Tag Archives: NASA


Aging space probe records odd emanations on Mercury

Aging space probe records odd emanations on Mercury

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Aging space probe records odd emanations on Mercury
Rich oversees Science‘s international coverage.

Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In an unusual press conference here today, NASA released a batch of bizarre sound recordings and video from the Messenger spacecraft moments before it impacted the surface of Mercury. Scientists are struggling to decipher what the data mean, but some contend they sound like human voices crying out in agony.

Messenger had been orbiting Mercury since 2011, but it used up nearly all of its propellant and was drifting closer to the surface of the planet. So last week, NASA officials decided to point the probe nose downward for a controlled crash. “We were hoping it would kick up some soot for spectroscopic analysis,” says Messenger Principal Investigator Angra Mainyu, a planetary scientist at Columbia University. Just what it did find instead is not entirely clear.

At the press conference, Mainyu played grainy recordings of what sounded like anguished voices in various languages. And she showed even grainier images of what appeared to be writhing figures. When asked by a reporter how NASA interpreted the data, Mainyu shrugged her shoulders and said, “How the hell should I know?”

Reactions to the news were swift and, in some cases, decisive. Welcoming what he called “ineluctable evidence of hell,” Father Felix Flammis, a spokesperson for the Vatican Observatory in Italy, said: “This wonderful discovery shows that science and religion can work together to discover the truth.” But Richard Dawkins, the famed evolutionary biologist and atheist, rejected the finding. “This is clearly a bunch of drivel,” he says. “Wind whistling past the spacecraft, electronic noise—there obviously has to be some other explanation.” Even if the evidence holds up, he quips, “proof of the devil ain’t the same as proof of God.”

The findings are somewhat of a surprise, because Venus had long been the leading contender, in our solar system at any rate, for harboring Hades. With a mean surface temperature of 462°C, an oppressive atmosphere, and sulfuric acid rains, it certainly seems to fit biblical descriptions. “Plus, it’s much closer to Earth, so lost souls would be only a hop, skip, and a jump from hell,” says Thor Kölski, an astrophysicist at the University of the Valkyrs in Reykjavik. Kölski has pinpointed the likely epicenter of hell as Venus’s Ganiki Chasma, a rift zone where infrared flashes were first observed last year—phenomena that he asserts are new arrivals to the underworld.

Still others think there may be multiple hells within our solar system. “Everything we know about string theory tells us that the ‘Many Hells theory’ isn’t only plausible, it highly likely,” says Franklyn Stein, a theoretical physicist at University College London.

Luminaries in the scientific community are by and large embracing the notion of hell. Even Stephen Hawking is on board. The cosmologist stirred controversy in 2010, when he wrote in his book The Grand Design that “[i]t is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” Earlier today, Hawking tweeted: “The devil is a different story. All hail Messenger!”

The discovery should provide a major shot in the arm to NASA, whose fortunes in Washington have faded since it retired the space shuttles in 2011. “This is a proud day for the space agency,” says Don Tey, a spokesperson for the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, who insists that it’s merely a coincidence that the announcement was made on April Fools’ Day. “Congress told NASA to go to hell, and, by Jove, they made it.”

Posted in Space



I’ve been advocating for exploring the oceans of other worlds for years. And I’ve written fictional stories about it. Very, very good to see them preparing.


In a sneak peek of a possible future mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, NASA has showcased their vision of a robotic submersible that could explore the moon’s vast lakes of liquid methane and ethane.

VIDEO: Can a Moon be Older Than its Planet?

Studying Titan is thought to be looking back in time at an embryonic Earth, only a lot colder. Titan is the only moon in the solar system to have a significant atmosphere and this atmosphere is known to possess its own methane cycle, like Earth’s water cycle. Methane exists in a liquid state, raining down on a landscape laced with hydrocarbons, forming rivers, valleys and seas.

Several seas have been extensively studied by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during multiple flybys, some of which average a few meters deep, whereas others have depths of over 200 meters (660 feet) — the maximum depth at which Cassini’s radar instrument can penetrate.

So, if scientists are to properly explore Titan, they must find a way to dive into these seas to reveal their secrets.

ANALYSIS: Cassini Watches Clouds Blow Over Titan’s Sea

At this year’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium, a Titan submarine concept was showcased by NASA Glenn’s COMPASS Team and researchers from Applied Research Lab.

Envisaged as a possible mission to Titan’s largest sea, Kracken Mare, the autonomous submersible would be designed to make a 90 day, 2,000 kilometer (1,250 mile) voyage exploring the depths of this vast and very alien marine environment. As it would spend long periods under the methane sea’s surface, it would have to be powered by a radioisotope generator; a source that converts the heat produced by radioactive pellets into electricity, much like missions that are currently exploring space, like Cassini and Mars rover Curiosity.

Communicating with Earth would not be possible when the vehicle is submerged, so it would need to make regular ascents to the surface to transmit science data.

ANALYSIS: Cassini Spies Wind-Rippled Sea on Titan

But Kracken Mare is not a tranquil lake fit for gentle sailing — it is known to have choppy waves and there is evidence of tides, all contributing to the challenge. Many of the engineering challenges have already been encountered when designing terrestrial submarines — robotic and crewed — but as these seas will be extremely cold (estimated to be close to the freezing point of methane, 90 Kelvin or -298 degrees Fahrenheit), a special piston-driven propulsion system will need to be developed and a nitrogen will be needed as ballast, for example.

This study is just that, a study, but the possibility of sending a submersible robot to another world would be as unprecedented as it is awesome.

Although it’s not clear at this early stage what the mission science would focus on, it would be interesting to sample the chemicals at different depths of Kracken Mare.

ANALYSIS: Titan’s ‘Magic Island’ Appeared Mysteriously From the Depths

“Measurement of the trace organic components of the sea, which perhaps may exhibit prebiotic chemical evolution, will be an important objective, and a benthic sampler (a robotic grabber to sample sediment) would acquire and analyze sediment from the seabed,” the authors write (PDF). “These measurements, and seafloor morphology via sidescan sonar, may shed light on the historical cycles of filling and drying of Titan’s seas. Models suggest Titan’s active hydrological cycle may cause the north part of Kraken to be ‘fresher’ (more methane-rich) than the south, and the submarine’s long traverse will explore these composition variations.”

A decade after the European Huygens probe landed on the surface of Titan imaging the moon’s eerily foggy atmosphere, there have been few plans to go back to this tantalizing world. It would be incredible if, in the next few decades, we could send a mission back to Titan to directly sample what is at the bottom of its seas, exploring a region where the molecules for life’s chemistry may be found in abundance.


Good if it is a faulty sensor or relay.

Gas leak scare triggers International Space Station evacuation

Nasa says there is ‘no hard data’ to suggest a leak, and that the most likely culprit is a ‘faulty sensor or computer relay’

Astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been evacuated to the Russian segment of the station after alarms were triggered that can “sometimes be indicative of an apparent ammonia leak.” Although an earlier report from Russia’s Federal Space Agency claimed that there were “harmful emissions,” Nasa has since clarified that “there is no hard data to suggest that there was a real ammonia leak” and that the problem is likely “a faulty sensor or computer relay.”

Nasa reports that onboard crew — comprising two American astronauts, one Italian astronaut, and three Russian cosmonauts — followed normal safety procedures and donned gas masks, moving to the Russian half of the ISS and sealing the American segment behind them. The flight control team in Houston reports that crew members are in “excellent shape” and that all other systems onboard the ISS are functioning perfectly.

Canadian astronaut and former ISS crew member Chris Hadfield tweeted that a leaking coolant system was one of the “big three” emergencies that astronauts train for on the station. “Ammonia is used for cooling through pipes & heat exchangers on the outside of Station,” said Hadfield. “We train for it & the crew and MCC [mission control center] have responded well.” He added that the other big emergencies were “fire/smoke” and “contaminated atmosphere/medical.”

NASA is currently updating the situation and says that the most likely cause at this point in time is “a faulty sensor or computer relay.”

Update January 4th, 8:23AM ET: This article was amended to reflect the latest reports from NASA suggesting that the alarm was falsely triggered.