Tag Archives: science

First Marsquake recorded by InSight?

The InSight science team has announced that they think they have detected their first Mars quake, though it was too small to provide much information about the Martian interior.

The Martian surface is extremely quiet, allowing SEIS, InSight’s specially designed seismometer, to pick up faint rumbles. In contrast, Earth’s surface is quivering constantly from seismic noise created by oceans and weather. An event of this size in Southern California would be lost among dozens of tiny crackles that occur every day.

“The Martian Sol 128 event is exciting because its size and longer duration fit the profile of moonquakes detected on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions,” said Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division director at NASA Headquarters.

…Three other seismic signals occurred on March 14 (Sol 105), April 10 (Sol 132) and April 11 (Sol 133). Detected by SEIS’ more sensitive Very Broad Band sensors, these signals were even smaller than the Sol 128 event and more ambiguous in origin. The team will continue to study these events to try to determine their cause.

The data so far suggests is that Mars is far quieter than Earth geologically, but any conclusions at this point would be premature.


UAE’s space agency declares its Mars probe almost ready for launch

The new colonial movement: The space agency of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) today announced that its 2020 Mars orbiter, dubbed Hope, is now 85% complete and on track for making its launch window.

The Probe has already entered an intensive testing phase to ensure its readiness before the launch date, with less than 500 days are remaining for the launch. It is planned to reach Mars by 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE.

Several aspects related to the design, assembly of the structure, cameras and control have been verified. So far, the Probe’s systems and components, as well as its ability to communicate with the ground station have been checked by the team. The Probe has succeeded in all the tests it has been subject to so far, ahead of the five environmental tests to be conducted on the probe from June to December 2019.

While this is likely true, we must remain a bit skeptical. Though the link goes to a Reuters Arab news source, the story appears to be entirely a copy of the press release. I know this because five different Arabian news sources used the exact same language in their stories, apparently all copying from the same release.

Thus, we don’t have any independent press in the UAE looking at what is going on here. This could be true, but who knows?


How last year’s global dust storm changed one spot on Mars

One spot on the western flank of  Olympus Mons, August 2017
Click for full image.

To the right is an image taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) back in August 2017, cropped, rotated, and reduced to post here. It shows a particular spot on the western slope of the giant volcano Olympus Mons. The uncaptioned image release is entitled “Dark and Possibly Stationary Ripples in Anomalous Terrain.” The image was probably taken as a follow-up to this 2009 image to see if the the dark patches near the peaks and mounds as well as the strange wavy bands of light and dark had changed in eight years. As of 2017 however little had changed. The patches in the 2009 image seem darker, but that is almost certainly due to the lower sun angle causing longer shadows.

The slope goes downhill to the left. The wavy bands are thought to be geological layers exposed by erosion. The cause of the dark patches remain unknown.

I stumbled upon these two early images because of a third new image of this location, taken in February 2019 and spotted by me during my review of April 2019 images downloaded from MRO. That uncaptioned new image was titled “Change Detection in Olympus Maculae.” Had scientists spotted some new volcanic activity at this spot? To find out I dug into the MRO archive at this location and found both the 2009 and 2017 images.

The 2019 image is below. It is cropped, rotated, and reduced to match exactly with the image above in order to highlight any changes that might have occurred.
» Read more


Five exoplanets discovered with orbits from 15 to 40 years long

Twenty years of observations have now resulted in the discovery of five exoplanets with long solar orbits ranging from 15 to 40 years.

“As early as 1998, a planetary monitoring programme was set up and carried out scrupulously by the many … observers [using the EULER telescope belonging to Geneva University, Switzerland,] who took turns every two weeks in La Silla [Chile] for 20 years”, says Emily Rickman. The result is remarkable: five new planets have been discovered and the orbits of four others known have been precisely defined. All these planets have periods of revolution between 15.6 and 40.4 years, with masses ranging approximately from 3 to 27 times that of Jupiter. This study contributes to increasing the list of 26 planets with a rotation period greater than 15 years.

The press release is very poorly written. It does not explain how 21 years of observations pinpointed the orbit of an exoplanet of forty years. I suspect they have seen enough of the star’s wobble to extrapolate that orbit, but the press release should have explained this.


Mercury’s core is solid

By comparing computer models with data gathered during the closest orbits of the Messenger spacecraft when it was in orbit around Mercury scientists have concluded that the planet’s inner core is solid like the Earth’s, though much larger than the Earth’s relative to the planet’s size.

Genova and his team put data from MESSENGER into a sophisticated computer program that allowed them to adjust parameters and figure out what the interior composition of Mercury must be like to match the way it spins and the way the spacecraft accelerated around it. The results showed that for the best match, Mercury must have a large, solid inner core. They estimated that the solid, iron core is about 1,260 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide and makes up about half of Mercury’s entire core (about 2,440 miles, or nearly 4,000 kilometers, wide). In contrast, Earth’s solid core is about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) across, taking up a little more than a third of this planet’s entire core.


All high resolution images from Rosetta now available

The Rosetta science team has now made available to the public all 70,000 images taken by the spacecraft’s high resolution camera.

Between 2014 and 2016, the scientific camera system OSIRIS onboard ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft captured almost 70000 images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. They not only document the most extensive and demanding comet mission to date, but also show the duck-shaped body in all its facets. In a joint project with the Department of Information and Communication at Flensburg University of Applied Sciences, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), head of the OSIRIS team, has now published all of these images. The OSIRIS Image Viewer is suited to the needs of both laymen and expert and offers quick and easy access to one of the greatest scientific treasures of recent years.

The Rosetta archive can be found here.


Seasonal frost in a gully on Mars

Frost in a gully on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped, reduced, and brightened slightly to post here, was part of the April image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). According to the titled of this release, it purports to show visible frost on what looks like an avalanche debris slope on the rim of a large crater. The frost is the bright streaks on the upper left of the slope.

I wonder. During last month’s 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, there was one paper that I reported on that showed something very similar to this, and proposed that white streaks like this in a gully were actually exposed snow/ice. They proposed that the snow/ice was normally covered by dust, and the white streaks were where the dust had blown away to reveal the ice below. This in turn would then sublimate into gas, which in turn would cause the gully avalanches over time.

Below is a close-up of the white streaks on this rim.
» Read more


Data from Cassini’s last fly-by of Titan

Based on data from Cassini’s last fly-by of Titan, scientists have been able to estimate the depth of some of that planet’s northern lakes while also finding that they were filled mostly with methane.

The depths measured were as much as 300 feet. The data also shows that the geology of one hemisphere in the north was different from the other hemisphere.

On the eastern side of Titan, there are big seas with low elevation, canyons and islands. On the western side: small lakes. And the new measurements show the lakes perched atop big hills and plateaus. The new radar measurements confirm earlier findings that the lakes are far above sea level, but they conjure a new image of landforms – like mesas or buttes – sticking hundreds of feet above the surrounding landscape, with deep liquid lakes on top.

The fact that these western lakes are small – just tens of miles across – but very deep also tells scientists something new about their geology: It’s the best evidence yet that they likely formed when the surrounding bedrock of ice and solid organics chemically dissolved and collapsed. On Earth, similar water lakes are known as karstic lakes. Occurring in in areas like Germany, Croatia and the United States, they form when water dissolves limestone bedrock.

This data also suggests, as has previous data, that Titan could very well have extensive underground cave systems. Unlike the Moon or Mars, however, these are not going to be very hospitable to colonization, considering the presence of methane and the cold temperatures.


Tess finds Earth-sized planet?

Scientists using the space telescope TESS think they may have found its first Earth-sized planet.

Its host star has about 80 percent of the mass of our Sun and is found about 53 light-years distant from Earth. HD 21749b has about 23 times Earth’s mass and a radius of about 2.7 times Earth’s. Its density indicates the planet has substantial atmosphere but is not rocky, so it could potentially help astronomers understand the composition and evolution of cooler sub-Neptune planet atmospheres.

Excitingly, the longer period sub-Neptune planet in this system is not alone. It has a sibling planet, HD 21749c, which takes about eight days to orbit the host star and is much smaller—similar in size to Earth. “Measuring the exact mass and composition of such a small planet will be challenging, but important for comparing HD 21749c to Earth,” said Wang. “Carnegie’s PFS team is continuing to collect data on this object with this goal in mind.”

In other words, they know almost nothing yet about the smaller exoplanet. They think it is similar in size to the Earth, but they don’t know its mass or composition.


Rover update: April 11, 2019

Summary: Curiosity successfully drills into the clay unit. Yutu-2 continues its exploration on the far side of the Moon.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Curiosity drill hole in clay unit on slopes of Mount Sharp


For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

The news this week from Curiosity is that the rover has successfully drilled into the ground in the clay unit valley the rover is presently exploring betweent Vera Rubin Ridge and Mount Sharp’s higher slopes.

The image to the right shows is a close-up of that drill hole.

The rover’s drill chewed easily through the rock, unlike some of the tougher targets it faced nearby on Vera Rubin Ridge. It was so soft, in fact, that the drill didn’t need to use its percussive technique, which is helpful for snagging samples from harder rock. This was the mission’s first sample obtained using only rotation of the drill bit.

Since my last rover update on February 20, 2019, they have been traveling for several weeks to get to a spot where they can do this drilling. The clay unit seems very soft, and almost mudlike, which made finding a good surface to drill somewhat challenging. Most of the terrain seemed too soft to drill into. It almost would be better to have a scoop, as the Viking landers had. Curiosity doesn’t really have this however. It needs to use its drill, which really is a more efficient way to get down deeper into the ground anyway.

The map below shows their recent travels.
» Read more


Jupiter’s atmosphere reacts quickly to the solar wind

New data from ground-based telescopes show that the atmosphere of Jupiter quickly changes due to changes in the solar wind, and that these changes descend deeper into the atmosphere than expected.

Auroras at Earth’s poles (known as the aurora borealis at the North Pole and aurora australis at the South Pole) occur when the energetic particles blown out from the Sun (the solar wind) interact with and heat up the gases in the upper atmosphere. The same thing happens at Jupiter, but the new observations show the heating goes two or three times deeper down into its atmosphere than on Earth, into the lower level of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, or stratosphere.

…”What is startling about the results is that we were able to associate for the first time the variations in solar wind and the response in the stratosphere – and that the response to these variations is so quick for such a large area,” said JPL’s Glenn Orton, co-author and part of the observing team.

Within a day of the solar wind hitting Jupiter, the chemistry in its atmosphere changed and its temperature rose, the team found. An infrared image captured during their observing campaign in January, February and May of 2017 clearly shows hot spots near the poles, where Jupiter’s auroras are.

Considering Jupiter’s size, for these effects to extend so quickly really is startling.


Thumbprints on Mars!

Thumbprints terrain on Mars!
Click for full image.

Honestly, don’t ask me. I didn’t come up with the name. I found the image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, as part of the April image dump from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The uncaptioned release dubbed this “Thumbprint Terrain in Northern Mid-Latitudes,” and it is obvious to see why. The cropped image on the right focuses in on the oval white mounds that really do look like some giant child was touching a soft damp muddy surface randomly with his fingers, leaving behind raised fingerprints as the mud stuck to his fingers as he pulled them away.

Each white area seems to have a crater. I suspect these are not impact craters, but possibly mud volcanoes, as each is at the top of a mound. My hypothesis is further strengthened by the location, which is deep within the low northern plains of Mars, a place where some scientists believe an intermittent ocean once existed. These mounds could have easily formed at that ocean’s floor, or thereafter when the land here was drying out.

On the other hand, these could be from impact. Maybe they are scattered ejecta from a larger impact, landing here in a group on a wet muddy surface. The impacts might have concentrated the material around the crater, making it more resistant to erosion, which is why the craters now stand above the floor of the plain.

On the third hand, all these theories could be wrong. Have any of your own?


SpaceX drops protest against NASA launch decision

SpaceX has decided to withdraw its protest against NASA’s decision to choose ULA as the launch vehicle for its Lucy asteroid mission.

The company did not provide any reason for the withdrawal. I suspect Musk decided that it was doing SpaceX harm both publicly and privately. Publicly it threatened the launch date of Lucy, which might cause a significant and fatal delay to the mission. That did not make SpaceX look good to the general public.

Privately, I suspect that the protest was hurting SpaceX with NASA officials. They almost certainly did not say so directly, but I am certain they were able to make this clear in any number of ways. This, combined with the agency’s new willingness to consider commercial rockets, like the Falcon Heavy, for its lunar plans, probably convinced SpaceX that it was doing itself more harm than good with the protest.


Bennu’s cobbled equatorial ridge

Bennu as seen by OSIRIS-REx
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a new close-up image of Bennu, this time showing the asteroid’s equatorial ridge. The image on the right is that photograph, reduced to post here.

When the image was taken, the spacecraft was positioned over Bennu’s northern hemisphere, looking southward over the asteroid’s equatorial bulge. The field of view shown is 168 ft (51.2 m) wide. For scale, the bright, rectangular rock above the dark region is 8 ft (2.4 m) wide, about the size of a long bed on a pickup truck

Like Ryugu, the scientists for OSIRIS-REx are going to be challenged in finding a location smooth enough for their touchdown sample grab. That surface reminds me of some avalanche scree slopes I’ve hike across, where you’ve got nothing but rough rocks to walk on.


Parker survives its second close Sun flyby

The Parker Solar probe has survived its second solar flyby, passing within fifteen million miles of the Sun on April 4.

It was moving at 213,000 miles per hour at that moment, which is probably a speed record for any human vehicle. That however is a record Parker will likely break on future fly-bys.

The entire close encounter runs from March 30 to April 10, during which the spacecraft gathers data about the Sun’s inner corona (the sun’s atmosphere).


The eye of a storm on Jupiter

Storm on Jupiter

The image on the right, cropped to post here, was taken by Juno on February 12, 2019 as the spacecraft made its 17th close approach of Jupiter. The Juno science team today has highlighted this version, processed by citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran to enhance the details therein. They note how the white clouds can clear be seen sitting above the colored clouds below.

I cropped it to show the center of the storm. The full image is equally spectacular, as it shows the full storm. Unfortunately, there is no scale, but I suspect you could probably fit the entire Earth several times across the diameter of the storm.


Fragment of a long dead planet’s iron core found orbiting white dwarf

Astronomers have identified the fragment of a long dead planet’s iron core orbiting a white dwarf star 410 light years away.

The [data] suggested its source was a solid object some 600 kilometers across—a suspected planetary core, with a density between 7.7 and 39 grams per cubic meter, comparable to the pure iron found within Earth’s core. “The density of the piece of rock is consistent with what we think the cores of planets [are],” says Luca Fossati of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who was not involved in the paper.

It orbits the star every two hours, the fastest exoplanet orbit yet found. This alone should rip it apart, providing further evidence that the object’s density is very high.

The astronomers theorize that this object is likely the remains of a planet that existed when this star was young, and was destroyed as the star aged to become a red giant, expanding to swallow it. Later, when the star collapsed to become a tiny white dwarf, the core remained, its density allowing it survive as the planet’s outer crust was torn away.


Hayabusa-2’s successfully bombs Ryugu

impact on Ryugu

Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe yesterday successfully impacted an explosive charge on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu, creating a crater for observing the interior geology.

The image to the right was taken by a camera that has separated from Hayabusa-2 and stayed closer to the impact. It shows material flying off the asteroid’s surface, at the horizon line.

Hayabusa-2 — which moved to the other side of the asteroid to stay clear of any ejecta — will next arc around and get close to this impact site to study it. They first need to make sure the ejecta has cleared.


Monitoring the ice scarps on Mars for changes

Scarp #1 in 2011
Click for full image.

Scarp #1 in 2018
Click for full image.

Back in January 2018 planetary scientists released a paper announcing the discovery of a number of Martian cliff faces, or scarps as they called them, that all appeared to expose an underground layer of ice.

Those cliffs were mostly located to the southeast of Hellas Basin, the basement of Mars that is also advantageous for human colonization because its lower elevation means its atmosphere is thicker. (For example, that thicker atmosphere would make air transportation more practical.)

The two images to the right show what they listed as scarp #1 in their paper, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here. The first image was taken in May 2011, with the second taken in December 2018, and was part of the March image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

The December 2018 image was taken almost a year after the paper release, and was titled “Scarp Monitoring.” I therefore wondered whether the scientists had identified any changes. They theorize that these scarps form when the exposed ice slowly sublimates to gas into the atmosphere, causing the cliff face to collapse and retreat, which in the case of scarp #1 would be a retreat to the north. The terraces below the scarp suggest previous cliff locations. In their paper they noted evidence of some changes in the studied scarps, including some fallen boulders, as well as color changes that suggest some evolution.

The rate of that retreat is not known with precision, but based on the facts presently at hand, the scientists have estimated that it took about a million years to form this scarp. Whether any evidence of this retreat would be visible in only seven years is the purpose of these scarp monitoring images.

Do you see any difference? I don’t, but because I also don’t trust my expertise I decided to email the paper’s lead author, Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center. His emailed comments are most interesting.
» Read more


Scientists in Japan claim that cats can learn their name!

Science does important research! Scientists in Japan now claim that cats can learn their name!

Japanese scientists played recordings of a cat’s owner saying four words with lengths and accents similar to its name before saying the feline’s actual name. The word hihu (Japanese for “skin”), for example, might proceed the name “Kari.” As the random words—all nouns—played, the cats became less and less interested. But as soon as they heard their name, most moved their ears and heads; a few even got up (above). The scientists saw similar responses when the cat’s name came after the names of other felines he lived with, or when a stranger spoke the words.

Any cat owner could have told these scientists this. More significant is the fact that cats in the wild normally do not use meowing as a communications tool. Only with humans do they meow, indicating that they learn that humans respond to sound, and they then adapt to use the knowledge to gain what they want from their human staff.


A decade of changes at the Martian south pole

A decade of changes at the Martian south pole
Click for full image.

The image above, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, was released this week by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) team. It shows the changes that have occurred at one location at the Martian south polar cap in the past decade. As planetary geologist Alfred McEwen wrote,

The south polar residual cap of carbon dioxide ice rapidly changes. This image was planned as an almost exact match to the illumination and viewing angles of a previous one we took in August 2009.

The pits have all expanded and merged, and we can just barely see the patterns in the 2009 image compared to this January 2019 picture. The 2009 image is also brighter and bluer, with more seasonal frost and/or less dust over the surface. These images were both taken in late southern summer, but our 2019 picture is slightly later in the Martian season by about two weeks.

You can get a better idea how much is changed by seeing the full image from which the above small area was cropped.
» Read more


Global map of Bennu

Global map of Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a global map of Bennu, compiled from images taken in December.

The map is above. It was released with no commentary. In comparing it with this global map of Ryugu, created by the Japanese probe Hayabusa-2, I am struck by how much both asteroids resemble each other.

This fact is in many ways a first. Since the first planetary probes left Earth in the 1960s the one reliable expectation that has consistently proven true is that no planetary object, be it planet, dwarf planet, moon, asteroid, or comet, was going to resemble any other planetary object. Each has been entirely unique, and unique in very startling and obvious ways.

Ryugu and Bennu represent the first planetary objects that actually look pretty much the same. Scientist will of course be able to note differences, but overall these objects clearly belong to a specific class of asteroids, which in this case is the rubble pile.

In a sense, this similarity marks a significant advancement in our knowledge. Up until now, we had observed so few objects that our knowledge base wasn’t large enough to start seeing patterns within our general classifications of planet, asteroid, or comets. That is now finally changing.


Mars Express confirms Curiosity 2013 methane detection

The uncertainty of science: The Mars Express science team today announced that a reanalysis of the orbiter’s data showed the same spike spike of methane detection as seen by Curiosity on June 15, 2013.

The study exploited a new observation technique, allowing the collection of several hundred measurements in one area over a short period of time. The teams also developed a refined analysis technique to get the best out of their data.

“In general we did not detect any methane, aside from one definite detection of about 15 parts per billion by volume of methane in the atmosphere, which turned out to be a day after Curiosity reported a spike of about six parts per billion,” says Marco Giuranna from the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology in Rome, Italy, the principal investigator for the PFS experiment, and lead author of the paper reporting the results in Nature Geoscience today.

“Although parts per billion in general means a relatively small amount, it is quite remarkable for Mars – our measurement corresponds to an average of about 46 tonnes of methane that was present in the area of 49 000 square kilometres observed from our orbit.”

Ten other observations in the Mars Express study period that reported no detections at the limit of the spectrometer’s sensitivity corresponded to a period of low measurements reported by Curiosity.

The data, along with their estimate about the source location for the methane, suggests that this was a geological event, not the result of biological life. They think the methane was trapped in ice-filled fissures, and released when that ice either broke or melted. Whether the methane itself was formed by past microbial life sometime in the past remains completely unknown.

To put it mildly, there are a lot of uncertainties in this result.


Circular feature on Mars?

A circular feature on Mars?
Click for full resolution image.

Today’s cool image is cool for two reasons. First and foremost, the image, found in the archive of the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), is titled “Circular Feature.” On the right is the full image, reduced to post here. I have searched it high and low, at low resolution as well as full resolution, and can find nothing, nothing at all, that invokes a circular feature to me.

This strange terrain is located very close to the southern icecap. If anything, the knobs and features that fill this image remind me of brain terrain, partly obscured by a layer of partly melted snow or frost. Nothing however seems circular in the slightest.

The second reason this image is cool is that it is very representative of its very large surrounding region. For what appears to be several hundred miles in all directions this is all that one can see, in a variety of MRO images, here, here, here, here, here, and here, to show only a few. Ever so often a craterlike feature pops out, like in the last example, but generally the surface continues in this undulating bland manner, endlessly. The only changing aspect is the dark streaks that cut across, likely dust devil tracks made over a long period of time.

Below the fold is a section of the full resolution image, at full resolution. It doesn’t really matter where I took the crop, as anywhere in the full image everything looks pretty much the same. The only slow change that I can perceive is that the surface seems to be descending to the north, with the lighter areas implying the existence of terraces.

Take a look, and try to figure out for yourself what is going on here.
» Read more


Scientists propose widespread deep groundwater on Mars

In a new study, scientists are now suggesting that widespread deep groundwater exists on Mars, and is the cause of the recurring slope lineae seen on many Martian slopes.

Previous theories for the cause of lineae proposed both dry and wet processes, all related to either near surface or atmospheric phenomenon. This new hypothesis is different, as it proposes deep groundwater as the source.

“We propose an alternative hypothesis that they originate from a deep pressurized groundwater source which comes to the surface moving upward along ground cracks,” Heggy says. “The experience we gained from our research in desert hydrology was the cornerstone in reaching this conclusion. We have seen the same mechanisms in the North African Sahara and in the Arabian Peninsula, and it helped us explore the same mechanism on Mars,” said Abotalib Z. Abotalib, the paper’s first author.

The two scientists concluded that fractures within some of Mars’ craters, enabled water springs to rise up to the surface as a result of pressure deep below. These springs leaked onto the surface, generating the sharp and distinct linear features found on the walls of these craters. The scientists also provide an explanation on how these water features fluctuate with seasonality on Mars.

This conclusion is most intriguing, but it is far from certain. Scientists have found a lot of lineae. For all of them to come from deep groundwater rising under pressure through fractures seems unlikely.

Nonetheless, this research indicates the growing belief among Mars researchers that water exists everywhere on Mars, and is accessible.


Parker about to do its second close fly-by of Sun

The Parker Solar Probe is now approaching its second close fly-by of the Sun, set to occur on April 4.

During this solar encounter phase, which lasts until April 10, the spacecraft’s four suites of science instruments are fully operational and storing science data collected from within the Sun’s corona. As designed, Parker Solar Probe will be out of contact with Earth for several days during the solar encounter. This allows the spacecraft to prioritize keeping its heat shield, called the Thermal Protection System, oriented towards the Sun, rather than pointing its transmitter towards Earth. Science data from this second solar encounter phase will downlink to Earth over several weeks later in spring 2019.

This fly-by the spacecraft will match the record of 15 million miles set during the first orbit as the closest any human spacecraft has ever gotten to the Sun. Future orbits however will get closer.


Saturn’s rings desposit material on its tiny nearest moons


A new analysis of data from Cassini has confirmed that the tiny moons orbiting close to Saturn’s rings are repeatedly coated by material from those rings.

The new research, from data gathered by six of Cassini’s instruments before its mission ended in 2017, is a clear confirmation that dust and ice from the rings accretes onto the moons embedded within and near the rings.

Scientists also found the moon surfaces to be highly porous, further confirming that they were formed in multiple stages as ring material settled onto denser cores that might be remnants of a larger object that broke apart. The porosity also helps explain their shape: Rather than being spherical, they are blobby and ravioli-like, with material stuck around their equators. “We found these moons are scooping up particles of ice and dust from the rings to form the little skirts around their equators,” Buratti said. “A denser body would be more ball-shaped because gravity would pull the material in.”

This result is not a surprise. It has been hypothesized since the first images of these weirdly shaped moons (as illustrated by the picture of Pan from March 2017 above) were first beamed back by Cassini. This new analysis just helps confirm it.

I will add that searching through Behind the Black for that image of Pan made me realize how much I miss Cassini. I used to post lots of its images, always spectacular and breath-taking. With it gone, the images from Saturn have stopped, and will not resume for decades to come.


Rivers on Mars?

The uncertainty of science: A new study of Martian geology suggests that rivers ran on the surface are longer and later in the planet’s history than previously thought.

Seeking a better understanding of Martian precipitation, Kite and his colleagues analyzed photographs and elevation models for more than 200 ancient Martian riverbeds spanning over a billion years. These riverbeds are a rich source of clues about the water running through them and the climate that produced it. For example, the width and steepness of the riverbeds and the size of the gravel tell scientists about the force of the water flow, and the quantity of the gravel constrains the volume of water coming through.

Their analysis shows clear evidence for persistent, strong runoff that occurred well into the last stage of the wet climate, Kite said.

The results provide guidance for those trying to reconstruct the Martian climate, Kite said. For example, the size of the rivers implies the water was flowing continuously, not just at high noon, so climate modelers need to account for a strong greenhouse effect to keep the planet warm enough for average daytime temperatures above the freezing point of water.

The rivers also show strong flow up to the last geological minute before the wet climate dries up. “You would expect them to wane gradually over time, but that’s not what we see,” Kite said. The rivers get shorter—hundreds of kilometers rather than thousands—but discharge is still strong. “The wettest day of the year is still very wet.”

They also found that these rivers had been wider than those seen on Earth, which would make sense if there were few if any plant life to fix the banks in place, as on Earth. The lower Martian gravity probably plays an even larger role in this.

You can read the paper here. The study confirms many other previous studies of Martian surface features, which have repeatedly found evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars. That it found the water flowed later and more extensively only makes more difficult the deeper and probably biggest mystery of Martian geology, however, which is that scientists have not been able to come up with a historic atmospheric model that would allow that liquid water to exist. Mars today is too cold and its atmosphere is too thin for liquid water to flow, and the evidence from the past does not suggest an atmosphere different enough to change that.

It must have been different, but we don’t know how that was possible, based on the data we presently have. And this study makes solving that mystery even more difficult.


Fresh crater in Martian northern lowlands

Fresh impact crater in northern lowlands
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image could be a sequel to yesterday’s. The image on the right, cropped to post here, was one of the many images released from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) high resolution camera in March. The release, uncaptioned, calls this a “fresh impact crater.”

In many ways it resembles the craters I posted yesterday, with a splashed look and a crater floor with features that favor the north. Why that divot exists in the northern half of the floor is to me a mystery. The crater floor looks like a sinkhole to me, with material slowly leaking downward at that divot to cause this surface depression. Yet the rim screams impact. And yet, why the double rim? Was this caused by ripples in wet mud when the bolide hit?

Location of fresh impact crater

The crater itself is all by itself deep in those northern plains. You can see its location as the tiny white rectangle slightly to the left of the center in the overview image to the right. The giant Martian volcanoes can be seen at the image’s right edge, almost a quarter of a planet away. This is at a very low elevation on Mars, almost as deep as Hellas Basin.

For some fun context, this location is very close to where Viking 2 landed in 1976. The Mars 2020 rover meanwhile will land at this overview image’s left edge, on the western shore of the oval cut into southern highlands at about the same latitude as Olympus Mons, the largest volcano on the right. And InSight and Curiosity sit almost due south, with Curiosity in the yellow in the transition from green to orange, and InSight to the north in the green.

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