News from Space: Titan’s Seas Mapped in Detail

titan_cassiniIt’s been an eventful year for NASA, thanks to the ongoing efforts of its many space probes and landers. In addition to some breathtaking discoveries made on Mars (proof of the existence of water and an atmosphere in the past), the MESSENGER probe discovered ice around the poles of Mercury, captured impressive footage of the surface, and mapped out the planet for the first time.

And while all this was happening in the Inner Solar System, the Cassini space probe was doing some rather impressive things in the Outer Solar System. In addition to taking part in the “Smile at Saturn” event, surveying the Jovian satellite of Europa, and unlocking the strange secrets of Saturn’s moons, Cassini also provided the most detailed map yet of the Saturnalian giant known as Titan.

titan_surfaceAnd now, using the data provided by NASA’s spacecraft, scientists have created this beautiful mosaic mapping the northern hemisphere of Titan, which is full of rivers, lakes, and seas. Ever since Cassini started mapping the world in 2004, it has been known that Titan boasts natural bodies of water that are composed not of water, but liquid hydrocarbons.

However, Cassini’s scans missed the true extent of some seas, including the biggest one of all: Kraken Mare. This new map fills in almost all the area of Titan’s north pole and provides scientists with important answers to some of their questions. These include how the geographic distribution of these natural bodies of water came to be.

titan_surface1For instance, while the northern hemisphere is dotted all over with hundreds of tiny lakes, the large seas seem confined to a specific area (see the lower right side of the image above). As geophysicist Randolph Kirk of the U.S. Geological Survey pointed out during a press conference at the American Geophysical Union conference, geological forces are most likely at work here.

Basically, the team thinks that Titan’s crust has fractured here when active tectonics created almost straight lines of parallel mountain chains. The low-lying areas are what gets filled with liquid, creating Kraken Mare and its smaller neighbor, Ligeia Mare. The scientists think the process may be analogous to the flooding which created large bodies of water in Nevada some 12,000 years ago.

titan_lakesOther tectonic processes are probably behind the smaller dotted lakes too, though scientists don’t yet know precisely what. Some of the lakes could be the infilled calderas of former active volcanoes, which would spew molten water instead of lava. But there isn’t enough volcanic activity on the moon to account for all of them.

Instead, many were probably created when liquid hydrocarbons dissolved the frozen ice, in the same way that water on Earth dissolves limestone to create features like the Bottomless Lakes in New Mexico. According to Kirk, “this creates a kind of exciting prospect that under the northern pole of Titan is a network of caves.” Such caves on Earth are often filled with all manner of life, so these ones could be as well.

Moons_of_Saturn_2007Other radar data has shown the depth and volume of Ligeia Mare, the second largest sea in the northern hemisphere. According to NASA scientists, the sea has a maximum depth of about 170 meters, as deep as Lake Michigan, and about twice its volume. Alas, beyond the comparative size of these bodies of water, Titan’s liquid bodies could not be more different than those on Earth.

As already noted, Titan’s lakes, rivers and seas are composed of liquid hydrocarbons, most likely ethane and methane. Ordinarily, these exist in gaseous form. But given Titan’s surface conditions, where the average temperatures is -180 degrees Celsius (-292 Fahrenheit), these hydrocarbons are able to exist in liquid form.

TitanNevertheless, finding evidence of such chemicals on planets beyond Earth is a rare and impressive find. Combined with the discovery of propelyne in Titan’s atmosphere – an organic compound that is a byproduct of oil refining, fossil fuel extraction, and thought not to exist beyond Earth – this moon is proving to be full of surprises!

And be sure to enjoy this video which simulates a flyover of Titan, as complied by NASA from the data provided by the Cassini space probe:


Source: wired.com

Dead in Space: Government Shutdown, NASA and Mars

marsAs the government shutdown goes into its second week, there is growing concern over how it is affecting crucial programs and services. And its certainly no secret that a number of federally-funded organizations are worried about how it will affect their long term goals. One such organization is NASA, who has seen much of its operations frozen while the US government attempts to work out its differences.

In addition to 97% of NASA’s 18,000 employees being off the job, its social media accounts and website going dark, and its television channel being shut down, activities ranging from commercial crew payouts, conferences, and awards and scholarship approvals are all being delayed as well. Luckily, certain exemptions are being made when it comes to crucial work on Mars.

NASA_mavenThese include the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter. Following two days of complete work stoppage, technicians working on the orbiter were granted an exemption and permitted to continue prepping it for launch. And not a moment too soon, seeing as how a continued shutdown would have caused the orbiter to miss its crucial launch window.

Designed to survey the Martian atmosphere while orbiting the planet, NASA hopes that MAVEN will provide some clues as to what became of the planet’s onetime atmosphere. MAVEN was been scheduled to blast off for the Red Planet on Nov.18 atop an Atlas V rocket from the Florida Space Coast until those plans were derailed by the start of the government shutdown that began at midnight, Oct. 1.

But as Prof. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s chief scientist, stated in an interview just two days later:

We have already restarted spacecraft processing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) today. [Today, we] determined that MAVEN meets the requirements allowing an emergency exception relative to the Anti-Deficiency Act.

Curiosity-roverAnother merciful exception to the shutdown has been the Curiosity Rover. Since contract workers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) oversee the rover’s mission, the Curiosity team is not subject to the same furloughs as other NASA employees. At JPL, the technicians and workers at the lab are employed by the California Institute of Technology, and are therefore able to keep the mission going.

However, the management at JPL and Cal Tech will continue to assess the situation on a weekly basis, and it’s possible the team may not remain completely intact in the event of a prolonged shutdown. This would be particularly detrimental for Curiosity since the Mars rover requires daily maintenance by scientists, engineers and programmers and cannot run on autopilot.

curiosity_sol-177-1As Veronica McGregor, a media relations manager at JPL, said in a recent interview:

Right now, things continue on as normal. Curiosity is one where they literally look at the data each day, sit down, create a plan, decide what science instrument is going to be used tomorrow, they write software for it and upload it. [It’s] is kind of a unique mission in that way.

Other programs running out JPL will also continue. These include the Opportunity and Odyssey rovers, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the HiRISE camera, Dawn, Juno, and Spitzer space probes, and the Voyager satellites, APL, MESSENGER, and New Horizons.  In addition, operations aboard the International Space Station will continue, but with the bare minimum of ground crew support.

cassini_spaceprobeRobotic missions that are already in operation – such as the Cassini spacecraft circling Saturn, or the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) winging its way to the moon – will have small crews making sure that they are functioning properly. However, no scientific analysis will be conducted during the shutdown period.

As the shutdown continues, updates on which programs are still in operation, which ones will need to be discontinued, and how they will be affected will continue to be made available. One can only hope the politically-inspired deadlock will not become a prolonged affair. It’s not just current programs that are being affected after all.

Consider the proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars, or the plans to tow an asteroid closer to Earth. I can’t imagine how awful it would be if they were delayed or mothballed due to budget constraints. Politics… bah!

Sources: universetoday.com, (2), mashable.com

News from Space: Smile for the Space Probes!

cassini_spaceprobeFor those who love to stargaze, or people who just can’t resist having their picture taken, this weekend will present a number of cool opportunities. For many, the news that the Cassini space probe will be taking pictures of planet Earth this Friday is already known. But as it turns out, the MESSENGER space probe, currently in orbit around Mercury, has decided to get in on the action.

This is a rare opportunity indeed, and is associated with the Saturn Mosaic Project, something that Astronomers Without Borders is helping out with. The entire point is to give Earthlings a better view of the planet they call home, as well as to stimulate interest in Saturn, its rings, and many orbiting satellites. The SMP is also accepting images taken of Saturn, and has extended its deadline for submissions to July 29th.

wave_at_saturnThere are also other competitions associated with the event – one is to submit photos that best represents Earth (the image must be taken on July 19th, 2013) and another is to write an original song about this event. The digital versions of the winning entries will be beamed to space at a later date.

Also, at the exact time the Cassini spacecraft is snapping pics of Earth, the Slooh Space Camera will be snapping images of Saturn with a live broadcast team. Their feed starts at 2:30 PM PDT / 5:30 PM EDT / 21:30 UTC and will be providing live views of Saturn from the Canary Islands.

If you’re looking to get in on the fun, this is the time when you should be looking at the heavens: First up, Cassini’s photo op will be taking place between 21:27 and 21:47 UTC (2:27 and 2:42 PDT, 5:27 and 5:42 p.m. EDT) on Friday, July 19th. MESSENGER, meanwhile, will be taking images at 11:49, 12:38, and 13:41 UTC (4:49 a.m., 5:38 a.m. and 6:41 a.m. PDT or 7:49 a.m., 8:38 a.m. and 9:41 a.m. EDT) on July 19th and 20th.

Sorry for the late notice. Just look up at the sky and wave. As long as you keep doing it for the next thirty-six to forty-eight hours, I’m sure you can’t miss. Man, times zones are tricky!

Sources: universetoday.com, astronomerswithoutborders.org, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov