Friday, May 25, 2018

Back in the Day: Celebrating a Decade Since the Phoenix Lander Safely Touched Down on Mars...

The Martian northern plain, with one of Phoenix's solar panels and a portion of the lander's flight deck visible in the foreground.

TEN YEARS AGO TODAY, the Phoenix Mars lander safely touched down on the Red Planet...starting a very successful mission that almost lasted 6 months even though it was only suppose to survive for 3. During its mission, Phoenix came in contact with water ice at its landing site on the Martian northern plain, which is why NASA sent the spacecraft there in the first place. The space agency had hoped the lander would come back to life after the mission came to an end on November 10, 2008 (due to low power being generated by Phoenix’s twin solar panels because of the onset of Martian winter), but an image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2010 showed that there was no chance that Phoenix would ever come back to life.

Before-and-after shots showing the Phoenix lander on the Martian surface in 2008 and 2010, respectively.

Even though Phoenix now lies dormant near the Martian north pole, its legacy continues. Its successor—the InSight Mars lander—successfully launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California 20 days ago, and is set to touch down at Elysium Planitia on the Red Planet this Cyber Monday (November 26). Here's hoping that 2008 completely repeats itself with a successful arrival by InSight six months from now, and this lander joins the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers as the only active spacecraft on the surface of Mars. Happy Friday!

All images above courtesy of NASA / JPL - Caltech / University of Arizona / Texas A&M University

A certificate commemorating the fact that my name is now freezing on the North Pole of Mars.

An artist's concept of NASA's InSight lander on the surface of Mars.
Lockheed Martin

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

America's Next Mars Lander Officially Sets Course for the Red Planet...

An animated GIF depicting NASA's InSight Mars lander, which is encased in an aeroshell, cruising through deep space.
NASA / JPL - CalTech

InSight Steers Toward Mars (News Release)

NASA's InSight lander has made its first course correction toward Mars.

InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is the first mission dedicated to exploring the deep interior of Mars.

The lander is currently encapsulated in a protective aeroshell, which launched on top of an Atlas V 401 rocket on May 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California. Yesterday, the spacecraft fired its thrusters for the first time to change its flight path. This activity, called a trajectory correction maneuver, will happen a maximum of six times to guide the lander to Mars.

Every launch starts with a rocket. That's necessary to get a spacecraft out past Earth's gravity -- but rockets don't complete the journey to other planets. Before launch, every piece of hardware headed to Mars is cleaned, limiting the number of Earth microbes that might travel on the spacecraft. However, the rocket and its upper stage, called a Centaur, don’t get the same special treatment.

As a result, Mars launches involve aiming the rocket just off-target so that it flies off into space. Separately, the spacecraft performs a series of trajectory correction maneuvers guiding it to the Red Planet. This makes sure that only the clean spacecraft lands on the planet, while the upper stage does not come close.

Precise calculations are required for InSight to arrive at exactly the right spot in Mars' atmosphere at exactly the right time, resulting in a landing on Nov. 26. Every step of the way, a team of navigators estimates the position and velocity of the spacecraft. Then they design maneuvers to deliver it to an entry point at Mars. That navigation team is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which leads the InSight mission.

"This first maneuver is the largest we'll conduct," said Fernando Abilleira of JPL, InSight's Deputy Mission Design and Navigation Manager. "The thrusters will fire for about 40 seconds to impart a velocity change of 3.8 meters per second (8.5 mph) to the spacecraft. That will put us in the right ballpark as we aim for Mars."

Especially at the beginning of that cruise, navigators rely on NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) to track the spacecraft. The DSN is a system of antennas located at three sites around the Earth. As the planet rotates, each of these sites comes into range of NASA's spacecraft, pinging them with radio signals to track their positions. The antennas also send and receive data this way.

The DSN can give very accurate measurements about spacecraft position and velocity. But predicting where InSight will be after it fires its thrusters requires lots of modeling, Abilleira said. As the cruise to Mars progresses, navigators have more information about the forces acting on a spacecraft. That lets them further refine their models. Combined with DSN tracking measurements, these models allow them to precisely drive the spacecraft to the desired entry point.

"Navigation is all about statistics, probability and uncertainty," Abilleira said. "As we gather more information on the forces acting on the spacecraft, we can better predict how it's moving and how future maneuvers will affect its path."

Yesterday's 40-second burn relies on four of eight thrusters on the spacecraft. A separate group of four is autonomously fired on a daily basis to keep the spacecraft's solar panels trained on the Sun and its antennas pointed at Earth. While necessary to maintain orientation, these small, daily firings also introduce errors that navigators have to account for and counterbalance.

"Everyone has been working hard since launch to assess what these small forces have done to the trajectory," said Allen Halsell of JPL, InSight's navigation team chief. "People have worked lots of hours to look at that. For engineers, it's a very interesting problem, and fun to try to figure out."

When the spacecraft is just a few hours from Mars, the planet's gravitational pull, or gravity well, will begin to reel the spacecraft in. At that point, InSight's team will prepare for the next milestone after cruise: entering Mars' atmosphere, descending to the surface and sticking InSight's landing.

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The InSight spacecraft, including cruise stage and lander, was built and tested by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Monday, May 21, 2018

Photos of the Day: Over One Million Names Will Be Headed Towards the Sun...

A plaque containing a microchip that bears the names of over 1.1 million people is attached to NASA's Parker Solar Probe at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida...on May 18, 2018.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

More Than 1.1 Million Names Installed on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (News Release)

Throughout its seven-year mission, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will swoop through the Sun’s atmosphere 24 times, getting closer to our star than any spacecraft has gone before. The spacecraft will carry more than scientific instruments on this historic journey — it will also hold more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public to go to the Sun.

“Parker Solar Probe is going to revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, the only star we can study up close,” said Nicola Fox, project scientist for Parker Solar Probe at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. “It’s fitting that as the mission undertakes one of the most extreme journeys of exploration ever tackled by a human-made object, the spacecraft will also carry along the names of so many people who are cheering it on its way.”

Back in March 2018, the public were invited to send their names to the Sun aboard humanity’s first mission to “touch” a star. A total of 1,137,202 names were submitted and confirmed over the seven-and-a-half-week period, and a memory card containing the names was installed on the spacecraft on May 18, 2018, three months before the scheduled launch on July 31, 2018, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The card was mounted on a plaque bearing a dedication to and a quote from the mission’s namesake, heliophysicist Eugene Parker, who first theorized the existence of the solar wind. This is the first NASA mission to be named for a living individual.

This memory card also carries photos of Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, and a copy of his groundbreaking 1958 scientific paper. Parker proposed a number of concepts about how stars — including our Sun — give off material. He called this cascade of energy and particles the solar wind, a constant outflow of material from the Sun that we now know shapes everything from the habitability of worlds to our solar system’s interaction with the rest of the galaxy.

Parker Solar Probe will explore the Sun’s outer atmosphere and make critical observations to answer decades-old questions about the physics of stars. The resulting data may also improve forecasts of major eruptions on the Sun and subsequent space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space.

Though our understanding of the Sun and the solar wind has vastly improved since Parker first theorized the solar wind, there are still questions left unanswered. Two of the most fundamental mysteries – which scientists hope Parker Solar Probe will help solve – are the coronal heating problem and the mechanism behind solar wind acceleration.

The coronal heating problem is what scientists call the apparent mismatch between the temperature of the Sun’s photosphere — the visible “surface,” measuring about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit — and the much higher temperature of the corona — the Sun’s atmosphere, which reaches temperatures of up to 10 million degrees Fahrenheit. Since the Sun’s energy source is at its core, this increase is similar to walking away from a campfire and suddenly feeling a thousand times hotter — completely counterintuitive. This implies that some other process is continually adding more heat to that solar atmosphere.

Scientists think that the mechanism behind this as-yet unexplained heating happens in the lower corona — and Parker Solar Probe will get closer to this region than any spacecraft has before. Getting a closer look at this region should help scientists identify the source of this coronal heating, along with pinpointing the process that accelerates the solar wind to enormous speeds as it leaves the Sun.

A commemorative reproduction of the plaque bearing an identical memory card — minus the submitted names — was presented to Parker at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in October 2017 by the mission team.

"From the experience of seeing the probe up close, I understand now the difficult task you are undertaking, and I am sure you will succeed,” said Parker after visiting the spacecraft in the clean room.

Parker Solar Probe is part of NASA’s Living with a Star Program, or LWS, to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. LWS is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for the Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Johns Hopkins APL manages the Parker Solar Probe mission for NASA. APL designed and built the spacecraft and will also operate it.

Source: NASA.Gov


A plaque containing a microchip that bears the names of over 1.1 million people is about to be attached to NASA's Parker Solar Probe at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida...on May 18, 2018.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

A plaque containing a microchip that bears the names of over 1.1 million people is attached to NASA's Parker Solar Probe at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida...on May 18, 2018.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

NASA's Parker Solar Probe after a plaque containing a microchip that bears the names of over 1.1 million people was attached to it at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida...on May 18, 2018.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

Friday, May 18, 2018

TESS Update: A Lunar Flyby and an Amazing Test Image of the Centaurus Starfield...

An artist's concept of NASA's TESS spacecraft flying past the Moon for a gravity assist on May 17, 2018.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA’s New Planet Hunter Snaps Initial Test Image, Swings by Moon Toward Final Orbit (News Release)

NASA’s next planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is one step closer to searching for new worlds after successfully completing a lunar flyby on May 17. The spacecraft passed about 5,000 miles from the Moon, which provided a gravity assist that helped TESS sail toward its final working orbit.

As part of camera commissioning, the science team snapped a two-second test exposure using one of the four TESS cameras. The image, centered on the southern constellation Centaurus, reveals more than 200,000 stars. The edge of the Coalsack Nebula is in the right upper corner and the bright star Beta Centauri is visible at the lower left edge. TESS is expected to cover more than 400 times as much sky as shown in this image with its four cameras during its initial two-year search for exoplanets. A science-quality image, also referred to as a “first light” image, is expected to be released in June.

TESS will undergo one final thruster burn on May 30 to enter its science orbit around Earth. This highly elliptical orbit will maximize the amount of sky the spacecraft can image, allowing it to continuously monitor large swaths of the sky. TESS is expected to begin science operations in mid-June after reaching this orbit and completing camera calibrations.

Launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, TESS is the next step in NASA’s search for planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets. The mission will observe nearly the entire sky to monitor nearby, bright stars in search of transits — periodic dips in a star’s brightness caused by a planet passing in front of the star. TESS is expected to find thousands of exoplanets. NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2020, will provide important follow-up observations of some of the most promising TESS-discovered exoplanets, allowing scientists to study their atmospheres.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Dr. George Ricker of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research serves as principal investigator for the mission. Additional partners include Orbital ATK, based in Dulles, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The TESS science instruments were jointly developed by MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

Source: NASA.Gov


A test image showing over 200,000 stars in the southern constellation seen by one of the four science cameras aboard NASA's TESS spacecraft this month.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The U.S. Senate Has Voted to Restore Net Neutrality...

52 senators who DON'T suck at the teat of major corporations like Verizon and Comcast voted to restore net neutrality here in America...on May 16, 2018.

Earlier today, every Democrat and three out of the 50 Republicans (two of those three being last year's healthcare heroes Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) in the U.S. Senate voted to restore regulations that would prevent Verizon, Comcast and other telecommunications companies from controlling what's posted on the Internet here in America. That's great news! The next step is getting the House to take up a vote on net neutrality ASAP. If Paul Ryan knew what was good for him (his stance on national healthcare last year, as well as on immigration and welfare show that he doesn't), he would take up a vote on this before his impending and much-anticipated retirement later this year. On the other hand, considering the fact that 94% of the GOP senators prefer to have corporations screw up the World Wide Web as opposed to protecting the rights of millions of Americans who go online 24/7, the vote may not go as people hope in this chamber of Congress.

The key word is hope, and assuming that the House follows the Senate's lead (ditto with Trump if/when the bill hits his desk in the Oval Office), Congress will have given FCC chairman Ajit Pai the middle finger on behalf of millions of U.S. citizens. Happy Hump Day!

Ajit Pai is yet another idiot U.S. government official who needs to be fired in the Trump era.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Photos of the Day: The Earth and the Moon, As Seen from WALL-E One Million Kilometers Away...

An image of Earth and the Moon as seen by the MarCO-B CubeSat, also known as 'WALL-E,' from 621,371 miles (1 million kilometers) away...on May 9, 2018.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

A Pale Blue Dot, As Seen by a CubeSat (News Release)

NASA's Voyager 1 took a classic portrait of Earth from several billion miles away in 1990. Now a class of tiny, boxy spacecraft, known as CubeSats, have just taken their own version of a "pale blue dot" image, capturing Earth and its Moon in one shot.

NASA set a new distance record for CubeSats on May 8 when a pair of CubeSats called Mars Cube One (MarCO) reached 621,371 miles (1 million kilometers) from Earth. One of the CubeSats, called MarCO-B (and affectionately known as "WALL-E" to the MarCO team) used a fisheye camera to snap its first photo on May 9. That photo is part of the process used by the engineering team to confirm the spacecraft's high-gain antenna has properly unfolded.

As a bonus, it captured Earth and its Moon as tiny specks floating in space.

"Consider it our homage to Voyager," said Andy Klesh, MarCO's chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL built the CubeSats and leads the MarCO mission. "CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it's a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We're looking forward to seeing them travel even farther."

The MarCO spacecraft are the first CubeSats ever launched to deep space. Most never go beyond Earth orbit; they generally stay below 497 miles (800 kilometers) above the planet. Though they were originally developed to teach university students about satellites, CubeSats are now a major commercial technology, providing data on everything from shipping routes to environmental changes.

The MarCO CubeSats were launched on May 5 along with NASA's InSight lander, a spacecraft that will touch down on Mars and study the planet's deep interior for the first time. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will attempt to land on Mars on Nov. 26. JPL also leads the InSight mission.

Mars landings are notoriously challenging due to the Red Planet's thin atmosphere. The MarCO CubeSats will follow along behind InSight during its cruise to Mars. Should they make it all the way to Mars, they will radio back data about InSight while it enters the atmosphere and descends to the planet's surface. The high-gain antennas are key to that effort; the MarCO team have early confirmation that the antennas have successfully deployed, but will continue to test them in the weeks ahead.

InSight won't rely on the MarCO mission for data relay. That job will fall to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. But the MarCOs could be a pathfinder so that future missions can "bring their own relay" to Mars. They could also demonstrate a number of experimental technologies, including their antennas, radios and propulsion systems, which will allow CubeSats to collect science in the future. Later this month, the MarCOs will attempt the first trajectory correction maneuvers ever performed by CubeSats. This maneuver lets them steer towards Mars, blazing a trail for CubeSats to come.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory


An annotated image of Earth and the Moon as seen by WALL-E from 621,371 miles (1 million kilometers) away...on May 9, 2018.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Saturday, May 12, 2018


Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher), Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) will be back on BROOKLYN NINE-NINE when it airs on NBC next season.

Despite the fact that my other favorite TV programs Designated Survivor, Lucifer and The Last Man on Earth will be no more after this season, I'm so glad that Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Last Man Standing (LMS) will be back to grace the boob tube sometime later this year! In regards to Last Man Standing though, online reports suggest that two of the sitcom's most hilarious stars, Kaitlyn Dever (Eve Baxter) and Molly Ephraim (Mandy Baxter), will only make recurring appearances and not be regulars on the show's revival. That's a bummer, though in Ms. Ephraim's case, not a surprise. I've been one of Molly's loyal Twitter followers for over two years now, and her constant tweets and re-tweets of posts attacking Trump (which I have absolutely no problem with) since before the 2016 presidential election have probably caused her to sour to the thought of being on a show where the main star (Tim Allen, who plays Mike Baxter) is a Trump supporter in real life and on this show. Of course, this is a huge assumption on my part...and Ephraim may surprise and excite LMS fans next week by announcing that she'll be fully aboard with playing Mandy on the sitcom once more. If Molly only decides to appear on LMS sporadically and focus on other projects instead, might I suggest that she does theater again? I attended her play Bad Jews in west Los Angeles almost three years ago, and it was delightful.

So yea, I'm really glad that Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Last Man Standing are back...even though the latter might be missing two of its most awesome cast members when it returns. Brooklyn Nine-Nine will air on NBC next year (which will kind of suck for me since I get crappy reception on this channel; my TV is hooked up to an antenna and not to a cable or satellite receiver) after being on FOX for five seasons, while LMS will make its debut on FOX after being on ABC for six seasons. Anyways, lookin' forward to seeing Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) get married during the Nine-Nine's season finale on May 20—while I can't wait to see what type of anti-liberal comment will be made by Mike Baxter in the LMS Season 7 premiere. Even though I myself am a liberal...but it's all good. Welcome back, Mike! And screw Trump. Have a Happy Mother's Day weekend, everyone!

Mike (Tim Allen), Vanessa (Nancy Travis) and Mandy Baxter (Molly Ephraim?) will be back on LAST MAN STANDING when it airs on FOX next season.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Mars 2020 Update: A Chopper Is Riding With America's Next Rover To The Red Planet...

An animated GIF showing the Mars Helicopter fly away from the Mars 2020 rover on the surface of the Red Planet.
NASA / JPL - CalTech

Mars Helicopter to Fly on NASA’s Next Red Planet Rover Mission (Press Release)

NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars.

The Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover mission, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.

“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”

U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Texas echoed Bridenstine’s appreciation of the impact of American firsts on the future of exploration and discovery.

“It’s fitting that the United States of America is the first nation in history to fly the first heavier-than-air craft on another world,” Culberson said. “This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future.”

Started in August 2013 as a technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Mars Helicopter had to prove that big things could come in small packages. The result of the team’s four years of design, testing and redesign weighs in at little under four pounds (1.8 kilograms). Its fuselage is about the size of a softball, and its twin, counter-rotating blades will bite into the thin Martian atmosphere at almost 3,000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of a helicopter on Earth.

“Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. “After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”

The helicopter also contains built-in capabilities needed for operation at Mars, including solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries, and a heating mechanism to keep it warm through the cold Martian nights. But before the helicopter can fly at Mars it has to get there. It will do so attached to the belly pan of the Mars 2020 rover.

“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up,” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.”

Once the rover is on the planet’s surface, a suitable location will be found to deploy the helicopter down from the vehicle and place it onto the ground. The rover then will be driven away from the helicopter to a safe distance from which it will relay commands. After its batteries are charged and a myriad of tests are performed, controllers on Earth will command the Mars Helicopter to take its first autonomous flight into history.

“We don’t have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time,” said Aung. “Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”

The full 30-day flight test campaign will include up to five flights of incrementally farther flight distances, up to a few hundred meters, and longer durations as long as 90 seconds, over a period. On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 10 feet (3 meters), where it will hover for about 30 seconds.

As a technology demonstration, the Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project. If it does not work, the Mars 2020 mission will not be impacted. If it does work, helicopters may have a real future as low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles to access locations not reachable by ground travel.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Zurbuchen. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

Mars 2020 will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.

The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers. Scientists will use the instruments aboard the rover to identify and collect samples of rock and soil, encase them in sealed tubes, and leave them on the planet’s surface for potential return to Earth on a future Mars mission.

The Mars 2020 Project at JPL in Pasadena, California, manages rover development for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.


Sunday, May 06, 2018

InSight Update #2: "WALL-E" And "EVE" Are En Route To Mars As Well!

An artist's concept of the two MarCO CubeSats (nicknamed 'WALL-E' and 'EVE' after the two Disney-Pixar characters, respectively) flying through deep space.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA's First Deep-Space CubeSats Say: 'Polo!' (Press Release)

NASA has received radio signals indicating that the first-ever CubeSats headed to deep space are alive and well. The first signal was received at 12:15 p.m. PST (3:15 p.m. EST) today; the second at 1:58 p.m. PST (4:58 p.m. EST). Engineers will now be performing a series of checks before both CubeSats enter their cruise to deep space.

Mars Cube One, or MarCO, is a pair of briefcase-sized spacecraft that launched along with NASA's InSight Mars lander at 4:05 a.m. PDT (7:05 a.m. EDT) today from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California. InSight is a scientific mission that will probe the Red Planet's deep interior for the first time; the name stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

The twin MarCO CubeSats are on their own separate mission: rather than collecting science, they will follow the InSight lander on its cruise to Mars, testing out miniature spacecraft technology along the way.

Both were programmed to unfold their solar panels soon after launch, followed by several opportunities to radio back their health.

"Both MarCO-A and B say 'Polo!' It's a sign that the little sats are alive and well," said Andy Klesh, chief engineer for the MarCO mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which built the twin spacecraft.

The computers inside each MarCO CubeSat haven't been turned on since being tested at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in mid-March, where they were prepared for launch by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems of Irvine, California. Each spacecraft had to do a lot of things right by itself for the team to hear a signal: batteries had to retain enough charge for the spacecraft to deploy their solar arrays, stabilize their attitude, turn toward the Sun and turn on their radios.

A couple of weeks will be spent assessing how the MarCO CubeSats are performing. If they survive the radiation of space and function as planned, they'll fly over the Red Planet during InSight's entry, descent and landing in November. They each have a special antenna to relay InSight's vital signs during the infamous "Seven Minutes of Terror," the crucial phase which has claimed the majority of humanity's probes sent to land on the Red Planet.

CubeSats are a kind of boxy satellite invented to teach engineering students how to build spacecraft. Today, they offer access to space for private companies and research institutions. They're just one kind of "SmallSat," which includes a broad range organized by weight class. CubeSats are generally under 33 pounds (15 kilograms), and can weigh as little as about five pounds (2.5 kilograms). They're distinctively modular, which makes it easier to buy "plug-in" parts rather than custom-design every part of the spacecraft.

NASA is taking the opportunity to test several experimental systems with MarCO. Their radios, folding high-gain antennas, attitude control and propulsion systems are all included to prove new technologies in deep space.

"We're nervous but excited," said Joel Krajewski of JPL, MarCO's project manager. "A lot of work went into designing and testing these components so that they could survive the trip to Mars and relay data during InSight's landing. But our broader goal is to learn more about how to adapt CubeSat technologies for future deep-space missions."

When InSight arrives on Mars in November, it won't rely on MarCO for sending landing data back to Earth. That job will go to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as several Earth-based astronomy telescopes. But the MarCO mission could help prove the potential for CubeSats as a kind of bring-your-own "black box" for future NASA missions.

MarCO was built by JPL, which manages InSight and MarCO for NASA. It was funded by both JPL and NASA's Science Mission Directorate. A number of commercial suppliers provided unique technologies for MarCO.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory


A video graphic using live telemetry data depicts the MarCo-A CubeSat 'WALL-E' deploying from the Centaur upper stage booster over an hour after launch...on May 5, 2018.
NASA TV / United Launch Alliance

Saturday, May 05, 2018

America's Newest Mars Lander Is Now En Route to Elysium Planitia on the Red Planet!

An Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Mars lander launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California...on May 5, 2018.
NASA / Cory Huston

NASA, ULA Launch Mission to Study How Mars Was Made (Press Release)

NASA’s Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission is on a 300-million-mile trip to Mars to study for the first time what lies deep beneath the surface of the Red Planet. InSight launched at 7:05 a.m. EDT (4:05 am PDT) Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

“The United States continues to lead the way to Mars with this next exciting mission to study the Red Planet’s core and geological processes,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “I want to congratulate all the teams from NASA and our international partners who made this accomplishment possible. As we continue to gain momentum in our work to send astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars, missions like InSight are going to prove invaluable.”

First reports indicate the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket that carried InSight into space was seen as far south as Carlsbad, California, and as far east as Oracle, Arizona. One person recorded video of the launch from a private aircraft flying along the California coast.

Riding the Centaur second stage of the rocket, the spacecraft reached orbit 13 minutes and 16 seconds after launch. Seventy-nine minutes later, the Centaur ignited a second time, sending InSight on a trajectory towards the Red Planet. InSight separated from the Centaur 14 minutes later – 93 minutes after launch – and contacted the spacecraft via NASA’s Deep Space Network at 8:41 a.m. EDT (5:41 PDT).

“The Kennedy Space Center and ULA teams gave us a great ride today and started InSight on our six-and-a-half-month journey to Mars,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “We’ve received positive indication the InSight spacecraft is in good health and we are all excited to be going to Mars once again to do groundbreaking science.”

With its successful launch, NASA’s InSight team now is focusing on the six-month voyage. During the cruise phase of the mission, engineers will check out the spacecraft’s subsystems and science instruments, making sure its solar arrays and antenna are oriented properly, tracking its trajectory and performing maneuvers to keep it on course.

InSight is scheduled to land on the Red Planet around 3 p.m. EST Nov. 26, where it will conduct science operations until Nov. 24, 2020, which equates to one year and 40 days on Mars, or nearly two Earth years.

“Scientists have been dreaming about doing seismology on Mars for years. In my case, I had that dream 40 years ago as a graduate student, and now that shared dream has been lofted through the clouds and into reality,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL.

The InSight lander will probe and collect data on marsquakes, heat flow from the planet’s interior and the way the planet wobbles, to help scientists understand what makes Mars tick and the processes that shaped the four rocky planets of our inner solar system.

“InSight will not only teach us about Mars, it will enhance our understanding of formation of other rocky worlds like Earth and the Moon, and thousands of planets around other stars,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. "InSight connects science and technology with a diverse team of JPL-led international and commercial partners."

Previous missions to Mars investigated the surface history of the Red Planet by examining features like canyons, volcanoes, rocks and soil, but no one has attempted to investigate the planet's earliest evolution, which can only be found by looking far below the surface.

“InSight will help us unlock the mysteries of Mars in a new way, by not just studying the surface of the planet, but by looking deep inside to help us learn about the earliest building blocks of the planet,” said JPL Director Michael Watkins.

JPL manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The InSight spacecraft, including cruise stage and lander, was built and tested by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver. NASA's Launch Services Program at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for launch service acquisition, integration, analysis, and launch management. United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, is NASA's launch service provider.

A number of European partners, including France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Göttingen, Germany. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument.


A video graphic using live telemetry data depicts NASA's InSight Mars lander separating from its Centaur upper stage booster over an hour after launch...on May 5, 2018.
NASA TV / United Launch Alliance

A red arrow denotes the location of two microchips bearing the names of 2.4 million people (including Yours Truly) on the deck of NASA's InSight Mars lander.

My participation certificate for NASA's InSight Mars mission.