NASA captures a new 3D view of Mars’s moon Phobos

NASA You’d think that Mars’s moon Phobos – a 13.5-mile wide lump of brownish rock full of craters – wouldn’t be the most interesting place in the Solar System to take photos. But then space exploration does tend to throw up a lot of surprises.

One of NASA’s Mars probes recently captured the above image, and it’s revealing some fascinating details about something most people probably didn’t even know existed.

The most obvious thing about Phobos is the huge crater on the bottom-right of the image. Scientists say that its slight bluish color means it hasn’t been exposed to space as long as the rest of the moon, meaning the impact that produced the crater could have been quite recent.

Wikipedia Phobos may also be home to water-ice and materials rich in carbon, which is why a Russian-Chinese mission to collect samples from Phobos is expected to launch next summer.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped the new shot of Phobos from 4000 miles away, so I’m pretty impressed that the detail’s so good. In the full size image each pixel represents 22 feet (6.8 meters), so you can zoom in quite a lot. (Click here to download the full-size image. Be warned! It’s a 20mb file, so if you’re still using ancient dial-up be prepared to wait a few hours.) It’s really cool zooming in on the thousands of craters dotting the moon, especially the ones on the edge of the Moon and on the day-night border.

Phobos and Deimos What else is so great about the new image? OK, several probes have imaged Phobos before, but because MRO took two photos you can actually see the photo in 3D if you’ve got some of those special glasses.

The image also shows landslides around the massive crater (Stickney crater), and you can see some craters in the dark region illuminated by Mars-shine. This is when light from the Sun reflects off Mars onto Phobos, and it happens with the Earth and our Moon too – take a look next time there’s a crescent Moon.

Above all, I just think it’s amazing that yet another bit our Universe is proving to be so interesting. Before I heard about this photo I just though Phobos was a boring old lump of rock, but as you can see it’s actually a pretty interesting corner of our Solar System after all.

Want to know more about the Red Planet? See the Solar System’s biggest volcano in 3D, see photos of the first ever avalanche captured on Mars, and read why radiation may prevent humans from ever visiting it.

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Radiation may prevent humans ever going to Mars

MSNBC / NASA

It’s amazing that the human race is now close to sending a person to another planet for the first time in the history of civilization – NASA hopes to put a man on Mars by 2030, or at least not too long after. But why will it take 20 years? Well, there are loads of problems scientists have to overcome like the psychological impacts of a 2-3 year Wikipedia / NASA trip, the problem of having enough food and water, and finding a fuel that would be powerful enough to power a heavy craft to Mars.

But there’s something perhaps even more important that people often overlook, and it’s something that could affect long-term missions to the Moon too – radiation from the Sun. It’s proving to be a huge stumbling block.

Our Sun constantly bombards our planet – and everywhere else in the Solar System – with a stream of assorted particles, many of which would be harmful to humans if we were exposed to them. In fact, these ‘cosmic rays’, as they’re sometimes also known, were the main thing that prevented life on Earth originating until a billion or so years after its creation. Only when a few resistant bacteria (and lots Wikipedia / NASA of volcanoes) started producing gases to produce an atmosphere could more advanced life develop.

Any mission to space obviously involves going outside our atmosphere, which means leaving the shield that protects us from solar radiation. Even with complex spacesuits, modern astronauts frequently see white flashes of light as solar particles interact with their eyes.

But if astronauts can cope with solar radiation now (for example on Shuttle missions and at the ISS), why wouldn’t they be able to cope on a Moon base or on Mars?

The problem is that unlike on the Shuttle or ISS, astronauts walking around on the Moon or Mars would have only their spacesuits to protect them. On a Moon base the astronauts would be exposed to radiation for days until they finished building the base, Wikipedia / NASA and on Mars the astronauts would want to spend several weeks exploring to make the 2-3 year journey worthwhile. All that radiation would build up, and could trigger things like cancer and tumors.

What’s the solution? It’s basically just a matter of trying to research better and better lightweight protection that can be used for spacesuits – but that could take many years yet. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take too long.

Check out my last post to find out what happens when solar radiation collides with our atmosphere: aurora. There’s a cool image of aurora from space.

NASA releases new images of the moon with geysers: Enceladus

Enceladus, as photographed by Cassini | Image: NASA / MSNBC

Enceladus, as photographed by Cassini | Image: NASAThese images show Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as captured by the Cassini spacecraft. It recently flew through the plumes from Enceladus’s icy geysers, and took some photos either side of the flyby.

The surface of Enceladus may look like rock, but it is actually ice.  Amazingly, there may even be a liquid water ocean underneath. Unforunately we’ll have to wait a while yet for the results of the geyser flyby to come back, but in the meantime…

Click here for more information on the flyby and on Enceladus’s mysterious geysers.

NASA probe flying through the icy geysers of Saturn’s moon Enceladus

Cassini, a collaborative venture between NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency | Image: Wikipedia Until a couple of years ago, Saturn’s moon Enceladus (that’s en-sell-uh-duhs) was thought to be pretty boring – it was just another cold lump of rock like our own Moon. But then two years ago, the Cassini probe discovered something that revolutionized our view of Enceladus: around its South Pole are geysers spewing ice, dust and gas into space. In fact, Enceladus is also thought to be one of the most likely places in our Solar System to find life.

Now, Cassini is flying back to discover more about Enceladus, but it’s doing something a bit different to what space probes usually do. It will fly directly into the fountains of material above the geysers, sometimes at a height of just 30 miles above the surface. Rather than just taking photos, it will collect samples of the material that the geysers are releasing, and analyze it to see what its chemical composition is like. Click here for NASA’s Enceladus Flyby blog.

Saturn's icy moon Enceladus | Image: NASA / CNN But it’s not just huge geysers that make Enceladus interesting. Think how Yellowstone’s Old Faithful works – it’s all down to the heat of the Earth warming up the water so that it shoots upward. It’s not much different on Enceladus – in fact, Enceladus is a very geologically active body, and is among only two other Solar System bodies that have been seen erupting (the other two are Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s satellite Triton).

Unlike on Earth where magma is the hot material, it is thought to be water-based on Enceladus's icy plumes | Image: NASA / JPLEnceladus. What causes the heat in a body so far away from the Sun? The main theory is that Saturn’s gravitational pull causes ‘tidal friction’, which generates heat in this otherwise icy moon.

Wait a minute… water, heat – they’re two key ingredients for life. It is indeed one of the places NASA is concentrating on in the search for ET. Enceladus is fast turning into one of the most exciting, revolutionary places in our Solar System – I can’t wait for the discoveries to come in the weeks and months ahead.

Check out this great post by Kate Tobin on CNN’s Sci-Tech blog. | This new interactive from NASA is a great resource for Enceladus – the intro video at the good is excellent. | Also, NASA has just released a site that lets you fly along with Cassini as it explores Saturn and its moons. It’s pretty cool in my opinion.

UPDATE: NASA has now released some of the images from this flyby. Click here to see them.

Saturn’s moon may have rings – the first ever discovered

An artist's impression of Rhea's rings | Image: NASA

Everyone knows that Saturn has rings, but what about its moons? Surely they don’t have rings as well? Well actually, Rhea, a moon of Saturn that is usually overlooked, may be the first moon ever discovered to have rings, thanks to new research from the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission.

Rhea’s rings aren’t particularly impressive compared to Saturn’s – after all, it’s hard to imagine anything having a more impressive ring system that the huge gas giant Saturn. In fact, they haven’t even been photographed yet, but there is strong evidence to show that they exist.

Saturn | Image: Wikipedia How did the scientists work out that Rhea had rings without even seeing them? It’s all down to electrons, tiny charged particles that surround Saturn in its magnetic field. Because Rhea lies within the magnetic field of Saturn, it was expected to be seen ‘clearing up’ some of the electrons, because Rhea would absorb electrons from the magnetic field.

Saturn's rimgs, as imaged by Cassini | Image: NASA / ESA Rhea certainly did clear up the electrons – but it did it far better than expected, absorbing electrons about 7 times further away than it should have done. Why? The only feasible answer seems to be that Rhea has a ring system, and that the ring particles are absorbing the extra electrons.

Rhea is just one of a group of Saturn’s 52+ moons that are intriguing scientists: Rhea’s cousin Titan has methane lakes and rain; Iapetus is half-black and half-white; Enceladus has an atmosphere. The Cassini-Huygens mission is making it obvious that Saturn’s moons are just as interesting as the ringed planet itself.

NASA’s plan to put a telescope on the Moon

The Moon telescope would actually consist of an array of telescopes, like the Square Kilometer Array on Earth, pictured here | Image: astronomywa.net Over the last 50 years we’ve managed to get telescopes pretty much everywhere: from the remote Atacama desert to the peaks of Hawaiian volcanoes and even to outer space, we’ve got giant eyes on the Universe set up all over the place. But what about a telescope on the Moon?

Well, that may be happening soon as well. NASA has announced that it’s funding a year-long research project into the feasibility of having a telescope on the Moon – although it will not even start being constructed until 2025, so don’t get too excited yet.

The Moon | Image: University of Leicester The obvious thing to ask is what is the point in spending $1 billion putting a telescope on the Moon?

It’s all down to the problem of interference on Earth. The type of waves that the Moon telescope would be detecting are radio waves, which are distorted by Earth’s atmosphere so much that they become almost useless. Add to that the huge amount of radio waves being produced for our TVs – and of course radios – and it just becomes impossible to do anything with radio waves on Earth.

A telescope on the dark side of the Moon would be permanently out of the reach of all this disturbance, giving crystal clear views of our Universe.

Why radio waves? We already know quite a bit about the extremely early Universe because of the Cosmic Microwave Background. And we also know a lot about the Universe since the time of the first galaxies, because we can use telescopes to see our Universe in evolution over those billions of years. Radio wave telescopes are necessary to see the time in between – when the Universe was starting to become more stable, but hadn’t yet started producing galaxies.

The Moon | Image: NOAODiscovering more about this era in our Universe’s history could unleash a revolution in our knowledge of dark matter – one of the last things about the Universe that we know virtually nothing about. Will NASA approve the telescope? I certainly hope so – and I’m quite confident that they will.

NPR’s Science Friday did a fascinating interview with the woman leading this research project – click here to listen.

$30 million: The amount Google will pay you for going to the Moon

One of the contenders for the Google Lunar X Prize | Image: MSNBC Fancy winning $30 million? Google has now made it slightly easier to get those millions, and it’s all in the good cause of exploration.

So what do you have to do? Well, it was never going to be easy to get that much money: simply design a robotic spaceship, then get it to go to the Moon and make it travel 0.3 miles (500 meters). Then make it send back some video and pictures. That’s it. The only problem is that to get the full prize, you have to get to the Moon by 2012 – by as soon as 2014 the prize money will be withdrawn.

Following the success of the Ansari X Prize three years ago, which was won by SpaceShipOne (the ship soon to be used by Virgin Galactic for tourist trips to space) Google joined up with the X Prize foundation a few months ago, and hopes that the new Lunar X Prize will help spur on privately funded space exploration.

One of the contenders for the Google Lunar X Prize | Image: MSNBC The problem is that when only government agencies (such as NASA) send probes to space, progress is quite slow because there is only a limited amount of funding. If private companies and investors can be encouraged to start exploring beyond Planet Earth, then money will start flooding in and exploration will really start to pick up speed.

Once the private sector starts going to the Moon, it opens up the possibility of space hotels and lunar bases for vacations – things that just seem like science-fiction the way things are now, with state organizations doing everything in space.

I think the Google Lunar X Prize is an amazing idea, and I hope more competitions like it will open up in the future. Only this way can we really enter a true space age, and it means that we might just have a chance of being able to vacation on the Moon in our lifetimes. Now that is a cool thought!