Whenever there’s news of an asteroid expected to pass closely by Earth (like this one did on Halloween 2015) at least one person will typically ask “what if it hit the Moon?” (as if that’s a scenario that somehow all of the astronomers around the world who specialize in near-Earth asteroids failed to take into consideration.) I assume the expected answer would be that such an impact would offset our Moon’s oh-so-delicate position in Earth orbit and send it tumbling inwards toward an inevitable and catastrophic collision with our planet, or possibly shatter it apart completely.
As it turns out the Moon is a lot tougher than many people think. (Maybe they’d just watched too many Saturday morning cartoons.)
Now over four months after the historic and long-awaited flyby of Pluto by New Horizons, planetary scientists have had a steady stream of unprecedented data arriving on Earth from the outwardly-speeding spacecraft. We’ve learned more about Pluto in the past few months than we had over the decades before and the information is still being analyzed — and is still coming. This surprising little world and its strange family of mismatched moons, 33 times farther from the Sun than us, has become in the latter half of 2015 the scientific “star of the Solar System.” (Take that all you can’t-be-a-planet folks!)
“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the Solar System. Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”
– Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, SwRI
On Nov. 11, 2015, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft passed relatively closely by Saturn’s moon Tethys, one of the ringed planet’s larger icy satellites. The animation above was made from 29 raw images acquired with Cassini’s narrow-angle camera as it passed by; you can see part of the incredibly cratered and ancient surface of this 662 mile (1,065 km) wide moon. Talk about flyover country!
On the afternoon of Oct. 31, 2015, Earth was visited by something much creepier than the typical Halloween trick-or-treater: a dark 2,000-foot (600-meter) -wide asteroid that sped silently (because space) by, approaching at its closest only about 1.3 times the distance to the Moon.
Designated 2015 TB145, this particular near-Earth object had only just been discovered a couple of weeks earlier. And while it posed no danger of impact, its considerable size and high velocity made the close pass a topic of interest for laypeople and scientists alike. By bouncing radar waves off its surface NASA researchers were able to generate an image of 2015 TB145, capturing details that would have been otherwise impossible due to its high velocity and incredibly dark coloration.
At the beginning of September the world was treated to a fantastic view of the night side of Pluto, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it departed the distant icy world on July 14, 2015. Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s surprisingly complex atmospheric haze created a ghostly glow above its crescent-lit limb while frozen mountains cast reflected light upon neighboring Plutonian peaks.
On Thursday, NASA released an update to that image showing a more complete view of Pluto in its backlit glory, created from more high-resolution images that continue to stream in from the Kuiper Belt-bound spacecraft, over three billion miles away.
On Wed. Oct. 28 Cassini performed its lowest-altitude dive yet through the icy plumes of Enceladus, coming just 30 miles from the moon’s surface — that’s only about 6 times higher than a commercial airliner at cruising altitude. But, traveling over 19,000 mph relative to Enceladus (which is 38 times faster than a jet plane!) the pass was over in just a few seconds. Still, Cassini managed to capture some images before, during, and after closest approach — and they’ve arrived on Earth today.
Here are some of the raw images from the E-21 flyby. These have not been validated or made into official releases by NASA or the Cassini imaging team yet, but they are a nice teaser of what we might expect once they are. (And, of course, the science performed during the flyby has yet to be revealed.) So pics only for now!