March 19, 2016

Hubble image of the beautiful barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300

spiral galaxy NGC 1300

The Hubble telescope captured a display of starlight, glowing gas, and silhouetted dark clouds of interstellar dust in this image of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300. NGC 1300 is considered to be prototypical of barred spiral galaxies. Barred spirals differ from normal spiral galaxies in that the arms of the galaxy do not spiral all the way into the center, but are connected to the two ends of a straight bar of stars containing the nucleus at its center.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA)
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The Bubbly Nebula

Bubbly Nebula

This image from Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 showcases NGC 1501, a complex planetary nebula located in the large but faint constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe).

Discovered by William Herschel in 1787, NGC 1501 is a planetary nebula that is just under 5000 light-years away from us. Astronomers have modelled the three-dimensional structure of the nebula, finding it to be a cloud shaped as an irregular ellipsoid filled with bumpy and bubbly regions. It has a bright central star that can be seen easily in this image, shining brightly from within the nebula’s cloud. This bright pearl embedded within its glowing shell inspired the nebula’s popular nickname: the Oyster Nebula.

While NGC 1501's central star blasted off its outer shell long ago, it still remains very hot and luminous, although it is quite tricky for observers to spot through modest telescopes. This star has actually been the subject of many studies by astronomers due to one very unusual feature: it seems to be pulsating, varying quite significantly in brightness over a typical timescale of just half an hour. While variable stars are not unusual, it is uncommon to find one at the heart of a planetary nebula.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Marc Canale
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Lightning & Supercell in South Dakota

Lightning & Supercell in South Dakota

South Dakota, USA
June 3, 2010

Image Credit & Copyright: Jim Reed

Saturn's moon Enceladus


As it swooped past the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus on July 14, 2005, Cassini acquired high resolution views of this puzzling ice world. From afar, Enceladus exhibits a bizarre mixture of softened craters and complex, fractured terrains.

This large mosaic of 21 narrow-angle camera images have been arranged to provide a full-disk view of the anti-Saturn hemisphere on Enceladus. This mosaic is a false-color view that includes images taken at wavelengths from the ultraviolet to the infrared portion of the spectrum, and is similar to another, lower resolution false-color view obtained during the flyby. In false-color, many long fractures on Enceladus exhibit a pronounced difference in color (represented here in blue) from the surrounding terrain.

A leading explanation for the difference in color is that the walls of the fractures expose outcrops of coarse-grained ice that are free of the powdery surface materials that mantle flat-lying surfaces.

The original images in the false-color mosaic range in resolution from 350 to 67 meters (1,148 to 220 feet) per pixel and were taken at distances ranging from 61,300 to 11,100 kilometers (38,090 to 6,897 miles) from Enceladus. The mosaic is also part of a movie sequence of images from this flyby.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
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Bulbous Solar Prominence

Solar Prominence

An EIT 304 image of a large, twirling prominence taken on February 12, 2001. Prominences are huge clouds of relatively cool dense plasma suspended in the Sun's hot, thin corona. At times, they can extend outward and break away from the Sun's atmosphere. This image shows ions of helium heated at 60,000 degrees C.

Image Credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO

March 18, 2016

Two Black Holes merge into One

Two Black Holes merge into One

A computer simulation shows the collision of two black holes, a tremendously powerful event detected for the first time ever by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. LIGO detected gravitational waves, or ripples in space and time generated as the black holes spiraled in toward each other, collided, and merged. This simulation shows how the merger would appear to our eyes if we could somehow travel in a spaceship for a closer look. It was created by solving equations from Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity using the LIGO data.

The two merging black holes are each roughly 30 times the mass of the sun, with one slightly larger than the other. Time has been slowed down by a factor of about 100. The event took place 1.3 billion years ago.

The stars appear warped due to the incredibly strong gravity of the black holes. The black holes warp space and time, and this causes light from the stars to curve around the black holes in a process called gravitational lensing. The ring around the black holes, known as an Einstein ring, arises from the light of all the stars in a small region behind the holes, where gravitational lensing has smeared their images into a ring.

The gravitational waves themselves would not be seen by a human near the black holes and so do not show in this video, with one important exception. The gravitational waves that are traveling outward toward the small region behind the black holes disturb that region’s stellar images in the Einstein ring, causing them to slosh around, even long after the collision. The gravitational waves traveling in other directions cause weaker, and shorter-lived sloshing, everywhere outside the ring.

Video Credit: SXS
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March 17, 2016

Hubble image of luminous star AG Carinae

AG Carinae

In this Hubble image, the strikingly luminous star AG Carinae — otherwise known as HD 94910 — takes centre stage. Found within the constellation of Carina in the southern sky, AG Carinae lies 20 000 light-years away, nestled in the Milky Way.

AG Carinae is classified as a Luminous Blue Variable. These rare objects are massive evolved stars that will one day become Wolf-Rayet Stars — a class of stars that are tens of thousands to several million times as luminous as the Sun. They have evolved from main sequence stars that were twenty times the mass of the Sun.

Stars like AG Carinae lose their mass at a phenomenal rate. This loss of mass is due to powerful stellar winds with speeds of up to 7 million km/hour. These powerful winds are also responsible for the shroud of material visible in this image. The winds exert enormous pressure on the clouds of interstellar material expelled by the star and force them into this shape.

Despite HD 94910’s intense luminosity, it is not visible with the naked eye as much of its output is in the ultraviolet.

This image was taken with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), that was installed on Hubble during the Shuttle mission STS-61 and was Hubble’s workhorse for many years. It is worth noting that the bright glare at the centre of the image is not the star itself. The star is tiny at this scale and hidden within the saturated region. The white cross is also not an astronomical phenomenon but rather an effect of the telescope.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
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ISS, Orbit of the Earth
February 2016

Image Credit: NASA/ESA

March 16, 2016

Globular Cluster Messier 68

Globular Cluster Messier 68

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope offers this delightful view of the crowded stellar encampment called Messier 68, a spherical, star-filled region of space known as a globular cluster. Mutual gravitational attraction amongst a cluster’s hundreds of thousands or even millions of stars keeps stellar members in check, allowing globular clusters to hang together for many billions of years.

Astronomers can measure the ages of globular clusters by looking at the light of their constituent stars. The chemical elements leave signatures in this light, and the starlight reveals that globular clusters' stars typically contain fewer heavy elements, such as carbon, oxygen and iron, than stars like the Sun. Since successive generations of stars gradually create these elements through nuclear fusion, stars having fewer of them are relics of earlier epochs in the Universe. Indeed, the stars in globular clusters rank among the oldest on record, dating back more than 10 billion years.

More than 150 of these objects surround our Milky Way galaxy. On a galactic scale, globular clusters are indeed not all that big. In Messier 68's case, its constituent stars span a volume of space with a diameter of little more than a hundred light-years. The disc of the Milky Way, on the other hand, extends over some 100 000 light-years or more.

Messier 68 is located about 33 000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra (The Female Water Snake). French astronomer Charles Messier notched the object as the sixty-eighth entry in his famous catalogue in 1780.

Hubble added Messier 68 to its own impressive list of cosmic targets in this image using the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The image, which combines visible and infrared light, has a field of view of approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
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Moon's shadow on Indian Ocean seen from Space by DSCOVR Observatory

Solar Eclipse from Space

DSCOVR, 1 million miles from Earth
March 9, 2016

Image Credit: DSCOVR EPIC team. NASA Earth Observatory

Solar Prominence Eruption

Solar Prominence Eruption

When a rather large M 3.6 class flare occurred near the edge of the Sun on February 24, 2011, it blew out a gorgeous, waving mass of erupting plasma that swirled and twisted for 90 minutes. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the event in extreme ultraviolet light. Because SDO images are high definition, the team was able to zoom in on the flare and still see exquisite details. And using a cadence of a frame taken every 24 seconds, the sense of motion is, by all appearances, seamless.

Video Credit: NASA/SDO
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March 15, 2016

Searching for the Origins of the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid

Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid

This artist's concept shows a broken-up asteroid. Scientists think that a giant asteroid, which broke up long ago in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, eventually made its way to Earth and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Data from NASA's WISE mission likely rules out the leading suspect, a member of a family of asteroids called Baptistina, so the search for the origins of the dinosaur-killing asteroid goes on.

Observations from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission indicate the family of asteroids some believed was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs is not likely the culprit, keeping open the case on one of Earth's greatest mysteries.

While scientists are confident a large asteroid crashed into Earth approximately 65 million years ago, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs and some other life forms on our planet, they do not know exactly where the asteroid came from or how it made its way to Earth. A 2007 study using visible-light data from ground-based telescopes first suggested the remnant of a huge asteroid, known as Baptistina, as a possible suspect.

According to that theory, Baptistina crashed into another asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter about 160 million years ago. The collision sent shattered pieces as big as mountains flying. One of those pieces was believed to have impacted Earth, causing the dinosaurs' extinction.

Since this scenario was first proposed, evidence developed that the so-called Baptistina family of asteroids was not the responsible party. With the new infrared observations from WISE, astronomers say Baptistina may finally be ruled out.

"As a result of the WISE science team's investigation, the demise of the dinosaurs remains in the cold case files," said Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Near Earth Object (NEO) Observation Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The original calculations with visible light estimated the size and reflectivity of the Baptistina family members, leading to estimates of their age, but we now know those estimates were off. With infrared light, WISE was able to get a more accurate estimate, which throws the timing of the Baptistina theory into question."

WISE surveyed the entire celestial sky twice in infrared light from January 2010 to February 2011. The asteroid-hunting portion of the mission, called NEOWISE, used the data to catalogue more than 157,000 asteroids in the main belt and discovered more than 33,000 new ones.

Visible light reflects off an asteroid. Without knowing how reflective the surface of the asteroid is, it's hard to accurately establish size. Infrared observations allow a more accurate size estimate. They detect infrared light coming from the asteroid itself, which is related to the body's temperature and size. Once the size is known, the object's reflectivity can be re-calculated by combining infrared with visible-light data.

The NEOWISE team measured the reflectivity and the size of about 120,000 asteroids in the main belt, including 1,056 members of the Baptistina family. The scientists calculated the original parent Baptistina asteroid actually broke up closer to 80 million years ago, half as long as originally proposed.

This calculation was possible because the size and reflectivity of the asteroid family members indicate how much time would have been required to reach their current locations -- larger asteroids would not disperse in their orbits as fast as smaller ones. The results revealed a chunk of the original Baptistina asteroid needed to hit Earth in less time than previously believed, in just about 15 million years, to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs.

"This doesn't give the remnants from the collision very much time to move into a resonance spot, and get flung down to Earth 65 million years ago," said Amy Mainzer, a co-author of a new study appearing in the Astrophysical Journal and the principal investigator of NEOWISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. Calif. "This process is thought to normally take many tens of millions of years." Resonances are areas in the main belt where gravity nudges from Jupiter and Saturn can act like a pinball machine to fling asteroids out of the main belt and into the region near Earth.

The asteroid family that produced the dinosaur-killing asteroid remains at large. Evidence that a 10-kilometer (about 6.2-mile) asteroid impacted Earth 65 million years ago includes a huge, crater-shaped structure in the Gulf of Mexico and rare minerals in the fossil record, which are common in meteorites but seldom found in Earth's crust. In addition to the Baptistina results, the NEOWISE study shows various main belt asteroid families have similar reflective properties. The team hopes to use NEOWISE data to disentangle families that overlap and trace their histories.

"We are working on creating an asteroid family tree of sorts," said Joseph Masiero, the lead author of the study. "We are starting to refine our picture of how the asteroids in the main belt smashed together and mixed up."

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Explanation from: and

Aurora over Indian Ocean seen from the International Space Station

Aurora over Indian Ocean from ISS

ISS, Orbit of the Earth

Video Credit: ESA/NASA

2016 Total Solar Eclipse

2016 Total Solar Eclipse

Ternate, Maluku Islands, Indonesia
March 9, 2016

Image Credit & Copyright: Babak Tafreshi

March 14, 2016

Hubble image of our closest stellar neighbour: Proxima Centauri

Proxima Centauri

Shining brightly in this Hubble image is our closest stellar neighbour: Proxima Centauri.

Proxima Centauri lies in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur), just over four light-years from Earth. Although it looks bright through the eye of Hubble, as you might expect from the nearest star to the Solar System, Proxima Centauri is not visible to the naked eye. Its average luminosity is very low, and it is quite small compared to other stars, at only about an eighth of the mass of the Sun.

However, on occasion, its brightness increases. Proxima is what is known as a “flare star”, meaning that convection processes within the star’s body make it prone to random and dramatic changes in brightness. The convection processes not only trigger brilliant bursts of starlight but, combined with other factors, mean that Proxima Centauri is in for a very long life. Astronomers predict that this star will remain middle-aged — or a “main sequence” star in astronomical terms — for another four trillion years, some 300 times the age of the current Universe.

These observations were taken using Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2). Proxima Centauri is actually part of a triple star system — its two companions, Alpha Centauri A and B, lie out of frame.

Although by cosmic standards it is a close neighbour, Proxima Centauri remains a point-like object even using Hubble’s eagle-eyed vision, hinting at the vast scale of the Universe around us.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
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Comparison of the Earth to Mars

Comparison of the Earth to Mars

The Earth

Earth is the third planet from the Sun, the densest planet in the Solar System, the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets, and the only astronomical object known to harbor life.

According to evidence from radiometric dating and other sources, Earth was formed about 4.54 billion years ago. Earth gravitationally interacts with other objects in space, especially the Sun and the Moon. During one orbit around the Sun, Earth rotates about its own axis 366.26 times, creating 365.26 solar days or one sidereal year. Earth's axis of rotation is tilted 23.4° away from the perpendicular of its orbital plane, producing seasonal variations on the planet's surface with a period of one tropical year (365.24 solar days). The Moon is Earth's only permanent natural satellite. Its gravitational interaction with Earth causes ocean tides, stabilizes the orientation of Earth's rotational axis, and gradually slows Earth's rotational rate.

Earth's lithosphere is divided into several rigid tectonic plates that migrate across the surface over periods of many millions of years. 71% of Earth's surface is covered with water, with the remainder consisting of continents and islands that together have many lakes and other sources of water that contribute to the hydrosphere. Earth's polar regions are mostly covered with ice, including the Antarctic ice sheet and the sea ice of the Arctic ice pack. Earth's interior remains active with a solid iron inner core, a liquid outer core that generates the magnetic field, and a convecting mantle that drives plate tectonics.

Within its first billion years, life appeared in Earth's oceans and began to affect its atmosphere and surface, promoting the proliferation of aerobic as well as anaerobic organisms. Since then, the combination of Earth's distance from the Sun, its physical properties and its geological history have allowed life to thrive and evolve. The earliest undisputed life on Earth arose at least 3.5 billion years ago. Earlier physical evidence of life includes biogenic graphite in 3.7 billion-year-old metasedimentary rocks discovered in southwestern Greenland, as well as "remains of biotic life" found in 4.1 billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia. Earth's biodiversity has expanded continually except when interrupted by mass extinctions. Although scholars estimate that over 99% of all species of life (over five billion) that ever lived on Earth are extinct, there are still an estimated 10–14 million extant species, of which about 1.2 million have been documented and over 86% have not yet been described. Over 7.3 billion humans live on Earth and depend on its biosphere and minerals for their survival. Earth's human population is divided among about two hundred sovereign states which interact through diplomacy, conflict, travel, trade and communication media.


Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second smallest planet in the Solar System, after Mercury. Named after the Roman god of war, it is often referred to as the "Red Planet" because the iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having surface features reminiscent both of the impact craters of the Moon and the valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps of Earth.

The rotational period and seasonal cycles of Mars are likewise similar to those of Earth, as is the tilt that produces the seasons. Mars is the site of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano and second-highest known mountain in the Solar System, and of Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the Solar System. The smooth Borealis basin in the northern hemisphere covers 40% of the planet and may be a giant impact feature. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are small and irregularly shaped. These may be captured asteroids, similar to 5261 Eureka, a Mars trojan.

Until the first successful Mars flyby in 1965 by Mariner 4, many speculated about the presence of liquid water on the planet's surface. This was based on observed periodic variations in light and dark patches, particularly in the polar latitudes, which appeared to be seas and continents; long, dark striations were interpreted by some as irrigation channels for liquid water. These straight line features were later explained as optical illusions, though geological evidence gathered by uncrewed missions suggests that Mars once had large-scale water coverage on its surface at some earlier stage of its existence. In 2005, radar data revealed the presence of large quantities of water ice at the poles and at mid-latitudes. The Mars rover Spirit sampled chemical compounds containing water molecules in March 2007. The Phoenix lander directly sampled water ice in shallow Martian soil on July 31, 2008. On September 28, 2015, NASA announced the presence of briny flowing salt water on the Martian surface.

Mars is host to seven functioning spacecraft: five in orbit—2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN and Mars Orbiter Mission—and two on the surface—Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity and the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity. Observations by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed possible flowing water during the warmest months on Mars. In 2013, NASA's Curiosity rover discovered that Mars's soil contains between 1.5% and 3% water by mass (albeit attached to other compounds and thus not freely accessible).

There are ongoing investigations assessing the past habitability potential of Mars, as well as the possibility of extant life. In situ investigations have been performed by the Viking landers, Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Phoenix lander, and Curiosity rover. Future astrobiology missions are planned, including the Mars 2020 and ExoMars rovers.

Mars can easily be seen from Earth with the naked eye, as can its reddish coloring. Its apparent magnitude reaches −2.91, which is surpassed only by Jupiter, Venus, the Moon, and the Sun. Optical ground-based telescopes are typically limited to resolving features about 300 kilometers (190 mi) across when Earth and Mars are closest because of Earth's atmosphere.

Explanation from: and

Solar Eclipse of March 9, 2016 seen by Japan’s Himawari-8 Satellite

Himawari-8 Satellite, Orbit of the Earth
March 9, 2016

Video Credit: JMA

March 13, 2016

Artist's Impression of the Surface of Pluto

surface of pluto

Artist’s impression of how the surface of Pluto might look, according to one of the two models that a team of astronomers has developed to account for the observed properties of Pluto’s atmosphere, as studied with CRIRES. The image shows patches of pure methane on the surface. At the distance of Pluto, the Sun appears about 1,000 times fainter than on Earth.

Using ESO's Very Large Telescope, astronomers have gained valuable new insights about the atmosphere of the dwarf planet Pluto. The scientists found unexpectedly large amounts of methane in the atmosphere, and also discovered that the atmosphere is hotter than the surface by about 40 degrees, although it still only reaches a frigid minus 180 degrees Celsius. These properties of Pluto's atmosphere may be due to the presence of pure methane patches or of a methane-rich layer covering the dwarf planet's surface.

"With lots of methane in the atmosphere, it becomes clear why Pluto's atmosphere is so warm," says Emmanuel Lellouch, lead author of the paper reporting the results.

Pluto, which is about a fifth the size of Earth, is composed primarily of rock and ice. As it is about 40 times further from the Sun than the Earth on average, it is a very cold world with a surface temperature of about minus 220 degrees Celsius!

It has been known since the 1980s that Pluto also has a tenuous atmosphere, which consists of a thin envelope of mostly nitrogen, with traces of methane and probably carbon monoxide. As Pluto moves away from the Sun, during its 248 year-long orbit, its atmosphere gradually freezes and falls to the ground. In periods when it is closer to the Sun — as it is now — the temperature of Pluto's solid surface increases, causing the ice to sublimate into gas.

Until recently, only the upper parts of the atmosphere of Pluto could be studied. By observing stellar occultations, a phenomenon that occurs when a Solar System body blocks the light from a background star, astronomers were able to demonstrate that Pluto's upper atmosphere was some 50 degrees warmer than the surface, or minus 170 degrees Celsius. These observations couldn't shed any light on the atmospheric temperature and pressure near Pluto's surface. But unique, new observations made with the CRyogenic InfraRed Echelle Spectrograph (CRIRES), attached to ESO's Very Large Telescope, have now revealed that the atmosphere as a whole, not just the upper atmosphere, has a mean temperature of minus 180 degrees Celsius, and so it is indeed "much hotter" than the surface.

In contrast to the Earth's atmosphere, most, if not all, of Pluto's atmosphere is thus undergoing a temperature inversion: the temperature is higher, the higher in the atmosphere you look. The change is about 3 to 15 degrees per kilometre. On Earth, under normal circumstances, the temperature decreases through the atmosphere by about 6 degrees per kilometre.

"It is fascinating to think that with CRIRES we are able to precisely measure traces of a gas in an atmosphere 100 000 times more tenuous than the Earth's, on an object five times smaller than our planet and located at the edge of the Solar System," says co-author Hans-Ulrich Käufl. "The combination of CRIRES and the VLT is almost like having an advanced atmospheric research satellite orbiting Pluto."

The reason why Pluto's surface is so cold is linked to the existence of Pluto's atmosphere, and is due to the sublimation of the surface ice; much like sweat cools the body as it evaporates from the surface of the skin, this sublimation has a cooling effect on the surface of Pluto. In this respect, Pluto shares some properties with comets, whose coma and tails arise from sublimating ice as they approach the Sun.

The CRIRES observations also indicate that methane is the second most common gas in Pluto's atmosphere, representing half a percent of the molecules. "We were able to show that these quantities of methane play a crucial role in the heating processes in the atmosphere and can explain the elevated atmospheric temperature," says Lellouch.

Two different models can explain the properties of Pluto's atmosphere. In the first, the astronomers assume that Pluto's surface is covered with a thin layer of methane, which will inhibit the sublimation of the nitrogen frost. The second scenario invokes the existence of pure methane patches on the surface.

Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Explanation from: and

Saturn's Rings, Epimetheus and Titan

titan and rings

Cassini delivers this stunning vista showing small, battered Epimetheus and smog-enshrouded Titan, with Saturn's A and F rings stretching across the scene.

The color information in the colorized view is completely artificial: it is derived from red, green and blue images taken at nearly the same time and phase angle as the clear filter image. This color information was overlaid onto the previously released clear filter view in order to approximate the scene as it might appear to human eyes.

The prominent dark region visible in the A ring is the Encke gap (325 kilometers, or 200 miles wide), in which the moon Pan (26 kilometers, or 16 miles across) and several narrow ringlets reside. Moon-driven features which score the A ring can easily be seen to the left and right of the Encke gap.

A couple of bright clumps can be seen in the F ring.

Epimetheus is 116 kilometers (72 miles) across and giant Titan is 5,150 kilometers (3,200 miles) across.

The view was acquired with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on April 28, 2006, at a distance of approximately 667,000 kilometers (415,000 miles) from Epimetheus and 1.8 million kilometers (1.1 million miles) from Titan. The image captures the illuminated side of the rings. The image scale is 4 kilometers (2 miles) per pixel on Epimetheus and 11 kilometers (7 miles) per pixel on Titan.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
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Terraforming of Mars

Terraforming of Mars

The terraforming of Mars is the hypothetical process by which Martian climate, surface, and known properties would be deliberately changed with the goal of making large areas of the environment more hospitable to human habitation, thus making human colonization much safer and more sustainable.

The concept relies on the assumption that the environment of a planet can be altered through artificial means. In addition, the feasibility of creating a planetary biosphere on Mars is undetermined. There are several proposed methods, some of which present prohibitive economic and natural resource costs, and others which may be currently technologically achievable.

Motivation and ethics

Future population growth, demand for resources, and an alternate solution to the Doomsday argument may require human colonization of bodies other than Earth, such as Mars, the Moon, and other objects. Space colonization will facilitate harvesting the Solar System's energy and material resources.

In many respects, Mars is the most Earth-like of all the other planets in the Solar System. It is thought that Mars had a more Earth-like environment early in its history, with a thicker atmosphere and abundant water that was lost over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Given the foundations of similarity and proximity, Mars would make one of the most plausible terraforming targets in the Solar System.

Ethical considerations of terraforming include the potential displacement or destruction of indigenous life, even if microbial, if such life exists.

Challenges and limitations

The Martian environment presents several terraforming challenges to overcome and the extent of terraforming may be limited by certain key environmental factors.

Low gravity and pressure

The surface gravity on Mars is 38% of that on Earth. It is not known if this is enough to prevent the health problems associated with weightlessness.

Mars's CO2 atmosphere has about 1% the pressure of the Earth's at sea level. It is estimated that there is sufficient CO2 ice in the regolith and the south polar cap to form a 30 to 60 kPa atmosphere if it is released by planetary warming. The reappearance of liquid water on the Martian surface would add to the warming effects and atmospheric density, but the lower gravity of Mars requires 2.6 times Earth's column airmass to obtain the optimum 100 kPa pressure at the surface. Additional volatiles to increase the atmosphere's density must be supplied from an external source, such as redirecting several massive asteroids containing ammonia (NH3) as a source of nitrogen.

Breathing on Mars

Current conditions in the Martian atmosphere at less than 1 kPa of atmospheric pressure, are significantly below the Armstrong limit of 6 kPa where very low pressure causes exposed bodily liquids such as saliva, tears, and the liquids wetting the alveoli within the lungs to boil away. Without a pressure suit, no amount of breathable oxygen delivered by any means will sustain life for more than a few minutes. In the NASA technical report Rapid (Explosive) Decompression Emergencies in Pressure-Suited Subjects, after exposure to pressure below the Armstrong limit, a survivor reported that his... "last conscious memory was of the water on his tongue beginning to boil." In these conditions humans die within minutes unless a pressure suit provides life support.

If Mars atmospheric pressure could rise above 19 kPa then a pressure suit would not be required. Visitors would only need to wear a mask that supplied 100% oxygen under positive pressure. A further increase to 24 kPa of atmospheric pressure would allow a simple mask supplying pure oxygen. This might look similar to mountain climbers who venture into pressures below 37 kPa, also called the death zone where an insufficient amount of bottled oxygen has often resulted in hypoxia with fatalities.

Countering the effects of space weather

Mars lacks a magnetosphere, which poses challenges for mitigating solar radiation and retaining atmosphere. It is thought that the localized fields detected on Mars are remnants of a magnetosphere that collapsed early in its history.

The lack of a magnetosphere is thought to be one reason for Mars's thin atmosphere. Solar-wind-induced ejection of Martian atmospheric atoms has been detected by Mars-orbiting probes. While Venus has a dense atmosphere, it has only traces of water vapor (20 ppm) because it has no magnetic field.

Earth's ozone layer provides additional protection. Ultraviolet light is blocked before it can dissociate water into hydrogen and oxygen.


According to modern theorists, Mars exists on the outer edge of the habitable zone, a region of the Solar System where life can exist. Mars is on the border of a region known as the extended habitable zone where liquid water on the surface may be supported if concentrated greenhouse gases could increase the atmospheric pressure. The lack of both a magnetic field and geologic activity on Mars may be a result of its relatively small size, which allowed the interior to cool more quickly than Earth's, although the details of such a process are still not well understood.

It has been suggested that Mars once had an atmosphere as thick as Earth's during an earlier stage in its development, and that its pressure supported abundant liquid water at the surface. Although water appears to have once been present on the Martian surface, water ice appears to exist at the poles just below the planetary surface as permafrost. The soil and atmosphere of Mars contain many of the main elements crucial to life, including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.

Large amounts of water ice exist below the Martian surface, as well as on the surface at the poles, where it is mixed with dry ice, frozen CO2. Significant amounts of water are located at the south pole of Mars, which, if melted, would correspond to a planetwide ocean 5–11 meters deep. Frozen carbon dioxide (CO2) at the poles sublimes into the atmosphere during the Martian summers, and small amounts of water residue are left behind, which fast winds sweep off the poles at speeds approaching 400 km/h (250 mph). This seasonal occurrence transports large amounts of dust and water vapor into the atmosphere, forming Earth-like clouds.

Most of the oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is present as carbon dioxide (CO2), the main atmospheric component. Molecular oxygen (O2) only exists in trace amounts. Large amounts of elemental oxygen can be also found in metal oxides on the Martian surface, and in the soil, in the form of per-nitrates. An analysis of soil samples taken by the Phoenix lander indicated the presence of perchlorate, which has been used to liberate oxygen in chemical oxygen generators. Electrolysis could be employed to separate water on Mars into oxygen and hydrogen if sufficient liquid water and electricity were available.

Proposed methods and strategies

Terraforming Mars would entail three major interlaced changes: building up the magnetosphere, building up the atmosphere, and raising the temperature. The atmosphere of Mars is relatively thin and has a very low surface pressure. Because its atmosphere consists mainly of CO2, a known greenhouse gas, once Mars begins to heat, the CO2 may help to keep thermal energy near the surface. Moreover, as it heats, more CO2 should enter the atmosphere from the frozen reserves on the poles, enhancing the greenhouse effect. This means that the two processes of building the atmosphere and heating it would augment one another, favoring terraforming. It will be difficult keeping the atmosphere together, due to lack of a global magnetic field.

Importing ammonia

Another more intricate method uses ammonia as a powerful greenhouse gas. It is possible that large amounts of it exist in frozen form on minor planets orbiting in the outer Solar System. It may be possible to move these and send them into Mars's atmosphere.

Importing hydrocarbons

Another way to create a Martian atmosphere would be to import methane or other hydrocarbons, which are common in Titan's atmosphere and on its surface; the methane could be vented into the atmosphere where it would act to compound the greenhouse effect.

Use of fluorine compounds

Because long-term climate stability would be required for sustaining a human population, the use of especially powerful fluorine-bearing greenhouse gases, possibly including sulfur hexafluoride or halocarbons such as chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs) and perfluorocarbons (or PFCs), has been suggested. These gases are proposed for introduction because they produce a greenhouse effect many times stronger than that of CO2. This can conceivably be done by sending rockets with payloads of compressed CFCs on collision courses with Mars. When the rockets crash onto the surface they would release their payloads into the atmosphere. A steady barrage of these "CFC rockets" would need to be sustained for a little over a decade while Mars changes chemically and becomes warmer. However, their lifetime due to photolysis would require an annual replenishing of 170 kilotons, and they would destroy any ozone layer.

In order to sublimate the south polar CO2 glaciers, Mars would require the introduction of approximately 0.3 microbars of CFCs into Mars's atmosphere. This is equivalent to a mass of approximately 39 million metric tons. This is about three times the amount of CFC manufactured on Earth from 1972 to 1992 (when CFC production was banned by international treaty). Mineralogical surveys of Mars estimate the elemental presence of fluorine in the bulk composition of Mars at 32 ppm by mass vs. 19.4 ppm for the Earth.

A proposal to mine fluorine-containing minerals as a source of CFCs and PFCs is supported by the belief that because these minerals are expected to be at least as common on Mars as on Earth, this process could sustain the production of sufficient quantities of optimal greenhouse compounds (CF3SCF3, CF3OCF2OCF3, CF3SCF2SCF3, CF3OCF2NFCF3, C12F27N) to maintain Mars at 'comfortable' temperatures, as a method of maintaining an Earth-like atmosphere produced previously by some other means.

Use of orbital mirrors

Mirrors made of thin aluminized PET film could be placed in orbit around Mars to increase the total insolation it receives. This would direct the sunlight onto the surface and could increase Mars's surface temperature directly. The mirror could be positioned as a statite, using its effectiveness as a solar sail to orbit in a stationary position relative to Mars, near the poles, to sublimate the CO
2 ice sheet and contribute to the warming greenhouse effect.

Albedo reduction

Reducing the albedo of the Martian surface would also make more efficient use of incoming sunlight. This could be done by spreading dark dust from Mars's moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are among the blackest bodies in the Solar System; or by introducing dark extremophile microbial life forms such as lichens, algae and bacteria. The ground would then absorb more sunlight, warming the atmosphere.

If algae or other green life were established, it would also contribute a small amount of oxygen to the atmosphere, though not enough to allow humans to breathe. The conversion process to produce oxygen is highly reliant upon water. The CO2 is mostly converted to carbohydrates. On 26 April 2012, scientists reported that lichen survived and showed remarkable results on the adaptation capacity of photosynthetic activity within the simulation time of 34 days under Martian conditions in the Mars Simulation Laboratory (MSL) maintained by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Funded research: ecopoiesis

Since 2014, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program and 'Techshot Inc' are working together to develop sealed biodomes that would employ colonies of oxygen-producing cyanobacteria and algae for the production of molecular oxygen (O2) on Martian soil. But first they need to test if it works on a small scale on Mars. The proposal is called Mars Ecopoiesis Test Bed. Eugene Boland is the Chief Scientist at Techshot, a company located in Greenville, Indiana. They intend to send small canisters of extremophile photosynthetic algae and cyanobacteria aboard a future rover mission. The rover would cork-screw the 7 cm (2.8 in) canisters into selected sites likely to experience transients of liquid water, drawing some Martian soil and then release oxygen-producing microorganisms to grow within the sealed soil. The hardware would use Martian subsurface ice as its phase changes into liquid water. The system would then look for oxygen given off as metabolic byproduct and report results to a Mars-orbiting relay satellite.

If this experiment works on Mars, they will propose to build several large and sealed structures called biodomes, to produce and harvest oxygen for a future human mission to Mars life support systems. Being able to create oxygen there, would provide considerable cost-savings to NASA and allow for longer human visits to Mars than would be possible if astronauts have to transport their own heavy oxygen tanks. This biological process, called ecopoiesis, would be isolated, in contained areas, and is not meant as a type of global planetary engineering for terraforming of Mars's atmosphere, but NASA states that "This will be the first major leap from laboratory studies into the implementation of experimental (as opposed to analytical) planetary in situ research of greatest interest to planetary biology, ecopoiesis and terraforming."

Research at the University of Arkansas presented in June 2015 suggested that some methanogens could survive in Mars's low pressure. Rebecca Mickol, found that in her laboratory, four species of methanogens survived low-pressure conditions that were similar to a subsurface liquid aquifer on Mars. The four species that she tested were Methanothermobacter wolfeii, Methanosarcina barkeri, Methanobacterium formicicum, and Methanococcus maripaludis. Methanogens do not require oxygen or organic nutrients, are non-photosynthetic, use hydrogen as their energy source and carbon dioxide (CO2) as their carbon source, so they could exist in subsurface environments on Mars.

Protecting the atmosphere

One key aspect of terraforming Mars is to protect the atmosphere (both present and future-built) from being lost into space. Some scientists hypothesize that creating a planet-wide artificial magnetosphere would be helpful in resolving this issue. According to two NIFS Japanese scientists, it is feasible to do that with current technology by building a system of refrigerated latitudinal superconducting rings, each carrying a sufficient amount of direct current.

In the same report, it is claimed that the economic impact of the system can be minimized by using it also as a planetary energy transfer and storage system (SMES).

Thermodynamics of terraforming

The overall energy required to sublimate the CO2 from the south polar ice cap is modeled by Zubrin and McKay. Raising temperature of the poles by 4 K would be necessary in order to trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. If using orbital mirrors, an estimated 120 MWe-years would be required in order to produce mirrors large enough to vaporize the ice caps. This is considered the most effective method, though the least practical. If using powerful halocarbon greenhouse gases, an order of 1000 MWe-years would be required to accomplish this heating.

Image Credit: Daein Ballard
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