News from the asteroid belt

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I thought it was about time for another space-themed blog today, so here are some interesting recent finds.

Ceres' Haulani Crater, from 240 miles up (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
Ceres’ Haulani Crater, from 240 miles up (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

First, here is a high-resolution NASA picture of Haulani Crater on Ceres, taken from an orbital altitude of under 400 km.  The crater is about 21 miles in diameter, so would comfortably fit inside the M25 motorway around London. The level of detail is quite extraordinary, showing not only surface features such as landslides, but also allowing some inferences about the relative age of the different portions.

The scattering of bright spots on the surface of the asteroid has excited a great deal of conversation since they were first identified as Dawn drew closer on its long journey. Even with the close-up views, uncertainty remains, and probably will do until such point as something can actually land there. Meanwhile, the best guess is that they reveal traces of chemical deposits, probably some kind of salt. When you read of the asteroidal settlements called the Scilly Isles in Far from the Spaceports, imagine scenes like this out on the surface…

Pluto’s atmosphere, backlit by the sun (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Pluto’s atmosphere, backlit by the sun (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Atmosphere! When you read old science books, or old science fiction, most moons and similar small objects were believed to be completely airless bodies. Atmospheres were thought to be the province of “real” planets. But the more we have been able to get a close view, the more we realise that atmospheres are the rule rather than the exception. This image shows the view of Pluto captured by the New Horizons probe as it receded further away from the sun – the atmospheric haze extends out to about 80 km, considerably further than anybody had expected.

These atmospheres are generated by a whole mix of local conditions. These include the effects of the distant sun’s warmth driving chemical reactions, nearby bodies flexing the surface slightly, and so squeezing gas out of the rocks, as well as internal chemical or seismological actions. Now, it’s as well to remember the vast majority of the gases found are not only toxic, but also far too thin to be of much use… nevertheless finding them at all has been a surprise.

A 'dust devil' in Marathon Valley, as seen by the Opportunity rover (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
A ‘dust devil’ in Marathon Valley, as seen by the Opportunity rover (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Finally, Mars. A good chunk of my forthcoming book (which currently has working title Timing) is set on Mars and one of its moons, so naturally I have been following discoveries there with interest. Now, our present selection of gadgets on Mars, while extremely clever and carrying out their missions in exemplary manner, come a long way short of what I have in my fictional imagination. Mars in the new novel has a wide variety of different communities, from a financial training college out near the giant mountain Olympus Mons, through to an anarchic and hedonistic settlement at Elysium Planitia. We are some way from achieving those yet, but there’s plenty of time…

That’s it for today. There seems to be plenty to discover out in the solar system. Some of the findings reinforce what was previously believed, but others open up whole new and unexpected areas. Happy reading – both fact and fiction.

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