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

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 |

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


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