Are You Ready For Pluto?

Pluto and Charon as seen by New Horizons' LORRI camera on June 25, 2015

Pluto and Charon as seen by New Horizons’ LORRI camera on June 25, 2015 (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

New Horizons sure is! With just over two weeks to go before the first-ever (and I repeat: EVER!) visit to Pluto and its family of moons the excitement has really ramped up exponentially, especially considering the increasingly detailed views of Pluto and Charon that the spacecraft has been capturing on approach. No longer just a couple of bright pixels against a background of stars, the two worlds now show actual detail that can be easily discerned. In other words, things are getting REAL!

It’s only going to be getting better from here – and quickly. As Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern said, “There’s only one Pluto flyby planned in all of history, and it’s happening next month!”

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Bright Spots Galore and a Mystery Mountain: Ceres Gets Curiouser and Curiouser

Ceres' bright spots (left) and a new mountain feature (right) imaged by Dawn in June 2015. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres’ bright spots (left) and a new mountain feature (right) imaged by Dawn in June 2015. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The more NASA’s Dawn spacecraft observes of the dwarf planet Ceres the weirder it seems to get. Closer investigations of the “bright spots” first seen in Hubble images in 2003 and then in Dawn images upon approach during the first few months of 2015 show an ever-increasing cluster of smaller bright areas (eight at last count) and now a strange lone conical mountain has been found, rising 3 miles (5 km) from Ceres’ surface.

What are the origins of these features? The bright spots are only known at this point to be reflective (rather than light-emitting) substances, and the “great pyramid of Ceres” as it’s being called could be volcanic in origin… but only further investigation will tell.

Dawn will drop down to an altitude three times lower in July, after which much more detailed images will be acquired. What will be discovered then? Stay tuned…

Source: NASA

Scientists Squeeze Methane Out Of Martian Meteorites

A 30-meter crater created on Mars sometime between July 2010 and May 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A 30-meter crater created on Mars sometime between July 2010 and May 2012, imaged by the HiRISE camera aboard MRO. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

One of the biggest clues to finding evidence of life on Mars – past or present – has been the existence of methane, an organic compound that is the principal component of natural gas here on Earth. Methane can arise via both biological and non-biological processes, but in both cases it can be used as “food” for living organisms (known as methanotrophs.) Methane has been detected on Mars today by both orbiting spacecraft and rovers on the ground, and now researchers have identified methane within meteorites found on Earth that originated from the Red Planet.

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Infographic: Why Would We Mine the Moon?

The Moon contains rich reserves of rare-Earth metals and helium-3

The Moon contains rich reserves of water, rare-Earth metals, and helium-3

Our Moon is more than just some pretty decoration for the night sky and a place to plant a few flags – it’s also a potential source of valuable raw materials that could someday be used for energy and engineering both on Earth and in space.

If you saw the movie Moon (and if you haven’t I highly recommend it) there was a whole lunar base set up for the extraction of helium-3 from the surface. This isn’t some fantasy “unobtainium” element, it’s a very real isotope that’s rare on our magnetically-shielded Earth but common on the Moon, where it can be easily deposited by the solar wind. Helium-3 alone could make lunar mining ventures economically (or at least environmentally) sensible as it could theoretically power nuclear fusion reactors on Earth with virtually no radioactive waste products. (Read more here and here.)

According to a 2009 AFP article “Reserves of helium-3 on the moon are in the order of a million tons, according to some estimates, and just 25 tons could serve to power the European Union and United States for a year.”

But how could we obtain helium-3 and other valuable lunar resources, why do we need them and what effect might those operations have on the Moon we all know and love? There’s an infographic for that, produced by consulting firm 911 Metallurgist and designed by NeoMam Studios. Check out the full graphic below and decide if you think we should be aiming for the Moon…

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Do You See Bright Spots on Ceres? Icy Bright Spots on Ceres.

Mysterious bright spots on Ceres continue to stump scientists. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Mysterious bright spots on Ceres continue to stump scientists. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Ok that was a bad pun for a headline but this IS the best image yet from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of the curious bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres, which have been puzzled over by scientists since they were first spotted in Hubble observations in Dec. 2003.

And even with this incredible new view of the spots, acquired by Dawn on June 6, their precise nature is still a mystery.

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Curiosity Gazes on Mars’ Moon Phobos

Image of Phobos(?) from Curiosity on June 1, 2015.

Image of Phobos(?) from Curiosity on June 1, 2015.

Do you love to look up at the Moon? Well so does NASA’s Curiosity rover! Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong (I have not confirmed this) but this appears to be an image of Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two small moons, imaged by Curiosity’s Mastcam on mission Sol 1002 (June 1, 2015). I spotted it while looking though some raw images on JPL’s MSL mission page.

Detail of Phobos from Curiosity

Detail of Phobos from Curiosity

Phobos is a very small world, only about 16 miles (26 km) across, and orbits Mars at 5,840 miles (9,400 km) altitude. Curiosity has imaged it before, once actually crossing in front of the Sun during an eclipse event on Aug. 20, 2013.

Both Phobos and its smaller, more distant sibling Deimos have been imaged together by Curiosity as well, during an occultation on Aug. 1, 2013. See an animation of those observations here.

Planned observations of Phobos help scientists more precisely determine its orbit.

See a color image of Phobos acquired by the HiRISE camera aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter here.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

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