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These New Pictures of Pluto Are Almost Impossibly Awesome

A backlit, haze-covered Pluto imaged by New Horizons on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km). CLICK FOR FULL SIZE. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

A backlit, haze-covered Pluto imaged by New Horizons on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km). CLICK FOR FULL SIZE. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Hold on to your seats, hats, socks, etc… these newly-received and -released images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft are, in a word, icantbelievewhatimseeingisreal!

But they are real, and that’s what’s so great!

Obviously you’re already looking at one of them above: it’s a view of Pluto captured after New Horizons had already made its closest pass over Pluto on July 14 and was moving into its night side, giving a literally unprecedented perspective of the planet in backlit detail. With this low-angle lighting Pluto’s surface features are emphasized and its multi-layered atmospheric haze is highlighted in amazing detail.

Incredible, right? Well, get an even better look in the next one:

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The Moon is Surrounded by Neon

Illustration of NASA's LADEE spacecraft, which has already impacted the Moon's surface (NASA/GSFC)

Illustration of NASA’s LADEE spacecraft, which has already impacted the Moon’s surface (NASA/Dana Berry)

Finally, we have proof of the moon’s “noble” heritage! Measurements from NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, aka LADEE, have confirmed the long-suspected presence of neon in its exosphere (neon is one of the noble gases — see what I did there?) along with isotopes of argon and helium. The relative concentrations of each of these elements also appears to depend on the time of day, which, on the Moon, lasts 29.5 Earth-days long.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

Elusive Red Sprite Seen From the Space Station

NASA photo ISS044-E-45576 showing storms over southern Mexico on Aug. 10, 2015. (NASA/JSC)

NASA photo ISS044-E-45576 showing storms over southern Mexico on Aug. 10, 2015. (NASA/JSC)

Let’s take a look back at our own planet for a moment with this stunning photo captured from the Space Station. This shot, taken on the night of Aug. 10, 2015, shows lightning flashes in thunderstorms over southern Mexico. Along the right edge bright red and purple streamers can be seen extending high into the atmosphere above a particularly powerful flash: a full-on “red sprite” caught on camera!

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Surprising Structures Discovered at the Bottom of Uranus

Voyager 2 view of Uranus with  rings and moons noted (Credit: NASA/University of Arizona/Erich Karkoschka)

Enhanced Voyager 2 view of Uranus with rings and moons noted (Credit: NASA/University of Arizona/Erich Karkoschka)

Out in the depths of our solar system, about 1.8 billion miles away from the Sun somewhere between the planets Saturn and far-flung Neptune, orbits the oddball ice giant Uranus – a frigid, thinly-ringed world tipped almost completely on its side and shrouded in both mystery and pale blue-green clouds. Aside from the occasional bright storm clouds spotted along the planet’s mid-latitudes and the even rarer darker blue storms, Uranus’ atmosphere has proven to be remarkably featureless… especially around its high southern latitudes.

Now, astronomer Erich Karkoschka from the University of Arizona has used imagery from Voyager 2’s 1986 visit to Uranus to bring out some visible features in the planet’s skies by using pattern recognition software to map out even the most subtle differences, and then boosting the contrast to make them more apparent. What he’s found are atmospheric anomalies that hint at curious structures in the planet’s dense core far beneath.

Watch a very cool animation below showing the new details Karkoschka has teased out of 29-year-old Voyager 2 data:

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Venus Express Survived Its Dive!

Illustration of ESA's Venus Express aerobraking in Venus' upper atmosphere (ESA)

Illustration of ESA’s Venus Express aerobraking in Venus’ upper atmosphere (ESA)

Having made over 3,000 orbits of Venus over the past eight years, ESA’s Venus Express has (as of May 15) completed its science mission and is now in the final few months of its operational life. With a nothing-left-to-lose attitude, the spacecraft recently made a daring and risky dive down into the upper layers of the planet’s thick atmosphere, coming within 80 miles of Venus’ broiling surface on July 12 — that’s the closest any human-made spacecraft have gotten to Venus since the Soviet Vega balloon-and-lander missions of 1985!

As dangerous as it may have been for the spacecraft, Venus Express survived the encounter and grabbed some valuable data about the planet’s atmosphere along the way. It’s now working its way up to a higher altitude orbit, but there’s no escaping the fact that its fuel reserves are nearly depleted and it will soon be back on its way down into Venus’ atmosphere on a mission-ending, one-way trip.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

Just Another Hazy Day on Titan

Color-composite of Titan made from raw images acquired by Cassini on April 7, 2014. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

Color-composite of Titan made from raw images acquired by Cassini on April 7, 2014. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

The weather forecast for Titan? Cloudy, hazy, and cold — just like every other day! The image here is a color-composite made from raw data captured by Cassini during a flyby on April 7, 2014, and it shows a look at the two main features of Titan’s atmosphere: a thick orange “smog” made of organic compounds created by the breakdown of nitrogen and methane by UV light, and a wispy blue upper-level haze composed of complex hydrocarbons.

Cassini was approximately 19,076 miles (30,700 km) from Titan when these particular images were captured.

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