Space Stories: Jovian Moons, Charon’s Canyons, and a New Space Telescope

Image (Credit): Jupiter as seen by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)

Here are some recent stories of interest.

Live Science: “Jupiter Officially has the Most Moons in the Solar System, Discovery of 12 New Satellites Confirms

Jupiter was already the king of the solar system, and new discoveries give the massive planet another way to reign supreme: It now has the most moons. Twelve new moons discovered orbiting Jupiter have been confirmed, bumping the count from 80 to 92, and knocking Saturn — which has 83 moons — down a peg. “Models Explain Canyons on Pluto’s Large Moon Charon

In 2015, when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountered the Pluto-Charon system, the Southwest Research Institute-led science team discovered interesting, geologically active objects instead of the inert icy orbs previously envisioned. An SwRI scientist has revisited the data to explore the source of cryovolcanic flows and an obvious belt of fractures on Pluto’s large moon Charon. These new models suggest that when the moon’s internal ocean froze, it may have formed the deep, elongated depressions along its girth but was less likely to lead to cryovolcanoes erupting with ice, water and other materials in its northern hemisphere.

Big Think: “NASA’s Habitable Worlds Observatory to Finally Answer the Epic Question: “Are we Alone?”

…perhaps the biggest question of all — that of “Are we alone in the Universe?” — remains a mystery. While the current generation of ground-based and space-based telescopes can take us far into the Universe, this is a question that’s currently beyond our reach. To get there, we’ll need to directly image Earth-like exoplanets: planets with sizes and temperatures similar to Earth, but that orbit Sun-like stars, not the more common red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri or TRAPPIST-1. Those capabilities are precisely what NASA is aiming for with its newly announced flagship mission: the Habitable Worlds Observatory. It’s an ambitious project but one that’s well worth it. After all, finding out we’re not alone in the Universe would quite possibly be the biggest revolution in all of science history.

Space Quote: Nukes in Space

Image (Credit): NASA’s Cassini spacecraft lifts off on Oct. 15, 1997, atop a Titan IVB rocket. (NASA)

“NASA should educate the public about why nuclear propulsion is not only something nice to have, but is a necessity if human civilization is to spread beyond the Earth on a greater scale than a few explorers. Access to the mineral and energy resources of the solar system would be a boon to all humankind and would be worth the infinitesimal risk of launching nuclear fuel into space.”

-Statement by Mark R. Whittington in an editorial in The Hill titled “Will the NASA-DARPA nuclear engine test cause environmental protests?” In his piece, Mr. Whittington discusses plans to build a nuclear-powered rocket for a Mars mission and highlights how protests surrounded the 1997 launch of the nuclear-powered Cassini probe to Saturn, with one scientist estimating that “an explosion on the launch pad could spread radioactive plutonium across Central Florida, potentially cause more than 1 million casualties…” Mr. Whittington is the author of various space exploration studies, such as Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?

The National Air and Space Museum is Open for Business

Image (Credit): The “Destination Moon” exibition at the refurbished National Air and Space Museum. (Smithsonian Museum)

If you have been awaiting the refurbishing of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, then you will be happy to know that the museum reopened on October 14th. Only now you cannot simply stroll into the museum. Instead, you need to obtain a free timed-entry pass. Unfortunately, this seems to be the current system used by numerous museums to control traffic as well as capture all of your personal information so they can swamp you with junk mail and offers. Anyway…

Here are the a few of the new exhibits the museum is highlighting (go here for the full list):

  1. “Walking On Other Worlds”: Experience what it’s like in distant parts of our solar system in the “Walking on Other Worlds” interactive experience in the Kenneth C. Griffin Exploring the Planets Gallery. This immersive media exhibit presents visitors with a seven-minute “tour” of seven different worlds: Venus, Earth’s Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn’s moon Titan, asteroid Ryugu, and comet 67P.
  2. Science Fiction Artifacts: New to display is a full-sized T-70 X-wing Starfighter “flown” by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). The screen-used vehicle is on long-term loan from Lucasfilm and is displayed hanging outside the planetarium. Star Trek is also represented in the new exhibitions. 
  3. ISS Cupola: In the One World Connected gallery, put yourself in the shoes of astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) with the ISS Cupola interactive. Every 90 minutes, astronauts on board the ISS can see the Sun rise from the station’s Cupola, a European Space Agency-built observatory module. 

Given that NASA’s Artemis 1 mission is shooting for the Moon again, the timing is perfect. Of course, in December 2022 it will have been 50 years since the last human walk on the Moon’s surface, so we have a lot to celebrate as well as a lot of time to make up. Let’s hope a future update to the National Air and Space Museum includes models of spacecraft used to get humans to Mars.

And remember, you can also visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside the Washington Beltway that contains large planes, jets, and spacecraft that cannot fit in the DC museum, including the Space Shuttle Discovery. Last time I went there I could walk right in without using a timed-entry pass.

Image (Credit): Space Shuttle Discovery at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (Smithsonian Museum)

Space Stories: Enceladus, Maarten Schmidt, and SpaceX

Image (Credit): Saturn’s moon Enceladus as seen by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Here are some recent stories of interest. “A Habitable Ocean? Scientists Believe An Essential Life Component May be Abundant on Saturn’s Icy Moon, Enceladus!

Previously, NASA’s Saturn-studying Cassini spacecraft had discovered Enceladus’ subsurface liquid water as well as the plumes of ice grains and water vapour that erupted from cracks in the moon’s icy surface. Analysis of the plumes had revealed that they contain almost all the basic requirements of life as we know it. But while the bioessential element phosphorus is yet to be identified directly, scientists have now found evidence of its availability in the ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust. “Maarten Schmidt, Astronomer Who Explained Quasars, Dies at 92

Maarten Schmidt, the Dutch-born American astronomer who explained the mysterious heavenly bodies known as quasars and in so doing helped create the modern picture of the universe, its structure and its history, died Sept. 17 at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 92. “FCC Denies SpaceX $900 Million in Starlink Funding

The space launch services giant was recently rejected for nearly $900 million dollars in rural connectivity funding from the Wireline Competition Bureau (a branch of the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC). SpaceX characterized that decision(opens in new tab) as “grossly unfair” in its Sept. 9 appeal to the regulator, which is under review.

Space Stories: Apps, Jupiter, and Exoplanets

Image (Credit): This enhanced color view of Jupiter’s south pole was created by citizen scientist Gabriel Fiset using data from the JunoCam instrument on NASA’s Juno spacecraft. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gabriel Fiset)

Here are some recent stories of interest. Best Astronomy Apps for Stargazing This Summer

Thanks to these astronomy apps, you can use your phone to see which stars and constellations are above you in real time, day or night. Whether you’re planning on stargazing, are curious about which constellations are in your location, or simply want to flex on your family and friends around the campfire, the following apps can show you what you’re seeing in the sky. Jupiter Doesn’t Have Rings Like Saturn

To understand the reason Jupiter currently looks the way it does, Kane and his graduate student Zhexing Li ran a dynamic computer simulation accounting for the orbits of Jupiter’s four main moons, as well as the orbit of the planet itself, and information about the time it takes for rings to form. Their results are detailed here, soon to be published in the Planetary Science journal. New Method to Detect Exoplanets

In recent years, a large number of exoplanets have been found around single ‘normal’ stars. New research shows that there may be exceptions to this trend. Researchers suggest a new way of detecting dim bodies, including planets, orbiting exotic binary stars known as Cataclysmic Variables (CVs).