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This week in space: NASA fact-checks the Enterprise, Curiosity controls its own laser, and Ceres’ mysterious remodeling

Welcome to ExtremeTech’s weekly space-news round-up, where we cover the various goings-on of the solar system and worlds beyond. Here’s what happened this week, in case you missed it the first time around.

A remote update gave the Curiosity rover’s AI control over which rocks to vaporize with its on-board laser. In AEGIS mode, Curiosity’s ChemCam can choose between different kinds of Martian rock based on size, brightness, or surface features. Most ChemCam targets are still chosen by scientists on Earth, but the autonomous targeting adds a new capability. “This autonomy is particularly useful at times when getting the science team in the loop is difficult or impossible — in the middle of a long drive, perhaps, or when the schedules of Earth, Mars and spacecraft activities lead to delays in sharing information between the planets,” said robotics engineer Tara Estlin, leader of AEGIS development at JPL.

Using observations from the ESA’s Venus Express satellite, scientists showed for the first time how the topography of Venus’ surface informs its weather patterns.

“When winds push their way slowly across the mountainous slopes on the surface they generate something known as gravity waves,” explains Jean-Loup Bertaux of LATMOS, lead author of the report. “Despite the name, these have nothing to do with gravitational waves, which are ripples in space-time – instead, gravity waves are an atmospheric phenomenon we often see in mountainous parts of Earth’s surface.” Bertaux said they form when air ripples over bumpy surfaces, and that the waves then propagate vertically upwards, growing larger and larger in amplitude until they break just below the cloud-top, “like sea waves on a shoreline.”

“This certainly challenges our current General Circulation Models,” adds Håkan Svedhem, coauthor of the study and ESA Project Scientist for Venus Express. “While our models do acknowledge a connection between topography and climate, they don’t usually produce persistent weather patterns connected to topographical surface features. This is the first time that this connection has been shown clearly on Venus – it’s a major result.”

Watch Earth spin through a full year in this time-lapse video, composed from thousands of snapshots taken by the DSCOVR satellite, which monitors our climate and solar wind from the Sun-Earth L1 point.

Dawn is still in solid shape at the end of its planned mission. Thanks to thrifty use of its hydrazine propellant, the orbiter can hold out against Ceres’ gravity for a while longer than we thought. To wring every last bit of data out of the orbiter, NASA extended the Dawn mission into 2019.

The top feature illustration for this post, by the way, is a shot of the Occator Crater on Ceres, a dwarf planet that lives in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Blue areas represent salty places. Occator is the brightest spot on Ceres, but it’s a smallish crater, some 57 miles across; Ceres is unusually devoid of large impact craters. Astronomers suspect it’s the dwarf planet’s own makeup that reshapes its surface and removes all the big ones. “We concluded that a significant population of large craters on Ceres has been obliterated beyond recognition over geological time scales, which is likely the result of Ceres’ peculiar composition and internal evolution,” said lead investigator Simone Marchi of the SWRI.

Brian Muirhead, chief engineer at NASA’s JPL, and aerospace engineer Anita Sengupta poke at the plausibility of the starship Enterprise in this video by Wired. As it turns out, NASA has a lot to say about the science of Star Trek. We have magnetic shielding and we’re creeping up on VR, but that’s about as close as we can get to the technology of the Enterprise today. Happily, we have a couple hundred years to catch up.

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