The Cassini spacecraft has captured spectacular footage of gigantic methane clouds swirling over Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
Cassini is on the final stage of its 20-year long spacefaring mission to the farther reaches of the Solar System. The probe captured the footage during its final orbit of Saturn and Titan.
Saturn’s largest moon is an inhospitable world, about 50% larger than Earth’s own satellite, and the second largest in the Solar System. It orbits Saturn once every 15 days and 22 hours. Scientists believe that Titan holds massive amounts of liquid hydrocarbons, amounting to more than the known oil and natural gas reserves here on Earth. During an earlier fly-by in 2013, Cassini beamed data back to Earth that enabled astronomers to elucidate that Titan’s deep canyons were carved by liquid methane.
Titan and Earth are similar in many ways, in fact. Both worlds have seas and rivers, and a rain-producing atmosphere. The major difference is that while liquid water flows through our planet’s river systems, Titan’s are filled with a dark fluid that scientists believe to be liquid methane.
Cassini’s final journey will take place on September 15 this year. The craft will fly straight into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it will burn up in a blaze of glory. By then, Cassini will have completed an epic voyage of some 2.2bn miles across known space.
The Cassini probe has accomplished an historic feat in space exploration today, after becoming the first man-made object to successfully fly between Saturn’s rings and the planet itself.
Cassini executed a perfect dive through the 1,500 miles-wide gap earlier today, causing great excitement inside Mission Control back on Earth.
The manouever was not without its risks, as controllers feared the probe may collide with unseen debris orbiting the planet. However, their daring gamble paid off, and Cassini flew through the gap unscathed. Today’s was the first of a further 22 planned gap-runs at speeds of nearly 80,000 mph.
Today’s flyover took Cassini to within 2,000 miles of Saturn’s upper cloudy surface. The next runs will take about 7 days to complete, and the craft is expected to gather invaluable scientific data during this period.
Cassini is nearing the end of its 20-year long mission to Saturn. After orbiting the planet for 13 years, controllers have set the probe on a ballistic course, which will end on September 15 at 9:45 a.m. GMT (6:45 a.m. ET), when it burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere.
Little was known about Saturn before Cassini began its mission. Back in 2004, the probe beamed data that proved key to charting the planet and its moons.
The Cassini spacecraft has revealed some interesting data about Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.
Enceladus, which takes its name from a Giant in Greek mythology, features an icy surface beneath which a vast ocean of liquid water is thought to exist.
More interestingly, gigantic plumes of gas rise out of the moon. These plumes contain hydrogen, which indicates the presence of chemical reactions similar to those that happen at the bottom of the oceans here on Earth.
On our planet, these vents teem with microbial life, which raises the possibility that similar lifeforms may exist elsewhere in the Universe.
Earthside, microbes feed on hydrogen venting out from the planet’s crust, so the same process may be taking place in Saturn.
Cassini has been performing flybys around Saturn for 13 years. The probe will soon enter its final cycle of 22 more orbits before crashing into the planet’s atmosphere around September next.
The colonization of the Red Planet may be one step closer to reality today, after NASA scientists proposed the creation of a magnetic field around Mars that could potentially make the planet habitable for future human generations.
Today, Mars is a barren wasteland. No life has existed there for billions of years.
But it wasn’t always like that. Scientists believe that the planet once held vast and deep oceans teeming with living creatures.
All this paradise-like conditions ended when Mars lost its magnetic field, between 3.7 and 4.2 billions of years ago. This allowed high-energy particles to gradually strip away its protective atmosphere. Once the atmosphere became thin enough, all life on Mars’ surface became extinct.
But wayward NASA people now believe that Mars’ once thick atmosphere could be restored by ‘coating’ the planet with a gigantic magnetic field. This artificial magnetosphere would shield Mars from the damaging effects of solar winds and other high-energy particles, much like Earth’s own magnetosphere does.
Once protected, Mars’ natural processes would begin restoring the planet’s atmosphere over time. As the atmosphere thickened, surface temperatures would rise enough so that carbon dioxide ice from Mars’ northern polar cap would begin to melt. In turn, this would trigger a greenhouse effect and cause the planet’s now frozen water wastes to thaw. In just a few generations, Mars might just have flowing rivers and vast oceans once again.
Should all these things happen as predicted, the exploration and colonization of Mars may become a reality within a few hundred years.
The research team that postulated all this did admit that the concepts and ideas are purely hypothetical at this point in time, but that has not deterred them from following their vision of turning the Red Planet into an Earth-like Blue Planet.
NASA instrumentation has located the final resting place of the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Schiaparelli probe. The spacecraft crashed into Mars’ surface on October 19 last, after a suspected malfunction on its final approach. Contact with the probe was lost about one minute from the Martian ground.
An ESA spokesperson said that they have not yet discerned the nature of the malfunction, but believe that a software glitch was the root cause of the failure. Telemetry data shows that the parachute designed to slow down the craft’s descent deployed too early, and that the reverse thrusters cut off too soon. According to the spokesperson, data proves that the thrusters did operate briefly, but not long enough to enable a safe landing, as the computer may have interpreted that the craft was closer to the ground than it really was. ESA Mission Control believes that the probe hit the Martian surface at terminal velocity, shattering on impact.
The crash site is located about 33mi away from where NASA Mars rover Opportunity was operating at the time.
Schiaparelli’s main mission was to test new technology for future landings on Mars.
In yet another display of great human ingenuity, NASA’s Curiosity vehicle has beamed down some amazing new pictures of the Red Planet, taken in the Murray Buttes mesa.
The Martian buttes and mesas rise above the planet’s surface. They are the eroded remnants of ancient sandstone formations that were created by sand deposited by winds.
Curiosity landed on Mars on August 6, 2012. The landing site, a plain between the northern wall of Gale Crater and the northern slopes of Aeolis Mons, was named Bradbury Landing after well known sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, who had passed away shortly before Curiosity’s touchdown on Mars.
The vehicle, which is equipped with a plethora of cameras, sensors, and other scientific equipment, has been driving around the planet ever since. Its primary mission is to research the Martian climate and geology, and to ascertain whether conditions around the Gale Crater were ever able to sustain microbial or other type of life.
Gale is an impace crater estimated to be 3.5-3.8bn years old, so Curiosity will be able to pick up samples that will provide great insight into Martian ancient history.