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Monthly Archives: February 2015

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission is set for launch in 2018.  A rover and a lander are included, to search for evidence of past and present life on Mars. The orbiter, part of the ExoMars 2016 mission, will sample the Martian atmospheric trace gases, such as methane and provide communications. The rover will leave the landing platform and drill into the surface to search for potential fossils, relevant minerals, and organic molecules (with chirality as biomarkers).


Credit: ESA

In addition to its scientific exploration, the mission will help test in-situ technologies that might pave the way for a future international Mars sample return mission.

Links: ExoMars 2018 mission overview; ESA Mars homepage.

Adapted from an NOAA press release, February 11, 2015:

On February 11, the United States Air Force launched a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite called Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, into orbit. NOAA will use DSCOVR to monitor the solar wind and forecast space weather at Earth — effects from the material and energy from the Sun that can impact our satellites and technological infrastructure on Earth.

Data from DSCOVR, coupled with a new forecast model, will enable NOAA forecasters to predict geomagnetic storm magnitude on a regional basis. Geomagnetic storms occur when plasma and magnetic fields streaming from the Sun impact Earth’s magnetic field. Large magnetic eruptions from the sun have the potential to bring major disruptions to power grids, aviation, telecommunications, and GPS systems.


The DSCOVR mission is a partnership between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force.

In addition to space weather-monitoring instruments, DSCOVR is carrying two NASA Earth-observing instruments that will gather a range of measurements from ozone and aerosol amounts, to changes in Earth’s radiation.

Links: original NOAA press release; NY Times article about the launch, DSCOVR home.

The NY Times recently posted a short movie on the Sun: “Out There | Raining Fire” b

Links: the movie on NY Times website; NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory home.

From a JPL news release, February 10, 2015:

Astronomers tinkering with ice and organics in the lab may have discovered why comets are encased in a hard, outer crust. Using an icebox-like instrument nicknamed Himalaya, the researchers show that fluffy ice on the surface of a comet would crystalize and harden as the comet heads toward the Sun and warms up. As the water-ice crystals form, becoming denser and more ordered, other molecules containing carbon would be expelled to the comet’s surface. The result is a crunchy comet crust sprinkled with organic dust, like a deep-fried ice cream: the crust is made of crystalline ice, while the interior is colder and more porous. The organics are like a final layer of chocolate on top.


Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

The composition of comets is important to understanding how they might have delivered water and organics to our nascent, bubbling-hot Earth. New results from the Rosetta mission show that asteroids may have been the primary carriers of life’s ingredients; however, the debate is ongoing and comets may have played a role.

Links: JPL news article; Rosetta home.

From an article on CNET by Michelle Starr, February 12, 2015; visualizations by Ernie Wright:

As the Moon orbits the Earth, we only ever see the one side. This is because the moon is tidally locked – a single rotation of its axis takes the same amount of time as a single orbit around the Earth, so that the same side is always facing the Earth. Using its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA has collated data to reveal what the other side of the Moon looks like (see Section 6.2a, p. 127 and Figure 6-18, p. 133).


Credit: NASA’s Goddard SFC Scientific Visualization Studio

As the Moon goes through its phases, we see it darken and lighten as viewed from Earth. Those phases are the opposite of what the far side of the Moon experiences: when we have a Full Moon, the far side is new; when we have a New Moon, the far side is full. This means that the LRO can observe the far side of the Moon in pretty good detail when it is illuminated by the Sun.

In the years since it launched in 2009, the LRO has sent back hundreds of terabytes of data about the Moon’s far side. What it has found is that the far side of the Moon is quite different from the side we see.

Links: CNET article; more information from NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio; LRO home.

From ESA press releases, January 31 and February 5, 2015:

New maps from ESA’s Planck satellite uncover the ‘polarized’ light from the early Universe across the entire sky, revealing that the first stars formed much later than previously thought.


Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

Between 2009 and 2013, Planck surveyed the sky to study this ancient light in unprecedented detail. Tiny differences in the background’s temperature trace regions of slightly different density in the early cosmos, representing the seeds of all future structure, the stars and galaxies of today.

Scientists from the Planck collaboration have recently published the results from the analysis of these data in a large number of scientific papers over the past two years, confirming the standard cosmological picture of our Universe with ever greater accuracy.

However, despite earlier reports of a possible detection of gravitational waves in the polarization of the CMB, a joint analysis of data from ESA’s Planck satellite and the ground-based BICEP2 and Keck Array experiments has found no conclusive evidence of primordial gravitational waves.

Links: full ESA press release and another one; Planck mission home; details about the CMB map including hi-res images.

In an article in the New York Times, January 31, 2015, Peter Brannen reports on the ongoing debate about what caused the extinction of the non-bird dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period (see A Closer Look 8.5, p. 220).


Credit: Emiliano Ponzi/NY Times

While to many, the NEO impact theory and the discovery of the Chicxulub impact crater is compelling evidence, some geologists point to enormous floods of lava in India, called the Deccan Traps, as an alternate explanation.

Read more about the debate here.

In Questions 34 and 41, on p. 64, the angstrom unit, Å, is given incorrectly.

1 angstrom, Å = 10–10 m  (so, 1 Å = 10–8 cm).