Category Archives: Solar System

What is an Equinox?

Today is the long-awaited spring, or vernal, equinox for folks in the northern hemisphere.  If you’re one of the 99.9% of people who are sick of winter then this is fantastic news.  In the Mid-Atlantic we’ve had one hell of a winter!  For three months it was just snowstorm after snowstorm and lots, I mean lots, of cloudy skies.  We also had the polar vortex swing by twice dropping temperatures into the single digits with sub-zero wind chills.  I think it’s fair to say that I am not alone in saying “Sayonara winter!”

The beginning of spring is officially today at 16:57 UTC or 12:57 EDT.  Why the exact time?  Well that’s because the changing of the seasons on Earth is indicated by the tilt of our planet.  As you might know the Earth orbits the Sun in a slightly elongated oval-shaped orbit.  Somewhat counter-intuitively it is not our position in our orbit that changes the seasons.  Did you know that Earth’s closest point to the sun actually occurs in early January?  Likewise Earth is furthest from the sun in the summer time.  It is actually how the Earth is angled with respect to the orbital plane that determines what season it is.  As the Earth orbits around the Sun it also spins causing day and night to come and go.  This rotation occurs around the Earth’s axis which is tilted about 23 degrees.  Throughout each year the Earth “wobbles” as it goes around the sun thanks to the inclination of the Earth’s axis.  When the Earth is tilted a certain way in respect to the Sun we call it an equinox.

The tilting of the Earth's axis throughout the year causing the seasons to change.

The tilting of the Earth’s axis throughout the year causing the seasons to change.

Equinox is a Latin term that means “equal night”.  During an equinox day and night are approximately the same length.  When an equinox occurs the plane of the Earth’s equator crosses the center of the Sun so that the Earth is neither tilted away or towards the Sun, causing an equal amount of sunlight to shine on both the southern and northern hemispheres.  As you can see from the incredible video below the day/night line (called a terminator) moves throughout the year if seen from space.  During an equinox the terminator is completely vertical.  In the case of the spring equinox the northern hemisphere has been angled away from the Sun for several months and thus has been receiving less direct sunlight and shorter days.  After the winter solstice during which the northern hemisphere experiences its shortest day the Earth begins to angle itself to point the northern hemisphere back towards the Sun resulting in longer days and more direct sunlight…summer!

This video is really hypnotizing.  What you’re seeing here is quite fantastic.  The video was taken using images from NASA’s Meteosat satellite.  Meteosat is a geosynchronous satellite which means it orbits around the Earth at the same speed as the Earth’s rotation so it always sees the same part of the planet.  As a result the planet never seems to move throughout the year.  In this video courtesy of Astronomy Picture of the Day and NASA, you see an entire Earth year in just twelve seconds!  You notice that the Earth’s terminator swings back and forth.  That is the seasons progressing as the Earth tilts on its axis.  The video begins on an autumnal equinox in September 2010 then the terminator swings over to the right giving the southern hemisphere lots of direct sunlight.  It reaches the solstice then swings back the other way towards the spring equinox when the terminator runs from north pole to south pole before swinging to the left and giving the northern hemisphere more light.  The video ends on the September equinox 2011 completing a full orbit around the Sun and an entire year for the people of Earth.

Because of our busy lives we tend to forget how dependent we are on the celestial mechanics of the solar system for life.  We owe our very existence to the fact that everything in the solar system, indeed the galaxy, moves in predictable orbits.  Thankfully for Earth our solar system is stable but that is not the case elsewhere in the galaxy.  In alien solar systems that we’ve only recently discovered there are planets that are drifting away from their stars and getting colder.  There are also planets that are being drawn inexorably towards their stars to eventually be consumed by them.  Other planets cross orbits too close to one another and are knocked off their orbits never to return to their home solar system.

We are lucky that our solar system has time to work out its kinks before life began on Earth.  If the solar system did not have orbital stability there’s a good chance life might not have arose here.  So be thankful we live on such a marvelous planet in a marvelous solar system!  On this spring equinox 2014 take a moment to think about the science that is behind the changing of the seasons and if the weather is clear tonight (fingers crossed!) go outside and take a look at the night sky and think that everything you see up there obeys the same laws that govern the seasons here on Earth.

New Horizons for Solar System Exploration: To Pluto and Beyond

To quote the late sci-fi author Douglas Adams, “Space is big, really big.  You just wouldn’t believe how hugely, vastly, mindbogglingly big space is.  You might think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist but that’s just peanuts to space.”  It takes a really long time to traverse the vast distance of even interplanetary space from Earth to Mars.  The recently deceased comet ISON spent the better part of a year travelling between Jupiter to the Sun before its demise in the Sun’s inferno.  Jupiter is roughly 778,000 kilometers from the Sun and Saturn is nearly twice that far away at 1.4 billion kilometers away.  Twice the distance from the Sun to Saturn is Uranus sitting a whopping 2.8 billion kilometers from the Sun.  Even further still is icy Neptune, so far away it’s existence was predicted before it was directly observed sits an incredible 4.8 billion kilometers from the Sun.  At this point in the solar system the Sun is nothing more than a small point of light almost appearing as just another background star in the Milky Way.  But the orbit of Neptune is just the seashore of the cosmic ocean that is our solar system.  Far beyond the orbit of Neptune lies a huge area known as the Kuiper Belt which is home to an unknown number of tiny icy worlds.  The most well-known of the Kuiper Belt objects (KBO) is the dwarf planet Pluto.  Until 2006 Pluto was recognized as the ninth planet in the solar system but was downgraded to dwarf planet when astronomers began discovering objects in its neighborhood that were both larger and smaller.  Pluto lies a mindbogglingly 5.8 billion kilometers from the Sun.  Together with its large moon Charon, Pluto marks the beginning of unexplored territory in our solar system.  No human spacecraft has ever visited Pluto.  Much of Pluto’s characteristics are unknown to us.  The same goes for all of the KBO’s in Pluto’s neighborhood.

Artists conception of New Horizons probe at Pluto

Artists conception of New Horizons probe at Pluto

NASA is on the verge of changing that.  The New Horizons spacecraft which was launched in January 2006 is just a year away from the beginning of its mission at Pluto.  New Horizons is travelling at about 1 million miles per day as it speeds into uncharted waters so to speak.  Currently approaching the orbit of Neptune, New Horizons is approximately 4 billion kilometers from the Sun.  The probe will arrive at its closest approach of Pluto on July 14, 2015 but the science will begin well before that in January 2015.  New Horizons is equipped with many instruments to help scientists analyze Pluto.  One such instrument is the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) which is essentially a long focal length telescope with a CCD imager to take high resolution images of the Plutonian surface beginning in January 2015.

An Historic Mission

Pluto is part of a vast unexplored trans-Neptune region of the solar system called the Kuiper Belt.  The inhabitants of the Kuiper Belt are thought to be the leftovers of planetary formation when rocky and icy bodies were being flung around the solar system.  These icy worlds didn’t quite form into full-fledged planets but they are worlds nonetheless.  Only five human spacecraft have ever traveled in this cold void before.  New Horizons is the first spacecraft to be sent to directly study a new body since the Voyager probes thirty years ago.  For my generation (milllennials) this is akin to the Apollo 11 moon landing in its scientific value.  I can’t think of any mission that is more important to the understanding of our solar system than New Horizons.

The unknown face of Pluto taken by Hubble.

The unknown face of Pluto taken by Hubble.

The Science

New Horizons will provide scientists with a smorgasbord of priceless data about Pluto and the KBO’s nearby.  Besides LORRI New Horizons is equipped with an ultraviolet spectrometer (ALICE) which will be used to analyze Pluto’s atmosphere, an optical/infrared instrument (RALPH) that will be used to create maps of the surfaces of Pluto and Charon, a particle detection instrument (PEPSSI) used to detect molecules escaping from the atmosphere, a particle instrument (SWAP) to measure the solar wind at Pluto, a radio instrument (REX) to observe the atmosphere and a student created instrument to collect dust particles that have traveled from the inner solar system.  The only thing we know about the surface of Pluto is from Hubble which provide a low resolution map that can only resolve surface features that are hundreds of kilometers in size.

One of the more interesting observations New Horizons will make is the study of Pluto’s atmosphere.  Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined to the ecliptic, the plane all the planets orbit in, and is highly eccentric (oval shaped).  This means that Pluto’s distance from the Sun varies greatly depending on where it is in its orbit.  The vast distance change is thought to cause molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere to condensate and sublimate and be lost to space.  The ALICE, PEPSSI, and REX instruments on New Horizons will measure the constitution of Pluto’s atmosphere and the rate at which it is being lost to space.

Beyond Pluto

Once New Horizons has completed its mission objectives for Pluto and Charon it will move on to studying some nearby KBO’s if any are in the vicinity.  So little is known about the Kuiper Belt and its citizens so any information on these icy worlds is practically invaluable.  The mission is slated to end in 2026 but if the spacecraft is still operational NASA has targeted the edge of the solar system just like with the Voyagers 1 and 2 missions.  Hopefully New Horizons will be able to reach the heliopause (the region where the solar wind from the Sun begins to interact with interstellar particles) and map this boundary point.  With the data from Voyager still inconclusive it is necessary to continue to explore this strange region of space.  The spacecraft is predicted to be inoperable by 2038 signally the end of its lifetime.  By then New Horizons will have contributed a massive volume of science and radically changed the way we view our solar system’s outer reaches.  Who knows what we’ll see when it finally reached Pluto next July?  Besides the data New Horizons provides, the probe is fulfilling our human curiosity and our desire to explore.  Space is the last frontier and there sure is a lot out there!

Great Weekend of Astrophotography

Memorial Day weekend was very productive for me.  A couple weeks ago I purchased my first DSLR camera, a Nikon D3100 and I’ve been itching to start photographing the night sky.  My first big target was the planetary alignment of Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury over the weekend which did not disappoint.  I was able to shoot the planets on both Saturday and Sunday nights under perfectly clear skies.  This was a relatively easy target for my first foray into the world of astrophotography.

On Saturday night I took my camera and tripod up to my dark sky site in Fawn Grove, Pennsylvania.  I arrived around 8:30 just as the sun was setting.  While darkness was gathering I set up the camera and punched in the initial settings and waited for Jupiter to appear.  Venus was already brilliant approximately ten degrees above the horizon by 8:45.  Jupiter appeared minutes later, followed by Mercury visible to the naked eye around 9:00.  I played with the aperture and shutter speed until I captured an image I really liked.  I ended up with a focal ratio of f/8 and a 1.6 second exposure at ISO 100.  The final result once I played with it in Photoshop was very nice, as far as my inexperienced self is concerned.  That’s Venus at the bottom of the triangle, Jupiter at upper left, and tiny Mercury at upper right.

The final result from Saturday's images

The final result from Saturday’s images

This was just practice for Sunday of course.  Sunday’s alignment was the one that captured everyone’s attention.  The almost equilateral triangle of planets is something you won’t easily forget if you saw it for yourself.  If you missed it you’re in luck because photographers all over the world captured the stunning alignment.  I’m relatively happy with how mine came out.  The only drawback is that the planets are slightly out of focus.  I should have been paying closer attention to that.  However, them being out of focus kind of allowed more color to come out, especially in Mercury.  I worked with the same camera settings as Saturday night.  After some adjustments in Photoshop this was my final result.

I took one in landscape

I took one in landscape

And one in portrait

And one in portrait

After the planetary imaging session I was feeling lucky so I tried my hand at some wide-angle constellation shots.  I turned the camera towards Ursa Major and took 200×10″ frames and went to stack them in Deep Sky Stacker only to find that my images were out of focus and DSS couldn’t recognize any stars.  Not so lucky I guess.  I was determined to get it right so I went back outside around 11:30 and decided to shoot the constellation Lyra and it’s bright star Vega.  This time I took 200×1.6″ frames at f/4, ISO 3200 and went in to stack them in DSS.  The result was much, much better.  About 2 hours later I had a decent image with which to work with.  I gave it several editing passes in Photoshop before I produced an image I was happy with.  Not only are all five of Lyra’s main stars visible, the double star Epsilon Lyrae showed up which really made me proud.  This is my first constellation shot so I guess it’s the small things that bring me joy.

The final result of my Lyra shot.  Quite satisfied with it.

The final result of my Lyra shot. Quite satisfied with it.

Overall, it was a very productive weekend.  I learned a lot about how important it is to really nail the focus before shooting anything.  Trial and error is how you improve in this hobby.  I’m hoping to get a few more practice shots under my belt before taking the camera up to Cherry Springs State Park in a week and a half to shoot under a real dark sky.  As I produce more images I will post them here so I hope you stick around and if you have any suggestions or critiques to help improve my technique I’d gladly appreciate it.



Voyager 1 Has Left the Solar System

Voyager 1 has officially left the building!  Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 1 has officially left the building! Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new space milestone has just occurred, or occurred around August 2012.  The Voyager 1 space probe that was launched on September 5, 1977 has finally left the solar system.  Thirty five years after its launch the audacious probe enters a new stage in its mission, exploring the region of space outside of the Sun’s influence.

The Sun’s influence in space extends way beyond the orbit of Neptune.  We know that beyond the inner planets lies the Kuiper Belt which is home to Pluto and many, many other dwarf planets.  Finally at about 18 billion kilometers from the Sun and four times the distance between the Sun and Neptune, is a region known as the heliopause.  The heliopause is the region where the solar wind from the Sun collides with the interstellar medium, a collection of particles which is the collection of gas, dust, and cosmic rays.  The solar particles are so dilute once it reaches the interstellar medium that the heliopause is considered the end of the Sun’s influence (although its gravity extends well beyond the heliopause to the Oort Cloud).

A new paper that has been published confirms the conclusions that were drawn about the solar wind particles back in December.  Data from the probe showed that the number of subatomic particles coming from the Sun dropped dramatically sometime around August 2012 while the number of cosmic rays from the interstellar medium spiked.  While it’s not exactly new news, it still is exciting to think about.  There is now a man-made object outside of the solar system and is still able to communicate with us 18 billion kilometers away.

Eventually the plutonium inside of Voyager will stop producing electricity and communications will cease.  At that point, the probe will continue to sail in the direction of the galactic center.  There is an estimated 10-15 years of power left on the probe so we need to enjoy it while it lasts.  It will be a long time before human travelers can journey this far from our home, but we’ll do it one day.

Comets: Why the Solar System Rocks!

When we look back, 2013 may be remembered as the Year of the Comets.  As I’m sure you may have heard already we have two potentially immensely wonderful comets heading our direction this year; the first of which will be its closest to the Sun on March 10th.  The more you learn about comets the more you appreciate how amazing the solar system is!  When you consider what comets are, how they get here, and what on Earth makes them shine so beautifully then fade into oblivion for thousands of years you are left with a sense of awe because the answer to all of these questions is…the Sun.

Thanks to Nicolas Copernicus we know that the Sun is the center of our solar system and that everything in the solar system orbits the Sun on regular and predictable paths.  You have the 8 major planets, the asteroids in the asteroid belt, the minor, or dwarf, planets of a region called the Kuiper belt, of which Pluto is a member, then far, far away from the Sun at a distance of almost one light year you is the region known as the Oort Cloud.  The Oort cloud is a massive region of space mostly by tiny chunks of ice and rock left over from the formation of the solar system.  These chunks of ice and rock are so far away from the Sun that they are approximately one-quarter the distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.  The Sun is barely more than a pin point of light out here and its gravity is just strong enough to keep these tiny chunks of ice loosely in orbit.  However, the gravity is so weak that objects in the Oort Cloud are influenced by passing stars and the Milky Way itself.  All it takes is the slightest gravitational nudge from another star to dislodge an ice chunk from its happy orbit and send it drifting slowly towards the inner solar system.

Cutaway drawing of Oort Cloud  Image credit: NASA/JPL

Cutaway drawing of Oort Cloud Image credit: NASA/JPL

This is how we believe most long period comets are born.  Long period comets are comets with highly eccentric (or lopsided) orbits that span between 200 and thousands, or even millions of years.  Comet McNaught that passed through the solar system back in 2007 is a long period comet with an orbit of about 92,600 years.  It’s safe to say that we won’t see that bad boy again in our lifetimes!

Once the ice chunk is dislodged from its orbit in the Oort Cloud it begins its long, slow journey towards the Sun.  The Sun’s gravity begins to pull it in towards itself on an epic tour of the solar system that spans almost an entire light year (one light year is 6 trillion miles).  Comets are typically no bigger than a hundred or so meters across but the Sun causes something to happen on their surface that makes them spectacular sights in the night sky.  Out in the Oort Cloud it is mind-bogglingly cold.  Before they turn into comets the chunks rocks and dust mixed with chunks of frozen water, ammonia, carbon dioxide or methane that are so cold they’re as hard as steel.  But once they get close enough to the Sun they begin to heat up.

Once the comet arrives in the inner solar system the Sun’s heat begins to melt the ice and it begins to evaporate and glow brightly which is caused by solar ionization.  The glowing cloud of evaporating gas is called the coma.  Once the coma is formed the tell-tale…well, tail of the comet begins to form as the solar wind from the Sun blows against the comet.  The comet, tail, and coma steadily brighten as the comet gets closer and closer to the Sun.  They also begin to pick up more speed the closer they get.  By the time a comet is visible on Earth it already has a dazzling coma and tail that can be as bright as the stars and perhaps even the planets!

It is once the comet is within the orbit of Mercury that the fate of the comet is determined.  Most comets slingshot around the Sun at a safe distance that they make it around without a problem and begin their lonely journey back out of the solar system into oblivion.  Other comets called sun grazers get so close to the Sun that they actually pass through the Sun’s upper atmosphere, the photosphere, or even the solar corona where the temperature is millions of degrees Fahrenheit.  Some sun grazers make it out intact while others break apart and disintegrate, much like a frozen coffee mug when boiling water is poured in it.  Others still are known as sun divers which literally plunge right into the Sun and are never heard from again.

Comet Hale Bopp in 1997

Comet Hale Bopp in 1997

Once the point of perihelion, or the comets closest approach to the Sun is reached the comet begins it’s journey back to where it came from.  Depending upon the positioning of the planets on its return journey, some comets stay in orbit around the Sun and will eventually return.  If a planet’s gravity nudges the comet on the way out it could end up being ejected from the solar system entirely and be doomed to roam the void of interstellar space forever.  Whatever the fate of the comet we get to observe the magnificent effects of the Sun on them from the Earth, both visually and scientifically.

This year we have two potentially dazzling and memorable comets heading our way!  The first of which is named comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS, or PANSTARRS for short.  With a perihelion of March 10, 2013 it promises to put on a nice show throughout the months of March and April.  Observers in the northern hemisphere won’t be able to see the comet until after its perihelion though.  So be sure to get outside during clear nights in March and April to see this orbiting rocky ice clump.  Currently, PANSTARRS is projected to get as bright as the planet Venus if everything goes according to plan with its passage around the Sun.  PANSTARRS will be bright and low in the sky about 30 minutes after sunset in mid-March.

If you miss PANSTARRS or couldn’t get enough comet viewing action for one year you’re in luck!  Even brighter and more spectacular than PANSTARRS will be comet ISON in the fall months.  ISON is currently close to Jupiter on its voyage towards the Sun but will begin to be visible in binoculars in the beginning of October.  By November 1st ISON will be within the orbit of Earth and should be a spectacular -6 magnitude!  Astronomers measure brightness by magnitude with the lower the number being a brighter object.  The planet Saturn is +1 magnitude and the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, is -1.46.  By the time it reaches its perihelion on November 28th it is expected to reach a -12.6 magnitude which is as bright as the full moon!  That means that as it passes next to the Sun it will be visible during the daytime if you use your hand to cover the Sun!  ISON should put on a show of a lifetime during November and December and will truly be something to tell your kids and grandchildren about because ISON will likely never return.  If you own a telescope or a pair of binoculars make time to get out with your friends and observe this marvelous comet.  This one has the potential to be the brightest comet in recent history, brighter even than the famous Halley’s comet.

Comet McNaught from 2007

Comet McNaught from 2007

It never ceases to amaze me that all the wonderful things we love about comets, their beautiful tails and diamond-like sparkle is all due to the power of the Sun.  We live in an active solar system that is constantly moving and it is all thanks to the Sun’s influence.

Earth’s First Privately Funded Telescope Could Be a Lifesaver

The need for a near-Earth asteroid hunting telescope is long overdue and now thanks to a private non-profit foundation called B612, Earth will have its first privately funded asteroid hunting telescope.  The non-profit organization B612 is made up of scientists and ex-astronauts who thought it was prime time to deliver on tracking down Earths most menacing threat, large asteroids capable of producing an extinction level impact.  The telescope will be called Project Sentinel and will be set in orbit around the sun with the primary task of mapping all of the near-Earth asteroids 140 meters or larger in diameter.  Just for reference, a 140 meter asteroid collision would cause a 100-megaton explosion which would be the equivalent to dropping about 667 atomic bombs.  That of course, is the lower limit.  An asteroid larger than 140 meters would produce an explosion much bigger.

The Earth’s history is full of giant impacts, evidenced from the fact that there aren’t anymore dinosaurs to impact craters.  It’s as if the planet has been crying out for us to build this telescope and we’ve finally heard its cries.  Like Bugenhagen from Final Fantasy VII, we’ve heard the cries and we must try and save the planet if we can.  Granted, we’re not facing a giant Sephiroth-summoned meteor the size of Pluto, but you get the picture if you’re old (or young) enough to know what I’m talking about.  

Along with detecting potentially Earth-threatening asteroids, Sentinel will also be tasked with creating a dynamic map of the motion of these asteroids to determine the paths the asteroids will likely take in the future and how close they will come to Earth.  The B612 have compared it to making the road map of America, instead they’re making the road map of the inner solar system.  The early warning provided by this road map would give scientists sufficient time to plan deflection missions, years, or perhaps even decades!  Current knowledge is that out of the estimated half million asteroids of the 140 meter or larger variety, only 10,000 of them have been detected and tracked.  Clearly Sentinel will have its work cut out for it, but B612 is hopeful that once launched and inserted into orbit around the sun it will only take about five years to create the map.

Sentinel will be funded by a global fundraiser, a first for space technology.  As B612 spokeswoman Diane Murphy says, “Our constituency is everybody”  While the final cost is undisclosed it is estimated to be in the “couple hundred million” range according to B612 chairman and CEO Ed Lu.  “If you think about it, what we are is a small capital campaign” said Lu.  “At any given time in the United States, there’s probably a hundred fundraising campaigns larger than this … for symphony halls, museums, performing arts centers.”  Surely I agree, but the tricky part would be convincing the ridiculously wealthy that they should part with their money to save the planet.

Project Sentinel will be based at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, CO and data collection and analysis will be handled at the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.  The telescope will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, another private space venture.  It is definitely exciting to see space and the technology that comes with it being opened up to private enterprise!  There certainly is a future there, and a promising one at that.  Here’s to an asteroid free future!

Huygens: Lander of the Decade

If there is one probe in the last decade that was by far the most under-appreciated and most deserving of worldwide acclaim it was the Huygens probe that landed on Saturn’s largest moon Titan back in 2005.  Granted I was only sixteen year old at the time, but I don’t remember much being made about Huygens except by NASA.  Admittedly nowadays, the things that excite NASA rarely, if ever, excite the average U.S. citizen.  What a shame that is.  I know it’s rather daft to compare the 1969 Moon landing with the Huygens mission but the spirit of the first moon landing was surely present within NASA when Huygens touched down on Titan.  The mission was historic for several reasons.  It was the first time a man-made probe had landed on a moon.  It was, and still is, the most distant body a man-made probe has landed on.  Huygens also had great scientific value also from the brief glimpse it got of the surface of the alien moon.  It was the first time we had ever touched down on a world that was truly “alien”, in that we had little to no idea what to expect.

Huygens was part of a mission to Saturn that was 22 years in the making.  The Cassini spacecraft was the main probe that would visit Saturn for the first time since Voyager 1 passed by in 1980.  One moon in particular caught the attention of NASA during its Saturnian encounter, Titan.  Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and bears a striking similarity to Earth.  It has a dense atmosphere.  The first images of Titan showed the famous ‘thin blue line” that shows the presence of an atmosphere.  As the picture below shows, Titan’s atmosphere looks incredibly like our own atmosphere when seen from space.  From that point on NASA resolved that it would eventually send a probe there.

Titan’s atmosphere seen by Voyager 1 in 1980 Credit: NASA

The Cassini probe was launched on October 15, 1997 and arrived at Saturn on July 1, 2004.  The European Space Agency built Huygens probe was carried along with Cassini and during its first approach of Titan jettisoned the tiny probe on December 25, 2004.  It took another 20 days for Huygens to reach Titan but on January 14, 2005 NASA has finally achieved its goal of sending a probe to Titan.  It took two and a half hours for Huygens to descend through Titan’s atmosphere and took hundreds of images from its Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer.  Once below the haze and clouds Titan revealed a surface that was very Earth-like in many ways.  Large mountains and hills covered with a lacework of what looked like streams and runoff flows of some kind of liquid, and even a shoreline of massive bodies of liquid.  It was later determined that the bodies of liquid were not water since the surface of Titan is a frigid -179°C.  The only element known to exist as a liquid at that extreme temperature is methane.  Methane also exists as a solid and a gas on Titan, the same way water exists as a solid, liquid, and gas on Earth.  The discovery revealed that the same way that Earth has a hydrological cycle, Titan has a methanological cycle.  There are vast lakes and oceans of liquid methane which evaporate and form methane clouds.  There is also even methane rain on Titan that falls in huge, slow moving rain drops due to the low gravity.  Life as we know it couldn’t exist on Titan, but if we were to find even single-cell organisms or bacteria growing there it would cause us to radically re-think our understanding of biology and the possibility of alien life.

Long story short, Huygens was a huge success and tons of extremely valuable scientific data was produced from the tiny little probe that was the caboose of Cassini for six years.  After the success of Huygens there should have been headline news stories about it on the 6 o’clock news across the world and front page news in all the newspapers.  There should have been parades celebrating the historic landing from New York to Hong Kong.  But alas, the world doesn’t get excited about space anymore.  Huygens will go down as one of mankind’s most successful missions as well as one of the most under-rated mission of all time.

For your viewing pleasure here are some of NASA/ESA’s images received from Huygens during its descent and once it touched down.  Enjoy.

Titan’s rocky surface from 10 km Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Panorama of raw images from Huygens Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Color image of smooth liquid-eroded pebbles at landing site Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Beauty in Motion

I saw this amazing video on Bad Astronomy today and I loved it so much that I couldn’t resist sharing it.  This video uses raw footage from the Cassini and Voyager missions to Jupiter and Saturn to illustrate the beauty of the two gas giant planets.  The footage was compiled and edited by Vimeo user Sander van den Berg and the effect is stunning!  By looking at images of the planets online or even through a telescope it can become easy to think of them as mere static worlds, like jewels in the sky.  The wonderful reality is that these worlds are vividly alive and active! From massive storms the size of Earth on Jupiter to billions of ice particles racing around Saturn to form its rings, there is an orchestra of motion at the very heart of each planet.  This short movie captures that masterpiece in a way that reminds you of the grandeur of the first time you saw a picture of a planet in grade school and restores that “Wow!” factor that can become less enthralling over time.  The movie is simply called “Outer Space” and I think that simple title captures the essence of what’s happening in the footage.  Enjoy!

Click here to view the video and read more about it on Vimeo.

Enceladus Flyby

The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, everyone’s favorite planet (right??), will make it’s closest flyby of Saturn’s tiny, icy moon Enceladus since 2008 at 2:30 EDT today.  The probe will fly over Enceladus’ south polar region at an altitude of 46 miles (74 kilometers) near an area famous for its ice-spewing mega-geysers.  Cassini discovered active cyrovolcanism on Encledadus during its first flyby of the moon in 2005.  It astonished astronomers that a moon so cold and icy could have volcanic activity at all.  Further investigation lead to the discovery of a region in the southern hemisphere known as “the Tiger Stripes” where there are four large rifts in the icy surface.  Below the surface it is believed that there is a local or planetwide ocean of water that is heated far above what is expected of a small icy world so far from the Sun.  Enceladus must must have a hot core just like our own planet that is heated by the friction caused by the gravitational pull of Saturn and orbital resonances from other moons.  Since Enceladus orbits within Saturn’s rings very close to the planet it feels the strong gravitational pull of not only Saturn but of the ring system and the other moons that orbit Saturn.  The south polar region of Enceladus is particularly interesting to astronomers because it shows clear evidence of ongoing geological activity.  The southern terrain is largely free from impact craters which leads us to believe that the surface is being reshaped by the geological forces at work beneath the surface.  Enceladus is one of only three moons where we have seen eruptions; the other two being Jupiter’s moon Io and  Neptune’s moon Triton.

Massive ice geysers around the Tiger Stripes region of Enceladus' south pole suggest the presence of heated liquid H2O Credit: NASA/

The intrigue of the geysers has prompted Cassini’s mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to carry out a flyby of the south pole region to “taste” the icy vapor with a device called an ion and neutral mass spectrometer.  The data collected from the spectrometer will allow scientists to better understand the composition of the jets of ice and its subterranean source.  Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer will also be taking pictures of the Tiger Stripes looking for hot spots under the surface similar to the ones recently found detailed in the picture below.

The geological activity and presence of water on Enceladus is extremely exciting for NASA because if there’s water and heat there could also be micro-bacterial life.  A discovery of life on Enceladus would be a massive breakthrough in understanding the picture of the universe and the early stages of life on our own planet as well.  So far it’s the moons, not the planets that are leading the race of potential for life, so I vote to study more moons!

Evidence of subterranean heat below the Tiger Stripes region on Enceladus Credit: NASA/J

Rest in pieces Phobos-Grunt

Another Russian mission to Mars, another failure to reach Mars.  The failure of the Russian Mars probe Phobos-Grunt is but the most recent chapter in a lengthening story of Russian space failures.  The Russian space agency Roscosmos is increasingly embarrassing itself more and more with every little (and big) failure it tucks into its belt.  The once proud Russian space program is now in total shambles as they try to repair the damage done by another failed interplanetary mission.  Not only is the Phobos-Grunt failure a huge financial hit for Russia, but it is a reputation killer.  It will surely take time for Roscosmos to gain the trust of the world’s space industry after this latest failure.

The Phobos-Grunt Mars probe was launched on November 9,2011 and was supposed to shoot off to Mars from low Earth orbit, LEO, as Mars reaches its closest point to Earth.  The failure occurred during the transit in LEO when the engines were supposed to ignite and propel the probe into its Mars-bound trajectory.  The engines did not light and the probe was stranded in Earth’s orbit.  For two months Roscosmos tried to regain control of the stranded probe but were unable to re-establish communication.  Then finally, yesterday, the probe lost orbital velocity and began to fall out of orbit sending it engulfed in flames back down to the surface.  While most of the 14.9 ton probe burned up upon re-entry, the remains fell into the Pacific Ocean Sunday about 800 miles west of Chile.  The spacecraft was carrying a full tank of toxic liquid propellant because of the lack of engine burn but it is believed that it all vaporized about 60 miles above the surface due to its low boiling point.  Phobos-Grunt was also carrying a small amount of the radioactive metal Cobalt-57 but the Russian space agency said that it poses no threat of contamination.

Artist's conception of Phobos-Grunt re-entry

Perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the Phobos-Grunt saga was when the Roscosmos started pointing the finger at other countries for causing the failure.  One finger, specifically, was pointed at…you guessed it…the United States claiming that we used our military and surveillance satellites to interrupt communications with the probe.  According to Roscosmos it is very easy to use a satellite to cut off communications with a spacecraft being controlled by computers on the other side of the world.  While they’re correct in that observation you can’t help but smack yourself on the forehead!  Why on Earth would anybody want to sabotage a spacecraft heading towards Mars when the international space community has been united for over 30 years for mutual scientific advancement and understanding of our solar system?  It’s just laughable that they would try to brush off their own technological failures on another country when the Russian space chief admitted that the mission was ill-prepared but gave the mission the green light due to the limited window of opportunity for the Earth-Mars transit.


In my opinion, this news is worrisome for the United States.  The Russian space program seems to have fallen from grace and its once proud standard of excellence.  This is the same country that put the first satellite into orbit, put the first human being into space, and so many other monumental space advancements.  We even rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to transport our astronauts to the International Space Station since the Shuttle program is no more.  What happens when a Soyuz rocket explodes carrying American astronauts?  We rely on the the Russians for our space exploration and we can’t afford to allow their sometimes sketchy preparation and detail overlook to compromise American lives and science.  Russia really needs to get their act together as a space-capable country.  If NASA, the ESA, and the world’s confidence in the Russian space program has not been shaken I would be deeply worried.  Phobos-Grunt’s failure could be the beginning of a far worse story if they don’t start to cover all their bases and do their homework before every mission, whether great or small.  The world depends on them to be reliable and in the extremely dangerous realm of space exploration the smallest detail can lead to catastrophic and deadly results.

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