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

** ESA-led Heracles mission will return samples of the lunar surface to Earth: Landing on the Moon and returning home: Heracles – ESA

The Heracles lander will target a previously unexplored region near the lunar South Pole as an interesting area for researchers. A lander with a rover inside and ascent module on top will land there. Monitored and controlled from the lunar Gateway, the rover will scout the terrain in preparation for the future arrival of astronauts, and collect samples. The ascent module will take off from the surface and fly to the Gateway with the samples taken by the rover.

When the ascent module carrying the sample container arrives, the Gateway’s robotic arm will capture it and extract the sample container. The sample container will be received by the astronauts via a science airlock and pack it in NASA’s Orion spacecraft that is powered by the European Service Module. Orion will fly to Earth with astronauts and land with the Heracles lunar samples for analysis in the best laboratories on Earth.

** Massive metal deposit may underlie the Moon’s South Pole–Aitken basin: Mass Anomaly Detected Under the Moon’s Largest Crater – Baylor University

A mysterious large mass of material has been discovered beneath the largest crater in our solar system — the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken basin — and may contain metal from an asteroid that crashed into the Moon and formed the crater, according to a Baylor University study.

“Imagine taking a pile of metal five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii and burying it underground. That’s roughly how much unexpected mass we detected,” said lead author Peter B. James, Ph.D., assistant professor of planetary geophysics in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

The crater itself is oval-shaped, as wide as 2,000 kilometers — roughly the distance between Waco, Texas, and Washington, D.C. — and several miles deep. Despite its size, it cannot be seen from Earth because it is on the far side of the Moon.

Dennis Wingo has long claimed that asteroid impacts on the Moon have enriched it with vast quantities of valuable metals.

Many other space scientists have claimed that the materials of such bodies were vaporized on impact and thinly spread over the Moon and thus not accessible by standard mining techniques.

** The Psyche mission will study a metallic asteroid up close :  NASA’s Psyche Mission Has a Metal World in Its Sights – NASA

Designed to explore a metal asteroid that could be the heart of a planet, the Psyche mission is readying for a 2022 launch. After extensive review, NASA Headquarters in Washington has approved the mission to begin the final design and fabrication phase, otherwise known as Phase C. This is when the Psyche team finalizes the system design, develops detailed plans and procedures for the spacecraft and science mission, and completes both assembly and testing of the spacecraft and its subsystems.

“The Psyche team is not only elated that we have the go-ahead for Phase C, more importantly we are ready,” said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe. “With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us.”

The mission still has three more phases to clear. Phase D, which will begin sometime in early 2021, includes final spacecraft assembly and testing, along with the August 2022 launch. Phase E, which begins soon after Psyche hits the vacuum of space, covers the mission’s deep-space operations and science collection. Finally, Phase F occurs after the mission has completed its science operations; it includes both decommissioning the spacecraft and archiving engineering and science data.

The Psyche spacecraft will arrive at Asteroid Psyche on Jan. 31, 2026, after flying by Mars in 2023.

The mission will also test laser communications with deep space probes:

Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC)

Diagram of tests of the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) package on the Psyche spacecraft.

** A review of the Hayabusa2 mission to the Ryugu asteroid, since its arrival in June of 2018: Treasure Hunting With Hayabusa2 – The Planetary Society

So far, multiple devices have been placed on the surface and an explosive was set off as well. A prime goal of the mission is to return a surface sample to Earth. One sampling was made in February.

Hayabusa2 Touchdown

Sampling Ryugu: “The moment that Hayabusa2 contacted asteroid Ryugu, it fired a bullet through its sampler horn (center) to knock material loose from the surface and then immediately fired its thrusters to ascend. This photo sequence, taken from an altitude of up to about 15 meters, demonstrated the success of the bullet; dark-colored fragments tumble in Hayabusa2’s shadow in the space beneath the craft.” Credits: JAXA and the Planetary Society

As this article goes to press, we are deciding whether to collect a second sample from a region close to the crater or from a second site on the asteroid. This second sample will likely be our last since by July, Ryugu will be nearing the perihelion of its orbit, and its surface will become too warm for touchdown operations.

Hayabusa2 will then continue to examine Ryugu remotely until the end of the year and return to Earth with the samples at the end of 2020. It is going to be a busy few years!

This week the spacecraft made a “Low descent observation operation“, that is, it came in close and successfully dropped a target marker on the surface of the asteroid.

Preparations for the descent began on June 11 and the descent will begin on June 12 at 11:40 JST (on-board time) with the spacecraft descending at a speed of 0.4m/s. The speed will be reduced to 0.1 m/s at 22:00 JST on the same day. The spacecraft will read an altitude of about 35m on June 13 at 10:34 JST and then begin to ascend from 10:57 JST. The schedule of the operation is shown in Figure 1. Please be aware that the actual operation time may differ as the times shown are the planned values.

Low altitude sequence

Low altitude sequence for PPTD-TM1B. Credit: JAXA.

A view of Ryugu as the spacecraft closed in on it:

Ryugu - June.13.2019

A view of Ryugu on June 13th from Hayabusa2 as it approached the surface.

To make a model of Hayabusa2, check out the JAXA paper models page.

** An update on operational science spacecraft spread throughout the solar system: Where We Are: An At-A-Glance Spacecraft Locator | The Planetary Society

Where We Are 2019-July-1

A diagram illustrating status of space science missions. Credits: Loren Roberts for The Planetary Society after a concept by Olaf Frohn

** Privately funded instrument on ESO’s VLT to search for near-by earth-like exoplanets: Breakthrough Watch and the European Southern Observatory achieve “first light” on upgraded planet-finding instrument to search for Earth-like planets in nearest star system | ESO

Newly-built planet-finding instrument installed on Very Large Telescope, Chile, begins 100-hour observation of nearby stars Alpha Centauri A and B, aiming to be first to directly image a habitable exoplanet

Breakthrough Watch, the global astronomical program looking for Earth-like planets around nearby stars, and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), Europe’s foremost intergovernmental astronomical organisation, today announced “first light” on a newly-built planet-finding instrument at ESO’s Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

The instrument, called NEAR (Near Earths in the AlphaCen Region), is designed to hunt for exoplanets in our neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri, within the “habitable zones” of its two Sun-like stars, where water could potentially exist in liquid form. It has been developed over the last three years and was built in collaboration with the University of Uppsala in Sweden, the University of Liège in Belgium, the California Institute of Technology in the US, and Kampf Telescope Optics in Munich, Germany.

ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has recently received an upgraded addition to its suite of advanced instruments. On 21 May 2019 the newly modified instrument VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared) made its first observations since being modified to aid in the search for potentially habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system, the closest star system to Earth. This stunning image of the VLT is painted with the colours of sunset and reflected in water on the platform. While inclement weather at Cerro Paranal is unfortunate for the astronomers using it, it lets us see ESO’s flagship telescope in a new light.

More about the Watch project can be found at Breakthrough Initiatives, which is funded by Yuri Milner.

** Starshades would enable space telescopes to image earth-like exoplanets by masking out the light of their stars. NASA’s Starshade Technology Development program (ExEP) has come up with techniques for maintaining the extremely precise alignment needed between the starshade and the telescope, which will reside tens of thousands of kilometers apart: Starshade Would Take Formation Flying to Extremes | NASA.

“We can sense a change in the position of the starshade down to an inch, even over these huge distances,” Bottom said.

But detecting when the starshade is out of alignment is an entirely different proposition from actually keeping it aligned. To that end, Flinois and his colleagues developed a set of algorithms that use information provided by Bottom’s program to determine when the starshade thrusters should fire to nudge it back into position. The algorithms were created to autonomously keep the starshade aligned with the telescope for days at a time.

Combined with Bottom’s work, this shows that keeping the two spacecraft aligned is feasible using automated sensors and thruster controls. In fact, the work by Bottom and Flinois demonstrates that engineers could reasonably meet the alignment demands of an even larger starshade (in conjunction with a larger telescope), positioned up to 46,000 miles (74,000 kilometers) from the telescope.

A starshade project has not yet been approved for flight, but one could potentially join WFIRST in space in the late 2020s. Meeting the formation-flying requirement is just one step toward demonstrating that the project is feasible.

A demo of a starshade deployment:

**  Hubble images a small galaxy “furiously forming” stars : Hubble Observes Tiny Galaxy with Big Heart | ESA/Hubble

Nestled within this field of bright foreground stars lies ESO 495-21, a tiny galaxy with a big heart. ESO 495-21 may be just 3000 light-years across, but that is not stopping the galaxy from furiously forming huge numbers of stars. It may also host a supermassive black hole; this is unusual for a galaxy of its size, and may provide intriguing hints as to how galaxies form and evolve.

Nestled within this field of bright foreground stars lies ESO 495-21, a tiny galaxy with a big heart. ESO 495-21 is just 3000 light-years across, a fraction of the size of the Milky Way, but that is not stopping the galaxy from furiously forming huge numbers of stars. There are also indicators for a supermassive black hole in its centre – an unusual component for a galaxy of its size.

** Mars:

** Mars 2020 rover includes instruments for detecting signs of life: Johnson-Built Device to Help Mars 2020 Rover Search for Signs of Life | NASA

Next summer, NASA is launching the Mars 2020 robotic rover to the Red Planet, loaded with equipment to search for signs that there once was life on Mars. One device, called the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument, will be used to detect chemicals on the Martian surface that are linked to the existence of life. To keep the instrument working well, a team from the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) recently built a new calibration device for the rover to check SHERLOC’s function and properly tune it during the upcoming mission.

“SHERLOC is pretty complicated, and we came up with a list of 11 things that all have to be calibrated on this instrument,” said Marc Fries, ARES planetary scientist and Mars 2020 instrument co-investigator. “This sophisticated calibration device is also going to be used for a lot of other scientific and engineering investigations, and we’re really excited that it’s JSC’s contribution to the Mars 2020 rover.”

** And Mars 2020 rover instruments will help with human missions as well: NASA’s Mars 2020 Will Blaze a Trail – for Humans – NASA JPL

When a female astronaut first sets foot on the Moon in 2024, the historic moment will represent a step toward another NASA first: eventually putting humans on Mars. NASA’s latest robotic mission to the Red Planet, Mars 2020, aims to help future astronauts brave that inhospitable landscape.

While the science goal of the Mars 2020 rover is to look for signs of ancient life – it will be the first spacecraft to collect samples of the Martian surface, caching them in tubes that could be returned to Earth on a future mission – the vehicle also includes technology that paves the way for human exploration of Mars.

** More Mars exploration with Bob Zimmerman:

*** Ghost dunes on Mars – A “Star Trek Federation” logo feature is created by winds blowing on sand dunes:

Cool image time! The Mars Reconnaissance (MRO) science team today released a captioned image of several ghost dunes on Mars. The image [below] is cropped and reduced to highlight one of those ghosts, which the scientists explain as follows.

Long ago, there were large crescent-shaped (barchan) dunes that moved across this area, and at some point, there was an eruption. The lava flowed out over the plain and around the dunes, but not over them. The lava solidified, but these dunes still stuck up like islands. However, they were still just dunes, and the wind continued to blow. Eventually, the sand piles that were the dunes migrated away, leaving these “footprints” in the lava plain.

Dune Footprints in Hellas

“These curious chevron shapes in southeast Hellas Planitia are the result of a complex story of dunes, lava, and wind.” – HiRISE at Univ. of Arizona

*** The Martian North Pole –  A tour of the many weird features of the Martian north pole area:

Since the very beginning of telescopic astronomy, the Martian poles have fascinated. Their changing sizes as the seasons progressed suggested to the early astronomers that Mars might be similar to Earth. Since the advent of the space age we have learned that no, Mars is not similar to Earth, and that its poles only resemble Earth’s in a very superficial way.

Yet, understanding the geology and seasonal evolution of the Martian poles is critical to understanding the planet itself.

Dunes Dubbed Cool Fans

Dunes Dubbed Cool Fans – HiRISE at Univ. of Arizona


Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking