Cold as hell and no place to raise your kids, the surface of Mars today is a quite inhospitable place for any forms of life we know of. But that wasn’t always the case – billions of years ago Mars may have been a lot more like Earth, with a magnetic field, a much denser atmosphere, lakes and even an ocean on its surface where life could have not just developed but thrived. And in Curiosity’s hunt for any remaining evidence of that ancient utopia, the rover has identified a key ingredient: nitrates contained within the surface rocks of Gale Crater.
Although it’s not thought that the nitrates were created by organisms currently living on Mars it’s yet another indication that the environment of Gale Crater was once a place where life could have existed, joining the rover’s previous discoveries of traces of water and sediment deposited by ancient rivers.
“Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author of the research team.
Only a day after skywatchers in mid- to upper-latitudes around the world were treated to a particularly energetic display of auroras on the night of March 17 as a result of an intense geomagnetic storm, researchers from the University of Colorado announced findings from NASA’s MAVEN mission of auroral action observed on Mars – although in invisible ultraviolet wavelengths rather than visible light.
After more than nine years of traveling through space the New Horizons spacecraft is now in the home stretch of its journey, with less than 120 days and 143 million kilometers to go before it makes its historic flyby of the Pluto system on July 14. It will be the first time we get a good close-up look at the distant world which had for over seven decades held reign over the frozen edges of our Solar System as the outermost planet, much like its namesake governed the cold darkness of the mythological Greek underworld.
Discovered on February 18, 1930, the ninth planet Pluto lost its “full” planetary status in August 2006 as the result of a highly-contested decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to create a new class of “dwarf planets,” of which Pluto, Ceres, and the then-recently-discovered Eris became charter members. Seven months after New Horizons launched, the edict did not sit well with both many members of the planetary science community and the public, who were suddenly informed that little Pluto just didn’t measure up and had to be let go… nothing serious, right?
Wrong. It was a serious scientific issue for many people, and especially for Dr. Alan Stern, Associate Vice President of Space Science and Engineering at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO and principal investigator of New Horizons. And understandably so – Dr. Stern’s planetary exploration mission is on its way to Pluto after all, and what it’s expected to encounter is far more complex than what’s implied by the diminutive moniker of “dwarf planet” (which, oddly enough, was coined by Stern himself in 1990.)
I had a change to talk briefly with Dr. Stern on Friday, March 13 – which, incidentally, was the 85th anniversary of Pluto’s first announcement to the world – and got some insight from him on the mission and what we can expect from the upcoming flyby, as well as his views on the whole “planet/dwarf planet” thing. (And yes, it certainly does still matter!)
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It almost doesn’t look real but it is: the return of three humans aboard a Soyuz TMA-14M capsule after spending nearly six months aboard the ISS as part of Expedition 41/42, captured on camera by NASA photographer Bill Ingalls during their sunlit descent via parachute. The Soyuz landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan at 10:07 p.m. EDT March 11 / 02:07 UTC March 12. The landing site may have been in dense fog, but above the clouds the view was simply amazing!
Aboard the Soyuz TMA-14 were cosmonauts Elena Serova, Alexander Samokutyaev, and NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore. See more photos from the descent and landing on the NASA HQ Photo album on Flickr here.
It’s official – NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has arrived at the dwarf planet Ceres! Today, March 6 2015, at 7:39 a.m. EST (12:39 UTC) Dawn was captured by Ceres’ gravity at a distance of 38,000 miles (61,155 km). Mission controllers at JPL received a signal from the spacecraft at 8:36 a.m. EST (13:36 UTC) that Dawn was healthy and thrusting with its ion engine, indicating Dawn had entered orbit as planned.
Over the next several weeks Dawn will move into a lower orbit around Ceres, making observations along the way.
Dawn is the first spacecraft to successfully enter orbit around two worlds* and the first to orbit a dwarf planet. Its first target was the asteroid Vesta, which it orbited from July 2011 to September 2012. Now at Ceres two and a half years later, it will remain in orbit both during its primary science phase and beyond… Ceres will be Dawn’s permanent home.
“Since its discovery in 1801, Ceres was known as a planet, then an asteroid and later a dwarf planet. Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles and 7.5 years, Dawn calls Ceres home.”
– Marc Rayman, Mission Director and Dawn chief engineer
Congratulations Dawn and the mission team! Follow the Dawn mission news here (and of course right here on Lights in the Dark!)
*The two worlds, Vesta and Ceres, are separate targeted worlds of a science mission. This does not include time spent orbiting Earth, for this mission or others, prior to departure burn.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is just a few days away from getting snagged by the pull of Ceres, a dwarf planet existing amongst the asteroids. As it’s approaching via the slow but steady thrust of its ion engines Dawn is getting better and better images of Ceres, bringing the world’s features into focus. But on Friday, March 6 (at 7:20 a.m. EST / 12:20 UTC) it will finally feel the gentle tug of Ceres’ gravity and will soon become the first spacecraft to enter orbit around two different targets.
“Dawn is about to make history,” said Robert Mase, project manager for the Dawn mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Our team is ready and eager to find out what Ceres has in store for us.”
One of the biggest mysteries that has arisen during Dawn’s approach to Ceres is the true identity of the two bright spots located within a crater on its northern hemisphere. Shining like the eyes of some nocturnal creature, the bright region was first seen in Hubble images captured in December 2003. Now Dawn has gotten close enough to resolve it into two separate spots, one brighter than the other… but not much more is known about its true nature yet. Read the rest of this entry