As Opportunity drove her little robot heart out, breaking the 28-kilometer mark on her odometer, and driving the longest backward drive ever, April proved to be another month of exhilarating highs for the Mars Exploration Rover mission and one extended low with only silence from Spirit, despite intensified efforts by her Earth crew to establish contact.
The Planetary Society's Shuttle LIFE experiment is now go for launch on Endeavour's STS-134 mission. I came down to Florida for the loading of our tiny sample tubes into the CREST-1 (Commercial Reusable Experiments for Science & Technology) payload block.
Time again for my monthly look at what's going on with the robots exploring the solar system! The highlight of this month will, I think, be Dawn's first optical navigation images of its first target, Vesta.
A lot of attention has been paid recently to a storm in Saturn's northern hemisphere that is large and bright enough to be visible from Earth, but Saturn's atmosphere actually features lots more swirling storms. They can be hard to see, at least in visible wavelengths.
If you go to a conference about lunar geology, sooner or later you'll hear the term "KREEP" bandied about. (And almost as soon as KREEP is mentioned, a bad pun will be made. It's inevitable.) Context will tell you it has something to do with a special kind of lunar rock, but that'll only get you so far. What is KREEP, and why is it important on the Moon?
Whenever we explore someplace new -- a new island, a new continent, a new cave, a new world -- there's a necessary activity that explorers must perform before they can sensibly tell the world about their discoveries: name things.
I wrote the following blog entry about an image from Japan's Daichi Earth-observing orbiter last week as one to keep in my back pocket for a day when I was too busy to write, not anticipating that there'd soon be a more pressing reason to write about Daichi. On April 21, after just over five years of orbital operations, Daichi unexpectedly fell silent, and is probably lost forever.
Pluto's atmosphere has been a subject of fascination for planetary astronomers since -- well, since astronomers first discovered that it had an atmosphere in the early '90s. The interest is partly because it's fascinating that such a distant and cold world is capable of supporting an atmosphere, and partly because the presence of the atmosphere confounds all attempts to measure Pluto's size precisely.
A while ago I posted all 99 issues of the Voyager Mission Status Bulletins in PDF format, and now I have another cool item to add to that collection: NASA EP-191, "The Voyager Flights to Jupiter and Saturn."
NASA announced last week the start of a Participating Scientist program for Cassini, which is big news, for outer planets scientists anyway. Lots and lots of other missions have participating scientist programs, from big missions like Mars Science Laboratory to little ones like Dawn; but this is the first time for Cassini, which is kind of surprising given that it's been almost seven years since it arrived at Saturn.
Some recent photos that Cassini took from a position nearly in Saturn's shadow caught my eye, and I made a quick color composite. What an amazing view this would be if you were riding on the spacecraft!
When Mariner 10 flew past Mercury, it caught an immense impact basin lying half in and half out of sunlight, which they named Caloris. Even with only half the basin visible, scientists knew it was one of the largest in the solar system. Geologists had to wait more than 25 years to see the rest of Caloris, and when they did it turned out to be even bigger than they had thought. But the fact that Caloris was only half in sunlight was fortuitous in one sense, because it meant that the spot on Mercury that was exactly opposite the area of the Caloris impact was also partially in sunlight. That spot looks weird.
Here's a very pretty picture to start off the week: a really gorgeous fresh crater on the lunar farside. There's nothing particularly unusual about this crater; it's just recent and fresh so there's a mesmerizing amount of detail in the feathery patterns of the ejecta that fans outward from it.
Australia's Space Policy Unit is conducting a survey of people in the commercial space industry, state and local governments, and education and research sectors as part of an effort to assess the economic value of civil space to the country.
We're going to celebrate Lou Friedman's 30 years of service to the Planetary Society by mercilessly making fun of him at a gala "Roast and Toast" event in downtown Los Angeles on April 30. (We will probably say some very nice things about him too.)
Since the Galileo mission discovered tiny Dactyl circling Ida in 1993, quite a lot of asteroid systems have been found to be binary; there are even a few triples. So it's quite reasonable to guess that two of the biggest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, might also have satellites.
Might there be many Titan-like planets and moons, with atmospheres and liquid methane rain, rivers, and lakes, across the galaxy? It's an important question if you think that liquid methane environments could support alien life, because it turns out that Titan-like planets might be more common than Earth-like planets.
I've got some lovely pictures from Saturn to show you! Every three months, the Cassini mission dumps gigabytes worth of precious Saturn data into the Planetary Data System, and the latest gift came on April 1. This particular pile of data, which was taken between April 1 and June 30, 2010, contains a lot of really terrific moon observations.
Space exploration is an international endeavor and I usually try to speak as a citizen of Earth rather than one of my nation, state, or city, but I'm going to ask you to indulge me in a little local boosterism today.