Science tidbits

Okay, I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been too frantic trying to figure out travel arrangements for my Montreal trip. I am so excited, and very, very nervous about the whole thing. I mean, really . . . Mars isn’t too kind to us. But still, there have been some pretty cool science developments over the past few weeks. Let’s go through a few:

1. Lightning on Saturn

Sure, we’ve always known that the gas giants have lightning just as we do here on Earth, but here, Cassini was able to capture lightning on Saturn’s day side on March 6, 2012 (it’s blue due to the filter the spacecraft was using at the time). That tiny blue flash is about 200 kms in diameter. Scientists have determined that the lightning originates in the clouds deeper down in Saturn’s atmosphere, where water droplets form. This is similar to where Earth’s lightning is produced. It’s interesting to see that, though our planets differ in so many ways, the physics behind lightning and storms seem to be the same.

 

2. Landing on Mars . . . using your Xbox

Don’t laugh: I’ve tried it, and it’s hard.

During a recent Mars Science Laboratory press conference, NASA revealed a new Xbox game where people can download a game for free. There, you can try your hand at landing Curiosity on Mars. Well, good luck. It’s tough. For one, NASA has decided to make it a bit more challenging by giving you virtually no fuel for the descent. Let’s pray they weren’t as unkind to the actual rover.

 

3. Another new moon for Pluto

Poor, supposedly insignificant Pluto has a new moon. Well, it’s new to us. I’m sure Pluto knew it was there the whole time.

Does this mean that Pluto will finally get some respect? Nope. Highly unlikely. But it does mean that New Horizons, the spacecraft that is set to reach our most distant planet in July 2015 may have another possible target. Though its mission and targets were planned many years ago (the spacecraft launched in 2006), no doubt scientists will try to take a gander at P5 (yeah, they’re not one for coming up with quick, original names).

I haven’t written about New Horizons yet, but I’m very excited. Whether you consider Pluto a planet or a dwarf planet, this spacecraft is actually going “where no man has gone before.” Pluto, at an average distance of 5,906,376,200 kms from the Sun (Earth is about 150,000,000 kms from the Sun, which equals 1 Astronomical Unit [AU]) is far. Sure, spacecrafts Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have travelled farther, but not for specific scientific exploration.

Since its discovery in 1930, Pluto hasn’t even made ONE orbit around the Sun (shhh . . . this fact tends to give Pluto-haters more fodder). But either you consider Pluto to be on the periphery of our solar system or outside of our solar system and part of the Kuiper Belt. All joking aside, whatever you consider Pluto, it’s absolutely amazing that we have sent a spacecraft to explore that far away from home. I can’t wait for the first close-up images of Pluto.

I fell in love with astronomy when Voyager (honestly, I can’t remember which one it was) sent home images of Saturn. I remember being at St. Jean de Brebeuf Catholic School and trying to tell a friend about Saturn. She wasn’t interested in the least. But  I can remember looking up into the clouds as she ran away to join our friends and realizing that there was a whole, big beautiful world out there. It fuelled a lifelong love of the cosmos. Who knows what Pluto will do for future generations. Godspeed New Horizons.

 

Next post: The Sun

 

 

 

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