News from the Solar System

In New Zealand, Space Starts with Sheep; a new season is about to open for exoplanets as scientists discover an efficient method to predict microlensing; Earth’s Moon to be used as a giant radio telescope; “Hello, Andromeda calling”, gravitational waves might be used to carry information; 1500 km long water cloud appears on Mars after the planet-wide storm from last month, while InSider probe has only one month left hurling through space, and will land on Mars in November; scientists narrow down the landing sites for Mars 2020 rover;  change of plans, why not land among the clouds of Venus? Hubble and Chandra telescopes have been repaired, mostly by switching them on and off and stay tuned for the position of Uranus in the sky.

Space starts with sheep here in New Zealand. A new race of sheep engineered here, more precisely, the wool of their backs has been used to create a unique air filter for people dealing with air pollution and other industrial pollutants. How is New Zealand is keeping space ship safe? NASA believes these woollen filters could play a critical role in helping astronauts breathe in the event of an on-board fire.

Want to know when the season is open for exoplanet hunting?

When the stars align… gravitational lensing occurs as the close star bends the light from the distant source. This phenomenon allowed astrophysicists to measure the mass of distant stars and also figure out if the stars had planets orbiting. And by the way, New Zealand is very famous for microlensing engagement. Microlensing is the new amateur astronomer, with a decent-size telescope, night time job. Now, a team of scientists were able to predict more than 2,600 instances of microlensing that will occur by the end of this century. Since microlensing happens very quickly, knowing where to point the telescope is the best thing that can happen to a exoplanet hunter who does not want to leave things to chance.

Gravitational lensing. A distant star emits light, which is bent toward Earth by the gravity of a massive object in between, in this case a red dwarf star. The effect is a magnification of the light from the source. Credit: Mark A. Garlick /

The Moon might be the perfect ‘telescope mirror’ to capture the times when the Universe’s light switched on.

This left field idea came to the researchers from Curtin University as they realised that off its rocky surface, the Moon reflects radio waves emitted by our galaxy, the Milky Way. Radio waves can’t pass through the Moon but they bounce off it. Using the Murchinson Widefield Array (MWA) low-frequency radio telescope the team will aim to substract both earthshine and the Galaxy waves that bounce on the Moon, which hopefully will leave the very faint glow they are after.

(Dr Ben McKinley, Curtin University/ICRAR/ASTRO 3D. Moon image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

What if gravitational waves could be the next medium for relaying communications?

A team of Russian mathematicians believes gravitational waves could be used to transmit information just as we do with the electromagnetic waves. All that is left to do now is get scientists to figure out how to incorporate information into a gravitational wave source and next thing we know we might be able to call the neighbouring galaxy.

Not just that but gravitational waves could soon provide measure of universe’s expansion.

A strange water cloud on Mars reappears in time for Halloween

and is so big that it might become visible to telescopes from Earth. It’s an orographic cloud, about 1500 km long westwards of Arsia Mons. The formation of water ice clouds is sensitive to the amount of dust present in the atmosphere and Mars just had a planet wide dust storm. Go figure!

Mars Express Keeps an Eye on Curious Cloud. ©ESA

NASA’s InSight Lander has one more month to reach Mars

We are all keeping our breath waiting for InSight to land on Mars next month. Scheduled to touch down on November 26, InSight will land on an equatorial plain called Elysium Planitia that is about 600 km from Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed in August 2012. At Elysium, “there’s less to crash into, fewer rocks to land on and lots of sunlight to power the spacecraft,” NASA officials are saying. InSight (whose name is short for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport”) will study the internal structure and composition of Mars.

Also on Mars, the landing places for Mars 2020 rover have been narrowed down to two.

Just last week, more than 200 scientists (including our own Professor Kathy Campbell FRSNZ from University of Auckland) gathered together to discuss where to land NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. NASA will have the last word.  Which is great because Mars could have enough molecular oxygen to support life, and scientists figured out where to find it. So will leave them to it for now.

Forget Mars, let’s send them to Venus

Last but not least and just because is now gone out of our sight in the sky doesn’t mean we can’t talk about Venus anymore, NASA announced that is currently working on a conceptual manned mission to Venus, named the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept—(HAVOC).With temperatures rising above 460 degrees Celsius, where lead would melt and fall as “snow’ and geologically active having undergone catastrophic resurfacing events caused by the build up of heat below the surface, eventually causing it to melt, release heat and re-solidify, Venus is no home for the weak. Nevertheless, the upper atmosphere of Venus is the most Earth-like location in the solar system. Between altitudes of 50km and 60km, the pressure and temperature can be compared to regions of the Earth’s lower atmosphere. The only problem is that it misses oxygen. But adding that to the floating spaceship would provide buoyancy and the spaceship will float in the upper atmosphere.

Very important announcement for all the kids who have ever asked me this question: Where to see Uranus?

“If Saturn was the Father of Jupiter, then the new planet should be named for the Father of Saturn”, said Johann Bode, the astronomer who gave Uranus its ultimate name and also figured out Uranus’ orbit. Bode’s colleague, Martin Klaproth, supported his choice and named his newly discovered element “uranium.” The alternative was, of course, Planet George.

Arguably the best planet of the Solar System Uranus is coming into view this week. Here is where to see it. So stop asking and start drawing an imaginary arch that stretches from Saturn to Mars and goes all the way to the Hyades and bright Aldebaran. Uranus will be almost same distance from Mars as Mars is from Saturn.