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OSIRIS-REx Sees the Moon Like We Can’t

The Moon imaged by OSIRIS-REx on Sept. 25, 2017. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.

On September 22 NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made a “slingshot” gravity-assist pass by Earth in order to adjust the angle of its flight toward Bennu. Mission scientists took the opportunity to test out the spacecraft’s cameras with planned observations of Earth and the Moon, and I’m happy to report that everything worked out perfectly! Some of the first images shared with the public were of Earth from a distance of 106,000 miles; this one shows the Moon imaged from 746,000 miles away three days later on Sept. 25. It’s literally a view of the Moon we can’t ever get from Earth!

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Bagging Baily’s Beads

Baily’s Beads captured during the Aug. 21, 2017 total solar eclipse. © Jason Major.

This has to be my favorite photo I captured during the August 21 solar eclipse from Charleston, SC. It shows a phenomenon called Baily’s Beads, which is caused by the last bits of Sun peeking through low points and between mountains along the limb of the Moon in the final moments before 100% totality. They’re only visible for a few seconds between the “diamond ring” effect (which I did not capture) and the appearance of the Sun’s outer corona, and I’m very happy to have caught them on camera!

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Black Hole Sun: Photos of a Total Solar Eclipse

Photo from the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse. © Jason Major

Today, August 21, 2017, the Moon briefly slid in front of the Sun, casting its shadow onto the Earth–the deepest part of which (called the umbra) passing across the United States from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. I arranged to be positioned at the latter location, and thus experienced for the first time solar eclipse totality from 2:46 to 2:47 and a half p.m. this afternoon. It was, as they say, a mind-blowing experience…if just in the sheer sense of seeing something entirely different happening to the usually very typical Sun in the middle of what would otherwise be a very typical day. (Except that it was neither of those.)

Below are some of my photos from the event.

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This Toxic Compound on Titan Could Support Life “Not as We Know It”

Illustration of a sunrise over a liquid methane lake on Titan. © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is often called an analogy to early Earth, with its thick, chemical-rich atmosphere and widespread system of flowing rivers and north polar lakes. But located almost a billion miles away from the Sun, everything on Titan is shifted into a completely different—and frigid—level of existence from that found on Earth. With surface temperatures of 300 degrees below zero F, the lakes are filled with liquid methane and what’s life-giving water here is literally solid rock there. Even the rain on Titan falls as oversized drops of ethane.

But even in this extreme cryo-environment it’s possible that life may right now exist…life relying on an entirely different chemistry than what’s possible on our planet.

Recently scientists have identified a molecule on Titan called vinyl cyanide, or acrylonitrile. To Earthly life acrylonitrile is toxic and carcinogenic; luckily for us it isn’t naturally-occurring here. But on Titan it is and apparently in quantity; it’s possible that vinyl cyanide, raining down from Titan’s atmosphere into its vast hydrocarbon lakes, could even help form methane-based cell structures in much the same way phospholipids do here.

The molecule (C2H3CN) has the ability to form membranes and, if found in liquid pools of hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface, it could form a kind of lipid-based cell membrane analog of living organisms on Earth. In other words, this molecule could stew in primordial pools of hydrocarbons and arrange itself in such a way to create a “protocell” that is “stable and flexible in liquid methane,” said Jonathan Lunine (Cornell University) who, in 2015, was a member of the team who modeled vinyl cyanide and found that it might form cell membranes.

Further evidence of life “not as we know it?” Read more on Ian O’Neill’s Astroengine blog here: Vinyl Cyanide Confirmed: Weird Form of Alien Life May Be Possible on Saturn’s Moon Titan and in a Gizmodo article by Maddie Stone here: Potential Building Block of Alien Life Spotted in Titan’s Atmosphere

Our Moon Could Be Conveniently Full of Water

“Hot spots” on this map of the Moon indicate volcanic flows with increased water content, presumably originating from the interior. (Credit: Milliken Lab/Brown University)

It’s been known for a while (especially since the 2009 LCROSS impact experiment) that there is water on the Moon. But so far the largest volume has been found as ice inside the shadowed walls of craters on the Moon’s south pole, likely originating from ancient comet impacts. Now, using data collected by India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar satellite, researchers from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island have identified water inside ancient pyroclastic flows located across the Moon’s surface—water that must have come from inside the Moon itself.

“We observe the water in deposits that are at the surface today, but these deposits are the result of magma that originally comes from deep within the lunar interior,” said Ralph Milliken, a geologist at Brown and lead author of the study. “Therefore, because the products of the magma have water, the deep interior of the Moon must also contain water.”

While the age and origin of this indigenous interior water aren’t yet known, its availability near the surface would be a valuable asset for any future human settlements on the Moon.

Read the rest of this article by Samantha Mathewson on Space.com here: The Moon’s Interior Could Contain Lots of Water, Study Shows

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