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!”
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.
We all know that Pluto is very far from the Sun, on average about 40 times as far away from it as Earth is, and as such it is very cold and dark. But just how dark is it on Pluto? If you were an astronaut walking around on Pluto would the Sun really just look like another bright point in an already star-filled sky, or would you actually be able to see the Plutonian landscape around you during the day (like in the illustration above by Ron Miller?)
Actually it’s brighter than you might think, even three and a half billion miles from the Sun. And with the New Horizons spacecraft closing in on the first-ever pass by Pluto in July, NASA has a way for you to get an idea of the type of lighting you would experience on the surface of Pluto… and a way for you to share it with the world.
At 3:34 p.m. EDT (19:34 UTC) today, April 30, 2015, after more than ten years in space – and four of them in orbit – the MESSENGER spacecraft’s operational life came to a conclusive end when it impacted the surface of Mercury, as planned.
After revealing the surface of the innermost planet like no mission ever before, MESSENGER’s last act was to contribute one more crater to Mercury’s battered and Sun-scoured face.
The impact site was out of view (and thus out of communication range) of Earth at the time, but based on the spacecraft’s trajectory and time when its signal was last received it’s known that it very likely struck a low ridge just north of a basin named Shakespeare, near 54.5 degrees north latitude and 210.1 degrees east longitude.
Colliding at a velocity of 8,700 mph, MESSENGER’s impact is estimated to have made a crater about 52 feet (16 meters) across.
“Going out with a bang as it impacts the surface of Mercury, we are celebrating MESSENGER as more than a successful mission,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “The MESSENGER mission will continue to provide scientists with a bonanza of new results as we begin the next phase of this mission – analyzing the exciting data already in the archives, and unraveling the mysteries of Mercury.”
See MESSENGER’s very last transmitted image below.
Taken from a distance of about 69 to 64 million miles – just about the distance between the Sun and Venus – the images that make up this animation were captured by the LORRI imaging instrument aboard the New Horizons spacecraft and show its first detection of surface features on Pluto, including what may be the bright reflection of a polar ice cap!
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.