SOFIA- the Space Plane!

SOFIA mission logo! Image credit: NASA

SOFIA mission logo! Image credit: NASA

Greetings, Earthlings!

We're going to take to the skies with SOFIA and look at how awesome this instrument is to astronomy!

SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) is a collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). SOFIA is an airborne observatory, meaning the telescope, lenses, and cameras are on board a Boeing 747SP. 

Here's come more cool facts about this incredible observatory:

1-The telescope used is a 2.5 m (8.2 ft) inch reflector

2-There are a total of nine instruments that can be used, each spanning a different wavelength, spectral range, and photometry. 

3-The mirror has to be recoated in California about 1-2 times per year!

4-Primary science objectives include: exoplanetary atmospheres, structure of comets, chemistry and structure of stars and interstellar medium

5-June 2015, Pluto passed between a star and Earth, allowing the backlight of that star to help us determine the atmosphere of Pluto!

SOFIA taking flight! Image credit: NASA/Jim Ross

SOFIA taking flight! Image credit: NASA/Jim Ross

You can track where SOFIA is: https://flightaware.com/live/flight/NASA747

Thank you for reading and next week- Earth as our Space Lab III

Hyperion: The Space Sponge!

HYPERION! Image credit: NASA / JPL / SSI / Gordan Ugarkovic

HYPERION! Image credit: NASA / JPL / SSI / Gordan Ugarkovic

Greetings Earthlings and welcome back!

Today, I would like to travel to Hyperion, one of Saturn's lesser known moons. Actually, it was the first non-round moon to be discovered!

This tiny moon measures to be 223.8 miles at its longest! Very tiny moon! In comparison, our Earth moon is 1,079 miles in radius!

Hyperion is a very strange moon due to its appearance. We still don't know why it looks like the fantastic space sponge that it does! There is some hypotheses that it could be a mixture of clay and ice! However, we have discovered that it has very dark material under its surface- darker than most moons of Saturn. What is it? Where did it come from?

How does it look spongy? This is still being experimented in laboratories. We think it might be due to its low surface gravity and very porous crust. So when an impactor hits it, the surface molds like putty, instead of shattering into a crater. Instead of ejecta, the material is flown back into space. 

Close up of Hyperion! Image credit: NASA / JPL / SSI / Gordan Ugarkovic

Close up of Hyperion! Image credit: NASA / JPL / SSI / Gordan Ugarkovic

Thank you for reading and we'll soar the skies with SOFIA next week!

Finding "Life" with the Drake Equation

Frank Drake, creator of the Equation, in 1961 at the NRAO Green Bank Observatory, West Virginia. Image credit: SETI

Frank Drake, creator of the Equation, in 1961 at the NRAO Green Bank Observatory, West Virginia. Image credit: SETI

Good morning, Earthlings!

The Drake Equation through the years has been labeled a probability means of discovering life outside of the Earth. However, it's much more complicated than that. What it really means is how Earth, with limited technology, would be able to detect or find intelligent life elsewhere AND would they be able to receive it? 

drake-equation-540px.gif

Let's look at a run down of the Drake Equation:

N = The number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions (radio all the way to gamma ray waves) are detectable.

R* = The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.

fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.

ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.

fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.

fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.

fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.

L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

SETI describes using the Drake Equation: "Within the limits of our existing technology, any practical search for distant intelligent life must necessarily be a search for some manifestation of a distant technology. In each of its last four decadal reviews, the National Research Council has emphasized the relevance and importance of searching for evidence of the electromagnetic signature of distant civilizations."

Debates are still on-going as to the definitions of "intelligent life" and what is "life"? Not to sound philosophical, of course. Rather, what if our limited technology can not currently receive any incoming calls? Where would we fit on this scale of the Drake Equation?

We'll keep searching...

Thank you for reading, and next week we'll take a look at a really weird moon!

Spooky Astronomy 2017!

The Ghost of Jupiter! Credit: HST/NASA/ESA.

The Ghost of Jupiter! Credit: HST/NASA/ESA.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

Ok, needed to get that out of my system. Good morning and welcome to a Top Ten Spooky Halloween Astronomy! This is a list of cool facts relating to such a creepy, haunted time of the year! Enjoy!

10- Sure, Halloween means "All Hallow's Eve" and was originated at a British Isles sacred festival, but the significance of the particular day of celebration was actually due to astronomy. Astronomers realized that October 31 is a "cross-quarter day"- a day in between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice! However, due to our planet's rotation changing little by little through the years, the true cross-quarter day in modern times is actually November 5, but October 31 is fixed for traditional purposes of Halloween holiday.

9-Auroras are spectacular and oftentimes ghostly colors streaming across the sky. The ISS and other radio instruments on board other satellites have captured the eerie sounds of auroras! (Refer to my post September 25, 2017 to listen!)

8-The Ghost Head nebula is 50-light years across and resides in our little sister galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. 

7-The Ghost of Jupiter nebula is a planetary nebula (NGC 3242) in the constellation Hydra, discovered in 1785 by Herschel. 

6-The Cat's Eye Nebula is a planetary nebula 3 light years away, sloughing off layers and layers of colorful gaseous layers. 

5-The year 2004 was the last time we had a lunar eclipse close to Halloween (October 27, 2014 to be exact)!

4-Black Widow Pulsars almost literally drains the life-force out of its orbiting companion star! More details on this from my previous post!

3-The Perseus Cluster of Galaxies, as revealed by the Chandra Space Observatory using powerful x-ray imaging, shows this cluster to be nicknamed "The Perseus Skull"!

The Perseus Skull! OOOOOOOH SPOOKY! Image credit: A. Fabian (IoA Cambridge) et al., NASA

The Perseus Skull! OOOOOOOH SPOOKY! Image credit: A. Fabian (IoA Cambridge) et al., NASA

2-Orson Welles's 1938 radio dramatization of War of the Worlds was widely played on Halloween. Most people did not realize it was a radio program, and in hearing the destruction of Martians to Earth, there was mass chaos!

1-The Witch Head Nebula is a ghostly blue reflection nebula in the constellation Orion. It is a reflection nebula due to its reflecting the host star's light, emitting blue colors. 

The Witch Head Nebula! Image credit: NASA/STScI Digitized Sky Survey/Noel Carboni

The Witch Head Nebula! Image credit: NASA/STScI Digitized Sky Survey/Noel Carboni

Thank you for reading, and next week, we'll take a look into the Drake Equation!

Black Widow Pulsars

Bow shock around Black Widow Pulsar as seen by Chandra XRay Observatory. Image credit: NASA/CXC/ASTRON/B.Stappers et al.; Optical: AAO/J.Bland-Hawthorn & H.Jones

Bow shock around Black Widow Pulsar as seen by Chandra XRay Observatory. Image credit: NASA/CXC/ASTRON/B.Stappers et al.; Optical: AAO/J.Bland-Hawthorn & H.Jones

Good morning, Earthlings! As we near Halloween, I thought I'd share something very spooky- Black Widow Pulsars!

No, there's no spiders in space (...or is there?!)...

Pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit large amounts of electromagnetic radiation and magnetic fields! We call them pulsars due to their pulsating effect that we detect using radio telescopes!

There is a special type of pulsars called the "millisecond pulsar"- and as the name suggests, these pulsars spin faster than a millisecond per turn. Very fast!

And then we have the Black Widow pulsars- millisecond pulsars that had a giant star companion..."had" is the keyword here...

Yes, the pulsar spins so fast and close to its companion that the radiation shreds the outer layers of its companion and draws it closer until the companion is helpless and left to get shredded piece by piece by something smaller than the size of Arkansas!

We can detect these pulsars by their "glitching" or addition of energy as the companion is adding energy to the spinning. Using xray telescopes, like Chandra, we can detect bow shocks of energy from the companion enveloping over the Black Widow Pulsar!

Depiction of a companion star getting torn apart into the Black Widow pulsar's spinning web of destruction! Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Depiction of a companion star getting torn apart into the Black Widow pulsar's spinning web of destruction! Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Cool? Creepy? Both.

Thanks for reading and next week, we'll reveal some cool stuff for Halloween!

BREAKING NEWS!

The collision of two neutron stars, seen in an artist's rendering, created both gravitational waves and gamma rays. Image credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science

The collision of two neutron stars, seen in an artist's rendering, created both gravitational waves and gamma rays. Image credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science

Good morning, fellow space fans!

Well, folks, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has done it again! After the leaders have been awarded the Physics Nobel Prize two weeks ago for detecting gravitational waves from four black hole mergers

...but such events should be completely dark.

This morning it has been released that this is the first time that light associated with a source of gravitational waves has been detected!

Isn't that cool?!

"We have been working for years to predict what the light from a neutron merger would look like," said Daniel Kasen, an associate professor of physics and of astronomy at UC Berkeley and a scientist at Berkeley Lab. "Now that theoretical speculation has suddenly come to life."

That's right! Here's an excerpt from Eurekalert.org:

"The neutron star merger, dubbed GW170817, was detected on August 17 and immediately telegraphed to observers around the world, who turned their small and large telescopes on the region of the sky from which it came. The ripples in spacetime that LIGO/Virgo measured suggested a neutron star merger, since each star of the binary weighed between 1 and 2 times the mass of our sun. Apart from black holes, neutron stars are the densest objects known in the universe. They are created when a massive star exhausts its fuel and collapses onto itself, compressing a mass comparable to that of the sun into a sphere only 10 miles across.

Only 1.7 seconds after the gravitational waves were recorded, the Fermi space telescope detected a short burst of gamma rays from the same region, evidence that concentrated jets of energy are produced during the merger of neutron stars. Less than 11 hours later, observers caught their first glimpse of visible light from the source. It was localized to a known galaxy, NGC 4993, situated about 130 million light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Hydra."

More here: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/uoc--asc101517.php

To see it so bright and so nearby gives the LIGO team so many possibilities! 

Thanks for reading and we'll be back on schedule with next Monday on Black Widow Pulsars!

Chaos, chaos everywhere...

Chaos terrain on Europa! Image credit: NASA/JPL/UA

Chaos terrain on Europa! Image credit: NASA/JPL/UA

Good morning, Earthlings!

I have traveled far and wide to look at this week's topic! I present to you the fascinating insight of chaos terrain! What is chaos terrain? We don't know!

No, seriously...we call it "chaos terrain" because it's a geologic nightmare of jumbled mountains and boulders and sometimes ice!

Here are some interesting places and geologic findings about chaos terrain!

1-Mercury! Caloris Baisn is one of the largest craters in the Solar System found on Mercury! It was so large, that shock waves bent the surrounding rock and jumbled it together to form chaos terrain!

2-Mars! It is possible that these areas are formed by past upheavals of water and valley construction all at once! 

Chaos terrain, called Ister Chaos, on Mars! Image credit: NASA/JPL/UA

Chaos terrain, called Ister Chaos, on Mars! Image credit: NASA/JPL/UA

3-Europa! These are disruptions of the surface cracking under pressures or impacts and then "self-healing" with patches of fresher ice!

4-Pluto! Yes, New Horizons caught some beautiful jumbled glaciers and boulders bordering Sputnik Planitia! How were they formed? We hope to find out!

Chaos terrain on Pluto! Image credit: NASA/SWRI.

Chaos terrain on Pluto! Image credit: NASA/SWRI.

Thank you for reading and next week, we'll look at something very spooky!

The Captured Moons of Mars

Phobos (left) and Deimos (right). Notice how differently colored they are! Image credit: NASA

Phobos (left) and Deimos (right). Notice how differently colored they are! Image credit: NASA

Happy Monday, Earthlings!

This segment is brought down to Earth by the two trouble-making moons of Mars- Phobos and Deimos. Don't let their names fool you- these small moons are actually not true moons, but rather captured asteroids stuck in Mars's gravitational pull. 

Here are some fascinating facts about these moons!

1-The moons were discovered in 1877 by American astronomer Asaph Hall. Phobos (fear) and Deimos (dread) were children of Ares (Roman name for Mars and God of War) to accompany in battle. 

2-Jonathan Swift's satire Gulliver's Travels (1726) describes Laputa's astronomers discovering two moons of Mars. This description refers to Keplerian laws of planetary motions and had these moons described to be at 3 and 5 Martian diameter orbits with periods of 10 and 21.5 hours. ACTUAL: Phobos and Deimos are at 1.4 and 3.5 Martian diameter orbits with 7.66 and 30.35 hour orbits, respectively. 

3-In 1752, Voltaire wrote a short story (Micromegas) that had predicted two moons of Mars. For Swift's and Voltaire's "predictions", two craters on Deimos are named after them in their honor. 

4-Although having two moons, they are too small to block out the Sun for a total eclipse. However, total lunar eclipses of Phobos are so common, they happen almost every night!

5-Just like our Moon, both Phobos and Deimos are tidally locked (the same side of the moon is always facing its planet). Phobos, however, is slowly descending its orbit into Mars. At some point in time, Phobos will be ripped apart by these extreme gravitational forces!

6-The origin of these Moons is still controversial. The compositions are still being studied and to rule out what type of asteroids (maybe?) these are. 

7-Future missions to study these moons: NASA's PADME in 2020 (flyby), NASA OSIRIS-REx II (concept mission), Russia's Fobos-Grunt (2024).

This set of three images shows views three seconds apart as the larger of Mars' two moons, Phobos, passed directly in front of the sun as seen by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. Curiosity photographed this annular, or ring, eclipse with the telephoto-lens camera of the rover's Mast Camera pair (right Mastcam) on Aug. 20, 2013, the 369th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems/Texas A&M Univ. 

This set of three images shows views three seconds apart as the larger of Mars' two moons, Phobos, passed directly in front of the sun as seen by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. Curiosity photographed this annular, or ring, eclipse with the telephoto-lens camera of the rover's Mast Camera pair (right Mastcam) on Aug. 20, 2013, the 369th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems/Texas A&M Univ. 

Thank you for reading and come back next week for a look at what in the world is chaos terrain?

Did you hear that?

Auroral emissions of the poles on Saturn! Image credit: NASA

Auroral emissions of the poles on Saturn! Image credit: NASA

Gleaming white radio dishes point up to the starry abyss and receive radio emissions of the cosmos. It's just how we interpret what we hear is the fun part!

From planets, rapidly spinning stars, or even black holes, radio astronomy is almost like a hidden gem when it comes to space discoveries!

Our recently decommissioned Cassini spacecraft had a radio wave science instrument. When it got to within 234 million miles on way to Saturn, it started to pick up very interesting hissing and tonal emissions! Guess what they are?! These are the sounds of Saturn's powerful polar aurorae (northern and southern lights)!

These sounds were compared to Earth's auroral radio emissions, which can be listened here (warning: audio is a bit loud).

Very different, right? Aurorae are still being studied on Saturn and Jupiter thanks to the large amounts of data collected by the Cassini spacecraft!

Thanks for reading, and next week we'll take a look at the Martian Moons!

The Great 40-Foot Telescope

1789 depiction of the Great 40-Foot Telescope in Slough, England. 

1789 depiction of the Great 40-Foot Telescope in Slough, England. 

Happy Monday, Earthlings!

The name "Herschel" in the astronomy community may ring a bell with the Herschel Space Observatory or the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands, but let's look at the telescope that started William Herschel's legacy: the Great 40-Foot Telescope.

Frederick William Herschel, a British astronomer, constructed his large telescope in 1774, proceeding with 9 years of double star studies and other significant discoveries! Here are some fun facts about this Great Telescope:

1- It had a 48-inch diameter mirror and a 40-foot length tube (hence the name). It was dismantled in 1840.

2- revealed that nebulae in Messier's catalogues were actually star clusters!

3- Herschel published catalogues of nebulae (up to 5,000 nebulae by 1820)!

4- Most famously with this telescope is the discovery of Uranus, of which the discovery made Herschel the official Court Astronomer to King George III.

Ivory Coast, 1986 stamp of William Herschel and Uranus. From the Stanley Gibbons collection no. 875.

Ivory Coast, 1986 stamp of William Herschel and Uranus. From the Stanley Gibbons collection no. 875.

Thanks for readings and come back next Monday for a look into how we "listen" to planets!

Say hello to Haunlani!

Enhanced colored image of Haulani crater with the bright spots in and part of the ejecta. Image credit: NASA/MPS/PSI

Enhanced colored image of Haulani crater with the bright spots in and part of the ejecta. Image credit: NASA/MPS/PSI

Haulani, one of Ceres's bright-spot craters is a beautiful impact crater with mysterious features that lie in its walls. 

Ceres is a minor planet and the largest asteroid belt object! Visited by the Dawn spacecraft which took hundreds of images, Ceres has gorgeous geologies in its impacts. Each crater is named after a deity of agriculture! Haulani is the Hawaiian goddess of plants. 

Haulani is 34 kilometers (21 miles) in diameter and houses some of the supposed salty bright spots. The rim of this crater is filled with interesting landslides, possible melting streaks, and is mainly free from other impacts- meaning it is a very young (comparatively) impact crater!

Colorized topographic map of Haulani crater. Note the landsliding and pitting of the crater walls and floor! Image credit: NASA/MPS/PSI/Thomas Platz

Colorized topographic map of Haulani crater. Note the landsliding and pitting of the crater walls and floor! Image credit: NASA/MPS/PSI/Thomas Platz

Thank you for reading and next Monday, we'll take a look into the historically famous Herschel Telescope!

Awaiting Mars 2020

Mars 2020 instrument map. Image credit: NASA

Mars 2020 instrument map. Image credit: NASA

Good morning, Earthlings!

Previously, I had mentioned the deciding three landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover. http://nwa.space/universeplaypen/2017/3/6/and-then-there-were-three

This time I'd like to mention the different instruments that the new and powerful rover will host!

1. How big will this rover be? This new rover is designed after the Curiosity MSL rover- about the size of a compact car (and weighs less!)- to about 10 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 7 feet in height.

2. What is its purpose? To explore what "past life" may have been on Mars and to analyze rock and soil samples and cores.

3. How many instruments? 21!

4. What are some of the favorite instruments?

-MOXIE: Mars OXygen ISRU Experiment will produce oxygen from the Martian carbon dioxide atmosphere.

-PIXL: xray lithochemical instrument for detailed chemical analysis in rocks

-RIMFAX: Ground-penetrating radar to go up to centimeters subsurface for traces of water

-SHERLOC: first UV Raman laser on Mars for mineral and organic analyses. (also has a subset camera named WATSON!)

Thank you for reading and come back next week for a look at Haulani Crater on Ceres!

RSLs on Mars!

A surprise RSL in Melas Chasma, Mars. Image credit: HiRISE-ASU.

A surprise RSL in Melas Chasma, Mars. Image credit: HiRISE-ASU.

Happy Monday, Earthlings!

We are back! Going to start back by talking about what in the world are RSLs!

Recurring Slope Lineae are thin, wet-looking materials slumping out of the walls of craters on Mars. But these little guys are tricky- we don't have a definite answer for how these are formed, what material, or why they are rare!

So this is what we hypothesized:

1- they are seasonal, which means they grow and extend a couple meters in the Spring and fade in the Winter.

2-it is briny (very salty) water, but the movement processes are still yet to be understood

3-most features usually darken as the water evaporates, leaving behind the salt, but some features brighten. Reasons are still unknown.

4-Lab experiments are still being used to figure out how RSLs seep out of crater walls and flow down a slope!

Streaks near Olympus Mons volcanic base. Image credit: HiRISE-ASU

Streaks near Olympus Mons volcanic base. Image credit: HiRISE-ASU

Thank you for reading and come back next week for an overview of the Mars 2020 rover!

Will be back soon...

Good afternoon, Earthlings!

My spaceship (laptop) crashed and is still under repair! No worries- I'll be back up and running soon with lots of neat space stuff! So stay tuned and keep looking up!

Plop plop fizz fizz

Titan as viewed by Cassini. Darker patches are lake regions. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Titan as viewed by Cassini. Darker patches are lake regions. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Good morning, Earthlings!

Titan, Saturn's largest moon, has very interesting lake regions near the poles. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and the Arkansas Space Center are working hard to figure out something extraordinary about these frozen lakes- these lakes are "alive" with bubbles!

These lake bubbles are actually pockets of nitrogen within a methane slurry of other compounds that would burst and fizz once exposed to the lake's surface! Some questions are still to be determined:

1- how big are the bubbles? (this is ongoing currently as the laboratories are suspecting nano to millimeter sized bubbles building up

2- how deep do the bubbles form?

3- how viscous are the lakes to make the bubbles travel?

4- and are the bubbles influenced by the seasons? (yes, Titan experiences lake-effect seasons!)

Here's a really cool video from the JPL Titan Group!

Guess the laboratories have a lot to look forward to!

Thank you for reading and come back next week for a look at some beautiful RSLs!

Is Terraforming Possible for Mars?

Artist illustration of Mars' blasted upper atmosphere from solar radiation and strong solar winds. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.

Artist illustration of Mars' blasted upper atmosphere from solar radiation and strong solar winds. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.

Simple answer- no.

But this does NOT mean the same thing as "habitat-living", which is possible for Mars!

Let's take a look: "Terraforming" means to take a planet (Mars) to be the same as Earth. Running liquid water, growing trees, wildlife, atmosphere- the whole caboodle! 

It's not that easy. In fact, for Mars, it would be quite impossible. For Mars to be just like Earth, there's a few key elements missing from the equation: Atmosphere, magnetic field, and water. And there's one MAJOR THING Mars does not have compared to Earth- a rapidly-moving inner core.

That's right! Our iron core provides our magnetic field, which in turn helps sustain our atmosphere, which regulates our temperature and climate! Mars does have a core, but something in its dynamic past has since slowed it- wiping away its magnetic field and ultimately losing the atmosphere. Without a core system, even an induced magnetic field by astronauts would only be temporary. 

And without a magnetic field and an atmosphere- you get LOTS of radiation! Almost to the point of having nearly 10 X-ray scans of your body PER DAY! And with that amount of radiation, the water is not going to remain a liquid on the surface- it's too cold and irradiated at the same time. 

Terraforming is not the way to go for Mars, but building dome-like structures for habitats would be! Complete synthesized micro-environments. This could be our future for the Red Planet.

Comparison of magnetic fields on Earth (left) and Mars (right). Image credit: NASA

Comparison of magnetic fields on Earth (left) and Mars (right). Image credit: NASA

Thank you for reading and next week- a look at bubbles on Titan!

Planet Hop at TRAPPIST-1

TRAPPIST-1 system illustration. Credit: NASA

TRAPPIST-1 system illustration. Credit: NASA

The recent discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system is still buzzing around with extraordinary mysteries and questions anxious to be answered!

The TRAPPIST-1 system was first dissevered in 2015 with only three tiny planets orbiting the dim, cool dwarf star using the TRAPPIST instrument, thus naming it TRAPPIST-1 system. 

TRAPPIST is the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope at the La Silla Observatory, Chile. By using transit photometry, more planets around the TRAPPIST-1 star were found- counting up to seven as of 2017!

The TRAPPIST star is approximately 11% the size of the sun and less than 10% the mass. The proximity of the planets, for any chance of habitability, must be placed really close to its parent star for heat and water liquidity. 

The planets themselves are not well known…yet. We do know by the movement that these are terrestrial type planets. The sizes are mostly all Earth-sized. Three orbit within the potential Habitable Zone (meaning liquid water is possible!!!) 

"Planet-hopping" has been coined for astrobiological phenomena to hop from planet to planet as the planets in this system are very close, almost as close as our Moon. 

More exciting information should come about with the new James Webb Telescope!

Thank you for reading and next week- a look at Terraforming!

So many "planets"!

Montage of "Not-planets" that would be considered "planets" under a geophysical definition. Image credit: Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. The Moon: Gari Arrillaga. Other data: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/SwRI/UCLA/MPS/IDA. Processing by Ted Stryk, Gordan Ugarkovic, Emily Lakdawalla, and Jason Perry.

Montage of "Not-planets" that would be considered "planets" under a geophysical definition. Image credit: Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. The Moon: Gari Arrillaga. Other data: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/SwRI/UCLA/MPS/IDA. Processing by Ted Stryk, Gordan Ugarkovic, Emily Lakdawalla, and Jason Perry.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) defines a planet under these circumstances:

1-A "planet" is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

2-A "dwarf planet" is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape , (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

3-All other objects , except satellites, orbiting the sun shall be referred to collectively as "small solar-system bodies"

Because of these conditions, Pluto and Ceres, among other planetary bodies, have been deemed "dwarf planets", Trans-Neptunian Objects, or Kuiper Belt Objects. The reason for this definition change of "planets" derived from the discovery of too many small icy bodies outside of Pluto's orbit. No one should have to memorize over 100 planets!

Montage of the "major" dwarf planets! Image credit: Montage by Emily Lakdawalla/NASA.

Montage of the "major" dwarf planets! Image credit: Montage by Emily Lakdawalla/NASA.

However, the definition change is still buzzing around in the planetary community! Mainly due to the fact that the IAU definition change was completed by astronomers, not specifically planetary scientists. The definitions, as stated above, are only concerned by the orbital mechanics of the planetary body, not the building blocks of the planet itself. 

Earlier this year, planetary scientists banded together and formed a new concept of the planetary definition - defining planets by the geophysical sense! This would be inclusive to the definition of "exo-planets" or rogue planets off-set from their course. 

The suggested definition by planetary scientists: A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume spheroidal shape adequately…regardless of orbital parameters."

However, this definition would define moons, such as Ganymede or the Moon or Europa to be considered planets! The debate continues on...

Thank you for reading and next week- a look at the TRAPPIST-1 system!

The Heart of Pluto

Convective nitrogen cells on Sputnik Planitia. Darker material is thought to be irradiated methane and older ices. Image credit: New Horizons/NASA/SwRI. 

Convective nitrogen cells on Sputnik Planitia. Darker material is thought to be irradiated methane and older ices. Image credit: New Horizons/NASA/SwRI. 

Sputnik Planum/Planitia, named after the significant Soviet Union artificial satellite from 1957, is the prominent heart-shaped lobe on the front of Pluto's icy surface. This mysterious basin still has plenty of questions for years to come, but what we do know at this time is quite spectacular! Here are some facts about Pluto's "beating heart":

1-The surrounding geology (North, South, East, West) areas are all different! The North part has graben scars, West has the dark, reddish-brown are known as Cthulhu Regio, South has possible volcanics, and East has an array of sublimation pits. 

2-There are no craters in this region, indicating an age less than 10 million years!

3-There are possible dark wind streaks, which is a tell-tale sign of sublimation by seasonal and mechanical weathering processes. 

4-Most of the surface has large polygonal-shaped areas, currently thought to be convection cells rising and falling very slowly, showing us the youth and behavior of young nitrogen ice in-fill within this basin. 

5-This is not the original spot. Geophysicists believe that a large impact created the basin in the northern part of Pluto at just the right angle and strength to tilt Pluto to an equilibrium, or calmer spin, to where we see it now.  More on this here: https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2016/pdf/2348.pdf

Convective cells and sublimation pitting patterns and interactions. Image credit: New Horizons/NASA/SwRI. 

Convective cells and sublimation pitting patterns and interactions. Image credit: New Horizons/NASA/SwRI. 

Thank you for reading and we Plutonians are excited for discovering more with our dwarf planet! Come back next week for a look at Planet (re?)-classification!

So long and thanks for all the bits

Cassini beginning the Grand Finale stage- taking many pictures of the rings! Image credit: NASA Cassini

Cassini beginning the Grand Finale stage- taking many pictures of the rings! Image credit: NASA Cassini

The Cassini spacecraft has long since been THE SATURN SPACECRAFT. All those beautiful pictures of rings, unknown and tiny moons, and of course, Titan and Enceladus galore!

Alas, the Cassini spacecraft is at its Grand Finale- thrusters are going to push it into the atmosphere of Saturn- giving us our first (and hopefully not the last) look at Saturnian cloud structures and chemistry. In September 2017, it will make its plunge. 

So let's take a look at the fantastic feats of Cassini through the years!

1-Cassini launched its side-partner probe, Huygens, on a fantastic dive into Titan's atmosphere and land on the surface. The funny part is that we didn't know what Titan's surface was made out of- so we built the underside of Huygens like a boat- smooth and rounded- just in case it landed on liquid. Unfortunately it missed the lakes, but it did give us a close up on the blocky ice and methane-rich surface of Titan!

2-The Cassini spacecraft has several instruments, including one for monitoring radio wave emissions from the planet and rings. The sounds out of Saturn are very eerie and even small lightning storms on Saturn have made an appearance! Here's the link to listen to some of Cassini's sound bits: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/multimedia/pia07966.html

3-The very small moons, Atlas and Pan, (which are only 16-20 miles big) were first imaged by Cassini. What we saw were incredibly distorted and squished "ravioli-like" moons! 

4-Shepherd moons and their chaotic nature in between the rings have caused quite a stir with physicists! These tiny moons will keep scientific modeling busy for a while!

5-And finally, Enceladus and the continuous vapor plumes of the southern pole! These images from Cassini have given us so much data for modeling the plumes and possible hydro-thermal venting underneath the mysterious icy crust!

Pan- the "ravioli moon" of Saturn imaged in April 2017! Image credit: NASA Cassini.

Pan- the "ravioli moon" of Saturn imaged in April 2017! Image credit: NASA Cassini.

Thank you for reading and read along next week at Sputnik Planum of Pluto- mysteries up close!