Cassini’s Final Hours

15 Sep

Launched in 1997 the joint spacecraft Cassini-Huygens will soon end its mission to capture images and data from some of the furthest reaches of our Solar System.

A collaborative effort between NASA, ESA and ASI (Italian Space Agency) has seen orbiter (Cassini) and lander (Huygens) return some of the most fascinating pictures of Saturn and her surrounding bodies.

Time spent on this mission dates back to the 1980s with some scientists working on the project for more than a Saturnian year (29 Earth years).

Cassini

Cassini, named after Italian astronomer and mathematician Giovanni Cassini.

 

After its launch the spacecraft finally reached Saturn’s orbit in July of 2004, 5 months later, once preliminary experiments were complete, the Huygens lander probe separated from the orbiter at the end of the same year. Named after Christiaan Huygens the scientific probe’s mission was to land on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan and collect samples from a moon other than our own for the first time.

Cassini has continued to send back pictures and data from orbit high above the colossal Saturn for another 13 years, until today.

Mission staff will be ending Cassini’s life when they send the craft careering into Saturn’s gaseous atmosphere on September 15th 2017. The team will steer Cassini between the outer rings of the planet avoiding collision with any of her moons as not to contaminate their biological structures.

Coverage of the final stages of this mission will begin at 9am GMT (4am EST) and continue throughout the morning to early afternoon and you can watch it all via the NASA streaming website here or read an incredible account of the mission’s story via the BBC website.

Below is a series of photographs highlighting key moments during the Cassini mission over the past 19 years.

CassiniNowVThen

Assembly, Test and Launch team 1997 vs September 2017.

SaturnPole

The hexagonal pole of the planet Saturn.

SaturnEclipse

Yes, this really is a photograph.

Titan

A stunning, eerie image of Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons.

Mimas

That’s no Moon! Well actually it is. Mimas, looks straight out of science fiction.

EncelJets

Jets spew from the south pole of Enceladus, a frozen but perhaps not baron world.

Encel

A series of fly-by images of Enceladus.

DioneDwarfingRhea

Dione seems to dwarf its close celestial neighbour Rhea.

lastPic

The last image of Titan taken from Cassini.

LastSaturn

Give us a wave. The last image taken by Cassini of a full Saturn, September 11th 2017.

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The final shot of Saturn’s atmosphere before Cassini entered it’s death plunge, courtesy of Jason Major and NASA.

You can view the extended image gallery of the Cassini-Huygens mission from the NASA website.

All pictures courtesy of NASA, ESA and Italian Space Agencies

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China’s Meteoric Rise in the Space Race

21 Nov

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) looks set to become a science power-house with projects and ambitions in space overshadowing any other country on the globe.

China’s roots in space exploration can be traced back to the 1950’s when rocket propelled ballistic missile programs spearheaded national security measures. After two decades of military tensions in the region, the country’s first satellite was launched into orbit in 1970. However, it was not until 1993, when the China National Space Administration (CNSA) was formed that we got an idea of their intentions in racing to the stars.

After a series of unmanned missions from 1999 onwards, China soon became the third country to send humans in to space successfully when the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft launched astronaut Yang Liwei in October of 2003. Since then the space community has seen an exponential rise in the amount of missions and other research programs headed by the communist state.

Reaching for the Skies

Back in September we saw news regarding the Space Administration entering a three year test phase of the World’s largest Radio Telescope in the south-western Guizhou Province.

Measuring in at 500m across, the telescope dwarfs the current largest Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico by nearly 200m.

With the ability to detect signals in the furthest reaches of the cosmos as well as focus on extremely distant, dense stars, this instrument is likely to make China one of the globe’s science superpowers.

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Photo courtesy of Chinese Academy of Sciences

The Red’s Planet?

Following a number of scientific successes in the early part of this decade, the Chinese are continuing their aspirations in space exploration by planning un-crewed missions to both the Moon and Mars. In 2013 the Jade Rabbit lunar probe was launched as part of the lunar exploration program, which also aims to have the Chang’e-4 probe land on the far side of the moon by 2018.

The planet Mars seems to have captured the imagination of China as much as any other country. Beijing have a series of projects and launches lined up to prepare them for their first on-surface rover by 2020, and ambitions to send humans between 2040 – 2060.

China was also a leading member in the Mars 500 program, simulating the psychological effects of isolation for the duration of a mission to Mars, which is around 500 days.

Project 921

After decades of cooperation with the then Soviet Union and continued support from Russia, the Chinese developed modified versions of their Shenzhou spacecraft with the intention of constructing a permanently manned Space Station by 2022 under the title of Project 921.

In 2011 the PRC began their continual testing program by launching the first in a series of spacecraft modules under the name Tiangong, meaning “Heavenly Palace”. Manned crafts Shenzhou 8,9 and 10 were launched in the early twenty-tens, all docking with the first module Tiangong 1, creating history for China’s space program.

The second phase of this project was only recently entered when the Tiangong 2 precursor facility was launched to rendezvous with the first module and, after a month on board Tiangong 1 conducting scientific and medical tests, two CNSA Astronauts returned to Earth safely.

Shortly after astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee commented:

“our manned space program has achieved major new progress and is the latest achievement in building a country of innovation and a world power of science and technology… It is the newest achievement of Chinese people in climbing the peak of the world.”

Rosetta gets stoned

9 Oct

Last week saw a dramatic end to one of the most influential space missions in recent decades. At 11:19am GMT on September 30th the Rosetta spacecraft crash landed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to the cheers and jeers of scientists and engineers from the European Space Agency (ESA) and German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Back in early March 2004 spacecraft Rosetta, and assistant lander Philae, launched from the Guiana Space Centre in South America with a mission to map the surface and composition of Comet 67P.

cities_comet_london-1024x693

After over ten years of transit, Rosetta finally rendezvoused with the comet in August 2014 having passed a number of asteroids and the planet Mars. Throughout the 720 million kilometre journey the spacecraft’s array of instruments were cataloguing data as well as gathering a library of 116,000 images.

Probe lander Philae created history when it detached from its carrier on November 12th 2014 and touched down after bouncing twice on the comet’s surface. Once located relatively unscathed at the bottom of a crater wall, Philae could begin to send vital data back to Earth via Rosetta. The probe pieced together the molecular structures of the comet’s atmosphere and soil for a further three days until its battery was depleted.

Rosetta continued its work after the loss of Philae and the spacecraft was able to relay important evidence for another 23 months. Evidence such as the signature of water vapour, making up some of the comet’s structure, was found to be vastly different to that on Earth. Bringing scientists to the conclusion that the globe’s oceans were not delivered via these types of objects.

After 12 years and 7 billion kilometres travelled it was time for Rosetta’s final farewell. Last Friday (September 30th) ground crew at DLR’s facility in Darmstadt, Germany deliberately drove the vehicle in to the comet it had been so closely monitoring.  Emotions were running high as the team awaited imagery and information of the declination.

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Image courtesy of theweathernetwork.com

Even now that ESA and DLR scientists have called an end to Rosetta’s career, the mission directors are saying there is so much more to come.

“We have only scratched the surface of the science, there is decades worth of data here.”
– Matt Taylor, Rosetta Project Scientist

A selection of spectacular images captured by Rosetta can be found on the ESA website.

Picture Perfect Pluto

2 Jul

Mysteries of the solar system’s misfit planet may finally be solved this month as NASA’s New Horizons space probe approaches Pluto to shed light on the ex-planet we’ve left well within the darkness.

On July 14th 2015 Pluto’s eerie appearance will come into view and it is sure to astound us all.

Hurtling at over 9000 kilometres per hour, the New Horizons probe is near the end of its epic journey to view Pluto and it’s moon system like never before. The probe will soon finish its near decade long trip and finally fall within the orbit of this strange body to help us understand far flung dwarf planets and their neighbours.

What do we know?

At over 4.6 billion kilometres away and smaller than our moon, it is no wonder so little is known about this ex-planet that was eradicated from the big boys league in 2006.

What we do know is that it is extremely cold this far from the sun. Temperatures on Pluto can plummet to lower than -400 degrees Fahrenheit that’s -240 degrees Celsius.

This dwarf planet is thought to have up to 5 orbiting satellites close by but scientists believe this number could be significantly higher due to Pluto hanging over the edge of the extremely vast Kuiper Belt.

Currently we know Pluto’s atmosphere is comprised of the solar system’s usual elemental suspects, Nitrogen, Methane and Carbon Monoxide.

From previous distant observations we see Pluto as a dark yellow, almost sand coloured world, with white highlights across its surface which raises a number of questions regarding its exact composition.

Much like many of our other celestial friends Pluto is likely to be covered with craters caused by large scale impacts since its creation. Early observations have suggested that this world should be somewhat more scarred by heavy bombardments however, there is already a solution to this theory.

Large rifts on the surface of Pluto suggest dynamic geological processes including geysers, that could possibly be spewing liquid methane into the atmosphere, which could point to a warm planetary core.

What we don’t know

Possibly the most exciting thing about Pluto that scientists across the globe are speculating is, what will it look like? Many people have drastically different ideas about how the landscape of Pluto will look. Now, finally, with the help of New Horizons we can start to see the real face of this aptly named plutoid.

Clues to Pluto’s landscape may be shaped by possible past impacts and events. Pluto’s closets moon Charon is likely to have been created when the dwarf planet and another massive body collided in an almost cataclysmic event. Much like our own moons formation, this huge impact would have thrown out dust and debris away from these objects only to be captured by the gravity of the mostly still intact Pluto.

This event may have paved the way for an equatorial mountain range being formed much like we see in moons and planets throughout our local neighbourhood. Perhaps Pluto may harbour lakes of liquid neon or even giant ice fractures on its surface much like Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Pluto’s Polar Regions may end up looking very similar to our own in aesthetics and could even consist of mountain high ice caps during seasonal frosts.

The possibilities are endless

As the New Horizons probe edges closer and closer to this distant world we will begin to see her a little clearer with every mile.

Working with one of NASAs most advanced telescopes and image capture systems it is highly likely New Horizons will be treating us to some spectacular views of the far reaches of our celestial neighbourhood.

We may finally now gain insight into one of the solar systems most bizarre bodies as well as improve our knowledge of all dwarf planets and the other thousands of Kuiper Belt objects.

[COSMIC BODIES] – Lost Worlds

20 Oct

It is easy to lose something small, it might slip down the back of the sofa, or you might drop it on a night out but surely it is a lot harder to lose something the size of a planet?

Ok, well no one has lost anything quite this big, because well frankly it never belonged to anyone. I am, however, referring to rouge planets and their stars. These are huge wandering worlds slowly meandering across the universe perhaps looking for a parent star to take them into their protective care.

There is one particular lost world, which was only discovered in the winter of last year that has everyone in the planetary scientific community mystified.

This bizarre place does not have a name of yet but is known by its scientific designation: CFBDSIR 2149-0403. For the purpose of this article I would like to nickname it ‘Columbus’

‘Columbus’ lies about 100 light-years from us here on Earth and is about the size of 4-7 Jupiter’s. We judge exosolar planets on their comparable size to our biggest heavenly neighbour because, well, we have no comprehension on just how massive these spheres are. Temperatures on ‘Columbus’ get as hot as Mercury, reaching at least 700 Kelvin or around 425 Degrees Celsius.

It is highly likely that ‘Columbus’ was created in a gas cloud similar to the one that formed our solar system; it would have originally had a parent star to orbit around just as we do the Sun. Then after a few millennia the Planet would have been ejected of its orbit by a huge force, most probably another planet or even star.

Now this lonely domain is scheduled to spend the rest of its existence slowly rambling throughout the cosmos. Maybe ‘Columbus’ will get lucky and full into the orbit of a star big enough to hold its mass or maybe this planet’s fate lies in eventual vaporisation and destruction.

Scientists will continue to watch as ‘Columbus’ embarks on the next leg of its exploratory journey. Whilst it does they will also keep their eyes peeled for any other ambling orbs.

Tonight’s SuperMoon

23 Jun

It has been an appalling Summer for skywatching this year. Unannounced rain and general overcast cloud cover has restricted us from viewing the heavens above this season. There is some hope for any keen amateur astronomers though and it comes in the form of our familiar friend the Moon.

Many of you would have gazed up at the shimmering disc in the sky, probably on many occasions too, but today is a special day for the Moon, the celestial body will come to its closets point on its orbit around us. Granted, this event is pretty common but nonetheless incredibly spectacular for anyone watching. There will be other SuperMoons in the future of course, in fact there is one due in July. However our cosmic neighbour wont be passing as close as it is time around.

The scientific name for this event is ‘Perigee Moon’ it marks the coincidence where a new or full Moon is at it’s closets proximity to the Earth. The Lunar surface will appear 30% brighter to us and 14% larger in the night sky. According to experts the best time to view this phenomenon is both at moonrise and moonset when it appears at its very massive.

The next SuperMoon of this magnitude wont be occurring until August 2014. So, weather permitting, keep an eye on the night sky this evening, you may just be surprised to see an old friend looking a little different.