Category Archives: Solar Science

Space sciences roundup – June.5.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items:

[ Update: The InSight Mars lander team has come up with a plan for diagnosing and then testing a possible fix for the ground temperature probe that is stuck at a depth that is too shallow to do its job correctly: InSight’s Team Tries New Strategy to Help the ‘Mole’ | NASA

More details on the problem in this earlier report: More Testing for Mars InSight’s ‘Mole’ – NASA’s InSight Mars Lander

]

** A binary asteroid zipped past earth recently: Binary asteroids, key to Earth’s planetary defence – ESA

Humankind has had its closest look yet at a binary asteroid. As 1999 KW4 skimmed past our planet at 70 000 km/h, the most advanced visible-light telescope on Earth resolved the 1.3-km diameter asteroid and its 360-m sized moon. An even closer spacecraft-based encounter will come next decade, when NASA will send a probe to deflect the moon of the distant Didymos binary. Then ESA’s Hera mission will perform a follow-up survey right down to the body’s surface.

The International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) coordinated a cross-organisational observing campaign of the asteroid 1999 KW4 as it flew by Earth, reaching a minimum distance of 5.2 million km on 25 May. Since its orbit is well known, scientists were able to predict this flyby and prepare the observing campaign.

Side by side observation and artist's impression of Asteroid 199
“The unique capabilities of the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope have enabled it to obtain the sharpest images of a double asteroid as it flew by Earth on 25 May. While this double asteroid was not itself a threatening object, scientists used the opportunity to rehearse the response to a hazardous Near-Earth Object (NEO), proving that ESO’s front-line technology could be critical in planetary defence. The left-hand image shows SPHERE observations of Asteroid 1999 KW4. The angular resolution in this image is equivalent to picking out a single building in New York — from Paris. An artist’s impression of the asteroid pair is shown on the right.” – ESA

** Update on Japan’s Hayabusa2’s visit to Ryugu, a near-earth asteroid: Hayabusa2 drops second target marker, targets artificial crater for sample collection | The Planetary Society

Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft has successfully dropped a second target marker on Ryugu. The reflective softball-sized sphere, which contains the names of Planetary Society members and other supporters, will give the spacecraft a visual guide if mission planners send it back to the surface to attempt a second sample collection.

JAXA is now considering collecting the sample directly from the area where Hayabusa2 created an artificial crater in early April, thanks to updated imagery collected during an aborted touchdown marker drop attempt in mid-May.

Hayabusa2 second target marker drop
“Hayabusa2 drops its second marker on asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of about 10 meters on 30 May 2019. These images were taken from altitudes between 10 and 40 meters.” Credits: JAXA, Chiba Inst. of Tech. Via The Planetary Society

** Comets provided earth with much of its water: Comet Provides New Clues to Origins of Earth’s Oceans – NASA JPL

The mystery of why Earth has so much water, allowing our “blue marble” to support an astounding array of life, is clearer with new research into comets. Comets are like snowballs of rock, dust, ice, and other frozen chemicals that vaporize as they get closer to the Sun, producing the tails seen in images. A new study reveals that the water in many comets may share a common origin with Earth’s oceans, reinforcing the idea that comets played a key role in bringing water to our planet billions of years ago.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, the world’s largest airborne observatory, observed Comet Wirtanen as it made its closest approach to Earth in December 2018. Data collected from the high-flying observatory found that this comet contains “ocean-like” water. Comparing this with information about other comets, scientists suggest in a new study that many more comets than previously thought could have delivered water to Earth. The findings were published in Astronomy and Astrophysics Letters.

** Jupiter’s magnetic field exhibits unexpected variations over time: Juno space probe identifies changes in Jupiter’s magnetic field – Physics World

An important question for the researchers to answer now is what is the cause of the shift in Jupiter’s magnetic field? On Earth, the change is thought to originate in the planet’s core, however the best explanation for secular variation on Jupiter is in its deep atmospheric (zonal) winds. These winds extend up to 3000 km into the surface of the planet, where the conductive metal fluid is situated. Although the origin of zonal winds is still uncertain, they are believed to interrupt the magnetic field distribution.

The discovery will likely have implications for the study of our Solar System. Kimee Moore, a graduate student  from the University of Cambridge and lead author of the report on the findings, says that in the future “scientists will be able to make a planet-wide map of Jupiter’s secular variation” and this latest finding may even help “scientists studying Earth’s magnetic field, which still contains many mysteries to be solved”

** Latest on the Sun’s spot count: Sunspot update May 2019: The long ramp down | Behind The Black

The Sun in May continued to show the exact same amount of activity as it had shown for March and April. This steady uptick in sunspot activity once again shows that the ramp down to full solar minimum will be long and extended.

That we are definitely ramping downward to minimum, even with the slight increase in the past three months, is shown by the fact that the Sun has shown no sunspots for the past fifteen days. In fact, all the activity shown in May comes from the first half of the month. This pattern is actually a reflection of the Sun’s 27-day rotation period. …

** A film of a solar eclipse in 1900 was found and restored: First movie of solar eclipse rediscovered | Behind The Black

The magic of a real solar eclipse filmed on 28 May, 1900 by a famous magician, Nevil Maskelyne, while on an expedition by The British Astronomical Association to North Carolina. In 1898 he travelled to India to photograph an eclipse. He succeeded but the film can was stolen on his return journey home.

It was not an easy feat to film. Maskelyne had to make a special telescopic adapter for his camera to capture the event. This is the only film by Maskelyne that we know to have survived. The original film fragment held in The Royal Astronomical Society’s archive has been painstakingly scanned and restored in 4K by conservation experts at the BFI National Archive, who have reassembled and retimed the film frame by frame.

The film is part of BFI Player’s recently released Victorian Film collection, viewers are now able to experience this first film of a solar eclipse since the event was originally captured over a century ago.

** The Stars of Cepheus as seen by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope:

Soar through this cosmic landscape filled with bright nebulas, as well as runaway, massive and young stars. The image comes from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which sees the universe in infrared light. For more about Spitzer, visit https://www.nasa.gov/spitzer or http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/.

** Mars:

*** An update on Europe’s ExoMars Rover mission, which ESA plans to launch in July 2020 for a landing in March 2021: ESA Prepares for ExoMars Rover 2020 Launch at Mars and on Earth | The Planetary Society

Preparations for the ExoMars rover mission are in their final stages. ESA made two announcements today: ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is shifting orbit, and they officially opened a new Rover Operations Control Centre (ROCC) in Turin, Italy. ROCC will support the Rosalind Franklin rover’s deployment from the Kazachok lander and surface operations after that. Along with the announcements they posted some cool images.

*** Ten things about Mars are revealed in an interactive display from ESA.

*** Signs of even more water on Mars:

From Space.com:

Scientists think they’ve stumbled on a new cache of water ice on Mars — and not just any ice but a layered mix of ice and sand representing the last traces of long-lost polar ice caps.

That’s according to new research based on data gathered by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the Red Planet since 2006 and has just marked its 60,000th trip around Mars. On board the spacecraft is a radar instrument that can see about 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) below the planet’s surface — and in that data, scientists see lots and lots of ice.

Alternating ice and sand layers on Mars
“A composite image showing alternating layers of ice and sand in an area where they are exposed on the surface of Mars. The photograph, taken with the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, was adjusted to show water ice as light-colored layers and sand as darker layers of blue. The tiny bright white flecks are thin patches of frost.” Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. [Via AGU.org]
*** The Space Show – Fri, 05/24/2019Dr. Gilbert Levin and Dr. Patricia Ann Straat talked about the “Viking Labeled Release experiment, life detection on Mars, From Mars With Love by Dr. Straat and more”.

*** Mars reports from Bob Zimmerman:

**** Rover update: May 30, 2019 – Latest on Curiosity’s explorations (and also an update on China’s Yutu-2 rover on Moon). The image below

… one of a number taken by the rover in the past week, showing water clouds drifting over Gale Crater.

Mars clouds as seen by Curiosity
Mars clouds over Gale crater as seen by Curiosity. Via Behind the Black.

According to NASA JPL:

These are likely water-ice clouds about 19 miles (31 kilometers) above the surface. They are also “noctilucent” clouds, meaning they are so high that they are still illuminated by the Sun, even when it’s night at Mars’ surface. Scientists can watch when light leaves the clouds and use this information to infer their altitude.

But Curiosity wasn’t just looking at the clouds:

While these clouds teach us something about Martian weather, the big rover news this week was that the data obtained from the two drill holes taken in April show that the clay formation that Curiosity is presently traversing is definitely made of clay, and in fact the clay there has the highest concentration yet found by the rover.

**** Crater? Pit? Volcano? – A puzzling feature might be an impact crater but maybe not:

I would not bet much money on this conclusion. The overall terrain of the Eridania quadrangle is filled with craters, large and small. There does not seem to be any obvious evidence of past volcanic activity, and if there had been it has not expressed itself in large volcanoes.

Eridania crater
This circular feature in the Eridania region could be a meteoroid crater or a volcano caldera. Via Behind the Black.

However, other images of this mountain show many circular features that at first glance appear to be craters like the featured image. They appear slightly raised above the surrounding terrain, though not in as pronounced a manner.

They all could be small volcanoes. Or maybe they are impacts that hit a dense surface which prevented them from drilling too deep down, and instead caused the crater to be raised above the surrounding terrain.

‘Tis a puzzle. The irregular pit in this particular feature adds to the mystery. It does not look like the kind of pits one sees in calderas. Instead, its rough edge suggests wind erosion.

**** The mysterious slope streaks of Mars – Streaks on the sides of sloped surfaces are puzzling…

… and appear to possibly represent a phenomenon entirely unique to Mars. I became especially motivated to write about these mysterious ever newly appearing features when, in reviewing the May image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found four different uncaptioned images of slope streaks, all titled “Slope Stream Monitoring.” From this title it was clear that the MRO team was re-imaging each location to see if any change had occurred since an earlier image was taken. A quick look in the MRO archive found identical photographs for all four slope streak locations, taken from 2008 to 2012, and in all four cases, new streaks had appeared while older streaks had faded.

Example of streaks on Martian slopes.
Example of streaks on Martian slopes. Via Behind the Black

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Brief Answers to the Big Questions
– Stephen Hawking

Space sciences roundup – May.10.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items:

** Experiments designed and built by students were among the 38 R&D payloads on the recent Blue Origin New Shepard flight to 106 km:

For example, the UCLA team of 11 students designed and built an experimental magnetic pump named Blue Dawn that will work in zero-gravity:

“The goal was to see if we could design an efficient fluid pump without any moving parts to work in zero-gravity, which has never been done before,” said Alexander Gonzalez, fourth-year physics major and undergrad science lead on the project. Such a low-maintenance pump would be ideal for moving various liquids on the International Space Station, and could reduce the risk of motorized pump failures for rovers and even future bases on the moon or Mars.

** Living tissues embedded in 3D electronics chips were among the research projects on the recent SpaceX Dragon Cargo mission to the ISS. The company Emulate, Inc. sent “organs-on-chips” to the ISS to study the Effects of Microgravity on Human Physiology including

the effect of microgravity and other space-related stressors on the brain blood barrier. It uses fully automated tissue chip technology, a Brain-Chip, consisting of living neuronal and vascular endothelial cells in a micro-engineered environment. Results may provide insight into the relationship between inflammation and brain function and a better understanding of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

More about tissue chip research in microgravity:

** The latest sunspot count: Sunspot update April 2019: Not quite minimum | Behind The Black

As the Sun ramps down to minimum it will have months where there is no activity, as happened in February 2019, and months, such as in March and April, where more sunspots appear.

Eventually the quiet months will become dominate, and soon thereafter, when activity increases again (assuming it does), the solar science community will then announce the date of true minimum.

We are not there. Normally it can take a year or more for the Sun to settle down. If activity declines as indicated by the red curve, it could take as long four years, which would be a record-long minimum. The difference will tell us whether the eleven-year solar cycle is continuing, or the Sun is heading into a grand minimum, with no significant sunspots for decades.

** Measuring the magnetism of Mars and Jupiter were discussed on the recent TMRO.tv episode Orbit 12.15:

NASA’s MAVEN Magnetometer Instrument Lead Dr. Jared Espley joins us to talk about MAVEN, Juno and how we measure the magnetism of planets in our local system. More information on MAVEN can be found here: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/ma… And more information on Juno can be found here: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/ju…

** The mystery of Mars water remains unsolved: Mars Used to Have Water, But We Can’t Explain How | The Planetary Society

Mars has been the most extensively studied planet in the Solar System, except of course Earth. For the last 25 years, these missions have focused on the search for life by “following the water.” Although we have acquired compelling evidence of flowing liquid water on early Mars, the fundamental question about how water could be stable under Martian atmospheric conditions remains unsolved. Everything we have learned about Mars points towards a freezing cold Martian climate that would be incapable of stabilizing liquid water throughout Mars’ history.

** Even dry asteroids contain water in our wet solar system: Water has been found in dust of an asteroid thought to be bone-dry | Science News

Grains of dust from the asteroid Itokawa actually contain a surprising amount of water, two cosmochemists from Arizona State University in Tempe report May 1 in Science Advances.

“We didn’t really expect water to be there in Itokawa at all,” says study coauthor Maitrayee Bose. But if similar asteroids have similar amounts of water, the space rocks could have been a major source of water for the early Earth.

** More cave openings spotted on Mars and analyzed by Bob Zimmerman: The many pits of Arsia Mons | Behind The Black

Arsia Mons pits 2019. Credits Behind-the-Black

The many pits surrounding Arsia Mons highlight a far greater mystery about Martian geology. Some geologists believe that the many meandering channels we see on Mars could have formed not from surface flow as generally assumed but by underground drainage that washed out voids below the ground which in turn caused the surface to subside, forming those meandering channels.

Yet, as far as I can tell, the only place where scientists have been able to identify a significant number of potential cave openings are on the volcanic slopes of Arisa Mons and its neighboring giant volcanos. There are exceptions, such as this spectacular pit at the head of a channel in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowlands, as well as two different pits, here and here, that are located in the lowlands in Utopia Basin. Overall however the bulk of pits imaged by MRO appear to be on the slopes of the giant volcanoes, with the majority so far found near Arsia Mons.

** Insight lander images sunrise and sunset on Mars: InSight Captures Sunrise and Sunset on Mars | NASA

A camera on the spacecraft’s robotic arm snapped the photos on April 24 and 25, the 145th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. In local Mars time, the shots were taken starting around 5:30 a.m. and then again starting around 6:30 p.m. As a bonus, a camera under the lander’s deck also caught clouds drifting across the Martian sky at sunset.

Insight captures a sunset.
“NASA’s InSight lander used the Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC) on the end of its robotic arm to image this sunset on Mars on April 25, 2019, the 145th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. This was taken around 6:30 p.m. Mars local time.” Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Full image and caption

** NASA orbiter measures the temperature of Mars moon Phobos: Why This Martian Full Moon Looks Like Candy – NASA JPL

For the first time, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter has caught the Martian moon Phobos during a full moon phase. Each color in this new image represents a temperature range detected by Odyssey’s infrared camera, which has been studying the Martian moon since September of 2017. Looking like a rainbow-colored jawbreaker, these latest observations could help scientists understand what materials make up Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons.

Odyssey is NASA’s longest-lived Mars mission. Its heat-vision camera, the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), can detect changes in surface temperature as Phobos circles Mars every seven hours. Different textures and minerals determine how much heat THEMIS detects.

Phobos temperature

Such measurements can help determine the composition of the moon, particularly the minerals and metals:

Iron and nickel are two such metals. Depending on how abundant the metals are, and how they’re mixed with other minerals, these data could help determine whether Phobos is a captured asteroid or a pile of Mars fragments, blasted into space by a giant impact long ago.

These recent observations won’t definitively explain Phobos’ origin, Bandfield added. But Odyssey is collecting vital data on a moon scientists still know little about – one that future missions might want to visit. Human exploration of Phobos has been discussed in the space community as a distant, future possibility, and a Japanese sample-return mission to the moon is scheduled for launch in the 2020s.

** Hubble telescope images assembled into a giant mosaic of 265k galaxies: Hubble Assembles Wide View of the Distant Universe | ESA/Hubble

Astronomers developed a mosaic of the distant Universe that documents 16 years of observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The image, called the Hubble Legacy Field, contains roughly 265,000 galaxies that stretch back to just 500 million years after the Big Bang.

The wavelength range of this image stretches from ultraviolet to near-infrared light, capturing all the features of galaxy assembly over time. The faintest and farthest galaxies in the image are just one ten-billionth the brightness of what the human eye can observe.

“Now that we have gone wider than in previous surveys, we are harvesting many more distant galaxies in the largest such dataset ever produced,” said Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, leader of the team that assembled the image. “No image will surpass this one until future space telescopes like James Webb are launched.”

This video “takes the viewer on a journey into the Hubble Legacy Field”:

** Tracking Gaia precisely to get precise locations of a billion stars: Pinpointing Gaia to Map the Milky Way | ESO

This image, a composite of several observations captured by ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST), shows the ESA spacecraft Gaia as a faint trail of dots across the lower half of the star-filled field of view. These observations were taken as part of an ongoing collaborative effort to measure Gaia’s orbit and improve the accuracy of its unprecedented star map.

This image, a composite of several observations captured by ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST), shows the space observatory Gaia as a faint trail of dots across the lower half of the star-filled field of view. These observations were taken as part of an ongoing collaborative effort to measure Gaia’s orbit and improve the accuracy of its unprecedented star map.

Gaia, operated by the European Space Agency (ESA), surveys the sky from orbit to create the largest, most precise, three-dimensional map of our Galaxy. One year ago, the Gaia mission produced its much-awaited second data release, which included high-precision measurements — positions, distance and proper motions — of more than one billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. This catalogue has enabled transformational studies in many fields of astronomy, addressing the structure, origin and evolution the Milky Way and generating more than 1700 scientific publications since its launch in 2013.

In order to reach the accuracy necessary for Gaia’s sky maps, it is crucial to pinpoint the position of the spacecraft from Earth. Therefore, while Gaia scans the sky, gathering data for its stellar census, astronomers regularly monitor its position using a global network of optical telescopes, including the VST at ESO’s Paranal Observatory [1]. The VST is currently the largest survey telescope observing the sky in visible light, and records Gaia’s position in the sky every second night throughout the year.

** A Galaxy Grouping in 2D and 3D: Stephan’s Quintet;

In 1877, Edouard Stephan discovered a tight visual grouping of five galaxies located in the constellation Pegasus. The galaxies of Stephan’s Quintet are both overlapping and interacting, and have become the most famous among the compact groups of galaxies. Astronomers have long known that four of the galaxies (all of which are yellowish-white in this video) form a physical group in space, while the fifth (bluish) is a foreground galaxy. In addition, a sixth galaxy (yellowish-white and on the far left) is likely to be part of the physical grouping. Hence, this 2D quintet that is a 3D quartet may actually be a 2D sextet that is a 3D quintet.

This visualization makes apparent the spatial distribution of these galaxies. The video starts with a view that matches our 2D perspective. As the sequence travels in 3D, the foreground blue spiral, NGC 7320, quickly passes by the camera. The possible sixth galaxy member on the left, NGC 7320C, is seen at roughly the same distance as the remaining four galaxies. The camera turns to pass between two strongly interacting galaxies, NGC 7319 (left) and NGC 7318B (right), with each galaxy’s spiral structure distorted by the gravitational interaction. In contrast, NGC 7318B overlaps in 2D with the more distant elliptical NGC 7318A, but does not have a strong interaction. The other elliptical, NGC 7317, is also seen as more distant than the strongly interacting pair. In 3D, the four or five galaxies in this group are gathered together by their mutual gravity, and may collide and merge together in the future.

Credits: G. Bacon, J. DePasquale, F. Summers, Z. Levay (STScI)

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Outpost in Orbit: A Pictorial & Verbal History of the Space Station

Space sciences roundup – March.7.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images related to space related sciences:

** Video shows Hayabusa2 landing on asteroid Ryuga and firing a projectile that stired up material from the surface to allow for capturing samples of the asteroid to return to earth: Watch Hayabusa2’s incredible touchdown on asteroid Ryugu | The Planetary Society

The video was shot with Hayabusa2’s small monitoring camera, CAM-H, which points downward from the side of the main spacecraft bus. Incredibly, the camera was funded by donations from the public!

There’s so much to like about the video: The reflection of Ryugu on Hayabusa2’s shiny surface. The white target marker containing names of Planetary Society members, visible in the lower-left corner for the first part of the video. And, of course, the incredible spray of debris when Hayabusa2 hits the surface and fires its tantalum bullet.

With so much material flying around, the team says “the potential for sample collection is high.” That hopefully includes some larger pieces that either floated directly into the sample catcher or were caught on the inner lip of the sample horn, giving them a chance to tumble up into the catcher later. JAXA also confirmed some debris stuck to the lens of one of the optical navigation cameras.

** NASA’s InSight Mars lander’s drill slowed by hard rock. Mars InSight Lander’s ‘Mole’ Pauses Digging – NASA’s InSight Mars Lander

NASA’s Mars InSight lander has a probe designed to dig up to 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface and measure heat coming from inside the planet. After beginning to hammer itself into the soil on Thursday, Feb. 28, the 16-inch-long (40-centimeter-long) probe — part of an instrument called the Heat and Physical Properties Package, or HP3 — got about three-fourths of the way out of its housing structure before stopping. No significant progress was seen after a second bout of hammering on Saturday, March 2. Data suggests the probe, known as a “mole,” is at a 15-degree tilt.

Scientists suspect it hit a rock or some gravel. The team had hoped there would be relatively few rocks below ground, given how few appear on the surface beside the lander. Even so, the mole was designed to push small rocks aside or wend its way around them. The instrument, which was provided for InSight by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), did so repeatedly during testing before InSight launched.

“The team has decided to pause the hammering for now to allow the situation to be analyzed more closely and jointly come up with strategies for overcoming the obstacle,” HP3 Principal Investigator Tilman Spohn of DLR wrote in a blog post. He added that the team wants to hold off from further hammering for about two weeks.

HP3 on the Martian Surface: NASA’s InSight lander set its heat probe, called the Heat and Physical Properties Package (HP3), on the Martian surface on Feb. 12. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DLR. Full image and caption ›

** Israeli Beresheet lunar probe sends selfie as it moves closer to the Moon: Been here, done that: SpaceIL sends its first selfie from space – ISRAEL21c

The SpaceIL Beresheet lunar lander spacecraft takes a picture of itself along with the Earth in the background.

More background info on the selfie:

** View the Moon in the colors of its minerals in this image created by A James Mccarthy (u/ajamesmccarthy) and posted on Reddit


See also:

** The Chinese Chang’e 4 lander & rover on the far side of the Moon is busy on its third lunar day (equal to 14 earth days):  Yutu-2 Rocks On into Lunar Day 3 for Chang’e-4 mission | The Planetary Society

Yutu-2 awakened for lunar day 3 of the mission at 02:51 UTC on 28 February, with the lander following later the same day at 23:52. A few days later, the rover stood down for its ‘noon nap’ to avoid heating issues from a high solar incidence angle, at 10:25 UTC on March 3. It will resume its activities early on 10 March, before entering a sleep state around 02:00 UTC on 13 March, when the Sun is low in the sky over Von Kármán crater in preparation for the lunar nighttime.

According to a release by the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) on 4 March, Yutu-2 has so far travelled 127 meters, adding 7 meters to the total of 120 meters driven on lunar days 1 (44.185 m) and 2 (75.815 m).

The apparent relatively low distance is believed to be due to Yutu-2 taking time to image nearby rocks and features in the regolith. Analysis of the images from the Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS) and Panoramic camera is expected to provide insight into the origin and composition of the rocks and development of the lunar far side itself.

Yutu-2 observes some Moon rocks during the rover’s third Lunar Day since landing on the far side.

** NASA will pay companies with lunar spacecraft for delivery of scientific instruments and experiments to the Moon as soon as their spacecraft are ready to go: NASA Selects Experiments for Possible Lunar Flights in 2019 – NASA

NASA has selected 12 science and technology demonstration payloads to fly to the Moon as early as the end of this year, dependent upon the availability of commercial landers. These selections represent an early step toward the agency’s long-term scientific study and human exploration of the Moon and, later, Mars.

** NASA MAVEN Mars orbiter to support communications with Mars 2020 rover:

NASA’s 4-year-old atmosphere-sniffing Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission is embarking on a new campaign today to tighten its orbit around Mars. The operation will reduce the highest point of the MAVEN spacecraft’s elliptical orbit from 3,850 to 2,800 miles (6,200 to 4,500 kilometers) above the surface and prepare it to take on additional responsibility as a data-relay satellite for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which launches next year.

“The MAVEN spacecraft has done a phenomenal job teaching us how Mars lost its atmosphere and providing other important scientific insights on the evolution of the Martian climate,” said Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “Now we’re recruiting it to help NASA communicate with our forthcoming Mars rover and its successors.”

While MAVEN’s new orbit will not be drastically shorter than its present orbit, even this small change will significantly improve its communications capabilities. “It’s like using your cell phone,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder. “The closer you are to a cell tower, the stronger your signal.”

Aerobraking plan for MAVEN. (left) Current MAVEN orbit around Mars: 6,200 kilometers (~3,850 miles) at highest altitude, and an orbit period of about 4.5 hours. (center) Aerobraking process: MAVEN performs a series of “deep dip” orbits approaching to within about 125 kilometers (~78 miles) of Mars at lowest altitude, causing drag from the atmosphere to slow down the spacecraft. Over roughly 360 orbits spanning 2.5 months, this technique reduces the spacecraft’s altitude to about 4,500 kilometers (~2,800 miles) and its orbit period to about 3.5 hours. (right) Post-aerobraking orbit, with reduced altitude and shorter orbit period. Credits: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Kel Elkins and Dan Gallagher. Download in high resolution from the Scientific Visualization Studio

** More Mars caving via images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) camera : Another batch of caves/pits found on Mars | Behind The Black

Images from the MRO showing pits, located north and west of Arsia Mons. Credits Bob Zimmerman

The November release imaged three pits found on the southern flanks of Arsia Mons. The January 2019 release found several north of the volcano, two of which are very close to the two middle new pits highlighted above. The February release, which is the focus of this post, included four more pits, shown above, all located north and west of Arsia Mons, as shown in the overview map [shown below in image from Behind the Black].

MRO images of Arsia Mons with notation by Bob Zimmerman.

** Our sun is spotless as it reaches a zero minimum in the current phase of the solar cycle. We will have to wait and see how long it remains in that state. Sunspot update February 2019: The Sun flatlines again | Behind The Black

The number of sunspots in the current cycle since 2008. Annotated by Bob Zimmerman.

** And our solar system is very bigAstronomers discover solar system’s most distant object, nicknamed ‘FarFarOut’ – AAAS

For most people, snow days aren’t very productive. Some people, though, use the time to discover the most distant object in the solar system.

That’s what Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., did this week when a snow squall shut down the city. A glitzy public talk he was due to deliver was delayed, so he hunkered down and did what he does best: sifted through telescopic views of the solar system’s fringes that his team had taken last month during their search for a hypothesized ninth giant planet.

That’s when he saw it, a faint object at a distance 140 times farther from the sun than Earth—the farthest solar system object yet known, some 3.5 times more distant than Pluto. The object, if confirmed, would break his team’s own discovery, announced in December 2018, of a dwarf planet 120 times farther out than Earth, which they nicknamed “Farout.” For now, they are jokingly calling the new object “FarFarOut.” “This is hot off the presses,” he said during his rescheduled talk on 21 February.

** Juno’s Jupiter images never get old: Dramatic Jupiter | NASA

Jupiter’s northern hemisphere as seen by Jupiter in an image enhanced by citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill.

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Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Videos: TMRO.tv: Space weather, Asgardia, and space news

The latest TMRO.tv Space episode examined space weather:

This week we bring on Dr. Tamitha Skov to talk about Space Weather and it’s impact on your daily life. We also go over how she got started and her journey to becoming the Space Weather Woman.

The previous show dealt with the Asgardia space nation project:

This week we welcome on Lena De Winne, the Deputy Head of Administration of Asgardia to talk about what Asgardia is, what they hope to accomplish and how they will get there. Asgardia is the first Space Nation and you can get more information at asgardia.space.

And here are two TMRO space news videos:

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Space 2.0: How Private Spaceflight, a Resurgent NASA,
and International Partners are Creating a New Space Age

Space science roundup – Feb.9.2019

A sampling of items regarding planetary science, astronomy, and solar science:

** A solar cycle update from Bob Zimmerman:  Sunspot update January 2019: The early solar minimum | Behind The Black

January saw a slight uptick in sunspot activity, but the overall activity remains comparable to mid-2008, when the last prolonged solar minimum began. If you go to my October 2018 update, you can see the graph when it included data going back to 2000 and see the entire last minimum.

That last minimum started in the last half of 2007, and lasted until mid-2009, a full two years. If you look at the red line prediction of the solar science community, it appears that they are expecting this coming minimum to last far longer, almost forever. I expect this is not really true, but that they have simply not agreed on a prediction for the next cycle. Some in that solar science community have hypothesized that we are about to enter a grand minimum, with no sunspots for decades and thus no solar maximum. Others do not agree.

** Mark Showalter,  New Horizons Hazard team lead and SETI Institute Senior Scientist, discusses “the spacecraft’s flyby of Ultima Thule, what it’s like working on the Hazards team, and even the naming of some of Pluto’s surface features” with SETI Institute chief Bill Diamond:

*** Ultima Thule has flat lobes according to further analysis of the image data from the fly-by of the Kuiper Belt object: New Horizons’ Evocative Farewell Glance at Ultima Thule: Images Confirm the Kuiper Belt Object’s Highly Unusual, Flatter Shape – New Horizons

This animation depicts a shape model of Ultima Thule created by the New Horizons science team based on its analysis of all the pre-flyby images sent to Earth so far. The first half of the movie mimics the view from the New Horizons spacecraft as it approached Ultima Thule and has the “snowman” shape that was so frequently mentioned in the days surrounding the New Year’s 2019 flyby.

The movie then rotates to a side-view that illustrates what New Horizons might have seen had its cameras been pointing toward Ultima Thule only a few minutes after closest approach. While that wasn’t the case, mission scientists have been able to piece together a model of this side-view, which has been at least partially confirmed by a set of crescent images of Ultima Thule (link). There is still considerable uncertainty in the sizes of “Ultima” (the larger section, or lobe) and “Thule” (the smaller) in the vertical dimension, but it’s now clear that Ultima looks more like a pancake than a sphere, and that Thule is also very non-spherical.

** Mars:

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover has already descended from Vera Rubin Ridge, a region of Mount Sharp that it has been exploring for more than a year. But before it left, the rover took a 360-degree panorama of the area depicting its last drill hole on the ridge (at a location called “Rock Hall”), a new region it will spent the next year exploring (the clay unit) and its last view of Gale Crater’s floor until it starts ascending in elevation again.

At high resolution there does not appear to be much difference between the darker and lighter areas. The lighter areas in general seem less rough and at a slightly lower elevation, but both areas are dominated by ridges and dunes trending southwest-to-northeast.

Why is this slightly higher region darker? Let’s assume that this darker material was a lava flow overlaying the surface. Over eons wind erosion, trending southwest-to-northwest, roughly eroded both it and the lower layers around it, leaving behind this rough corroded terrain. The different make-up of the darker material allows it to erode in a rougher manner.

While possibly correct, I would not bet much money on this guess. It is not clear it is lava. It is not clear that it is a flow. It does not explain why there are two areas of different darkness. And it certainly not clear what the make-up of any of this stuff is.

This is simply another cool mystery on the Martian surface.

Martian southern highlands region showing contrast between lighter and darker tinted areas.

** Moon:

Chang’e-4 lander as seen from the Yutu-2 rover.

** Uranus and Neptune are more interesting than we thought, new images show | Berkeley News

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has snapped the latest weather pictures of our solar system’s frigid outer planets, and UC Berkeley astronomers have jumped in to interpret them.

Giant polar cap dominates Uranus; dark tempest is raging on Neptune.

The new images, taken as part of a yearly monitoring program, show that a dark storm has appeared in Neptune’s northern hemisphere, the fourth seen on the planet since 1993, all of which appear and fade within a few years. UC Berkeley undergraduate student Andrew Hsu, who led a study of the latest images with associate research astronomer Michael Wong, estimates that the dark spots appear every four to six years at different latitudes and disappear after about two years.

It’s unclear how the storms form, Hsu said, but like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the dark vortices swirl in an anti-cyclonic direction and seem to dredge up material from deeper levels in the ice giant’s atmosphere. The latest storm was captured by Hubble in September 2018 and is roughly 6,800 miles across.

The new snapshot of Uranus gives a fresh look at a long-lived storm circling around the north-pole region of Uranus, a planet that is usually thought of as featureless and boring.

More at Hubble Reveals Dynamic Atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune – HubbleSite

** Asteroids – The DART mission will smack an asteroid with a spacecraft to test deflection capabilities:  The DART Mission: Learning How to Swat Dangerous Asteroids | The Planetary Society

Why did the dinosaurs die? They didn’t have a space program! The upcoming DART mission will test our best thinking about how we may someday deflect a Near Earth Object that is speeding toward fiery Armageddon on Earth. Nancy Chabot of the JHU Applied Physics Lab is the mission’s Coordination Lead.

** Science news is included in the latest TMRO.tv space news report: SpaceX Engine Tests, ISRO Spaceflight, Lunar Craters and SpaceIL

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