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Can Pluto Be a Planet Again Already?

New enhanced-color image of Pluto from New Horizons (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Enhanced-color image of Pluto from New Horizons (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Ever since the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 our Solar System was known to have nine planets orbiting the Sun. “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” was a popular mnemonic in my elementary school days to help remember the order of major planets from Mercury outward. But in 2006, a controversial decision by the International Astronomical Union—spurred in part by Caltech astronomer Mike Brown—changed the specifications on what officially classifies a planet in the Solar System, thereby stripping Pluto of its 76-year-old designation. The reclassification, done by an in-person vote at a meeting in Prague (at which only about 400 of over 9,000 IAU members were in attendance) has been a topic of debate—often fierce—in the astronomical community ever since, and now some scientists are demanding to have it redefined again.

The new definition, based on a 2017 proposal by six planetary scientists, would classify “at least 110” known objects in the Solar System as planets—including Pluto.

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There’s a Cerulean Storm Swirling on Saturn’s North Pole

RGB color-composite of Saturn from raw images acquired on Feb. 13, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason Major)

RGB color-composite of Saturn from raw images acquired on Feb. 13, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason Major)

Like some giant beast’s great blue eye Saturn’s north polar vortex appears to glare up at Cassini’s wide-angle camera in this image, a color-composite made from raw images acquired in red, green, and blue visible light wavelengths on February 13, 2017.

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Junocam Image of the Earth-Sized “Red Spot Jr.” Storm on Jupiter

Enhanced image of Oval BA, aka "Red Spot Jr.," from NASA's Juno spacecraft. Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major

Enhanced image of Oval BA, aka “Red Spot Jr.,” from NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major

Everyone knows about Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot, the centuries-old giant anticyclone on Jupiter’s southern hemisphere 2-3 times the size of Earth. But there are many other smaller (but still huge by terrestrial standards!) storms on Jupiter, the largest of which is Oval BA—also known as the “Red Spot Jr.” The image above shows this approximately Earth-sized anticyclone, imaged by NASA’s Juno spacecraft during its 4th “perijove” close pass on Feb. 2, 2017.

I enhanced the original image from Juno’s Junocam instrument to bring out the structure and colors of the swirling clouds in Oval BA. You can see some bright cloud top domes within the center of the storm itself, the result of “boiling” convection cells not unlike what happens in storms on Earth…except on a much larger scale!

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Earth: Enhanced! NASA’s EPIC Global Views Get an Online Image Boost

An EPIC Natural Color image (left) and an Enhanced Color image (right) of the Earth on January 26, 2017. Credit: NASA/NOAA

From a vantage point of nearly one million miles away NASA’s EPIC camera aboard NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite captures an image of the entire Earth every 1-2 hours as it rotates. For the last year and a half or so these pictures have been uploaded on the EPIC website for public viewing and use as they originally look to the EPIC instrument; now there’s an option to view Earth in “enhanced” mode, which boosts the contrast, saturation, and overall appearance to make landforms and clouds more apparent—and you can even zoom in too, in true CSI-style!

“The ‘enhanced’ color images make land features more visible,” said Sasha Marshak, DSCOVR deputy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This is achieved by enhancing low intensity pixel values. The effect of atmospheric haze caused by air molecular scattering and attenuation of solar light by ozone has been also removed.”

Read more from NASA here: NASA Makes an EPIC Update to Website for Daily Earth Pics

Here’s What It Would Look Like to Land on Pluto’s Heart

A view of Pluto's surface imaged by NASA's New Horizons in July 2015

A view of Pluto’s surface imaged by NASA’s New Horizons in July 2015. The yellow bar is 15 miles across. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)

What would it look like to approach Pluto for a landing? Perhaps some day in the future a robotic mission will do exactly that and we’ll know for sure, but for now we have to use our imaginations…luckily we do have some incredible images of Pluto to help with the details, thanks to NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft!

Using images and data acquired by New Horizons during its historic close pass by Pluto on July 14, 2015, researchers have assembled a video simulating an approach to Pluto’s surface, centering in on a “landing site” along the edge of Sputnik Planum: the heart-shaped “sea” of nitrogen ice cells.

Watch the video below:

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This is Earth and the Moon Seen From Mars

The Moon and Earth imaged from Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The Moon and Earth imaged from Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Here’s a view of our home planet and its lovely Moon captured from 127 million miles away by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on November 20, 2016. The sunlit part of Earth shows eastern Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Australia with ice-covered Antarctica visible as a bright white spot. The Moon has been brightened in this image, since it would be too dark in relation to a properly-exposed Earth to be readily visible (and I added more dark background to frame them a bit better.) But the positions and sizes of the two worlds are as captured by the HiRISE instrument, which was designed to map the surface of Mars in exquisite detail but occasionally is aimed to take a look back homeward.

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