Category Archives: Space sciences roundup

Review of news regarding astronomy, exoplanets, planetary sciences, and any other science regarding space.

Space sciences roundup – Oct.19.2020

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

** Asteroids and Comets

** OSIRIS-REx set to touch down briefly on BennuThe Long Arm of NASA: The OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Gets Ready To Grab An Asteroid Sample – IEEE Spectrum

Sixteen years after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission was first proposed and two years after the robotic spacecraft went into orbit around asteroid 101955 Bennu, mission team members are now counting down to the moment when it will descend to the surface, grab a sample—and then get out of there before anything can go wrong.

The sampling is set for next Tuesday, Oct. 20. If it works, it will be a first for the United States. (A Japanese probe is currently returning to Earth with samples from asteroid 162173 Ryugu.)

Though the mission plan has so far been executed almost flawlessly, an outsider might be forgiven for thinking there’s something a bit…well, counterintuitive about it. The spacecraft has no landing legs, because it will never actually land. Instead, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft vaguely resembles an insect with a long snout—a honeybee, perhaps, hovering over a flower to pollinate it. The “snout” is actually an articulated arm with a 30.5 cm round collection chamber at the end. It’s called TAGSAM – short for Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism. You’ve doubtless heard the old expression, “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.” The TAGSAM arm is an 11-foot pole.

** Watch the event on NASA TV: Update: NASA to Broadcast OSIRIS-REx Activities | NASA

** A discussion of the OSIRIS-REx mission: NASA EZScience

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is scheduled to touch down on the asteroid Bennu on October 20, 2020, for its first sample collection attempt. To kick off the second season of #EZScience, NASA associate administrator for science Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen and National Air and Space Museum director Dr. Ellen Stofan discuss this exciting and innovative mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth and the scientific opportunities it opens up.

** An interview with an OSIRIS REx mission scientist: Hotel Mars – John Batchelor Show/The Space ShowDr. Harold C. Connolly talked about

…the OSIRIS REx mission to asteroid Bennu and the sample return from Bennu. We discussed landing at the Nightingale landing site on Bennu and why, the actual quantity of material being collected for sample return, material changes on the way back to Earth, instrumentation operational status, asteroid ejecta, Bennu collisions with asteroid material, Vesta rocks on Bennu, the expectation of finding organic prebiotic compounds in the sample and more.

** A simulation of the sampling maneuver using the SpaceMissionstm app from BINARY SPACE (see posting here):

This video shows a simulation of the NASA probe OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection on Asteroid Bennu planned for October 20, 2020:

00:00 Approach Burn
00:09 Solar Panels folding back

00:23 Samples Collection Arm Deployment
01:06 Samples Collection
02:21 Samples Weighting
03:42 Storing Samples in Return Container
06:04 Solar Panels unfolding

06:15 Approach Trajectory

The above mentioned application is a 3D solar system and space missions simulator available in the Microsoft® Store:

More about OSIRIS-REx and Bennu:

** Amateur astronomer spots a big NEO: Planetary Society Grant Winner Discovers Large Near-Earth Asteroid – The Planetary Society

An amateur astronomer has discovered a kilometer-wide asteroid that would create global devastation if it were to hit the Earth. Thankfully that won’t happen: the asteroid will miss our planet by 40 million kilometers as it passes on 10 September 2020, more than 100 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. But the fact that this relatively large near-Earth object, or NEO, wasn’t detected until now serves as a reminder that there’s much work to be done when it comes to defending our planet from dangerous asteroids.

Amateur astronomer Leonardo Amaral discovered the asteroid at the Campo dos Amarais observatory in Brazil. The Planetary Society in 2019 awarded Amaral an $8,500 grant to purchase a more stable telescope mount for better tracking and longer camera exposures. The Society’s Shoemaker NEO Grant program funds advanced amateur astronomers around the world who find, track, and characterize potentially dangerous space rocks. Much of this work follows up on asteroids discovered by large-scale sky surveys, providing observations crucial to orbit determination or asteroid characterization.

** A sizable and previously unknown asteroid recently passed by close by the Earth: School Bus-Size Asteroid to Safely Zoom Past Earth | NASA

Roughly 15 to 30 feet wide, the object will make its closest approach on Sept. 24.

A small near-Earth asteroid (or NEA) will briefly visit Earth’s neighborhood on Thursday, Sept. 24, zooming past at a distance of about 13,000 miles (22,000 kilometers) above our planet’s surface. The asteroid will make its close approach below the ring of geostationary satellites orbiting about 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) away from Earth.

Based on its brightness, scientists estimate that 2020 SW is roughly 15 to 30 feet (5 to 10 meters) wide – or about the size of a small school bus. Although it’s not on an impact trajectory with Earth, if it were, the space rock would almost certainly break up high in the atmosphere, becoming a bright meteor known as a fireball.


** Discovery of phosphine in the clouds of Venus ignites speculation that it is produced by microbial life. However, there are inorganic processes that could produce it as well. Possible Marker of Life Spotted on Venus | ESO

An international team of astronomers today announced the discovery of a rare molecule — phosphine — in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments. Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes — floating free of the scorching surface but needing to tolerate very high acidity. The detection of phosphine could point to such extra-terrestrial “aerial” life.

“When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’s spectrum, it was a shock!”, says team leader Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in the UK, who first spotted signs of phosphine in observations from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), operated by the East Asian Observatory, in Hawaiʻi. Confirming their discovery required using 45 antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, a more sensitive telescope in which the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a partner. Both facilities observed Venus at a wavelength of about 1 millimetre, much longer than the human eye can see — only telescopes at high altitude can detect it effectively. 

The international team, which includes researchers from the UK, US and Japan, estimates that phosphine exists in Venus’s clouds at a small concentration, only about twenty molecules in every billion. Following their observations, they ran calculations to see whether these amounts could come from natural non-biological processes on the planet. Some ideas included sunlight, minerals blown upwards from the surface, volcanoes, or lightning, but none of these could make anywhere near enough of it. These non-biological sources were found to make at most one ten thousandth of the amount of phosphine that the telescopes saw.

To create the observed quantity of phosphine (which consists of hydrogen and phosphorus) on Venus, terrestrial organisms would only need to work at about 10% of their maximum productivity, according to the team. Earth bacteria are known to make phosphine: they take up phosphate from minerals or biological material, add hydrogen, and ultimately expel phosphine. Any organisms on Venus will probably be very different to their Earth cousins, but they too could be the source of phosphine in the atmosphere.

More about the discovery:

This finding greatly increases scientific and public interest in Venus, which has been visited by spacecraft far less often than Mars. The Venusian surface is a hell-scape with an atmospheric pressure over 90 times that of earth and temperatures close to 500 degrees Celsius. So the bare surface and thin atmosphere of Mars make it seem benign in comparison. However, there is the possibility of human habitats floating atop the thick Venusian atmosphere, though there would the challenge of dealing with the sulfuric acid present at such altitudes. Venus is similar to Earth in terms of gravity and so for human visitors it has at least this one advantage over the Red Planet, where gravity is about a third that of Earth’s.

** Interview with a member of the team that found evidence of phosphine in the Venusian clouds:

Could life exist elsewhere in the Solar System? Astronomers have announced the presence of phosphine in the clouds of Venus, which could be evidence of microbial life around the hellish planet. Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder, one of the astronomers behind the discovery, reveals how they did it, and why we need a new mission to explore Venus.

** BepiColombo spacecraft flies by Venus to adjust its orbit closer to Mercury, the target of its mission: BepiColombo flies by Venus en route to Mercury – ESA

The ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission has completed the first of two Venus flybys needed to set it on course with the Solar System’s innermost planet, Mercury.

The closest approach of the flyby took place at 03:58 GMT (05:58 CEST) this morning at a distance of about 10 720 km from the planet’s surface.

The Venus flyby offered an opportunity to test the science instruments on the spacecraft and to investigate the cloudy planet:

Seven of the eleven science instruments onboard the European Mercury Planetary Orbiter, plus its radiation monitor, and three of five onboard the Japanese Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter were active during the flyby. While the suite of sensors are designed to study the rocky, atmosphere-free environment at Mercury, the flyby offered a unique opportunity to collect valuable science data at Venus.

BepiColombo returns images of Venus during close approach. Credits: ESA

** The Parker Solar Probe flew by Venus, taking advantage of the planet’s gravity to adjust its orbit as well: Parker Solar Probe Speeds toward Record-Setting Close Approach to the Sun – Parker Solar Probe – Sept.25.2020

This weekend’s perihelion was set up by the probe’s third Venus flyby. On July 11, the spacecraft came within 518 miles above Venus’ surface — much lower than the previous two flybys but still well above Venus’ atmosphere — putting it on a path that brings it 3.25 million miles closer to the Sun than the last perihelion, on June 7. Mission Design and Navigation Manager Yanping Guo of APL noted that the gravity assist provided the mission’s largest orbital speed reduction since launch, trimming the spacecraft’s velocity by 8,438 miles per hour (13,579 kilometers per hour).

More at:


Continue reading Space sciences roundup – Oct.19.2020

Space sciences roundup – Sept.2.2020

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


** Monitor NASA’s Perseverance rover as it travels to Mars: Follow NASA’s Perseverance Rover in Real Time on Its Way to Mars

The last time we saw NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission was on July 30, 2020, as it disappeared into the black of deep space on a trajectory for Mars. But with NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System, you can follow in real time as humanity’s most sophisticated rover – and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter traveling with it – treks millions of miles over the next six months to Jezero Crater.

“Eyes on the Solar System visualizes the same trajectory data that the navigation team uses to plot Perseverance’s course to Mars,” said Fernando Abilleira, the Mars 2020 mission design and navigation manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “If you want to follow along with us on our journey, that’s the place to be.”

Eyes doesn’t just let you see the distance between the Red Planet and the spacecraft at this very moment. You can also fly formation with Mars 2020 or check the relative velocity between Mars and Earth or, say, the dwarf planet Pluto

A view of the Mars 2020 mission in the Eyes on the Solar System simulation. Credits: NASA

** The UAE Hope mission takes a photo of Mars, where it will go into orbit in February: Mars ahead! UAE’s Hope spacecraft spots Red Planet for 1st time |

On August 17th, the first course correction for Hope was carried out successfully:

** A preview of where Perseverance will land and explore: Perseverance’s planned journey in Jezero Crater | Behind The Black

Getting to [its farthest goal] however is optimism in the extreme. The distance to it from the break in the canyon is actually longer than the distance from the landing ellipse to the rim. It will likely take most of the decade of the 2030s to reach this spot, which means Perseverance will have persevered on Mars for almost twenty years if it gets this far.

Let us hope that this rover is well named. Let us also hope that before it dies human beings will have also arrived on Mars, and will be able to come by to check on it. And if Perseverance is then still operational, scientists on Earth will finally be able to use it to snap a picture of life on Mars, even if that life came from Earth.

** Previewing Perseverance science by a panel at the SETI Institute:

The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover successfully launched on July 30, 2020, is now en route toward Mars. The mission will pave the way for future human expeditions to Mars and demonstrates technologies that could be used by future Mars explorers.

** Much of the Mars landscape may have been carved by ice rather than flowing water: Early Mars was covered in ice sheets, not flowing rivers, new research shows | ASU Now

A large number of the valley networks scarring the surface of Mars were carved by water melting beneath glacial ice, not by free-flowing rivers as previously thought, according to new research published in Nature Geoscience. The findings effectively throw cold water on the dominant “warm and wet ancient Mars” hypothesis, which postulates that rivers, rainfall and oceans once existed on the red planet.


“Climate modelling predicts that Mars’ ancient climate was much cooler during the time of valley network formation,” said Grau Galofre. “We tried to put everything together and bring up a hypothesis that hadn’t really been considered: that channels and valleys networks can form under ice sheets, as part of the drainage system that forms naturally under an ice sheet when there’s water accumulated at the base.”

These environments would also support better survival conditions for possible ancient life on Mars. A sheet of ice would lend more protection and stability of underlying water, as well as provide shelter from solar radiation in the absence of a magnetic field — something Mars once had, but which disappeared billions of years ago.

** A tribute to spunky Opportunity: What the Martian surface looked like to Oppy – humanity’s most resilient rover | Aeon Videos

Using raw rover imagery and the sound of actual wind on Mars, I painted this little portrait of Opportunity, our faithful little martian rover friend that was lost earlier this year. Losing a rover feels a little like losing a pet. But for all that it accomplished, and for our ability to revel in all the awesome images it collected over its lifetime, its end is bittersweet. Oppy traveled 28 miles on Mars over a span of 14 years – an amazing feat of engineering and human ambition.

After sifting through thousands of raw Mars images for hours and hours, I have developed a strange sense of Mars as a real place I have been, riding alongside this little rover that could, making laps across rocky martian plains. My hope is this little portrait gives you a glimpse of that same feeling. Still can’t believe we put a vehicle on mars that lasted almost 15 years. I don’t even expect my car to run that long. Humans are pretty rad sometimes.

Created by John D. Boswell who posts videos under the name melodysheep.

** Mars avalancheCapturing an Avalanche on Mars – NASA Image of the Day

“Hi-RISE, the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured this avalanche plunging down a 1,640-foot-tall (500-meter-tall) cliff on May 29, 2019. The image also reveals layers at Mars’ north pole during spring. As temperatures increase and vaporize ice, the destabilized ice blocks break loose and kick up dust.” Credits: NASA

** Update on the “Mars Mole” on the Insight lander and its attempts to dig deeper and reach the target depth to measure the ground temperature: Troubled Mars “Mole” – Going Underground – Leonard David

That troubled “Mole” heat probe on NASA’s InSight Mars mission is presently fully covered with Martian sand. The plan now calls for the Mole to be pushed a little deeper into the ground with the continued help of the spacecraft’s robotic scoop.

The save the Mole script calls for not pressing the Mole with the robotic arm’s blade, but with the shovel at an angle of 20 to 30 degrees with respect to the surface.

Lots more about the status of the  from the German team that built and operates the Mole: Mars InSight mission: The Mole is ‘in’ and the ‘finishing touches’ are ‘in sight’ – DLR Blog- Aug.10.2020

As a supporting indication, I note that a recent measurement of the thermal conductance from the Mole to the regolith shows increased values over earlier measurements. This suggests that both the thermal and mechanical contact have improved. So we’re feeling optimistic!

** Leonard David also describes the Curiosity rover‘s roving:

** Curiosity spots a dust devil: Sols 2864-2866: Spot the Difference! – NASA’s Mars Exploration Program

“On Sol 2847, Curiosity captured a dust devil that was so impressive that – if you look closely! – you can just see it moving to the right, at the border between the darker and lighter slopes.” Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech.

** Tour more marvelous sites on the Martian surface with Bob Zimmerman

Solar system

** Venus beckons for attention while Mars hogs funding for missions.

*** Venus: Earth’s Evil Twin or Just Misunderstood? A talk about Venus by NASA JPL geoscientist Sue Smrekar:

Venus is becoming more attractive to scientists as technology improves for sending spacecraft to survive orbit and even descend to the surface. From orbiters to balloons, we will talk about the great science that can be done, how we can do it and what we hope to learn. Host: Brian White
Co-Host: Lindsay McLaurin

*** Hotel Mars /The John Batchelor Show/The Space ShowJohn Batchelor and Dr. David Livingston talked with Dr. David Grinspoon about the discovery of 37 recently active volcanoes on Venus.

*** Rocket Lab is pursuing a privately funded project to send a small probe to Venus: Rocket Lab aims to launch private Venus mission in 2023 |

“I’m madly in love with Venus,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said on Aug. 5 during a company update and Q&A session livestreamed on YouTube. “I’m working very hard to put together a private mission to go to Venus in 2023.”

** Latest on Pluto: Wed. Aug. 19, 2020 – Hotel Mars – John Batchelor Show/The Space ShowJohn Batchelor and David Livingston talked with Dr. Alan Stern about “the dark side of Pluto and what we know from the New Horizons spacecraft flyby of Pluto several years ago”.

** Jupiter: The Juno mission continues to study the biggest planet in the Solar System. Here is a recent posting from the Juno team with a dramatic visualization of a “simulated journey into one of Jupiter’s exotic high-altitude electrical storms”:  ‘Shallow Lightning’ on Jupiter (NASA Visualization, ft. Music by Vangelis) | Mission Juno

This animation takes the viewer on a simulated journey into Jupiter’s exotic high-altitude electrical storms. Get an up-close view of Mission Juno’s newly discovered “shallow lighting” flashes and dive into the violent atmospheric jet of the Nautilus cloud. The smallest white “pop-up” clouds on top of the Nautilus are about 100 km across. The ride navigates through Jupiter’s towering thunderstorms, dodging the spray of ammonia-water rain, and shallow lighting flashes. At these altitudes — too cold for pure liquid water to exit – ammonia gas acts like an antifreeze that melts the water ice crystals flung up to these heights by Jupiter’s powerful storms – giving Jupiter an unexpected ammonia-water cloud that can electrify the sky. The animation was created by combining an image of high-altitude clouds from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft with a computer-generated animation.

*** JunoCam : Processing | Mission Juno offers Juno images processed by citizen scientists into gorgeous works of art. For example, here is Jupiter, Perijove 26, Artificial Vertical Relief – Kevin M. McGill.

A view of Jupiter from the Juno probe during its Perijove 26. Image processing highly enhanced the vertical relief. Credits: Kevin M. Gill


** The next solar cycle is beginning to show itself: Sunspot update: Hints of the next maximum | Behind The Black

[The SILSO sunspot number graph] shows the one weak sunspot at the beginning of the month and the two stronger sunspots late in the month. The first sunspot had a polarity linking it to the previous fading solar cycle, while the last two had polarities assigning them to the new solar cycle. This continues the trend of the past few months, where more and more new sunspots belong to the new cycle as the old cycle fades away.

** The Carrington Event was no ordinary coronal burst, but a similar gigantic solar storm could hit Earth at any time and should serve as a warning to prepare our electrical systems to withstand its effects: Carrington Event still provides warning of Sun’s potential 161 years later –

When the CME arrived, the Kew Observatory’s magnetometer recorded the event as a magnetic crochet in the ionosphere.  This observation, coupled with the solar flare, allowed Carrington to correctly draw the link — for the first time — between geomagnetic storms observed on Earth and the Sun’s activity. 

Upon impact, telegraph systems across Europe and North America, which took the brunt of the impact, failed.  In some cases, telegraphs provided electric shocks to operators; in other cases, their lines sparked in populated areas and — in places — started fires.

The event produced some of the brightest auroras ever recorded in history.  People in New England were able to read the newspaper in the middle of the night without any additional light.  Meanwhile, in Colorado, miners believed it was daybreak and began their morning routine.

The auroras were so strong they were clearly observed throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaii, southern Japan, southern China, and as far south as Colombia near the equator in South America and as far north as Queensland, Australia near the equator in the Southern Hemisphere.


** China’s Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover just completed their 21st lunar day of activities on the Moon’s far side: Chinese lunar probe’s 600 days on Moon’s far side –

Last Tuesday was the 600th day of Chang’e-4 on the moon and the rover had traveled 519.29 meters.

The rover Yutu-2, or Jade Rabbit-2, has far exceeded its three-month design lifespan, becoming the longest-working lunar rover on the moon.

With the help of data transmitted to Earth, Chinese researchers have made progress in vital research such as the moon’s geological evolution, radiation and low-frequency radio environment.

** China aims to launch the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission by end of this year: China Farside Moon Mission; Next Up, Return Samples – Leonard David

… This ambitious venture is focused on collecting and returning lunar specimens back to Earth by robotic means – a task last done in 1976 by the former Soviet Union.

The former Soviet Union successfully executed three robotic sample return missions: Luna 16 returned a small sample (101 grams) from Mare Fecunditatis in September of 1970; February 1972, Luna 20 returned 55 grams of soil from the Apollonius highlands region; Luna 24 retrieved 170.1 grams of lunar samples from the Moon’s Mare Crisium (Sea of Crisis) for return to Earth in August 1976.

Reportedly, the Chinese mission will retrieve and return to Earth up to 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of lunar surface and subsurface samples.

The Chang’e-5 mission is comprised of four parts: the orbiter, lander, ascender, and Earth reentry module containing the lunar collectibles.

** Some lunar polar water ice could be affected by exhaust from landers: Cautionary Warning: Moon Landers and Contamination of Lunar Polar Ice – Leonard David

Follow-up work should include measuring the amount of exhaust that’s around the Moon during and after future landings, Prem said, which would help narrow in on an answer to how much these exhaust gases “stick” to the surface. “But I would also suggest that modeling and monitoring the fate of exhaust gases should be a routine part of lunar mission development and planning.”

“Whether we intend to or not, we’re going to do this experiment of bringing exhaust gases with us,” Prem said.

It’s now a matter of deciding how we deal with them.

** Asteroids and Comets

** OSIRIS-REx probe nearly ready for a sample retrieval from the surface of the asteroid Bennu after two practice runs:

During the final practice run, the spacecraft reached

an approximate altitude of 131 feet (40 meters) over sample site Nightingale before executing a back-away burn. Nightingale, OSIRIS-REx’s primary sample collection site, is located within a crater in Bennu’s northern hemisphere.

The approximately four-hour “Matchpoint” rehearsal took the spacecraft through the first three of the sampling sequence’s four maneuvers: the orbit departure burn, the “Checkpoint” burn and the Matchpoint burn. Checkpoint is the point where the spacecraft autonomously checks its position and velocity before adjusting its trajectory down toward the event’s third maneuver. Matchpoint is the moment when the spacecraft matches Bennu’s rotation in order to fly in tandem with the asteroid surface, directly above the sample site, before touching down on the targeted spot.

Four hours after departing its 0.6-mile (1-km) safe-home orbit, OSIRIS-REx performed the Checkpoint maneuver at an approximate altitude of 410 feet (125 meters) above Bennu’s surface. From there, the spacecraft continued to descend for another eight minutes to perform the Matchpoint burn. After descending on this new trajectory for another three minutes, the spacecraft reached an altitude of approximately 131 ft (40 m) – the closest the spacecraft has ever been to Bennu – and then performed a back-away burn to complete the rehearsal.

During the rehearsal, the spacecraft successfully deployed its sampling arm, the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), from its folded, parked position out to the sample collection configuration. Additionally, some of the spacecraft’s instruments collected science and navigation images and made spectrometry observations of the sample site, as will occur during the sample collection event. These images and science data were downlinked to Earth after the event’s conclusion.

The following video shows a time lapse of images over a 13.5-minute period during the practice run on August 11th:

The imaging sequence begins at approximately 420 feet (128 meters) above the surface – before the spacecraft executes the “Checkpoint” maneuver – and runs through to the “Matchpoint” maneuver, with the last image taken approximately 144 feet (44 meters) above the surface of Bennu. The spacecraft’s sampling arm – called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – is visible in the lower part of the frame. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

The first actual collection attempt is currently scheduled for October 20th

 During this event, OSIRIS-REx’s sampling mechanism will touch Bennu’s surface for several seconds, fire a charge of pressurized nitrogen to disturb the surface and collect a sample before the spacecraft backs away. The spacecraft is scheduled to return the sample to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023.

** Update on the Lucy Mission, “The First Mission to Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids”Lucy One Step Closer to Exploring the Trojan Asteroids – NASA

… The Discovery Program’s Lucy mission passed a critical milestone and is officially authorized to transition to its next phase.

This major decision was made after a series of independent reviews of the status of the spacecraft, instruments, schedule and budget. The milestone, known as Key Decision Point-D (KDP-D), represents the official transition from the mission’s development stage to delivery of components, testing, assembly and integration leading to launch. During this part of the mission’s life cycle, known as Phase D, the spacecraft bus (the structure that will carry the science instruments) is completed, the instruments are integrated into the spacecraft and tested, and the spacecraft is shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for integration with the launch vehicle.

“Each phase of the mission is more exciting than the last,” says Lucy Principal Investigator Hal Levison of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO. “While, of course, Lucy still has several years and a few billion miles to go before we reach our real goal – exploring the never-before-seen Trojan asteroids – seeing this spacecraft come together is just incredible.”

A ULA Atlas V rocket is scheduled to launch the Lucy spacecraft in late October 2021. Here is an overview of the mission:

Launching in late 2021, Lucy will be the first space mission to explore the Trojan asteroids. These are a population of small bodies that are left over from the formation of the solar system. They lead or follow Jupiter in their orbit around the Sun, and may tell us about the origins of organic materials on Earth. Lucy will fly by and carry out remote sensing on six different Trojan asteroids and will study surface geology, surface color and composition, asteroid interiors/bulk properties, and will look at the satellites and rings of the Trojans.

** Antarctic meteorite offers clues to origin of key chemical components of life: Pristine Space Rock Offers Scientists Peek at Early Solar System | NASA

During a 2012 expedition to Antarctica, a team of Japanese and Belgian researchers picked up a small rock that appeared coal black against the snow white. Now known as meteorite Asuka 12236, it was roughly the size of a golf ball.

Despite its modest size, this rock from space was a colossal find. As it turns out, Asuka 12236 is one of the best-preserved meteorites of its kind ever discovered. And now, NASA scientists have shown that it contains microscopic clues that could help them solve a universal mystery: How did the building blocks of life flourish on Earth?

So, when astrobiologists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, got their (carefully gloved) hands on a teeny sliver of this primitive meteorite, they quickly took to decoding the information inside. Under the glare of the fluorescent lights and accompanied by the whir of analytical tools running in the background, the NASA Goddard team first crushed a 50-milligram pinch of Asuka 12236 in their lab with a mortar and pestle. Then they suspended the amino acids from the ancient dust in a water solution and sent the liquid through a powerful analytical machine that separated the molecules inside by mass and identified each kind.

“This is an image of a polished thin section of Asuka 12236, made with a scanning electron microscope. The section is about a third of an inch, or about 1 centimeter, across. Most of the bright grains in the image are iron-nickel-metal and/or iron-sulfide. The grey is mostly silicate, with the darker grey areas more magnesium-rich, while the lighter grey areas are more iron-rich. The roundish objects, and some fragments of them, that tend to contain most of the small, bright metal grains are called “chondrules,” which formed as molten droplets. They are set in a very fine-grained matrix, which is where the organic compounds and presolar grains are found.” Credits: Carnegie Institution for Science/Conel M. O’D. Alexander


=== The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey ===

Grainger Tomato” by C. Sergent Lindsey printed on a throw pillow. Available at Fine Art America.


Space sciences roundup – July.26.2020

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


** Launch of the UAE Hope Mars mission on a Japanese H-IIA rocket on July 19th  was a success. The spacecraft is on course to reach Mars and go into orbit in February. It’s primary mission is to study the Martian atmosphere and weather.

HOPE-2 infographic shows mission phases from launch to Mars orbit operations.

Here is the first image taken from the Hope spacecraft: HH Sheikh Mohammed shares first image of Mars taken by Hope Probe – SatellitePro ME

See also

** Long March 5 launched China’s Tianwen 1 mission to Mars on July 23rd from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern coast of Hainan province.

The payload includes an orbiter, lander, and rover.

Here are previews of the mission:

** Perseverance rover set to launch on July 30th on ULA Atlas V rocket. The rover will then land on the Red Planet on  Feb. 18, 2021. The final launch preparations and reviews are underway: NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover Passes Flight Readiness Review – NASA

Everyone is invited to participant in some way with the mission liftoff: NASA Invites Public to Share Excitement of Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Launch – NASA

Here is a set of hands-on activities for young people such as making a Mars helicopter out of paper: Learning Space With NASA at Home – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

** An overview of Perseverance from the Everyday Astronaut:

** A true microphone is included on the  Perseverance: Perseverance Microphones Fulfill Long Planetary Society Campaign to Hear Sounds from Mars | The Planetary Society

If you could stand on the surface of Mars, what would you hear? While 8 missions have returned stunning views from the surface of the Red Planet, none have returned any sound.

That’s about to change. NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is days away from blasting off on a mission to search for signs of past life and collect samples for future return to Earth, will have not one, but two microphones aboard. One will listen as the rover plummets through the Martian atmosphere for landing, and another will record sounds as the rover does its scientific work in Jezero Crater—an ancient river delta where life may have flourished.

If all goes well, Perseverance’s microphones will fulfill the wishes of Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan, who wrote a letter to NASA in 1996 urging the space agency to send a microphone to Mars.

“Even if only a few minutes of Martian sounds are recorded from this first experiment, the public interest will be high and the opportunity for scientific exploration real,” Sagan wrote.

More about the Perseverance rover:

** Update on InSight Mars lander’s Mole digger: NASA’s InSight Flexes Its Arm While Its ‘Mole’ Hits Pause – NASA’s InSight Mars Lander – July.7.2020

NASA’s InSight lander has been using its robotic arm to help the heat probe known as the “mole” burrow into Mars. The mission is providing the first look at the Red Planet’s deep interior to reveal details about the formation of Mars and, ultimately, all rocky planets, including Earth.

Akin to a 16-inch-long (40-centimeter-long) pile driver, the self-hammering mole has experienced difficulty getting into the Martian soil since February 2019. It’s mostly buried now, thanks to recent efforts to push down on the mole with the scoop on the end of the robotic arm. But whether it will be able to dig deep enough – at least 10 feet (3 meters) – to get an accurate temperature reading of the planet remains to be seen. Images taken by InSight during a Saturday, June 20, hammering session show bits of soil jostling within the scoop – possible evidence that the mole had begun bouncing in place, knocking the bottom of the scoop.

NASA InSight’s ‘Mole’ Taps the Bottom of the Lander’s Scoop – NASA’s InSight Mars Lander: After the scoop on the end of NASA’s Mars InSight lander was used to push down on the top of the spacecraft’s “mole,” or self-hammering heat probe, it was held in place to essentially block the mole from popping out of the soil. The movement of sand grains in the scoop, seen here, suggested that the mole had began bumping up against the bottom of the scoop while hammering on June 20, 2020. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

** Dust up on Mars: I Can See Clearly Now: Dust-up on Mars! – Leonard David

Comparative images from NASA’s InSight Mars lander from Sol 10 to Sol 578 show that the spacecraft is quite dusty.

Robotic arm-mounted, Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC) images taken on December 7, 2018, Sol 10 and recent July 12, 2020, Sol 578 photos reveal the coating of Mars dust.

InSight landed on the Red Planet on November 26, 2018.

** The latest on Curiosity rover’s activities and plans:

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has started a road trip that will continue through the summer across roughly a mile (1.6 kilometers) of terrain. By trip’s end, the rover will be able to ascend to the next section of the 3-mile-tall Martian (5-kilometer-tall) mountain it’s been exploring since 2014, searching for conditions that may have supported ancient microbial life.

Located on the floor of Gale Crater, Mount Sharp is composed of sedimentary layers that built up over time. Each layer helps tell the story about how Mars changed from being more Earth-like – with lakes, streams and a thicker atmosphere – to the nearly-airless, freezing desert it is today.

Once they complete this week’s drilling effort, expect the rover to quickly head east again, aiming for the gap between the very rough Greenheugh Piedmont and the first steep cliffs of Mt. Sharp. They hope to reach this point in the fall, when the rover will finally leave the foothills of Mt Sharp and begin climbing the mountain. Their goal is the dark canyon in the first image above, uphill from where Curiosity sits now.

** Leonard David also gives frequent updates on Curiosity’s roving:

** Tour more sites on the marvelous Martian surface with Bob Zimmerman

Solar system

**  A review of missions that return samples of celestial bodies to Earth: Sample Return Roundup | The Planetary Society

It’s a banner year for sample return missions. Not since the 1970s has there been so much invested in returning rocks to Earth from space. This year, China, Japan, and the United States will all have sample return missions in flight, seeking to retrieve material from near-Earth asteroids, the Moon, and eventually Mars.

** The latest on the Saturn moon TitanDr. Linda Spilker of NASA JPL talks about the latest findings with John Batchelor and Dr. David Livingston on the Hotel Mars radio program:

** Illustrating the scale of planets and Earth-Moon separation: Fun Fact: All the Planets in the Solar System Could Fit Between Earth and the Moon – Lights in the Dark

It might seem a bit far-fetched but yes, it’s true: if you could line up all of the other planets in our Solar System in a row edge-to-edge (or more geometrically accurately, limb-to-limb) and for good measure even include Pluto, the entire queue would easily fit within the space between Earth and the Moon.

** The first view of Ganymede’s north pole: NASA Juno Takes First Images of Jovian Moon Ganymede’s North Pole | NASA

On its way inbound for a Dec. 26, 2019, flyby of Jupiter, NASA’s Juno spacecraft flew in the proximity of the north pole of the ninth-largest object in the solar system, the moon Ganymede. The infrared imagery collected by the spacecraft’s Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument provides the first infrared mapping of the massive moon’s northern frontier.

Larger than the planet Mercury, Ganymede consists primarily of water ice. Its composition contains fundamental clues for understanding the evolution of the 79 Jovian moons from the time of their formation to today.

Ganymede is also the only moon in the solar system with its own magnetic field. On Earth, the magnetic field provides a pathway for plasma (charged particles from the Sun) to enter our atmosphere and create aurora. As Ganymede has no atmosphere to impede their progress, the surface at its poles is constantly being bombarded by plasma from Jupiter’s gigantic magnetosphere. The bombardment has a dramatic effect on Ganymede’s ice.

“The JIRAM data show the ice at and surrounding Ganymede’s north pole has been modified by the precipitation of plasma,” said Alessandro Mura, a Juno co-investigator at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome. “It is a phenomenon that we have been able to learn about for the first time with Juno because we are able to see the north pole in its entirety.”

These images [from the JIRAM instrument aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft [taken] on Dec. 26, 2019, provide the first infrared mapping of Ganymede’s northern frontier. Frozen water molecules detected at both poles have no appreciable order to their arrangement and a different infrared signature than ice at the equator.” Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM
See also: First Images of Jovian Moon Ganymede’s North Pole | Mission Juno.


** A big list of the most exotic objects detected in the universe is being maintained by the Berkeley SETI program:

San Francisco, CA – June 22, 2020 – Breakthrough Listen, the initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the Universe, today released an innovative catalog of “Exotica” – a diverse list of objects of potential interest to astronomers searching for technosignatures (indicators of technology developed by extraterrestrial intelligence). The catalog is a collection of over 700 distinct targets intended to include “one of everything” in the observed Universe – ranging from comets to galaxies, from mundane objects to the most rare and violent celestial phenomena.

The comprehensive new catalog is the first in recent times that aims to span the entire breadth of astrophysical phenomena, from distant galaxies, to objects in our own Solar System. The Listen team developed it conceptually, compiled it, and shared it with the astronomical community in the hope that it can guide future surveys – studying life beyond Earth and/or natural astrophysics – and serve as a general reference guide for the field.

“Many discoveries in astronomy were not planned,” remarked the lead author of the new catalog, Dr. Brian Lacki. “Sometimes a major new discovery was missed when nobody was looking in the right place, because they believed nothing could be found there. This happened with exoplanets, which might have been detected before the 1990s if astronomers looked for solar systems very different than ours. Are we looking in the wrong places for technosignatures? The Exotica catalog will help us answer that question.”

“The catalog is not just limited to SETI, though,” noted Lacki. “My hope is that any program with a new capability may use the Exotica catalog as a shakedown cruise around the Universe.”


** First images from ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter released.

“The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) on ESA’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft took these images on 30 May 2020. They show the Sun’s appearance at a wavelength of 17 nanometers, which is in the extreme ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Images at this wavelength reveal the upper atmosphere of the Sun, the corona, with a temperature of around 1 million degrees.”. Credits: ESA

Find more images in the ESA Solar Orbiter  gallery.

** The solar cycle appears to be turning slowly towards next maximum according to June sunspot activity: Sunspot update: More evidence of an upcoming weak maximum | Behind The Black

The ratio of next cycle sunspots vs sunspots from the past maximum has also been shifting. More and more, the new sunspots belong to the next cycle and less to the last. The ramp up to the next maximum is definitely beginning, though to call it a “ramp up” at this point is a big exaggeration. Sunspot activity remains low, though the last few months have seen some activity, unlike the seven months of nothing seen during the second half of last year.

The upcoming prediction for the next maximum calls for it to be very weak. Interestingly, the activity in June surpassed that prediction. This does not mean that the prediction will be wrong, only that June was more active when compared to the smooth prediction curve. As the cycle unfolds the monthly numbers will fluctuate up and down, as they did last cycle. The question will be whether their overall numbers will match closely with the prediction. In the past cycle actual sunspot activity was consistently below all predictions. It is too soon to say how well the new prediction is doing.


** The Chinese Yutu-2 rover will soon be ending another active lunar day and preparing to sleep through the two earth-week long lunar night. The rover should be approaching a half kilometer on the odometer from its travels since the Chang’e 4 mission landed on the Moon’s far side on January 3, 2019: China’s lunar rover travels about 463 meters on moon’s far side – Xinhua – June.28.2020.

Here is a report on some unusual looking material that Yutu-2 spotted a year or so ago: Study Reveals Composition of “Gel-like” Substance Discovered by Chang’e-4 Rover on Moon’s Far Side—-Chinese Academy of Sciences

The unusual dark greenish and glistening “gel-like” substance in a crater on the far side of the moon has attracted widespread interest following its discovery by the Chang’e-4 rover in July 2019. 

A research team led by Prof. DI Kaichang from the Aerospace Information Research Institute (AIR) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and their collaborators analyzed the substance in detail by using multiple datasets from the rover’s panoramic camera (Pancam), hazard avoidance camera (Hazcam), and the visible and near-infrared spectrometer (VNIS).  

The researchers found that the unusual substance is actually an impact melt breccia, and the provenance of the rover measured surrounding regolith might originate from a differentiated melt pool or from a suite of igneous rocks. Their findings were published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 

“Impact melt breccia and surrounding context.” Credits: CNSA, CLEP, and AIR

** The Moon is more metal heavy than previously thought: Radar Points to Moon Being More Metallic Than Researchers Thought | NASA

What started out as a hunt for ice lurking in polar lunar craters turned into an unexpected finding that could help clear some muddy history about the Moon’s formation.

Team members of the Miniature Radio Frequency (Mini-RF) instrument on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft found new evidence that the Moon’s subsurface might be richer in metals, like iron and titanium, than researchers thought. That finding, published July 1 in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, could aid in drawing a clearer connection between Earth and the Moon.

“The LRO mission and its radar instrument continue to surprise us with new insights about the origins and complexity of our nearest neighbor,” said Wes Patterson, Mini-RF principal investigator from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, and a study coauthor.

** Investigating ancient volcanism on the Moon with images and altimetry data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO):

“Kathleen, a pyroclastic vent, and Rima Mozart extending east from the vent found in the eastern-most DTM in the Featured Image (seen above). Centered at 25.3263°N, 359.322°E – here in Quickmap.” Credits: LRO

From Bob Zimmerman at Behind The Black:

The image above, reduced to post here, is a colorized digital terrain model produced from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) data. On top of the original mosaic of photos the LRO science team has overlaid the elevation data obtained by LRO’s laser altimeter. It shows a tadpole shaped pit dubbed Kathleen, with its tail trailing off to the southeast. As they note:

Kathleen is a pyroclastic vent with a sinuous rille (colloquially known as Rima Mozart [Not IAU confirmed]) that extends from the southeast end of the vent. Rilles are large channels formed by sustained channelized lava flows. This vent is a great location to investigate ancient volcanism on the Moon.

The elevation data reveals one interesting feature: The lowest part of the vent pit is not at its western end, where one would think at first glance, based on the general dip that produced the rill flowing to the east. That the lowest point is at the widest section of the pit instead suggests that this pit no longer looks as it did when it was venting. In the almost four billion years since it is thought all volcanic activity here ceased, there has been plenty of time for the slow erosion processes on the Moon, caused by radiation, micrometeorites, and the solar wind, to partly fill this pit and round out its cliff walls.

Asteroids and Comets

** The small companion to the Didymos asteroid christened Dimorphos. The pair are the target destination for the ESA’s Hera and NASA’s DART missions. Name given to asteroid target of ESA’s planetary defence mission – ESA

A near-Earth binary asteroid system, named after the Greek word for ‘twin’, Didymos’s main body measures about 780 m across, with its previously nameless moonlet about 160 m in diameter, approximately the size of Egypt’s Great Pyramid.

In 2022, this moonlet will be the target of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the first full-scale demonstration of an asteroid deflection technology for planetary defence. ESA’s Hera mission will be launched two years later, to perform a close-up survey of Dimorphos, along with its parent asteroid, following DART’s impact.

NASA DART will impact the small Dimorphos companion to the Didymos asteroid in 2022. Credits: ESA

“Dimorphos is Greek for ‘having two forms’,” says Kleomenis Tsiganis, a planetary scientist at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and member of both the DART and Hera teams, who suggested the name.  

“It has been chosen in anticipation of its future status as the first celestial body to have its ‘physique’ intentionally altered by human intervention, the kinetic impact of DART. Hence, it will be known to us by two, very different forms, the one seen by DART before impact and the other seen by Hera, a few years later.”

DART’s kinetic impact into Dimorphos is expected to alter its orbit around Didymos as well as create a substantial crater, which will be studied by the Hera spacecraft when it arrives several years later. The DART impact itself will be recorded by the Italian-made LICIACube CubeSat, deployed from DART several days earlier, with longer-term effects studied by telescopes on Earth’s surface and in space.

See also Hera and its asteroid target – ESA.

** Haybabusa2 will drop off a capsule of material from asteroid Ryugu this December:

Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft is nearly home. Having collected samples from the asteroid Ryugu last year, the spacecraft is just months away from returning them to Earth. The samples contain material that likely dates back to the dawn of the solar system, 4.6 billion years ago. They could provide fresh insights into how celestial bodies came to be and even how life on Earth began. But before all that, there is the small matter of getting Hayabusa2’s precious cargo down from the harsh vacuum of space and safely into scientists’ hands.

On July 14 the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), in partnership with the Australian Space Agency, announced the landing date for the samples: December 6, 2020. JAXA’s landing site for the mission is a 122,000-square-kilometer region of South Australian outback known as the Woomera Range Complex. “Woomera is a very remote area,” says Karl Rodrigues, acting deputy director of the Australian Space Agency. “It makes it ideal for the safe management and landing of this particular craft and capsule.”

** Watch Comet Neowise from the ISS to the accompaniment of a nice soundtrack:


=== The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey ===

SpaceX Delivers the Goods” by C. Sergent Lindsey printed on phone cover. Available at Fine Art America.


Space sciences roundup – June.20.2020

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


** The Perseverance rover is set to launch to Mars on July 20th: The Launch Is Approaching for NASA’s Next Mars Rover, Perseverance – NASA’s Mars Exploration Program

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is just over a month from its July 20 targeted launch date. The rover’s astrobiology mission will seek signs of past microscopic life on Mars, explore the geology of the Jezero Crater landing site, and demonstrate key technologies to help prepare for future robotic and human exploration. And the rover will do all that while collecting the first samples of Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust) for return to Earth by a set of future missions.

In a clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, engineers observed the first driving test for NASA’s Mars 2020 [now named Perseverance] rover on Dec. 17, 2019. Credits: NASA JPL
This video describes the efforts to keep the project on track during the coronavirus pandemic:

Getting a Mars rover built, tested and to the launch pad is a feat that requires the dedication of hundreds of team members. The team behind NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover faced one of its biggest challenges when the coronavirus pandemic struck during a crucial time before launch. The safety of the team members became top priority yet they rose to the challenge of completing the rover on time for its launch date, either by working remotely or under new “safe at work” procedures. They developed an increased appreciation for the name of the rover and in May they created the COVID-19 Perseverance Plate, which is now mounted on the side of the rover. The plate commemorates all those impacted by the pandemic and pays special tribute to front line health care workers. Perseverance is targeted to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 20, 2020. It will land on Mars on February 18, 2021.

See also  NASA confident Mars 2020 will launch on schedule –

** A Chinese orbiter/lander/rover mission to Mars is set to launch this summer: Expert explains China’s first Mars mission between July and August –

China plans to launch its first Mars exploration mission Tianwen-1 between July and August, Bao Weimin, academician of Chinese Academy of Sciences and director of the Science and Technology Commission at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, has told CCTV while sharing details about the mission.

According to the plan, the Mars probe will release a rover after a soft landing on the planet and the rover will stay on Mars for 90 Mars sols, or days, on a variety of missions, including reconnaissance and exploration of the Martian landscape.

** Check out the Planetary Society’s Mars map showing every landing attempt, including both successes and failures:

** Latest on efforts to help Insight’s thermometer  dig into the Martian surface. The Insight lander set down on the Martian surface on Nov. 26, 2018. A seismometer was set on the ground soon after and has worked well. The HP3 temperature probe was to dig several meters into the ground and measure the temperature. It has not been as successful. The probe’s digging mechanism failed to get a grip in the loose soil in the upper level of the ground and reached less than a meter down  The Insight team subsequently came up with a plan to use the lander’s robotic arm to push on the probe until it reached firmer material and could then dig on its own. The

A view of the robotic arm on NASA’s InSight Mars lander nudging the HP3 probe into the ground on June 1, 2020. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

** Leonard David also describes Curiosity’s rovings:

** Tour more sites on the marvelous Martian surface with Bob Zimmerman

Solar system

** Dr. Alan Stern, the principle investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, gives an update on the mission including the recently announced  the First Interstellar Parallax Experiment and plans for investigations of objects in the Kuiper Belt:

[ Update: Scott Manley describes the parallax experiment:


** The relative sizes of the major solar system objects. Here is a cool animation illustrating the relative sizes of the planets, dwarf planets, satellites and asteroids.


** An update on the current phase of the solar cycle: Sunspot update: The deep minimum deepens | Behind The Black

In May there was practically no sunspot activity. As the month began, a sunspot faded away, and then, just as the month ended, a sunspot began to appear. Both sunspots had polarities that assign them to the coming solar maximum. Both (as have other new cycle sunspots over the past year) suggest that we will have a solar maximum in the coming five years, not a grand minimum with no sunspots for decades.

The lack of sunspots for the entire month, however, also suggests that the ongoing minimum will be the deepest in centuries. In fact, the number of days where the Sun’s visible hemisphere was blank both last year and this year remains the highest in two centuries. This lack of sunspots also strengthens the possibility that the next maximum will also be the weakest in two centuries.

** Xplore to study development of a commercial space craft to monitor space weather conditions for NOAA: Xplore awarded mission analysis by NOAA to study Lagrange point solar observation and space weather monitoring to protect critical infrastructure on Earth – Xplore

Xplore Founder and Chief Operating Officer, Lisa Rich said, “We are pleased to announce NOAA has awarded Xplore a study to evaluate the feasibility of a commercial Lagrange point mission with our Xcraft spacecraft. We welcome the potential future opportunity to provide commercial services that can be leveraged to better understand the Sun and provide advanced warning to protect our critical infrastructure.” She continued, “Xplore’s unique, Space as a Service business model provides a cost-effective solution enabling organizations like NOAA to purchase just the data they need via service agreements without having to buy the whole system. Our award further confirms NOAA’s commitment to leverage new commercial services to provide the environmental data needed for understanding the weather here on Earth and in space.”

The Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange point is located approximately a million miles (1.6 million km) from the Earth toward the Sun and three times farther than the Moon – quite the distance when compared to the International Space Station, which is merely 254 miles away. Xplore’s multi-mission ESPA-class space vehicle, the Xcraft™ is designed for missions beyond Earth orbit that include the Moon, Mars, Venus, near-Earth asteroids and Lagrange points, the focus of Xplore’s NOAA mission study.

Xplore may develop an observatory to observe the Sun in different spectral bands. Credit: Xplore

See also Xplore wins award to study options for space weather observatory – Geekwire

** ESA’s Solar Orbiter reaches its closest approach to the Sun since the launch in February: Solar Orbiter makes first close approach to the Sun – ESA

ESA’s Sun-exploring mission Solar Orbiter has made its first close approach to the star on June 15, getting as close as 77 million kilometres to its surface, about half the distance between the Sun and Earth.

In the week following this first perihelion, the point in the orbit closest to the Sun, the mission scientists will test the spacecraft’s ten science instruments, including the six telescopes on-board, which will acquire close-up images of the Sun in unison for the first time. According to ESA’s Solar Orbiter Project Scientist Daniel Müller, the images, to be released in mid-July, will be the closest images of the Sun ever captured.

“We have never taken pictures of the Sun from a closer distance than this,” Daniel says. “There have been higher resolution close-ups, e.g. taken by the four-meter Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii earlier this year. But from Earth, with the atmosphere between the telescope and the Sun, you can only see a small part of the solar spectrum that you can see from space.”

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, makes closer approaches. The spacecraft, however, doesn’t carry telescopes capable of looking directly at the Sun.

“Our ultraviolet imaging telescopes have the same spatial resolution as those of NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO), which takes high-resolution images of the Sun from an orbit close to Earth. Because we are currently at half the distance to the Sun, our images have twice SDO’s resolution during this perihelion,” says Daniel.


** The Chinese lander Chang’e 4 and the lander Yutu-2 awoke on June 15th after another lunar night and are back at work investigating the Moon’s farside. This is the 19th lunar day since the mission landed on January 3, 2019 in the Von Karman Crater located in the South Pole-Aitken Basin.

Tracks on the Moon from the Yutu-2 rover.


** Astronomy could greatly benefit from observatories on the Moon’s far side: The Chang’e 4 mission is laying the groundwork for future astronomical observations on the lunar farside: The History and Future of Telescopes on the Moon |

After a long hiatus, the China National Space Administration in 2013 finally returned telescopes to the Moon. But this time, no astronauts were required. This first-ever remotely controlled lunar telescope was an add-on instrument that flew with the Chang’e-3 lander.

At just 6 inches in diameter, the Lunar-based Ultraviolet Telescope (LUT) is a far cry from the kinds of instruments astronomers have long dreamed about sending to the Moon. But even at that size, the wavelengths LUT observes can offer unique insights into the cosmos, all without interference from Earth.  

Chinese scientists used LUT to collect thousands of hours’ worth of data, tracking stars and even galaxies. And, perhaps more importantly, the telescope’s stable performance also served as a technology demonstration for future missions.

Last year, the Chinese space agency followed LUT by sending a small radio telescope to the Moon. In early January 2019, the so-called Low Frequency Radio Spectrometer touched down on the lunar farside with the Chang’e-4 lander.

Chinese scientists have since used the telescope to carry out studies of the universe viewed through previously unexplored radio wavelengths. However, due to the modest abilities of the instrument, their observations are limited to the relatively nearby cosmos.

** More examples of citizen scientists contributing to astronomy: Detecting Exoplanets and Asteroids: First Citizen Science Successes for Backyard Astronomy | SETI Institute

Citizen science pioneers recently made two contributions to a better knowledge of outer space. Backyard astronomers of the SETI Institute and Unistellar network conducted in April citizen science observations, and their discoveries will improve our understanding of asteroids and exoplanets. Thanks to their work, we know precisely the location of the main-belt asteroid 2000 UD52 and have confirmed an exoplanet transit of Qatar-1b.

** Asteroids and Comets

** What are rubble pile asteroids with SETI Institute scientist, Michael Busch. – SETI Institute

** A rubble pile asteroid is headed our way. Bob Zimmerman describes the loosely bound Bennu,  A gravel pile floating in space that might hit the Earth | Behind The Black

Bennu is considered a potentially dangerous asteroid. Its orbit is such at there is a very tiny chance (less than 1 in 2,700) that it will hit the Earth late in the next century. What OSIRIS-REx has shown us, however, is that though the asteroid is 1,600 feet across with a mass of about 85 million tons, if it should cross paths with the Earth a large percentage of it, possibly almost all, will break apart and burn up in the atmosphere before hitting the ground.

At the same time, we know as yet little about the asteroid’s interior. While present data suggests the asteroid is 20 to 40 percent empty space, there still could be buried beneath its gravel pile surface much larger structurally sound pieces that could barrel their way through the atmosphere and smash into the ground.

To find out, we need to learn how to safely and accurately map its interior. Only then will we know if Bennu is truly a threat, or simply a vehicle for providing some future generation on Earth a truly spectacular fireworks show.

Bob also talks about Bennu in a recent segment of the John Batchelor radio program: June 10, 2020 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast | Behind The Black

** What to do about asteroid threats. A panel discussion at the SETI Institute:

Could an asteroid strike our planet in the future? Astronomers think so since thousands of near-earth asteroids (NEAs) cross our planet’s path. However, the good news is that an asteroid impact is a preventable large-scale disaster. NASA has recently opened a Planetary Defense Coordination Office to manage its ongoing mission of so-called “Planetary Defense.” One of the programs is to find, track, and characterize at least 90 percent of the predicted number of NEAs that are at least 140 meters — bigger than a small football stadium — and characterize a subset of them, so we develop projects to deflect them if needed. How are NEAs found and tracked? What are the expected NEA close approaches?


** Confirmation of an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting nearby star Proxima Centauri: ESPRESSO confirms the presence of an Earth around the nearest star – UNIGE

Researchers from the University of Geneva, have confirmed the existence of the Proxima b extrasolar planet using measurements from the Swiss-built ESPRESSO spectrograph.

The existence of a planet the size of Earth around the closest star in the solar system, Proxima Centauri, has been confirmed by an international team of scientists including researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE). The results, which you can read all about in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, reveal that the planet in question, Proxima b, has a mass of 1.17 earth masses and is located in the habitable zone of its star, which it orbits in 11.2 days.

This breakthrough has been possible thanks to radial velocity measurements of unprecedented precision using ESPRESSO, the Swiss-manufactured spectrograph – the most accurate currently in operation – which is installed on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. Proxima b was first detected four years ago by means of an older spectrograph, HARPS – also developed by the Geneva-based team – which measured a low disturbance in the star’s speed, suggesting the presence of a companion

The planet, however, appears to offer a very challenging environment for life to arise:

Although Proxima b is about 20 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, it receives comparable energy, so that its surface temperature could mean that water (if there is any) is in liquid form in places and might, therefore, harbour life.

Having said that, although Proxima b is an ideal candidate for biomarker research, there is still a long way to go before we can suggest that life has been able to develop on its surface. In fact, the Proxima star is an active red dwarf that bombards its planet with X rays, receiving about 400 times more than the Earth.

“Is there an atmosphere that protects the planet from these deadly rays?” asks Christophe Lovis, a researcher in UNIGE’s Astronomy Department and responsible for ESPRESSO’s scientific performance and data processing.

“And if this atmosphere exists, does it contain the chemical elements that promote the development of life (oxygen, for example)? How long have these favourable conditions existed? We’re going to tackle all these questions, especially with the help of future instruments like the RISTRETTO spectrometer, which we’re going to build specially to detect the light emitted by Proxima b, and HIRES, which will be installed on the future ELT 39 m giant telescope that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is building in Chile.”

There may be a second small planet as well:

In the meantime, the precision of the measurements made by ESPRESSO could result in another surprise. The team has found evidence of a second signal in the data, without being able to establish the definitive cause behind it.

“If the signal was planetary in origin, this potential other planet accompanying Proxima b would have a mass less than one third of the mass of the Earth. It would then be the smallest planet ever measured using the radial velocity method”, adds Professor Pepe.

** CHEOPS (Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite) is a smallsat launched last December to study exoplanets. The mission is part of a EU program to fund  science missions at a lower cost that then traditional big . The

CHEOPS has reached its next milestone: Following extensive tests in Earth’s orbit, some of which the mission team was forced to carry out from home due to the coronavirus crisis, the space telescope has been declared ready for science. CHEOPS stands for “CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite”, and has the purpose of investigating known exoplanets to determine, among other things, whether they have conditions that are hospitable to life.

CHEOPS is a joint mission by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Switzerland, under the leadership of the University of Bern in collaboration with the University of Geneva (UNIGE). After almost three months of extensive testing, with part of it in the midst of the lockdown to contain the coronavirus, on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, ESA declared the CHEOPS space telescope ready for science. With this achievement, ESA has handed over the responsibility to operate CHEOPS to the mission consortium, which consists of scientists and engineers from approximately 30 institutions in 11 European countries.

For this testing period, the team chose

the planetary system HD 93396 which is in the Sextans constellation, some 320 light years away from Earth. This system consists of a giant exoplanet called KELT-11b, which was discovered in 2016 to orbit this star in 4.7 days. The star is almost three times the size of the sun.

The team chose this particular system because the star is so big that the planet takes a long time to pass in front of it: in fact, almost eight hours. “This gave CHEOPS the opportunity to demonstrate its ability to capture long transit events otherwise difficult to observe from the ground, as the ‘astronomical’ part of the night for ground-based astronomy usually takes less than eight hours,” explains Didier Queloz, professor at the Astronomy Department of the Faculty of Science at the University of Geneva and spokesperson of the CHEOPS Science Team. The first transit light curve of CHEOPS is shown in Figure 3, where the dip due to the planet occurs approximately nine hours after the he beginning of the observation

The transit of KELT-11b measured by CHEOPS enabled determining the size of the exoplanet. It has a diameter of 181,600 km, which CHEOPS is able to measure with an accuracy of 4’290 km. The diameter of the Earth, in comparison, is only approximately 12,700 km, while that of Jupiter – the biggest planet in our solar system – is 139,900 km. Exoplanet KELT-11b is therefore bigger than Jupiter, but its mass is five times lower, which means it has an extremely low density: “It would float on water in a big-enough swimming pool,” says David Ehrenreich, CHEOPS Mission Scientist from the University of Geneva. The limited density is attributed to the close proximity of the planet to its star. Figure 4 shows a drawing of the first transit planet system to be successfully observed by CHEOPS.

Benz explains that the measurements by CHEOPS are five times more accurate than those from Earth. “That gives us a foretaste for what we can achieve with CHEOPS over the months and years to come,” continues Benz.


=== Space Art from C. Sergent Lindsey ===

Sweatshirt imprinted with “SpaceX Delivers the Goods” by C Sergent Lindsey.

Space sciences roundup – May.21.2020

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


** The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover is getting ready for its launch in a few weeks. The launch period  opens on July 17, 2020 and the target date for landing on Mars is February 18, 2021. Here are reports on the final preparations.

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover lives up to its name by enduring a series of tests to prepare for its journey to the Red Planet. Tests for the mission were performed between September and December of 2019 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. This video highlights the following tests:
Spin test
Shake test
Mobility deployment test
Rover’s first unassisted stand Solar test
Thermal vacuum test
Sample caching test
Drive test

the process of placing the Mars-bound rover and other spacecraft components into the configuration they’ll be in as they ride on top of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. …

Called “vehicle stacking,” the process began on April 23 with the integration of the rover and its rocket-powered descent stage. One of the first steps in the daylong operation was to lift the descent stage onto Perseverance so that engineers could connect the two with flight-separation bolts.

“This image of the rocket-powered descent stage sitting on top of NASA’s Perseverance rover was taken in a clean room at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2020. The integration of the two spacecraft was the first step in stacking the mission’s major components into the configuration they will be in while sitting atop of the Atlas V rocket.” Credits: NASA

Did life ever form on Mars? NASA is launching its new Perseverance rover to find out. In February 2020, mission scientists practiced skills they’ll need while Perseverance explores the Red Planet. A seven-person field team served as a simulated rover, carrying cameras and science instruments to the Nevada desert. Meanwhile, mission scientists at institutions like NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California sent commands for them to take pictures or collect data from the landscape. The region of Nevada they studied is a former lakebed, just like Jezero Crater, Perseverance’s landing site on Mars.

** The deployment of the Ingenuity helicopter will be a highlight of the Perseverance mission:

**  The UAE “Hope” spacecraft is in Japan in final preparation for launch to Mars where it will study the planet’s atmosphere from orbit: UAE-built Mars orbiter arrives at launch site ahead of July liftoff –

Emirati-built Mars explorer, named Al Amal (“Hope” in English) and developed by engineers at the Mohammed bin Rashed Space Centre, has been shipped to the JAXA-run Tanegashima Space Center for final checkouts and preparations ahead of its launch aboard an H-IIA rocket. The launch window for this mission is currently scheduled to open July 14th, with an arrival at the Red Planet set for 2021.

The Hope spacecraft is the singular major component of the Emirates Mars Mission, which will study the Martian atmosphere and weather, daily and seasonal weather cycles, and how the climate varies in different regions. The scientific data that will be collected from Hope will help us answer key questions about Mars’ atmosphere, such as why gaseous hydrogen and oxygen are being lost to space and how the planet’s drastic climate changes occur.

The orbiter was built in collaboration with several of American institutions:

The Hope spacecraft was built by 150 Emirati engineers and 200 partnering U.S. engineers and scientists, with construction having taken place at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. Academic partners from the University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State University also collaborated in the development of the spacecraft.

[Google Translation: The probe of hope is an achievement that represents a turning point for the Arab and Islamic worlds in the space field … reaching Mars was not only a scientific goal … but its goal is to send a message to the new generation in our Arab world that we are capable … and that nothing is impossible … and that the power of hope is shortened The distance between the earth and the sky ..]

** Leonard David describes the rover Curiosity’s recent explorations:

** Tour more sites on the marvelous Martian surface with Bob Zimmerman


**  The TESS space observatory can study stellar phenomena as well as search for exoplanets: TESS Aids Study of Perplexing Stellar Pulsations | NASA

Astronomers have detected elusive pulsation patterns in dozens of young, rapidly rotating stars thanks to data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). The discovery will revolutionize scientists’ ability to study details like the ages, sizes and compositions of these stars — all members of a class named for the prototype, the bright star Delta Scuti.

“Delta Scuti stars clearly pulsate in interesting ways, but the patterns of those pulsations have so far defied understanding,” said Tim Bedding, a professor of astronomy at the University of Sydney. “To use a musical analogy, many stars pulsate along simple chords, but Delta Scuti stars are complex, with notes that seem to be jumbled. TESS has shown us that’s not true for all of them.”

Geologists studying seismic waves from earthquakes figured out Earth’s internal structure from the way the reverberations changed speed and direction as they traveled through it. Astronomers apply the same principle to study the interiors of stars through their pulsations, a field called asteroseismology.

Sound waves travel through a star’s interior at speeds that change with depth, and they all combine into pulsation patterns at the star’s surface. Astronomers can detect these patterns as tiny fluctuations in brightness and use them to determine the star’s age, temperature, composition, internal structure and other properties.

This video shows simulations of the pulsations:

Watch the pulsations of a Delta Scuti star! In this illustration, the star changes in brightness when internal sound waves at different frequencies cause parts of the star to expand and contract. In one pattern, the whole star expands and contracts, while in a second, opposite hemispheres swell and shrink out of sync. In reality, a single star exhibits many pulsation patterns that can tell astronomers about its age, composition and internal structure. The exact light variations astronomers observe also depend on how the star’s spin axis angles toward us. Delta Scuti stars spin so rapidly they flatten into ovals, which jumbles these signals and makes them harder to decode. Now, thanks to NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, astronomers are deciphering some of them. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

**fast radio burst (FRB) has been detected in our own galaxy for the first time. The observation of the signal from a system known  to hold a magnetar (a neutron star with a high magnetic field) should help solve the mystery of the origin of FRBs, which were first observed in 2007.

A discussion of the event:  Mysterious origin of the FRB resolved? The Galactic FRB SGR 1935+2154SETI

Researchers announced that they have discovered the first fast radio burst (FRB) detected in our galaxy, the galactic soft gamma repeater, SGR 1935+2154. Panelists from that discussion, Daniele Michilli and Wael Farah, to share their insights about this new discovery, Hosted by Franck Marchis

** The Hubble Space Telescope recently celebrated 30 years in orbit: Hubblecast 128: 30 Years of Science with the Hubble Space Telescope | ESA/Hubble


** The Sun remains nearly spotless: Sunspot update: The deep minimum continues | Behind The Black

…In April sunspot activity went up, but trivially so, with only four sunspots during the month, three of which had a magnetic polarity assigning them to the next solar maximum.

The solar minimum remains very deep, deeper than the very deep previous minimum, and possibly the least active in two hundred years. The presence however of more sunspots for the new cycle strengthens the expectation that we will not be entering a grand minimum, with no sunspots for decades. It just appears that, as predicted, the next solar maximum will be a very weak one.

How this weak activity will effect the climate remains an unknown. In the past, such as the weak maximum that just ended as well as during past weak maximums at the beginning of the 1800s and the 1900s, the Earth’s climate cooled. It also cooled during the Little Ice Age in the 1600s, during the last grand minimum.

Check for a daily reading of the sunspot number.


** High spots at the Moon’s lunar poles get extra sunlight. Unlike the Earth, the Moon has very little tilt with respect to the plane of the orbit of the Earth-Moon system around the Sun. This results in low elevation areas in the lunar polar regions receiving little or no sunlight over the course of a year and high places getting lots of sunlight for much of the year. While there are in fact no lunar peaks of eternal light, there are several areas that are in sunshine for over 80% of the year.

Bob Zimmerman points to a report from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) about an image taken by the orbiter of the “Rim of Aepinus crater rising above a sea of dark during a winter night”:  Dawn at the Moon’s North Pole | Behind The Black

The [Aepinus] crater itself sits between Hermite and Peary craters, both of which have shown evidence suggesting the presence of water ice in their permanently shadowed regions.

Thus, this rim on Aepinus Crater is prime real estate on the Moon. It will have extended periods of light, even during the lunar night, providing access to solar power energy. And it is likely close to those permanently shadowed crater floors, where ice is suspected to exist.

It is now dawn there. It is also one of the places where the dawn of the human settlement of the solar system will begin. Who will be first to land and take possession of this territory?

“Rim of Aepinus crater rising above a sea of dark during a winter night. Illuminated area 1.5 kilometers by 6.0 kilometers.” Credits: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

** China’s Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover continue to survive the 2 week long lunar nights and then resume studies of the Moon’s far side during the 2 week long lunar day.

** US Geological Survey releases hi-res map showing the Moon’s geology:

Have you ever wondered what kind of rocks make up those bright and dark splotches on the moon? Well, the USGS has just released a new authoritative map to help explain the 4.5-billion-year-old history of our nearest neighbor in space.

For the first time, the entire lunar surface has been completely mapped and uniformly classified by scientists from the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, in collaboration with NASA and the Lunar Planetary Institute.

“Orthographic projections of the “Unified Geologic Map of the Moon” showing the geology of the Moon’s near side (left) and far side (right) with shaded topography from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA). This geologic map is a synthesis of six Apollo-era regional geologic maps, updated based on data from recent satellite missions. It will serve as a reference for lunar science and future human missions to the Moon. Credit: NASA/GSFC/USGS.” Credits: USGS

The lunar map, called the “Unified Geologic Map of the Moon,” will serve as the definitive blueprint of the moon’s surface geology for future human missions and will be invaluable for the international scientific community, educators and the public-at-large. The digital map is available online now and shows the moon’s geology in incredible detail (1:5,000,000 scale).

“People have always been fascinated by the moon and when we might return,” said current USGS Director and former NASA astronaut Jim Reilly. “So, it’s wonderful to see USGS create a resource that can help NASA with their planning for future missions.”

** Asteroids and Comets

**** The OSIRIS-REx Mission has selected a spot to grab a sample of the Bennu asteroid. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Ready for Touchdown on Asteroid Bennu – OSIRIS-REx Mission

NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission is officially prepared for its long-awaited touchdown on asteroid Bennu’s surface. The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission has targeted Oct. 20 for its first sample collection attempt.

“The OSIRIS-REx mission has been demonstrating the very essence of exploration by persevering through unexpected challenges,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science. “That spirit has led them to the cusp of the prize we all are waiting for – securing a sample of an asteroid to bring home to Earth, and I’m very excited to follow them through the home stretch.”

From discovering Bennu’s surprisingly rugged and active surface, to entering the closest-ever orbit around a planetary body, OSIRIS-REx has overcome several challenges since arriving at the asteroid in December 2018. Last month, the mission brought the spacecraft 213 ft (65 m) from the asteroid’s surface during its first sample collection rehearsal — successfully completing a practice run of the activities leading up to the sampling event.

Now that the mission is ready to collect a sample, the team is facing a different kind of challenge here on Earth. In response to COVID-19 constraints and after the intense preparation for the first rehearsal, the OSIRIS-REx mission has decided to provide its team with additional preparation time for both the final rehearsal and the sample collection event. Spacecraft activities require significant lead time for the development and testing of operations, and given the current requirements that limit in-person participation at the mission support area, the mission would benefit from giving the team additional time to complete these preparations in the new environment. As a result, both the second rehearsal and first sample collection attempt will have two extra months for planning.

“OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Collecting a Sample of Bennu. This artist’s concept shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of the asteroid’s surface. “Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

** It was hoped Comet ATLAS might become visible to the naked eye but instead it broke up into dozens of smaller pieces in April: Hubble Captures Breakup of Comet ATLAS | ESA/Hubble

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has provided astronomers with the sharpest view yet of the breakup of Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS). The telescope resolved roughly 30 fragments of the fragile comet on 20 April and 25 pieces on 23 April.

The comet was first discovered in December 2019 by the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) robotic astronomical survey system in Hawaiʻi, USA. It brightened quickly until mid-March, and some astronomers initially anticipated that it might be visible to the naked eye in May to become one of the most spectacular comets seen in the last two decades. However, the comet abruptly began to get dimmer, leading astronomers to speculate that the icy core may be fragmenting, or even disintegrating. ATLAS’s fragmentation was confirmed by amateur astronomer Jose de Queiroz, who photographed around three pieces of the comet on 11 April. 

The Hubble Space Telescope’s new observations of the comet’s breakup on 20 and 23 April reveal that the broken fragments are all enveloped in a sunlight-swept tail of cometary dust. These images provide further evidence that comet fragmentation is probably common and might even be the dominant mechanism by which the solid, icy nuclei of comets die. 

A comparison of the Hubble images:

This animation dissolves between the Hubble Space Telescope’s observations of Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) on 20 and 23 April. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has provided astronomers with the sharpest view yet of the breakup of Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS). The telescope resolved roughly 30 fragments of the comet on 20 April and 25 pieces on 23 April.  The comet was first discovered in December 2019 by the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) and its fragmentation was confirmed in April 2020. Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA), Q. Ye (University of Maryland)


** China’s big new radio telescope gives it a chance to be first to detect ET. The dish could be used for sending signals to ET as well. Ready, SETI, go: Is there a race to contact E.T.? –

Researchers using China’s new Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), the largest single-dish scope in the world, are piecing together a technological strategy to carry out a major and sweeping search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). 

What if China someday announces that this hunt has been successful? How would such a claim be verified, and what might the consequences be? And could an unofficial international SETI race already be underway?

The Five hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in southwest China.

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