A piece of Mars: Sandwiched between hills, a huge stepped amphitheater has been carved out of the rock by the wind. The scene is 770×577 m across, with each giant step about 20 m wide. Just imagine a huge concert taking place down in the bottom of this monstrous gap (except the acoustics on Mars aren’t so great). (HiRISE ESP_020534_1825, NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
We have made our first addition to the ballot. Vulcan is the Roman god of lava and smoke, and the nephew of Pluto. (Any connection to the Star Trek TV series is purely coincidental, although we can be sure that Gene Roddenberry read the classics.). Thanks to William Shatner for the suggestion!
So what do you think of the idea of naming the two moons of Pluto Vulcan and Romulus?You have mythology, pos and neg plutorocks.com/ground-rules
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) February 12, 2013
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The naming of a moon is a rare privilege for any astronomer. Fewer than 200 moons have been discovered orbiting the Solar System’s planets (dwarf or otherwise).
Over the centuries, the astronomical community has established standards for the naming of moons. Most names come from ancient mythologies. The moons of Uranus are the exception, with names coming primarily from the works of William Shakespeare.
These rules ensure that newly-discovered moons receive names that have already stood the test of time. The same names will still be in use centuries and even millennia from now. Whereas today’s literature might be long forgotten, we can be confident that future generations of astronomers (and maybe even astronauts) will still recall the stories from Mount Olympus and Stratford-upon-Avon.
I suspect these naming traditions did not arise by accident. For whatever reason, we humans seem to have a deep-seated, pre-scientific need to interpret the night sky in terms of stories. Naturally, we choose the big stories, involving grand themes, great powers and deep mysteries.
I was previously involved in the naming of three moons: Pan at Saturn, plus Mab and Cupid at Uranus. In each case, the process was simple and straightforward. We pulled out our dusty old copies of Bullfinch’s Mythology or the Riverside Shakespeare and started browsing. (In each case, I also experienced a wistful regret that I had not spent more time studying literature in college, back when I still had the opportunity.)
When we announced the discoveries of Pluto’s fourth and fifth moons, it became clear to me that the naming process might have to be different. This time, I received hundreds of spontaneous, unsolicited suggestions. I suspect that some of the world’s affection for Pluto comes from its so-called “demotion” to dwarf planet status. Perhaps it is also because the names of Pluto’s moons are all associated with Hades and the Underworld, the stuff of so many of our most primal fears. Whatever the reason, the discovery team has decided that it would be unfair to keep the naming process to ourselves.
Starting today, we are trying something new. We are asking the public to help us name the moons. Visit plutorocks.seti.org and tell us what you think. We have seeded the ballot with a few names, or you can propose your own. The names will still have to be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but we will use your votes to help us decide the names we propose.
Please join us in adding the next chapter to the story of Pluto.
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A piece of Mars: The dark dune here seems to have a subtle rainbow color across it. Is it a real rainbow? Well, no. Part of it is that I’ve stretched the image to enhance color, so the dark dune should really be more gray than blue. But part of it is real — creamy orange dust has settled in a strip on the left side of the dune, making its contrast with the rest of the dune look like a rainbow. (HiRISE ESP_025001_2255, NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
Athena Coustenis was born in Athens, Greece and grew up in a garden suburb by the Saronic Bay before moving to France where she earned two Masters degrees and one PhD in Astronomy and Space Techniques (she started another PhD in English Literature and hopes to finish it one day…) thanks to a scholarship provided by the French University which furthermore allowed her to complete a Post-Doc at Paris Observatory and apply for a position with the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques (CNRS).
Coustenis then got a permanent CNRS Researcher position at the Paris-Meudon Observatory, in the Space Lab for Space Studies and instrumentation in Astrophysics (LESIA).Paris-Meudon Observatory is the most important scientific observatory in France (www.obspm.fr). The facilities at Meudon include a 36-metre tall concrete tower containing a sophisticated spectrograph for examination of the Sun. Nearby, astronomers have converted the beautiful and luxurious Chateau de Meudon into an observatory and some have even lodged there!
Meudon was named by the Gauls, who called it Mol-Dum (sand dune). It is now a suburb on the south western edge of Paris, nestled in the hills and valleys of the river Seine half way between Paris and Versailles.
Coustenis is heavily involved in the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan, and has used a variety of large telescopes to conduct planetary investigations on outer planet systems and exoplanets. She has written more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and has given more than 300 communications in scientific conventions and public events. She has first-authored three books.
She is leading or contributing to several advisory groups for the European Space Agency (http://sci.esa.int/science-e/www/object/index.cfm?fobjectid=46238) and for NASA. Among other, she is President of the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences (http://www.iamas.org/) and of the Planetary Sciences Division of the European Geosciences union (http://www.egu2013.eu/), as well as Secretary General of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society (http://dps.aas.org/).
She has been awarded many NASA and ESA achievement awards and the 2012 Prix pour la réussite au Féminin by the France Euro Méditerranée Association (the ceremony took place at the French Senate on 29 November 2012, see picture attached).
Athena is married to Franck Darin and has a daughter, Callista (“the most beautiful” in Greek, named after the beautiful mythological nymph and a large moon in the solar system). She enjoys visiting Greece and her family there as often as possible (see recent picture of a lecture at the famous Academy of Athens).
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A piece of Mars: Most dunes on Mars are the freshest, youngest features around. Not so here. The bright dunes near the bottom here are slowly being buried by debris coming down from the gullies on the slope, coming from the upper left. (HiRISE ESP_029483_1470, NASA/JPL/University of Arizona).
A piece of Mars: These large dunes are located in Kaiser crater, a big crater in the southern midlatitudes. The scene is 789×592 m across. Imagine standing on one of these monsters, and seeing nothing but pristine ripples criscrossing all over the place. (HiRISE ESP_029500_1330, NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
I mentioned in my previous post the detection of an issue on the Kepler spacecraft which pushed the engineering team to put the space telescope in safe mode for 10 days. The Kepler team announced today that science operation was reinitiated yesterday. That’s a great news!
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A piece of Mars: What are those dark, flat circles and why are there little dunes sitting on top of them? They’re probably old impact craters that got filled in with dark sediment, and were then eroded flat. So you’re seeing the old crater floors — the crater rim and ejecta have all been eroded away. Dunes have formed out of some of the dark sediment that’s slowly eroding away. (HiRISE ESP_029422_2055 NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
“Mountain View, we have a problem…”
NASA Kepler Manager at NASA Ames, Mountain View announced today that they interrupted the science operation of the spacecraft, due an issue with one of the reaction wheels. Kepler is equipped with four reaction wheels which are used to accurately point the telescope. One failed in July 2012 and today the team announced that they detected issues with a second one. Kepler needs three reaction wheels to be used properly, if this one fails the mission is most likely over. That’s not good news.