TIME space

See the Stunning New Portrait of Mars from India’s MOM Spacecraft

Mars photographed by the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft on Sept. 30, 2014.
Mars photographed by the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft on Sept. 30, 2014. ISRO—AFP/Getty Images

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which began orbiting the Red Planet on Sept. 23, has already sent back a stunning new portrait of Mars. The image taken Sept. 28 shows the beginnings of a dust storm on the surface of the planet and was taken by the Mars Color Camera aboard the spacecraft. The Mars Orbiter will be collecting images and other data from the planet’s surface and atmosphere using five sensors, four of which have already been switched on.

This data will be shared with NASA, according to an agreement signed on Sept. 30 between the two agencies to collaborate on Mars exploration. NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft entered Mars’s orbit just two days ahead of MOM, and will be able to receive data from Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on the planet’s surface.

TIME space

What’s That Thing on Saturn’s Biggest Moon?

What in the world? The mystery formation as seen over time
What in the world? The mystery formation as seen over time JPL/NASA

Something strange is happening on the cloud-shrouded world known as Titan—and a NASA orbiter is trying to figure it out

It’s not the first time a formation has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on a world beyond Earth. Usually, it’s Mars: this year alone the Mars Reconnaissance Observer spotted a brand-new crater that wasn’t there last time NASA looked, while the Opportunity Rover discovered the amazing Ghost Rock that also didn’t exist—and then it did.

Now it’s Titan’s turn. Saturn and its moons have been under close scrutiny by the Cassini probe ever since the spacecraft arrived in the neighborhood back in 2004, discovering such oddities as geysers and a subsurface ocean on the ice moon Enceladus; a mysterious hexagon-shaped storm on Saturn itself; and a hydrocarbon cycle on Titan that mirrors Earth’s water cycle, complete with rainstorms, rivers and lakes.

But in July, 2012, Cassini spotted something that hadn’t been there anytime in the previous seven years: a bright spot, covering about 30 square miles (78 sq. km), in the lake known as Ligeia Mare, which is bigger than Lake Superior. NASA called it a “transient feature,” while the Internet dubbed it the “Magic Island.” And as of August 21 of this year, the space agency has just announced, it was still visible—and in fact, it had doubled in size.

“The fact that it’s still there shows that it isn’t just some artifact of the imaging system,” says Jason Hofgartner, the Cornell grad student who’s in charge of figuring out what the darned thing is. “Something is really happening on Titan.”

Hofgartner and his colleagues have narrowed the “something” down to four possibilities. “It could be waves,” he says. “It could be bubbles rising up from the bottom. It could be solids of some kind floating on the surface—or solids suspended below the surface. All of these,” he says, “are equally viable at this point.”

The scientists are convinced, however, that the mystery island almost certainly has to do with the changing of seasons on Titan. Riding along in its orbit around Saturn, Titan takes 30 years to circle the Sun, and the northern hemisphere, where Ligeia Mare is located, is just at the start of its 7 1/2-year summer. It’s bathed in solar energy, and, says Hofgartner, “any of those [features] could be powered by the seasonal change.”

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time scientists have seen seasonal effects on Titan: when Cassini first arrived in the Saturnian system, the moon’s southern hemisphere was edging into the end of summer, and observations suggested at the time that evaporation had shrunk the lakes in the region from their maximum extent—the same thing that happens to lakes and reservoirs on Earth.

In fact, the search for evidence of seasonal changes on Titan was a primary objective of the Cassini mission, and the space probe should get at least another look at the mystery island before the mission ends.

That won’t remotely solve all of the mysteries about this extraordinary moon, however. It’s nothing less than a Bizarro version of Earth, with methane and other hydrocarbons taking the place of water. “It has all kinds of processes we can learn about,” says Hofgartner, “which could help us understand processes on Earth better.”

That could call for a return visit one day by a successor of Cassini. “There are lots of reasons,” Hofgartner says, “to go back.”

TIME astronomy

The MAVEN Spacecraft Has Begun Orbiting Mars on a Yearlong Quest

Mars Maven
In this artist concept provided by NASA, the MAVEN spacecraft approaches Mars on a mission to study its upper atmosphere AP

It's on a mission to discover what happened to Mars' atmosphere

Mars explorer MAVEN entered the Red Planet’s orbit late Sunday night, beginning a yearlong journey during which scientists hope to discover what happened to the Martian atmosphere.

Mission managers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., received confirmation of MAVEN’s arrival at about 10:25 p.m. E.T. — about a half-hour after it began slowing down from more than 10,000 m.p.h. to enter Martian orbit.

Narration of the orbital’s entry was broadcast beginning at 9:30 p.m. from Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ mission-operations center in Littleton, Colo. It took about 12 minutes for MAVEN’s signals to travel the 442 million miles to Earth.

MAVEN – standing for Martian Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution – launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Nov. 18, 2013, and it will now take six weeks to turn itself on and test its systems.

After that, the $671 million, bus-sized craft will spend one (Earth) year assessing the planet Mars’ atmosphere, in hopes of discovering how the Martian atmosphere is changing now and, in doing so, understand how it has changed over billions of years.

Scientists believe that Mars and Earth were once sister planets, both of them green and wet. But, about 4 billion years ago, their fortunes diverged: as Earth incubated life in its thick, reassuring atmosphere, it’s thought that Mars somehow lost its magnetic field. That left it vulnerable to the spray of solar particles zooming through space, and, over time, scientists say, those particles winnowed the Martian atmosphere. Its land was buffed dry and brittle and its landscape turned freezing.

MAVEN is NASA’s 10th Mars orbiter mission, three of which have failed. Three other spacecraft are in Mars’ orbit, two of which are NASA missions (the 2001 Mars Odyssey and the 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter), and one of which is a 2003 European Space Agency mission.

Two rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are still active on Mars’ surface. Spirit, another rover, is still on the planet, but was deactivated in 2010.

“Hello ‪@MarsCuriosity and ‪@MarsRovers! #MAVEN is looking over you. (In ‪#Spirit),” tweeted the MAVEN mission, just after arrival.

TIME

Journey to the Red Planet: MAVEN Approaches Martian Orbit

Ahead of its arrival, take a look back at the spacecraft's evolution

On Sept. 21, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will arrive in orbit around Mars and embark on a one-Earth-year long mission to collect data from the planet’s upper atmosphere. MAVEN launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Nov. 18, 2013 and, over the last 10 months, covered a journey of 442 million miles to get where it’s going. The spacecraft is the very first to be dedicated to the study and measurement of Mars’ upper atmosphere.

“The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where the water that was present on early Mars [went], about where did the carbon dioxide go,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in a statement. “These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life.”

MAVEN, which is equipped with a telecommunications package that allows it to relay data from the Curiosity and Opportunity Rovers currently exploring the planet’s surface, is one of several efforts NASA has undertaken to prepare for potential human exploration of Mars.

TIME space

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: Space Case

Just because you're a Master of the Universe on Earth doesn't mean the real universe will agree. Rich boys playing with space toys have a lot to learn

Time was, billionaires had no shortage of bling to buy—a yacht here, a Learjet there, a professional football team if you happen to have your Sundays free. But that’s all so yesterday. The must-have, 21st-century toy for the man with real cash to burn is fast becoming a spanking new spacecraft company.

That’s the way is seems at least, with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and, most enigmatically of all, Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos and his double super-secret, my-lips-are-sealed Blue Origin. While the other boys are anything but press shy, Bezos has kept his operation under a comparative cone of silence. The company is based in Kent, Washington, and while it doesn’t have any actual spaceships yet, it does have a website, some cool graphics and a very nifty coat of arms featuring what appear to be two turtles holding a shield with the Earth below them, the cosmos above and the motto Gradatim Ferociter (by degrees, ferociously) inscribed beneath. Really.

The last few days have been big ones for Bezos, however, with the announcement on Sept. 17 that he was partnering with United Launch Alliance (ULA)—itself a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing—to produce a new engine for ULA’s workhorse Atlas V booster. Currently, ULA uses a Russian-made RD-180 engine in the first stage of the Atlas. That became both politically and logistically untenable last spring, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western sanctions against Moscow and an announcement from Russia that it would tighten sales of the engine in retaliation.

So it’s good news that ULA is swapping out its hardware, but huge news—at least judging by the media response—that the universe’s biggest bookseller is part of the deal. The Washington Post—which is owned by . . . oh, let me check my notes. Ah yes, Jeff Bezos—declared the news “a historic partnership between ‘Old Space’ and ‘New Space.’” Bloomberg News and Businessweek, noting the bad blood that has long existed between Musk and Bezos in the race for the high ground, declared it a “battle of the billionaires” and even ran a madcap little graphic showing the two lads jousting on the backs of cartoon rockets, because why not?

But let’s sweep away the packing peanuts and see what’s really inside this latest shipping box. First of all, this may be a Musk-Bezos cage match, but if so, Bezos really should have been part of the undercard. It is a not inconsequential fact that he has yet to fire so much as a push pin into space, while Musk’s SpaceX is already flying satellite payloads for paying customers and is about to make its fourth unmanned cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Bezos has been talking for a while about taking paying tourists to suborbital space—a dream Branson is chasing too—but he is vague about when this will happen and shows no signs at all of having the wherewithal to do it.

Then too there was the timing of his big announcement, which occurred on the very day that NASA announced the companies it had chosen—after a years-long competition—to take over the business of flying astronauts to the ISS. The two winners were Boeing and, yes, Musk. It’s true that nobody knew exactly the day or time that NASA would be revealing its picks, but everybody in the space world did know it was coming sometime in mid-September. Bezos may or may not have intended to spit in the other guys’ soup, but that’s what he wound up doing.

In fairness to Bezos, the engine he is developing, dubbed the BE4 (for Blue Engine), sounds like a real gem. Most rocket engines run on a combination of liquid oxygen and a fuel known as RP1—which sounds a little less nifty when you realize it stands simply for Rocket Propellant 1, and a lot less nifty when you realize that means kerosene. Bezos plans to replace that with far cleaner liquefied natural gas. He also makes the very good point that most of the engines flying today (excluding Musk’s) were designed in the 50s, 60s and 70s and it really is time to bring 21st century materials and computer models into the mix. One BE4 could produce 550,000 lbs. (250,000 kg) of thrust. That’s less than a Russian RD-180 and much more that Musk’s Merlin. But engines are routinely bundled—Musk’s biggest working booster has 9 Merlins and NASA’s historic Saturn V moon rocket had five massive F-1 engines—so thrust is by no means a deal-breaker.

But the thing is, the F-1’s were real, as is the Merlin and as is the RD-180. The BE4, like so much in the space billionaire’s toy box, is either vaporware or hardware that has yet to actually do anything. Bezos and ULA do promise their engine will be flying by 2018—unless, of course, it’s not.

That uncertainty is the biggest message that guys who fancy themselves Masters of the Universe (albeit on Earth) have to learn. Space travel is hard—exceedingly, often lethally hard. You can’t negotiate with physics or bully orbital mechanics. You can’t delete gravity’s Buy button. Elon Musk—so far—is making a real go of things. The rest are little more than dreamers until proven otherwise. It’s not business, fellas, it’s science.

TIME Pictures of the Week

Pictures of the Week: Sept. 12 – Sept. 19

From the result of the Scottish referendum and children returning to bombed out classrooms in Gaza to the Pope marrying 20 couples and NASA's next exploration spacecraft, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME space

Scientists Find Giant Black Hole Inside One of the Tiniest Known Galaxies

Artists view of M60-UCD1 Black Hole
Artists view of M60-UCD1 Black Hole NASA, ESA, STScI-RCC14-41a

According to NASA, it's one of the densest known galaxies, with 140 million stars fitting inside its 300-lightyear diameter

NASA said Wednesday that astronomers have found one of the smallest known galaxies ever using the Hubble Space Telescope–but the mini-discovery came with a surprising twist. The tiny galaxy has a massive black hole at its center, nearly five times the size of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Inside the galaxy, at least 1 million stars are visible to the naked eye, according to a NASA press release. To put that in perspective, consider that from Earth we can only see about 4,000 stars in the night sky. The galaxy reportedly has a diameter 1/500th of the size of ours, with 140 million stars that fit inside. Astronomers think the galaxy is proof that “dwarf galaxies” are parts of larger galaxies that were broken up by collisions with other galaxies.

“We don’t know of any other way you could make a black hole so big in an object this small,” University of Utah astronomer Anil Seth said in the NASA statement. Seth is the lead author of an international study on the dwarf galaxy published in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

TIME space travel

Boeing and SpaceX Win Major NASA Space Taxi Contract

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Unveils The Dragon V2 Space Taxi
Seats rest inside the Manned Dragon V2 Space Taxi in Hawthorne, California, U.S., on Thursday, May 29, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

NASA will rely on them to send astronauts to the International Space Station

Updated at 5:26 p.m.

NASA awarded Tuesday aeronautical firms Boeing and SpaceX with contracts totaling $6.8 billion to launch astronauts into low Earth orbit under its Commercial Crew Program.

Proposals by Boeing and NASA were selected by NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), with the goal of certifying crew transportation capability by 2017, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a news conference.

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 billion contract, while SpaceX was awarded a $2.6 billion contract, said Kathryn Lueders, Program Manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“These contracts highlight what commercial companies can accomplish and we are counting on them to deliver our most precious cargo: the crew who will perform vital science research on the ISS,” Lueders said. “Two contracts give us the necessary mechanisms to assure we’re on the right track.”

The contracts are subject to the completion of safety certifications and development efforts for Boeing’s CST-100 capsule and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, according to Lueders. Specifically, both Boeing and SpaceX will conduct five certification milestones: a baseline review, a design review, a flight test readiness review, an operational readiness review, and certification review.

Once NASA approves that Boeing’s and SpaceX’s systems meet its requirements, the systems will be certified for two to six human missions to deliver cargo and a crew of up to four to the ISS. The missions will enable NASA to nearly double today’s scientific research potential, Lueders said. The capsules will also serve as a “life boat,” capable of holding crew members safe up to 210 days in the event of an emergency.

Bolden emphasized that the contracts are intended to end by 2017 America’s sole reliance on Russia, whose government charges the U.S. $71 million a seat for rides to the ISS. NASA had previously been able to transport crew to the ISS with its Space Shuttle, but retired the vehicle in 2011. Its replacement craft, the Orion, isn’t set for manned missions until after 2020.

A third contender in the space race, Sierra Nevada, did not secure a piece of the deal with its winged spacecraft, the Dream Chaser. Boeing, with its decades of experience supplying parts and expertise to NASA, was widely considered a favorite among the three companies vying for the NASA contract. SpaceX founder and billionaire Elon Musk had previously criticized Boeing for being too close to NASA.

TIME weather

Last Month Was the Hottest August in Recorded History

Palestine Israel Beach Swimming
Palestinian children dump water on a boy as they swim on a beach, close to the divide with Israel, near Gaza City on Sept. 12, 2014. Mohammed Abed—AFP/Getty Images

Global temperatures hit their newest highpoint since record keeping began in 1880

Global temperatures in August climbed to their highest point in recorded history, according to new data released by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies on Monday.

The data from NASA’s Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index shows global temperatures climbed 0.7 degrees Celsius above their average between 1951 and 1990, the highest recorded difference from the baseline since measurements began in 1880.

NASA researchers did note, however, that August 2014 is at a “statistical tie” with several other steamy Augusts of the past decade, The Weather Channel reports, suggesting that the heat — though unusually high — has a few precedents in recent history.

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