Cassini: Cosmic Gestation?

File under, And we are so amazed ….

JPL explains:

Say hello to Peggy.NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet’s known moons.

Images taken with Cassini’s narrow angle camera on April 15, 2013, show disturbances at the very edge of Saturn’s A ring — the outermost of the planet’s large, bright rings. One of these disturbances is an arc about 20 percent brighter than its surroundings, 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) long and 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide. Scientists also found unusual protuberances in the usually smooth profile at the ring’s edge. Scientists believe the arc and protuberances are caused by the gravitational effects of a nearby object. Details of the observations were published online today (April 14, 2014) by the journal Icarus.

Yes, you read that correctly.

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Look Ahead: Cassini “Proximal” Mission

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First, there was Equinox. And then came Solstice. Ever faithful, the Cassini probe continues to defy even the wildest expectations at its launch in 1997. And now, NASA is asking for public participation in preparing the spacecraft for its final mission:

Starting in late 2016, the Cassini spacecraft will repeatedly climb high above Saturn’s north pole, flying just outside its narrow F ring. Cassini will probe the water-rich plume of the active geysers on the planet’s intriguing moon Enceladus, and then will hop the rings and dive between the planet and innermost ring 22 times.

JPL-CassiniProximalMission-1Because the spacecraft will be very close to Saturn, the team has been calling this phase “the proximal orbits.” But they think someone out there can conjure up a cooler name. Here’s where you come in: you can choose your faves from a list already assembled, or you can submit your own ideas (up to three). The big reveal for the final name will be in May 2014.

This naming contest is part of the 10-year anniversary celebration. The mission will mark a decade of exploring Saturn, its rings and moons on June 30 PDT (July 1 EDT).

The name game is already underway. And they’ve already released an awesome trailer in advance of Cassini’s astounding swan song.

No, really, watch the trailer.

This is going to be so cool.

Cassini’s last mission could well be the inspiration of our next generation of scientists. It really is all that.

Linkadelica

NASA-2014-RadiationStripes-detail

Might we suggest some light, enlightening reading?

Linden-2014-FermiGC-detail-smDark matter?

• Or, maybe, zebra stripes around planet Earth?

• Perhaps contemplating the multiverse?

• Or puzzling over the “strangest magma on Earth”? How about extraterrestrial volcanoes?

• Would you believe the Permian-Triassic extinction was caused by microbes?

• Was that whole skydiver and meteorite thing true?

The Enceladus Deep

Our love affair with Enceladus grows deeper:

PIA18071A substantial ocean most likely exists beneath the icy surface of Saturn’s diminutive moon Enceladus, raising the possibility that primitive forms of extraterrestrial life exist in its briny depths.

The ocean lies between the moon’s rocky core and a layer of thick ice, and is estimated to be about the size of Lake Superior. That’s large for a moon that is only 310 miles (500 kilometers) in diameter and could fit within the borders of Arizona.

In our solar system, the only other moon known to have similar contact between liquid water and rock is Jupiter’s Europa. Both the rock and the water are considered to be essential for the chemistry that could, over eons, turn nonliving matter into living entities.

“The main implication of our work is that there are potentially habitable environments in our solar system that are entirely unexpected,” said Luciano Iess, an aerospace engineer at the Sapienza University of Rome and lead author on the study published Thursday in the journal Science.

(Kaufman)

The essential question is actually a matter of opinion, sort of: How important is this?

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Dark Flight

Dark flightIf we told you what you’re looking at in this picture, you wouldn’t believe us. Therefore, we’ll have Nancy Atkinson explain:

It sounds like a remarkable story, almost unbelievable: Anders Helstrup went skydiving nearly two years ago in Hedmark, Norway and while he didn’t realize it at the time, when he reviewed the footage taken by two cameras fixed to his helmet during the dive, he saw a rock plummet past him. He took it to experts and they realized he had captured a meteorite falling during its “dark flight” — when it has been slowed by atmospheric braking, and has cooled and is no longer luminous.

Yes, really.

(Via S.L., with many thanks. Photo credit: Anders Helstrup.)

Photosynthesize This

via JPL
So there is this joke we have, about how being the one government agency that routinely does its job … never mind. At any rate, NASA would have you know:

Data from satellite sensors show that during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the Midwest region of the United States boasts more photosynthetic activity than any other spot on Earth, according to NASA and university scientists.

Healthy plants convert light to energy via photosynthesis, but chlorophyll also emits a fraction of absorbed light as a fluorescent glow that is invisible to the naked eye. The magnitude of the glow is an excellent indicator of the amount of photosynthesis, or gross productivity, of plants in a given region.

Research in 2013, led by Joanna Joiner of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., demonstrated that fluorescence from plants could be teased out from existing data from satellites that were designed and built for other purposes. The new research, led by Luis Guanter of the Freie Universität Berlin, used the data for the first time to estimate photosynthesis from agriculture. Results were published March 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to co-author Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., “The paper shows that fluorescence is a much better proxy for agricultural productivity than anything we’ve had before. This can go a long way regarding monitoring—and maybe even predicting—regional crop yields.”

Guanter, Joiner and Frankenberg launched their collaboration at a 2012 workshop, hosted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, to explore measurements of photosynthesis from space. The team noticed that on an annual basis, the tropics are the most active in photosynthesis. But during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the U.S. Corn Belt “really stands out,” Frankenberg said. “Areas all over the world are not as productive as this area.”

You are allowed to be impressed. It really is cool, after all.
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Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Satellite Shows High Productivity from U.S. Corn Belt”. March 31, 2014.

(Tip o’the hat to S.L.)