What a year! So far, we’ve had a landing on a comet, great results from Mars, many more exoplanets zeroing in on “goldilocks” zones… and now, across the next few months, NASA spacecraft close in on the two most wondrous and fabled dwarf planets…
First up — Ceres: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft – after probing the giant asteroid Vesta – is getting super close to its planned orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres — due to arrive March 6. The “white dot” mystery grows. But I am especially interested in whether our probe finds evidence of a liquid sea under the thick, icy crust. If so, it will prove the “roofed water worlds” don’t need the tug of a nearby planet, in order to heat and melt subsurface water. It will change our notions of the abundance of liquid water in the universe.
And…the New Horizon spacecraft is closing in on Pluto. Nine years after its launch, New Horizons will achieve closest approach on July 14, 2015, collecting data on the surface and atmosphere of the dwarf planet, its large moon Charon and four smaller moons, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx.
Want your name and message to go onto the New Horizons probe? Uploaded into memory after it finishes its main mission and heads out of the Solar System? See (and join!) the New Horizons Message Initiative, headed by my friend the great space artist Jon Lomberg and his wife Sharona.
Want more wonders? Could there be life in the seas of Saturn’s moons? Cornell researchers have modeled methane-based lifeforms that could live in the liquid methane seas of Titan. Many have I got a great story on the back burner!
Meanwhile, we’re still receiving wonderful views of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko from the Rosetta orbiter, and these should get even better, during coming weeks. A dream come true for this comet guy!
(Alas, they hope that the little Philae lander, which should have been nuclear, not solar powered) will get enough power in a few months, as 67/P streaks sunward. But that’s the same point when the rising push of escaping-subliming gas from below will likely shove the little guy out into space.)
== Visualizing Andromeda ==
For stunning new imagery of our neighboring galaxy, see the high-definition Gigapixels of Andromeda, assembled by Cory Poole.
If there are a trillion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy, that means there are 100 stars for every Human Being! Manifest destiny! Let’s go get em!
Ooops, that just went out over the web… so the natives know we’re coming…
… in peace! Yeah, that’s the ticket. We come in peace. 😉
Seriously, read Phil Plait’s lyrical essay about how fortunate we are to witness such splendor. He writes of “the awe of the raw Universe laid out right in front of me.” Now revealed. By our own hands.
== Peering downward…and outward ==
Four newly launched Earth-observing satellites are now collecting data on global atmospheric conditions, carbon dioxide levels and aerosols, allowing us to better understand our own planet.
A Kepler-discovered solar system with rocky planets is 11.2 billion years old and was born near the dawn of the galaxy. An amazing discovery with profound impact on our “Drake Equation” calculations of when both worlds and life might have first emerged. At a distance of 117 light-years from Earth, Kepler-444 is two and a half times older than our solar system, which is 4.5 billion years old. “Which could provide scope for the existence of ancient life in the galaxy.”
A proposed space telescope, the Aragoscope, could potentially image at a far higher resolution than Hubble. See an interesting write-up on one of the exciting projects we’ve been seed-funding at NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program, designed to turn science fiction into reality through pioneering technology development. This one is a spectacular space telescope that might also be very cheap to build… and closely related to one I described in Existence.
In fact, see my earlier posting about a wide range of skyward wonders that are astronomically-good…
== And more! ==
Astronomers have discovered the largest and most luminous black hole ever seen — an ancient monster with a mass about 12 billion times that of the sun — that dates back to when the universe was less than 1 billion years old. This monster quasar shines (or shone 429 trillion times brighter than the sun.
Closest known flyby: An international group of astronomers has determined that 70,000 years ago a dim star is likely to have passed within our solar systems Oort Cloud — 52,000 astronomical units (AU) or 0.8 light years from the Earth. That is five times closer than Proxima Centauri.
To answer your next question: “98% of the simulations showed Scholz’s star passing through the Oort cloud, only one brought the star within the inner Oort cloud which would have triggered “comet showers”. Still, one is tempted to look for impact fluxes having gone up, 60-70,000 years ago.
An interesting thought that came up, at the AAAS discussions. That a top-ranked motion picture like Avatar can now cost about the same as an astronomical mission to discover thousands of real-life planets, like Kepler. Not suggesting a zero-sum tradeoff.
We need both. Now if only one could help the other….
== Mister Spock — the final farewell ==
Yes, it was good to have Leonard Nimoy among us. I won’t say Rest in Peace, because frankly, although I am a scientific dubious agnostic, I do hope he is not “resting,” but off on his next cool adventure. Maybe even where no one has been, before.