earth a day earlier than predicted this week, causing intense Auroras, visible to astronomers living at high latitudes. For the latest images click here.....

Above: Bright and unexpected Aurora.

Fleet of Cubesats to improve ocean weather forecasts:

Business is good for cubesats, with a company called Spire planning a huge fleet of 100 cubesats to improve weather forecasts at sea, and more student cubesats undergoing testing for flight.

Above: A cubesat undergoing vacuum and thermal testing, courtesy of University of Lige, Belgium

Prototype Lunar Rover put through its paces to hunt for ancient ice:

 At a place called the 'Rock Yard' in Johnson Space Centre the prototype for what might be a lunar ice hunting rover is  being put through its paces. Although the mission hasn't been selected by NASA yet, Dan Andrews ans his team are hoping to gain international partnerships to boost the chances of their Resource Prospector rover being sent to the 'valleys of eternal darkness', where the sun hasn't risen for billions of years. The intense cold there has preserved ice and organics from the solar system's birth, which (as well as being a great window onto the ancient solar system) could be used as fuel or even drinking water for future lunar missions.

Above: Concept art for Resource prospector, courtesy of NASA.

Friday 18 September 2015

Sunset on Pluto, a mighty odd mountain on Ceres, and much more...

Sunset on Pluto captured by New Horizons space probe:

Sunset on the planet Pluto. 'Nuff said.
Above: Sunset on Pluto. Original captured by New Horizons, colour added by Ian R of unmanned using New Horizons data.

The Solar system to scale:

A map of the solar system is a difficult thing to get right: If you want to show the planets to scale then their orbits will be much, much to small. If you show the orbits to scale the planets will be so small as to be invisible.

Spiderfab tech could enable gigantic space telescopes:
Above: CGI impression of a Spiderfab droid at work. Image courtesy of tethers unlimited.

Spiderfab is an idea from Tethers Unlimited that takes elf assembly in space to the next level: rather than launching massive, bulky spacecraft whole, send them up as raw components with a 'factory' smart enough to build those components into the finished product. It would certainly save space!Using this approach  space telescopes and solar sails hundreds of meters across could be constructed in space. Follow the link to the menu, then click each further link for Tethers Unlimited presentation, audio files, etc

SpaceX's 'Red Dragon ship could return a sample from Mars:

SpaceX likes to push the envelope it seems, and their plans for Mars are no exception.  They have A plan to land a heavily modified version of their Dragon space capsule on Mars, filled with the equipment needed to return a sample of Martian soil to Earth. The sample return mission is codenamed 'Red Dragon', and might take place in conjunction with a future Mars rover.
Follow the link to the menu, then click each further link for SpaceX's presentation, audio files, etc.
Above: Marathon valley on mars, courtesy of NASA/JPL.

Sun's magnetic field blows 600,000 km long cloud of plasma into space:

This stunning image of an immense cloud of plasma being blown into space by our sun was captured by astronomer Alan Friedman -the cloud could swallow many thousands of planet Earth, and is held aloft by the sun's powerful magnetic field.
Above: Plasma storm ahoy! Image courtesy of Alan Friedman

The lonely mountain of Ceres:

Different lonely mountain guys.
Dawn is settling into its high altitude mapping orbit, and we have got some of the best views yet of 'the lonely mountain'. This is a 6km tall, pyramid shaped, flat topped, isolated mountain at is growing out of the surface of Ceres.

Above: Cere's actual lonely mountain, a 3000 meter high monolith on an otherwise flat plain. Courtesy of NASA
On Earth mountains mainly grow through two mechanisms: They grow as volcanoes, or where continental plates are colliding. On the Moon they can also be formed by a massive asteroid strike. but nothing seems to fit the lonely mountain.

One theory being batted about a lot is that the mountain is a massive Pingo

Above: Yes, I can see that reference forming in your brain. No, it's not that Pingo. Although it'd be awesome if he did show up on Ceres...

Pingo's are hills formed by freeze thaw action. On Earth they never grow anything like this big, but under Ceres lower gravity one might grow to a monumental size. If this is a pingo it would give us some very interesting clues to the geology of Ceres- including that the ice may be undergoing  thawing.

Dawn has also been seeing evidence of landslides and slumps - some of them truly immense. The one shown below is 20 km across...

Above: A gigantic 'slump' feature on the edge of a Cerean crater. Courtesy of NASA.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Robot crewed space stations, a picture worth 1000 papers, and more....

US military developing robot run deep space 'hub' for deeps space satellite servicing:

The US military definitely has an interest in space - as well as their surveillance satellites and whatever else they have up there they run a small fleet of robotic reusable space planes called the X37-B's.
Above: An X37-B coming in to land. Courtesy fo the USAF.
Now DARPA is looking to begin development on robotic arms, which will be used as part of an in-space repair, construction, and servicing hub, located in geostationary orbit. The robot run space station would be part of a "a vibrant, robust ecosystem that involves transportation, repair, refuelling, upgrading, [and] in situ construction"  officials said.

Gigantic nitrogen crystals on Pluto: 

The surface and near subsurface of Pluto is dominated by solid (and possibly liquid) nitrogen, which does some weird stuff, as the video below shows....

Above: Liquid nitrogen freezing solid does some weird, and explosive, stuff....

... but the paper linked to in the title suggests that it might grow into monstrous crystals over a meter big. Plus the New Horizons team report they have seen a picture worth 1000 scientific papers from their space craft, which has led space geeks like myself to go on forums and type comments like:  "What have they seen?  WHAT HAVE THEY SEEN!"

Interior of the new SpaceX crewed Dragon spacecraft revealed:

Growing star inside cocoon seen for the first time:

An embryonic star and planet have been spotted growing deep inside their cocoon of dust and gas.

Huge amounts of low latitude ice on Mars? 

Mars is an icy planet, but new information suggests it's even icy-er than we thought: A new analysis suggests that there's a massive block of ice buried beneath the martian surface at low latitudes, possibly an remnant of a more habitable climate.
Above: The Martian surface: Red, dry, rocky... and perhaps hiding massive amounts of water as ice... Image courtesy of JPL/NASA

New mathematical tricks find new moon quakes :

You can't teach an old dog new tricks, but you can get new information out of very old data it seems. A team from the American Geophysical Union has gone back over seismograph data from the Apollo era with new analysis techniques, and found that the Moon has more quake than previously thought.
Above: The Moon - a world with with a bit more shake rattle and roll than previously thought. Image courtesy of NASA.

Virgin galactic offering to put 200kg into interplanetary space for under $10,000,000 :

Although they're famous for developing a way to launch people into (sub-orbital) space, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic will also be offering a launch service for robotic spacecraft. Launcher1 will send payloads all the way out to a Sun-synchronous orbit. Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides said: "The market has spoken, and we have listened: we have roughly doubled the payload for our customers without increasing the price. LauncherOne will be ready to meet the rapidly expanding needs of satellite startups, space agencies, and research institutions thanks to the investments we've already made in our engines, tanks, avionics, and our production infrastructure. Demand has become so significant that LauncherOne will have its own dedicated aircraft. Small satellites are big business, and we look forward to supporting satellite innovators to make history in space and to improve lives here on Earth."

Above: Artwork depicting Launcher 1, courtesy of Virgin.

Friday 11 September 2015

Latest from Pluto, 'Wafer sats' could reach up to 25% of lightspeed, and more..

Asteroid deflection and high speed 'wafer sats':
A company named DE-star has released their latest video on their laser propulsion project. The projects aims are to develop a realistic means of deflecting an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, and a means of photon based propulsion for interstellar space craft. A poster explaining how the technology would enable a range of missions to the nearest stars is here.
Laser being fired at simulated asteroid.

New data comes back from new Horizons :
The latest data is back from Pluto, and it's proving to be a strange world:
Colour image courtesy of Phil Stooke on

Chaotic terrain on Pluto, courtesy of NASA.
“Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado. “If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that’s what is actually there.” the dwarf planet also shows signs of dunes, something that was predicted before the flyby

Pluto's Moon Charon has been known for a while to have a mysterious reddish cap over one pole. Now the New Horizons team think they understand why - the cap is actually part of Pluto's atmosphere

Tornado of iron vapour on the sun:
The Solar Dynamics Observatory can look for different frequencies of light, such as those that correspond to vapourised iron in the Sun's atmosphere. Which it how it spotted this titanic tornado in the super hot gas of the Sun's atmosphere... 

Ceres's bright spot's definitely not made of ice:
The latest images from the Dawn mission, currently in orbit around Ceres has given us the closest views yet of the dwarf planets mysterious bight spots, and now scientists know... that they're still confused. Occator crater contains some very odd geology, including very bright deposits, systems of cracks, and an odd triangular hole in the surface.
Above: The latest view of the mysterious bright spots on Ceres. Courtesy of NASA/ JPL.
One thing has emerged - whatever the bright stuff is it contains no sign of water ice. according to spectral scans.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

News from around the solar system....

Real life is closing in around me... oh no! But even though I'm short on time, I'm adaptable, so here're some of the most interesting but hard to find stories from around the Solar System...

Out in the Universe:
This paper claims that earth might have narrowly missed being blitzed by an fragmented comet in relatively recent times. Remember the Russian asteroid strike a few years ago, that injured thousands of people?

Above: The Chelabinsk meteor strike, courtesy of Russia today.

...that would have happened - and maybe bigger exposions -all across the world.

The latest pictures from the Dawn mission to Ceres reveal a bizzarre, crag riddled and 'snow capped' terrain...

Above: The mysterious bright landscapes - visible from Hubble - of Occator crater on the dwarf planet Ceres. Courtesy of NASA and Phil Stooke.
..I'm definately wondering what this might look like from ground level.