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As you must certainly know by now, I love pictures of the many worlds of our Solar System. That is what I built this blog around and it’s what I’ve been mainly sharing here for the past eight years and counting. I particularly love the pictures of Saturn from NASA’s Cassini mission…really nothing exemplifies the beauty of the Solar System for me like majestic sweeping views of Saturn’s rings. And thanks to the modern marvel of The Internet these images have been made available to everyone, nearly as the same time as they are to the scientists on the mission team. This is true for many of NASA’s recent and current missions, not just Cassini, and there is a constantly-growing group of enthusiasts out there who take these raw images and create beautiful, full-color pictures from them, helping to bring the wonders of the Solar System to life.
There is a downside to doing this. The color images that are being produced by amateurs (including myself) are not usually calibrated to any specific standards. They are composed from preliminary, uncatalogued raw images. These usually—but not always—have been acquired in visible-light wavelengths, but even then the result isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of the colors you’d see if you were looking at the same scene from the viewpoint of the spacecraft.
This is a blog post I wrote in March of 2008—a year before there was even Lights in the Dark! I’m sharing it again because it’s fun…I hope you think so too.
We’ve all seen the grade-school models of the solar system. Maybe you made one in science class. Out of painted styrofoam balls or colored construction paper. Maybe you saw one of those giant models hanging from the ceiling of your local science museum. Big colorful globes, some with rings around them, some painted swirly colors, others looking more like pitted rocks. For most people, that’s their impression of the solar system. Yellow sun in the middle, then all the different colored balls swooping around it. Some people even remember all the names from third-grade science class. Maybe even in order. (My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies?) If so, scratch-n-sniff stickers all around. Yum, root beer!
Both the book and the movie 2010 told us we can pretty much go wherever we want in the Solar System except Europa; “ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE.” But Europa is exactly where we should go, especially if we want to take advantage of the best chances we know of to find extraterrestrial life. This ice-covered cue ball moon of Jupiter harbors a subsurface ocean with more liquid water than found on the surface of Earth and its surface is stained with streaks of organic compounds. Everything we know about life on Earth and Europa indicates that there’s a habitable environment located just a few miles below its ice, right now, waiting for us to not only attempt a landing but drill down and take a look around. Fortunately, this is exactly what some scientists at NASA are planning on doing.
NASA researchers have modified a decades-old chemistry technique called capillary electrophoresis to identify the amino acids necessary for life, and have tested its success in California’s Mono Lake. The lake’s exceptionally high alkaline content makes it a challenging habitat for life—and an excellent substitute for the salty subsurface water believed to be on Mars and the icy moons Enceladus and Europa.
“Using our method, we are able to tell the difference between amino acids that come from non-living sources like meteorites versus amino acids that come from living organisms,” said the project’s principal investigator Peter Willis from JPL in Pasadena, CA.
This sampling method is 10,000 times more sensitive than anything capable by existing spacecraft like the Curiosity rover.
Florida’s Space Coast is anticipating 32 rocket launches in 2017, according to the USAF’s 45th Space Wing which manages Patrick AFB and the launch region around Cape Canaveral. This is nine more than the amount that launched from the Cape in 2016 (two of which I was lucky enough to be present for) but still just a few short of the 2021 goal of 48 launches annually. Still, with launch providers like ULA, OrbitalATK, and SpaceX all increasing their services for NASA, the U.S. military, and commercial companies—and newcomer Blue Origin ready in the wings—the Space Coast is rapidly becoming a busy place again…undoubtedly a welcome development nearly six years after the last shuttle flight.