Dive Inside Saturn’s Rings With Gorgeous New NASA Images

The plucky little spacecraft named Cassini is nearing the end of its 13-year journey orbiting Saturn, but it’s still sending back some spectacular postcards. NASA has just released four new extreme close-ups of Saturn’s icy main rings.

Carolyn Porco is Cassini Imaging Team Lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. She and her team are delighted with the new images, some of which get as close as 0.3 miles from the gas giant’s orbiting debris.

"As the person who planned those initial orbit-insertion ring images—which remained our most detailed views of the rings for the past 13 years—I am taken aback by how vastly improved are the details in this new collection," Porco said in a statement for NASA. "How fitting it is that we should go out with the best views of Saturn's rings we've ever collected."

The orbiter will make several dozen passes across the planet and over its rings in the next few months. Its grand finale phase of 22 orbits, which begins on April 26, will plunge the spacecraft straight through the gap between Saturn and its rings.

This is a long-exposure image of the outer edge of Saturn’s B ring, which is subject to the strongest gravitational disturbance in the rings due to the orbit of the moon Mimas.

This is a section of Saturn’s A ring. The specks on the image are caused by cosmic rays and intense radiation. The streaky, slightly larger objects are called propellers and are produced by "the gravity of unseen embedded moonlets," according to NASA.

These stripes or accumulations of particles are called density waves. Astronomers refer to the clumpy areas of disturbance as “straw.” The waves are the result of gravitational pull from Saturn’s moons Janus and Epimetheus.

All images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

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NASA Has a Plan to Stop the Next Asteroid That Threatens Life on Earth

An asteroid colliding catastrophically with Earth within your lifetime is unlikely, but not out of the question. According to NASA, objects large enough to threaten civilization hit the planet once every few million years or so. Fortunately, NASA has a plan for dealing with the next big one when it does arrive, Forbes reports.

According to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] released by the White House on June 21, there are a few ways to handle an asteroid. The first is using a gravity tractor to pull it from its collision course. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a gravity tractor would simply be a large spacecraft flying beside the asteroid and using its gravitational pull to nudge it one way or the other.

Another option would be to fly the spacecraft straight into the asteroid: The impact would hopefully be enough to alter the object's speed and trajectory. And if the asteroid is too massive to be stopped by a spacecraft, the final option is to go nuclear. A vehicle carrying a nuclear device would be launched at the space rock with the goal of either sending it in a different direction or breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Around 2021, NASA will test its plan to deflect an asteroid using a spacecraft, but even the most foolproof defense strategy will be worthless if we don’t see the asteroid coming. For that reason, the U.S. government will also be working on improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, the technology NASA uses to track asteroids. About 1500 NEOs are already detected each year, and thankfully, most of them go completely unnoticed by the public.

[h/t Forbes]


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