When NASA’s Juno spacecraft flew past Earth on Oct. 9, 2013, it received a boost in speed of more than 8,800 mph (about 3.9 kilometers per second), which set it on course for a July 4, 2016, rendezvous with Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. One of Juno’s sensors, a special kind of camera optimized to track faint stars, also had a unique view of the Earth-moon system. The result was an intriguing, low-resolution glimpse of what our world would look like to a visitor from afar.
“If Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise said, ‘Take us home, Scotty,’ this is what the crew would see,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio. “In the movie, you ride aboard Juno as it approaches Earth and then soars off into the blackness of space. No previous view of our world has ever captured the heavenly waltz of Earth and moon.”
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed to scientists slender dark markings — possibly due to salty water – that advance seasonally down slopes surprisingly close to the Martian equator.
“The equatorial surface region of Mars has been regarded as dry, free of liquid or frozen water, but we may need to rethink that,” said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona in Tucson, principal investigator for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.
Tracking how these features recur each year is one example of how the longevity of NASA orbiters observing Mars is providing insight about changes on many time scales. Researchers at the American Geophysical Union meeting Tuesday in San Francisco discussed a range of current Martian activity, from fresh craters offering glimpses of subsurface ice to multi-year patterns in the occurrence of large, regional dust storms.
Thousands of amateur (ham) radio operators around the world were able to say “Hi” to NASA’s Juno spacecraft Oct. 9 as it swung past Earth on its way to Jupiter.
According to Donald Kirchner, University of Iowa research engineer on Juno and one of the coordinators of the all-volunteer “Say Hi to Juno” project, all licensed amateur radio operators were invited to participate by visiting a website and following posted instructions.
“The idea was to coordinate the efforts of amateur radio operators all over the world, and send a message in Morse code that could be received by the University of Iowa-designed-and-built instrument on the Juno spacecraft,” he says. “We know that over a thousand participated, and probably many more than that.”
In the first 300 days of the Mars Science Laboratory surface mission, the Curiosity rover cruised around the planet’s Gale Crater, collecting soil samples and investigating rock structures while the onboard Radiation Assessment Detector made detailed measurements of the radiation environment on the surface of Mars.
“Our measurements provide crucial information for human missions to Mars,” said Dr. Don Hassler, a Southwest Research Institute program director and RAD principal investigator. Hassler is the lead author of “Mars’ Surface Radiation Environment Measured with the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity Rover,” scheduled for publication in the journal Science online on December 9, 2013. “We’re continuing to monitor the radiation environment, and seeing the effects of major solar storms on the surface and at different times in the solar cycle will give additional important data. Our measurements also tie into Curiosity’s investigations about habitability. The radiation sources that are of concern for human health also affect microbial survival as well as the preservation of organic chemicals.”
NASA’s Curiosity rover is providing vital insight about Mars’ past and current environments that will aid plans for future robotic and human missions.
n a little more than a year on the Red Planet, the mobile Mars Science Laboratory has determined the age of a Martian rock, found evidence the planet could have sustained microbial life, taken the first readings of radiation on the surface, and shown how natural erosion could reveal the building blocks of life. Curiosity team members presented these results and more from Curiosity in six papers published online today by Science Express and in talks at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
The second rock Curiosity drilled for a sample on Mars, which scientists nicknamed “Cumberland,” is the first ever to be dated from an analysis of its mineral ingredients while it sits on another planet. A report by Kenneth Farley of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and co-authors, estimates the age of Cumberland at 3.86 billion to 4.56 billion years old. This is in the range of earlier estimates for rocks in Gale Crater, where Curiosity is working.
“The age is not surprising, but what is surprising is that this method worked using measurements performed on Mars,” said Farley. “When you’re confirming a new methodology, you don’t want the first result to be something unexpected. Our understanding of the antiquity of the Martian surface seems to be right.”
The first detailed examination of clay mineralogy in its original setting on Mars is offering new insights on the planet’s past habitability, research led by Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist David T. Vaniman has found.
The sedimentary rock samples tested were collected by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity at Yellowknife Bay in Gale Crater on Mars. The rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction and Fluorescence (CheMin XRD/XRF) instrument analyzed the samples.
“The in situ X-ray diffraction results reveal the presence of smectite, a type of clay mineral typical of soils and sediments that have not been deeply buried, heated, or otherwise altered,” Vaniman said. “The X-Ray diffraction data are also important for what they do not detect – clay minerals such as chlorite or illite that would have formed in strongly alkaline or hydrothermal fluids.”
The ChemCam laser instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover fired its 100,000th shot recently, chronicling its adventures on Mars with a coffee-table-book’s worth of spectral data that might rival snapshots gathered during a long and satisfying family vacation here on Earth. ChemCam zaps rocks with a high-powered laser to determine their composition and carries a camera that can survey the Martian landscape.
“ChemCam has greatly exceeded our expectations,” said Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary scientist and Principal Investigator of the ChemCam Team. “The information we’ve gleaned from the instrument will continue to enhance our understanding of the Red Planet, and will nicely complement information from the other nine instruments aboard Curiosity as we continue our odyssey to Mount Sharp.”
NASA’s Mercury-orbiting MESSENGER spacecraft has captured images of two comets — 2P/Encke and C/2012 S1 (ISON) — setting the stage for observations later this month when both comets will be substantially brighter and much closer to Mercury and the Sun.
ISON was discovered in September 2012 by amateur Russian astronomers, who observed with a 16-inch telescope that is part of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), after which the comet was named. On November 28, ISON will fly within 700,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) of the Sun’s photosphere, at which time it is expected either to flare brilliantly or disintegrate.
As part of an ISON observation campaign involving ground- and space-based NASA observatories, as well as many other observatories around the world, MESSENGER has been poised for several weeks to collect observations of ISON. From November 9 through November 11, the probe’s Mercury Dual Instrument System (MDIS) captured its first images of the comet.
A few days earlier, from November 6 through November 8, MESSENGER’s imagers picked up its first snapshots of Encke. Unlike ISON, Encke has been known for quite a while. It was discovered in 1786 and recognized as a periodic comet in 1819. Its orbital period is 3.3 years — the shortest period of any known comet — and November 21 will mark its 62nd recorded perihelion.
NASA has released a natural-color image of Saturn from space, the first in which Saturn, its moons and rings, and Earth, Venus and Mars, all are visible.
The new panoramic mosaic of the majestic Saturn system taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which shows the view as it would be seen by human eyes, was unveiled at the Newseum in Washington on Tuesday.
Cassini’s imaging team processed 141 wide-angle images to create the panorama. The image sweeps 404,880 miles (651,591 kilometers) across Saturn and its inner ring system, including all of Saturn’s rings out to the E ring, which is Saturn’s second outermost ring. For perspective, the distance between Earth and our moon would fit comfortably inside the span of the E ring.
“In this one magnificent view, Cassini has delivered to us a universe of marvels,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini’s imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. “And it did so on a day people all over the world, in unison, smiled in celebration at the sheer joy of being alive on a pale blue dot.”
Scientists using data from the lunar-orbiting twins of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission are gaining new insight into how the face of the moon received its rugged good looks. A report on the asymmetric distribution of lunar impact basins is published in this week’s edition of the journal Science.
“Since time immemorial, humanity has looked up and wondered what made the man in the moon,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “We know the dark splotches are large, lava-filled, impact basins that were created by asteroid impacts about four billion years ago. GRAIL data indicate that both the near side and the far side of the moon were bombarded by similarly large impactors, but they reacted to them much differently.”
Understanding lunar impact basins has been hampered by the simple fact that there is a lack of consensus on their size. Most of the largest impact basins on the near side of the moon (the moon’s face) have been filled with lava flows, which hide important clues about the shape of the land that could be used for determining their dimensions. The GRAIL mission measured the internal structure of the moon in unprecedented detail for nine months in 2012. With the data, GRAIL scientists have redefined the sizes of massive impact basins on the moon.