There are a lot of moons in our solar system—175 major planet satellites, and three times that if you count every natural satellite of every known object (like asteroids)—but among them our own capital-M Moon is in many ways unique. At a full quarter the size of Earth, only Pluto has a moon so near in size to itself, and unlike the swarms of icy worlds orbiting the gas giants the Moon is oddly very similar in composition to Earth…so similar, in fact, that it’s been casting increased doubt on the accuracy of the best-accepted model of the Moon’s formation, namely the Giant Impact Hypothesis.
Suggested in 1975 by planetary scientists William K. Hartmann and Don Davis, the model claims that the Moon was created 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized world that’s been named Theia impacted the newly-formed Earth, blasting a chunk of molten material out into orbit that solidified to form the Moon. The model is based on a lot of science and answers a lot of questions, but not all—including a key issue of why the Moon today appears compositionally identical to Earth and not a mixture of Earth and a completely different planet.
As advanced computer measurement and modeling capabilities have increased a new wave of researchers are tackling the conundrum of the Moon’s origins, and a few new scenarios are coming to light. While ancient impacts are still involved, the question is now how many? With what kind of world(s)? And what exactly happened after the event?
“In the past five years, a bombardment of studies has exposed a problem: The canonical giant-impact hypothesis rests on assumptions that do not match the evidence. If Theia hit Earth and later formed the moon, the moon should be made of Theia-type material. But the moon does not look like Theia—or like Mars, for that matter. Down to its atoms, it looks almost exactly like Earth.”
Read the full story by Rebecca Boyle in The Atlantic here: The Moon’s Origin Story Is in Crisis
Mars isn’t a planet well-known for its natural satellites but it actually does have two small moons. The larger, Phobos, is an irregularly-shaped, heavily grooved and cratered world only about 17 miles (27 km) across at its widest. It orbits Mars so closely that it completes 3 orbits every day, and isn’t even visible from some parts of the planet. But Phobos has an even smaller companion in orbit: Deimos, which at the most 7.5 miles across is half Phobos’ size. Deimos orbits Mars much further away as well, taking about 30 hours to complete one orbit.
Saturn’s “yin-yang” moon Iapetus (pronounced eye-AH-pe-tus) is seen in this image, a color composite made from raw images acquired by Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on March 11, 2017.
The color difference on Iapetus is due to a fine coating of dark material that falls onto its leading hemisphere, sent its way by the distant moon Phoebe traveling within the recently-discovered giant diffuse ring. This dark coating of dust causes that half of Iapetus’ surface to warm up ever-so-slightly-more than the other, making the underlying water ice evaporate and redeposit on the other side. This in turn reinforces the cycle…a positive feedback loop.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx may be designed to study asteroids close up but recently it’s captured a view of something farther away and much, much larger: the giant planet Jupiter and three of its largest moons at a distance of over 400 million miles!
The image was taken on Feb. 12, 2017, when the spacecraft was 76 million miles (122 million km) away from Earth—near the Earth-Sun L4 point—and 418 million miles (673 million km) from Jupiter. It’s a combination of two images taken with the PolyCam instrument, OSIRIS-REx’s longest range camera, which will capture images of the asteroid Bennu from a distance of over a million miles.
Read the full article here: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Takes Closer Image of Jupiter
Even if you’re feeling inundated by Valentine-themed everything at the moment, if you love space and you’re at all creative you’re definitely going to adore this. With Cassini in the final months of its 13 years at Saturn, NASA wants you to share your love of the spacecraft, its discoveries, and the ringed planet and its fascinating family of moons.
“We’re so gratified that Cassini’s images have inspired people to work with the pictures themselves to produce such beautiful creations,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s been truly wonderful for us to feel the love for Cassini from the public. The feeling from those of us on the mission is mutual.”
In honor of Cassini’s last year in orbit (as well as its last Valentine’s Day!) the mission team is inviting all the Saturn lovers out there to share their Cassini-inspired creations through the “Cassini Inspires” outreach program. Digital art, processed images, paintings, drawings, songs, poems…if it drew any inspiration at all from something Cassini made possible, share it with the world!