Space Probes

Pluto and Sputnik Planitia

An article published in the “Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets” reports a study that once again addresses the question of the possibility that the dwarf planet Pluto has or at least had in the past an underground ocean. P. J. McGovern, O. L. White, and P. M. Schenk used data collected by NASA’s New Horizons space probe to analyze in particular the geological features of Sputnik Planitia, a vast basin that makes up the western part of Pluto’s heart-shaped region. The results are important to assess for example the thickness of its lithosphere and how this dwarf planet was formed.

Perspective view of Jovis Tholus

An image captured by ESA’s Mars Express space probe’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HSRC) shows the Jovis Tholus shield volcano on Mars and the surrounding area with its geological features. The Tharsis region where Jovis Tholus is located includes some large volcanoes, first of all, Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system. Jovis Tholus’s interconnected calderas indicate a long period of volcanic activity and the more recent ones, each of which has a slightly lower floor, end up meeting even more recent lava flows. At 1,500 meters high and 58 kilometers in diameter, Jovis Tholus is much smaller than Olympus Mons yet provides a lot of information about the geology of the Tharsis region and its volcanic activity.

Jupiter's North Pole with eight cyclones surrounding a central cyclone

An article published in the journal “Nature Physics” describes similarities between the cyclones present at the planet Jupiter’s poles and the vortices existing in the Earth’s oceans. A team of researchers used images captured by NASA’s Juno space probe of Jupiter cyclones to study them, compare them with similar ocean phenomena, and describe them by applying geophysical fluid dynamics. The conclusion is that Jupiter cyclones are also produced and continue their existence thanks to convection phenomena that lead masses of hot gas to rise and then cool down and descend again into the deeper layers of the Jovian atmosphere.

The Valles Marineris (Image ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

An article published in the journal “Icarus” reports the identification of traces of water in the subsoil of the Valles Marineris, the largest system of canyons on the planet Mars. A team of researchers used data collected by FREND instrument of TGO space probe, part of ESA and Roscosmos’ ExoMars program, to map hydrogen, generally bound to oxygen into water molecules, in the soil’s upper layer. The area marked by the presence of water has a size close to those of the Netherlands, and part of it is located in the valleys of Candor Chasma, in the northern part of the Valles Marineris. That marks the discovery of water in the equatorial regions of Mars, where it was believed that temperatures were not low enough to prevent the sublimation of water so close to the surface.

Coronal streamers

An article published in the journal “Physical Review Letters” reports the passage of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe through the Sun’s atmosphere, under what is called the Alfven critical surface. NASA announced this success, the first for an artificial vehicle, at the annual American Geophysical Union Meeting. It’s a milestone not only for this space probe’s mission but for the study of the Sun in general. Specifically, the Parker Solar Probe passed through what is known as the corona, the upper part of the atmosphere, collecting samples and measuring magnetic fields. The information gathered directly from the solar plasma will help to better understand the processes taking place in the star that, among other things, supports life on Earth and affects the environment on the Earth and the other objects in the solar system.