Since we are on the subject of the gas giant planets - with Jupiter #1 as far as size & mass - Saturn comes in as #2 but has its own uniqueness. The extensive ring system for one. Although Jupiter and the other gas giants all have a ring system - Saturn's rings stand out even when viewed through a small telescope. Galileo is given credit to discovering the rings although he couldn't figure out what they were at the time (1610). He famously wrote "Saturn has ears." It wasn't until later when telescopes were built with better magnification that the ring system labeled A, B & C were discovered. Today we now know that Saturn's rings are made up of thousands of "ringlets" that are held in place by "shepherd moons" around Saturn. Since it takes about 29 earth-years for Saturn to orbit the Sun once - we see the rings at different angles. Sometimes the rings seem to "dissapear" when viewed edge-on (last happenned in 2008). The rings appear extremely bright because they are made of ice particles that reflect sunlight. One moon - Enceladus - actually spews out ice particles through cryo-volcanism that may contribute to part of the ring system. The Cassini spacecraft is currently orbiting Saturn and will continue until 2017. So stay tuned for even more exciting discoveries with a possible new spacecraft launch to Saturn in 2020!
With all the attention seemingly focused on Mars lately, another planet where a spacecraft will further explore will be Jupiter - "King" of all the planets. The current mission is named "Juno" after Jupiter's wife in Greek & Roman mythology. Juno the goddess was able to "peer through" her husband's "clouds of deception" to reveal his true nature. Juno the spacecraft will be able to study Jupiter's gravitational & magnetic fields to figure out what the planet is made of & how it formed (watch NASA video). The spacecraft was launched in August, 2011 but will begin to orbit Jupiter in October, 2016 - after a gravity-assist fly-by of Earth in 2013. Juno is part of NASA's New Horizons mission which also includes a fly-by of Pluto in 2015.
Jupiter currently can be seen in the night sky as one of the brightest "stars." The planet is now in planetary "opposition" with Earth which happens about once an Earth-year. Features such as the Great Red Spot can be seen through a small telescope - with patience. Soon Jupiter will go into "retrograde motion" as appears from Earth - starting in February, 2014.
The Geminids are almost here. Actually they are here now. But the New Moon on the weekend of Dec. 13/14 will ensure dark skys (away from the cities) and excellent conditions for viewing 80 - 120 meteors per hour at its peak. You can look towards the left of the constellation Orion - which is pretty easy to find - after midnight for best viewing. No telescopes needed. Binoculars work to observe smoke trails. The Geminids are named after the constellation Gemini - where most of the meteors seem to originate. This meteor shower is known for its bright streaks of light and are one of the two brightest of the year (the other are the Perseids in August). The shower consists mostly of dust particles from the asteroid "3200 Phaethon." The Geminids are also only one of two showers that do not originate from a comet. For tips on meteor viewing click here (2009 video but still good advice!) Let's hope the skies are clear where you are for this one.... and the skies are clear :)
Not exactly the "holiday" present we astronomy/science geeks were waiting for. NASA's announcement of "possible" martian organics discovered by the Curiosity rover left room for apparent doubt.
But that's what the Scientific Method is all about. Leave enough room - in terms of saying maybe - just in case you need to CYA later if the current new evidence proves even slightly (like .02%) suspect later down the line.
Kinda like making a 50/50 bet so you never seem to collect the $200 & Pass Go.
Or risk becoming a Meteorologist (just kidding!)
Patience....patience. The scientific method may seem boring and/or slow but it DOES work........eventually.
Take a look at the overall data of past & current Mars surface missions. All have chemically analyzed soils/rocks in about the same way. Viking I & II were specifically sent to look for microbial life in the martian soil - and had very interesting results in 1976. Ultimately most scientists agreed that life "most likely" - again a hedge 50/50 bet - did not exist on Mars based on the Viking experiments back then.
NASA Curiosity project scientists want to be sure about their results as scientifically as possible - and also to CYA just in case. Remember the Mars Allan Hills 84001 meteorite/fossil debate in 1999?
One last note: spending 2.5 Billion on a "super rover" to Mars - you would think that any and all possible "contaminants" like Earth-organics would be a non-argument. Especially how NASA completely sterilizes anything going to the outer reaches of the Solar System like Jupiter, Saturn & Pluto. Let alone a planet like Mars - the most Earth-like in the Solar System that early-on once had oceans like Earth.