What a wonderful world(s)

There I was, going about my daily business, when NASA did it to me again. You’d think that they’d be content to let us lead regular, normal lives, but no. They just have to go and open up our minds to wonder and amazement. Jerks.

NASA has always done incredible work in exploring space and expanding our understanding of how the universe works. Just in the last year, there have been multiple reports sent back from various worlds in our solar system. Robot explorers have sent back scientific data, images and more that cause us to rethink how our universe works.

Mars

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Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The latest assault on our sense of complacency was that the planet Mars has liquid water on the surface. We’ve known that Mars has ice on the surface, and there’s been suspicion that there is liquid water underground, but now we know that water flows on the surface of the planet. (It’s not like there are rivers and lakes, but seasonal runoffs of briny water.) When you consider that all life on Earth – no matter the conditions, even extremely hot or acidic or cold or whatever – requires water to exist, this is huge news. If there is life on other planets, it must be in places where there is water. If there is water on Mars, there is a chance that there is life …and that is incredible.

Pluto

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Source: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

We’re still receiving images and information from Pluto and its moons from the New Horizons spacecraft. It had its closest approach with what used to be the ninth planet in July, but the data is still streaming back. (Well, trickling back …Pluto is a heck of a long way away and it takes a lot of energy to send information back this far, so the data is streaming back at a low bandwidth.)

Discoveries are being made almost daily as scientists study the data (the latest is that Pluto has blue skies and red ice). It’s not that surprising, considering that before New Horizons flew past Pluto the best images we had of the (dwarf) planet was of a pixelated blob, snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope. Now we have images of mountains, ice plains, atmosphere, and more. It’s an incredibly active world, way out there at the fringes of our solar system, and scientists are amazed at its complexity.

Comet 67P

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Copyright ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

It wasn’t NASA, but the scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) who sent a craft (Rosetta) to intercept Comet 67P. In a first for space exploration, ESA managed to land a craft (Philae) on the surface of the comet. (Watch a truly incredible video of the landing created by ESA from images sent by the lander.)

The two spacecraft have sent back plenty of intriguing information about the comet, including the fact that it originally must have been two separate comets that have fused together. Rosetta and Philae were intended to give scientists new insights into the origin of the solar system, as comets are considered relics from the early time of our system’s creation. They’ve done that, and given scientists plenty more to puzzle over.

Spacecraft always record scientific data in a variety of ways. The visual information comes back to us as beautiful photographs and videos. Rosetta also included audio information, sending back recordings of the “singing comet.” Musician Andrew Huang took the sounds from Comet 67P, remixed them and came up with this:

Ceres

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Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The Dawn spacecraft is currently orbiting this dwarf planet in the asteroid belt – a world that was once considered the “missing” planet between Mars and Jupiter and classified as a planet for half a century – and mapping the entire sphere. It’s collecting data and sending images that are stumping scientists: what are those bright spots? what made the 6km mountain that sticks out of a flat plain? There just aren’t any conclusive answers …yet. Dawn will come closer this month – dropping down to an orbit only 375km away from the surface. Perhaps this closer look will help answer some of the questions. Meanwhile, scientists are left speculating.

Our incredible universe

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Credit: Skeeze (Pixabay – public domain)

It’s literally awesome what leaps our species has taken in terms of our knowledge of the universe. We have sent robot explorers to most of our solar system’s worlds, and they’ve sent back information about blue skies, surface water, active volcanoes, and many more things that we understand and many that we don’t. We can see high-resolution photographs and topographical maps of places that we can’t even see from Earth without professional telescopes.

I am amazed at the wealth of knowledge, but also by the curiosity and wonder displayed by astronomers. People are dying to know, to understand, but are also willing to share – indeed, revel in – their ignorance in the face of strange new data. (“There’s an interesting blue ring here,” Prof Russell told a media briefing at the conference. “We have absolutely no idea what that blue ring is due to.”)

There’s a poem by Whitman that captures for me some of this wonder and amazement (although he’s a little more critical of the scientists than I am!):

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

…or then there’s this:

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