Wednesday, February 24, 2021

SOLAR PROBE PLUS Update: Parker Catches a Close-up Glimpse of the Evening Star...

An image of Venus that was taken by the WISPR instrument aboard NASA's Parker Solar Probe...on July 11, 2020.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Naval Research Laboratory / Guillermo Stenborg and Brendan Gallagher

Parker Solar Probe Offers Stunning View of Venus (News Release)

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe captured stunning views of Venus during its close flyby of the planet in July 2020.

Though Parker Solar Probe’s focus is the Sun, Venus plays a critical role in the mission: The spacecraft whips by Venus a total of seven times over the course of its seven-year mission, using the planet’s gravity to bend the spacecraft’s orbit. These Venus gravity assists allow Parker Solar Probe to fly closer and closer to the Sun on its mission to study the dynamics of the solar wind close to its source.

But — along with the orbital dynamics — these passes can also yield some unique and even unexpected views of the inner solar system. During the mission’s third Venus gravity assist on July 11, 2020, the onboard Wide-field Imager for Parker Solar Probe, or WISPR, captured a striking image of the planet’s nightside from 7,693 miles away.

WISPR is designed to take images of the solar corona and inner heliosphere in visible light, as well as images of the solar wind and its structures as they approach and fly by the spacecraft. At Venus, the camera detected a bright rim around the edge of the planet that may be nightglow — light emitted by oxygen atoms high in the atmosphere that recombine into molecules in the nightside. The prominent dark feature in the center of the image is Aphrodite Terra, the largest highland region on the Venusian surface. The feature appears dark because of its lower temperature, about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) cooler than its surroundings.

That aspect of the image took the team by surprise, said Angelos Vourlidas, the WISPR project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, who coordinated a WISPR imaging campaign with Japan’s Venus-orbiting Akatsuki mission. “WISPR is tailored and tested for visible light observations. We expected to see clouds, but the camera peered right through to the surface.”

“WISPR effectively captured the thermal emission of the Venusian surface,” said Brian Wood, an astrophysicist and WISPR team member from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. “It’s very similar to images acquired by the Akatsuki spacecraft at near-infrared wavelengths.”

This surprising observation sent the WISPR team back to the lab to measure the instrument’s sensitivity to infrared light. If WISPR can indeed pick up near-infrared wavelengths of light, the unforeseen capability would provide new opportunities to study dust around the Sun and in the inner solar system. If it can’t pick up extra infrared wavelengths, then these images — showing signatures of features on Venus’ surface — may have revealed a previously unknown “window” through the Venusian atmosphere.

“Either way,” Vourlidas said, “some exciting science opportunities await us.”

For more insight into the July 2020 images, the WISPR team planned a set of similar observations of the Venusian nightside during Parker Solar Probe’s latest Venus flyby on Feb. 20, 2021. Mission team scientists expect to receive and process that data for analysis by the end of April.

“We are really looking forward to these new images,” said Javier Peralta, a planetary scientist from the Akatsuki team, who first suggested a Parker Solar Probe campaign with Akatsuki, which has been orbiting Venus since 2015. “If WISPR can sense the thermal emission from the surface of Venus and nightglow — most likely from oxygen — at the limb of the planet, it can make valuable contributions to studies of the Venusian surface.”

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

Source: NASA.Gov

Monday, February 22, 2021

A BIG Perseverance Update: NASA Releases First-of-Its-Kind Footage of the Mars Landing!

Video screenshots from three onboard cameras showing NASA's Perseverance rover undergoing the 'sky crane' maneuver as it is gently lowered towards the Martian suface by its rocket-powered descent stage...on February 18, 2021.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover Provides Front-Row Seat to Landing, First Audio Recording of Red Planet (Press Release)

New video from NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover chronicles major milestones during the final minutes of its entry, descent, and landing (EDL) on the Red Planet on Feb. 18 as the spacecraft plummeted, parachuted, and rocketed toward the surface of Mars. A microphone on the rover also has provided the first audio recording of sounds from Mars.

From the moment of parachute inflation, the camera system covers the entirety of the descent process, showing some of the rover’s intense ride to Mars’ Jezero Crater. The footage from high-definition cameras aboard the spacecraft starts 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the surface, showing the supersonic deployment of the most massive parachute ever sent to another world, and ends with the rover’s touchdown in the crater.

A microphone attached to the rover did not collect usable data during the descent, but the commercial off-the-shelf device survived the highly dynamic descent to the surface and obtained sounds from Jezero Crater on Feb. 20. About 10 seconds into the 60-second recording, a Martian breeze is audible for a few seconds, as are mechanical sounds of the rover operating on the surface.

“For those who wonder how you land on Mars – or why it is so difficult – or how cool it would be to do so – you need look no further,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “Perseverance is just getting started, and already has provided some of the most iconic visuals in space exploration history. It reinforces the remarkable level of engineering and precision that is required to build and fly a vehicle to the Red Planet.”

Also released Monday was the mission’s first panorama of the rover’s landing location, taken by the two Navigation Cameras located on its mast. The six-wheeled robotic astrobiologist, the fifth rover the agency has landed on Mars, currently is undergoing an extensive checkout of all its systems and instruments.

“This video of Perseverance’s descent is the closest you can get to landing on Mars without putting on a pressure suit,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “It should become mandatory viewing for young women and men who not only want to explore other worlds and build the spacecraft that will take them there, but also want to be part of the diverse teams achieving all the audacious goals in our future.”

The world’s most intimate view of a Mars landing begins about 230 seconds after the spacecraft entered the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere at 12,500 mph (20,100 kph). The video opens in black, with the camera lens still covered within the parachute compartment. Within less than a second, the spacecraft’s parachute deploys and transforms from a compressed 18-by-26 inch (46-by-66 centimeter) cylinder of nylon, Technora, and Kevlar into a fully inflated 70.5-foot-wide (21.5-meter-wide) canopy – the largest ever sent to Mars. The tens of thousands of pounds of force that the parachute generates in such a short period stresses both the parachute and the vehicle.

“Now we finally have a front-row view to what we call ‘the seven minutes of terror’ while landing on Mars,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the mission for the agency. “From the explosive opening of the parachute to the landing rockets’ plume sending dust and debris flying at touchdown, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring.”

The video also captures the heat shield dropping away after protecting Perseverance from scorching temperatures during its entry into the Martian atmosphere. The downward view from the rover sways gently like a pendulum as the descent stage, with Perseverance attached, hangs from the back shell and parachute. The Martian landscape quickly pitches as the descent stage – the rover’s free-flying “jetpack,” which decelerates using rocket engines and then lowers the rover on cables to the surface – breaks free, its eight thrusters engaging to put distance between it and the now-discarded back shell and the parachute.

Then, 80 seconds and 7,000 feet (2,130 meters) later, the cameras capture the descent stage performing the sky crane maneuver over the landing site – the plume of its rocket engines kicking up dust and small rocks that have likely been in place for billions of years.

“We put the EDL camera system onto the spacecraft not only for the opportunity to gain a better understanding of our spacecraft’s performance during entry, descent, and landing, but also because we wanted to take the public along for the ride of a lifetime – landing on the surface of Mars,” said Dave Gruel, lead engineer for Mars 2020 Perseverance’s EDL camera and microphone subsystem at JPL. “We know the public is fascinated with Mars exploration, so we added the EDL Cam microphone to the vehicle because we hoped it could enhance the experience, especially for visually-impaired space fans, and engage and inspire people around the world.”

The footage ends with Perseverance’s aluminum wheels making contact with the surface at 1.61 mph (2.6 kilometers per second), and then pyrotechnically-fired blades sever the cables connecting it to the still-hovering descent stage. The descent stage then climbs and accelerates away in the preplanned flyaway maneuver.

“If this were an old Western movie, I’d say the descent stage was our hero riding slowly into the setting Sun, but the heroes are actually back here on Earth,” said Matt Wallace, Mars 2020 Perseverance deputy project manager at JPL. “I’ve been waiting 25 years for the opportunity to see a spacecraft land on Mars. It was worth the wait. Being able to share this with the world is a great moment for our team.”

Five commercial off-the-shelf cameras located on three different spacecraft components collected the imagery. Two cameras on the back shell, which encapsulated the rover on its journey, took pictures of the parachute inflating. A camera on the descent stage provided a downward view – including the top of the rover – while two on the rover chassis offered both upward and downward perspectives.

The rover team continues its initial inspection of Perseverance’s systems and its immediate surroundings. Monday, the team will check out five of the rover’s seven instruments and take the first weather observations with the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer instrument. In the coming days, a 360-degree panorama of Jezero by the Mastcam-Z should be transmitted down, providing the highest resolution look at the road ahead.

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Saturday, February 20, 2021

Perseverance Update #2: Ingenuity Phones Home...

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

NASA’s Mars Helicopter Reports In (News Release - February 19)

The technology demonstration has phoned home from where it is attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover.

Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California have received the first status report from the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which landed Feb. 18, 2021, at Jezero Crater attached to the belly of the agency’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. The downlink, which arrived at 3:30 p.m. PST (6:30 p.m. EST) via a connection through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, indicates that both the helicopter, which will remain attached to the rover for 30 to 60 days, and its base station (an electrical box on the rover that stores and routes communications between the rotorcraft and Earth) are operating as expected.

“There are two big-ticket items we are looking for in the data: the state of charge of Ingenuity’s batteries as well as confirmation the base station is operating as designed, commanding heaters to turn off and on to keep the helicopter’s electronics within an expected range,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter operations lead at JPL. “Both appear to be working great. With this positive report, we will move forward with tomorrow’s charge of the helicopter’s batteries.”

Ensuring that Ingenuity has plenty of stored energy aboard to maintain heating and other vital functions while also maintaining optimal battery health is essential to the success of the Mars Helicopter. The one-hour power-up will boost the rotorcraft’s batteries to about 30% of its total capacity. A few days after that, they’ll be charged again to reach 35%, with future charging sessions planned weekly while the helicopter is attached to the rover. The data downlinked during tomorrow’s charge sessions will be compared to battery-charging sessions done during cruise to Mars to help the team plan future charging sessions.

Like much of the 4-pound (2-kilogram) rotorcraft, the six lithium-ion batteries are off-the-shelf. They currently receive recharges from the rover’s power supply. Once Ingenuity is deployed to Mars’ surface, the helicopter’s batteries will be charged solely by its own solar panel.

After Perseverance deploys Ingenuity to the surface, the helicopter will then have a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) experimental flight test window. If Ingenuity survives its first bone-chilling Martian nights – where temperatures dip as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius) – the team will proceed with the first flight of an aircraft on another world.

If Ingenuity succeeds in taking off and hovering during its first flight, over 90% of the project’s goals will have been achieved. If the rotorcraft lands successfully and remains operable, up to four more flights could be attempted, each one building on the success of the last.

“We are in uncharted territory, but this team is used to that,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL. “Just about every milestone from here through the end of our flight demonstration program will be a first, and each has to succeed for us to go on to the next. We’ll enjoy this good news for the moment, but then we have to get back to work.”

Next-generation rotorcraft, the descendants of Ingenuity, could add an aerial dimension to future exploration of the Red Planet. These advanced robotic flying vehicles would offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground, providing high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans, and enable access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.

More About Ingenuity

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California which also manages the technology demonstration for NASA Headquarters in Washington. NASA’s Ames and Langley Research Centers provided significant flight performance analysis and technical assistance. AeroVironment Inc., Qualcomm, Snapdragon, and SolAero also provided design assistance and major vehicle components. The Mars Helicopter Delivery System was designed and manufactured by Lockheed Space Systems in Denver.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Friday, February 19, 2021

Perseverance Update: New Photos Have Been Transmitted Home by Mars' Latest Robotic Resident...

A video screenshot of NASA's Perseverance rover as seen by its rocket-powered descent stage while it approached the surface at Mars' Jezero Crater for a landing...on February 18, 2021.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Sends Sneak Peek of Mars Landing (Press Release)

Less than a day after NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover successfully landed on the surface of Mars, engineers and scientists at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California were hard at work, awaiting the next transmissions from Perseverance. As data gradually came in, relayed by several spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet, the Perseverance team were relieved to see the rover’s health reports, which showed everything appeared to be working as expected.

Adding to the excitement was a high-resolution image taken during the rover’s landing. While NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover sent back a stop-motion movie of its descent, Perseverance’s cameras are intended to capture video of its touchdown and this new still image was taken from that footage, which is still being relayed to Earth and processed.

Unlike with past rovers, the majority of Perseverance’s cameras capture images in color. After landing, two of the Hazard Cameras (Hazcams) captured views from the front and rear of the rover, showing one of its wheels in the Martian dirt. Perseverance got a close-up from NASA’s eye in the sky, as well: NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which used a special high-resolution camera to capture the spacecraft sailing into Jezero Crater, with its parachute trailing behind. The High Resolution Camera Experiment (HiRISE) camera did the same for Curiosity in 2012. JPL leads the orbiter’s mission, while the HiRISE instrument is led by the University of Arizona.

Several pyrotechnic charges are expected to fire later on Friday, releasing Perseverance’s mast (the “head” of the rover) from where it is fixed on the rover’s deck. The Navigation Cameras (Navcams), which are used for driving, share space on the mast with two science cameras: the zoomable Mastcam-Z and a laser instrument called SuperCam. The mast is scheduled to be raised Saturday, Feb. 20, after which the Navcams are expected to take panoramas of the rover’s deck and its surroundings.

In the days to come, engineers will pore over the rover’s system data, updating its software and beginning to test its various instruments. In the following weeks, Perseverance will test its robotic arm and take its first, short drive. It will be at least one or two months until Perseverance will find a flat location to drop off Ingenuity, the mini-helicopter attached to the rover’s belly, and even longer before it finally hits the road, beginning its science mission and searching for its first sample of Martian rock and sediment.

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NASA's Perseverance rover--still encased inside its aeroshell and under a parachute while approaching its landing site at Mars' Jezero Crater--as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter 700 kilometers (435 miles) away in space...on February 18, 2021.
NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

A close-up of one of Perseverance's six large wheels...as seen by one of its Hazard Cameras on February 18, 2021.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Perseverance's first first-color snapshot of its surroundings at Mars' Jezero Crater...as seen by one of its Hazard Cameras on February 18, 2021.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Thursday, February 18, 2021

WELCOME TO MARS, PERSEVERANCE AND INGENUITY!!!

One of the first images taken by NASA's Perseverance rover shortly after it successfully landed at Mars' Jezero Crater...on February 18, 2021.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Touchdown! NASA's Mars Perseverance Rover Safely Lands on Red Planet (Press Release)

The largest, most advanced rover NASA has sent to another world touched down on Mars Thursday, after a 203-day journey traversing 293 million miles (472 million kilometers). Confirmation of the successful touchdown was announced in mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California at 3:55 p.m. EST (12:55 p.m. PST).

Packed with groundbreaking technology, the Mars 2020 mission launched July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The Perseverance rover mission marks an ambitious first step in the effort to collect Mars samples and return them to Earth.

“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally – when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission embodies our nation’s spirit of persevering even in the most challenging of situations, inspiring, and advancing science and exploration. The mission itself personifies the human ideal of persevering toward the future and will help us prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet in the 2030s.”

About the size of a car, the 2,263-pound (1,026-kilogram) robotic geologist and astrobiologist will undergo several weeks of testing before it begins its two-year science investigation of Mars’ Jezero Crater. While the rover will investigate the rock and sediment of Jezero’s ancient lakebed and river delta to characterize the region’s geology and past climate, a fundamental part of its mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. To that end, the Mars Sample Return campaign, being planned by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), will allow scientists on Earth to study samples collected by Perseverance to search for definitive signs of past life using instruments too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.

“Because of today’s exciting events, the first pristine samples from carefully documented locations on another planet are another step closer to being returned to Earth,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA. “Perseverance is the first step in bringing back rock and regolith from Mars. We don’t know what these pristine samples from Mars will tell us. But what they could tell us is monumental – including that life might have once existed beyond Earth.”

Some 28 miles (45 kilometers) wide, Jezero Crater sits on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Scientists have determined that 3.5 billion years ago the crater had its own river delta and was filled with water.

The power system that provides electricity and heat for Perseverance through its exploration of Jezero Crater is a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) provided it to NASA through an ongoing partnership to develop power systems for civil space applications.

Equipped with seven primary science instruments, the most cameras ever sent to Mars, and its exquisitely complex sample caching system – the first of its kind sent into space – Perseverance will scour the Jezero region for fossilized remains of ancient microscopic Martian life, taking samples along the way.

“Perseverance is the most sophisticated robotic geologist ever made, but verifying that microscopic life once existed carries an enormous burden of proof,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “While we’ll learn a lot with the great instruments we have aboard the rover, it may very well require the far more capable laboratories and instruments back here on Earth to tell us whether our samples carry evidence that Mars once harbored life.”

Paving the Way for Human Missions

“Landing on Mars is always an incredibly difficult task and we are proud to continue building on our past success,” said JPL Director Michael Watkins. “But, while Perseverance advances that success, this rover is also blazing its own path and daring new challenges in the surface mission. We built the rover not just to land but to find and collect the best scientific samples for return to Earth, and its incredibly complex sampling system and autonomy not only enable that mission, they set the stage for future robotic and crewed missions.”

The Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2) sensor suite collected data about Mars’ atmosphere during entry, and the Terrain-Relative Navigation system autonomously guided the spacecraft during final descent. The data from both are expected to help future human missions land on other worlds more safely and with larger payloads.

On the surface of Mars, Perseverance’s science instruments will have an opportunity to scientifically shine. Mastcam-Z is a pair of zoomable science cameras on Perseverance’s remote sensing mast, or head, that creates high-resolution, color 3D panoramas of the Martian landscape. Also located on the mast, the SuperCam uses a pulsed laser to study the chemistry of rocks and sediment and has its own microphone to help scientists better understand the property of the rocks, including their hardness.

Located on a turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) and the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instruments will work together to collect data on Mars’ geology close-up. PIXL will use an X-ray beam and suite of sensors to delve into a rock’s elemental chemistry. SHERLOC’s ultraviolet laser and spectrometer, along with its Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering (WATSON) imager, will study rock surfaces, mapping out the presence of certain minerals and organic molecules, which are the carbon-based building blocks of life on Earth.

The rover chassis is home to three science instruments, as well. The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) is the first ground-penetrating radar on the surface of Mars and will be used to determine how different layers of the Martian surface formed over time. The data could help pave the way for future sensors that hunt for subsurface water ice deposits.

Also with an eye on future Red Planet explorations, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) technology demonstration will attempt to manufacture oxygen out of thin air – the Red Planet’s tenuous and mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere. The rover’s Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument, which has sensors on the mast and chassis, will provide key information about present-day Mars weather, climate, and dust.

Currently attached to the belly of Perseverance, the diminutive Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration that will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Project engineers and scientists will now put Perseverance through its paces, testing every instrument, subsystem, and subroutine over the next month or two. Only then will they deploy the helicopter to the surface for the flight test phase. If successful, Ingenuity could add an aerial dimension to exploration of the Red Planet in which such helicopters serve as scouts or make deliveries for future astronauts away from their base.

Once Ingenuity’s test flights are complete, the rover’s search for evidence of ancient microbial life will begin in earnest.

“Perseverance is more than a rover, and more than this amazing collection of men and women that built it and got us here,” said John McNamee, project manager of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission at JPL. “It is even more than the 10.9 million people who signed up to be part of our mission. This mission is about what humans can achieve when they persevere. We made it this far. Now, watch us go.”

More About the Mission

A primary objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology research, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith, paving the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA, will send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter technology demonstration for NASA.

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A second image, taken from a camera at the rear of the rover, that was transmitted by Perseverance shortly after it successfully landed at Mars' Jezero Crater...on February 18, 2021.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California, watch as new images come in shortly after the Perseverance rover successfully touched down at Mars' Jezero Crater...on February 18, 2021.
NASA / Bill Ingalls

At the White House, President Joe Biden watches NASA TV coverage of the Perseverance rover's arrival at Mars' Jezero Crater...on February 18, 2021.
The White House

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

My participation certificate for NASA's Mars 2020 mission.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Perseverance Update: TOMORROW'S THE DAY!!!

A computer-generated screenshot showing the Perseverance rover being lowered from its rocket-powered descent stage onto the surface of Mars...which will actually take place tomorrow, February 18.
NASA

DON'T FORGET: 11:15 AM, Pacific Standard Time (2:15 PM, Eastern Standard Time) is when NASA will begin live coverage of tomorrow's much-anticipated landing of the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars! 12:55 PM, PST (3:55 PM, EST) is when Perseverance will hopefully touch down on the Red Planet. Let's all cross our fingers that the centerpiece of the Mars 2020 mission will join America's growing family of rovers and landers (behind Curiosity and InSight, the last-remaining active robots on the Martian soil) at Mars less than 24 hours from now.

And as a reminder, click on this NASA page to see where Perseverance and Ingenuity are currently located in space. Happy Hump Day!

A computer-generated screenshot showing the Mars 2020 spacecraft's current position from the Red Planet...on February 17, 2021.
NASA / JPL Eyes

Monday, February 15, 2021

Peregrine Update: The Vulcan Centaur Rocket Will Soon Be Ready for Their Inaugural Flight to the Moon Later This Year...

The Pathfinder Tanking Test (PTT) booster for the United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket is placed atop its mobile launcher platform inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) in Florida...on February 15, 2021.
United Launch Alliance

Happy Presidents' Day, fellow Yanks, and a Happy Monday to everyone else! Just thought I'd share these photos that were released by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) earlier today...showing the Pathfinder Tanking Test (PTT) booster for the Vulcan Centaur rocket being lifted onto its mobile launcher platform (MLP) inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) in Florida. The PTT vehicle—which will eventually fly next year after it is outfitted with flightworthy BE-4 engines from the Jeff Bezos-owned company Blue Origin—arrived at Port Canaveral near CCSFS last Friday, after an 8-day sea voyage aboard ULA's Rocket Ship that began at the company's manufacturing facility in Decatur, Alabama. Today's activity was known as the Launch Vehicle On Stand (LVOS) operation...with the PTT article about to undergo a series of tests atop its MLP before it is rolled out to the pad at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 sometime in the spring to undergo a series of liquid oxygen and liquified natural gas (the rocket fuel that Vulcan Centaur will use) loading procedures.

The full-scale Structural Test Model for Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander...which is set to head to the Moon aboard ULA's Vulcan Centaur rocket later this year.

So how is this relevant to Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander (shown above), you ask? Well, Peregrine is scheduled to launch to the Moon aboard a Vulcan Centaur later this year...and the commencement of pathfinder activities for this new heavy-lift rocket in Florida is the latest sign that the maiden flight of Astrobotic's four-legged spacecraft is soon underway. Once the LVOS campaign at SLC-41 is complete, the PTT vehicle will be removed from the MLP and replaced with the actual Vulcan Centaur rocket that will send Peregrine to our closest celestial neighbor 239,000 miles away. Assuming the landing goes well, Peregrine will become the first privately-made spacecraft to safely touch down on the lunar surface. And if that's the case, I look forward to posting a Blog entry immediately afterwards to show why I have a personal stake in this exciting mission! Stay tuned.

The PTT booster for ULA's Vulcan Centaur rocket is transported to the VIF at CCSFS in Florida for Launch Vehicle On Stand (LVOS) operations...on February 15, 2021.
United Launch Alliance

LVOS operations commence as the Vulcan Centaur's PTT booster is hoisted into the air prior to being transported into the VIF at CCSFS in Florida...on February 15, 2021.
United Launch Alliance

LVOS operations continue as the Vulcan Centaur's PTT booster continues to be hoisted into the air prior to being transported into the VIF at CCSFS in Florida...on February 15, 2021.
United Launch Alliance

The Vulcan Centaur's PTT booster is now placed in vertical prior to being installed atop its mobile launcher platform inside the VIF at CCSFS in Florida...on February 15, 2021.
United Launch Alliance

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Photo of the Day: Hope's First Image at the Red Planet...

An image of Mars that was taken by the United Arab Emirates' Hope spacecraft the day after it entered orbit around the Red Planet...on February 10, 2021.
Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! Just thought I'd share this photo of Mars that was taken by the Hope spacecraft the day after it successfully entered orbit around the Red Planet. The United Arab Emirates-managed probe was 24,700 kilometers (15,350 miles) above the barren, crimson world when this image was taken. Pretty cool.

Only four days till NASA's Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter hopefully join Hope at the Red Planet. Landing at Mars' Jezero Crater is set to occur at 12:55 PM, Pacific Standard Time (3:55 PM, Eastern Standard Time) on Thursday, February 18. Can't wait! Click on this NASA page to see where Perseverance and Ingenuity are currently located in space.

A computer-generated screenshot showing the Mars 2020 spacecraft's current position from the Red Planet...on February 14, 2021.
NASA / JPL Eyes

Saturday, February 13, 2021

From Perseverance and Dragonfly to Beyond: The Department of Energy Sets Its Sight on Powering Future Interplanetary Voyagers...

A Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator...the same nuclear system that will be used to power NASA's Perseverance rover when it safely arrives on the surface of Mars next Thursday, February 18.
Office of Nuclear Energy

Aerojet Rocketdyne Receives Contract for Up to Two More MMRTGs for Future Deep Space Exploration Missions (Press Release - February 12)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Aerojet Rocketdyne recently received a contract award to deliver up to two Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTG) to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for use in future planetary science missions. MMRTGs are radioisotope power systems that have been used as reliable electrical power sources on multiple deep space missions, including NASA’s Perseverance Rover, which will land on Mars on Feb. 18.

Both MMRTGs will be fabricated and tested by Aerojet Rocketdyne and its teammate Teledyne Energy Systems prior to delivery to DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory, where the units will be fueled and readied for launch based on mission timelines.

“While the specific missions each unit will support have not yet been determined, the MMRTG is well suited for a variety of environments,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen P. Drake. “The MMRTG is multi-mission capable, meaning that it can operate on the surface of planets and moons in a planetary atmosphere or in the vacuum of space.”

The MMRTG produces dependable electrical power by converting the heat from plutonium 238 radioactive decay into electricity. A single unit can provide reliable, long-lasting electrical power to a spacecraft or planetary rover, enabling exploration of the deepest corners of the solar system, where the great distance from the Sun dramatically reduces the effectiveness of solar arrays.

The MMRTG will power NASA’s Dragonfly mission to explore Saturn’s moon Titan, and is being considered for the Trident mission to explore Neptune’s largest moon Triton, which is believed to have a liquid ocean.

Source: Aerojet Rocketdyne

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A computer-generated screenshot showing the Perseverance rover being lowered from its rocket-powered descent stage onto the surface of Mars...which will actually take place next Thursday, February 18.
NASA

An artist's concept of NASA's Dragonfly rotorcraft on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL

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

Friday, February 12, 2021

InSight Update: The Robotic Lander Prepares to Dig In for the Martian Winter...

One of InSight's two large solar panels is completely covered in Martian dust...as seen by a camera on the lander's robotic arm.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

InSight Is Meeting the Challenge of Winter on Dusty Mars (News Release)

As dust collects on the solar panels and winter comes to Elysium Planitia, the team is following a plan to reduce science operations in order to keep the lander safe.

NASA’s InSight lander recently received a mission extension for another two years, giving it time to detect more quakes, dust devils, and other phenomena on the surface of Mars. While the mission team plans to continue collecting data well into 2022, the increasing dustiness of the spacecraft’s solar panels and the onset of the Martian winter led to a decision to conserve power and temporarily limit the operation of its instruments.

InSight was designed to be long-lasting: The stationary lander is equipped with solar panels, each spanning 7 feet (2 meters) across. InSight’s design was informed by that of the solar-powered Spirit and Opportunity rovers, with the expectation that the panels would gradually reduce their power output as dust settled on them but would have ample output to last through the two-year prime mission (completed in November 2020).

Additionally, InSight’s team chose a landing site in Elysium Planitia, a windswept plain on the Red Planet’s equator that receives lots of sunlight. It was hoped that passing dust devils might clean off the panels, which happened many times with Spirit and Opportunity, allowing them to last years past their design lifetime.

But despite InSight detecting hundreds of passing dust devils, none has been close enough to clean off those dinner-table-size panels since they unfurled on Mars in November 2018. Today, InSight’s solar arrays are producing just 27% of their dust-free capacity. That power has to be shared between science instruments, a robotic arm, the spacecraft’s radio, and a variety of heaters that keep everything in working order despite subfreezing temperatures. Since the windiest season of the Martian year has just ended, the team isn’t counting on a cleaning event in the coming months.

Mars is currently moving toward what’s called aphelion, the point in its orbit when it’s farthest away from the Sun. That means the already-weak sunlight on the Martian surface is growing even fainter, reducing power when InSight most needs its heaters to stay warm. Mars will start approaching the Sun again in July 2021, after which the team will begin to resume full science operations.

“The amount of power available over the next few months will really be driven by the weather,” said InSight’s project manager, Chuck Scott of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “As part of our extended-mission planning, we developed an operations strategy to keep InSight safe through the winter so that we can resume science operations as solar intensity increases.” JPL leads the InSight mission, though the spacecraft and its solar panels were built by Lockheed Martin Space of Denver, Colorado.

Over the coming weeks and months, InSight scientists will be carefully selecting which instruments need to be switched off each day to preserve power for heaters and energy-intensive activities like radio communication. InSight’s weather sensors are likely to remain off much of the time (resulting in infrequent updates to the mission’s weather page), and all the instruments will have to be powered off for some period around aphelion.

Currently, power levels look strong enough to take the lander through the winter. But solar power generation on Mars is always a little uncertain. The Opportunity rover was forced to shut down after a series of dust storms darkened the Martian sky in 2019, and Spirit did not survive the Martian winter in 2010. If InSight were to run out of power due to a sudden dust storm, it is designed to be able to reboot itself when the sunlight returns if its electronics survived the extreme cold.

Later this week, InSight will be commanded to extend its robotic arm over the panels so a camera can take close-up images of the dust coating. Then the team will pulse the motors that unfurled each panel after landing to try to disturb the dust and see if the wind blows it away. The team considers this to be a long shot but worth the effort.

“The InSight team has put together a strong plan to safely navigate through winter and emerge on the other side ready to complete our extended science mission through 2022,” said Bruce Banerdt of JPL, InSight’s principal investigator. “We’ve got a great vehicle and a top-notch team; I’m looking forward to many more new discoveries from InSight in the future.”

Source: NASA.Gov

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Perseverance Update: T-Minus ONE WEEK Till NASA's Next Robotic Rover and First Interplanetary Aircraft Touches Down on Mars!

A computer-generated screenshot showing the Perseverance rover being lowered from its rocket-powered descent stage onto the surface of Mars...which will actually take place on February 18, 2021.
NASA

As of today, only 7 days remain before NASA's Perseverance rover—with the Ingenuity helicopter riding shotgun on it—touches down on Mars! The Mars 2020 spacecraft will reach the Red Planet on Thursday, February 18...with landing set to take place around 12:55 PM, Pacific Standard Time (3:55 PM, Eastern Standard Time)! I. Can't. Wait. Click on this NASA page to see where Perseverance and Ingenuity are currently located in space!

A computer-generated screenshot showing the Mars 2020 spacecraft's current position from the Red Planet...on February 11, 2021.
NASA / JPL Eyes

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

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Lucy Update: The Trojan Asteroid-bound Spacecraft Continues to Take Shape in Littleton, Colorado...

An artist's concept of NASA's Lucy spacecraft venturing past the Trojan asteroid Patroclus and its binary companion Menoetius near Jupiter's orbit.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / Conceptual Image Lab / Adriana Gutierrez

NASA’s First Mission to the Trojan Asteroids Installs its Final Scientific Instrument (News Release - February 9)

With less than a year to launch, NASA’s Lucy mission’s third and final scientific instrument has been integrated onto the spacecraft.

The spacecraft, which will be the first to explore the Trojan asteroids — a population of small bodies that share an orbit with Jupiter — is in the final stages of the assembly process. Just five months ago, at the beginning of the Assembly, Testing and Launch operations (ATLO) process, the components of the Lucy spacecraft were being built all over the country. Today, a nearly assembled spacecraft sits in the high bay in Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado.

“A bit over a year and a half ago, I was excited to hold the first small pieces of metal that were destined to travel to the Trojan asteroids,” says Hal Levison, principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute. “Now there is an actual spacecraft, nearly ready to go. It is incredible.”

The final instrument, L’Ralph, was built by NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and was received at Lockheed Martin on January 21 and integrated onto the spacecraft on January 26. L’Ralph is the most complicated instrument that will fly on Lucy, as it is actually two instruments in one. The Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), will take visible light color images of the Trojan asteroids. The Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), will collect infrared spectra of the asteroids. Both of these components will work together to allow Lucy to determine the composition of the Trojan asteroids and provide insight into the early history of our solar system.

The L’Ralph instrument experienced significant COVID-19 related delays, particularly when construction had to be halted when Goddard was placed under stage 4 COVID restrictions in April of last year. However, both the L’Ralph team at Goddard and the ATLO team at Lockheed Martin rose to the challenge and developed a new schedule that allowed everyone to work safely while keeping the spacecraft on track for its originally planned October 16, 2021 launch.

“The L’Ralph team has done an outstanding job to deliver a fantastic instrument,” says Dennis Reuter, L’Ralph instrument principal investigator, from Goddard. “Doing what they did under normal conditions would have been remarkable. Doing it under the actual conditions that had to be dealt with is amazing.”

L’Ralph has been installed on Lucy’s Instrument Pointing Platform. This platform provides the spacecraft significant flexibility during the encounters — the instruments can point at the Trojan asteroids during the high-speed flybys while the high gain antenna remains pointed at Earth — as well as carrying out fine adjustments and out-of-plane pointing to get the best data possible on these elusive objects.

Lucy’s other two scientific instruments, L’TES and L’LORRI, designed and built at Arizona State University, and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, respectively, as well as the two Terminal Tracking Cameras have already been installed on the platform. Now that L’Ralph is installed, the platform itself will be installed onto the spacecraft bus — making Lucy one step closer to being ready for her 12-year-long journey to the Trojans.

“Lucy ATLO has been tremendously successful and having L’Ralph delivered and integrated onto the Instrument Pointing Platform is a great start to the new year,” said Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, mission project manager from Goddard.

Southwest Research Institute’s Hal Levison and Cathy Olkin are the principal investigator and deputy principal investigator of the Lucy Mission. Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin Space is building the spacecraft. Lucy is the 13th mission in NASA’s Discovery Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Discovery Program for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A close-up of the L’Ralph instrument that was recently installed onto NASA's Lucy spacecraft as it gears up for launch this October.
NASA / Goddard / Barbara Lambert / Desiree Stover

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Hope Has Arrived at Mars!

A computer-generated screenshot of the United Arab Emirates' Hope spacecraft entering orbit around Mars.
Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre

Congratulations to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the successful arrival of its Hope spacecraft at Mars earlier today! This robotic orbiter, which is the centerpiece of the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), launched from Japan on July 19, 2020...traveling more than 480 million kilometers (298 million miles) across the vastness of space before conducting a 27-minute engine burn that occurred from 7:30 AM to 7:57 AM, Pacific Standard Time (PST), to allow Hope to enter a highly-elliptical orbit around the Red Planet. Confirmation of a successful burn didn't reach mission control at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, Dubai, till 11 minutes later.


With the Mars Orbit Insertion maneuver now out of the way, the EMM team will prep the spacecraft for science data-gathering activities...which is scheduled to begin in May. What a historic day for the Arab world and space exploration in general! Along with being the only Middle Eastern nation to ever lead an interplanetary mission (as well as being the second country, besides India, to successfully arrive at the Red Planet on the first try), the UAE is the fifth entity—behind the United States, Russia, the European Union and India, respectively—to place a probe into orbit around Mars since the dawn of the Space Age.

A computer-generated screenshot showing the Mars 2020 spacecraft's current position from the Red Planet...on February 9, 2021.
NASA / JPL Eyes

Nine days from now, Hope will hopefully be joined by the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter when their Mars 2020 spacecraft arrives at the Red Planet! The landing is set to take place at 12:55 PM, PST (3:55 PM, EST), on February 18. Click here to see where NASA's latest Mars explorer currently is in space.

Friday, February 05, 2021

The Blue Ghost Is Heading to the Moon...

An artist's concept of Firefly Aerospace's Blue Ghost lunar lander on the surface of the Moon.
Firefly Aerospace

NASA Selects Firefly Aerospace for Artemis Commercial Moon Delivery in 2023 (Press Release - February 4)

NASA has awarded Firefly Aerospace of Cedar Park, Texas, approximately $93.3 million to deliver a suite of 10 science investigations and technology demonstrations to the Moon in 2023. The delivery, planned for Mare Crisium, a low-lying basin on the Moon’s near side, will investigate a variety of lunar surface conditions and resources. Such investigations will help prepare for human missions to the lunar surface.

The award is part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, in which NASA is securing the service of commercial partners to quickly land science and technology payloads on the lunar surface. The initiative is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program. Firefly Aerospace will be responsible for end-to-end delivery services, including payload integration, launch from Earth, landing on the Moon, and mission operations. This is the sixth award for lunar surface delivery under the CLPS initiative.

“We’re excited another CLPS provider has won its first task order award. With this initiative, we seek to develop ways for new science and technology development utilizing a service-based model,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This allows U.S. vendors to not only demonstrate their ability to safely deliver payloads to our celestial neighbor, but also expand this capability for others who want to take advantage of this cutting edge approach to explore the Moon.”

This is the first delivery awarded to Firefly Aerospace, which will provide the lunar delivery service using its Blue Ghost lander, which the company designed and developed at its Cedar Park facility. This facility also will house the integration of NASA and any non-NASA payloads, and also will serve as the company’s mission operations center for the 2023 delivery.

“The payloads we’re sending as part of this delivery service span across multiple areas, from investigating the lunar soil and testing a sample capture technology, to giving us information about the Moon’s thermal properties and magnetic field,” said Chris Culbert, manager of the CLPS initiative at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Mare Crisium, where Firefly Aerospace’s Blue Ghost will land, is a more than 300-mile-wide basin where instruments will gather data to provide insight into the Moon’s regolith – loose, fragmented rock and soil – properties, geophysical characteristics, and the interaction of solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field.

The payloads, collectively expected to total 207 pounds (94 kg) in mass, include:

- The Regolith Adherence Characterization (RAC), which will determine how lunar regolith sticks to a range of materials exposed to the Moon's environment during landing and lander operations. Components will be derived from the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) facility currently on the International Space Station.

- The Next Generation Lunar Retroreflectors (NGLR), which will serve as a target for lasers on Earth to precisely measure the distance between Earth and the Moon. The retroreflector that will fly on this mission also will provide data that could be used to understand various aspects of the lunar interior and address fundamental physics questions.

- The Lunar Environment Heliospheric X-ray Imager (LEXI), which will capture images of the interaction of Earth's magnetosphere with the flow of charged particles from the Sun, called the solar wind.

- The Reconfigurable, Radiation Tolerant Computer System (RadPC), which aims to demonstrate a radiation-tolerant computing technology. Due to the Moon's lack of atmosphere and magnetic field, radiation from the Sun will be a challenge for electronics. This investigation also will characterize the radiation effects on the lunar surface.

- The Lunar Magnetotelluric Sounder (LMS), which is designed to characterize the structure and composition of the Moon’s mantle by studying electric and magnetic fields. The investigation will make use of a flight-spare magnetometer, a device that measures magnetic fields, originally made for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft currently orbiting Mars.

- The Lunar Instrumentation for Subsurface Thermal Exploration with Rapidity (LISTER), which is designed to measure heat flow from the interior of the Moon. The probe will attempt to drill 7 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) into the lunar regolith to investigate the Moon's thermal properties at different depths.

- The Lunar PlanetVac (LPV), which is designed to acquire lunar regolith from the surface and transfer it to other instruments that would analyze the material or put it in a container that another spacecraft could return to Earth.

- Stereo CAmeras for Lunar Plume Surface Studies (SCALPSS 1.1), which will capture video and still images of the area under the lander from when the engine plume first disturbs the lunar surface through engine shutdown. Long-focal-length cameras will determine the pre-landing surface topography. Photogrammetry will be used to reconstruct the changing surface during landing. Understanding the physics of rocket exhaust on the regolith, and the displacement of dust, gravel, and rocks is critical to understanding how to best avoid kicking up surface materials during the terminal phase of flight/landing on the Moon and other celestial bodies.

- The Electrodynamic Dust Shield (EDS), which will generate a non-uniform electric field using varying high voltage on multiple electrodes. This traveling field, in turn, carries away the particles and has potential applications in thermal radiators, spacesuit fabrics, visors, camera lenses, solar panels, and many other technologies.

- The Lunar GNSS Receiver Experiment (LuGRE), which is based on GPS. LuGRE will continue to extend the reach of GPS signals and, if successful, be the first to discern GPS signals at lunar distances.

The CLPS initiative is a key part of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration efforts. The science and technology payloads sent to the Moon’s surface as part of the initiative will help lay the foundation for human missions and a sustainable human presence on the lunar surface.

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Thursday, February 04, 2021

Perseverance Update: Exactly 2 Weeks Remain Before NASA's Next Robotic Rover (and First Interplanetary Chopper) Arrives at Mars!

A computer-generated screenshot showing the Perseverance rover being lowered from its rocket-powered descent stage onto the surface of Mars...which will actually take place on February 18, 2021.
NASA

As of today, only 14 days remain before NASA's Perseverance rover—with the Ingenuity helicopter riding shotgun on it—touches down on Mars! The Mars 2020 spacecraft will reach the Red Planet on Thursday, February 18...with landing set to take place around 12:55 PM, Pacific Standard Time (3:55 PM, Eastern Standard Time)! So stoked. Click on this NASA page to see where Perseverance and Ingenuity are currently located in space!

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

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Peregrine Update: NASA Has Future Flights in Mind for Astrobotic and Other Companies' Lunar Landers...

The full-scale Structural Test Model for Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander...which is set to head to the Moon aboard United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur rocket later this year.

Lunar Traffic to Pick Up as NASA Readies for Robotic Commercial Moon Deliveries (News Release)

NASA is working on various science instruments and technology experiments from the agency that will operate on the Moon once American companies on Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts deliver them to the lunar surface. Through CLPS flights, NASA is buying a complete commercial robotic lunar delivery service and does not provide launch services, own the lander or lead landing operations.

The agency has already purchased space on five upcoming commercial Moon missions and is expected to announce yet another task order award soon. The upcoming award keeps the agency on track for its goal of two CLPS deliveries per year as part of the Artemis program and will round out two deliveries per year 2021 through 2023.

“We’re excited with the incredible progress we’ve already made with our CLPS initiative since its inception just two years ago, and its clear many other customers are eager to take advantage of these new lunar delivery services,” shared Chris Culbert, manager of the CLPS project. “Commercial companies are responsible for vetting any additional payloads and customers for their lander missions. NASA is just a customer like the others, which allows us to focus on the science ahead for the Artemis program.”

Flights this year

Two commercial landers providing the first CLPS services for NASA will soon be kicking up dust on the Moon, one built by Astrobotic and the other Intuitive Machines. They are expected to deliver a combined total of 17 NASA payloads before the end of the year. Payload is a generic term to describe the many different instruments and experiments either attached directly to the lander itself or stowed safely in its trunk until a safe landing. The number of NASA payloads on a CLPS flight will vary depending on the agency’s science and technology objectives among other factors.

Astrobotic and its Peregrine lander are set to ferry 11 NASA instruments and technology demonstrations to the surface to investigate the composition of lunar soil and a host of other environmental factors. Launching on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, Peregrine is targeting later this year to deliver the suite of payloads to Lacus Mortis, a crater on the near side of the Moon.

NASA will deliver its suite of payloads to Astrobotic in the spring. Next, the payloads will be integrated with the lander structure. Once assembly is complete, the lander will undergo a battery of environmental tests before being shipped to Florida for integration with the launch vehicle.

Intuitive Machines will fly its Nova-C lander to Oceanus Procellarum, the largest dark spot on the Moon. The company, which will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, is targeting the fourth quarter of 2021 for its lunar delivery. Six NASA instruments will be delivered to the company this spring to undergo final testing before integration with the lander, including a new navigation and guidance payload to assist with landing.

NASA also added an additional instrument to fly on Nova-C last year, a new fuel gauging technology called Radio Frequency Mass Gauge. Accurately gauging liquid propellant quantity in a low- or zero-gravity environment is critical for spacecraft design and performance, but difficult because the liquid does not settle as it would on Earth. Results will help develop flight systems that could be used on future Artemis missions with crew.

Looking Ahead to 2022, Beyond

Masten Space Systems is working to deliver eight instruments to the lunar surface in 2022 using its XL-1 lander, launched by a SpaceX rocket. NASA and Masten recently selected a landing site on the rim of Haworth Crater, where scientists believe permanently shadowed areas could contain ice near the surface and deeper in reservoirs. Landing just outside Haworth will provide enough solar power to the lander’s solar arrays, while giving the payload instruments access to the crater. The Haworth area is expected to have cold traps of water, methane, ammonia, and carbon dioxide, and other volatiles that could be resources for future human explorers and which will help scientists understand lunar evolution. Several instruments will help assess lunar surface composition and evaluate radiation levels. This summer, Masten will complete a required review of the lander, and NASA will continue to design and build agency payloads for the flight.

Intuitive Machines will fly the agency’s PRIME-1 payload to the Moon next year, which is a precursor instrument to a future water mapping robot – the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover or VIPER - in development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Astrobotic was selected last year to fly NASA’s VIPER rover to the Moon in late 2023 using its new Griffin lander. The company will deliver a mockup of the lander to the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in February for a series of test to ensure the rover and its lander will operate seamlessly together when on the Moon.

The agency is also planning an upcoming announcement to select a provider to deliver a suite of 10 instruments to a non-polar region of the Moon in 2023. Additionally, NASA will announce instrument selections this year under the Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon (PRISM) solicitation for future CLPS flights followed by bidding to deliver them later.

Future NASA payloads delivered to the Moon on CLPS flights could include other rovers, power sources, and science experiments, including the technology demonstrations to be infused into the Artemis program.

“The many science instruments and technology demonstrations that NASA will land on the Moon using the CLPS initiative, will pave the way for scientific research by the Artemis moon walkers,” said Joel Kearns, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Source: NASA.Gov

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An artist's concept of a lunar lander's leg on the Moon's surface.
NASA

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Psyche Update: The Asteroid-bound Spacecraft Will Head to JPL to Finish Assembly Before Its 2022 Launch from Florida...

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

NASA’s Psyche Mission Moves Forward, Passing Key Milestone (News Release)

Now just a year and a half from launch, the mission to explore a metal-rich asteroid will soon begin assembling and testing the spacecraft.

NASA’s Psyche mission has passed a critical milestone that moves it a step closer to launch. After an intense review of the mission’s progress in building its science instruments and engineering systems, Psyche won clearance to progress into what NASA calls Phase D of its life cycle – the final phase of operations prior to its scheduled launch in August 2022.

Until now, the mission has focused on planning, designing, and building the body of the spacecraft, its solar-electric propulsion system, the three science instruments, electronics, the power subsystem, and the like. The successful review of those elements means the mission can now begin delivering components to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission and will test, assemble, and integrate each piece.

“It’s really the final phase, when all of the puzzle pieces are coming together and we’re getting on the rocket. This is the most intense part of everything that happens on the ground,” said Arizona State University’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who as principal investigator for Psyche leads the mission.

Psyche’s target is an intriguing, metal-rich asteroid of the same name, which orbits the Sun in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists think that, unlike rocky or icy asteroids, Psyche is largely iron and nickel and could be the heart of an early planet that lost its outer layers. Exploring the asteroid Psyche (about 140 miles, or 226 kilometers, wide) could lend valuable insight into how Earth and other planets formed.

The Psyche spacecraft will use a magnetometer to detect a potential magnetic field; if the asteroid has one, it’s a strong indicator that it once was the core of an early planet. A multispectral imager will capture images of the surface, as well as gather information about the asteroid’s composition and topography. Spectrometers will analyze the neutrons and gamma rays coming from the surface to reveal the elements that make up the object.

The main structure of the spacecraft, called the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis, was designed and built by Maxar Technologies and is nearly complete. The Maxar team in Palo Alto, California, is preparing to ship it to JPL’s main clean room in March, when assembly, test, and launch operations begin.

Each instrument will then undergo further testing. That includes a laser technology demonstration called Deep Space Optical Communications, led by JPL, which uses a super-efficient method of transmitting data with photons, or fundamental particles of visible light. Also undergoing testing will be the thermal, telecommunications, propulsion, power, avionics, and other engineering subsystems, along with the flight computer.

“The project has made tremendous progress, particularly given the world around us and COVID-19 and dealing with the constraints that imposes,” said JPL’s Henry Stone, the Psyche project manager. “We’re in very good shape. We’re on track and have a plan to go forward to make launch.”

Although engineers and technicians have had to deal with shutdowns forced by the pandemic and to adhere to additional safety protocols for those doing hands-on work on the spacecraft, the project remains on schedule.

“The fact that we can still make this happen and we’re overcoming our challenges feels near-miraculous,” Elkins-Tanton said. “And it’s also an incredible gift to keep us all focused and moving forward in a difficult time. So reaching this milestone has special meaning – not just for this project that we’ve been working on for a decade, but also because of what’s been happening more recently in all of our lives.”

By spring of 2022, the spacecraft will be fully assembled and ready to ship to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where it will launch in August 2022. Psyche will fly by Mars for a gravity assist in May 2023. And in early 2026, it will slip into orbit around the asteroid, where it will spend 21 months gathering data for analysis.

Source: NASA.Gov

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At Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, technicians power on the main body of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, also known as the Solar Electric Propulsion Chassis, in November of 2020.
Maxar Technologies

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Photos of the Day: Marking 30 Years Since Operation Desert Storm...

The sky above Baghdad is filled with anti-aircraft fire as U.S. warplanes attack Iraq's capital on the morning of January 18, 1991.
AP / Dominique Mollard

So I just realized that this month marks 3 decades since Operation Desert Storm began in the Middle East. I remember watching the news during the previous summer as the United States and its allies were building up their military presence in Saudi Arabia—during Operation Desert Shield—as the standoff with Saddam Hussein after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990 continued. Once the first Gulf War started, it only lasted 43 days (from January 17 to February 28, 1991)...due to the U.S. air offensive being too formidable for Iraqi forces to overcome. A quick "100-hour ground war" ensued after the blistering aerial campaign, which involved the use of the F-117 Stealth Fighter for the second time in combat. (The stealth fighter, declassified by the Pentagon in late 1988, also flew sorties in Panama during 1989's Operation Just Cause.)

My Gulf War '91 album.

On the day that Desert Storm started, I was going home after school (I was in 5th grade at the time) when my sister and her friend (who were the ones who picked me up) were talking about how it was crazy that we were living during a war. A U.S.-led war, that is. I watched the news reports about the Gulf War almost everyday, and was so enthralled by the military weaponry used (this is only slightly the case now...for political reasons that involve the hypocrisy of today's Republican Party) that I created a so-called scrapbook, shown above, to display my warmongering obsession. Needless to say, I would've had to create even more scrapbooks if I wanted to cover the second Iraq War started by George W. Bush almost 18 years ago, the war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks (Because of Desert Shield and Storm, Osama bin Laden became America's biggest enemy after being America's biggest ally during the proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan back in the 1980s), and even the war on the Islamic State last decade.

President George H.W. Bush visits U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving Day during Operation Desert Shield...on November 22, 1990.
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

But yea— I'm 41 years-old and know that the money spent by America on stealth fighters and new Apache attack helicopters can be used on more important things in the United States right now. Along with seeking universal healthcare and universal basic income, we should also be sending people back to the Moon and onto Mars... That is all.

U.S. warplanes fly over burning oil wells in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm...in February of 1991.
U.S. Air Force

A U.S. Army M1A1 Abrams battle tank is stationed behind a sand berm during Operation Desert Storm...on February 12, 1991.
National Archives

An F-117 Stealth Fighter begins its trip back to the United States following the end of Operation Desert Storm...in February of 1991.
U.S. Air Force

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Perseverance Update: Exactly 3 Weeks Remain Before NASA's Next Robotic Rover (and First Interplanetary Helicopter) Arrives at Mars!

A computer-generated screenshot showing the Perseverance rover being lowered from its rocket-powered descent stage onto the surface of Mars...which will actually take place on February 18, 2021.
NASA

As of today, only 21 days remain before NASA's Perseverance rover—with the Ingenuity helicopter riding shotgun on it—touches down on Mars! The Mars 2020 spacecraft will reach the Red Planet on February 18...with landing set to take place around 12:55 PM, Pacific Standard Time (3:55 PM, Eastern Standard Time) that Thursday! Very excited. Click on this NASA page to see where Perseverance is currently located in space!

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

OSIRIS-REx Update: The Robotic Explorer Will Depart from Asteroid Bennu in Mid-Spring and Begin Its Journey Back to Earth...

An artist's concept of NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft departing from asteroid Bennu to head back to Earth.
NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Mission Plans for May Asteroid Departure (News Release - January 26)

On May 10, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will say farewell to asteroid Bennu and begin its journey back to Earth. During its Oct. 20, 2020, sample collection event, the spacecraft collected a substantial amount of material from Bennu’s surface, likely exceeding the mission’s requirement of 2 ounces (60 grams). The spacecraft is scheduled to deliver the sample to Earth on Sep. 24, 2023.

“Leaving Bennu’s vicinity in May puts us in the ‘sweet spot,’ when the departure maneuver will consume the least amount of the spacecraft’s onboard fuel,” said Michael Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Nevertheless, with over 593 miles per hour (265 meters per second) of velocity change, this will be the largest propulsive maneuver conducted by OSIRIS-REx since the approach to Bennu in October 2018.”

The May departure also provides the OSIRIS-REx team with the opportunity to plan a final spacecraft flyby of Bennu. This activity was not part of the original mission schedule, but the team is studying the feasibility of a final observation run of the asteroid to potentially learn how the spacecraft’s contact with Bennu’s surface altered the sample site.

If feasible, the flyby will take place in early April and will observe the sample site, named Nightingale, from a distance of approximately 2 miles (3.2 kilometers). Bennu’s surface was considerably disturbed after the Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection event, with the collector head sinking 1.6 feet (48.8 centimeters) into the asteroid’s surface. The spacecraft’s thrusters also disturbed a substantial amount of surface material during the back-away burn.

The mission is planning a single flyby, mimicking one of the observation sequences conducted during the mission’s Detailed Survey phase in 2019. OSIRIS-REx would image Bennu for a full rotation to obtain high-resolution images of the asteroid’s northern and southern hemispheres and equatorial region. The team would then compare these new images with the previous high-resolution imagery of Bennu obtained during 2019.

“OSIRIS-REx has already provided incredible science,” said Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of planetary science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “We’re really excited the mission is planning one more observation flyby of asteroid Bennu to provide new information about how the asteroid responded to TAG and to render a proper farewell.”

These post-TAG observations would also give the team a chance to assess the current functionality of science instruments onboard the spacecraft – specifically the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS), OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS), and OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA). It is possible dust coated the instruments during the sample collection event and the mission wants to evaluate the status of each. Understanding the health of the instruments is also part of the team’s assessment of possible extended mission opportunities after the sample is delivered to Earth.

The spacecraft will remain in asteroid Bennu’s vicinity until May 10, when the mission will enter its Earth Return Cruise phase. As it approaches Earth, OSIRIS-REx will jettison the Sample Return Capsule (SRC). The SRC will then travel through the Earth’s atmosphere and land under parachutes at the Utah Test and Training Range.

Once recovered, NASA will transport the capsule to the curation facility at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and distribute the sample to laboratories worldwide, enabling scientists to study the formation of our solar system and Earth as a habitable planet.

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

Source: AsteroidMission.org