Space & Planetary Science: June 2008 Archives

NASA Cassini Saturn Image: Stellar Horizon

"The nearest star system, the trinary star Alpha Centauri, hangs above the horizon of Saturn. Both Alpha Centauri A and B -- stars very similar to our own -- are clearly distinguishable in this image. (The third star in the Alpha Centauri system, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, is not visible here.) From the orbit of Saturn, light (as well as Cassini's radio signal) takes a little more than an hour travel to Earth. The distance to Alpha Centauri is so great that light from these stars takes more than four years to reach our Solar System. Thus, although Saturn seems a distant frontier, the nearest star is almost 30,000 times farther away."

IAU Snobbery

Dwarf Planets Are Planets Too: Get Involved!, Alan Stern, Sky and Telescope

"Classification is an important and productive scientific tool that is employed in many branches of science, from biology to geology to chemistry and astronomy."

No Peace Over Pluto, MSNBC

"The latest round in the planethood debate may well provoke planetary scientists into a revolt against the international body that usually has the last word on astronomical terminology, according to the top scientist for NASAs mission to Pluto."

"Plutoids": the new name for Pluto-like dwarf planets, PhysicsWorld

"Catherine Cesarsky, president of the IAU, dismisses such past protests. "They form a very small part of the astronomy community," she told She added that "practically nobody" is now trying to get Pluto reclassified as a planet. ... Cesarsky admits that she has not yet heard the response from the astronomy committee for the rebranding. "I don't think there will be a big [reaction]," she says. "A few people make a lot of noise."

Editor's note: OK, perhaps Catherine needs some feedback on all of this from the 99.999% of humanity who had no say in all of this - people who are now being told that what they learned in school is now wrong - based upon esoteric, and hard to understand reasons. Well, you can tell her what you think. You can find out how to contact her by email or telephone here at the official IAU website. You can also contact the IAU directly at

Editor's update: Some prominent planetary scientists have been joining in on this discussion ... "The argument that classifying round KBOs as planets will lead to there being "too many planets" is not in any way scientific. If our solar system has 200 planets, then that is what it has. It was not designed for our convenience." ... "It may be little and not dynamically important, but Ceres has physical properties that are far more analogous to other planets like Mars than the inert, irregular asteroids. From a geophysical perspective it makes sense to categorize Ceres as a planet."

Metaphysically Speaking, Free Space, Discovery

"On Monday, NASA chief Michael Griffin told a Senate oversight committee itd run a few hundred million dollars for the extra flight, with one huge caveat: That figure presumes there is no extension of any shuttle equipment contracts. Griffin wouldnt come straight out and say it, but what he means is that if the AMS flight is added on, there wont be a shuttle available to mount a rescue mission. Since Columbia, NASA routinely adds the contingency mission to every flight."

Planet Pluto fans rebel against 'plutoid' designation, New Scientist

"Defenders of "planet Pluto" have not been appeased by its latest name-change, and are marshalling support for a major scientific meeting devoted to debating its place in the solar system."

Pluto's identity crisis hits classrooms and bookstores, USA Today

"Meanwhile, many kids are nearly certain Pluto is still a planet. "I think it's a planet. But me and my friends, we talk about it sometimes and we go back and forth," said Natalie Browning, 9, sitting in a park in Manhattan with her family. "Right now, I'm not 100%. I'm just 75%" sure that Pluto is a planet."

The Great Planet Debate: Science as Process

Editor's note: The MarsPhoenix Twitter feed now has 24,659 followers - and is more popular than the CNN Breaking News Twitter feed which only has 22,653 followers.

Editor's note: I got my question in during the Phoenix telecon about permafrost, ice, microhabitats, endolithic organisms, and how Phoenix is digging its trenches. In essence, I inquired about how the trenches were being analyzed in terms of the layers that might represent different freeze/thaw layers where small potentially habitable niches (for albeit putative Martian life forms) might exist.

Having dug and drilled holes down to permafrost myself on Devon Island (where Peter Smith has also visited) I recalled looking at the walls of holes I had dug in the thawed soil and seeing differences in how the rock grains were arranged as you moved down from the surface to the actual ice layer.

On Earth there are organisms called endoliths that can actually live inside of rocks and tap the solar energy that manages to penetrate the rocks. I asked if the team was guided by potential habitats wherein water in liquid form might persist. Smith et al replied that there was a Biological Potential Theme Group within their team and that these things were very much on their minds. Right now they have the prime aspects of the mission to work through (surface, top of the ice layer) but that some layering (up to 4 layers) has indeed been seen in the walls of the trenches - and that some suggestions include the possibility that these layers could be places where salts have been left behind as water evaporated.

Keith Cowing's Devon Island Journal - 28 July 2002 Drilling into permafrost
Terrestrial Lithophytic Communities - Battleship Promontory, Alatna Valley, McMurdo Dry Valleys Antarctica
Bright Chunks at NASA Phoenix Lander's Mars Site Must Have Been Ice

Bright Chunks at NASA Phoenix Landers Mars Site Must Have Been Ice

"Dice-size crumbs of bright material have vanished from inside a trench where they were photographed by NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander four days ago, convincing scientists that the material was frozen water that vaporized after digging exposed it. "It must be ice," said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of The University of Arizona, Tucson. "These little clumps completely disappearing over the course of a few days, that is perfect evidence that it's ice," Smith added. "There had been some question whether the bright material was salt. Salt can't do that."

House adds extra shuttle flight in NASA budget

"The House on Wednesday approved a $20 billion NASA spending bill that calls for an extra Space Shuttle flight before the spacecraft program is shut down. ... The purpose of the additional flight would be to deliver to the International Space Station the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer for experiments in seeking out unusual matter in space."

University dominates the solar system -- for cheap

"Space researchers at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics are not only brilliant (they are, after all, rocket scientists), but it turns out they're pretty thrifty too. On Tuesday, scientists from LASP returned a check -- a very large, shiny, aluminum "space" check -- to NASA for a cool $2,997,000. The extra money was shaved from efficient operation of a satellite -- known as SORCE, for Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment -- that measures the sun's radiation."

Editor's note: OHMYGOD. Refunding money to NASA because a project is more efficient than was originally anticipated? That's heresy! What happens if this catches on and other NASA missions and projects turn out to be more efficient and issue refunds? That could ruin everything!

Then again, it would provide a new source of funds for SMD to use to cover MSL and JWST overruns.

Editor's note: NASAGLAST is now twittering about its on-orbit checkout and initial operations.

Twitters From Mars! A Ghost-Written Micro-Blog Makes NASA's Robot Lander Less Alien, Washington Post

"... But the experiment got such a great response -- it now has more than 20,000 followers -- that the team has continued to use Twitter to share details of their findings on Mars."

All the twitter about the Mars Phoenix lander, Federal Computing Week

"For JPL, the social-networking sites are a great source of feedback, McGregor said. Shes documenting her experience with Twitter to create a best practices document for others at JPL and NASA to use. The agencies have already set up pages for future missions, she added."

MarsPhoenix, Twitter

Reader note: "Check these two images out. They show the range in size of "planets" in our solar system, and some well known "stars". One might ask, given on the size range, if Pluto isn't a "planet", why would the Sun be a "star"?"

Images below

9th Rock from the Sun

Plutoid chosen as name for Solar System objects like Pluto, IAU

Pluto's namesakes: Similar bodies are 'plutoids', AP

"It was not enough to satisfy leading Pluto-as-a-planet advocate Alan Stern, a former NASA space sciences chief and principal investigator on a mission to Pluto. Stern said a rival group could be formed to the IAU, which he said was too secretive in its decision-making. "It's just some people in a smoke-filled room who dreamed it up," Stern said. "Plutoids or hemorrhoids, whatever they call it. This is irrelevant."

NASA Balks at Taking Physics Gear Into Space, NPR

"NASA has scheduled just 10 more space shuttle flights before retiring its fleet for good. But the space agency may have to add one more mission, to bring a seven-ton $1.5 billion physics experiment into space."

EPOCh Observations: NASA EPOXI's Spacecraft Observes the Earth-Moon System

"As part of the EPOXI mission's objectives to characterize the Earth as a planet for comparison with planets around other stars, the spacecraft looked back at Earth collecting a series of images. In the left image the Earth-Moon system is seen with the Moon beginning its transit in front of Earth. It was taken on May 29, 2008 through three filters: blue, green and orange, centered at 450, 550 and 650 nm respectively, while the spacecraft was 0.33 AU (49,367,340 km and 30,675,43 miles) from Earth. The image on the right is a simulation showing the view of Earth from the spacecraft's perspective."

One week after landing, the NASA Mars Phoenix lander practices digging, University of Arizona

"A glint of bright material appears in the scooped-up soil and in the hole from which it came. "That bright material might be ice or salt. We're eager to do testing of the next three surface samples collected nearby to learn more about it," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, Phoenix co-investigator for the robotic arm."

Twittering Planck

ESA's Planck spacecraft is now Twittering.

LRO Is Now Twittering

Editor's note: LRO is now twittering! But it only has 39 followers - so far.

Editor's update: I just twittered: "Maybe @MarsPhoenix can send a note of encouragement to @LRO_NASA who is Twittering from the (boring) white room right now (ala C3PO/R2D2)". Perhaps Phoenix can send some new fans to LRO.

Hmm ... you could take little SMD snippets about what each mission does and have a little conversation ... one that also brings followers down a path to understanding both missions ...

@MarsPhoenix: "Hey I think found lots of water ice - here's a pic"

@LRO_NASA: "Yea well, I may find some too - here's where I'll be looking"

Sort of a social networking/EPO precursor version of the Interplanetary Internet ...

Editor's update: LCROSS_NASA just went online at Twitter.

Convergent Events

Machine Dreams, BLDG BLOG

"Two unrelated bits of news this week strangely merged for me, to surreal effect. First, we learned that two monkeys were able to move a robotic arm "merely by thinking." Second, the New York Times reported that "NASA's Phoenix Mars lander has successfully lifted its robotic arm" up there on the surface of another planet."

Editor's 31 May 11 pm EDT update: The MarsPhoenix Twitter feed now has 11,667 followers whereas the Twitter feeds for Twitter's Co-founder Biz Stone only has 11,178, Stephen Colbert has 10,593 followers, and Gen Y techie favorite Wil Wheaton (Star Trek actor) has 11,270 followers.

Editor's 1 June 12 am EDT update: One hour later and there are now 12,119 followers. That's nearly a 5% increase in just one hour.

Editor's 1 June 12 pm EDT update: Now up to 13,970 followers. Twitterholic now ranks it at 20th most popular.

Editor's 2 June 12 am EDT update: Now up to 15,038 followers. While the Twitterholic ranking has not been updated, this number of followers would rank it at around 14. At this growth rate MarsPhoenix will break into the top ten in a matter of days - and all of the great science news has just started to arrive.

Editor's 2 June 12 pm EDT update: Its now up to 15,626 followers. Twitterholic shows it ranked as the 14th most popular Twitter feed. Next big hurdle: passing CNN Breaking News (cnnbrk) with 20,330 followers.

Earlier posts below



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