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The Solar System

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The Lander That Could.

“‘Prior to falling silent, the lander was able to transmit all science data gathered during the First Science Sequence,’ lander manager Stephan Ulamec said in a statement. ‘This machine performed magnificently under tough conditions, and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered’…’The data collected by Philae and Rosetta is set to make this mission a game-changer in cometary science,’ said Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.”

After traveling 4 billion miles, accomplishing an exhilarating landing on a 84,000-mph moving target, and, after 57 hours of work in an unfortunately dark location, successfully sending a valedictory round of data, the ESA’s history-making Philae probe falls into slumber. “We still hope that at a later stage of the mission, perhaps when we are nearer to the Sun, we might have enough solar illumination to wake up the lander and re-establish communication.” Rest well, little lander — ya did good.

Great Eyes, Lidless.

“The biggest building boom in the history of astronomy is upon us. In Chile and Hawaii and in space, astronomers are getting powerful telescopes that dwarf the current state-of-the-art instruments. When the mountain blasting and the mirror polishing are all done, we will have the clearest and most detailed views of outer space ever.”

By way of Follow Me Here, Gizmodo looks at five massive telescopes that will change the game, including the James Webb Space Telescope, a.k.a. Hubble 2.0. “Since blowing past its initial budget and launch data, NASA promises the ambitious project is on-track for 2018. And it better, because astronomers are eagerly awaiting its data.”

45 and Counting.

“When I look back over the time that’s elapsed since 1969, I wonder what we’re doing. I remember the dreams of NASA, and they were too the dreams of a nation: Huge space stations, mighty rockets plying the solar system, bases and colonies on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids…Instead, we let those small-minded human traits flourish. We’ve let politics, greed, bureaucracy, and short-sightedness rule our actions, and we’ve let them trap us here on the surface of our planet.”

On the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Phil Plait wonders what the hell happened to the Dream of Space in America. “Venturing into space is not just something we can do. It’s something we must do.”

Neptune’s Nebula.

“This jaw-dropping image by Mark Hanson shows the nebula NGC 6888, the result of fierce winds of subatomic particles blown off by the star WR 136, a massive blue monster a quarter million times more luminous than our Sun. The nebula is the result of a previously ejected wind of material being slammed by faster matter ejected more recently.”

From attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion to c-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate, Slate’s Phil Plait shows off the winners of this year’s Astronomy Photographs of the Year. All 2500 submissions can be viewed here.

The Fault in Our Stars.

“As the Sun follows the swirling motion of the Galaxy’s arms, circling around the galactic center, it also moves up and down, periodically crossing the plane that cuts the Galaxy into a top and a bottom half like the two bread slices in a sandwich. The authors suggest that as the Sun oscillates up and down, it crosses a denser layer of dark matter — like the ham in the middle — causing a gravitational push and pull that disturbs comets in the Oort cloud.”

By way of Dangerous Meta, did Dark Matter kill the dinosaurs? Extremely speculative here, but food for thought. “The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission, which launched last year, will map the gravitational field of the Galaxy and could rule out or confirm the presence of this darker disk.”

All These Worlds Except…

“Robinson said the high radiation environment around Jupiter and distance from Earth would be a challenge. When NASA sent Galileo to Jupiter in 1989, it took the spacecraft six years to get to the fifth planet from the sun. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute astronomer Laurie Leshin said it could be ‘a daring mission to an extremely compelling object in our solar system.’…Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb said going to Europa would be more exciting than exploring dry Mars: ‘There might be fish under the ice.'”

NASA sets aside some money for a robotic mission to Europa. “No details have been decided yet, but NASA chief financial officer Elizabeth Robinson said Tuesday that it would be launched in the mid-2020s.”

Pouring Down All Over Mars.

“So, how does water flow in the frigid Martian temperatures that are present, even in the summer months? Researchers think that there may be a naturally-occurring anti-freeze in the water, caused by the high-iron content…the water and ferric iron flowed together as part of a brine.”

Via io9, Scientists at NASA’s JPL find the strongest evidence of currently extant water on Mars yet. “We still don’t have a smoking gun for existence of water…Although we’re not sure how this process would take place without water.”

Nova Close, Water Closer.

Water, water everywhere: ESA’s Herschel space observatory discovers that Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, is emitting plumes of water. “The discovery of Ceres’ plumes comes at a fortuitous time. NASA currently has a probe, the Dawn spacecraft, speeding toward the object. Dawn will arrive and enter orbit around Ceres in 2015, giving researchers a front-row view of the activity.” (Ceres image via here.)

Also in recent discoveries among the stars: A supernova erupts in the relatively nearby galaxy M82, 11.5 million light years away (meaning it blew 11.5 million years ago.) “It is one of the closest and brightest supernovae seen from Earth since the 1987 observation of a supernova just 168,000 light years away…[B]ecause these supernovae are used to calibrate distances in space, understanding them better may help clarify the shape of the Universe.” (M82 image via Earl Foster, here.)

Martian Vineyard.

“The layer of rock, called the Sheepbed mudstone, has several qualities that indicate it formed in an environment that was hospitable to life. First, the thickness of the rock indicates that the lake existed in that area for a long period of time. Second, chemical analysis showed that the lake had all the right ingredients for life. According to Grotzinger, the lake would have been roughly half the size of one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.”

Where do bad folks go when they die? They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly. Mars? Hrm…well, maybe. Curiosity finds the remnants of what appears to be an ancient Martian lake in Yellowknife Bay, part of Gale Crater. Unfortunately, “[e]ven if there were fossils in the mudstone, Curiosity doesn’t have the right kind of equipment to see them. That job will be left to the Mars rover set to launch in 2020.”

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