Who’d a- thunk it? Mercury May Have Meteor Showers Too

Artist’s concept of Mercury crossing the debris trail of Comet Encke, sparking a recurring meteor shower. New evidence from the MESSENGER mission suggests the planet receives regular doses of Mercurial dust. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Of course, of course, it only makes sense. We’re so caught up in watching meteor showers on our own planet, who ever thinks about meteors at Mercury? Or Venus for that matter? This week NASA announced that regular spikes in the amount of calcium in Mercury’s upper atmosphere bespeak a cyclical source. The likely culprit? Comet 2P/Encke.

Like breadcrumbs dropped to mark a path, dust and fragile bits of rock are released through vaporization of a comet’s ice and pushed back by the pressure of sunlight to form a tail. The larger pieces are left behind to fan out along the comet’s orbit. If by good fortune Earth’s orbit happens to intersect the debris trail, we see a shower of meteors in the sky.

This photo, made by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in infrared light, shows Comet Encke’s glowing nucleus/nuclear region and a trail of warm dust and pebbly debris shed by the comet along its orbital path. Credit: NASA

Most recently, the Geminids put on a great show, although their origin lies with the peculiar rock-shedding asteroid 3200 Phaethon.

Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle brings us the familiar Perseid meteor shower, while 2P/Encke gives rise to several meteor streams - the Southern and Northern Taurids, showers that peak in October and November, and the daytime Beta Taurids in June and July.

Measurements taken by MESSENGER’s Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer have revealed seasonal surges of calcium that occurred regularly over the first nine Mercury years (1 year = 88 Earth days) since MESSENGER began orbiting the planet in March 2011. Just as we saw huge spikes in the amounts of metals like magnesium and iron in Mars’ upper atmosphere during Comet’s Siding Spring’s brush with the planet last October, MESSENGER’s instrument detected periodic spikes in the amount of calcium – although with a twist.

A color- enhanced view of Mercury, assembled from images taken at various wavelengths by the cameras on board the MESSENGER spacecraft, shows a cratered composed with a surface composed of a variety of minerals. The circular, orange area near the center-top of the disk is the enormous Caloris impact basin. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury’s has only a whiff of an atmosphere, what astronomers term an exosphere, the last thing you could call an atmosphere before encountering the vacuum of space. The shower of small dust particles peppering interplanetary space pass right down to the surface and strike the planet’s rocks, knocking calcium-bearing molecules free from the surface, which are then free to rise to greater heights. This process, called impact vaporization, continually renews the gases in Mercury’s exosphere as interplanetary dust and meteoroids rain down on the planet.

These type of impacts happen all the time, but scientists noticed a pattern in the calcium spikes that pointed to a repeating source. Sounds like a perfect time for a comet to step in. Examination of the handful of comets in orbits that would permit their debris to cross Mercury’s orbit indicated that the likely source of the spikes was Encke.

The Jupiter family of comets were all once long-period objects in the Kuiper the orbits of which were changed to short-period by close passes by Jupiter. The green circle is Jupiter’s orbit, the purple is Earth’s. Notice that when farthest from the Sun, the comets about as far as Jupiter is from the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia with additions by the author

“If our scenario is correct, Mercury is a giant dust collector,” said Joseph Hahn, a planetary dynamist in the Austin, Texas, office of the Space Science Institute and coauthor of the study. “The planet is under steady siege from interplanetary dust and then regularly passes through this other dust storm, which we think is from comet Encke.”

To test their hypothesis, Han and crew created detailed computer simulations and discovered that the MESSENGER were offset from the expected results but in a way that made sense due to changes in Encke’s orbit over time from the gravitational pull of Jupiter and other planets.

Pantheon Fossae – The striking troughs of Mercury’s Pantheon Fossae, the feature that MESSENGER scientists first called “The Spider” when they discovered it. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington

Comets get nudged by planets routinely, especially if they pass near Jupiter, the outer Solar System’s gravitational goliath. Jupiter, with the help of Neptune, has re-worked the orbits of countless bodies that once resided in the distant Kuiper Belt into shorter-period comets that swing around the Sun in 20 years or less. Called the Jupiter-family, there are about 400 known and Encke is one of them with an orbital period of just 3.3 years.

Who knows how many other meteor showers might pepper Mercury in a year, but scientists will be looking for potential signs of them in planet’s atmosphere in the months ahead. While they may not leave bold streaks of light as they do on Earth, they create something almost as amazing – a shower of particles that goes up instead of down.

Solar flares and gobs of spots make for fiery fall finale

A freckle-faced Sun earlier this morning December 17 photographed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Regions 2242 and 2241 have produced several impressive M-class moderate flares in the past couple days. 2242 has a complex beta-gamma-delta magnetic field ripe for the production of strong flares. Credit: NASA

The Sun cares not for Earth’s seasons. It follows its own cycle of high and low activity. So while winter will soon be underway in the northern hemisphere, things have been heating up in recent days on our home star.

An M8 flare (almost an X-class!) in Region 2242 shines brilliantly in ultraviolet light in this photo taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory at 10:57 p.m. (CST) last night. Credit: NASA

Nine sunspot groups speckle the Sun today with two of them – regions 2241 and 2242 – still growing and harboring the potential for M-class (moderate) or stronger flares in the coming days. Region 2242 let loose with an M1 flare around 7 p.m. (CST) yesterday evening and a stronger M8 flare at 11 p.m.

Along with so many other spot groups now pocking the solar disk, this week will be a good one for anyone with a small telescope and safe solar filter to get a great view of the Sun. This morning I could easily see Regions 2241 and 2242 with the naked eye through a #14 welder’s glass.

Tongue of fire! A coronal mass ejection (CME) of high speed electrons and protons departs the Sun around 2:30 a.m. (CST) today in the wake of last night’s M8 flare. This photo was taken with a coronagraph that blocks the brilliant solar disk so we can see what’s happening near the Sun. Arrow shows the direction of the blast. Credit: NASA/ESA

The more powerful of the two flares launched a large coronal mass ejection in a mostly southernly direction just below the Sun-Earth plane. However, there’s a chance for some spillover in our direction as particles traveling at over 400 miles per second (650 km/sec) arrive on or about Sunday the 21st, the first day of winter.

Quiet conditions in Earth’s ever-dynamic magnetic environment will be the rule the next couple days, but we’ll be keeping our eyes on those big sunspot groups and a possible glancing blow from that CME. A colorful red and green aurora would be so fitting for the season!

Saturn’s back at dawn – follow the moon to the ring-bearer’s lair

Face southeast about an hour fifteen minutes before sunrise to see Saturn and a beautiful, thin lunar crescent this week. Source: Stellarium

While Orion’s stepping into the evening sky followed by Jupiter in Leo, the lord of the rings has returned to punctuate the dawn. It’s great to see Saturn back in view. Along with Venus, which we’ll take a look at later this week, there are now three evening planets (Mars, Jupiter, Venus) and one in the morning.

While still low in the southeast, the delicate crescent moon has a happy meeting with Saturn this Friday the 19th two nights after a conjunction with Virgo’s brightest star Spica. The rings are tilted a hair more than 24° or near the maximum of 27°. Any telescope will show the rings at 30x or higher magnification. You can even see the planet’s oval shape due to the extra girth provided by the rings in a pair of 10x binoculars.

The many ringlets that compose Saturn’s ring system are seen here projected against the planet. This angle shows how translucent they are – you can see one of the planet’s dark belt showing through the rings. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In honor of the rings, we present a recent photo of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft on August 14 this year. Although Saturn’s rings look solid when viewed from Earth, they’re really translucent, composed of floating chunks of water ice in size from about 1/2-inch (1 cm) to 33 feet (10 meters). I wouldn’t put it past some future entrepreneur to gather up these smaller chunks and market them to those wishing to sip their hard liquor “on the rocks” as it were.

It wasn’t until 1859 that physicist James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated the rings must be made of many individual particles; if they were solid they’d be unstable and break into pieces. Spectroscopic studies in the 1970s, where astronomers determine the composition of an object by examining the light it reflects and absorbs with a spectroscope, proved beyond a shadow that the rings were made of mostly water ice.

One of my favorite astronomical daydreams is to imagine myself in the ring plane gently hopping from one low-gravity ice chunk to the next. Once I arrived at a piece large enough to make for a comfortable seat, I’d tether myself to it so as not to float off and then ponder the millions of small, icy world-lets tumbling across my field of view.

A lovely vision on a wintery afternoon.

The Geminids ain’t over yet! Meteor shower update

Jeff Stephens created this composite of all the Geminids he caught during the peak hours on the morning of December 14th from central Louisiana. His camera faced north. Click for more of Jeff’s images. Credit: Jeff Stephens

An overcast of biblical proportions has hidden the sky at my home for 9 nights in a row. But even without seeing a single Geminid meteor, I can tell you this – the shower’s been fantastic. NASA’s network of all-sky cameras detected more than 200 fireballs and the International Meteor Organization’s quicklook data show a peak of 155 meteors an hour around 10 p.m. (CST) December 13th.

Though past maximum, bits and pieces of the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, the meteor shower’s parent, will continue to zip through the atmosphere over the next few nights. We may even be see some larger fireballs. The Geminids arrive pre-sorted, with the smallest meteoroids appearing early on, followed by larger crumbs and small rocks later.

Diagram of the inner solar system showing the orbits of Geminid fireballs (and a few other bright meteors) on December 14th. They intersect at the blue dot, which represents Earth, and are color-coded by velocity, from slow (red) to fast (blue) based on information from NASA’s all-sky camera network that scans the skies above the U.S. Automated software determines the orbits and other characteristics of the incoming meteors. Credit: NASA/ Bill Cooke

The moon has continued to slim down and is now a crescent rising well after midnight. Best viewing times will be from about 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. There’s also a decent chance for a small auroral display tonight for the northern U.S. and southern Canada.  You’ll find more about the Geminids HERE.

Zoltan Kenwell got a nice auroral surprise when he stepped out to watch the Geminid meteor shower near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada yesterday morning December 14th. Click to see more of Ken’s aurora photography. Credit: Zoltan Kenwell

Heck of a place to watch a meteor shower … and northern lights. Zoltan Kenwell kicks back and takes it all in Sunday morning. Credit: Zoltan Kenwell

Rosetta’s comet – colorful personality but gray as a foggy day

A color photo of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko composed of three images taken by Rosetta’s scientific imaging system OSIRIS in the red, green and blue filters. The images were taken on August 6, 2014 from a distance of 75 miles (120 km) from the comet. Click to enlarge. Credti: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Is this really a color photo? Yes! And it shows how remarkably gray and colorless the comet truly is. This is just how you’d see 67P/C-G if you could piggyback on Rosetta and whirl around it for a few orbits.

“As it turns out, 67P/C-G looks dark grey, in reality almost as black as coal,” says the instrument’s Principal Investigator Holger Sierks from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

Pictures of Enceladus, the Earth, the Moon, and Comet 67P/C-G showing their relative brightness. Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus reflects back nearly 100% of the sunlight it receives, Earth, 31% , the moon, 12% and 5% for 67P/C-G. Images not to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute (Enceladus); ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/ UPM/DASP/IDA and Gordan Ugarkovich (Earth); Robert Vanderbei, Princeton University (Moon); ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM (67P/C-G).

The intensity of the images has been enhanced to span the full range from black to white and bring out surface details, but the colors haven’t been altered. Shadows are deep black because there’s no atmosphere to significantly diffuse the light as on Earth. Some photos however do show shadow detail from sunlight reflecting off other parts of the comet and into shadowed regions.

The comet – at least at this distance – is nothing more than a hundred shades of gray. A careful analysis shows a small amount of excess red light reflected from 67P due to fine-grained dust on its surface. We can’t see this hint of rouge because our eyes are much more sensitive to the greens, yellows and blues of sunlight, but a camera recording light reflected from the comet through multiple color filters can.

Before Rosetta moved in close to 67P/C-G, Earth-based telescopes had also shown the comet’s gray nature, but I think it’s safe to say scientists were surprised that even close-up, the comet remains a monotonous monochrome megalith.

For instance, any ice on the surface should appear brighter in the blue filter, leading to the appearance of blue-ish patches. This photo contains no indication of any such icy patches, consistent with observations made by some of Rosetta’s instruments.

So what’s up? The same thing that dulls the shine on your computer monitor coats the surface the comet: dust. Dark dust is everywhere and mission scientists are in the process of determining what it’s made of. Ice is surely there – Philae detected ice at its landing site and Rosetta’s MIRO instrument found the comet shedding 2 cups of water a second as icy vapor.

Jets of carbon dioxide blast from beneath the surface of Comet Hartley 2 in this photo taken during the flyby by NASA’s EPOXI/Deep Impact spacecraft in 2010. The jets carry water ice in the form of large snowballs (white dots) and dust particles. Credit: NASA

It would seem logical to assume that some of the dust embedded in that vaporizing ice drifts back down to the surface, quickly covering any exposed material. I’ve seen something similar happen during a winter here in Duluth, Minnesota. Grit and sand accumulate atop fresh snow. Over time, the snow compacts, melts and refreezes to form ice covered by black gunk.

Often, water escapes as a plume of dust-laden vapor through a vent in its surface like a geyser. I’d love to see a close-up of one of those. Imagine the amount and ubiquity of fine dust deposited over millions of years every time the comet swings by the Sun and gets cooked.

If we just get somebody up there to sweep the floor.

Ho-ho-ho! Comet Lovejoy Q2 brings Christmas joy

Comet Lovejoy Q2 on December 12th shows a big glowing coma and faint, 2° long gas tail. The comet becomes an easy binocular object this week for northern skywatchers. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

A naked eye comet for Christmas? Yes, Bobby there is a Santa Claus. Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, which has been slowly pushing into northern skies this month, has brightened in recent days to magnitude +6.5. That’s the cusp of naked eye visibility. A few observers in Australia, where Lovejoy hovers nearly overhead, reported seeing it faintly with the naked eye last night.

Most of us will view Q2 with ease in binoculars, especially once it gains a bit more elevation at night. Right now, the comet’s in Puppis the Stern, a gangly constellation south of the more familiar Canis Major the Greater Dog, home to Sirius, the brightest star. When best placed for observing around 1-1:30 a.m. local time it climbs to an altitude of 10° (one fist held at arm’s length) for observers in the central U.S. but just 3-5° for the northern states.

Comet Lovejoy Q2 begins its northward trek slowly but picks up speed with each passing night. On the night of December 28-29, the comet will pass 1/3° from the bright globular cluster M79 in Lepus. This map shows the sky and comet’s position facing south from 42° north latitude around 1:30 a.m. CST. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

That will change soon as Lovejoy swings rapidly northward and rises earlier and earlier in the coming nights. By Christmas, the comet will be even brighter and stand 20° high from places like Kansas City, Denver and Indianapolis shortly before midnight.

Lovejoy Q2 is Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy’s fifth find. He snagged it while making a photographic search for comets with his 8-inch (20-cm) last August. Q2′s been on a beeline toward the Sun since that time and brightened from a 15th magnitude smudge to a robust, glowing ball with a skinny-necktie tail.

Comet Lovejoy Q2 is a long-period comet, dropping in toward the Sun with an orbital period of about 11,500 years. Here it’s shown when nearest Earth and brightest in early January 2015. The comet follows a steeply tilted orbit that takes it high over the plane of the planets. Credit: NASA/JPL HORIZONS

As it approaches Earth this month and next, Q2′s expected to brighten to 5th magnitude, putting it within naked eye range from the outer ‘burbs of a mid-sized city. Binoculars will provide a clear view of the fat, fuzzy coma and telescopes will add a faint ion tail composed of vaporizing gases fluorescing in solar UV. Cool!

Closest approach to Earth happens on January 7-8th when Lovejoy will be 43.6 million miles (70.2 million km) away. A little more than 3 weeks later on January 30, the comet passes perihelion to the Sun at a distance of 120 million miles.

I’ve included three maps to find and track Comet Lovejoy through early January. The first (top) is a wide view showing the “big picture” to help you get oriented. The others go in tighter and show black stars against a white background. I prefer them for a couple reasons – they use far less ink when making printouts and are cleaner and easier to read at the telescope. Click each to download a larger version.

Detailed map showing the comet night-by-night path starting tomorrow December 14th through December 27th in the early morning hours (CST). Stars shown to magnitude +8.0. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Because Comet Lovejoy moves rapidly into the evening sky by mid-late December, its position on this map is shown for 10 p.m. (CST) nightly. Mark your calendars for the close approach to M79 on Dec. 28-29. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

I’m hoping we get out from under our week-long battle with clouds, so I can see the comet for myself. I’ll be updating all along and would love to include your observations in future blogs.

Space station gleams again at dusk – real and otherwise

Frame grab from the new ISS 3D simulator at Heavens Above. It includes the globe at upper right which shows the station’s current position over the planet. Credit: Chris Peat

While you’re out watching for Geminid meteors this weekend you might just get to see the International Space Station (ISS) buzz your locale. It’s back in the evening sky and easy to spot at dusk for the next few weeks from many locations in the northern hemisphere.

Another frame grab from the simulation showing the ISS around sunrise. Credit: Chris Peat

Heavens Above is one of the best places to find out when and where to watch the ISS make a pass. Recently, its creator, Chris Peat, introduced a very cool interactive 3D visualization tool that shows a real-time image of the station over the ground along with a readout of its position. The fun part is using your mouse to zoom in and also change perspective. Spin the wheel to zoom in and out; hold down the left mouse button and drag to change your viewpoint.

Check it out and also grab the latest times to view the ISS in the flesh. Make sure you login with your city and then click the ISS link to get a table of times, magnitudes (how bright the station will appear) and more. If you click on a particular date, a map showing the spacecraft’s path across the sky will pop up.

SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft approaches the International Space Station for rendezvous and grapple during an earlier commercial resupply mission. Credit: NASA

The astronauts on board are getting ready for the next cargo ship arrival. The SpaceX Dragon is scheduled to launch at 12:20 p.m. (CST) next Friday December 19th. Since this will happen during the current evening run, some locations will get a chance to see the approach and rendezvous.

Here are times when the ISS will appear over the Duluth, northern Minnesota and the northwest Wisconsin region:

* Tonight Dec.12 from 5:59 – 6:03 p.m. Brilliant, high pass across the top of the sky
* Saturday Dec.13, 5:09 – 5:15 p.m. Brilliant, high in the southern sky
* Sunday Dec.14, 5:55 -5:59 p.m. Another excellent bright pass halfway up in the northern sky
* Monday Dec.15, 5:04 – 5:11 p.m. Brilliant, high in the northern sky
* Tuesday Dec. 16, 5:51 – 5:55 p.m. across the northern sky

The space station looks like a fairly quick-moving brilliant star similar in brightness to Jupiter and will first appear in the western sky traveling east.

Was the water in your tea delivered by an asteroid?

Water vapor and dust jet into space from Rosetta’s comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo taken on November 20th. Could Earth’s water have been delivered by comets impacts billions of years ago? Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam

Water, water everywhere but no one’s sure how it all got here. When Earth formed 4.6 billion years ago it was incredibly hot from gravitational contraction and continuous meteorite and asteroid bombardment. Any of the planet’s original water should have boiled away into space.

To replace what went missing, it’s widely thought that water was delivered by a fusillade of asteroids and comets after Earth’s had cooled down enough for water to pool on its surface. The question has always been which was the main contributor: asteroids, composed of mostly rock, or comets, made mostly of ice. At first blush, comets seem the logical choice. Melt ice and you get water. But it’s not that simple. New data from Rosetta’s comet may point otherwise.

The normal hydrogen atom is a very simple thing – just one proton for a nucleus surrounded by one electron. Deuterium adds another proton to make “heavy hydrogen”. When two heavy hydrogen atoms join with an oxygen atom, they make heavy water. Credit: ESA

Water’s made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen. Together they make H2O. The key to determining where the water originated is in its ‘flavor’, in this case the proportion of deuterium – a form of hydrogen with an additional neutron – to normal hydrogen in water. Because that extra neutron makes a deuterium-based water molecule heavier, it’s often referred to as “heavy water”.

Heavy water comprise just 0.2% of all naturally occurring water on Earth. Ice cubes made of it sink in a glass of ordinary water.

Illustration showing the two main reservoirs of comets –  the Kuiper Belt, which begins beyond the planet Neptune, and the Oort Cloud, which may extend up to 50 000–100 000 times Earth’s distance from the Sun. Halley’s comet is thought to originate from the Oort Cloud, while Rosetta’s Comet hails from the Kuiper Belt. It orbits the Sun every 6.5 years. Credit: ESA

The proportion of heavy vs. normal water is an important indicator of the formation and early evolution of the solar system, with simulations showing that it should change with distance from the Sun. This makes it a key diagnostic to determining where an object originated.

The proportion of deuterium to hydrogen (D/H) across the solar system as directly measured by spacecraft (diamond symbols) and by astronomical methods (circles). The horizontal bar is Earth’s D/H ratio. Notice how the asteroids prove a much better fit to Earth’s water than most comets studied to date. Rosetta’s comet (67P/C-G) is circled at right. It’s water is not related to Earth’s – a recent finding. Credit: ESA

Of the 11 comets for which measurements of deuterium to hydrogen (D/H ratio) have been made, only Comet 103P/Hartley 2 was found to match the composition of Earth’s water, in observations made by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory in 2011. The real surprise are the asteroids. Despite generally being poor in water except for the carbon-rich carbonaceous variety, the rocky asteroids may very well have delivered much of our planet’s water after its hot-headed birth.

A slice of the Allende meteorite, that fell to Earth in 1969. Allende is a carbonaceous chondrite that originated on an asteroid that once contained water. Water delivered by way of asteroids appears a likely way for our planet to have re-stocked its supply after most of the planet’s original water boiled into space. Credit: Matteo Chinellato

“Our finding also rules out the idea that Jupiter-family comets contain solely Earth ocean-like water, and adds weight to models that place more emphasis on asteroids as the main delivery mechanism for Earth’s oceans,” said Kathrin Altwegg, principal investigator for ROSINA (Rosetta’s comet atmosphere analyzer) and lead author of the paper reporting the results in the journal Science this week.

Water in asteroids appears to be the best match for water on Earth.

So despite the fact that asteroids have a much lower overall water content, impacts by a large number of them could still have resulted in Earth’s oceans.

Wonderful, isn’t it, that the answers to some of the simplest but most profound questions are sometimes found right over our heads.

And yet. And yet I can’t help think that at least a portion of our water came right out of the ground. There’s no question that volcanoes were active on Mars 1-2 billiion  years ago; Earth must have been belching out gases and vapor at least that early or perhaps even earlier. Since the most common gas vented from volcanoes is water vapor followed by carbon dioxide it would seem we should also consider water supplied from deep magma sources that fed early volcanoes.

Not only did volcanic activity build Earth’s early atmosphere but it could have also provided a healthy dose of earthy H2O. Just a thought.

Moon and Jupiter with a side of JUICE, please

The waning gibbous moon lingers near Jupiter tonight and tomorrow night (Dec. 11) in the constellation Leo. This map shows the sky facing east around 11 p.m. local time. Source: Stellarium

Find the moon tonight and you’ll be led straight to Jupiter. Tomorrow night, too. Earth’s only satellite will spend the next two evenings wooing the largest planet which shines brightly to the west of Leo’s Sickle.

As Jupiter rises earlier and earlier, pushing higher into the evening sky, the European Space Agency’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer Mission or JUICE recently got the green light to proceed to the next stage of development – working out the details of payload equipment and mission support among the many partners involved in the project.

JUICE will launch in 2022 and arrive at Jupiter in 2030 to begin a three-year-plus study of the giant planet and three of its largest moons – Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. The spacecraft will bristle with cameras, spectrometers, a radar, an altimeter, radio science experiments and sensors used to monitor the flow of charged particles (electrons, protons and others) in the Jovian system.

Artist impression of JUICE at Jupiter in the year 2030. JUICE will spend part of its mission in orbit around Ganymede, the moon at upper left. Credit: ESA/AOES

Scientists will explore Jupiter’s atmosphere, tenuous dust ring and its magnetosphere, a bubble of magnetism that enshrouds the planet similar to the one that funnels the solar wind into Earth’s upper atmosphere to spark auroras. No surpries – Jupiter has auroras, too.

JUICE will also investigate each of the three moons up close and their interactions with Jupiter, especially Ganymede. Detailed investigations Ganymede, the planet’s largest moon, will be performed when the probe enters into orbit around it – the first time any moon other than our own has been orbited by a spacecraft.

Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are all believed to hold oceans of liquid water beneath their frigid crusts. The mission will study the moons as potential habitats for life as it seeks to determine what conditions are required for planet and moon formation and the emergence of life.

This artist’s concept of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system, illustrates the “club sandwich” model of its interior oceans. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

JUICE will first visit Callisto, the most cratered object in the solar system, then fly by Europa twice, making measurements of the thickness of its icy crust. In 2032 the spacecraft will enter into orbit around Ganymede and study both its surface and internal structure including that possible hidden ocean.

“JUICE will give us better insight into how gas giants and their orbiting worlds form, and their potential for hosting life,” said Prof. Alvaro Gimenez Canete, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

Gaga for the Geminids – 2014′s best meteor shower fires up this weekend

The Geminids peak on both Saturday and Sunday nights this weekend December 13-14. The radiant – where the meteors appear to stream from – lies near Castor and Pollux in Gemini and rises high enough by 9:30 p.m. local time to begin shower watching. Source: Stellarium

Get ready for the year’s best meteor shower. The reliable, rich and colorful Geminids will climax on not one but two nights. Even better, it all happens this weekend before midnight. No arising at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday.

A bright Geminid slices the sky in this time exposure taken on December 13, 2012. Each meteor represents a vaporized fragment of dust or rock lost by asteroid 3200 Phaethon, the Geminids’ parent. Credit: Bob King

Most sources will tell you that we’ll see up to 120 meteors per hour, but 60-80 is more realistic from light polluted location. I’ll take it. That’s plenty of meteors to take the sting out of stepping into the cold. Maximum occurs on Sunday morning at 6 a.m. but that’s near dawn and the moon will be up – not ideal conditions for viewing. That’s why Saturday and Sunday evenings are best.

The Geminids radiate from near the twin bright stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini. Most major meteor showers don’t really get going until the morning hours because their radiants either haven’t risen or are still too low before midnight. The Geminid radiant on the other hand climbs high enough by 9:30 in the evening to cast a nice spread of meteors before moonrise.

Oh yes, the moon. It rises around midnight Saturday night and 1 a.m. Monday morning. Its light will cut into meteor counts, but since Gemini’s well up in the east before moonrise, we have 2-3 hours of great meteor watching under dark skies.

See what I mean – this shower’s ideal for family viewing since you don’t have to be up too late. It’s also the richest shower of the year, having surpassed the more familiar August Perseids some years ago. Now all we have to do is hope for good weather.

Unlike most meteor showers, which originate with dust spewed by comets, the Geminids are tiny pieces of asteroid 3200 Phaethon, sometimes called a “rock comet”. Here it sprouts a tenuous tail (points to lower left) when near the Sun in this image taken by NASA’s STEREO Sun-observing spacecraft in 2012. Credit: Credit: Jewitt, Li, Agarwal /NASA/STEREO

Observing a meteor shower requires no special equipment outside of a warm coat, heavy gloves, insulated boots, electric sock warmers, hand warmers and one of those plug-in Amish fireplaces. Just kidding of course, but not about the gloves, jacket and boots! Aw, chuck it all and just watch from a hot tub.

I like to lay back in a recliner under a blanket to stay warm and comfortable. A little hot cocoa or tea doesn’t hurt either. Face east or south between 10 and midnight from a reasonably dark sky location and you’re certain to see at least a few Geminids.

The Perseids and many other meteor showers are the spawn of comets. Earth plows through the dust left by vaporizing comet ices and it burns up in the atmosphere as meteors. Every year in mid-November we travel across the orbit of Comet Temple-Tuttle and wow to the Leonids.

Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi will webcast live coverage of the Geminid meteor shower this weeked. Click image for details. Credit: Gianluca Masi

Not so with our featured shower. It and the January Quadrantids are the only major showers with asteroid parents. 3200 Phaethon, a 3.2 mile-wide asteroid that comes surprisingly close to the Sun (13 million miles) and orbits it every 1.4 years, is mama and papa to the Geminids.

Long observed to be nothing more than an inert space rock, in the late 2000s astronomers watched in amazement as Phaethon developed a short, dusty tail.

It’s thought that the intense solar heat during closest approach fractures or pulverizes rocks or it may even open up a pocket of ice long covered by debris. Perhaps Phaethon is an extinct comet or a hybrid mix of ice and rock.

I hope you have clear skies at least one night this weekend. If you do or don’t, you can always check out Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi’s Geminids webcast starting at 8 p.m. CST December 13th (2 a.m. UT Dec. 14) on his Virtual Telescope Project site.