Another smoking gun in the search for life in Enceladus’ ocean

Another smoking gun in the search for life in Enceladus’ ocean
read more
This illustration shows Cassini diving through the Enceladus plume in 2015. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This illustration shows Cassini diving through the Enceladus plume in 2015.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Today, NASA-funded scientists announced a major new step in the search for life on Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, thanks to new data collected by the NASA/ESA Cassini mission.

Enceladus has attracted a lot of interest because it has an active pole that spews jets of material into outer space. During its last flyby over that pole, an instrument on board the Cassini spacecraft detected the presence of a biomarker—molecular hydrogen. This suggests that the ocean we know lies beneath the moon’s surface could indeed contain an ecosystem similar to the ones we find in deep-sea hydrothermal vents on Earth.

AGU Fall Meeting 2014: Solar System Small Bodies: Relics of Formation and New Worlds to Explore

Can you believe it is December already!? As usual, it is a busy month with the AGU Fall Conference.  I co-organized a session on small solar system bodies with Padma Yanamandra-Fisher (PSI)  and Julie Castillo (JPL).  We will talk about recent discoveries in this emerging field including the discovery of rings around Chariklo, the understanding of regolith motion on asteroids, the new lander for Hayabusa 2 (MASCOT) and off course adaptive optics observations of asteroids. Below more info. See you there!

Where: Thursday, December 18, 2014 01:40 PM – 03:40 PM
When: Moscone West 3002

Why: The composition and physical properties of Small Solar System Bodies (SSSBs), remnants of the formation of planets, are key to better understand the origins of our solar system and their potential as resources is necessary for robotic and human exploration. Missions such as ESA/Gaia, NASA/OSIRIS-REx, JAXA/Hyabusa-2, NASA/Dawn and NASA/New Horizons, to study asteroids, comets, dwarf planets and TNOs are poised to provide new in situ information. on SSSBs.  Recent remote observations of bright and main belt comets; asteroid Chariklo, with its ring system; asteroid and KBO binaries illustrate that the distinction between comets and asteroids is blurred, providing a new paradigm for such classification. This session welcomes abstracts on the remarkable results bringing information on the internal structure and composition of SSSBs based on space and ground-based data, numerical models, as well as instrument/mission concepts in theprospect of future exploration.

Artistic representation of the triple asteroid system showing the large 270-km asteroid Sylvia surrounded by its two satellites, Romulus and Remus. The differentiated interior of the asteroid is shown through a cutaway diagram. The primary asteroid of the system may have a dense, regularly-shaped core, surrounding by a fluffy or fractured material. The two moons are shown to be strongly elongated, and composed of two lobes, as suggested by the recently observed occultation data by the satellite Romulus. (credits: D. Futselaar & F. Marchis)
Artistic representation of the triple asteroid system showing the large 270-km asteroid Sylvia surrounded by its two satellites, Romulus and Remus. The differentiated interior of the asteroid is shown through a cutaway diagram. The primary asteroid of the system may have a dense, regularly-shaped core, surrounding by a fluffy or fractured material. The two moons are shown to be strongly elongated, and composed of two lobes, as suggested by the recently observed occultation data by the satellite Romulus. (credits: D. Futselaar & F. Marchis)

House Hearings Fail to Tap NASA’s Full Potential

Yesterday the  U.S. House of Representatives  Subcommittee on Space held a hearing entitled “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step Planetary science“. I was curious about this act and expected the hearing to focus on interesting new ways to motivate private companies to design, launch, and operate space missions, and further the study of our Solar System.

picture_hearing
Five witnesses at the House Hearing on “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step Planetary science”

54 years of space exploration: an updated map that you must see

National Geographic asked 5W Infographics to update its 50 Years of Exploration graphic, a classic that I use often in my talks to illustrate our space exploration program and its focus on the inner part of the solar system.

The updated version, renamed “Cosmic Journey“, is spectacular, better organized and easier to follow than its predecessor. It has been updated to include new missions sent over the past 4 years. The new color code includes the paths of failed, as well as successful, missions and also the nation that led them.

Cosmic Journey by Sean McNaughton, Samuel Velasco, 5W Infographics, Matthew Twombly and Jane Vessels, NGM staff, Amanda Hobbs. Source: NASA, Chris Gamble.
Cosmic Journey by Sean McNaughton, Samuel Velasco, 5W Infographics, Matthew Twombly and Jane Vessels, NGM staff, Amanda Hobbs.

Mercury Craters named after world renowned artists, musicians and authors

Adapted from MESSENGER Mission News (March 26, 2013)

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) — the arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since its inception in 1919 — recently approved a proposal from the MESSENGER Science Team to assign names to nine impact craters on Mercury. In keeping with the established naming theme for craters on Mercury, all of the newly designated features are named after famous deceased artists, musicians, or authors or other contributors to the humanities.

Global map of Mercury recently released by the NASA Messenger team. The globe on the left was created from the MDIS monochrome surface morphology base map campaign. The globe on the right was produced from the MDIS color base map campaign. Portraits of the nine artists, musicians and authors honored with the name of a crater on the planet. (adapted from NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington & Wikipedia by F. Marchis)

Live-Tweets of Jim Green Presentation at OPAG

A few days ago, I received in my email the following message from the Division for Planetary Sciences.
Community Urged To Hear NASA’s Jim Green Presentation On 10 January

There has been much discussion of NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) budget in recent weeks (about R&A in particular). Next week, Jim Green will give a presentation at the OPAG meeting in Atlanta about this, at 8:30 am on 10 January 2013. We strongly encourage our membership to call in via webcast to hear what he has to say, and to educate themselves about the current and upcoming PSD budget, including R&A. You can register for the webex and see the agenda at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/opag/.

Rosaly Lopes (DPS Chair) & Heidi Hammel (DPS Vice-Chair)

I was very curious to hear what Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Chief, wanted to tell at the Outer Planet Assessment Group (a new mission toward Europa? a boost in the budget of NASA?) but unfortunately,  I could not attend or listen to the his talk.

China joined the interplanetary club by successfully imaging the asteroid Toutatis

This exceptional result was brought to my attention late on Friday evening, but it clearly deserves a short post on this blog. Chang’E 2, a chinese mission dedicated to the exploration of the moon was recycled to explore the Near-Earth Asteroid (4179) Toutatis  and succeeded.

Chang'e 2 images of (4179) Toutatis captured at 93–240 km distance between 16:30:09–16:30:24, maximum resolution 10 meters/pixel

The social media impact of NASA and other scientific institutions

Yesterday, my SETI Institute colleagues and I had a discussion about the importance of NASA in the minds of people in the USA, and around the world. The achievements of NASA are definitely universal and the latest interest of people for Curiosity, the car-sized rover which landed recently on Mars, is a vivid example. It is inspirational for the scientists to see that our friends and family follow with interest, the development of the mission, its challenging landing, the first step of the rover, and more recently its first self-portrait.

The NASA planetary exploration program is a superb scientific and exploration endeavor, but it also has ripple effects on our life. To explore these new worlds, we challenge scientists & engineers to create and use new technologies. The program also inspires the young generation to be interested in science, mathematics and technology.

 [left] My son proudly showing an MSL-Curiosity mockup that we made for his kindergarden class (credit: F. Marchis). [right] A self-portrait of the rover taken using its arm-camera in Sol 32 (credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Emily Lakdawalla)

Is there any way we could quantify this social impact of NASA and rate it with respect to other brands and institutions?

Kepler-16: Exoplanets around binary star systems DO exist

Kepler-16 is another great discovery coming from the Kepler telescope, the 10th NASA Discovery mission which is devoted to finding Earth-size exoplanets by monitoring variations of brightness due to transit. Today the Kepler team found a circumbinary exoplanet, an exoplanet orbiting a binary star system. Did they find Tatooine?

Artistic view of the Kepler-16(AB)b exoplanet (a Saturn-like exoplanet) in orbit around its 2 stars shown in the background.
Artistic view of the Kepler-16(AB)b exoplanet (a Saturn-like exoplanet) in orbit around its 2 stars shown in the background.