Juno jubilation, crusty Enceladus and the world’s largest dish

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NASA / Aubrey Gemignani

Jubilation for Juno’s arrival at Jupiter

The Juno mission control room was abuzz with excitement as the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California celebrated after receiving confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit during a 35-minute engine burn early this week.

After an almost five-year journey to the solar system’s largest planet, Juno will now orbit Jupiter for 20 months to collect data with its suite of nine science instruments, investigating the existence of a solid planetary core, mapping Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measuring the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observing the planet’s auroras.

NASA hope the mission takes a giant step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the solar system.

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LPG-CNRS-U. Nantes / Charles U., Prague

Enceladus and its paper-thin crust

The Cassini spacecraft has been paying particular attention to the moon Enceladus since arriving at Saturn in 2004. Now, a team of researchers built a computer simulation of the moon that includes the thickness of the ice crust using the data collected by the spacecraft.

This picture of Enceladus, taken by Cassini’s high-resolution camera, has had ice crust thickness, indicated by colour, plotted over its surface. According to the model, the thickness varies between about 35 kilometres in the cratered equatorial regions (yellow) to less than five kilometres in the active south polar terrain (blue).

In astronomical terms, this is paper-thin. The model predicts that the 505-kilometre-wide moon contains a core that is 360 to 370 kilometres in diameter. The rest is ocean and the ice crust, with the ice crust itself having an average thickness of 18 to 22 kilometres.

Remarkably, the model predicts that the thickness of the ice reduces to less than five kilometres at the south pole. This could make it easier for the water to escape along cracks and fissures.

Last year Cassini flew through the geysers, analysing the water with its instruments. On previous occasions, the discovery of silica particles, likely originating from Enceladus, and the presence of methane in the water plumes indicated there hydrothermal activity at the ocean’s floor. This water and the chemicals were transported from the floor to the base of the ice crust, and subsequently jetted into space.

No one knows how the geysers are powered but showing that the ice crust could be much thinner than previously thought is intriguing.

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“RIP Bluntnose Stingray” from Ghosts of the Gulf series, 2014 is pictured. Giclée print on handmade Japanese rice paper.
Brandon Ballengée

Crude life

A new “citizen science” and art project announced this week aims to raise awareness of oil spill impacts on the Gulf of Mexico.

The researchers behind the project titled Crude Life: A citizen art and science investigation of Gulf of Mexico biodiversity after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill invited school groups and community members to take part in fieldwork as they survey species biodiversity at 15 locations in the Gulf of Mexico. Twice a year, for two years, researchers will compare what they find with data from the Louisiana Museum of Natural History records gathered before the oil spill.

Museum of Natural Science curator of fishes Prosanta Chakrabarty and professional artist and scientist Brandon Ballengée will lead the project and create a visually engaging and interactive mobile art and science museum to engage the broader public.

The mobile museum will include digital hand-held field guides of Gulf of Mexico fishes, animations, sculptural displays, a series of visual artwork of rare and at-risk species and a library of recent studies and interactive maps pertaining to the oil spill.

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NASA / Bill Ingalls

Soyuz liftoff: new crew members launch to space station

Three crew members representing the US, Russia and Japan are on their way to the International Space Station after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 7 July.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, and astronaut Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are traveling in the upgraded Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft. They’ll spend two days – and 34 Earth orbits – testing modified systems before docking to the space station’s Rassvet module over the weekend.

Rubins, who holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and a doctorate in cancer biology, was selected as an astronaut in 2009 from a pool of more than 3,500 applicants and is the 60th woman to leave the planet for space. During her time at the space station, Rubins will conduct biological and human research investigations including sequencing the first genome in microgravity and looking at how the human body’s bone mass and cardiovascular systems are changed by living in space are just two examples of the many experiments in which Rubins may take part.

The crew is scheduled to remain aboard the station until late October. 

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VCG / Getty Images

China finishes construction of world’s largest radio telescope

After more than five years, the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope is counting down to seeing its first light in two to three months’ time.

This week workers lifted the last of the 4,450 reflecting panels into place on the 500-metre Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) in Guizhou Province, southwest China.

Some 4,273 triangular segments and 177 special-shaped segments of the reflector were set into a unique structure consisting of thousands of steel cables, nodes and corresponding driving cables, which are tied to actuators on the ground.

Compared with the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, the previous record holder with a diameter of 300 metres, FAST is not only much bigger it’s much more sensitive.

In the next couple of months, the FAST team will focus on testing and debugging to make the telescope work, with the official completion date set for late September. The telescope’s first data are expected around the same time too. 

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