Friday, February 27, 2015

Mystery Spot on Dwarf Planet Ceres Has Mysterious Partner

The intrigue surrounding Ceres continues to deepen as a NASA probe gets closer to the dwarf planet.

The new photos of Ceres from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is scheduled to arrive in orbit around Ceres on the night of March 5, reveal that a puzzling bright spot on the dwarf planet’s surface has a buddy of sorts.

“Ceres’ bright spot can now be seen to have a companion of lesser brightness, but apparently in the same basin,” Dawn principal investigator Chris Russell, of UCLA, said in a statement. “This may be pointing to a volcanolike origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations.”

Dawn took the new images on Feb. 19, when it was about 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers) from Ceres — still too far away to give scientists a good look at the peculiar spots.

“The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size, it is brighter than anything else on Ceres,” Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, said in the same statement. “This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us.”

Dawn will begin investigating the many mysteries of Ceres — the largest body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter — in earnest soon enough. After reaching Ceres’ orbit next week, the probe will spend about six weeks working down to its first science orbit, getting there on April 23.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mysterious plumes erupt from Mars

Amateur astronomers have spotted huge cloudlike plumes erupting from Mars – a phenomenon that scientists are at a loss to explain.

The bright flares, which have now died away, towered higher than anything else observed in the Martian atmosphere. Their tops reached some 150 miles in altitude, more than twice as high as the highest Martian clouds, and they sprawled across 300 to 600 miles, researchers report in this week’s Nature, a science journal.

The researchers initially were skeptical, but “we came to the conclusion that what we were seeing is actually real,” says study co-author Antonio García Muñoz, a planetary scientist at the European Space Agency. The plumes are “exceptional. … It’s difficult to come to terms with this.”

This scientific brainteaser first came to light in early 2012, when amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke was poring over footage of Mars he had captured at his private observatory. He came across a puzzling image showing the Red Planet with a blob billowing off the planet’s rounded edge.

In all his years of peering at Mars, “I’d never seen anything like that,” says Jaeschke, a West Chester, Pa., resident who spends about 100 nights a year training his gear on the heavens. He quietly ran the image by a few friends, then circulated it among a larger group of both amateur and professional astronomers.

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Private Mars One Colony Project Cuts Applicant Pool to 100 Volunteers

One hundred people are still in the running to become humanity’s first Mars explorers.

The Netherlands-based nonprofit Mars One, which aims to land four pioneers on the Red Planet in 2025 as the vanguard of a permanent colony, has whittled its pool of astronaut candidates down to 100, organization representatives announced Monday (Feb. 16).

More than 202,000 people applied to become Red Planet explorers after Mars One opened the selection process in April 2013. The latest cut came after Mars One medical director Norbert Kraft interviewed the 660 candidates who had survived several previous rounds of culling.

“The large cut in candidates is an important step towards finding out who has the right stuff to go to Mars,” Mars One co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp said in a statement. “These aspiring Martians provide the world with a glimpse into who the modern day explorers will be.”

The remaining pool consists of 50 men and 50 women who range in age from 19 to 60, Mars One representatives said. Thirty-nine come from the Americas (including 33 from the United States), 31 from Europe, 16 from Asia, seven from Africa and seven from Australia.

The remaining candidates will next participate in group challenges, to demonstrate their ability and willingness to deal with the rigors of Mars life. After another round of cuts, the finalists will be divided into four-person teams, which will train in a simulated Red Planet outpost.

Eventually, Mars One intends to select 24 astronauts (six four-person teams), who will become full-time employees of the organization and prepare for the Mars colonization mission.

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