Author Archives: Jason Major

Watch Saturn’s Moons Race Inside the Rings

Saturn's moons Prometheus and Atlas are captured by Cassini in these images from Aug. 23, 2016

Saturn’s moons Prometheus and Atlas are captured by Cassini in these images from Aug. 23, 2016

Round and round they go… the animation above, made from 14 raw images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on August 23, 2016, shows the moons Prometheus and Atlas orbiting Saturn within the Roche Division gap between its A (top right) and F (center) rings. The gravitational tug of Prometheus (92 miles / 148 km long) is strong enough to pull on the fine, smoke-like icy particles of the F ring, creating streamer and “clump” features that follow it along.

The much smaller Atlas (23 miles / 37 km wide) follows a path around Saturn just past the outer edge of the A ring. It was once thought to be a “shepherd moon” of the A ring, but it’s now known that the pull of the more distant Janus and Epimetheus are responsible for that.

Atlas does have its very own ring, though—a very faint (i.e., not visible above) band of material that runs along its orbit named R/2004 S 1, discovered by the Cassini mission in July 2004.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by Jason Major.

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NASA Releases Mars Rover Game for Curiosity’s 4th Anniversary

NASA's new Mars Rover game lets you test your driving skills on the Red Planet.

NASA’s new Mars Rover game lets you test your driving skills on the Red Planet

Friday, August 5 marks the 4th anniversary of Curiosity’s landing on Mars and to celebrate NASA has released a video game that lets you rack up high scores while trying to drive a rover on Mars (warning: it’s trickier than it looks!)

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Watch a Moonwalker Prove Galileo Right: Dave Scott’s Famous Hammer-Feather Drop

On August 2, 1971, at the end of the last EVA of the Apollo 15 mission, Commander David Scott took a few minutes to conduct a classic science experiment in front of the TV camera that had been set up just outside the LM Falcon at the Hadley Rille landing site. Scott, a former Air Force pilot, recreated a famous demonstration often attributed to Galileo (which may or may not have actually been performed by the astronomer in Pisa in 1586) that shows how objects of different masses react the same way to gravity when dropped – that is, they fall at the same rate.

By performing the “acceleration test” in the vacuum environment of space (but where there is still an observable downward pull of gravity) the Earthly factor of air resistance is negated – especially on such a low-mass and low-density object as a falcon feather – thereby creating a more “pristine” setting for the centuries-old experiment than could ever be achieved here.

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Seeds in the Cosmic Wind: Carl Sagan on Space Exploration

Got the Monday back-to-work blues? Upset by bad news headlines? Concerned about a potential future President Trump? Take a couple of minutes and watch this.

This video, published by The Royal Institution on YouTube in Dec. 2015 and shared again on Twitter today, features an adorable animation about spaceflight with narration taken from a lecture given by Carl Sagan in 1977.

At that time it had been five years since humans had last walked on the Moon, the first Space Shuttle flight was still three and a half years away and the Voyagers had only just passed the orbit of Mars. But Sagan’s confidence and enthusiasm about the future of space exploration and human spaceflight is as inspirational now as it was then…let us continue to remember his words and pass along his message to each new generation that looks up and wonders “what’s out there” and, more importantly, “can I go?”

“Artifacts from Earth are spinning out into the cosmos. I believe the time will come when most human cultures will be engaged in an activity you might describe as a dandelion going to seed.”
— Carl Sagan, 1977

The Moon’s Dark Seas Are Scars From Ancient Strikes—Even Bigger Than We Thought

Mare Imbrium, one of the large dark basalt "seas" on the Moon's near side. (Photo: J. Major)

Mare Imbrium—the “Sea of Rains”—one of the large dark basalt lava flows on the Moon’s near side. (Photo: J. Major)

When you look up at a full or full-ish Moon you can’t help but notice the large dark spots that mark its Earth-facing side. These form the face of what many call the “Man in the Moon” (or the body of a Moon rabbit, to others) and are individually called mare (“MAR-ay”) which is the Latin word for sea. Early astronomers thought they were bodies of water, but in reality they are solidified dark lava flows from ancient lunar impact events that occurred several billion years ago.

One of the biggest lunar seas, Mare Imbrium (see above), had for a while been thought to have been created by the impact of an asteroid or meteorite somewhere around 50 miles across, based solely on computer models.

Now, research conducted by Brown University professor Dr. Peter Schultz—a specialist in lunar and planetary impacts—indicates that the object that formed Mare Imbrium was likely more massive and of much larger size than once thought…perhaps even as big as 190 miles wide.

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