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Pluto pics reveal blue glow – and water ice

Image: Blue Pluto
A picture from NASA’s New Horizons probe reveals the blue color of Pluto’s atmospheric haze, as seen in a backlit view. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The latest pictures from NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto reveal for the first time that the backlit dwarf planet is surrounded by a beautiful blue glow – and also pinpoint the location of water ice deposits exposed on the surface.

Thursday’s images were released after a hubbub that suggested an “amazing” discovery would be revealed this week. Although the hype got a bit out of control, the revelations really do raise intriguing questions about Pluto’s weather and geology.

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GeekWire

Orbiter shows how risky ‘Martian’ trek would be

Image: Acidalia Planitia
A picture from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the area of Acidalia Planitia where the fictional Ares 3 mission landed in “The Martian.” (Credit: NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona)

Marooned astronaut Mark Watney takes a harrowing trek from Mars’ Acidalia Planitia to Schiaparelli Crater in “The Martian,” which took the top spot on last weekend’s box-office list with $55 million. But pictures of the actual terrain from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest Watney’s trip would be even riskier in real life.

The science team behind the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, captured a series of images that correspond to scenes in the movie in response to requests from Andy Weir, who wrote the book on which “The Martian” is based.

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‘Orbit-first’ Mars plan goes public: Will it fly?

Image: Mars as seen from Phobos
An artist’s conception shows as astronaut’s-eye view of Mars from Phobos. (Credit: Planetary Society)

The nonprofit Planetary Society has laid out a detailed blueprint for sending astronauts to the Martian moon Phobos in 2033 and then touching down on Mars itself beginning in 2039.

The blueprint released Tuesday is based on a “Humans Orbiting Mars” workshopthat was conducted in April – and it’s probably already out of date, due to last month’s announcement that NASA’s first crewed flight of the Orion deep-space capsule is likely to be put off until 2023. Nevertheless, the Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier says the full study can serve as a realistic yardstick for NASA’s Mars exploration timetable.

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GeekWire

NASA vet sees ‘endless’ frontier for space biz

Image: Lori Garver
During her stint as NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver visited Seattle’s Museum of Flight in 2011 for a NASA Future Forum. (Credit: Ted Huetter / Museum of Flight)

Former NASA official Lori Garver’s resume is filled with highlights from politics and government service – going back to John Glenn’s presidential campaign – but when it comes to America’s space program, her heart’s with commercial ventures.

“The opportunities in commercial space are endless,” she told GeekWire. “Government opportunities are not endless.”

Garver, who helped draw up the Obama administration’s space policy and served as NASA’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013, will lay out the opportunities for commercial space ventures – and the limitations of government space efforts – at the GeekWire Summit on Thursday.

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Dark Martian streaks linked to liquid water

Image: Recurring slope lineae
Scientists say these dark streaks, shown flowing downhill in a false-color image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, were formed by flowing water. (Credit: NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona)

For years, scientists have puzzled over dark streaks that appear and disappear on the surface of Mars – and now they’re confident enough to assert that the streaks are caused by trickles of salty water.

Their findings, published Monday in Nature Geoscience, serve as the best evidence yet that liquid water still occasionally flows on the Red Planet. The research is likely to spark a new wave of speculation about life on Mars – but it’s not likely to justify the breathless reports that circulated in advance of the study’s release.

“Has NASA found life on Mars?” one headline asked over the weekend. The short answer is no. Nevertheless, NASA thought enough of the study to call it a “major science finding” and schedule a news briefing about it.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, said the results make it “even more imperative that we send astrobiologists and planetary scientists to Mars, to explore the question, ‘Is there current life on Mars?’” NASA’s long-range plan calls for astronauts to start visiting Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

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GeekWire

Astronaut gives thumbs-up on ‘The Martian’

Image: Matt Damon in "The Martian"
Matt Damon stars as a stranded astronaut in “The Martian.” (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

“The Martian” isn’t due to hit theaters until Oct. 2, but the highly anticipated man-vs.-Mars movie is already sparking some scientific nitpicking. So here’s some advice from NASA astronaut Michael Barratt: Don’t get hung up on what the filmmakers got wrong.

“I would just ask everybody to get past that, because there are so many things they got right,” Barratt, a flight surgeon and two-time spaceflier who has been compared to Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy, said during a panel at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

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Uber in the air? NASA touts flying taxis

Image: Air taxi
An artist’s conception shows a vertical-takeoff craft rising from an urban helipad, using a distributed electric propulsion system. (Credit: Joby Aviation via YouTube)

Taking a ride on a flying air taxi could become as cheap as taking an Uber ride, and get you where you’re going in as little as a third of the time, according to a NASA concept study.

In fact, if you’re looking for your flying car, today’s Uber ride-on-demand arrangement just might provide the best model for finding it, said Mark Moore, chief technologist for on-demand ‎mobility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

“Uber could provide a true door-to-door system,” Moore observed during a presentation at this week’s SAE AeroTech Congress and Exhibition in Seattle. “It’s hard to beat that economic model.”

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Universe Today

New Horizons mission picks post-Pluto target

Image: New Horizons and KBO
An artist’s conception shows the New Horizons spacecraft flying past a Pluto-like object in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy material that lies billions of miles away from the sun. (Credit: Alex Parker / NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

NASA and the science team behind the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond have settled on the popular choice for the spacecraft’s next flyby: It’s 2014 MU69, an icy object a billion miles beyond Pluto that’s thought to be less than 30 miles (45 kilometers) wide.

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GeekWire

Ceres’ pyramid gets its close-up

Image: Ceres' pyramid
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft spotted this tall, conical mountain on Ceres from a distance of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). The mountain, located in the southern hemisphere, stands 4 miles (6 kilometers) high. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

NASA’s mission to that other dwarf planet, Ceres, has delivered a fresh bird’s-eye view of one of the asteroid’s most mysterious features: a cone-shaped, 4-mile-high “pyramid” mountain whose sides are covered with bright material.

The Dawn mission’s principal investigator says those shiny sides may be connected to Ceres’ other big mystery: the bright spots that shine out from the mini-world’s dark surface.

“The bright material on the mountain and in the bright spots are probably the same material,” UCLA’s Christopher Russell told GeekWire in an email. “How the material got on the sides of the mountain and also in the bottom of the craters is unknown.”

Which begs the question: What is that stuff?

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