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HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.


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Red rover.
K10 Red rover. Image credit: NASA.

The question of whether humans or robots should explore space has been decided by NASA: it'll be both. In the future, NASA anticipates that humans will work with robotic explorers to gather and analyze data more efficiently than either could do alone. This will be the eventual scenario when humans set foot on the Moon again, as part of the Vision for Space Exploration.

Two prototype Moon rovers are currently crawling around a polar desert in the Arctic Circle, helping scientists develop the skills and experience they'll need to do this for real on other worlds. The robots are named K10 Black and K10 Red, and carry 3-D laser scanners and ground-penetrating radar.

They arrived at the Haughton Crater on Devon Island, Canada on July 12, and will continue their operations until July 31. The robots are using different techniques to study the interior of the 20 km (12.4 mile) crater. For example, their 3-D laser scanner can map topographic features as much as a kilometre away, and the ground penetrating radar can peer down 5 metres. The robots are just covering the terrain like lawn mowers, mapping it out strip by strip.

Over the course of the study, the rovers will cover an area of approximately 120 acres of terrain, operated completely remotely from the Haughton-Mars base camp located several kilometres away.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Martian Dust Devil Seen from Above

Martian dust devil. Image credit: NASA/JPL/HiRISE.
July 20th, 2007: Martian dust devil. Image credit: NASA/JPL/HiRISE.

Here's a cool picture of a Martian dust devil, captured by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This little dust devil has nothing to do with the dust storm that's currently ravaging the Red Planet. The image was captured about a month ago in the southern hemisphere, near Hellas Planitia during the Martian mid-afternoon.

Dust devils like this form when the temperature on the ground is much warmer than the air above. The hot air rises, and then in the right conditions, starts to twist into a vortex that sucks in more warm air. If the vortex can get strong enough, it'll suck dust off the ground, and create a dust devil.

From this vantage point, the dust devil appears to be about 200 metres (660 feet) across, but it's probably much smaller where it touches the surface of Mars. Seen from the ground, it would look like a dusty tornado reaching about 500 metres (1,600 feet) high.

Original Source: UA News Release

Dust Storm Threatens the Martian Rovers

The view from the surface of Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
July 20th, 2007: The view from the surface of Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

That Martian dust storm I reported on a week ago has intensified, engulfing most of the planet. The Martian rovers currently crawling around the surface of the Red planet will learn first hand what impact these kinds of storms can have on their operations.

The dust is now blocking 99% of the direct sunlight falling on Opportunity's solar panels. And here's the problem. With limited electricity for an extended period of time, the roves won't be able to generate enough electricity to keep their heaters going. These heaters keep their core electronics from becoming too cold in the frigid Martian landscape.

Before the dust storm, Opportunity was generating about 700 watt hours of electricity per day. With this dust, the power output has been reduced to 400 watt hours. Mission operators have been forced to cut back the rovers' operations, including driving, use of its robotic arm, and cameras and other scientific instruments. On Wednesday, July 18, the power output dropped to just 128 watt hours.

If the storm is too intense or long-lasting, one or both rovers could be damaged permanently or even disabled. And storms like this can last days, weeks, or even longer.

Hang in there little rovers.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Astrosphere for July 20, 2007

Jupiter. Image Credit: AutoClub.
July 20th, 2007: Jupiter. Image Credit: AutoClub.

Finally, RickJ's run of astrophotos comes to an end. Now we've got this cool picture of Jupiter imaged July 18th with Meade LPI telescope. Good work AutoClub

There might not be liquid water on the surface of Mars, but is it in the Kuiper Belt? Centauri Dreams explores.

Space politics discusses the debate between spaceplanes and lunar footprints. Don't make me choose.

Remember the physicist who took in donations to perform an experiment on time reversal? Well, he's begun the experiment.

Evolution is just a theory. But it's not just a theory.

Lopsided Disk Around a Young Star

Lopsided debris disk around the young star HD 15115. Image: NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
July 19th, 2007: Lopsided debris disk around the young star HD 15115. Image: NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

If you look at drawings of our Solar System, you'll notice all the planets are lined up nicely in a flat plane, and their orbits are roughly circular. If you can imagine the disk of material that the planets formed out of, it would have been a circle surrounding our Sun. And this circular shape is what Astronomers have been seeing when they discover planetary debris disks around other stars.

Until now.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, and the W.M. Keck Observatory, Astronomers have turned up a young system where the star and its planetary disk of debris aren't lined up. From our perspective here on Earth, the disk is seen edge-on, jutting out to one side of the star in an elliptical orbit.

What could have caused this situation? Astronomers think that the disk's odd lopsided look is caused by dust following a highly elliptical orbit around the star. Perhaps its the gravitational interaction with planets sweeping up material, or maybe the system had an encounter with a nearby star that yanked the debris disk out on one side.

This Discovery could help explain possible planetary upheavals in our own Solar System. For example, Astronomers think that Neptune formed in between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus, and then something kicked it out to its current position.

Original Source: HubbleSite

Biggest Collisions in the Universe

The Bullet Cluster. Source: ESA.
July 19th, 2007: The Bullet Cluster. Source: ESA.

Two X-ray satellites have been studying one of the largest Galaxy collisions in the universe, gathering evidence that these clusters can collide much faster than Astronomers previously believed.

Images of Galaxy cluster Abell 576 were captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray observatory, and ESA's XMM-Newton observatory. Researchers found that there was a distinct difference in velocity of the gas; one part of the cluster seemed to be moving away faster than the other.

Fast moving gas isn't a mystery. But the gas was very cold by astronomical standards: a mere 50 million degrees C. Gas moving this should be heated up to double that temperature.

To answer this mystery, the researchers realized that it's all about perspective. We're seeing Abell 576 head on. From our point of view, one cluster is almost directly behind the other. The cold clouds of gas are the cores of each cluster which had survived the initial collision, but will now fall back in for another merger. Eventually, it'll all become one large cloud.

Original Source:ESA Portal

Saturn's 60th Moon Discovered

The 60th moon of Saturn reveals itself. Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
July 19th, 2007: The 60th Moon of Saturn reveals itself. Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Saturn little system hit a big milestone this week with the announcement of its 60th moon. This new Moon joins the crop of new satellites turned up by researchers poring through data sent back by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

The newly discovered Moon first appeared as a faint dot in a series of images captured by Cassini on May 30. The discoverers, from Queen Mary, University of London, then went back through the vast library of Cassini images, verifying that they had found a new object.

Codenamed "Frank" for now, the new Moon is only about 2 km (1.2 miles) across, and it's mostly made of ice and rock. It's located in between the orbits of Methone and Pallene.

This is the fifth new Moon discovered by the Cassini imaging team.

Astrosphere for July 19, 2007

Leo Asteroids. Image: RickJ.
July 19th, 2007: Leo Asteroids. Image: RickJ.

Astrophotographer RickJ completes a hat trick. 3 photos in 3 days. This latest one is of cluster Leo I. While he was taking the photo, there were also 5 different asteroids in the picture.

This week's Carnival of Space #12 is hosted at the Music of the Spheres.

As if flying to space wasn't expensive enough already. Now the price appears to be going up.

Daily Galaxy has an interesting story about how the Solar System's position above and below the galactic plane may be dangerous for life on Earth.

Some physics can't be ignored, but that doesn't stop science fiction writers.

The Mars Landing Approach: Getting Large Payloads to the Surface of the Red Planet

Mars. Landing here is going to be hard. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
July 17th, 2007: Mars. Landing here is going to be hard. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

Some proponents of human missions to Mars say we have the technology today to send people to the Red Planet. But do we? Rob Manning of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory discusses the intricacies of entry, descent and landing and what needs to be done to make humans on Mars a reality.

There’s no comfort in the statistics for missions to Mars. To date over 60% of the missions have failed. The scientists and engineers of these undertakings use phrases like "Six Minutes of Terror," and "The Great Galactic Ghoul" to illustrate their experiences, evidence of the anxiety that’s evoked by sending a robotic spacecraft to Mars - even among those who have devoted their careers to the task. But mention sending a human mission to land on the Red Planet, with payloads several factors larger than an unmanned spacecraft and the trepidation among that same group grows even larger. Why?

Nobody knows how to do it.

Satellite Sees Mysterious Noctilucent Clouds

Noctilucent clouds. Image credit: Veres Viktor.
July 17th, 2007: Noctilucent clouds. Image credit: Veres Viktor.

During the summer, observers can sometimes see beautiful clouds called "night-shining" clouds, or noctilucent clouds. And while lucky observers were seeing from below this summer, a NASA satellite was watching them from above.

Noctilucent clouds form in an upper layer of the Earth's atmosphere called the mesosphere during the Northern Hemisphere's summer - at an altitude of 80 km (50 miles). They can start forming as early as May, and extend through August. They can also be seen in high latitudes during the summer months in the Southern Hemisphere.

The images were gathered by NASA's AIM satellite (aka, Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere), which snapped pictures of the clouds on May 25th, 2007.

A puzzling aspect to the phenomenon is that it's changing dramatically. The clouds are growing brighter, seen more frequently, and visible at lower and lower latitudes than ever before. AIM will observe the clouds above the Earth's poles for two complete clouds seasons, documenting their entire life cycle to try and help uncover an explanation for this mystery.

Original Source: NASA News Release




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