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Mars Perseverance took a sad lonely photo of broken Ingenuity

And other space news this week!

Welcome to Space News from Ad Astra! I’m your host, Swapna Krishna. Let’s break down what happened in space, spaceflight, and space science news this week!

This week:

Mimas may have a subsurface ocean

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Let’s start this week with Saturn’s Death Star moon, Mimas, which scientists revealed this week may have a recently formed subsurface ocean.

You may be familiar with Saturn’s moon Mimas because of what it looks like. This small moon with an icy crust has an uncanny resemblance to a certain ominous spaceship from a galaxy far, far away.

Copyright: Disney/Star Wars

The little moon is just roughly 250 miles across and isn’t even big enough to really be spherical — it’s more of an oval. It’s the smallest and innermost of Saturn’s moons, and the surface is pockmarked with craters.

Mimas next to Saturn’s rings, Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

According to NASA, the impact that created Mimas’s most distinctive crater likely almost broke the moon apart. The crater covers a 1/3 of the moon’s face.

Now, scientists have published a paper in Nature in which they analyze Mimas’s orbital mechanics to try and figure out WHAT is going on under the surface. Mimas’s orbit is weird — while it’s tidally locked to Saturn (meaning that, like our own moon, one side of it always face its host planet), there are some “wobbles” in its orbit. According to the Cassini spacecraft, sometimes Mimas’ rotation is faster than average, other times it’s slower.

Artist’s rendering of Cassini, credit: NASA-JPL

Scientists tried to reconcile what we know about Mimas’s orbit and rotation, and the thing that explained the most features of the planet’s orbital mechanics is a subsurface ocean located 12 to 18 miles below its icy surface. Modeling indicates that the ocean is only a few million years old — it could be as old as 25 million years, or as young as 2 million years, which in cosmic years means that ocean is very very recent.

The question is why don’t we see any evidence of this subsurface ocean, which apparently comprises at least half of Mimas’s volume, on the surface? After all, Saturn’s moon Enceladus also has a subsurface oceans, and we see jets from that emerge occasionally.

Enceladus’s jets, credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Scientists think it’s because the icy crust on Mimas is so thick that the water underneath the surface hasn’t penetrated it yet. That’s why this has been a mystery until now.

Mimas isn’t the only moon in the news this week.

New photos of Jupiter’s moon Io are stunning

We have the sharpest photos of Jupiter’s moon Io that we’ve gotten in a decade, thanks to NASA’s Juno spacecraft.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Emma Wälimäki

You can see Io here, which is a volcanically active moon, and the third largest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons.

It’s got hundreds of volcanic eruptions going on, which is why the surface is so smooth - unlike Mimas, it’s constantly renewing itself.

The line on this photo is the planet’s terminator — separating its night side from its day side, so the line doesn’t physically exist on the planet. It’s just that the right side of the planet from our perspective is experiencing daytime.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS, Image processing by Ted Stryk

Usually it would look like the above photo to us, but the reflection of sunlight from Jupiter is actually illuminating Io’s night side, which is why you can see both sides of the planet.

The details in the original picture are astounding. You can see lava lakes with islands in them, mountains and their shadows . . . and even an active volcanic plume which is hard to see, but we’ll get a better view in a minute.

One cool thing NASA does is that they release images like this to the public and then ask anyone who wants to to process the photo and then share it. Scientific discoveries can be made through processing a photo a certain way.

Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Navaneeth Krishnan S

This enhanced false color image from Navaneeth Krishnan makes it a lot easier to pick out Io’s surface features, especially on the night side.

Credit: NASA / JPL / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Thomas Thomopoulos

While this incredible photo from Thomas Thomopolous gives the moon incredible depth

Credit: NASA / JPL / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Thomas Thomopoulos

This crop highlights the volcanic plume at the top of the image.

OSIRIS-REx asteroid samples may be from an ocean world

Moving from moons to asteroids, could the asteroid Bennu be a fragment of an ancient ocean world???

Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

I promised an update on OSIRIS-REx’s sample return mission from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, and now we have one. You may recall the last time I mentioned it, the sample container had finally been open after the team struggled with some stuck bolts.

They’ve had some time with the open container now, and now Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the mission, says that after some analysis, Bennu might not be an asteroid at all. It might be a piece of an ancient planet.

OSIRIS-REx open sample container, credit: NASA

In an interview with Space.com, Lauretta told reporter Leonard David that the team is working on their analysis of the asteroid sample, and one thing that has surprised them is that the sample appears to indicate a phosphate crust. We’ve never seen this in a meteorite before. Lauretta said that his hypothesis is that “Asteroid Bennu may be a fragment of an ocean world.” Of course he emphasized this is just speculation, but it does fit what the team has found.

Over the next few months, we’re probably going to get inundated with the preliminary analysis from the Bennu sample material, and I’m really excited for that to happen.

Perseverance snapped a sad photo of Ingenuity, alone

In sad news, let’s talk about Ingenuity. You might remember a couple of weeks ago, we said our goodbyes to the little helicopter that could, Mars Ingenuity.

The helicopter was only designed to fly 5 missions over 30 days, but instead it managed 72 flights over three years. On its last flight on January 18, 2024, it came down hard at an angle and broke one of its rotors, so it can no longer fly. Engineers at NASA’s JPL are still working with the little helicopter, though its mission is officially over.

Credit: NASA-JPL

Now, the rover Perseverance has spotted its broken friend.

The two arrived on the red planet together, landing in the Jezero Crater in February 2021, and on February 4, Perseverance snapped this photo with MASTCAM-Z.

High up on the hill in the top left of the image, Credit: NASA-JPL

It’s sad and lonely on that hill, but until Perseverance moves out of communication range, we’ll still keep tabs on the little helicopter.

It’s been a hard month for saying goodbye to spacecraft — we may have also said goodbye to Japan’s moon lander SLIM forever.

SLIM, Japan’s moon lander, sends back an eerie photo

Last week I talked about Japan’s moon lander shutting down after getting a brief charge to its solar cells.

But before it signed off, it sent back one last haunting photo of the lunar surface:

Credit: JAXA

The eerie photo features the sloped sides of the Shioli crater with shadows surrounding it as the sun sets on the lunar surface. Night on the moon lasts two weeks, and can get as cold as -200 degrees F, which SLIM isn’t designed for. We’ll see if it manages to wake back up

PACE, the almost-cancelled atmosphere mission, lifts off

It’s easy to forget that NASA doesn’t just study other planets and the greater universe — the organization also takes a close look at our own planet. That’s why the agency launched the PACE mission this week. It’s a brand new satellite that will take an intimate look at microscopic particles and marine life to understand the smallest of our planet’s ecosystems.

PACE stands for Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem, and the mission lifted off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 1:33 am ET on Thursday from Cape Canaveral, FL. The mission is to study how phytoplankton can serve as indicators for ocean health and global warming.

It’s not a mission that focuses on one thing — it’s not just atmosphere, or ocean, or land, it’s all those things. The scientist working on the mission are hoping to make the invisible world visible, and understand how it interacts with the world we see with our own eyes.

Intuitive Machines lunar lander launching next week

Another big launch is currently scheduled for next week. SpaceX will launch the Intuitive Machines lunar lander on February 14 at 12:57 am ET. If you want to watch, you should be able to do so on NASA’s YouTube channel.

Credit: NASA/Intuitive Machines

This lander is part of NASA’s CLPS, which is an initiative to partner with commercial companies to figure out ways to deliver payloads to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program.

Credit: Intuitive Machines

If the NOVA-C lander successfully makes it to the moon (which is a big if — remember what happened to Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, which was also part of the same program?), the landing will happen on February 22. If, and again IF because this is not even close to a sure thing, Intuitive Machines successfully lands NOVA-C on the moon, that will be the first private company to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon.

Updates on the next SpaceX Starship launch

Speaking of SpaceX, we’re quickly approaching the next flight of Starship. The company aims to test its super heavy lift rocket and spaceship sometime this month (for more on Starship, check out my explainer video). The company is just waiting on a launch license from the FAA, but they shared a cool photo of their Super Heavy boosters recently.

Credit: SpaceX

The first test launch of the rocket occurred last April, and was relatively successful for a test launch. The company initiated self destruct after the first stage failed to separate. The second test, in November, saw a successful first stage separation but ended after eight minutes, rather than the 90 minutes the company had planned.

Starship isn’t without controversy. SpaceX’s founder and CEO is constantly in the news, but even beyond that, there are real enviromental concerns about the launch. The first launch flung an unprecedented amount of debris for miles around the launch site.

Credit: SpaceX

But also, Starship is crucial to NASA’s plans to land on the moon with Artemis 3. HLS, or human landing system, which is supposed to take astronauts to the moon’s surface is contracted to SpaceX and is just a variant of Starship, so getting Starship up and running is important if we want to land humans on the moon by the end of the decade.

NASA recently announced delays to its Artemis program partially because of the challenges its partners were having with hardware, including SpaceX’s Starship. It’s complicated.

And that’s the space news I wanted to highlight this week!