Titan’s Atmosphere Is a Hydrocarbon Factory

A press release from Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced the discovery of complex hydrocarbons in Titan’s atmosphere.  Some molecules have up to seven carbon atoms.  The discoveries came from the recent flyby on April 16, the closest yet, at just 638 miles above the surface.  Swooping into the upper layers of the atmosphere, the spacecraft came […]

How to Get Asteroid Dust Ponds in Mere Millennia

A team of U. of Colorado and MIT scientists modeled the formation of the smooth dust ponds found in some of the craters on the asteroid Eros by the NEAR spacecraft (see 02/13/2001 entry).  They calculated that micrometeoroid settling from impacts was too slow a process, and instead ran experiments with electrostatic levitation of fine […]

Solar Eclipse Probabilities Calculated

The probability, on average, that the spot you are standing on will see a total solar eclipse is once every 360 to 375 years, says Joe Rao, a lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium, writing for MSNBC News.  Some cities, though, like Los Angeles, have to wait 1565.9 years, and some rare spots may not see […]

Variable Constants Dept.

Is nothing sacred?  EurekAlert reported that the fine structure constant alpha may have changed from its once-thought invariable value, based on new observations from the Keck telescope.  “Sacred constant might be changing,” it says.     Another study, by contrast, shows no change in the fine structure constant, according to a press release from UC […]

Astrobiology: Much Ado About Nothing So Far

The mood at a NASA Astrobiology Institute conference is very upbeat, according to Leonard David at, reporting from the meetings in Boulder, Colorado.  The participants have set their goals high: Consider it nothing short of the cosmic quest for all time: Understanding the origin, evolution, distribution, and fate of life on Earth and in […]

Titan May Have Erupted Ice Recently

Large features on Titan resemble volcanic calderas.  The fact that no impact craters appear on the flows indicate that they are young.  But these are no ordinary volcanoes.  If the findings are confirmed, they erupted ice.     Richard Kerr reported the scuttlebutt from last week’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas.  Titan may […]

Late Stars Found Early On

A press release from the Spitzer Space Telescope team reports that the oldest, most distant galaxies ever seen already had well-developed stars.  It claims that the light has taken 13 billion years to reach us. “It seems that in a couple of cases these early galaxies are nearly as massive as galaxies we see around […]

Panel Majority Agrees: Our Solar System Is Special

All five observational and theoretical planetary scientists on a panel last week agreed that our solar system is a special place, reports Space.Com.  At the 5th annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Panel Debate, held at the American Museum of Natural History, the topic was “whether our solar system is special, why it looks the way it […]

How Well Do We Know Our Moon?

Leonard David wrote in Space.Com that Earth’s moon is “still a puzzle” – “luna incognita,” he calls it, hoping for a new corps of discovery to go back.  Surprisingly, the treasure trove of Apollo data has “been sitting around and never properly studied,”  especially since the development of more highly sophisticated analytical techniques.  Carl Pieters […]

Baloney Detecting Exercise for Students

Jeff Barbour’s brief history of everything was published on Universe Today.  His essay, entitled “Where does intelligent life come from?” paints a short but sweeping panorama from the Big Bang to humans.  Its style is somewhat like watered-down Carl Sagan or gilded Neil deGrasse Tyson (see 09/29/2004 entry).  Here’s a sample about the origin of […]

Home to E.T.: You Have Mail

According to MSNBC News, 138,179 people responded to an offer to beam a message into space.  “Yet another outfit,,” the report continues, “is offering to broadcast your 900-prefix telephone call into space for $3.99 a minute.” Let’s hope E.T. has his spam filter on.  Hey, Nigeria!  Hey, Star Registry!  Look at all these suckers […]

Titan: Case of the Missing Methane (and Ethane)

In Astrobiology Magazine this week, an article explained why the lack of methane and ethane oceans on Titan is so mysterious.  Jonathan Lunine, a chemist and astrobiologist who has been studying Titan for over two decades, explained why these hydrocarbons ought to be there.  Methane (CH4) is split by ultraviolet light from the sun.  The […]

Complex at the Beginning: Distant Galaxy Cluster Highly Developed

Observations from the European Southern Observatory have pointed to a “surprise” discovery: a cluster of galaxies 9 billion light-years away that is “in a very advanced state of development.”     The press release points to just how surprising is this find: “The discovery of such a complex and mature structure so early in the […]

What Is Melting the Ice on Enceladus?

When Cassini flew by Enceladus from 730 miles up on Feb. 15, scientists were hoping it would reveal the secret of its active surface.  As is common in planetary science, the mystery only deepened (click here for photo gallery).  The surface showed a complex mix of canyons, ridges and spots that suggest a taffy pulling […]

Cassini Shines in the Light of Saturn

Since its arrival at Saturn last June (see 07/01/2004 entry), the Cassini orbiter has achieved a string of phenomenal successes, and these just 15% of the way into its tour of Saturn’s rings, moons and magnetosphere (see JPL press release).  The prize has been publication of initial science results in Nature1 and Science2 – the […]
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