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Trouble around Mars and Jupiter: this week in space

Schiaparelli, the ESA’s new Mars lander, has been lost. Communications cut out just a few moments before the spacecraft was supposed to make a gentle, parachute-assisted propulsive landing, and now nobody knows for sure what happened. It’s very likely that the parachute deployed too early, which would scrog up the descent trajectory. Happily, Opportunity was hanging out 15 kilometers from Schiaparelli’s planned landing zone, and it may have captured images of the descent. NASA and ESA are joining forces to try to re-establish communications between Schiaparelli and its sister spacecraft, TGO, or even Mars Express or the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, all of which are active in orbit around Mars. ESA mission scientists are madly crunching the data, so more information should be forthcoming before long.

But don’t let that make you think NASA doesn’t have problems with their spacecraft. NASA’s Juno orbiter is having trouble with its propulsion system. Mission scientists don’t really know why yet, but it’s enough of a problem that they delayed Juno’s next orbital burn by 53 days: one circuit around Jupiter. Hopefully that will be enough time to diagnose and solve whatever’s wrong. If it is, Juno will perform a “period reduction maneuver” to shorten and tighten its orbit down to 14 days. In the meantime, Juno will get another chance to fix all its senses on Jupiter. Its next close approach will be on December 11.

A little further out, Eta Carinae is a colossal binary star system that’s really tearing up its environment. Stellar winds from the pair travel at velocities of up to ten million kilometers per hour. The zone between the two stars where their stellar winds collide is extremely turbulent, but nobody ever had any luck studying it, basically because we couldn’t resolve it. But, the aptly named Very Large Telescope (VLT) came to the rescue. Last week astronomers were pointing the VLT interferometer at Eta Carinae, and their efforts resulted in our closest look ever at Eta Carinae. Check out the gorgeous, minute-long deep zoom:

In somewhat more offbeat news, an astrobiologist has put forth an eyebrow-raising proposal about where we might be able to look for life off-world. There’s a bacteria that we found living two miles down in perfect darkness inside a South African gold mine, muddling happily along even though it’s surrounded with radioactive uranium and thorium. Its only source of energy, in fact, is the radiation from the surrounding rocks. That made Dimitra Atri ask: what if life could do that elsewhere?

There now exists an example of life doing just fine without a steady stream of incoming photons from a parent star. It blows the doors off our ideas of where life could have taken hold elsewhere in the universe. Atri hypothesizes that cosmic rays or subsurface radioactivity could provide the influx of energy necessary for life to arise. This would mean that planets with thin, rarefied atmospheres, exoplanets that don’t sit in their star’s Goldilocks zone, or even rogue planets that don’t have a parent star at all could still support life. Sure does make a whole lot of other planets worth pointing a telescope at.

Title image of Eta Carinae shows the stars’ position in the Carina nebula, their own massive nebula of ejecta, and the binary pair themselves. Credit: ESO/G. Weigelt

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