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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These days if you look toward the west after sunset you’ll see a bright star that’s the first to appear in the sky – except it’s not a star at all but our neighboring planet, Venus. Covered in a dense layer of thick clouds, Venus not only reflects a lot of sunlight but also keeps its surface well concealed from visible-light observations. But with the capabilities of powerful ground-based radar observatories, scientists have been able to make global maps of Venus from right here on Earth… no rockets necessary!
If you’ve been following the animated adventures of Rosetta and Philae from the European Space Agency you may have been wondering when the next episode of Philae’s big adventure would be coming. Well it’s here, and you can find out (again) what happened to the little lander on November 12, 2014 when it made its historic touchdown(s) on comet 67P/C-G.
Currently the exact location of Philae is still unknown, but mission scientists are working on finding out where it is and have hopes of hearing from the lander again as it warms up in coming months.
Watch the previous episode of “Landing on a Comet” here, and see the video above in other languages on ESA’s YouTube page 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.
Captured by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft on April 5, 1997, this image shows Enki Catena, a 161.3-km (100-mile) long crater chain on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Named after the Sumerian god of fresh water, Enki Catena is thought to have been formed when a comet approached too close to Jupiter and was torn into 13 pieces, each impacting Ganymede in rapid succession… sort of a miniature version of what occurred in 1994 with comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.
Ganymede is not only Jupiter’s largest moon but also the largest moon in the Solar System. At 5,268 km (3,273 miles) across it is larger than Pluto and Mercury, and is the only moon that generates its own magnetosphere.
Launched in October 1989, Galileo arrived at Jupiter in December 1995 and orbited the giant planet 34 times before ending its mission with a dive into Jupiter’s atmosphere on September 21, 2003. Learn more about Galileo mission highlights here.