Next week at this time, there may be an amazing new robotic explorer on Mars. Or there may be a new pile of junk. It all likely depends on many things going correctly in the minutes after the Mars Science Laboratory mission arrives at Mars and attempts to deploy the Curiosity rover from orbit. Arguably the most sophisticated landing yet attempted on the red planet, consecutive precision events will involve a heat shield, a parachute, several rocket maneuvers, and the automatic operation of an unusual device called a Sky Crane. These "Seven Minutes of Terror" -- depicted in the above dramatic video -- will begin on Monday, August 6 at about 5:24 am Universal time, which occurs on Sunday night, August 5 for western North Americans. If successful, the car-sized Curiosity rover will rest on the surface of Mars, soon to begin exploring Gale Crater to better determine the habitability of this seemingly barren world to life -- past, present, and future. Although multiple media outlets may cover this event, one way to watch these landing events unfold is on the NASA channel live on the web.
What has the Opportunity rover found on Mars? While traversing a vast empty plain in 2005 in Meridiani Planum, one of Earth's rolling robots on Mars found a surprise when visiting the location of its own metallic heat shield discarded last year during descent. The surprise is the rock visible on the lower left, found to be made mostly of dense metals iron and nickel. The large cone-shaped object behind it -- and the flank piece on the right -- are parts of Opportunity's jettisoned heat shield. Smaller shield debris is also visible. Scientists do not think that the basketball-sized metal "Heat Shield Rock" originated on Mars, but rather is likely an ancient metallic meteorite. In hindsight, finding a meteorite in a vast empty dust plain on Mars might be considered similar to Earth meteorites found on the vast empty ice plains of Antarctica. The finding raises speculations about the general abundance of rocks on Mars that have fallen there from outer space.
This mesmerizing sunset photo was taken from the summit of volcanic Mount Lawu, 3,265 meters above sea level, on July 21. The view looks west, toward the city lights of Surakarta (aka Solo), Central Java, Indonesia. Two other volcanic peaks, sharp Merapi (left) and Merbabu lie along the colorful horizon. Four planets shine in the twilight sky above them. Spread out near the plane of the ecliptic are Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn, along with bright Regulus, alpha star of the constellation Leo. For help finding them, just put your cursor over the picture. In fact, these four planets still shine in western skies at sunset, with Venus, Mars, and Saturn grouped much more tightly this weekend and in early August. By August 12, a young crescent Moon will join the four planet sunset.
This sprawling dark marking is Jupiter's latest impact scar, a debris plume created as a small asteroid or comet disintegrated after plunging into the gas giant's atmosphere. Located in Jupiter's south polar region, the new feature was discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley on July 19. On July 23rd Wesley's discovery was followed up by the Hubble Space Telescope with its newly installed Wide Field Camera 3, creating this sharpest view of the evolving debris plume. Estimates indicate that the impacting object itself was several hundred meters across. Similar impact markings were created when pieces of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into Jupiter's cloud bands in July of 1994.
Galaxies NGC 5216 (top right) and NGC 5218 really do look like they are connected by a string. Of course, that string is a cosmic trail of gas, dust, and stars about 22,000 light-years long. Also known as Keenan's system (for its discoverer) and Arp 104, the interacting galaxy pair is some 17 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. The debris trail that joins them, along with NGC 5218's comma-shaped extension and the distorted arms of NGC 5216 are a consequence of mutual gravitational tides that disrupt the galaxies as they repeatedly swing close to one another. Drawn out over billions of years, the encounters will likely result in their merger into a single galaxy of stars. Such spectacular galactic mergers are now understood to be a normal part of the evolution of galaxies, including our own Milky Way.
Why are these people shooting a powerful laser into the center of our Galaxy? Fortunately, this is not meant to be the first step in a Galactic war. Rather, astronomers at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) site in Chile are trying to measure the distortions of Earth's ever changing atmosphere. Constant imaging of high-altitude atoms excited by the laser -- which appear like an artificial star -- allow astronomers to instantly measure atmospheric blurring. This information is fed back to a VLT telescope mirror which is then slightly deformed to minimize this blurring. In this case, a VLT was observing our Galaxy's center, and so Earth's atmospheric blurring in that direction was needed. As for inter-galaxy warfare, when viewed from our Galaxy's center, no casualties are expected. In fact, the light from this powerful laser would combine with light from our Sun to together appear only as bright as a faint and distant star.
Have methane lakes been discovered on Saturn's Titan? That exciting possibility was uncovered from analyses of radar images returned last week by the robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn. The above image is a radar reflection from terrain near Titan's North Pole and spans a region about 200 kilometers across. Evidence that the dark areas might be pools of liquid hydrocarbons includes an extreme smoothness implied by the lack of a return radar signal, and apparently connected tributaries. If true, Titan would be only the second body in our Solar System, after Earth, found to possess liquids on the surface. Future observations from Cassini during Titan flybys might test the methane lake hypothesis, as comparative wind affects on the regions are studied.
Is that a tenth planet? A faint, slowly moving dot discovered by computer shows clear signs of being a deep Solar System object at least as large as Pluto. The object, designated 2003 UB313, is currently situated nearly 100 times the Earth-Sun distance -- over twice the average Pluto-Sun distance. That far out, the only way a single round object could be as bright as 2003 UB313 would be if it is at least as large as Pluto and completely reflective. Since 2003 UB313 is surely not completely reflective, it could be substantially larger. One of the discovery frames is shown above digitally expanded and artificially brightened. 2003 UB313 was identified initially on frames taken by the automated 1.2-meter Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory in California, USA.
How often does a full moon occur twice in a single month? Exactly once in a Blue Moon. In fact, the modern usage of the term "Blue Moon" refers to the second Full Moon in a single month. Tonight's Blue Moon will be the first since November 2001. A Blue Moon typically occurs every few years. The reason for the rarity of the Blue Moon is that the 29.53 days between full moons is just slightly shorter than the number of days in the average month. Don't, however, expect the moon to look blue tonight! The term "Blue Moon" has recently been traced to an error in a magazine article in 1946. It is possible for the Moon to appear tinged by a blue hue, sometimes caused by fine dirt circulating in the Earth's atmosphere, possibly from a volcanic explosion. The above picture was taken not during a full moon but through a morning sky that appeared dark blue. The bright crescent is the only part directly exposed to sunlight - the rest of the Moon glows from sunlight reflected from the Earth. In this dramatic photo, however, the planet Jupiter is also visible along with its four largest moons.
Posing for this cosmic family photo are the galaxies of HCG (Hickson Compact Group) 87, about four hundred million light-years distant toward the amphibious constellation Capricornus. The large edge-on spiral near picture center, the fuzzy elliptical galaxy immediately to its right, and the spiral near the top of the image are identified members of the group, while the small spiral galaxy in the middle is likely a more distant background galaxy. In any event, a careful examination of the deep image reveals other galaxies which certainly lie far beyond HCG 87. While not exactly locked in a group hug, the HCG 87 galaxies are interacting gravitationally, influencing their fellow group members' structure and evolution. This new image is from an instrument undergoing commissioning on the Gemini Observatory's South Telescope at Cerro Pachon, Chile. It compares favorably with views of this photogenic galaxy group recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope.
How do dying stars eject their outer layers? Stars that create elegant planetary nebulas like Henize 3-401, pictured above, are not unusual, causing speculation that, one day, our own Sun may look like this. Henize 3-401 is one of the most elongated planetary nebulas yet discovered, a particularly odd feat for a seemingly round star. Perhaps, some astronomers hypothesize, the elongated shape gives a clue to the expulsion mechanism. Genesis hypotheses include that the outer layers of gas are funneled out by the star's own magnetic field, and that a second unseen star is somehow involved. After the gas disperses in a few thousand years, only a white dwarf star will remain. Henize 3-401 lies about 10,000 light years away toward the constellation of Carina.
Why does Jupiter's moon Callisto alter the magnetic field of Jupiter in its vicinity? Callisto itself does not have a strong magnetic field. One possible answer is that Callisto harbors sub-surface oceans of electrically conducting salt-water. This hypothesis was bolstered recently by a new analysis of how Callisto creates and dissipates heat. Callisto is thought to create heat by the radioactive decay of internal rock -- a process that keeps the Earth's mantle molten. Callisto may not be able to dissipate this heat very efficiently, however, as it has thick layers of ice and rock on its surface. Perhaps this heat is enough to keep sub-surface water from freezing into ice. With this hypothesis, Callisto joins two other of Jupiter's moons, Europa and Ganymede, in candidates for sub-surface oceans. Callisto's oceans, however, might prove too hostile to support Earth-like life.
Unexpectedly, Comet LINEAR is breaking up. In retrospect, clues of its demise have been surfacing all month as the new comet has been approaching the Sun and brightening with dramatic flares. Above, the Hubble Space Telescope captured Comet C/1999 S4 LINEAR early this month blowing off a large piece of its crust. Recent speculation holds that the nucleus completely disrupted on or about July 24. If true, the elongated train of material should continue to ablate and orbit the Sun, but may now fade much more quickly. The break up of a bright comet is unusual but not unprecedented, as Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke up before it struck Jupiter in 1994, and Comet Bennett broke apart as it neared the Sun in 1974. Future observations will tell if Comet LINEAR's first trip into the inner Solar System is its last.
Recorded on July 7, 1998, this animation using X-ray images of the Sun shows an amazing event - three nearly simultaneous jets connected with solar active regions. The two frames were taken several hours apart by the Soft X-ray Telescope on board the orbiting Yohkoh observatory. They have a "negative" color scheme, the darker colors representing more intense X-rays from the corona and active regions on the solar surface. The pictures clearly show two curving jets of X-ray hot plasma appearing above the solar equator and one below. A sharp vertical stripe near the jet above center is a digital blemish while the overall shift of the image is due to solar rotation. As the Sun is now approaching the active part of its 11 year cycle, numerous single jets have been seen. But the appearance of these three widely separated jets at once is considered an unlikely coincidence and has fueled current speculations about their origins.
Do you recognize the constellation Orion? This striking but unfamiliar looking picture of the familiar Orion region of the sky was produced using survey data from the InfraRed Astronomical Satellite (IRAS). It combines information recorded at three different invisible infrared wavelengths in a red, green, and blue color scheme and covers about 30x24 degrees on the sky. Most of Orion's visually impressive stars don't stand out, but bright Betelgeuse does appear as a small purplish dot just above center. Immediately to the right of Betelgeuse and prominent in the IRAS skyview, expanding debris from a stellar explosion, a supernova remnant, is seen as a large bright ring-shaped feature. The famous gas clouds in Orion's sword glow brightly as the yellow regions at the lower right. No longer operational, IRAS used a telescope cooled by liquid helium to detect celestial infrared radiation.
What if we could see back to the beginning of the universe? At one tenth the universe's present age, we might see galaxies forming. But what did galaxies look like when they were forming? These questions took a step toward being answered yesterday with the release of analysis of a Hubble Space Telescope (HST) photograph of the most distant object yet discovered. Pictured in the box above, this galaxy appears to us - billions of years later and across the universe - as a faint red smudge. In technical terms, this galaxy lies at the record redshift of z=4.92. Practically all of the yellow-white objects in the photograph are galaxies in a nearby cluster which together act as a lens in amplifying the light from the ancient galaxy. A follow-up picture by the ground-based Keck Telescope actually measured the distant redshift.
Checking out the Galileo spacecraft's cameras during its December 1992 flyby of Earth's Moon, controllers took this dramatically illuminated picture through a violet filter. The view looks down on the Moon's north polar region with the Sun shining from the left at a low angle and the direction toward the moon's North pole toward the lower right. Across the image upper left stretches the smooth volcanic plain of the Mare Imbrium. Pythagoras crater, 65 miles wide, is near the center of the image -- mostly in shadow, its central peak just catches the sunlight. Yesterday, the Moon made its closest approach to Earth and was full for the second time in July (as reckoned by UT dates). The closest point in the Moon's orbit is referred to as Lunar Perigee, a mere 221,797 miles at 8 hours UT. The second full moon in a month is known as a "Blue Moon".
By watching a star flicker and fade as it passed behind Saturn's rings, NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft was able explore the ring system in amazing detail. Data produced by Voyager's instruments as the star Delta Scorpii was occulted by some of the outer rings was used to reconstruct this image which shows details almost 1000 times smaller than normally possible with Voyager's cameras. For more information about the picture see the NASA, JPL press release.