When I first made this graphic, it included two unexplored worlds: Ceres and Pluto, and 2015 seemed impossibly far away.
Now here we are, and only one remains. Of course, all these places have centuries of exploration ahead, but the era of unveiling major worlds in our solar system for the first time is reaching its twilight, right before our eyes. I almost don’t want it to end.
On the 16th of February, at 3:16 pm (local Mars time), a robotic spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet trained its most powerful camera on the surface. It captured an image so detailed that if someone were standing there waving you could see their shadow.
This dune field inside a crater, on the floor of an ancient river bed, is one small part of that picture. Why did NASA engineers radio commands across 60 million miles of space in order to point the multi-million-dollar spacecraft at this particular spot?
Cassini has given us this new close-up of the outer edge of the bizarre and beautiful hexagon-shaped jet stream system at Saturn’s north pole, along with many smaller storms. Maybe ‘small’ isn’t quite the right the word. For a sense of scale: the entire Earth would fit inside the hexagon.
As I type this, the robotic spacecraft Cassini is traveling at 2.4 kilometers per second (about 5,300 MPH) relative to the planet Saturn. On April 9th, when Cassini makes its closest approach to the planet during this current orbit, the craft will reach nearly 9 kilometers per second (about 20,000 MPH). For all that amazing speed, the pictures we see from Cassini are usually still shots, arrestingly beautiful–but also arrested in time. Continue reading “Dancing With Saturn”
Harrison “Jack” Schmitt was the last person to step down onto the Moon. He was also the only professional geologist to work on the lunar surface, which he did during the Apollo 17 expedition to the Taurus-Littrow Valley.
The Moon’s geology still fascinates Dr. Schmitt. Just last week, in fact, he spoke about his lunar fieldwork to scientists gathered at the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference being held this week in Texas. He told his audience that the samples and field notes from the Apollo 17 mission are still useful today, but that’s not all–there’s another, newer tool available to Moon explorers: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. High-resolution images from the robotic spacecraft provide fresh perspectives from on high, such as revealing boulder tracks at the Apollo landing sites that astronauts didn’t see from the ground.
Schmitt left the Moon in 1972. No one has been back since. But thanks to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, you don’t have to be an astronaut to see lunar landscapes up close. LRO returns images with such great detail that objects as small as individual boulders, or even human-made objects like the lunar landers, are easy to spot.
My favorite LRO shots are taken at a highly oblique angle rather than looking straight down. Views like that, especially when the sun is low on the horizon, almost look like what you might see if you were standing there in person.
At the bottom of this page I’ve gathered a few of these postcards from the Moon. Each offers a nice perspective on the landscape, but to really feel like you’re getting your boots dirty at the locations they show, you’ll want to click on the small pictures in order to zoom in on the details that are only visible in the much larger versions.
For example, here’s a detail from the Hausen Crater image:
And here’s another example, this one from Giordano Bruno Crater:
Here are some more lunar locations. Clicking on each will lead to a page where you can enlarge the image and explore the full desolation in all its magnificence. All of these images were captured in the past couple of years, and most have not been widely published elsewhere. Happy moonwalking!
This article originally appeared as a guest post on The Planetary Society site.