Tag Archives: science

NASA to send new rover to lunar south pole

NASA today announced that it is building a lunar rover that it will send to the lunar south pole, with a target launch date of December 2022.

About the size of a golf cart, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, will roam several miles, using its four science instruments — including a 1-meter drill — to sample various soil environments. Planned for delivery to the lunar surface in December 2022, VIPER will collect about 100 days of data that will be used to inform the first global water resource maps of the Moon.

This rover appears to be a traditional NASA project, designed, built, and managed by various NASA agencies that also subcontract the work out to private contractors. As the press release says,

VIPER is a collaboration within and beyond the agency. VIPER is part of the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program managed by the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. Ames is managing the rover project, leading the mission’s science, systems engineering, real-time rover surface operations and software development. The hardware for the rover is being designed by the Johnson Space Center, while the instruments are provided by Ames, Kennedy, and commercial partner, Honeybee Robotics. The spacecraft lander and launch vehicle that will deliver VIPER to the surface of the Moon, will be provided through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract, delivering science and technology payloads to and near the Moon. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words however indicate where this project differs from the past. The launch vehicle and lander are not being designed and built by NASA. They will be provided by commercial vendors.

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Ancient glacier flows on Mars

Ancient glacial flow in Euripus Mons
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In the recent download of images from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found the image on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here. It shows an example of the many glacial flows coming off of the slopes of Euripus Mons, the sixteenth highest mountain on Mars.

We know these are glaciers because data from SHARAD, the ground-penetrating radar instrument MRO, has found significant clean ice below the surface, protected by a debris layer that insulates it. As planetary scientist Alfred McEwen of the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory in Arizona explained to me in a phone interview yesterday,

These are remnant glaciers. Basically they form like glaciers form. They are not active or if they are they are moving so extremely slowly that effectively they are not active.

If you look close, you can see that this particular glacier was made up of multiple flows, with the heads or moraines of each piled up where each flow ended. In addition, this overall glacier appears to have been a major conduit off the mountain, following a gap between more resistant ridges to the east and west.

The sequence of moraines suggest that when the glacier was active, it experienced alternating periods of growth and retreat, with the growth periods being shorter and shorter with time. As a result each new moraine was pushed less distance down the mountain as the previous one.

Euripus Mons is interesting in that it has a very large and distinct apron of material surrounding it, as shown in the overview image below.
» Read more

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Curiosity takes selfie next to two of its most important drill holes

Curiosity and its most recent drill holes
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The Curiosity science team today released a beautiful mosaic of the rover, stitched from 57 different images. The photo at the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is the annotated version of that image. It shows the rover’s two most recent drill holes to the left. As the view looks away from Mount Sharp, you can see in the distance Vera Rubin Ridge, the floor of the crater, and its rim on the far horizon.

The two drill holes are significant because of the chemical experiment that Curiosity is subjecting the material from those holes.

The special chemistry experiment occurred on Sept. 24, 2019, after the rover placed the powderized sample from Glen Etive 2 into SAM. The portable lab contains 74 small cups used for testing samples. Most of the cups function as miniature ovens that heat the samples; SAM then “sniffs” the gases that bake off, looking for chemicals that hold clues about the Martian environment billions of years ago, when the planet was friendlier to microbial life.

But nine of SAM’s 74 cups are filled with solvents the rover can use for special “wet chemistry” experiments. These chemicals make it easier for SAM to detect certain carbon-based molecules important to the formation of life, called organic compounds.

Because there’s a limited number of wet-chemistry cups, the science team has been saving them for just the right conditions. In fact, the experiment at Glen Etive is only the second time Curiosity has performed wet chemistry since touching down on Mars in August 2012.

This time however was the first time they had used a wet chemistry cup on material from a drill hole. That they were able to do this at all is a testament to the brilliant innovative skills of the rover’s engineers. They had been holding off doing a wet chemistry analysis from drill hole material until they got to this point, but on the way the rover’s drill feed mechanism failed. It took more than a year of tests and experimentation before they figured out a way to bypass the feed mechanism by using the arm itself to push the drill bit into the ground. That rescue made possible the wet chemistry experiment that they initiated on September 24.

The results, which are eagerly awaited, won’t be available until next year, as it will take time for the scientists to analyze and publish their results.

Curiosity meanwhile has moved on, leaving this location where it had remained for several months to march in the past week southward back towards its long planned route up Mount Sharp.

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Big landslides on Mars might not require ice

According to a new paper, scientists now think the biggest and longest landslides found on Mars might not require a base of ice on which it could slide such extensive distances.

The findings, published today in Nature Communications, show for the first time that the unique structures on Martian landslides from mountains several kilometres high could have formed at high speeds of up to 360 kilometres per hour due to underlying layers of unstable, fragmented rocks.

This challenges the idea that underlying layers of slippery ice can only explain such long vast ridges, which are found on landslides throughout the Solar System.

First author, PhD student Giulia Magnarini (UCL Earth Sciences), said: “Landslides on Earth, particularly those on top of glaciers, have been studied by scientists as a proxy for those on Mars because they show similarly shaped ridges and furrows, inferring that Martian landslides also depended on an icy substrate. “However, we’ve shown that ice is not a prerequisite for such geological structures on Mars, which can form on rough, rocky surfaces. This helps us better understand the shaping of Martian landscapes and has implications for how landslides form on other planetary bodies including Earth and the Moon.”

The lighter gravity of Mars, about one third of Earth’s, is part of the explanation, though many other factors are involved. Either way, this is one more data point in the evidence that the though geology on Mars might look like what we see on Earth, it is likely very different than we expect, due to the alien nature of Mars itself.

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New estimate for Hubble constant differs from previous and also conflicting results

The uncertainty of science: Using microlensing effects scientists have measured a new estimate for the Hubble constant, the rate in which the universe is expanding, and have come up with a number that is different from previous results.

Using adaptive optics technology on the W.M. Keck telescopes in Hawaii, they arrived at an estimate of 76.8 kilometers per second per megaparsec. As a parsec is a bit over 30 trillion kilometers and a megaparsec is a million parsecs, that is an excruciatingly precise measurement. In 2017, the H0LICOW team published an estimate of 71.9, using the same method and data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The new SHARP/H0LICOW estimates are comparable to that by a team led by Adam Reiss of Johns Hopkins University, 74.03, using measurements of a set of variable stars called the Cepheids. But it’s quite a lot different from estimates of the Hubble constant from an entirely different technique based on the cosmic microwave background. That method, based on the afterglow of the Big Bang, gives a Hubble constant of 67.4, assuming the standard cosmological model of the universe is correct.

An estimate by Wendy Freedman and colleagues at the University of Chicago comes close to bridging the gap, with a Hubble constant of 69.8 based on the luminosity of distant red giant stars and supernovae.

So five different teams have come up with five different numbers, ranging from 67.4 to 76.8 kilometers per second per megaparsec. Based on the present understanding of cosmology, however, the range should have been far less. By now the physicists had expected these different results to be close to the same. The differences suggest that either their theories are wrong, or their methods of measurement are incorrect.

The most likely explanation is that we presently have too little knowledge about the early universe to form any solid theories. These measurements are based on a very tiny amount of data that also require a lot of assumptions.

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Mice in space and kept in artificial gravity experience no harm to reproduction

The uncertainty of science: Male mice who spent thirty-five days on ISS but within a centrifuge that created 1 g of artificial gravity apparently experienced no damage to their ability to reproduce.

This project team developed a habitat cage unit (HCU) capable of being installed in the Centrifuge-equipped Biological Experiment Facility (CBEF) on the ISS. The mice were placed under artificial gravity or microgravity (by centrifugation). After their return to Earth, they were compared with a “ground control” raised on the ground for the same 35-day period. (Fig.1)

The joint team found that: [1] The sperm production ability and the sperm fertilizing ability of the mice returned to Earth were normal, compared to the ground control and, [2] offspring of the mice sent to outer space was healthy and there were no effects on their reproduction ability from their parents’ stay in outer space.

While this study suggests that some form of artificial gravity can possible mitigate some of the risks to reproduction in space, there are so many unknowns that it at this point it leaves more questions than it answers.

  • Would an artificial gravity less than 1 g accomplish the same thing?
  • Would no gravity cause damage? According to the study, this is not yet known.
  • What about insemination? Would it proceed with no problems in space?
  • What about female reproduction? Will artificial gravity mitigate issues for them?

I could go on. I almost wish they had done this experiment first in zero gravity, to see its effects, before proceeding to an artificial gravity environment.

Nonetheless, these results do suggest that reproduction in space will be possible, as long as an artificial gravity of some kind is provided.

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Mars2020 budget overruns threatening other missions

The significant budget overruns for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, now expected to exceed a billion dollars, could now pose a threat to other planetary projects.

The cost of Mars 2020 has been growing for a while. The initial proposed cost for the rover, when the mission was announced in 2012, was $1.5 billion. Six years on, a 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report showed that the cost had soared to $2.46 billion. And in NASA’s latest budget, the overrun looks set to grow by as much as 15% (or about another $360 million) beyond that last 2018 estimate, although the latest numbers are yet to be confirmed.

The irony is that Mars 2020 was established by the Obama administration as part of its effort to significantly cut back on NASA’s entire planetary program. The idea was to save money by simply rebuilding Curiosity.

As is typical for these projects, the scientists pushed for cutting edge instruments, and it is these instruments that have caused the overages. Meanwhile, many of those 2012 cuts pushed by Obama never happened, or were simply funneled into different planetary projects that were approved later.

No one who is involved in any way with the U.S. government today knows anything about keeping their effort on budget and on time. No one. And the result is increasing debt and what will certainly be bankruptcy for everyone, at some point, thus causing everything to shut down.

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India releases first radar images from Chandrayaan-2

Radar image from Chandrayaan-2
Click for full image.

India yesterday released the first radar images produced by its lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-2, the best such images yet produced by any spacecraft. As their press release notes:

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is a powerful remote sensing instrument for studying planetary surfaces and subsurface due to the ability of the radar signal to penetrate the surface. It is also sensitive to the roughness, structure and composition of the surface material and the buried terrain.

Previous lunar-orbiting SAR systems such as the S-band hybrid-polarimetric SAR on ISRO’s Chandrayaan-1 and the S & X-band hybrid-polarimetric SAR on NASA’s LRO [Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter], provided valuable data on the scattering characterisation of ejecta materials of lunar impact craters. However, L & S band SAR on Chandraayan-2 is designed to produce greater details about the morphology and ejecta materials of impact craters due to its ability of imaging with higher resolution (2 – 75m slant range) and full-polarimetric modes in standalone as well as joint modes in S and L-band with wide range of incidence angle coverage (9.5° – 35°). In addition, the greater depth of penetration of L-band (3-5 meters) enables probing the buried terrain at greater depths. The L & S band SAR payload helps in unambiguously identifying and quantitatively estimating the lunar polar water-ice in permanently shadowed regions.

The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is from one of the two images released. The brighter areas indicate rougher terrain as well as the location of ejecta from the crater, some of which is below the surface and is not obvious in optical images.

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Bhabha Crater at dawn

Central peaks of Bhabha Crater at dawn

Cool image time! The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team have released a beautiful oblique image of Bhabha Crater, located on the Moon’s far side, taken just as dawn was breaking over the crater’s central peaks.

The image to the right is a section of that picture, showing the central peaks near the bottom with the western rim of the 50-mile-wide crater at the top. The giant shadows of those central peaks can be seen extending across the floor of the crater and against that western rim. The photograph was taken on August 28, 2019 from an altitude of about 45 miles. The area of the central peaks in daylight is estimated to be about nine miles across.

The LRO science team releases a new press release image about once every two weeks. I suspect that they hoped this release would have shown the location of India’s Vikram lander. As they are as yet unable to find it, they instead provided us this cool image instead.

If you go to the link you can use their viewer to view and explore this very very large image. For example, if you zoom into those central peaks you can actually see small boulders scattered across their rounded tops.

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LRO’s 2nd attempt to find Vikram comes up empty

In their second attempt to find India’s failed lunar lander Vikram, the science team of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) were unsuccessful in spotting it.

A project scientist of Nasa’s LRO mission confirmed that the space agency’s second attempt to locate Vikram had come up empty. “The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged the area of the targeted Chandrayaan-2 Vikram landing site on October 14 but did not observe any evidence of the lander,” Noah Edward Petro, the project scientist told news agency PTI.

Petro explained that Nasa compared the images shot by the LRO on October 14 with an image of the same area before Vikram’s landing. Nasa used a technique that would help it spot any signs of impact on the lunar surface indicating Vikram’s possible location. However, the images revealed nothing.

“It is possible that Vikram is located in a shadow or outside of the search area. Because of the low latitude, approximately 70 degrees south, the area is never completely free of shadows,” John Keller, deputy project scientist of Nasa’s LRO mission, explained while speaking to news agency PTI.

Based on the data obtained during the landing attempt, it appeared that Vikram should have crashed within a relatively small target area. That they haven’t seen it yet suggests that it landed within a shadowed area that will take time for the Sun to reach, if ever, or that it is farther away that expected, which implies that during landing much more went wrong than presently believed.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 awake for 11th lunar day

Engineers have reactivated both Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 to begin normal operations on their eleventh lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

As is usual for these reports from the state-run official media in China, the article provides little information. However, this article today from space.com provides an update on the “gel-like” material that Yutu-2 spotted in August.

While gaining the attention of the Yutu 2 team, the material does not appear altogether mysterious, as claimed by Chinese media.

Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, told Space.com that the new image reinforces the previous suggestion that the material is broadly similar in nature to a sample of impact glass found during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

…Dan Moriarty, NASA Postdoctoral Program fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has analyzed and processed the image, seeking clues as to its precise nature. While this compressed image lacks a lot of the useful information a raw image would contain, Moriarty said he could gain insights by adjusting parameters. “The shape of the fragments appears fairly similar to other materials in the area. What this tells us is that this material has a similar history as the surrounding material,” Moriarty said. “It was broken up and fractured by impacts on the lunar surface, just like the surrounding soil.

Overall, Yutu-2 has traveled about 950 feet or 290 meters westward from Chang’e-4 since it began roving at the start of the year.

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InSight’s digging problems reveal the alienness of Mars’ soil

Even as InSight’s mole shaft driller shows signs of working, its difficulties in digging into the Martian soil has revealed how truly alien that soil is from what we normally expect.

[U]nlike typical holes dug here on Earth, the one excavated by InSight’s mole has no lip of dirt around its rim, Hoffman said. “Where did the soil go?” he said. “Basically, it got pounded back into the ground, so it seems like it’s very cohesive, even though it’s very dusty.”

And this is a weird combination of characteristics, strongly suggesting that Mars dirt is alien in more ways than one. “The soil properties are very different than anything we’ve ever seen on Earth, which is already a very interesting result,” Hoffman said.

That the soil of Mars is alien should not be a surprise. The planet’s dusty nature, combined with its light gravity and lack of life, practically guaranteed that the soil would have different and unexpected properties. What is disturbing is that it appears this likelihood was not considered in the slightest by the German engineers who designed the mole for digging.

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Storms on Saturn baffle scientists

The uncertainty of science: Scientists have identified a new type of storm on Saturn, and they don’t understand the weather processes that produced it.

Until now, astronomers had seen only two kinds of Saturnian storms: relatively small storms about 2,000 kilometers across that appear as bright clouds for a few days and Great White Spots that are 10 times as large and last for months. The newly spotted weather disturbance was a series of four midsize storms. Each was several thousand kilometers across and lasted between about 1.5 weeks and about seven months.

It appears that these midsize storms don’t fit any of their present theories about the formation of storms on Saturn.

However, for any scientist at this time to suggest that any theory about the storms on gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn can explain things is for that scientist to reveal themselves to be arrogant fools. We simply do not know anything about the deep atmospheres and vast climates of such planets. For example, we have yet to send a satellite to either planet devoted entirely to studying their atmospheres. And considering the size of these planets, such research would require a lot more than one orbiter to get a global picture. And it would require decades of coverage to get a long term picture.

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Scientists propose changes to planetary protection rules

In a new report [pdf], a panel of scientists have proposed major revisions to NASA’s policy for protecting other planets from contamination by Earth biology.

In general, the recommendations seem an effort to streamline the rules (first established in the 1960s), while also making them more reflective of present knowledge. For example, the report says the following,

NASA should also rethink how it classifies the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, the report says. All of the Moon is now classified as potentially of interest to research on the origins of life, meaning NASA doesn’t want to contaminate it with imports from Earth. But few scientists now view the Moon as an important site for studying such questions—except for its poles, where ice that might have helped sustain life exists. Reclassifying much of the Moon’s surface as nonessential for biological studies would simplify exploration for NASA and other space agencies—along with commercial actors. Similarly, the report says, much of Mars has been treated as if microbes that landed on its surface could survive and be transported to regions thought to host water and allow the replication of life. But many scientists think that outcome is unlikely and worth rethinking.

Because it’s possible that humans could return to the Moon, and arrive on Mars, in the next few decades, NASA should also think about establishing two management zones on the bodies, the report adds. The first would create protected astrobiology zones considered essential for the exploration of possible extinct or existing life. The second would be human exploration zones that invariably would be exposed to the zoo of microbes that accompany humans anywhere they go.

The report also recommends changes to the rules governing samples returned from other words that would streamline the process as well as tailor it more closely to present knowledge. It also recommends that the rules be better written to accommodate and encourage private enterprise in space.

All in all this appears to be a remarkably intelligent report, quite unlike what I expected. Almost always such reports from government instituted panels demand more stringent rules and greater governmental power. This report appears to call for exactly the opposite, while suggesting reasonable restrictions to protect both the Earth and any alien life that might be on other worlds.

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500 climate scientists challenge the UN on global warming

On September 23, 2019 letter, five hundred established scientists from across the globe told the United Nations that there is no climate emergency and that it as yet far from certain that human activity is warming the climate.

I should have reported this when it happened, but missed it until today. The letter made six main points:

  • Nature as well as anthropogenic factors cause warming
  • Warming is far slower than predicted
  • Climate policy relies on inadequate models
  • Carbon dioxide is “plant food, the basis of all life on Earth”
  • Global warming has not increased natural disasters
  • Climate policy must respect scientific and economic realities

None of these points is radical or unreasonable. Regular readers of this website will recognize all six, as I have been repeating them all incessantly for almost a decade. They fit into standard scientific practice, which requires solid, reliable, and confirmed data before any theory can be accepted wholesale. None of the models, based on the theory that the rise in carbon dioxide is causing the climate to warm, have worked. As far as we know now, CO2 might have nothing or little to do with climate change. We. just. don’t. know.

Not surprisingly, the letter was immediately attacked by global warming activist Michael Mann (who still tries to pose as a climate scientist though very few buy it). Rather than rationally question these points with data, he simply made an ad hominem attack, calling the letter “craven and stupid” while implying that anyone who signed it was beyond evil.

Worse, the UN itself decided to ignore the letter, instead pushing forward with its global warming agenda designed to destroy capitalism and make us all as poor as the citizens of Venezuela, all in the name of a scientific theory that no one has been able to prove, in any way at all.

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Lava-draped terrain on Mars

Lava surrounding hill and partly covering crater
Click for full image.

Hill surrounded by lava flows
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Continuing this week’s series of lava-related images from Mars (previous posts here, here, and here), today’s post is ironically the first to actually show lava flows.

The two images to the right, reduced and cropped to post here, are sections taken from an uncaptioned picture, titled “Lava-Draped Surface in Cerberus Palus” and found in the most recent download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

It is obvious why the MRO scientists gave this image this title. The hills in both pictures clearly seem to stand up like islands in a surrounding sea of frozen lava. Older craters, created prior to the lava flow, are partly obscured by the lava flows, their interior floors filled and their rims broken as the lava flooded this region.

Nor are these the only high points captured in the image that this flood of lava inundated. If you look at the full image there is even a low mound where it appears the surrounding lava flood worked its way up the hill’s gently sloping flanks only to freeze just before it completely covered the top of the mound.

The location of this image, shown by the red box in the overview map below and to the right, gives us a hint where the lava came from, though the distances involved to the nearest giant volcano, Elysium Mons, are so large it is likely that this flow is not directly linked to that volcano.
» Read more

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The 1572 Tycho supernova, as seen by Chandra

Remnant of Tycho's supernova

Cool image time! The Chandra science team has released a beautiful X-ray image of the remnant from the 1572 supernova first discovered by astronomer Tycho Brahe.

As with many supernova remnants, the Tycho supernova remnant, as it’s known today (or “Tycho,” for short), glows brightly in X-ray light because shock waves — similar to sonic booms from supersonic aircraft — generated by the stellar explosion heat the stellar debris up to millions of degrees. In its two decades of operation, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has captured unparalleled X-ray images of many supernova remnants.

Chandra reveals an intriguing pattern of bright clumps and fainter areas in Tycho. What caused this thicket of knots in the aftermath of this explosion? Did the explosion itself cause this clumpiness?

The image to the right, reduced to post here, is a composite of both X-ray (the remnant) and optical light (the background stars).

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Sinkholes on Mars

Collapse pit on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In this week’s exploration of Martian geology that is reminiscent of Earth-based lava geology, today’s image is of a collapse pit in Ceraunius Fossae, the vast region of north-south fissures found to the south of the volcano Alba Mons. The photo to the right, cropped to post here, zooms in on that pit.

The picture was part of the most recent image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). What makes it especially interesting is the sharpness of its rim, in comparison to the collapse channel to the east. This suggests the pit is younger and fresher than the channel, and happened more recently. This also implies that the voids below the ground in which the surface is sinking are either still there, or due to on-going processes might be still be forming (like caves are on Earth).

For example, if there is underground ice, temperature changes or even thermal heat from the nearby giant volcanoes could melt that underground ice periodically, allowing it to flow and erode the surrounding material, forming voids. That this pit is located at 30 degrees north latitude, just inside the northern hemisphere band where glaciers are found, adds weight to this possibility.

The image below, reduced and rotated so that north is to the left, shows the entire sequence of collapse channels, with the more distinct pit from above in the bottom center of the picture.
» Read more

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Hubble snaps photo of Comet Borisov

Comet Borisov by Hubble
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Cool image time! Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have snapped the best image so far of interstellar Comet Borisov. The image to the right, reduced and cropped to post here, is that photograph.

Comet 2I/Borisov is only the second such interstellar object known to have passed through our Solar System. In 2017, the first identified interstellar visitor, an object dubbed ‘Oumuamua, swung within 38 million kilometres of the Sun before racing out of the Solar System. “Whereas ‘Oumuamua looked like a bare rock, Borisov is really active, more like a normal comet. It’s a puzzle why these two are so different,” explained David Jewitt of UCLA, leader of the Hubble team who observed the comet.

The comet was 260 million miles away when Hubble took this picture.

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Europe schedules new parachute tests for ExoMars 2020

Following the failure on all previous tests of the parachutes for its ExoMars 2020 Mars lander, the European Space Agency has now made some design changes and is planning to do additional tests in the first quarter of 2020.

ESA has also requested support from NASA to benefit from their hands-on parachute experience. This cooperation gives access to special test equipment at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that will enable ESA to conduct multiple dynamic extraction tests on the ground in order to validate any foreseen design adaptations prior to the upcoming high altitude drop tests.

The next opportunities for high altitude drop tests are at a range in Oregon, US, January–March. ESA is working to complete the tests of both the 15 m and 35 m parachute prior to the ExoMars project’s ‘qualification acceptance review’, which is planned for the end of April in order to meet the mission launch window (26 July–11 Aug 2020).

Their schedule is incredibly tight, since their launch window to Mars is in July 2020, and if they fail to meet it the launch will have to be delayed two years until the next launch window.

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InSight’s mole digs an inch

The InSight science team today tweeted that their attempt to use the lander’s robot arm to help the mole push downward in its effort to insert a heat sensor fifteen feet into the Martian interior has resulted in a gain of about an inch or three centimeters.

This success, small as it seems, is important in that it proves that the reason the drill had been stopped penetrating downward was not because of the presence of a rock, but because the drill hole had become so wide that the drill no longer had side friction to hold it in place. They are now using the arm to give the mole that friction.

The goal was to insert to heat sensor five meters or about sixteen feet into the ground. They are presently a little over a foot down. If this effort has really succeeded, they can then proceed to drill the remaining distance.

One issue however is whether the unexpected weak and porous nature of the soil, which allowed the hole to become so wide, might affect any data produced by the heat sensor. This is presently unknown, but it is a significant question that the scientists involved must ask. If the sensor ends up inside a very wide shaft that allows the surface environment to reach the sensor then it will not really be measuring the temperature of the Martian interior.

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Astronomers identify likely origin star for interstellar Comet Borisov

Astronomers have backtracked the path of interstellar Comet Borisov to identify its likely origin.

When you rewind Comet Borisov’s path through space, you’ll find that 1 million years ago, the object passed just 5.7 light-years from the center of Kruger 60, moving just 2.13 miles per second (3.43 kilometers per second), the researchers wrote.

That’s fast in human terms —— about the top speed of an X-43A Scramjet, one of the fastest aircraft ever built. But an X-43A Scramjet can’t overcome the sun’s gravity to escape our solar system. And the researchers found that if the comet were really moving that slowly at a distance of no more than 6 light-years from Kruger 60, it probably wasn’t just passing by. That’s probably the star system it came from, they said. At some point in the distant past, Comet Borisov likely orbited those stars the way comets in our system orbit ours.

The remains some uncertainty about these calculations because astronomers are still gathering data on the comet’s path.

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Ice suspected in both old and young lunar craters

The uncertainty of science: New research of the craters where ice is suspected to exist on the Moon suggests that the ice is found in both young and old craters, which also suggests both that it comes from multiple sources and that some has been deposited more recently.

The majority of the reported ice deposits are found within large craters formed about 3.1 billion years or longer ago, the study found. Since the ice can’t be any older than the crater, that puts an upper bound on the age of the ice. Just because the crater is old doesn’t mean that the ice within it is also that old too, the researchers say, but in this case there’s reason to believe the ice is indeed old. The deposits have a patchy distribution across crater floors, which suggests that the ice has been battered by micrometeorite impacts and other debris over a long period of time.

If those reported ice deposits are indeed ancient, that could have significant implications in terms of exploration and potential resource utilization, the researchers say. “There have been models of bombardment through time showing that ice starts to concentrate with depth,” Deutsch said. “So if you have a surface layer that’s old, you’d expect more underneath.”

While the majority of ice was in the ancient craters, the researchers also found evidence for ice in smaller craters that, judging by their sharp, well-defined features, appear to be quite fresh. That suggests that some of the deposits on the south pole got there relatively recently. “That was a surprise,” Deutsch said. “There hadn’t really been any observations of ice in younger cold traps before.”

If there are indeed deposits of different ages, the researchers say, that suggests they may also have different sources. Older ice could have been sourced from water-bearing comets and asteroids impacting the surface, or through volcanic activity that drew water from deep within the Moon. But there aren’t many big water-bearing impactors around in recent times, and volcanism is thought to have ceased on the Moon over a billion years ago. So more recent ice deposits would require different sources — perhaps bombardment from pea-sized micrometeorites or implantation by solar wind.

I must emphasize that there is much uncertainty here. Most fundamental is the fact that at this moment we still really do not have a solid confirmation of the presence of ice in these permanently shadowed craters, only orbital data that suggests the presence of hydrogen, which scientists believe can only be there if it is locked in water molecules. This is not yet proven however.

It is intriguing however the evidence suggests ice in both young and old craters. This implies either some on-going process to put water there, or a series of specific but different events over time.

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Ice! Ice! Everywhere on Mars ice!

Ice scarp in Milankovic Crater
Click for full image.

In January 2018 scientists announced the discovery of exposed ice in a number scarp cliff faces found in the high-mid-latitudes of Mars.

These scarps, which have so far been found in one southern 50-55 degree latitude strip and in one crater, Milankovic, at the same latitude in the north, are important because they are one of the first places on Mars in its lower latitudes where we have found ice actually exposed and visible, not buried like the many buried glaciers very near the surface found in the 30 to 60 degree northern and southern latitude bands.

Since that press announcement, scientists have been monitoring these sites for changes, as well as expanding their survey to see if they can locate more of these scarps.

Overview map

My previous posts on this subject were mostly focused on that southern strip near Hellas Basin, as shown on the map on the right. In reviewing the most recent image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I noticed that the only new images of ice scarps were taken in the northern location, in Milankovic Crater, as indicated by the white dot north of Olympus Mons. The first image above shows the north-facing scarp of one of these images, cropped to focus in on the color section where, if you look close, you will see a strip of blue across the base of the scarp. That’s the ice layer, exposed as the scarp sublimates away over time from the north to the south.

over view of all MRO images taken so far in Milankovic Crater

This scarp, labeled #2 on the overview map of Milankovic Crater on the right, is located inside the crater’s eastern rim. The second image, posted below and labeled #1 on the overview map, shows a wider area of several ice scarps located on the inside of the crater’s southwestern rim.

The red boxes in the overview map indicate all the images taken by MRO inside this crater. If you go to the camera’s archive and focus in on Milankovic Crater at 54.5 degrees north latitude and 213.3 degrees longitude, you can then click on each red box to see the high resolution image. In practically every image along the crater’s inside rim can be found numerous scarps.
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World’s largest camera lens arrives safely for assembly into LSST

Link here. The lens will be part of the camera used in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), planned for first light in Chile in 2021, and the video at the link showed the moment they removed the shipping container to inspect the lens to make sure it wasn’t damaged during transport.

The lens will next be installed inside the 3.2 gigapixel camera that will be used by LSST, which will do the following:

The LSST will live on a mountain in Chile, where it will use a 3.2-gigapixel camera and some massive optics to capture a 15-second exposure of the night sky every 20 seconds. At this rate, the LSST will be able to image the entire visible southern sky every few nights.

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I have embedded the video below the fold. This five foot diameter lens is quite astonishing, though the technology that produced it is merely a variation of the same engineering that now routinely produces telescope mirrors 26 feet across.

Hat tip Mike Nelson.
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Swirls and layers in Martian depression

Close-up on swirls and layers

Context of depressions in Columbus Crater
Click for full resolution image.

Cool image time! The southern highlands of Mars is littered with numerous craters, making it look from a distance not unlike the Moon. A closer inspection of each crater and feature, however has consistently revealed a much more complex history than seen on the Moon, with the origins of many features often difficult to explain.

The two images on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows one such feature in the floor of one southern highlands crater, dubbed Columbus Crater. The top image is a close-up of the area shown by the box in the bottom image.

The uncaptioned full photograph was taken on May 20, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was simply titled “Depression in Columbus Crater.” Since the photo included two large depressions, as shown in the wider view in the bottom image, I’m not sure which depression this title refers. In both cases the features do not appear to be impact craters. The top depression is far too irregular, while both do not have the upraised rims that are found on most impact craters.

I have zoomed into the top depression because of its many swirls and layers. On Earth such terrain is usually caused by either water or wind erosion, slowly carving a smooth path across multiple geological layers. Here, there is no obvious evidence of any flows in any direction. Something ate out the material in this depression, exposing the many layers, but what is not clear.

The lower depression reminds me of sinkholes on Earth, where the ground is subsiding into a void below ground The same process could have also formed the top depression.

The surrounding terrain is equally baffling, resembling the eroded surface of an ice block that has been sprayed with warm water. In fact, the entire floor of Columbus Crater appears to have intrigued planetary scientists, as they have requested a lot of images of it from MRO. So far they do not have enough of these images to produce a full map. Since the terrain appears to change drastically over short distances, it is therefore hard to fit the geology of each image together. The overall context is missing.

When I first saw this image I tried to reach the scientist who requested it in the hope he might provide me a more nuanced explanation of what we see here, but despite repeated requests he never responded. Therefore let me propose one theory, based on my limited knowledge of Martian geology.
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Sunspot update Sept 2019:
The blankest Sun in decades

With the release yesterday by NOAA of its September update of its graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun, we find ourselves in what might be the longest stretch of sunspot inactivity in decades, part of what might become the most inactive solar minimum in centuries.

In the last four months the Sun has produced practically no sunspots. There were two in June, two in July, and one in August. The September graph, posted below with additional annotations by me to give it context, shows that the past month was as weak as August, with only one sunspot again.

September 2019 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

The 2008-2009 solar minimum was one of the deepest and longest ever recorded. Yet, it never produced a stretch of four months with so few sunspots, as shown in the graph above. Moreover, during that minimum the Sun was blank 71% of the time in 2008 and 73% of the time in 2009 (a record). Right now, with almost three months to go in 2019, the Sun has already been blank 73% of time, with every indication that it will top that number before the year is out.

Furthermore, the trend continues to suggest we are heading for a period of very few sunspots. Though one of the six sunspots seen since June 1 had a polarity that belonged to the next solar cycle, we have seen no further such next-cycle sunspots since July. There was one active region on October 6 with a next solar cycle polarity, but it was never able to gather enough magnetic energy to mature into a sunspot.

As I noted in my July 8 sunspot update,
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Astronomers find 20 more moons orbiting Saturn

Astronomers have discovered an additional twenty moons orbiting Saturn, bringing the total known to 82, three more than the 79 moons known to circle Jupiter.

Each of the newly discovered moons is about five kilometers, or three miles, in diameter. Seventeen of them orbit the planet backwards, or in a retrograde direction, meaning their movement is opposite of the planet’s rotation around its axis. The other three moons orbit in the prograde—the same direction as Saturn rotates.

Two of the prograde moons are closer to the planet and take about two years to travel once around Saturn. The more-distant retrograde moons and one of the prograde moons each take more than three years to complete an orbit.

The astronomers have also created a contest allowing the public to help name these new moons.

I will make one prediction: They are going to find many more.

In fact, Saturn’s rings and its numerous moons raise the question of what defines a moon. At present, a moon is defined as any object orbiting a planet, regardless of size. With Saturn’s rings however we have millions of objects orbiting that planet, many very tiny. It seems we have never put a size limit on the definition of a moon, and really need to.

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Astronomers photograph baby binary system

Baby binary stars dance in joint accretion disk
Click for full image.

Using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA), astronomers have obtained the first high resolution image of a baby binary system, its two young stars dancing within a joint accretion disk.

Most stars in the universe come in the form of pairs – binaries – or even multiple star systems. Now, the formation of such a binary star system has been observed for the first time with high-resolution ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array) images. An international team of astronomers led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics targeted the system [BHB2007] 11, the youngest member of a small cluster of young stellar objects in the Barnard 59 core in the Pipe nebula molecular cloud. While previous observations showed an accretion envelope surrounding a circum-binary disk, the new observations now also reveal its inner structure.

“We see two compact sources, that we interpret as circum-stellar disks around the two young stars,” explains Felipe Alves from MPE, who led the study. “The size of each of these disks is similar to the asteroid belt in our Solar System and their separation is 28 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth.” Both proto-stars are surrounded by a circum-binary disk with a total mass of about 80 Jupiter masses, which contains a complex network of dust structures distributed in spiral shapes. The shape of the filaments suggests streamers of in-falling material, which is confirmed by the observation of molecular emission lines.

Why most stars form as binary systems is as yet not understood. This data is a major first step towards figuring this out.

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