Gorgeous Saturn

August 30, 2012 at 8:00 am | Leave a Comment

The True Colors of Saturn and its Moons

Titan appears with Saturn behind it in this natural color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

Is there anything more lovely in the solar system than the planet Saturn? Sure, there’s Mars and the great images we’re seeing from the Curiosity rover. And, of course, Earth sports some gorgeous places. But, for sheer jaw-dropping beauty, you can’t beat a great image of Saturn and its moons. They just grab your attention.

The Cassini mission folks released a set of color “portraits” of Saturn and its largest moon Titan. They show the pair through all the seasons of Saturn’s year. And they are stunning.

A view of the night side of Titan, with sunlight scattering through the top of the atmosphere. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

A wide-angle view shows Titan passing in front of Saturn, as well as the planet’s changing colors. Upon Cassini‘s arrival at Saturn eight years ago, Saturn’s northern winter hemisphere was an azure blue.

Now that winter is encroaching on the planet’s southern hemisphere and summer on the north, the color scheme is reversing. That lovely blue is now tinting the southern atmosphere.

Saturn's rings are front and center here, obscuring part of Titan. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

The other three images depict the newly discovered south polar vortex in the atmosphere of Titan.  It’s a mass of swirling gas hovering over the pole.

Cassini‘s visible-light cameras have seen a concentration of yellowish haze in the detached haze layer at the south pole of Titan since at least March 27. Cassini‘s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer spotted the massing of clouds around the south pole as early as May 22 in infrared wavelengths. After a June 27 flyby of the moon, Cassini released a dramatic image and movie showing the vortex rotating faster than the moon’s rotation period. The four images being released today were acquired in May, June and July of 2012.

See that vortex at the south pole of Titan? It just recently formed -- and planetary scientists are studying it to understand Titan's atmospheric dynamics. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

Some of these views, such as those of the polar vortex, are only possible because Cassini’s newly inclined — or tilted — orbital path now allows more direct viewing of the polar regions of Saturn and its moons.

Over the years, Cassini has explored Enceladus and its hissing geysers, its Huygens lander probed Titan, is cameras have shown us high-resolution scans of the rings, and revealed more about the surfaces of many of Saturn’s moons.  This system continues to surprise us with each new set of images and data that Cassini sends back.

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to return on investment, I’d have to say that we’re totally getting our money’s worth out of the Cassini mission. I suspect (but I haven’t calculated it directly) that this mission has probably cost the average taxpayer a few pennies.  And, for that, we’re getting some fantastic looks at the outer solar system.

Crowd-sourcing SETI Research

August 29, 2012 at 14:00 pm | Leave a Comment

 Uwingu Funds its First Project

Elements of the Allen Telescope Array. Courtesy SETI Institute.

Remember a few entries ago I told you about a cool crowd-sourcing project called Uwingu? It’s made up of a group of people who wanted to see good research being funded that hasn’t been getting funded in the current political climate.  Well, the appeal is going well and they have enough money to fund their first research project: Project SETI.  Here’s the announcement straight from Uwingu:

“UwinguTM, LLC and the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) (which is designed to search out extraterrestrial life), announced that the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array’s science team will be the first project funded by Uwingu, via its IndieGoGo campaign. Uwingu will donate half of all “bonus” funds above its $75K business launch target to the ATA. 

“We don’t have to wait to begin helping space research until we launch our first product, we’re starting now!” said Uwingu CEO, Dr. Alan Stern. “And I can’t overstate how proud Uwingu is to have the SETI Institute’s ATA as a beneficiary of our IndieGoGo crowd-funding campaign. SETI is one of the noblest and most important space research enterprises. We hope this will be a double-win—generating more funds available to launch our own commercial products, and more funds available to the ATA’s research teams.”

Added the ATA’s Dr. Jill Tarter, “Even without the looming specter of federal budget ‘sequestration’, available governmental budgets for space science, space research, and programs encouraging STEM education are shrinking fast. Our ideas and opportunities are bigger and better than ever, but they are all competing for a smaller resource pool.  Alternative funding in the form of entrepreneurship is an absolute necessity if we are to continue exploring and solving grand challenges.  All of us can participate in the IndieGoGo campaign and the launch of Uwingu, and purchase its products to generate revenues to fund the best ideas from scientists today and into tomorrow. Make it so!””

 If you’re at all interested in furthering science research, and you have a few extra dollars to spend, please consider supporting Uwingu.  They’re good people!  I’ve known Alan Stern for a long time and just met Jill Tarter at the SETIcon II meeting in June. It’s really nice to see some support flowing SETI’s way.  And, it’s not just about little green men at SETI.  If you check out their Web pages, you’ll find that SETI Institute scientists are involved in a huge number of research topics spread from astrobiology to planetary sciences.

Freebies from Hubble

August 29, 2012 at 11:00 am | Leave a Comment

End of Summer Drawing for Cool Images

The galaxy NGC 1300, as seen by Hubble Space Telescope. Courtesy NASA/ESA/STScI.

I’m a sucker for cool Hubble stuff. It’s probably because I wrote a lot about HST a few years ago (published a couple of books about it, did a couple of fulldome shows about it, you know, like that).  In Hubble Vision, both the book and the fulldome show, I tried to show people what great imagery and data were streaming from this venerable telescope.

Now, the cool thing about Hubble imagery is that it has always been available for download from the Hubble Site web pages. I’ve been active “image miner” there ever since I was working on the first of my two books (with John C. Brandt) about HST science.  And, I know a lot of people who do the same, downloading images as soon as they come up.

Wouldn’t it be cool to get some of those images in 16×20 print size?  I know I’d love it.  And, the folks at HubbleSite are having an End-of-Summer Hubble Picture Giveaway. It’s a random drawing that you can participate in on  HubbleSite’s Facebook page.

They’re planning on drawing three winners a day from Sept. 4-16 — and, here’s an important note:  the app for entering goes live on  the Hubblesite Facebook page on the 4th of September, so mark your calendar and get ready to enter! Each lucky person whose name is drawn will receive one 16 x 20 print of one of three images, selected randomly: Mystic Mountain, The Helix Nebula, or Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300. You can see them at the links below.

Mystic Mountain: http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/pr2010013a/

Helix Nebula: http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/entire/pr2004032d/

NGC 1300: http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/pr2005001a/

This isn’t the first time that the HST folk have done these drawings, but this one’s special. This time, they’re offering an extra chance to win for users who enter a promo code in the appropriate field.  That promo code is:  SPCEWRITR

HubbleSite’s Facebook page is at http://www.facebook.com/HubbleTelescope, so head on over there, check out their page and on September 4th, you can start entering the drawing to get a free print image! And be sure and enter in the promo code above.  I don’t get anything out of it — it just gives your entry extra oomph to win an extra image!

Just think about how great a print of one of these three fabby images will look above your desk, or framed and hung in your living room. Or, how it would make a great gift for that space lover in your life.   You really don’t need a good reason to enter — if you like space and love cool space imagery, then here’s your chance to get some for your wall.

The View of Mount Sharp

August 27, 2012 at 15:29 pm | Leave a Comment

Curiosity Pans Around and Finds Rock Layers

Curiosity's view of the side of Mt. Sharp on Mars.

Today planetary scientists presented their latest views of the surface of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover.  The minute I saw this image I thought of hiking through Utah or Arizona, where you can find similar-looking rock layers.  But, the cool thing here is that THIS image shows us Mars as it can never be seen from orbit.  You had to be ON Mars in some form to see this scene. If this is what we’re getting after only 20 sols, imagine what we’re going to see as Curiosity moves out on its extended travels. According to Curiosity’s scientists, the rover will be exploring this scene some months from now. There’s a lot of other interesting science to be done between now and the time it gets to Mount Sharp in Gale Crater.

Now, if we could just figure out a way to get humans there sometime soon.  The kinds of exploration that a geologist on the surface could do are just mind-boggling!

Want to know more about the Curiosity mission?  Go to the NASA Mars Website and browse the Red Planet to your heart’s content!



Neil Armstrong Has Cleared the Tower

August 25, 2012 at 14:29 pm | 3 Comments


Neil Armstrong


Another hero of the First Space Age has died. Astronaut Neil Alden Armstrong has passed away after complications of heart surgery. I was only 16 when he took his first footstep onto the Moon, but he was one of those people who remained a hero to me throughout my life. He symbolizes not just that first step, but the state of our space exploration dreams as they were back then. His footsteps should be leading us forward and I hope that they will.  In the meantime, take to heart these words from his family:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Mr. Armstrong, here’s to ya, lad!

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