Space & Planetary Science: August 2008 Archives

Editor's note: New Horizons continues on its trip to Pluto. All the while, its is Twittering on a regular basis as to its progress and the activities of its support team here on Earth. Recent Tweets from NewHorizons2015:

"Yesterday's DSN pass was nominal-- all's well out there beyond Saturn. On Earth, our backup spacecraft simulator is now completed & in test."

"Solar distance now 10.77 AU. Tomorrow the Student Dust Counter begins a calibration of noise thresholds & detector gains in quiet cruise."

Sign up with Twitter and follow along.

Frosty Scenery

NASA Mars Phoenix Camera Sees Morning Frost at the Landing Site

"Water frost appears in an image the SSI took on Aug. 14, 2008, at 6 a.m. local Mars time on Sol 79, the 79th Martian day after landing. The frost begins to disappear shortly after 6 a.m. as the sun rises on the landing site."

Editor's note: Have a look at the last image sent back by Webcam #2 at the Haughton Mars Project Research Station on Devon Island. This place is often called "Mars on Earth". As is the case with Mars, it too has a frosty coating (albeit from a recent snowfall). If you look at the time lapse video (below) of imagery taken from the same webcam you will see this frost building up toward the end of the day.

NASA Cassini Pinpoints Source of Jets on Saturn's Moon Enceladus

"In a feat of interplanetary sharpshooting, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has pinpointed precisely where the icy jets erupt from the surface of Saturn's geologically active moon Enceladus. New carefully targeted pictures reveal exquisite details in the prominent south polar "tiger stripe" fractures from which the jets emanate."

NASA Blog: Cassini Flyby of Enceladus: We Nailed It!

"Then, finally, it was our turn--the Goddard team completed the CIRS calibration this morning, and I downloaded the data. More nervousness, until the plots started coming up on the screen and showed a beautiful spike in the signal strength, right when we expected to be staring at Damascus. It was obvious that we were pointing right at the warm fracture, just as planned. We nailed it!"

Barnstorming Enceladus

NASA Cassini Enceladus Rev 80 Flyby Skeet Shoot #4

"This image is the fourth skeet-shoot footprint taken during Cassini's very close flyby of Enceladus on Aug. 11, 2008. Cairo Sulcus is shown crossing the upper left portion of the image. An unnamed fracture curves around the lower right corner. (The image is upside down from the skeet-shoot footprint shown here.) The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Aug. 11, 2008, a distance of approximately 2,621 kilometers (1,629 miles) above the surface of Enceladus. Image scale is approximately 20 meters (66 feet) per pixel."

Hubble Space Telescope Unveils Colorful and Turbulent Star-Birth Region on 100,000th Orbit Milestone

"In commemoration of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope completing its 100,000th orbit in its 18th year of exploration and discovery, scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., have aimed Hubble to take a snapshot of a dazzling region of celestial birth and renewal. Hubble peered into a small portion of the nebula near the star cluster NGC 2074 (upper, left). The region is a firestorm of raw stellar creation, perhaps triggered by a nearby supernova explosion. It lies about 170,000 light-years away near the Tarantula nebula, one of the most active star-forming regions in our Local Group of galaxies."

Surf's Up---On Saturn's Moon Titan, Cassini Mission Reveals, Examiner

"On December 24, 2004, Cassini sent the Huygens probe down to Titan's surface. The probe arrived safely on Jan. 15,2005. Since then the two craft have been shipping exploration information back home via three microwave antennas."

Editor's note: Huygens only operated for a matter of hours on the surface of Titan after landing. All of the data it collected has long been sent back to Earth. Therefore it cannot still be "shipping" anything back home.

Editor's update: What a coincidence - they corrected the story after I posted my note. Here is a cached version of the original article.

Martian Chemistry

NASA Mars Phoenix Spacecraft Analyzing Martian Soil Data

"Within the last month, two samples have been analyzed by the Wet Chemistry Lab of the spacecraft's Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, suggesting one of the soil constituents may be perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance."

Editor's note: Heads up NASA PAO: This press release says: "perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance". Shouldn't that actually read "perchlorate, a (highly?) oxidized substance"? There is a difference between the two terms - and this release is all about science after all...

NASA Mars Phoenix Team Opens Window on Scientific Process, NASA

"The Phoenix project has decided to take an unusual step" in talking about the research when its scientists are only about half-way through the data collection phase and have not yet had time to complete data analysis or perform needed laboratory work, said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Scientists are still at the stage where they are examining multiple hypotheses, given evidence that the soil contains perchlorate. "We decided to show the public science in action because of the extreme interest in the Phoenix mission, which is searching for a habitable environment on the northern plains of Mars," Smith added. "Right now, we don't know whether finding perchlorate is good news or bad news for possible life on Mars."

Editor's note: This is, of course, a wonderful thing for the team to do and I applaud them for doing so. People - you know the 99.99% of the real world outside of NASA - are really interested in what these Mars folks do - and they pay the bills. The more insight the public has, the more they are inclined to see the value of these missions and feel as if they are participating - albeit vicariously.

Alas, at the press briefing, I asked if the team had already decided to undertake this "unusual step" before the news broke - or if they would have done it had the news not broken. I really did not get a crisp answer. I then asked why it is, after a decade of having the Internet surprise NASA PAO again and again with news getting out ahead of NASA's planned release, that the agency has still not learned to adapt to this ever shifting fact of life in the 21st century. No real answer to that question either - and what I heard had a certain grumpiness to it. Listen for yourself.

NASA PAO is still in denial about how the world works. And so are the scientists who work on these missions, after-the-fact openness notwithstanding. They drop hints to the media and then get indignant when their hints appear online. Perhaps this latest instance will teach a few of them something. Alas, I am not holding my breath.

Rumor Control

NASA quickly goes into rumor-control overdrive over Mars findings, SF Chronicle

"It took Dwayne Brown, a leading NASA public affairs spokesman to tell a press teleconference: "There have been reports over the weekend that NASA had made a major finding that it was withholding from the public and this speculation has fueled a host of rumors." Neither the White House nor the President's science advisers have been briefed on the new findings by anyone, Brown stated. Then he turned the teleconference over to the scientists at Phoenix mission headquarters in Tucson. Well, it all turns out that indeed the scientists working with data from their analytical instruments aboard the spacecraft had detected something significant."

Phoenix Found More Than Water on Mars, earlier post
News From Mars: Soil Less Earth-like Than Thought, earlier post
NASA Uses Twitter To Shoot Down Mars Story, earlier post
Is Mars Poisonous? Tasty? Confusing? Tune In And See, earlier post

Dwayne Brown: Replays of this telecon will play all week. [Now online here] There were reports over the weekend that NASA was withholding information. This caused lots of rumors. This briefing will set the record straight. Mike Meyer, Michael Hecht, Peter Smith, Bill Boynton on telecon.

Mike Meyer: Media discussion could be significant but research results not conclusive. That is why NASA did not include perchlorate results. More result is needed. Results will be publicised widely once confirmed.

White House Briefed On Potential For Mars Life

"The White House has been alerted by NASA about plans to make an announcement soon on major new Phoenix lander discoveries concerning the "potential for life" on Mars, scientists tell Aviation Week & Space Technology. Sources say the new data do not indicate the discovery of existing or past life on Mars. Rather the data relate to habitability--the "potential" for Mars to support life--at the Phoenix arctic landing site, sources say. The data are much more complex than results related NASA's July 31 announcement that Phoenix has confirmed the presence of water ice at the site."

Editor's note: The folks at have gone into smug elitist mode again. This time it is regard to the emerging story first reported by veteran Aviation Week reporter Craig Covault about possible news from Mars Phoenix experiments - results significant enough to have caused interaction with the White House.

The bulletin board's moderator, Doug Ellison, expresses some issues that he has with Covault's reporting in his response to a post about the way in which Covault asked a question at a recent Mars Phoenix press conference. Ellison wrote "In private, after the press conf or by telephone. Not by raising a nightmare of almost certainly inappropriate speculation and hyperbole by being quite so smug and veiled. I like Craig, I like his articles, and I like the fact he'll take creations by people here and publish them. But I really don't like the way he's handled this. If nothing else, he's given us an admin headache."

Oh, how unfortunate Doug - you "really don't like the way he's handled" this potentially exciting news because it has caused your BBS to have an "admin heacache". You guys dump on Craig for "inappropriate speculation and hyperbole", yet the title of the discussion thread at on your website is "The MECA story, A place for speculation". Why is your "speculation" appropriate and Craig's alleged "speculation" inappropriate? Get a grip, Doug - you can't have it both ways. Besides, I'll bet he has far better access to the facts than you do.

Of course, the denizens of that BBS will soon enage in attacks on me and NASA Watch in response - things that Mr. Ellison loftily claims to forbid on his website - but allows to persist when he sees fit. Oh well, Doug, so much (again) for consistency ...

Eclipse Imagery

NASA Brings Total Eclipse of the Sun to the Masses

"On August 1, a total solar eclipse was visible in parts of Canada, northern Greenland, the Arctic, central Russia, Mongolia and China. The eclipse swept across Earth in a narrow path that began in Canada's northern territory of Nunavut and ended in northern China's Silk Road region.

Though the eclipse was not visible in most of North America, NASA TV and the Exploratorium made streaming video of the event available online."



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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries in the Space & Planetary Science category from August 2008.

Space & Planetary Science: July 2008 is the previous archive.

Space & Planetary Science: September 2008 is the next archive.

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