Cassini Detects Salt: Enceladus Probably Has a Liquid Ocean

The small icy Saturn moon might have liquid sub-surface oceans after all (NASA)

In October 2008, Cassini flew very close to the surface of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. From a distance of only 50 km from the moon, the spacecraft was able to collect samples of a plume of ice. In an earlier “skeet shot”, Cassini captured detailed images of the cracked surface, revealing the source of geysers blasting the water into space. At the time, scientist were able to detect that it was in fact water ice, but little else would be known until the molecular weight of chemicals in the plume could be measured and analysed.

At the European Geophysical Union meeting in Vienna this week, new results from the October Enceladus flyby were presented. Frank Postberg and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics have discovered traces of sodium salts and sodium bicarbonate in the plume for the first time.

It would appear that these chemicals originated in the rocky core of the moon and were leached from the core via liquid water. The water was then transported to the surface where it was ejected, under pressure, into space. Although scientists are aware that the chemical composition in the plume may have originated from an ancient, now frozen, sub-surface ocean, the freezing process would have isolated the salt far from the surface, preventing it from being released.

It is easier to imagine that the salts are present in a liquid ocean below the surface,” said Julie Castillo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “That’s why this detection, if confirmed, is very important.”

This is the best evidence yet that Enceladus does have a liquid ocean, bound to cause a stir amongst planetary scientists and re-ignite excitement for the search for life living in a salty sub-surface ocean.

Source: New Scientist

One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite

Forget Bush’s “Vision For Space Exploration”, is it about time for some common sense?

When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)
When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)

Just in case you were wondering about what NASA is supposed to be doing, you’re not alone. On Monday, Buzz Aldrin, Feng Hsu and Ken Cox submitted a scathing draft letter proposing a radical change to ex-President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, stating that “post-Apollo NASA” has become a “visionless jobs-providing enterprise that achieves little or nothing,” in the field of re-usable, affordable or safe space transportation. The authors also call into question that logic of returning to the lunar surface. Tough words, but are they right?

As it turns out, only yesterday (Wednesday) the word from the White House was that the US will still be returning to the Moon in 2020, regardless of the short-falls of Bush’s 2004 Vision
Continue reading “One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite”

In a Picture: Snoopy’s Apollo 10

Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford pats the nose of a stuffed Snoopy held by Jamye Flowers (Coplin), Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper's secretary (NASA)
Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford pats the nose of a stuffed Snoopy held by Jamye Flowers (Coplin), Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper's secretary (NASA)

On May 1969, Apollo 10 astronauts Gene Cernan, John Young and Thomas Stafford orbited the Moon on a reconnaissance mission that would lead to the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 later that year. During the mission, the lunar module came within 50,000 feet of the surface, to “snoop around”. It is therefore fitting that the module should be called Snoopy and the Apollo command module be named Charlie Brown.

In the scene above, Jamye Flowers Coplin (Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper’s secretary) hugging a stuffed Snoopy, sees off the Apollo 10 crew as they make their way to the launch pad. Mission commander Tom Stafford gives Snoopy a rub on the nose.

Later this month, Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 10 mission with an exhibition of the connection between the three pioneering astronauts and the tenacious cartoon beagle.

Snoopy’s connection with NASA actually began before Apollo 10. In 1968, NASA chose the beagle as an icon who would “emphasize mission success and act as a ‘watchdog’ for flight safety.”

Established that same year, the agency’s “Silver Snoopy Award” is considered the astronauts personal award, given for outstanding efforts that contribute to the success of human space flight missions. Award winners receive a sterling silver Snoopy lapel pin flown in space, along with a certificate and letter of appreciation from NASA astronauts. Fewer than 1% of the workforce is recognized with a Silver Snoopy annually, making it one of the most prized awards in the industry.

NASA press release, Jan. 5th 2009

For me, the scene captures a very special moment in space flight history, one that I find strangely moving. The pride, excitement and bravery of the time are communicated wonderfully.

snoopy_moon

The Moon and a Jet: Astrophotography by Stephen Sykes

Photography by Steven Sykes
Photography by Stephen Sykes

If you’ve listened to my Astroengine Live show, you may have noticed that I am a (very) frustrated practical astronomer. I have yet to save up for my first telescope (thanks Mike Simonsen for making me even more eager to hand over my credit card!), and I still want to upgrade my camera equipment so I can begin taking some shots of the night sky.

So when I see images like the one above, I move one step closer to making that big purchase (upgrading to a digital SLR, followed closely by my dream telescope). This shot was taken by Stephen Sykes in his back yard in Alabama. Intending to capture the Moon alone, his luck was in and a commercial jet passed right in front. Luck is a huge part of astronomy, and when a skilled astrophotographer is there to capture the moment, stunning shots like these are possible.

Be sure to check out his site, StephenSykes.us, for all the images in this set. He’s even put together a superb animation of the series of shots he was able to capture during the jet transit.

Moon, Venus, Jupiter Conjunction Dazzles California

Tonight is a very special night. Three celestial bodies clustered together in the sky, signifying a rare conjunction between the Moon, Venus and Jupiter. If you missed it, you’ll have to wait five years until the natural satellite of the Earth and two planets align in a similar pattern again in 2013.

Having been a frustrated astronomer for many years, I decided to get outside to investigate the conjunction over California for myself. Sure enough, from dusk, I could see a bright, thin crescent Moon with two very bright dots to the right and below in the southwest. The same scene has been repeated across many nations, but from my perspective I was able to capture the moment with some basic equipment and a very steady hand (plus some folded business cards)…
Continue reading “Moon, Venus, Jupiter Conjunction Dazzles California”

High Resolution Earth Rise Video by Kaguya (SELENE)

A little bit of beautiful - the Earth rises over the lunar horizon (JAXA)
A little bit of beautiful - the Earth rises over the lunar horizon (JAXA)

Using its High Definition Television (HDTV) camera, the Japanese lunar probe Kaguya captured an astounding video of the Earth slowly rising above the lunar horizon. The video was actually released at the start of this month, but it has only just come to my attention. The video was recorded on September 30th, as the probe orbited 100 km above the Moon. Stunning.

See the tele-view “Full-Earth Rise” »

See the wide-angle Earth-set »

Read more about “Full-Earth Rise” »

Writing for Los Angeles Family Magazine – New Science Column!

The October 2008 edition of LA Family Magazine, where my new space column features!
The October 2008 edition of LA Family Magazine, where my new space column features!

So what does Astroengine.com and Denise Richards have in common? Well, usually not a lot, but today my writing appears in the October 2008 edition of LA Family Magazine with Denise Richards featuring in the leading article. Admittedly, there’s 36 pages separating Denise from me, so the link is a little tenuous, but great nonetheless!

I was asked to become a regular columnist in this leading parenting magazine in an effort to communicate space science topics to parents and their kids. And what better way to begin than by writing about flying to the Moon!

After writing a very popular article about “How Long Does it Take to get to the Moon?” for the Universe Today, I thought this was a good place to start. The next article will tackle a bigger project, a trip to Mars…

Have a look at this month’s edition of Los Angeles Family Magazine and have a read of “Hey, Kids! Want to Go to the Moon?” (page 54)