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It’s Carnival time again..!

If you’re interested in space and astronomy – and you must be, or you wouldn’t be reading this! – then you should check out the “Carnival of Space” every week. It’s kind of a round-up of blog posts submitted by bloggers, and allows you to catch up on the news stories of the past week and read some very personal opinions on them. This week’s Carnival is the 92nd, and you can find it here…

http://thelaunchpad.xprize.org/2009/02/carnival-of-space-92.html

Things that are Easier To See Than Comet Lulin

Another No-Show night for Cumbrian Lulin-spotters. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve more chance of seeing the following than I have of catching a good look at Comet Lulin…

The Tooth Fairy

Father Christmas

Steven Segal’s forhead moving

Eddie Murphy / Jim Carey not playing the same old character in a movie

Leprachauns

A parking space in Kendal

A comedy episode of “Battlestar Galactica”

A politician telling the truth

Someone not dressed in a Matalan shell suit and cheap Argos gold jewelry on The Jeremy Jyle Show

A funny episode of “My Family”

The Loch Ness Monster

The Yeti

UFOs

The Ghost of Elvis

The Ghost of Elvis, and a Yeti, flying a UFO and landing it on top of the Loch Ness Monster, watched by Father Christmas and a crowd of leprachauns and tooth fairies, who are all working as extras on an art house movie featuring Jim Carey and Eddie Murphy

😦

Comet Lulin – The One That Got Away?

Take even a quick look at a handful of amateur astronomy websites and blogs and you’ll learn that Comet Lulin, with its striking green colour and exotically-detailed twin tails – is dazzling observers all around the world.

All over the world except in the UK that is…

I’m starting to think of Lulin as “the one that got away” because ever since the comet started to drift towards Saturn in the sky the UK has been smothered by a great billowy 20000 Tog quilt of cloud, that has refused to budge or even break up just a little to allow us a glimpse of Comet Lulin. I have tried setting my alarm for every hour on the hour for the past three nights – as the bags under my eyes will testify – and every time I’ve got up I’ve found the sky above Kendal was just a dome of dirty orange, streetlights reflecting off low cloud. It’s been so frustrating to see all the gorgeous images of it on Spaceweather.com’s Comet Lulin Gallery and to read all the breathless, giddy reports of its “glorious tail” and its “beautiful colour” but not be able to see a ****** thing…! 😦

Of course, this isn’t unusual for us here in Cumbria. When Comet McNaught was in our western sunset sky, preparing to streak south and dazzle all the southern hemisphere observers, it played a cruel game of hide and seek with clouds and rainstorms, and it took us quite a while to catch up with Comet Holmes when that had its famous “Outburst” last year. Now Lulin is putting on the performance of a decade up there in the sky and we’re missing it. So disappointing, so annoying, so AAARRRGGGHHHHHH!!!!!

The forecast for the next two nights is equally dire, with rain coming in from the NW and lingering. But, just in case it does clear – or if you’re in a part of the world with no cloud after sunset – here’s an updated finder chart for you. Note: the comet’s position is shown for 00.00hrs of that date. And, as ever, click on the image to bring up a full size version.

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The MERs belong to Mars now…

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*** WELCOME TO “CARNIVAL OF SPACE #92 READERS!” ***

My love of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers is well known, both online and offline. There can be few people reading this blog, or who know me through my Outreach talks and astronomical activities, who would disagree with Doug Ellison’s recent Tweet that said “Stu loves the Mars rovers like a fat kid loves cake”! Yep, hands up, guilty as charged. I’ve no problem with standing up in front of the group and saying “My name is Stuart Atkinson, and I’m a rover-hugger.” 

But it took an American friend of mine, Nick Previsich, a fellow member of UMSF, to make me realise something about the Mars rovers that hadn’t previously occurred to me. It should have, it’s so face-slappingly obvious, but for some reason it didn’t. 

Spirit and Opportunity have now effectively been claimed, or absorbed, by Mars. They are now essentially moving pieces of Mars. After 5 years they are now the first true martians. 

How come? Well, They have now spent much more time on Mars than they did on Earth before they were launched. For five long, glorious, frustrating, thrilling years they’ve wandered the surface of Barsoom looking down at rock and up at the Sun and the sky. They’ve even star-gazed, and seen Earth glinting in the twilight. They are now more Of Mars than Of Earth. 

Think about it. The MERs never really experienced – or were exposed to – Earth. They were born, and grew up, inside the sterile, floodlit cavern that is JPL’s High Bay, before being moved, protected from the elements and onlookers like Michael Jackson on a shopping trip, to their rocket rides to Mars. They never saw the Sun shining in Earth’s blue sky; never saw cotton wool clouds drifting overhead; never saw trees swaying in the breeze; never felt cool Californian rain pattering and spattering their backs. They have only ever known the pink sky of Mars above their backs and the red rocks of Mars beneath their wheels. They’ve only ever known a night sky lit by two tiny hurtling moons, not one single snail-paced satellite. 

On Earth, the MERs only drove a handful of metres. On Mars they’ve driven for kilometres…

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After being built their ability to drive was tested, but the ground beneath their gleaming-clean wheels was only ever smooth and kind; on Mars they’ve trundled and rumbled and crunched around and even over an endless parade of rubble, stones and boulders, each chunk of rock casting a long, black shadow in the low light of the shrunken Sun. 

On Earth, before they were sealed in their interplanetary sarcophagi, the MERs were always assaulted by the blinding glare of floodlights and spotlights; on Mars they have been bathed in a softer, gentler light as a smaller, weaker Sun crossed the Big Country sky. 

As for their scenery, well, the MERs were born into a world of metal and glass. They never saw any forms of life apart from the white bunny suit-clad engineers and techs that built them, piece by piece.

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I had a vivid dream once, which has stuck with me ever since and was brought back into sharp snap focus when I visited JPL last year, in which Spirit and Opportunity somehow managed to avoid the dozens of cameras trained on them as they stood in the JPL High Bay and sneaked past all the scientists, tourists and students milling around JPL to escape out into the open air of Pasadena. Once outside they trundled around the campus, like SHORT CIRCUIT’s “Johnny 5”, and they were startled to find Life EVERYWHERE. They were amazed to see plants covering almost every available surface and thriving in every crack in every wall and sidewalk; they marvelled at the sight of the semi-tame, stick-legged deer stalking across the JPL lawns, grazing lazily in the sunshine; they tilted their cameras down and were fascinated to see but more numerous life-forms wriggling across and through the grass flattened beneath their wheels, and when they raised their “eyes” again they were shocked and entranced at the sight of living creatures soaring and wheeling in the air high above them. Finally, before being led back inside again, they trained their microscopes on the dirt beneath them and were left shaking by the sight of the countless bugs and creatures living and dying within it… 

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That was just a dream, of course; the rovers never made a break for it at JPL, and never saw that world… our world. The only landscapes they have ever known have been classically martian, with red rocks and dust everywhere. But the landscape they move through is far from desolate. There is beauty within it, everywhere – dust piled up into undulating seas of high dunes, sculpted by the wind over billions of years; everywhere are rocks carved by Time itself into bizarre forms that could almost be gargoyles that have tumbled from the roofs of ancient martian cathedrals; sunsets and sunrises are lavender-hued; dust devils waltz across the horizon. There is absolutely beauty everywhere… 

Yes, Nick was right, the rovers belong to Mars now. The MERs live on martian time, not Terran time. Every sol they’ve woken up at the first of a martian dawn, and fallen asleep again in the purple gloaming of a martian dusk. Inbetween they’ve roved, explored and simply enjoyed being On Mars, relishing its rusty hues, delighting in its desolation and celebrating every inch of cinnamon-fine iron-scented dust they’ve driven over. 

Something else that occurred to me after Nick’s message was how significant it is that we always, and only, see Spirit and Opportunity as part of the martian landscape now. We see their weary wheels on – and occasionally buried in! – the surface of Mars in their Hazcam images, and we see their solar panel-covered backs in their Nav- and Pancam pictures.

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But in every one of those self-portrait pictures the rovers are sharing the field of view with shattered rocks, plains of dust dunes or the mountainous far horizon. 

But what really brings home the fact that the rovers are now martian is looking at their own “self portraits”. I’m always amazed at how, by combining many different images taken by a rover’s cameras as they point straight down at itself, it is possible for a rover to make a single “overhead view” image of itself. Comparing these images taken at different times during the mission shows just how much the rovers have been absorbed by Mars: images taken early in the mission show the rovers to be almost sparkling clean, showroom clean, with sunlight glinting and flashing off them. Look at this picture, below. Spirit looks black/blue against the ruddy surface of Mars, like a huge, mutant beetle crawling across a rocky sandpit… 

decka712r1-540-419

Images taken recently, however, are very different. In fact, in some of them it’s hard to spot the rovers, they’re now covered in so much dust they’re like metal chameleons that have camouflaged themselves to blend into their surroundings in the hope of fooling some predator stalking nearby… 

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Looking at pictures of poor dust-laden Spirit, like the one above,  taken before her most recent fortuitous “cleaning event” it’s easy to imagine Mars whispering “You’re mine now…” as the rover’s panels slowly but surely vanished beneath a smothering blanket of orange and brown fines… 

But to my mind, the best views of the rovers – and the ones that show me just how completely they have been claimed by Mars – are the ones taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s stunningly powerful HiRISE camera. Only it has the resolution to pick out the Mars rovers on the surface of Mars, and even then, when its spy satellite eagle eye zooms in on Spirit or Opportunity the rovers looks like little more than a cluster of dark pixels against the brighter surface. 

Memorably HiRISE showed is Spirit as a dark barely-there speck on the end of a double line of hair-thin tracks criss-crossing the diamond of Homeplate… (click to enlarge)

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…but even more memorably, HiRISE showed Opportunity standing close to the edge of Victoria Crater after its epic drive south from Endurance. (click to enlarge)

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This portrait was far superior to the HiRISE picture of Spirit, and we all shook our heads in amazement when we could actually make out not just the rough shape of the rover but the shadow of its tall camera mast falling on the dusty ground ahead of it…! (click to enlarge)

opportunity

And it’s that dust, that ever-present, no-escape-from martian dust, that has turned the rovers native. Spirit and Opportunity have “shaken the dirt off their boots” as they’ve driven across Mars, and just like any explorer or geologist here on Earth they have their own unique boot-prints, which they have left in the dirt behind them during the past five years. When looking at pictures taken by both rovers it’s easy to tell which rover took which picture if you lay them side by side, because Spirit’s tracks are decidedly tortured. When her right front wheel jammed the rover was forced to drive backwards, dragging its dead wheel behind it like a lame puppy dragging a broken leg, and this wheel doesn’t so much roll across the ground as plough a trench through it, like the anchor of a ship being dragged across the ocean floor. But as any rover fan knows, the accidental cutting of that meandering, crumbling-edged furrow into the surface of Gusev Crater in the shadow of the Columbia Hills has been a blessing, not a curse; if Spirit’s wheel hadn’t wrecked the ground beneath it we would not have uncovered those lovely, chalk-bright silica-rich mineral deposits at the base of Husband Hill, would we..? (click to enlarge)

trench

Still not convinced the rovers should now be considered to be “martians”? Well, think of it this way. The rovers are now not just covered in dust, they contain it too, they’re carrying it inside them. True, their interiors are sealed as tightly as possible, but dust will still have got inside the wheels, inside the chassis and become lodged into every corner and every tiny nook and cranny. The rovers probably weigh pounds more than they did when they landed on Mars, simply because they’ve accumulated and been infiltrated by so much dust. So, in a way, the rovers have almost become pieces of Mars that are moving around on the surface, like mobile rocks. How strange a thought is that? 

image11

So, next time you read about how the first people born on Mars will be “the first real martians”, think again. Because right now, as you read this, just as they have done for the past five years there are two martians living and working on Mars. It doesn’t matter that they’re machines and not people; it doesn’t matter that they were built on Earth, and not Mars; it doesn’t matter that they’re controlled by people many millions of miles closer to the Sun than they are. They’re On Mars. 

And whenever the first men and women travel to that distant red star, and hop off the ladder to plant their boots in its crushed strawberry dust, they’ll be following in the tracks of two intrepid explorers which were everything Ray Bradbury hoped the martians would be.

Looking for Lulin…

I’m beginning to think I have had my one and only look at Comet Lulin.

For the past 5 days the UK has been covered in a smothering, impenetrable blanket of cloud, and Comet Lulin – which is, of course, leaving observers all over the rest of the world drooling – is hidden above it. I know it’s there, I can sense it’s there, but can I see it? No.

I set my alarm to go off every hour on the hour through last night in the hope that I’d pull back the curtain and see at least gaps in the cloud cover, but no, every time I looked outside the sky above Kendal resembled the inside of a planetarium before the house lights go down – a huge dome of dirty, mucky orange. The forecast is for more cloud and even some rain, so I think I’m going to miss the Great Conjunction between the comet and Saturn tonight, and will miss Lulin’s greatest brightness, too.

You know, it’s at times like this when – even though it has given me so much, and shown me so many wonders – that I absolutely HATE astronomy.

What makes it worse is knowing that if I packed in astronomy and took up cloud-spotting instead, every night would be clear…! 😉

Venus Watch report

One word, really: NOTHING!

Of COURSE we saw nothing, come on. After a completely overcast yucky day, half an hour before we were due to start looking at Venus the sky started to clear and I wasn’t the only member of the Eddington Astronomical Society who thought “Yeah, we’ll be ok!”… but at 6pm when the Venus Watch began the sky was almost black with cloud again, and Venus was playing a spiteful game of Hide and Seek with us, peeping out from behind a roiling bank of dirty black cloud for a few seconds at a time before running away again, laughing. I caught one fleeting glimpse of it through my poorly 4.5” telescope, but it wasn’t even long enough to let em FOCUS it, and at 6.50pm we admitted defeat and headed home. Shame, as even with the poor conditions around a dozen people turned up, hoping to see something. Oh well, all you can ever do is pick a night and cross your fingers – and if it’s clear, it’s clear, there’s nothing you can do about it.

I had hoped to spot Comet Lulin again overnight but the sky above Kendal was a murky light-polluted orange dome all night, so no cance of that. Fingers crossed for tonight, when the comet will start to drift beneath Saturn. Of course, I don’t have a scope to look at it through, which is a pain, but I’m sure it will be worth looking at thru my trusty binocs.

If anyone reading this wants to look, here’s a good sky chart to help you find the comet…

http://media.skyandtelescope.com/documents/Comet_Lulin_Feb13.pdf

That’s a PDF file, you’ll notice. Print it out, and you’ll be set. But basically all you have to do for the next couple of nights is find Saturn, shining beneath the left side of Leo, and then scan around it with your binocs – when you see a misty, elongated blur you’ve found Comet Lulin. 🙂

Carnival time again…

This weeks’ Carnival of Space is the 91st, and it’s being held over at NEXT BIG FUTURE. So, if you want to catch up on the best of the week’s space blogging, go take a look!

Comet Lulin spotted finally!

I just caught my first glimpse of the elusive Comet Lulin! Well, it’s been elusive from Kendal because of a week of cloudy nights, but many people have seen it elsewhere. But tonight it was my turn – I saw it through my trusty pair of 10×50 binocs whilst standing in the middle of Abbot Hall Park. The sky was rather misty and badly light polluted with glow from the lights illuminating the nearby Parish Church, but I found it right away. In binocs it was definitely an elongated object, not a round one, but I can’t honestly say I detected any green tinge. I’m hoping for a much better view around 4am when the comet will be higher in the sky, and above all the murk and light pollution…! And as an added bonus I managed to see Saturn through my ‘scope, and the rings are now almost not there! Titan was a little sequin off to the right, but the air rising up from the house opposite was boiling too much to allow me to see anything else. Nice to see it again though! 🙂

UPDATE: Took another look at 2am but the sky had grown a little misty, so the comet was actually harder to see. But I did see it, through binocs, even though it took averted vision to pull it out of the background, so quite pleased with two sightings in one night! That’s the good news… the bad news is that my telescope broke last night! 😦 Not the whole thing, not the mirror or anything tinkly, but the focusser tube decided that with a bright comet in the sky, Saturn’s rings closing up and a big IYA event tomorrow night it would be a GREAT time to strip part of its gear. Typical. 😦

Hello Hellas…!

The latest batch of images released by the team behind the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter includes a picture of layered outcrops on the floor of a crater in the northern part of the huge Hellas Basin. I found a beautiful section of the image that deserved… well, a little extra attention, so I croppesd it, colourised it and generally messed about with it until it looked a little more realistic and “martian”… here it is – just click on it to bring up a full size version…

hirise-feb-191

Back To Jupiter…!

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NASA has chosen its next “flagship” (translation: mega-expensive and complicated) mission, and it has decided to go with a big mission to Jupiter and its moons called “The Europa Jupiter System Mission” , which it will run in partnership with the European Space Agency.

(I know what you’re thinking, “That’s a rubbish name for a mission!” but stop worrying, it’s just a working name for it for now, “EJSM” will almost certainly be given a scientist’s name long before it launches.)

The announcement was made yesterday, and it was met with a mixture of celebration and disappointment, because there was something of a competition going on between two teams of scientists, with one team passionate about returning to Jupiter with a state-of-the-art probe to look at Jupiter and its fascinating moons with the hi-tech kit we have available now, and another team just as passionate about returning to Saturn and looking at its huge moon Titan in more detail, following on from the fantastically successful Cassini mission. In the end, NASA went for a Jupiter mission as the next definite mission, but also said that the  Titan mission was a candidate for the next major mission after that, and development work on it should and would continue.

Before looking at this in more personal terms, here’s NASA Press Release from yesterday, in case you missed it:

 

At a meeting in Washington last week, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and European Space Agency officials decided to continue pursuing studies of a mission to Jupiter and its four largest moons, and to plan for another potential mission to visit Saturn’s largest moon Titan and Enceladus.

Both of these proposed missions are grand endeavors that set the stage for future planetary science research. These outer planet flagship missions could eventually answer questions about how our solar system formed and whether life exists elsewhere in the universe.

The missions, called the Europa Jupiter System Mission and the Titan Saturn System Mission, are the result of NASA and ESA merging their separate mission concepts. NASA originally studied four mission concepts during 2007, which were narrowed down to two proposals in 2008. One finalist was a Europa Orbiter to explore that icy moon of Jupiter and its subsurface water ocean. The other was a Titan Orbiter to visit the Saturn moon. Independently, in 2007, ESA also initiated a competition to select its flagship mission for the Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 slot of the ESA scientific programme. Two finalists, called Laplace and Tandem, were selected by ESA for further study. Laplace was a set of spacecraft to orbit Jupiter and eventually orbit and land on Europa. Tandem was a set of spacecraft intended to orbit Titan and explore its surface, after also exploring the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

NASA and ESA engineers and scientists carefully studied both potential missions in preparation for last week’s meeting. Based on these and other studies as well as stringent independent assessment reviews, NASA and ESA agreed that the Europa Jupiter System Mission, called Laplace in Europe, was the most technically feasible to do first. However, ESA’s Solar System Working Group concluded the scientific merits of this mission and a Titan Saturn System Mission could not be separated. The group recommended, and NASA agreed, that both missions should move forward for further study and implementation.

“The decision means a win, win situation for all parties involved,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Although the Jupiter system mission has been chosen to proceed to an earlier flight opportunity, a Saturn system mission clearly remains a high priority for the science community.”

Both agencies will need to undertake several more steps and detailed studies before officially moving forward.

“This joint endeavour is a wonderful new exploration challenge and will be a landmark of 21st Century planetary science,” said David Southwood, ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. “What I am especially sure of is that the cooperation across the Atlantic that we have had so far and we see in the future, between America and Europe, NASA and ESA, and in our respective science communities is absolutely right. Let’s get to work.”

New Exploration Challenges at Jupiter and Saturn

The Europa Jupiter System Mission would use two robotic orbiters to conduct unprecedentedly detailed studies of the giant gaseous planet Jupiter and its moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. NASA would build one orbiter, initially named Jupiter Europa. ESA would build the other orbiter, initially named Jupiter Ganymede. The probes would launch in 2020 on two separate launch vehicles from different launch sites. The orbiters would reach the Jupiter system in 2026 and spend at least three years conducting research.

Europa has a surface of ice, and scientists theorize it has an ocean of water beneath that could provide a home for living things. Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system, is the only moon known to have its own internally generated magnetic field and is suspected to have a deep undersurface water ocean. Scientists long have sought to understand the causes of the magnetic field. Callisto’s surface is extremely heavily cratered and ancient, providing a clear indication of a record of events from the early history of the Solar System. Finally, Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system.

The orbiters would spend nearly a year orbiting Europa and Ganymede. NASA’s probe would investigate whether Europa might harbor life, and ESA’s spacecraft would orbit Ganymede to conduct investigations of the surface and interior of this satellite, to better understand the formation and evolution of the Jovian system.

The Titan Saturn System Mission would consist of a NASA orbiter and an ESA lander and research balloon. The complex mission faces several technical challenges requiring significant study and technology development. NASA will continue studying and developing those technologies. Future work also will provide important input into the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which will serve as a roadmap for new NASA planetary missions to begin after 2013. On the European side, the interested community of scientists will have to re-submit the Titan mission at the next opportunity for mission proposals in the Cosmic Vision programme in the years to come.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will manage NASA’s contributions to the projects for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. ESA’s Directorate of Science and Robotic Exploration will manage the European contribution to the Jupiter mission.

——————————————————————

So, cutting a long story short, what are we actually talking about here?

Well, in 2020 – about the same time NASA is planning to send astronauts Back To The Moon – two rockets will blast off, from different sites, each one carrying a spaceproeb bound for Jupiter. Six years later the probes would enter the Jovian system and go into orbit around its Galilean satellites, Io, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto, paying particular attention to two of those moons, namely Europa and Ganymede. They’d also, of course, study and photograph the other two Galileans, and the planet Jupiter itself, too. The primary mission would last three years, but obviously – as has been the case with every space mission for the past decade or so – they’d be hoping for, and confident of, having their mission extended, allowing more science to be returned.

So, what’s the appeal of the Jovian System? Why have Europa and Ganymede beaten Titan in this competition?

Well, basically, it comes down to one word – LIFE. “The Hunt For Life” is now one of NASA’s driving forces, and the discovery of life on another body in our solar system now has to be the Holy Grail of 21st century science. We might just wrap our evolved monkey paw fingers around that Grail by exploring the largest moons of Jupiter, because scientists are now pretty confident that both Ganymede and Europa have “subsurface oceans” – oceans of water beneath their surfaces. If that’s true, then there’s a very real possibility that given the right conditions in those oceans – heat and light from the Sun, nutrients of some kind, etc – life might exist in them. Probably not very advanced life… not whales or sharks or even fish, more like krill or plankton, or swaying, wavy fronds of alien plants, something like that – but life nonetheless.

How big are these moons? Well, let’s look at a picture showing them to scale, with Earth and our own Moon…

moons-edit-s

 

 

 

(Note: that’s a crop of a HUGE brilliant image I found on the internet a while ago, I use it a lot in my Outreach talks and you can find the full size version here.)

Ganymede is the largest moon in the whole solar system, and is not an awful lot smaller than the planet Mars, if you look at the picture above. It certainly dwarfs Earth’s own Moon. It is a huge ball of ice and rock that looks like a ball of frozen coffee, or Coke. Many planetary scientists are fascinated by Ganymede because of its size and because of the features visible on its surface, features like this…

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… and these…

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Ganymede is a world of grooves and ridges, craters and pits. It has really, really taken a battering over time. Any 21st century probe going there will take breathtaking images of spectacularly-fractured landscapes. I can’t wait to see new, close-up pictures of its surface! (But I know I’ll have to, as the probe won’t start snapping away until 2026! Eek! I’ll be 61! 61!!!!!!)

But as interesting as Ganymede is, the star of the 2020 mission would undoubtedly be Europa… and it’s the reason why I’ve always been a supporter of a Jupiter-bound mission instead of a Saturn/Titan follower.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I love the Saturn system, and I ove Titan too. What’s not to love about a planet-sized satellite that has its own atmosphere, coastlines, lakes and maybe ice volcanoes, too? But Titan is, well, it’s a smoggy, chemical-spill of a world, and it just seems designed to be as awkward as possible for scientists to study it in any detail. True, the proposed Titan mission sounds thrilling – who wouldn’t be thrilled to the point of blacking-out by the prospect of seeing pictures from a probe that has just splash-landed in one of Titan’s methane lakes, or from a balloon that is drifting over Titan’s plains – but that sounds like a very, very tough challenge to me. It will happen one day, I’m sure, but maybe not for another three decades… and I can’t wait that long!

But Europa…

Europa is one of my favourite worlds in the solar system. It’s captivated and fascinated me ever since I saw those first fuzzy Voyager images of it back in the days of Charlie’s Angels. (Oops, showing my age now!) We now know that Europa is an Antarctic World, a world of awe-inspiring topography. It has icebergs and ice cliffs; grooves and channels; crevices and crevasses. It has features on its mottled, fractured, colour-spattered surface like these…

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This is one of the highest resolution views we have of Europa, showing ice cliffs towering over a vast, icy plain…

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And those images, which are pretty good, were taken with old technology, cameras nowhere near as good as the kit we have today! Just imagine the stunning images we’ll see when EJSM starts taking pictures… we’ll zoom in on those jagged edged icebergs… see right into the fractures and pits and grooves… catch sunlight glinting off the vast ice plains… see Jupiter looming over Europa’s horizon, just as it’s been shown in space art for all these years…

Of course, these pictures are all a long, long way ahead. There’ll be no pictures until 2026, and that’s only if the mission goes according to plan and there are no engineering/budgetary/political problems. But even though this mission is so far in the future we almost need the Tardis to see it, it’s still inspiring and exciting to imagine the wonders we’ll see. – and wonder what kind of world we’ll all be living in then. As I said, I’ll be 61… how badly will Earth and mankind have been affected by global warming and economic hardship? What will the political situation be? Will China already have beaten the US to the Moon, and be in the process of training astronauts for a manned expedition to Mars? Will we have the first picture of an Earth-like extrasolar planet? Will we have detected a signal from another civilisation from deep space?

Roll on 2026!