Morning Cup of Links: NASA’s New Plasma Rocket

NASA’s longshot bet on a revolutionary rocket may be about to pay off. A physicist/astronaut is on his way to unveiling a plasma rocket.
Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park has seen no rainfall at all since last June. Patrick Kilonzo Mwalua spends hours every day driving a truck to waterholes in the park to make sure elephants, zebras, buffalo, and antelopes have enough water to survive.
The 18 Indie Games You…

Europa lander mission takes another step toward reality

icy surface of Europa

ONTO THE ICE This image from the Galileo spacecraft shows the icy surface of Europa. The Jovian moon is a target for a potential lander mission that will look for signs of life there.

BOSTON — For the first time since the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s, NASA is making the search for evidence of life on another world the primary science goal of a space mission. The target world is Jupiter’s moon Europa, considered possibly habitable because of its subsurface ocean.

The proposed mission, which could be operational in the next two decades, calls for a lander with room for roughly 43 kilograms of science instruments. They include a robotic arm to scoop samples and others to analyze the chemistry of the Jovian…

Citizen scientists are providing stunning new views of Jupiter

Jupiter's south pole

WAY DOWN UNDER A rare look at Jupiter’s south pole reveals storms and cyclones, seen in this enhanced-color image edited by citizen scientist Roman Tkachenko using data from NASA’s JunoCam. The raw image was taken February 2, 2017, when Juno swooped to about 102,100 kilometers above the planet’s clouds during a fourth flyby.

Stormy, with a good chance of cyclones. That’s the forecast for Jupiter’s south pole — a region never seen before but quickly coming into focus with the help of citizen scientists.

Music producer Roman Tkachenko’s edited image of Jupiter’s nether regions (featured above) is a perfect example. His enhancements make the swirling cyclones and white oval storms really pop compared with the raw image, highlighting features at the pole that we otherwise may have missed.

“Jupiter’s poles don’t look anything like what the team thought they would,” says Southwest Research Institute planetary scientist Scott Bolton. He heads the Juno mission, which is probing the mysteries of Jupiter with a spacecraft that is swooping around the planet for 20 months. No one, he says, was expecting so many cyclones and storms.

Such unprecedented views come thanks to JunoCam, a camera on the Juno spacecraft that is not necessarily essential to meet the science goals of the mission. Bolton’s team added it to provide a rare glimpse of Jupiter’s poles and close-ups of everything in between, and give space enthusiasts an opportunity to play a part in exploring the gaseous planet.

And they are.

Citizen scientists join discussions about which Jovian features the camera will snap pics of, and vote on their favorite targets — those with most votes are photographed. These individuals download raw images and then upload edited versions. “We want the public to jump right in and be our partners in this mission,” Bolton says. “We want everyone to experience what it is like to discover something no one else has seen before.”


MOON SHOT The shadow of the Jovian moon Ganymede sweeps across Jupiter in this gif made with JunoCam images taken during Juno’s fourth flyby.

Pretty much all of what we are learning about the structures and dynamics of Jupiter’s clouds is coming from public-edited images, says planetary scientist and JunoCam wrangler Candice Hansen. The team is processing a few images itself but with no image processing staff, the researchers are relying on the work of citizen scientists.

Thanks to them, raw data is being turned into beautiful and scientifically important images and movies, ones that track how…

Ceres harbors homegrown organic compounds


HINTS OF LIFE? Organic matter has been detected on Ceres, shown, suggesting the dwarf planet hosts the building blocks of life.

Dwarf planet Ceres contains the necessary ingredients for life, new data suggest.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has detected organic compounds on Ceres — the first concrete proof of organics on an object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. This material probably originated on the dwarf planet itself, the researchers report in the Feb. 17 Science. The discovery of organic compounds, the building blocks of life, adds to the growing body of evidence that Ceres may have once had a habitable environment.

“We’ve come to recognize that Ceres has a lot of characteristics that are intriguing for those looking at how life starts,” says Andy Rivkin, a planetary astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., who was not involved in the study.

The Dawn probe has previously detected salts, ammonia-rich clays and water ice on Ceres, which together indicate hydrothermal activity, says study coauthor Carol Raymond, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

For life to begin, you need elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, as well as a source of energy. Both the hydrothermal activity and the presence of organics point toward Ceres having once had a habitable environment, Raymond says.

“If you have an abundance of…

5 Sleep-Deprived Disasters

The following article is from the new book Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader.

We tend to think of being very sleepy as, well, just being very sleepy. But if you’re in a position of serious responsibility—really bad things can happen. Here are a few examples.


Disaster: On January 28, 1986, the NASA space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after taking off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all seven crew members on board.

Sleep Deprivation: The night before the disaster, NASA officials held a conference call with officials from Morton Thiakol, the company that designed the shuttle’s rocket boosters. One of Thiakol’s engineers recommended canceling the launch, due to the cold weather forecast for the next day, telling NASA officials that cold temperatures could adversely affect equipment in the boosters—which could cause an explosion. NASA declined to cancel the launch. An investigation into the disaster found that it was indeed caused by the cold weather. The investigation also found that sleep deprivation, caused by a culture of overwork at NASA, played a critical role in the decision by the managers to ignore the engineer’s advice: two of the top managers involved in the conference call had been awake for 23 hours straight at the time of the call, and they had slept for only three hours the previous day. “The willingness of NASA employees in general to work excessive hours, while admirable,” the official report into the disaster said, “raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake.”


(Image credit: Pawel Kierzkowski)

Disaster: On June 1, 2009, during a flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Paris, France, Air France 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 people on board.

Sleep Deprivation: Captain Marc Dubois, 58, the pilot on the flight with the most experience by far, had just one hour of sleep the night before. “I didn’t sleep enough last night,” he can be heard saying early in the flight on the plane’s cockpit voice recorder (which wasn’t recovered until May 2011). “One hour, it’s not enough.” And when his two younger copilots encountered trouble about three hours into the flight, Dubois was asleep in a bunk located just behind the cockpit. It was, it must be noted, a scheduled nap, because all pilots on especially long flights are required to take naps. But when the copilots started experiencing problems—including “STALL!” warnings blaring in the cockpit—and called for Dubois on the plane’s intercom, it took Dubois more than a minute to respond. And when he finally did get to the cockpit, he seemed confused and failed to take control of the situation, which a pilot of his experience should have been able to do. (The least experienced of the copilots, for example, was pulling back on the control stick during the ordeal—the exact opposite of what’s supposed to be done during a stall.) The plane crashed into the ocean less than three minutes after Dubois got to the cockpit. The time it took him to respond to the calls for help, and his…

The Apollo Astronaut Who Was Allergic to the Moon

The inside of Apollo 17’s lunar module smelled of gunpowder. It was December 1972, the last of NASA’s manned moon missions, and astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt had just finished a successful survey of the Valley of Taurus-Littrow, a spot on the southeastern “coast” of the Moon’s Sea of Serenity. They had returned to the landing module with their spacesuits caked in moondust.

The men brushed themselves off and removed their helmets. Suddenly, Schmitt began having a sneezing fit. His eyes reddened. His throat itched. His sinuses clogged.

“I didn’t know I had lunar dust hay fever,” Schmitt said. Listening in, men stationed back on Earth began to bust Schmitt’s chops over the radio transmission. “It’s funny they don’t check for that,” said Joseph Allen at Mission Control. “Maybe that’s the trouble with the cheap noses, Jack.”

Schmitt, it turns out, was basically allergic to the Moon.

Of all the difficulties involved with putting a man on the Moon, “the major issue the Apollo astronauts pointed out was dust, dust, dust,” Larry Taylor, director of the Planetary Geosciences Institute, said in an interview with the Soil Science Society of America. The Apollo 11 astronauts griped that the “particles covered everything and a stain remained even after our best attempts to brush it off.” An Apollo 12 crew member moaned that the lunar module “had so much dust that when I took my helmet off, I was almost blinded.”

Moondust may look soft and pillowy, but it’s actually sharp and abrasive, largely the detritus of micrometeorite impacts. With no wind or moving water on the Moon’s surface, moondust never erodes. Effectively, no natural process exists on the lunar surface that can round its edges. When astronauts inhale what is essentially finely powdered glass, it becomes a huge health hazard [PDF]: The powder is so jagged that a deep breath could cause it to lodge in the lungs and pierce the alveolar sacs and ducts [PDF], resulting in a lunar version of “stone-grinder’s disease,” or silicosis, a deadly condition that commonly killed coal miners (and still kills 100 Americans a year). To complicate…

See What Titan, Saturn’s Largest Moon Looks Like

In 2005, the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe—which had been sent into space with its mothership, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, to learn more about Saturn and its moons—became the first spacecraft to land on an object in the outer solar system. That object was Titan, a hazy, planet-like moon of Saturn. Now, 12 years after the historic voyage, Mashable reports that NASA has released a video of Huygens’s descent.

Huygens took samples of Titan’s atmosphere and captured hundreds of photos of the moon. These images revealed a new, alien world with rugged mountains, dramatic gorges, and dark drainage channels that were suggestive of liquid…

The International Space Station Will Have Its First African-American Crewmember

January 2017 has been a very good month for the American space program. First there was the premiere of the movie Hidden Figures, which celebrates the incredible minds and achievements of NASA legends Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Now, on the heels of the film’s release, NASA has announced that Jeanette J. Epps will soon become the first African-American crewmember of the International Space Station (ISS).

Epps has been working toward this moment for a very long time, from her doctorate in physics and aerospace engineering to a seven-year stint as a technical intelligence officer with the CIA [PDF]. She joined NASA in 2009 as part of the agency’s 20th class of astronauts, and…

NASA Dropped a Mixtape

To catch you up on the biggest space discoveries, observations, and milestones from 2016, NASA has compiled a “Best Of” mixtape of all the biggest achievements from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

This mixtape looks at some of the year’s most notable stories, both here on Earth and out in space, such as the OSIRIS-REx launch and the discovery…