Daily Roundup: The Solar Wind Strips Mars Bare. Look Out Venus, You’re Next!

Venus atmosphere is being eroded by the Sun. Image credit: ESA

We are very lucky here on Earth, we have a powerful magnetic field, known as the magnetosphere surrounding us and our atmosphere, protecting us from the worst that the Sun can throw at us. Other planets in our Solar System ain’t so lucky. Poor old Mars has been damaged beyond repair by the constant erosion by the solar wind, dragging most of its atmosphere into space. Now, Earth’s planetary sister, Venus, is showing signs of atmospheric leakage… where will it end?
Continue reading “Daily Roundup: The Solar Wind Strips Mars Bare. Look Out Venus, You’re Next!”

Could Mars Quakes, Seasonal Temperature Changes or a Chance Meteorite Impact Cause Mars Avalanches?

Detailed view of one of the avalanches observed by the HiRISE instrument in the Mars North Pole region. Image credit: NASA/JPL/UA

It doesn’t get much better than this. A robotic orbiter snaps a photo hundreds of miles above the surface of an alien planet, capturing a geological event as it happens. Yes, we’ve seen Io’s immense volcanoes erupt, and we’ve seen huge storms rage on Jupiter, but often these large-scale planetary events are too massive for us to put into context and so we file them under “astronomy”. But, when we see an event like an avalanche on Mars, we can relate it with events on Earth, we have a “feel” for what this means. Suddenly an avalanche on Mars holds a special meaning to us; we instantly have a connection with other planets in our Solar System.

And now for the question… what caused the four near-simultaneous avalanches recently observed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter?
Continue reading “Could Mars Quakes, Seasonal Temperature Changes or a Chance Meteorite Impact Cause Mars Avalanches?”

Daily Roundup: “It Ain’t Water On Mars” and Some Want UK Astronauts, But Others Don’t

Simulations of dry debris flow and water flow when compared with HiRISE observations. Figure credit: Jon Pelletier, University of Arizona

There has been much debate surrounding observations by the artificial satellites orbiting Mars, but with one discovery, the debate was… non-debatable. Liquid water was flowing (albeit quickly) across the Martian surface intermittently, creating river-like channels flowing down crater sides. But that was until a group of University of Arizona scientists tackled the situation. To their surprise it wasn’t water that was flowing, it was something entirely different…
Continue reading “Daily Roundup: “It Ain’t Water On Mars” and Some Want UK Astronauts, But Others Don’t”

Daily Roundup: Universe Today Articles (4)

Space Shuttle Endeavour is preparing for a May 11th launch. Image credit: NASA. Source: http://www.nasa.gov

A mixed bag for today’s Universe Today articles. For starters, NASA has asked the ESA Mars orbiter, Mars Express, to help out when NASA’s Phoenix Mars Mission approaches the Red Planet in May this year. Along with NASA’s Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey missions, Mars Express will aid tracking duties as the lander begins its critical descent. Great international/interplanetary cooperation! But, back on Earth…
Continue reading “Daily Roundup: Universe Today Articles (4)”

Dark Matter Ain’t So Dark After All: Observing The Mysterious Cosmic Glow with the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe

Observations by the WMAP observatory of the cosmic background radiation. Is there Dark Matter out there? Image credit: WMAP Science Team, NASA

The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has observed something rather strange in our galaxy. There appears to be excess microwave radiation being emitted from the space around us, with apparently no explanation. In new research, this microwave excess may be caused by “nuggets” of dark matter, perhaps a few tonnes in mass, radiating some low energy EM waves. Could this be the first evidence of dark matter? If so, this could be a revolutionary method of observing the stuff…
Continue reading “Dark Matter Ain’t So Dark After All: Observing The Mysterious Cosmic Glow with the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe”

UK Physics and Astronomy in Danger

Color composite adaptive optics image of the planetary nebula M2-9 using the ALTAIR adaptive optics system on Gemini North. Image credit: Gemini Observatory/Travis Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage

My true aim for astroengine.com is to post advanced (but interesting) space physics concepts on an informal stage. But when news like this comes along, I feel compelled to say something. In a nutshell, the UK physics and astronomy community has been hit with a series of harsh and ill thought-out budget cutbacks in recent years. Things have gotten worse since April 2007 (when the two main research councils PPARC and CCLRC merged) when all UK physics and astronomy funding started being managed by The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). It would appear the main focus is to find ways to plug the £80 million funding deficit it has inherited and not to find ways to protect research projects.

So, physics and astronomy in the UK is facing cutbacks on a scale that defies intelligence. Why is a nation, as scientifically gifted as the UK, making cutbacks to research that will shape the most exciting era of science mankind has ever seen?
Continue reading “UK Physics and Astronomy in Danger”

Question of the Day: Were Moons Nix and Hydra Adopted by Pluto and Charon?

The Pluto-Charon system. Image credit: NASA/HST

OK, here are two questions on everybody’s lips:
1) Could we be wiped out by an asteroid in the near future?
2) Are Pluto and Charon’s kids adopted?

Well, #1 has probably been asked a few times (most likely during crappy movies like Deep Impact), but #2? I’m hoping this is the first time it’s ever been asked… and it’s a very important question… well, kinda.
Continue reading “Question of the Day: Were Moons Nix and Hydra Adopted by Pluto and Charon?”

Daily Roundup: Universe Today Article

Just the one article this time for the Universe Today. Todays article covers a recent US satellite mission carrying out some cool experiments in space. This orbiting mini-lab is carrying out tests on a new nanotech sensor that is sensitive to poisons in air (useful for spaceships, protecting astronauts), and possibly even more interesting, experiments on a new electrochromic film that could be wrapped around spaceships to keep them warm or cool them down. The wonders never cease…

Snippet: Space Debris is Becoming a Serious Problem, but Google Earth is Watching

Space junk as plotted in the Google Earth software.

Every time a rocket launches, a spaceship orbits, an astronaut drops some trash or the US blows up a satellite, debris is created. Space debris (a.k.a. space junk) is a nasty side-effect of our push into space, but it isn’t a recent phenomenon. Even the early Gemini missions in the sixties did it, as does the ultra-efficient International Space Station – bits of spacesuits, cameras, nuts, bolts and tools are accidentally (and deliberately) dropped into the vacuum. But it’s only a bit of litter right? Wrong. That’s a hyper-velocity rifle shot, and it’s coming to a spaceship very soon, if we don’t take action now…
Continue reading “Snippet: Space Debris is Becoming a Serious Problem, but Google Earth is Watching”

The Mischievous Nature of Primordial Black Holes

A black hole dining on a star… primordial black holes on the other hand less destructive, but can cause some mayhem nonetheless. Image credit: NASA. Source: http://www.dailygalaxy.com/photos/uncategorized/2007/07/05/black_hole_3_3.jpg

Primordial black holes are strange little critters. They’re not the product of a massive star recently gone supernova and they’re not as exotic as a wormhole, tunnelling a gateway into another dimension. They are very, very old remnants of the very beginning of our Universe. Much like the foamy bubbles left over from washing the dishes, a few bubbles stubbornly hang around on the side of the sink for an hour or so after the water has long gone. Primordial black holes (or PBHs for short) are just that, the leftovers from the very energetic (and very bubbly) Big Bang 14 billion years ago…

…but they’re not done causing trouble quite yet…
Continue reading “The Mischievous Nature of Primordial Black Holes”