The Year Ahead in Space

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

It’s going to be busy year in space in 2017. Here’s a look at what we can expect over the next 12 months.

A New Direction for NASA?

NASA’s focus under the Obama Administration has been to try to commercialize Earth orbit while creating a foundation that would allow the space agency to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.

Whether Mars will remain a priority under the incoming Trump Administration remains to be seen. There is a possibility Trump will refocus the space agency on lunar missions instead.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is currently viewed as a leading candidate for NASA administrator, has written two blog posts focused on the importance of exploring the moon and developing its resources. Of course, whether Bridenstine will get NASA’s top job is unclear at this time.

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NASA Year in Review

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — In 2015, NASA explored the expanse of our solar system and beyond, and the complex processes of our home planet, while also advancing the technologies for our journey to Mars, and new aviation systems as the agency reached new milestones aboard the International Space Station.

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Titan Looks Like the Most Uninhabitable Areas of Utah – Still Want to Go?

This artistic interpretation of the Sikun Labyrinthus area on Saturn's moon Titan is based on radar and imaging data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft and the descent imaging and spectral radiometer on the European Space Agency's Huygens probe. The relative elevations are speculative and organized around the assumption that fluids are flowing downhill. Image credit: NASA/JPL/ESA/SSI and M. Malaska/B. Jonsson

NASA MISSION UPDATE

Planetary scientists have been puzzling for years over the honeycomb patterns and flat valleys with squiggly edges evident in radar images of Saturn’s moon Titan. Now, working with a “volunteer researcher” who has put his own spin on data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, they have found some recognizable analogies to a type of spectacular terrain on Earth known as karst topography. A poster session today, Thursday, March 4, at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, displays their work.

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Spectacular Photos of Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

Saturn's moon Encaladus
Saturn's moon Enceladus

Saturn’s moon Enceladus vents vapor  into space in this photo captured by the Cassini spacecraft.

Saturn's moon Enceladus vents gasses into space.
Saturn's moon Enceladus vents gasses into space.
Saturn's moon Encaldus.
Saturn's moon Encaldus.

Titan Volcanoes Spewing Super-Chilled Liquid?

NASA MISSION UPDATE

Data collected during several recent flybys of Titan by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have put another arrow in the quiver of scientists who think the Saturnian moon contains active cryovolcanoes spewing a super-chilled liquid into its atmosphere. The information was released during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Calif.

“Cryovolcanoes are some of the most intriguing features in the solar system,” said Rosaly Lopes, a Cassini radar team investigation scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “To put them in perspective – if Mount Vesuvius had been a cryovolcano, its lava would have frozen the residents of Pompeii.”

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Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Appears to Be Geologically Active

NASA MISSION UPDATE

The closer scientists look at Saturn’s small moon Enceladus, the more they find evidence of an active world. The most recent flybys of Enceladus made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have provided new signs of ongoing changes on and around the moon. The latest high-resolution images of Enceladus show signs that the south polar surface changes over time.

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Forecast for Titan: Cloudy With a 90 Percent Chance of T-Storms

University of Granada Press Release

Physicists of the University of Granada and the University of Valencia (Spain) have developed a proceeding to analyse specific data sent by the Huygens probe from Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, proving “in an unequivocal way” that there is natural electric activity in its atmosphere.

The scientific community thinks that there is a higher probability that organic molecules precursors to life could form in those planets or satellites which have an atmosphere with electric storms.

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Cassini Discovers Massive Cyclones on Saturn

NASA MISSION UPDATE

New images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft reveal a giant cyclone at Saturn’s north pole, and show that a similarly monstrous cyclone churning at Saturn’s south pole is powered by Earth-like storm patterns.

The new-found cyclone at Saturn’s north pole is only visible in the near-infrared wavelengths because the north pole is in winter, thus in darkness to visible-light cameras. At these wavelengths, about seven times greater than light seen by the human eye, the clouds deep inside Saturn’s atmosphere are seen in silhouette against the background glow of Saturn’s internal heat.

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Cassini Finds Rings Found Around Saturn’s Moons

Cassini images reveal the existence of a faint arc of material orbiting with Saturn’s small moon Anthe.

NASA MISSION UPDATE

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has detected a faint, partial ring orbiting with one small moon of Saturn, and has confirmed the presence of another partial ring orbiting with a second moon. This is further evidence that most of the planet’s small, inner moons orbit within partial or complete rings.

Recent Cassini images show material, called ring arcs, extending ahead of and behind the small moons Anthe and Methone in their orbits. The new findings indicate that the gravitational influence of nearby moons on ring particles might be the deciding factor in whether an arc or complete ring is formed.

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Cassini Pinpoints Source of Jets on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

CASSINI MISSION UPDATE
14 August 2008

In a feat of interplanetary sharpshooting, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has pinpointed precisely where the icy jets erupt from the surface of Saturn’s geologically active moon Enceladus.

New carefully targeted pictures reveal exquisite details in the prominent south polar “tiger stripe” fractures from which the jets emanate. The images show the fractures are about 300 meters (980 feet) deep, with V-shaped inner walls. The outer flanks of some of the fractures show extensive deposits of fine material. Finely fractured terrain littered with blocks of ice tens of meters in size and larger (the size of small houses) surround the fractures.

“This is the mother lode for us,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. “A place that may ultimately reveal just exactly what kind of environment — habitable or not — we have within this tortured little moon.”

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Water Water Everywhere (Even on Titan)

NASA PRESS RELEASE
30 July 2008

NASA scientists have concluded that at least one of the large lakes observed on Saturn’s moon Titan contains liquid hydrocarbons, and have positively identified the presence of ethane. This makes Titan the only body in our solar system beyond Earth known to have liquid on its surface.

Scientists made the discovery using data from an instrument aboard the Cassini spacecraft. The instrument identified chemically different materials based on the way they absorb and reflect infrared light. Before Cassini, scientists thought Titan would have global oceans of methane, ethane and other light hydrocarbons. More than 40 close flybys of Titan by Cassini show no such global oceans exist, but hundreds of dark lake-like features are present. Until now, it was not known whether these features were liquid or simply dark, solid material.

“This is the first observation that really pins down that Titan has a surface lake filled with liquid,” said Bob Brown of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Brown is the team leader of Cassini’s visual and mapping instrument. The results will be published in the July 31 issue of the journal Nature.

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Cassini Begins Teen Years With Brand New Mission, Bitchin’ Attitude

NASA MISSION UPDATE

PASADENA, Calif.—NASA’s Cassini mission is closing one chapter of its journey at Saturn and embarking on a new one with a two-year mission that will address new questions and bring it closer to two of its most intriguing targets—Titan and Enceladus.

On June 30, Cassini completes its four-year prime mission and begins its extended mission, which was approved in April of this year.

Among other things, Cassini revealed the Earth-like world of Saturn’s moon Titan and showed the potential habitability of another moon, Enceladus. These two worlds are primary targets in the two-year extended mission, dubbed the Cassini Equinox Mission. This time period also will allow for monitoring seasonal effects on Titan and Saturn, exploring new places within Saturn’s magnetosphere, and observing the unique ring geometry of the Saturn equinox in August of 2009 when sunlight will pass directly through the plane of the rings.

“We’ve had a wonderful mission and a very eventful one in terms of the scientific discoveries we’ve made, and yet an uneventful one when it comes to the spacecraft behaving so well,” said Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We are incredibly proud to have completed all of the objectives we set out to accomplish when we launched. We answered old questions and raised quite a few new ones and so our journey continues.”

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Students to Become Cassini Scientists, Study Saturn’s Moon Rhea

NASA PRESS RELEASE

Four students have won the Cassini Scientist for a Day contest, with most choosing Rhea, Saturn’s second-largest moon, as the best place for scientists to study using NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Contest participants had to choose one of three target areas for Cassini’s camera: Saturn’s moon Enceladus, Rhea, or a section of Saturn’s rings that includes the tiny moon Pan. The students had to write an essay explaining why their chosen snapshot would yield the most scientific rewards, and the winners were invited to discuss their essays with Cassini scientists via teleconference.

The essays were judged by a panel of Cassini scientists, mission planners, and the education and outreach team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

This year’s winners are located in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Michigan. Their essays were chosen from 197 essays written by fifth-to-twelfth-grade students across the United States.

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Cassini’s Carolyn Porco Talks About Saturn, ‘Star Trek XI’, and J.J. Abrams

Cinema Boffin has a fascinating interview with Dr. Carolyn C. Porco, who leads the Imaging Science Team on the NASA/ESA Cassini mission. Dr. Porco talks a lot about her work on Saturn but also about her latest role: serving as a science consultant on J.J. Abrams’ highly anticipated Star Trek film.

Carolyn Porco

Porco said she first met Abrams when he attended a talk that she gave. About seven months later, Abrams called her about getting involved in the Star Trek film as an adviser on science and planetary imagery.

“His secretary called and said, ‘We have J.J. Abrams on the phone to talk to you,’ and I had to say, ‘J.J. who?’,” Porco admitted. “I don’t watch television, I’m not keeping up with it, I’ve never seen Lost….I’m just too busy. I’ve been living on Saturn for the past 14-18 years.

“So anyway, he talks to me and he says, ‘I was at the TED conference, I heard you talk, I was spellbound. I’ve been getting your emails. I’ve been thinking about you and I really felt that I had to reach out to you and involve you in this movie somehow,'” she added.

Two More Years! Two More Years! NASA Extends Cassini-Huygens to 2010

NASA PRESS RELEASE

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA is extending the international Cassini-Huygens mission by two years. The historic spacecraft’s stunning discoveries and images have revolutionized our knowledge of Saturn and its moons.

Cassini’s mission originally had been scheduled to end in July 2008. The newly-announced two-year extension will include 60 additional orbits of Saturn and more flybys of its exotic moons. These will include 26 flybys of Titan, seven of Enceladus, and one each of Dione, Rhea and Helene. The extension also includes studies of Saturn’s rings, its complex magnetosphere, and the planet itself.

“This extension is not only exciting for the science community, but for the world to continue to share in unlocking Saturn’s secrets,” said Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington. “New discoveries are the hallmarks of its success, along with the breathtaking images beamed back to Earth that are simply mesmerizing.”

“The spacecraft is performing exceptionally well and the team is highly motivated, so we’re excited at the prospect of another two years,” said Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

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