Courtesy Ron Miller Just from watching the opening of Star Trek episodes, we've heard that space is vast. But to we really understand the scale of things comparing our little planet with other planets, stars and galaxies? This collection of illustrations helps grasp those concepts better. Hang on tight!
Courtesy ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDARosetta - a spacecraft launched over ten years ago by the European Space Agency (ESA) - finally reached its goal yesterday, aligning and syching itself up with the orbital path of a comet (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) speeding around the Sun.
During the course of its trajectory, Rosetta utilized the gravity of both Earth and Mars in several slingshot maneuvers to accelerate and help hurdle the spacecraft toward its destination. The comet is traveling toward the sun at 34,175 mph. After a high-speed chase across nearly 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) of interplanetary space Rosetta had to slam on its brakes over the past to months to reduce its speed (relative to the comet) to just under 2 miles per hour.
"This arrival phase in fact is the most complex and exotic trajectory that we have ever seen," said Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French Space Agency CNES.
Courtesy ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDAThe spacecraft will spend the next year or so collecting data and photographing the comet which is roughly 2 miles in diameter and shaped somewhat like a duck. Comets are thought to be composed of the same nebular material present when the Sun and planets first formed more than 4.6 billion years ago. Rosetta will help increase our knowledge of the solar system's beginnings.
This coming November ESA engineers will command Rosetta's lander, Philae, to set down on the comet's surface to collect even more data, a feat never before attempted. That will certainly be worth watching.
Popular Mechanics summarizes how our knowledge of planets in the Solar System has changed over the last 30 years of space exploration.
Every space probe ever launched, all on one map of the Solar System.
The edge of the Solar System is defined by the heliosheath, the point where the solar wind – a constant stream of high-energy particle emitting from the Sun – drops off abruptly. Rather than being perfectly spherical, it is pushed in at the bottom by an inter-stellar magnetic field. To which I say: huh.
If you were sad to see Pluto stripped of its planetary status, you can be glad that the poor mass of rock and ice has been given a break. The international body that officially defines the names of stellar objects has decided to call all objects like Pluto, plutoids. So if Pluto isn't a planet, what is it? It's a plutoid...so is Eris.
Courtesy M. Wong and I. de Pater (University of California, Berkeley)New images from the Hubble Telescope show that the Giant Planet has picked up a couple more red spots, smaller but very near to the Great Red Spot.
Images taken earlier this month discovered the third red spot on the planet, which has been nicknamed “Baby spot.” Red Spot, Jr., was discovered in spring 2006. The Great Red Spot, which is a raging storm about the same size as our Earth, has been churning in Jupiter’s atmosphere for 200 to 350 years.
“Baby Spot” had been a white storm prior to taking on its reddish appearance. Scientists believe the red color come from clouds reacting to solar ultraviolet radiation.
Why is Jupiter getting a surge of extra red spots? Researchers think that it has to do with climate changes on the planet. In 2004 a California astronomer predicted that the planet was moving into a phase of warming temperatures that would destabilize its atmosphere.
“Baby Spot” is on a collision course with the Great Red Spot and could be gobbled up by it later this summer or bounced into a different location on the planet.
Encladaeus, a moon of Saturn, is emitting jets of very pure water, forcing scientists to reconsider just what the heck is going on up there.
Scientific American.com has a cool interactive on what they think the Five Goals for Exploring the Solar System should be. Check it out, and then think about what you think our goals for exploring the solar system should be. What do you think?
At the Science Museum of Minnesota you can ask our featured Scientist on the Spot a question either using a computer interface or the old fashioned way – with a paper and pencil. Some of the handwritten questions veer a little off topic. But they are still good questions, and deserve answers. So here’s a question that was a little off topic for Noelle Beckman: “Can you tell me about Jupiter?”. Noelle is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota who studies how animals influence the make-up of tropical forests. So, I’ll take this one.
Jupiter is the largest of the eight planets in our solar system (remember, poor Pluto is no longer considered a planet). Jupiter is a gas giant, meaning it is primarily made up of hydrogen (90%) and helium (10%) gases. Jupiter probably has a rocky or metallic core, though we don’t know that for certain.
Jupiter is huge – really, tremendously big. Not as big as the Sun, but bigger than all the planets (even including Pluto) combined.
When you look at the picture of Jupiter above, you can see that Jupiter’s atmosphere is banded – this banding is typical of gas giants (see pictures of the other gas giants in our solar system, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, to see similar banding). The bands are the result of extremely fast winds (more than 400 miles per hour) that are blowing in opposite directions for each adjacent band. The interaction of these bands result in storms – and one of Jupiter’s storms, called the Great Red Spot, has been known to exist since the seventeenth century.
Several NASA spacecraft have visited Jupiter, including Pioneers 10 & 11, Voyagers 1& 2, Galileo, New Horizons, Cassini-Huygens (on its way to Saturn), Ulysses (which used Jupiter in gravity-assist maneuver) – and probably others I was not able to dig up.
What else can I tell you? The comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter in 1994. You can see Jupiter in the night sky right now (in the southern sky during twilight and lower in the southwest after dark). Jupiter was named after the Roman god, Jupiter, who was very similar to Zeus in the Greek pantheon. In Pompeii there was a temple to Jupiter at the north end of the forum. Jupiter has faint planetary rings, like Saturn.
I hope this answers this person’s question. See, I can tell you about Jupiter!