July has got to be my favorite month of this year so far. It is not a common occurrence that major space news follow one another in such overwhelming and dazzling succession. I’m especially delighted at how space has been consistently occupying the top trends on social media so far this month.
In mid-July, the first real and close-up images of Pluto were sent down by the New Horizons spacecraft, which revealed outstanding detail and presented an image of a planet that is contrary to any previous pre-flyby expectations. Shockwaves of astonishment coursed through back on Earth. Read more about this historic mission on my previous blog post.
A few days ago, the NASA Dawn spacecraft detected a mysterious watery haze hanging over Ceres’ white spots. The Dawn spacecraft was launched in 2007 and is currently orbiting Ceres. The largest of the main belt asteroids (located between Mars and Jupiter), Ceres was elevated to dwarf planet status, making it the only one in the inner solar system. In mid 2015, we began getting close-up images of this fascinating world. Images obtained were indicative of an icy and soft surface covered by dust and they also revealed those mysterious white spots contained in one of the craters, which was later named “Occator”. It is being speculated that these white spots might be patches of salt-rich material or frozen icy material seeping from cryo-volcanoes on the dwarf planet. Just a few days ago in July, this mysterious haze was detected hovering over the white spots, which is a good clue as to what those unexplained spots are. This points to increasing speculation that the haze could be yielding some sort of transient atmosphere over the dwarf planet. So, Ceres might potentially harbor life. It is also not known definitively what those bright spots are. The mysterious haze points to evidence for sublimating icy material. But, still the material is a lower albedo than expected, about 50 percent. The matter will probably be settled next month however when the spacecraft descends down closer to the dwarf planet at 1,500 kilometres away to get a closer look. Eventually also, the spacecraft will be able to employ its infrared spectrometer to gather spectral data and answer this perplexing conundrum once and for all.
Earth – A Cosmic Perspective
On July 20th, NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Cameral (EPIC) on the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite, which was launched earlier in February to measure solar wind conditions and provide timely geomagnetic alerts , took this dazzling high quality colour image of our planet, from 1.6 million kilometres away! It’s the first full-disk image of our planet taken from a satellite. According to NASA, what the EPIC camera does is that it takes 10 different images using different narrowband filters, from ultraviolet to near infrared. The end image is a result of three combined images, each of the red, green and blue filters. Earth is the only home that we have ever known and this photo really reinforces the fragility of our earthly world, a world that is suspended in the vast empty void of space, protected by nothing but a thin blue line. What a cosmic perspective that is!
46th Anniversary of the Moon Landing
How fitting that the 46th anniversary of the moon landings coincides with the amazing space achievements that we have had the pleasure of hearing about this week. The moon landings are definitely a demonstration of human capability and how it is only limited by imagination. It marked the first time that a human being ever set foot on another celestial body. It’s amazing that 46 years later, we have completed the first reconnaissance of the solar system and got a glimpse of a whole new planetary frontier.
Perhaps the biggest achievement this week in the realm of space exploration is the discovery of Kepler-452b, about 1,400 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus! This is the most similar Earth-like planet to be discovered to date. It exhibits remarkable similarities. It orbits a star that is 6 billion years old or 1.5 billion years older than our own. It is located at the right distance and temperature to allow liquid water to exist on its surface. A year over there lasts for 385 days. And it’s force of gravity is not much larger – only about twice as large. These qualities have thus pointed to speculation that it might actually harbor life. I think it’s truly wonderful that are billions more of such Earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone. Current estimates put the number at about 20 billion! The problem right now is how to get there as the distances of space are incommensurate with our longevity.