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MAVEN at Mars

Launched on November 18, 2013, the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) spacecraft completed its interplanetary voyage September 21, captured into a wide, elliptical orbit around Mars. MAVEN’s imaging ultraviolet spectrograph has already begun its planned exploration of the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere, acquiring this image data from an altitude of 36,500 kilometers. In false color, the three ultraviolet wavelength bands show light reflected from atomic hydrogen (in blue), atomic oxygen (in green) and the planet’s surface (in red). Low mass atomic hydrogen is seen to extend thousands of kilometers into space, with the cloud of more massive oxygen atoms held closer by Mars’ gravity. Both are by products of the breakdown of water and carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere and the MAVEN data can be used to determine the rate of water loss over time. In fact, MAVEN is the first mission dedicated to exploring Mars’ tenuous upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the Sun and solar wind. But the most recent addition to the fleet of spacecraft from planet Earth now in martian orbit is MOM.

Image credit: MAVEN, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Univ. Colorado, NASA



This image of NGC 1999, a reflection nebula in Orion, was captured just weeks after astronauts repaired the Hubble Space Telescope in 1999.

At a distance of about 1500 light years from Earth, NGC 1999 was discovered about two centuries ago by the Herschels. Sir William Herschel, and his sister Caroline, produced the first large catalog of stars and nebulae – it would eventually become the New General Catalog (where we get `NGC’ numbers from).

This nebula is particularly famous, as the first Herbig-Haro object ever discovered is just out of shot – practically adjacent to the nebula.

The letter ‘T’ in the centre of the nebulae is a Bok globule (named after astronomer Bart Bok). The globule is a cold cloud of gas and dust; so dense it blocks the light from behind it – just like a dirty window.


Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI); C. Robert O’Dell (Rice University), Thomas P. Ray (Dublin Institute for Advanced Study), and David Corcoran (University of Limerick).

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The Starshade is NASA’s latest design in a cutting-edge effort to take pictures of planets orbiting stars far from the sun.

The flower-shaped spacecraft’s goal is to make detecting and imaging exoplanets much, much easier. Despite the fact that astronomers have been indirectly detecting exoplanets for more than 15 years, actually taking a picture of one has been an incredibly difficult task thanks to the often-blinding lights of their parent stars.

In conjunction with a space-based telescope, NASA’s starshade will position itself precisely between the telescope and the star that’s being observed, blocking the starlight before it even reaches the telescope’s mirrors. Light coming from exoplanets orbiting the star would be visible and astronomers would finally be able to take actual pictures of them.

These images could provide clues as to whether or not such distant worlds could support life as we know it.

Dr. Stuart Shaklan, JPL’s lead engineer on the starshade project, says “The flower-shaped petals are part of what makes the starshade so effective. The shape of the petals, when seen from far away, creates a softer edge that causes less bending of light waves. Less light bending means that the starshade shadow is very dark, so the telescope can take images of the planets without being overwhelmed by starlight.”

Princeton researcher and principal investigator of the starshade project Professor Jeremy Kasdin has assembled a team that will create a smaller scale starshade at Princeton to verify that the design blocks the light as predicted by the computer simulations. Also, to measure its accuracy, a team at JPL will test the deployment of a near-full scale starshade system in the lab.

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