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Posted on April 5th, 2016

Out of This World – Pictures from Space

The Universe is incomparably large, unimaginably so, and there is a vastness of time and distance yet to be explored. Humans have fashioned sensors to gather data as far as they can see into time to find habitable planets and exploding stars. At the same time, we are still unraveling the many mysteries of our nearest neighbors in our own galaxy, seeking answers to questions we do not yet know.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is celebrating ten years over Mars and a decade’s worth of insight and information on our closest neighbor. MRO’s most notable and widely published discovery is research that suggests there may be liquid water on Mars that flows on a seasonal basis. The extended mission has allowed researchers to see how the planet changes during different times of year and over a period of time. The briny water would not have been discovered without such a long-term mission and with all six of its sensors in working order. MRO has also seen new craters, dust storms and avalanches as well as unveiling secrets of its past composition before Mars lost its atmosphere. The satellite has captured thousands of images of the Martian surface using its HiRISE sensor; while they are meant for research purposes, they are also some of the most beautiful images of the alien landscape and were put together in a short video by NASA to commemorate ten years in orbit:

NASA and JPL created this video extolling the accomplishments of the MRO as well as some of its images returned to Earth. (Video Credit: NASA/Cal-Tech/ University of Phoenix/JPL)

Ever since New Horizons zoomed past Pluto, collecting a plethora of information on the icy planet, researchers have delved deep into the data that was sent back to Earth. The images of Pluto show a dwarf planet with very distinct boundaries and regions, for example a heart-shaped icy plateau named the Sputnik Planum is flanked by a dark-colored region roughly the size of Alaska, called Cthulhu. Recently researchers have found a mountain range in this region. The mountain peaks even have the appearance of snow on their peaks, covered in a bright material that contrasts easily with the dark surface. Researchers believe that this material could be methane condensed in to ice. On Pluto, methane could operate much like water on Earth, freezing at high altitudes.

Much further away, the Kepler space telescope has detected the shockwave of an exploding star. The Kepler mission is intended to detect earth-like planets, however the data collected by the telescope can be used to detect other phenomenon in the visible spectrum. Researchers analyzed data from a three year period and 500 galaxies looking for a supernovae. They were lucky enough to see two red supergiants explode; the first one was 300 times the size of our sun and the second was 500 times the size of the sun. Both of them are Type II supernovae, where the internal fuel supply of the star runs out and gravity forces the star to implode, sending out a massive shockwave that lasts about 20 minutes from our perspective. During observation the two supernovae displayed different traits, giving the researchers a new puzzle to unravel. Supernovas like these create all the heavy elements in the Universe like nickel, silver and copper which we can find in our own bodies. It is no little exaggeration to say we are all made of stars.

This animation depicts a red supergiant imploding and then sending out an immense shockwave. (Credit: NASA Ames, STScI/G. Bacon)

The universe is full of mysteries, and like the ocean, we continue to delve into its depths to find the answer that we seek. As humans, our desire for knowledge will never cease and we go on searching the night sky, looking for a brighter future.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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