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Saturday 31 October 2015

Miniature spacecraft open more access to space, a strange crater on Charon may point to a liquid past, and has the last lake on Mars been found?....

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Update: Cleaned images from Enceladus flyby being released:

The Cassini team are starting to release raw and processed images (here) from the crafts daring fly-through of the geysers that link to the sea benath the ice of Saturns moon Enceladus. Data will copntinue transmitting back for several days, and analysis will take many months, likely years, but in the mean time, here are are some highlights:

Above: Cassini flies away from the geysers

Above: Enceladus seen on approach.

Above:  A nice shot of Titan, the giant moon's bulk making it easy to image even from a distance.

Masses of data from the Rosetta mission released:

Astronomy and Astrophysics magazine has dedicated a whole issue to a slew of new papers based on ESA's Rosetta mission. A fair few of them are open access, and even the abstracts of the rest make for interesting reading. Some of them are on quite obscure and technical topics, but there's some very interesting stuff there. I've only had time to skim through them today, but here are a few that really caught my eye:

Water ice on the surface of 67-P

Geomorphology of the Imhotep region on comet 67-P 

The last was particularly interesting to me as it showed that complex organic molecules were probably present from the very earliest days of the solar system - possibly including the seeds of life's chemistry

Above: The gigantic chunk of frozen volatiles and organic molecules that is comet 67-P. courtesy of ESA.

The last lake on Mars...

Mars today can fairly be described as what Antarctica would be like if you took away 99% of the air: A freeze dried landscape where tiny trickles of brine water are the only liquids, the radiation and UV are intense and only a robot could feel at home. but it was not always the case: Once water covered the landscape in lakes, and even a massive northern ocean may have existed. A team lead by Brian Hynek from the University of Boulder, Colarado, have uncovered evidence of one of the last habitable lakes on the surface of Mars: A deposit of chloride salts only 100 km from the Opportunity rover that, combined with other geological evidence, seems to point to some trace of the lake being present 200 million years after the majority of Mars had dried up. While the deposits are probably too far away for the ageing rover to reach it's a good sign: There may be younger and better preserved remains of  Martian water in that region, that are  easier to explore. Hynek hopes that this latest paper will make the basin a more popular touch down point for the NASA Mars rover scheduled to launch in 2020.
"I think you'd want to target the salt deposits," Hynek told Business Insider. "As the water evaporates away a lot of organic matter and a lot of microbial evidence gets encased in salts and is preserved for long time periods."

Above: A mnap of Mars, showing the huge northern depression where a vast ocean is thought to have once sat. Courtesy of ESA.

Crater on Charon may hint at a watery past:

A strange crater on Pluto's moon Charon has a huge concentration of ammonia in it. the crater, named 'Organa crater' (is it any surprise that space scientists would be star wars fans?) may have been formed when the impacting asteroid punched into an ammonia rich pocket beneath the surface. large concentrations of ammonia are a potent antifreeze, so this ammonia pocket may well be an indication of a cryolava - a mix of water and ammonia that could stay liquid at well below freezing.

Above: Organa crater, showing the huge concentration of ammonia ice that has marked it out as unusual.

Thumbsats: Taking spacecraft miniaturisation to the next level:

If you've followed this blog then you've probably heard me mention 'Cubesats' more than once. Cubesats are an effort to make space exploration more accessible - they're miniaturised, customisable space craft, just 10cm on a side. Some amazing things have been done with such tiny craft, such as testing new propulsion technologies. But now a company called 'thumbsat' plans to top that, by introducing a type pf literally thumb sized space craft.

Above: The electronic brain of a thumbsat. Courtesy of Thumbsat.

Although such small space will be limiting, a bit of inventive design could still allow a lot to be done, especially with clusters of the little craft working together. Prices currently start from $20,000, and the tiny craft will stay in orbit for around 10 weeks. the first will launch in February 2016, on a Rocket labs Electron smallsat launcher. the company will provide more support with the mission planning to. Shaun Whitehead, from the company, told discovery news: "If you choose the thumbsat route all you have to think about is the experiment". 

Above:Infographic of a thubsat. Depending on your screen size it might be actual size. Courtesy of Thumbsat.

Friday 30 October 2015

Russia to go back to the Moon? Update: First new data from Cassini, Planetary Society interviews Andy Weir, amazing views of Pluto, and Yutu rover becomes a record breaker..

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Following a daring flyby of Enceladus, Saturn's ocean bearing moon, which took it to within 30km of the surface and right through the geysers themselves, the Cassini spacecraft has begun returning images and data. For more information on the flyby follow the title link

Above: A super-duper close up of the region the geysers come from - this close they're just a haze over the shot. Image courtesy of NASA

Above: A  distant shot of Enceladus, geysers in full blast. Courtesy of NASA
A chat with the Andy Weir, author of 'The Martian' 

The story behind the writing of The Martian - starting as a self published book and becoming one of this year's best reviewed films - is one of triumph over adversity, although not so much as the story itself (Sorry Mr Weir, kudos for the book and film but you didn't escape from Mars!). Planetary radio, always a good place to look for something interesting, has an interview with Andy Weir and it's well worth following the link to check out

Above: Publicity shot for 'The Martian'. It's clear to me why he got lost - his suit's orange, on a yellow/orange planet. Surely that was a bad fashion choice? Courtesy of Entertainment weekly.

Amazing photo of a crescent Pluto from New Horizons

This photograph was taken by the New Horizons spaceship fifteen minutes after it passed Pluto, I recommend you follow the link and get the expandable version - from the haze in the atmosphere to the mountains with sunlight hitting their tops, it really gives you a feeling for Pluto as  a world....

Above: The dwarf planet Pluto. Courtesy of NASA.

... what's more, some folk have already begun analysing the dark side of Pluto in this picture, and found that it's giving us hints of the terrain where New Horizons wasn't able to image....

Above: Pluto's dark side shows some mountainous terrain. Courtesy of Gladstoner on and NASA.

International Space Station to get 'hardware store'

The excitement over 3D printing in space continues to mount. The ability to produce tools and even working machines, using a 3D printer and some simple raw materials, is one that could transform how we work and explore in space, so it's not hard to see why - it could make any mission much more self sufficient, or even see simple spacecraft manufactured on orbit. As a next step in exploring the technologies potential the ISS will get their first zero gravity commercial 3D printer in 2016 - the space station has already tested a prototype and used it to make simple tools

Above: ISS crew members.

Above: The prototype 3D printer, being tested on Earth. Courtesy of NASA.

How SETI are trying to spot planets around Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to Earth - a triple system made of two roughly Sun-like stars and one dwarf star (proxima centauri) SETI is attempting to develop a mission that could actually take a picture of a planet orbiting one of these stars. It's a full length talk so put a cup of (insert favourite beverage here) on!

Above: A talk by SETI on how they hope to image planets around the nearest stars. Courtesy of SETI.

Russia aims to land a man on the moon by 2029 

There's a lot of talk in space exploration - agencies often have big dreams but political realities often mean that the budget to make them happen often never shows. However that doesn't mean big dreams are a bad thing, and Russia seems determined to keep making it's mark on the solar system: They want to put a human back on the Moon by 2029, possibly involving a collaboration with ESA or China. While talk is cheap this has come from the mouth of Vladimir Solntsev, head of the Russian national space agency, who said: “A manned flight to the moon and lunar landing is planned for 2029.”

Above: The Russian Soyuz space capsules, still used to travel to the ISS today, were originally designed with Moon missions in mind.

Rosetta finds a 4 billion year old mystery on comet 67-P 

Oxygen is a common enough gas here on Earth, but that's because Earth is full of life forms that produce it: Oxygen is actually very reactive, and throughout the rest of the universe it quickly combines with other things and can only be found chemically bound to them. So it's kind of a mystery why ESA's Rosetta mission has found that comet 67-P is giving off quite a lot of the stuff - not bound with other things but oxygen all by itself. Since comets are thought to be frozen relics from four billion years ago, when our solar system was formed, this seems to be telling us something - no one knows what yet - about the ancient past. Rosetta is still investigating...

Above: An info graphic from ESA, describing the discovery of molecular oxygen on comet 67-P.

...and there might even still be a chance to wake up Philae. The Rosetta space probe will be moving closer to the surface of the comet in coming weeks, which boosts the chances for it to find the lost lander craft, Philae.

Yutu, the little chinese robot that landed on the Moon and then became stuck due to a mechanical malfunction, is still alive on the surface and has become the longest lived rover to ever visit the Moon. The little robot is still functioning, despite being unable to move and subjected to the harsh cold of the Lunar nights.
"Human history is relatively short, and people are brimming over with curiosity about the universe," said Ye Peijian, chief scientist with China's Chang'e-3 program. "We have to explore more by going out."

Above: Artists impression of the Yutu rover as the sun rises. Courtesy of Don Davis.

Gigantic explosion on the far side of the Sun

The Solar Dynamics Observatory and Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) space craft have seen signs of a huge eruption on the far side of the Sun. The blast was so big that Earth is  being hit by the resulting particle storm over the Halloween weekend (which would cause aurora's and elevated radiation levels at high altitude), even though the explosion happened on the far side.
Above: The mysterious blast, as seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. The dots and lines aren't stars, they're high energy protons from the explosiion smashing into the space craft's detector.

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.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

How to reach Europa's ocean, private Moon missions team up, and Pluto's iron heart...

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Europa's ocean may reach its surface after all...

A study from CalTech, using the Keck telescope and an instrument called OSIRIS that can identify mineral on other worlds, may have turned up evidence that water from the ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa may leak onto it's surface. This is an encouraging finding for astrobiologists, who have wanted to be able to study material from that ocean's depths for a long time. The major problem with doing so is that Europa's ocean is covered in ice, maybe tens of km thick. However the CalTech study presents evidence that strange looking parts of the ice sheet called 'chaos terrain' may occasionally see water welling up from the surface, making it possible for a surface lander to sample water/ice from the ocean. This follows a possible sighting by the Hubble space telescope of a water geyser on Europa, back in late 2013. 

Above: The chaos terrain of Europa, where water from the ocean may be breaking through the ice. Courtesy of NASA/JPL

Private Moonshot teams team up

The Google Lunar X-prize is a race between private firms to see who can be the first to land a small rover on the Moon and perform some simple tasks: The winner gets a $20,000,000 prize, and there are various runner up prizes. The idea is to show that the principle of private lunar exploration - for scientific purposes or other wise - is doable. But getting to the Moon isn't an easy job, so some of the teams have made deals to share rockets - and teams AngelicvM and Haskuto have gone further: Both their rovers will share the same landing craft on the descent to the surface, as part of a three way partnership with a third team, Astrobotic, who are building the lander:
"Team AngelicvM shares our vision of uniting and inspiring individuals to look to the Moon as the next great destination for exploration and discovery. We are honoured to have great partners to join us on this historic journey that will pioneer a new era of lunar exploration for future generations," said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic.
"With the challenges facing our world today, it is comforting and humbling to see how a group of dreamers from all these different areas of the planet are joining forces to reach the moon together forgetting about cultural, physical and geographical differences, in order to reach their dreams, and show the world that there is still hope in humanity if we work together towards a common goal," said Mauricio Guerrero, the CEO of Team AngelicvM

Above: Artists impression of an X-Prize lander. Courtesy of Google.

Disk of gas and dust seen around a binary star with an exoplanet 

This is just an awesome picture, taken by the  European Southern Observatory’s planet-finding instrument, SPHERE. Bottom left is the star  binary star system HD 106906AB, which is showing off the disk of gas and dust that surrounds it - and in which new planets may still be forming. This is a double star system, so those worlds will one day have some spectacular sights. In the upper right is a huge gas giant exoplanet, still white hot from the heat of its birth. This giant is 11 times heavier than Jupiter,and would not have to be much heavier to start undergoing deuterium fusion and qualify as a brown dwarf sub-star.

Above: HD 106906AB, it's disk of gas and dust, and its huge planet. Courtesy of ESO.

Does Pluto have an iron heart?

Following all the excitement of the discoveries at Pluto by new Horizons a lot of planetary geologists have been looking at alternate ways that Pluto's geology might work - after all the dwarf planet has turned out to be far, far more active than expected. One idea - the one that the paper explores -is that it has an iron core, more like Earth or Mercury than the ball of ice and rock that was expected. If the paper is on the money than this could explain some of Pluto's odder features, and would mean we'd need a huge rethink on how the icy worlds in the Kuiper belt formed.

Above: Artists impression of the surface of Pluto, with the moon Charon rising.

A report from the International Space Station  

I don't usually include these, but I may start paying more attention to them in future: Every week NASA publishes a report on what the crew of the ISS have been up to. One of the the things that strikes me on reading this one (I admit I've not read them for a couple of years now) is how much the crew are running and maintaining novel experiments that use microgravity to investigate both things that apply down here on Earth (how fuel burns for more efficient engines for example) as well as future space missions (like vibration dampers for spacecraft).

Above: JAXA's (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) Flame Extinguishment Experiment (FLEX-2J) burns teeny droplets of fuel to examine how combustion works when gravity doesn't interfere. Data from this investigation may help build less polluting engines. Image courtesy of NASA

A good question: Why does SETI search, and what if we are alone?

Paul Glister's blog, Centauri Dreams, is usually full of interesting - of sometimes fairly out there - ideas. This week has been no exception, and the title-linked article on Centauri Dreams has raised the question: What if we never do find any intelligent life?
This has all arisen out of the furore surrounding the mysterious dips in the light intensity around star KIC 8462852. Paul actually offered up a possible natural explanation for the dips earlier in the week, only to have it refuted by Jason Wright, one of the scientists involved in studying KIC 8462852. The star is continuing to provoke a lot of debate, and even though most astronomers still think a natural explanation will emerge none has yet been confirmed.

Above: Mystery star KIC 8462852 and its small companion star. Courtesy of Arxiv.


Tuesday 27 October 2015

Cassini gears up for big fly by, and what will we do if there is life around KIC 8462852?

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NASA gives a preview of historic Enceladus flyby:

On Wednesday the 28th (Edit: Today!) the Cassini spacecraft will fly through the geysers shooting out of the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Enceldaus is a major mystery in space exploration: This world is tiny, barely bigger than the main island of Britain, yet it has mysterious internal heat source that has melted a sea beneath it's icy surface. That sea is one of the most habitable environments we've discovered in our solar system - Jupiter's moon Europa is similar -  but unlike other icy worlds that have oceans, Enceladus' is actually leaking into space through the geysers at its south pole. This is why we've seen groups like groups like SETI  push to make Enceladus an exploration priority 
Since it will be a very, very long time before we can get another spaceship out to Saturn with the tools to explore this ocean, NASA is taking advantage of the geysers and flying its Cassini space craft straight through them, so Cassinis' sensors can get information on the oceans makeup. This is a daring move, and a risk that is only being taken because Cassini is reaching the end of its operational life.
NASA just gave a press conference on what the fly-through is all about, so depending on whether you've got time to kick back with a cup of tea/beer or not, here's the long version.....


...and the short version:


What does happen if we find an alien intelligence at KIC 8462852?

After the recent excitement over the mystery star KIC 8462852 the same question has arisen in a few places: What if we do one day discover intelligent alien life there, or anywhere? This is something that SETI have thought long and hard about - searching the universe for signs of intelligent aliens is, after all, their job. The Atlantic has an interesting and well researched article (title link) examining  what protocols and procedures are in place, and what professional astronomers and researchers think the worlds reaction would be.

"Live long and prosper," say's the suspiciously humanoid space man who' s just landed his space ship on your car and doesn't have insurance. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Azerbaijan plan to create joint institute for space research

[John's note: I can't actually see anything about this on the Roscosmos website yet, so this may turn out to be rumour]

According to the Russian national space agency, the representatives of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Azerbaijan agreed to to establish a Joint Institute for Space Research, leading to a joint system for space monitoring of emergency situations, a satellite communication system. This could see the start of a major new dynamic in space exploration and use, as well as opening up new opportunities to the member states.

Giant sized asteroid will fly past Earth on Halloween

If you're an astronomer looking for a challenge over this Halloween weekend, you could have a try at spotting asteroid '2015 TB145' a huge (400meter wide) space rock that will pass by Earth on October the 31st. The space rock isn't a wold ender, although it would definitely be the biggest disaster in recorded history if it hit us - luckily it will pass by a t one-and-a-third times the distance to the Moon.

Above: The course of 2015 TB 145. Courtesy of Astronomy Now magazine.

Plans for manned spy satellites declassified  

In this age of ultra fast electronics, long range remote control, and virtual reality, the US National Reconnaissance Office seems to have gone for the robotic approach to space and left manned spaceflight to the civilians.  
But that wasn't always the case. In a fascinating bit of space history, the NRO has released it's (now long defunct) plans to launch a crewed spy satellite - a little space station that would have drifted over the world with the crew busily taking pictures of the countries below them.

Above: Some seriously old school space expionage, complete with a guy who looks suspiciously like 'Q' from the old James Bond films. Courtesy of the NRO.


Monday 26 October 2015

Near Earth Object about to hit us.... but don't panic it's only teensy!

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Near Earth Object about to hit our atmosphere:

Earth has a (slightly) mysterious companion  called 'WT1190F'. The tiny Near Earth Object (NEO) is orbiting our planet once every three weeks, on an elliptical and decaying orbit that will have it re-entering the atmosphere on Nov. 13th, 2015…Read More »

and if any part survives, it will plummet into the Indian Ocean (~62 miles south of Sri Lanka). It's probably an old rocket stage, and will provide a spectacular light show in that part of the world as it disintegrates and burns up.

Above: A bright fireball, like this one, is expected as the object burns up in our atmosphere.

Earth was born with the ingredients for life, comet data suggests

Complex carbon molecules have been detected in the emissions of comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), a comet with a very long orbit that made its closest approach to the Sun on 30 January 2015. Telescopes were trained on the comet, and 21 different molecules were identified using a technique called spectroscopy,  including the first identification of ethyl alcohol (ethanol, C2H5OH) and the simplest monosaccharide sugar glycolaldehyde (CH2OHCHO) in a comet. These, and the other molecules, are part of a likely mix of complex organic matter that began the chemical process leading towards the emergence of life. Comets were a part of the building process for the Earth, suggesting that our planet had the ingredients of life built into it from the very beginning.

Above: Comet Lovejoy, taken by Gerald Rhemann

New Horizons successfully alters course towards next target

After it's flyby of the Dwarf Planet Pluto - which resulted in some frankly jaw dropping results - the New Horizons spacecraft has just completed two of four course adjustments needed to put it on a course to encounter it's next target, the tiny Kuiper belt object known as  MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019.  The remaining two manoeuvres will take place on Oct. 28 and Nov. 4. New Horizons is approximately 74 million miles (119 million kilometres) beyond Pluto and 3.16 billion miles (5.08 billion kilometres) from Earth

Above: A artists impression of MU^(. Courtesy of NASA/ JPL.

Planetary resources raises $12 million

Planetary Resources sounds like a bit of a mad dream on paper: A company that aims to mine the asteroids. But the company's attracted attention, and their plans - starting small by launching the Arkyd asteroid hunting space telescope - have the ring of a business like experiment rather than the mad dream of a billionaire with more money than sense. Ultimately they plan to use water harvested from asteroids as rocket fuel, splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen using solar power. Asteroids whose paths come relatively close to Earth also hold valuable rare metals. At least at first their main market would be industries in space, such as the 3D printing of satellites on-orbit, and fuelling them. Their plans have attracted investors money, to the tune of $12,000,000. that's not much in space travel terms - but you've gotta start somewhere.

Above: The Near Earth Asteroid Gaspra.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Cassini to fly through Enceladus' plumes, tracking hurricane Patricia from space....

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Cassini to sample Enceladus' ocean

Although Mars gets all the headlines (and cool movies) there are locations in the solar system that have much more life bearing potential - they're just a lot harder to get to. Enceladus,  a moon of Saturn which is only as big as the British isles, is one such place: Beneath it's shell of ice there is an ocean that scientists are itching to explore. The ice shell makes for a formidable barrier to exploration, but luckily Enceldus' ocean is jetting into space through geysers at it south pole.... and we ave a spaceship zooming around the Saturn system of rings and moons that can fly right through those geysers! The Cassini mission is set to make the second of its last three flyby's of Enceladus before the mission is decommissioned in 2017 - and that will be it for exploring the Saturn system, maybe for decades given how far away it is.
This will be the deepest flight through the plumes, and Cassini scientists hope it will give them one last round of insights on how the plumes work -  and what the ocean beneath them is like.

Above: A simulation of the Flyby, courtesy of NASA/JPL. 

"There's really no room for ambiguity," said Sascha Kempf, a CDA team co-investigator at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "The data will either match what our models are telling us about the rate at which the plume is producing material, or our concept of how the plume works needs additional thought."

Specifically, Cassini has three goals:

1. Confirm presence of molecular hydrogen, which would reveal how much hydrothermal activity is going on in the ocean.

2. Understand the ocean's chemistry: Cassini may detect new, more complex organic molecules (albeit with not enough resolution to confirm if they are biological in nature).

3. Determine the nature of the plume sources. Is the plume made up of tight, column-like jets or curtain-like eruptions that run along the length of the tiger stripe fractures (or both)? How much icy material are the plumes actually spraying out?
NASA will be having press conference on Monday 26th [EDIT: That's today J.F 26/10/2015] with more details (follow the title link for more information)

The International Space Station and fleets of weather satellites track the most intense hurricane in history

Hurricanes are the Dr-Who monsters of weather: Gigantic, self organising storm systems, feeding off the energy stored in the oceans. Hurricane Patricia has pulled itself together with incredible speed, and the storm has become the most intense ever recorded, as well as the strongest ever in the western hemisphere. With unprecedented sustained winds of over 300 km/h, Patricia is being tracked by fleets of satellites - and the international space station - to give people enough warning to take cover or stay out of its path.
Luckily the source of a hurricanes power  - the ocean - means they loose energy very quickly over land. Patricia struck the Mexican coast this morning, and is now weakening as it looses contact with the ocean. Even so, if you're in that part of the world, please stay safe.

Above: The ISS passes over Hurricane Patricia. Courtesy of NASA.

Above: Footage from weather satellites shows the storm approaching the Mexican coast.

Immense magnetic fields lurk inside stars

We can now take films of the surfaces of other stars (see this post) but what about finding out what goes on inside them? That might seem impossible, but a team of astronomers have found a way to'ultrasound' the core of some stars, using their own natural vibrations. Their results reveal magnetic fields in these stars cores are over 10,000,000 times stronger than Earth's.
"In the same way medical ultrasound uses sound waves to image the interior of the human body, asteroseismology uses sound waves generated by turbulence on the surface of stars to probe their inner properties," says Caltech postdoctoral researcher Jim Fuller.

Above: Artists impression of the supermagnetic core of a giant star. Photograph from AIA/SDO/Caltech

Asteroid probe undergoing final test

Asteroids and comets are a big deal at the moment - far from being dead chunks of rock... well OK most of them are.... but we know from studying them that they used to be part of protoplanets that had internal heat, liquids seeping through their rocks, even pre-biotic chemistry. NASA's ARM mission is going to actually retrieve one and put it into orbit about the Moon, and NASA is also launching the OSIRIS-REX mission, which will capture a sample of asteroid and bring it directly to Earth. The OSIRIS- REX spaceship is built and ready - it just started undergoing its 'environmentl tests' which simulate the conditions it will encounter on its journey and check it will be OK.

 Above; OSIRIS REX undergoing inspection. Courtesy of NASA.

Last Moon of Pluto imaged

Pictures, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft of Pluto's moon Kerberos, have finally come down, and they carry a bit of a surprise: They show that Kerberos has a double-lobed shape, with the larger lobe approximately 5 miles (8 kilometres) across and the smaller lobe approximately 3 miles (5 kilometres) across. Science team members speculate from its unusual shape that Kerberos could have been formed by the merger of two smaller objects, which would make it a relative of the comet currently being explored by ESA's Rosetta spaceprobe. 

Above: A familly portrait of Pluto's moons. Courtesy of NASA/JPL.