It was late
in the northern martian spring when the HiRISE camera
onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
spied this local denizen
. Tracking across the flat, dust-covered Amazonis Planitia
in 2012, the core of this whirling
dust devil is about 140 meters in diameter. Lofting dust into the thin martian atmosphere
, its plume reaches about 20 kilometers above the surface. Common to this region
, dust devils
occur as the surface is heated by the Sun, generating warm, rising air currents that begin to rotate. Tangential wind speeds
of up to 110 kilometers per hour are reported for dust devils
in other HiRISE images
Is Earth the only known world that can support life? In an effort to find life-habitable worlds outside our Solar System, stars similar to our Sun are being monitored for slight light decreases that indicate eclipsing planets. Many previously-unknown planets are being found, including over 700 worlds recently uncovered by NASA's Kepler satellite. Depicted above in artist's illustrations are twelve extrasolar planets that orbit in the habitable zones of their parent stars. These exoplanets have the right temperature for water to be a liquid on their surfaces, and so water-based life on Earth might be able to survive on them. Although technology cannot yet detect resident life, finding habitable exoplanets is a step that helps humanity to better understand its place in the cosmos.
One of the natural wonders of planet Earth, the Grand Canyon in the American southwest stretches across this early evening skyscape. The digitally stacked sequence reveals the canyon's layers of sedimentary rock in bright moonlight. Exposed sedimentary rock layers range in age from about 200 million to 2 billion years old, a window to history on a geological timescale. A recent study has found evidence that the canyon itself may have been carved by erosion as much as 70 million years ago. With the camera fixed to a tripod while Earth rotates, each star above carves a graceful arc through the night sky. The concentric arcs are centered on the north celestial pole, the extension of Earth's rotation axis into space, presently near the bright star Polaris.
Remarkable comet Garradd (C2009/P1) has come to be known for two distinctive tails. From the perspective of earthbound comet watchers the tails are visible on opposite sides of its greenish coma. Seen here in a telescopic view, the recognizable dust tail fans out to the right, trailing the comet nucleus in its orbit. Streaming away from the sunward direction, a familiar bluish ion tail sweeps to the left. But the comet also seems to have, at least temporarily, sprouted a second ion tail recorded in this image from February 24. Other comet imagers have recently captured changing structures in Garradd's ion tail created as the plasma is buffeted by the magnetic fields in the solar wind. Now moving more quickly through northern skies, on March 5th comet Garradd will reach its closest approach to planet Earth, about 10.5 light-minutes distant.
About 1,300 images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft's wide angle camera were used to compose this spectacular view of a familiar face - the lunar nearside. But why is there a lunar nearside? The Moon rotates on its axis and orbits the Earth at the same rate, about once every 28 days. Tidally locked in this configuration, the synchronous rotation always keeps one side, the nearside, facing Earth. As a result, featured in remarkable detail in the full resolution mosaic, the smooth, dark, lunar maria (actually lava-flooded impact basins), and rugged highlands, are well-known to earthbound skygazers. To find your favorite mare or large crater, just slide your cursor over the picture. The LRO images used to construct the mosaic were recorded over a two week period last December.
The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest human-made object ever to orbit the Earth. The ISS is so large that it can be seen drifting overhead with the unaided eye, and is frequently imaged from the ground in picturesque fashion. Last month, the station was visited again by space shuttle, which resupplied the station and added a new module. The ISS is currently operated by the Expedition 22 crew, now consisting five astronauts including two supplied by USA's NASA, two by Russia's RKA, and one by Japan's JAXA. After departing the the above spectacular vista of the orbiting space city high above the clouds, waters, and lands of Earth. Visible components include modules, trusses, and expansive solar arrays that gather sunlight that is turned into needed electricity.
Will our Sun look like this one day? The Helix Nebula is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away towards the constellation of Aquarius and spans about 2.5 light-years. The above picture was taken by the Wide Field Imager on the 2.2-meter Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Observatory. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows complex gas knots of unknown origin.
What are these strange shapes on Mars? Defrosting sand dunes. As spring now dawns on the Northern Hemisphere of Mars, dunes of sand near the pole, as pictured above, are beginning to thaw. The carbon dioxide and water ice actually sublime in the thin atmosphere directly to gas. Thinner regions of ice typically defrost first revealing sand whose darkness soaks in sunlight and accelerates the thaw. The process might even involve sandy jets exploding through the thinning ice. By summer, spots will expand to encompass the entire dunes. The Martian North Pole is ringed by many similar fields of barchan sand dunes, whose strange, smooth arcs are shaped by persistent Martian winds.
A million miles from planet Earth, last weekend the STEREO B spacecraft found itself in the shadow of the Moon. So, looking toward the Sun, extreme ultraviolet cameras onboard STEREO B were able to record a stunning movie of a lunar transit (aka solar eclipse), as the Moon tracked across the solar disk. Each frame of the movie is a false-color composite of images made through four different filters that highlight temperature regimes and structures in the upper solar atmosphere. In this frame, large bright active regions, seen as dark sunspots in visible light, flank the Moon's silhouetted disk. The Moon appears small, less than 1/4th the size seen from Earth, because the spacecraft-Moon separation is over four times the Earth-Moon distance. Tonight, the Moon will find itself in planet Earth's shadow in a total lunar eclipse.
Shining brightly in the east at dawn, Venus dominates the sky in this view over a suburban landscape from Bursa, Turkey. An otherwise familiar scene for astronomer Tunc Tezel, his composite picture of the morning sky recorded on March 2nd also includes a surprise visitor to the inner solar system, Comet Pojmanski. Cataloged as C/2006 A1, the comet was discovered on January 2nd by Grzegorz Pojmanski of Warsaw University Astronomical Observatory in Poland. At the time very faint and tracking through southern skies, the comet has now moved north and grown just bright enough to be a good target for early-rising skygazers with binoculars. Enhanced and framed in this picture, the comet's tail has also grown to a length of several degrees. The comet will be at its closest approach to planet Earth, just over 100 million kilometers away, on March 5. For northern hemisphere observers in the next few days, the beginning of morning twilight really will be the best time to spot Comet Pojmanski.
In this beautiful celestial still life composed with a cosmic brush, dusty nebula NGC 2170 shines at the upper left. Reflecting the light of nearby hot stars, NGC 2170 is joined by other bluish reflection nebulae and a compact red emission region against a backdrop of stars. Like the common household items still life painters often choose for their subjects, the clouds of gas, dust, and hot stars pictured here are also commonly found in this setting - a massive, star-forming molecular cloud in the constellation Monoceros. The giant molecular cloud, Mon R2, is impressively close, estimated to be only 2,400 light-years or so away. At that distance, this canvas would be about 15 light-years across.
Was Mars ever wet enough to support life? To help answer this question, NASA launched two rover missions to the red planet and landed them in regions that satellite images indicated might have been covered with water. Yesterday, mounting evidence was released indicating that the Mars Opportunity rover had indeed uncovered indications that its landing site, Meridiani Planum, was once quite wet. Evidence that liquid water once flowed includes the physical appearance of many rocks, rocks with niches where crystals appear to have grown, and rocks with sulfates. Pictured above, Opportunity looks back on its now empty lander. Visible is some of the light rock outcropping that yielded water indications, as well as the rim of the small crater where Opportunity landed. The rover will continue to explore its surroundings and try to determine the nature and extent that water molded the region.
How will our universe end? Recent speculation now includes a pervasive growing field of mysterious repulsive energy that rips virtually everything apart. Although the universe started with a Big Bang, analysis of recent cosmological measurements allows a possibility that it will end with a Big Rip. As soon as few billion years from now, the controversial scenario holds, dark energy will grow to such a magnitude that our own Galaxy will no longer be able to hold itself together. After that, stars, planets, and then even atoms might not be able to withstand the expansive internal force. Previously, speculation on the ultimate fate of the universe centered on either a re-collapsing Big Crunch or a Big Chill. Although the universe's fate is still a puzzle, piecing it together will likely follow from an increased understanding of the nature of dark matter and dark energy.
From fifty kilometers above asteroid Eros, the surface inside one of its largest craters appears covered with an unusual substance: regolith. The thickness and composition of the surface dust that is regolith remains a topic of much research. Much of the regolith on 433 Eros was probably created by numerous small impacts during its long history. In this representative-color view taken by the robot spacecraft NEAR-SHOEMAKER that orbited Eros in 2000 and 2001, brown areas indicate regolith that has been chemically altered by exposure to the solar wind during micrometeorite impacts. White areas are thought to have undergone relatively less exposure. The boulders visible inside the crater appear brown, indicating either that they are old enough to have a surface itself tanned by the solar wind, or that they have somehow become covered with some dark surface regolith.
Apollo 12 was the second mission to land humans on the Moon. The landing site was picked to be near the location of Surveyor 3, a robot spacecraft that had landed on the Moon three years earlier. In the above photograph, taken by lunar module pilot Alan Bean, mission commander Pete Conrad retrieves parts from the Surveyor. The lunar module is visible in the distance. Apollo 12 brought back many photographs and moon rocks. Among the milestones achieved by Apollo 12 was the deployment of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, which carried out many experiments including one that measured the solar wind.
From low Earth orbit, NASA's SeaWIFS instrument records ocean color, tracking changes in our water world's climate and biosphere. But even an ocean planet can have dust storms. On February 26th, SeaWIFS returned this dramatic close-up view of a vast, developing cloud of Saharan desert dust blowing from northwest Africa (lower right) a thousand miles or more out over the Atlantic Ocean. While there are indications that the planet-spanning effects of the Saharan dust events include the decline of the ecologies of coral reefs in the Caribbean and an increased frequency of Atlantic hurricanes, there is also evidence that the dust provides nutrients to the Amazonian rain forests. From space-based vantage points, other satellite images have also revealed storms which transport massive quantities of fine sand and dust across Earth's oceans.
Was Mars wetter and more Earth-like in its distant past? This false-color composite image of Mars is part of the mounting evidence that liquid water once did play a significant role in Martian surface geology. Constructed from infrared imaging data obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope in July 1997, the north polar cap is near the top of the picture and the large reddish region indicates potential water-bearing mineral deposits. Mars Pathfinder landed at the southern edge of this area, known as the Mare Acidalium, also finding evidence of water-worn conglomerate rocks. Large scale surface features in this region appear to have been sculpted by massive flooding in the early history of Mars.
This is the closest photograph ever taken of Europa. Last December, NASA's spacecraft Galileo swept past the Jovian moon and took photographs which were released yesterday. Speculation that life-bearing oceans exist beneath Europa's surface caused NASA to put Galileo on orbits that approach Europa. The above photograph shows new details on Europa's surface, indicating that much of Europa as strewn with bumps and hills of ice laced with long fractures. Dark circular features may be impact craters.
Q: What was made by humans and is 6 billion miles away? A: Pioneer 10 - and yesterday was the 25th anniversary of its launch. More than 9 light hours distant, Pioneer 10 is presently about twice as far from the Sun as Pluto, bound for interstellar space at 28,000 miles per hour. The distinction of being the first human artifact to venture beyond the Solar System is just one in a long list of firsts for this spacefaring ambassador, including; the first spacecraft to travel through the asteroid belt and explore the outer Solar System, the first spacecraft to visit Jupiter, the first to use a planet's gravity to change its course and to reach solar-system-escape velocity, and the first spacecraft to pass beyond the known planets. Pioneer 10's mission is nearing an end - now exploring the distant reaches of the heliosphere it will soon run out of sufficient electrical power to operate science instruments. However, the 570 lb. spacecraft will continue to coast and in 30,000 years or so it will pass within about 3 light years of a nearby star. The star itself, a faint red dwarf known as Ross 248, is just over 10 light years distant in the constellation of Taurus.
What formed Ariel's valleys? This question presented itself when Voyager 2 passed this satellite of Uranus in January 1986. Speculation includes that heating caused by the ancient tides of Uranus caused moonquakes and massive shifting of the moon's surface. In any event, a huge network of sunken valleys was found to cover this frozen moon, and some unknown material now coats the bottoms of many of these channels. Ariel is the second closest to Uranus outside of Miranda, and is composed of roughly half water ice and half rock. Ariel was discovered by William Lassell in 1851.