Stories tagged solar system

Earthlings wave to Saturnians
Earthlings wave to SaturniansCourtesy NASA?JPL-Caltech
Remember last month when we posted a photo of the Earth and Moon taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it looked back from its location near the planet Saturn? Well, at the time, NASA made a request of all Earthlings to send in photos of themselves waving back at Saturn, and here are the results made into a collage of our Big Blue Oasis in space:

NASA Mosaic

Click on the globe to see enlargements of the 1400 or so photographs NASA received.


Martian landscape: Could fossils be found in areas like this?
Martian landscape: Could fossils be found in areas like this?Courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
An National Geographic website article says the next rover mission to the planet Mars could conceivably find the fossilized remains of life that once lived there. Data from the Opportunity and Spirit rover missions found evidence of surface deposits and flowing water on the Red Planet, and sedimentary rock outcrops laid down by water in the past. Other indications suggest a vast ocean once covered the planet. Whether the planet's thin atmosphere or hostile surface environment could sustain life is unknown. But with all these signs of water, the possibility of finding signs of past life increases. A new study led by J. Alexis Palmero Rodriguez of the Planetary Science Institute theorizes that water on Mars may have been stable beneath the surface for billions of years - long enough for life to develop. And the subsurface may have seeped up through cracks in the crust and left behind deposits on the surface, and possibly fossil remains of life. Palmero and his colleagues hope a future rover mission will focus on the northern regions of the planet where fossils may be found.

Popular Mechanics summarizes how our knowledge of planets in the Solar System has changed over the last 30 years of space exploration.

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 is Eris.


See Spots spin: In recent years, Jupiter has picked up a couple new red spots. While the Great Red Spot (right) has raged for hundreds of years, newer smaller red  spots -- Red Spot, Jr., (middle) and "Baby Spot" (left) have emerged.
See Spots spin: In recent years, Jupiter has picked up a couple new red spots. While the Great Red Spot (right) has raged for hundreds of years, newer smaller red spots -- Red Spot, Jr., (middle) and "Baby Spot" (left) have emerged.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.

National Geopgraphic link

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.

The Orion crew exploration vehicle: This rendering represents a concept of the Orion crew exploration vehicle.   Image courtesy: Lockheed Martin Corp.
The Orion crew exploration vehicle: This rendering represents a concept of the Orion crew exploration vehicle. Image courtesy: Lockheed Martin Corp.
Scientific 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: Image courtesy NASA.
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.

The Great Red Spot: Image courtesy NASA.
The Great Red Spot: Image courtesy NASA.
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.

Jupiter has many moons – from what I can tell the current count is 63 – 47 of them are smaller than 10 kilometers in diameter. The four best known moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

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!