Cassini’s Legacy: Enigmatic Enceladus Will Inspire Us for Generations to Come

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NASA’s Cassini mission captured this view of icy moon Enceladus on March 29, 2017. The crescent is lit by the sun, but the near-side green hue is reflected sunlight bouncing off Saturn’s atmosphere — a.k.a. “Saturn glow” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The day before Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, dramatically ending 13 years of Saturn exploration (and nearly two decades in space), I was sitting on a bench outside the Von Karman Visitor Center on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus in La Cañada Flintridge with Linda Spilker, who served as the mission’s project scientist since before Cassini was launched.

What was supposed to be a quick 5-minute chat before lunch, turned into a wonderful 20-minute discussion about Cassini’s discoveries. But it was also about what the spacecraft meant to Spilker and how other space missions have shaped her life.

“I feel very fortunate to be involved with Cassini since the very beginning … and just to be there, to be one of the first to see SOI [Saturn Orbital Insertion] with those first incredible ring pictures,” she told me. “I love being an explorer. I worked on the Voyager mission during the flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; that sort of whet my appetite and made me want more, to become an explorer to go to the Saturn system.”

Spilker especially loved studying Saturn’s rings, not only from a scientific perspective, but also because they are so beautiful, she continued. “It’s been a heartwarming experience,” she said.

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Before Cassini crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, it took a series of observations that created this mosaic of Saturn and its rings. Cassini plunged into the Saturnian atmosphere on Sept. 15 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Mindaugas Macijauskas)

But Cassini’s “legacy discovery,” said Spilker, was the revelation that the tiny icy moon of Enceladus is active, venting water vapor into space from powerful geysers emerging from the moon’s “tiger stripes” — four long fissures in the moon’s south pole. After multiple observations of these geysers and direct sampling of the water particles during flybys, Cassini deduced that the icy space marble hides a warm, salty ocean.

“What Cassini will be remembered for — its legacy discovery — will be the geysers coming from Enceladus with the ocean with the potential for life. It’s a paradigm shift.” — Linda J. Spilker, Cassini project scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Sept. 14, 2017.

Alongside Jupiter’s moon Europa, Enceladus has become a prime destination for future explorations of life beyond Earth. Its subsurface ocean contains all the ingredients for life as we know it and Cassini was the mission that inadvertently discovered its biological potential. So now we know about this potential, Spilker is keen to see a dedicated life-hunting mission that could go to Enceladus, perhaps even landing on the surface to return samples to Earth.

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Artist impression of Cassini flying through Enceladus’ water plumes venting from the moon’s south pole (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As Enceladus is much smaller and less massive than Europa, its gravity is lower, meaning that landing on the surface is an easier task. Also, the radiation surrounding Saturn is much less aggressive than Jupiter’s radiation belts, meaning less radiation shielding is needed for spacecraft going to Saturn’s moons.

But if we ever send a surface mission to Enceladus (or any of the icy moons in the outer solar system), the planetary protection requirements will be extreme.

“If any life were found on these moons, it would be microbial,” said Larry Soderblom, an interdisciplinary scientist on the Cassini mission. “Some [terrestrial] bacteria are very resilient and can survive in hot acid-reducing environments. They can be tenacious. We have to make sure we don’t leave any of these kinds of Earthly bacteria on these promising moons.”

Soderblom has a unique perspective on solar system exploration. His career spans a huge number of NASA missions since the 1960’s, including Mariner 6, 7, 9, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers, Deep Space 1, to name a few. While chatting to me under the shade of a tree on the JPL campus, he pointed out that the outer solar system was seen as a very different place over half a century ago.

“When I started to explore the solar system as a young guy just out of graduate school, our minds-eye view of the outer solar system was pretty bleak,” he remembered. “We expected lifeless, dead, battered moons with no geologic activity.”

After being involved with many outer solar system missions, this view has radically changed. Not only have we discovered entire oceans on Enceladus and Europa, there’s active volcanoes on Jupiter’s tortured moon Io, an atmosphere on Titan sporting its own methane cycle and surface lakes of methane and ethane. Other moons show hints of extensive subsurface oceans too, including distant Triton, a moon of Neptune. When NASA’s New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015, the robotic spacecraft didn’t see a barren, dull rock as all the artistic impressions that came before seemed to suggest. The dwarf planet is a surprisingly dynamic place with a rich geologic history.

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With a diameter of only 313 miles, tiny Enceladus is a surprising powerhouse of internal activity. Subsurface oceans are heated through tidal interactions with Saturn (and, possibly, radioactivity in its rocky core), forcing water through its south pole fissures (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Sending our robotic emissaries to these distant and unforgiving places has revolutionized our understanding of the solar system and our place in it. Rather than the gas and ice giant moons being dull, barren and static, our exploration has revealed a rich bounty of geologic variety. Not only that, we’re almost spoilt for choices for our next giant leap of scientific discovery.

Missions like Cassini are essential for science. Before that spacecraft entered Saturn orbit 13 years ago, we had a very limited understanding of what the Saturnian system was all about. Now we can confidently say that there’s a tiny moon there with incredible biological potential — Enceladus truly is Cassini’s legacy discovery that will keep our imaginations alive until we land on the ice to explore its alien ocean.

For more on my trip to JPL, read my two HowStuffWorks articles:

Why Cassini Crashed: Protecting Icy Moon Enceladus at All Costs

What Epic Space Missions Like Cassini Teach Us About Ourselves

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The Sun Just Unleashed a Massive Explosion — at Mars

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NASA/ESA/SOHO

The Earth and Mars are currently on exact opposite sides of the sun — a celestial situation known as “Mars solar conjunction” — a time when we have no way of directly communicating with satellites and rovers at the Red Planet. So, when the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO) spotted a huge (and I mean HUGE) bubble of superheated plasma expand from the solar disk earlier today (July 23), it either meant our nearest star had launched a vast coronal mass ejection directly at Earth or it had sent a CME in the exact opposite direction.

As another solar observatory — the STEREO-A spacecraft — currently has a partial view of the other side of the sun (it orbits ahead of Earth’s orbit, so it can see regions of the sun that are out of view from our perspective), we know that this CME didn’t emanate from the sun’s near side, it was actually launched away from us and Mars will be in for some choppy space weather very soon.

It appears the CME emanated from active region (AR) 2665, a region of intense magnetic activity exhibiting a large sunspot.

“If this explosion had occurred 2 weeks ago when the huge sunspot was facing Earth, we would be predicting strong geomagnetic storms in the days ahead,” writes Tony Phillips of Spaceweather.com.

CMEs are magnetic bubbles of solar plasma that are ejected at high speed into interplanetary space following a magnetic eruption in the lower corona (the sun’s lower atmosphere). From STEREO-A’s unique vantage point, it appears the CME detected by SoHO was triggered by a powerful solar flare that generated a flash of extreme-ultraviolet radiation (possibly even generating X-rays):

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Observation by STEREO-A of the flaring event that likely triggered today’s CME (NASA/STEREO)

When CMEs encounter Earth’s global magnetic field, the radiation environment surrounding our planet increases, posing a hazard for satellites and unprotected astronauts. In addition, if the conditions are right, geomagnetic storms may commence, creating bright aurorae at high latitudes. These storms can overload power grids on the ground, triggering mass blackouts. Predicting when these storms will occur is of paramount importance, so spacecraft such as SoHO, STEREO and others are constantly monitoring our star’s magnetic activity deep inside the corona and throughout the heliosphere.

Mars, however, is a very different beast to Earth in that it doesn’t have a strong global magnetosphere to shield against incoming energetic particles from the sun, which the incoming CME will be delivering very soon. As it lacks a magnetic field, this CME will continue to erode the planet’s thin atmosphere, stripping some of the gases into space. Eons of space weather erosion has removed most of the Martian atmosphere, whereas Earth’s magnetism keeps our atmospheric gases nicely contained.

When NASA and other space agencies check in with their Mars robots after Mars solar conjunction, it will be interesting to see if any recorded the space weather impacts of this particular CME.

h/t Spaceweather.com

MU69: New Horizons’ Next Kuiper Belt Target Is One Big Mystery

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Not as advertised? 2014 MU69 could be one big Kuiper Belt mess (NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben)

“All bound for Mu Mu Land” — The KLF, ‘Justified and Ancient’ (seems appropriate)

After visiting Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s epic New Horizons mission soared into the great unknown, a.k.a. the Kuiper Belt. This strange region, which extends beyond Pluto’s orbit, is known to be populated with dwarf planets, comets, asteroids and junk that was left behind after the solar system’s formation, five billion years ago.

In an effort to better understand the solar system’s boondocks, New Horizons is on a trajectory that will create a second flyby opportunity. On New Year’s Day 2019, the spacecraft will buzz a mysterious object called 2014 MU69. But although we know this Kuiper Belt Object is out there, astronomers aren’t entirely sure what it is. And that’s a bit of a problem.

For two seconds on June 3, astronomers were presented with an opportunity to better observe MU69, but instead of clearing up its mystery the occultation event has created more questions than answers.

An occultation is when an object, like a distant asteroid, drifts in front of a background star. If astronomers time it perfectly, they can observe the star at the time of occultation in a bid to image the tiny shadow that will rapidly speed across our planet. And in the case of the June 3 event, dozens of mission team members and collaborators were ready and waiting along the predicted shadow track in South Africa and Argentina. In all, 100,000 images were taken of the star during the rapid occultation.

What they saw — or, indeed, didn’t see — is a bit of a conundrum.

“These data show that MU69 might not be as dark or as large as some expected,” said Marc Buie, a New Horizons science team member and occultation team leader from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colo., in a statement.

Observations by the Hubble Space Telescope had previously estimated that MU69 is between 12- to 25-miles wide. That might be a pretty big overestimation by all accounts. And it may not be a single object at all.

“These results are telling us something really interesting,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator also of SwRI. “The fact that we accomplished the occultation observations from every planned observing site but didn’t detect the object itself likely means that either MU69 is highly reflective and smaller than some expected, or it may be a binary or even a swarm of smaller bodies left from the time when the planets in our solar system formed.”

If it’s the latter, this could pose a problem for New Horizons.

Before the mission encountered Pluto in 2015, there was concern that the dwarf planet’s neighborhood might have been filled with debris. This concern was heightened after Pluto’s moons Styx and Kerberos were revealed by Hubble in 2011, only four years before New Horizons was set to barrel through the system. If there were more sub-resolution chunks near Pluto, they would have been regarded as collision risks.

Although New Horizons survived the Pluto encounter, if MU69 is a swarm of debris and not a solid object, mission scientists will have to assess the impact risk once again when New Horizons attempts its second flyby in 2019.

More occultations are forecast for July 10 and July 17, and NASA will also be flying its airborne observatory SOFIA through the occultation path on July 10 in hopes of better resolving MU69’s true nature.

So, as New Horizons speeds toward MU69, one of the most ancient objects in our sun’s domain, mystery and potential danger awaits.

This Is NASA’s Future Mars 2020 Rover Looking for Biosignatures on the Red Planet

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NASA/JPL-Caltech

While Opportunity and Curiosity continue to explore the surface of Mars, the launch date of NASA’s next big rover mission is on the horizon. And here’s a stunning artist’s impression of the mission that NASA released on Tuesday.

Wait. Isn’t that Curiosity?

No. While the Mars 2020 rover will certainly look like Curiosity, as many of the current rover’s design features will be worked into NASA’s next six-wheeled robot, there will be some key differences in the next rover’s science.

Rather than seeking out past and present habitable environments (as Curiosity is currently doing on the slopes of Mount Sharp), one of Mars 2020’s stated science goals is to directly search for biological signatures of past and present microbial life on Mars. This next-generation rover will also feature a drill that can bore deep into rocks, pull samples and store them on the Martian surface for a possible future sample return mission.

For more on Mars 2020, check out NASA’s mission site.

Curiosity Is Getting Diggy With It in Mars’ Ripply Dunes

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

There are few sights on Mars more satisfying than its oddly familiar — yet weirdly alien — dunes.

On the one hand, the Martian dunes look much like the dunes we have on Earth — aeolian (“wind-driven”) formations undulating across the landscape have similarities regardless of which planet they were blown on.

But there’s something uncanny about Martian dunes. Maybe it’s the “extra” tiny ripples that NASA’s Curiosity itself discovered — a phenomenon that is exclusive to the Martian atmosphere. Or maybe it’s just that I know these dunes are being seen through synthetic eyes on a world millions of miles across the interplanetary void.

Who knows.

But right now, the six-wheeled robot is sampling grains of wind-blown regolith from a linear dunes on the slopes of Mount Sharp to help planetary scientists on Earth build a picture of how this ancient landscape was shaped.

Curiosity scooped samples of linear dune material into the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) so they could be compared with material from other dunes it had visited in 2015 and 2016. Samples are also planned to be delivered to the mission’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. As NASA points out, this is the first ever study of extraterrestrial dunes. (Dune fields also exist on Saturn’s moon Titan, but as recent research indicates, those are very different beasts and haven’t been directly sampled.)

“At these linear dunes, the wind regime is more complicated than at the crescent dunes we studied earlier,” said Mathieu Lapotre, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in Pasadena, Calif., who led the Curiosity dune campaign. “There seems to be more contribution from the wind coming down the slope of the mountain here compared with the crescent dunes farther north.”

All of the dunes Curiosity has sampled are a part of the Bagnold Dunes, a dune field that stretches up the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Within the field, depending on the wind conditions, different types of dunes have been found.

“There was another key difference between the first and second phases of our dune campaign, besides the shape of the dunes,” said Lapotre in a NASA statement. “We were at the crescent dunes during the low-wind season of the Martian year and at the linear dunes during the high-wind season. We got to see a lot more movement of grains and ripples at the linear dunes.”

 

Cassini Finds ‘Nothing’ in Saturn’s Ring Gap

NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s official, there’s a whole lot of nothing in Saturn’s innermost ring gap.

This blunt — and slightly mysterious — conclusion was reached when scientists studied Cassini data after the spacecraft’s first dive through the gas giant’s ring plane. At first blush, this might not sound so surprising; the 1,200-mile-wide gap between Saturn’s upper atmosphere and the innermost edge of its rings does appear like an empty place. But as the NASA spacecraft barreled through the gap on April 26, mission scientists expected Cassini to hit a few stray particles on its way through.

Instead, it hit nothing. Or, at least, far fewer particles than they predicted.

“The region between the rings and Saturn is ‘the big empty,’ apparently,” said Earl Maize, Cassini’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Cassini will stay the course, while the scientists work on the mystery of why the dust level is much lower than expected.”

Using Cassini’s Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS), the scientists expected to detect multiple “cracks and pops” as the spacecraft shot through the gap. Instead, it picked up mainly signals from energetic charged particles buzzing in the planet’s magnetic field. When converted into an audio file, these signals make a whistling noise and this background whistle was expected to be drowned out by the ruckus of dust particles bouncing off the spacecraft’s body. But, as the following audio recording proves, very few pops and cracks of colliding debris were detected — it sounds more like an off-signal radio tuner:

Compare that with the commotion Cassini heard as it passed through the ring plane outside of Saturn’s rings on Dec. 18, 2016:

Now that is what it sounds like to get smacked by a blizzard of tiny particles at high speed.

“It was a bit disorienting — we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear,” said William Kurth, RPWS team lead at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. “I’ve listened to our data from the first dive several times and I can probably count on my hands the number of dust particle impacts I hear.”

From this first ring gap dive, NASA says Cassini likely only hit a handful of minute, 1 micron particles — particles no larger than those found in smoke. And that’s a bit weird.

As weird as it may be, the fact that the region of Cassini’s first ring dive is emptier than expected now allows mission scientists to carry out optimized science operations with the spacecraft’s instruments. On the first pass, Cassini’s dish-shaped high-gain antenna was used as a shield to protect the spacecraft as it made the dive. On its next ring dive, which is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:38 p.m. PT (3:38 p.m. ET), this precaution is evidently not needed and the spacecraft will be oriented to better view the rings as it flies through.

So there we have it, the first mysterious result of Cassini’s awesome Grand Finale! 21 ring dives to go…

KCRW ‘To The Point’ Interview: Cassini’s Grand Finale

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Artist’s impression of Cassini passing through the gap between Saturn and the planet’s rings (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

After all the excitement of last night’s Cassini mission checking in and transmitting data to NASA’s Deep Space Network, I joined Warren Olney on his NPR-syndicated show “To The Point” this morning to chat about the mission and why the “Grand Finale” is an awesome, yet bittersweet, part of Saturn exploration. Listen to the 10 minute segment here. It was great as always to chat with Warren, thanks for having me on the show!

Cassini Survives First Saturn Ring Dive and Returns Historic Photos

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NASA/JPL-Caltech

UPDATE (1:30 a.m. PT): A firehose of Cassini data has opened up and raw images of the spacecraft’s approach to the ring plane are coming in at a rapid pace. You can see the raw images appear online at the same time Cassini’s science team sees them here. At time of writing (and without any scientific analysis) the images have been of Saturn’s polar vortex and various views of the planet’s upper atmosphere. It’s going to take some time for more detailed views to become available, but, wow, it’s exhilarating to see Cassini images arrive at such a rate. Here are a few:

Original: As NASA planned, just before midnight on Wednesday (April 26), the veteran Cassini spacecraft made radio contact with the Goldstone 70-meter antenna in California, part of the Deep Space Network (DSN), which communicates with missions in space. Within minutes, Goldstone was receiving data, meaning the spacecraft had not only survived its first ring dive of the “Grand Finale” phase of its mission, but that it was also transmitting science data from a region of space that we’ve never explored before.

“We did it! Cassini is in contact with Earth and sending back data after a successful dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings,” tweeted the official NASA Cassini account just after the DSN confirmed it was receiving telemetry.

“The gap between Saturn and its rings is no longer unexplored space – and we’re going back 21 times,” they added.

Around 22 hours prior to Cassini’s signal, the spacecraft made its daring transit through the gap between Saturn’s upper atmosphere and innermost ring after using the gravity of Titan on Friday (April 21) to send it on a ballistic trajectory through the ring plane. But during that time the spacecraft went silent, instead devoting resources to carrying out science observations during the dive.

Of course there was much anticipation for Cassini to “phone home” tonight and it did just that right on schedule and now we can look forward to another 21 dives through Saturn’s rings before Cassini burns up in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere on Sept. 15, ending its epic 13 year mission at the solar system’s ringed planet.

“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like,” said Earl Maize, Cassini Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement. “I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape.”

So now we wait until images of this never-before-explored region of Saturn are released.

Read more about Cassini’s historic ring dive in my Space.com interview with Cassini deputy project scientist Scott Edgington.

Cassini Sees Earth and Moon Through Saturn’s Rings

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA’s Cassini mission sure has a knack for putting stuff into perspective — and this most recent view from Saturn orbit is no different. That dot in the center of the image isn’t a dud pixel in Cassini’s camera CCD. That’s us. All of us. Everyone.

To quote Carl Sagan:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…”

Sagan wrote that passage in his book “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” when reflecting on the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image that was beamed back to Earth by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990. That’s when the mission returned a profound view of our planet from a distance of 3.7 billion miles (or 40.5AU) as it was traveling through the solar system’s hinterlands, on its way to interstellar space. Since then, there’s been many versions of pale blue dots snapped by the armada of robotic missions around the solar system and Cassini has looked back at us on several occasions from its orbital perch.

Now, just before Cassini begins the final leg of its Saturnian odyssey, it has again spied Earth through a gap between the gas giant’s A ring (top) and F ring (bottom). In a cropped and enhanced version, our moon is even visible! The image is composed of many observations captured on April 12, stitched together as a mosaic when Saturn was 870 million miles (roughly 9.4AU) from Earth.

On April 20 (Friday), Cassini will make its final flyby of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, using its gravity to fling itself through Saturn’s ring plane (on April 26) between the innermost ring and the planet’s cloudy upper atmosphere, revealing a view that we’ve never before seen. For 22 orbits, Cassini will dive into this uncharted region, possibly revealing new things about Saturn’s evolution, what material its rings contain and incredibly intimate views of its atmosphere.

This daring maneuver will signal the beginning of the end for this historic mission, however. On Sept. 15, Cassini will be intentionally steered into Saturn’s atmosphere to burn up as a human-made meteor. It is low in fuel, so NASA wants to avoid the spacecraft from crashing into and contaminating one of Saturn’s potentially life-giving moons — Titan or Enceladus.

So, appreciate every image that is captured by Cassini over the coming weeks. The pictures will be like nothing we’ve seen before of the ringed gas giant, creating a very bittersweet phase of the spacecraft’s profound mission to Saturn.

NASA Uses Gravitational Wave Detector Prototype to Detect ‘Space Mosquito’ Splats

Artist impression of ESA LISA Pathfinder in interplanetary space (ESA)

Imagine speeding down the highway and plowing into an unfortunate swarm of mosquitoes. Now imagine that you had the ability to precisely measure the mass of each mosquito, the speed at which it was traveling and the direction it was going before it exploded over your windscreen.

Granted, the technology to accomplish that probably isn’t feasible in such an uncontrolled environment. Factors such as vibration from the car’s motor and tires on the road, plus wind and air turbulence will completely drown out any “splat” from a minuscule insect’s body, rendering any signal difficult to decipher from noise.

But move your hypothetical “car and mosquitoes” into space — as silly as that may sound — and things become a lot less noisy. And now NASA is measuring its own special kind of “mosquito splat” signal by using a rather unlikely space experiment.

The European LISA Pathfinder spacecraft is a proof of concept mission that’s currently in space, orbiting a region of gravitational stability between the Earth and the sun — called the L1 point located a million miles away. The spacecraft was launched there in late 2015 to carry out precision tests of instruments that will eventually be used in the space-based gravitational wave detector eLISA. Inside the payload is a miniaturized laser interferometer system that measures the distance between two test masses.

When launched in 2034, eLISA (which stands for Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) will see three spacecraft, orbiting the sun at the L1 point, firing ultra-precise lasers at one another as part of a space-based gravitational wave detector. Now we actually know gravitational waves exist — after the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (or LIGO) detected the space-time ripples created after the collisions of black holes — excitement is building that we might, one day, be able to measure other phenomena, such as the ultra-low frequency gravitational waves that were created during the Big Bang.

But the only way we can do this is to send stunningly precise interferometers into space, away from our vibration-filled atmosphere to stand a chance of detecting some of the faintest space-time rumbles in our cosmos that would otherwise be drowned out by a passing delivery truck or windy day. And LISA Pathfinder is currently out there, testing a tiny laser interferometer in a near-perfect gravitational free-fall, making the slightest of slight adjustments with its “ultra-precise micro-propulsion system.”

Although LISA Pathfinder is a test (albeit a history-making test of incredible engineering ingenuity), NASA thinks that it could actually be used as an observatory in its own right; not for hunting gravitational waves, but for detecting comet dust.

Like our mosquito-windscreen analogy, spacecraft get hit by tiny particles all the time, and LISA Pathfinder is no exception. These micrometeoroides come from eons of evaporating comets and colliding asteroids. Although measuring less than the size of a grain of sand, these tiny particles zip around interplanetary space at astonishing speeds — well over 22,000 miles per hour (that’s 22 times faster than a hyper-velocity rifle round) — and can damage spacecraft over time, slowly eroding unprotected hardware.

Therefore, it would be nice if we could create a map of regions in the solar system that contain lots of these particles so we can be better prepared to face the risk. Although models of solar system evolution help and we can estimate the distribution of these particles, they’ve only ever been measured near Earth, so it would be advantageous to find the “ground truth” and measure them directly from another, unexplored region of the solar system.

This is where LISA Pathfinder comes in.

As the spacecraft gets hit by these minuscule particles, although they are tiny, their high speed ensures they pack a measurable punch. As scientists want the test weights inside the spacecraft to be completely shielded from any external force — whether that’s radiation pressure from the sun or marauding micro-space rocks — the spacecraft has been engineered to be an ultra-precise container that carefully adjusts its orientation an exact amount to directly counter these external forces (hence the “ultra-precise micro-propulsion system”).

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When LISA Pathfinder is struck by space dust, it compensates with its ultra-precise micro-thrusters (ESA/NASA)

This bit is pretty awesome: Whenever these tiny space particles hit the spacecraft, it compensates for the impact and that compensation is registered as a “blip” in the telemetry being beamed back to Earth. After careful analysis of the various data streams, researchers are learning a surprising amount of information about these micrometeoroides — such as their mass, speed, direction of travel and even their possible origin! — all for the ultimate goal of getting to know the tiny pieces of junk that whiz around space.

“Every time microscopic dust strikes LISA Pathfinder, its thrusters null out the small amount of momentum transferred to the spacecraft,” said Diego Janches, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “We can turn that around and use the thruster firings to learn more about the impacting particles. One team’s noise becomes another team’s data.”

So, it turns out that you can precisely measure a mosquito impact on your car’s windshield — so long as that “mosquito” is a particle of space dust and your “car” is a spacecraft a million miles from Earth.

NASA put together a great video, watch it:

Aside: So it turned out that I inadvertently tested the “car-mosquito” hypothesis when driving home from Las Vegas — though some of these were a lot bigger than mosquitoes…