December 18, 2017

26.04.10-Amateurs Scour the Solar System.

A quiet sort of revolution has been brewing online. Amateur astronomers have taken to the web on cloudy, light polluted nights and turned newly found computing power normally reserved for gaming and Second Life into something truly productive and phenomenal; the reprocessing of planetary images. This link includes more examples than you can shake a robotic camera arm at; the data is culled not only from the raw image archives of older spacecraft such as Mariner 10 and Voyager 2, but newer generation spacecraft such as the Cassini orbiter around Saturn and the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity pictured above. These images frequently circulate the web and are processed and discussed long before even NASA engineers get to them. And with the mounting number of new missions out there and the transparency and access to public data increasing, the trend is likely to continue. But beyond just pretty pictures, the images dug up often have real scientific merit and value as well; for example, Philosophy professor Ted Stryk actually caught Neptune’s tiny moon Despina in the act of transiting as he sifted through old Voyager data! This makes one wonder; what else might engineers and scientists have missed? Emily Lakdawalla, web editor for the Planetary Society has contributed extensively to this growing revolution of online citizen scientists, taking advantage of Cassini’s equinox mission to produce some stunning images. So give it a try; put that ultimate power sitting idle on your desk to work doing something useful and productive… you just might spot that unknown moon or monolith!

 

28.9.9: Messenger’s 3rd Flyby of the Planet Mercury.

The drama in the inner solar system continues… late tomorrow on September 29th, NASA’s Messenger space probe will do its third and final swing by of the planet Mercury. At closest approach, Messenger will be less than 142 miles above the surface and provide more stunning images of the inner world. Wide field UV spectroscopy scans should begin later today, and this gravity assist will be the final pass for eventual orbital insertion around Mercury in 2011. About 90% of Mercury has been mapped, although Messenger is only the second spacecraft to examine Mercury up close after Mariner 10 in 1974…did you know that Mariner 10 created a brief buzz of excitement when it appeared to have discovered a “moon” of Mercury? The anomalous UV radiation was later accounted for by the star 31 Crateris, but it serves as a reminder that we don’t know everything about this tiny world. I also mention this because in the days after its pass, Messenger will conduct a wide angle satellite search as it calibrates its cameras… such a discovery would be just plain cool! Messenger has been busying itself by conducting a survey for any hypothetical “Vulcanoids” interior to Mercury’s orbit, and will conduct measurements with its Laser Altimeter tomorrow during its closest pass. Mercury is currently low in the dawn sky, rising about an hour before the Sun. A very cool time-line is provided for those who want to follow the action!