Tag Archives: science

Astronomers find kilometer-sized asteroid with shortest year

Astronomers have found a kilometer-sized asteroid with a year only 151 days long, the shortest year of any asteroid.

The asteroid has been dubbed 2019 LF6.

In its orbit, the asteroid swings out beyond Venus and, at times, comes closer in than Mercury, which circles the sun every 88 days. 2019 LF6 is one of only 20 known “Atira” asteroids, which are objects whose orbits fall entirely within Earth’s.

Atira asteroids are difficult to find because they are so close to the Sun, which makes observations difficult if not impossible. Expect more such discoveries as the technology to make these observations improves.


Jupiter’s changing Great Red Spot

The changing Great Red Spot
Click for full resolution image.

Using Juno images produced during four different orbits, beginning in July 2017 through February 2019, citizen scientist Björn Jónsson has created a montage, reduced in resolution to post on the right, that shows the changes that have occurred in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot during that time. As he writes,

This is a montage of four map-projected [Spot] mosaics processed from images obtained during these perijoves (at the time of this writing perijove 20 is the most recent perijove). The mosaics show how the [Spot] and nearby areas have changed over the course of the Juno mission. The mosaics cover planetographic latitudes 4.7 to 38 degrees south.

The resolution of the source data is highly variable and this can be seen in some of the mosaics. The viewing geometry also varies a lot. Some of the images were obtained almost directly above the [Spot] (in particular some of the perijove 7 images) whereas other images were obtained at an oblique viewing angle (in particular the perijove 17 images).

These are approximately true color/contrast mosaics but there may be some inaccuracies in areas where the original images were obtained at a highly oblique angle. The contrast is also lower in these areas.

What strikes me the most is how the Spot itself seems relatively unchanged, while the bands and surrounding cloud formations changed significantly during this time.


A journey to Saturn’s moon Dione

Global Map of Dione

Cool image time! Today, for a change, I decided to spend some time rummaging through the Cassini raw image archive, mainly because I wanted to see some variety. At this time sadly almost all the good images coming from space are limited to Mars images, and I wished to post a cool image from somewhere else in the solar system.

The global map above was compiled from photographs of the Saturn moon Dione taken by Cassini during its thirteen years in orbit around the ringed giant.

The orange box indicates the sector of interest. The white outline indicates the location of the next photograph below and to the right, taken by Cassini during its first close fly-by of the moon on October 11, 2005, when the spacecraft was approaching the moon.
» Read more


Astronomers map exoplanet atmosphere of super-Earth

Worlds without end: Using both the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, astronomers have characterized the atmosphere of an exoplanet with a mass between that of the Earth and Neptune.

Astronomers enlisted the combined multi-wavelength capabilities NASA’s Hubble snd Spitzer space telescopes to do a first-of-a-kind study of GJ 3470 b’s atmosphere. This was accomplished by measuring the absorption of starlight as the planet passed in front of its star (transit) and the loss of reflected light from the planet as it passed behind the star (eclipse). All totaled, the space telescopes observed 12 transits and 20 eclipses. The science of analyzing chemical fingerprints based on light is called “spectroscopy.”

“For the first time we have a spectroscopic signature of such a world,” said Benneke. But he is at a loss for classification: Should it be called a “super-Earth” or “sub-Neptune?” Or perhaps something else?

Fortuitously, the atmosphere of GJ 3470 b turned out to be mostly clear, with only thin hazes, enabling the scientists to probe deep into the atmosphere. “We expected an atmosphere strongly enriched in heavier elements like oxygen and carbon which are forming abundant water vapor and methane gas, similar to what we see on Neptune”, said Benneke. “Instead, we found an atmosphere that is so poor in heavy elements that its composition resembles the hydrogen/helium rich composition of the Sun.”

To me, our knowledge of exoplanets today is beginning to resemble our knowledge of the planets in the solar system c. 1950. The little data we have gives us a vague idea of what’s there, but there are so many gaps and uncertainties that no one should be confident about drawing any firm conclusions.


ExoMars 2020 parachutes damaged during test

Bad news: The parachutes for the European/Russian ExoMars 2020 mission were damaged during a parachute test.

A May 28 test of the parachute system used a high-altitude balloon above the Swedish Space Corporation’s Esrange test site in northern Sweden. The test was intended to demonstrate the end-to-end performance of the entire system, including both the pilot and main chutes as well as the mortars used to extract the pilot chutes.

ESA said that the first main parachute suffered several radial tears in its fabric, all occurring before reaching its maximum load. The second main parachute also suffered a single tear, also before peak loading.

The other parts of the parachute system worked as expected, and ESA said “a good level of the expected aerodynamic drag was nevertheless achieved” despite the damage sustained by the parachutes. However, the agency acknowledged that the problem needs to be understood and corrected prior to the mission’s launch in one year.

They can easily get the parachutes repaired before the July 2020 launch. The problem is figuring out what caused the damage and fixing that in the time left. They already had planned two more parachute tests, but these cannot happen prior to all the fixes, and then they have to work.

Considering that they will only assemble the spacecraft at the end of this year, I am increasingly thinking that ExoMars 2020 will not launch in 2020. And if it does, I will not be surprised if it turns out to be a failure.


The Martian seabed?

Cones and strange blobs
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Above is an image taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in November 2018 of an area in the vast relatively featureless northern lowlands of Mars. I have rotated, cropped, and reduced it to post here.

I have also indicated two sections, indicated by the white boxes, that I have cropped out of the full resolution image to highlight some interesting features. Both images can be seen in full resolution below.

While the northern lowlands seem featureless from a distance, with few craters, a closer look always reveals many things that are both baffling and fascinating. In this case the region is called Galaxias Colles, a region of mesas and knobby hills. This particular image was dubbed “Cones in Galaxias Colles,” and was clearly taken to get a better look at these strange blobby features.
» Read more


Astronomers declare: Oumuamua was not an alien spacecraft!

The uncertainty of science: An international team of astronomers have announced that after much consultation and discussion it is their conclusion that the interstellar object Oumuamua that zipped through the solar system in 2017 was a natural object, not an alien spacecraft.

[A] review of all the available evidence by an international team of 14 experts strongly suggests that ʻOumuamua has a purely natural origin. The research team reported their findings in the July 1, 2019, issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.

“We have never seen anything like ʻOumuamua in our solar system,” said Dr. Matthew Knight, the team leader from the University of Maryland “but our preference is to stick with analogs we know, unless or until we find something unique. The alien spacecraft hypothesis is a fun idea, but our analysis suggests there is a whole host of natural phenomena that could explain it.”

It is perfectly reasonable for these scientists to choose the simplest and most likely explanation for Oumuamua, which would be a natural object. Moreover, their conclusion does fit the data we have reasonable well.

At the same time, for anyone to assume there is any certainty to this conclusion would be a grave mistake. It is merely the best guess, based on the available but somewhat limited data. The data however does not preclude more exotic explanations. Nothing is certain.


New image of Eta Carina from Hubble

Eta Carina
Click for full image.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have taken a new spectacular image of the Luminous Blue Giant star Eta Carina. The image on the right is that photograph, reduced to post here.

Using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to map the ultraviolet-light glow of magnesium embedded in warm gas (shown in blue), astronomers were surprised to discover the gas in places they had not seen it before.

Scientists have long known that the outer material thrown off in the 1840s eruption has been heated by shock waves after crashing into the doomed star’s previously ejected material. In the new images, the team had expected to find light from magnesium coming from the same complicated array of filaments as seen in the glowing nitrogen (shown in red). Instead, a completely new luminous magnesium structure was found in the space between the dusty bipolar bubbles and the outer shock-heated nitrogen-rich filaments.

Eta Carina had a major eruption in the 1840s, followed by other lesser outbursts, the evidence of which is obvious in this and other earlier Hubble images. In fact, over the past twenty-five years Hubble has actually tracked the expansion of those two lobes of material being flung from the star hidden deep in the material.

Someday in the far future astronomers believe it will die as a supernova, though that is only a hypothesis at this point, based on our presently limited understanding of stellar evolution.


Where are the caves on Mars?

Overview map of pits near Arsia Mons

Each month I go through the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). And each month since November I have found a bunch of newly discovered pits photographed in the region around the volcano Arsia Mons (see: November 12, 2018, January 30, 2019, February 22, 2019, April 2, 2019, and May 7, 2019). The map on the right has been updated to include all those previous pits, indicated by the black boxes, with the new pits from June shown by the numbered white boxes.

To the right are the first three pits in the June archive, with the link to each image site found here (#1), here (#2), and here (#3).

Pits 1 through 3
For full images: Number 1, Number 2, Number 3.

All three are what the scientists doing this research call Atypical Pit Craters:

These Atypical Pit Craters (APCs) generally have sharp and distinct rims, vertical or overhanging walls that extend down to their floors, surface diameters of ~50–350 m, and high depth to diameter (d/D) ratios that are usually greater than 0.3 (which is an upper range value for impacts and bowl-shaped pit craters) and can exceed values of 1.8. Observations by the Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) show that APC floor temperatures are warmer at night and fluctuate with much lower diurnal amplitudes than nearby surfaces or adjacent bowl-shaped pit craters.

The fourth pit, shown in the reduced and cropped image below, might actually be the most interesting of the June lot.
» Read more


The travels of China’s Yutu-2 rover on the Moon

Yutu-2 and Chang'e-4
Click for full image.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team today released images that track the travels of China’s lunar rover Yutu-2 from its landing on January 30, 2019 through June 3, covering the rover’s first six lunar days on the Moon.

The image to the right, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, shows the relative positions of both spacecraft as of June 3, 2019. In the release they also included a gif movie showing the progression of Yutu-2’s movements since landing.

Once a month, LRO passes over the Chang’e 4 landing site, allowing LROC to capture a new image. LROC has now imaged the site five times (since the landing) and observed Yutu-2 to have traveled a total of 186 meters (distance measured using the rover tracks). If you squint, portions of the rover tracks are visible as a dark path in the images from April, May, and possibly June.

table of Yutu-2's movements through June 2019

The LRO release also included a table showing the distance Yutu-2 has traveled with each lunar day, shown on the right. The table does not include the 23 meters (75 feet) the rover traveled on its sixth lunar day. My estimate yesterday that Yutu-2 was traveling an average of about a 100 feet per day, with the distances per day shrinking with time, seems largely correct. During the rover’s fourth and fifth lunar days it moved very little, either because they had found something very interesting they wanted to inspect more closely, or they were moving more cautiously as the rover’s life extended past its planned lifespan of three lunar days.

On the sixth day however they increased their travels again, suggesting that either they had finished the observations at the previous location, or they had gained more confidence in the rover’s staying power.


TESS finds exoplanet smaller than Earth

Worlds without end: TESS has now found an exoplanet somewhere between Mars and the Earth in size, and is part of a solar system with two other Earth-sized planets.

L 98-59b is around 80% Earth’s size and about 10% smaller than the previous record holder discovered by TESS. Its host star, L 98-59, is an M dwarf about one-third the mass of the Sun and lies about 35 light-years away in the southern constellation Volans. While L 98-59b is a record for TESS, even smaller planets have been discovered in data collected by NASA’s Kepler satellite, including Kepler-37b, which is only 20% larger than the Moon.

The two other worlds in the system, L 98-59c and L 98-59d, are respectively around 1.4 and 1.6 times Earth’s size. All three were discovered by TESS using transits, periodic dips in the star’s brightness caused when each planet passes in front of it.

None of these planets is considered in the habitable zone however. Instead, they experience solar energies comparable to Venus.


NASA announces mission to Titan

NASA today announced that it has approved a new mission to Titan, called Dragonfly, that will be a rotorcraft able to fly from place to place.

Dragonfly will launch in 2026 as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, and is expected to arrive at Titan in 2034. ‘Dragonfly is a bold, game-changing way to explore the solar system,’ said APL Director Ralph Semmel. ‘This mission is a visionary combination of creativity and technical risk-taking that will help us unravel some of the most critical mysteries of the universe — including, possibly, the keys to our origins.’

Initially, Dragonfly will carry out a 2.7-year mission to explore different sites across Titan, including dunes and impact craters. Observations from the Cassini mission indicate these areas once held liquid water and complex organic materials. The dual quadcopter will sample these organic surface materials and measure their composition in effort to characterize the large moon’s habitability.

Dragonfly will first touchdown in an equatorial area known as the ‘Shangri-La’ dune fields, which have been compared to the Namibian dunes in southern Africa.

It will then complete ‘leapfrog’ flights of around 5 miles (8km) each to hop to other areas, stopping to take samples from each site.

I hate to throw cold water on this magnificent and ambitious mission, but I will not be at all surprised if it ends up costing more than expected and ends up getting delayed. NASA’s track record in the past decade with big projects on the cutting edge, as this appears to be, has been abysmal. Worse, I have seen little at NASA to make me thing any of this has changed enough to ease my mind for the next decade.

I hope I am wrong, because the concept is wonderful, and the target, Titan, is a critical solar system location that must be explored.


Fast radio burst located for the first time

Astronomers have for the first time pinpointed the location of a non-repeating fast radio burst.

In a historic first, an international team of researchers have discovered the source of a non-repeating fast radio burst and traced its origin to a galaxy 4 billion light-years away.

The monumental findings, published in AAAS journal Science on Thursday, detail the discovery and localization of FRB 180924, a powerful, one-off fast radio burst that lasted for just a fraction of a second. Speculation about the cause of the bizarre signals takes in everything from explosive neutron stars to alien spacecraft, and while we’re still not sure what’s causing them, the revelation puts astronomers one step closer to their true nature.

“This is the big breakthrough that the field has been waiting for since astronomers discovered fast radio bursts in 2007,” said Keith Bannister, lead author of the paper and principal research engineer with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Knowing the distance for the burst makes it possible to calculate how powerful it was, which helps theorists come up with an explanation for what might have caused it. Similarly, knowing its location–on the outskirts of a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way–helps them further constrain those theories.


The expanding range for Martian ice scarps

Another ice scarp
Click for full image.

The discovery in January 2018 of a number of Martian cliff faces, or scarps as the scientists dubbed them, with a visible and apparently very accessible underground layer of ice, had significant ramifications.

First, it proved that, in at least one area south of Hellas Basin and one spot in the northern hemisphere, an underground ice table existed on Mars at latitudes as far south as 55 degrees. Scientists had theorized that this ice table, comparable to the water table on Earth, existed, but here was visible proof.

Second, the discovery showed places where water could be accessed relatively easily by future colonists. There are plenty of indications from orbiter images and lander/rover data that water is present in many places on Mars, but here the water appeared almost pure and could be obtained without major digging or processing. Whether that ice table extends even farther south, making it even more accessible, remains as yet a scientific question.

In the next few months the scientists involved in this research located more ice scarps in areas beyond the range of those initial discoveries. Since then however even more scarps have been found, including the scarp in the image above and to the right, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here.

This particular scarp is located inside a crater. The uncaptioned release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), described it as a “Scarp in mantling material.” According to Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona,
» Read more


Mold in space can tolerate very high doses of radiation

New research has discovered that the mold found on the International Space Station is able to tolerate very high doses of radiation.

Spores of the two most common types of mold on the ISS, Aspergillus and Pennicillium, survive X-ray exposure at 200 times the dose that would kill a human, according to Marta Cortesão, a microbiologist at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne, who will present the new research Friday at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon 2019).

Pennicillium and Aspergillus species are not usually harmful, but inhaling their spores in large amounts can sicken people with weakened immune systems. Mold spores can withstand extreme temperatures, ultraviolet light, chemicals and dry conditions. This resiliency makes them hard to kill.

“We now know that [fungal spores] resist radiation much more than we thought they would, to the point where we need to take them into consideration when we are cleaning spacecraft, inside and outside,” Cortesao said. “If we’re planning a long duration mission, we can plan on having these mold spores with us because probably they will survive the space travel.”

While these findings likely mean an increase in the cost for sterilizing future planetary probes, they also mean that fungi will be available for future space travelers for the production of antibiotics, food, and other useful items.


Hayabusa-2 to attempt 2nd sample grab

The new colonial movement: The Hayabusa-2 science team has decided to attempt a second touch-and-go sample grab from the man-made crater they created on the surface of the rubble-pile asteroid Ryugu.

JAXA engineers confirmed that the probe’s camera and other equipment that were slightly damaged by the first landing are usable, and that there are no big rocks at the candidate site. They gave the go-ahead for a landing on July 11.

Hayabusa2 is scheduled to begin its descent from an altitude of 20,000 meters at around 10 a.m. on July 10 Japan time, and touch down on the asteroid’s surface about 25 hours later.

This is the first time I have heard of any damage to the spacecraft from the first touch-and-go landing. Regardless, they have decided they can risk another sample grab and still have the ability to return the samples to Earth.


The Whirlpool Galaxy across many wavelengths

The Whirlpool Galaxy
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The sequence of images above, reduced to post here, were taken in multiple wavelengths by the 2.1 meter Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and the Spitzer Space Telescope in orbit.

The Whirlpool galaxy, also known as Messier 51 and NGC 5194/5195, is actually a pair of galaxies that are tugging and distorting each other through their mutual gravitational attraction. Located approximately 23 million light-years away, it resides in the constellation Canes Venatici.

The leftmost panel shows the Whirlpool in visible light, much as our eye might see it through a powerful telescope. In fact, this image comes from the Kitt Peak National Observatory 2.1-meter (6.8-foot) telescope. The spiraling arms are laced with dark threads of dust that radiate little visible light and obscure stars positioned within or behind them.

The second panel from the left includes two visible-light wavelengths (in blue and green) from Kitt Peak but adds Spitzer’s infrared data in red. This emphasizes how the dark dust veins that block our view in visible light begin to light up at these longer, infrared wavelengths.

Spitzer’s full infrared view can be seen in the right two panels, which cover slightly different ranges of infrared light.

The infrared views of the Whirlpool galaxy also show how dramatically different its two component parts are: The smaller companion galaxy at the top of the image has been stripped nearly clean of dust features that stand out so brilliantly in the lower spiral galaxy. The faint bluish haze seen around the upper galaxy is likely the blended light from stars thrown out of the galaxies as these two objects pull at each other during their close approach.

The Spitzer images above are likely among the last we shall see from that telescope, which has been in orbit since 2003 with a planned mission of only 2.5 years. As its cryogenic coolant became depleted in 2009, it has been functioning in a somewhat limited phase since. NASA will officially end the mission on January 30, 2020, more than thirteen years beyond that initial lifespan.


Another odd crater on Mars

Odd shaped crater
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In a sense, to announce that scientists have found an oddly shaped crater on Mars is to state the obvious. In the years since the first Martian fly-by by Mariner 4 in 1965, scientists have been discovering numerous odd-shaped craters on Mars, every single of which has challenged our assumptions about the planet’s geology. I myself have posted a half dozen such posts since January (January 7, January 10, January 14, March 26, March 27, June 12).

Yet, it is always worth looking when another one crops up, because of the fact that they challenge our assumptions about Martian geology. They are also always cool to look at! On the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is an image taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 19, 2019 of what the scientists have dubbed an “Odd Shaped Crater in Arabia Terra.”

Overview map

Arabia Terra is one of the largest regions of the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands. This crater is located, as shown by the red cross in the overview map to the right, near its northern edge, in an area where the descent into the northern lowlands is somewhat abrupt and broken up by large craters and chaos terrain.

The crater itself holds numerous geological mysteries. Its shape suggests two impacts of different sizes overlapping each other, but without any remnant of the inner rim of the second impact. Where did that remnant go? Or maybe this wasn’t caused by two impacts, but by one impact that reshaped the surface in this odd and inexplicable way.

Then there is the three teardrop-shaped patterns in the crater’s floor. They look like the brushstrokes of a giant-sized painter. Were they caused by the wind? And if so, why in this pattern?

Planetary geologists could probably come up with a dozen more questions. The number tells us how little we know about Mars.


Elementary students to compete to name 2020 Mars rover

NASA has initiated a project to have the nation’s K-12 elementary school children compete to name the 2020 Mars rover.

NASA has selected two partner organizations to run a nationwide contest giving K-12 students in U.S. schools a chance to make history by naming the Mars 2020 rover. An application to become contest judge also is now available online.

Battelle Education, of Columbus, Ohio, and Future Engineers, of Burbank, California, will collaborate with NASA on the Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” contest, which will be open to students in the fall of 2019. The student contest is part of NASA’s efforts to engage the public in its missions to the Moon and Mars.

They are also looking for people to judge the contest.


What the resurgence in animal life at Chernobyl can teach us

Link here. From the lead paragraph:

Three decades after the Chernobyl disaster—the world’s worst nuclear accident—signs of life are returning to the exclusion zone. Wild animals in Chernobyl are flourishing within the contaminated region; puppies roaming the area are capturing the hearts of thousands. Tourists who have watched the critically acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl are taking selfies with the ruins. Once thought to be forever uninhabitable, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has become a haven for flora and fauna that prove that life, as they say in Jurassic Park, finds a way.

Read it all. What the story really reveals is that the fear-mongering of the anti-nuclear movement (second cousin to the global warming movement) was at a minimum over-wrought and over-stated, and at its worst mostly a lie. The worst nuclear accident ever, that made a 1000-square-mile area forbidden territory due to radiation, has produced no truly terrible long term damage. Things are different, the radiation release had consequences, but the overall situation today appears generally positive, only three decades later.


Exploring with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Terrain sample
Click for full image.

In my never-ending rummaging through the images released each month from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I have sometimes been puzzled by the titles they choose for some photographs. For example, many pictures each month are simply titled “Terrain Sample.” The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is one example, and its content adds to the mystery.

The photograph itself shows a generally featureless surface. Other than the scattering of small craters, there are only very slight topographical changes, the most obvious of which is the meandering ridge to the east of the largest crater.

I wondered why this picture was taken, and why it was given such a nondescript name. To find out, I emailed Veronica Bray at the University of Arizona. She had requested this image as part of her job as a targeting specialist for MRO. Her answer:
» Read more


Weird minerals discovered in simulated Titan environment

In recreating their best guess as to the conditions and environment of Saturn’s moon Titan, scientists have produced a number of weird never-before-seen minerals.

To create Titan-like conditions in the laboratory, the researchers started with a custom-built cryostat, an apparatus to keep things cold. They filled the cryostat with liquid nitrogen to bring the temperature down. They then warmed the chamber slightly, so the nitrogen turned to gas, which is mostly what Titan’s atmosphere contains. Next, they threw in what abounds on Titan, methane and ethane, as well as other carbon-containing molecules, and looked for what formed.

The first things to drop out of their Titan hydrocarbon soup were benzene crystals. Benzene is perhaps best known as a component of gasoline and is a snowflake-shaped molecule made out of a hexagonal ring of carbon atoms. But Titan benzene held a surprise: The molecules rearranged themselves and allowed ethane molecules inside, creating a co-crystal.

The researchers then discovered the acetylene and butane co-crystal, which is probably a lot more common on Titan than benzene crystals, based on what’s known about the moon’s composition, Cable said.

The scientists think that these crystals might be found on the edge of Titan’s methane lakes, encrusted there like a bathtub ring.


Spike in methane detection in Gale Crater

The uncertainty of science: In the past week Curiosity has suddenly discovered a spike, the largest ever, in the amount of methane in the local atmosphere.

The amount detected was still quite tiny, 21 parts per billion by volume.

Curiosity doesn’t have instruments that can definitively say what the source of the methane is, or even if it’s coming from a local source within Gale Crater or elsewhere on the planet.

“With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern,” said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

While there is going to be a lot of speculation in the press and among scientists who should know better, this detection remains a major mystery. We as yet have no idea what caused it. Nor is it likely to have been caused by biology, though that does remain a possibility.

What is most puzzling is that the terrain that Curiosity is presently traveling across, the clay unit at the foot of Mount Sharp, shows no likely source.

This past weekend the scientists focused the rover’s instruments on this topic, in the hope this could help narrow the problem.


Strange Martian gullies

Gullies on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken in 2010 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Uncaptioned, the image page is simply entitled “Older Gullies and Channels in Slopes of Softened Large Crater.”

I stumbled upon it today while researching another image taken this year of the “valley networks” in the floor of that same crater. Those networks were intriguing, but the gullies on the right were much more fascinating, because they appear to be some form of erosion drainage coming down both sides of a high ridge near the northern rim of this large apparently unnamed crater in the southern cratered highlands of Mars, to the west of Hellas Basin.

On Earth my immediate explanation for this erosion would be a major monsoon-like storm, such as we get here in the southwest and call “gully-washers.” When a lot of water is quickly dumped onto a hill where there is not of vegetation to help bind the soil together, the water will quickly carve out gullies that looks almost exactly like these.

On Mars, who knows? It certainly wasn’t a monsoon thunderstorm that did this. And being in the Martian southern highlands it is unlikely it was from an ocean of any kind. Were there lakes here? Past research has found places where lakes might have existed on Mars, but these places are far north in the transitional zone into the northern lowlands.

Nor are these gullies the only interesting features in this one image.
» Read more


Glaciers growing on Greenland

Greenland's growing Jakobshavn Glacier
Click for full image.

Despite what the fake mainstream media and leftist Democratic Party politicians insist on telling us daily, the Greenland icecap remains largely stable, and shows no sign of disappearing anytime in the near future.

The image on the right, reduced to post here, is a series of images produced by radar instruments flown by a NASA airplane over Jakobshavn Glacier during the past three years and released this week by its project scientists. As noted in the release,

These images show the mass Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier has gained from 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19. Areas with the most growth are shown in dark blue. Red areas represent thinning. The images were produced using GLISTIN-A radar data as part of NASA’s Ocean’s Melting Greenland (OMG) mission.

While this research is absolutely worthwhile, the mission has clearly been shaped by the global warming activism in NASA and the climate science community. Thus, the scientists for this mission are forced to say this on their website:

Humans are changing the climate by burning fossil fuels for energy. These add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which trap extra heat from the sun and warm the air and oceans.

I would bet however that the scientists for this project remain very skeptical about this NASA political statement. That they highlighted here a glacier that is growing, in contradiction to the routine media and activist claims that Greenland’s ice sheet is disappearing, indicates this.

Tony Heller at his climate blog today posted a very good summary of the very stable state of Greenland’s icecap, while also pointing out the dishonest and incompetent reporting about it from mainstream media sources like the Washington Post and Fox News. Check it out. As he concludes:

There has been no trend Arctic sea ice since the start of MASIE records thirteen years ago.

Greenland glaciers are growing. The last two years had near record surface mass gain. The current journalistic standard of cherry picking a day here and there, and then misrepresenting the meaning of it, is journalism at its worst.

The data shows a decline in that icecap in the early part of this century, followed by a significant recovery in the past three years. As he says, there has been no trend.

Be aware of this when ignorant politicians like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) try to tell you we are all going to die of global warming in mere years. These fear-mongers know nothing, and should be laughed from the stage.


Planning Hayabusa-2’s next sample grab on Ryugu

Target and man-made crater on Ryugu
Click for full image.

The Hayabusa-2 science team today released a mosaic image created using the images taken during the four close approaches to the site of the man made crater put there by a projectile fired from the spacecraft. The image on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, shows this area, with the white spot being the target they dropped onto the site during the most recent close approach. As they note in their release:

In order to collect this material, we need a second touchdown for which the project has been steadily preparing. At this point, it has not yet been decided whether or not to go ahead with a second touchdown, but here we will introduce our preparations in the “Approach to the second touchdown”.

After the operation to form the artificial crater, the spacecraft descended a total of four times above or near the crater site. These descent operations allowed us to obtain detailed data of the region near the artificial crater. In addition, we succeeded in dropping a target marker in the area close to the artificial crater on May 30. Combined, these operations mean that the situation around the artificial crater is now well understood.

Figure 1 [the image to the right] shows an image taken during the low altitude descent observation operation (PPTD-TM1B) conducted from June 11 – 13. The target marker was captured in the image and you can get a handle on the state of the surface. [emphasis mine]

Unfortunately they do not show us exactly where the man made crater is located in this mosaic. Nor was I able to locate it by comparing today’s image to a previous image that did indicate the location.

The only place that seems acceptable for their touch-and-go sample grab seems to be just above or to the left of the target. Whether this will get them any interior material thrown up during the impact however is unclear.


The make-up and temperature of Uranus’s rings

The rings of Uranus

New radio images taken by the ground-based telescopes by the ALMA and VLT telescopes in Chile have allowed scientists to better determine the make-up and temperature of the rings of Uranus.

The image above is from their paper. From the caption:

Images of the Uranian ring system at 3.1 mm (ALMA Band 3; 97.5 GHz), 2.1 mm (ALMA Band 4; 144 GHz), 1.3 mm (ALMA Band 6; 233 GHz), and 18.7 μm (VLT VISIR; 100 THz)…The planet itself is masked since it is very bright compared to the rings.

From the article above:

The new images taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) allowed the team for the first time to measure the temperature of the rings: a cool 77 Kelvin, or 77 degrees above absolute zero — the boiling temperature of liquid nitrogen and equivalent to 320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The observations also confirm that Uranus’s brightest and densest ring, called the epsilon ring, differs from the other known ring systems within our solar system, in particular the spectacularly beautiful rings of Saturn.

“Saturn’s mainly icy rings are broad, bright and have a range of particle sizes, from micron-sized dust in the innermost D ring, to tens of meters in size in the main rings,” said Imke de Pater, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy. “The small end is missing in the main rings of Uranus; the brightest ring, epsilon, is composed of golf ball-sized and larger rocks.” [emphasis mine]

The mystery is why this ring has no dust, something not seen with any other ring system in the solar system, including the inner rings of Uranus itself..


Jupiter in 3D

Jupiter in 3D

Cool image time! Using images from Juno, a citizen scientist going under the nom de plume YobiRoby has created the height map image to the right, showing three-dimensionality of the cloud surface of Jupiter.

Though they provide no details to go with this image, it appears it is centered on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the larger of the two big storms that are visible. While the smaller storm appears raised like a mound above the surrounding cloudtops, the Great Red Spot instead appears to be a mound that is depressed below the cloudtops.


Russian cosmonauts refuse to donate sperm for space research

According to one Russian scientist, Russian cosmonauts have been refusing to donate their sperm for a space research project to be launched on that country’s next Bion-M satellite in 2023, making that research impossible.

“We have been unsuccessful in getting the Coordinating Scientific & Technical Council responsible for approving experiments on the Russian segment of the ISS to approve such a routine procedure as the handover of seminograms by cosmonauts,” [Dr. Irina Ogneva, lab chief at the Institute of Cell Biophysics outside Moscow] explained. “We are consistently impeded by objections of a moral, psychological and ethical nature, and can’t find any volunteers among the cosmonauts,” she added.

According to the scientist, the mere mention of the idea of getting the male biomaterial in conditions of space merely “causes everyone to smile” and reject it.

Ogneva also is quoted as proposing that Russia also consider a project for giving birth to the first child in space.

“We are mindful of the fact that we were always first in space and in many areas remain the leaders. Therefore, it would be nice if the first human being born in space were a Russian citizen. But we should place care for the individual, not patriotic populism, at the forefront of our efforts,” Ogneva stressed.

According to the scientist, while it remains too early to formally set the mission of having a child in space, formulating the goal is already possible. Along with technical questions, there are moral and ethical issues which remain to be resolved, since a live birth would essentially constitute an experiment involving a human embryo.

The difficulties, both moral and ethical, for that first space childbirth, are so daunting that I expect it will only happen in one of two ways. Either it will occur in an unplanned manner, with a female astronaut getting pregnant and giving birth while on a mission where a retreat to Earth will be impossible, or it will occur because some totalitarian government, such as China or Russia, will force it on a woman.

It will happen eventually, however, and when it does, we will find out the limits of our ability to populate space. We might find that only in a gravity well can humans reproduce. Or not.

The unknowns are quite striking.


Mass wasting on Mars

Mass wasting in Martian crater
Click to see full image.

Cool image time! Mass wasting is a term that geologists use to describe a specific kind of avalanche, where the material moves down slope suddenly in a single mass.

The image on the right, taken from the image archive of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and cropped and reduced in resolution to post here, shows a dramatic example of this kind of avalanche. You can see two separate avalanches, each of which moved a significant blob of material down slope into the center of the crater floor.

Studying such events is important. Scientists know that Mars has an underground ice table at high latitudes. What they don’t know is how far south that ice table extends. This crater is located at 5 degrees north latitude, almost at the equator, so if this avalanche exposed any ice in newly exposed cliff wall that would be a significant discovery.

Based on the color image, there does not appear to be any obvious ice layers, as seen in higher latitude scarps in the southern hemisphere. This doesn’t prove they aren’t there, merely that this image was unable to see them. Maybe the resolution is not good enough. Maybe the ice is too well mixed in with the dust and dirt and it therefore isn’t visible. Maybe the ice table is deeper underground than the deepest part of this crater.

Or it could be that at the Martian equator the underground ice is mostly gone. For future colonists, knowing this fact will influence where they put those first colonies. Near the equator has some advantages, but if there is little easily accessible water those advantages mostly vanish.

At the moment we simply do not know, though much of the imagery now being taken from orbit are attempts to answer this question.

One final detail about the image. Note the slope streaks coming down the crater’s slopes. These remain their own Martian mystery.

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