This Week in Space

2015-10-29

We have a mixed bag of treats this week, including more news on Pluto, Enceladus, and asteroids, but lets start with some lovely booze!

COMET LOVEJOY: THE ALCOHOLIC COMET!

Every hour is Happy Hour on comet Lovejoy; its more or less giving away free cocktails!

“We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,” said Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France, lead author of a paper on the discovery published October 23 in Science Advances. The team found 21 different organic molecules in gas from the comet, including ethyl alcohol and glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar.

The findings are important, as it shows that comets may have delivered complex molecules important for the emergence of life on Earth. Comets are generally chemically pristine, as they have been around since the beginning of the Solar system. When they heat up on their approach to the sun, they gain their characteristic ‘tail’, and the gases released can then be analysed by scientists as to it molecular composition.

“The result definitely promotes the idea the comets carry very complex chemistry,” said Stefanie Milam of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, a co-author on the paper. “During the Late Heavy Bombardment about 3.8 billion years ago, when many comets and asteroids were blasting into Earth and we were getting our first oceans, life didn’t have to start with just simple molecules like water, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen. Instead, life had something that was much more sophisticated on a molecular level. We’re finding molecules with multiple carbon atoms. So now you can see where sugars start forming, as well as more complex organics such as amino acids — the building blocks of proteins — or nucleobases, the building blocks of DNA. These can start forming much easier than beginning with molecules with only two or three atoms.”

The Rosetta mission has also found organic molecules, so even though there is controversy over where our planet obtained its water, it may still be the case that comets delivered important chemicals.

“The next step is to see if the organic material being found in comets came from the primordial cloud that formed the solar system or if it was created later on, inside the protoplanetary disk that surrounded the young sun,” said Dominique Bockelée-Morvan from Paris Observatory, a co-author of the paper.

Personally, I just want to know what it tastes like!

#PLUTO TIME

Sticking with the fun theme, NASA has done something really neat to invigorate people to get them involved with science. What they have done is to create cool images of Pluto and Charon using people’s own photos. You can zoom in and out of the images at an absurd level of depth. It’s great fun!

Image credit: NASA

“It’s gratifying to see the global response to Pluto Time, which allowed us to imagine what it’s like on Pluto, some three billion miles away,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science. “This is a wonderful example of how space exploration and science unite us with a common bond.”

There’s all manner of things to discover in the individual photos making up the mosaic. Landscapes, pets, selfies, and more. Its very neat indeed!

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MYSTERIOUS LITTLE KERBEROS

Image Credit: NASA

This tiny moon of Pluto has confounded expectations, as Kerberos appears to be smaller than scientists expected, and has a highly reflective surface, contrary to predictions prior to the Pluto flyby in July. “Once again, the Pluto system has surprised us,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

It was thought to be much larger with a dark surface, whereas it is in fact covered in clean reflective ice. Scientists are still working out how they got this prediction wrong.

“Our predictions were nearly spot-on for the other small moons, but not for Kerberos,” said New Horizons co-investigator Mark Showalter, of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. The Pluto system will undoubtedly continue to produce fresh surpises over the coming months.

CASSINI COMPLETES DEEPEST DIVE THROUGH ENCELADUS PLUMES

October 28 saw the spaceraft fly through the moon’s icy sprays. NASA has produced an in depth Q&A video that gives details about its mission objectives. NASA has also stated key facts as to what they want to achieve.


This artist’s rendering showing a cutaway view into the interior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered the moon has a global ocean and likely hydrothermal activity. A plume of ice particles, water vapor and organic molecules sprays from fractures in the moon’s south polar region.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This flyby is not aimed at detecting life, but to provide information about hydrothermal activity and chemical composition of the plumes, the shape of the plumes themselves and how they occur. It will also work to determine how much the plumes are spraying out, which may give clues as to how long this activity has gone on for. The final flyby will be on December 19. TMC can’t wait to see the results.

NASA ON LOOKOUT FOR THE GREAT PUMPKIN

NASA is tracking asteroid called 2015 TB145, which will safely fly by Earth on October 31, giving scientists an excellent opportunity for study.

“The trajectory of 2015 TB145 is well understood,” said Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “At the point of closest approach, it will be no closer than about 300,000 miles — 480,000 kilometers or 1.3 lunar distances. Even though that is relatively close by celestial standards, it is expected to be fairly faint, so night-sky Earth observers would need at least a small telescope to view it.”

“The close approach of 2015 TB145 at about 1.3 times the distance of the moon’s orbit, coupled with its size, suggests it will be one of the best asteroids for radar imaging we’ll see for several years,” said Lance Benner, of JPL, who leads NASA’s asteroid radar research program. “We plan to test a new capability to obtain radar images with two-meter resolution for the first time and hope to see unprecedented levels of detail.”

“The asteroid’s orbit is very oblong with a high inclination to below the plane of the solar system,” said Benner. “Such a unique orbit, along with its high encounter velocity — about 35 kilometers or 22 miles per second — raises the question of whether it may be some type of comet. If so, then this would be the first time that the Goldstone radar has imaged a comet from such a close distance.”

TMC hopes everyone has a happy Halloween!

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Feiryred.

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