MSSL Planetary Science News

Probing the Cusps of Saturn's Magnetic Field

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This illustration of the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn depicts the planet’s enormous magnetic field and the bow shock created as the solar wind runs into it. The cusps can be seen as the funnel-shaped regions that reach down to the planet’s poles. Credit: ESA

Data from the Cassini spacecraft show that the cusp regions of Saturn’s magnetic field—where it connects to the Sun’s magnetic field—have similarities to Earth’s and also intriguing differences.

Strong 'electric wind' strips planets of oceans and atmospheres

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Venus' electric wind (credit: Dr Glyn Collinson)

Venus has an ‘electric wind’ strong enough to remove the components of water from its upper atmosphere, which may have played a significant role in stripping the planet of its oceans, according to a new study by NASA and UCL researchers.

Liftoff to Mars!

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TGO liftoff

On 14 March, the first mission of the ESA-Russia ExoMars programme began its journey to Mars from the Baikonur cosmodrome. Soaring over the steppes of Kazakhstan, the Proton rocket and Briz upper stage both performed flawlessly, putting the first of the two ExoMars missions on course for Mars with arrival in October 2016. This opens a new era of European-Russian Mars exploration – with UCL-MSSL and UCL's Centre for Planetary Sciences (CPS) playing key roles.

Solar storms trigger Jupiter's 'Northern Light'

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Artistic rendering of Jupiter's magnetosphere (credit: JAXA)

Solar storms trigger Jupiter’s intense ‘Northern Lights’ by generating a new X-ray aurora that is eight times brighter than normal and hundreds of times more energetic than Earth’s aurora borealis, finds new UCL-led research using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Giotto at Halley: 30 years ago!

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Artist's Impression of Giotto and Comet Halley (source: ESA)

It was the year of the tragic Challenger disaster – but UCL-MSSL was making good news in space and making history too. The Giotto spacecraft carried 10 instruments, including one led by UCL-MSSL just 596 km (MSSL to ESOC distance!) from comet Halley on the night of 13th/14th March, with some spectacular results.

Saturn and Enceladus produce the same amount of plasma

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The first evidence that Saturn’s upper atmosphere may, when buffeted by the solar wind, emit the same total amount of mass per second into its magnetosphere as its moon, Enceladus, has been found by UCL scientists working on the Cassini mission.

UCL's ExoMars PanCam kit one step closer to Mars

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ExoMars Rover (courtesy of ESA)

The UCL-made ‘structural-thermal model’ of the ExoMars PanCam instrument for the joint ESA-Roscosmos (Russian space agency) 2018 rover mission leaves UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) today for Airbus UK in Stevenage. This is the first of several steps on the way to Mars - in 2016, UCL will deliver engineering- and flight models. The flight model will be the actual instrument which travels to Mars where it will identify promising targets for the mission.

Cassini mission provides insight into Saturn

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An artist's rendition of the Cassini spacecraft approaching the planet Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Scientists have found the first direct evidence for explosive releases of energy in Saturn's magnetic bubble using data from the Cassini spacecraft, a joint mission between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. The research is reported in the journal Nature Physics.

Ions from Comet 67P – early Rosetta results and increasing activity

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Comet 67P and Lithium release comparison. From Coates et al. (2015)

As a comet nears the Sun, its icy nucleus heats, and neutral water and other gas molecules sublime, carrying ice and dust grains away also. The gas ionizes in sunlight, producing pickup ions. In a new paper, Andrew Coates and colleagues look at the early pickup process at 67P using data from the Rosetta Plasma Consortium (RPC) particle instruments. They compare the results to what was learned with the AMPTE and Giotto missions 30 years ago. The trajectory of Rosetta, the first spacecraft to fly with a comet at different distances to the Sun, is ideal for this. They discuss an elegant momentum balance seen between the new-born pickup ions and the solar wind.

Planetary group student organises Sample Space Science Week at MSSL for sixth formers

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MSSL has just finished its second annual work experience week for sixth formers. Adi Ramani, one of the sixth formers taking part, explains enthusiastically: “It was an amazing week. I don’t think anything was lacking. It is the perfect experience for anyone wanting to pursue Physics or Engineering.”

Titan's atmosphere even more Earth-like than previously thought

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Scientists at UCL have observed how a widespread polar wind is driving gas from the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. The team analysed data gathered over seven years by the NASA/ESA Cassini probe, and found that the interactions between Titan’s atmosphere, and the solar magnetic field and radiation, create a wind of hydrocarbons and nitriles being blown away from the top of its atmosphere into space. This is very similar to the wind observed coming from the Earth’s polar regions.

Venus is slowly losing its atmosphere

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Artist's view of Venus, a planet with no magnetic shelter

Two new papers on ionospheric photoelectrons in the tail of Venus are about to be published in Planetary and Space Science, led by UCL-MSSL scientists. They show that Venus is losing 300kg of its atmosphere per day.

Planetary Space Weather

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In an article just published in Astronomy and Astrophysics Reviews, Jean Lilensten (IPAG, Grenoble), Andrew Coates (UCL-MSSL) and co-authors discuss the emergence of a new interdisciplinary topic - planetary space weather.

ExoMars landing sites narrowed down – and PanCam appears on BBC News

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The first landing site selection workshop for the Esa-Roscosmos ExoMars rover was held on 26-28 March at ESAC near Madrid. Prof Andrew Coates of the Planetary Science Group attended the meeting, as Principal Investigator of the PanCam instrument on the rover. MSSL leads the international PanCam team which includes hardware from Germany and Switzerland, with important contributions from Austria, as well as the UK. PanCam includes a pair of wide angle cameras (WACs) for stereo imaging and a High Resolution Camera (HRC) for zoom capability. PanCam provides geological and atmospheric context for the mission.

Kimberley Birkett awarded 2013 Outstanding Student Paper Award (OSPA) at the AGU Fall Meeting

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Congratulations to PhD student Kimberley Birkett, who won the prestigious award for her poster ‘Modelling Cometary Sodium Tails’ at the AGU Fall Meeting 2013.

Research Images Competition

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 Congratulations to PhD student Kimberley Birkett who is a runner up in the UCL Graduate School 'Research Images as Art' competition:

Rover Trial

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ExoMars prototype in Atacama Desert

The week of 7-12 October saw an ambitious test of a prototype ExoMars Rover in the Atacama Desert in Chile, including an emulator of the MSSL-led PanCam instrument. The SAFER trial was controlled from the remote operations centre at the Space Catapult Centre, Harwell attended by Andrew Griffiths and Andrew Coates. Harwell. For more information:

Dr. Chris Arridge awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship

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Dr. Chris Arridge

Dr. Chris Arridge has commenced a prestigious Royal Society University Research Fellowship (URF) in the Planetary Science Group at MSSL and is joined by Dr. Lucie Green (Solar Physics, URF 2012) and Dr. Tom Kitching (Astrophysics, URF 2011). Professor Alan Smith, Director of MSSL said 'We are very proud to host these three exceptional scientists and look forward to working with them in the years to come. They will significantly strengthen our engagement in science exploitation, future missions, outreach and education.'

Planetary science group hosts Cassini CAPS Team Meeting 43

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Planetary group scientist Annie Wellbrock presenting at the Cassini CAPS Team Meeting.

On Thursday 31 May and Friday 1 June the Planetary science group is hosting the 43rd meeting of the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) team.

Selection of JUICE mission to Jupiter and Ganymede by ESA

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Artist's impression of ESA's JUICE mission (Credit: ESA/M. Carroll)

ESA's next "large class" (L-class) mission will be a mission called JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer) to study the giant planet Jupiter, its planetary system and magnetosphere, and particularly its moon Ganymede.

Planetary group scientists attend Cassini Magnetospheric and Plasma Science Meeting

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Saturn (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Andrew Coates and Tom Nordheim attended the Cassini Magnetospheric and Plasma Science (MAPS) working group meeting at University of Cologne on 28-30 March.

Comet studies in the planetary group catch media attention at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting

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Image of comet Hale-Bopp. Credit: ESO/E. Slawick

In a presentation at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester, planetary group PhD student Yudish Ramanjooloo presented his work on using amateur images of comets to infer the properties of the surrounding solar wind. This work was picked up for a media article in Sky at Night online.

Planetary group attends the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester

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The Manchester Museum - location of the opening reception for the RAS National Astronomy Meeting

Several members of the planetary group are attending the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting, hosted by the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester, from 27-30 March 2012.

Dr. Gethyn Lewis attends a meeting of the Spacecraft Plasma Interaction Network

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Calculated charging state for the Cassini spacecraft

Dr. Gethyn Lewis will attend a consortium meeting of the Spacecraft Plasma Interaction Network of Europe (SPINE) at the European Space Agency's space research and technology centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands, from 5 - 7 March 2012. The SPINE consortium aims to share resources and coordinate efforts to understand and model the interaction of spacecraft with their space plasma environments, including spacecraft charging. Dr. Lewis has been involved in modelling work using tools (Spacecraft Plasma Interaction System - SPIS) developed by the SPINE consortium to understand the charging of the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn.

Dione's thin oxygen exosphere

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Image of Saturn's icy moon Dione. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Dione is a moon of Saturn, discovered in 1684 by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini. Over 300 years later, planetary scientists including Andrew Coates and Geraint Jones from MSSL-UCL, have discovered that Dione has a weak exosphere near its surface (at planets with denser atmospheres, the exosphere is the outermost layer of its atmosphere). This work was featured on BBC News Online and is also the feature of a science nugget on the planetary science group website.

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