Lit by reflected light from Saturn, Enceladus appears to hover above the gleaming rings with its well-defined ice particle jets spraying a continuous hail of tiny ice grains, in this image taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2006 from a distance of 1.303 million kilometers. The 500-km-wide moon has excited the scientific community and the general public alike, with its potential to harbor an underground habitable environment. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
“We must believe then, that as from hence we see Saturn and Jupiter; if we were in either of the Two, we should discover a great many Worlds which we perceive not; and that the Universe extends so in infinitum.”
— Cyrano de Bergerac, “A Voyage to the Moon” (1656)
In his “Voyage to the Moon,” which is considered one of the best examples of early science fiction, 17-century French satirist and dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac satirized the politics and religious beliefs of his day, while also contemplating an infinite Universe that was populated with an infinite number of worlds. Taking a cue from this fictional story, NASA’s Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini missions have helped to reveal more than 300 years later the true magnificence and beauty of the moon systems of all the gas giant planets in the outer Solar System, while also opening our eyes to the intriguing possibility for life on some of these fascinating worlds. The second part of this article focused on Jupiter’s moon Europa, whose underground ocean is considered a potential cradle for life. Yet even more equally fascinating worlds await us as we journey farther out in the Solar System. Approximately a billion and a half kilometers from the Sun, two of Saturn’s 62 moons, Enceladus and Titan, are also intriguing astronomers with their potential to host potentially habitable environments.
Continue reading Living On the Edge: The Icy Plains of Enceladus (Part 3)
The Expedition 40 crew. Clockwise from bottom center are Steve Swanson, Aleksandr Skvortsov, Alexander Gerst, Maksim Surayev, Reid Wiseman and Oleg Artemyev. Photo Credit: NASA
More than five months since their feet last touched terra firma, the Soyuz TMA-12M crew of U.S. astronaut Steve Swanson and Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev are primed to depart the International Space Station (ISS) late Wednesday, 10 September, and return to Earth. Current plans envisage the three men undocking from the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at 7:02 p.m. EDT Wednesday, after which they will discard the orbital and instrument modules of their Soyuz spacecraft, before embarking on the perilous descent back through the atmosphere to a parachute-assisted landing in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz TMA-12M descent module is expected to hit the Kazakh steppe—with solid-fueled rockets cushioning the touchdown—at 10:25 p.m. EDT (8:25 a.m. local time Thursday, 11 September) to draw down the curtain on a hugely successful Expedition 39/40.
Continue reading Swanson to Hand ISS Command to Surayev, Ahead of Wednesday Return to Earth
Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and, ultimately, to Mars.
Image and Caption Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) has now reached a point in the program’s development that the agency’s cancelled Constellation program did not, with the recent completion of a major SLS review known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C)—something that no other exploration class vehicle has achieved since the United States built the space shuttle in the late 1970s. With the KDP-C now completed, the SLS program is transitioning from formulation to development, closing out the summer of 2014 with operations supporting SLS picking up pace at several NASA centers across the country. And while NASA announced the launch date of the SLS program’s first mission, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), just one of the SLS program’s many unknowns, will occur “no later than” November 2018, looking at the funding levels Congress has given the SLS program over the last four years points to a launch date in early 2017.
Continue reading Testing and Development Pace Picks Up for NASA’s Giant Space Launch System Rocket
Europa, with its subsurface ocean, and now evidence for plate tectonics, is a primary goal of exploration in the search for alien life. Processed image copyright: Ted Stryk. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ted Stryk
Jupiter’s moon Europa is a fascinating little world, but particularly so for one reason: water. It’s deep alien ocean underneath the surface ice is reminiscent of our own planet, and since our oceans and seas are teeming with life, even beneath the ice at the poles, could Europa’s ocean also harbor life of some kind? Now, another discovery shows that Europa may be similar to Earth in yet another way, and one that could bolster the chances of life even more: plate tectonics. The new results were just published in Nature Geoscience on Sep. 7, 2014.
Continue reading Plate Tectonics May Increase Chances for Life on Europa
SpaceX has successfully lofted its fifth Falcon 9 v1.1 mission of 2014, and its seventh flight of the upgraded booster in less than 12 months. Photo Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace
In spite of ominous weather conditions at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., which required a slight, 10-minute adjustment of the targeted T-0 launch time, SpaceX has successfully executed its fifth Falcon 9 v1.1 mission of 2014. Liftoff of the two-stage vehicle, carrying the AsiaSat-6 telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit, took place at precisely 1:00 a.m. EDT Sunday, 7 September, from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at the Cape, turning night into day across the Florida landscape. This year is shaping up to be a banner 12 months for SpaceX, marking the first time in its history that it has launched more than three missions and gradually cementing the reliability credentials of Elon Musk’s Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services organization.
Continue reading SpaceX Successfully Delivers AsiaSat-6 to Orbit in Spectacular Sunday Morning Launch
Discovery rockets into orbit on the multi-faceted mission of STS-64, 20 years ago, this week. Photo Credit: NASA
One hundred and twenty-three times before 16 September 1994, astronauts and cosmonauts had clambered outside their space ships and maneuvered themselves around in the harsh and unforgiving vacuum of space. They had used handholds, they had used tethers, and they had used specialized maneuvering units to prevent them from losing contact with their vehicles and floating away into the void. When STS-64 astronauts Mark Lee and Carl Meade ventured outside Shuttle Discovery’s airlock on the morning of that fall day in 1994—20 years ago, next week—they wore something quite different and entirely new on their space suits. As described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, the “Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue” (SAFER) cost $7 million to develop and its descendents are today utilized aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Continue reading EVAs and More With ’Sixty-Four: 20 Years Since STS-64 (Part 2)
Equipped with the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER) on its first mission, Mark Lee performs the shuttle program’s first untethered spacewalk in more than 10 years in September 1994. Photo Credit: NASA
One hundred and twenty-three times before 16 September 1994, astronauts and cosmonauts had clambered outside their space ships and maneuvered themselves around in the harsh and unforgiving vacuum of space. They had used handholds, they had used tethers, and they had used specialized maneuvering units to prevent them from losing contact with their vehicles and floating away into the void. When STS-64 astronauts Mark Lee and Carl Meade ventured outside Shuttle Discovery’s airlock on the morning of that fall day in 1994—20 years ago, next week—they wore something quite different and entirely new on their space suits. Known as the “Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue” (SAFER), it cost $7 million to develop and its descendents are today utilized aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Continue reading Flying Free With Meade and Lee: 20 Years Since STS-64 (Part 1)
From NASA: “Four-image montage comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 2 September from a distance of 56 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across.” Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
NASA announced that one of its three instruments aboard Rosetta, the European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft currently orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, has successfully delivered its first set of science results back to Earth. Alice, an ultraviolet spectrometer, has revealed yet more unexpected findings about the comet, which Rosetta rendezvoused with in early August after a decade-long journey.
Continue reading Alice in Comet-Land: NASA Instrument Aboard Rosetta Returns First Scientific Results
The AsiaSat-6 payload undergoes final processing, ahead of its launch. Photo Credit: AsiaSat
Two weeks later than planned, SpaceX is tracking a revised launch attempt for the AsiaSat-6 geostationary mission early Sunday, 7 September. According to the 45th Space Wing, SpaceX will fly its fifth Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicle of 2014 from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., during an expansive “window” which extends from 12:50 a.m. until 4:04 a.m. EDT. A backup opportunity also exists on Monday, 8 September. Originally targeted for late last month, the mission was postponed in the aftermath of the 22 August explosion of the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle (F9R Dev) and succumbed to a lengthier delay as SpaceX opted to review the cause of the failure and its implications for future Falcon 9 v1.1 missions. By late Friday, 5 September, official word from the Air Force, SpaceX and AsiaSat confirmed that a Sunday morning launch attempt would be made and the 45th Space Wing has invited members of the media to set up cameras near SLC-40 on Saturday afternoon to acquire images of the vehicle on the pad.
Continue reading SpaceX Targets Early Sunday for AsiaSat-6 Launch Attempt
Jupiter’s moon Europa, as seen by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. A long line of evidence has shown that Europa has an underground ocean of liquid water, which for many scientists constitutes the best place in the Solar System to search for alien life. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk
“Since ’tis certain that Earth and Jupiter have their Water and Clouds, there is no reason why the other Planets should be without them. I can’t say that they are exactly of the same nature with our Water; but that they should be liquid their use requires, as their beauty does that they be clear. This Water of ours, in Jupiter or Saturn, would be frozen up instantly by reason of the vast distance of the Sun. Every Planet therefore must have its own Waters of such a temper not liable to Frost.”
— Christiaan Huygens, “Cosmotheoros (Book I),” 1698
In his seminal book, “Cosmotheoros,” 17th-century Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens speculated about the possible habitability of other planets in the Cosmos, which he viewed as being not less capable than Earth in hosting their own complex forms of life. Yet even though the scientific exploration of the Universe hasn’t discovered the existence of any extraterrestrial life to date, it has helped to reveal a Universe that is much more dynamic, complex, and fascinating than what was ever previously thought. A series of spectacular discoveries in the last 50 years of entire terrestrial ecosystems, thriving on places that were previously thought to be too hostile to life, have similarly transformed our concept of habitability and the possible environments where life could take hold. The latest findings of microbial life flourishing in the extreme environment of subglacial Lake Whillans in Antarctica, which were detailed in the first part of this article, are further hinting at the possibility of life existing in a similar fashion as well in the mysterious, underground alien waters of Europa.
Continue reading Living On the Edge: The Inviting Waters of Europa (Part 2)