Thursday, July 30, 2020

America's Next Robotic Rover and First Martian Helicopter Are Off to the Red Planet!

An Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars 2020 spacecraft launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida...on July 30, 2020.
NASA / Joel Kowsky

NASA, ULA Launch Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission to Red Planet (Press Release)

NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission is on its way to the Red Planet to search for signs of ancient life and collect samples to send back to Earth.

Humanity's most sophisticated rover launched with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at 7:50 a.m. EDT (4:50 a.m. PDT) Friday on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

"With the launch of Perseverance, we begin another historic mission of exploration," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "This amazing explorer's journey has already required the very best from all of us to get it to launch through these challenging times. Now we can look forward to its incredible science and to bringing samples of Mars home even as we advance human missions to the Red Planet. As a mission, as an agency, and as a country, we will persevere."

The ULA Atlas V's Centaur upper stage initially placed the Mars 2020 spacecraft into a parking orbit around Earth. The engine fired for a second time and the spacecraft separated from the Centaur as expected. Navigation data indicate the spacecraft is perfectly on course to Mars.

Mars 2020 sent its first signal to ground controllers via NASA's Deep Space Network at 9:15 a.m. EDT (6:15 a.m. PDT). However, telemetry (more detailed spacecraft data) had not yet been acquired at that point. Around 11:30 a.m. EDT (8:30 a.m. PDT), a signal with telemetry was received from Mars 2020 by NASA ground stations. Data indicate the spacecraft had entered a state known as safe mode, likely because a part of the spacecraft was a little colder than expected while Mars 2020 was in Earth's shadow. All temperatures are now nominal and the spacecraft is out of Earth's shadow.

When a spacecraft enters safe mode, all but essential systems are turned off until it receives new commands from mission control. An interplanetary launch is fast-paced and dynamic, so a spacecraft is designed to put itself in safe mode if its onboard computer perceives conditions are not within its preset parameters. Right now, the Mars 2020 mission is completing a full health assessment on the spacecraft and is working to return the spacecraft to a nominal configuration for its journey to Mars.

The Perseverance rover's astrobiology mission is to seek out signs of past microscopic life on Mars, explore the diverse geology of its landing site, Jezero Crater, and demonstrate key technologies that will help us prepare for future robotic and human exploration.

"Jezero Crater is the perfect place to search for signs of ancient life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "Perseverance is going to make discoveries that cause us to rethink our questions about what Mars was like and how we understand it today. As our instruments investigate rocks along an ancient lake bottom and select samples to return to Earth, we may very well be reaching back in time to get the information scientists need to say that life has existed elsewhere in the universe."

The Martian rock and dust Perseverance’s Sample Caching System collects could answer fundamental questions about the potential for life to exist beyond Earth. Two future missions currently under consideration by NASA, in collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency), will work together to get the samples to an orbiter for return to Earth. When they arrive on Earth, the Mars samples will undergo in-depth analysis by scientists around the world using equipment far too large to send to the Red Planet.

An Eye to a Martian Tomorrow

While most of Perseverance's seven instruments are geared toward learning more about the planet's geology and astrobiology, the MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) instrument's job is focused on missions yet to come. Designed to demonstrate that converting Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen is possible, it could lead to future versions of MOXIE technology that become staples on Mars missions, providing oxygen for rocket fuel and breathable air.

Also future-leaning is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which will remain attached to the belly of Perseverance for the flight to Mars and the first 60 or so days on the surface. A technology demonstrator, Ingenuity's goal is a pure flight test – it carries no science instruments.

Over 30 sols (31 Earth days), the helicopter will attempt up to five powered, controlled flights. The data acquired during these flight tests will help the next generation of Mars helicopters provide an aerial dimension to Mars explorations – potentially scouting for rovers and human crews, transporting small payloads, or investigating difficult-to-reach destinations.

The rover's technologies for entry, descent, and landing also will provide information to advance future human missions to Mars.

"Perseverance is the most capable rover in history because it is standing on the shoulders of our pioneers Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity," said Michael Watkins, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "In the same way, the descendants of Ingenuity and MOXIE will become valuable tools for future explorers to the Red Planet and beyond."

About seven cold, dark, unforgiving months of interplanetary space travel lay ahead for the mission – a fact never far from the minds of the Mars 2020 project team.

"There is still a lot of road between us and Mars," said John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager at JPL. "About 290 million miles of them. But if there was ever a team that could make it happen, it is this one. We are going to Jezero Crater. We will see you there Feb. 18, 2021."

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of America's larger Moon to Mars exploration approach that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with sending the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis program.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and will manage operations of the Mars Perseverance rover. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management, and ULA provided the Atlas V rocket.


A camera onboard the Atlas V's Centaur upper stage captured this view of the Mars 2020 spacecraft separating from the booster to begin its nearly 7-month journey to the Red Planet...on July 30, 2020.
United Launch Alliance

A snapshot of the three microchips bearing the names of 10.9 million people (including Yours Truly) on NASA's Perseverance Mars rover.

My participation certificate for NASA's Mars 2020 mission.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Mars 2020 Update: Perseverance and Ingenuity Are Now at the Pad!

The Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars 2020 spacecraft rolls out from the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 in Florida...on July 28, 2020.
United Launch Alliance

Just thought I'd share these images of the Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Perseverance Mars rover and the Ingenuity Mars helicoper as it rolled out to the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida earlier this morning. Liftoff of the Atlas V from Space Launch Complex-41 at CCAFS is targeted for 7:50 AM, Eastern Daylight Time (4:50 AM, Pacific Daylight Time) on Thursday, July 30. Weather is currently at 80% "GO" during the 2-hour launch window that day. So stoked!

The Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars 2020 spacecraft rolls out from the VIF to the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's SLC-41 in Florida...on July 28, 2020.
United Launch Alliance

The Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars 2020 spacecraft rolls out to the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's SLC-41 in Florida...on July 28, 2020.
United Launch Alliance

The Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars 2020 spacecraft arrives at the SLC-41 pad in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida...on July 28, 2020.
United Launch Alliance

Friday, July 24, 2020

Photos of the Day #3: Snapshots of NEOWISE...One Last Time

Comet NEOWISE as seen from my backyard in Pomona, California...on July 23, 2020. A faint satellite trail is visible right above the comet.

Happy Friday, everyone! Just thought I'd share these pics that I took of comet NEOWISE from my backyard (again) in Pomona, California, last night. I was pondering about whether or not I should've went to Joshua Tree National Park yesterday or Wednesday (when NEOWISE made its closest approach to Earth at a distance of 64.3 million miles, or 103.5 million kilometers) to capture additional photos, but for financial reasons I decided to stay home since I didn't want to risk putting wear-and-tear on my car. Here are the settings I used on my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera:

Lens: 70-300mm Nikon telephoto lens
ISO: 800
F-stop: f/5.6
Shutter speed: 8 seconds
Live View mode on my LCD screen used instead of the viewfinder

Seeing as how I finally managed to spot NEOWISE on my own last night (without the use of binoculars), I wanted to end my comet-photographing campaign on a high these are the very last images I'll take of this celestial body as it heads back into the far reaches of our solar system. Thank you for putting on a show for us quarantined Earthlings for the past couple of weeks, comet NEOWISE! If I was immortal, I'd say see you again in 6,800 years... Carry on.

Comet NEOWISE as seen from my backyard in Pomona, California...on July 23, 2020.

Comet NEOWISE as seen from my backyard in Pomona, California...on July 23, 2020.

Comet NEOWISE as seen from my backyard in Pomona, California...on July 23, 2020.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mars 2020 Update: T-Minus 8 Days Till America's Next Robotic Rover Launches to the Red Planet...

The Atlas V payload fairing containing NASA's Perseverance Mars rover is transported to the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41...on July 7, 2020.

NASA's Mars Perseverance Rover Passes Flight Readiness Review (Press Release)

NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission cleared its Flight Readiness Review Wednesday, an important milestone on its way to the launch pad. The meeting was an opportunity for the Mars 2020 team and launch vehicle provider United Launch Alliance to report on the readiness of the spacecraft, along with the Atlas V rocket, flight and ground hardware, software, personnel, and procedures. The daily launch window on Thursday, July 30, opens at 7:50 a.m. EDT.

“Our deepest thanks go to the many teams who have worked so hard to get Perseverance ready to fly during these challenging times,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “This mission is emblematic of our nation’s spirit of meeting problems head-on and finding solutions together. The incredible science Perseverance will enable and the bold human missions it will help make possible are going to be inspirations for us all.”

"We're pleased to be passing another milestone with the completion of the Flight Readiness Review," said Matt Wallace, deputy project manager for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. "But we’ll keep our heads down through the final prelaunch activities and the opening of the launch window next week, until we're certain this spacecraft is safely on its way. Mars is a tough customer, and we don’t take anything for granted."

With all the connections between the spacecraft and Atlas V launch vehicle complete, the majority of business remaining for Mars 2020's Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations (ATLO) team involves checking out every one of the multitude of systems and subsystems onboard the rover, aeroshell, cruise stage, and descent stage.

“NASA can’t wait to take the next steps on the surface of Mars with Perseverance,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The science and technology of this mission are going to help us address major questions about the geologic and astrobiologic history of Mars that we’ve been working on for decades, and we’re excited to take the whole world with us on this journey.”

"At this point, the spacecraft has been powered on and will remain so around the clock," said Dave Gruel, ATLO manager for Mars 2020. "The launch operations team will continue to monitor the health of the spacecraft to ensure it’s 'Go' for launch – nothing glamorous, but an important part of the job."

The spacecraft and launch teams have one more major review to complete. Scheduled Monday, July 27, the Launch Readiness Review is the last significant checkup before the mission receives final approval to proceed with launch.

"At present, everything is green across the board," said Wallace. "Everyone involved with this endeavor, from the spacecraft team to the launch vehicle team to those working the range, are looking forward to seeing Perseverance begin its long-awaited flight to Mars."

Around 1 p.m. EDT on July 27, or approximately one hour after the Launch Readiness Review ends, the agency will hold a preflight news conference that will air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

Other prelaunch briefings also will take place July 27, and Tuesday, July 28. A full list of media briefings for the Mars 2020 mission launch is available here:

The Perseverance rover’s astrobiology mission will search for signs of ancient microbial life. It will also characterize the planet's climate and geology, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first planetary mission to collect and cache selected samples of Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust). Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

JPL, which is managed by Caltech in Pasadena, is building and will manage operations of Perseverance for NASA. The agency's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management. The Mars 2020 mission with its Perseverance rover are part of America’s larger Moon to Mars exploration approach that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with sending the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis program.

Source: NASA.Gov


A Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator...the same nuclear system that was attached to NASA's Perseverance rover (at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 22, 2020) to power it on its journey to the surface of Mars.
Office of Nuclear Energy

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Photos of the Day #2: NEOWISE Above My Neighborhood!

Comet NEOWISE as seen from my backyard in Pomona, California...on July 20, 2020.

Happy Tuesday, everyone! Just thought I'd share these impromptu pictures that I took of comet NEOWISE from my own backyard in Pomona, California last night! The reason why I call these impromptu is because I didn't plan on taking photos of the comet yesterday... I was just taking my usual evening walk around the street when I saw one of my family members standing outside the house and looking up at the sky with his binoculars. Of course, it was a no-brainer for me to head back inside to get my tripod and Nikon D3300 DSLR camera to capture images of NOEWISE after it was obviously located in the sky! Here are the settings that I used:

Lens: 70-300mm Nikon telephoto lens
ISO: 800
F-stop: f/5.6
Shutter speed: 8 seconds
Live View mode on my LCD screen used instead of the viewfinder

I was thinking about going to Joshua Tree National Park tomorrow (when the comet makes its closest approach to Earth at a distance of 64.3 million miles, or 103.5 million kilometers), but considering the fact that I've had a very difficult time finding the comet on my own when I took photos of it on July 10 and July 18 (random strangers had to point NEOWISE out to me both times I shot pictures, and I still had a hard time spotting the celestial body with binoculars last night), I don't think it's wise of me to take a 2-hour drive to the desert when I'll probably be alone at the site trying hard to spot the comet in the sky...but we'll see. The comet should be high enough above the horizon on July 22 for me to take additional images from my backyard. It's Los Angeles County's stupid light pollution that will spoil these pictures, though. I'll think about it.

Comet NEOWISE as seen from my backyard in Pomona, California...on July 20, 2020.

Comet NEOWISE as seen from my backyard in Pomona, California...on July 20, 2020.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Photos of the Day: Comet NEOWISE After Dusk...

A photo I took of comet NEOWISE from the city of Diamond Bar in California...on the night of July 18, 2020.

Good morning, everyone! Just thought I'd share these photos that I took of comet NEOWISE from Summitridge Park in Diamond Bar, California yesterday. These four pics were taken between 9:28 PM and 10:07 PM—with sunset being around 8:01 PM last night. NEOWISE is pretty high up in the sky the point where you can see it below the constellation Big Dipper as opposed to near the horizon (as seen in the images I took on July 10).

By this Wednesday, July 22 (when NEOWISE makes its closet approach to Earth at 64.3 million miles, or 103.5 million kilometers), the comet should be even closer to the Big Dipper. However, it's best that you definitely travel outside the city to catch a glimpse of this celestial object (with a telescope or binoculars) before it disappears for good early next month (NEOWISE won't return to our inner solar system again for another 6,800 years). I had to use Photoshop to adjust the contrast on these pics since the sky was hazy and also brightened by the light pollution of Los Angeles County.

Anyways, here are the general settings that I used last night. I'll see if I drive far this Wednesday to take some final photos of comet NEOWISE with my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera... Carry on!

Lens: 70-300mm Nikon telephoto lens
ISO: 800 and 1600
F-stop: f/4.5 to 5.6
Shutter speed: 2.5 to 8 seconds (try to stick with 2.5 seconds, unless you like star trails)
Live View mode on my LCD screen used instead of the viewfinder

Another photo I took of comet NEOWISE from the city of Diamond Bar in California...on the night of July 18, 2020.

Another photo I took of comet NEOWISE from the city of Diamond Bar in California...on the night of July 18, 2020.

Another photo I took of comet NEOWISE from the city of Diamond Bar in California...on the night of July 18, 2020. A faint satellite trail is visible near the upper-left part of this image.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Mars 2020 Update: Ingenuity's Trip to the Red Planet Begins in Just 13 Days (Hopefully)...

An illustration of the Ingenuity helicopter soaring in the Martian air while the Perseverance rover observes from the surface.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

6 Things to Know About NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (News Release - July 14)

The first helicopter attempting to fly on another planet is a marvel of engineering. Get up to speed with these key facts about its plans.

When NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida later this summer, an innovative experiment will ride along: the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Ingenuity may weigh only about 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), but it has some outsize ambitions.

"The Wright Brothers showed that powered flight in Earth's atmosphere was possible, using an experimental aircraft," said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "With Ingenuity, we're trying to do the same for Mars."

Here are six things you should know about the first helicopter going to another planet:

1. Ingenuity is a flight test.

Ingenuity is what is known as a technology demonstration – a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time, with limited scope. Previous groundbreaking technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner and the tiny Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that flew by Mars in 2018.

Ingenuity features four specially made carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm – many times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth. It also has innovative solar cells, batteries, and other components. Ingenuity doesn't carry science instruments and is a separate experiment from the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.

2. Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet.

What makes it hard for a helicopter to fly on Mars? For one thing, Mars' thin atmosphere makes it difficult to achieve enough lift. Because the Mars atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth's, Ingenuity has to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity's mass on Earth.

It can also be bone-chillingly cold at Jezero Crater, where Perseverance will land with Ingenuity attached to its belly in February 2021. Nights there dip down to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). While Ingenuity's team on Earth has tested the helicopter at Martian temperatures and believes it should work on Mars as intended, the cold will push the design limits of many of Ingenuity's parts.

In addition, flight controllers at JPL won't be able to control the helicopter with a joystick. Communication delays are an inherent part of working with spacecraft across interplanetary distances. Commands will need to be sent well in advance, with engineering data coming back from the spacecraft long after each flight takes place. In the meantime, Ingenuity will have a lot of autonomy to make its own decisions about how to fly to a waypoint and keep itself warm.

3. Ingenuity is a fitting name for a robot that is the result of extreme creativity.

High school student Vaneeza Rupani of Northport, Alabama, originally submitted the name Ingenuity for the Mars 2020 rover, before it was named Perseverance, but NASA officials recognized the submission as a terrific name for the helicopter, given how much creative thinking the team employed to get the mission off the ground.

"The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration," Rupani wrote. "Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things."

4. Ingenuity has already demonstrated feats of engineering.

In careful steps from 2014 to 2019, engineers at JPL demonstrated that it was possible to build an aircraft that was lightweight, able to generate enough lift in Mars' thin atmosphere, and capable of surviving in a Mars-like environment. They tested progressively more advanced models in special space simulators at JPL. In January 2019, the actual helicopter that is riding with Perseverance to the Red Planet passed its final flight evaluation. Failing any one of these milestones would've grounded the experiment.

5. The Ingenuity team will count success one step at a time.

Given the firsts Ingenuity is trying to accomplish, the team has a long list of milestones they'll need to pass before the helicopter can take off and land in the spring of 2021. The team will celebrate each time they meet one. The milestones include:

- Surviving the launch from Cape Canaveral, the cruise to Mars, and landing on the Red Planet
- Safely deploying to the surface from Perseverance's belly
- Autonomously keeping warm through the intensely cold Martian nights
- Autonomously charging itself with its solar panel

And then Ingenuity will make its first flight attempt. If the helicopter succeeds in that first flight, the Ingenuity team will attempt up to four other test flights within a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) window.

6. If Ingenuity succeeds, future Mars exploration could include an ambitious aerial dimension.

Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. They could offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground, provide high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans, and enable access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.

"The Ingenuity team has done everything to test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars," said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL. "We'll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future."

Source: NASA.Gov


Thursday, July 16, 2020

Hubble's Successor Is Now Scheduled to Launch on Halloween of 2021...

A snapshot of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope inside a clean room at the Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California.
NASA / Chris Gunn

NASA Announces New James Webb Space Telescope Target Launch Date (Press Release)

NASA now is targeting Oct. 31, 2021, for the launch of the agency’s James Webb Space Telescope from French Guiana, due to impacts from the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as well as technical challenges.

This decision is based on a recently completed schedule risk assessment of the remaining integration and test activities prior to launch. Previously, Webb was targeted to launch in March 2021.

“The perseverance and innovation of the entire Webb Telescope team has enabled us to work through challenging situations we could not have foreseen on our path to launch this unprecedented mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Webb is the world’s most complex space observatory, and our top science priority, and we’ve worked hard to keep progress moving during the pandemic. The team continues to be focused on reaching milestones and arriving at the technical solutions that will see us through to this new launch date next year.”

Testing of the observatory continues to go well at Northrop Grumman, the mission’s main industry partner, in Redondo Beach, California, despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. Prior to the pandemic’s associated delays, the team made significant progress in achieving important milestones to prepare for launch in 2021.

As schedule margins grew tighter last fall, the agency planned to assess the progress of the project in April. This assessment was postponed due to the pandemic and was completed this week. The factors contributing to the decision to move the launch date include the impacts of augmented safety precautions, reduced on-site personnel, disruption to shift work, and other technical challenges. Webb will use existing program funding to stay within its $8.8 billion development cost cap.

“Based on current projections, the program expects to complete the remaining work within the new schedule without requiring additional funds,” said Gregory Robinson, NASA Webb program director at the agency’s headquarters. “Although efficiency has been affected and there are challenges ahead, we have retired significant risk through the achievements and good schedule performance over the past year. After resuming full operations to prepare for upcoming final observatory system-level environmental testing this summer, major progress continues towards preparing this highly complex observatory for launch.”

The project team will continue to complete a final set of extremely difficult environmental tests of the full observatory before it will be shipped to the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, situated on the northeastern coast of South America.

This week, the project successfully completed electrical testing of the observatory. The test highlighted a major milestone in preparation for the upcoming acoustics and vibration environmental tests of the full observatory that are scheduled to start in August. In addition to ongoing deployments, ground system testing of the fully integrated observatory has followed immediately afterwards. Ensuring that every element of Webb functions properly before it gets to space is critical to its success.

The design of a very large space telescope and highly sophisticated instruments was required to enable Webb to answer fundamental questions about our cosmic origins outlined in the National Academy of Sciences 2000 Decadal Survey.

“Webb is designed to build upon the incredible legacies of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, by observing the infrared universe and exploring every phase of cosmic history,” said Eric Smith, NASA Webb’s program scientist at the agency’s headquarters. “The observatory will detect light from the first generation of galaxies that formed in the early universe after the big bang and study the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets for possible signs of habitability.”

Early next year, Webb will be folded “origami-style” for shipment to the launch site and fitted compactly inside Arianespace’s Ariane 5 launch vehicle fairing, which is about 16 feet (5 meters) wide. On its journey to space, Webb will be the first mission to complete an intricate and technically challenging series of deployments – a critical part of Webb’s journey to its orbit about one million miles from Earth. Once in orbit, Webb will unfold its delicate five-layered sunshield until it reaches the size of a tennis court. Webb will then deploy its iconic 6.5-meter primary mirror that will detect the faint light of far-away stars and galaxies.

Webb is NASA’s next great space science observatory, which will help in solving the mysteries of our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mystifying structures and origins of our universe. Webb is an international program led by NASA, along with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

Source: NASA.Gov


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Hayabusa2 Update: The Soil Samples from Asteroid Ryugu Will Touch Down in the Land Down Under This December...

An artist's concept of Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft collecting a soil sample from the surface of asteroid Ryugu.

Joint Statement for Cooperation in the Hayabusa2 Sample Return Mission by the Australian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Press Release - July 14)

The Australian Space Agency (the Agency) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have been in close cooperation on JAXA’s asteroid sample-return mission, Hayabusa2. The sample capsule is planned to land in Woomera, South Australia and the Agency and JAXA are working towards the planned safe re-entry and recovery of the capsule containing the asteroid samples.

Recently, JAXA indicated that 6 December 2020 (Australia/Japan time) is its planned target date for the capsule re-entry and recovery. The Agency and JAXA are working through JAXA’s application for Authorisation of Return of Overseas Launched Space Object (AROLSO), which will need to be approved under the Space Activities Act (1998).

Successfully realizing this epoch-making sample return mission is a great partnership between Australia and Japan and will be a symbol of international cooperation and of overcoming the difficulties and crisis caused by the (COVID-19) pandemic.

Dr. Megan Clark AC
Head, Australian Space Agency
Melbourne, Australia

Dr. Yamakawa Hiroshi
President, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
Tokyo, Japan

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

New Horizons Update: Remembering the Pluto Flyby That Took Place 5 Years Ago Today...

A high-resolution, enhanced-color global image of Pluto that was taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015.

Five Years after New Horizons’ Historic Flyby, Here Are 10 Cool Things We Learned About Pluto (News Release)

Five years ago today, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made history. After a voyage of nearly 10 years and more than 3 billion miles, the intrepid piano-sized probe flew within 7,800 miles of Pluto. For the first time ever, we saw the surface of this distant world in spectacular, colored detail.

​The encounter—which also included a detailed look at the largest of Pluto’s five moons, Charon—capped the initial reconnaissance of the planets started by NASA’s Mariner 2 more than 50 years before, and revealed an icy world replete in magnificent landscapes and geology—towering mountains, giant ice sheets, pits, scarps, valleys and terrains seen nowhere else in the solar system.

And that was only the beginning.

In the five years since that groundbreaking flyby, nearly every conjecture about Pluto possibly being an inert ball of ice has been thrown out the window or flipped on its head.

“It’s clear to me that the solar system saved the best for last!” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “We could not have explored a more fascinating or scientifically important planet at the edge of our solar system. The New Horizons team worked for 15 years to plan and execute this flyby and Pluto paid us back in spades!”

Scientists now know that, despite it being literally out in the cold, Pluto is an exciting, active and scientifically valuable world. Incredibly, it even holds some of the keys to better understand the other dwarf planets in the far reaches of our solar system.

Here are 10 of the coolest, weirdest and most unexpected findings about the Pluto system that scientists have learned since 2015, thanks to data from New Horizons.

1. Pluto has a “heart,” and it drives activity on the planet.

Sometimes you just have to follow your heart, and Pluto seems to have taken that advice quite literally.

Pluto’s heart—one of the signature features New Horizons observed on approach and imaged in high resolution during the flyby—is a vast, million-square-mile nitrogen glacier. The heart’s left ventricle, called Sputnik Planitia, literally forced the dwarf planet to reorient itself so the basin now faces almost squarely opposite Pluto’s moon Charon.

“It’s a process called true polar wander—it’s when a planetary body changes its spin axis, usually in response to large geologic processes,” said James Tuttle, a planetary scientist and New Horizons team member at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California.

Sputnik Planitia’s current position is no accident. It’s a cold trap, where nitrogen ices have accumulated to make an ice sheet that’s at least 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) thick. The constant imbalance of that hefty mass, combined with the tidal yanks and pulls of Charon as it orbited Pluto, literally tipped the dwarf planet so the basin aligned more closely with the tidal axis between Pluto and Charon.

“That event was also likely responsible for cracking Pluto’s surface and creating the many gigantic faults in its crust that zigzag over large portions of Pluto,” Tuttle said.

The basin is thought to have formed to the northwest of its present location, and closer to Pluto’s north pole. And should ices continue to accumulate on the basin, Pluto will continue to reorient itself.

But there’s more to that story…

2. There’s probably a vast, liquid, water ocean sloshing beneath Pluto’s surface.

Gathered ices may not be the only thing that helped reorient Sputnik Planitia. New Horizons data from the basin indicated there may be a heavier mass beneath it that played a part, and scientists suspect that the heavier mass is a water ocean.

“That was an astonishing discovery,” Tuttle said. “It would make Pluto an elusive ‘ocean world,’ in the same vein as Europa, Enceladus and Titan.” Several other lines of evidence, including tectonic structures seen in New Horizons imagery, also point to an ocean beneath Pluto’s crust.

Sputnik Planitia was likely created some 4 billion years ago by the impact of a Kuiper Belt object 30 to 60 miles (50 to 100 kilometers) across that carved out a massive chunk of Pluto’s icy crust and left only a thin, weak layer at the basin’s floor. A subsurface ocean likely intruded the basin from below by pushing up against the weakened crust, and later the thick nitrogen ice seen there now was laid on top.

Recent models based on images of the planet suggest that this liquid ocean may have arisen from a rapid, violent formation of Pluto.

3. Pluto may still be tectonically active because that liquid ocean is still liquid.

Enormous faults stretch for hundreds of miles and cut roughly 2.5 miles into the icy crust covering Pluto’s surface. One of the only ways scientists reason Pluto got those fissures, though, is by the gradual freezing of an ocean beneath its surface.

Water expands as it freezes, and under an icy crust, that expansion will push and crack the surface, just like an ice cube in your freezer. But if the temperature is low enough and the pressure high enough, water crystals can start to form a more compact crystal configuration and the ice will once again contract.

Models using New Horizons' data showed Pluto has the conditions for that type of contraction, but it doesn’t have any known geologic features that indicate that contraction has occurred. To scientists, that means the subsurface ocean is still in the process of freezing and potentially creating new faults on the surface today.

“If Pluto is an active ocean world, then that suggests that the Kuiper Belt may be filled with other ocean worlds among its dwarf planets, dramatically expanding the number of potentially habitable places in our solar system,” Tuttle said.

But while Pluto’s liquid ocean likely still exists today, scientists suspect it’s isolated in most places (though not beneath Sputnik) by almost 200 miles (320 kilometers) of ice. That means it probably doesn’t contact the surface today; but in the past, it may have oozed through volcanic activity called cryovolcanism.

4. Pluto was—and still may be—volcanically active.

But maybe not “volcanic” in the way you might think.

On Earth, molten lava spits, drools, bubbles, and erupts from underwater fissures through volcanoes sitting miles high in and protruding from the oceans, like on Hawaii. But on Pluto, there are numerous indications that a kind of cold, slushy cryolava has poured over the surface at various points.

Scientists call that “cryovolcanism.”

Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, two large mountains to the south of Sputnik Planitia, each bear a deep central pit that scientists believe are likely to be the mouths of cryovolanoes unlike any others found in the solar system.

To the west of Sputnik sits Viking Terra, with its long fractures and grabens that show evidence of once-flowing cryolavas all over the surface there too.

And farther west of Sputnik Planitia is the Virgil Fossae region, where ammonia-rich cryolavas seem to have burst to the surface and coated an area of several thousand square kilometers in red-colored organic molecules no more than 1 billion years ago, if not even more recently.

And speaking of recently…

5. Glaciers cut across Pluto’s surface even today, and they’ve done so for billions of years.

Pluto joins the ranks of Earth, Mars, and a handful of moons that have actively flowing glaciers.

East of Sputnik Planitia are dozens of (mostly) nitrogen-ice glaciers that course down from pitted highlands into the basin, carving out valleys as they go. Scientists suspect seasonal and ”mega-seasonal’ cycles of nitrogen ices that sublimate from ice to vapor, waft around the dwarf planet and then freeze back on the surface are the source of the glaciers ice.

But these glaciers are not like our own water-ice glaciers here on Earth. For one, any melt within them won’t fall toward the bottom of the glacier—it will rise to the top, because liquid nitrogen is less dense than solid nitrogen. As that liquid nitrogen emerges on top of the glacier, it potentially even erupts as jets or geysers.

Additionally, there is the fact that some of Pluto’s surface is composed of water ice, which is slightly less dense than nitrogen ice. As Pluto’s glaciers carve the surface, some of those water-ice “rocks” will rise up through the glacier and float like icebergs. Such icebergs are seen in several New Horizons images of Sputnik Planitia the largest of Pluto’s known glaciers, which stretches more than 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) across—about the size of Oklahoma and Texas combined.

6. Pluto has heat convection cells on its giant glacier Sputnik.

Zoom in close to the surface of Sputnik Planitia and you’ll see something unlike anywhere else in the solar system: a network of strange polygonal shapes in the ice, each at least 6 miles (10 kilometers) across, churning on the surface of the glacier.

Although they resemble cells under a microscope, these aren’t; they’re evidence of Pluto’s internal heat trying to escape from underneath the glacier, and forming bubbles of upwelling and downwelling nitrogen ice, something like a hot lava lamp.

Warm ice rises up into the center of the cells while cold ice sinks along their margins. There’s nothing like it in any of Earth’s glaciers, and or anywhere else in the solar system that we’ve explored!

7. Pluto has a beating “heart” that controls its atmosphere and climate.

Cold and far-flung as Pluto may be, its icy “heart” still beats to a daily, rhythmic drum that drives Pluto’s atmosphere and climate much in the way Greenland and Antarctica help control Earth’s climate.

Nitrogen ices in Pluto’s heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio go through a cycle every day, subliming from ice to vapor in the daytime sunlight and condensing back on the surface during the frigid night. Each round acts like a heartbeat, driving nitrogen winds that circulate around the planet at up to 20 mph.

“Pluto’s heart actually controls its atmosphere circulation,” punned Tanguy Bertrand, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

Sophisticated weather forecast models Bertrand has created using New Horizons data show that as these ices sublime in the northern reaches of Pluto’s icy heart and freeze out in the southern part, they drive brisk winds in a westward direction—curiously opposite Pluto’s eastward spin.

Those westward winds, bumping up against the rugged topography at the fringes of Pluto’s heart, explain why there are wind streaks on the western edge of Sputnik Planitia, a remarkable finding considering Pluto’s atmosphere is only 1/100,000th that of Earth’s, Bertrand said. They also explain some other surprising desert-like features…

8. Pluto has dunes.

It’s not the Sahara Desert, or the Gobi Desert. This is Pluto. Hundreds of dunes stretch over at least 45 miles (75 kilometers) of the western edge of Sputnik Planitia, and scientists suspect they formed recently.

Dunes require small particles and sustained, driving winds that can lift and blow the specks of sand or whatever else along. And despite its weak gravity, thin atmosphere, extreme cold and entire surface composition of ices, Pluto apparently had (or still may have) everything needed to make dunes.

Water-ice mountains on the northwest fringes of the Sputnik glacier may provide the particles, and Pluto’s beating nitrogen “heart” provides winds. Instead of quartz, basalt and gypsum sands blown by sometimes gale-force winds on Earth, though, scientists suspect the dunes on Pluto are sand-sized grains of methane ice carried by winds that blow at no more than 20 mph, although given the size of the dunes, the winds may have been stronger and atmosphere much thicker in the past.

9. Pluto and Charon have almost no little craters, and that has some big implications.

Finding craters on the surface of planets is kind of the norm in space. But if there’s one abnormal thing about the Pluto system, it’s that neither Pluto nor Charon have many small craters—they’re almost all big.

“That surprised us because there were fewer small craters than we expected, which means there are also fewer small Kuiper Belt objects than we expected,” said Kelsi Singer, a New Horizons deputy project scientist and coinvestigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Analyses of crater images from New Horizons indicate that few objects less than about a mile in diameter bombarded either world. Because scientists have no reason to believe tectonic activity would have preferentially wiped the surface clean of these small craters, It could mean the Kuiper Belt is mostly devoid of very small objects.

“These results give us clues about how the solar system formed because they tell us about the population of building blocks of larger objects, like Pluto and even perhaps Earth,” Singer said.

“Every time we go somewhere new in the solar system, we find surprises that challenge current theories,” Singer added. “The New Horizons flyby did just that, and in many ways!”

10. Charon had a volcanic past, and it could be key to understanding other icy worlds.

New Horizons also captured stunning images of Pluto’s moon Charon, and they revealed some surprising geology there too.

On the side of Charon that New Horizons imaged in high resolution, Charon has two distinct terrain types: an immense, southward-stretching plain officially called Vulcan Planitia that’s at least the size of California, and a rugged terrain colloquially called Oz Terra that stretches northward to Charon’s north pole. Both seem to have formed from the freezing and expansion of (you guessed it!), an ancient ocean beneath Charon’s crust.

Moderate expansion in the north created the rugged, mountains terrain of Oz Terra seen today, whereas the expansion in the south forced its way through vents, cracks and other openings as cryolava, spilling across the surface. In fact, Vulcan Planitia is thought to be a giant cryoflow that covered the entire region early in Charon’s history.

Similar features exist on some icy satellites all around the solar system, including Neptune’s giant moon Triton, Saturn’s moons Tethys, Dione and Enceladus, and Uranus’ moons Miranda and Ariel. And thanks to the detailed images of Charon from New Horizons, the models of Charon’s past be a Rosetta Stone to aid in understanding the volcanic and geologic activity of those other icy worlds too.

"New Horizons transformed Pluto from a fuzzy telescopic dot, into a living world with stunning diversity and surprising complexity," said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. "We were all astounded by the range of phenomena in the entire Pluto system, from Charon's polar coloring and giant chasm, to the 'iceball' makeup of the four smaller satellites that offered valuable clues to the system's origins. The Pluto encounter was exploration at its finest, a real tribute to the vision and persistence of the NASA New Horizons team."

Source: NASA.Gov


An image of Pluto's largest moon Charon as seen by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft...on July 14, 2015.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Another Pre-Launch Milestone Achieved by Hubble's Successor in Southern California...

Engineers work on NASA's James Webb Space Telescope at the Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California.
NASA / Chris Gunn

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Completes Comprehensive Systems Test (News Release)

Now that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has been assembled into its final form, testing teams seized the unique opportunity to perform a critical software and electrical analysis on the entire observatory as a single, fully connected vehicle.

Known as a Comprehensive Systems Test or CST, this was the first full systems evaluation that has ever been run on the assembled observatory, and one of the final first-time activities the team will perform. Similar performance evaluations have been completed in Webb’s history, using simulations and surrogates to infer data about pieces of the spacecraft that had not yet been assembled. Now that Webb is fully built, simulations and simulators are no longer needed, and engineers can confidently assess both its software and electronic performance.

Testing is the best way to ensure mission success.

Webb is the largest and most technically complex space science telescope NASA has ever built. It is comprised of many components that must all communicate and work in unison to achieve mission success. Systems evaluations like these ensure that this happens by verifying and validating that each of them is communicating and performing as designed.

The importance of testing cannot be overstated in software development. Individual units of code must be tested as they are written, then retested as they are combined into larger and larger software components. Tests need to be rerun every time a bug is fixed, or a feature added, to verify the changed code doesn’t propagate unexpected and unwanted behaviors in the system. To complete the test, personnel was staffed 24 hours a day, for 15 days consecutively, and approximately 1,070 scripts or sequences of instructions were executed, and nearly 1,370 procedural steps were performed.

Webb’s final series of tests will determine its readiness for launch. This CST just completed establishes a baseline of electrical functional performance. In a few months, after the observatory completes its next and final set of acoustic and vibration tests that simulate the rigors of launch, the team will run another full-system scan. Engineers will then compare the ‘before and after’ results, which should be the same, indicating that the spacecraft is operating as intended as a complete observatory and will withstand the launch environment to operate as designed once in space.

“I’ve never seen such effort, collaboration and cross-organizational efforts to bring so many different teams and people in so many different areas together to execute a common goal so successfully,” said Randy Pollema, the electrical integration and testing lead for Webb at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. “We have a lot of pride, and feel a lot of personal reward in what we’ve been able to accomplish over the last year in assembling Webb into its final form, and with the completion of this latest systems evaluation we can confidently move forward knowing that the assembly was a success.”

The evolving novel coronavirus COVID-19 situation is causing significant impact and disruption globally. Following augmented personal safety procedures implemented in March due to COVID-19, the James Webb Space Telescope’s Northrop Grumman team in California continued integration and testing work in the cleanroom with significantly reduced on-site personnel and shifts. Starting in late May, the team resumed near-full shift cleanroom operations. The team is evaluating impacts on the March 2021 launch date and new risks going forward and will establish a new launch readiness date in July.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world’s premier space science observatory and will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

Source: NASA.Gov


A close-up of the primary mirror on NASA's James Webb Space the Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California.
NASA / Chris Gunn

Saturday, July 11, 2020

SOLAR PROBE PLUS Update: Catching a Cosmic Glimpse of Comet NEOWISE from Afar...

An unprocessed image of comet NEOWISE as seen by NASA's Parker Solar Probe on July 5, 2020.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Naval Research Lab / Parker Solar Probe / Brendan Gallagher

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Spies Newly-Discovered Comet NEOWISE (News Release - July 10)

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was at the right place at the right time to capture a unique view of comet NEOWISE on July 5, 2020. Parker Solar Probe’s position in space gave the spacecraft an unmatched view of the comet’s twin tails when it was particularly active just after its closest approach to the Sun, called perihelion.

The comet was discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or NEOWISE, on March 27. Since then, the comet — called comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE and nicknamed comet NEOWISE — has been spotted by several NASA spacecraft, including Parker Solar Probe, NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory, the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

The image above is unprocessed data from Parker Solar Probe’s WISPR instrument, which takes images of the Sun’s outer atmosphere and solar wind in visible light. WISPR’s sensitivity also makes it well-suited to see fine detail in structures like comet tails. Parker Solar Probe collected science data through June 28 for its fifth solar flyby, but the availability of additional downlink time allowed the team to take extra images, including this image of comet NEOWISE.

The twin tails of comet NEOWISE are seen more clearly in this image from the WISPR instrument, which has been processed to increase contrast and remove excess brightness from scattered sunlight, revealing more detail in the comet tails.

The lower tail, which appears broad and fuzzy, is the dust tail of comet NEOWISE — created when dust lifts off the surface of the comet’s nucleus and trails behind the comet in its orbit. Scientists hope to use WISPR’s images to study the size of dust grains within the dust tail, as well as the rate at which the comet sheds dust.

The upper tail is the ion tail, which is made up of gases that have been ionized by losing electrons in the Sun’s intense light. These ionized gases are buffeted by the solar wind — the Sun’s constant outflow of magnetized material — creating the ion tail that extends directly away from the Sun. Parker Solar Probe’s images appear to show a divide in the ion tail. This could mean that comet NEOWISE has two ion tails, in addition to its dust tail, though scientists would need more data and analysis to confirm this possibility.

Source: NASA.Gov


A processed image of comet NEOWISE as seen by NASA's Parker Solar Probe on July 5, 2020.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Naval Research Lab / Parker Solar Probe / Guillermo Stenborg

Friday, July 10, 2020

Photos of the Day: Capturing Comet NEOWISE...

An image I took of comet NEOWISE lurking high above the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California...on July 10, 2020.

Earlier today, I got up at 3:30 AM to head to a hilltop vantage point about ten miles from my house to catch a glimpse of comet of the brightest comets to light up our sky this century. Ever since it made and survived its closest approach to the Sun on July 3, NEOWISE has been getting a lot brighter—to the point where you don't need a telescope or binoculars to spot the celestial object (though they would obviously still be useful in doing so). You need to wake up early like I did through this weekend to catch this beautiful spectacle in the sky; it will be on July 15 that you can start seeing NEOWISE in the evening! It will be visible (to the northwest) about an hour after sunset.

I'm so stoked to have taken these shots of NEOWISE with my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera, but needless to say, I definitely want to head back out because I can do better! Assuming that the comet doesn't start fizzling out as I type this, it should be getting brighter and higher in the night sky over the rest of this month...making it easier to photograph. It will be on July 22 that NEOWISE will make its closest approach to Earth (at a distance of 64.3 million miles, or 103.5 million kilometers), so I definitely need to try to take pictures on that night. In regards to my camera settings, this is what my Nikon D3300 was set to for these images:

Lens: 70-300mm Nikon telephoto lens
ISO: 800
F-stop: f/5.6
Shutter speed: 2.5 seconds
Live View mode on my LCD screen used instead of the viewfinder

And in case you're wondering, the first two photos are slanted because I was standing on the slope of a hill. I didn't have time to level my camera's tripod as NEOWISE was fast emerging above the San Gabriel Mountains here in California while the sky was getting brighter. Happy Friday!

An image I took of comet NEOWISE lurking high above the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California...on July 10, 2020.

An image I took of comet NEOWISE lurking high above the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California...on July 10, 2020.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Mars 2020 Update: America's Next Red Planet Rover Is Now Sitting Atop Its Launch Vehicle!

The Atlas V payload fairing containing NASA's Perseverance Mars rover is transported to the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41...on July 7, 2020.

NASA's Perseverance Rover Attached to Atlas V Rocket (News Release)

Ready for its launch later in the month, the Mars-bound rover will touch terra firma no more.

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover has been attached to the top of the rocket that will send it toward the Red Planet this summer. Encased in the nose cone that will protect it during launch, the rover and the rest of the Mars 2020 spacecraft – the aeroshell, cruise stage, and descent stage – were affixed to a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster on Tuesday, July 7, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Central Florida.

The process began when a 60-ton hoist on the roof of the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 lifted the nose cone, otherwise known as the payload fairing, 129 feet (39 meters) to the top of the waiting rocket. There, engineers made the physical and electrical connections that will remain between booster and spacecraft until about 50 to 60 minutes after launch, when the two are pyrotechnically separated and Perseverance is on its way.

"I have seen my fair share of spacecraft being lifted onto rockets," said John McNamee, project manager for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "But this one is special because there are so many people who contributed to this moment. To each one of them I want to say, we got here together, and we'll make it to Mars the same way."

With the mating of spacecraft and booster complete, the final testing of the two (separately and as one unit) will be underway. Then two days before the July 30 launch, the Atlas V will leave the Vertical Integration Facility for good. Traveling by rail, it will cover the 1,800 feet (550 meters) to the launch pad in about 40 minutes. From there, Perseverance has about seven months and 290 million miles (467 million kilometers) to go before arriving at Mars.

The Launch Period

NASA and United Launch Alliance recently updated the mission's launch period – the range of days the rocket can launch in order to reach Mars. It now spans from July 30 to Aug. 15.

The launch period opening changed from July 17 to 30 due to launch vehicle processing delays in preparation for spacecraft mate operations. Four days were also added to the previously designated Aug. 11 end of the launch period. NASA and United Launch Alliance Flight Teams were able to provide those extra days after final weights of both the spacecraft and launch vehicle became available, allowing them to more accurately calculate the propellant available to get Perseverance on its way.

No matter what day Perseverance lifts off during its July 30 to Aug. 15 launch period, it will land in Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. Targeting landing for one specific date and time helps mission planners better understand lighting and temperature at the landing site, as well as the location of Mars-orbiting satellites tasked with recording and relaying spacecraft data during its descent and landing.

More About the Mission

Managed by JPL, the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover's astrobiology mission will search for signs of ancient microbial life. It will also characterize the planet's climate and geology, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first planetary mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust). Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in cooperation with the European Space Agency, would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis lunar exploration plans.

Source: NASA.Gov


Inside SLC-41's Vertical Integration Facility, the payload fairing containing NASA's Perseverance Mars rover is about to be placed atop its Atlas V rocket...on July 7, 2020.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

InSight Update: The Lander's Heat Probe Experiment Is Finally Inside the Martian Soil...

An animated GIF showing the InSight Mars lander's robotic arm pressing down on the self-digging 'mole' (not visible) as it burrows into the Martian soil...on June 20, 2020.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA's InSight Flexes Its Arm While Its 'Mole' Hits Pause (News Release - July 7)

Now that the lander's robotic arm has helped the mole get underground, it will resume science activities that have been on hold.

NASA's InSight lander has been using its robotic arm to help the heat probe known as the "mole" burrow into Mars. The mission is providing the first look at the Red Planet's deep interior to reveal details about the formation of Mars and, ultimately, all rocky planets, including Earth.

Akin to a 16-inch-long (40-centimeter-long) pile driver, the self-hammering mole has experienced difficulty getting into the Martian soil since February 2019. It's mostly buried now, thanks to recent efforts to push down on the mole with the scoop on the end of the robotic arm. But whether it will be able to dig deep enough – at least 10 feet (3 meters) – to get an accurate temperature reading of the planet remains to be seen. Images taken by InSight during a Saturday, June 20, hammering session show bits of soil jostling within the scoop – possible evidence that the mole had begun bouncing in place, knocking the bottom of the scoop.

While the campaign to save the mole continues, the arm will be used to help carry out other science and engineering work. Here's what you can expect in the months ahead from the mission, which is led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

What's next for the mole?

The mole is part of an instrument called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3, that the German Aerospace Center (DLR) provided NASA. While the scoop on the end of InSight's arm has blocked the mole from backing out of its pit again, it also blocks the arm's camera from seeing the mole and the pit that has formed around it. Over the next few weeks, the team will move the arm out of the way to better assess how the soil and mole are interacting.

The mole needs friction from soil in order to burrow. Ironically, loose soil provides that friction as it collapses around the mole. But the soil beneath InSight has proven to be cement-like duricrust, with dirt granules that stick together. As a result, recoil from the mole's self-hammering action causes it to bounce in place. So the team's next moves may be to provide that friction by scraping or chopping nearby soil to move it into the pit it's in.

More thoughts about the mole's recent progress can be found on a blog written by HP3's principal investigator, Tilman Spohn of DLR.

What's next for InSight's arm?

InSight landed on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018. Its robotic arm subsequently set HP3, a seismometer and the seismometer's Wind and Thermal Shield on to the planet's surface. While the arm has been key to helping the mole, scientists and engineers are eager to use the arm's camera to pan over InSight's solar panels, something they haven't done since July 17, 2019.

It's the dusty season on Mars, and the panels are likely coated with a fine layer of reddish-brown particles. Estimating how much dust is on the solar panels will let engineers better understand InSight's daily power supply.

Scientists also want to resume using the arm to spot meteors streaking across the night sky, as they did earlier in the mission. Doing so could help them predict how often meteors strike this part of the planet. They could also cross-check to see whether data from InSight's seismometer reveals a meteor impact on Mars shortly afterward.

What's next for the seismometer?

InSight's seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), detected its first marsquake nearly three months after starting its measurements in January 2019. By the fall of 2019, it was detecting a potential quake or two per day. While SEIS has detected more than 480 seismic signals overall, the rate has dropped to less than one per week.

This rate change is tied to seasonal variations of atmospheric turbulence, which creates noise that covers up the tiny quake signals. Despite the protective Wind and Thermal Shield, SEIS is sensitive enough that shaking from the wind hitting the shield can make quakes harder to isolate.

More About InSight

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. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

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 to NASA, with the principal investigator at IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). Significant contributions for SEIS came from IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom; and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain's Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the temperature and wind sensors.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Psyche Update: Construction on the Asteroid-bound Spacecraft is Set to Begin Next February...

An artist's concept of NASA's Psyche spacecraft.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / ASU

Building NASA's Psyche: Design Done, Now Full Speed Ahead on Hardware (News Release)

The mission to explore a metal-rich asteroid is pivoting from planning the details to building real pieces of the spacecraft puzzle.

Psyche, the NASA mission to explore a metal-rock asteroid of the same name, recently passed a crucial milestone that brings it closer to its August 2022 launch date. Now the mission is moving from planning and designing to high-gear manufacturing of the spacecraft hardware that will fly to its target in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Like all NASA missions, early work on Psyche started with drawing up digital blueprints. Then came the building of engineering models, which were tested and retested to confirm that the systems would do their job in deep space - by operating the spacecraft, taking science data and communicating it back to Earth.

And the team just sailed through a key stage in that process, the critical design review. That's when NASA examines the designs for all of the project systems, including the three science instruments and all of the spacecraft engineering subsystems, from telecommunications, propulsion, and power to avionics and the flight computer.

"It's one of the most intense reviews a mission goes through in its entire life cycle," said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who as principal investigator for Psyche leads the overall mission. "And we passed with flying colors. The challenges are not over, and we're not at the finish line, but we're running strong."

Studying a Metal-Rock World

Mission scientists and engineers worked together to plan the investigations that will determine what makes up the asteroid Psyche, one of the most intriguing targets in the main asteroid belt. Scientists think that, unlike most other asteroids that are rocky or icy bodies, Psyche is largely metallic iron and nickel - similar to Earth's core - and could be the heart of an early planet that lost its outer layers.

Since we can't examine Earth's core up-close, exploring the asteroid Psyche (about 140 miles, or 226 kilometers, wide) could give valuable insight into how our own planet and others formed.

To that end, the Psyche spacecraft will use a magnetometer to measure the asteroid's magnetic field. A multispectral imager will capture images of the surface, as well as data about the composition and topography. Spectrometers will analyze the neutrons and gamma rays coming from the surface to reveal the elements that make up the asteroid itself.

The mission team made prototypes and engineering models of the science instruments and many of the spacecraft's engineering subsystems. These models are manufactured with less expensive materials than those that will fly on the mission; that way they can be thoroughly tested before actual flight hardware is built.

"This is planning on steroids" said Elkins-Tanton, who also is managing director and co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University in Tempe. "And it includes trying to understand down to seven or eight levels of detail exactly how everything on the spacecraft has to work together to ensure we can measure our science, gather our data and send all the data back to Earth. The complexity is mind-boggling."

Building the Spacecraft

Now that Psyche is full-speed ahead on building hardware, there's no time to lose. Assembly and testing of the full spacecraft begins in February 2021, and every instrument - including a laser technology demonstration called Deep Space Optical Communications, led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory - has a deadline of April 2021 to be delivered to JPL's main clean room.

The main body of the spacecraft, called the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis, is already being built at Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California. While observing social-distancing requirements for COVID-19 prevention, engineers there are working to attach the propulsion tanks. In February 2021, Maxar will deliver the SEP Chassis to JPL in Southern California and then deliver the solar arrays that provide all of the power for the spacecraft systems a few months later.

Meanwhile, Psyche work is also buzzing at JPL, which manages the mission. Engineers who are essential to perform hands-on work are building and testing electronic components while following COVID-19 safety requirements. The rest of the JPL team is working remotely.

JPL provides the avionics subsystem, which includes Psyche's flight computer - the brain of the spacecraft. With equipment spread out on racks in a clean room, engineers test each piece before integrating it with the next. Once everything is connected, they test the full system with the software, operating the electronics exactly as they will be used in flight.

"One of the things we pride ourselves on in these deep-space missions is the reliability of the hardware," said Psyche Project Manager Henry Stone of JPL. "The integrated system is so sophisticated that comprehensive testing is critical. You do robustness tests, stress tests, as much testing as you can - over and above.

"You want to expose and correct every problem and bug now. Because after launch, you cannot go fix the hardware."

Next up for Psyche: that February 2021 deadline to start assembly, test and launch operations, aka ATLO.

"I get goosebumps - absolutely," Stone said. "When we get to that point, you've made it through a huge phase, because you know you've done enough prototyping and testing. You're going to have a spacecraft that should work."

Psyche is set to launch in August 2022, and will fly by Mars for a gravity assist in May 2023 on its way to arrival at the asteroid in early 2026.

More About the Mission

ASU leads the mission. JPL in Southern California is responsible for the mission's overall management, system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies is providing a high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory


An artist's concept of asteroid Psyche.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / ASU

Sunday, July 05, 2020

LRO Update: A New Discovery Is Made Beneath the Surface of the Moon...

An image of the Moon based on data gathered by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University

Radar Points to Moon Being More Metallic Than Researchers Thought (News Release - July 1)

What started out as a hunt for ice lurking in polar lunar craters turned into an unexpected finding that could help clear some muddy history about the Moon’s formation.

Team members of the Miniature Radio Frequency (Mini-RF) instrument on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft found new evidence that the Moon’s subsurface might be richer in metals, like iron and titanium, than researchers thought. That finding, published July 1 in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, could aid in drawing a clearer connection between Earth and the Moon.

“The LRO mission and its radar instrument continue to surprise us with new insights about the origins and complexity of our nearest neighbor,” said Wes Patterson, Mini-RF principal investigator from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, and a study coauthor.

Substantial evidence points to the Moon as the product of a collision between a Mars-sized protoplanet and young Earth, forming from the gravitational collapse of the remaining cloud of debris. Consequently, the Moon’s bulk chemical composition closely resembles that of Earth.

Look in detail at the Moon’s chemical composition, however, and that story turns murky. For example, in the bright plains of the Moon’s surface, called the lunar highlands, rocks contain smaller amounts of metal-bearing minerals relative to Earth. That finding might be explained if Earth had fully differentiated into a core, mantle and crust before the impact, leaving the Moon largely metal-poor. But turn to the Moon’s maria — the large, darker plains — and the metal abundance becomes richer than that of many rocks on Earth.

This discrepancy has puzzled scientists, leading to numerous questions and hypotheses regarding how much the impacting protoplanet may have contributed to the differences. The Mini-RF team found a curious pattern that could lead to an answer.

Using Mini-RF, the researchers sought to measure an electrical property within lunar soil piled on crater floors in the Moon’s northern hemisphere. This electrical property is known as the dielectric constant, a number that compares the relative abilities of a material and the vacuum of space to transmit electric fields, and could help locate ice lurking in the crater shadows. The team, however, noticed this property increasing with crater size.

For craters approximately 1 to 3 miles (2 to 5 kilometers) wide, the dielectric constant of the material steadily increased as the craters grew larger, but for craters 3 to 12 miles (5 to 20 kilometers) wide, the property remained constant.

“It was a surprising relationship that we had no reason to believe would exist,” said Essam Heggy, coinvestigator of the Mini-RF experiments from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and lead author of the published paper.

Discovery of this pattern opened a door to a new possibility. Because meteors that form larger craters also dig deeper into the Moon’s subsurface, the team reasoned that the increasing dielectric constant of the dust in larger craters could be the result of meteors excavating iron and titanium oxides that lie below the surface. Dielectric properties are directly linked to the concentration of these metal minerals.

If their hypothesis were true, it would mean only the first few hundred meters of the Moon’s surface is scant in iron and titanium oxides, but below the surface, there’s a steady increase to a rich and unexpected bonanza.

Comparing crater floor radar images from Mini-RF with metal oxide maps from the LRO Wide-Angle Camera, Japan’s Kaguya mission and NASA’s Lunar Prospector spacecraft, the team found exactly what it had suspected. The larger craters, with their increased dielectric material, were also richer in metals, suggesting that more iron and titanium oxides had been excavated from the depths of 0.3 to 1 mile (0.5 to 2 kilometers) than from the upper 0.1 to 0.3 miles (0.2 to 0.5 kilometers) of the lunar subsurface.

“This exciting result from Mini-RF shows that even after 11 years in operation at the Moon, we are still making new discoveries about the ancient history of our nearest neighbor,” said Noah Petro, the LRO project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The MINI-RF data is incredibly valuable for telling us about the properties of the lunar surface, but we use that data to infer what was happening over 4.5 billion years ago!”

These results follow recent evidence from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission that suggests a significant mass of dense material exists just a few tens to hundreds of kilometers beneath the Moon’s enormous South Pole-Aitken basin, indicating that dense materials aren’t uniformly distributed in the Moon’s subsurface.

The team emphasizes that the new study can’t directly answer the outstanding questions about the Moon’s formation, but it does reduce the uncertainty in the distribution of iron and titanium oxides in the lunar subsurface and provide critical evidence needed to better understand the Moon’s formation and its connection to Earth.

“It really raises the question of what this means for our previous formation hypotheses,” Heggy said.

Anxious to uncover more, the researchers have already started examining crater floors in the Moon’s southern hemisphere to see if the same trends exist there.

LRO is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Mini-RF was designed, built and tested by a team led by APL, Naval Air Warfare Center, Sandia National Laboratories, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

Source: NASA.Gov