Category Archives: Asteroids & Comets

Space sciences roundup – Sept.6.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items (find previous roundups here):

[ Update 2: Unfortunately, contact with the Vikram lander was lost shortly before the landing:

Update: Below is the live feed from the Chandrayaan-2 control center. The landing is set for some time between 4:00 and 5:00 pm EDT. The webcast will start around 3:00 EDT.

]

** India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission set for landing on the Moon. The Vikram Lander separated from the orbiter spacecraft on Monday and will touch down on the surface on Friday sometime between 4:00-5:00 pm EDT.

Vikram Lander

The landing area is near the Moon’s south pole. From Space.com:

That spot is a highland that rises between two craters dubbed Manzinus C and Simpelius N. On a grid of the moon’s surface, it would fall at 70.9 degrees south latitude and 22.7 degrees east longitude. It’s about 375 miles (600 kilometers) from the south pole.

The Pragyan rover will be deployed from the lander not long after the landing. The polar regions have craters with permanently shadowed floors and orbital studies indicated they contain water ice.  The extent of the exploration activities will be limited, however. The lander and rover will operate for just one lunar day, which spans 14 earth days. They are not expected to survive the extremely frigid 14 earth day long lunar night.

Pragyan Rover

** China’s lunar rover Yutu-2 comes upon odd substance in a small crater:  China’s Lunar Rover Has Found Something Weird on the Far Side of the Moon | Space.com

The Chang’e 4 lander/rover combo touched down on the far side of the Moon on Jan. 3, 2019 and 12 hours later the rover Yutu-2 was deployed. Since then, the rover has traveled few hundred meters. In late July, Chinese scientists examined images from the rover and noticed an “unusually colored, ‘gel-like’ substance”.

The mission’s rover, Yutu-2, stumbled on that surprise during lunar day 8. The discovery prompted scientists on the mission to postpone other driving plans for the rover, and instead focus its instruments on trying to figure out what the strange material is.

The rover was maneuvered back to the location where the images were taken and the mission team began studies of the material with the rover’s various cameras. So far they have not

… offered any indication as to the nature of the colored substance and have said only that it is “gel-like” and has an “unusual color.” One possible explanation, outside researchers suggested, is that the substance is melt glass created from meteorites striking the surface of the moon.

Crater with Gel-like substance
“Impact crater with mysterious material”. Credits: Yutu No. 2 Driving Diary 6

** Candidate spots on asteroid Bennu selected for OSIRIS-REx  to grab a sampling:  NASA Selects Final Four Site Candidates for Asteroid Sample Return | NASA

After months grappling with the rugged reality of asteroid Bennu’s surface, the team leading NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission has selected four potential sites for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft to “tag” its cosmic dance partner.

Since its arrival in December 2018, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has mapped the entire asteroid in order to identify the safest and most accessible spots for the spacecraft to collect a sample. These four sites now will be studied in further detail in order to select the final two sites – a primary and backup – in December.

The team originally had planned to choose the final two sites by this point in the mission. Initial analysis of Earth-based observations suggested the asteroid’s surface likely contains large “ponds” of fine-grain material. The spacecraft’s earliest images, however, revealed Bennu has an especially rocky terrain. Since then, the asteroid’s boulder-filled topography has created a challenge for the team to identify safe areas containing sampleable material, which must be fine enough – less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) diameter – for the spacecraft’s sampling mechanism to ingest it.

OSIRIS REx sample site candidates
Pictured are the four candidate sample collection sites on asteroid Bennu selected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. Site Nightingale (top left) is located in Bennu’s northern hemisphere. Sites Kingfisher (top right) and Osprey (bottom left) are located in Bennu’s equatorial region. Site Sandpiper (bottom right) is located in Bennu’s southern hemisphere. In December, one of these sites will be chosen for the mission’s touchdown event. Credits: NASA/University of Arizona”

** An overview of the missions – past, present, and future – to the small objects in our solar system:  Asteroids, comets and moons – ESA

We have learned a lot from visiting the Moon, and even more from visiting other planets, but what about the thousands of other small objects that share our Solar System? Space agencies have sent several spacecraft to asteroids, comets, dwarf planets and small moons, and have ambitious plans to send more in the future.

Asteroids and comets are believed to be leftover debris from the formation of the Solar System, meaning they can help trace its history. What’s more, these objects may have played a vital role in the development of our planet and terrestrial life by colliding with Earth in catastrophic impact events, bringing life-sparking organic compounds. Such collisions were more common in the early Solar System, but small objects can still impact Earth, damaging life, nature and infrastructure.

Such objects may also have brought organic matter to other planets and moons, some of which – Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example – may possess the right conditions for hosting some form of life. For all these reasons, and many more, it is important to study these objects and find out more about them.

** An update on the exoplanet search with the TESS space observatory:

A discussion between NASA researcher Jon Jenkins & SETI Institute Astronomer Franck Marchis about TESS spacecraft and its recent discoveries.

** A beautiful view of Jupiter from Hubble:  Hubble Showcases New Portrait of Jupiter | ESA/Hubble

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals the intricate, detailed beauty of Jupiter’s clouds in this new image taken on 27 June 2019[1]. It features the planet’s trademark Great Red Spot and a more intense colour palette in the clouds swirling in the planet’s turbulent atmosphere than seen in previous years.

Among the most striking features in the image are the rich colours of the clouds moving toward the Great Red Spot. This huge anticyclonic storm is roughly the diameter of Earth and is rolling counterclockwise between two bands of clouds that are moving in opposite directions toward it. 

As with previous images of Jupiter taken by Hubble, and other observations from telescopes on the ground, the new image confirms that the huge storm which has raged on Jupiter’s surface for at least 150 years continues to shrink. The reason for this is still unknown so Hubble will continue to observe Jupiter in the hope that scientists will be able to solve this stormy riddle. Much smaller storms appear on Jupiter as white or brown ovals that can last as little as a few hours or stretch on for centuries. 

Jupiter’s Colourful Palette
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals the intricate, detailed beauty of Jupiter’s clouds in this new image taken on 27 June 2019 by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, when the planet was 644 million kilometres from Earth — its closest distance this year. The image features the planet’s trademark Great Red Spot and a more intense colour palette in the clouds swirling in the planet’s turbulent atmosphere than seen in previous years. The observations of Jupiter form part of the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) programme.

** The VLT Survey Telescope (VST) captures a magnificent stellar bird: Anatomy of a Cosmic Seagull | ESO

Colourful and wispy Sharpless 2-296 forms the “wings” of an area of sky known as the Seagull Nebula — named for its resemblance to a gull in flight. This celestial bird contains a fascinating mix of intriguing astronomical objects. Glowing clouds weave amid dark dust lanes and bright stars. The Seagull Nebula — made up of dust, hydrogen, helium and traces of heavier elements — is the hot and energetic birthplace of new stars.

** Parker Solar Probe completes two orbits around the sun since launch in August of 2018: One Year, 2 Trips Around Sun for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe | NASA

In the year since launch, Parker Solar Probe has collected a host of scientific data from two close passes by the Sun.

“We’re very happy,” said Nicky Fox, director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “We’ve managed to bring down at least twice as much data as we originally suspected we’d get from those first two perihelion passes.”

The spacecraft carries four suites of scientific instruments to gather data on the particles, solar wind plasma, electric and magnetic fields, solar radio emission, and structures in the Sun’s hot outer atmosphere, the corona. This information will help scientists unravel the physics driving the extreme temperatures in the corona — which is counter intuitively hotter than the solar surface below — and the mechanisms that drive particles and plasma out into the solar system.

Follow the solar mission via:

** Mars

*** Mars Curiosity Rover continues on a trail of discoveries after 7 years on Mars:  New Finds for Mars Rover, Seven Years After Landing | NASA

NASA’s Curiosity rover has come a long way since touching down on Mars seven years ago. It has traveled a total of 13 miles (21 kilometers) and ascended 1,207 feet (368 meters) to its current location. Along the way, Curiosity discovered Mars had the conditions to support microbial life in the ancient past, among other things.

And the rover is far from done, having just drilled its 22nd sample from the Martian surface. It has a few more years before its nuclear power system degrades enough to significantly limit operations. After that, careful budgeting of its power will allow the rover to keep studying the Red Planet.

Curiosity is now halfway through a region scientists call the “clay-bearing unit” on the side of Mount Sharp, inside of Gale Crater. Billions of years ago, there were streams and lakes within the crater. Water altered the sediment deposited within the lakes, leaving behind lots of clay minerals in the region. That clay signal was first detected from space by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) a few years before Curiosity launched.

Check out this 360 degree view of Mars:

Curiosity captured this 360-degree panorama of a location on Mars called “Teal Ridge” on June 18, 2019. This location is part of a larger region the rover has been exploring called the “clay-bearing unit” on the side of Mount Sharp, which is inside Gale Crater. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth. Scientists are looking for signs that Mars could have supported microbial life billions of years ago, when rivers and lakes could be found in the crater.

*** Where Curiosity has been and where its going: Mid-2019 Map of NASA’s Curiosity Rover Mission – NASA JPL

This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in August 2019, and its planned path to additional geological layers of lower “Mount Sharp.” The blue star near top center marks “Bradbury Landing,” the site where Curiosity arrived on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT and Universal Time). Curiosity landed on Aeolis Palus, the plains surrounding Aeolis Mons (Mount Sharp) in Gale Crater.

Mid-2019 Map of NASA's Curiosity Rover MissionMore about the planned route for the rover from Bob Zimmerman: Curiosity’s future travels | Behind The Black.

*** And more reports from Bob on images of interesting features on Mars as seen by the orbiters:

*** Bob was also the first to see the locations that SpaceX is examining for potential landings of Starships in the coming decade:

*** The Mars 2020 mission will deploy a drone for the first time. The Mars Helicopter was recently installed onto the rover:

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have attached a flying helicopter drone to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover set for launch next July.

The solar-powered Mars Helicopter stands about 2.6 feet (80 centimeters) tall when fully deployed, and will become the first aircraft to fly on another planet. The robot drone will ride to the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which has been assembled at JPL to begin testing in the coming weeks.

The Mars 2020 mission is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral on July 17, 2020, the first day of a nearly three-week window for the rover to depart Earth and head for Mars. The rover will blast off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

The rover will land at Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Fire in the Sky:
Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and
the Race to Defend Earth

Space sciences roundup – Aug.1.2019

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

** Comets & Asteroids

*** the Comet is a terrific short film created by Christian Stangl who used a good fraction of the thousands of images taken by ESA’s Rosetta mission of the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67p). The music for the soundtrack was composed by Wolfgang Stangl.

*** A sizable  asteroid, previously unknown, flew quite close to earth on July 25th:

From WP:

This asteroid wasn’t one that scientists had long been tracking, and it had seemingly appeared from “out of nowhere,” Michael Brown, a Melbourne-based observational astronomer, told The Washington Post. According to data from NASA, the craggy rock was large, an estimated 57 to 130 meters wide (187 to 427 feet), and moving fast along a path that brought it within about 73,000 kilometers (45,000 miles) of Earth. That’s less than one-fifth of the distance to the moon and what Duffy considers “uncomfortably close.”

Not a country destroyer but it could damage a city if it reached close to the ground:

In 2013, a significantly smaller meteor — about 20 meters (65 feet) across, or the size of a six-story building — broke up over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk and unleashed an intense shock wave that collapsed roofs, shattered windows and left about 1,200 people injured. The last space rock to strike Earth similar in size to Asteroid 2019 OK was more than a century ago, Brown said. That asteroid, known as the Tunguska event, caused an explosion that leveled 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) of forest land in Siberia.

*** A flash spotted by weather-sat correlated with a small asteroid detected earlier by a NEO tracking network – NASA Tracked Small Asteroid Before It Broke Up in Atmosphere – NASA JPL

When a lightning detector on a NOAA weather satellite detected something that wasn’t lightning last Saturday, a scientist at the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, did some detective work.

Could a tiny, harmless object that broke up in the atmosphere in a bright flash be connected to a just-received automated alert of a potential near-Earth asteroid discovery? Although far below the size that NASA is tasked to detect and track, the event presented an ideal opportunity for NASA planetary defense teams to test their parts of the alert system.

The outcome? The flow of alert data works, and the culprit was identified: It was an asteroid. Now designated 2019 MO, the asteroid was only about 16 feet (5 meters) in size and was detected at 9:45 UTC (2:45 a.m. PDT, 5:45 a.m. EDT) on Saturday, June 22, by the University of Hawaii’s ATLAS survey telescope on Maunaloa in Hawaii.

** Exoplanets

*** TESS exoplanet observatory off to a good start in its first year in space: TESS Completes 1st Year of Exoplanet Survey, Turns to Northern Sky | NASA

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered 21 planets outside our solar system and captured data on other interesting events occurring in the southern sky during its first year of science. TESS has now turned its attention to the Northern Hemisphere to complete the most comprehensive planet-hunting expedition ever undertaken.

TESS began hunting for exoplanets (or worlds orbiting distant stars) in the southern sky in July of 2018, while also collecting data on supernovae, black holes and other phenomena in its line of sight. Along with the planets TESS has discovered, the mission has identified over 850 candidate exoplanets that are waiting for confirmation by ground-based telescopes.

*** TESS spots 3 exoplanets on the small end of the mass spectrum. One is a rocky world a bit bigger than the earth while the other two are about twice as big as earth and classified as gaseous “Mini-Neptunes”. All are in orbits very close to their star: NASA’s TESS Mission Scores ‘Hat Trick’ With 3 New Worlds | NASA

NASA’s newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), has discovered three new worlds — one slightly larger than Earth and two of a type not found in our solar system — orbiting a nearby star. The planets straddle an observed gap in the sizes of known planets and promise to be among the most curious targets for future studies.

TESS Object of Interest (TOI) 270 is a faint, cool star more commonly identified by its catalog name: UCAC4 191-004642. The M-type dwarf star is about 40% smaller than the Sun in both size and mass, and it has a surface temperature about one-third cooler than the Sun’s. The planetary system lies about 73 light-years away in the southern constellation of Pictor.

 TOI 270 system
This infographic illustrates key features of the TOI 270 system, located about 73 light-years away in the southern constellation Pictor. The three known planets were discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite through periodic dips in starlight caused by each orbiting world. Insets show information about the planets, including their relative sizes, and how they compare to Earth. Temperatures given for TOI 270’s planets are equilibrium temperatures, calculated without the warming effects of any possible atmospheres. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott Wiessinger”. Find more TESS TOI 270 graphics here.

*** TESS found 3 planets in another system and one of the planets is in the star system’s habitable zone : NASA’s TESS Helps Find Intriguing New World | NASA

Tour the GJ 357 system, located 31 light-years away in the constellation Hydra. Astronomers confirming a planet candidate identified by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite subsequently found two additional worlds orbiting the star. The outermost planet, GJ 357 d, is especially intriguing to scientists because it receives as much energy from its star as Mars does from the Sun.

“GJ 357 d is located within the outer edge of its star’s habitable zone, where it receives about the same amount of stellar energy from its star as Mars does from the Sun,” said co-author Diana Kossakowski at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “If the planet has a dense atmosphere, which will take future studies to determine, it could trap enough heat to warm the planet and allow liquid water on its surface.”

Without an atmosphere, it has an equilibrium temperature of -64 F (-53 C), which would make the planet seem more glacial than habitable. The planet weighs at least 6.1 times Earth’s mass, and orbits the star every 55.7 days at a range about 20% of Earth’s distance from the Sun. The planet’s size and composition are unknown, but a rocky world with this mass would range from about one to two times Earth’s size.

** The Moon

*** Lunar science since Apollo 11 : Astronomer Andrew Fraknoi: 50 Years Since Our First Step held on July 17, 2019 _ Commonwealth Club

July 20, 2019 is the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first steps on the surface of the moon. In that time, the Apollo missions, a fleet of robotic probes and observations from Earth have taught us a lot about Earth’s surprising satellite. In this nontechnical talk, Andrew Fraknoi, who is sometimes called the Bay Area’s public astronomer, will look at the past, present and future of the moon, including its violent origins, the mystery of the frozen water we have found at its poles and its long-term future as it moves farther and farther away from us. Illustrated with beautiful images taken from orbit and on the surface, his talk will make the moon come alive as an eerie world next door, as a changing object in our skies, and as a possible future destination for humanity and its ambitions. Come find out how the achievements of the Apollo program fit into the bigger picture of our involvement with our only natural satellite.

See also: Andrew Fraknoi: Exploring the Universe: My Talk to the Commonwealth Club on the Moon

*** Permanently dark floors of lunar polar craters are quite dynamic according to latest findings: In Dark, Polar Moon Craters, Water Not Invincible, Scientists Argue | NASA

Unlike Earth, with its plush atmosphere, the Moon has no atmosphere to protect its surface. So when the Sun sprays charged particles known as the solar wind into the solar system, some of them bombard the Moon’s surface and kick up water molecules that bounce around to new locations.

Likewise, wayward meteoroids constantly smash into the surface and uproot soil mingled with frozen bits of water. Meteoroids can hurtle these soil particles — which are many times smaller than the width of a human hair — as far as 19 miles (30 kilometers) away from the impact site, depending on the size of the meteoroid. The particles can travel so far because the Moon has low gravity and no air to slow things down: “So every time you have one of these impacts, a very thin layer of ice grains is spread across the surface, exposed to the heat of the Sun and to the space environment, and eventually sublimated or lost to other environmental processes,” said Dana Hurley, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

While it’s important to consider that even in the shadowed craters water is slowly seeping out, it’s possible that water is being added, too, the paper authors note. Icy comets that crash into the Moon, plus the solar wind, could be replenishing it as part of a global water cycle; that’s something scientists are trying to figure out. Additionally, it’s not clear how much water there is. Is it sitting only in the top layer of the Moon’s surface or does it extend deep into the Moon’s crust, scientists wonder?

Either way, the topmost layer of polar crater floors is getting reworked over thousands of years, according to calculations by Farrell, Hurley, and their team. Therefore, the faint patches of frost that scientists have detected at the poles using instruments such as LRO’s Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) instrument could be just 2,000 years old, instead of millions or billions of years old as some might expect, Farrell’s team estimated. “We can’t think of these craters as icy dead spots,” he noted.

*** Big boulders leave trails on side of Antoniadi crater on the Moon’s far side:

The most prominent trail shows the boulder coming to a halt near a small crater:

Had it rolled just 75 meters more, the boulder might have plopped neatly into a 30-meter-diameter young impact crater on the floor of the partially erased crater. As Apollo 14 golfer Alan Shepard might have expressed it: the boulder narrowly missed scoring a hole-in-one.

Boulder trail in Antoniadi crater
This LRO image shows the trail of a boulder “bigger than a bus” on the side of the Antoniadi crater on the Moon’s far side. Credits: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

Bob Zimmerman notices also

… two more less obvious boulder tracks. If you click on the full resolution image and zoom in you can also see another series of impressions in the middle of the photograph that look like a dotted line, suggesting they were left by a boulder bouncing down the slope.

The scattered of boulders in the floor of the small crater all likely came from the top of the big crater’s rim, …

** Mars:

*** Testing Mars 2020 rover’s robotic arm: NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Does Biceps Curls – NASA JPL

Time lapse video of robotic arm on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover handily maneuvers 88-pounds (40 kilograms) worth of sensor-laden turret as it moves from a deployed to stowed configuration. For more information about the turret and the Mars 2020 mission, visit https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020

The rover is also getting charged up with its nuclear fuel: Fueling of NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Power System Begins – NASA JPL

*** An update on Curiosity‘s travels and explorations: Curiosity Mars Rover Cracks 13 Miles, New Drill Site in Sight – Leonard David

[NASA JPL planetary geologist Vivian Sun] adds that there were no bedrock exposures available for contact science activities in Curiosity’s immediate workspace, so attention has now shifted to identify a drill site area, with the rover driving to that spot.

Check out this cool map showing Curiosity’s route since it landed on August 5, 2012:

Curiosity has now driven 13.10 miles (21.08 kilometers) since landing on Mars in August 2012.

A newly released Curiosity traverse map through Sol 2480 shows the route driven by the robot through the 2480 Martian day, or sol.

MSL Traverse Map as of Sol 2480
Map of Curiosity’s movements as of Sol 2480. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona. Click for larger image.

See also Curiosity Mission Updates – NASA Mars.

*** Strong evidence of water glaciers beneath the surface in many areas of Mars: The glaciers of Mars | Behind The Black

For the future colonists of Mars, the question of finding water will not be that much of a problem. Not only have planetary geologists mapped out the existence of extensive water-ice in the Martian poles, they have found that the planet apparently has widespread glacier deposits in two mid-latitude belts from 30 to 60 degrees latitude.

The question will be whether those Martian settlers will be able to easily access this water. The data so far suggests that much of the Martian underground water at high latitudes is likely mixed with dust and debris. Extracting it might not be straightforward. There are hints that the ice table at latitudes about 55 degrees might be more pure, but could be somewhat deep below ground, requiring the settlers to become miners to obtain their water. Moreover, all these high latitude locations are in environments that are more hostile, and therefore more difficult to establish a colony.

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Fire in the Sky:
Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids,
and the Race to Defend Earth

Space sciences roundup – July.17.2019

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

Asteroids

** JAXA Hayabusa2 made a successful 2nd sample grab from asteroid Ryugu on July 11th. The :

From SFN:

The robot explorer’s sampling mechanism works by firing a metal bullet into the asteroid once the probe’s sampler horn, which extends from one side of the spacecraft, contacts the surface. The projectile is designed to blast away rock and dust on the asteroid’s surface, then direct the material through the sampler horn into a collection chamber inside the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft.

This image shows debris thrown up from the surface of Ryugu by the bullet.

Hayabusa2 2nd Touchdown
Image of surface immediately after touchdown. Taken with the Optical Navigation Camera – Wide angle (ONC-W1). Credits: Hayabusa-2 project.

A diagram of the touch-and-go surface sampling operation:

Outline of the 2nd touchdown operation.
Outline of the 2nd touchdown operation.

More about the The 2nd touchdown – JAXA Hayabusa2 project

** Help OSIRIS-REx mission map the rugged surface of the Bennu asteroid  NASA Invites Public to Help Asteroid Mission Choose Sample Site | NASA

Citizen scientists assemble! NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu needs extra pairs of eyes to help choose its sample collection site on the asteroid – and to look for anything else that might be scientifically interesting.

Bennu surface
“This image shows a view of asteroid Bennu’s surface in a region near the equator. It was taken by the PolyCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on March 21 from a distance of 2.2 miles (3.5 km). The field of view is 158.5 ft (48.3 m). For scale, the light-colored rock in the upper left corner of the image is 24 ft (7.4 m) wide. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona”

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has been at Bennu since Dec. 3, 2018, mapping the asteroid in detail, while the mission team searches for a sample collection site that is safe, conducive to sample collection and worthy of closer study. One of the biggest challenges of this effort, which the team discovered after arriving at the asteroid five months ago, is that Bennu has an extremely rocky surface and each boulder presents a danger to the spacecraft’s safety. To expedite the sample selection process, the team is asking citizen scientist volunteers to develop a hazard map by counting boulders.

“For the safety of the spacecraft, the mission team needs a comprehensive catalog of all the boulders near the potential sample collection sites, and I invite members of the public to assist the OSIRIS-REx mission team in accomplishing this essential task,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

For this effort, NASA is partnering with CosmoQuest, a project run out of the Planetary Science Institute that supports citizen science initiatives. Volunteers will perform the same tasks that planetary scientists do – measuring Bennu’s boulders and mapping its rocks and craters – through the use of a simple web interface. They will also mark other scientifically interesting features on the asteroid for further investigation.

The boulder mapping work involves a high degree of precision, but it is not difficult. The CosmoQuest mapping app requires a computer with a larger screen and a mouse or trackpad capable of making precise marks. To help volunteers get started, the CosmoQuest team provides an interactive tutorial, as well as additional user assistance through a Discord community and livestreaming sessions on Twitch.

For more info see:

Microgravity Science & Technology R&D

** SpaceX Cargo Dragon to deliver wide range of science and technology experiments to the ISS. Liftoff of mission CRS-18 is currently set for July 21st at 7:35 pm EDT (2335 GMT)

Highlights of Science Launching on SpaceX CRS 18 – July 8, 2019 –

Solar Science

** Sunspot count near zero in June. Faint spots subsequently show signs of start of next cycle: Sunspot update June 2019: Down to zero again, with next cycle making an appearance | Behind The Black

These two visible sunspots for the next solar cycle are very significant. They indicate that we will have an upcoming solar maximum, and are not heading into a grand minimum, when no sunspots are visible for decades.

Their appearance however does not mean that solar minimum is over. On the contrary, the solar cycles typically overlap by one or two years, with new sunspots for the next solar cycle appearing even as the Sun ramps down to minimum and remains relatively inactive for many months.

I cannot deny that I will be disappointed if a grand minimum does not occur. Such an event would have been a wonderful opportunity for solar scientists to get answers to their many questions about the Sun’s solar cycles that today remain unanswered and will likely not be answerable while the Sun follows its behavior of the last three hundred years.

At the same time, if the upcoming solar cycle is weak, as has been predicted by some solar scientists, it will help confirm some theories that try to explain the Sun’s behavior.

ISES Solar Cycle Sunspot Number Progression - NOAA

Check SpaceWeather.com for the daily sunspot count. More solar images and measurements can be found on the Space-for-All page The Sun & Space Weather.

Continue reading Space sciences roundup – July.17.2019

June 30th is Asteroid Day – Events start today

Asteroid Day is

… a dynamic awareness and educational program to inspire  the world about asteroids – their role in the formation of our universe, how we can use their resources, how asteroids can pave the way for future exploration and finally how we can protect our planet from asteroid impacts. Asteroid Day events are held on 30 June each year to mark the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska impact. Asteroid Day events are largely independently organized around the world for people of all ages and are mostly free-of-charge. Asteroid Day is a program run by the Asteroid Foundation, a Luxembourg nonprofit organization.

Asteroid Day 2019

June 30th is Asteroid Day, but many events are being held globally today through Sunday: Asteroid Day To Celebrate Fifth Anniversary with Thousands of Events Planned Worldwide to Raise Awareness about Asteroids, 27-30 June 2019.

The Asteroid Today channel is now live streaming: ADLIVE from Luxembourg


Watch live video from AsteroidDay on www.twitch.tv

Here is a schedule for Asteroid Day events and panels:

Follow developments and updates at Asteroid Day ☄ (@AsteroidDay) | Twitter.

A new film about asteroid research with next-gen telescopes is making its debut during Asteroid Day:

New Era of Cosmic Discovery” is a short film scheduled to be broadcasted as a part of the Asteroid Day 2019 live program from Luxembourg, from June 26th till July 2nd, 2019. Program schedule: asteroidday.org/broadcast-schedule/ Free streaming available via asteroidday.org/

We are on the brink of an era of cosmic discovery. A new generation of telescopes and astronomical surveys are yielding a 1000-fold increase in the amount of available astronomical data. At the University of Washington and the DiRAC Institute, a team of scientists are writing the software to identify and track objects in the sky that change with time. They are working with LSST [Large Synoptic Survey Telescope] to build the largest census of our Solar System ever undertaken.

Asteroid Day was

… co-founded in 2014, by Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist and lead guitarist of QUEEN, together with Danica Remy, President of B612 Foundation, Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 Astronaut, and filmmaker Grig Richters. In 2016, the United Nations officially designated Asteroid Day as the international day of awareness and education about asteroids. Together with the United Nations, space agencies, schools and universities Asteroid Day is organized by networks of supporters who host events worldwide on 30, June and any other day of the year that the independent groups determine.

To initially launch the Asteroid Day education programs in 2014, members of the asteroid community drafted and released a petition to gather public support for asteroid education and called on governments to accelerate the funding of asteroid discovery programs. Today, this petition, the 100X Asteroid Declaration, has been signed by hundreds of prominent individuals around the world, including leaders in science, technology, and business, and more than 125 astronauts.

Thanks to its partners and supporters, and particularly to the Government of Luxembourg, where the Foundation is headquartered, Asteroid Day has made significant strides educating the world about asteroids.  Through our work we share information and teach about the science, opportunities, and risks of asteroids. Since the first events in 2015, the movement has grown exponentially. Through Asteroid Day, we continue to inspire people and young minds to look up into the sky and to be excited about our Solar System.

Here is a video about the history of Asteroid Day narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Asteroid Day 2019 Poster
Official Asteroid Day 2019 poster art.

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Delta-v

Space sciences roundup – June.26.2019

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

Asteroids:

** NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe gets up close to asteroid Bennu : OSIRIS-REx Breaks Another Orbit Record | NASA

On June 12, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft performed another significant navigation maneuver—breaking its own world record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft.

The maneuver began the mission’s new phase, known as Orbital B, and placed the spacecraft in an orbit 680 meters (2,231 feet) above the surface of asteroid Bennu. The previous record—also set by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft—was approximately 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) above the surface.

Upon arrival at Bennu, the team observed particles ejecting into space from the asteroid’s surface. To better understand why this is occurring, the first two weeks of Orbital B will be devoted to observing these events by taking frequent images of the asteroid’s horizon. For the remaining five weeks, the spacecraft will map the entire asteroid using most of its onboard science instruments: the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) will produce a full terrain map; PolyCam will form a high-resolution, global image mosaic; and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) and the REgolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) will produce global maps in the infrared and X-ray bands. All of these measurements are essential for selecting the best sample collection site on Bennu’s surface.

Data from these surface studies will be used to find the optimum spot to set down and take a sample to take back to Earth.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is on a seven-year journey to study the asteroid Bennu and return a sample from its surface to Earth. This sample of a primitive asteroid will help scientists understand the formation of the Solar System over 4.5 billion years ago. Sample collection is scheduled for summer of 2020, and the spacecraft will deliver the sample to Earth in September 2023.

An artist's view of OSIRIS-REx investigating asteroid Bennu
“On Jun. 12, 2019, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft went into orbit around asteroid Bennu for a second time — breaking its own record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by any spacecraft.” Artwork credits: University of Arizona

** Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe may touch down on asteroid Ryugu again: Approach to the 2nd touchdown – Part 1: observations near the touchdown point – JAXA Hayabusa2 project

Our first touchdown took place this year on February 22. Then as a new challenge for the Hayabusa2 Project, we succeeded in creating an artificial crater using the Small Carry-on Impactor (SCI) on April 5. The last big operation left at asteroid Ryugu is the collection of subsurface material exposed with the creation of the artificial crater. In order to collect this material, we need a second touchdown for which the project has been steadily preparing. At this point, it has not yet been decided whether or not to go ahead with a second touchdown, but here we will introduce our preparations in the “Approach to the second touchdown”.

After the operation to form the artificial crater, the spacecraft descended a total of four times above or near the crater site. These descent operations allowed us to obtain detailed data of the region near the artificial crater. In addition, we succeeded in dropping a target marker in the area close to the artificial crater on May 30. Combined, these operations mean that the situation around the artificial crater is now well understood.

The rocky surface, however, makes it difficult to find a safe spot to set down.

As you can see in [the figure below], asteroid Ryugu is covered with boulders. If we go for a second touchdown, we need to aim for a point close to the target marker which has no obstacles. The project is currently examining this area in detail.

Image of Ryugu surface
“Image taken on June 13, 2019 during the operation PPTD-TM1B. This is a composite of 28 images taken at 7 second intervals starting from 10:58 JST (upper left) to 11:01 (lower right) using the Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic (ONC-T). The image altitude is about 52m at the start and 108m at the end. The white point in the upper-left center is the target marker. You can see that detailed images have been acquired continuously from the target marker to the edge of the artificial crater, located in the lower-right of the image. (Image credit ※: JAXA, Chiba Institute of Technology, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST.) “

The Sun:

** Lunar regolith reveals secrets of the early sun: Moon Samples Help Scientists Study Ancient Sun | NASA

Saxena incorporated the mathematical relationship between a star’s rotation rate and its flare activity. This insight was derived by scientists who studied the activity of thousands of stars discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope: The faster a star spins, they found, the more violent its ejections. “As you learn about other stars and planets, especially stars like our Sun, you start to get a bigger picture of how the Sun evolved over time,” Saxena said.  

Using sophisticated computer models, Saxena, Killen and colleagues think they may have finally solved both mysteries. Their computer simulations, which they described on May 3 in the The Astrophysical Journal Letters, show that the early Sun rotated slower than 50% of baby stars. According to their estimates, within its first billion years, the Sun took at least 9 to 10 days to complete one rotation.  

They determined this by simulating the evolution of our solar system under a slow, medium, and then a fast-rotating star. And they found that just one version — the slow-rotating star — was able to blast the right amount of charged particles into the Moon’s surface to knock enough sodium and potassium into space over time to leave the amounts we see in Moon rocks today.   

“Space weather was probably one of the major influences for how all the planets of the solar system evolved,” Saxena said, “so any study of habitability of planets needs to consider it.” 

Jupiter:

**  More wonderful views of Jupiter created by citizen scientists from Juno’s raw imagery: Tumultuous Clouds of Jupiter | Mission Juno/Kevin M. Gill

This stunning compilation image of Jupiter’s stormy northern hemisphere was captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it performed a close pass of the gas giant planet. Some bright-white clouds can be seen popping up to high altitudes on the right side of Jupiter’s disk. (The Juno team frequently refers to clouds like these as “pop-up” clouds in image captions.)

Juno took the four images used to produce this color-enhanced view on May 29, 2019, between 12:52 a.m. PDT (3:52 a.m. EDT) and 1:03 a.m. PDT (4:03 a.m. EDT), as the spacecraft performed its 20th science pass of Jupiter. At the time the images were taken, the spacecraft was between 11,600 miles (18,600 kilometers) and 5,400 miles (8,600 kilometers) above Jupiter’s cloud tops, above a northern latitude spanning from about 59 to 34 degrees.

Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill created this image using data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam imager.

Tumultuous Clouds of Jupiter
“Tumultuous Clouds of Jupiter” – Credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS with image processing by Kevin M. Gill.

Gill also made this overflight of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot:

And Gerald Eichstädt made this terrific time-lapsed tour of Jupiter: Juno’s Perijove-20 Jupiter Flyby, Reconstructed in 125-Fold Time-Lapse – Credit: NASA / JPL / SwRI / MSSS / SPICE / Gerald Eichstädt ©

On May 29, 2019, NASA’s Juno probe successfully performed her Perijove-20 Jupiter flyby. The movie is a reconstruction of the 2 hours and 30 minutes between 2019-05-29T07:20:00.000 and 2019-05-29T09:50:00.000 in 125-fold time-lapse. It is based on 32 of the JunoCam images taken, and on spacecraft trajectory data provided via SPICE kernel files.

In steps of five real-time seconds, one still images of the movie has been rendered from at least one suitable raw image. This resulted in short scenes, usually of a few seconds. Playing with 25 images per second results in 125-fold time-lapse. Resulting overlapping scenes have been blended using the ffmpeg tool. In natural colors, Jupiter looks pretty pale. Therefore, the still images are approximately illumination-adusted, i.e. almost flattened, and consecutively gamma-stretched to the 4th power of radiometric values, in order to enhance contrast and color.

Mars:

** Curiosity detects a curious burst in methane levels: Curiosity Detects Unusually High Methane Levels – NASA JPL

On June 23rd, the Curiosity team reported that during the previous week the

… Mars rover found a surprising result: the largest amount of methane ever measured during the mission – about 21 parts per billion units by volume (ppbv). One ppbv means that if you take a volume of air on Mars, one billionth of the volume of air is methane.

The finding came from the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) tunable laser spectrometer. It’s exciting because microbial life is an important source of methane on Earth, but methane can also be created through interactions between rocks and water.

Curiosity doesn’t have instruments that can definitively say what the source of the methane is, or even if it’s coming from a local source within Gale Crater or elsewhere on the planet.

On June 24th, the team reported results from a

… follow-on methane experiment this past weekend. The results came down early Monday morning: The methane levels have sharply decreased, with less than 1 part per billion by volume detected. That’s a value close to the background levels Curiosity sees all the time.

The finding suggests last week’s methane detection – the largest amount of the gas Curiosity has ever found – was one of the transient methane plumes that have been observed in the past. While scientists have observed the background levels rise and fall seasonally, they haven’t found a pattern in the occurrence of these transient plumes.

“The methane mystery continues,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We’re more motivated than ever to keep measuring and put our brains together to figure out how methane behaves in the Martian atmosphere.”

** Curiosity’s travels via Leonard David:

  • Curiosity Mars Rover: Eying Teal Ridge Outcrop – June.25.2019

    “Curiosity is still perched on top of Teal Ridge to investigate a fascinating outcrop that caps the ridge,” reports Kristen Bennett, a planetary geologist at the USGS in Flagstaff, Arizona.Scientists have been characterizing the ridge-capping material, but also devoting time to use the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite to look for methane.

MAHLI-Sol-2444-June-22-2019
“Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) image produced on Sol 2444, June 22, 2019. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.” Larger image
  • Curiosity Mars Rover: Ridge Work – June.20.2019

    NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now carrying out Sol 2442 duties, parked on Teal Ridge, in the midst of an extended contact science campaign.At this ridge location, new imagery from the robot shows crossbedding in a bedrock layer, as well as a contact between the bedrock outcrop and a rubbly layer below.

Curiosity Navcam - Sol-2442-June-20-2019
A view from Teal Ridge taken by Curiosity’s Navcam – Sol-2442-June-20-2019
“Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 2439, June 17, 2019. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.” Larger image.

** Bob Zimmerman reports on interesting Mars images taken from orbit:

  • Strange Martian gullies – June.21.2019 – Bob finds the gullies in the image “Older Gullies and Channels” below fascinating –

    … because they appear to be some form of erosion drainage coming down both sides of a high ridge near the northern rim of this large apparently unnamed crater in the southern cratered highlands of Mars, to the west of Hellas Basin.On Earth my immediate explanation for this erosion would be a major monsoon-like storm, such as we get here in the southwest and call “gully-washers.” When a lot of water is quickly dumped onto a hill where there is not of vegetation to help bind the soil together, the water will quickly carve out gullies that looks almost exactly like these.

Older Gullies and Channels in Slopes of Softened Large Crater
Older Gullies and Channels in Slopes of Softened Large Crater – HiRISE

On Mars, who knows? It certainly wasn’t a monsoon thunderstorm that did this. And being in the Martian southern highlands it is unlikely it was from an ocean of any kind. Were there lakes here? Past research has found places where lakes might have existed on Mars, but these places are far north in the transitional zone into the northern lowlands.

  • Mass wasting on Mars – June.19.2019Mass wasting is a term that geologists use to describe a specific kind of avalanche, where the material moves down slope suddenly in a single mass.The image [below], taken from the image archive of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and cropped and reduced in resolution to post here, shows a dramatic example of this kind of avalanche. You can see two separate avalanches, each of which moved a significant blob of material down slope into the center of the crater floor.

  • Wind and/or water erosion on the Martian northern lowlands – June.17.2019The picture [below], cropped and reduced in resolution to show here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on April 21, 2019, and shows the erosion process produced by either wind or water as it flowed from the east to the west past one small mesa.It is almost certain that the erosion here was caused by wind, but as we don’t know when this happened, it could also be very old, and have occurred when this terrain was at the bottom of the theorized intermittent ocean that some believe once existed on these northern lowlands. The location itself, near the resurgences for Marineris Valles and the other drainages coming down from the giant volcanoes, might add weight to a water cause, except that the erosional flow went from east to west, and the resurgences were coming from the opposite direction, the west and the south.
Topographic Interactions in Vastitas Borealis
Topographic Interactions in Vastitas Borealis. HiRISE at U. of Arizona.

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I Was a Teenage Space Reporter:
From Apollo 11 to Our Future in Space