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Over here I post a ton of physics / math / general interesting posts in an attempt to make your brain feel good. My aim is to be as informative as possible, all while posting fascinating things that hopefully enlighten us both a little to the mysteries of our truly wondrous universe(s?). Plus, how would you know if the blog exists or not unless you observe it? Boom, just pulled the Schrödinger’s cat card. Now you have to check it out - trust me, it said so in an equation somewhere.

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Mickey Mouse Crater on Mercury

NASA’s messenger spacecraft, in order around the planet Mercury, has found this giant crater (about 105 km wide) topped with two smaller impact basins that come together to form the recognizable Mickey Mouse shape. Messenger (short for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging) mission scientists said: 

The shadowing helps define the striking ‘Mickey Mouse’ resemblance, created by the accumulation of craters over Mercury’s long geologic history.

This view of Mickey is a good example of pareidolia (another being the famous ‘face on Mars’), a phenomenon in which the human brain recognizes familiar shapes and characterizations in random images. 

Image Source: Flickr

Curiosity Rover Prepares to Drill Into Rocks That May Have Once Been Wet

NASA’s Curiosity rover has explored a new area on Mars called Yellowknife Bay, which shows plenty of evidence of flowing water. The rover is preparing to drill into a rock nicknamed “John Klein” in the location in the next couple weeks, investigating its composition and searching for organics. This will be the first time that engineers have drilled into the surface of another planet.

Scientists already know that Curiosity’s explorations have taken it to a place that was basically an ancient riverbed. Now they are uncovering the complex geologic history of the area and have stumbled across many interesting features.

“The scientists have been let into the candy store,” said engineer Richard Cook, project manager for Curiosity, during a NASA teleconference on Jan. 15.

For the last few weeks, the rover has been moving from the plateau it landed on down a slope into a depression. As it descended, it passed through layers of rock that are increasingly older, taking it backwards into the planet’s history. Geologists are finding a lot of different rock types, indicating that many different geologic processes took place here over time.

Some of the minerals are sedimentary, suggesting that flowing water moved small grains around and deposited them, and other evidence suggests water moved through the rocks after they had formed. Tiny spherical concretions scattered through the rock were likely formed when water percolated through rock pores and minerals precipitated out. Other samples are cracked and filled with veins of material such as calcium sulfate, that were also formed when water percolated through the cracks and deposited the mineral.

“Basically these rocks were saturated with water,” said geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech, Curiosity’s project scientist, who added that these rocks indicate the most complex history of water that researchers have yet seen on Mars.

Curiosity brushed some of these rocks to remove their dust covering and then peered at them close-up with its high-resolution Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera. The rocks are sandstones containing larger grains up to 2 mm long surrounded by silt grains that are “finer than powdered sugar but coarser than sugar used to make icing,” said geologist R. Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute, a scientist on the MAHLI team.

Many of the grains are rounded, suggesting they were knocked about and worn down somehow. Because the grains are too large to have been carried by wind, they were most likely transported by water flowing at least 1 meter per second (2.2 mph). All these investigations suggest if you could go deep into Mars’ past and stand at the same spot as the rover, you’d probably see a river of flowing water with small underwater dunes along the riverbed.

The next step for Curiosity is to drill 5 centimeter holes into some of these rocks and veins to definitively determine their composition. Grotzinger said that the team will search for aqueous minerals, isotope ratios that could indicate the composition of Mars’ atmosphere in the past, and possibly organic material.

The drilling will probably take place within two weeks, though NASA engineers are still unsure of the exact date. The procedure will be “the most significant engineering thing we’ve done since landing,” said Cook, and will require several trial runs, equipment warm-ups, and drilling a couple test holes to make sure everything works. The team wants to take things as slowly as possible to correct for any problems that may arise, such as potential electrical shorts and excessive shaking of the rover.

Frozen Water and Organic Material Discovered on Mercury

For the first time, scientists have confirmed that the planet Mercury holds at least 100 billion tons of water ice as well as organic material in permanently shadowed craters at its north pole.

The findings come from NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, which has been in orbit around the solar system’s smallest and innermost planet since 2011. Researchers have suspected that ice could exist in such craters since 1992, when Earth-based radar measurements found bright areas at the planet’s polar regions. Craters in this area cast long shadows, which prevent any sunlight from reaching their floors.

Though alternative explanations had been put forward to account for the radar-bright areas, MESSENGER has provided convincing evidence for water ice on the planet closest to our sun, where surface temperatures can sometimes reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The results appeared in three studies Nov. 29 in Science.

MESSENGER was able to detect water ice because it carries a neutron spectrometer that looks at energetic neutrons bouncing off Mercury’s surface. Water gives off a characteristic neutron signature. The spacecraft measured the area around Mercury’s north pole and found this characteristic signature, suggesting that between 100 billion and 1 trillion tons of water ice was present somewhere in the area. But the neutron spectrometer has fairly low resolution, on the order of hundreds of miles, so it can’t definitively say if this water is inside the craters. (If it were outside, daytime temperatures would have boiled the water away.)

Image: The topographic height of craters and surface features at Mercury’s north pole (top) and a model of the maximum amount of sunlight received in this area (bottom). Neumann et al, Science, 10.1126/science.1229764

Because they contain no light, MESSENGER’s cameras can’t see right inside the permanently shadowed regions. But the spacecraft carries a useful workaround tool. To map its height above the surface, the probe uses an altimeter that shoots a 10-nanosecond infrared laser pulse at the ground and intercepts the returning beam.

“We can measure the energy that comes back from the laser,” said planetary scientist Gregory Neumann of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, and lead author on one of the Science studies. Though the number of photons coming back is slight, “we could expect to see glints of brightness from surface water ice.”

Early results from MESSENGER presented a puzzle. Not only were there no bright spots in the permanently shadowed craters where radar measurements suggested ice, the surface was actually much darker than Mercury’s average color. “We were really surprised by this,” said Neumann.

The spacecraft continued to search, examining more and more craters. Finally, the laser spotted some dazzling crater floors that were two to four times brighter than the rest of Mercury’s surface. This was finally good evidence for the long-sought water ice. By modeling the temperature in and around different craters, scientists were able to determine the northernmost craters stayed cold enough over millions of years to hold onto water ice.

But what about the strange dark craters? Radar measurements suggested ice, but MESSENGER wasn’t confirming the result. The temperature models showed that these craters corresponded exactly to regions that would sometimes receive a small amount of scattered sunlight. This itsy bit of energy would heat the frozen water’s surface enough to sublimate it away. Dark organic compounds dissolved in the ice got left behind as residue and would slowly form a black cover, about 8 to 11 inches thick, which protected any remaining ice from getting vaporized by random sunbeams.

The organic material is likely made of hydrocarbons like methane and ethane, commonly found in comets and asteroids. “At room temperature it would be kind of gooey stuff, to use the technical term,” said planetary scientist Sean Solomon of Columbia University, who leads the MESSENGER team. Because the layer is relatively thin, it’s invisible to radar.

The MESSENGER team now thinks they have a good story to explain how these polar cold traps work. Every once in a while, a comet or asteroid hits Mercury and gets annihilated. The vaporized material either floats out into space or gets blasted away by the sun but any that finds its way into a permanently shadowed region will settle down. Molecule by molecule, water and other compounds build up inside the craters. Those that never see a ray of sunlight contain mostly clean water ice. But if even a tiny amount of light intrudes, it may heat up the water and cause it to recede below a layer of organic material.

“These look like really good results, and I think they are very convincing,” said planetary scientist Johannes Benkhoff from the Institute of Planetary Research in Germany, who is the lead scientist on the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission, which is expected to orbit Mercury in 2022. MESSENGER will provide many follow-up opportunities for this later mission, which will have its own neutron spectrometer to map the water ice regions with greater resolution.

In addition to being an astounding result, the finding can help scientists better understand the history of Earth. Mercury is a terrestrial planet like our own and the ice provides evidence for geologically recent delivery of water and carbon-rich material to the inner solar system from comets and asteroids. This process very likely happened billions of years in the past, when the Earth first formed, creating our planet’s oceans and possibly seeding them with the material to produce life.

“There’s now this record on Mercury, a place where we least expected to find it, of this process,” said Solomon. “It gives us a window to understanding this delivery system.”

Tracking Mars: Curiosity Makes Its Mark on the Red Planet

Since Curiosity landed on mars on Aug. 6, the rover has traveled hundreds of feet over the Martian surface. In the process, it has tracked up the sandy, dusty terrain, leaving tire marks, scoop divots, Morse code and one tiny piece of itself behind.

Unlike the Apollo astronauts’ footprints on the moon, Curiosity’s trails will probably be wiped away by the planet’s frequent wind and sand storms. But there is still something so incredible about these little ephemeral marks we are making on another world.

Though the physical traces won’t last, their impact lives on in the images the rover is sending back to Earth. Here are some of our favorite shots of Curiosity’s tracks on Mars.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

jtotheizzoe:

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012 Winners

The UK’s Royal Observatory has announced their awards for the best astronomy photographers of 2012. There’s an indescribable amount of stellar majesty on display over at their gallery, and I recommend taking a look at the whole collection. 

I was particularly taken with the solar system category. I don’t know, it just reminds me that if there’s this much amazingness happening around our own home, just imagine what we could see in the trillions and trillions of other star systems throughout the universe. Maybe somewhere else, perhaps in some other time, past or future, some alien race will develop a way to capture images of their home, and award people with whatever their version of a really big check is.

Anyway, above you see the solar system winner, Chris Warren’s “Transit of Venus”, and the runner-up, Damien Peach’s “Mars in 2012”. Enjoy.

New NASA Mars Mission Scheduled for 2016
Hot on the heels of Curiosity’s successful landing, NASA has decided to send another mission to Mars. The project, called InSight, involves drilling 16 feet into the crust of Mars. The mission, set to launch in 2016, will provide detailed information about the planet’s core, in particular determining whether it is liquid or solid.
“This is the first time we’re looking at the interior of Mars,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator in the science mission directorate, during a press conference on Aug. 20. “There are many science questions we’re dying to learn the answer to.”
Though NASA currently has several probes on Mars — including the remaining MER rover, Opportunity, the new and popular Curiosity rover, and the high-flying Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odysseyspacecrafts — future Mars exploration has been looking pretty sparse. Other than the MAVEN orbiter, set to launch next year, NASA had no further Mars missions on its plate. The U.S. agency had formerly partnered with ESA to send probes to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, but those plans were terminated when NASA’s last budget made deep cuts to planetary science. The new InSight mission puts Mars back on NASA’s radar.
Unlike Curiosity and its complex sky-crane maneuver, InSight will use Phoenix lander-type technology to reach the Martian surface. It will carry a robotic arm and two black-and-white cameras as well as instruments to measure Martian seismic activity and the planet’s rotation axis. A small drill-like instrument will vibrate to wiggle down into the soil and penetrate a few feet into the crust to make temperature measurements.
Though a rocky planet like Earth, Mars is much smaller than our home world and has evolved quite differently. Unlike Earth, the Red Planet has no crustal plates and no global magnetic field. It remains an open question whether Marsquakes shake its surface and how much.
InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery-class program, which aims to produce top notch science on the cheap. The mission is capped at $425 million, a steal compared to the recent flagship $2.5-billion Curiosity rover. Insight was competing for selection as the next Discovery mission against two others, the Comet Hopper, which would have explored the body of a comet, and the Titan Mare Explorer, which planned to land a small boat-like probe on a methane lake on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Image: JPL/NASA

New NASA Mars Mission Scheduled for 2016

Hot on the heels of Curiosity’s successful landing, NASA has decided to send another mission to Mars. The project, called InSight, involves drilling 16 feet into the crust of Mars. The mission, set to launch in 2016, will provide detailed information about the planet’s core, in particular determining whether it is liquid or solid.

“This is the first time we’re looking at the interior of Mars,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator in the science mission directorate, during a press conference on Aug. 20. “There are many science questions we’re dying to learn the answer to.”

Though NASA currently has several probes on Mars — including the remaining MER rover, Opportunity, the new and popular Curiosity rover, and the high-flying Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odysseyspacecrafts — future Mars exploration has been looking pretty sparse. Other than the MAVEN orbiter, set to launch next year, NASA had no further Mars missions on its plate. The U.S. agency had formerly partnered with ESA to send probes to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, but those plans were terminated when NASA’s last budget made deep cuts to planetary science. The new InSight mission puts Mars back on NASA’s radar.

Unlike Curiosity and its complex sky-crane maneuver, InSight will use Phoenix lander-type technology to reach the Martian surface. It will carry a robotic arm and two black-and-white cameras as well as instruments to measure Martian seismic activity and the planet’s rotation axis. A small drill-like instrument will vibrate to wiggle down into the soil and penetrate a few feet into the crust to make temperature measurements.

Though a rocky planet like Earth, Mars is much smaller than our home world and has evolved quite differently. Unlike Earth, the Red Planet has no crustal plates and no global magnetic field. It remains an open question whether Marsquakes shake its surface and how much.

InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery-class program, which aims to produce top notch science on the cheap. The mission is capped at $425 million, a steal compared to the recent flagship $2.5-billion Curiosity rover. Insight was competing for selection as the next Discovery mission against two others, the Comet Hopper, which would have explored the body of a comet, and the Titan Mare Explorer, which planned to land a small boat-like probe on a methane lake on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Image: JPL/NASA

Is manned space exploration worth the cost?

The debate about the relative merits of exploring space with humans and robots is as old as the space program itself. Werner Von Braun, a moving force behind the Apollo Program that sent humans to the moon and the architect of the mighty Saturn V rocket, believed passionately in the value of human exploration — especially when it meant beating the hated Soviet Empire. James Van Allen, discoverer of the magnetic fields that bear his name, was equally ardent and vocal about the value of robotic exploration.

There are five arguments that are advanced in any discussion about the utility of space exploration and the roles of humans and robots. Those arguments, in roughly ascending order of advocate support, are the following:

1. Space exploration will eventually allow us to establish a human civilization on another world (e.g., Mars) as a hedge against the type of catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs.

2. We explore space and create important new technologies to advance our economy. It is true that, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Space exploration can also serve as a stimulus for children to enter the fields of science and engineering.

3. Space exploration in an international context offers a peaceful cooperative venue that is a valuable alternative to nation state hostilities. One can look at the International Space Station and marvel that the former Soviet Union and the U.S. are now active partners. International cooperation is also a way to reduce costs.

4. National prestige requires that the U.S. continue to be a leader in space, and that includes human exploration. History tells us that great civilizations dare not abandon exploration.

5. Exploration of space will provide humanity with an answer to the most fundamental questions: Are we alone? Are there other forms of life beside those on Earth?

It is these last two arguments that are the most compelling to me. It is challenging to make the case that humans are necessary to the type of scientific exploration that may bring evidence of life on another world. There are strong arguments on both sides. Personally, I think humans will be better at unstructured environment exploration than any existing robot for a very long time.

There are those who say that exploration with humans is simply too expensive for the return we receive. However, I cannot imagine any U.S. President announcing that we are abandoning space exploration with humans and leaving it to the Chinese, Russians, Indians, Japanese or any other group. I can imagine the U.S. engaging in much more expansive international cooperation.

Humans will be exploring space. The challenge is to be sure that they accomplish meaningful exploration.

-G. Scott Hubbard, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University and former director of the NASA Ames Research Center

Photos of Curiosity on Mars and the Environment

These photos taken from space shows of Curiosity’s landing site and the stunning environment that the rover may explore over the coming year on Mars.

Ever since Curiosity landed last week, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been snapping pics ofthe rover from space. This latest shot, taken using the satellite’s HiRISE camera, is the first to capture Curiosity and the surrounding environs in vivid (false) color.

The northernmost part of the image, representing the area nearest to Curiosity, is fairly flat and uniform. The rover itself can be seen sitting in a discolored spot, surrounded by dust that was blasted when the sky crane’s rockets brought Curiosity down for a safe landing.

Farther south are enormous sand dunes and various geologic features that the rover may visit as it travels to the base of its eventual target: Mount Sharp. These colorful outcrops include hydrated minerals, clays, and sulfates that will help scientists unravel the complex watery history of Mars. Curiosity may be sitting atop similarly interesting features right now but dust obscures their view from orbit. With the rover on the Martian surface, geologists are eager to start probing that environment.

A person in orbit around Mars would not see this area in these colors — in reality the bluish regions are more of a gray color. HiRISE took the photo in infrared wavelengths, and the image was then enhanced to bring out subtle differences. Rocks tend to be bluer while dusty regions are redder. As well, rougher surface materials are redder, showing off the different textures that Curiosity may visit.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona [Full-resolution 1500 x 13400 pixels]

Incredible Images From Space Shows Curiosity on Surface of Mars

Images:

1) The full portrait of Curiosity and its components.

2) The Curioisity rover on the surface.

3) The rover’s parachute.

4) The crashed sky crane. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Stunning photographs from space shows NASA’s Curiosity rover sitting safely on the surface of Mars. Taken with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera, the picture captures incredible details of the surface along with the robotic components that helped Curiosity stick its landing.

“This is like the crime scene photo here,” said Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist during a NASA press conference Aug. 7.

Zooming in close, black streaks can be seen where the rover’s rockets disturbed bright surface dust, revealing darker soil underneath. Researchers have used these streak patterns to infer Curiosity’s orientation, which matches up nicely with information from the rover’s first pictures on the surface.

Down and to the right is the rover’s heat shield, which protected the probe as it plummeted through the Martian atmosphere. It is sitting about 4000 feet from Curiosity on the surface. The backshell and parachute — over to the lower left in the image — sit about 2000 feet from the rover while the sky crane, which gently lowered the rover to the ground, is above and to the left about 2100 feet from Curiosity. NASA engineers will continue poring over the photo for clues of exactly how Curiosity’s complex landing sequence unfolded.