March came in like a lion and went out like a lamb at Meridiani Planum, Mars: Opportunity felt the cold wind on her solar panels, then "settled" in a little more, working through the depths of its fifth Martian winter, as the team honored one of its own up there, and the Mars Exploration Rover mission logged month number 99 of exploration.
Welcome to my monthly roundup of the activities of our intrepid robotic emissaries across the solar system! I count 16 spacecraft that are actively performing 13 scientific missions at Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, Vesta, Saturn, and at the edge of the heliosphere.
Last week, Pamela Gay of CosmoQuest announced that their Moon Mappers citizen science project is out of its beta phase and ready for prime time. Moon Mappers enlists the help of the public to perform the gargantuan task of mapping the sizes and positions of craters photographed on the Moon by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Crater counting is the most powerful tool geologists have for figuring out how old planetary surfaces are. But when you have Terabytes of data, it's simply impossible for one scientist to count all the craters
Here's a newly announced contest that is right up my alley and, I hope, of interest to regular readers of this blog. ESA has just announced "Hubble's Hidden Treasures," a contest to encourage what I've been trying to get people to do for years: trawl through the Hubble archives to find unappreciated tresures of photos and make them pretty for public consumption. They have two categories, one for newbies (who can use image processing tools provided on ESA's website) and one for more serious amateurs (who can use other software).
This month will see GRAIL begin its science mission measuring the Moon's gravity field. MESSENGER will complete its primary mission at Mercury, celebrating its one-Earth-year-in-orbit anniversary with a big data release, and immediately begin work on its one-year extended mission. Mars will pass its solstice, ushering in warmer days for Opportunity. Coincidentally, this month will see Jupiter's southern winter solstice, too, though there are no spacecraft there to notice it. Out at Saturn, Cassini will have two encounters with Enceladus this month, one of them distant, one of them at 74 kilometers altitude.
One of the more exciting talks last week was given by Antoine Lucas about his work with Oded Aharonson "denoising" Cassini radar images of Titan. Cassini's radar images are superior to the camera photos in revealing fine details and topography on Titan's surface, but they do suffer from a random noise component that makes the pictures look snowy. Antoine and Oded have developed a method for removing much of this noise.
I just sat in the "small bodies" session at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, listening to three talks about Phobos. The first was by Abby Fraeman, who looked at data on Phobos and Deimos from the two imaging spectrometers in orbit at Mars. The next talk, by L. Chappaz, was motivated by Phobos-Grunt's mission. It asked: if you grabbed 200 grams of soil from the surface of Phobos, how much of that material would actually have originated on Mars? Then there was a particularly interesting talk that dealt with the question of how Phobos' grooves formed.
Water ice at Mercury's poles? That's crazy, right? Mercury is so close to the Sun that it seems inconceivable that you could have water ice there. But Mercury's rotational axis has virtually no tilt (MESSENGER has measured its tilt to be less than 1 degree), so there are areas at Mercury's poles, most often (but not always) within polar craters, where the Sun never rises above the horizon to heat the surface.
After NASA Night at the 2012 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, a group of young scientists (most of us just out of graduate school) met to discuss what we could do both in the near and far term to revive NASA's ability to continue the flagship mission program we would all like to see in our future.
One of the topics I found most exciting yesterday was a series of talks on Titan's climate. Bob West showed how Titan's detached haze has shifted with time. Zibi Turtle presented about how Titan's weather has changed with these seasonal changes. Jason Barnes followed up Zibi's talk -- which was based on Cassini camera images -- with a study of the same regions using data from Cassini's imaging spectrometer, trying to figure out what was going on with that brightening. Ralph Lorenz talked about rainfall rates on Titan. Jeff Moore asked: what if Titan hasn't always had a thick atmosphere?
The President's proposed 2013 NASA budget calls for deep cuts to the nation's very successful planetary science program. These cuts not only threaten the future of planetary science, but also impact our ability to conduct deep space missions. As the next generation of planetary scientists, the graduate student community is deeply concerned about the ramifications of these budget cuts, and we must voice our concerns to policymakers in Washington, D.C.
Tens of thousands of Jupiter images were taken by the Voyager spacecraft, but relatively few have been processed to reveal their true beauty and wonder. The latest Snapshots video from Emily Lakdawalla explains why.
The city of Tustin is about an hour's drive from Planetary Society HQ in Pasadena. That's when the freeway gods are kind, which they never are. The trip I made there yesterday was well worth the trouble.
Yesterday I was treated to a little tour (little, because it's a little building) of Honeybee Robotics' office here in Pasadena. Honeybee is developing some great technology for future space missions for Earth, Mars, and beyond.
It is always thrilling to see relics of human exploration out there on other worlds. Today, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team posted some new photos of two defunct spacecraft: the Luna 17 lander and the Lunokhod 1 rover. I've posted images of the two craft before, but the ones released today are much better.
In this week's Snapshots from Space video, I talk about the Voyager 1 images of Jupiter -- how many there are (tens of thousands), and what a challenge they represent for image processors. But, I promise, the effort is worth it. Here's just one example: it's a color, crescent view of Jupiter, taken by Voyager 1 as it departed.