This week in space.

It’s been quite an action packed week for Space fans. Firstly there was the report that there was more evidence that there is some form of liquid on Mars. After the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter took images showing dark lines that emerge from the rocky terrain and head downwards

 As you can see in the lower 3rd of this image the dark brown lines appear to be  indicative of a flow (NASA has a nice animated Gif here) .  Now there has been evidence of some sort of liquid flow on Mars before. Since 1997 when the Mars Global Surveyor entered orbit. These new images certainly add weight to the notion of liquid water, as supposed to the frozen water seen at the ice caps and just below the surface. However since MRO is an orbiter it’s not like it could just pop down, grab a sample and send it back. One option, using its spectroscope, however the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) instrument didn’t find a trace of water to quote Alfred McEwan of the University of Arizona, the lead investigator

“The flows are not dark because of being wet,”

According to the official release on the NASA JPL MRO site

“A flow initiated by briny water could rearrange grains or change surface roughness in a way that darkens the appearance. How the features brighten again when temperatures drop is harder to explain.

“It’s a mystery now, but I think it’s a solvable mystery with further observations and laboratory experiments,” McEwen said.”

There is now plenty of evidence to suggest Mars was covered in an ocean at some point in it’s life and the salt remnants of this has already been detected. Salt water has a lower freezing point than ordinary water so could still flow on Mars’ frozen surface.  However we will have to wait for the next wave of Probes including Curiosity, and the ESA’s ExoMars rovers before we get a clearer Idea of it.

Moving away from Mars, more news about our closest neighbor the moon came out this week when an article published in Nature suggested that at one point the Earth possessed two moons and at some point as they moved further out from the earth the gravitational influence of the sun caused what can only be described as a slow motion collision.

This goes some way to explain the contrast between the “near” and “far” sides of the moon.  While the side facing us is

relatively flat with large “seas” of cooled lava the other side is covered in mountains and large craters, the differences aren’t just cosmetic, the difference in the thickness of the crust varies by around 50 KILOMETRES from that of the near to that of the far side.

This latest theory comes from computer simulations and show that since the moons shared the same orbit the collision speed was relatively low at around 3km/s the smaller moon, instead of shattering an ejecting debris out into space, it slowly collided pancaking over the surface of the moon, essentially filling in the crater this resulted in the major contrasts between both sides.

It is hoped NASA’s GRAIL mission will help determine what exactly caused the far side to be thicker and more mountainous, but like Peter Shultz of Brown university said, “more samples may be necessary”. I’ll pack my bags.

Spaceflight news now and NASA’s Juno spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air force station on it’s m5 year mission to Jupiter.  Juno which will take 5 years to reach Jupiter is unique in the fact that it will be solar powered. Normally out at Jupiter the sunlight is 1/25th as powerful as on earth which is why, until now, probes have used nuclear batteries normally of Plutonium. The solar arrays on Juno measure an impressive 29 feet long and will remain in sunlight for practically the entire mission.

The main mission for Juno, the second in NASA’s ‘New frontiers’ missions, is pretty comprehensive. Once in orbit measurements will be taken of Jupiter’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere. Juno will also search for clues about how Jupiter formed, including whether the planet has a rocky core, the amount of water present within the deep atmosphere, and how the mass is distributed within the planet. Juno will also study Jupiter’s deep winds, which can reach speeds of 600 kilometers per hour. So altogether an action packed itinerary.

Closer to home and Boeing announced on Friday that two of it’s own employees will make the first manned flight of it’s CST-100 capsule. The announcement was made at the same time Boeing announced that United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket would be used for the capsule.  This came as no major surprise sine NASA and ULA signed the Space Act Agreement in July that would see studies into the suitability of the Atlas rocket for astronaut duties.

The Atlas of course is no stranger to manned flight. It was an Atlas rocket that carried John Glenn as he became the first American to orbit the earth and the 5 version of the rocket has so far enjoyed a 100% record.  This is also good news for ULA as it means more business for its launchers and a chance to play a pretty pivotal role in future exploration.  The CST is expected to fly 3 missions in 2015 and could see it ready for use in 2016.

 

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