JPL/Caltech

NASA’s Cassini Data Show Saturn’s Rings Relatively New

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Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

JoAnna Wendel
NASA Headquarters, Washington DC


An artist’s concept of the Cassini orbiter crossing Saturn’s ring plane. New measurements of the rings’ mass give scientists the best answer yet to the question of their age. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

The rings of Saturn may be iconic, but there was a time when the majestic gas giant existed without its distinctive halo. In fact, the rings may have formed much later than the planet itself, according to a new analysis of gravity science data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. 

The findings indicate that Saturn’s rings formed between 10 million and 100 million years ago. From our planet’s perspective, that means Saturn’s rings may have formed during the age of dinosaurs. 

The conclusions of the research – gleaned from measurements collected during the final, ultra-close orbits Cassini performed in 2017 as the spacecraft neared the end of its mission – are the best answer yet to a longstanding question in solar system science. The findings were published online Jan. 17 in Science.

 

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NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Set for Fifth Jupiter Flyby

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DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
NASA Headquarters, Washington

 

This enhanced-color image of a mysterious dark spot on Jupiter seems to reveal a Jovian “galaxy” of swirling storms. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Roman Tkachenko

 

NASA’s Juno spacecraft will make its fifth flyby over Jupiter’s mysterious cloud tops on Monday, March 27, at 1:52 a.m. PDT (4:52 a.m. EDT, 8:52 UTC).

At the time of closest approach (called perijove), Juno will be about 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops, traveling at a speed of about 129,000 miles per hour (57.8 kilometers per second) relative to the gas-giant planet. All of Juno’s eight science instruments will be on and collecting data during the flyby.


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Site List Narrows For NASA’s Next Mars Landing

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Possible_landing_Sites_on_Mars.jpg
Out of more than 30 sites considered as possible landing targets for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, by November 2008 four of the most intriguing places on Mars rose to the final round of the site-selection process. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

PASADENA, Calif. — Four intriguing places on Mars have risen to the final round as NASA selects a landing site for its next Mars mission, the Mars Science Laboratory.

The agency had a wider range of possible landing sites to choose from than for any previous mission, thanks to the Mars Science Laboratory’s advanced technologies, and the highly capable orbiters helping this mission identify scientifically compelling places to explore.

Mars Science Laboratory project leaders at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., chose the four this month, after seeking input from international Mars experts and from engineers working on the landing system and rover capabilities. 

The sites, alphabetically, are: Eberswalde, where an ancient river deposited a delta in a possible lake; Gale, with a mountain of stacked layers including clays and sulfates; Holden, a crater containing alluvial fans, flood deposits, possible lake beds and clay-rich deposits; and Mawrth, which shows exposed layers containing at least two types of clay. 

“All four of these sites would be great places to use our roving laboratory to study the processes and history of early Martian environments and whether any of these environments were capable of supporting microbial life and its preservation as biosignatures,” said John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. He is the project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory.

The mission’s capabilities for landing more precisely than ever before and for generating electricity without reliance on sunshine have made landing sites eligible that would not have been acceptable for past Mars missions. During the past two years, multiple observations of dozens of candidate sites by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have augmented data from earlier orbiters for evaluating sites’ scientific attractions and engineering risks.

JPL is assembling and testing the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft for launch in fall 2009. Paring the landing-site list to four finalists allows the team to focus further on evaluating the sites and planning the navigation. The mission plan calls for the rover to spend a full Mars year (23 months) examining the environment with a diverse payload of tools.

After evaluating additional Mars orbiter observations of the four sites, NASA will hold a fourth science workshop about the candidates in the spring and plans to choose a final site next summer. Three previous landing-site science workshops for Mars Science Laboratory, in 2006, 2007 and two months ago, drew participation of more than 100 Mars scientists and presentations about more than 30 sites. The four sites rated highest by participants in the latest workshop were the same ones chosen by mission leaders after a subsequent round of safety evaluations and analysis of terrain for rover driving. One site, Gale, had been a favorite of scientists considering 2004 landing sites for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but was ruled out as too hazardous for the capabilities of those spacecraft.

“Landing on Mars always is a risky balance between science and engineering. The safest sites are flat, but the spectacular geology is generally where there are ups and downs, such as hills and canyons. That’s why we have engineered this spacecraft to make more sites qualify as safe,” said JPL’s Michael Watkins, mission manager for the Mars Science Laboratory. “This will be the first spacecraft that can adjust its course as it descends through the Martian atmosphere, responding to variability in the atmosphere. This ability to land in much smaller areas than previous missions, plus capabilities to land at higher elevations and drive farther, allows us consider more places the scientists want to explore.”

For their Mars landings in 2004, Spirit and Opportunity needed safe target areas about 70 kilometers (about 40 miles) long. Mars Science Laboratory is designed to hit a target area roughly 20 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter. Also, a new “skycrane” technology to lower the rover on a tether for the final touchdown can accommodate more slope than the airbag method used for Spirit and Opportunity. In addition, a radioisotope power supply, like that used by Mars Viking landers in the 1970s, will enable year-round operation farther from the equator than the solar power systems of more recent missions.

Gale is near the equator, Eberswalde and Holden are farther south, and Mawrth is in the north.

As a clay-bearing site where a river once flowed into a lake, Eberswalde Crater offers a chance to use knowledge that oil industry geologists have accumulated about locations of the most promising parts of a delta to look for any concentrations of carbon chemistry that is crucial to life.

The mountain inside Gale Crater could provide a route for the rover to drive up a 5-kilometer (3-mile) sequence of layers, studying a transition from environments that produced clay deposits near the bottom to later environments that produced sulfate deposits partway up.

Running water once carved gullies and deposited sediments as alluvial fans and catastrophic flood deposits in Holden Crater, a site that may also present the chance to evaluate layers deposited in a lake.  Exploration of key features within this target area would require drives to the edge of a broad valley, and then down into the valley.

Mawrth Valley is an apparent flood channel near the edge of vast Martian highlands. It holds different types of clays in clearly layered context, offering an opportunity for studying the changes in wet conditions that produced or altered the clays.  The clay signatures are stronger than at the other sites, and this is the only one of the four for which the science target is within the landing area, not nearby.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. For additional information about the mission, see http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl.

 

Lowdown on Ceres: Images From Dawn’s Closest Orbit

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This image of Ceres was taken in Dawn’s low-altitude mapping orbit around a crater chain called Gerber Catena. A 3-D view is also available. Image (Credit: NASA/JPL-CaltechCaltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

 

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, cruising in its lowest and final orbit at dwarf planet Ceres, has delivered the first images from its best-ever viewpoint. The new images showcase details of the cratered and fractured surface. 3-D versions of two of these views are also available.

Dawn took these images of the southern hemisphere of Ceres on Dec. 10, at an approximate altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers), which is its lowest-ever orbital altitude. Dawn will remain at this altitude for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward. The resolution of the new images is about 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel.

Among the striking views is a chain of craters called Gerber Catena, located just west of the large crater Urvara. Troughs are common on larger planetary bodies, caused by contraction, impact stresses and the loading of the crust by large mountains — Olympus Mons on Mars is one example. The fracturing found all across Ceres’ surface indicates that similar processes may have occurred there, despite its smaller size (the average diameter of Ceres is 584 miles, or 940 kilometers). Many of the troughs and grooves on Ceres were likely formed as a result of impacts, but some appear to be tectonic, reflecting internal stresses that broke the crust.

“Why they are so prominent is not yet understood, but they are probably related to the complex crustal structure of Ceres,” said Paul Schenk, a Dawn science team member at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston.

The images were taken as part of a test of Dawn’s backup framing camera. The primary framing camera, which is essentially identical, began its imaging campaign at this lowest orbit on Dec. 16. Both cameras are healthy.

Dawn’s other instruments also began their intense period of observations this month. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer will help identify minerals by looking at how various wavelengths of light are reflected by the surface of Ceres. The gamma ray and neutron detector is also active. By measuring the energies and numbers of gamma rays and neutrons, two components of nuclear radiation, it will help scientists determine the abundances of some elements on Ceres.

Earlier in December, Dawn science team members revealed that the bright material found in such notable craters as Occator is consistent with salt — and proposed that a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite may be present. A different group of Dawn scientists found that Ceres also contains ammoniated clays. Because ammonia is abundant in the outer solar system, this finding suggests that Ceres could have formed in the vicinity of Neptune and migrated inward, or formed in place with material that migrated in from the outer solar system.

“As we take the highest-resolution data ever from Ceres, we will continue to examine our hypotheses and uncover even more surprises about this mysterious world,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dawn is the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, and the first mission outside the Earth-moon system to orbit two distinct solar system targets. It orbited protoplanet Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, and arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015.

Dawn’s mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of mission participants, visit: http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission

More information about Dawn is available at the following sites: http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/dawn