Tag: Planets

Pictures Show A Mysterious Planet Get More Surreal Over Time

Since entering orbit on July 4 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been revealing a world coated in curling clouds that loop and spiral around one another, creating filigreed bands speckled with roiling oval storms.

Some of these storms dapple the planet’s previously unseen poles, and they all join the best known of the Jovian tempests, a splotch called the Great Red Spot that stretches more than an Earth across.

The new images “look like Van Gogh paintings,” says Juno’s principal investigator Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute.

I kind of expected some of this, because a long time ago, Voyager took pictures, and other spacecraft that have gone near Jupiter have taken some images, but they’re usually global ones and boy, when you get close, and you see these swirls, they look like art.

These stunning clouds are produced by Jupiter’s incredibly complex atmospheric dynamics—things like winds and turbulence—combined with certain chemistries that produce their vibrant colours.

But the precise reason why Jupiter alone is so fantastically painted isn’t clear.

You don’t see that on Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune for some reason,” Bolton says. “Maybe what you’re seeing is the fact that Jupiter is so big that it has triggered some other special dynamics that are star-like, to some extent.”

Streams of clouds spin off a rotating, oval-shaped cloud system in the Jovian southern hemisphere. Citizen scientist Roman Tkachenko reconstructed the colour and cropped the image, which was taken on February 2 from just 9,000 miles above the storm.

Juno is doing more than simply ogling this magnificent planetscape.

Designed to tease out the intricacies of Jupiter’s innards, the spacecraft carries eight instruments that monitor the planet’s gravity, auroras, atmosphere, magnetosphere, cloud depths, and electric fields.

Together, they should help scientists learn more about the planet’s origins and what, exactly, lies beneath those clouds—straight down to the planet’s heart, which could be made from heavy elements or rock wrapped in a fluid form of metallic hydrogen.

So far, though, seeing the planet’s poles for the first time has been one of the highlights of the mission.

This close-up view of Jupiter, taken from a mere 5,400 miles away, captures the turbulent region just west of the Great Red Spot. Citizen scientist Sergey Dushkin processed and cropped the image to draw viewers’ eyes to the dynamic clouds.

These regions are strikingly different from equatorial Jupiter, with a blue tinge, numerous cyclones, and a lack of distinct cloudy bands.

On March 27, Juno swung low over Jupiter during its fourth science orbit, coming within 2,700 miles of those magnificent cloud tops. Images from that orbit will be released soon.

And over its next set of orbits, Juno will continue focusing on Jupiter’s deep atmosphere and interior structure, gathering data that scientists will eventually combine into a global view of this mysterious world.

Until then, we can bask in the beauty of the biggest planet in the solar system.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Venus May Once Have Been Habitable, According To NASA

Venus – a hellish planet with an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, almost no water and temperatures of more than 460 degrees Celsius – may once have been habitable, according to Nasa scientists.

Researchers used climate models to calculate that Venus might have had a shallow ocean of liquid water and temperatures that could have allowed life to exist for up to two billion years of its early history.

The atmosphere is 90 times as thick as the air on Earth and scientists had thought this was largely caused by the difference between the two planets’ rate of spin.

A day on Venus lasts 117 Earth days because it spins on its axis at a much slower rate. But recent research showed that Venus could have had an atmosphere similar to the Earth’s today.

The first signs that Venus once had an ocean were discovered by NASA’s Pioneer mission in the 1980s.

Venus is closer to the sun than Earth and receives far more sunlight.

This caused the ocean to evaporate, water-vapour molecules were broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen by ultraviolet radiation and the hydrogen escaped to space.

With no water left on the surface, carbon dioxide built up in the atmosphere and led to a runaway greenhouse gas effect that created present searing heat.

A map of Venus’s surface based on imagery collected by Magellan, Pioneer Venus, and Venera 13 and 14 .

Michael Way, a researcher at Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York, said: “Many of the same tools we use to model climate change on Earth can be adapted to study climates on other planets, both past and present.

Colleague Anthony Del Genio added: “In the GISS model’s simulation, Venus’ slow spin exposes its dayside to the sun for almost two months at a time.

In a statement, Nasa said it was thought that Venus may have had more land than Earth. One of the factors they had to take into consideration was the ancient sun was up to 30 per cent dimmer.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

A Time Lapse Sequence At Jupiter’s South Pole


This series of images captures cloud patterns near Jupiter’s south pole, looking up towards the planet’s equator.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft took the color-enhanced time-lapse sequence of images during its eleventh close flyby of the gas giant planet on Feb. 7 between 7:21 a.m. and 8:01 a.m. PST (10:21 a.m. and 11:01 a.m. EST).

At the time, the spacecraft was between 85,292 to 124,856 miles (137,264 to 200,937 kilometers) from the tops of the clouds of the planet with the images centered on latitudes from 84.1 to 75.5 degrees south.

At first glance, the series might appear to be the same image repeated. But closer inspection reveals slight changes, which are most easily noticed by comparing the far left image with the far right image.

Directly, the images show Jupiter.

But, through slight variations in the images, they indirectly capture the motion of the Juno spacecraft itself, once again swinging around a giant planet hundreds of millions of miles from Earth.

Citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt processed this image using data from the JunoCam imager.

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The Mars 2020 Rover (collab with Fraser Cain)

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The Mars Curiosity Rover is one of the most successful planetary missions of all time. Here’s how NASA plans to follow that up – the Mars 2020 Rover


Science Objective A: Explore once potentially-habitable areas

Science Objective B: Seek bio signatures

Science Objective C: Sample Caching

Science Objective D: Demonstrate in-situ resource utilization.

And here are the instruments that will make that possible. It contains 2 cameras on the probe’s mast, one called Mastcam-Z, which is the main “eye” for the rover.

It can take 360 degree panoramic 3D views with an advanced zoom that can see something the size of a housefly from the distance of a soccer field. And the second camera is called SuperCam.

This can actually do a spectrographic analysis of a rock’s chemical makeup from over 20 feet away by burning a hole in the rock as small as the point of a pencil.

This was developed in conjunction with a team from France. PIXL, or Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry will examine rock and soil samples for signs of ancient microbial life and can take extremely close up images of soil samples down to the size of a grain of salt. MEDA, the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer is a contribution from a team in Spain, it’s a tiny weather lab that measures wind speed, temperature and humidity and also gathers data about dust particles in the Martian atmosphere.

RIMFAX, the Radar Imager for Mars Subsurface Experiment from Norway is basically like a sonogram that see tens of meters below the ground and detect elements down to the centimeter. This will help find underground water and ice on Mars. The aptly named SHERLOC, or Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals is a big sciency way of saying it looks for signs of ancient life with UV light, much like forensic investigators at crime scenes.

Hence, Sherlock. But SHERLOC will carry a couple of interesting things with it, one is a Mars meteorite for calibration purposes.

There’s a handful of meteorites found here on Earth that we know were once a part of Mars that were blasted away in an asteroid impact, then travelled through the solar system and eventually landed on Earth.

SHERLOC is going to carry a piece of one of those meteorites to use to calibrate its laser on the Martian surface, which means this will be the first time a piece of martian rock will be returned to Mars. The other thing is it will be carrying samples of materials that may be used to make Martian spacesuits, to see how well they fare in the Martian environment. And last but definitely not least is MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment.

This is the module that will be testing in situ resource utilization techniques in the hopes of turning the CO2 in the martian atmosphere into oxygen, just like a tree. The rover will also contain a special microphone, giving us the first sound recordings from the surface of Mars.

A New Study Suggests That As A Star Begins To Die And Slowly Expands Outward, It Would Temporarily Light Up As It Eats The Worlds It Hosts

600 light years away, in the constellation of Auriga, there is a star in some ways similar to our Sun. It’s a shade hotter (by about 800° C), more massive, and older.

Oddly, it appears to be laced with heavy elements: more oxygen, aluminum, and so on, than might be expected. A puzzle.

Then, last year, it was discovered that this star had a planet orbiting it. A project called WASP – Wide Area Search for Planets, a UK telescope system that searches for exoplanets — noticed that the star underwent periodic dips in its light.

This indicates that a planet circles the star, and when the planet gets between the star and us, it blocks a tiny fraction of the starlight.

The planet is a weirdo, for many reasons… but it won’t be weird for too much longer. That’s because the star is eating it.

OK, first, the planet. Called WASP 12b, it was instantly pegged as an oddball. The orbit is only 1.1 days long! Compare that to our own 365 day orbit, or even Mercury’s 88 days to circle the Sun.

This incredibly short orbital period means this planet is practically touching the surface of its star as it sweeps around at over 220 km/sec!

That also means it must be very hot; models indicate that the temperature at its cloud tops would be in excess of 2200°C.

Not only that, but other numbers were odd, too. WASP 12b was found to be a bit more massive and bigger than Jupiter; about 1.8 times its size and 1.4 times its mass.

That’s too big! Models indicate that planets this massive have a funny state of matter in them; they are so compressible that if you add mass, the planet doesn’t really get bigger, it just gets denser.

In other words, you could double Jupiter’s mass and its size wouldn’t increase appreciably, but since the mass goes up, so would its density.

But WASP 12b isn’t like that. In fact, it has a lower density than Jupiter, and is a lot bigger! Something must be going on… and when you see a lot of weird things all sitting in one place, it makes sense to assume they’re connected.

In this case it’s true: that planet is freaking hot, and that’s at the heart of this mess. Heating a planet that much would not exactly be conducive to its well-being.

When you heat a gas it expands, which would explain WASP 12b’s big size. It’s puffy! But being all bloated that close to a star turns out to be bad for your health.

Astronomers used Hubble to observe the planet in the ultraviolet and found clear signs of all sorts of heavy elements, including sodium, tin, aluminum, magnesium, and manganese, as well as, weirdly, ytterbium*.

Moreover, they could tell from the data that these elements existed in a cloud surrounding the planet, like an extended atmosphere going outward for hundreds of thousands of kilometers.

This explains the peculiar high abundance of heavy metals in the star I mentioned at the beginning of this post; they come from the planet! But not for long.

Given the mass of the planet and the density of the stream, it looks like it has roughly ten million years left. At that point, supper’s over: there won’t be anything left for the star to eat.

In reality it’s hard to say exactly what will happen; there may be a rocky/metal core to the planet that will survive. But even that is so close to the star that it will be a molten blob of goo.

The way orbits work, the way the dance of gravity plays out over time, the planet itself may actually be drawn inexorably closer to its star. Remember, too, the star is old, and will soon start to expand into a red giant.

So the planet is falling and the star is rising; eventually the two will meet and the planet will meet a fiery death.

All in all, it sucks to be WASP 12b.

But it’s cool to be an astronomer!

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Pass it on: New Scientist

What Would Life Be Like On The TRAPPIST-1 Planets?

The TRAPPIST-1 system is home to seven planets that are about the size of Earth and potentially just the right temperature to support life.

So how would life on these alien worlds be different than life on Earth? Here are some of the major differences.

Amazing night-sky views

Perhaps one of the most dramatic things that visitors to the TRAPPIST-1 system would notice is the view of the other six planets in the sky.

In some cases, a neighboring planet might appear twice as large as the full moon seen from Earth.

All seven of the known planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system orbit closer to their star than Mercury orbits the sun.

The innermost planet and the outermost planet are almost 30 times closer together than Earth and Venus at their largest separation.

The reason these seven planetary siblings can fit into such tight orbits is because their parent star is an ultracool dwarf star. It’s about 2,000 times dimmer than the sun, and only slightly larger than the planet Jupiter.

Three of the known planets orbit the star in what’s known as the “habitable zone,” or the region around a star where the planet could have a surface temperature right for liquid water.

The position of the habitable zone is different around each star — on a very dim star like TRAPPIST-1, which radiates significantly less heat than the sun, the habitable zone lies much closer to the star.

But there’s no guarantee that a planet in the habitable zone of TRAPPIST-1 can host liquid water on its surface.

Without an atmosphere, water won’t remain a liquid in space. For example, on comets, water ice sublimates directly into a vapor when it is heated by the sun.

Perpetual twilight

Even though the seven known planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system orbit extremely close to their parent star, the natural lighting on these planets would seem very dim to a human visitor.

Ultracool dwarf stars produce significantly less radiation than sun-like stars, and most of TRAPPIST-1’s light is radiated in the infrared wavelengths rather than visible wavelengths, according to Amaury Triaud of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England, a co-author on the paper describing the discovery.

Short years, eternal days (and nights)

The TRAPPIST-1 planets take almost no time at all to make one complete orbit around their parent star. Six of the planets make a complete an orbit in anywhere from 1.5 to 12.4 days.

That means one “year” (or what scientists call the orbital period) on most of these planets is less than two weeks on Earth. But the orbital period of these planets is slightly upset by their neighbors.

Even though the years are short in the TRAPPIST-1 system, the days would be very long — almost eternal, because the according to the scientists behind the discovery, it’s very likely the seven planets are tidally locked, meaning that one side of each planet is always facing the star.

The moon is tidally locked to Earth, which is we see only one side of our lunar companion (at least from the ground).

There’s some debate about whether or not a tidally locked planet could host life.

Some tidally locked planets might be uninhabitable because the side facing the star would become extremely hot, while the other side would grow extremely cold.

But some models show that if the planet’s atmosphere can dissipate heat across the planet’s surface, then life could still find a welcoming home there.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

NASA Planning A 2069 Mission To Look For Life On Newly Discovered Earth-Like Planets

NASA is reportedly planning an interstellar mission to search for life outside our solar system in the three-star Alpha Centauri system.

The mission is as yet unnamed and the technology required to get a craft there does not exist yet, but the projected launch date would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the first moon landing.

The ambitious mission would require a craft that would need to travel at a minimum of 10 per cent of the speed of light.

The Alpha Centauri constellation is 4.4 light years away, and even if a record-breaking tenth of the speed of light could be achieved, the system would still be a 44-year trip, reaching our nearest neighbor by 2113.

NASA is said to be considering sending tiny probes powered by lasers which in theory may be able to reach a quarter of the speed of light.

Other techniques under consideration include harnessing nuclear reactions, or through collisions between antimatter and matter, the magazine reported.

There is already a known exoplanet in the Alpha Centauri star system, Proxima Centauri b, which orbits a red dwarf star.

However, it has not been considered a perfect location for finding alien life, as the star throws out bursts of radiation that make the conditions inhospitable.

So far humans have only made one spacecraft that has successfully left our solar system – the Voyager 1 craft.

Which was launched in 1977 and despite the limitations of the technology it was equipped with, provided astonishing new insights into the planets and moons within our own solar system.

However, it was never designed to be an interstellar craft.

NASA’s announcement follows an admission from the former head of the Pentagon’s secret UFO-hunting bureau that he believes “we may not be alone”, and said he had seen compelling evidence to support the idea of alien life.

As the first alien rock to travel here from another star, it was immediately recognized as highly unusual – but as scientists learn more about the object, they are discovering how strange it actually is.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Budweiser Is Sending Barley To Space In Hopes Of Learning How To Brew Beer On Mars

Budweiser wasn’t kidding about its plans to brew “the first beer on Mars.

After announcing its initiative at the South by Southwest conference in March, Budweiser is reportedly taking its next steps toward accomplishing its out-of-this-world goal by sending beer-making grains, namely, barley — into space later this year.

According to a press release, this December, SpaceX will be delivering the shipment of barley to the International Space Station, where it will remain in orbit for a month.

Once back on Earth, the barley will be analyzed in order to determine how the grain reacts to microgravity environments.

Budweiser’s “innovation team” will also experiment with germinating the exposed barley seeds.

Budweiser is always pushing the boundaries of innovation and we are inspired by the collective American Dream to get to Mars,” said Budweiser Vice President Ricardo Marques in a statement.

“We are excited to begin our research to brew beer for the red planet.”

The company said its efforts might also provide insight on its agricultural practices here on Earth, although it maintained that its foremost goal is to one day supply “a colonized red planet the same enjoyments provided here on Earth.

Budweiser executives originally announced the company’s plans back on March 11 during SXSW in Austin, Texas, at a panel discussion that also included retired astronaut Clayton “Clay” Anderson and actress Kate Mara, of the 2015 film “The Martian.”

At the time, Budweiser also explained the challenges it faced in brewing beer in a Mars-like environment, including limited water resources, limited sunlight for growing hops and atmospheric pressure that would turn traditional beer to “foamy slop.”

Nevertheless, the company vowed to be ready to “toast on Mars” when mankind finally colonizes the planet.

With this bold, new dream Budweiser is celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit in which our iconic brand was founded upon,” said Marques in a press release issued shortly after the initial announcement.

Through our relentless focus on quality and innovation, Budweiser can today be enjoyed in every corner of the world, but we now believe it is time for the King of Beers to set its sights on its next destination.”

“When the dream of colonizing Mars becomes a reality, Budweiser will be there to toast the next great step for mankind.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist

These Weird Red Arcs On Saturn’s Moon Tethys Can’t Be Explained

An icy moon of Saturn has mysterious red arcs of material crisscrossing its surface — and no one knows exactly how they got there.

The Cassini spacecraft caught these graffiti-like features on camera as it imaged the northern side of the Tethys, which is one of Saturn’s larger moons.

While the arcs faintly show up in 2004 pictures, the latest images, from April, are the first to really show their colors by incorporating the right viewing conditions and wavelengths invisible to the human eye.

This is partly because Saturn and its moons’ northern hemispheres are currently in summer, providing better illumination of this region.

The features were a surprise to scientists because red tints are rare in the solar system.

Until now, astronomers have spotted a few small, reddish craters on Saturn’s icy moon Dione, and identified many rouge zones on the icy surface of Jupiter’s Europa.

Scientists don’t exactly know how these features occurred. Perhaps they are ice with chemical impurities, leftovers from gas released from the moon or artifacts from features that were smaller than the resolution of the image.

The red arcs must be geologically young, because they cut across older features like impact craters, but we don’t know their age in years.” Paul Helfenstein, a Cassini imaging scientist at Cornell University who helped plan the observations, said in a statement.

If the stain is only a thin, colored veneer on the icy soil, exposure to the space environment at Tethys’ surface might erase them on relatively short time scales.

Icy moons lke Tethys are considered a key area of interest in our solar system because they could host microbial life if enough chemical energy and warmth is available in the oceans below the ice.

In recent years, plumes of gas have been repeatedly observed at Enceladus, another of Saturn’s moons, and in 2013 the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a single, large-plume event at Europa.

Cassini will do follow-up observations of Tethys at a higher resolution later this year. The mission is in the final two years of work before the spacecraft runs low on fuel in September 2017.

When that happens, it will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere to protect the icy moons from possible contamination.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

NASA Confirms New Horizons Is Hurtling Towards Some Barren Space Rock Named 2014 MU69

Remember how excited you were last summer?

No, not because you found a booth at the state fair selling deep fried beer. I’m talking about New Horizons, sillies.

Well get ready for another bout of excitement, because NASA has greenlit New Horizons’ next target: a lump of rock out in the Kuiper Belt called 2014 MU69.

And don’t worry if you’re still exhausted from last year’s Pluto-brations (or the Juno mission’s orbital insertion happening this July 4th).

New Horizons isn’t scheduled to rendezvous with 2014 MH69 until January 1st, 2019, so you have plenty of time to get ready.

Because what better way is there to spend your New Years’ hangover than sitting in the dark and waiting for a space probe five and a half billion miles away to send a few squawks home confirming that it passed its target successfully?

But wait, you ask. Doesn’t this 2014 MU69 character sound familiar? It should.

Nineties kids will remember that in season three of Big Bad Beetleborgs, a cyborg monster called 2014 MU69 kidnaps Flabber, leading Drew, Jo, and Roland on a wild chase through the Hillhurst suburbs.

Just kidding, everyone knows that show only had two seasons.

2014 MU69 should really only sound familiar to Pluto-heads who were paying attention last August when NASA first announced the Kuiper Belt object as New Horizons’ next target. So what is new?

Well, this is NASA just doubling down, saying it has allotted funding to the mission. Yay, money!

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Pass it on: New Scientist