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2014 RC Flyby Science
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2014 RC Flyby Science

by Justin CowartSeptember 12, 2014

The asteroid 2014 RC swooped by Earth at a distance of only 34,000 km (21,000 miles) on Sunday, September 7. The close approach allowed scientists to make some observations of the small asteroid.

(more…)

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Does Europa Have Plate Tectonics?
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Does Europa Have Plate Tectonics?

by Justin CowartSeptember 11, 2014

A paper published in Nature Geoscience on September 7 may hold the answer to a long-standing mystery regarding Europa’s icy shell.

(more…)

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Novato Meteorite Had a Battered Past
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Novato Meteorite Had a Battered Past

by Justin CowartAugust 18, 2014

Detailed study shows the Novato meteorite had a battered past, preserving evidence of multiple impacts during its existence.

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Looking at Landforms on Churyumov-Gerasimenko
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Looking at Landforms on Churyumov-Gerasimenko

by Justin CowartAugust 15, 2014

After 10 years, Rosetta has arrived at Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Its close-up views reveal an active world that harbors surprisingly complex terrain.

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Probing the Impacts of Early Earth
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Probing the Impacts of Early Earth

by Justin CowartApril 13, 2014

Between 3 and 4 billion years ago, the planets of the inner Solar System were scarred by a number of large impacts. This period, known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, marks the final stage of planetary formation in the Solar System. But a new paper published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems suggests that it was also the beginning of plate tectonics here on Earth.

(more…)

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Curiosity Finds Water, But Don’t Plan A Mission On It
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Curiosity Finds Water, But Don’t Plan A Mission On It

by Justin CowartSeptember 27, 2013

New measurements by Curiosity at Gale Crater show that Martian sediments contain almost 2% water by weight, says a study released today in Science. These measurements, taken by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM), were taken in November 2012 at a site named Rocknest. Rocknest, a sandy patch near Curiosity’s landing site, was one of the first ports-of-call for the rover upon arriving at Mars.

The Science study, lead by Laurie Leshin ( Polytechnic Institute), is the first detailed analysis of SAM readings at Rocknest. SAM cooked its samples at a temperature of 835 degrees C before measuring the gases that baked out. Those measurements showed that the sand at Rocknest contained 2% water by weight. To put that in perspective, if future astronauts could collect all of the water from the sediment, they would produce 33 liters from every cubic meter of dirt they processed.

Isotopic measurements taken by SAM also suggest that the sediments at Rocknest are being sponged up by the atmosphere, says Leshin. The evidence is a high ratio of deuterium to hydrogen. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen that contains one neutron. This makes it approximately twice as heavy as hydrogen. As the Martian atmosphere slowly escaped into space, more deuterium than hydrogen remained behind. This left Martian surface water with much more deuterium than water belched out by Martian volcanoes. The results suggest that over time, the sediments sponged up water from the Martian atmosphere, says Leshin.

Obstacles to Manned Spaceflight

Despite holding a significant amount of water, future space missions will likely be unable to do much with it. First, it’s difficult to extrapolate the results from Gale Crater to Mars as a whole. The rocks at Gale Crater were deposited in water, which is somewhat atypical for the Martian surface. Nearly 2/3 of the Martian surface is basalt, volcanic rock that contains a lot less water than sedimentary rocks. This is due to the fact that mineral grains in volcanic rocks are intergrown, leaving no pore space for water to collect inside the rock.

Further, the water that is contained within these sediments will be difficult to extract. The reason why can be shown with a simple home experiment. Take a cup of sand and record the amount of water you put in. Do this until the sand is completely soaked, with a little bit of water puddling on the top. Now, turn the cup to let the water leak out and measure the amount of water you have.  You’ll notice that you only get out about a third of the water you put in. Why? Because the sand particles will have a film of water clinging to them thanks to surface tension. The finer the sediment, the more water you leave behind. More can be removed by pumping, but at the trace levels found by Curiosity, even that will be unextractable.

Further adding to the difficulty of extracting that water is that clay, a very fine sediment that forms the majority of rocks in Gale Crater. Clays that form from weathering of volcanic rocks like those found on Mars, are generally hydrophilic. The chemical composition of these clays attracts water and prevents it from leaving. The crystalline structure found in clay minerals also provides more space to stash away water.

In practice, to extract the water found by Curiosity, future astronauts would need to bake the sediments and collect the water vapor evaporating from the rocks. This would require extra equipment like an oven, as well as the tools and equipment necessary to operate it. As a result, it quickly becomes more practical to simply bring all the water needed from Earth, since reprocessing will already be necessary in the first place for the astronauts’ Mars-bound travel supply.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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IBEX measures the wake produced by the Solar System for the first time
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IBEX measures the wake produced by the Solar System for the first time

by AstroAggregatorJuly 21, 2013

NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer has successfully mapped the wake produced by our Solar System as it moves through the local interstellar medium.

Launched in 2008, IBEX has already helped us map the boundary of the Sun’s influence where the solar wind streaming from the Sun’s surface is no longer strong enough to push out its own “bubble” against the interstellar medium.  We’ve previously covered the fascinating, complex interaction between the charged particles from the Sun and ISM that takes place at the edge of the heliosphere.

As part of these investigations, IBEX has now managed to map the wake of our Solar System as we move through the ISM for the first time by combining three years of data to produce this map of the ENA density looking down the tail.

ibex_heliotail_0

Image from IBEX: Blue represent fast moving particles, yellow and red slow particles.

What are ENAs, I hear you ask? Well, put simply, they are your average atoms. The Sun throws out charged ions (Protons, as one helpful reader reminded me in the specific case of a Hydrogen atom stripped of electrons) in every direction. When these charged ions meet other charged ions from the interstellar medium, they gain an electron and become neutral.  Charged particles are affected by magnetic fields but neutral atoms are not, meaning that their paths stop curving and they effectively travel in straight lines forever afterward.

IBEX measures ENA energetic intensity as they impact the detector after travelling from the interface between the heliosphere and the interstellar medium, producing the image above. A couple of things are important here: the image roughly corresponds with the velocity of the solar wind produced by the Sun – fast at the poles and slower close to the equator. But theres also a few degrees of rotation, apparently due to the interaction between the solar wind and the magnetic field of the galaxy as the particles leave the influence of the heliosphere (represented by the purple magnetic field lines in the principle image).

Astrophysicists dont know exactly how long the tail is, but assume that it vanishes as particles from the solar wind effectively dissipate and become part of the local interstellar medium.

NASA has a pretty sweet video explaining the process here.

Image Credit: NASA/IBEX

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Update: Opportunity Ready to Rove Again
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Update: Opportunity Ready to Rove Again

by Justin CowartMay 1, 2013

UPDATE (May 2): NASA has regained full control over the Opportunity rover after uploading a new set of commands on May 1.

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Perchlorates Common on Mars
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Perchlorates Common on Mars

by Justin CowartApril 5, 2013

Curiosity’s work at target named Rocknest last October helps advance the idea that a class of salts called perchlorates are common on Mars.

(more…)

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LRO Images GRAIL impact craters
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LRO Images GRAIL impact craters

by AstroAggregatorMarch 25, 2013

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter has managed to capture the final resting places of a pair of satellites purposely impacted into the Moon after completing their original mission.

(more…)

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Curiosity Finds A Curious Rock
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Curiosity Finds A Curious Rock

by Justin CowartMarch 22, 2013

Mission scientists discussed a blindingly white rock Curiosity ran over at the 44th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LSPC) this week. (more…)

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Curiosity Digs the Bed of Gale Lake
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Curiosity Digs the Bed of Gale Lake

by Justin CowartMarch 16, 2013

Curiosity has completed the first detailed analysis of the bedrock in Gale Crater, and the results were announced in a press conference on March 12.

(more…)

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