All posts by Tom

Polar Vortex


The Cassini spacecraft took this image of the polar vortex on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2012.

Now scientists have detected a monstrous new cloud of frozen compounds in the moon’s low- to mid-stratosphere – a stable atmospheric region above the troposphere, or active weather layer.

Read on for the Cassini press release:

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Pluto’s Twin Ice Volcanoes?

plutovolcanoThis is simply amazing!  Imagine, nitrogen lava.

Scientists using New Horizons images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D topographic maps have discovered that two of Pluto’s mountains, informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, could possibly be ice volcanoes. The color is shown to depict changes in elevation, with blue indicating lower terrain and brown showing higher elevation; green terrains are at intermediate heights.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Click here for more from New Horizons

Phobos Breaking Apart?


Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

I’ve always wondered about the grooves on Phobos.   I always figured they were somehow related to a huge impact.  i never saw one this coming:

The long, shallow grooves lining the surface of Phobos are likely early signs of the structural failure that will ultimately destroy this moon of Mars.

Orbiting a mere 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) above the surface of Mars, Phobos is closer to its planet than any other moon in the solar system. Mars’ gravity is drawing in Phobos, the larger of its two moons, by about 6.6 feet (2 meters) every hundred years. Scientists expect the moon to be pulled apart in 30 to 50 million years.

We think that Phobos has already started to fail, and the first sign of this failure is the production of these grooves,” said Terry Hurford of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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Pluto’s Merged Moons?


The more information that comes back from New Horizons the more intriguing the Pluto system become.

It now looks like at least two of Pluto’s moons came to be of mergers of smaller moons as shown in the red circles.   Again, WOW.

“We suspect from this that Pluto had more moons in the past, in the aftermath of the big impact that also created Charon”  — Mark Showalter (SETI Institute)


Pluto’s Spinning Moons


New Horizons / NASA – The New Horizons mission also is shedding new light on Pluto’s fascinating system of moons, and their unusual properties. For example, nearly every other moon in the solar system — including Earth’s moon — is in synchronous rotation, keeping one face toward the planet. This is not the case for Pluto’s small moons.

Pluto’s small lunar satellites are spinning much faster, with Hydra — its most distant moon — rotating an unprecedented 89 times during a single lap around the planet. Scientists believe these spin rates may be variable because Charon exerts a strong torque that prevents each small moon from settling down into synchronous rotation.

Another oddity of Pluto’s moons: scientists expected the satellites would wobble, but not to such a degree.


Taurid Meteor Shower

Don’t forget to look for the Taurids meteor shower if you can. You could catch a few, it’s been cloudy since they started last week, actually before. November is the cloudiest month of the year around these parts.

Finding the radiant, the point where the meteors seem to come from is pretty easy. See this finders chart, a few hours after the sun goes down Taurus is in the eastern sky, it is always followed by the constellation Orion. If you can see Orion look a bit in front of and above him.

If you don’t happen to see any meteors, you can look for the star Aldebaran, in the finders chart it looks like any other star, but it isn’t. Aldebaran is a very bright orange colored star having used up hydrogen and is now burning helium (in reality there is some hydrogen fusion occurring in a shell around the helium core). It has a radius 44 times larger than our sun and is only 20 parsecs away (65 light years).

Very nice meteor catch on the Video!

The Martian Aurora


Mars is not the first planet that comes to mind when talking about auroral activity. Thanks to ESA;s Mars Express now I know why.

Locations of 19 auroral detections (white circles) made by the SPICAM instrument on Mars Express during 113 nightside orbits between 2004 and 2014, over locations already known to be associated with residual crustal magnetism. The data is superimposed on the magnetic field line structure (from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor) where red indicates closed magnetic field lines, grading through yellow, green and blue to open field lines in purple.

The auroral emissions are very short-lived, they are not seen to repeat in the same locations, and only occur near the boundary between open and closed magnetic field lines.


Image: Based on data from J-C. Gérard et al (2015)

Juno Mission

Juno spacecraft will reach Jupiter in July 2016 a few days ago NASA.  A public discussion was held at the Von Karman Auditorium, NASA-JPL, Pasadena, California on 05 Nov 2015.