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Goodbye, MESSENGER. You May Be Gone But You Won’t Be Forgotten!

Artist’s rendering of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury. (NASA/JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY/CARNEGIE INSTITUTION OF WASHINGTON)

Artist’s rendering of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

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.

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Is That an Ice Cap? New Horizons Detects First Details on Pluto

A full rotation of Pluto and Charon, captured by New Horizons from April 12-18, 2015

A full rotation of Pluto and Charon, captured by New Horizons from April 12-18, 2015

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!

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Curiosity Has Found Yet More Evidence For a Life-Lovin’ Mars

Mosaic of Curiosity images acquired on Jan. 14, 2015 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Jason Major)

Mosaic of Curiosity images acquired on Jan. 14, 2015 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Jason Major)

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.

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No Signal Yet From Philae (But ESA Isn’t Giving Up)

Philae's view from its current location on comet 67P/C-G. ( ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

Philae’s view from its current location on comet 67P/C-G, captured by one of its three CIVA cameras. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

The first attempt by ESA and Rosetta to hear back from Philae has turned up only radio silence – but that doesn’t necessarily mean the lander is on permanent shutdown. It may just be that it’s still too cold and dark where Philae is to have sufficiently warmed up its components for reactivation.

“It was a very early attempt; we will repeat this process until we receive a response from Philae,” said DLR (Germany’s Aerospace agency) Project Manager Stephan Ulamec. “We have to be patient.”

After landing in an as yet unconfirmed location on comet 67P on November 12, 2014, Philae performed all of its primary science tasks before running out of battery power and entering a hibernation “safe” mode. Its reawakening is anticipated by mission engineers as the comet gets closer to the Sun over the next several months.

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MarsOne CEO Responds to Claims of Conspiracy and Fraud

The suffix “-gate” is often added to words to create a meaning of conspiracy or public debacle, à la the 1972 Watergate scandal that destroyed Nixon’s term as U.S. president, and we might soon be referring to this as “Marsgate” – the allegations of MarsOne of illegitimacy and fraudulent (or at the very least sketchy) practices by Medium.com reporter Elmo Keep and her contact Dr. Joseph Roche. While Keep and Roche – the latter of whom was chosen as a finalist in the latest round of candidate selections for a future one-way trip to Mars – are certainly not alone in their doubtfulness of the Dutch nonprofit company’s ability to actually set up a human colony on Mars over the next decade, their March 17 exposé article has certainly helped to position MarsOne directly under the burning spotlight of public skepticism (a place some say it should have been since the very beginning.)

Not to let such bad publicity remain blatantly unanswered, MarsOne CEO Bas Lansdorp has published a video interview in which he responds to the criticisms brought up by Keep and Roche. One thing Lansdorp does note is that there has been a delay of two years (already) to the mission timeline, which now puts the first crew’s boots on red ground in 2029 instead of 2027. Lansdorp openly asserts that they have a development team and contracts, and progress will be made.

“The recent bad press about MarsOne was caused to a large extent by an article on Medium.com by Elmo Keep, and that article contains a lot of things that simply are not true.”
– Bas Lansdorp, MarsOne CEO

Of course words aren’t rocketships or habitation modules and anything can be said in an interview. But this is the public response to a public challenge – not likely the first to come, either – and so it remains to be seen where it all goes from here.*

Watch the video interview above, and read more about this week’s Marsgate here.

*One thing that mustn’t be allowed to develop is a public perception of Mars as a human destination to be intrinsically unachievable. MarsOne is not NASA or ESA or any other government space agency (or even SpaceX); if MarsOne fails it won’t be because of Mars or indicative of human capability as a whole. Hopefully if it starts to go that way, Lansdorp will have the good sense and decency to shut it all down before anyone gets hurt. 

Also, check out this fun and insightful article by Kristi Harrison on Cracked.com.

NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft Spots Mars’ Secret Invisible Aurora

In Dec. 2014 MAVEN observed auroras on Mars glowing in ultraviolet wavelengths (University of Colorado)

In Dec. 2014 MAVEN observed auroras on Mars glowing in ultraviolet wavelengths (University of Colorado)

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.

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