Tonight marks an interesting alignment of two bright planets in the sky with our moon. Through the rest of June you can look up and see Jupiter and Venus, along with the moon, in a triangular fashion just after sunset.
I’m well aware of what today is. Believe me, I debated on whether or not to make a fake April Fools Day blog posting along the lines of “NASA announces the discovery of intelligent life on planet Eps Eri 04-01a,” or “50,000 year old space ship discovered in Antarctica.” However, there’s stuff out there in space that’s real and strange enough to bring to light without having to result in phoney gags. For example, a couple of days back I heard about the discovery of a pink planet way out in space. So here’s the rundown on the lowest-mass planet ever detected around a star like the sun, GJ 504b that just happens to be pink.
“NASA plots daring flight to Jupiter’s watery moon”
(Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)
On March 4, 2014 Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, released a statement which includes, “In the coming year, we’ll build on our nation’s record of breathtaking and compelling scientific discoveries and achievements in space, with science missions that will reach far into our solar system, reveal unknown aspects of our universe and provide critical knowledge about our home planet. It includes funding for missions to Mars and the formulation for a mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa.”
It looks as though we may finally go to a ‘local’ body that will hold many surprises and in astronomical distances Europa is so very close.
Europa is just begging us to visit and the Europa Clipper is one mission.
This artist’s impression of Europa makes the place look more exotic than Mars.
(Credit: Chris Weeks)
With the crazy winter weather warnings today in south Louisiana and even school cancellations for tomorrow, I thought it was an interesting time to find out that the dwarf planet Ceres has an icy surface also. With the help of the Herschel space observatory, scientists have detected an icy surface on the only dwarf planet that resides in the asteroid belt. It was previously suspected that ice existed on Ceres but it had not been conclusively detected until now. Plumes of water vapor are thought to shoot up from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly. This happens in the portion of the dwarf planet’s orbit that takes it closest to the sun. This is a surprise because, while comets are known to have water jets and plumes, objects in the asteroid belt are not. They also believe that if the ice in the interior of Ceres melted, there would be more fresh water than exists on all of Earth!
Ceres is smaller than a planet but, considering it’s the largest object in the asteroid belt, is obviously larger than an asteroid. When first discovered, Ceres was thought to be a comet, then a planet and of course at some point an asteroid. In 2006, The International Astronomical Union reclassified Ceres as a dwarf planet.
Poor Comet ISON was torn apart as it traveled around the Sun around Thanksgiving this year. And as we mourn the loss of Comet ISON we can still rejoice in the fact that there is another comet to be seen in our night sky with a pair of binoculars. Comet Lovejoy, also known as C/2011 R1, was first discovered by amateur astronomer, Terry Lovejoy, and is known as a long-period comet. This northern-hemisphere object was discovered on September 7 2013 and can currently be seen as it travels from Bootes across the constellations of Corona Borealis and Hercules.
NASA is back up and running, and we’ve got some pictures back from Juno! The spacecraft bound for Jupiter, made a close flyby around Earth two weeks ago to get the gravitational assist it needed to reach the outer solar system. While passing Earth, Juno snapped a picture of our home planet. It also tested some instruments to make sure they were ready to go upon arrival at Jupiter.
Click here for status update of the Juno mission.
The Juno spacecraft is using Earth for a gravity assist this Wednesday, October 9th! In case you aren’t familiar with Juno, it is a NASA spacecraft built to study Jupiter. I feel a special connection with Juno, because I watched it launch from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas V rocket on August 5, 2011.*(For more on that see the end of the article).
Juno is scheduled to reach Jupiter in 2016. Fun fact: Juno is the first spacecraft sent to the outer Solar System that uses solar power as its primary energy source. Juno has three huge solar panels, each nearly the size of a tractor trailer. They folded up neatly while inside the Atlas V for launch, then opened outward once in space. These panels will face the Sun, collecting energy for the duration of the voyage. Juno weighs about 8,000 pounds and is named for the Roman goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter (known as Zeus in Greek Mythology).
To get to Jupiter, Juno will perform a gravity assist using Earth. Essentially, it will use Earth’s gravity to slingshot itself out into space. The gravity assist will give Juno an extra boost of speed then it will coast the rest of the way to Jupiter. Juno is a very large spacecraft, and it will most likely be possible to view it as it makes its flyby. Unfortunately for viewers in the United States, Juno will not be visible. Observers in parts of Africa and Asia will be on the lookout. Don’t worry, you can tune in on Slooh.com for a live news feed of Juno‘s flyby. Click here for an observational chart of how to spot Juno around the world.
So what is Juno going to do once it gets to Jupiter? Juno will orbit Jupiter thirty-three times between July of 2016 and October of 2017. It will travel in highly elongated orbits that will be slightly shifted so that after all thirty-three passes, Juno will have passed over the entire surface of Jupiter. The purpose of this elongated orbit is that it allows the craft to skim very close to Jupiter, but then takes it away again, therefore minimizing its exposure to the strong radiation coming from Jupiter. Juno will map Jupiter’s gravitational and magnetic fields, helping us better understand the structure of the planet. It will study Jupiter’s aurorae at its poles. Juno will also measure its chemical composition more closely, including its water content. All of this information about our Solar System’s oldest planet will help scientists gain a better understanding of how Jupiter formed, which will in turn better our understanding of the formation of our entire Solar System.
Will Juno stay out there forever? Juno has a very specifically timed mission, and once it completes its work, Juno will crash into Jupiter’s atmosphere. At the end of its mission, Jupiter’s radiation will have destroyed most of the spacecraft’s instruments despite its thick shielding. The main reason for the crash down is to prevent Juno from landing accidentally on one of Jupiter’s moons. An accidental landing of an Earth spacecraft could contaminate these environments, which would complicate future study.
*Below is the full dome footage that I captured of the Juno launch. We were as close as civilians could get (we were bussed in). The actual blastoff happens around two minutes in. If you watch the whole thing you can hear mission control doing preflight checks and the countdown. Also, there was a dad with his two kids who was VERY excited about the whole affair, and provides some humorous commentary throughout the video. We were far enough away that we experienced the launch in stages. First we saw the light of ignition, then a few seconds later we heard the rumble of the engines, then a few seconds later we felt the heat blast. Yes, in 95 degree Florida heat from over a mile away we still felt the heat blast from the rocket. It was truly an awesome experience.