Blog Archives

How Did Pluto Get Its Spots?

Color image of Pluto and Charon from June 27, 2015 (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Color image of Pluto and Charon from June 27, 2015 (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

As New Horizons continues to close the gap between itself and Pluto more details are being revealed in images of the planet and its (comparatively) giant moon. Some of the latest images are showing some particularly intriguing features just below Pluto’s equator: a row of somewhat evenly-spaced dark spots, each about 300 miles (480 km) wide.

The New Horizons team combined black-and-white images of Pluto and Charon from the spacecraft’s Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) with lower-resolution color data from the Ralph instrument to produce the image above.

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Are You Ready For Pluto?

Pluto and Charon as seen by New Horizons' LORRI camera on June 25, 2015

Pluto and Charon as seen by New Horizons’ LORRI camera on June 25, 2015 (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

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!”

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Scientists Squeeze Methane Out Of Martian Meteorites

A 30-meter crater created on Mars sometime between July 2010 and May 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A 30-meter crater created on Mars sometime between July 2010 and May 2012, imaged by the HiRISE camera aboard MRO. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

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.

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Infographic: Why Would We Mine the Moon?

The Moon contains rich reserves of rare-Earth metals and helium-3

The Moon contains rich reserves of water, rare-Earth metals, and helium-3

Our Moon is more than just some pretty decoration for the night sky and a place to plant a few flags – it’s also a potential source of valuable raw materials that could someday be used for energy and engineering both on Earth and in space.

If you saw the movie Moon (and if you haven’t I highly recommend it) there was a whole lunar base set up for the extraction of helium-3 from the surface. This isn’t some fantasy “unobtainium” element, it’s a very real isotope that’s rare on our magnetically-shielded Earth but common on the Moon, where it can be easily deposited by the solar wind. Helium-3 alone could make lunar mining ventures economically (or at least environmentally) sensible as it could theoretically power nuclear fusion reactors on Earth with virtually no radioactive waste products. (Read more here and here.)

According to a 2009 AFP article “Reserves of helium-3 on the moon are in the order of a million tons, according to some estimates, and just 25 tons could serve to power the European Union and United States for a year.”

But how could we obtain helium-3 and other valuable lunar resources, why do we need them and what effect might those operations have on the Moon we all know and love? There’s an infographic for that, produced by consulting firm 911 Metallurgist and designed by NeoMam Studios. Check out the full graphic below and decide if you think we should be aiming for the Moon…

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Do You See Bright Spots on Ceres? Icy Bright Spots on Ceres.

Mysterious bright spots on Ceres continue to stump scientists. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Mysterious bright spots on Ceres continue to stump scientists. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Ok that was a bad pun for a headline but this IS the best image yet from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of the curious bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres, which have been puzzled over by scientists since they were first spotted in Hubble observations in Dec. 2003.

And even with this incredible new view of the spots, acquired by Dawn on June 6, their precise nature is still a mystery.

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Curiosity Gazes on Mars’ Moon Phobos

Image of Phobos(?) from Curiosity on June 1, 2015.

Image of Phobos(?) from Curiosity on June 1, 2015.

Do you love to look up at the Moon? Well so does NASA’s Curiosity rover! Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong (I have not confirmed this) but this appears to be an image of Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two small moons, imaged by Curiosity’s Mastcam on mission Sol 1002 (June 1, 2015). I spotted it while looking though some raw images on JPL’s MSL mission page.

Detail of Phobos from Curiosity

Detail of Phobos from Curiosity

Phobos is a very small world, only about 16 miles (26 km) across, and orbits Mars at 5,840 miles (9,400 km) altitude. Curiosity has imaged it before, once actually crossing in front of the Sun during an eclipse event on Aug. 20, 2013.

Both Phobos and its smaller, more distant sibling Deimos have been imaged together by Curiosity as well, during an occultation on Aug. 1, 2013. See an animation of those observations here.

Planned observations of Phobos help scientists more precisely determine its orbit.

See a color image of Phobos acquired by the HiRISE camera aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter here.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

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