After the infamous Seeker.com layoffs of 2017 that gutted our original (and, frankly, awesome) Discovery News team, choosing to be a freelance science communicator was one heck of a reality check after nearly nine years of relative job security at Discovery. That said, the past three years have also been immensely rewarding, exposing me to a brilliant community of science writers from a myriad of fields, from high-energy physics to astrobiology to Earth sciences.
But when a job opportunity emerged at one of my favorite institutions last year, I couldn’t help but pay attention and apply. After convincing myself there was “no chance” that I’d land it… land it I did.
So I’ve now traded in my freelancing for a scicomm career at…
Having worked as a journalist and blogger, reporting on the incredible space robot adventures managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the past 15 years, I’ve always pondered whether my career would wind up in an institution like NASA. And I’m overjoyed that it has.
It will be a new challenge working as a media relations specialist and writer at JPL’s communications team, but I think the time had come to evolve my career to a new level while still doing the thing I love at an institution I hold in high regard. Intimately knowing the pressures, challenges, and shortfalls facing writers in science media, I hope to use everything I’ve learned over the past 15 years to effectively communicate JPL’s work to the world.
A huge thank you to everyone who has supported me over the years; I am truly grateful and I hope to make you proud as I embark on this new journey.
The legendary British rock band has been honored by NASA with a rock that the InSight lander rocket-blasted across the Red Planet’s surface last year.
Those of you who frequently read my articles will know that I have a fascination with rolling rocks on celestial bodies. There’s the numerous boulders on the Moon that have been dislodged and rolled down crater sides, leaving their bouncy imprints in the dirt. There’s also the rolling rocks of Ceres. And the theorized rock tracks that are carved into Phobos. Then there’s Mars, the undisputed king of rolling boulders, imaged to beautiful precision by our orbiting armada of spacecraft.
The most famous rolling rock is no boulder, however; it’s barely larger than a golf ball—but it’s now the most famous pebble in the solar system. It’s a little rock that was minding its own business until a car-sized NASA robot rumbled through the Martian skies on Nov. 26, 2018, retro-rockets firing to slow its descent to the ground, that flipped the innocent ruddy bystander three feet (1 meter) from the landing site. It’s sobering to think that that rock probably hasn’t been disturbed for millions of years until that fateful day.
Behold, the “Rolling Stones Rock,” named after rock legends The Rolling Stones and announced tonight by Avengers actor Robert Downey Jr. to tens of thousands of Stones fans at the Rose Bowl Stadium, just before Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, and friends rocked Los Angeles to its core. Space exploration doesn’t get much more Hollywood than this:
And a little animated introduction to the rock itself:
“The name Rolling Stones Rock is a perfect fit,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington, in a statement. “Part of NASA’s charter is to share our work with different audiences. When we found out the Stones would be in Pasadena, honoring them seemed like a fun way to reach fans all over the world.”
While, in the grand scheme of things, naming a little rock after The Rolling Stones may not seem like such a big deal (and, besides, it’s an unofficial designation), as my wife and I stood watching the Stones do a blistering performance of “Sympathy For the Devil”, the family next to us were discussing Mars asking what the InSight lander was doing on the Red Planet.
So, mission success, NASA. Mission success.
“Cross-pollinating science and a legendary rock band is always a good thing…”
After following InSight’s journey and dramatic landing on Mars, I’m now emotionally attached to the space robot.
It’s funny how our perception of the robots we send into space changes with the experiences we have with them. Take NASA’s InSight lander, for example.
I was thrilled to be able to see the mission launch on May 5 from my backyard. I was following the launch feed from my office in the early hours of the morning — lift-off was just after 4 a.m., so I was particularly proud that I hadn’t fallen asleep in my home office. Going outside, I looked to the northwest in hopes of glimpsing the light of the Atlas V-401 rocket as it rose into the dark pre-dawn skies. After I’d seen confirmation via the live-stream video of launch from Vandenburg Air Force Base (130 miles to the northwest of my home in Woodland Hills), I stood precariously on a patio chair to get a better view over my roof and… there it was! A bright plume rising and moving very fast toward the south. And then it was gone; the first ever mission to Mars launched from California was on its way into interplanetary space.
Needless to say, I quickly became invested in this space robot, but before I witnessed its launch from afar, it was another anonymous piece of cold space hardware. As soon as I saw its rocket plume, the mission became “real” and InSight was warmly embedded in my emotions.
NASA likes to play up the dangers of sending missions to Mars — and I can’t blame them; more Mars missions have failed than have succeeded. But in recent years, NASA has beaten the odds and landed all of their surface missions and inserted a bunch of satellites into orbit successfully. The last failed NASA mission to Mars was nearly 20 years ago (the Mars Polar Lander in 1999), everything else since — Mars Odyssey, the two Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix lander (InSight’s twin), Curiosity, MAVEN — have all been resounding successes.
Then, on Monday (Nov. 26), after nearly seven months since I saw it fly over my roof, InSight landed on the dusty surface of Mars.
I was fortunate to be at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on that day, covering the event for Scientific American and HowStuffWorks, and it was a thrill to be in the hub of all the festivities and spend time with my fellow science communicators. JPL always puts together a great event — whether that be the landing of Curiosity over six years ago, or the sad farewell of Cassini last year — and this was no different. The air was thick with anticipation, and all of the mission scientists, managers and engineers were more than willing to share their stories with the dozens of journalists, reporters, social media peeps and TV crews who were in attendance.
Then it was time for landing.
Sending a mission to Mars is risky and, as already pointed out, in the earlier days of humanity throwing stuff at Mars the majority of the missions failed. So, understandably, everyone had a healthy level of nervousness that there was always a chance that InSight might just make another (expensive) crater in the Martian dirt. But that wasn’t to be. And by all accounts, the landing couldn’t have gone better.
The two Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft that were flying with InSight during its time cruising from Earth became the undisputed silicon heroes of the day. Their purpose was to relay telemetry data from InSight as the lander slammed into the Martian atmosphere to commence its hair-raising entry, descent and landing (EDL) on Mars — a.k.a. the Seven Minutes or Six and a Half Minutes Of Terror, depending on who you talk to. As InSight would be landing in a region where there wouldn’t be a satellite overpass for several hours after landing, MarCO became the relay that, in real time (minus the several minute lag-time that it takes for any signal to travel at the speed of light between Mars and Earth) prevented too many chewed fingernails and passed the message to mission control that the lander had landed safely and everything was, well, just perfect.
In the media area, with a live feed streaming from just next door on the JPL campus, any nervousness evaporated when we all cheered with the mission controllers who were celebrating on the screen. Memories of Curiosity’s landing came flooding back. NASA has done it again, we’re on Mars!
And then, despite warnings that it might be some time before we see the first view of Elysium Planitia from InSight’s camera, we became aware that the mood had changed in mission control. Managers were now huddled around a computer terminal. They were receiving the first image only a few minutes after touch down!
Keep in mind that relaying this image would have been impossible without InSight’s MarCO travel buddies. The success of the mission didn’t depend on MarCO, but they sure made the landing event a more lively celebration, rather than a “yes we’re on Mars, but no pictures until tomorrow!” anticlimax. I asked a couple of the MarCO managers what was next for their robotic heroes, and they said that their mission was complete and that they were a proof of concept “that was now proven.” Apparently, managers for other robotic space missions are planning MarCO-like payloads for future missions. Justifiably so.
Monday was a blur, but I remember walking away from JPL feeling emotional and humbled. Humanity is capable of doing incredible, bold things, I thought to myself. Why can’t we be more like this? Discussing the nature of humanity and our contradictory ways can be saved for another day, however.
Now that we’ve lived InSight’s dramatic journey to Mars, the lander has become more than a robot, it’s a bona fide Mars explorer that, like Curiosity and all the landers and rovers that have come before it, is an extension of the human experience. Designed to live in the Martian environment, InSight has arrived home. Hopes are high for some incredible scientific discoveries about Mars’ interior and its evolution, but I’m also hopeful that the mission will inspire people to embrace our natural urge to explore and discover new things about our universe. This time exploration will be done through the eyes of the newest space robot to join its Martian family, but some time in the next couple of decades, it will be human eyes exploring Elysium Planitia.
For more about the science behind InSight, read my articles for Scientific American and HowStuffWorks.com:
In our quest to understand what the heck is going on with Tabby’s Star, astronomers have been given a cosmic gift — a dimming event is happening right now and they’re collecting data in real time.
Early Friday morning, the star — officially designated KIC 8462852 — dipped in brightness inextricably and bulletins started to fly around the internet. Astronomers involved in the original discovery took to Twitter to announce the awesomeness and rally the world’s observatories to point their telescopes at the action 1,300 light-years away:
But why all the excitement? Well, this is the same star that, last year, hogged the headlines with speculation that a super advanced alien civilization was building some kind of “megastructure” around the star. (You can read my article on it here.) But why would the world’s media, let alone professional scientists, be okay with even hinting at the “alien” thing?
Well, as part of the Planet Hunters project, Tabby’s Star is wonderfully weird. After analyzing observations from NASA’s exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope, the citizen scientists noticed something peculiar.
Usually, Kepler’s ultra-sensitive optics detect the slight dimming of stars when any planets in orbit drift in front — an event known as a “transit.” These transits are typically very slight, but the signals detected at KIC 8462852 were mind-boggling. Between 2011 and 2013, Tabby’s Star exhibited a series of dips, dimming the brightness of the star by over 20 percent. Tabby’s Star was so-named after astronomer Tabetha Boyajian who led this research. Further studies of the star has also revealed a longer period of dimming.
And on Friday morning, it started happening again.
“At about 4 a.m. this morning, I got a phone call from Tabby [Boyajian] saying that Fairborn [Observatory] in Arizona had confirmed that the star was 3 percent dimmer than it normally is and that is enough that we are absolutely confident that this is no statistical fluke,” said Jason Wright, an associate professor of astronomy at Pennsylvania State University, during a live webcast. “We’ve now got it confirmed at multiple observatories I think.”
Now that astronomers are able to observe the star while the dimming is happening live (rather than studying past observations, which as been the case up until now), spectra of the star can be recorded and compared to previous data. This spectral information might reveal what material is causing the weird transit signals, potentially ruling some hypotheses out. But it might also create new questions.
Many hypotheses have been put forward for these unprecedented events before Friday. The most popular natural explanation has been the possibility that a giant “swarm” of comets drifted between the star and us, blocking the starlight. But this explanation falls short and doesn’t really explain why the brightness dips are so dramatic.
The most popular unnatural explanation is — you guessed it — aliens and astronomers are having a really hard job disproving this hypothesis. This idea is based around the possibility that a super advanced alien civilization (that’s well on its way to becoming a type II Kardashev civilization) is building a star-spanning solar array, akin to a Dyson swarm. In this scenario, the dimming in brightness would be caused by vast solar arrays blocking the light from view.
Now that the dimming is happening again, it will be interesting to see how the megastructure idea evolves.
Although imagining super-advanced aliens building stuff around a nearby star is fun, this episode so early in our hunt for extrasolar worlds is giving us a glimpse of just how strange our galaxy can be. In all likelihood, it probably isn’t an alien megastructure and more likely something astronomers have completely overlooked. But it could also be that these Kepler data are being caused by a natural stellar phenomenon that we’ve never seen before — a possibility that could be revealed very soon.
As I freelance for other websites, I thought I’d begin posting links and summaries here on a quasi-regular basis so you can keep up with the other space stuff I write about. So, to kick off the Astroengine Roundup, here you go:
Ever since H. G. Wells wrote “The Time Machine” in 1895, we’ve been fascinated with the possibility of magically bouncing around through history. But it wasn’t until Einstein published his historic theory of general relativity that scientists (and science fiction writers) realized that time wasn’t necessarily as ridged as classical theories predicted. After a thought-provoking chat with general relativity expert Ben Tippett, of the University of British Columbia, I was able to get the lowdown on his mathematical model of a time machine called… TARDIS.
When Europe’s Rosetta mission discovered molecular oxygen venting from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2015, scientists were weirded out. In space, molecular oxygen (O2, i.e. the stuff we breathe) is highly reactive and will break down very quickly. The working theory was that the O2 had been locked in the comet’s ices for billions of years since the solar system’s earliest moments, but new research suggests that 67P is actually producing its own O2 right this moment from a complex interplay between the venting water molecules and chemicals on the comet’s surface. Yes, comets are therefore molecular oxygen factories.
Not So Fast: Magnetic Mystery of Sun’s ‘Stealth’ Eruptions Uncovered (SPACE.com)
Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, are the most dramatic eruptions that our sun can produce. If they are Earth-directed, these magnetized bubbles of superheated plasma can cause all kinds of issues for our high-technology civilization. Usually, space weather forecasters do a great job of at least predicting when these eruptions might be triggered in the sun’s lower corona, but there’s a different type of CME — the so-called “stealth” CME — that appears to come out of nowhere, created by the complex interplay of magnetic fields high in the sun’s atmosphere.
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.
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.”
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…
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.
As the sun dips into extremely low levels of activity before the current cycle’s “solar minimum”, a vast coronal hole has opened up in the sun’s lower atmosphere, sending a stream of fast-moving plasma our way.
To the untrained eye, this observation of the lower corona — the sun’s magnetically-dominated multi-million degree atmosphere — may look pretty dramatic. Like a vast rip in the sun’s disk, this particular coronal hole represents a huge region of “open” magnetic field lines reaching out into the solar system. Like a firehose, this open region is blasting the so-called fast solar wind in our direction and it could mean some choppy space weather is on the way.
As imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory today, this particular observation is sensitive to extreme ultraviolet radiation at a wavelength of 193 (19.3 nanometers) — the typical emission from a very ionized form of iron (iron-12, or FeXII) at a temperature of a million degrees Kelvin. In coronal holes, it looks as if there is little to no plasma at that temperature present, but that’s not the case; it’s just very rarefied as it’s traveling at tremendous speed and escaping into space.
The brighter regions represent closed field lines, basically big loops of magnetism that traps plasma at high density. Regions of close fieldlines cover the sun and coronal loops are known to contain hot plasma being energized by coronal heating processes.
When a coronal hole such as this rotates into view, we know that a stream of high-speed plasma is on the way and, in a few days, could have some interesting effects on Earth’s geomagnetic field. This same coronal hole made an appearance when it last rotated around the sun, generating some nice high-latitude auroras. Spaceweather.com predicts that the next stream will reach our planet on March 28th or 29th, potentially culminating in a “moderately strong” G2-class geomagnetic storm. The onset of geomagnetic storms can generate impressive auroral displays at high latitudes. Although not as dramatic as an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection or solar flare, the radiation environment in Earth orbit will no doubt increase.
The sun is currently in a downward trend in activity and is expected to reach “solar minimum” by around 2019. As expected, sunspot numbers are decreasing steadily, meaning the internal magnetic dynamo of our nearest star is starting to ebb, reducing the likelihood of explosive events like flares and CMEs. This is all part of the natural 11-year cycle of our sun and, though activity is slowly ratcheting down its levels of activity, there’s still plenty of space weather action going on.
Never before has a space probe come so close to the pint-sized moon embedded in Saturn’s rings — and when NASA’s Cassini buzzed Pan, the spacecraft revealed what a strange moon it really is.
This is Pan, a 22 mile-wide moon that scoots through Saturn’s rings, orbiting the gas giant once every 13.8 hours. And it’s weird.
Resembling a giant ravioli or some kind of “flying saucer” from a classic alien invasion sci-fi comic, Pan is known as a “shepherd moon” occupying the so-called Encke Gap inside Saturn’s A Ring. This gap is largely free of particles and it has become Pan’s job to hoover up any stray material — the moon’s slight gravity pulls particles onto its surface and scatters others back out into the ring system. This gravitational disturbance creates waves that ripple through the ring material, propagating for hundreds of miles.
On March 7, NASA’s Cassini mission came within 15,268 miles of Pan, revealing incredible detail in the moon’s strange surface. It’s thought that its characteristic equatorial ridge (a trait it shares with another Saturn moon Atlas) is caused by the gradual accumulation of ring material throughout the moon’s formation and with these new observations, scientists will be able to better understand how Pan came to be.
As Cassini rapidly approaches the end of its mission, eventually orbiting through Saturn’s ring plane as a part of its “Grand Finale,” we can expect more of these striking views from orbit before the veteran probe is steered into Saturn’s atmosphere in September, bringing its historic mission to an end.