Goodbye Cassini

In less than two weeks, the Cassini probe will transmit its last data back to Earth as it plunges into Saturn’s atmosphere, bringing to an end its astounding fourteen year mission to the ringed planet and its moons.

It will be missed. There are no plans (or public till to provide funding) for any new probes to revisit the outer solar system, and this saddens me no end. So much potential for our species, and yet we can’t get beyond our bickering over skin color and beliefs in imaginary sky gods.

(Be patient, it takes a while for the video to load.)

“Houston, Tranquility Base Here…

…the Eagle has landed.”

It’s been 48 years since those immortal words were uttered, and sadly, I doubt that humanity will put another man (or woman!) on the moon until after I’m long gone from this plane of existence…if even then. And I doubt even more that the United States will be the one to do it. As a nation, it seems we’ve lost our way; lost our will to explore and to truly lead. Nevermind the active dumbing down of the population over the last generation—something that was brought into laser-sharp focus this afternoon as I fell down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos.

I started out innocently enough with upcoming movie trailers (there’s some good stuff coming out over the next year) and then I got sucked into “You won’t believe what this woman found in her attic” clickbait, and then somehow fell into Area 51 UFO conspiracies. I finally had to step away when I stumbled upon the religious yahoos claiming that the August total eclipse is proof positive of the End Times (it’s in Revelation!) and/or not an eclipse at all, but rather the planet Nibiru finally careening in from the outer solar system, completely destroying all life on Earth…and the government has been hiding the truth from us for years! (Hey, even though we can’t see this supposedly huge object in the night sky that’s less than a month from destroying civilization, the ancient Sumarians believed in it, so it must be true!)


“Every so often, an astronomical artist gets lucky.” ~Don Dixon

The Nerd In Me

…orgasmed a little upon seeing these photos from Cassini. Saturn’s rings, up close and personal:

It pains me that after this year, there will be no new pictures of Saturn. There are no plans to return to the planet during the remainder of my foreseeable lifetime. I’m glad I was alive when I was to witness this in real time.

I know it would risk losing control of the spacecraft completely, but after seeing these photos shot from still thousands of miles away, can you imagine what we’d see if Cassini flew through the rings on its final orbit around the planet?

On This Day in History

Gemini 4 astronaut Ed White becomes the first American to walk in space on June 3, 1965. White enjoyed his time floating in the void. When he was required to end his session and climb back into the spaceship, he said “I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.” (NASA)


NASA’s JUNO probe is in orbit around Jupiter and is sending back some absolutely amazing views of the gas giant. We’re seeing the planet in ways we’ve never seen before and in unprecedented detail.

We Don’t Even Know What We Don’t Know

This view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is the sharpest ever taken of belts of the features called propellers in the middle part of Saturn’s A ring.

The propellers are the small, bright features that look like double dashes, visible on both sides of the wave pattern that crosses the image diagonally from top to bottom.

The original discovery of propellers in this region in Saturn’s rings (see Four Propellers, Propeller Motion​, Locating the Propellers​) was made using several images taken from very close to the rings during Cassini’s 2004 arrival at Saturn. Those discovery images were of low resolution and were difficult to interpret, and there were few clues as to how the small propellers seen in those images were related to the larger propellers Cassini observed later in the mission (for example ‘Earhart’ Propeller in Saturn’s A Ring, Cassini Targets a Propeller in Saturn’s A Ring​, and Bleriot Propeller Close-up​).

This image, for the first time, shows swarms of propellers of a wide range of sizes, putting the ones Cassini observed in its Saturn arrival images in context. Scientists will use this information to derive a “particle size distribution” for propeller moons, which is an important clue to their origins.

Goodbye to Titan

Maybe the next time we visit—assuming our species survives Donald Trump—we’ll send a rover…or a flotilla of boats.

From NASA:

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has had its last close brush with Saturn’s hazy moon Titan and is now beginning its final set of 22 orbits around the ringed planet.

The spacecraft made its 127th and final close approach to Titan on April 21 at 11:08 p.m. PDT (2:08 a.m. EDT on April 22), passing at an altitude of about 608 miles (979 kilometers) above the moon’s surface.

Cassini transmitted its images and other data to Earth following the encounter. Scientists with Cassini’s radar investigation will be looking this week at their final set of new radar images of the hydrocarbon seas and lakes that spread across Titan’s north polar region. The planned imaging coverage includes a region previously seen by Cassini’s imaging cameras, but not by radar. The radar team also plans to use the new data to probe the depths and compositions of some of Titan’s small lakes for the first (and last) time, and look for further evidence of the evolving feature researchers have dubbed the “magic island.”

“Cassini’s up-close exploration of Titan is now behind us, but the rich volume of data the spacecraft has collected will fuel scientific study for decades to come,” said Linda Spilker, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

We’re going to miss you, Cassini.

I Didn’t Want This To End

It’s taken mankind what, 6,000 years or so to fully explore the land mass of planet earth? And then I look at this and realize that even if we had the capability to send humans to Mars, a dozen lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to explore it all. We aren’t even to baby steps yet; as a species we’re still learning how to roll over and crawl in this amazing universe we find ourselves in.

I’m Going To Miss…

…seeing pictures like this.

Saturn’s moon Dione

After Cassini plunges into Saturn in September this year, ending a decades-long mission that successful beyond measure, NASA—nor other space agency that I know of—has any concrete plans to return to Saturn. Or Uranus. Or Neptune. Or Pluto. I’m just thankful to have been alive when these wonders were initially revealed.

48 Years Ago

December 24, 1968 – The astronauts of Apollo 8 were the first humans to behold the Earth rising over the Moon’s horizon. (NASA)

I’m Going To Miss Seeing Pictures Like This

And considering there are no plans to send any more probes to Saturn during my lifetime I’m incredibly lucky to have lived during this mission.

Cassini Completes Final Close Enceladus Flyby

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has begun transmitting data and images from the mission’s final close flyby of Saturn’s active moon Enceladus. Cassini passed Enceladus at a distance of 3,106 miles (4,999 kilometers) on Saturday, Dec. 19, at 9:49 a.m. PST (12:49 p.m. EST).

After revealing Enceladus’ surprising geologic activity in 2005, Cassini made a series of discoveries about the material gushing from warm fractures near its south pole. Scientists announced strong evidence for a regional subsurface sea in 2014, revising their understanding in 2015 to confirm that the moon hosts a global ocean beneath its icy crust.

On Frozen Pond

“Not only is the Universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” ~ Sir Arthur Eddington, English Astronomer (1882-1944)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft spied several features on Pluto that offer evidence of a time millions or billions of years ago when—thanks to much higher pressure in Pluto’s atmosphere and warmer conditions on the surface—liquids might have flowed across and pooled on the surface of the distant world.

This feature appears to be a frozen, former lake of liquid nitrogen, located in a mountain range just north of Pluto’s informally named Sputnik Planum. Captured by the New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as the spacecraft flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, the image shows details as small as about 430 feet. At its widest point the possible lake appears to be about 20 miles across.

A lake of liquid nitrogen…now frozen. Mind blown.


The images of Pluto that are still steadily trickling in from NASA’s New Horizons probe are among the most amazing extraterrestrial images I have seen during the entire course of my life. I mean, just look at that! How can you not be in awe?

Yes, images from Mars still fire my imagination at the possibility of finding current or past life on the surface, but let’s face it: except for the color and the obvious lack of vegetation, it looks for the most part like the American southwest. The pictures that were beamed back from Jupiter and it’s moons were beautiful, and in the case of Europa and Io in particular, raised more questions than they answered. The images that have come back from Cassini during the twelve years (gawd, I feel old) it’s been in orbit around Saturn and its moons are spectacular, even artistic—but so numerous I can’t even begin to scratch the surface to see them all. The photos of Uranus and Neptune that came back from Voyager 2 in the 1980s hinted that something catastrophic happened in the outer solar system in the distant past that knocked one of them on its side, but again they only raised more questions than they answered.

But none of these pictures have fired my imagination the way the images from Pluto have. Maybe it’s because until last summer, Pluto at best was nothing more than a tiny, blurry blob in the best telescopes. Or maybe it’s because it turned out to be something completely different from what anyone was expecting. Maybe its because the pictures added more evidence to the idea that something big happened in the outer reaches of our solar system in the distant past. (The fact that Pluto is geologically active—flying in the face of everything we thought we knew about the outer solar system—and with its moon Charon bears the unmistakable scars of having collided with something tells me it’s not as boring and unchanging at 40AU from the sun as we’d believed.) All I know is that these alien landscapes are filling me a with a sense of absolute wonder that precious few others have done, and it saddens me no end to think that no more probes will be visiting that tiny, fascinating world in my lifetime, much less that I will ever live to see human explorers walk its surface.

That being said, when I was a kid spending summers wearing down my box of 64 Crayola crayons to nubs by drawing the planets again and again hoping to get them just right, I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined that humanity would actually be visiting any of them—much less all of them during my lifetime—and for that I feel extremely lucky.


As a child who grew up in the 1960s and being enthralled with the Apollo moon landings even then, I think I just orgasmed.

NASA has made their entire raw, unprocessed Hasselblad Apollo image archive available to Flickr. Conspiracy theorists and alien artifact hunters are undoubtedly going to have a field day. As for me, I just think they’re beautiful.

A small sampling of the hundreds of photos posted (warning: some of them are quite large so be patient while they load):

And the Hits Keep on Coming!

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has returned the best color and the highest resolution images yet of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon—and these pictures show a surprisingly complex and violent history.

At half the diameter of Pluto, Charon is the largest satellite relative to its planet in the solar system. Many New Horizons scientists expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they’re finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.

“We thought the probability of seeing such interesting features on this satellite of a world at the far edge of our solar system was low,” said Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, “but I couldn’t be more delighted with what we see.”

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

High-resolution images of the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon, taken by New Horizons as the spacecraft sped through the Pluto system on July 14 and transmitted to Earth on Sept. 21, reveal details of a belt of fractures and canyons just north of the moon’s equator. This great canyon system stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the entire face of Charon and likely around onto Charon’s far side. Four times as long as the Grand Canyon, and twice as deep in places, these faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon’s past.

“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” said John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”

Even higher-resolution Charon images and composition data are still to come as New Horizons transmits data, stored on its digital recorders, over the next year – and as that happens, “I predict Charon’s story will become even more amazing!” said mission Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

The New Horizons spacecraft is currently 3.1 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from Earth, with all systems healthy and operating normally.

New Horizons is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. APL designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the science mission, payload operations, and encounter science planning.


Speaking of NASA…

Okay NASA, what the fuck is that thing in the lower right corner of this photo from Mars Curiosity?

“It’s a twig.” LIFE

“It’s an insect leg.” LIFE


Any guesses which explanation they’ll provide—assume they even address it?

Original NASA image here.

And while we’re on the subject of things that need to be addressed, WTF is this? 


Original NASA image here.

Um…yeah. Something that looks totally out of place, is a completely different color and shape than the surrounding rock, and for all intents looks organic. Whatever, NASA. Whatever.




I’m fucking pissing myself.
You know how all of Jupiter’s moons are named after his lovers and affairs?
Yeah. NASA is sending a craft to check up on Jupiter.
You know what the craft is called?


Who’s Juno?




This is pure awesome.


The surface area of the planet Mars is almost identical to the surface area of dry land on the Earth. What this means is that even if we begin human exploration in my lifetime, it will still take hundreds—if not thousands—of years to properly explore the entire planet; a commitment in time and resources I cannot see humanity making, short of being faced with its own extinction.

Pluto in Full Color

The latest and greatest from New Horizons:

Four images from New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this global view of Pluto. (The lower right edge of Pluto in this view currently lacks high-resolution color coverage.) The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers), twice the resolution of the single-image view taken on July 13.

The best is yet to come!

Amazing…and Tantalizing

While data and pictures will be downloading for the next sixteen months, NASA’s New Horizons probe already provided humanity with some astoundingly tantalizing photos of Pluto and it’s main moon, Charon.

What strikes me the most about the color photos of Pluto is the color. They look like antique tintype prints. Even when I see the planet with the dark grey Charon immediately next to it, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that this is the planet’s actual color.

What’s even more amazing to me is the fact that with the level of sunlight falling on these worlds and the speed at which New Horizons sped past that NASA was able to get any images whatsoever.

Science is cool.

And the fact that they can get closeups of the surface of this quality is nothing short of astounding—with even higher resolution images coming that will download over the coming months.

If Pluto weren’t fascinating enough on it’s own, Charton is revealing just as many surprises.

For example, how do you get a peak rising out of a circular depression? No one seems to know. What it looks like to me is that a space rock came in very, very slowly, and almost had a soft landing on an extremely plastic surface. Not traveling fast enough to form a traditional crater/ray structure, but fast enough to impact the surface and only slightly deform the surrounding terrain.

All I know is that after seeing these few images, it’s obvious that humanity will have to return at some point for an even better look. I doubt it will happen in my lifetime, but it still fires the imagination—especially when you consider that we didn’t get any sharp photos of Pluto’s much more interesting face:

W00t! Back Online!

From NASA:

NASA’s New Horizons on Track for Pluto Flyby

Science Operations to Resume for On Time Encounter

The recovery from a July 4 anomaly that sent the New Horizons spacecraft into safe mode is proceeding according to plan, with the mission team preparing to return to normal science operations on time July 7.

Mission managers reported during a July 6 media teleconference that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft resumed operations on its main computer overnight. The sequence of commands for the Pluto flyby have now been uplinked to the spacecraft, and full, as planned science observations of Pluto, its moons and the solar winds will resume at 12:34 p.m. EDT July 7.

The quick response to the weekend computer glitch assures that the mission remains on track to conduct the entire close flyby sequence as planned, including the July 14 flyby observations of Pluto.

“We’re delighted with the New Horizons response to the anomaly,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science. “Now we’re eager to get back to the science and prepare for the payoff that’s yet to come.”

The investigation into the anomaly that caused New Horizons to enter safe mode on July 4 has confirmed that the main computer was overloaded due to a timing conflict in the spacecraft command sequence. The computer was tasked with receiving a large command load at the same time it was engaged in compressing previous science data. The main computer responded precisely as it was programmed to do, by entering safe mode and switching to the backup computer.

Thirty observations were lost during the three-day recovery period, representing less than one percent of the total science that the New Horizons team hoped to collect between July 4 and July 16. None of the mission’s most critical observations were affected. There’s no risk that this kind of anomaly could happen again before flyby, as no similar operations are planned for the remainder of the Pluto encounter.

“This is a speed bump in terms of the total return we expect to receive from this historic mission,” said Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator with the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “When we get a clear look at the surface of Pluto for the very first time, I promise, it will knock your socks off.”

This is Disturbing

Especially with the New Horizons project going on for nearly a decade and now being so close to Pluto…

From NASA:

The New Horizons spacecraft experienced an anomaly the afternoon of July 4 that led to a loss of communication with Earth. Communication has since been reestablished and the spacecraft is healthy.

The mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland, lost contact with the unmanned spacecraft — now 10 days from arrival at Pluto — at 1:54 p.m. EDT, and regained communications with New Horizons at 3:15 p.m. EDT, through NASA’s Deep Space Network.

During that time the autonomous autopilot on board the spacecraft recognized a problem and – as it’s programmed to do in such a situation – switched from the main to the backup computer. The autopilot placed the spacecraft in “safe mode,” and commanded the backup computer to reinitiate communication with Earth. New Horizons then began to transmit telemetry to help engineers diagnose the problem.

A New Horizons Anomaly Review Board (ARB) was convened at 4 p.m. EDT to gather information on the problem and initiate a recovery plan. The team is now working to return New Horizons to its original flight plan. Due to the 9-hour, round trip communication delay that results from operating a spacecraft almost 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth, full recovery is expected to take from one to several days; New Horizons will be temporarily unable to collect science data during that time.

“That’s No Moon. It’s a Space Station!”

Science is cool.

From NASA:

New Horizons Color Images Reveal Two Distinct Faces of Pluto, Series of Spots that Fascinate

New color images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show two very different faces of the mysterious dwarf planet, one with a series of intriguing spots along the equator that are evenly spaced. Each of the spots is about 300 miles in diameter, with a surface area that’s roughly the size of the state of Missouri.

Scientists have yet to see anything quite like the dark spots; their presence has piqued the interest of the New Horizons science team, due to the remarkable consistency in their spacing and size. While the origin of the spots is a mystery for now, the answer may be revealed as the spacecraft continues its approach to the mysterious dwarf planet. “It’s a real puzzle—we don’t know what the spots are, and we can’t wait to find out,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder. “Also puzzling is the longstanding and dramatic difference in the colors and appearance of Pluto compared to its darker and grayer moon Charon.”

New Horizons team members combined black-and-white images of Pluto and Charon from the spacecraft’s Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) with lower-resolution color data from the Ralph instrument to produce these views. We see the planet and its largest moon in approximately true color, that is, the way they would appear if you were riding on the New Horizons spacecraft. About half of Pluto is imaged, which means features shown near the bottom of the dwarf planet are at approximately at the equatorial line.