Across the Universe: Return to Dust
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This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2013 For about six months, our Moon had a moon of its own: a small artificial satellite called “Ladee”, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. Costing just under $300 million, a bargain, it is a little bit smaller than a Smart Car, a little bit larger than a Tardis: 7.7 feet tall, with a hexagonal cross section 4.7 feet in diameter. NASA launched it with an assembly of rockets built from old “Peacemaker” ICBM missiles. Originally designed to send nuclear bombs to the Soviet Union, these rockets are strictly controlled under a US-Russian arms treaty: the small facility at Wallops Island, off the Virginia coast, is one of the few places allowed to launch them. Thus, a bit before midnight on September 6, 2013, the rockets’ red glare was visible from nearby Washington DC and the eyes of the Congress who’d paid for it. These small rockets put the spacecraft … Continue reading

MAVEN Detects Aurora and Mysterious Cloud of Dust Around Mars
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NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has observed two unexpected phenomena in the Martian atmosphere: an unexplained high-altitude dust cloud and aurora that reaches deep into the Martian atmosphere. The presence of the dust at orbital altitudes from about 93 miles (150 kilometers) to 190 miles (300 kilometers) above the surface was not predicted. Although the source and composition of the dust are unknown, there is no hazard to MAVEN and other spacecraft orbiting Mars. “If the dust originates from the atmosphere, this suggests we are missing some fundamental process in the Martian atmosphere,” said Laila Andersson of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospherics and Space Physics (CU LASP), Boulder, Colorado. The cloud was detected by the spacecraft’s Langmuir Probe and Waves (LPW) instrument, and has been present the whole time MAVEN has been in operation. It is unknown if the cloud is a temporary phenomenon or something long lasting. The cloud density is greatest at lower … Continue reading