Tuesday, March 30, 2010 | By: Khush Singh-Celebrity & Indian Bridal Makeup Artist

6 Space Oddities of the Year So Far

(March 28) - Space has been alternately described "the final frontier," "far out," and "trippy"--all apt names for that most alien of environments, festooned with strange sights unlike any found on our own great blue world. That said, when exploring the ether through the eyes of telescopes and robots, scientists occasionally stumble upon something so mysterious that it utterly flabbergasts them. This year has been no different. Here are six recently observed space oddities:

Blueberry Sandwich on Mars
Since NASA's Opportunity Rover landed on the surface of Mars in January 2004, it has taken samples and photographs of many intriguing features of the Martian landscape-- an iron meteorite, evidence of water and microbial life, and strange blueberry-like mineral bodies.
This image from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows a rock called
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity found a Martian rock covered in strange material last week.

But last week, after being granted more autonomy via an upgrade to its artificial intelligence, Opportunity (or "Oppy" as it is affectionately known to NASA scientists) located and photographed a strange looking and unappetizing-sounding "blueberry sandwich" on rocks inside a small crater.

As principal investigator Steve Squyres was quoted by Space.com: "There's dark, grayish material coating faces of the rocks and filling fractures in them. At least part of it is composed of blueberries jammed together as close as you could pack them. We've never seen anything like this before." Furthermore, an initial analysis of the substance did not reveal any indication of its source.

Still, scientists have two disparate hypothesis for what could be behind the creative alien concoction: "One is that the material resulted from partial melting of blueberry-containing sandstone due to the energy of [a meteror's] impact."

The second is that long-ago liquid water flowed through cracks in the rock, dissolving it and "liberating" the blueberries, packing them together before any meteor strike. The crator was formed fairly recently, so that may be why the rover has never encountered a substance quite like this during its six years of activity.

Shifting Spots on Jupiter
Besides being the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter is recognizable primarily for an enormous red blemish on its surface-- the uninspired but accurately titled "Great Red Spot."

Thought to be a hurricane three times the size of Earth and at least 400 years old, the spot persists apparently because "it never comes over land" -- Jupiter has none, being a gas giant -- and is "driven by Jupiter's internal heat source," according to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
This true-color simulated view of Jupiter is composed of 4 images taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on December 7, 2000.
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
These images show swirls of warmer air and cooler regions never seen before within Jupiter's "Great Red Spot."

But a recent image thermal-survey of the spot taken by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile uncovered "surprising weather and temperature variations within the spot," according to MSNBC's Cosmic Log blog.

"We once thought that the Great Red Spot was a plain old oval without much structure, but these new results show that it is, in fact, extremely complicated," said Glenn Orton, who led the team that made the finding.

Indeed, complicated enough that the outside edge spins in the opposite direction from the interior of the spot. Orton also noted that the spot has changed its shape over time, turning from a "sausage" 100 years ago into the "spot" it is today. Eventually it will warp even more into a perfect circle and decrease in intensity.

But as Cosmic Log reported, the greater mystery on Jupiter remains the "Great Black Spot," a pitch-black blemish that surprised scientists last summer by appearing seemingly out of nowhere before quickly vanishing. Fortunately, the Hubble Space telescope managed to snap a photograph, the results of which Orton and his team are now analyzing in a peer-reviewed paper.

Helium Rain on Jupiter
Besides enormous and intriguing hurricanes, Jupiter also enjoys another very odd weather pattern: helium rain, according to the results of recent computer simulations run by researchers at the University of California-Berkley.

Softpedia reports that the find, released on Friday in the journal Physics, actually answers a persistent question that has vexed scientists since 1995. That's when the Galileo space probe first descended into Jupiter's gaseous atmosphere and found only small traces of helium and neon, which should have technically been abundant because they are highly stable.

But one scientist of the time, David J. Stevenson, predicted that the neon was "dissolving in droplets of condensed helium and being lost to the deeper layers" of the planet, according to the L.A. Times. The new results finally confirmed his hypothesis.

Red Rings Around Saturn
Further out in the solar system, another six-year-old robotic probe called Cassini made its own starling discovery recently: Saturn's icy rings are contaminated by an unknown substance that turns them red up close.

"That color may be some kind of organic materials," NASA researcher Jeffery Cuzzi was quoted as saying in the San Francisco Chronicle March 19. "But to me it looks like just plain rust -- iron oxide. How it got there we don't yet know."

A futher mystery prompted by the probe's recent flyby: When exactly were Saturn's rings formed and what was their original composition?

Finding the answers to those questions could help scientists unlock the secrets behind the formation of our own planet and the rest of its neighbors in the solar system. As Space.com put it: "A better understanding of the processes that shape the rings could help planetary scientists understand how planets form, as the ring system around Saturn has proven to be very similar to the disks of gas and dust that form around stars that are thought to give rise to planets.

An Improbably Accurate Asteroid
In January, asteroid watchers were astonished to find that an incoming object headed straight for Earth had been orbiting the sun in exactly the same-sized loop as our planet: a 365-day-long transit.

The precision of the tiny, 10 to 15-meter-long object and the inability to clearly discern what it looked like made some speculate that it was actually a used-up rocket booster discarded from the first European Space Agency exploration mission in 2005, according to Discovery News.
This orbital diagram depicts the trajectory of asteroid 2010 AL30 during its flyby of Earth in the early morning hours of Jan. 13.
NASA/JPL
This orbital diagram depicts the trajectory of asteroid 2010 AL30 during its flyby of Earth in the early morning hours of Jan. 13.

"Probably 2010 AL30 is of natural origin," wrote one ESA analyst on his blog. "However, the possibility that it is man-made cannot be completely excluded. If so, it might be the upper stage of a rocket used in an earlier planetary mission, possibly to Venus."

Still, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory classified it as a "near-earth asteroid," and it ended up missing us by 80,000 miles. It was unlikely to have have done any damage to the inhabitants on the ground, but had it entered Earth's atmosphere, it could have caused an "air burst...somewhere between 2.8 and 7.7 times the force of the atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki," wrote astronomy blogger Joe Bauman.

However, the find did spook the National Academy of Sciences enough to release a report to Congress recommending that the census of near-earth-objects "be expanded to include NEOs between 30 and 50 meters in diameter," reported Earth Science. A 50-meter object entering Earth's atmosphere would reach the surface and create a blast equivalent to one megaton of dynamite, causing tidal waves.

And finally, a few oddly familiar sights:

Earth-Like Exoplanets
Also in January, ScienceDaily triumphantly hailed the discovery of the "most earthlike planet yet found."

It was found by the French Space Agency's Convection Rotation and Planetary Transits Satellite, CoRoT, and thus designated CoRot-7b. The reason scientists were so excited is that it turned out to be much smaller than any known exoplanet, the leftover core of a gas giant that had shed its mass as it moved closer to its star. (Exoplanets are planets that lie beyond our solar system.)
This artist?s impression shows the transiting exoplanet Corot-9b.
ESO/L. Cal├žada
An artist's impression shows the transiting exoplanet Corot-9b. ScienceDaily hailed the discovery of the "most earthlike planet yet found."

Unfortunately, it is also "60 times closer to its star than Earth," so the surface temperature is probably around 3,600 degrees Farenheit during the day, according to one NASA scientist quoted by ScienceDaily. That means that the planet's surface is akin to molten lava, and that it has only the thinnest atmosphere, if any.

This month, the CoRoT satellite observed a gas giant the size of Jupiter some 1,500 light years away, noted Space Daily.

CoRot-9b orbits around its star at a distance more comparable to that of Mercury around our sun, indicating that any moons surrounding it have the potential for liquid water. That fact led USA Today's Science Fair blog to nickname it "Pandora," the name of the paradisical jungle planet depicted in James Cameron's in sci-fi smash film "Avatar."


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