Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Space Highlights - November 11, 2015

November 11, 2015

The European Space Agency is preparing for the launch of two communications satellites on its next Ariane 5 rocket on Wednesday: India's GSAT-15 and Saudi Arabia's Arabsat-6B.

China launched the Yaogan 28 surveillance satellite aboard a Long March 4B booster this past Sunday.  The Yaogan satellites carry a high resolution optical payload.

The European Space Agency is preparing its Sentinel 3A satellite for launch in December, the seventh member of the ESA's earth observation satellite network.

Data from NASA's MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) probe has confirmed speculation over the effect of solar wind on the Martian atmosphere.  The rates of observed erosion of the Martian atmosphere confirm previous speculation that much of the early Martian atmosphere was likely stripped away due to the effects of solar wind (a stream of charged particles emanating from the sun).  Billions of years ago, it is known that the Martian atmosphere was thick enough to permit rivers, lakes and oceans of water on the Martian surface.  However, without the protection of a strong magnetic field, such as the Earth enjoys, much of the Martian atmosphere was gradually lost.

Researchers reviewing images from the New Horizons space probe have identified features on Pluto that appear to be cryo-volcanoes in Pluto's southern hemisphere.  The geometry of the observed features strongly resembles large "shield volcanoes", such as those observed on Mars - except that on Pluto, the volcanoes would likely have spewed a slushy water-ammonia mix rather than molten rock.  At least two such volcanoes have been identified, although it remains unclear as to how recently they were active.

NASA has announced that data from the recent flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft indicates that unlike virtually all other moons in the solar system, four of Pluto's largest moons do not rotate in sync with the dwarf planet.  Earth's moon, for example, rotates synchronously with the Earth - with one face always pointed towards the Earth's surface and the other face pointed away.  This is also true for Pluto's largest moon Charon, but not for Pluto's other moons.  Scientists speculate that Pluto's smaller moons may have been produced by a series of collisions - making them relatively young additions to Pluto's collection.

The New Horizons spacecraft has completed the last of four course corrections, realigning its trajectory for its next Kuiper Belt fly-by target: an object labeled 2014 MU69.  The space probe is expected to fly by the object, 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond the orbit of Pluto, in 2019.

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