On Friday, NASA released what they call a “big picture” view of comet 67P, the comet that now is the graveyard for the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander.
NASA’s Kepler space telescope was able to provide fantastic imagery of the comet hurtling through space from a 30-hour period between the 17th and 18th of September. At the time, the comet was unobservable for Earth-based telescopes as it was only in the sky during the day.
The imagery taken by the Kepler space telescope provides useful data about how much mass the comet is shedding every day, as it flies through the Solar System on its 6.5-year-long orbit around the Sun. This data nicely complements what has already been collected by the Rosetta spacecraft over the past two years.
On September 30, the Rosetta spacecraft, which arrived at comet 67P in August 2014, made a slow, measured descent down to the comet’s surface to bring an end to the historic mission. The descent provided one final opportunity to study the comet’s gaseous, dusty environment up close. The spacecraft was able to send back valuable data just before it came to a rest on the icy comet.
The Rosetta mission to comet 67P has been a resounding success. Despite the failed landing of the Philae lander rendering it unable to provide data from the comet’s surface, the Rosetta spacecraft maintained a constant stream of data back to Earth for a full two years. Among its greatest discoveries was the detection of the amino acid glycine and phosphorous, the building blocks of DNA and cell membranes, in the coma of 67P.
NASA are set to announce new findings about arguably Jupiter’s most fascinating moon, Europa. The announcement will take place at 14:00 EDT (19:00 BST) on Monday, 26th September.
"Astronomers will present results from a unique Europa observing campaign that resulted in surprising evidence of activity that may be related to the presence of a subsurface ocean on Europa," said the space agency.
The teleconference, set to take place on Monday afternoon, will feature a number of prominent scientists at NASA. Participants will include Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division; Jennifer Wiseman, a senior Hubble scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, as well as William Sparks and Britney Schmidt, scientists from the Space Telescope Science Institute of Baltimore and the Georgia Institute of Technology, respectively.
The announcement sparked mass speculation on social media, will hundreds of people questioning whether the news may reveal extra-terrestrial life on Europa. However, NASA quelled such a suggestion shortly after, tweeting “Spoiler alert: NOT aliens”.
Although no further details have been revealed about what will be announced on Monday, the involvement of Hubble points towards the possibility that Europa’s plumes may have finally been spotted again.
It has now been almost four years since Europa’s elusive plumes have been observed. In December 2012, Hubble detected water vapor plumes reaching 120 miles (200 km) high above Europa’s south pole. Such a discovery prompted many scientists to argue that a robotic probe could now simply travel through the plumes, rather than having to drill through Europa’s icy surface.
“This means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa's potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice,” Lorenz Roth of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio said at the time.
Another sighting of the plumes will certainly help potential plans to fly through the plumes that could take place as soon as in the next decade.
What is for certain, the announcement will be sure to create a buzz! Be sure to tune in to NASA TV at 2pm EDT on Monday to watch the teleconference live.
First Atmospheric Observation of Earth-Sized Exoplanets Yields Fascinating Results
Scientists have identified two exoplanets just 39 light years from us as potentially Earth-like following an important study by scientists at MIT. Researchers made a historic first atmospheric observation of an Earth-size planet to identify the exoplanets as being rocky, and therefore potentially habitable.
The exoplanets orbit a star called Trappist-1. It is a cold, dim red star found about 39 light years away from Earth in the constellation of Aquarius. The ultracool dwarf star is believed to be not much larger in diameter than Jupiter and is roughly 2000 times dimmer than the Sun. These types of stars make up roughly 15% of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun, and scientists believe this type of star could be the place to look for extra-terrestrial life.
Using data gathered from Hubble, researchers at MIT were able to make the first atmospheric observation of an Earth-sized planet outside of our Solar System. The observations determined that both planets lacked the atmospheric qualities to be considered a gas dwarf (effectively a mini-Jupiter), and therefore could be inferred as rocky in nature.
Although we know that these planets are rocky, the density of their atmosphere remains unknown. This information is paramount for the question of habitability to be answered, since a rocky planet like Mercury with a very thin atmosphere is clearly not habitable. However, this data may take a little while to collect. It is expected scientists will have to wait until the James Webb Space Telescope is in operation, which is still a couple of years away. With the use of the revolutionary telescope, scientists will be able to characterise the atmospheres of Earth-like planets in extraordinary, unprecedented detail.
A recent study released by scientists on NASA’s Dawn mission has uncovered new details about the mysterious bright spots on Ceres. Since the Dawn spacecraft arrived at the dwarf planet in March 2015, the scientific community has been enthralled in the mystery surrounding the bright spots discovered by the probe.
The most interesting of the 130 bright spots discovered was within the Occator Crater, a 90-kilometre wide crater that is believed to be just 80 million years old. The bright, reflective patches found at the bottom of the crater have intrigued scientists ever since Dawn first entered orbit. According to the study, the crater’s dominant mineral is sodium carbonate. This would suggest hydrothermal activity exists within Ceres, since the material is usually found in hydrothermal environments here on Earth. The results also suggest that liquid water may have been present beneath the dwarf planet’s surface in the recent past or perhaps a body of water that has since frozen over.
"The minerals we have found at the Occator central bright area require alteration by water," De Sanctis said. "Carbonates support the idea that Ceres had interior hydrothermal activity, which pushed these materials to the surface within Occator."
This is not the first time sodium carbonate has been found in space. The compounds have previously been found on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, within the plumes of material that are ejected from the icy moon’s surface.
Launched in September 2007, Dawn first encountered the asteroid Vesta in 2011. Following fourteen months of intense data collection, the probe fired its ion thrusters and set off for dwarf planet Ceres. The probe entered orbit around Ceres in March of last year and has since sent back valuable data giving scientists on Earth clues as to its history in the Solar System. The Dawn spacecraft is expected to continue orbiting Ceres for several years to come. There is potential that the probe may be sent to a third and final asteroid on its tour of the Solar System, but these plans have yet to have been confirmed.