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There’s a New Moon in the Solar System

Hubble WFC3 observations of 2007 OR10 in the Kuiper Belt in Nov. 2009 and Sept. 2010 reveal a small moon. Credits: NASA, ESA, C. Kiss (Konkoly Observatory), and J. Stansberry (STScI).

Ok, technically it’s not a new moon as it’s probably several billion years old but we didn’t know about it before, so it’s new to us! A team of researchers has just announced the discovery of a 150- to 250-mile-wide moon orbiting a dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt named 2007 OR10. This distant, icy world is only 950 miles wide itself but it’s still the third largest dwarf planet, ranking behind Pluto and Eris in size.

The existence of the moon was first hinted at in observations by NASA’s Kepler telescope, which showed 2007 OR10 to be rotating suspiciously slowly for a KBO—45 hours as compared to a more typical under 24. After reviewing earlier Hubble observations of the object a moon was positively identified.

This discovery not only adds a new member to the Solar System’s family tree but also helps better understand the formation of KBOs.

“The discovery of satellites around all of the known large dwarf planets—except for Sedna—means that at the time these bodies formed billions of years ago, collisions must have been more frequent, and that’s a constraint on the formation models,” said Csaba Kiss of the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary, lead author of the research. “If there were frequent collisions, then it was quite easy to form these satellites.”

Read the full article from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center here: Hubble Spots Moon Around Third Largest Dwarf Planet

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High-Resolution Maps Indicate a Past Watery Environment in Mars’ “Grand Canyon”

HiRISE image of Candor Chasma, a region of Values Marineris recently mapped by the USGS and found to exhibit signs of past water. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona )

If you’ve ever visited the Grand Canyon in the southwestern U.S. you know why it has the name it does—the vistas from the rim of this geological wonder are simply breathtaking, and it’s even more amazing to realize that it was all carved over the course of millions of years through the erosive action of the Colorado River. But there’s an even grander canyon system in our Solar System, and it’s not on Earth: it’s Mars’ Valles Marineris, which spans over 2,500 miles and is four times deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona—in fact, if Valles Marineris were on Earth it could stretch clear across the continental United States!

It’s thought that Mars’ canyon was created as the planet cooled, its crust contracting and splitting apart (as opposed to gradual excavation by a flowing river.) But there are sections of Valles Marineris that appear to have had a watery past, and new maps made by the USGS from data acquired by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter—which has been in orbit around Mars since March 2006—reveal regions that were once likely covered by liquid water.

“The major finding of this work is that the layers of rock exposed within what is called western Candor Chasma record a past environment where groundwater was abundant and occasionally seeped onto the ground surface, forming pools,” said USGS scientist Dr. Chris Okubo, lead author of the maps. “These pools would have been habitable for life, just as they are on Earth. Dust and sand blown into these pools may have buried and preserved evidence of past Martian life, which would be present as fossils within the rocks that we see today.”

Read the full story from the USGS here.

Asteroid 2014 JO25 Gets Some Sweet Radar Love

Radar observations of near-Earth asteroid 2014 JO25 on April 19, 2017.

This is our best look yet at asteroid 2014 JO25, which made its closest pass by Earth for at least the next 500 years on April 19, 2017. The animation above is composed of radar observations made from NASA’s Goldstone facility in California when the asteroid was between 1.53 and 1.61 million miles away. These and earlier, lower-resolution images obtained the previous day (you can see those here) showed this asteroid to be a contact binary—two objects connected by a “neck” of material, not unlike the comet 67P that ESA’s Rosetta mission explored. The largest section of JO25 is estimated to be 2,000 feet (610 meters) wide, and at its widest the entire asteroid is about 3,300 feet (1 km) across. Observations also show JO25 rotates once every 4.5 hours.

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Take a Ride with Alan Shepard Aboard Freedom 7

On this day in 1961, May the 5th at 9:34 a.m. Eastern time, NASA astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American to travel into space with the launch of his Freedom 7 vehicle atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket. Shepard reached an altitude of 116.5 miles during his 15-minute suborbital flight before splashing down in the Atlantic, setting the stage for the first orbital spaceflight by John Glenn on Feb. 20 of the next year and all future Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo lunar missions (the 14th of which Shepard was commander in 1971.)

Liftoff of the 82-foot-tall Mercury-Redstone with Freedom 7 from Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961. (NASA)

The video above from YouTube user lunarmodule5 shows Shepard’s historic flight from liftoff to splashdown with views from the pad as well as from inside the Freedom 7 capsule, showing film footage of Shepard and renderings of the capsule in position followed by photographs from splashdown and recovery.

The date of this important event is not coincidentally shared with the newly-dedicated National Astronaut Day, which celebrates America’s brave spacefaring heroes.

Want to learn more about the inimitable Al Shepard? Check out Neal Thompson’s excellent biography Light This Candle — read my review here.

Opportunity Spots Phobos Skimming the Sun

Animation of raw panorama camera images from NASA’s Opportunity rover on May 3, 2017. NASA/JPL-Caltech; animation by Jason Major

It may be in its 14th year on Mars but Opportunity still has some surprises to show us—like this, a series of images captured on May 3, 2017 showing the Sun as seen from Mars. But that’s not the special part: see the change in brightness along the Sun’s edge near the end? That was a brief transit of Phobos, the largest (and nearest) of Mars’ two moons!

Can’t see it very well? It’s quick, I know—so check out a cropped and enlarged version below:

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