Prof. Disbrow blasts off with excitement about what’s going on up there
One of the best things about writing a science column is that there’s always something interesting happening, so I’m never at a loss for topics. In fact, I’ve usually got the opposite problem: There’s too much happening! Fortunately, most of the really cool stuff happening now is happening in my favorite place: outer space.
Remember back in November of last year, when the European Space Agency (ESA) tried to land a probe on a comet? Well, OK, they did more than that. They placed a probe (Rosetta) in orbit around a comet (conveniently named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which I will henceforth refer to as “the comet”), and then they tried to land a probe on the comet.
The orbiting part was (and continues to be) a big success, but the probe landing, not so much. The probe did land on the comet, but unfortunately, it did it three times.
When the probe (named Philae) initially touched down on the comet, its grappling harpoons failed to fire. Then, because of the extremely low gravity, it bounced, twice. Why did the harpoons fail to fire? Because the first landing was too soft and the initial impact with the surface didn’t trigger the firing mechanism.
After bouncing (the first bounce took Philae about 1 kilometer away from the comet), the probe came to rest in just about the worst place possible: in the shadow of a large boulder. The problem with this is that Philae is solar powered, so it was only able to operate for a short while before its batteries went dead. But—it was able to transmit back all of the data it had collected, including some great photos of its resting place, before it went completely dead.
Of course, Philae is on a comet, and that comet is currently inbound towards the sun. So, there was some hope that the amount of light that’s reaching Philae might increase as the comet gets closer to the sun. In the meantime, the folks operating the Rosetta probe were trying to locate Philae’s final location, so they could get a better idea as to whether or not it would ever get enough sunlight to wake up again.
Last week, researchers announced that they might have found Philae! While sifting through the hundreds of images that Rosetta has recently returned, they noticed a shape (made up of about a dozen pixels) that wasn’t in previous images. The resolution isn’t great, and the shape might just be something natural on the comet that’s been exposed as the comet gets closer to the sun and “melts” away. But, at that point, it was the best guess as to Philae’s location.
And amazingly, just hours before we went to press, Philae woke up and began talking to mission controllers back on Earth! Hopefully, we’ll be getting more great images (and science) from this amazing mission soon!
Bright Lights, Big Mystery
Just a few months ago, I told you about the Dawn probe that was about to arrive at the dwarf planet Ceres. (After leaving the asteroid Vesta, which it had visited for the first part of its mission.) Well, Dawn arrived on schedule and has been settling into orbit around Ceres, taking some astounding photos all along the way.
One mystery that Dawn has been focused on are a couple of bright patches at the bottom of a large crater. When these were first noticed by Earth-based telescopes, it looked like a single bright spot. As Dawn got closer to Ceres, it became clear that it was actually two patches of…something. Now that Dawn is in orbit around Ceres, those two patches have turned out to be at least 10 patches of something that’s very reflective.
At this point, we really don’t know what they are. The current best guess is water ice. But, they could be salt deposits, some sort of volcano or really, really, shiny rocks.
(I’d love for them to be some sort of alien outpost, or maybe the remnants of a civilization, but...that’s not too likely.)
And Don’t Forget…
Just weeks from now (July 14), the New Horizons probe will have its closest encounter with Pluto and its moons. As I write this, new images, the best ever, of Pluto have just been released and new images are coming almost daily. Never-before-seen details are already popping out of the photos, and there is surely more incredible stuff to come!
Steven Disbrow is a computer programmer who specializes in e-commerce and mobile systems development. He’s also an entrepreneur, comic-book nerd, writer, improviser, actor, sometime television personality and parent of two human children.