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Western Slope Skies - Solar System Exploration in 2015


2015 is a banner year for solar system exploration.  Although the European Venus Express Mission and NASA’s Messenger Mission to Mercury are ending, other missions will be gearing up in 2015.  NASA’s New Horizons probe will fly by Pluto in July, and in March, another NASA probe, called Dawn, will enter orbit around Ceres, the largest asteroid and closest Dwarf Planet.  Also, the European Rosetta Mission is continuing to return amazing images and new data from Comet 67P as that Comet becomes more active as it approaches the sun in August.

Not enough excitement for you?  In addition there are 5 active missions now orbiting Mars, and two rovers exploring Mars’ surface.  Last year, NASA’s Curiosity Rover detected a ten-fold increase in methane gas, lasting 2 months, within Mars’ Gale Crater.  On Earth, methane is the major component of natural gas, and it’s mostly produced by bacterial and thermal decomposition of organic matter.  Does Martian methane originate from bacteria?  Or, from a mineral  reaction?  At present, no one knows.  But, NASA’s Curiosity Rover, Europe’s Mars Express, and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission are busy analyzing the Martian atmosphere to find out.  These are exciting times for the study of Mars!     

At Saturn, NASA’s Cassini orbiter continues to return stunning images of the ringed planet and its retinue of moons.  Cassini discovered that Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has lakes of liquid methane.  Cassini also found that Enceladus, one of Saturn’s icy moons, spouts geysers of water ice and vapor hundreds of miles into space.  These geysers may originate from a subsurface ocean, a potential site for microbial life.

Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society.  This episode was written & recorded by Art Trevena.