29 July 2005

Recent Astronomical News

Water ice on Mars

[I]mages...taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft, show a patch of water ice sitting on the floor of an unnamed crater near the Martian north pole.

...The unnamed impact crater is located on Vastitas Borealis, a broad plain that covers much of Mars's far northern latitudes, at approximately 70.5° North and 103° East. The crater is 35 kilometres wide and has a maximum depth of approximately 2 kilometres beneath the crater rim. The circular patch of bright material located at the centre of the crater is residual water ice. This white patch is present all year round, as the temperature and pressure are not high enough to allow sublimation of water ice.

My comments are: more water on Mars? Very auspicious; both for the search for life (paleontological or present) on the Red Planet, as well as the prospects of future human exploration there. Additionally, I'm simply awestruck by the resolution and clarity of the pictures we are getting from Mars Express's cameras. Full color images at 15 m per pixel! That's almost google maps resolution we're talking here, folks. Can Google Mars be far behind?

Large transneptunian object...as big as Pluto?

Lots of recent buzz about another potential large Kuiper Belt object!

Details of the object are still sketchy. It never comes closer to the Sun than Neptune and spends most of its time much further out than Pluto. It is one of the largest objects ever found in the outer Solar System and is almost certainly made of ice and rock.

Since the initial reports of being potentially bigger than Pluto, its size estimate has been downgraded.

The first data made public about the object suggested the object could be up to twice the size of Pluto, but newly revealed observations indicate the object is about 70% Pluto's diameter.

But...it has a moon!

Newly disclosed observations of the giant world revealed on Friday to orbit
in the outer solar system show that it has a moon.

Kudos to the very many people contributing to this discovery. The way minor planet discovery seems to work is that many independent groups contribute important observations and data for many years, and over time the discovery emerges.