What About a Mission to Titan?

What About a Mission to Titan?

As you probably know, NASA recently announced plans to send a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. If all goes well, the Europa Clipper will blast off for the world in the 2020s, and orbit the icy moon to discover all its secrets.

And that’s great and all, I like Europa just fine. But you know where I’d really like us to go next? Titan.

Titan, as you probably know, is the largest moon orbiting Saturn. In fact, it’s the second largest moon in the Solar System after Jupiter’s Ganymede. It measures 5,190 kilometers across, almost half the diameter of the Earth. This place is big.

It orbits Saturn every 15 hours and 22 days, and like many large moons in the Solar System, it’s tidally locked to its planet, always showing Saturn one side.

Titan image taken by Cassini on Oct. 7, 2013 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Before NASA’s Voyager spacecraft arrived in 1980, astronomers actually thought that Titan was the biggest moon in the Solar System. But Voyager showed that it actually has a thick atmosphere, that extends well into space, making the true size of the moon hard to judge.

This atmosphere is one of the most interesting features of Titan. In fact, it’s the only moon in the entire Solar System with a significant atmosphere. If you could stand on the surface, you would experience about 1.45 times the atmospheric pressure on Earth. In other words, you wouldn’t need a pressure suit to wander around the surface of Titan.

You would, however, need a coat. Titan is incredibly cold, with an average temperature of almost -180 Celsius. For you Fahrenheit people that’s -292 F. The coldest ground temperature ever measured on Earth is almost -90 C, so way way colder.

You would also need some way to breathe, since Titan’s atmosphere is almost entirely nitrogen, with trace amounts of methane and hydrogen. It’s thick and poisonous, but not murderous, like Venus.

Titan has only been explored a couple of times, and we’ve actually only landed on it once.

The first spacecraft to visit Titan was NASA’s Pioneer 11, which flew past Saturn and its moons in 1979. This flyby was followed by NASA’s Voyager 1 in 1980 and then Voyager 2 in 1981. Voyager 1 was given a special trajectory that would take it as close as possible to Titan to give us a close up view of the world.

Saturn’s moon Titan lies under a thick blanket of orange haze in this Voyager 1 picture. Credit: NASA

Voyager was able to measure its atmosphere, and helped scientists calculate Titan’s size and mass. It also got a hint of darker regions which would later turn out to be oceans of liquid hydrocarbons.

The true age of Titan exploration began with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which arrived at Saturn on July 4, 2004. Cassini made its first flyby of Titan on October 26, 2004, getting to within 1,200 kilometers or 750 miles of the planet. But this was just the beginning. By the end of its mission later this year, Cassini will have made 125 flybys of Titan, mapping the world in incredible detail.

Cassini saw that Titan actually has a very complicated hydrological system, but instead of liquid water, it has weather of hydrocarbons. The skies are dotted with methane clouds, which can rain and fill oceans of nearly pure methane.

And we know all about this because of Cassini’s Huygen’s lander, which detached from the spacecraft and landed on the surface of Titan on January 14, 2005. Here’s an amazing timelapse that shows the view from Huygens as it passed down through the atmosphere of Titan, and landed on its surface.

Huygens landed on a flat plain, surrounded by “rocks”, frozen globules of water ice. This was lucky, but the probe was also built to float if it happened to land on liquid instead.

It lasted for about 90 minutes on the surface of Titan, sending data back to Earth before it went dark, wrapping up the most distant landing humanity has ever accomplished in the Solar System.

Although we know quite a bit about Titan, there are still so many mysteries. The first big one is the cycle of liquid. Across Titan there are these vast oceans of liquid methane, which evaporate to create methane clouds. These rain, creating mists and even rivers.

This false-color mosaic of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows what scientists interpret as an icy volcano. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Is it volcanic? There are regions of Titan that definitely look like there have been volcanoes recently. Maybe they’re cryovolcanoes, where the tidal interactions with Saturn cause water to well up from beneath crust and erupt onto the surface.

Is there life there? This is perhaps the most intriguing possibility of all. The methane rich system has the precursor chemicals that life on Earth probably used to get started billions of years ago. There’s probably heated regions beneath the surface and liquid water which could sustain life. But there could also be life as we don’t understand it, using methane and ammonia as a solvent instead of water.

To get a better answer to these questions, we’ve got to return to Titan. We’ve got to land, rove around, sail the oceans and swim beneath their waves.

Now you know all about this history of the exploration of Titan. It’s time to look at serious ideas for returning to Titan and exploring it again, especially its oceans.

Planetary scientists have been excited about the exploration of Titan for a while now, and a few preliminary proposals have been suggested, to study the moon from the air, the land, and the seas.

The spacecraft, balloon, and lander of the Titan Saturn System Mission. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

First up, there’s the Titan Saturn System Mission, a mission proposed in 2009, for a late 2020s arrival at Titan. This spacecraft would consist of a lander and a balloon that would float about in the atmosphere, and study the world from above. Over the course of its mission, the balloon would circumnavigate Titan once from an altitude of 10km, taking incredibly high resolution images. The lander would touch down in one of Titan’s oceans and float about on top of the liquid methane, sampling its chemicals.

As we stand right now, this mission is in the preliminary stages, and may never launch.

The Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance (AVIATR) concept for an aerial explorer for Titan. Credit: Mike Malaska

In 2012, Dr. Jason Barnes and his team from the University of Idaho proposed sending a robotic aircraft to Titan, which would fly around in the atmosphere photographing its surface. Titan is actually one of the best places in the entire Solar System to fly an airplane. It has a thicker atmosphere and lower gravity, and unlike the balloon concept, an airplane is free to go wherever it needs powered by a radioactive thermal generator.

Although the mission would only cost about $750 million or so, NASA hasn’t pushed it beyond the conceptual stage yet.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it’s own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit: bisbos.com

An even cooler plan would put a boat down in one of Titan’s oceans. In 2012, a team of Spanish engineers presented their idea for how a Titan boat would work, using propellers to put-put about across Titan’s seas. They called their mission the Titan Lake In-Situ Sampling Propelled Explorer, or TALISE.

Propellers are fine, but it turns out you could even have a sailboat on Titan. The methane seas have much less density and viscosity than water, which means that you’d only experience about 26% the friction of Earth. Cassini measured windspeeds of about 3.3 m/s across Titan, which half the average windspeed of Earth. But this would be plenty of wind to power a sail when you consider Titan’s thicker atmosphere.

And here’s my favorite idea. A submarine. This 6-meter vessel would float on Titan’s Kraken Mare sea, studying the chemistry of the oceans, measuring currents and tides, and mapping out the sea floor.

It would be capable of diving down beneath the waves for periods, studying interesting regions up close, and then returning to the surface to communicate its findings back to Earth. This mission is in the conceptual stage right now, but it was recently chosen by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Group for further study. If all goes well, the submarine would travel to Titan by 2038 when there’s a good planetary alignment.

Okay? Are you convinced? Let’s go back to Titan. Let’s explore it from the air, crawl around on the surface and dive beneath its waves. It’s one of the most interesting places in the entire Solar System, and we’ve only scratched the surface.

If I’ve done my job right, you’re as excited about a mission to Titan as I am. Let’s go back, let’s sail and submarine around that place. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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Juno’s Monday Jupiter Flyby Promises New Batch of Images & Science

Juno’s Monday Jupiter Flyby Promises New Batch of Images & Science

Juno is only part way through its mission to Jupiter, and already we’ve seen some absolutely breathtaking images of the gas giant. On Monday, the Juno spacecraft will flyby Jupiter again. This will be the craft’s 5th flyby of the gas giant, and it’ll provide us with our latest dose of Jupiter science and images. The first 4 flybys have already exceeded our expectations.

Juno will approach to within 4,400 km of Jupiter’s cloud tops, and will travel at a speed of 207,600 km/h. During this time of closest approach, called a perijove, all of Juno’s eight science instruments will be active, along with the JunoCam.

The JunoCam is not exactly part of the science payload. It was included in the missions to help engage the public with the mission, and it appears to be doing that job well. The Junocam’s targets have been partly chosen by the public, and NASA has invited anyone who cares to to download and process raw Junocam images. You can see those results throughout this article.

This image of Jupiter’s dancing cloud tops was captured during perijove 3. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Kootenay Nature Photos © cc nc sa

This is Juno’s 5th flyby, but only its 4th science pass. During Juno’s first encounter with Jupiter, the science instruments weren’t active. Even so, after only 3 science passes, we have learned some things about Jupiter.

“We are excited to see what new discoveries Juno will reveal.” – Scott Bolton, NASA’s Principal Investigator for the Juno Mission

“This will be our fourth science pass — the fifth close flyby of Jupiter of the mission — and we are excited to see what new discoveries Juno will reveal,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Every time we get near Jupiter’s cloud tops, we learn new insights that help us understand this amazing giant planet.”

We’ve already learned that Jupiter’s intense magnetic fields are much more complicated than we thought. We’ve learned that the belts and zones in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which are responsible for the dazzling patterns on the cloud tops, extend much deeper into the atmosphere than we thought. And we’ve discovered that charged material expelled from Io’s volcanoes helps cause Jupiter’s auroras.

The South Pole of Jupiter, taken during perijove 3. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Luca Fornaciari © cc nc sa

Juno has the unprecedented ability to get extremely close to Jupiter. This next flyby will bring it to within 4,400 km of the cloud tops. But to do so, Juno has to pay a price. Though the sensitive equipment on the spacecraft is protected inside a titanium vault, Jupiter’s powerful radiation belts will still take a toll on the electronics. But that’s the price Juno will pay to perform its mission.

Jupiter’s dazzle as revealed by JunoCam and Shane Drever. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Shane Drever © cc nc sa

Other missions, like Cassini, have been measured in years, while Juno’s will be measured in orbits. And once it’s completed its final orbit, it will be sent to its destruction in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

But before that happens, there’s a lot of science to be done, and a lot of stunning images to be captured.

Here’s an interview with the man leading the Juno Mission: Understanding Juno’s Orbit: An Interview with NASA’s Scott Bolton.

Here is the page for the JunoCam: https://www.missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam

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Nighttime Delta IV Blastoff Powers Military Comsat to Orbit for U.S. Allies: Photo/Video Gallery

Nighttime Delta IV Blastoff Powers Military Comsat to Orbit for U.S. Allies: Photo/Video Gallery

Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) comsat to orbit for the U.S. Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The second round of March Launch Madness continued with the thunderous nighttime blastoff of a ULA Delta IV rocket powering a super swift military communications satellite to orbit in a collaborative effort of U.S. Allies from North America, Europe and Asia and the U.S. Air Force.

The next generation Wideband Global SATCOM-9 (WGS-9) military comsat mission for the U.S. Force lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV from Space Launch Complex-37 (SLC-37) on Saturday, March 18 at 8:18 p.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Check out this expanding gallery of spectacular launch photos and videos gathered from my space journalist colleagues, myself and spectators ringing the space coast under crystal clear early evening skies.

ULA Delta IV rocket streaks to orbit carrying WGS-9 tactical communications satellite for the U.S. Air Force and international partners from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, at 8:18 p.m. EDT on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Note that Round 3 of March Launch Madness is tentatively slated for March 29 with the SpaceX liftoff of the first ever reused Falcon 9 first stage from historic pad 39 on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The WGS-9 satellite was paid for by a six nation consortium that includes Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States. It joins 8 earlier WGS satellites already in orbit.

The partnership was created back in 2012 when the ‘WGS-9 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)’ was signed by Defense organizations of the six countries.

The WGS-9 MOU agreement to fund the satellite enabled the expansion of the WGS system with this additional satellite added to the existing WGS constellation.

“The agreement provides all signatories with assured access to global wideband satellite communications for military use,” according to the US Air Force.

Watch this launch video compilation from Jeff Seibert:

Video Caption: Launch of WGS-9 satellite continues USAF Breaking Barriers heritage. This ULA Delta 4 launch of the WGS-9 satellite marks the start of the 70th anniversary of the United States Air Force. That was also the year that U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Credit: Jeff Seibert

The 217 foot tall Delta IV Medium+ rocket launched in the 5,4 configuration with a 5 meter diameter payload fairing that stands 47 feet tall, and 4 solid rocket boosters to augment the first stage thrust of the single common core booster.

The payload fairing was emblazoned with decals commemorating the 70th anniversary of the USAF, as well as Air Force, mission and ULA logos.

Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) comsat to orbit for the U.S. Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK manufactures the four solid rocket motors. The Delta IV common booster core was powered by an RS-68A liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine producing 705,250 pounds of thrust at sea level.
A single RL10B-2 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine powered the second stage, known as the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS).

The booster and upper stage engines are both built by Aerojet Rocketdyne. ULA constructed the Delta IV Medium+ (5,4) launch vehicle in Decatur, Alabama.

Launch of USAF WGS-8 milsatcom on ULA Delta IV rocket from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

The DCSS will also serve as the upper stage for the maiden launch of NASA heavy lift SLS booster on the SLS-1 launch slated for late 2018. That DCSS/SLS-1 upper stage just arrived at the Cape last week – as I witnessed and reported here.

Saturday’s launch marks ULA’s 3rd launch in 2017 and the 118th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006 as a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) comsat to orbit for the U.S. Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Launch of USAF WGS-8 milsatcom on ULA Delta IV rocket from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Dawn Leek Taylor

Two AF Generals and a Delta! Major General David D. Thompson, Vice Commander Air Force Space Command, Peterson Air Force Base, CO, and Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander of the 45th Space Wing Commander and Eastern Range Director at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla, celebrate successful Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) launch for the U.S. Air Force on ULA Delta IV from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017, with the media gaggle on base post launch with Delta pad 37 in background right. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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Watch Stars Orbit The Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

Watch Stars Orbit The Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

The Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, called Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), is arrowed in the image made of the innermost galactic center in X-ray light by NASA’s Chandra Observatory. To the left or east of Sgr A* is Sgr A East, a large cloud that may be the remnant of a supernova. Centered on Sgr A* is a spiral shaped group of gas streamers that might be falling onto the hole. Credit: NASA/CXC/MIT/Frederick K. Baganoff et al.

When your ordinary citizen learns there’s a supermassive black hole with a mass of 4 million suns sucking on its teeth in the center of the Milky Way galaxy, they might kindly ask exactly how astronomers know this. A perfectly legitimate question. You can tell them that the laws of physics guarantee their existence or that people have been thinking about black holes since 1783. That year, English clergyman John Michell proposed the idea of “dark stars” so massive and gravitationally powerful they could imprison their own light.

This time-lapse movie in infrared light shows how stars in the central light-year of the Milky Way have moved over a period of 14 years. The yellow mark at the image center represents the location of Sgr A*, site of an unseen supermassive black hole.
Credit: A. Eckart (U. Koeln) & R. Genzel (MPE-Garching), SHARP I, NTT, La Silla Obs., ESO

Michell wasn’t making wild assumptions but taking the idea of gravity to a logical conclusion. Of course, he had no way to prove his assertion. But we do. Astronomers  now routinely find bot stellar mass black holes — remnants of the collapse of gas-guzzling supergiant stars — and the supermassive variety in the cores of galaxies that result from multiple black hole mergers over grand intervals of time.

Some of the galactic variety contain hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses, all of it so to speak “flushed down the toilet” and unavailable to fashion new planets and stars. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking has shown that black holes evaporate over time, returning their energy to the knowable universe from whence they came, though no evidence of the process has yet been found.

On September 14, 2013, astronomers caught the largest X-ray flare ever detected from Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.  This event was 400 times brighter than the usual X-ray output from the source and was possibly caused when Sgr A*’s strong gravity tore apart an asteroid in its neighborhood, heating the debris to X-ray-emitting temperatures before slurping down the remains.The inset shows the giant flare. Credit: NASA

So how do we really know a massive, dark object broods at the center of our sparkling Milky Way? Astronomers use radio, X-ray and infrared telescopes to peer into its starry heart and see gas clouds and stars whirling about the center at high rates of speed. Based on those speeds they can calculate the mass of what’s doing the pulling.

The Hubble Space Telescope took this photo of the  5000-light-year-long jet of radiation ejected from the active galaxy M87’s supermassive black hole, which is aboutt 1,000 times more massive than the Milky Way’s black hole. Although black holes are dark, matter whirling into their maws at high speed is heated to high temperature, creating a bright disk of material and jets of radiation. Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

In the case of the galaxy M87 located 53.5 million light years away in the Virgo Cluster, those speeds tell us that something with a mass of 3.6 billion suns is concentrated in a space smaller than our Solar System. Oh, and it emits no light! Nothing fits the evidence better than a black hole because nothing that massive can exist in so small a space without collapsing in upon itself to form a black hole. It’s just physics, something that Mr. Scott on Star Trek regularly reminded a panicky Captain Kirk.

So it is with the Milky Way, only our black hole amounts to a piddling 4 million-solar-mass light thief confined within a spherical volume of space some 27 million miles in diameter or just shy of Mercury’s perihelion distance from the Sun. This monster hole resides at the location of Sagittarius A* (pronounced A- star), a bright, compact radio source at galactic center about 26,000 light years away.

Video showing a 14-year-long time lapse of stars orbiting Sgr A*

The time-lapse movie, compiled over 14 years, shows the orbits of several dozen stars within the light year of space centered on Sgr A*. We can clearly see the star moving under the influence of a massive unseen body — the putative supermassive black hole. No observations of Sgr A* in visible light are possible because of multiple veils of interstellar dust that lie across our line of sight. They quench its light to the tune of 25 magnitudes.

Merging black holes (the process look oddly biological!). Credit: SXS

How do these things grow so big in the first place? There are a couple of ideas, but astronomers don’t honestly know for sure. Massive gas clouds around early in the galaxy’s history could have collapsed to form multiple supergiants that evolved into black holes which later then coalesced into one big hole. Or collisions among stars in massive, compact star clusters could have built up stellar giants that evolved into black holes. Later, the clusters sank to the center of the galaxy and merged into a single supermassive black hole.

Whichever you chose, merging of smaller holes may explain its origin.

On a clear spring morning before dawn, you can step out to face the constellation Sagittarius low in the southern sky. When you do, you’re also facing in the direction of our galaxy’s supermassive black hole. Although you cannot see it, does it not still exert a certain tug on your imagination?

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Process Behind Martian Streaks Continues To Puzzle

Process Behind Martian Streaks Continues To Puzzle

It’s a well-documented fact that roughly 4 billion years ago, Mars had liquid water flowing on its surface. However, there have also been recent findings that suggest that Mars might periodically have liquid water on its surface today. One of the strongest bits of evidence comes in the form of Recurring Slope Lineae, which are ventured to be seasonal flows of salty water which occur during Mars’ warmest months.

However, a new study produced by an international team of scientists has casts doubt on this theory and offered another possible explanation. Using numerical simulations, they show how a “dry” process – where rarefied gas is pumped up through the soil (due to temperature variations) – could lead to the formation of the dark streaks that have been observed on Martian slopes.

Their study, titled “Formation of recurring slope lineae on Mars by rarefied gas-triggered granular flows“, appeared recently in the journal Nature Geoscience. In it, the research team – which hails from the Géosciences Paris Sud (GEOPS) laboratory in Orsay, France, and the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava- explain how the current theories about what creates RSLs fall short.

Reprojected view of warm-season flows in Newton Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

As Frédéric Schmidt, a professor from GEOPS and the lead author of the study told Universe Today via email, the current theory about RSLs is based on the morphology, composition and seasonality of lineae which in the past, seemed to suggest that liquid salt water played a role in their formation:

“They attributed the appearance to liquid water mainly because of seasonality and salt detection. The activity occurs at the maximum temperature season only, in the most favorable condition for water to be liquid. The salt permits to decrease the freezing temperature of liquid water.”

This theory has met with its share of excitement, considering that the presence of water on the Martian surface would mean that the chances of finding present-day life there would be significantly greater. Unfortunately, recent studies have cast doubt on this by showing how there is insufficient water on Mars to account for the lineae that have been observed on various slopes.

[T]here is not enough atmospheric water to fill all the dark flows and internal subsurface sources are very unlikely (Chojnacki et al., 2016),” said Dr. Schmidt. “Also, because there is no signature in the thermal range as one may have in the case of abundant liquid water. From the data, the maximum allowed water is too little (Edwards et al., 2016).”

Evolution of RSL at Garni Crater, Valles Marineris, Mars. Credit: MRO, HiRISE, NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

However, Mars does have sufficient air pressure to allow for another process known as thermal creep. Also known as thermal transpiration, this process involves gas molecules drifting from the cold end of a narrow channel to the warm end. This occurs as a result of the walls of the channel experiencing temperature changes, which triggers a gas flow.

According to their study, sections of the Martian surface could be heated by solar radiation while others remained cooler because they were covered by a source of shade.  When this happens, rarefied gas beneath the surface (i.e. gas with lower pressure than the atmosphere) could be pumped up through the Martian soil. Once it reached the surface, this gas would disturb patches of small particles, triggering tiny avalanches along Martian slopes.

To test this “dry” process of RSL formation, the team ran numerical simulations that took into account various locations on Mars and seasonal changes. “We tested our theory by modeling it and estimating its efficiency for different facet orientation and different seasons,” said Dr. Schmidt. “We find that the observed activity is coherent with our prediction. Also we simulated it in the lab in order validate the principle.

Basically, they found that in rough and boulder-strewn terrain on Mars (where shadows are cast that can cause temperature differences in small sections of soil) this process could result in the formation of dark streaks along slopes. Not only were their results consistent with observered RSLs in some areas, but they also explained how they could form without the need for liquid water or CO² frost (dry ice) activity.

Simulation of the 100 meter-long recurring slope lineae detected on the Hale crater, produced by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This may sound like bad news, and it certainly is if you’re planning on establishing a settlement on Mars anytime soon (Elon Musk and Bas Lansdorp might want to take heed!). And as Dr. Schmidt explained, it doesn’t bode well for those who are looking to confirm that there could be present-day life on Mars either:

“Since RSL are the main features to argue about the presence of liquid water at present time on Mars, it was also the argument for possible habitability and life on Mars. If the new theory is correct, the present Mars is not as habitable as we previously thought. Liquid water was most probably present billions of years ago, but not today. These findings paint the portrait of an inhospitable world for human exploration.”
 So it seems that the prospect of water-procurement on Mars might be trickier than we thought. Perhaps future missions to the surface that rely on in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) will either have to drill for water, or harvest it directly from the ice caps. And as for full-blown colonization plans… well, let’s hope they don’t mind drilling wells or chopping ice either!

Further Reading: Nature Geoscience

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German ‘Largest Artificial Sun’ To Generate Climate Friendly Fuel

German ‘Largest Artificial Sun’ To Generate Climate Friendly Fuel

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe. But here on Earth, it’s rather rare. That’s unfortunate, because in our warming world, its status as an emissions-free fuel makes it a coveted chemical. If German researchers are successful, their Synlight project will help make renewable hydrogen fuel a reality.

Dubbed the “artificial Sun”, the Synlight uses concentrated light to power Thermochemical Water Splitting (TWS.) Every school child knows you can produce hydrogen by electrolysis—running an electric current through water. But that takes an enormous amount of electricity. TWS might be a better way of getting hydrogen out of water, but it takes an enormous amount of energy too, and that’s what the German research is about.

When combusted with pure oxygen—inside a fuel cell for example—hydrogen’s only waste product is water. No greenhouse gases or particulates are produced. But if we want to use it to power our cars, buses, trucks, and even airplanes, we need enormous amounts of it. And we need to produce it cost-effectively.

“Renewable energies will be the mainstay of global power supply in the future.” – Karsten Lemmer DLR Executive Board Member

The idea is to use the heat generated by Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) to extract hydrogen from water, thereby eliminating the need for electricity. CSP systems use mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight into a small area. The heat from that action can be used to power TWS. The Synlight project in Germany is demonstrating the viability of TWS by mimicking the effect of concentrated sunlight. In doing so, researchers there are building what’s being called the world’s largest artificial Sun.

Each of Synlight’s 149 zenon short-arc lamps can be controlled individually. Image: DLR/Synlight/Markus Hauschild

German researchers at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) at Julich near Cologne built the Synlight, a system of 149, high power lamps of the type used in film projections. When all these lamps are turned on, Synlight produces light that is about 10,000 times more intense than natural sunlight on Earth. When all the lamps are aimed at a single spot, Synlight generates temperatures up to 3000 Celsius. The challenge now is to develop materials and processes that can operate in such an extreme temperature.

The 15m tall Synlight experiment is housed in this building in Julich. The building contains 3 separate radiation chambers for different experiments. Image: DLR CC By 3.0

The Synlight system itself uses an enormous amount of electrical power to operate. But that’s often the case with experimental facilities. The Synlight project will mimic the effect of intense, continuous solar energy, something that is not readily available in Germany. By building a test facility powered by electricity, researchers will be able to reliably perform experiments without being delayed or affected by cloudy weather.

“Fuels, propellants and combustibles acquired using solar power offer immense potential for long-term storage and the production of chemical raw materials, and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Synlight will enhance our research in this field.” – Karsten Lemmer, DLR Executive Board Member

As Johannes Remmel, the North Rhine-Westphalia Minister for Climate Protection, said, “”We need to expand existing technology in practical ways in order to achieve renewable energy targets, but the energy transition will falter without investments in innovative research, in state-of-the-art technologies and in global lighthouse projects like Synlight.”

The DLR is involved in the PS10 solar power tower in Spain. The PS10 is the world’s fist commercial concentrating solar power tower. Image: By afloresm – SOLUCAR PS10, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2821733

This is not the German Aerospace Center’s first foray in concentrated solar power. They’re involved in a number of projects to advance concentrated solar power and thermal water splitting. The DLR is a partner in the Hydrosol II pilot in Spain. It’s a reactor for solar thermochemical hydrogen production that has been in operation since 2008. They’re also involved in the first commercially operated solar tower plant, an 11 megawatt system in Spain called the PS10 solar power tower.

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Curiosity Captures Gravity Wave Shaped Clouds On Mars

Curiosity Captures Gravity Wave Shaped Clouds On Mars

This week, from March 20th to 24th, the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference will be taking place in The Woodlands, Texas. Every year, this conference brings together international specialists in the fields of geology, geochemistry, geophysics, and astronomy to present the latest findings in planetary science. One of the highlights of the conference so far has been a presentation about Mars’ weather patterns.

As a team of researchers from the Center for Research in Earth and Space Sciences (CRESS) at York University, demonstrated, Curiosity obtained of some rather interesting images of Mars’ weather patterns over the past few years. These included changes in cloud cover, as well as the first ground-based view of Martian clouds shaped by gravity waves.

When it comes to cloud formations, gravity waves are the result of gravity trying to restore them to their natural equilibrium. And while common on Earth, such formation were not thought to be possible around Mars’ equatorial band, where the gravity waves were seen. All of this was made possible thanks to Curiosity’s advantageous position inside the Gale Crater.

Cirrus clouds in the Martian atmosphere may have helped keep Mars warm enough for liquid water to sculpt the Martian surface. Image: Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Cornell, JPL, NASA

Panoramic image showing cirrus clouds in the Martian atmosphere, taken by the Opportunity rover in 2006. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Located near Mars’ equator, Curiosity has managed to consistently record what is known as the Aphelion Cloud Belt (ACB).  As the name would suggest, this annually-recurring phenomena appears during the aphelion season on Mars (when it is farthest from the Sun) between the latitudes of 10°S and 30°N. During aphelion, the point farthest from the Sun, the planet is dominated by two cloud systems.

These include the aforementioned ACB, and the polar phenomena known as Polar Hood Clouds (PHCs). Whereas PHCs are characterized by clouds of carbon dioxide, clouds that form around Mars’ equatorial band are made up water-ice. These cloud systems them dissipate as Mars gets closer to the Sun (perihelion), where increases in temperature lead to the creation of dust storms that limit cloud formation.

During the nearly five years that Curiosity has been operational, the rover has recorded over 500 movies of the equatorial Martian sky. These movies have taken the form of both Zenith Movies (ZMs) – which involve the camera being pointed vertically – and Supra-Horizon Movies (SHM), which were aimed at a lower angle of elevation to keep the horizon in frame.

Using Curiosity’s navigation camera, Jacob Kloos and Dr. John Moores – two researchers from CRESS – made eight recordings of the ACB over the course of two Martian years – specifically between Mars Years 31 and Mars Years 33 (ca. 2012 to 2016). By comparing ZM and SHM movies, they were able to discern changes in the clouds that were both diurnal (daily) and annual in nature.

What they found was that between 2015 and 2016, Mars’ ACB underwent changes in opacity (aka. changes in density) during its diurnal cycle. After periods of enhanced early morning activity, the clouds would reach a minimum by late morning. This is followed by a second, lower peak in the late afternoon, which indicated that Mars’ early morning hours are the most favorable time for the formation of thicker clouds.

Hubble images show cloud formations (left) and the effects of a global dust storm on Mars. Credit: NASA/James Bell (Cornell Univ.), Michael Wolff (Space Science Inst.), and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

As for inter-annual variability, they found that between 2012 and 2016, when Mars moved away from aphelion, there was a corresponding 38% increase in the number of higher-opacity clouds. However, believing these results to be the result of a statistical bias caused by an uneven distribution of videos, they concluded that the difference in opacity was more along the lines of about 5%.

These variations were all of this is consistent with tidal temperature variations, where cooler daytime or seasonal temperatures result in greater levels of condensation in the air. The trend of increasing clouds throughout the day was unexpected, however, as higher temperatures should lead to a decrease in saturation. However, as they explained during their presentation, this too could be attributed to daily changes:

“One explanation for the afternoon enhancement put forth by Tamppari et. al. is that as atmospheric temperatures increase the throughout the day, enhanced convection lifts water vapor to the saturation altitude, therefore increasing the likelihood of cloud formation. In addition to water vapor, dust could also be lifted, which act as condensation nuclei, allowing for more efficient cloud formation.”

However, what was most interesting was the fact that during one of day of observation – Sol 1302, or April 5th, 2016 – the team managed to observe something surprising. When looking at the horizon during an SHM, the NavCam caught sight of parallel rows of clouds which all pointed in the same direction. While such ripples are known to happen in the polar regions (where PHCs are concerned), spotting them over the equator was unexpected.

Sunset photographed from Gale Crater by the Mars Curiosity rover on April 15, 2015 taken using the left eye of the rover’s Mastcam. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltec

But as Moore explained in an interview with Science Magazine, seeing an Earth-like phenomenon on Mars is consistent with what we’ve seen so far from Mars. “The Martian environment is the exotic wrapped in the familiar,” he said. “The sunsets are blue, the dust devils enormous, the snowfall more like diamond dust, and the clouds are thinner than what we see on the Earth.”

At present, it is not clear which mechanism could be responsible for creating these ripples in the first place. On Earth, they are caused by disturbances below in the troposphere, solar radiation, or jet stream sheer. Knowing what could account for them on Mars will likely reveal some interesting things about its atmosphere’s dynamics. At the same time, further research is necessary before scientists can say definitely that gravity waves were observed here.

But in the meantime, these findings are fascinating, and are sure to help advance our knowledge of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and the water cycle on Mars. As ongoing research has shown, Mars still experiences flows of liquid salt water on its surface, and even experiences limited precipitation. And in telling us more about Mars’ present-day meteorology, it could also reveal things about the planet’s watery past.

Further Reading: USRA, Science Magazine

The post Curiosity Captures Gravity Wave Shaped Clouds On Mars appeared first on Universe Today.

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SpaceX Outbids ULA for Military GPS Contract Igniting Fierce Launch Competition

SpaceX Outbids ULA for Military GPS Contract Igniting Fierce Launch Competition

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The fierce competition for lucrative launch contracts from the U.S. Air Force just got more even intense with the announcement that SpaceX outbid arch rival United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch an advanced military Global Positioning System (GPS III) navigation satellite to orbit in approx. 2 years.

The U.S. Air Force has announced that SpaceX has won the national security contract to launch a single next generation GPS III satellite to Earth orbit in the first half of 2019. The contract award is valued at $96.5 million.

“SpaceX is proud to have been selected to support this important National Security Space Mission,” Gwynne Shotwell, President & COO, told Universe Today in a statement in response to the GPS III award.

“Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Hawthorne, California, has been awarded a $96,500,490 firm-fixed-price contract for launch services to deliver a GPS III satellite to its intended orbit,” the Air Force announced in a statement.

There could be as many as 15 Air Force launch contracts awarded this year in competitive bidding between ULA and SpaceX.

The upshot is that ULA’s decade long near monopoly on national security launches has now been broken several times in the past year with SpaceX outbidding ULA based on the price of their newer Falcon family of rockets compared to ULA’s long established Atlas and Delta rocket families.

Last year SpaceX won the competition to launch the first GPS-III satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket in 2018 after ULA decided not to enter a bid.

“We appreciate the confidence that the U.S. Air Force has placed in our company and we look forward to working together towards the successful launch of another GPS-III mission,” Shotwell elaborated to Universe Today.

ULA did not bid on the first GPS III contract citing the lack of availability of “any Atlas engines available to bid” and other contract factors as the reason for not submitting a bid for the 2018 launch based on the request for proposals (RFP) for the global positioning satellite.

The Atlas V is powered by Russian made RD-180 engines, who’s import for military uses had been temporarily restricted by Congress following the Russian invasion of the Crimea.

The launch price was a deciding factor in the winning bid.

“Each contractor had to prove through their proposal that they could meet the technical, the schedule and the risk criteria,” said Claire Leon,
director of the launch enterprise directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, during a media briefing.

“SpaceX was able to do that. I wouldn’t say that they were necessarily better. They adequately met our criteria.”
The Air Force expects SpaceX to achieve a rapid turnaround from winning the bid to actually launching the GPS satellite by April 2019.

“Contractor will provide launch vehicle production, mission integration, launch operations, spaceflight worthiness and mission unique activities for a GPS III mission. Work will be performed at Hawthorne, California; Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida; and McGregor, Texas, and is expected to be complete by April 30, 2019,” said the Air Force.

Only SpaceX and ULA bid on the GPS III satellite launch contract.

“This award is the result of a competitive acquisition with two offers received. Fiscal 2016 space procurement funds in the amount of $96,500,490 are being obligated at the time of award.”

The Air Force opened up military launch contracts to competitive bidding in 2015 after certifying SpaceX as a qualified bidder to launch the nation’s most critical and highly valuable national security satellites on their Falcon 9 booster.

Until 2015, ULA had a near sole source contract with the USAF as the only company certified to bid on and launch those most critical national security satellites. New space upstart SpaceX, founded by billionaire CEO Elon Musk, then forced the bidding issue by filing a lawsuit suing the Air Force.

In response to the lost GPS-III bid, ULA touted their demonstrated record of 100 percent success launching more than 115 satellites.

“United Launch Alliance continues to believe a best value launch service competition with evaluation of mission success and assurance, and past performance including demonstrated schedule reliability, is appropriate and needed for the Phase 1A missions given the technical complexities of rocket launch services and their critical significance to the war fighter and U.S. national security,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told Universe Today.

“Over the past decade, ULA has provided unmatched reliability with 100 percent mission success and ensured more than 115 satellites were delivered safely to their orbits each and every time. We look forward to continuing to provide the best value launch services to enable our customers’ critical missions.”

ULA Delta IV rocket streaks to orbit carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) tactical communications satellite for the U.S. Air Force and international partners from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, at 8:18 p.m. EDT on Mar. 18, 2017, in this long exposure photo taken on base. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The most recent ULA launch for the Air Force took place days ago involving the stunning Delta blastoff of the WGS-9 high speed communications satellite on March 18, 2017.

SpaceX has suffered a pair of calamitous Falcon 9 rocket failures in June 2015 and Sept. 2016, destroying both the rocket and payloads for NASA and the AMOS-6 communications satellite respectively.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post SpaceX Outbids ULA for Military GPS Contract Igniting Fierce Launch Competition appeared first on Universe Today.

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New Study Wants To Rip T-Rex From Its Place On Dino Tree

New Study Wants To Rip T-Rex From Its Place On Dino Tree

To kids, there are only two kinds of dinosaurs: meat-eaters and plant-eaters. But to paleontologists, those are just diet distinctions. Paleontologists divide dinos into two different groups based largely on pelvic structure: reptile-hipped saurischians, and bird-hipped ornithischians.

Those two categories are called ‘clades’, and they’re fundamental to the study of dinosaurs. But a new study is casting doubt on those two groups, as well as moving the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex to a new spot on the dinosaur family tree.

The study, by Matthew G. Baron, David B. Norman & Paul M. Barrett, was published in the journal Nature. If the findings in this study are accepted by paleontologists, then it will upset our understanding of the family tree that was first established in Victorian times.

Pelvic Structure of a reptile-hipped saurischian. Image: By Fred the Oyster, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35371104

Pelvic structure of a bird-hipped ornithischian. Image: By Fred the Oyster, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35371104

The T. Rex is the most famous member of the reptile-hipped saurischians. Many other carnivorous theropods are saurischians too, like Giganotosaurus and Spinosaurus. Other famous dinosaurs, like Stegosaurus, are bird-hipped ornithischians. The distinction between the saurischians and the ornithischians has been workable for a long time. But there were always problems with the two clades of dinosaurs.

The Dinosaur Family Tree. Image: By Evolution_of_dinosaurs_by_Zureks.svg: Zureksderivative work: Woudloper (talk) – Evolution_of_dinosaurs_by_Zureks.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6321464

Some of the earliest ornithischian dinosaurs in the Triassic period had some theropod qualities: they were bipedal and probably meat-eaters. This clouded the separation between ornithischians and saurischians. There are also the herrerasaurids, small dinosaurs not larger than 4 meters long. They were some of the earliest dinosaurs, carnivores that look like both sauropods and theropods, and even though they appear early in the fossil record, they are not considered ancestors to any other group of dinosaurs. They show a mixture of both primitive and derived traits.

Huge plant-eating sauropods like the Brontosaurus and the Diplodocus are included in the reptile-hipped saurischians with the meat-eating theropods, even though there are some key skeletal differences between the two groups.

Another problem centers around birds. Believe it or not, birds have theropods as ancestors, even though theropods are in the reptile-hipped clade, rather than the bird-hipped clade.

Are You Confused Yet?

If this all seems kind of confusing, let’s back up for a minute.

When we think of dinosaurs, we tend to think of full-scale rebuilt skeletons of the type on display in museums around the world. But for paleontologists, the reality is much different. Many dinosaur species are known only by a few bones or teeth. These samples are studied in great detail. Any groove in a bone or slightly different shape in a tooth is analyzed, and out of this a dinosaur family tree is constructed.

It’s hard work, and our fossil record is spotty at best. Some new dinosaur taxa are proposed based only on the discovery of isolated teeth in the fossil record. With all of this in mind, you can see that the dinosaur family tree is an ongoing work in progress.

The authors of the study say that many ornithischian dinosaurs were overlooked in the past, because paleontologists didn’t really know what to do with them. Many of the ornithischians had weird traits like extra chin bones and molar-like teeth in their cheeks. These ornithischian dinos were thought of as oddities, early offshoots from other species.

New Clades

The authors studied 457 traits in 74 taxa, looking at details like the shapes of tiny eye-socket bones and grooves on femurs. They found that Theropods, even though they have reptile-like hips, don’t belong in the saurischian clade. They’re suggesting that Theropods are a sister clade to the ornithischians. The revised grouping of Ornithischia and Theropoda has been named the Ornithoscelida. The authors are also proposing that the herrerasaurids did not branch off as early as previously thought, and should form a sister clade with the sauropods.

But this study does even more. It’s been long understood by paleontologists that dinosaurs appeared in the southern hemisphere first. That’s where the herrerasaurids were found, dating back to 240 million years ago. The authors remind us that there are very few Herrerasaurus skeletons and bones, and there are uncertainties in the age of the Triassic fossil beds where herrerasaurids are found. A nearly complete skeleton was found in Argentina, and less complete ones have been found in North America.

But this shuffling of the family tree moves the herrerasaurids further away from the base of the tree. Remember, the herrerasaurids look like both sauropods and theropods, and they show both derived and primitive traits. If it’s accepted that the herrerasaurids did not appear as early as thought, that might mean that dinos did not appear first in the southern hemisphere. The authors say that some enigmatic fossils found in the northern hemisphere should be re-examined in case they are earlier than the ones found in the south.

Enter the Saltopus

A fossil of a cat-like creature found in Scotland, called the Saltopus, is a part of the shake-up of the dinosaur family tree. It was considered a pre-cursor to dinosaurs, rather than a true dinosaur. As part of their analysis, the Saltopus has been re-positioned in the earliest part of the dinosaur lineage, as the first true dinosaur. This supports the idea that dinosaurs appeared first in the northern hemisphere rather than the south.

The Saltopus, a small cat-sized dinosaur found in Scotland. If it is the first dinosaur, that means dinosaurs originated in the northern hemisphere rather than the south. Image: By Nobu Tamura email:nobu.tamura@yahoo.com http://spinops.blogspot.com/ http://paleoexhibit.blogspot.com/ – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50251442

If this new family tree for dinosaurs is accepted, it will change our understanding of the way dinosaurs evolved. We’ve relied on similarity in hip shape to ascertain ancestry, but that may be a little simplistic.

Our understanding of dinosaurs changes frequently. Remember when dinosaurs were slow, dim-witted creatures with tiny brains and huge bodies? Now we think of dinosaurs as feathered and fast, using cunning and perhaps teamwork to hunt in packs. Remember when the prevailing wisdom was that some dinosaurs got so large and spiny that they were doomed to extinction? That was proven false as well.

If it does stick, this new family tree will be a huge change in paleontology, a field where knowledge is overturned on a regular basis, sometimes by little more than a few teeth.

The post New Study Wants To Rip T-Rex From Its Place On Dino Tree appeared first on Universe Today.

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Astronauts Capture Great Views of Mount Etna Eruption

Astronauts Capture Great Views of Mount Etna Eruption

Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano, and it’s been spouting off since late February 2017. It spewed lava and gas with a rather big eruption last week, where 10 people were actually injured. The Expedition 50 crew on board the International Space Station have been able to capture both day and nighttime views of the activity from orbit.

The stunning view, above, was taken on March 17, 2017. The original photo, which you can see on NASA’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth website is actually a bit hard to make out. But space enthusiast Riccardo Rossi from Modena, Italy enhanced the original with color correction and increased the contrast with Photoshop. You can see the full version of Rossi’s enhancements on Flickr. .

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet took the image below on March 19, and shared it on Twitter, writing, “Mount Etna, in Sicily. The volcano is currently erupting and the molten lava is visible from space, at night! (the red lines on the left).”

A nighttime view from orbit of Mount Etna, erupting on March 19, 2017, taken by ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. The red streaks on the lower left are molten lava. See detail below. Credit: NASA/ESA.

This crop shows the glowing lava:

A crop of the above image, showing detail of the glowing lava at night from Mount Etna’s recent activity. Credit: NASA/ESA.

Mount Etna towers above the city of Catania on the island of Sicily. Scientists estimate it has been active for about 500,000 years. The first recorded eruption dates back to 1500 B.C., and it has erupted over 200 times since then.

NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite also spotted nighttime activity from orbit. The image was acquired by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), using its “day-night band,” which detects light in a range of wavelengths and uses filtering techniques to observe signals such as gas flares, city lights, and reflected moonlight. In this image, it detected the nighttime glow of molten lava.

A view of Sicily and Mount Etna during the dark morning hours of March 16, 2017, taken by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite. Credit: NASA.

Further reading:
NASA Image of the Day
NASA Earth Observatory

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