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Curiosity’s View Into Marias Pass

Panorama mosaic of MSL images acquired on May 22, 2015

Marias Pass – a panorama mosaic of MSL images acquired on May 22, 2015.

The image above shows Curiosity’s view southwest into “Marias Pass,” a low valley in Gale Crater where the rover was on May 22, 2015 – mission Sol 992. At the left (east) edge is the western slope of a rise called Akipuni Mountain, and Mount Shields rises off to the right (west). The image is a mosaic made from four Mastcam images – click to view it full-size on Flickr.

The site is a bit of a backtrack from its previous location at Logan Pass, since the rover has been experiencing some slipping on the loose surface material in the area.

“Mars can be very deceptive,” said Chris Roumeliotis, Curiosity’s lead rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “We knew that polygonal sand ripples have caused Curiosity a lot of drive slip in the past, but there appeared to be terrain with rockier, more consolidated characteristics directly adjacent to these ripples. So we drove around the sand ripples onto what we expected to be firmer terrain that would give Curiosity better traction. Unfortunately, this terrain turned out to be unconsolidated material too, which definitely surprised us and Curiosity.”

Read more on Curiosity’s progress here, and see a map of its traverses to this point here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Edited by Jason Major.

Ceres’ Strange Bright Spots are Almost Certainly Reflective Material

Image of Ceres from Dawn on May 16, 2015.

Image of Ceres from Dawn on May 16, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ever since it was first spotted by Hubble in 2003, the nature of the curious bright spot on Ceres has been an intriguing mystery for scientists. And even as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft approached the dwarf planet earlier this year the bright spot continued to mystify, gradually resolving into first two and then multiple, separate spots as Dawn got closer and closer. Now in its first mapping orbit of Ceres, Dawn’s view of the bright region is the best it’s ever been – and we’re still not quite sure what it is.

One thing scientists are fairly certain of, though, is that it’s an area of reflective material.

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Check out Atmospheric Breakup: a Webcomic About the ISS

Webcomic "Atmospheric Breakup" by Andy Warner featuring Ron Garan and the ISS (Source: The Nib)

Webcomic “Atmospheric Breakup” by Andy Warner featuring Ron Garan and the ISS (Source: The Nib)

The International Space Station is the result of an amazing collaboration of many countries and countless individuals from around the world, a research lab and symbol of global peace and partnership put together in space. But recent and growing political tension between the two biggest contributors to the ISS – the United States and Russia – are casting doubt on the status of Station’s future. Will Russia continue its support of the ISS? Or will they build their own space station like some reports have suggested? And if so, what will happen to the current Station?

Ron Garan, former NASA astronaut and ISS crew member, humanitarian, and author of the new book The Orbital Perspective, is featured in a webcomic by Andy Warner (perhaps in honor of Free Comic Book Day?) called “Atmospheric Breakup,” which addresses the significance of the ISS and the challenges facing its future. Check it out on The Nib by clicking the link below or the image above.

By continuing to spread the word about the importance of international collaboration, Ron is showing us that real superheroes wear blue flight suits!

Read the full comic on The Nib here.

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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Icy Tendrils in Saturn’s E Ring Traced Back to Enceladus

Cassini images of Enceladus in the E ring (top left, upper center) and computer-generated models of the same scenes. Views from 2006 and 2013, respectively. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Cassini images of Enceladus in the E ring (top left, upper center) and computer-generated models of the same scenes. Views from 2006 and 2013, respectively. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

As the ice-encrusted moon Enceladus makes it way along its orbit around Saturn it gets repeatedly squeezed by the giant planet’s gravity, like a frozen stress ball with water-filled insides. This constant squeezing and relaxing generates friction heat in the moon’s crust, which could be responsible for keeping some of its internal water liquid and spraying it out into space from long canyons that cut across its southern pole. And sometimes more ice gets shot out than at other times, forming a trail of long tendrils that stretch into the “E” ring – a hazy, diffuse doughnut around Saturn made from Enceladus’ icy exhaust.

These tendrils had been observed by the Cassini spacecraft since 2006, but only now have they been positively confirmed to be the results of specific geysers on the 318-mile-wide moon.

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