Cassini’s historic dip into the ocean of Enceladus

31 Oct

On October 28, 2015 Cassini passed below (above?) the south pole of Enceladus at an altitude of 49 kilometers. The probe was flown here in order to get a taste of the water-ice particles that are streaming out into space from Enceladus’ suspected sub-surface ocean in this location. This is the lowest pass Cassini has made through the alien ocean geyser.

This was done in order to help scientists understand the nature of the ocean, how close to the surface it might be, and if the water contained in it could accommodate life. Also of particular interest, the Cassini team is looking for a particular chemical signature of hydrogen that could support the theory that Enceladus has hydro-thermal vents heating water deep in the moon’s ocean.

Related reading: Water, water everywhere!

It’s important to note, however, the instruments Cassini carries on board can characterize the chemical composition of any particles it encounters, but it doesn’t have the ability to directly test for life.

The detailed analysis of the tiny water droplets that Cassini caught as it flew through the plume is now underway (with full results a few weeks away), but some images of the fly-by have already been sent back. And as we’ve come to expect from Cassini, they’re spectacular.

The south polar region of Saturn's active, icy moon Enceladus awaits NASA's Cassini spacecraft in this view, acquired on approach to the mission's deepest-ever dive through the moon's plume of icy spray. The wavy boundary of the moon's south polar region is visible at bottom, where it disappears into wintry darkness. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The south polar region of Saturn’s active, icy moon Enceladus awaits NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in this view, acquired on approach to the mission’s deepest-ever dive through the moon’s plume of icy spray. The wavy boundary of the moon’s south polar region is visible at bottom, where it disappears into wintry darkness. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A RAW and unprocessed image from Cassini as it flew towards the icy plume at Enceladus' south pole. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A RAW and unprocessed image from Cassini as it flew towards the icy plume at Enceladus’ south pole. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

During its closest ever dive past the active south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus, NASA's Cassini spacecraft quickly shuttered its imaging cameras to capture glimpses of the fast moving terrain below. This view has been processed to remove slight smearing present in the original, unprocessed image that was caused by the spacecraft's fast motion. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

During its closest ever dive past the active south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft quickly shuttered its imaging cameras to capture glimpses of the fast moving terrain below. This view has been processed to remove slight smearing present in the original, unprocessed image that was caused by the spacecraft’s fast motion. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Following a successful close flyby of Enceladus, NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured this artful composition of the icy moon with Saturn's rings beyond. This view looks towards the trailing/anti-Saturn side of Enceladus. North is up. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Oct. 28, 2015. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 171,000 km from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 141 degrees. Image scale is 10 km per pixel. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Following a successful close flyby of Enceladus, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured this artful composition of the icy moon with Saturn’s rings beyond. This view looks towards the trailing/anti-Saturn side of Enceladus. North is up. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Oct. 28, 2015. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 171,000 km from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 141 degrees. Image scale is 10 km per pixel. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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Dead comet / skull / asteroid / spooky Halloween fly-by

31 Oct

Whatever you call it, Asteroid 2015 TB145 was discovered only three weeks ago – on October 10, 2015 by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS-1.

It is just over half a kilometer in diameter (600 meters) and made its closest approach to Earth today at 1 p.m. EDT. It’s distance to Earth at its closest point was 486,000 km – or about 1.3 times distance from the Earth to the Moon.

Fittingly, since today is Halloween, if you rotate the images just right the comet/asteroid does sort of look like a skull. Spooky.

The above images were created by NASA using radar data from the 305 meter Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. The images were captured October 30, 2015.

Astronomers have determined, primarily by examining the amount of light the object reflects, that it is likely a dead comet. That is to say it’s a comet, but over the eons it has lost its volatile materials, and so is now reasonably dark and doesn’t produce the typical sign of a comet: a tail. This is why it was initially thought to be (and named) an Asteroid.

In any event, observatories around the world are pointed at it to learn everything we can about it’s composition and orbit. It also underscores the need to keep an eye on the sky, since this is a big piece of rock, reasonably nearby in the grand scheme, and we only found it three weeks ago.

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Spaced out Jack-O-Lantern

31 Oct

Some people pimp their rides. This year, I geeked out my pumpkin.


An observatory, rocket launch, crescent moon, and the Big Dipper. I think that pretty much covers the bases.

Happy Halloween!

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Space gets a little more Canadian

2 Jun

Here’s a great announcement. One that “confirms a great future for Canada in space for years to come,” in the words of Canadian Industry Minister James Moore.


I chatted with Jerry Agar on NewsTalk1010 about the news

Today it was announced that Canadian Astronaut Jeremy Hansen, along with fellow Canadian astronaut David St. Jacques, will have the opportunity to fly to and work on the ISS within the next decade as part of the Government of Canada extending funding to the ISS all the way to 2024. One of the flights will be before 2019 and the second prior to 2024. Who flies when will be determined in collaboration with ISS partners in the months ahead.

The Canadian funding will be in the neighbourhood of $350 million total, which is in line with current funding for the Canadian Space Agency’s ISS operations of about $83 million per year.

This money funds operations at the Canadian Space Agency, astronaut training, cost of launch, supplies and scientific equipment to operate the ISS, public outreach, and more.

Canada is also the third country to commit funding to continue ISS operations up to 2024 (following the USA and Russia) – extending it from the originally planned 2020. With the three largest ISS partners now committed, the next decade of ISS operations is likely secure. I also speculate that other nations will join the 2024 extension as there are currently 14 nations working together to operate the ISS, committed up to 2020.

It is also interesting to consider this: by 2017 NASA will again have its own ability to launch people into space, ending reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft ever since the Space Shuttle stopped flying in 2011. This means that David and Jeremy could be the first Canadians to fly either the SpaceX Dragon V2 capsule or the Boeing CST-100 capsule, which are both currently under construction. It is also possible they’ll still launch on the Soyuz, but considering the projected budget advantages of the two new US-designed spacecraft, I’d imagine the Canadian Space Agency will go that route.

It’s also possible that Jeremy, as a CF-18 pilot prior to becoming an astronaut, could be assigned to a crew as the pilot for a future mission.

David was a medical doctor prior to becoming an astronaut – and medical experiments are a high priority for ISS research – so I expect he would be a very welcome addition to any crew as well.

Of course what or when their missions will be is speculative, but it is exciting to consider the possibilities.

The announcement today also included renewed funding for MDA to maintain the Canadarm2 and DEXTRE robots currently in operation on the ISS. (Read more about Canadian space robotics here.) Additionally, four new Canadian science experiments will be flying to the ISS this fall. And the Government of Canada will invest nearly $2 million to continue the work being done on Mars by the Canadian X-Ray Spectrometer on the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity Rover.

That’s all very exciting!

The work in space continues to inspire and improve life on Earth every day. This is a great forward-looking investment in science and the economy. I’ve written at length about the importance of investing in space before, here and here for example.

I’ve also had the opportunity to talk with Jeremy a few times, and David a couple times as well — each time they have been generous, open, and encouraging. I couldn’t be happier for their opportunity that awaits!

On one such occasion in May 2013 on the eve of Chris Hadfield’s return to Earth from the International Space Station, Ryan Marciniak, Paul Delaney, and I chatted with astronaut Jeremy Hansen on an episode of York Universe. He offered insight on what a visit to the ISS would be like, romanticize about one day maybe walking on the Moon or Mars, the rigours of training, and wise words for any young person contemplating their future – either as an astronaut or otherwise.

It’s also fascinating to hear Jeremy talk about the chance to “one day” be assigned to a flight — knowing that now today we’re taking one big step closer to that becoming a reality.




And for a little bit of a different look on Canada’s astronauts – namely having fun running around Toronto last year – here is the video from the Amazing Canadian Space Race, featuring Canadian Astronauts Jeremy Hansen and David St. Jacques in September 2014:

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