Friday, August 31, 2018

Europe and Japan's Joint Mission to Mercury Moves a Step Closer to Launch...

Japan's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (or 'MIO,' top) and Europe's Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO, bottom) are stacked together at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
ESA / CNES / Arianespace / Optique video du CSG – J. Odang

BepiColombo Science Orbiters Stacked Together (News Release)

The two science orbiters of the joint ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission are connected in their launch configuration and the European science orbiter and transport module have been given the go-ahead to be loaded with propellants.

The mission completed its Qualification Acceptance Review in the last week, which confirms it is on track for its 19 October launch. The three-spacecraft mission is currently scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 at 03:45 CEST (01:45 GMT) on 19 October, or 22:45 local time in Kourou on 18 October, with the launch window remaining open until 29 November.

Following the successful fuelling readiness review on 30 August, the chemical propellants – such as hydrazine – can be added to the European Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) and Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO).

“These important reviews represent further key milestone in our launch campaign, bringing us to the final stages of our launch preparations, while in the longer term enabling the journey and operations at Mercury,” says Ulrich Reininghaus, ESA’s BepiColombo project manager.

“With the fueling activities planned for 5–12 September, a technical point of no return will be reached. After mechanical stacking, final electrical health check and transfer to the final assembly building, the launch will be the next major event.”

The transfer module will use both ion propulsion and chemical propulsion, in combination with gravity assist flybys at Earth, Venus and Mercury to bring the two science orbiters close enough to Mercury to be gravitationally captured into its orbit.

There, MPO will use its small thrusters to deliver JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) into its elliptical orbit around Mercury, before separating and descending to its own orbit closer to the planet.

This month the two science modules were arranged in their launch configuration for the first time in over a year; the last occasion was at ESA’s technical centre in the Netherlands during final testing before shipment to Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The MTM will be integrated at the bottom of the stack once the propellant-loading activities have been completed. A test-run of the integration was already exercised last week with the unfueled modules. The sunshield that will protect the MMO from the Sun’s radiation on the seven year journey will also be added much closer to launch.

“The long journey to Mercury has not yet started, but I feel the two science orbiters already have a strong bond between them, thanks to the long history of this mission,” says Go Murakami, JAXA’s BepiColombo project scientist. “I believe they will achieve a very successful mission with their joint science measurements.”

MMO’s main science goals are to provide a detailed study of the magnetic environment of Mercury, the interaction of the solar wind with the planet, and the diverse chemical species present in the exosphere – the planet’s extremely tenuous ‘atmosphere’.

The MPO will focus more on surface processes and composition, and together with MMO, will help piece together the full picture of the interaction of the solar wind on the planet’s environment and surface. Together they will watch how this interaction at the surface feeds back into what is observed in the exosphere and how that varies both in time and location – something that can only be achieved with two spacecraft in such complementary orbits.

“Seeing the two BepiColombo science orbiters finally attached together and knowing that they will now stay in this configuration for the next seven years is quite emotional,” says Johannes Benkhoff, ESA’s BepiColombo project scientist. “It’s another strong indication that we will start our mission soon and I’m really looking forward to all the science measurements we have planned with instruments on these two orbiters.”

Source: European Space Agency

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Japan's MIO and Europe's MPO spacecraft, now joined together, are about to be positioned atop Europe's Mercury Transfer Module for a 'fit check' at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
ESA / CNES / Arianespace / Optique video du CSG – J. Odang

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Planetary Defense of Earth Has Reached a Big Milestone...

An artist's concept of NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft about to collide with Didymos B (the smaller asteroid on the left).
NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

APL-Led Asteroid-Deflection Mission Passes Key Development Milestone (Press Release)

The first-ever mission to demonstrate an asteroid deflection technique for planetary defense has moved into the final design and assembly phase, following NASA’s approval on Aug. 16.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), being designed, built and managed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, will test what’s known as the kinetic impactor technique — striking an asteroid to shift its orbit — and take a critical step in demonstrating how to protect our planet from a potential impact.

DART’s target is the asteroid Didymos, a binary system that consists of Didymos A, about one-half mile in size, and a smaller asteroid orbiting it called Didymos B, about 530 feet across. After launch — scheduled for spring/summer 2021 — DART will fly to Didymos (Greek for “twin”) and use an APL-developed onboard targeting system to aim itself at Didymos B. Then the spacecraft, about the size of a small car, would strike the smaller body at approximately 3.7 miles per second.

“With DART, we want to understand the nature of asteroids by seeing how a representative body reacts when impacted, with an eye toward applying that knowledge if we are faced with the need to deflect an incoming object,” said APL’s Andrew Rivkin, who co-leads the DART investigation with APL’s Andrew Cheng. “In addition, DART will be the first planned visit to a binary asteroid system, which is an important subset of near-Earth asteroids and one we have yet to fully understand.”

The kinetic impact technique works by making a very small change in the orbital speed of the target asteroid. DART will demonstrate the kinetic impact technique and will measure the effect of the DART impact. Observatories on Earth will determine the resulting change in the orbit of Didymos B around Didymos A, allowing scientists around the world to better determine the capabilities of kinetic impact as an asteroid mitigation strategy.

To assess and formulate capabilities to address potential asteroid threats, NASA established its Planetary Defense Coordination Office in 2016, which is responsible for finding, tracking and characterizing potentially hazardous asteroids and comets coming near Earth, issuing warnings about possible impacts, and assisting plans for and coordination of a U.S. government response to an actual impact threat.

APL manages DART for NASA’s Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. DART also is supported by teams from Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; Johnson Space Center, Houston; Glenn Research Center, Cleveland; Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California; the University of Maryland, College Park; University of Colorado, Boulder; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California; and Aerojet Rocketdyne, Arlington, Virginia.

Source: Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

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An infographic that outlines NASA's DART mission to the Didymos asteroid system.
NASA

Monday, August 27, 2018

About 53 Trillion Miles and Counting...

An artist's concept of the Gliese 581 star system.

Nine Light-Years... That’s how far the Hello From Earth message has traveled since being transmitted from a giant NASA antenna in Australia to the exoplanet Gliese 581d in the summer of 2009. As of 7 PM California time tonight (12 PM Sydney time on Tuesday, August 28), the radio signal containing 25,878 goodwill text messages—including one by me—will have ventured across approximately 53 trillion miles (85 trillion kilometers) of deep space...which, as stated at the very start of this Blog entry, equals a distance of nine light-years. The signal, despite traveling 186,000 miles per second (or 671 million miles per hour, or um, 1 billion kilometers per hour), will still take about 11 years to reach the Gliese 581 star system. Yup. Have a great week ahead!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

OSIRIS-REx Update: Bennu Begins to Reveal Itself to Its Future Visitor...

An animated GIF showing asteroid Bennu moving across a field of stars...as seen by NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on August 17, 2018.
NASA Goddard / University of Arizona

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Begins Asteroid Operations Campaign (News Release - August 24)

After an almost two-year journey, NASA’s asteroid sampling spacecraft, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), caught its first glimpse of asteroid Bennu last week and began the final approach toward its target. Kicking off the mission’s asteroid operations campaign on Aug. 17, the spacecraft’s PolyCam camera obtained the image from a distance of 1.4 million miles (2.2 million km).

OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first mission to visit a near-Earth asteroid, survey the surface, collect a sample and deliver it safely back to Earth. The spacecraft has traveled approximately 1.1 billion miles (1.8 billion km) since its Sept. 8, 2016, launch and is scheduled to arrive at Bennu on Dec. 3.

“Now that OSIRIS-REx is close enough to observe Bennu, the mission team will spend the next few months learning as much as possible about Bennu’s size, shape, surface features, and surroundings before the spacecraft arrives at the asteroid,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “After spending so long planning for this moment, I can’t wait to see what Bennu reveals to us.”

As OSIRIS-REx approaches the asteroid, the spacecraft will use its science instruments to gather information about Bennu and prepare for arrival. The spacecraft’s science payload comprises the OCAMS camera suite (PolyCam, MapCam, and SamCam), the OTES thermal spectrometer, the OVIRS visible and infrared spectrometer, the OLA laser altimeter, and the REXIS x-ray spectrometer.

During the mission’s approach phase, OSIRIS-REx will:

- regularly observe the area around the asteroid to search for dust plumes and natural satellites, and study Bennu’s light and spectral properties;
- execute a series of four asteroid approach maneuvers, beginning on Oct. 1, slowing the spacecraft to match Bennu's orbit around the Sun;
- jettison the protective cover of the spacecraft’s sampling arm in mid-October and subsequently extend and image the arm for the first time in flight; and
- use OCAMS to reveal the asteroid’s overall shape in late-October and begin detecting Bennu’s surface features in mid-November.

After arrival at Bennu, the spacecraft will spend the first month performing flybys of Bennu’s north pole, equator and south pole, at distances ranging between 11.8 and 4.4 miles (19 and 7 km) from the asteroid. These maneuvers will allow for the first direct measurement of Bennu’s mass as well as close-up observations of the surface. These trajectories will also provide the mission's navigation team with experience navigating near the asteroid.

“Bennu’s low gravity provides a unique challenge for the mission," said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "At roughly 0.3 miles [500 meters] in diameter, Bennu will be the smallest object that any spacecraft has ever orbited.”

The spacecraft will extensively survey the asteroid before the mission team identifies two possible sample sites. Close examination of these sites will allow the team to pick one for sample collection, scheduled for early July 2020. After sample collection, the spacecraft will head back toward Earth before ejecting the Sample Return Capsule for landing in the Utah desert in Sept. 2023.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the agency’s New Frontiers Program for its Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

RIP, Maverick...

Rest In Peace, John McCain (1936-2018). From serving in combat five decades ago to preserving universal healthcare for all Americans last year, you will always be a hero in the eyes of many grateful and patriotic individuals around our great country. I am glad to have cast my vote for you ten years ago.

My condolences to your family.

John McCain, the Maverick, was a true American hero.

Friday, August 24, 2018

NASA Verifies That There Is Frozen Water on the Lunar Surface...

Two images of the Moon's north and south poles, taken by a NASA instrument aboard India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, show water ice scattered about on the lunar surface.
NASA

Ice Confirmed at the Moon's Poles (News Release - August 20)

In the darkest and coldest parts of its polar regions, a team of scientists has directly observed definitive evidence of water ice on the Moon's surface. These ice deposits are patchily distributed and could possibly be ancient. At the southern pole, most of the ice is concentrated at lunar craters, while the northern pole's ice is more widely, but sparsely spread.

A team of scientists, led by Shuai Li of the University of Hawaii and Brown University and including Richard Elphic from NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley, used data from NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) instrument to identify three specific signatures that definitively prove there is water ice at the surface of the Moon.

M3, aboard the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, launched in 2008 by the Indian Space Research Organization, was uniquely equipped to confirm the presence of solid ice on the Moon. It collected data that not only picked up the reflective properties we'd expect from ice, but was able to directly measure the distinctive way its molecules absorb infrared light, so it can differentiate between liquid water or vapor and solid ice.

Most of the newfound water ice lies in the shadows of craters near the poles, where the warmest temperatures never reach above minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the very small tilt of the Moon's rotation axis, sunlight never reaches these regions.

Previous observations indirectly found possible signs of surface ice at the lunar south pole, but these could have been explained by other phenomena, such as unusually reflective lunar soil.

With enough ice sitting at the surface -- within the top few millimeters -- water would possibly be accessible as a resource for future expeditions to explore and even stay on the Moon, and potentially easier to access than the water detected beneath the Moon's surface.

Learning more about this ice, how it got there, and how it interacts with the larger lunar environment will be a key mission focus for NASA and commercial partners, as we endeavor to return to and explore our closest neighbor, the Moon.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on August 20, 2018.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, designed and built the moon mineralogy mapper instrument and was home to its project manager.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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An artist's concept of India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft surveying the Moon's surface.
ISRO

Thursday, August 23, 2018

InSight Update: The Mars Lander Is Halfway to 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

NASA's InSight Passes Halfway to Mars, Instruments Check In (News Release - August 20)

NASA's InSight spacecraft, en route to a Nov. 26 landing on Mars, passed the halfway mark on Aug. 6. All of its instruments have been tested and are working well.

As of Aug. 20, the spacecraft had covered 172 million miles (277 million kilometers) since its launch 107 days ago. In another 98 days, it will travel another 129 million miles (208 million kilometers) and touch down in Mars' Elysium Planitia region, where it will be the first mission to study the Red Planet's deep interior. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

The InSight team is using the time before the spacecraft's arrival at Mars to not only plan and practice for that critical day, but also to activate and check spacecraft subsystems vital to cruise, landing and surface operations, including the highly-sensitive science instruments.

InSight's seismometer, which will be used to detect quakes on Mars, received a clean bill of health on July 19. The SEIS instrument (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) is a six-sensor seismometer combining two types of sensors to measure ground motions over a wide range of frequencies. It will give scientists a window into Mars' internal activity.

"We did our final performance checks on July 19, which were successful," said Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator of InSight from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The team also checked an instrument that will measure the amount of heat escaping from Mars. After being placed on the surface, InSight's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument will use a self-hammering mechanical mole burrowing to a depth of 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters). Measurements by sensors on the mole and on a science tether from the mole to the surface will yield the first precise determination of the amount of heat escaping from the planet's interior. The checkout consisted of powering on the main electronics for the instrument, performing checks of its instrument sensor elements, exercising some of the instrument's internal heaters, and reading out the stored settings in the electronics module.

The third of InSight's three main investigations -- Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) -- uses the spacecraft's radio connection with Earth to assess perturbations of Mars' rotation axis. These measurements can provide information about the planet's core.

"We have been using the spacecraft's radio since launch day, and our conversations with InSight have been very cordial, so we are good to go with RISE as well," said Banerdt.

The lander's cameras checked out fine as well, taking a spacecraft selfie of the inside of the spacecraft's backshell. InSight Project Manager Tom Hoffman from JPL said that, "If you are an engineer on InSight, that first glimpse of the heat shield blanket, harness tie-downs and cover bolts is a very reassuring sight as it tells us our Instrument Context Camera is operating perfectly. The next picture we plan to take with this camera will be of the surface of Mars."

If all goes as planned, the camera will take the first image of Elysium Planitia minutes after InSight touches down on Mars.

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.

A number of European partners, including France's Centre National d'√Čtudes 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 Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Switzerland, Imperial College and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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An annotated image of the backshell that encapsulates InSight...as taken by the lander's Instrument Context Camera during the ongoing journey to Mars.
NASA / JPL - CalTech

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Bidding Farewell to THE BIG BANG THEORY...

A screenshot from THE BIG BANG THEORY - Episode 9.4: 'The 2003 Approximation' (Original Air Date: October 12, 2015).

A few hours ago, Warner Bros. and CBS announced that the upcoming season of The Big Bang Theory will also be its last. I'm so sad to see this show go! Big Bang combined 6 interests of mine into a sitcom that's been TV's most popular comedy for much of its soon-to-be 12-year run:

- Science
- Space exploration in general
- Star Wars
- Comic books
- Comic book, science-fiction and science-fantasy movies in general

and of course,

- Pretty girls (I'll miss you, Penny and Bernadette! Amy, congrats on the wedding)


The end begins on September 24—when the Season 12 premiere of The Big Bang Theory airs on CBS. Happy Hump Day! (That was a bazinga. It's a very UN-happy Hump Day for us Big Bang fans... A very unhappy Hump Day, indeed.)

PS: In case you're wondering why I chose the screenshot above, go to this old Blog entry to find out.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Photos of the Day: The Great Eclipse of 2017...

A photo I took of the Great American Eclipse...on August 21, 2017.

Just thought I'd re-share these pics that I took of the Great American Eclipse...which occurred one year ago today! These images were taken from my house in Los Angeles County. I believe that you had to travel to Oregon, Wyoming, Tennessee or Kansas (among other places throughout the country, of course) to see the total solar eclipse, whereas an annular eclipse was visible over much of the United States. These photos were obtained with my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera—with special glasses provided in an old issue of Astronomy magazine placed in front of the lens. Happy Tuesday!

A photo I took of the eclipse-viewing glasses that I used to gaze at the Great American Eclipse...on August 21, 2017.

Another photo I took of the Great American Eclipse...on August 21, 2017.

Another photo I took of the eclipse-viewing glasses that I used to gaze at the Great American Eclipse...on August 21, 2017.

A composite image consisting of photos that I took during the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.

A selfie of me checking out the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Back in the Day: Remembering My Visit to the Bahamas...

Visiting the city of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, on August 17, 2008.

So today marks 10 years since I returned to Los Angeles following my 7-day trip to Florida...which also included a 3-day cruise to and from New Providence Island in the Bahamas. It was a memorable voyage—despite the fact that the ship I sailed on, the Regal Empress, was built in 1953 (and scrapped in 2009)! Oh well. I made up for that by taking a trip to Central America aboard the 12-year-old Norwegian Jade (which was commissioned on February 19, 2006) last March. But this Blog entry is about me remembering my journey to Nassau a decade ago. And the two days of me being stuck in an Orlando hotel right after the cruise due to Tropical Storm Fay! It's all good.

I look forward to marking the 10-year anniversary of my second trip to Florida next February—which was also the first time I visited NASA's Kennedy Space Center in person. I put "first" in italics for a reason... Happy Monday!

LINK: Photos I took in Florida and the Bahamas 10 years ago

Relaxing near the stern of the Regal Empress as she headed to the Bahamas...on August 16, 2008.

Posing with the Bahamas' Atlantis Resort behind me...on August 17, 2008.

A snapshot of a lighthouse with the Bahamas' Atlantis Resort in the background...on August 17, 2008.

Visiting an old fort in the middle of Nassau...on August 17, 2008.

A snapshot of the Atlantis Resort as my cruise ship, the Regal Empress, departed for Florida...on August 17, 2008.

Tropical Storm Fay looms as the Regal Empress returns to Fort Lauderdale in Florida after a one-day cruise from the Bahamas...on August 18, 2008.

Driving through the rain caused by Tropical Storm Fay as I headed to Orlando...on August 18, 2008.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Back in the Day: Remembering My First Trip to Florida...

About to land at Fort Lauderdale in Florida...on August 13, 2008.

Ten years ago today, I arrived at Fort Lauderdale in Florida to embark on a 7-day trip that involved taking a cruise to New Providence Island in the Bahamas. But before I headed to one of America's closest Caribbean neighbors, I spent the previous two days taking road trips across the southern part of the Sunshine State. I drove through Miami (which I would visit again almost a decade later) en route to Key West on August 14. I visited an Everglades park (where I saw many alligators on exhibit), and the actual Everglades (where I didn't see any gators, ironically) after that on August 15. Fun times! No seriously. Despite the fact that Florida is full of conservative nut jobs if you wanna discuss politics for a moment, I never get tired of visiting this state!

In regards to my cruise to the Bahamas, I'll talk about it next week. Until then, Happy International Left-Handers Day, fellow lefties!

LINK: Photos I took in Florida and the Bahamas 10 years ago

At Los Angeles International Airport, waiting for my flight to Fort Lauderdale to begin...on August 13, 2008.

Driving through the city of Miami as I took a road trip to Key West in the Florida Keys...on August 14, 2008.

Enjoying the scenery as I drove through the Florida Keys...on August 14, 2008.

Chillin' at a beach in the Florida Keys...on August 14, 2008.

Checkin' out two alligators at Everglades Holiday Park in Florida...on August 15, 2008.

Gettin' ready to take an airboat ride at Everglades Holiday Park in Florida...on August 15, 2008.

Takin' a snapshot of another airboat during my tour at Everglades Holiday Park in Florida...on August 15, 2008.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

SOLAR PROBE PLUS Update: The Parker Spacecraft Is Now Headed To Our Parent Star!

A Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying NASA's Parker Solar Probe launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida...on August 12, 2018.
NASA / Bill Ingalls

NASA, ULA Launch Parker Solar Probe on Historic Journey to Touch Sun (Press Release)

Hours before the rise of the very star it will study, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched from Florida Sunday to begin its journey to the Sun, where it will undertake a landmark mission. The spacecraft will transmit its first science observations in December, beginning a revolution in our understanding of the star that makes life on Earth possible.

Roughly the size of a small car, the spacecraft lifted off at 3:31 a.m. EDT on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. At 5:33 a.m., the mission operations manager reported that the spacecraft was healthy and operating normally.

The mission’s findings will help researchers improve their forecasts of space weather events, which have the potential to damage satellites and harm astronauts on orbit, disrupt radio communications and, at their most severe, overwhelm power grids.

“This mission truly marks humanity’s first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “We’ve accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction.”

During the first week of its journey, the spacecraft will deploy its high-gain antenna and magnetometer boom. It also will perform the first of a two-part deployment of its electric field antennas. Instrument testing will begin in early September and last approximately four weeks, after which Parker Solar Probe can begin science operations.

“Today’s launch was the culmination of six decades of scientific study and millions of hours of effort,” said project manager Andy Driesman, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “Now, Parker Solar Probe is operating normally and on its way to begin a seven-year mission of extreme science.”

Over the next two months, Parker Solar Probe will fly towards Venus, performing its first Venus gravity assist in early October – a maneuver a bit like a handbrake turn – that whips the spacecraft around the planet, using Venus’s gravity to trim the spacecraft’s orbit tighter around the Sun. This first flyby will place Parker Solar Probe in position in early November to fly as close as 15 million miles from the Sun – within the blazing solar atmosphere, known as the corona – closer than anything made by humanity has ever gone before.

Throughout its seven-year mission, Parker Solar Probe will make six more Venus flybys and 24 total passes by the Sun, journeying steadily closer to the Sun until it makes its closest approach at 3.8 million miles. At this point, the probe will be moving at roughly 430,000 miles per hour, setting the record for the fastest-moving object made by humanity.

Parker Solar Probe will set its sights on the corona to solve long-standing, foundational mysteries of our Sun. What is the secret of the scorching corona, which is more than 300 times hotter than the Sun’s surface, thousands of miles below? What drives the supersonic solar wind – the constant stream of solar material that blows through the entire solar system? And finally, what accelerates solar energetic particles, which can reach speeds up to more than half the speed of light as they rocket away from the Sun?

Scientists have sought these answers for more than 60 years, but the investigation requires sending a probe right through the unrelenting heat of the corona. Today, this is finally possible with cutting-edge thermal engineering advances that can protect the mission on its daring journey.

“Exploring the Sun’s corona with a spacecraft has been one of the hardest challenges for space exploration,” said Nicola Fox, project scientist at APL. “We’re finally going to be able to answer questions about the corona and solar wind raised by Gene Parker in 1958 – using a spacecraft that bears his name – and I can’t wait to find out what discoveries we make. The science will be remarkable.”

Parker Solar Probe carries four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and capture images of the solar wind. The University of California, Berkeley, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Princeton University in New Jersey lead these investigations.

Parker Solar Probe is part of NASA’s Living with a Star program to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. The Living with a Star program is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. APL designed and built, and operates the spacecraft.

The mission is named for Eugene Parker, the physicist who first theorized the existence of the solar wind in 1958. It’s the first NASA mission to be named for a living researcher.

A plaque dedicating the mission to Parker was attached to the spacecraft in May. It includes a quote from the renowned physicist – “Let’s see what lies ahead.” It also holds a memory card containing more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public to travel with the spacecraft to the Sun.

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A plaque containing a microchip that bears the names of over 1.1 million people (including Yours Truly) 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

Engineers install the Parker Solar Probe's heat shield inside the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida...on June 27, 2018.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

My participation certificate for the Parker Solar Probe mission.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Photo of the Day: An F-35 Soars Through Death Valley in SoCal...

Just thought I'd share this cool image I found on Instagram showing an F-35A Lightning II zooming past a group of photographers taking snapshots of the stealth jet while standing atop a canyon ledge. This pic was most likely taken at Star Wars Canyon (officially known as Rainbow Canyon)...which is located at Death Valley National Park in Southern California. This rocky terrain is used by combat pilots from the U.S. Air Force and Navy to hone their flying skills—and essentially impersonate Luke Skywalker when the Tatooine farm boy made the Death Star trench run in Star Wars: A New Hope.

This amazing photo makes me want to drive all the way to this popular locale (which is 160 miles north of Los Angeles and 260 miles west of Las Vegas) in the SoCal desert to capture my own images of combat aircraft zooming through the canyon below me at near-Mach speed! Of course, I'd have to wait a few months to do this... I have no intention of dealing with the 118-degree weather in Death Valley right now! Happy Thursday.

A group of photographers take snapshots of an F-35A Lightning II zooming past them...most likely at 'Star Wars Canyon' in Death Valley, California.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

A Major Milestone for the Mars 2020 Mission...

An artist's concept of NASA's Mars 2020 rover studying the surface of the Red Planet.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Aerojet Rocketdyne Delivers Power Generator for Mars 2020 Rover (Press Release)

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 07, 2018 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Aerojet Rocketdyne, in collaboration with Teledyne, recently delivered the electrical power generator for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory (INL), where it will be fueled, tested and readied for flight. In addition to providing the primary power source for the rover, Aerojet Rocketdyne is also playing a critical role in spacecraft propulsion for the journey to Mars.

The Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) will supply electrical power to the rover as it traverses the red planet, collecting samples for a potential return to Earth by a future mission. A similar device supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne continues to power the Mars Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the Martian surface since 2012.

The MMRTG converts heat generated by the natural decay of plutonium-238 into electricity. Radioisotope power sources, which also provide heat to a spacecraft’s components, are typically used on long-duration deep space missions, where the great distance from the Sun dramatically reduces the effectiveness of solar arrays.

“We’re best known for propulsion, but our role in supporting space programs certainly does not end there,” said Eileen Drake, Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and president. “We’ve built lithium-ion batteries for the International Space Station, provide nuclear generators for deep space missions like the Mars rovers, and are building the electrical power system for Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne was awarded a DOE contract in 2003 to develop and produce MMRTGs. In addition to the MMRTG for the Curiosity rover, the DOE authorized assembly of two additional flight units: one for Mars 2020 and one for a future mission. One unit will be fueled for Mars 2020, and the other unit will remain unfueled and in reserve for a future mission.

After being fueled and tested at INL, the Mars 2020 MMRTG will be delivered to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for integration with the rover. This will take place in the final weeks before launch, scheduled for the summer of 2020.

The MMRTG is just one of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s contributions to Mars 2020, key elements of which are now coming together at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. A number of Aerojet Rocketdyne thrusters will help keep the spacecraft on course for Mars following launch, and maintain stability and control as it enters the Martian atmosphere.

Like the Curiosity rover, the one-ton Mars 2020 rover will be lowered to the Martian surface on a cable via a novel device called the Sky Crane. Aerojet Rocketdyne MR-60 rocket engines will allow the Sky Crane to hover about 20 feet above the surface while lowering the rover and then fly safely away once the task is completed.

Source: Aerojet Rocketdyne

Monday, August 06, 2018

TESS Has Caught a Comet on Camera!

An animated GIF showing comet C/2018 N1 moving across the field of view of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite's cameras.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology / NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA’s Planet-Hunting TESS Catches a Comet Before Starting Science (News Release)

Before NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) started science operations on July 25, 2018, the planet hunter sent back a stunning sequence of serendipitous images showing the motion of a comet. Taken over the course of 17 hours on July 25, these TESS images helped demonstrate the satellite’s ability to collect a prolonged set of stable periodic images covering a broad region of the sky — all critical factors in finding transiting planets orbiting nearby stars.

Over the course of these tests, TESS took images of C/2018 N1, a comet discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite on June 29. The comet, located about 29 million miles (48 million kilometers) from Earth in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus, is seen to move across the frame from right to left as it orbits the Sun. The comet’s tail, which consists of gases carried away from the comet by an outflow from the Sun called the solar wind, extends to the top of the frame and gradually pivots as the comet glides across the field of view.

In addition to the comet, the images reveal a treasure trove of other astronomical activity. The stars appear to shift between white and black as a result of image processing. The shift also highlights variable stars — which change brightness either as a result of pulsation, rapid rotation, or by eclipsing binary neighbors. Asteroids in our solar system appear as small white dots moving across the field of view. Towards the end of the video, one can see a faint broad arc of light moving across the middle section of the frame from left to right. This is stray light from Mars, which is located outside the frame. The images were taken when Mars was at its brightest near opposition, or its closest distance, to Earth.

These images were taken during a short period near the end of the mission’s commissioning phase, prior to the start of science operations. The movie presents just a small fraction of TESS’s active field of view. The team continues to fine-tune the spacecraft’s performance as it searches for distant worlds.

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 Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Sunday, August 05, 2018

This Day In Space...

An artist's concept of NASA's Juno spacecraft (which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on August 5, 2011) orbiting Jupiter.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Today marks a few milestones for NASA deep-space missions and the first human to set foot on the Moon:

- The Juno spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a five-year journey to Jupiter seven years ago today...

- The Curiosity Mars rover touched down on Gale Crater at the Red Planet six years ago today...

- The InSight Mars lander, which launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5, reached the halfway point of its journey to the Red Planet (where it will touch down on Cyber Monday, November 26) as of today...

- Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, and would've turned 88 today.

Carry on!

EDIT (August 23): InSight reached the halfway point of its journey to Mars as of August 6.

A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover (which landed on the Red Planet on August 5, 2012), taken with a camera on her robotic arm on June 15, 2018.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

An animated GIF depicting NASA's InSight Mars lander (which reached the halfway point of its journey to the Red Planet as of August 5, 2018) cruising through deep space.
NASA / JPL - CalTech

Neil Armstrong (who was born on August 5, 1930) poses for a photo by fellow Apollo 11 crew member Buzz Aldrin inside the Eagle Lunar Module, on July 20, 1969.
NASA / Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

SOLAR PROBE PLUS Update: T-Minus 10 Days Till Parker Lifts Off and Heads to the Sun!

NASA's Parker Solar Probe is about to be encapsulated within the large payload fairing of a Delta IV Heavy rocket...at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida, on July 16, 2018.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

Prepping to Launch for the Sun (News Release - July 31)

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has cleared the final procedures in the clean room before its move to the launch pad, where it will be integrated onto its launch vehicle, a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy. This is an historic mission that will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, where changing conditions can propagate out into the solar system, affecting Earth and other worlds. Parker Solar Probe will travel through the Sun’s atmosphere, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions — and ultimately providing humanity with the closest-ever observations of a star.

Seen here inside one half of its 62.7-foot tall fairing, the Parker Solar Probe was encapsulated on July 16, 2018, in preparation for the move from Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida, to Space Launch Complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where it will be integrated onto its launch vehicle for its launch that is targeted for August 11, 2018.

Source: NASA.Gov