Friday, February 14, 2020

PLEASE Select the 'Trident' Mission, NASA! Thanks!

An image of Neptune's moon Triton that was taken by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft in August of 1989.
NASA / JPL

NASA Selects Four Possible Missions to Study the Secrets of the Solar System (Press Release - February 13)

Two NASA-JPL proposals are among the selections: Trident would explore Neptune's moon Triton, while Veritas aims to map Venus' surface to determine the planet's geologic history.

NASA has selected four Discovery Program investigations to develop concept studies for new missions. Although they're not official missions yet and some ultimately may not be chosen to move forward, the selections focus on compelling targets and science that are not covered by NASA's active missions or recent selections. Final selections will be made next year.

NASA's Discovery Program invites scientists and engineers to assemble a team to design exciting planetary science missions that deepen what we know about the solar system and our place in it. These missions will provide frequent flight opportunities for focused planetary science investigations. The goal of the program is to address pressing questions in planetary science and increase our understanding of our solar system.

"These selected missions have the potential to transform our understanding of some of the solar system's most active and complex worlds," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Exploring any one of these celestial bodies will help unlock the secrets of how it, and others like it, came to be in the cosmos."

Each of the four nine-month studies will receive $3 million to develop and mature concepts and will conclude with a Concept Study Report. After evaluating the concept studies, NASA will continue development of up to two missions towards flight.

The proposals were chosen based on their potential science value and feasibility of development plans following a competitive peer-review process.

The selected proposals are:

TRIDENT

Trident would explore Triton, a unique and highly active icy moon of Neptune, to understand pathways to habitable worlds at tremendous distances from the Sun. NASA's Voyager 2 mission showed that Triton has active resurfacing - generating the second-youngest surface in the solar system - with the potential for erupting plumes and an atmosphere. Coupled with an ionosphere that can create organic snow and the potential for an interior ocean, Triton is an exciting exploration target to understand how habitable worlds may develop in our solar system and others. Using a single flyby, Trident would map Triton, characterize active processes and determine whether the predicted subsurface ocean exists. Louise Prockter of the Lunar and Planetary Institute/Universities Space Research Association in Houston is the principal investigator. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, would provide project management.

VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy)

VERITAS would map Venus' surface to determine the planet's geologic history and understand why Venus developed so differently than the Earth. Orbiting Venus with a synthetic aperture radar, VERITAS charts surface elevations over nearly the entire planet to create three-dimensional reconstructions of topography and confirm whether processes, such as plate tectonics and volcanism, are still active on Venus. VERITAS would also map infrared emissions from the surface to map Venus' geology, which is largely unknown. Suzanne Smrekar of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is the principal investigator. JPL would provide project management.

DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus)

DAVINCI+ would analyze Venus' atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved and determine whether Venus ever had an ocean. DAVINCI+ plunges through Venus' inhospitable atmosphere to precisely measure its composition down to the surface. The instruments are encapsulated within a purpose-built descent sphere to protect them from the intense environment of Venus. The "+" in DAVINCI+ refers to the imaging component of the mission, which includes cameras on the descent sphere and orbiter designed to map surface rock-type. The last U.S.-led, in-situ mission to Venus was in 1978. The results from DAVINCI+ have the potential to reshape our understanding of terrestrial planet formation in our solar system and beyond. James Garvin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the principal investigator. Goddard would provide project management.

Io Volcano Observer (IVO)

IVO would explore Jupiter's moon Io to learn how tidal forces shape planetary bodies. Io is heated by the constant crush of Jupiter's gravity and is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Little is known about Io's specific characteristics, such as whether a magma ocean exists in its interior. Using close-in flybys, IVO would assess how magma is generated and erupted on Io. The mission's results could revolutionize our understanding of the formation and evolution of rocky, terrestrial bodies, as well as icy ocean worlds in our solar system and extrasolar planets across the universe. Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona in Tucson is the principal investigator. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, would provide project management.

The concepts were chosen from proposals submitted in 2019 under NASA Announcement of Opportunity (AO) NNH19ZDA010O, Discovery Program. The selected investigations will be managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of the Discovery Program. The Discovery Program conducts space science investigations in the Planetary Science Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, guided by NASA's agency priorities and the Decadal Survey process of the National Academy of Sciences.

Established in 1992, NASA's Discovery Program has supported the development and implementation of over 20 missions and instruments. These selections are part of the ninth Discovery Program competition.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Thursday, February 13, 2020

New Horizons Update: New Information Revealed About Kuiper Belt Object 'Arrokoth'...

A high-resolution image of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth that was taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft from 4,109 miles (6,628 kilometers) away...on January 1, 2019.
NASA / Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute, National Optical Astronomy Observatory

New Horizons Team Uncovers a Critical Piece of the Planetary Formation Puzzle (News Release)

Data from NASA’s New Horizons mission are providing new insights into how planets and planetesimals – the building blocks of the planets – were formed.

The New Horizons spacecraft flew past the ancient Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth (2014 MU69) on Jan. 1, 2019, providing humankind’s first close-up look at one of the icy remnants of solar system formation in the vast region beyond the orbit of Neptune. Using detailed data on the object’s shape, geology, color and composition – gathered during a record-setting flyby that occurred more than four billion miles from Earth – researchers have apparently answered a longstanding question about planetesimal origins, and therefore made a major advance in understanding how the planets themselves formed.

The team reports those findings in a set of three papers in the journal Science, and at a media briefing Feb. 13 at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle.

“Arrokoth is the most distant, most primitive and most pristine object ever explored by spacecraft, so we knew it would have a unique story to tell,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “It’s teaching us how planetesimals formed, and we believe the result marks a significant advance in understanding overall planetesimal and planet formation.”

The first post-flyby images transmitted from New Horizons last year showed that Arrokoth had two connected lobes, a smooth surface and a uniform composition, indicating it was likely pristine and would provide decisive information on how bodies like it formed. These first results were published in Science last May.

“This is truly an exciting find for what is already a very successful and history-making mission” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. “The continued discoveries of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft astound as it reshapes our knowledge and understanding of how planetary bodies form in solar systems across the universe.”

Over the following months, working with more and higher-resolution data as well as sophisticated computer simulations, the mission team assembled a picture of how Arrokoth must have formed. Their analysis indicates that the lobes of this “contact binary” object were once separate bodies that formed close together and at low velocity, orbited each other, and then gently merged to create the 22-mile long object New Horizons observed.

This indicates Arrokoth formed during the gravity-driven collapse of a cloud of solid particles in the primordial solar nebula, rather than by the competing theory of planetesimal formation called hierarchical accretion. Unlike the high-speed collisions between planetesimals in hierarchical accretion, in particle-cloud collapse, particles merge gently, slowly growing larger.

“Just as fossils tell us how species evolved on Earth, planetesimals tell us how planets formed in space,” said William McKinnon, a New Horizons co-investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, and lead author of an Arrokoth formation paper in Science this week. “Arrokoth looks the way it does not because it formed through violent collisions, but in more of an intricate dance, in which its component objects slowly orbited each other before coming together.”

Two other important pieces of evidence support this conclusion. The uniform color and composition of Arrokoth’s surface shows the KBO formed from nearby material, as local cloud collapse models predict, rather than a mishmash of matter from more separated parts of the nebula, as hierarchical models might predict.

The flattened shapes of each of Arrokoth’s lobes, as well as the remarkably close alignment of their poles and equators, also point to a more orderly merger from a collapse cloud. Further still, Arrokoth’s smooth, lightly cratered surface indicates its face has remained well preserved since the end of the planet formation era.

“Arrokoth has the physical features of a body that came together slowly, with ‘local’ materials in the solar nebula,” said Will Grundy, New Horizons composition theme team lead from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and the lead author of a second Science paper. “An object like Arrokoth wouldn’t have formed, or look the way it does, in a more chaotic accretion environment.”

The latest Arrokoth reports significantly expand on the May 2019 Science paper, led by Stern. The three new papers are based on 10 times as much data as the first report, and together provide a far more complete picture of Arrokoth’s origin.

“All of the evidence we’ve found points to particle-cloud collapse models, and all but rule out hierarchical accretion for the formation mode of Arrokoth, and by inference, other planetesimals,” Stern said.

New Horizons continues to carry out new observations of additional Kuiper Belt objects it passes in the distance. New Horizons also continues to map the charged-particle radiation and dust environment in the Kuiper Belt. The new KBOs being observed now are too far away to reveal discoveries like those on Arrokoth, but the team can measure aspects such as each object's surface properties and shape. This summer the mission team will begin using large groundbased telescopes to search for new KBOs to study in this way, and even for another flyby target if fuel allows.

The New Horizons spacecraft is now 4.4 billion miles (7.1 billion kilometers) from Earth, operating normally and speeding deeper into the Kuiper Belt at nearly 31,300 miles (50,400 kilometers) per hour.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Marshall Space Flight Center Planetary Management Office provides the NASA oversight for the New Horizons. Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, directs the mission via Principal Investigator Stern, and leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

America's Next Red Planet Rover Has Arrived at Cape Canaveral in Florida!

A cargo container carrying NASA's Mars 2020 rover is loaded onto a C-17 aircraft at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California for the flight to Cape Canaveral, Florida...on February 11, 2020.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA's Mars 2020 Rover Goes Coast-to-Coast to Prep for Launch (News Release)

The agency's first step in returning rocks from Mars just arrived at Kennedy Space Center. The Mars 2020 team now begins readying for a launch to the Red Planet this July.

NASA's next Mars rover has arrived in Florida to begin final preparations for its launch to the Red Planet this July. An Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo plane carrying the Mars 2020 rover and descent stage touched down at NASA's Kennedy Space Center at about 3 p.m. EST (12 p.m. PST) today, completing a 2,300-mile (3,700-kilometer) trip that began yesterday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California. The mission's cruise stage and Mars Helicopter will make the trip to Kennedy later this week.

"Our rover has left the only home it has ever known," said John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager. "The 2020 family here at JPL is a little sad to see it go, but we're even more proud knowing that the next time our rover takes to the skies, it will be headed to Mars."

Assembly, test and launch operations for Mars 2020 began in January 2018. The first piece of hardware that would become part of the rover arrived on the clean room floor of JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility's High Bay 1 a few months later.

The rover's aeroshell - its protective covering for the trip to the Red Planet - arrived at Kennedy this past December. Early on Feb. 11, the rover, cruise stage, descent stage and mission support equipment headed in four police-escorted trucks to the U.S. Air Force's March Air Reserve Base, where they were loaded aboard the two waiting C-17s.

Within hours of arriving at the Kennedy Space Center's Launch and Landing Facility, the Mars 2020 spacecraft components will be transported to the same spacecraft processing facility that in 2011 handled NASA's Curiosity rover, which is currently exploring Mars' Gale Crater. In the coming days, the Mars 2020 assembly, test and launch operations team will begin testing the components to assess their health following the cross-country flight.

After months of final assembly and additional testing, Mars 2020 should be enclosed in its aeroshell for the final time in late June. It will be delivered to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41 to be integrated with the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will hurl it toward Jezero Crater in early July.

Mars 2020 will collect and store rock and soil samples in sealed tubes and will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet's climate and geology, and pave the way for human exploration. Subsequent missions, currently in the planning stages, will return to Jezero Crater, gather the samples collected by Mars 2020 and return them to Earth for the sort of in-depth study that only a full-size lab can provide.

JPL is building and will manage operations of the Mars 2020 rover for NASA. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Our Communications Network for Interplanetary Spacecraft Is About to Get a New Addition in Southern California...

An artist's concept of the Deep Space Network's newest radio antenna: DSS-23...which has begun construction in California's Mojave Desert and will be completed in about 2.5 years.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA Prepares for Moon and Mars With New Addition to Its Deep Space Network (News Release)

Robotic spacecraft will be able to communicate with the dish using radio waves and lasers.

Surrounded by California desert, NASA officials broke ground Tuesday, Feb. 11, on a new antenna for communicating with the agency's farthest-flung robotic spacecraft. Part of the Deep Space Network (DSN), the 112-foot-wide (34-meter-wide) antenna dish being built represents a future in which more missions will require advanced technology, such as lasers capable of transmitting vast amounts of data from astronauts on the Martian surface. As part of its Artemis program NASA will send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024, applying lessons learned there to send astronauts to Mars.

Using massive antenna dishes, the agency talks to more than 30 deep space missions on any given day, including many international missions. As more missions have launched and with more in the works, NASA is looking to strengthen the network. When completed in 2½ years, the new dish will be christened Deep Space Station-23 (DSS-23), bringing the DSN's number of operational antennas to 13.

"Since the 1960s, when the world first watched live pictures of humans in space and on the Moon, to revealing imagery and scientific data from the surface of Mars and vast, distant galaxies, the Deep Space Network has connected humankind with our solar system and beyond," said Badri Younes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation, or SCaN, which oversees NASA's networks. "This new antenna, the fifth of six currently planned, is another example of NASA's determination to enable science and space exploration through the use of the latest technology."

Managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the world's largest and busiest deep space network is clustered in three locations - Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia - that are positioned approximately 120 degrees apart around the globe to enable continual contact with spacecraft as the Earth rotates. (This live tool lets viewers see which DSN dishes are sending up commands or receiving data at any given time.)

The first addition to Goldstone since 2003, the new dish is being built at the complex's Apollo site, so named because its DSS-16 antenna supported NASA's human missions to the Moon. Similar antennas have been built in recent years in Canberra, while two are under construction in Madrid.

"The DSN is Earth's one phone line to our two Voyager spacecraft - both in interstellar space - all our Mars missions and the New Horizons spacecraft that is now far past Pluto," said JPL Deputy Director Larry James. "The more we explore, the more antennas we need to talk to all our missions."

While DSS-23 will function as a radio antenna, it will also be equipped with mirrors and a special receiver for lasers beamed from distant spacecraft. This technology is critical for sending astronauts to places like Mars. Humans there will need to communicate with Earth more than NASA's robotic explorers do, and a Mars base, with its life support systems and equipment, would buzz with data that needs to be monitored.

"Lasers can increase your data rate from Mars by about 10 times what you get from radio," said Suzanne Dodd, director of the Interplanetary Network, the organization that manages the DSN. "Our hope is that providing a platform for optical communications will encourage other space explorers to experiment with lasers on future missions."

While clouds can disrupt lasers, Goldstone's clear desert skies make it an ideal location to serve as a laser receiver about 60% of the time. A demonstration of DSS-23's capabilities is around the corner: When NASA launches an orbiter called Psyche to a metallic asteroid in a few years, it will carry an experimental laser communications terminal developed by JPL. Called the Deep Space Optical Communications project, this equipment will send data and images to an observatory at Southern California's Palomar Mountain. But Psyche will also be able to communicate with the new Goldstone antenna, paving the way for higher data rates in deep space.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory