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Hexagonal Structure at Saturn's North Pole.


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Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI.
Hexagonal structure on Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI.

New Cassini Infrared images of Saturn have revealed one of its strangest features - a bizarre six-sided cloud structure circling the entire north pole. This structure was hinted at when the Voyager spacecraft first visited the planet more than 20 years ago, but the new images from Cassini really show the structure in detail.

This cloud structure is similar to the Earth's polar vortices, but instead of being circular, the clouds have build up this hexagonal shape. The hexagon extends much deeper than scientists previously believed, reaching 100 km (60 miles) below the cloud tops. Whatever this feature is, it's only at the north pole. The south pole has a large storm, but it looks more like a hurricane with a giant eye.

Cassini hadn't been able to image Saturn's north pole until now because it was in winter in that area. This image was taken in the Infrared spectrum, so it's just variations in heat. Just like the Earth's north pole, the region doesn't see sunlight for a long time; in Saturn's case, it takes 15 years of darkness. Saturn is moving out of its winter, now, and the region should be visible to Cassini's other instruments.

Why has this cloud shape formed? That's still a mystery.

Original Source: NASA/JPL/SSI News Release

More Images from New Horizon's Jupiter Flyby

Jupiter captured by New Horizons. Image credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL.
March 30th, 2007: Jupiter captured by New Horizons. Image credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL.

Even though New Horizon's Jupiter flyby happened weeks ago, scientists are only just starting to crunch through the data sent back. They're revealing better and better images of Jupiter, taken by the spacecraft's powerful instruments. The image attached to this story was taken using New Horizon's LEISA Infrared camera. It's a false colour photograph - not what you'd actually see if you were looking at Jupiter - but the fine details in the image are impressive.

The large storm on the right side of both strips is, of course, Jupiter's Great Red Spot. Since the image was taken in the Infrared spectrum, however, Astronomers can see that the monster storm extends far up into the atmosphere. This spectrum also reveals the hazy high-altitude clouds above Jupiter's southern pole, which look blue in this image.

Original Source: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/SWRI News Release

Double asteroids Revealed as Twin Piles of Rubble

Artist illustration of binary asteroid 90 Antiope. Image credit: ESO.
March 30th: Artist illustration of binary asteroid 90 Antiope. Image credit: ESO.

Astronomers have turned up many binary asteroids in the Solar System. Instead of a single, solitary spacerock, you've got two objects orbiting a common centre of gravity. A new paper published in the 2007 issue of the journal Icarus focuses on one of these double objects: the binary asteroid 90 Antiope.

As late as the year 2000, Astronomers didn't even know 90 Antiope was a double object. But powerful new telescopes, such as the 10 metre Keck II observatory in Hawaii was able to use its adaptive optics system to split them up. More recent observations with the European Southern Observatory's 8-metre Very Large telescope have taken the observations to the next level. The observatory has helped to reveal 90 Antiope as two egg-shaped piles of rubble orbiting one another. Each asteroid is roughly 86 km (53 miles) in diameter, and they're separated by only 171 kilometres (106 miles).

One of the most interesting observations happened in 2005, when Astronomers around the world focused on the pair during a mutual eclipse or occultation. During this period, the shadow from one asteroid was expected to fall on the other, darkening their combined brightness. Right on schedule on May 31, 2005 the eclipse occurred, and Astronomers were able to measure it accurately.

Original Source: UC Berkeley News Release

Book Review: Driving To Mars

Driving to Mars.
March 26th, 2007: Book Review: Driving To Mars: by Mark Mortimer.

Trial and error is for tinkering. Simulations and analogues replace them for when grander projects are contemplated. William L. Fox in his book, Driving to Mars: In the Arctic with NASA on the Human Journey to the Red Planet gives us his experience in one of the Mars analogue sites situated on Earth. And, his writing shows that it's humanity's sense of being that is as much a subject of investigation as Mars itself.

Mars is the flagship target for NASA. The ongoing development for a lunar mission is a precursor to placing humans on Mars. Dates are bandied about, but hopefully, within a few decades, plans will become reality and human footfalls will descend on the red surface. Then, some of our compatriots will be able to point back at Earth while they're traipsing over the Martian ground. Even though well into the future, there's much that can be done in preparation. For, it is only with in-depth preparation that we will make the most of what will be an extremely costly voyage.

Using our knowledge of the Martian surface and environment, we've identified locations on Earth that should bear striking similarities. One of these is the Haughton Crater site on Devon Island. Here, NASA's testing out methods and processes and it is here that Fox was a writer in residence. His book is thus a first hand account. He uses interesting points and counterpoints throughout. As such, Fox considers our upcoming voyage from many vantage points. He shows there's advantages of having humans present. There's the technical challenge of journeying across unknown and formidable terrain. And, there's the concern about what we do with the planet once we hold it under our sway. Thus, NASA, and Fox, are at the Haughton crater analogue filling in some blanks.

Though NASA's making technical preparations, Fox is a writer and doesn't have the same agenda. His vision is understandably much different than that of an engineer. For instance, Fox expresses very little detail about temperatures, pressures and tensile strength and puts more into human expression and emotion. The underlying theme in his book is the consideration about why humans constantly push themselves. Yet, Fox presents it as if straight from his journal. Forays into manifest destiny, proprioception and terraforming come in conjunction with light hearted anecdotes of sticky mud and evening entertainment. Inuksuks, ATVs, weather forecasts and local politics keep the contents broader than straight technical talk.

And in accord with traditional works by writers and artists, as opposed to technicians, they expect the recipient to interpret. Fox does this no less. In his book, no butler is found guilty of a crime nor questor complete their journey. Instead, Fox chats about painting styles, differences between the Mars Society and the National Space Society and numerous mini-biographies of colleagues. He leaves it to the reader to bring these together and make a conclusion as would any good artist.

Yet, this divergence is also a weakness. It's obvious that Fox has completed extensive research prior to writing this book. But, his research comes at the reader from disparate angles and the angles don't always have a common vertex. True they are all applicable in some way or other with our upcoming voyage to Mars, yet so is most of humanity's history. Thus, this book is not for a reader looking for a definitive consideration of voyaging to Mars. Rather, this book is for someone who's interested in voyaging to Mars as much as they are interested in humanity's voyage in self-discovery.

Mars orbits far away, but it is within our sites. William L. Fox in his book Driving to Mars: In the Arctic with NASA on the Human Journey to the Red Planet treats us to the fun of an earthly analogue helping to pave the way. He also shows that achieving footfall on Mars will be just another, significant step for our species.

Read more reviews online or purchase a copy from Amazon.com

What's Up this Week: March 25 - April 1, 2007

Valles Alpes. Image credit: Wes Higgins.
March 26th, 2007 by Tammy Plotner: Valles Alpes. Image credit: Wes Higgins.

Monday, March 26 - Much like our crater from last night, tonight we we'll explore the lunar surface for another surface scar caused by a glancing blow. Head to the north near the terminator as the incredible Alpine Valley now comes into view.

Cutting its way through the lunar Alps with a width of 1.5 to 27 kilometers and stretching 177 kilometers long, it is possible this unusual feature formed naturally, but it is unlikely. Viewable through binoculars as a thin, dark line, telescopic observers at highest powers will enjoy a wealth of details around this area such as a crack that runs inside its boundaries. No matter how it came to be, it is a very unusual feature and a lunar club challenge. Catch it tonight!

While you're out, this would also be a good time to have a look at Epsilon Canis Majoris - a great double star. While its companion is quite disparate at roughly magnitude 8, the pair can be easily separated with a small telescope.

Tuesday, March 27 - Tonight as the skies darken, be sure to look for the bright star Pollux less than two fingerwidths away from the Moon.

Tonight the northern area of the Moon will offer up wonderful details to help you on your way to lunar studies. Last month we reviewed the south at this phase, so why don't we do the same for the north? Many of these features can be spotted in binoculars and are very easy with a telescope at mid-range magnifications. Let's have a look at'

(1) Eudoxus, (2) Aristotle, (3) Caucasus Mountains, (4) Lunar Alps, (5) Valles Alpes, (6) Aristillus, (7) Autolycus, (8) Archimedes, (9) Mons Piton, (10) Mons Pico, (11) Straight Range, (12) Plato, (13) Mare Frigoris, (14) W. Bond, (15) Barrow, (16) Meton, (17) Cassini, (18) Alexander, (19) Montes Spitzbergen, (20) Mons Blanc.

How many of these craters are lunar club challenges? Be sure to note your observations!

Wednesday, March 28 - Born today in 1749, Pierre LaPlace was the mathematician who invented the metric system and the nebular hypothesis for the origin of the solar system. Also born on this day 1693 was James Bradley, an excellent astrometrist who discovered the aberration of starlight (1729) and the nutation of the Earth. And, in 1802, Heinrich W. Olbers discovered the second asteroid, Pallas, in the constellation Virgo while making observations of the position of Ceres, which had only been discovered fifteen months earlier. Five years later on this same date in 1807, Vesta - the brightest asteroid - was discovered by Olbers in Virgo, making it the fourth such object found.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to locate both Pallas and Vesta. Both are viewable before dawn - with Vesta quite near M107 and Pallas not far from Mars. While asteroid chasing is not for everyone, both are bright enough to be identified with just binoculars. Use a resource like heavens-above.com to get accurate locator charts and keep a record of spotting these solar system planetoids!

Keep in mind the name LaPlace as we'll look for an area on the lunar surface named for him tomorrow night. Tonight we want to have a look at the Moon with either Telescopes or binoculars to reveal two excellent lunar club challenges that are easily identified - Eratosthenes and Copernicus. Be sure to note both features and we'll return in time to have a closer look at both of these incredible features.

Thursday, March 29 - Today celebrates the first flyby of Mercury by Mariner 10 in 1974. Mariner 10 was unique. It was the first spacecraft to use a gravity assist from the planet Venus to help it travel on to Mercury. Due to the geometry of its orbit, it was only able to study half the surface, but its 2800 photographs gave us the knowledge that Mercury looks similar to our Moon, has an iron-rich core, a magnetic field, and a very thin atmosphere.

Before we have a look at the lunar surface, be sure to have a look at what's near! The planet Saturn is around 1 degree away from the Moon and this could be an occultation for your area. Be sure to check IOTA.

On the Moon, the terminator has now revealed the placid Sinus Iridum. The two features we will look closely at tonight are the Promontoriums which guard the opening of Iridum like two lighthouses. The easternmost is LaPlace, named for Pierre. Little more than 56 kilometers in diameter, it rises above the 'Bay of Rainbows' some 3019 meters, making it almost identical to Buttermilk Summit at Aspen Park. Promontorium Heraclides covers roughly the same area, yet rises to little more than half of LaPlace's height. Both are telescopic lunar club challenges so be sure to mark your notes!

Friday, March 30 - Tonight as the Moon rises, look for Regulus to have taken Saturn's place less than a degree away from the Moon. For some areas of the world, this could be an occultation, so be sure to check IOTA information.

Tonight it's time to walk the Southern Highlands again as crater Schiller comes into view. While Schiller itself is rather recognizable, as the Sun lights up the moonscape many craters change appearance as new ones become more dramatic. Let's take a look at what can be seen during this phase and how many you can identify!

(1) Sasserides, (2) Tycho, (3) Pictet, (4) Street, (5) Longomontanus, (6) Clavius, (7) Porter, (8) Rutherford, (9) Maginus, (10) Gruemberger, (11) Moretus, (12) Klaproth, (13) Casatus, (14) Wilson, (15) Blancanus, (16) Scheiner, (17) Kircher, (18) Bettinus, (19) Zucchius, (20) Segner, (21) Rost, (22) Schiller, (23) Bayer, (24) Mee, (25) Hainzel, (26) Lacus Timoris, (27) Wilson.

Best of luck and be sure to use this map whenever this area comes into view!

Saturday, March 31 - Although the Moon will be overpoweringly bright, be sure to have a look at its western edge for the dark oval of Grimaldi and the bright point of Kepler to its northeast.

Today in 1966, Luna 10 was on its way to the Moon. The unmanned, battery powered Luna 10 was a USSR triumph. Launched from an Earth orbiting platform, the probe became the first to successfully orbit another solar system body. During its 460 orbits, it recorded Infrared emissions, gamma rays, and analyzed lunar composition. It monitored the Moon's radiation conditions - measuring the belts and discovering what eventually would be referred to as 'mascons' - mass concentrations below maria surfaces which magnetically affect orbiting bodies.

While the Moon will be nearly overpowering tonight, let's take a look at a pair of orbiting bodies as we head for Kappa Puppis - a bright double of near equal magnitudes. This one is well suited to northern observers with small telescopes. For the southern observer, try your hand at Sigma Puppis. At magnitude 3, this bright orange star holds a wide separation from its white 8.5 magnitude companion. Sigma's B star is a curiosity, because at a distance of 180 light-years it would be about the same brightness as our own Sun placed at that distance!

Sunday, April 1 - Today in 1960, the first weather satellite - Tiros 1 - was launched. While today we think of these types of satellites as commonplace, the Television Infrared Observation satellite was quite an achievement. Weighing in at 120 kilograms, it contained two cameras and magnetic tape recorders - along with an on-board battery supply and 9200 solar cells to keep them charged. While it only operated successfully for 78 days, for the first time ever we were able to see the face of the Earth's changing weather.

No matter how clear the skies are tonight, we're not going to be able to escape the Moon! So let's turn an eye towards an ever-changing planet - Saturn. Even a small telescope can resolve Saturn's rings, and at high magnification you can see significant details. Look for things like the broad Cassini division in the ring plane, as well as the shadow of the planet on the rings. Be sure to take note of Saturn's many moons as well! While Titan orbits well outside the rings and is bright enough to be noticed even in a small telescope, apertures of 4? or more can pick up the smaller moons which orbit close to the ring system. No matter how you choose to look at it, Saturn is one of the most mysterious and fascinating of our solar system's members.




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