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NASA Looks to Partner with Russia on Venus Exploration

The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute (IKI) Venera-D mission concept includes a Venus orbiter that would operate for up to three years, and a lander designed to survive the incredibly harsh conditions a spacecraft would encounter on Venus’ surface for a few hours. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In its long history of space exploration the United States has never had a robotic mission sent to the surface of Venus. Flybys, orbiting spacecraft, and atmospheric probes yes, but to date nothing from NASA has operated on the extreme, hellish surface of the second rock from the Sun. Russia, on the other hand, has successfully landed on Venus ten times, eight with its Venera program and the ninth and tenth in 1984–85 with the Vega 1 and 2 missions. Because of its long-running expertise, the U.S. is looking to partner with Russia on a brand-new Venera mission, Venera-D, which in 2025 would send an orbiter, a lander, and possibly even an inflatable airship to Venus to explore its exotic and overheated environments.

“While Venus is known as our ‘sister planet,’ we have much to learn, including whether it may have once had oceans and harbored life,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of Planetary Science. “By understanding the processes at work at Venus and Mars, we will have a more complete picture about how terrestrial planets evolve over time and obtain insight into the Earth’s past, present and future.”

Read the full story from NASA here: NASA Studying Shared Venus Science Objectives with Russian Space Research Institute

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A Red Cent on a Red Planet: Curiosity’s 1909 Lincoln Penny

Curiosity’s calibration target, imaged with MAHLI on March 9, 2017 (mission sol 1632). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

On March 9, 2017, NASA’s Curiosity rover took this picture with its turret-mounted MAHLI camera of the calibration target installed near the “shoulder” of its robotic arm. In addition to color chips and a metric line graph, the target also includes a U.S. coin: a 1909 Lincoln penny, adhered heads-up.

Curiosity’s coin isn’t just for good luck though; it’s also a nod to geologists who typically use familiar objects in field photos to help determine scale. (Curiosity is, after all, one of only two working robot geologists on all of Mars!)

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Clementine: Lost and Gone Forever, But Never Forgotten!

The far side of the Moon imaged by Clemetine's Star Tracker camera in 1994.

The far side of the Moon imaged by Clementine’s Star Tracker camera on April 1, 1994.

One of my all-time favorite space images is this little gem from the Clementine mission to the Moon, launched January 25, 1994. It features a view from beyond the far side of the Moon, illuminated by reflected light off the Earth off frame to the left. The Moon is blocking the disc of the Sun with the glow of the solar corona and an overexposed Venus shining brightly in front of a background of stars. It may have been taken on April 1 but this picture is no joke—it’s absolutely beautiful!

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Cassini Mission Highlight: Mile-High Spikes Along Saturn’s B Ring

Icy particles along Saturn's B ring rise dramatically in mile-high spikes, seen by Cassini in August 2009. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Icy particles along Saturn’s B ring rise dramatically in mile-high spikes, seen by Cassini in August 2009. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

A field of spike-like structures rise up over two miles from the outer edge of Saturn’s B ring in the amazing image above, captured by Cassini during Saturn’s spring equinox in August 2009. These pointy perturbations are caused by the gravitational nudges of tiny (~1/2 mile) embedded moonlets traveling around Saturn within the B ring, causing fine icy particles to “splash” upwards from the otherwise relatively flat ring when they pass by them. The moonlets themselves are held in their orbits by the gravity of Mimas.

The spikes were made visible mainly because of the angle of illumination at the time of equinox, which on Saturn occurs every 15 years and in this instance was on Aug. 11, 2009.

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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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